Rust Never Sleeps
IT JUST GOES TO BED A LITTLE EARLIER:
A Musical Journey Through the Past at the Ottobar
Chelsea Graveyard: Like a Rolling Tombstone
Saturday, May 26 I got an e-mail from Dave Wilcox - perhaps best known to mere mortals as Steptoe T. Magnificent, the legendary Marble Bar rock and roll frontman and current driving force behind vintage rockers Chelsea Graveyard and the Screams at Midnight (pictured above) - asking me to videotape that evening's show at The Ottobar, which also included headliners The Slickee Boys and an ensemble I had never heard off, The Howling Mad.
It was Steptoe's birthday (the number isn't important - let's just say that he more than qualifies for AARP benefits), and he wanted the Memorial Weekend moment memorialized - not just for him, but for all Geminis, whose ranks were filled that night(including, word had it, the singer of the Howling Mad). I had taped Chelsea Graveyard at the Mark Harp Memorial two years earlier and I guess Steptoe liked what he saw, so I said OK. Besides, my girlfriend Amy (Mark Harp's ex-wife) was excited when I told her about it. "Oh cool," she said. "It'll be old people there - our peeps!"
Setting the Controls on the Wayback Machine
Our last few experiences at the Ottobar seeing Youth Culture bands like Deerhoof had given us a kind of culture shock, so Amy was up for what promised to be the closest thing to a Marble Bar seniors event. Like Chelsea Graveyard (whose members trace their thinning/graying roots to such Congress Hotel combos as The Alcoholics, Pooba, Rock Hard Peter, Problem Pets, and Thee Katatonix), the Slickee Boys were an electric anachronism whose glory days were the vinyl-friendly late 70s/early 80s. As, it turned out, were the Howling Mad. But the Slickees sound never aged and neither did Steptoe's charisma - tall, confident, and well-liked by his fellow musicians, he was perhaps the consumate showman of Baltimore's nascent punk scene and unofficial mentor to the next generation of Young Turks (including my old bandmate Adolf Kowlaksi).
Old Farts At Play
Walking in a 9:30 p.m., I saw the usual suspects for this musical fast forward into the past: Richard Taylor (Zehn Archer, Richard Taylor & The Ravers) was front and center with his fancy video camera, no doubt recording footage for an upcoming episode of Richard Taylor TV or perhaps his long awaited Marble Bar documentary. (Richard's Internet TV podcasts are pretty good and I'm glad he's filmming these shows, as I'm always impressed by anyone who takes home more than just smokey clothes and a hangover from rock shows - Some Product Carry On, as Malcolm McLaren would say.) Jack Nicholson lookalike (circa Five Easy Pieces) Mike Maxwell(brother of infamous Marble Bar "character" Tommy Vacant) was there with his wife Gail, filling me in on what I missed the night before at the Belvedere Square Friday Night Happy Hour (apparently, thousands of yuppies milling about with their well-bred dogs and privileged progeny). Looking around the room I also spied my ex-wife (and former bandmate in Thee Katatonix) Katie Katatonic and her hubby, Chelsea Grayeyard guitarist Steevee Squeegee (yet another former bandmate in Thee Katatonix), as well as Katie's brother Tom Glancy (another Gemini celebrating his birthday that night!) and his wife Char and daughter Sarah. Later I saw Big Dave Cawley (King of Men & Hater of All Things Clash, Zappa and Cilantro) with his young protege Jason Fritsch.
"What are you doing here?" I asked young Jason. "This is for old people!"
Jason explained that, on Big Dave Cawley (King of Men & Hater of All Things Clash, Zappa & Cilantro)'s advice, he wanted to see The Slickee Boys at least once before he (or more likely) they died. Fair enough! His musical mentor Big DC had previously exposed Jayce to the Buzzcocks, Jam and all things Mod, so it was a good call in the lad's education.
Also spotted were former Altered Legion chanteuse Lisa and some guy with round John Lennon specs and a leather cap who looked like - but wasn't! - former OHO/Food For Worms/BLAMMO keyboardist Mark O'Connor. I wasn't the only fool who stopped this guy and said, "Hey Mark!"
Fast Forward Into the Past
I'm at the age where the familiar is pleasant, so Chelsea Graveyard's set was enjoyably nostalgic, making me feel the vibe of Marble Bar nights past. Though it's kind of strange to see 40something and 50something musicians dressed up like they just visited Hot Topics at the mall, I guess it's part of the virtual Marble Bar Experience to see rock dudes in rock duds that harken back to the glory days of Commander Salamander or Looking Glass (anybody remember this New Wavey boutique that used to be on the 2nd floor of the H&H Building on Paca and Franklin back in the late 70's?) And I liked that Steptoe sent a shout out to my girlfriend's ex, Mark Harp (aka "Harpo," who played bass with Chelsea Graveyard in his final days and died at age 47 on December 24, 2004) and former Marble Bar impressario Roger Anderson (who played guitar with Steptoe's old combo The Alcoholics before suffering a heart attack at age 37 on April 26, 1984) as he introduced "Fall Away," a paen to "missing in action" musicians no longer playing the mortal plain circuit. I hadn't seen Chelsea Graveyard almost two years, and I noticed guitar player Steve "Spectre" Case had also fallen away from the line-up in that time, replaced by a relatively young looking string plucker identified on the band's MySpace page as Trixy McVicar.
