- I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org). As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia! Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton. I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times. I also wrote the liner notes for the three THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me? My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored. Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.
Tuesday, June 28, 2016
THE DEAD DUCKS: The 1997 BRIGHT LIGHTS Interview
With the ol' clock on the wall ticking closer and closer to our big 2016 BRIGHT LIGHTS! Syracuse new wave rock 'n' roll reunion party on July 3rd (as detailed here), let's dig deeper into the archives for some first-person accounts of the late '70s/early '80s local scene that BRIGHT LIGHTS! celebrates. These interviews were conducted by me in 1997, as background for a Syracuse New Times article on The Flashcubes and other great bands playing around the 'Cuse during that three-chord-charged time frame; it was published the week of The Flashcubes' 20th anniversary show, which was also a release party for The Flashcubes' anthology CD Bright Lights. The article itself can be found here. This is the first publication of the complete interviews.
Hey, wanna go to the BRIGHT LIGHTS! show? Of course you do! Get yer tickets, man!
The Dead Ducks! Out of all the live rock n' roll bands I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing, I don't think I ever saw a group that just loved rock 'n' roll as much as The Dead Ducks love rock 'n' roll. Guitarist Dan Bonn, bassist Paul Stephenson, and drummer Jim Spagnola might as well be The Monkees, because make no mistake: they are believers! There was also an early member of The Dead Ducks--a guy named Bobcat Goldthwait--who left the band early on, and no one knows whatever happened to that guy. It's a crime that none of the Ducks' music has ever been issued in any form, because they had great songs and the ability to execute 'em. While Dan Bonn's cousin Dana Bonn has achieved internet stardom as co-host of This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio with Dana & Carl, let's go back to '97 for a chat with cousin Danny, all about the mighty, mighty Dead Ducks.
How do you recall the beginning of the Syracuse new wave scene?
It kinda like just crept up, as we're concerned, with the Ducks. I remember me and Bob Goldthwait being in CVS drug store in Shoppingtown or something, looking at a Hit Parader with Johnny Rotten's picture on it, and like, "Whoa! What's this all about?" And it had interviews with The Ramones, so we had read about it a little bit. And like Midnight Special and those kind of shows, all of a sudden we started seeing The Ramones and Cheap Trick, and Patti Smith on Saturday Night Live and that kind of stuff. And so with the kind of stuff we were doing at the time, like old Who songs and Kinks songs anyways, all of a sudden The Ramones' stuff fit right in there, and Generation X and all that.
Were you already playing as a band?
Kind of, yeah. We got together like September of '76, actually. It was like the third day of high school [laughs]. But it took us about a year and a half before we got a line-up where we even played out.
I never got to see you until around '79 or so.
I don't remember when our first gig was, actually [laughs]. It was probably early '78 or so, like January or so.
Were you going out much to see bands locally?
Oh yes. Yeah, it was great, because we ended up hooking up with The Flashcubes. Somehow they had heard of us, and then we heard of them, and then Matt MacHaffie kind of became our manager. And we were only like 15 or 16, and we could get into any bar in town, and that was pretty cool [laughs].
Do you recall a lot of hostility toward new wave at the time?
Oh, totally. In high school, it was like, you know, we had what was called the Senior Wall [laughs], where anybody that was a senior could hang out and listen to music. And we would bring in Ramones or something, stuff like that, and the principal would come over and make us shut it off 'cause the other kids complained [laughs]. Yeah, we got all kinds of hostility in school, 'cause they were listening to Journey and stuff [laughs], and Styx. It just didn't fit in right. But that just made us want to listen to it more.
Was Bobcat Goldthwait ever an actual member of the Ducks?
He actually was with us, probably like from October of '76 'til about when we started playing out. We did a couple gigs with him, and he was already well into comedy at that point, too. And he was doing routines in between our sets [laughs], and stuff like that. And it got to a point where he was concentrating more on his comedy, and rightly so. So it didn't work out as far as that.
The Ducks were you, Jim Spagnola, and Paul Stevenson.
Actually, Paul was the second bass player. The first one's name was Scott Huvey [2016 NOTE: if anyone wants to correct the spelling of Scott's name, I'm all ears], but he only played with us a couple times. We had another guitar player, a guy named Kenny Bennett.
We started playing with [The Flashcubes], actually it was our second gig. I guess through Matt MacHaffie. A friend of my sister's told Matt about us, you know, "Hey, there's another punk rock band in town [laughs]," aside from The Flashcubes. So he came out and saw us with Paul Armstrong. And Paul Armstrong came up and played "You Really Got Me" with us. Pretty fun [laughs]. It was like at a church somewhere in Fayetteville.
Did the Ducks have long-term goals?
Oh yeah, totally. The whole deal. Do you remember Penny Poser? [NOTE: Penny was Diane Lesniewski, guiding force behind the local punk/new wave fanzine Poser.] She had written an article on us once, in which she had a dream that we were on American Bandstand or something.
It was a really fun time. The scene was incredible. There were so many different bands. Like, I remember another time, I guess the first time we played in a bar. There was this place called Alfie's over on Erie Boulevard--I think it was next to Arthur Treacher's, now it's like a flower shop [laughs]--but we were in there, and the audience was basically all the bands at the time. I think, like Buddy Love and the Tearjerkers, like The Drastics, the 'Cubes and The Ohms, all them. I don't know, they just really liked us because we were like 15, like I said, and we couldn't really play that well [laughs]. Eventually we got it together more. But I mean when we first started out, like listening back to tapes, our first guitar player, he could never really understand the concept of playing in keys [laughs]. I remember, they like smashed the pinball machine that night. I think it was Chris Goss that did that [laughs].
