Sunday, March 19, 2017

On Elliott Murphy's Birthday

This piece originally appeared on, the blog I now write for regularly, after I folded Growing Old With Rock & Roll back in December 2013 (see Goodbye blog).  I recently decided to start bringing some Pencilstorm entries over to this blogsite, and maybe to start working up the occasional brand-new original material for Growing Old With Rock & Roll.   

I bought Elliott Murphy’s debut album – Aquashow – at the Discount Records store across from the Ohio State University campus in late November or early December, 1973, the same week I quit college, moved out of my mother's house and got my first apartment.  I didn’t know it when I bought it, but the first verse of the first song on Aquashow – “Last Of The Rock Stars” – contains the lines, “I got a feeling on my back like an old brown jacket / I’d like to stay in school, but I just can’t hack it.”  It was a rock & roll match made in heaven.

I started buying records in 1964, I continue to buy them now in 2017, and Aquashow remains to this day my favorite album of all time.  I bought Aquashow largely because of the blurb in this article about New York Rock, written by Dave Marsh in the December 1973 issue of Creem magazine, my Rock & Roll Bible of the time……

I conducted the following long-distance interview with Elliott Murphy via e-mail in February, 2017.  We're running it today - March 16th, 2017 - Elliott's 68th birthday.  He will be playing two birthday shows at The New Morning in his adopted home of Paris, France, this Friday & Saturday, March 17th & 18th.  We encourage any of our Continental friends to attend.  (I wish I was.)  Details on those shows, pertinent info about ordering all things Elliott Murphy - CD's, books, etc. - and a host of Elliott's prose writings can be found at  You should check it out at your earliest convenience.


1)    You've recorded 35 albums since your debut, Aquashow, in 1973: do you know how many songs?  Also, what are your five favorite songs you've written, and - in as many words as you want/need - why? 

I don’t really know how many songs I’ve recorded and that’s a job better suited for a true archivist than myself (any volunteers?) but I suppose it’s around 300, and maybe I’ve written another 100 that I never recorded. And the saddest part is that I’ve probably started another 500 that I never finished. When asked about my favorite songs it always comes down to those I’ve written and those I’ve recorded. Songs that stand that test of time like LAST OF THE ROCK STARS are essential to me but there are a few songs from my upcoming album PRODIGAL SON that I’m particularly fond of, such as LET ME IN and ABSALOM, DAVY AND JACKIE O, which is an 11-minute opus of a dozen verses. I think my favorite recorded song is ANASTASIA, because for me the production is as close to perfection as I can imagine. But I’d have to throw COME ON LOUANN in there too, as well as YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT YOU’RE IN FOR..… and on and on.

2)    The first prose piece I ever read by you were the liner notes to the 1969: Velvet Underground Live album, released back in 1974, and still to this day in 2017 I consider it one of the five best essays I have ever read on the subject of rock & roll.  How did your authorship of those notes come about?  (And, while we're on the subject: tell us a Lou Reed story we've never heard before.)

I first met Lou Reed in 1971 at a Mitch Ryder show at the Café au Go Go in NYC. (Mitch had covered Lou’s "Rock and Roll" with his band Detroit.) The Velvet Underground had such an avant-garde reputation and a menacing ambiance of sadomasochism in songs such as "Venus in Furs" that introducing myself to Lou took all the courage this 22-year-old nascent rocker could draw up. But I had just returned from a European sojourn, so I had a certain hip bono fides under my belt, having busked in the Paris Metro and appearing in Fellini’s film Roma. But to see Lou standing there in that Mickey Mouse T-shirt, chatting amiably with music business heavyweights didn’t fit the picture of the legend I had heard about. Come on, this was the composer of "Heroin"! The only thing I remember saying to him was that I too was from Long Island. “Oh really?” was his dead-panned response.

A year later my great discoverer, the late Paul Nelson - legendary rock critic and friend of Bob Dylan - who was then an A&R executive at Mercury Records asked me to write liner notes for Live 1969, the posthumous live VU album. Remember that all of this was months before I even began recording my own first album Aquashow, and still to this day fans bring me that VU album with my “It's one hundred years from today …” notes to sign as if it was my very own record and indeed I’m honored. 
I guess you could say that those liner notes contained hints of the suburban fear & loathing that was apparent all over the lyrics of Aquashow and befittingly, I wrote them on the Long Island Rail Road. Paul Nelson passed on my liner notes to Lou for his approval and - much to my delight - Lou liked them a lot, because shortly thereafter he actually called my mother and had a fairly long chat with her, as I wasn’t home at the time. At the end of the conversation my mom told him how excited I would be to hear from him and Lou asked her why.

“Because he’s a great admirer of yours,” said my mother.
“Isn’t everybody?” Lou responded.

My mother - who is in her nineties - still remembers that conversation and I still remember seeing Lou in the Mickey Mouse T-Shirt at Cafe au Go Go, so I guess you could say that Lou made a big impression on all those he came into contact with. When Aquashow came out critics imagined Dylan's Blonde on Blonde as my great inspiration but the truth was I listened to the Velvet Underground's Loaded over and over before daring to even put my toe in the rock 'n roll sacred waters.......

By the end of that tumultuous year 1974, My life had irrevocably changed; not only had my first album exploded on the scene garnering rave reviews from Rober Christgau (Village Voice) and Bob Hillburn (L.A. Times) and Paul Nelson himself (Rolling Stone) but there was my name for all to see on an actual Velvet Underground album. It was almost too much to handle! Or to quote the title of The New York Dolls’ second album – Too Much Too Soon! 

The last time I really spoke to Lou was when he came to Paris in the early 90’s and called me out of the blue and we had a café and we were crossing one of the bridges of the Seine and it was windy and Lou had his collar up and a passing French woman thought he was a priest! Lou didn’t like that. Then we stood on the bridge and Lou asked me what had happened with my life and career and I told him how it got difficult for me in the US during the 80’s and I moved to France and got married to the love of my life and now we have a son together, Gaspard, and my career took off again in Europe and Lou put his hand on my shoulder and said “So it all worked out okay, eh?” like a benediction from a priest!

3)    Who was the biggest influence on your prose writing? (And, I guess while we're on the subject: on your songwriting?) 

When it comes to songwriting I’m just a product of my generation: step one was watching Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show; step two The Beatles conquered America; and, step three Bob Dylan changed the possibilities of lyrical content in a rock song forever and ever. In my case, my father brought me to a lot of Broadway shows when I was a kid so I was introduced to the story telling aspect of songwriting right away. When it came to prose the first “important” book I read was EAST OF EDEN by John Steinbeck when I was 12. I had seen the James Dean film on TV and then searched out the book and it was such a larger universe than the film. After that there was of course F. Scott Fitzgerald and I related to GATSBY especially because it took place on Long Island where I grew up and also because I shared some of his romanticism, or as Scott said, “Show me a hero and I’ll show you a tragedy.” But there were so many other writers I admire all the way from Graham Greene to Kerouac to Raymond Chandler to Joyce Carol Oates to Hemingway to Wallace Stevens to John Cheever….. the list could go on and on. But honestly, I can’t say that any of them ever consciously influenced my style, they just showed me what great writing could be and how important it was to get it right.

4)    In your early career (circa 1973-1977) you made it a point to dress above/apart from your hippie rabble contemporaries (sharp white suits as opposed to patched bluejeans 'n' plaid flannel shirts): What was the worst fashion mistake you ever made onstage?

I think I avoided the worst mistake when Polydor Records hired an ad agency to promote Aquashow and they came up with the brilliant idea that I was the “prophet of my lost generation” and should wear long robes. I could live without seeing a few of my Miami Vice 1980’s shirts but aside from that I don't have many sartorial regrets. And my boots were always correct, which is the most important thing!

5)    How hard was your decision in 1989 to leave New York for a new home and life in Paris?

It was more gradual then you would imagine. I first played in Paris in 1979 and by 1989 I’d say most of my career was Europe-based. I had a good record company in France -New Rose - and I was touring all over the continent and in Scandinavia. I didn’t know how long I would last here because there are legal matters like visas and working papers, but then when I married Françoise everything worked out. She has been my guide through the French bureaucracy so it’s been fairly smooth even if I get stressed out like any immigrant. But leaving New York was not so hard; I had a bad memory on every street corner and it was time for a second act. 

6)    Were you already playing guitar when The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in February, 1964?  And what was the very first rock & roll song you sang in front of an audience?

