Friday, February 03, 2012

tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE remembers Baltimore's Punk Scene


I came across this review of the book BANNED IN DC (long out-of-print, with used copies ranging from $86-$480!) after Googling "Da Moronics" to see if they had released any of their music on the Internet. Typical of the author's style, it was less a book review than a remembrance of the narrator's own personal experiences in Baltimore during its brief punk era - which is why I like it! (Well, that and the fact that I remember later kissing one of the girls whose photo appears in the book.) I was part of this fleeting punk scene, possibly my only (tentative) connection with the author.
Full Disclosure: I never "got" the artist who went by the impossible-to-spell and constantly changing handle "tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE" (not to mention "Monty Cantsin," "BalTimOre," etc.) or however he spelled it. (Most people just referred to him as "Tent" or even by his birthname, Michael Tolson. It was a blissfully short and simple way to refer to a guy who was anything but blissfully simple - though he was kinda short.) But then I never really knew him, though he was always exceedingly polite (and quiet) on the few occasions I did meet him and I knew people who knew him (my physical therapist and former N.E.M.B. bass player George Poscover once lived with him, as did my friend Melissy D's former boyfriend "Big Dave" Scheper; and Kenny Vieth of Henningers Tavern knew Tent from his Jockee Clubbe residence days, etc., etc.).

In fact, my filmmaker friend Skizz Cyzyk - who took over Tent's H.O.M.E. Viewing film series at The Mansion and turned it into (eventually) Baltimore's MicroCineFest film festival - swears he's a genius and considers him one of his all-time heroes (see Skizz's interview with t,ac on the occasion of screening t,ac's STORY OF A FRUCTIFEROUS SOCIETY at the 2005 MicroCinFest). Another filmmaker, Kent Bye, once started working on a documentary about him (tentatively entitled "Who is tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE?"), which has yet to see the light of day. I think Kent had the right idea and I really wish someone would not only make but finish a documentary about him because, like him or not, "get" him or not, Tent has led an amazing life. He seemed to know everybody - from John Doe to Vermin Supreme and everyone in between - and while I didn't always "get" his art, I can't fault his work ethic (Tent: "Work will make you Free Trade!"). This is a guy who made the commitment early on to be a full-fledged anarcho-artist 24/7 and he's never wavered from it since. In a different era, he might have been one of the nihilists Dostoyevsky described in The Possessed. Or burned at the stake in an auto-da-fe. As in the Sinatra song "My Way," Tent's had a few regrets - but he did it HIS WAY, for better or worse.

Tent - in yet another guise

He currently resides in Pittsburgh, looks a little like Ken Kesey and goes by the new handle Amir-ul Kafirs - but more importantly, he's discovered the free-publishing utility and social networking wonder of the Internet, which is a good thing because Tent is an amazing archivist; he's basically uploaded his entire life to the Web, a treasure trove of photos, writings, art and - more importantly - memories of people, places, and things he's experienced. And he's experienced a lot (Tent: "I've collaborated with so many people in so many ways that it's almost 'impossible' to keep track of it all"!) Speaking of his hard-to-keep-track-of-ness, we have some of his films - both in 16mm (Subtitles, Sound along w/ t he bouncing ball(s), Transparent SMILE) and video (H.O.M.E. encyclopedia) format - at the Enoch Pratt Central Library, but there are more that are almost "impossible" to find, "lost in the stacks" because of his non-intuitive, non-traditional, library catalog-unfriendly way of spelling and naming things! (Tent defends this approach as a refusal "to be contextualized w/in dominant careerist paradigms." All I know is: only rap artists are more problematic for librarians to look up - with all their monetary symbols and non-intuitive spellings - and my generation thought Slade couldn't spell right!). But maybe he wanted it that way. Maybe he wanted to be a puzzle to be solved, a hidden Easter Egg unearthed in the stacks.


Banned in DC: Photos and Anecdotes from the DC Punk Underground (79-85)
by Cynthia Connelly, Leslie Claque, Sharon Cheslow
(Goodreads, July 2008)

[I took the liberty of adding some photos and hyperlinks to Tent's review.]

My initial review of this was 15160 characters - 5160 over the limit. I have to cut out over a 3rd of it. Looking thru it is like looking at a high school yrbk that's for the outcasts & rebels.

Around 1972, when we were both 19, John Duchac & I went to a concert called The End of the World Show. A group played that I sometimes credit w/ being Baltimore's 1st punk band: The Grand Poobah Subway. The latter were completely irreverant, they used styrofoam guitar props that they destroyed. It was cacophonous & bombastic. I loved it, John hated it. I think it was too 'amusical' for him, too 'tasteless'.

Meet "John Doe"

John moved to LA shortly thereafter where he became John Doe of the band X. John wd come back to Baltimore from time-to-time & by 1976 he'd turned me onto Devo's 1st single. But it wasn't 'til roughly 1977 that I personally felt punk as a new phenomena when I heard the Sex Pistols & when some friends in Baltimore started a band called Da Moronics.

Da Moronics outside Odorite building, 1978 (photo by Paula Gillen)

The Sex Pistols were ANARCHIST, as was I. That, in & of itself, was exciting. At the time, I only knew one other anarchist in Baltimore. But the music? Dullsville. I'd already long since left rock behind & this was basically the same old same old.

Tom DiVenti ascends his rightful throne (photo by Paula Gillen)

But Punk Rock was saved by a few obvious things: a sortof fuck-it! attitude that encouraged DIY raw flying-by-the-seat-of-yr-pants. & Da Moronics exemplified this. For me, they were Baltimore's 1st punk band. Tom DiVenti was the guitarist & a prominent poet/performer. He had a big carriage house space that he turned into the Apathy Project. This was a great place for shows. Tom was making things happen. Bill Moriarity was the singer.

