Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Goodbye

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.

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 CafĂ© in Westerville, Ohio; Moonspinners Cafe near the Ohio State University campus; Border’s Bookstore (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 & Jack Kirby.)


Grandma

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 when I was running a Wednesday night acoustic open stage there I realized I had left my guitar tuner at home.  My 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

  
I live in Ohio.

I play the guitar.  Not because I want to, because I have to.

I have to.

On Christmas Eve of 1998 I was driving home from St. Matthias Church after Midnight Mass when the song "Goodbye" by Steve Earle came on my car radio and the entire weight of the sky fell in on my unsuspecting head.  I don't know if you know that song - I'm sure it's readily available on YouTube, Rhapsody, Spotify and sites of that ilk if you don't - but it turns on the phrase, "I don't remember if we said goodbye."  That Christmas Eve was fully two decades after the events detailed in I Love Distortion, so the whole sky-falling-in thing took me more than a little by surprise.

Nicole had left me exactly twenty years and two days previous - December 22nd, 1978 - and we never said goodbye.

Looking back, it's a little hard to believe just how quickly our little love affair came crashing down.  Things that didn't seem to mean much at the time - Nicole leaving K-Mart to work at a dress boutique at the nearby Westland Mall - later took on a decidedly larger significance.  Nicole was a very fashionable girl.  A job selling dresses certainly made much more sense than corralling errant children in the toy department of a West Side discount store.  But there were bigger, more ominous occurrences.  We had three rehearsals to break in a new drummer after Jake's firing (see blog entry I Love Distortion, November 2013) before a December 21st gig opening for Lovely & Sonic at Drake Union on the Ohio State University campus.  Nicole skipped two of them and didn't sing at the third, owing to a sore throat from a bad cold. 

Most crucially, she didn't show up at the gig itself.  All of a sudden, putting all of my eggs - lead singer, bandmate, songwriting partner, lover, best friend, confidante - in one Nicole-woven basket didn't seem like such a good idea.

A couple of weeks earlier, around the beginning of December, Nicole was sitting on the couch at my 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 livingroom, 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 comment, 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." and Nicole broke down crying.  "What's wrong?" I asked, genuinely perplexed at the tearful turn of events, "What did I say?"

Nicole already knew - as certainly I didn't - that there weren't going to be any more gigs.

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.  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.

The moment I heard the tears start on the other end of the phone I knew, knew to my soul it was over.  "Just tell me, Niki, just tell me," I said quietly.  She started crying harder when I said "Niki."  We only used that term of endearment when things were really, really great - or really, really bad.  Her version for me was "Ricki," as the diminutive of Richter.  "I know what you need to say, Niki, so just say it."  "Ricki, I can't.  I can't."  She hung up the phone.

I stood there on that payphone, staring at the icy Scioto River running under the bridge where we'd kissed for the first time (see blog entry I Love Distortion, March 2013) and my heart, brain & soul were darker than that black water.

I walked back to the gig.  Oddly, that night, Glen - Willie's bass player and second lead singer of Lovely & Sonic - not only didn't say a word to me, he actively avoided me after the show.  And he was my best friend in the band after Doug the drummer.  That was when it hit me: Nicole was leaving for me for Glen.  It absolutely made sense.  Glen was a really quiet, shy guy, but with his own brand of cool zen charisma that was 180 degrees opposite from me and Billy Ray's jumping-around "Look-at-me-look-at-me-look-at-me" style.  I thought back on a lot of gigs where I would be setting up gear and Glen & Nicole would be huddled deep in conversation, talking about poetry or some book they had both just read.  They looked so peaceful and so great together.  I knew I was done.

I couldn't watch Lovely & Sonic's set that night, couldn't stand watching Billy Ray, Glen, John & Doug tear things up, knowing that their future had just become my distant past.  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 what 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.

When I got home from work the next day, Friday the 22nd, there was a letter leaning on my door.  I opened it and couldn't believe my eyes.  She was going back to Tommy.  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 crying jag, but none of them included Tommy, the boy who had verbally abused and beaten Nicole almost from the very inception of their relationship.  None of them involved exchanging a life of poetry and rock & roll for a life of indentured servitude and wondering when the next punch would land.  None of them involved trading roses for rusty barbed wire.