I started playing guitar when I was 12 (around 1961) and the folk boom was happening, so I think the first song I performed in front an audience was "This Little Light of Mine" by the Kingston Trio. When “Murphy went electric” in 1964 my father bought me a Kent guitar (same guitar as Bruce S. had!) and my band did mostly surf music instrumentals. So probably “Walk Don’t Run” or “Wipeout” was the first rock ‘n roll song I sang. For a guy best known for his lyrics it’s ironic wouldn’t you say?

7)    Circa 1975, after the split of Boston bands The Modern Lovers and The Sidewinders, you hired Ernie Brooks, Jerry Harrison and Andy Paley as your backing band: What or who was your Boston connection?

Well, let me see..…when I came back from Europe in 1972 and was hanging around in Max’s Kansas City there was a lot of talk about The Modern Lovers although very few people had actually heard them play because they were really a Boston band. Then they opened for the NY Dolls on New Years Eve at the Mercer Arts Center (I played there a week later) and I think I said hello to Ernie Brooks and we became friends. The touring bands I had for Aquashow and Lost Generation never really worked out because they weren’t the same musicians who were playing on the albums and that was frustrating for everyone. So when I started to plan Night Lights I thought I’d get a band together, do some shows, and then go into the studio, which is kind of what happened. Ernie introduced me to Jerry Harrison (who 10 years later produced some cuts on my album Milwaukee) and also to Andy Paley because, I think, he had gone out with his sister. We opened for Sha Na Na in Canada, which had to be the worst pairing of acts in the history of the music business. But we did go into Electric Lady Studios and record quite a few songs, including "Diamonds By The Yard."

l > r: Elliott Murphy (guitar), Ernie Brooks (bass), Andy Paley (drums), Jerry Harrison (keyboards)

8)    As with Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, your career is no exercise in nostalgia, you’re constantly recording new records and playing shows, what new releases do you have coming up?

I was actually writing a lot of songs and making demos and about ready to start a new album right before we decided to do AQUASHOW REVISITED (wherein I re-recorded the songs on my first album in a new way and through the ears of my son and producer Gaspard Murphy), so I gently put those songs aside and dug back into my past, like Proust searching for lost time. And then, when I revisited these new songs again after letting them lay dormant for about a year or more they had..… improved! Or at least that was the impression I had when I went back to the demos, and so I thought OK it’s time to put together that album again. I was haunted by this idea of working with a gospel choir and Gaspard found four great singers and a wonderful young piano player by the name of Leo Cotton who played like Leon Russell. We're looking toward a spring release. I don’t know how any artist can live in nostalgia-land. 

9)    Tell us about Jorge Arenillas documentary The Second Act of Elliott Murphy; any idea when we will see it in America?

I first met Jorge Arenillas when he was involved in some kind of futuristic horror film as a writer, I think, and the director wanted me to play a role in the film as a crazy rock star living like a hermit in a haunted house. That film never got made but when Jorge directed his next film - Another Summer – he asked me if he could use my song "Summer House" (from Just A Story From America, 1977) over the end credits, so I went into the studio with my son Gaspard and we made a new version of "Summer House" that went into the film. It’s a great film, by the way, about a haunted man who is trapped in his memory of a summer romance. Anyway, following that Jorge said he wanted to make a film about..…me! I was shocked and doubted that he could pull it off, but you know what? He did! Jorge started following Olivier Durand (my great French guitarist) and myself around on tour in Spain and soon we became used to his presence, almost like he was haunting us. He filmed a concert in Bilbao, where I’ve been playing for over twenty years, and it really was a magic night. So the film was finished and was even shown at one festival in Spain but Jorge said it needed something else. I asked what? He said … Bruce Springsteen. So I called Bruce and asked him if he would agree to be interviewed for the film and being the generous wonderful man that he is, he agreed. And then it just so happened that I was back in touch with Billy Joel around this same time because I came across a photo of Billy, Doctor John, and myself backstage somewhere and sent it to him. So I asked Billy if he would agree to be interviewed as well and being the generous wonderful man that he is too, he agreed. Jorge jumped on a plane and interviewed Bruce in New Jersey and Billy in Florida and voila! 
The film is available on DVD but in PAL, and will have its U.S. premiere at the Stony Brook Film Festival on Long Island this summer. 

Hopefully a release on Netflix or Amazon will follow…… 

10)    Tell us Ohio boys about a spring Parisian twilight……… 

The best part for me is always to be crossing one of the beautiful bridges that span the Seine on my Vespa scooter at twilight and to see the Eiffel Tower in the distance and all those gold-domed buildings and just the wonderful Parisians themselves all decked out, each in their own universe and to pass all those cafes and think of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Picasso and even Jim Morrison and to know that you are really at home. At least that’s my story from America.….

(editor's note: Previous Elliott Murphy blogs on Growing Old With Rock & Roll can be found by clicking on How I Spent My Summer Vacation and Elliott Murphy in Piermont, among others.)

(c) 2017 Ricki C.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Growing Old With Rock & Roll was always intended to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  It was originally conceived in the Watershed tour van, somewhere in the South, when Colin Gawel & Joe Oestreich started badgering me to write down some of my rock & roll stories (bantering with David Johansen, pissing next to Johnny Thunders, having lunch with Angus Young, getting in a fight with Ric Ocasek, etc.) before Rock & Roll Alzheimer's kicked in or my second cardiac pacemaker gave out.

When I actually started to put pen to paper in the Baltimore Airport just after Christmas 2011, I projected the blog to last six months - from January 1st, 2012, to my 60th birthday on June 30th of that year.  Various factors extended that deadline - my computer died, I was in the middle of the Watershed Brick & Mortar/Hitless Wonder tour on that 60th birthday, more & more stories kept coming up - so I decided to make it a one-year blog instead of six months.

Somewhere in there, though, I got the idea of the 12-installment I Love Distortion novelette unfolding in real time in the blog, so here we are at the end of 2013.

I'm not going to stop writing.  It's really been too much fun doing this to quit, and I've learned a certain amount of discipline.  (Plus January, February & March get pretty long out here in Ohio and my lovely wife Debbie & I rarely leave the house in the winter, except to obtain Chinese takeaway, cookies & milk, potato chips and Mountain Dew.)  I may begin an entirely new blog eventually, but for the time being I plan to be more active on Colin Gawel's great Pencilstorm blog that I've contributed occasional pieces to since its inception.  (I actually have a projected title for the new blog, which I'm not going to preview here, because I'm told the WorldWideInterweb is brimming with intellectual thieves & malingerers.)

If I do begin a new blog, I'll plug the info into this Goodbye entry retroactively, so watch this space. 

(Actually, it should be WHEN I begin a new blog because I owe my good friend Chris Clinton a major piece on Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band that I never found space for in Growing Old With Rock & Roll.)  (Come to think of it, I never covered The MC5 or The Modern Lovers in any significant way, either.  Where did the time go?)

I want to thank writers-turned-rockers Lester Bangs, Patti Smith, Charles Shaar Murray & Mick Farren (R.I.P. Lester & Mick) and rocker-turned-writer Elliott Murphy for teaching me long-distance how to do this; I want to thank Hamell On Trial and Watershed for taking me on the road with them and providing stories & inspiration; I want to thank Will Kenworthy for setting up Growing Old With Rock & Roll for me; Debbie for editing the large majority of the pieces, and vastly improving them in the process (any of you who have ever had the misfortune of having me try to tell you a story in person - wherein I start talking about The Who in 1969 and somehow wind up recounting The Bronze Age in history - will understand how hard it is to keep me on point, focused, and anything like succinct); and especially I want to thank anybody & everybody who read and hopefully enjoyed any of my little scribblings.

Thank you and goodbye.  Let's let Steve Earle take us out.......

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Ballad of Willie Phoenix part four - The True Soul Rockers & beyond, 1990-2013

I became a roadie for The True Soul Rockers quite by accident one Sunday afternoon in 1990 when Willie and the band were playing an outdoor show at Mirror Lake on the Ohio State University campus.  I was sitting in the audience with a girl I'd dated for much of the 1980's - who shall remain nameless for her various crimes & misdemeanors against the rock & roll - when Willie gestured for me to come up on the stage.  I actually looked around to see if he was signaling somebody behind me, but finally realized I was the one being beckoned.

I hadn't noticed that Willie had broken a guitar string until I met him at centerstage and he said, "Hey Ricki, can you change this for me?"  There were two young kids bustling around with the gear before the show - a girl with wildly curly hair I would later come to know as "Cheese" and work with for months, and a kid named Eric - and I couldn't figure why they didn't handle the string situation.  I put that question to Willie and he said dismissively, "Those kids don't know anything about changing strings.  Help me out."  I remember being totally taken aback and saying to Willie, "You have TWO roadies and neither one of them know how to change a guitar string?  You're slipping, Willie."

