Wednesday, January 25, 2017


Four bucks.

The spring of 1978 offered an unbelievable opportunity: while I was back home in Syracuse for Easter break, The Ramones, The Runaways, and Syracuse's own power pop powerhouse The Flashcubes would be appearing on the same bill at The Brookside, a bar in the Syracuse suburb of DeWitt. Short of a reunion show by The Beatles or The Monkees, this was the best dream rock 'n' roll show I could imagine. I loved all three acts; I'd seen The Flashcubes for the first time just a couple of months earlier, I'd felt my world change when I first heard The Ramones' "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" (played back-to-back for a glorious half-hour or more) the preceding November, and I nearly burned the request line at the college station badgering DJs to play The Runaways' "Cherry Bomb." I also annoyed my then-girlfriend Sharon by singing both "Cherry Bomb" and The Ramones' "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue" while we walked together at school during the fall semester. She was an ex-girlfriend soon thereafter (my fault). Her rather sudden replacement, Theresa, was herself an ex by the spring (also my fault), which meant I was free to pursue my carnal interest in Runaways Lita Ford and Joan Jett.

Rest assured, Carl--you never had a shot with either of us.
Well. Y'know. In theory.

I don't know where or when I first heard about this upcoming show, but I knew I needed to be there. Four bucks? Even an impoverished 18-year-old college student could just about swing that. I didn't have a driver license--I didn't get around to getting one until I was almost 21--but I figured my friend Jay would also want to go, and I'd ride with him. However, Jay was already planning a party in his basement that night--hey ho, no go. Luckily for me, my Dad was willing to drop me off and pick me at The Brookside, so I convinced my friend Tom to accompany me. And I was still invited to Jay's party, so it seemed to be a rock 'n' roll heaven kinda night.

I've written previously about Tom, most recently in the Virtual Ticket Stub Gallery entry reminiscing about when we went to see KISS in 1976. Tom was one of my best friends in high school, and we still hung out together quite a bit whenever I was back in Syracuse. Tom's suicide in 1979 haunted me for decades thereafter, because god damn it, I'd seen him earlier the very night he carried out his decision to blow his brains out. And I had no clue. I still can't pick up a clue, no matter how much I search my memory of that evening, that last meeting with my friend.

But, in March of 1978, all this sadness and trauma was still lurking somewhere ahead in our future. For now, we were gonna see The Flashcubes, The Runaways, and The Ramones.

Four bucks.

Tom had not yet seen The Flashcubes, and didn't really know The Ramones, but he owned a Runaways LP. I don't remember if it was the group's eponymous debut album or the import Live In Japan set--I think it was the latter--but Tom (like me) was certainly into the idea of cute girls with guitars, bass, and drums. He was particularly taken with The Runaways' cover of The Velvet Underground's "Rock And Roll." I don't think either us knew it was a cover; even though I had a ticket to a Lou Reed show (which was ultimately cancelled) that spring, I didn't get around to hearing The Velvet Underground's music until a few years later. But it was all right. It's all right! Yeah, it was all right. It's all right! To this day, I prefer The Runaways' fist-shakin' cover of "Rock And Roll" to the great VU original.

On March 31st, 1978, Dad dropped Tom and I off at The Brookside. This was the only time I ever visited The Brookside, one of the key live music spots in Central New York's rich rock 'n' roll history. I've heard it was kind of a dive, and I've also heard of times the place was flooded by murky water of suspect origin; Pete Murray's Flashcubes timeline notes that a 'Cubes show at The Brookside on December 14th, 1977 was rained out, something you wouldn't think happened all that often at indoor venues.

Nonetheless, I wish I'd had more opportunities to see bands at The Brookside. The Flashcubes made their debut as a live act on September 1st, 1977 at The Brookside; I was only 17 at the time, and away at school anyway, but I sure wish I'd been there for that! DeWitt Town Hall now stands upon that formerly soggy hallowed ground. There's a 9/11 memorial there, and woods, and a picnic area. Things have changed a bit over time.

My memory of The Brookside, based on that lone visit, does not jibe with established facts. I remember a vast parking lot, and a good-sized club; I'm told it was actually a rather small place. Maybe the music and volume and sheer rock 'n' roll energy just make The Brookside seem larger in my mind.