In this life I have always wished that I knew when last times were going to be last times: that the last time I would walk Linda Finneran home from school would be the last time I walked Linda Finneran home from school; that the last time I would speak to my dad before he died was the last time; that the last time I kissed Nicole would be the last time I would kiss Nicole.  Had I known that, that last kiss would not have taken place in Nicole's car outside a Taco Bell restaurant in the parking lot of the K-Mart where I worked when Nicole dropped me off there after a lunch date earlier in December.  It most definitely was not the most romantic of last kisses after the twelve months of soul-deep romance Nicole and I had shared.

There were a lot of lingering effects of not saying goodbye to the lovely young girl I shared rock & roll stages with all through 1978.  First, you apparently let your brain set a TWENTY YEAR time-limit on that girl coming back to you, until the sky falls in on your head inside a Saturn on Christmas Eve, 1998.  Second, that girl REMAINS 18 years old - eternally fresh, smiling & beautiful - for your entire existence, and that is just not fair to every other woman you are destined to be involved with in that twenty year period.  Third, it causes you to prize memory over reality, at least for two decades or so.

Nicole did in fact get married the next May and went on to have two daughters with Tommy.  Columbus, Ohio is not a big city, it's more like a large small town, but I never saw her again after the afternoon she dropped me at that Taco Bell.  There is a large part of me that hopes she's happy, that wishes her well, that genuinely hopes she is smiling at the very moment I am typing this sentence.  There is a large part of me that hopes she kept writing poetry, that she kept projecting the beauty of her imagination and intelligence into the world through her words.  There is only a small part of me that believes she did.

I would like to think that The Twilight Kids and I were not just a last teenage fling for Nicole before she settled into the drudgery and responsibility of adulthood, but I kinda suspect we were.

I read somewhere once that a bitter man is a beaten man.  I am not a bitter man.  There are a host of things I am thankful for in this life.  In 2013 I am happily married to a lovely young woman.  I still roadie for bands, I still play the rock & roll, I still write songs, I still work at these stories.  Without Nicole I might very well have settled into the life of a retail store middle manager for the entirety of a long, sad, quiet, boring, unfulfilled existence. Knowing what I know now, would I take back one minute of 1978?  No, I wouldn't.

The Twilight Kids had three gigs scheduled for January, 1979 that had to be honored.  (At one of those shows I offhandedly mentioned to Glen from Lovely & Sonic that I thought Nicole had intended to leave me for him rather than for her psycho ex-fiance and Glen got genuinely upset.  He fixed me with an angry, glaring stare and said, "You thought I would actually try to steal your girlfriend behind your back?  Who do you think I am, Sean, you or Billy Ray?"  I was well and properly humbled.  And it was the only time I laughed out loud in all of January.) 

At the last of those gigs I smashed my Stratocaster to kindling at the end of "I Love Distortion."  I didn't play again in public for 11 years, until 1990 when I bought a black acoustic guitar and reinvented myself as an action-packed solo rock & roll act.  But that's a whole other story for a whole other blog.  

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.



SONGS OF ROMANTIC NOISE AND THE BUTTONS

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 19 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 77 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) School Is Kinky
8) Baby
9) Now I’m So Glad
10) Alice Jayne
11) Hey Little Girl
12) Rona, I Forget
13) Just A Holiday
14) It’s A Heartbeat
15) Kissing Games
16) Mimi’s Got A Runner
17) Here Comes The Night
18) I Saw Superman
19) Born To Dance
(encore)
20) Hippy Hippy Shake

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


© 1979, 2013 Ricki C.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Ballad of Willie Phoenix part one - Romantic Noise and The Buttons, 1978-1980

I have a heroically garbled cassette tape from 1978 of Romantic Noise, Willie Phoenix's best band EVER, playing a song called "I Feel New."  John Ballor, the lead guitarist of Romantic Noise, sings lead on the tune and it is, quite simply, one of the most gorgeous, heartfelt tunes I have ever heard in my rock & roll life. 