I broke up a long-term relationship to roadie for that band.  One night while driving home from a show at Ruby Tuesdays (where The True Soul Rockers maintained a residency similar to the The Flower Machine's earlier one) the girlfriend from paragraph one said, apropos of not much, "It's really kinda sad that all you guys are almost 40 years old and you're still trying to recapture your teenage glory days."  I broke up with her that very night not because the comment was necessarily inaccurate or hurtful, but because it was clear she would never understand the Essential Truth of Bruce Springsteen singing, "Some guys, they just give up living and start dying little by little, piece by piece / Some guys come home from work and wash up and go racing in the street."

We weren't trying to recapture teenage glory days, we were simply trying to keep SOMETHING for ourselves in a world that seeks daily to take everything away.  Sometimes I think we still are.

The True Soul Rockers rhythm section consisted of Kozmos - held over from the Flower Machine - on bass and Jim Johnson - brought back from The Shadowlords - on drums.  The two new recruits were Mike Parks on backing vocals & shared lead guitar duties with Willie and - for at least the first year of the band - Ralph Denny on organ.  The Rockers (as they will be henceforth referred to herein) were a truly fearsome live unit.  My roadie stint with them was one of those times in my rock & roll life where I often found myself thinking, "I'm getting PAID to see and hear rock & roll music played this well, with this much power, commitment and sheer flat-out fucking QUALITY?"

There were rock & roll moments I'll never forget with The Rockers: Mike Parks jamming the headstock of his Stratocaster into the brick wall at stage-right of Ruby's, using that wall to warp the neck of his guitar to get the desired bends of the notes he was searing out into the smoky air of the club; Willie venturing out almost nightly during third set-ending renditions of "Gloria" to inflict terror-raids onto the tabletops of unsuspecting audience members; Willie utilizing Kozmos as his onstage foil in Bruce Springsteen/Clarence Clemons-like rock & roll stage bits; Jim & Ralph seated stolidly at their instruments, anchoring the band John Enwhistle-style, keeping them from simply flying off into space.  It's no accident here that I've invoked my two favorite live bands of the 1960's and 1970's - The Who and Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, respectively - in that sentence.  On their best nights, The True Soul Rockers were one of the three best live bands I witnessed in the 1990's.  (For an full account of a workaday night from that gigging period check out Willie Phoenix & the True Soul Rockers vs. Frat Boy Friday Night from the May 30, 2012 entry of this blog.)

Unfortunately, (you could just FEEL an unfortunately coming here, couldn't you?) all that live firepower didn't translate to wax (or plastic, or whatever CD's are made of) on the Radio Simplicity album released in 1991, at the height of the band's popularity.  Radio Simplicity was certainly a solid collection of Willie tunes: ranging from quality rockers the band could knock out in their sleep ("Guys Like Me Don't Get Girls Like You," "Stick With Me," "Housewreckin'") to reggae or dance-inflected left-field numbers ("She's So Powerful," "Dancin' In Suspicion," "Suffocation") to the rock & roll ballads Willie had always been good at ("Walk You Home," "Dark Pages").  There was not one trace, however, of the incendiary twin lead guitar attack that Willie & Mike unleashed nightly in the live sets.  And, even more problematically, arguably the two best songs on the record - "Take My Advice" and "Hey Little Girl" - were brought back into the set in souped-up renditions from The Buttons repertoire of 10 years earlier.

And therein lies my Essential Quandary with the Willie Phoenix Experience.  At the same time I know in my heart and believe to my soul that if Willie gathered together all of his best material from the last 35 years into a Greatest Hits Set - "No Exits," "Artwork," "Knockout Girl" from Romantic Noise and The Buttons, "The Sketch" and "New York Is Burning" from The A&M Band, "This Is My Apartment" and "Misunderstanding" from The Shadowlords, even "Mild Tasting Tea" from the lackluster Flower Machine period - that it would be a live repertoire to truly reckon with, I also fully realize that Willie isn't interested in being a Nostalgia Act.  He's interested in moving forward with new material, new concepts, and his new band - Blues Hippy & The Soul Underground.  It would be hypocritical of me to ask Willie to draw exclusively on his past material and ignore progression while constantly badmouthing Pete Townshend for doing the same thing with The Who.

But goddamn, the rock & roll public hasn't had Willie Phoenix's Greatest Hits ground incessantly into pablum on classic-rock radio in mind-numbing Endless Heavy Rotation like those Who Hits, and it would be so great to hear Willie's best songs live all in one place again.

By time The True Soul Rockers split up in 1992 I had moved on from my roadie station at the side of the stage into my own solo acoustic rock & roll act.  Between that and my road manager position beginning in 2000 with Hamell On Trial and later joining Watershed's road crew in 2005 - jobs that frequently took me out of Columbus and around the U.S.A. - I kinda lost track of Willie's later bands.  (Jim Johnson played in many of those bands and would be THE authority on Willie's 21st-century output - live and on record - maybe we can get him to contribute a guest blog sometime.)

Just a few weeks ago, Colin Gawel & The Lonely Bones - Colin's side-project from Watershed - opened a show for Blues Hippy & The Soul Underground at a local Columbus club.  It's a solid rock project, with Myke Rock (of late-70's Columbus punk-rockers Screaming Urge) on bass and Johnson once again returning on drums along with new second guitarist Dan-ro James.  The effect is kinda Willie Phoenix & Crazy Horse.  The band sets up some great rough-edged rock grooves for Willie to solo over and it's a rockin' good time.  Do I wish the caliber of the material was a little bit higher?  Yeah, I do.  Do I want Willie's lyrics to reflect our reality as 60-year old Elder Statesmen Rockers a little bit more than the same old rebels & angels sentiments Willie has mined for at least the last 20 years?  Yeah, I really do. 

But outside of that petty criticism, it's just good to see Willie on a stage, wielding a Tele like a lovely sonic deadly weapon and singing his heart, soul & guts out.  It's good to see a Rock & Roll Survivor.  "Some guys, they just stop living, and start dying little by little piece by piece / Some guys come home from work and wash up and go racing in the street."

The True Soul Rockers, 1992
Left to right; Mike Parks, Kozmos, Willie Phoenix, Jim Johnson

Three sets a night, every gig.  Think kid bands could do that nowadays?  I think not.
The True Soul Rockers set list, December 23rd, 1990.

© 2013 Ricki C.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Midgard Comics

Hi everybody, it's Christmas morning, 2013, I just wanted to wish my Growing Old With Rock & Roll
readers a Merry Christmas.  My lovely wife Debbie is away in New Jersey visiting her family, I'm
off in a little bit to my sister's house for our family Christmas and for some reason I found my
thoughts turning to Midgard Comics.  This works out well for the blog, as with the conclusion of
I Love Distortion, the next part of my life of rock & roll was my action-packed solo acoustic act.

That act would never have lasted without Midgard Comics.  It was my home away from home,
my laboratory, my sanctuary.  I wrote the following piece in 2004 for my old MySpace page
(jeez, does anybody remember MySpace?), and I found it needed very little editing or updating.

My most heartfelt thanks to Keith, Jenn, Derek and every last one of the Midgard Kidz.

I miss Midgard Comics, I really do.  I played there starting in 2001 when owner Keith Cousineau first started booking (mostly) underage (mostly) punk bands in the empty storefront adjacent to his comic book store.  It was a 20 by 60 foot room in a suburban shopping center in the north end of Columbus, Ohio.  They had a great P.A. and a huge parking lot for hanging out.

Midgard Comics was my laboratory.  It was the place where the Ricki C. act was honed. Not so much where the act was developed, that was at a variety of places: Cappuccino Café in Westerville, Ohio; Moonspinners Cafe near the Ohio State University campus; the Border’s Bookstore at Kenny & Henderson (where, one night, management informed me that I would have to play my second set “slower and softer” because I was “frightening the audience”).

I miss Midgard Comics.  There was no such thing as frightening the audience at Midgard. I could play flat-out solo acoustic rock & roll - fast, loud & aggressive - and the kids would go right with me.  It was at Midgard Comics that the Ricki C. act really blossomed.  I would play the set breaks between electric punk bands young enough to be my children and once I could command the rather short to virtually non-existent attention span of hyperactive teenaged throngs, audiences of 20 and 30 year olds were child’s play.

