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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.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

TIRnRR # 4, Track By Track: Chris von Sneidern, "Insomniac Summer"

This is part of a series of short pieces discussing each of the 29 tracks on our new compilation CD This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio, Volume 4The CD can be ordered at Kool Kat Musik.

18. CHRIS VON SNEIDERN: "Insomniac Summer"

The first time I saw Chris von Sneidern perform live was some time in the early '90s, at a Syracuse Songwriters Showcase at Club Zodiac in Syracuse's Armory Square. I hadn't heard any of his music before that night, and didn't really know much about him beyond the fact that he was an expatriate Central New Yorker with roots in the early '80s local pop and new wave scene I revered. Chris took the stage, and within seconds of the start of his first song, my friend Dave Murray turned to me and said, You like this guy, don't you? 

Well, when Dave's right, he's right. I liked Chris von Sneidern from his first strummed chord.

In the early to mid '90s, I was a regular patron of what we called Napkin Night at the Zodiac. I think it happened every Wednesday, but whatever night it was, musicians Gary Frenay and Jon Notarthomas would hold court in the Zodiac's front bar. They'd play originals and covers, and if you wanted to make a request, you had to write in on a napkin and hand it to the performers. It may sound dire in its description, but it was a lot of fun. Eventually, it was Arty Lenin--Gary's once and future partner in The Flashcubes--playing instead of Jon. Or the other way around? The chronology is all messed up in my recollection (possibly, in part, because there was beer involved), but I remember with certainty that I just loved it, every week. Music. Man, ya can't beat music.

Among the other Napkin Night regulars were two women, Dawn and Sandy. I wound up chatting with them quite often. We were never close pals, but we were friendly, and we enjoyed the easygoing ambiance of this convivial weekly popfest. Dawn and Sandy were among the first people anywhere to read the early manuscript of "Bright Lights, Small City," my liner notes to a proposed Flashcubes anthology CD.  Sandy was a bit older, and she mentioned her son, and asked if I was familiar with him. Her son's name was Chris. Chris von Sneidern.

Was this before I first saw CVS? After? After, I think. Yeah, pretty sure it was after. Anyway, Sandy brought me a copy of Chris' 1991 debut indie single, "Too Much To Do"/"On The Run." It was magnificent, and I still have it, a cherished treasure that is not for sale. Sandy was proud, and rightly so. Chris lived in California, and I only saw him perform one other time, at Tim's Supper Club. The place was packed, the food was fabulous, and CVS was just riveting. Gary Frenay even joined him for a rendition of Chris Bell's "You And Your Sister," and it was an electric moment (albeit performed acoustically).

Sandy also got me Chris' next single, an incredible thing of wonder called "Annalisa" backed with "Someday." Gush. CVS signed with Heyday Records in California, and his parade of pure pop bliss won wider and wider notoriety. Never enough notoriety--there's a reason a documentary about his career asks the titular question Why Isn't Chris von Sneidern Famous?--but he became a bona fide big deal among power pop fans. He should be famous, yes. He settled for just being great.

Chris and I corresponded a little bit, sporadically, over the years. He's a little younger than ol' CC, but we share similar roots in the small and cozy Syracuse scene, and we share many mutual acquaintances. He was in The U-Turns here in the early '80s. Later, after leaving the Salt City for new adventure, he played with Paul Collins for a bit, and with Flying Color before becoming a solo performer. He was among the first artists to ever record a promo ID for This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio, and he gave us a terrific song called "Lonely Tonite" for the first TIRnRR compilation in 2004.

For a long time, a span of years, Sandy and/or Dawn (usually both, sometimes just Dawn) were among the folks I could always expect to see at a Gary Frenay show, or at the infrequent Flashcubes shows. Somewhere along the line, I stopped seeing them anywhere. I probably didn't attach much significance to that at the time. It wasn't until much, much later that I learned that Sandy had passed away. It seemed too long after the fact to send condolences to Chris, but I regret not ever saying...something.


I never saw or spoke with Dawn again, although we are friends (not close pals, but friendly) on Facebook. I've heard that Sandy appears in Why Isn't Chris von Sneidern Famous? I have yet to watch that. I just haven't gotten around to it; I'm not specifically putting it off. Honestly, I think seeing Sandy again, even just on my TV screen, would be more likely to make me smile than to make me sad. She was nice, and I liked her. And she gave the pop world a great gift with her son, Chris von Sneidern.

Chris is a busy guy. He plays, he records, and he's about to go on tour as bassist with The Flamin' Groovies--talk about a Central New York boy made good! In the midst of this hectic blur of rockin' pop activity, Chris carved out time to finish and record a new track for This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio, Volume 4. The song is a love letter to our almost-shared roots, a panoramic snapshot of life in the Syracuse music scene as the '80s began: performers like Curtis Seals, The Penetrators, DistortionMachine + Hummer, Screen Test, 1.4.5, and Dress Code, an evocative local single like The Tearjerkers' Gary Frenay-penned "Syracuse Summer," riding into town from the North country on the S & O (the Syracuse and Oswego bus service), and late, late nights at The Insomniac, an after-hours nightspot that offered live music into the first rude rumors of morning. The song knocked us out. It didn't have a title when Chris sent us an early working version of it; he said we should call it "Rock 'n' Roll Radio," but we suggested "Insomniac Summer" instead. It's a rock 'n' roll time capsule, a memento, a living, breathing document well worth staying up for.

The brief era documented in "Insomniac Summer" was after my time; I was out of Syracuse by 1980, and did not return to stay until 1987. I never went to The Insomniac. But I did see almost all of the acts that Chris cites in the song, and I feel a persistent connection to that scene based on my affection for (and participation in) the local late '70s milieu that preceded it. My sense of the whole of that scene--let's say 1977 through 1983 or so--thrives to this day, and will continue to affect the way I experience music until the grave finally kills my playlist. If then. I remain grateful to everyone who made that scene happen, performers and fans alike, and I'm grateful to Chris von Sneidern for giving that feeling a voice. I betcha Sandy is proud of him still.

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