About Me

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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 four 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.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

BRIGHT LIGHTS! Part 3

Concluding the story of BRIGHT LIGHTS! The Syracuse New Wave Rock 'n' Roll Reunion, which took place on Sunday, July 3rd, at Funk 'N Waffles in Syracuse.  Read the preamble here, all about the sweet anticipation here, Part 1 of the show recap here, and Part 2 here.  Time for the finale!
Mark Doyle, Ronnie Dark, Maura Kennedy, Paul Armstrong.  Photo by Karen Munze.
There are reasons why we listen to pop music.  Some of the reasons are simple and obvious:  we want to dance, we want to sing along, and we want to experience that exuberant rush that a perfect pop tune can provide.  For many of us, though, there is a deeper, stronger, and palpable connection between our inner selves and the music we love.  The bond transcends genre and demographics, eludes categorization, and laughs mockingly at attempts to understand it in cerebral terms.  It isn't a subject for study; it just is. We feel these songs as much as we hear them, and they move our souls as much as they move our feet.  It isn't just the beat, nor just the lyrics, nor just the blissful (or agitated) union of all of these things.  It's intangible, but it seems as solid and physical as a kiss, a slap, a teardrop, a sob, or a smile. It's as real as love and hate, as euphoria and misery, as triumph and heartbreak.  And it's catchy, too.

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
The Richards' set ended with a victory lap through Cheap Trick's "Surrender," as the audience responded with raised fists, raised spirits, and raised, raspy voices:  We're all all right!  We're all all right!  We're all all right!  We're all all right!  Maura Kennedy suddenly found herself on stage, a de facto member of The Richards, singing along and beaming with the sheer, cathartic giddiness of this rock 'n' roll exorcism.  We're all all right, all right!
Arty Lenin, Tom Kenny, Mark Doyle, Paul Armstrong, plus hidden talents of Gary Frenay & Tommy Allen.  Photo by Walter Pravato
Our headliner was Tom Kenny.  For an entertainer of such immense talent, it's frankly a bit disturbing how humble Tom is.  The week before BRIGHT LIGHTS!, Tom was questioning why he had been chosen as the headliner, since he wasn't even going to be doing anything by his old group The Tearjerkers, nor anything else specifically connected to the original Syracuse scene, just a bunch of Tom's favorite cover songs.  Tom wondered if it wouldn't be more appropriate for The Flashcubes to close the show, or The Trend, or The Dead Ducks, or--of course!--The Richards' tribute to Norm. Tom felt that would be a more fitting cap of the night, rather than him singing gems by Sam Cooke and Wanda Jackson. Right? Right...?!

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 2013It's the song I've played for her at the end of every summer since then, and the song I'll play again for here 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.