I miss Midgard Comics.  The Who had the Marquee Club in London, the MC5 had the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, the New York Dolls had the Mercer Arts Center in New York City, Hamell On Trial had the Electric Lounge in Austin.  I had Midgard Comics.

By 2004, Midgard had grown to be a regular stop for national touring punk bands. Motion City Soundtrack, Bowling For Soup and Something Corporate had all played there.  But constant money pressures, landlord hassles and problems with the police (hey, you try babysitting throngs of teenagers like Keith and his staff did every weekend) eventually took their toll.

I played the closing weekend festivities in June 2004.  A kid came up to me after my last set and said, “You were the most punk rock thing ever about this place.”  He was wrong, of course, but it might be the nicest thing anybody has said to me in 45 years of playing rock & roll.

That was Midgard Comics. I miss it.  These are Tales Of Midgard.  (Apologies to Stan Lee, but mostly to Jack Kirby.)


In the early days at Midgard, rock & roll speed and a healthy dose of profanity were my best teenage-attention-grabbing tools.  Some nights I wouldn’t even play from the stage.  I would set up by the soundboard with my own amp and microphone to stay out of the way of the band changeovers and so I could more closely confront the audience.

One of those nights I headed back in the dark to start my second set and discovered a 70-something white-haired grandmother IN A WHEELCHAIR parked right in front of my allotted play space.  This pretty much shot my projected set plan to hell.  It’s more difficult than you would imagine to adjust from teen-punk blitzkrieg to septuagenarian kum-ba-yah.

As luck would have it the woman’s grandson’s band (which, by the way, was a full-bore-screaming-stab-your-mother-hardcore-punk band) had just finished their set and the lead singer’s dad wheeled grandma away.  After my set I caught up with Keith outside in the parking lot and said, “Hey man, you’re gonna have to tighten up your door policy.  I had a grandmother in a wheelchair out in front of me tonight.”

Keith chuckled and replied, “Yeah, I saw her.  She was on oxygen, too.  I was hoping nobody would flip a cigarette at her and blow up her oxygen tank.”  I love Keith.  I miss Midgard Comics.

Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette

One night my buddy Kyle and I stopped at Midgard on the way home from seeing The Mooney Suzuki downtown. (I think I forgot to mention, not only was Midgard a great place to play, but it was less than a mile from where I live.  It was the least far I’ve ever driven for a gig in my life.  At one point I was running a Wednesday night acoustic open stage there and I realized I had left my guitar tuner at home.  My good friend John Vincent started a Dylan song, I drove home, got my tuner and drove back before he finished the song.  And it wasn’t even "Desolation Row.")

Anyway, The Mooney Suzuki was an early show, it was barely 11 p.m. when Kyle and I hit Midgard.  Shows there usually went to about midnight, but the place was deserted.  The front door was standing open and when we went in there was so much smoke hanging in the air we thought there had been a fire.  While we were trying to figure out where the fire engines were Keith walked out from the back room.  “What was on fire?” I asked.  Keith looked around, concerned for a moment, “Something’s on fire?” he said.  I said, “Wasn’t there a fire?”  You couldn’t see the back wall of the club, 30 feet away.

“I guess it was a smoking crowd tonight.” Keith replied, his usual serene cool returning.  I love Keith. I miss Midgard Comics.

Sterling Morrison Is Dead But I’m Still Around

One night in 2001 I debuted my song "If All My Heroes Are Losers."  As I leaned into the last verse I noticed that one of the kids gathered down front stopped talking to his friend and perked up at the line “Now Sterling Morrison is dead, but I’m still around.”  I didn’t think much about it, forgot it by the end of the set, but when I left the stage the kid came up and asked, “Sterling Morrison isn’t really dead is he?  Why did you put that in a song?”  I replied, “Yeah, he certainly is dead, he died about five years ago, of cancer.”

The kid was really, really distraught.  He was only about 15 or 16 years old and had just discovered The Velvet Underground a few months earlier.  His eyes started to glisten, he was almost crying.  I thought, what a crummy way to find out that one of your new musical heroes is gone, having some loudmouth rocker blather it from a stage on a Saturday night.  “I’m really sorry,” I said, “I just never could have imagined that somebody wouldn’t have heard about Sterling dying by now.  I’m sorry you had to hear it this way.”

I tried to cheer the kid up by telling him that Sterling had three pretty cool jobs while he was alive: member of The Velvet Underground, college literature professor and tugboat captain.  I told him most people never even have one cool job in their life, or find one thing they love, Sterling found and accomplished three.  "Sterling Morrison was a college professor and a tugboat captain?” the kid wondered, incredulous, “I thought he was just always in The Velvet Underground.”

The kid’s friends wandered over and I found myself filling them in on all this stuff: about how The Velvets broke up in 1970 and got back together for the reunion tour in 1993 right before they found out about Sterling’s cancer; about how Lou Reed and John Cale hated each other; about Alejandro Escovedo writing a truly beautiful and moving song about Sterling called "Tugboat."

That was when it hit me.  That this was why I had arrived at Midgard Comics, at that gig, at that time. That after all the years of playing guitar, all the years of songwriting, all the amplifiers, all the broken strings, all the roads traveled, all the smoke-filled bars, all the cool quiet bookstores, all the broken dreams of rock stardom, that it was time to pay up and start giving something back to rock & roll.  That it was time to start trying to pass on some fragments of my accrued knowledge to a new generation of rockers.  (blogger's note, 2013: In retrospect, that night just might have been when I started growing old with rock & roll.) 

This was three years before that Jack Black movie.  Midgard Comics was my School Of Rock.  I miss it, I really do.

© 2004 & 2013 Ricki C.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

I Love Distortion (a rock & roll novel in twelve chapters) - December

(I Love Distortion (a rock & roll novel in 12 chapters) appears monthly in
Growing Old With Rock & Roll; January to December, 2013
This concludes our presentation.  Thank you for reading.)

I Love Distortion - chapter twelve

"That girl, she seemed a little sheltered
Right until it really, really mattered"
 from "That Girl's A Daydream"
- Sean Richter, 1978

It all ended with a letter propped against me & Jeffrey Jay’s apartment door, Friday, December 22nd, 1978.

We had played the gig the night before as a three-piece.  We’d had three rehearsals to break in a new drummer that December: Nicole skipped the first two and didn’t sing at the third, owing to a bad cold. Most crucially, she didn’t show up for the gig itself.

When I left Drake Union, walking through the cold night to find a payphone to inquire whether Nicole was okay and what exactly her problem was in blowing out a gig, her voice when she answered and said she was sorry sounded so small and hurt that I couldn't get anywhere near as angry as I so desperately wanted to.  “Nicole, come on,” I whispered, “Niki, just tell me. Just finish me.”  I could hear tears start as she hung up the phone.

I stood there on that riverbank, staring at the icy Scioto River running under the bridge where we'd kissed for the first time (see I Love Distortion - April) and my heart, brain & soul were darker than that black water.

I sat in the Twilight Kids van and wrote Nicole a letter.  I told her I knew it over, told her she didn't have to see me to tell me in person; told her I knew she couldn't bear to break my heart face to face and that I understood that; told her she could write it all down in a letter to say goodbye and that would be the end, but that I couldn't go through Christmas like this, that she had to write the letter, I needed to see the words, because words were all we had left, words were all we had lived on since we began.

After we had dropped everybody else off that night, Greg the roadie swung by Nicole's parents' house and I put the letter on her windshield.  I looked up at her window.  The lights were off.  Everything was dark.

I always find myself wishing that I would know the last time I do things is going to be the last time I do them: that the last time I would speak to my dad before he died was going to be the last time; that the last time I would walk Linda Finneran home from high school, right before I broke her heart, was going to be the last time; that the last time I would hear Nicole sing, back at that Southern Theater show, was going to be the last time.

I wish I would have known that the last time I would ever see Nicole was when we kissed goodbye in her car outside a Taco Bell on West Broad Street when she dropped me back at work after a lunch date the Monday before that gig.  I would have made that kiss count a little bit more, if I had known it was our goodbye kiss.  I would have let her lovely grin pump a little more blood through my heart if I had known I’d never see that grin again.

