The Flashcubes celebrate their 40th anniversary tonight, 40 years to the day after their live debut on September 1st, 1977. I was not at that first show, but I will be at the 40th anniversary show at Funk 'N Waffles tonight.
This calls for a look back at the beginning of my fascination with The Flashcubes....
My first Flashcubes show was on January 28th, 1978. It took me more over a year to get there.
In 1977, I was just 17. If you know what I mean. Yeah, it means I was a teenaged Beatles fan in transition. '77 was a big year for transitions. I transitioned from square-peg high school senior in North Syracuse to square-peg college freshman in Brockport. I changed from an insecure, lonely teenager into a hapless apprentice adult, responsible for stupidly breaking the hearts of three young women in rapid succession. That still bugs guilty ol' me, forty years later.
Music was my most joyous, transcendent transition. In 1977, my long-standing infatuation with AM radio rockin' pop--principally the music of the '60s, plus Chuck Berry, Badfinger, The Raspberries, Johnny Nash, Nazareth, and then-current or recent hit sounds by Sweet, KISS, The Bay City Rollers, Boston, Starz, Blue Oyster Cult, and Fleetwood Mac--expanded to include some new thing called punk rock. My interest in punk was fueled by reading articles in a tabloid called Phonograph Record Magazine. It all seemed so...scary. And it also seemed so, so cool.
So 1977 was a huge year of musical discovery for me, as I learned more and more about rock 'n' roll of the past, present, and possible future. From, say, Christmas of 1976 through the ball dropping on 12/31/77, I became a fan of The Kinks, The Rubinoos, The Yardbirds, Blondie, Buffalo Springfield, The Runaways, The Beau Brummels, Elvis Costello, The Knickerbockers, Television, The Who, and The Dictators. As disco and increasingly bland pop fare increased its stifling chokehold on the Top 40, I tried to be hipper by listening to Utica's WOUR-FM; my switch in signal loyalty was rewarded with exposure to The Greg Kihn Band, Graham Parker, Nick Lowe, and The Sex Pistols (as well as some choice '60s cuts by The Animals and The Dave Clark Five).
In 1977, I discovered The Ramones. The thrill of that discovery remains a pure and immediate buzz, four decades on.
I have no idea what I was doing on September 1st, 1977. Maybe I was studying--it's possible!--or reading, or listening to the radio, or all of the above. I was probably in my dorm room at Brockport, two and a half hours and a million miles away from Syracuse, where The Flashcubes were taking the stage for the very first time. It was the start of something that would have a lasting impact on my life, even though I didn't know it was occurring at the time.
I fought back. I pestered the BSU jocks to play more of what I wanted to hear: "X-Offender" by Blondie, "Cherry Bomb" by The Runaways, "Elevation" by Television, anything by The Ramones. Oh, and The Monkees, too--I think that bugged the jocks even more than my requests for punk. I annoyed my girlfriend Sharon by singing "Cherry Bomb" and "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue" as we walked through campus together; we were not together long. Her replacement Theresa didn't like punk any more than Sharon did, but she did give me the Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols LP as a Christmas gift anyway. Before she did that, I had already bought my first two punk records: 45s of "God Save The Queen" by The Sex Pistols and "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" by The Ramones. Hearing "Sheena" in particular for the first time was a life-changing experience.
Somehow--probably on my occasional trips back home to Syracuse--I managed to hear about The Flashcubes. The 'Cubes were getting some press in the weekly tabloid The Syracuse New Times. Much of the coverage seemed jokey and smartass, if not outright condescending. But I was intrigued. I was also underage, and sorely lacking in the fake ID department. As much as I wanted to check out The Flashcubes, that appointment with destiny had to be deferred.
As the fall semester ended, I felt a sense of...I dunno, possibility. Though still more boy than adult, my sudden success with gurls deluded me into thinking I was a man. I broke up with Theresa. I concocted my first piece of rock writing, an emeritus contribution to my high school paper The NorthCaster, whining about disco and mellow and extolling the exuberant appeal of punk rock. My friend Jay Hammond came to my house to watch The Sex Pistols on Saturday Night Live, only to find that the Pistols had been replaced by some guy I'd read about in Phonograph Record Magazine, Elvis Costello. I was disappointed that the Pistols weren't on--they later made their American TV debut on a Variety special, introduced to us Yanks by noted punk rocker Dionne Warwick--but I dug Costello immediately. And the way Elvis and his Attractions interrupted one song to switch to another on live TV? Punk, man. Punk!
My 18th birthday was January 17th, the same day as all of my other birthdays before and since. I'm remarkably consistent about that. My parents took me to dinner at Beefsteak Mining Company in Penn Can Mall, with a side trip to Gerber Music to pick up The Ramones' "Rockaway Beach" single. Snow was falling, as it does in Syracuse in mid-January. I wanted to go out afterward and have my first legal drinks with Jay and some other friends (all of whom were already old hands at this over-18 thing), but the snow fell harder and harder, stranding this sullen lad at home. I don't recall whether or not I knew that The Flashcubes were playing the next night, 1/18/78, at The Jabberwocky up at Syracuse University, but I know I didn't go. And The Flashcubes didn't play again until it was nearly time for me to return to Brockport.
