|"Blog? What's a blog?" Photo by Jeanne Chu...quite some time ago.|
Nonetheless, this compiles my recollections of the 2016 edition of BRIGHTS LIGHTS! The Syracuse New Wave Rock 'n' Roll Reunion, which took place on Sunday, July 3rd at Funk 'N Waffles in downtown Syracuse. Originally serialized in five separate chunks, this collects the whole magilla in one big ol' post. I enjoyed writing about this as much as I enjoyed every aspect of BRIGHT LIGHTS!, and I hope we can do it all again next year.
PART ONE: Here's To Bright Lights That Never Fade
|Photo by Matt MacHaffie|
They didn't really exist. But they could have.
They hadn't seen each other in years. Decades. They hadn't spoken. There were no letters exchanged, no words of encouragement or condemnation, no greetings or cards, no congratulations or condolences. No e-mail. No tweets. No "likes." There was just the yawning silence of years passing, dust collecting, memories fading along the edges of tears long since dried. Goodbye had meant goodbye, and meant it emphatically.
Until that night. That night, all of the ensuing decades disappeared, and allowed a specific smile, a smile unseen since 1982. And it cast them back to where it all began:
They had met in the Spring of 1978, at a Syracuse University nightclub called The Jabberwocky. It was loud. They were young. It should have been a one-night stand. But, for that fleeting moment of giddy, transcendent belief, both felt it could last forever. For a while, they tried their best to make it so.
Their friends had been telling them about...no, raving about this band on stage, a local group called The Flashcubes. The effect this brash rock 'n' roll group had on all of them was visceral, immediate--this was now, an irresistible sound and force that neither disco nor dinosaur could deny. It was rooted in the past--The Beatles, The Kinks, The Who, Eddie Cochran, Herman's freaking Hermits--and filtered through an underground determinedly clawing its way to the surface: Television, The Sex Pistols, The Jam, The Ramones. It was distinctive. It was exciting. And it belonged to them: the fans.
They met. They danced. They kissed. They danced some more, and continued dancing into the night, into each other's arms, into the morning after. The one-night stand stretched over the course of subsequent evenings, which became weeks, which became months, which somehow became years. And there were local bands on stage through it all: The Flashcubes; The Drastics; The Ohms; The Tearjerkers; The Poptarts; The Dead Ducks; Dress Code; The Penetrators; The Most; Distortion; Screen Test; 1.4.5.; The Antics. And more! Nights at The Brookside, The Firebarn, The Slide, Uncle Sam's, The Insomniac, The Orange, Squire's East, Stage East, suburban dives like Poor House North and Grape 'n Grog, even a graduation party in Dave Glavin's garage up in Pulaski. Hands held. Fists raised. Music turned up as loud as it could go. They toasted each other, and all of their friends: Here's to bright lights that never fade!
But, just as the one-night stand seemed poised to become the forever promised in pop songs...forever proved elusive. Friends slipped away. Friends died. Words were spoken. Voices were raised. Mistakes--unfortunate, irrevocable mistakes--refused to unmake themselves, no matter how hard wiser (or more foolish) hearts and souls yearned for another chance. The long night--a single night that had lasted years, a love that should have lasted years--was lost as bright lights faded to black. The harsh light of day would provide no shelter for love discarded.
Maturity has its up side. As we grow older, we try to learn how to balance our lives, how to compromise without surrendering, how to do the right things. But we try not to relinquish--at least, not entirely--the dreams we once held so dear: To be an astronaut! To be a superhero! To be a movie star! To be a writer! To be a rock star! To be in love forever and ever! The glowing embers of those eternal flames still flicker within us. They may be the last things we hold on to, even when our final breaths leave our lips.
They hadn't spoken in nearly 35 years. But each knew the other would be there. They started dancing to that fine, fine music. And it was all right.
They didn't really exist. But they could have. Many others like them were as real as love and rock 'n' roll. And they got together on Sunday, July 3rd, for a reunion in Syracuse. We'll talk about it tomorrow. But, for now:
Here's to bright lights that never fade!
PART TWO: The Waiting Is The Hardest Part
|Photo by Karen Munze|
By the end of the night, I was hoarse, exhausted, aching. And it had all been worth it, every bit of it. BRIGHT LIGHTS! had been a great success.
