Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Three Easy Pieces: Black Leather Touch, The Neighborhoods, Lloyd Cole & Michael Penn (Bonus Video Tuesday)

My career in rock & roll journalism was protracted, but not particularly productive.  It started in the mid-1970’s when, inspired by rocker-turned-critic Patti Smith and critics-turned-rockers Lester Bangs, Charles Shaar Murray and Mick Farren, I decided to try to get into print to hype whatever band I had going at the moment.   My first endeavor was in 1976, a punk fanzine called Teenage Rampage (after the song by The Sweet, the guys who did “Blockbuster,” "Ballroom Blitz," “The 6-Teens,” and "Fox On The Run," all KILLER power-pop songs).  Teenage Rampage  was produced in the warehouse of my day-job at the time, Service Merchandise, when we discovered how to turn the counter on the store copier back one entire digit; I’d run off roughly 300 copies of the ‘zine, then turn the counter back to 30.  (Our store manager at the time would constantly inquire/complain, “Why are we always out of copy paper, but we never make that many copies?”  My co-conspirator Rob, whom I’m friends with to this day, and I would just shrug our shoulders and mumble.  I never did figure out why they put the copier in the warehouse rather than the store's front office.)

Teenage Rampage ran roughly 10 issues until I signed on with Focus, Columbus’ local rock weekly in 1978.  It’s hard to explain to youngsters nowadays that Columbus, Ohio, could have supported a weekly paper roughly the same size as today’s Other Paper that was ENTIRELY devoted to rock & roll, but that’s just the way it was.  Music mattered.  (By the way, I was roundly castigated by the Columbus "punk community" - which numbered maybe 35 people at the time - for "selling out" when I moved from the fanzine to a real magazine.  The way I saw it, I could reach thousands more people with Focus than with Teenage Rampage.  I wanted to be a rock star, not a punk loser/legend.) 

When Focus went under in 1979 (see blog entry AC/DC - My Lunch With Angus, March 2012) I think I did one or two articles for its Columbus successor, The Monthly Planet.  My tenure there came to an abrupt halt one evening when the editor insisted I sit down with him while he edited my latest piece, the cover story of the next issue.  I had to sit there and watch as he went through the article, red-penciling all of my best lines, re-arranging the prose into the most boring formulation possible, and essentially rendering my Lester Bangs-fueled rock & roll screed into pap prose even Rolling Stone would have been embarassed to run.  (Kathy Reed, my first and best editor at Focus, had largely let me run roughshod over many, if not all, of that paper’s oh-so-boring copy rules.)  Finally, after one too many edits by hippie-bespectacled Monthly Planet editor-guy, I scrunched up my article,  ripped it in half, jammed the halves in the pockets of my leather jacket, said, “I’ve BEEN to high-school, pal,” and exited the newsroom, leaving the paper with no cover story for that week.  “You’ll never work in journalism in Columbus again,” he yelled after me as the newsroom staff stifled giggles.  Truer words were never spoken.  A lamer threat has seldom been hurled.

Following are three articles I wrote for various publications over the years; one each from the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s.  They’re not necessarily the best three, just three random examples I’m somewhat proud of, or which crystallize a particular era for me.  (I was sorely tempted to update the entries, sharpen the prose, do some creative editing, but decided to leave each piece as it was originally written, warts and all.  It only seems fair.)


(I)

Steppenwolf and Black Leather Touch / Café Rock & Roll, Columbus, Ohio / April 19, 1978

reprinted from Focus magazine, May 1-15, 1978


New Wave, Old Wave, Permanent Wave, the Perfect Wave, who cares?

Black Leather Touch are not a New Wave band.  They are a rock & roll band.  A biker-band.  A bar-band.  A classic rock & roll band.  Anybody who can walk out on a stage in 1978 and rule that stage by sheer force of personality, music & guts is a classic.  These guys ain’t pretty, definitely.  They ain’t no suburban-educated street-punk-by-association posers.

They’re playin’ songs about sex, drugs and rock & roll to an audience that pretty much look like they’re getting enough of all three.  (And two out of three ain’t bad in a pinch.)  They’ve got this really ugly singer/guitarist who toward the end of the set is shakin’ his hair and beard around and the sweat is flyin’ off his head into the beers of the people in the front row, and you know they can’t be happy about that.  But who cares, this is rock & roll.

“It’s Only Rock & Roll (But I Like It),” “Wild In The Streets,” “Go Away,” a coupla Lynyrd Skynyrd, Uriah Heep’s “Stealin’,” “Cat Scratch Fever” all get played, the hits just keep on comin’.  This ain’t no copy band though, friends, this is command.  Black Leather Touch takes those songs and makes ‘em kick, punch, bite, shout, and work it all out.  When’s the last time you’ve heard and seen rock & roll this close up?  You didn’t see it with The Godz at the Fairgrounds Coliseum.  You don’t hear it on the radio in Columbus.