Tom and I walked into The Brookside, grabbed beers at the bar--Millers, I'm sure--and made our way through the crowd. Whatever The Brookside's real-world footprint, the place was crowded, packed. And Paul Armstrong, Tommy Allen, Steve Lenin (I didn't hear anyone call him Arty yet), and Gary Frenay took the stage--it was time for The Flashcubes.

I remember nothing--nothing--about The Flashcubes' performance that night. There are no specifics, no concrete details in my brain, of what songs they played or what wisdom they shared. But I can tell you this with bedrock certainty: they were magnificent. I'm sure they did mostly original songs, but they may have done some covers, too. Yeah, "Dizzy Miss Lizzy," for sure (as we'll see in a moment). I was riveted, euphoric. They'd already earned the right to be called My Favorite Group, and they reasserted that right once again.

Tom also dug The Flashcubes' set. He liked the sense of alienation expressed in Paul Armstrong's "Got No Mind" and--especially!--Arty Lenin's "I Don't Want To Be A Human Being." Maybe Tom's affection for square-peg anthems was an early warning sign--I dunno. After their set, Tom bought Arty a beer (for which Arty remains grateful even now, I betcha). Shy guy that I was, that evening may also have been the first time I ever talked to any of the 'Cubes. I recall chatting briefly with Arty and somebody else (maybe Chuck Cook, a fellow 'Cubes fan who I would more formally meet the following summer), discussing "Dizzy Miss Lizzy." Arty had only recently discovered that The Beatles didn't write "Dizzy Miss Lizzy," prompting me to add, "Yeah, it was a Little Richard song, I think." So yeah, my first conversation with a Flashcube, and I proudly displayed my rockin' pop ignorance: "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" was really by Larry Williams, not the right Reverend Richard Penniman. Dumbass Flashcubes fan....

The Runaways were touring in support of their third studio album, Waitin' For The Night, which had been released the previous October. It was their first album without original lead singer Cherie Currie, and also the first without bassist Jackie Fox. Fox had been replaced by Vickie Blue, and guitarist Joan Jett took over most of the lead vocals; drummer Sandy West sang lead on the group's live cover of The Troggs' "Wild Thing," and I don't remember whether or not lead guitarist Lita Ford sang any leads...but man, she looked good.

Flatterer--you still never had a shot.
I recall bits 'n' pieces (but no Dave Clark Five covers) of The Runaways' set, which included "Wild Thing" and the VU's "Rock And Roll," plus fave Waitin' For The Night tracks like "Wasted" and "School Days." They probably also did "Neon Angels On The Road To Ruin," and "You're Too Possessive," and "American Nights," but I couldn't testify to those facts in a court of law. Still, I was mesmerized, not just by love or lust or fanboy crush, but by the rockin' power of The Runaways' live set. Were they sloppy? Probably. I guess. I didn't care, nor did the rest of the delirious pop noise fans surrounding me on all sides. We were dancing to that fine, fine music--our lives were saved by rock 'n' roll.

Their set ended, and The Runaways left the stage. The crowd clapped and stomped for an encore, chanting Cherry Bomb! Cherry Bomb! Cherry Bomb! "Cherry Bomb," written by Joan Jett and Kim Fowley, had been The Runaways' debut single back in 1976, and it had been ex-frontchick Cherie Curie's signature tune. Cherry Bomb! Cherry Bomb! Even without Curie, the fans at The Brookside wanted to hear that song. Cherry Bomb! CHERRY BOMB!!

The Runaways returned. Piss. Vinegar. Maybe a cocktail or two. Cherry Bomb! Joan Jett was having none of it.

"The blonde chick's gone," she sneered. "Fuck the Cherry Bomb!" Never before or since has a crowd been so delighted to have its request declined. That's punk!, we agreed, amused. Joan then seemed to soften her tone, and said they were going do a different song, with some new words just for Syracuse. And The Runaways performed a unique rendition of "Queens Of Noise," the title tune from their second album:

We're the queens of noise
Come and get it, boys
Syracuse noise
Not just one of your toys....

We ate it up. The Queens of Noise ruled by divine right. And I was in love with each of them.

Nope--no shot with me either.
(Joan Jett would later re-claim "Cherry Bomb," the song she co-wrote. She included it on Joan Jett & the Blackhearts' 1984 album Glorious Results Of A Misspent Youth, and it remains a staple of her live show. When I interviewed Joan for Goldmine in 1994, I recounted the tale of her refusal to perform "Cherry Bomb" at The Brookside in '78. She didn't remember the events at all, but was mortified by the notion that she'd been so dismissive of a song that a crowd of concertgoers wanted to hear. But me? I think what she did, in the moment, made a far cooler concert memory than if she'd just grudgingly done the damned song instead. Fuck the cherry bomb, indeed.)