But the time-tested setlist stood steadfast and all the fave ditties were played: "Cheap Thrill," "Photograph," and "Top of the Pops" (not be to be confused with the Rezillos song of the same title), to name but a few.
Midway through the set, Steptoe was joined onstage by a middle-aged babe who dueted on "Candy," a song Steptoe said was "by my good friend Jimmy Osterberg." Afterwards, introducing the Rock Hard Peter chestnut "Fuck Me Shoes," Steptoe said, "Now it's back to songs inspired by you young sluts." There were quite a few in attendance in the front row looking like devotees of the much younger Fishnet Stalkers fanbase and, while I found their scantily clad appendages worthy of visual consumption, I couldn't refrain from grimacing when I noticed how so many had devalued their booty with ill-advised tattoos. I'm sure it's a generation thing, but I just don't get it and cringe when I see nice "skin jobs" (to use Bladerunner terminology) soiled by the crass patina of tat parlor ink.
After Chelsea Graveyard's opening set, I found myself talking with my ex-wife about pop music while off in the corner Big Dave Cawley (King of Men & Hater Of All Things Clash, Zappa & Cilantro) was embroiled in a pointless discussion with Steevee Squeegee about how The Clash truly sucked (Clash fan Squeege gave no quarter and The Great Ottobar Clash Symposium remained a draw). I was pretty naive musically until I met Katie Katatonic in 1978; from that point on, she was responsible for all my subsequent musical discoveries, from punk to the Bay City Rollers, especially turning me on to any and everything British. She had championed Fountains of Wayne before anybody, and (as a recent FOW convert) I was complimenting her on her Power Pop credentials when she returned the compliment by saying, "But you turned me on to Razz and Tommy Keene. I give you that one."
The Re-Form Party
In fact, we had caught The Razz's farewell Baltimore appearance, opening for The Ramones, at Martin's East back in 1979. Anyway, Katie confided that the next act, Howling Mad, was "the best band playing tonight." Strong stuff, especially coming from the wife of the opening act.And then Katie pointed out that, coincidentally, not only was Howling Mad not just some nobody band that I could ignore while waiting for The Slickee Boys to come on, but that Howling Mad was comprised of most of The Razz - the legendary mid-to-late 70s DC pop band whose ranks once included my all-time fave singer- songwriter Tommy Keene. (While I appreciated Katie's bon mots about my turning her on to The Razz, all props for learning about them and Tommy Keene actually go to my good buddy Tom Lehr, a native of the District who later turned up as yet another Katatonix bandmate, playing bass under the nom de stage of Archie Android; Tom had been following The Razz since 1974 and the Slickees dating back to 1976 when Martha Hull sang and Howard Wuelfing was the bassist).
I've Been Abaad Boy
Though their sound was a far cry from The Razz, lead singer Michael Reidy - one of the greatest frontmen to emerge from the D.C. area - was unmistakable, joined onstage by former Razz drummer Doug Tull and original Razz guitarist Abaad Behram, a manic strummer with all the Guitar Hero Moves who looked like a slimed down version of Chris "The Plumber" Jensen - I kept expecting him to bend over and show off his butt-crack, Jensen-style. I had never seen the pre-Keene Razz, so this was a treat, being my first exposure to Abaad Behram. Later, when I got home and Googled his name, I found a great interview in Diminished 7th in which he slammed CBGBs, heckling the bands after a recent tip there, and uttering the notable quotable, "Never tell someone you’ll kick his ass. You just do it." I liked him even more now.
Abaad not only predated Tommy Keene in The Razz, but co-wrote and played guitar on the first single, C. Redux/70's Anomie (O'Rourke Records, 1977) - alongside second guitarist Bill Craig (later of Junior & The Recliners and the United States Postal Service) and the other original Razzer, bassist Ted Nicely - before leaving in May 1978 to start his own band Johnny Bombay and The Reactions and play briefly in power poppers Artful Dodger. The last gig Abaad played with Razz was a show at College park where the opening act was Tommy Keene's outfit, The Rage. It was a fortuitous coincidence, as Tommy took over Abaad's guitar slot in The Razz shortly thereafter.
The remaining, non-Razz Howling Mad player was the bassist, who clearly was not the always hidden-behind-dark-shades Ted Nicely, this guy looking more like Paul Shaeffer of The David Letterman Show, only taller and with hair.
Well, Razz factor aside, the first couple of Howling Mad numbers blew me away - they were tight and different and Abaad's manic guitar playing was off the hook, being slippery, unpredictable and slightly unhinged. And I could see why they were nominated for four Wammies (Washington Area Music Awards), including Best Modern Rock Group, Best New Artist of the Year, Best Modern Rock Vocalist of the Year (Michael Reidy), and Best Modern Rock Instrumentalist of the Year (Abaad Behram). But as the set wore on, I kind of lost interest, longing for some of the old melodic pop of the Razz.