BRIGHT LIGHTS! The Syracuse New Wave Rock 'n' Roll Reunion took place on Sunday, July 3rd, at Funk 'N Waffles on South Clinton Street in downtown Syracuse. The location allowed me to quote Petula Clark over 'n' over again in pre-show hype: DOWNTOWN--Where All The Lights Are BRIGHT! Dana and I were the on-stage hosts, presiding over live sets by Tom Kenny, The Flashcubes, Screen Test, The Trend, The Dead Ducks, Maura & the Bright Lights, and a tribute to the late Norm Mattice, performed by his former bandmates in The Richards (with special guest Ronnie Dark filling in for Norm on lead vocals). It was emotional, it was exhilarating, and it was so much razzafrazzin' fun.
The BRIGHT LIGHTS! day began that afternoon, with a touching, heartfelt private memorial for Norm. The memorial at Funk 'N Waffles adjourned at 2:00 pm, with many attendees moving on to Onondaga Lake Park for the dedication of a park bench inscribed in Norm's honor and memory. I returned home to re-charge. With doors set to open at 6 pm, and music set to commence blarin' at 7, Dana and I returned to Funk 'N Waffles around quarter past 5, ready to get ready.
People who spoke with me over the course of the days preceding BRIGHT LIGHTS! have told me I seemed worried about the show. I did have two conflicting concerns prior to showtime: that we wouldn't sell enough tickets to adequately pay the bands, or that we'd be too successful for the venue, and have to turn fans away. I'm happy to say now that neither concern was warranted.
But I never worried much about the show itself. I mean that. Sure, most of the acts wouldn't have much, if any, time to practice, but I knew that was no issue at all. These guys 'n' dolls are pros; they could do another show tonight, tomorrow, next week, next month, whatever, all on just enough advance notice to get 'em to the stage on time. Dana and I never rehearse banter anyway; our one scripted moment was gonna be short, and we'd have the script in front of us. No worries there.
Still, folks saw me pacing around the venue, and presumed (understandably) that I was a nervous wreck. But that wasn't it at all. It was, in fact, exactly the same thing I'd done at the first BRIGHT LIGHTS! show in 2014: after all the planning, all the nudzhing, all the coordinating, and all the hype, I was dyin' to just get on with it already. Waiting is not what a Ramones fan does best. With over an hour and a half to go until showtime, I wanted to just start now.
But there were still things to do before the show. Maura and the Bright Lights had time for a quick run-through of "Syracuse Summer," the only rehearsal that band would get this year. They nailed it, of course. Maura joined Dana and I in a corner of the venue, where Dana was setting up a video camera, and had us recite our spoken part of the opening song, Dress Code's "Something's Really Wrong," while she strummed along, unplugged. Perfunctory, but satisfactory.
I tried to say a quick hello to each of the performers on the bill. The only ones I'd never met before were Steve and Ed Steele, local musicians whose resume includes work with the legendary Alice Cooper, and who would be re-joining The Richards for our little shindig. I was too shy to introduce myself. Yeah, yeah--I know....
I'd met Tom Kenny briefly on a couple of previous occasions. But I had a much greater opportunity to speak with him this time, and he's just a blast to be around. I told him that my daughter Meghan and her friend Nicole were looking forward to meeting him, and were hoping to get an autograph. That was fine with Tom; he gets so much attention (rightly so) for his work as the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, and he seemed delighted to hear that Meghan's interest was specifically tied to his work on The PowerPuff Girls. When the time came later for the girls to get their autographs, he sat in a booth with them, telling stories, even doing his PowerPuff Girls voices as The Narrator and The Mayor while signing Meghan's DVD. Tom Kenny is one awesome guy.
Larry Roux of The Trend arrived with commemorative T-shirts. I tried mine on over the Kinks T-shirt I was already wearing; I said it was snug covering the Kinks, but should be fine (and then I told Larry that it probably wasn't the first time he'd covered The Kinks). I went backstage and upstairs to watch Tom Kenny's only rehearsal with The Trend. It's a largely-forgotten fact in local rock 'n' roll history, but Tom Kenny was very briefly a part of The Trend originally, and he sang with that group at their very first gig. Now, he would be singing one song with The Trend at our show, a surprise which I'd been sworn not to divulge beforehand. Upstairs, Tom joined Larry and Ekendra Dasa, their respective guitar and bass guitar unplugged, for a run-through of The Trend's first single "Band Aid." The Trend's drummer Paul Doherty looked on approvingly, and Flashcubes drummer Tommy Allen played along, just for the hell of it. Back downstairs, Tom also went over cues for "Let's Have A Party," the Wanda Jackson classic that would be part of his headlining set with The Flashcubes. This night was gonna be magic.