Earlier that month, the first week in December, Nicole was sitting on the couch at the apartment strumming my Stratocaster and asking me about some chord progression.  I plonked down next to her and started fingering the chords while she strummed.  I got caught up in the whole process of turning it into a stage routine we could use, the two of us simultaneously playing one guitar.  I was bouncing around the living room, figuring out which song we could use it during, working out the logistics of it and Nicole looked at me, shook her head and said wistfully, "Sometimes you're such a little boy, Sean, like a kid with a new toy."  I ignored and/or deflected that perceived slight, said, "That's a cool rhyme, write that down for a new tune." and concentrated on the new bit.  To me it was perfect, it was a natural, until I said, "We could use this at the gig on the 21st; it'll be great."  When I looked to Nicole for a reply, she didn’t say a word, and wouldn’t meet my eyes.  And that was when she stopped showing up for rehearsals.
Nicole already knew – as I certainly didn’t – that there weren't going to be any more gigs.

The letter said that she was going back to Tommy, the boy who had verbally & physically abused Nicole almost from the very inception of their relationship.  They were getting re-engaged on Christmas Day. He had bought her a new ring, the wedding was in May, and this time she was going through with it.

I had made up a lot of scenarios in those cold, dark December days since the twin-guitar impasse, when it was becoming painfully obvious we were sliding off the rails.  None of those scenarios included Tommy.  None of them involved Nicole exchanging an exploding universe of falling stars, poetry and rock & roll for the broken existence of a housewife wondering when & where the next punch would land.  None of them involved trading a lifetime of roses for an unrelenting future of rusted barbed wire.

That December 21st show – with a brand new under-rehearsed drummer and with me singing lead on every song, including the ones to which I had never really memorized the lyrics because Nicole sang them – went about as badly as you might expect.  It was the second December in a row I wound up fronting a band after losing a lead singer.  I vowed at that moment it would be the last.

We had one gig left that needed to be honored; a New Year’s Eve bash at some rich kid’s sprawling suburban home.  In the nine days after Nicole’s letter – partially inspired by a poster declaring the December 21st show “A Pre-Christmas Celebration of Romantic Noise” – I plundered my own “That Girl’s A Daydream” and Nicole’s “Lonely Lonely Rock & Roll” to construct this tune:

Romantic Noise 

I’ve got this poster
Over my amplifier
From when we were rampage boys
It says Romantic Noise

This apartment is cold like our last kiss was
I’m single now, not married like I was
When we were all your toys
And you claimed you loved Romantic Noise

Touch flame to cigarette like I used to touch you to me
Touch flame to cigarette like I used to touch you to me

You always said you felt like such an alien child
Your insides were churning but your outside was so mild
(I could touch that / I could feel that / Or don’t you remember?)

Touch flame to cigarette like I used to touch you to me
Touch flame to cigarette like I used to touch you to me

That girl, she moved just like a daydream
Her style, Sunday ballerina sheen

That girl, she knew her history
She explained those Elliott Murphy songs to me

That girl, she seemed a little sheltered
Right until it really, really mattered

I’ve got this poster
Over my amplifier
From when we were rampage boys
It says Romantic Noise

Touch flame to cigarette like I used to touch you to me
Touch flame to cigarette like I used to touch you to me

You always said there were no better fires than the lights in my eyes
And I bought that, along with all the other lies, like……

I got you
I got your soul
Lonely lonely rock & roll

Who is your God?
Who owns your soul?
Who gets all your love at night
When I’m alone?

I got you
I got your soul
Lonely lonely rock & roll

We were a movie
We were a slow dance
We were hopeless children
Lost in a lunar trance

I got you
I got your soul
Lonely lonely rock & roll

You kissed like a virgin
But you fucked like a whore
Sometimes I wonder
What all that was for

I got you
I got your soul
Lonely lonely rock & roll

You were lyrics
You were song
You were fluid
Moving through me so strong

I got you
I got your soul
Lonely lonely rock & roll

Roads we would’ve traveled
Bells that would’ve rung
Songs I would have written
Songs you would have sung

I got you
I got your soul
Lonely lonely rock & roll

Realize I find a place in you
I’m fine and full of grace for you
I shine my secret face for you
All this for you……

- Sean Richter & Nicole Page, 1978

We played it next-to-closing.  On that one tune we finally attained a Who-like grandeur I had long ached to conjure.  Just in time to break up.  At the close of set-ender “I Love Distortion” I smashed my Stratocaster to kindling on my Fender Twin Reverb, wrecking both of them, walked out into the cold opening hours of 1979 and quit the music business forever.

Six weeks later I bought a black acoustic guitar, taught myself to sing lead with some old Mott The Hoople records, and became a solo act.

I live in Ohio.

I play the guitar.

Not because I want to, because I have to.  I have to.  And I still love distortion.

© 2013 Ricki C.

(I've always kinda heard this song playing over the closing credits
of the movie version of I Love Distortion.  Let it play while you're reading.) 

inspirational verse; "And once in a moment, it all comes to you /
As soon as you get it, you want something new." - Ric Ocasek, 1979


Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Ballad of Willie Phoenix part three - The Shadowlords and The Flower Machine, 1983-1989

After the A&M album bombed and Willie was dropped by the label, he returned to Columbus and broke up The Big Band.  (It was really too unwieldy and expensive a proposition to keep a seven-piece band together on local gigs.)  After woodshedding for a few months he returned in the winter of 1983 with the brand-spanking new Shadowlords: the ever-dependable Greg Glasgow on bass & backing vocals, Tom McClelland on rhythm guitar and Jim Johnson on drums.

I first met Johnson - who is still serving behind the drum kit today in 2013 with Blues Hippy & The Soul Underground, Willie's current band, and who might hold the record for the most years and most gigs played with Phoenix - at a gig at a Lum's Restaurant across the street from the OSU Mershon Auditorium on a snowy night in 1983.  As I recall we hit it off right away.  He hailed from Youngstown, Ohio, giving him a solid grounding in working-class Attitude, and he understood what constituted rock & roll and what didn't.  (One of my most-repeated quotes of the 30 years since that night has been, "Jim's musical interests run the gamut from The Rolling Stones to The Rolling Stones."  I think people sometimes misinterpret that phrase as a put-down.  I mean it in absolutely the most positive way.)  We somehow wound up talking that night about Willie Nile, a songwriter I loved who most people were barely of.  Jim admired Nile's rocker attitude crossed with a lyrical poetry bent.  I subsequently found Jim to be that rarest of rock & roll drummers: somebody who actually listens to the lyrics and serves the song, instead of just simply driving the beat.  The friendship born that night stands strong to this day.

The biggest change from Big Band to Shadowlords was that Willie had started playing lead guitar in the interim.  And Jesus, what a lead guitar player he had become.  He was a great, quirky, idiosyncratic soloist.  Willie's solos never started or ended anyway near where you expected them to.  (Later, in 1990's True Soul Rockers, when Willie was paired with Mike Parks - who essayed an absolutely slashing, rock-solid (no pun intended) style of lead guitar - Willie found the second lead guitar foil he had always needed.  Willie & Mike playing together was like having Richard Thompson & Duane Allman playing in the same band, but they somehow pulled it off.)

That lead guitar playing persona, however, proved to be both a blessing and a curse for Willie.  The band got exponentially more popular (rockers in the Midwest LOVE guitar heroes) and Willie's performances - playing behind his back, launching forays into the audience to play from atop bar patrons' tables, walking out onto High Street sidewalks with an extra-long guitar cord to play solos to incredulous passersby - started to take on Legend Status, but it all took a toll on Willie's songwriting prowess.  Where once we were gifted with melodic gems sporting pretty cool if somewhat vague lyrics, a certain percentage of The Shadowlords repertoire consisted of good-but-not-great compositions that served as a mere jumping-off point for Willie's extended guitar solos.  (I remember one night when Greg Glasgow told me in a desultory tone that nowadays the band only rehearsed the beginnings and endings of the songs and just slogged through the middles waiting for Willie to finish soloing.)