The Ramones were also touring in support of their third album. The incredible Rocket To Russia album had come out in late '77, and the "Rockaway Beach" single had somehow blitzkrieg-bopped its way to # 66 on Billboard's Hot 100, the all-time best showing of any Ramones release in America. The original quartet was still intact: singer Joey Ramone, guitarist Johnny Ramone, bassist Dee Dee Ramone, and drummer Tommy Ramone, brudders in arms, purveyors of irresistible bubblegum pop played faster, louder, and with more ferocity than the laws of physics would consider possible. They weren't just a band; they were a force of nature, a force beyond nature. 1-2-3-4! It wasn't a count-in. It was a manifesto.

I really did not know The Ramones' catalog very well in early '78. My Ramones collection at the time consisted of the "Sheena" and "Rockaway Beach" 45s, though I was also familiar with the debut album Ramones via airplay on my campus station WBSU in Brockport. (One day at school, a BSU DJ named Joe LaValle was nearing the end of his shift, decided he wanted to close his show with an album side, and said that he'd let whoever was such-and-such number caller pick the album side. I was the such-and-such in question, and I gave Joe my choice for an album side to play: Ramones, Side One. Oh, you BASTARD! was his distressed response, but give 'im credit--he honored his promise, and played the album side I requested. Gnashing his teeth throughout the process, I'd guess, but kudos to Joe for playing it anyway.)

So I knew a handful of The Ramones' songs, including "Blitzkrieg Bop,""Beat On The Brat,""Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue," and a few others. And I'd read about Rocket To Russia in Bomp! magazine, and probably in a couple of other rock rags, too. I was still a nascent Ramones fan, but I was definitely a fan.

The blur of time, buzz, and beer prevents me from remembering much of The Ramones' set list, though it was probably identical to what they played on It's Alive!, the 2-LP live set the group released in England later that spring. I do recall Joey introducing the ballad I'd read about in Bomp!, saying, We got a new album out. It's called Rocket To Russia. This one's called "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow." Dee Dee counted off the 1-2-3-4!, and The Ramones performed this exquisite, tender-sounding kiss-off. Swoon. Pop music!  Otherwise, The Ramones' set was like a wall:


Wham. SongSongSong. No waste, little patter, just a melodic assault that captured your heart with the military efficiency of George S. Patton beatin' back the Nazis. Piledriving never felt so good.

The Ramones came, they saw, and they conquered. And then they were gone.

After the show, we all checked our collective pulse, caught our collective breath, and tried to restart our collective fried brain cells. Tom loved the 'Cubes and The Runaways, but hated The Ramones--they were too rushed, too chaotic. He was entitled to his opinion. Agree to disagree.

I felt like I'd witnessed The Promised Land.

My Dad came back to The Brookside to pick us up. While waiting, I was bubbling, giddy from the pure thrill of what I'd just experienced. Standing at the edge of the (I swear!) huge parking lot, I flashed high signs to all who passed. Tom politely warned me to cut that shit out, because it looked like I was hailing one of the cabs perched all about, ready to whisk drunken punks off to their next destination. Dad arrived, always supportive, always happy to hear that I'd had a good time.

We dropped Tom off at his house on Maple Manor Drive in North Syracuse, while I headed off to Jay's party. Tom was not invited, and didn't even know about the party. I feel like that should make me feel guilty now. But it was beyond my control. Looking back, there was always so much--so, so much--beyond my control.

The next time I saw The Ramones--July 6th, 1979--Tom had been dead for less than a week. July 1st, the day of his passing, was the worst day of my life up to that point. It remained the worst day of my life for decades, an awful ache that gradually subsided over time, until it was abruptly replaced by an even worse day. There's no comfort in being able to pinpoint your worst days; worse days may still be on the horizon, just waiting for you to let your guard down.

That horizon seemed far away in 1978. Four bucks. A ticket, a friend, and a night I'll never forget. Best four bucks I ever spent.

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The Flashcubes at The Jab. I think the guy in the lower right corner is me.

Tommy Allen and Joan Jett