Inspired by a friend's Jam T-shirt, Tom Kenny called me over to note that he'd just realized that The Jam basically sounded like actor Michael Caine fronting a punk band. "Think about it," Tom said, imitating Caine while singing, "This is the modern world!" I said that would be full circle, since Caine starred in Batman Begins, and the first song I'd ever heard by The Jam was their cover of "The Batman Theme." Tom talked about meeting Neal Nefti, the jazz great who'd written "The Batman Theme," and actually getting him together on a regular basis with legendary (and now departed) voice actor Gary Owens, which is kinda like Batman getting together with Space Ghost, only different. I said, "Yeah, well, I once got a phone call from Joey Ramone!" I think Tom could have easily outdone me, but he let me have my little victory. (Good thing, too; the only rejoinder I woulda had left was "I own a hundred pairs of stretch socks!" And no one's impressed by that.)
At 6:00, the doors opened, and fans started coming in. The house music started--coincidentally, I swear--with "The Modern World" by The Jam. I tried to get around to greet as many people as I could, welcoming them to BRIGHT LIGHTS!, thanking them, and pretty much guaranteeing 'em all a good time. I was pretty confident in that vow. And I had good reason to be.
The clock ticked 7. The house music played Petula Clark. Maura & the Bright Lights were on stage, and Dana and I joined them there. It was time. At long last, it was finally time.
PART THREE: SHOWTIME!, Part One
|BRIGHT LIGHTS aftershow pic by Jeanne Chu (with my head Photoshopped in by Meghan Cafarelli)|
July 3rd at Funk 'N Waffles. We'd had our memories of this Syracuse music scene we loved. We'd gone through the agony of anticipation.
A tentative reply from a few in the audience: "Yeah, what else is there?"
On stage, I feigned disgust. "Man, you guys are outta practice! We'll try it just once more: HEY! YA GOIN' TO THE DANCE TONIGHT?"
And the audience responded: "YEAH! WHAT ELSE IS THERE?"
Satisfied that enough fans in attendance recognized the opening lines of late, lamented Syracuse rockers The Most's 1979 single "Take A Chance," Dana and I declared the 2016 edition of BRIGHT LIGHTS! The Syracuse New Wave Rock 'n' Roll Reunion to be on its way. We thanked the good folks at Funk 'N Waffles, thanked all those in attendance, and tacitly acknowledged all those who were with us in our hearts. We dedicated the night to the memory of Norm Mattice, and noted that BRIGHT LIGHTS! was brought to you by the benevolent spirits of The Jabberwocky, The Firebarn, The Insomniac, Squire's East, and Dave Glavin's garage. And now that blessings had been delivered, BRIGHT LIGHTS! finally began with Maura & the Bright Lights.
As the co-hosts of these live shows, Dana and I like to think of ourselves as the faces of
BRIGHT LIGHTS! But Maura Kennedy is the literal embodiment of BRIGHT LIGHTS!, its heart and its soul and its fashion sense. There are a few others who just about match Maura's boundless enthusiasm for the event, but Maura is BRIGHT LIGHTS! in a way that no one else could be BRIGHT LIGHTS! The best idea we've ever had, in any context, was to have Maura open these shows with the concept we called Maura & the Bright Lights: Maura, her husband Pete Kennedy, Gary Frenay and Arty Lenin of The Flashcubes and Screen Test, and Cathy LaManna. The concept calls for Maura & the Bright Lights to perform a set of songs by some of the Syracuse stalwarts we weren't able to get on the bill.
|Maura & the Bright Lights: Arty Lenin, Gary Frenay, Maura Kennedy, Cathy LaManna, Pete Kennedy|
So BRIGHT LIGHTS! opened with Maura & the Bright Lights covering "Something's Really Wrong," a beautiful song from Dress Code's 1981 EP Alone In The Crowd. The original recording was a lovely ballad about not fitting in, not wanting to fit in, and trying to resist pressure to fit into a world that often makes no goddamned sense at all; it was written in the wake of John Lennon's murder, and the record included an audio collage of radio voices illustrating a country and planet gone mad. Maura wanted to recast the song to be specifically about the plight of the homeless, and she asked Dana and I to recite a new script as part of the performance, in place of the original DJ patter. We were honored to comply.