And then I remembered why Tommy Keene quit - he and Reidy had different ideas on musical direction, Keene opting for more traditional British Invasion-influenced jingly-jangly pop, while Reidy preferred to push the envelope with his more experimental beats and lyrical forays. I remember seeing one of his post-Razz ensembles at the Marble Bar (MWWW?) in the early 80s and it was some Red Room/Normal's type act, Reidy on vocals backed only by bass and drums, like a local funk-lite version of James Chance and The Contortions. I don't recall it being fun or memorable.
Or, as Joe Goldsborough (never one to mince words) commented to Big Dave Cawley (King of Men & Hater of All Things Clash, Zappa & Cilantro) following two successive long bass-drum jam-outs, "That was the second turd of the night."
Though the Razz reformed for several encore performances in the 90s - including two shows opening for the Monkees in 1997 at D.C.'s 9:30 Club - the best way to rekindle their memory is to dig out their old singles on O'Rourke Records. At least that's what I take from Abaad Behram's mission statement to the Washington City Paper: "This band is just Reidy and I deciding that we could maybe write songs in the present moment. We’re not relying on the stuff we’ve done before." Alas, the only Razz around today is the card game (a form of stud poker that is normally played for ace-to-five low).
"We've always loved Baltimore," Mark Noone shouted out to the crowd after the Slickees first number, "Escalator 66". "We played our first Baltimore show at some place called The Oddfellow's Hall in 1980."
I should know - my old band Thee Katatonix (Towson's first-ever punk combo) opened for them at Towson's Oddfellows Hall on Valentine's Day 1980 (I even recall we were debuting Adolf Kowalski's new timely song, "(I Didn't Get Laid On) Valentine's Day"); it was not a match made in heaven as first dates go. I remember that the Slickees never played there again, no doubt incensed that we split the door Even Steven that night, despite the disparity in talent between the top of the pops Slickees and the bottom of the barrel Katatonix, still trying to learn more than two chords in those fledgling days. That the Katatonix should be level with the Slickees on any level was surely the greatest injustice since Jean Valjean did time in the slammer for nicking some bread.
After all, The Slickee Boys were the best local band of my era, influencing a whole generation of garage rock and psychedelic-indebted post-punk bands. And, like The Tubes, they were one of those bands who were always better live than on record. Slickee Boys live were, in George Tenet parlance, always a "slam dunk" affair. I think that's because not only were they top-notch musicians and well-versed students of the history of garage and psychedelic rock as preached by Nuggets and the record bins of Skip Groff's Yesterday and Today Records in Olney, MD, but they were FUN. F-U-N. They had a certain rock club cache, an aural aplomb, especially when Mark Noone came aboard. People instinctly started dancing when the Slickees hit the stage. It was happening tonight - as I looked at the floorboards quaking, there was Amy shaking every which way but especially loose as the Slickees knocked out their hits: "When I Go to the Beach," "Gotta tell Me Why," "Here To Stay," "Forbidden Alliance," and "Life of the Party."
The Slickees just made you feel good and guaranteed a good time by one and all. I can still recall going to see one of their Christmas or New Year's shows at Baltimore's 8x10 Club (whose owner Giles was now their long-established drummer), all nervous because I was on a first date with the prettiest girl I ever knew, Lady Jane. By the end of the night, the Slickees had worked their magic and, well, let's just say it was a match made in heaven as first dates go.
Admittedly, Kim Kane started the group, came up with the name, designed their record sleeves and had his deserved following - but the heart and soul of the Slickees was always the Glimmer Twins nucleus of singer Mark Noone and guitarist Marshall Keith. In my household, there was an even closer following for the Cult of Mark Noone; my ex had an understandable crush on the charismatic Mark Noone, and at shows Mark would often dedicate "Jailbait Janet" (a ditty dating from their Afrika Corp days) to "little jailbait Katie Katatonic."
And the covers! From Nuggets to Pebbles, they covered the history of obscure garage gems: Balloon Farm's "A Question of Temperature," The Downliner Sect's "Glendora" ( a song the Slickees made their own), Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchsticks Men," The Chocolate Watch Band's "Are You Gonna be There (At the Love-In Tonight)"?
Later, long after the Slickees had wound down their set with "This Party Sucks" and the obligatory encores, Amy and I listened to the Slickees' 1983 Cybernetic Dreams of Pi CD and Amy pointed out how similar sounding Mark Noone's voice was to Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh. It's really striking how much they sing in the same key and octave! Q: Are we not Slickees? A: We are Devo. And both are legendary.
Chelsea Graveyard's MySpace Page
Howling Mad Official Site
Slickee Boys (Twintone Records)
Slickee Boys (Wikipedia)
Slickee Boys: Garage Rock That Didn't Suck (Earcandy Mag)