Toward the end of the set they start pullin’ out every bar-band trick in the book; playing lying down on the floor, playing behind their backs, behind their heads, playing each other’s guitars from behind, you name it.  This ain’t entertainment, this is fun.  This ain’t laid-back diddley-bop space-rock squat, this is rock & roll.

Right before the band closes with Mr. Charles Berry of St. Louis, Missouri’s “Bye Bye Johnny,” they treat us to the Mickey Mouse Club theme song crossed with their own “Disco Sucks,” (which includes some frenzied hillbilly get-down disco-dancing from the bass player).  Everybody in the place is clued in on the joke except possibly two disco honeys on the dance floor in full Bombay Yacht Club regalia, sparkly knee-length Saturday Night Fever dresses and all.

My friend John leans over to me at one point and yells over the music, “I forgot bands like this existed.”  So had I. I felt like I was in Detroit back in 1969.  (And I was never in Detroit in 1969.)  I felt like Mick Farren from the New Musical Express.  I felt as good as you can feel on a Wednesday night in Columbus, Ohio and not get arrested or become unconscious.  I kept thinking, “How could I have considered staying home and watching Starsky & Hutch when I could be doing this.”

This is rock & roll.

As for Steppenwolf, as far as I could tell only one original member of the band was present, and that was the organ player, and what did he ever do for us anyway?  I at least expected John Kay.  So the order of the night was to trot out all the old big hits, turn ‘em into long boring guitar jams and then collect a paycheck, Jack.  “Sookie Sookie,” “Magic Carpet Ride,” “The Pusher,” “Born To Be Wild,” etc. all got played, but during the whole show I got the nagging feeling I was in the nightclub scene from an old 60’s movie.  Or in an episode of The Mod Squad where someone doses Julie with a hit of acid at the teen club and she has a bad trip and Pete & Linc gotta come in and rescue her while the strobe lights beam.

Wednesday April 19th, 1978, the night belonged to Black Leather Touch.  Check ‘em out at your earliest opportunity.  West Side Rock rules OK.


(author’s note, 2012 – The bass player of Black Leather Touch mentioned in paragraph six, whose name I didn’t know at the time, was Jerry Blinn.  His daughter, Erica Blinn, today performs a truly kick-ass form of rock & roll she dubs “Whiskey Rock From The Rust Belt”  roughly everywhere east and south of the Midwest.  Check out the video here, http://youtu.be/fUhLZLY98fA, and tell me I’m wrong.  It's a sobering thought, but I am now watching the daughters of my rock & roll contemporaries command stages.  Growing Old With Rock & Roll indeed.)


(II)

The Neighborhoods / Stache’s, Columbus, Ohio / May 24, 1986

reprinted from The Noise fanzine, July, 1986


On Friday night I went to see the Columbus Clippers play baseball.

On Sunday afternoon I stood in the Hands Across America line.

In between I saw The Neighborhoods.

I felt so American.

David, Lee and Michael came into Columbus on an on-again/off-again, no publicity, is this show gonna come off or what? basis, took the stage in front of an audience totally unfamiliar with their music and proceeded to generally kick ass, kill, maim and destroy.

Kicking off with “Fire Is Coming,” The ‘Hoods powered through “Arrogance,” “WUSA,” and “Think It Over” from The High Hard One, detoured over to the first L.P. for “Heatwave” and “It All Makes Sense” and dropped in a brace of new songs before veering off to left field with covers of The Nervous Eaters’ “Just Head” (lead sung by Lee Harrington) and a killer song about Johnny Rotten I didn’t catch the name of.  (author’s note 2012 – I now realize this tune was “Tommy” from the then-unreleased Reptile Men album, and is NOT about Johnny Rotten.)

Prime extra-musical moments included Michael Quaglia singing out of one side of his mouth while smoking a cigarette out of the other and bassist Lee Harrington’s selection of P. Townshend scissor-kicks.  And who couldn’t love a guitarist who matches the color of his socks to his guitar?  (Both red, incidentally.)

I never usually bother in reviews to mention how the sound is at the shows because I figure that’s for the guys with $3000 stereoes whose mothers were scared by a transistor radio when they were pregnant with them, but I gotta hand it to The Hoods’ soundman.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better drum sound in a small club and Harrington’s bass cut great jagged slashes through the expected Minehan guitar onslaught.

So the band runs through some audience requests (“Shake”) and ends with a song I don’t know.  First encore features an unidentified roadie singing lead after an intro of David playing The Carpenters’ “Close To You” and telling the audience about getting kids to quit drugs while answering phones at the suicide prevention center.  (I’m quite serious.  I guess you had to be there.)  Second encore is “Prettiest Girl,” which they dedicated to my girlfriend Mary Jo, and which we thought they never play anymore under any circumstances, so that just made it especially sweet.   

The show concluded with David diving into the audience for a final solo and dumping his red Strat onto a patron’s table for the last crash chord.  And it’s history.