Such a somber opening number required an immediately uptempo follow-up, so Maura & the Bright Lights powered their irresistible way through selections by The Ohms, My Sin, and (yay!) Maura's own "Summer Coulda Lasted Forever," which was the first song Maura ever wrote, a looooong time ago. The Bright Lights also added a great new song, "Maybe Someday," which Maura co-wrote with another Syracuse stalwart, B.D. Love (ex- of My Sin and Buddy Love & the Tearjerkers). Maura and B.D.'s songwriting collaborations (which have already resulted in a fine CD called Villanelle: The Songs Of Maura Kennedy & B.D. Love) were inspired to begin with by Maura & the Bright Lights' set at the first BRIGHT LIGHTS! show in 2014, so Maura thought it fitting to debut this new song at this year's show (and rightly so!). The recorded version of the song features Flashcubes drummer Tommy Allen, so Tommy joined the Bright Lights for the live performance. (And I've just been informed that the recorded version also features harmonies from both B.D. Love and John Wicks of The Records, in addition to the fine work of Maura, Pete, Gary, Arty, and Tommy--power pop summit meeting!)
As always, Maura & the Bright Lights closed their set with The Tearjerkers' "Syracuse Summer," Gary Frenay's gorgeous ode to the mercurial climate of Central New York, a brilliant evocation of everything you've ever loved about anything, from summer fun to summer love to summer music, wishing it could all last forever, and retaining faith that the magic will renew itself in due time. And that word says it all: magic. It is my fervent hope that Maura & the Bright Lights record at least one album...maybe someday!
Screen Test was next. When I interviewed Gary for the liner notes of Screen Test's anthology Inspired Humans Making Noise, he recalled being told by high-falutin' record-biz know-nothings throughout the '80s that there was no market for three-piece pop combos. Nowadays, we refer to such esteemed pundits as "cretins." Disregarding the ignorance of industry weasels, Screen Test--comprised of once and future Flashcubes Gary Frenay, Arty Lenin, and Tommy Allen--crafted an unforgettable series of nonpareil pop nuggets, each cryin' out for a sympathetic radio and a heart to steal. Like The Flashcubes, a Screen Test set is never long enough, because the group simply has too much great material to choose from.
But ya can't argue with the result, even if it leaves you wanting more. Gary's "Sound Of The Radio" is the best pop song ever written about radio, while Arty's "Nothing Really Matters When You're Young" is a heartbreaking--but toe-tapping--summary of teen alienation, a world-weary acknowledgement of why I hated high school, all wrapped up in the prettiest of pretty, pretty paper. And I wish The Monkees would cover Gary's "Make Something Happen," which has always been a monster pop hit, just waiting for the world to appreciate it.
(Screen Test also performed Gary's "Not Today," a vintage Screen Test song, but one they've dug out for a fresh new recording in the recent past. It remains unreleased as of now, but I hope that status changes soon. The world could always use more Screen Test music.)
PART FOUR: SHOWTIME!, Part Two
|The Trend: Larry Roux, Ekendra Dasa, Paul Doherty, Josh Coy. Photo by Diane Brooks|
What if. What if The Trend could reunite for BRIGHT LIGHTS? Paul responded: What if Marc's teenaged niece were to sing in Marc's place, channeling the spirit of the uncle she never knew? What if...well, screw the ifs--book the band, you're playin'. Chloe, Paul, Larry, Ekendra, and guitarist Josh Coy ruled as The Trend, reborn at BRIGHT LIGHTS! (as evidenced on Bright Lights Live), and we were eager to have 'em back this year. Chloe has opted out, leaving the bulk of lead vocal chores to Ekendra, and man, did he deliver! The Trend were freaking lethal live, performing an incandescent set of punk, spunk, and pure, unbridled joy. Zink Tabletz. Peer Pressure. Where Is Batman (Now That We Need Him). Covers of "California Sun" and "Somebody's Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight" (the latter with guest vocals from David Doherty, Paul's brother). I wish this band were an ongoing outfit, because there ain't a combo across the globe that could ace 'em. Icing on the electric cake was the surprise climactic appearance of Tom Kenny, himself a former member of The Trend, joining his old friends to shut things down with a rip-roarin' rendition of The Trend's lone single, "Band Aid." I looked at the crowd. Hell, I looked over at my wife and daughter. Everyone was rockin' out, having the time of their lives. I was, too.