Romantic Noise was stunning.  Willie wrote virtually all of the songs, played strictly rhythm guitar (he didn't start playing lead guitar until The Shadowlords in 1983) and sang about 65% of lead vocals.  Bass player extraordinaire Greg Glasgow contributed the remainder of the original tunes (of which there was a mind-boggling number & variety, which we may deal with in a later appendix) and sang lead on about a third of the Romantic Noise repertoire.  Lead guitarist John Ballor only sang about three leads - the aforementioned "I Feel New,"  "Holly," and an early raver maybe called "Politician, Politician" - but Willie generously handed him off some truly killer songs to sing.  When original drummer David Machnicki (who employed a rather Ringo Starr-inspired style of playing) was replaced by madman Keith Moon-styled smasher Dee Hunt - the pride of Beckley, West Virginia - the Romantic Noise line-up was complete.  (And Dee was height-compatible to fit in with the rather diminutive Small Faces-styled Romantic Noise than the too-tall Machniki.)

For the purposes of full disclosure, I was a roadie for Romantic Noise from probably May or June of 1978 until sometime in 1979 (after they had become The Buttons), so I'm hardly unbiased.  I was a roadie for Romantic Noise because I fell in love with them the very first night I saw them, a week after The Great Blizzard Of 1978, at Drake Union on the Ohio State University campus.  I was a roadie for Romantic Noise because I realized very early on that I wasn't good enough to actually get INTO the band, that the internal cohesion between those four players was so balanced, precise, fragile and perfect that I had no hope of entering the circle.  I ran lights for that band, I took care of guitars, I published a band newsletter, I did pretty much anything that was asked of me.  Willie said, "Jump" and I asked, "How high?"  I was a roadie for Romantic Noise because they were one of the five best bands I had ever seen. 

In my Columbus rock & roll existence I have witnessed The Dantes, The Rebounds, The Fifth Order, The Four O’Clock Balloon, The Grayps and countless other "garage" and "progressive" bands of the 1960’s; I saw The Godz rockin’ the bikers and the hippies in 1975 with their white Marshall amps and McGuffey Lane drawl out their laid-back country-rock pickings that same year; I caught the R.C. Mob and The Toll in their 1980’s formative years right up through their major label deals; in the 1990’s I watched Watershed and Howlin’ Maggie grow up right in front of my eyes into killer rock & roll assemblages; in the 2000’s I got in on the ground floor of Mrs. Children as they transmuted into The Whiles.  And let me say this very clearly: not one of those bands was as good as Romantic Noise.  Romantic Noise was, quite simply, the BEST COLUMBUS BAND I have ever seen.

I learned so much from Willie that first year: watching Romantic Noise from the wings or from the balcony lighting board at The Agora was like a songwriting clinic.  I learned to sharpen my rather expansive songwriting down to a succinct precision.  I learned how to pace sets.  I learned a sense of personal style.  (Willie would actually dress the entire band for big shows, like when they would open for The Ramones or the David Johansen Group.  Greg, John & Dee had to bring changes of clothes in for Willie's approval and he would mix & match the outfits so they looked individually AND collectively great.  Every time in 2013 I witness some jag-off modern rock band on David Letterman or Austin City Limits in some hideously mismatched & pedestrian bag o' rags I think back on Willie and the range of his imagination in 1978.)


Willie Phoenix sidelight interlude, number one:
 One summer evening in 1978 my lead singer Nicole and I had to meet Willie at that Wendy’s just north of Schoolkid’s Records (now Used Kids Records) to get some tapes. So we were hangin’ out waiting because Willie was a rock star and rock stardom requires being late. Finally Willie waltzes into Wendy’s. You’ve gotta try to get the mental picture: Willie’s a five-foot tall black man with dreadlocks wearing girl’s pegged black jeans, a spangled tank-top, and not one but TWO neckties tied around his bare neck, held together by a Mickey Mouse watch. Plus, it almost goes without saying, platform boots. AND THIS WASN’T EVEN FOR A SHOW OR A NIGHT OUT, IT WAS JUST WHAT HE HAPPENED TO BE WEARING THAT EVENING. Ladies & gentlemen, it was 1978 in Columbus, Ohio: everybody else in that restaurant was wearing bell-bottom jeans and raggedy t-shirts.  Kinda needless to mention, but the guy turned heads. I can still see it, 34 years later.


1978 FLEW by.  Romantic Noise played all over Columbus and the rest of Ohio.  (They had already traveled to New York City a couple of times and played CBGB's  in the 70's heyday of that fabled rock mecca before I even met them.)  The band played everywhere: clubs, student unions, outdoor shows at a little stage on the riverfront by where COSI now stands, high schools (playing all original material at high schools in 1978 was unheard of - no pun intended - and every one of those shows went GREAT).  They headlined their own shows at Mr. Brown's Descent, Cafe Rock & Roll, Bogart's in Cincinnati and The Columbus Agora, where they also opened shows for the likes of The Ramones and David Johansen Group.