I never had a chance to see The Drastics.
Oh, they were a great band!
The Poptarts debuted opening for you.
Yeah, I remember that.
How did that come about?
Um...maybe through Gary Allen. He was a disc jockey on 95X, and I was a cashier at Pricechopper [laughs]. And he came through one night wearing a Cheap Trick T-shirt, I remember, and I was like, "Ah, cool band!" And we started talkin', and figured out who everybody was. I don't know, probably through Matt, too. Matt MacHaffie really did a lot for us.
Were The Flashcubes the center of the scene?
I would say. Yeah, probably. I mean, there were a lot of great bands. They brought the most attention to it, for sure.
It's always amazed me that none of these bands ever really got to the next level, never got signed, just put out a couple of indie records. And the Ducks never released any records.
Yeah. We've got the tapes. We recorded 'em and everything. It was so expensive to put out records then, and we were still in high school [laughs]. I could only make so much money.
People didn't really appreciate what we had here.
Yeah, for sure. Especially once it was gone, you really noticed it, how good a scene it was. You kind of took it for granted. At least I did, because I kind of grew up right into it, so I thought it was always there [laughs]. The vindication, I guess, was just seeing the scene that's still goin' on. You know, when you see the punk bands that are out now and all that, it's really cool to know that you did your part.
Do you get to contemporary punk in Syracuse without tracing a line through The Flashcubes, Ohms, Ducks, et cetera?
Hmmm. That's a good question. Like some of the bands that are around here that are like that. It's hard to say. I mean, it might have happened anyways.
Somebody had to be first.
They would have been the ones to have the initial unacceptability of it all, and then ten years later it would have been some other band.
It was underground then. It's practically mainstream now.
Right. And it's almost at the point now where that's the Journey music of today [laughs]. I still like the music and everything, but when you look and there's like a million people listening to it because it's the cool thing that everybody else is listening to, you've gotta kind of wonder about that a little bit. But then, on the other hand, it is good music and it is vital music, and it's better to see people listenin' to that than Journey [laughs]. I have nothing against mass popularity, as long as the bands are still doing good music, and it's not all contrived stuff, like some Svengali puts together the perfect punk band [laughs].
Was it a mostly supportive scene?
In the beginning it was. But eventually every band brought in their own little core following, and ended up goin' to see all the other bands and stuff. So that worked out pretty good. You know, [we'd] always play together and stuff.
The raising of the drinking age seemed to mark the end of that scene.
Yeah, totally. That's what killed the scene, really.
Were you playing out in the mid-'80s?
No, not really. Like little things here and there, but most of the time it was just writing and recording.
When did The Dead Ducks break up?
We broke up in like November of 1980. It was like, we started like the third day of high school, and it went like four or five months past it.
What do you remember about The Ohms?
Oh, they were great. They were probably one of my favorites. "Teenage Alcoholic" was a great song. "Chain Letter,""License To Kill." [The Ohms'] Zenny [Caucasian] was the one who produced the one thing we did.
How about The Most?
Oh yeah, they were fun. Dian [Zain] was cool. Dian seemed to be the person that believed the most in what was goin' on. 'Cause she just kinda came from somebody that went to see the bands all the time, to being [in] one of the bands that everybody went to see.
It was just a great time. And actually, this even went beyond the new wave scene, it was just the whole music scene in general. 'Cause there was a lot of, as it got to be like '79, '80, it opened up to be a scene that included, like I think the rest of the bands kind of like accepted the punk bands more and more. Because I remember they used to have like these parties where they would close off The Poor House North and just have an open bar. One year we had a roast for [95X DJ] Dave Frisina. It was, I think, the first anniversary of Soundcheck [Dave Frisina's long-running local music show]. And everybody got up and said rude things about Dave [laughs]. It was kind of funny. They had that a few times, and by that time it included The Works and Pictures. It just became a Syracuse music scene, and it had all these different facets. That got to be a pretty cool time.
Gettin' back to Bobcat. He still did his routine a lot when we all played. He was definitely as much a part of the scene as all of us. He would do his routine in between breaks and stuff like that, like down at The Firebarn and all over the place. One time I remember, like we had played our first gig or whatever, and this was the time when Matt MacHaffie had heard of us. And then we met Matt, I think, and he told us about The Flashcubes and all that. And Bob had smashed a tambourine [laughs] that first time we played. So we hadn't met Gary [Frenay] or anybody yet, but we knew that [the 'Cubes] worked at Gerber Music up in Shoppingtown. So me and Bob walk in there with this bag full of the tambourine that he had bought there. And he says to Gary, "Um, I bought this tambourine here and it doesn't work anymore." And Gary's like, "What's the problem with it?" And Bob turns the bag over and all these little pieces of tambourine fall out [laughs]. And Gary just looks up at us and says, "You guys are The Dead Ducks, aren't you?"
I couldn't have asked for a better music scene to grow up into. The fact that people are even still talkin' about it today, and it was just this stupid little band we put together in high school [laughs].
I don't know if Gael [Sweeney] told you about this one. There was this club called The Insomniac; it was like an after-hours club. It must have been opening night for the place or something, toward the beginning. But we played there with [The Poptarts], and they came out, did their whole set in their nighties [laughs]. Because it was like three in the morning when they came on.
And what are you up to now?
I'm in a band called The Experiments. And if it wasn't for that experience of the music scene, what it was like then when we were comin' up into it, who knows if we'd even be doing it now. I guess it's been tryin' to find something that cool again.