At some point I took over roadie duties from Rod Cline.  George Golding took over from me.  Then I came back.  Then George came back.  Willie would burn us out every six months or so.  It was very Tale Of Two Cities: Willie was the best of bosses, Willie was the worst of bosses.  Jan Bungart was there every inch of the way, God bless her little heart.  She was the band manager, associate producer on both Shadowlords albums - 1983's We Love Noise and 85's Not A Butterfly - and essentially held the entire operation together with spit & baling wire and sheer force of will.
Guitarist Steve Donnellon replaced Tom McClelland sometime in 1984.  Donnellon was a much stronger player than McClelland but somehow it seemed like the band lost a little bit of innocence when Tom left.  As a rock unit, however, Steve was a solid addition.  The main problem with the two Shadowlords albums - much like the A&M release before them - was one of inferior material.  "Why should I waste my best originals on these little indie records that nobody's ever gonna hear?" Willie told me between sets one night, "I'm holding out my best songs for my next major label deal."  Nobody, and I mean nobody, could get across to Willie that by the mid-80's the major labels were all using indie labels like Major League Baseball used farm teams.  Until The New York Yankees saw a player on the Columbus Jets produce big-time on the Triple-A level, they weren't getting their shot at The Big Show.  Until Columbia or Arista - or even RCA or Mercury - would even consider signing a new act, they were going to have to see them shift 50,000 units on their own on an indie before they'd even bother to send an A&R guy to check out the band.  The major labels wanted somebody else to do all the legwork, to lay all the groundwork, so they could simply waltz in and skim off the profits from other people's hard labor.  Times had changed in the music business and Willie wasn't changing with them.  I have a cassette full of tunes better than the ones recorded on the Shadowlords albums, and I don't even have the A-material.

As stated above, The Shadowlords were widely popular in Columbus, could pretty much pack local clubs at will, were the undisputed Kings Of Comfest - a popular summer hippie-fest that survives to this day in Goodale Park - regularly holding down the Saturday night closing slot.  And that's about the way it stayed for the band's almost 5-year existence.  It never really got bigger, it never really got smaller, and the local tastemakers & hip intelligentsia (if there was or is such a thing in Columbus) came to view them as a talented band sadly going nowhere.  Finally in 1988, right after another Comfest headlining show, Willie broke up the band.

Willie's next project was The Flower Machine, a full-blown High Concept Band that attempted to evoke a full-on recreation of 1960's Psychedelia.  Joining Willie in the power-trio format were old Marion buddies Jim "Kozmos" Cummings and Jerry Hanahan, formerly of The Buttons and The Big Band, back on drums.  To me, the biggest casualty of The Flower Machine period was bassist Greg Glasgow.  In retrospect, Greg was the heart & soul of Willie's bands.  He was the Quality Control Master.  It was Glasgow that grounded Willie from his worst excesses, if The Flower Machine is any gauge.  He was the last musician to call "bullshit" on questionable Willie tunes and questionable Willie moves.  And when Greg left The Shadowlords he left music entirely, became a paralegal and never looked back.  To this day I consider the absence of Greg Glasgow as a huge loss to the Columbus music scene.  He was a great bass player and a great singer, and an even better person.  I miss seeing his face on a stage.

The Flower Machine set up shop at a Fourth Street bar called Ruby Tuesday's (no relation to the family casual-dining restaurant chain) and remained popular through sometime in 1989.  I kept waiting (and wishing) for them to get better, but they never did.

One Friday night, late in The Flower Machine's existence, I attended one of their Ruby's shows with Glasgow.  About halfway through their first set Greg's assessment was "Oh, this is just awful." as Willie reeled off solo after solo in hippie garb & headband and Koz - attired in what would become his trademark top hat and preacher's frock coat - attempted to find the beat woozily laid down by Hanahan.  Greg bailed after the first of three sets, flatly refusing my request to confront Willie in a kind of Rock & Roll Intervention and get him to break up the band.  "You want to tell Willie Phoenix to his face that his band sucks?" Greg said, shaking his head at my presumption.  "You go right ahead, Ricki, do what you have to do, but leave me out of it.  I've been friends with the guy for a long time and personally I want him to talk to me again sometime in the future."

After the second set, as I attempted to get Willie away from a group of admirers & well-wishers (no matter how bad Willie's bands were, they ALWAYS attracted hangers-on) to deliver my "Your band is highly deficient and you need to move on." speech, Willie spotted me, grabbed my arm and said in his usual rapid-fire patter, "Ricki, you got your car here?  You got a cassette player?  You need to hear this tape, NOW!"  Fearing the worst, and steeling myself to harsh Willie's Flower Machine groove, we went out to my car and Willie cued up a cassette.  Out of my car speakers burst "Electric Folk-Dreamin' Man" and "I Wanna Feel What We Used To" - absolutely the two best songs I had heard from Willie since the Romantic Noise or Buttons days.

I couldn't believe my ears.  Those two and at least three others on the tape were short, alternately punchy or gorgeously heartfelt new tunes that couldn't have been further afield from the hippiefied indulgences of The Flower Machine.  Before I could even begin my Flower Machine diatribe, Willie informed me this was that band's last show and he was forming a new band that could play the new songs he'd been writing.  And just like that, just that easily, just that simply, The True Soul Rockers were born.

The Shadowlords, 1985
Left to right; Jim Johnson, Steve Donnellon, Willie Phoenix, Greg Glasgow

(coming up in the fourth and final installment of The Ballad of Willie Phoenix,
The True Soul Rockers & beyond, 1990-2013.)

© 2013 Ricki C.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How I Spent My Summer Vacation - Elliott Murphy Live at the Bottom Line, New York City, 1992

I've been to New York City.

In and of itself, that's no great pronouncement, literally MILLIONS of people have been to New York City.  (And, of course, millions of people LIVE in New York City.)

But when I was a child, growing up in Columbus, Ohio, in the 1950's and 60's and watching endless hours of television shows about educated, cultured, erudite (not to mention rich) people living in New York City, I couldn't imagine ever actually visiting there.  I realize this says more about my lack of imagination as a child of the West Side of Columbus than it does anything else, but there you go.  The idea that I could share a sidewalk or a Sardi's with the likes of Danny Thomas, Barbra Streisand, Mary Martin, Dick Van Dyke, Ed Sullivan, etc. was just a non-starter, ya know?  (And once I read Hubert Selby Jr.'s Last Exit To Brooklyn as a teenager in 1968 I was scared shitless to step foot in N.Y.C.)

Anyway, I've now been to New York City any number of times: on vacations, on my 2001 honeymoon at The Plaza, on rock & roll missions with Watershed and Hamell On Trial.  (At one point in 2005 when Hamell was formulating & finalizing what would become his acclaimed The Terrorism Of Everyday Life one-man show, his management company was flying me back & forth from Columbus to N.Y.C. once a month just to run lights and stage-manage the work-in-progress runthroughs at a tony Manhattan comedy club.  I felt like a rock & roll star, except there was no dope, hookers or Chinese food.) 

In all of those visits, though, right up through last summer on a Watershed tour, I have never been able to shake the feeling of being a fish-out-of-water-hayseed Midwest boy staring up at the tall buildings in the Big City.  The visit detailed below - penned for the late-lamented Elliott Murphy Newsletter that manager-extraordinaire Charlie Hunter published in the 1990's - was no different.


© 2013 Ricki C.

Murphy piece © 1992 Ricki C.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Scruffy The Cat "Tiger Tiger" (Bonus Video Friday)

Hi folks, it's been awhile since I've run Bonus Video Friday, and this will be the only one in December (maybe).  I wanted to run it because it's a great, great song and because it's only ever had 259 views on YouTube, which borders on the criminal.  I used to see Scruffy The Cat on my 1980's Boston excursions (see blog entry Flying To Boston To See The Rock & Roll, January 13th, 2012) and they were always superiorly clever AND rocking.

(By the way, if anybody's interested in Christmas rock & roll videos, my favorites ran in Growing Old With Rock & Roll last December 1st, 4th, 11th, 13th, 19th, and 24th.  Check 'em out.)

inspirational verse; "Sometimes you treat me like apple pie /
Sometimes I think you wanna see me cry / I just don't know what's the matter with you /
I wish I knew, I wish I knew, I wish I knew" - Charlie Chesterman, 1986   

(And exactly how many rock & roll songs pack as many hooks AND a William Blake
reference into 2 minutes and 31 seconds as this snappy little number?) 

© 2013 Ricki C.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Ballad Of Willie Phoenix part two - The A&M Band, 1981-1982

After The Buttons split up in 1980, Willie turned his attentions to a solo career.  Romantic Noise and The Buttons had been pure power-pop creations: four-piece guitars & drums bands stressing harmonies and three-minute pop confections of the highest order.  Willie's next band was formed with the idea of extensively widening that rock & roll palette.

Contemporaneous articles of the time - from the Ohio State Lantern and The Monthly Planet (the completely dreck-ridden, unlamented successor to Focus as Columbus' music weekly) - tell me the name of that band was, alternately, The Stray Revival or Willie & The Passions.  I never heard the band called by either one of those names.  Rockers around town routinely called it "Willie's Big Band" and later, after they were signed, "The A&M Band."  Stray Revival or Passions?  I don't think so, though both are cool names.