(Although the project is still at a very early stage, Dana has begun work on a Trend documentary, which should be a very good thing indeed. And consider this an open invitation for The Trend to appear again at the next BRIGHT LIGHTS! show. And at every subsequent BRIGHT LIGHTS! show.)
|The Flashcubes: Arty Lenin, Gary Frenay, Paul Armstrong, Tommy Allen|
Girl From Germany. The 'Cubes opened their set with Arty Lenin's pulsatin' paean to an international lover, originally inspired by then-girlfriend Meegan Voss of The Poptarts. Although long a staple of The Flashcubes' live repertoire, and a fan fave since the '70s, it's not a song that gets a lot of attention beyond the Flashcubes Faithful (i.e., us). In the perfect pop world of my imagination, this would be a staple of rockin' pop radio, played in regular rotation alongside Shoes, Prince, Chuck Berry, Joan Jett, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Sweet, Dusty Springfield, 20/20, The Drifters, and everything else that's ever been good.
You're Not The Police. Man, take everything I just said about perfect pop radio, and apply it to the entire Flashcubes Cavalcade O' Gems. That would certainly include the cathartic frustration of "You're Not The Police," Gary Frenay's put-upon warning for a too-possessive paramour.
Muscle Beach. Yow! I don't know why I was surprised to hear Paul Armstrong's surf-punk Cubic classic in the set--it really ain't all that unusual for the 'Cubes to perform this at live shows--but it was a pleasant surprise, for sure. If Dana and I are the faces of BRIGHT LIGHTS!, and Maura Kennedy is the event's personification, then Paul Armstrong is undeniably its spark. The whole damned thing was his idea to begin with! And that's appropriate, since Paul deserves eternal credit as the individual most responsible for bringing punk and new wave music to the Syracuse scene in the first place.
Before we continue recapping The Flashcubes' set, let's pause for just a second. We've mentioned the songwritin' front line--Arty, Gary, and Paul--but we'd be remiss if we didn't also point out that Tommy Allen is one of the greatest power pop drummers in the universe. Yeah, that means Tommy's in the same league as Dennis Diken of The Smithereens, Kurt Reil of The Grip Weeds, Clem Burke, Brad Elvis, and a mere handful of others. If The Who had a choice between hiring Tommy or a reincarnated Keith Moon, I'd say they should at least consider Tommy--much less wear 'n' tear on hotel rooms that way. At one point later in the evening, I was standing in the midst of a whole bunch of drummers--Paul Doherty, Cathy LaManna, Jim Spagnola of The Dead Ducks, Ed Steele was probably nearby, and Tommy certainly wasn't far--and I just rejoiced at the wealth of great drummers this scene has produced. This beat goes on!
Boogie City. The new Flashcubes single! About damned time, too--we've been waiting for the 'Cubes to release their third single for over 37 years. We tune because we care. On stage, Gary told us about the circumstances that prompted them to record new covers of two Chris Spedding songs (this and "Hey Miss Betty"): The Flashcubes were playing a private party, in a garage, and whipped out old live fave "Boogie City" for the hell of it. Betcha it sounded great! Tommy must have thought so, because he immediately suggested that the 'Cubes should record it as a single. Wait--it's that easy..?! Hey, kids--let's put on a show!
Natalie. When We Close Our Eyes. Pathetic. Three great songs from The Flashcubes' self-reviewing 2003 album Brilliant were next on the set list. Because the whole night was becoming a blur of buzz and delight, I can't swear that they actually did these songs. I know I was having a good time, but details are hazy! Yeah, just like the old days....
No Promise. Ah, but no doubt at all about this one! My favorite power pop song, the greatest evocation of the Raspberries sound this (or any) side of Cleveland, and, y'know, not a bad little ditty. A couple of decades ago, when the only sonic souvenirs we had of The Flashcubes totaled two 45s and a handful of unreleased cassette tapes, "No Promise" was Exhibit A in my argument that The Flashcubes should be considered alongside The Raspberries, Romantics, Plimsouls, et al. as Power Pop Elite. I think I convinced of few folks along the way. This is the redemptive power of faith!
I Need Glue. An early live staple, dating back to the days when the 'Cubes were considered a punk band, and it's still a frequent fixture of Flashcubes shows today. Coulda been a Dead Boys tune, but it's all Armstrong, all the way! After the song, Gary remarked on stage that Paul liked to use false endings in his songs--both "Muscle Beach" and "I Need Glue" stop before starting again--presumably just to mess with people. Blame it on the glue.
Cherry's World. Believe it or not, The Flashcubes have never released a studio version of this Arty Lenin fave rave. It's on the live album, Raw Powerpop--Live In Japan, and it's on Arty's solo album A Life Of Ease, but it's still waiting anxiously but patiently for full-on professional Cubic attention.