It’s in the archives.

It’s The Neighborhoods.

It’s rock & roll.


(author’s note 2012 – This review ran in The Noise, a killer Boston fanzine I subscribed to all through the 80’s, and occasionally contributed live reviews to when Boston acts played Columbus.  The editor, T. Max, was truly a rocker of the first order.)


(III)

Michael Penn and Lloyd Cole / Phantasy Theatre, Cleveland, Ohio / June 30, 1990


The Phantasy Theater is a run-down former movie house on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio.  Michael Penn and Lloyd Cole are songwriters of some wit, style and intelligence currently on tour together.  So how does each deal with a sweaty rock & roll club on a Saturday night in Cleveland?

Lloyd Cole and band pull out all the stops, turn the amps up to ten, drop (most of) the ballads and let the feedback rain down.  If you don’t already know that Cole writes great lyrics you’re not going to discover it here, you can’t understand a word.  Ordinarily this would bother me but the three-guitar strong Cole group sound great.  They pummel the mid-level songs into submission and when they hit an all-out rocker like “I Hate To See You, Baby, Doing That Stuff” they pound like fever.  

I keep asking myself, “Why hire a mathematical guitar genius like Robert Quine just to bury his leads in this over-amped wall-of-guitars mix?”  And I keep telling myself to walk back in the theatre to check if the sound is better balanced farther back (proper pro rock critic procedure) except I can’t get myself to leave my sweat-soaked, ear-blasted stagefront position for even three minutes because this music is taking my breath away.

Some critics I’ve read compare Lloyd Cole to Lou Reed.  I’ve never been able to hear it myself, Cole is far too lyrical and romantic for that comparison to fly, but comparisons to The Velvet Underground on this night are unavoidable.  Flat-out sonic attack supporting lyrics like “She looks like Eve-Marie Sainte in On The Waterfront.”  Really, what more could you ask for?

And how is Michael Penn going to follow this?  He does it with a semi-lengthy set-change, allowing the Cole-energy to diffuse and then proceeds to pull off a perfectly-paced and played set of modern alternative pop.  Where Lloyd Cole & company opted for straight-up power, Penn chooses understatement and intelligent charm for his live presentation.  Which is not to say the Penn group doesn’t rock, especially with drummer D.J. Bonebrake (formerly of X) providing the missing link of pop drummers between Ringo Starr and Keith Moon.

And Penn had great one-liner song intros: “This next song is not about Italian fashion designers or cats in the funny papers,” to clarify the Romeo in black jeans and Heathcliff references in “No Myth.”  Or “There was a big fire last week in Santa Barbara.  The police say it was arson.  I just thought I’d mention it,” to introduce a song containing the line “I’ll be burning canyons for you.”  Subtly and perfectly delivered.  I think the 1966 John Lennon would have been proud.

   coda;

Stacy lives in Cleveland Heights.  She’s a nanny.  (On the west side of Columbus, where I hail from, we call that a babysitter.)  Her father took her to see The Beatles when she was five years old.  He bounced her on his shoulders while they played, so she could see over the crowd of screaming girls.

She’s never even heard of Lloyd Cole and the only song she knows by Michael Penn is “No Myth.”  She has brown eyes and red hair, which is perfectly done, as is her make-up.

She’s dressed really nicely, although at least five years behind what currently passes for rock & roll fashion.  The blonde suburban teenage mall-rat fashion victims seated behind her make fun of her, but I don’t think Stacy noticed.

I have no idea what she’s doing here alone on a Saturday night at a rock & roll show.

And then Michael Penn comes on.  Stacy’s up and bopping around and when the band plays “No Myth,” Stacy actually screamed.  As Penn sings, "Maybe she’s just looking for someone to dance with,” Stacy’s dancing all alone, oblivious, off in another, very likely better, world.  Maybe she’s back seeing The Beatles when she was five, bouncing on her father’s shoulders.  Wherever she is pop music’s promise gets kept there.

I’m thinking about rock & roll, I’m thinking about the past tense, I’m thinking about rock & roll when it had some innocence.

I’m watching Stacy dance.


(author’s note 2012 – I would think I submitted this piece to the Cleveland Scene entertainment weekly.  I doubt that it ever ran, but I still like it.)





Was this entire exercise just an elaborate set-up to insert a Lloyd Cole & The Commotions video into this blog?  No, it wasn't, but I couldn't resist including one of my five favorite songs from the 1980's into the proceedings.  inspirational verse; "At the age of 10 she looked like Brigitte Bardo, Sophia Loren and also Marilyn Monroe, very big stuff....." - Lloyd Cole 1985.  Wasn't Lloyd pretty?  Weren't The Commotions a great band?  And wasn't 1984's Rattlesnakes very nearly a perfect folk-rock album in the middle of bad English Frankie Goes To Hollywood-ilk synth-pop?

   
© 2012 Ricki C.

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