That band was comprised of Willie on rhythm guitar & lead vocals, Greg Glasgow - Willie's right-hand man, held over from the earlier bands - on bass & backing vocals, Rob Brumfiel on lead guitar, Mel McGary on keyboards and Gary "The Captain" Strauss, a strapping 300-pound drum-basher.  There were always two or three female back-up singers (who were dubbed "The Willie-ettes" in tribute to Ray Charles' girl singers - beginning with CiCi Hank and Tracy LaTour - but I swear there were different girls every few months.  (If my memory serves, even Donna Mogavero - later and still a popular Columbus folkie singer/songwriter around town - was a Willie-ette at one time.)

The sound of The Big Band was solid heartland rock & roll.  Willie's songs got longer, more involved, much expanded from his previous power-pop stylings.  It wasn't prog, by any standard, but man did some of those songs have a lot of sections.  Think Bob Seger or John Cougar (pre-Mellencamp), maybe with a little Bruce Springsteen thrown into the mix.  (I remember thinking one night I was glad they didn't have a saxophone player or it all might have been a little bit TOO obvious.)

Again, Willie scrapped the entire previous bands' repertoire and started over from scratch.  A couple of songs - "Mary" and "New York Is Burning" - existed in Willie's pre-power-pop acoustic sets and were revived in revved-up form for the Big Band.  Brand-new tunes "Champaign," "Bowery Express," "Old Man," "Too Much Traffic," "Crawling King Snake," "The Sketch," were introduced into the set and the hits just kept on coming.  The Big Band had three solid 45-minute sets of material worked up and with a six-piece band behind him, Willie's performances got just as amped-up as the songs.

At one point the band held down a Tuesday night residency at a High Street club adjacent to the OSU campus called Zachariah's.  Zachariah's was a former hippie hangout - home to Columbus country-rockers McGuffey Lane and Spittin' Image - that by 1981 was trying to draw a more rockin' clientele as country-rock faded from view into the mists of the 1970's.  Zachariah's was taller than it was wide, built on three levels, with two balconies that overlooked the stage on three sides.  Once during a rendition of "Crawling King Snake" that ended the band's second set, I witnessed Willie crawl off the left side of Zach's stage, crawl up the stairs to the second level, crawl across the balcony railing to the stairs on the right, back down those stairs, and back onto stage right.  It took probably ten minutes, while the rest of the band pounded away onstage, Brumfiel and McGary trading impromptu wild solos.  It was probably the greatest commitment to a stage-bit I've ever seen.  I wouldn't have crawled on Zach's floor for a hundred thousand dollars.

Another night Willie ran up the stairs to the second floor and was singing from the second floor balcony railing with no mic - just bellowing out the lyrics to "The Sketch" - when a big, burly, bearded guy reached down from the third level of the bar and pulled the barely 100-lb. Willie up into the third balcony.  You could hear the entire crowd catch their breath at once while Willie dangled over the thirty-foot drop to the dance floor before the guy pulled him all the way up.  If that drunk had dropped him, Willie would've at least broken some limbs, or worse.

It was performances like those that first earned Willie his "Wild Man of Columbus Rock & Roll" reputation.  The band became wildly popular and subsequently signed a major-label deal with A&M records (the first major-label deal for a Columbus band since The Godz and McGuffey Lane years earlier), but I also sometimes think it's where the seeds got sown for the later decline in Willie's songwriting.  Once Willie learned he could get over on any bar crowd or, indeed, on any rock audience sheerly on his performance charisma, it almost seemed like he lost interest in writing good songs.  I alternately dubbed it The Curse Of Saturday Night Rock & Roll or The Chuck Berry Syndrome to friends who wearily replied, "Ricki, why don't you just relax and try to have a good time for a change?"  And they very well might have been right.  Except I couldn't shake the memory of Willie saying to me, two years earlier, after a Romantic Noise show at The Agora, "You can't give the audience what they WANT, Ricki, you've got to give them what they NEED."  I've never forgotten or lost sight of that rock & roll precept, but sometimes I think Willie has.

The band decamped to Los Angeles to record their first album (of what, as I recall, was supposed to be a three-album deal, but as always, the record company held all the options) with David Anderle producing, and that's when the problems started.  Anderle had been to Columbus to see the band perform in their hometown element before they were signed to A&M, had certainly heard the band repertoire, but somehow came to the entirely wrong-headed conclusion to ignore Willie's strengths as a heartland rocker and record what I can only call a synth-pop record.  I fully understand that it was the early 1980's and synth-pop reigned supreme on the rock airwaves, but ignoring certified hit-song-waiting-to-be-recorded "Champaign" in favor of "Rough Kiss" (a throwaway rocker that Willie had once handed off to The Movie Dolz - an all-girl band he had championed in '78 & '79 - because it wasn't good enough for The Buttons set) was just ludicrous.

"The Sketch" and "New York Is Burning" came out okay on the record, but contained none of the fire and passion that drove Willie's best songs and performances.  "Kiss Quick Say Goodnight," "Talk So Loud," and "Dead From A Broken Heart" just were NOT good Willie songs.  "Mary," "No Signs Of Johanna," and "Maybe It Won't Rain Tonight" were just okay.  (Also, problematically, virtually every song on the record was at least TWO MINUTES LONGER than it needed to be, musical padding reigned supreme.)  Overall the production on the record was too studied, too sterile, just plain too COLD for as incendiary a songwriter as Willie was.  Plus it was fairly obvious from the beginning that once A&M signed The Big Band they had no clue how to promote Willie - a left-handed, African-American, dreadlocks-sporting, 5"3' rocker - to an increasingly polarized rock & roll audience.  And the fact that at the time the A&M roster also included Bryan Adams - a blue-eyed Canadian, literally fair-haired boy - didn't help matters.  Bass player Greg Glasgow once told me a story about the Big Band playing a showcase gig in L.A. - wherein the various promotional staff people of A&M  Records were flown in from all over the country - and they alternated sets with Adams' band.  Glasgow - who, for anyone who knows him, is shy almost to the point of invisibility and sports not one boastful bone in his body - related that Willie and the boys blew Adams' band off the stage at the showcase, but that he could feel the promo people throwing their support towards Adams even before the end of the night.  So it goes.  That same year, 1982, Warner Brothers records got it right and Prince sold three million copies of 1999.


Willie Phoenix, 1982

(blogger's note; Okay, readers, it's become painfully obvious that The Ballad of Willie Phoenix
has become A Monster, has taken on a life of its own.  It was originally intended to be a 3-part
series, but after three installments we're only up to 1982.  I'm expanding to five parts, but they
might be broken up by other blog entries.  Hang in, we will eventually arrive at 2013.  Next up:
The Ballad of Willie Phoenix part three - The Shadowlords and The Flower Machine, 1983-1989.

© 2013 Ricki C.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

appendix to The Ballad of Willie Phoenix part one: The Songs of Romantic Noise and The Buttons, 1978-1980

Today’s blog entry is definitely for Willie Phoenix completists only.  (editor’s note: Q. Ricki, IS there such a thing as a Willie Phoenix completist?  A. I guess there must be, the previous (rather incomplete & poorly-written) Willie Phoenix blog I posted back in May, 2012 had the fourth-largest number of hits in the history of Growing Old With Rock & Roll.  Somebody’s reading about Willie.)

I originally wrote this piece in April 1979 for The Buttons Times, a newsletter we handed out at Buttons gigs.  I was sorely tempted to update it, but decided to leave it in its original naive form.


Romantic Noise / early Buttons – Willie Phoenix, vocals & rhythm guitar / Greg Glasgow, vocals & bass / John Ballor, vocals & lead guitar / Dee Hunt, drums (replaced by Jerry Hanahan in the later line-up of The Buttons, around spring or summer 1979). 

A rock & roll band rises or falls on its songs.  You can solo all night, but you’ve got to have a song to hang that solo on.  You can have all the special effects in the world, but they have to connect to a song.  If you don’t have the material, if you don’t have the SONGS, sooner or later you’re gonna lose.  The Buttons have songs. Some of those songs are:

CELEBRATE THE GOOD TIMES – Not the band’s theme song, but maybe it should be, somehow it sums up their whole stance and/or attitude. Pinpoint harmony from Willie & Greg, and a bright, positive, clear-eyed, hummable, boppable melody. “Call all your friends, celebrate the good times, ahhhh.”

HOLLY – John’s only current lead vocal. Instant hit single and big crowd-pleaser. Petitions to reinstate John’s other great lead vocal in "I Feel New" will be circulated shortly. “Holly, I love you to pieces.”