January 28th. A Saturday night. That was my chance.
The Orange was an upstairs bar on South Crouse Avenue near Marshall Street. Like many of my suburban peers, I was drawn to the buzz of the SU hill, the excitement of its atmosphere, its record stores, its activity, its pizza. Also its college girls, though I had more success with the record stores and pizza. But this was my first visit to a bar on the Hill, and I was there for deeper, nobler purpose than just getting drunk and/or laid, even. I was there to see a Syracuse punk band. I was there to witness The Flashcubes.
I went with Jay. We paid our cover charge--something like two bucks, maybe one, maybe three--and I don't remember if we paid at street level or after we'd ascended the steep stairs to enter rock 'n' roll Nirvana. The place was packed. The Flashcubes were already on stage.
"On stage?" Heh. There was no stage. The band was set up on the freakin' floor, redeye-level with dancers, fans, and assorted onlookers. This struck me as cool beyond description. But I didn't have time to consider it; I was too busy being pummeled by this primal, pumping noise. A melodic noise somehow, like the best AM radio station ever, turned way, way up to the point of the sweetest, most divine distortion. It was damned near an out-of-body experience. I felt the weight of my winter coat, fixing me in place, tethering me to a real world that could just barely withstand this ferocious onslaught from Other, this storm from an unknown beyond.
The Flashcubes didn't play. The Flashcubes slammed.
I didn't know the names of anyone in the group, hadn't yet heard of drummer Tommy Allen, bassist Gary Frenay, or guitarists Paul Armstrong and Steve Miller (aka Steve Lenin, and soon and forevermore to become Arty Lenin). I didn't know any of their original songs. Did they perform "Do The Jumping Jack" that night? "On The Run?" "Guernica?" I have no idea. I remember a few covers they did, songs by The Troggs and the Pistols, maybe The Hollies and The Searchers, and probably The Beatles and The Kinks, too. As a rookie fan, it all blended together in my hammered ears, a gigantic whoooosh like a jet engine headed straight to the promised land. One song stood out for me, then and now: The Flashcubes played "Heart Full Of Soul" by The Yardbirds. That hit me specifically, for some reason I can't imagine or articulate. Whatever it was, I knew in that instant: THIS IS MY BAND!!
I'm not exaggerating. As the 'Cubes claimed "Heart Full Of Soul" with the loudest authority on Earth, I thought to myself, This is what it was like to see The Beatles at The Cavern! The Flashcubes were the rock 'n' roll group I'd been hoping to find, even though I never realized I'd held that hope to begin with.
Covers can serve as an introduction to a band, a free pass into the group's concept of its own identity. To me, a band covering British Invasion and punk seemed like a damned good introduction in '78. The Flashcubes' originals would come to mean much, much more to me in short order. The Flashcubes' own songs would ultimately solidify their position as one of my all-time favorite bands. But before all that, they were already one of my all-time favorite bands. They assumed that status with "Heart Full Of Soul" on January 28th, 1978, and they have never relinquished it.
I was on a bus back to Brockport within a day or two after that. Theresa and her previous boyfriend Fred were on the same bus. Fred had been a friend of mine, but that hadn't stopped me from stealing Theresa away from him, only to cut her loose less than a month later. There was awkwardness. But I was cruising elsewhere anyway. I was raving about this great band I'd seen, assuring everyone that The Flashcubes would be stars any minute now. In my eyes, they already were.
I would go on to see The Flashcubes more times than I could count, pretty much every opportunity I ever had. I'd see them with The Ramones and The Runaways, with David Johansen, 999, The Fast, New Math, Joe Jackson, Artful Dodger, Buddy Love & the Tearjerkers, or with no other act on the bill. I saw them until they split at the end of the '70s, and resumed when they regrouped years later. I've written liner notes for their CDs, and they wrote a song about me, "Carl (You Da Man)," for the first This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio compilation; that song is available again on the new two-disc retrospective Flashcubes Forever, and I blush at my good fortune to have been saluted by this group I've adored for years and years. Almost 40 years!
I repeat myself again and again again: I was privileged to have three flat-out rock 'n' roll epiphanies in my life, flashpoints that struck me in the moment and remained with me forever after. I saw The Beatles in A Hard Day's Night at the drive-in in 1964, demonstrating to me at the age of 4 what a rock 'n' roll band was supposed to be. I heard The Ramones' 45 of "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" as I played it non-stop for like half an hour in November of 1977, my head absolutely straight and sober, and I felt that palpable, irresistible connection to pop music in a new and immersive way. And I saw The Flashcubes live in January of 1978, igniting a spark within, a spark that would grow to a proud, raging inferno, a spark that would provide my brightest light. This was my music. It still is. It always will be.
In 1977, I was just 17, if you know what I mean. But I didn't know. Not yet. I needed a bright light to show me the way.
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