With that, The Flashcubes were done for the time being. We all wanted more--I, for one, would be perfectly fine with a six-hour Flashcubes set--but Gary and Arty had already played in three of the first four sets, and all four Flashcubes still had a lot more musical duties remaining before the night was through. No one could complain or claim they didn't give us every damned thing. God save The Flashcubes!
|The Dead Ducks: Paul Stevenson, Dan Bonn, and Jim Spagnola. Photo by Karen Munze|
The Dead Ducks closed down Part One of BRIGHT LIGHTS! Introducing the Ducks, I repeated a line I've been using a lot lately to describe them: I've been fortunate enough to see a lot of great live acts--The Ramones, The Kinks, Regis Philbin--but I've never seen another act that just plain believed in rock 'n' roll like The Dead Ducks believe in rock 'n' roll. It may seem a disservice to refer to 'em as a garage band, but I mean it as a sincere compliment; The Dead Ducks have always been a great garage band in the best of ways. They play their hearts out. They play well--people think of garage bands as lacking chops or proficiency, but the Ducks can throw down with any muthuh, or any other. They don't take themselves seriously, but they're deadly serious about what they do. And what do they do? They rock. With authority! Originals. Covers. It's all Ducks to me.
There was a video kicking around somewhere, footage of The Dead Ducks live at Poor House North in the summer of 1980. I was at that show, but unwanted complications (don't ask) forced me to arrive too late--TOO LATE, damn it!--to see the Ducks. That would have been my last-ever opportunity to see The Dead Ducks just one more time during their original run, and I blew it.
And it sucked, because I loved the Ducks. Guitarist Dan Bonn, bassist Paul Stevenson, and drummer Jim Spagnola clearly wanted to be The Who, The Kinks, and The Ramones, all at the same time, and they pretty much succeeded in that effort. At this year's BRIGHT LIGHTS!, Dana (Dan Bonn's cousin--we encourage nepotism) pointed out that the Ducks were the only band on the bill that didn't have any merchandise for sale. Well, yeah, Tom Kenny didn't either, but...never mind. And that's a shame, because they did record a few cool demos, and it would be nice to have those available for the fans.
As it is, the mighty Ducks certainly didn't disappoint with their live set at BRIGHT LIGHTS! A rock 'n' roll band that opens with "Ready, Steady, Go" by Generation X has nothing to prove, yet the Ducks went ahead and proved themselves--again!--anyway. It's what they do. I regret the omission of my favorite Dead Ducks tune--the awesome, awesome "No Direction"--but still exulted in the defiantly grungy splendor of Ducks originals like "Summer In The Suburbs" and "Why Can't I Violate You?," plus a bonus cover of The Jam's "Life From A Window." Belief is infectious. Infection is fun!
The Dead Ducks left the stage, applause ringing in their ears, guitars ringing like buzzing bells in all of our ears. We were ahead of schedule--like, way, way ahead of schedule--so we announced an intermission, allowing folks a chance to catch their breath and catch up with old friends. The "reunion" part of this event's title is literal; many, maybe most BRIGHT LIGHTS! attendees used to hang together all the time, but now rarely have the opportunity to see each other. These are the happiest punk shows on Earth. Lovely wife Brenda and I split a delectable Funk 'N Waffles dessert treat, my daughter Meghan had her chance to meet and chat with Tom Kenny, and Fab Five Paul Davie complimented me for including The Monkees' great new song "Birth Of An Accidental Hipster" in the evening's house music. There was more time to schmooze and gladhand, in a night that was already a dizzying, blissful blur of greetings and salutations.
A long break in the middle of a rock 'n' roll show is deadly. People get bored. People leave. But hardly anyone was gonna leave BRIGHT LIGHTS! now. No freakin' way. There was too much more yet to come.
PART FIVE: SHOWTIME!, Part Three
|Mark Doyle, Ronnie Dark, Maura Kennedy, Paul Armstrong. Photo by Karen Munze.|
At this year's BRIGHT LIGHTS! show, it was inevitable that The Richards's set, a performance in memory of the band's former lead singer Norm Mattice, would be the emotional centerpiece. All of us were hit hard by the news of Norm's passing, news made even harder to take as we discovered more and more of the circumstances surrounding Norm's final days. We think of no original response, and we come up with no unique observations. We just remember what we all knew: that Norm didn't grow up with dreams of becoming homeless, that Norm never wished to die alone, far from the shelter of those who loved him, and that Norm didn't imagine he'd be a goddamned statistic. Through the dull ache of our pain, we remember what Norm dreamed he'd be, what he wished, what he imagined: Norm wanted to be a rock star. To all of us, he was that rock star.