DAMN GOOD LOOKIN’ BUT EASY, PAINTER, THE EARLY SIXTIES, I WANT TONIGHT, GET BACK TO YOUR LOVE, NO EXITS, LET’S BE FOREVER, SHELLEY, I FELL IN LOVE WITH A BABY, ARTWORK, CRUISIN’ WITH MIMI, STOP CRUSHING MY PERSONALITY – Some of the Romantic Noise Classics. Songs that may never be recorded because they’ll be old to the band when the band is new to a wider audience. Songs that whenever somebody who saw the band in its early days hears them will trigger off memories of places the band played, people you knew then that you don’t know now, things you were sure of that you're not any more, etc. Some of these songs may only stand in the hearts and minds and ears of a few people, but they ARE magic and they WILL stand. 

STRIKE UP THE BAND – Another Romantic Noise classic that will stand. This is great rock & roll. If you can’t feel the rock in this song you must be dead and should be lying down or else you like Styx. And hey, while we’re at it, in the middle section of this song, feel free, in fact feel compelled, to shout, “GO, GO, GO BAND GO!” along with or AT the band. Get into it, feel it. Come out and be pop, come out to rock. And let’s face it, people are gonna pay $8.50 someday to shout it at an arena concert, you only paid two bucks and you get to see the band up close.

ROCKAWAY, I WANT FUN – Two of the best examples of The Buttons blend of pop and rock & roll power; the latter detailing getting roughed up at a certain popular Ohio State Campus country-rock club, the former concerning  wanting to hold someone’s hand and rocking the days away. “Greg, are you paranoid?” “Naaah.”

THE WORST SAD – What I consider one of Willie’s most underrated songs. Instantly relatable. “I’m sad, she’s sad, this is the worst sad we’ve ever had.” Who could say it any better, or simpler? Why make it any more complicated? Could be THE “Please take me back.” song of the late 70’s.

GOODBYE GOODBYE, SAILBOATS – The Buttons two best slow dance songs. "Sailboats" is a beautiful melody/riff married to great lyrics and "Goodbye Goodbye" has one of those great ending choruses that can go on forever and ever, even if the relationship it’s about didn’t, and just like you always wanted it to. “We tried, we tried, goodbye, goodbye.”

GIVE IT UP, PRETTY JANE, RUNNIN’ FROM SOCIETY, RADIO MAN, POP BAND POP BAND, LOOKING FOR GIRLS, FLY ME, SPOIL IT, UNDERSTAND ME – A selection of the middle-period classics, late Romantic Noise, pre-Buttons hits.

SITTING WITH THE BOYS, HOLD ON, LIKE I DO, I CAN’T STAND IT, OH NO NOT AGAIN – Some of the more pronounced Beatles-influenced Buttons songs. The pop edge of The Buttons power and pop equation.

YOU MADE ME SPEND THE NIGHT, I’M LEAVING, HOLD ME, BUS DRIVER, I NEED THE ACTION, COLD LOVE AFFAIR, CAN’T STOP THE RAIN, MESSAGE, POP GOES THE MUSIC – Some of the genuine Buttons Classics, the power end of the power-pop equation. New songs that have been introduced since the name change of early ’79. Songs that may be too powerful for the close confines of Mr. Brown’s Descent, but you should’ve heard ‘em in the gym at Buckeye Lake’s Sheridan High School (with 250 kids dancin’ and feelin’ GOOD) or at the Ohio Union Ballroom (where they power-popped buzz-bombed fans of The Boyzz), or at The Agora opening for The Ramones. Songs made for big stages, concert halls and huge crowds of crazed rockers.

LOVE IS MADE FOR THE KIDS – The Bee Gees meets The Raspberries. A disco-tinged pop-rocker that I haven’t heard lately, but it may return to the repertoire. Somebody (but not me) will someday call it The Buttons take on Blondie’s "Heart Of Glass."

BIG STAR, IT’S ONLY GOOD ROCK & ROLL, CHINA, DON’T EVER SAY BYE – The brace of new songs that will be introduced at this weekend’s stand of shows at Mr. Brown’s. Decide for yourself where they fit in. Decide for yourself and let’s ROCK.

Great Lost Romantic Noise/Buttons Songs

(These are songs sadly, or not so sadly, missed from the current band repertoire. Songs that we knew and loved, or hated, when Romantic Noise WAS a romantic noise and buttons were something that held your shirt or blouse closed.)

I FEEL NEW – An exquisite slow, yearning, Byrds-esque tune sung by John from the early and middle period Romantic Noise days. Last heard (by me) at Bogart’s in Cincinnati. Very sadly missed.

I NEED A REVIEW –  A song from the early days of Romantic Noise. Willie’s personal appeal to the Columbus rock print media, Focus and Teenage Rampage, for some coverage. The entire reason I went to see the band the first time in February of ’78, because I wanted to hear my name in a song. It worked.

STARS AFTER DEATH -  Another early song, concerning (I think) a girl who only falls in love with rock stars after they’re already dead, the Jimi Hendrix/Jim Morrison/Brian Jones Syndrome.

GENERATE MY GENERATION – An excellent high-energy rocker from the early days.

STOP CRUSHING MY PERSONALITY -  Another high-energy blast. Winner of the Rock Song Title Of The Year Award for 1978.

BOOGIE ALL NIGHT – Romantic Noise’s set-closer the first time I ever saw them. This song was awful. Really, really badly awful. I mean bad, really bad. How bad was it? This song was so bad that once when they were playing it I saw a dog chasing a cat and they were both walking.  (author’s note; I think the dog & cat quote was some kind of band in-joke that I can’t quite remember.) (blogger's note 2013, I remembered the joke! It was one of Dee’s: “Man, it was hot out today.”  “How hot was it?” “It was so hot I saw a dog chasing a cat and they were both walking.”)

DEAD FLOWERS – The b-side of the band’s first single, "I Fell In Love With A Baby." Another not-very-missed song that was partially redeemed and revived in it’s later performances when John & Willie would meet at the center mike to do their best “Mick Jagger & Keith Richards Meets The Bowery Boys” vocal routine on the closing “Dead flower-a’s.”

ROSE-COLORED GLASSES – Beatle-esque tune recorded in ‘78 for an e.p. that never came out, never performed live to my knowledge.

MEMORIES – A beautifully soft song of Greg’s dropped after only a few performances, another very sadly missed song. “But in my mind it’s still ’73.”

ARE YOU IN LOVE? – An extended, different moods/tempos/accents song of Willie’s that I’m not sure is dropped from the set, I think it might just be on vacation.

(Actually these are only the first ten songs that popped into my head when I sat down to write this; by the time The Buttons record their first LP, they’ll have dropped more good songs than other bands have thought about writing. These songs will be missed, but they will be remembered.) - Ricki C. April, 1979

By my count, there are 58 songs listed above, and that piece only covered the time period from February 1978 to mid-1979, a period of perhaps 18 months. By the time Jerry Hanahan replaced Dee Hunt in The Buttons Mark II, Willie scrapped the entire old repertoire and started over. Below is the set-list from the live tape I have of The Buttons at the Columbus Agora in early 1980.  It contains 18 original songs, none of which are represented above. (The encore - "Hippy Hippy Shake" - is a cover of British Invasion-era band The Swinging Blue Jeans, and is, incidentally, the first & only cover I ever saw Romantic Noise or The Buttons perform.)  That's 76 songs in a two-year period.  I find it hard to believe how prolific a songwriter Willie Phoenix was in those days and how generally high the quality of those songs was.  Very, very few of the songs detailed in this list were what I would deem throwaways and at least 20 of them were as good as any power-pop song I have ever heard.  Willie Phoenix has forgotten more great songs than most other songwriters will compose in their entire careers.

The Buttons / Live @ The Agora, 1980

1) I Wanna Have A Baby
2) (Take It) All The Way Out
3) Fan Club
4) Back To Germany
5) Girl, I Wanna Please You
6) Knockout Girl
7) Baby
8) Now I’m So Glad
9) Alice Jayne
10) Hey Little Girl
11) Rona, I Forget
12) Just A Holiday
13) It’s A Heartbeat
14) Kissing Games
15) Mimi’s Got A Runner
16) Here Comes The Night
17) I Saw Superman
18) Born To Dance
19) Hippy Hippy Shake

Willie Phoenix, vocals & guitar / Greg Glasgow, bass & vocals
John Ballor, lead guitar & vocals / Jerry Hanahan, drums

© 1979, 2013 Ricki C.