The band released a 7-inch single ("I Fell In Love With A Baby" b/w "Dead Flowers") and a 4-song ep - '78 Affair - that comprised two of their best songs ("Painter" and "Runnin' from Society") and simultaneously two of their worst songs ("Oh No, Not Again" and "Hold On").  This kind of breakdown in song selection on records would unfortunately continue throughout Willie's career.  NONE of Romantic Noise's best material ever got recorded in any kind of intelligible, releasable form.  (Rumors have persisted for years that Willie has well-produced versions of that material stashed away, but I've never seen nor heard concrete proof of that fact.  And what are we waiting for?)

Similarly, two of Willie's best songs from the 1982 period when he was on A&M Records - "Champaign" and "Bowery Express" - never saw wax.  (Though that may have more to do with A&M's total mishandling of Willie's entire stint on the label than it does Willie's judgements of his material.  But more on that in part two of this tome.)   I also have a 60-minute live cassette of The Buttons (Willie's band immediately after Romantic Noise) at a Q-FM Hometown Album concert in 1980 and cassettes full of unreleased Shadowlords songs, most of which are better than anything actually released by those bands on vinyl back in the day.  Further, the three best songs in the repertoire of Willie Phoenix & The True Soul Rockers in 1990 - "Lookin' For Wendy," "I Wanna Feel What We Used To," and "Electric Folk-Dreamin' Man" - never saw the light of day.  And except for the A&M record, Willie had the final say on what material was released in his name.

It was that inability to relinquish even the most basic of control that characterizes Willie to this day.  And while I'll defend to the death Willie's defense of his artistic vision I gotta add that it would've been nice if he could occasionally have collaborated with his bandmates or producers to execute that creative vision.  The first manifestation of that singularity was when Willie announced to the rest of Romantic Noise in November or December of 1978 that come January of 1979, the band would be changing their name to The Buttons (a really pedestrian moniker after the vastly more poetic & lyrical Romantic Noise) and that Willie would be taking over all the lead vocals of said band.

In the heady days of The Summer Of 1978, my most fervent hope was that Romantic Noise would get signed to a record deal and that Nick Lowe would produce their first album.  (Lowe's production work on those first two Elvis Costello records - My Aim Is True and This Year's Model - and his production credo of "Bash it down and we'll tart it up later." would have been PERFECT for Willie & the guys.)  By the spring of 1979 Dee Hunt had been booted from the band, ostensibly over the cliched "musical differences," but actually he was the only band member who would ever talk back to Willie and (this is my purely subjective opinion) Dee's increasing popularity with the female contingent of The Buttons' audience became problematic to Willie.  I quit the road crew when Dee was replaced with Jerry Hanahan, a really good drummer in his own right.

The Buttons subsequently played a lot of really great shows - the aforementioned Q-FM Hometown Album Concert and a KILLER set opening for Talking Heads at Mershon Auditorium right when the Heads' cover of Al Green's "Take Me To The River" was starting to burn up the charts - but the band was never really the same for me after Dee got fired, ya know?  The Buttons Mark II (or Version 2.0 for you 2013 cyber-geeks) with Hanahan on drums released one single, which, true to form, contained one GREAT song - "Hey Little Girl," that stayed in Willie's repertoire until the 1990's - and one middling tune - "Blue Bicycle," which of course Willie regarded as the A-side of the 45.  (The Buttons most popular radio song - "I Saw Superman" - was recorded when Hunt was still in the band.)

Okay, so that's 1700 words already and we're only up to 1980.  Coming up in The Ballad Of Willie Phoenix part two we'll be covering the A&M "Big Band" and Willie Phoenix & The Shadowlords (with maybe The Flower Machine thrown in for good measure).  But first, some Romantic Noise pics, a Focus live review and a scan of a Buttons Times.

 

Romantic Noise, 1978



(Did I remember to mention to the editors at Focus that I was working as a roadie for the band I was
 reviewing in this column?  Ummm, that particular conflict of interest might have slipped my mind.)




© 2013 Ricki C.