And Norm deserved to be recognized. He deserved a tribute.
Although Norm got his start as a member of Dress Code, his longest-lasting musical collaboration was with Paul Armstrong, first in 1.4.5., and then evolving into The Richards. In fact, Norm's only--only!--full-length CD release in his lifetime was The Richards' 1995 album Over The Top. To salute Norm, Paul decided to reunite the surviving members of the group that played on that CD. And it was quite the line-up! The 1995 Richards included PA, legendary guitarist Mark Doyle, and the Alice Cooper-approved bass-and-drums combo of Steve and Ed Steele. This band could beat up your band without breaking a sweat.
But who could possibly sing lead? Who could stand in for Norm?
Well. God bless Ronnie Dark.
Many of you know Ronnie, the host of a great radio show called The Wax Museum Sunday nights on WVOA-FM in Syracuse. Ronnie also plays with his group Darkroom, with The Strangers, and even with Syracuse's loooooong-running Hall O' Famers The Monterays, and he's rather fond of Paul Revere & the Raiders. The Steele brothers came up with the flat-out brilliant idea of getting Ronnie to channel Norm for BRIGHT LIGHTS!, and Ronnie delivered.
The Richards' set at BRIGHT LIGHTS! reprised a few songs from the Over The Top album, plus a couple of classic covers that Norm loved. "The Cat's Out Of The Bag.""My Way Or The Highway." The power ballad "The Flame Never Dies." The irresistible Chan Romero/Swinging Blue Jeans nugget "Hippy Hippy Shake," a tune that Norm recorded with 1.4.5. for the fabulous 1988 LP Rhythm n' Booze. Through it all, this band of Richards smoked like they were on the water, crackling with a righteous rumble of arena-ready hard rock. Mark Doyle's leads singed the wallpaper. The Steele brothers laid down a foundation that would have supported the Taj Mahal. And Ronnie? My man Ronnie wailed, wailed like a demon freed from that highway to hell. Norm woulda been proud, Hell, I think Norm was there, on stage, singing along with Ronnie and his former bandmates. For this brief, shattered fragment of time, The Richards ruled the stage, the city, the universe, by divine rockin' right. We could only hail the kings: Mark, Ed, Steve, Paul, Ronnie, and Norm. All hail!
Still, the king of kings here, the undisputed leader of The Richards, was Paul Armstrong. He called the shots. He ran the show. He's friggin' Paul Armstrong. Paul pointed to his Status Quo T-shirt, and recalled how Norm's influence made him become a fan of that band. Although the whole set was a tribute to Norm, PA specifically dedicated "The Motivation Song" to his fallen partner, and expressed regret that he could never quite get Norm to embrace the song's message.
|Ronnie Dark and Maura Kennedy. Photo by Karen Munze|
|Arty Lenin, Tom Kenny, Mark Doyle, Paul Armstrong, plus hidden talents of Gary Frenay & Tommy Allen. Photo by Walter Pravato|
No. Not at all.
Tom Kenny has always been a consummate showman. His great success as a voice actor may have obscured the fact for some, but folks in Syracuse have known for decades that Tom is a born front man. And he was gonna be our headliner this year! We were lucky, and we were delighted.
Besides, Tom had assembled a pretty decent band to back him up: Screen Test! Yep, Gary Frenay, Arty Lenin, and Tommy Allen would serve as Mr. Kenny's rockin' and rollin' entourage, the Dreamers to his Freddie, the Attractions to his Elvis Costello, the Band of Renown to his Les Brown. As the set progressed, Screen Test would be augmented by the addition of Mark Doyle, and ultimately Paul Armstrong would join in to form a supersized Flashcubes, with Tom Kenny at the heart of it all.
Tom's set opened with "Let's Have A Party," a direct statement of intent that King Elvis the First performed in the film Loving You, but a song most closely associated with the Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson. Tom shook 'n' shimmied through "I'm Ready," Alvin Robinson's "Down Home Girl" (which Tom said The Rolling Stones played too slow), the underrated Johnny Cash B-side "Get Rhythm" (and this prompts me to confess that I first heard the song when Tom covered it live with Tom Kenny & the Pushballs, long before I heard The Man In Black's classic original), and "It's Gonna Be Alright." Mark Doyle appeared on stage, just in time for "You'll Lose A Good Thing."
As we neared the climax of the set, the show, and nearly two years of planning and fussing, Paul Armstrong hurriedly plugged in as this mighty rockin' combo lurched its way into The Small Faces' Mod pop touchstone "Whatcha Gonna Do About It." When I discovered that Tom would be covering this in his set, I dropped to the floor and pounded the table with pure glee. Perfect! This, in turn, led into Sam Cooke's "Twistin' The Night Away" and The Music Explosion's magnetic "Little Bit O' Soul," and there wasn't a still corpuscle in the whole damned building.
The minutes were ticking away. Funk 'N Waffles' license required the place to shut down at Midnight, and the clock was drawing perilously near to that witching stroke. There was time for one more song, and one more song only.
Putting together a show, working behind the scenes, it can be easy to slip away from all of the little things that engage you, the magic moments that capture your heart, the tiny miracles that made you a fan to begin with. For the BRIGHT LIGHTS! shows, even though I would be an active participant as promoter and co-host, I determined early on that I would enjoy everything--everything--as if I were any other fan who'd plunked down the green to see a rock 'n' roll show. A jaded state is for hipsters, and I'm never gonna be one of those. And, with only a few (logistically appropriate) exceptions, I avoided taking advance peeks at set lists; I wanted to be just as surprised by song selections as the next guy or gurl.
So I didn't know how Tom Kenny planned to close the show. I didn't. Until I heard The Flashcubes play those opening notes. Then I knew. I knew immediately.
I turned to my daughter and smiled. She'd been dancing and swaying and enjoying the show, which (along with a recent Cheap Trick concert) presented a relatively rare harmonic convergence between the often disparate musical tastes of Meghan, her mom, and me. Meghan didn't yet recognize the song that had started to play:
I'm gonna break out of this city
Leave the people here behind
Searchin' for adventure
It's the kind of life to find
Tired of doin' day jobs
With no thanks for what I do
I know I must be someone
Now I'm gonna find out who
A puzzled look remained on Meghan's face; the song hadn't registered with her. Tom kept singing, and found his way to the chorus:
DO ANYTHING YOU WANNA DO!
Meghan smiled, bemused, and maybe she rolled her eyes, just a bit, the way only a daughter can do to imply Oh, Dad...! But she got it. For me, the song is a cherished old Eddie & the Hot Rods 45, made even better via a subsequent cover by The Flashcubes. But Meghan knows it as the song I played for her just before she went off to college in 2013. It's the song I've played for her at the end of every summer since then, and the song I'll play again for her next month, when her senior year beckons. Time. Time is the enemy. But this has always been my bottom-line advice for Meghan, as she makes her own way through time: do anything you wanna do.
Looking back now at Tom Kenny's performance of this song that has meant so much to me, I feel the sting in my eyes. But it was a joyful, joyful moment, and I'm so grateful to have been there, in that moment, to enjoy it without reservation or care.
"Do Anything You Wanna Do" ended. Tom Kenny thanked the band, thanked everyone, and said goodnight. I bounded to the stage for closing remarks, but the mics had been shut off--the clock had struck twelve, and the enchantment had ended. Undeterred, I yelled to the crowd:
I don't need a microphone! Thanks to everyone here. Thanks to everyone who played, everyone who payed, and everyone who stayed! Thanks to Funk 'N Waffles, thanks to Norm Mattice, and again, thank you! I am Spartacus!
And, after all the planning and prep, BRIGHT LIGHTS! 2016 took its final bows, and embraced its new status as a happy, happy memory.
There are reasons why we listen to pop music. And there are reasons why we go to see and hear bands play live. The band we see in a bar can become so much more than just a band in a bar. Just as favorite pop songs can be an emotional tether to scattered moments we can't or won't relinquish, a favorite band can be a friend. And the members of that band can be your friends even if you never quite get around to saying hello to them, to buying the guitarist a beer, or sharing a smoke with the lead singer in the men's room at The Firebarn. It doesn't matter if we're talking about The Flashcubes or The Ohms or The UnSound or The Antics or The James L. Cortland Band, nor even if you're an outta-towner with similar fond recollections of a band from your old stomping grounds. It's a connection that might (or might not) seem alien to drunken punters shouting out requests for "Freebird," but it's a connection everyone in this Bright Lights community understands with clarity and affection. Time is the enemy, and time will win in the end. But even time can't take this away from us.
See you next year?
"Do Anything You Wanna Do" written by Graeme Douglas and Ed Hollis (Universal/Island Music/Rock Music)
|Photo by Karen Munze.|