Da Moronics singer Bill Moriarty (photo by Paula Gillen)

Da Moronics probably did songs about the most miserable shit, like cancer, w/ a great deal of irony & fuck-it!-that's-the-way-it-is! frankness. They were totally ragged at 1st but, as w/ most punk bands, they didn't let that inhibit them. They were fun. I remember one nite behind the Apathy Project a guy tried to rob a petite lesbian friend of mine in the nearby alley at gunpoint. She was in an early all-girl punk band called the 45s. She punched the wd-be robber in the face. He ran off.

Bill got sick of being in Da Moronics pretty quick b/c one of the main places they'd play was at the Oddfellows Hall in Towson (a pretty fascist suburb to the north of Baltimore) where the jockier members of the audience wd throw full pitchers of beer at him. He didn't get it - why the fuck did they think it was ok to do that do him?!

In 1979, I created a series of events under the name Crab Feast - the 1st of wch was a guerrilla installation. On January 24, 1980, 4 of us played as a band at the Telectropheremanniversary - the 1st anniversary of an underground phone network that I'd cofounded.

Crab Feast performed songs about herpes (wch I'd recently gotten), telephones, the Krononautic Society (a time-travel society many of us were in), some experimental instrumentals of mine, etc.. Thinking back on it now, that one gig was pretty historical.

There was very little connection between the DC & Baltimore punk scenes at this point. Bands like the Slickee Boys & Judy's Fixation played in DC but they were really from south of Baltimore rather than from the city proper. Judy's Fixation was from Annapolis. So was Sam Fitzsimmons who was one of the best party organizers & an all-round good natured guy. DC had the rep in Baltimore as being straight-edge - eschewing drugs & alcohol. B-More was definitely the opposite & most of the B-More punks were a bit contemptuous of straight-edge.

Sam Fitzsimmons (photo by Michelle Gienow)

Baltimore's punk scene was strongly nihilistic, punks were into getting as much out-of-their minds as they cd, as often as possible. We were all freaks & outcasts & we were flaunting it w/ a middle finger to all the people who tried to terrorize us into obeying. One way of doing that wd be to be so fucked-up that we'd be genuinely dangerous out on the streets. Of course, having fun was a big part of it too. Sex & drugs & rock'n'roll.

& the Marble Bar in the Congress Hotel was the perfect venue. The Congress had been an upscale hotel earlier in the century. Stars wd come & stay there & perform in the Galaxy Ballroom on the 1st fl. By the time the Marble was a punk club, the hotel was a halfway house for prisoners freshly released & a cheap fuck pad for married art school teachers to fuck their students in.

The Congress Hotel, home to the Marble Bar & Galaxy Ballroom

The Marble Bar was great - a sortof free zone where cops never came & most of the straight people who harassed us the rest of the time were too afraid to go. Once you went in there it was safe for all sorts of weird behavior. Still, I was thrown out twice but I was allowed back, there was an attitude on inclusiveness. All the freaks that the rest of society hated were welcome there.

Galaxy Ballroom Subgenius Con/Party flyer

The Galaxy Ballroom was where the more experimental stuff happened. Sam & I co-organized the 3rd Convention of the Church of the Subgenius there in September of 1983. At the SubG Con, the lead singer of Judy's Fixation participated in the "Sex? Straight? To Hell?" panel discussion. He'd recently plunged whole-assedly into the Gay Dungeon Master scene. On the panel he proclaimed that AIDS was to help you, not hurt you! He suffered from a ruptured internal organ shortly thereafter after being fist-fucked & then died very quickly from AIDS.

"The Singer Not the Schlong": Dungeonmaster Vaughn Keith ("Ben Wah") of Judy's Fixation (photo by Jack of Hearts)

Around this time, I was living w/ Stoc Marcut, the lead singer of Fear of God. At one point he bought a pig's head to use in a performance but the performance didn't happen, or some such, so he just left the pig's head rotting.. in his car trunk.. in the summer.

"Pig-headed": Stoc Marcut of Fear of God

By 1984, I'd started a new group called "t he booed usicians". We premiered at the 5th anniversary of the phone network, "t he Telectropeheremoanin'quinquennial" where our set involved phone sex. By today's standards we were a 'noise group', but I've never thought of it that way. The other groups on the bill were Sam's Motor Morons & [Mark] Harp's P.A.B.L.U.M. - wch was a parody group referring to Infant Lunch - a great B-More band who'd played at the SubG Con.

The Motor Morons were great! One guy played cans on a grinding wheel, another played electronics by pouring beer in it. A staple intrument was the one-string bass. A related group of Sam's was Oral Fixation. They played prop instruments, w/ tapes providing the actual sounds - except for the vocals, wch were live.

Before Kegasaurus there was...Oral Fixation! (photo by Jack of Hearts)

In 1985, I toured & performed at a place in CT called "Cafe Anthrax". There I was, a naked 31 yr old guy showing weird movies to a mostly much younger crowd & the cops came in. They didn't harass me about my nudity at all. Amazing. I'm told that Cafe Anthrax is a legendary punk club by now.

For me, punk was more or less dead by then. I didn't see much new coming out of it & heroin was creeping in to ruin things. I remember being at a Dead Kennedys show where some of us drew the DK logo on our hands to get in for free. We were told by someone associated w/ the band or w/ organizing the gig that that "wasn't cool". I thought: "This is an anarchist band?! Fuck these people!"

Another time, I was w/ my ex-girlfriend, Valerie Favazza, at a show where a film crew was touring. Valerie used to spend hrs putting her make-up on. People called her the "grandmother of punk", or some such, even though she was young, b/c she was so visibly out there. I was wearing a completely uncool white linen suit w/ pictures of lepers on it that I'd specially made & my hair was in a circle going sideways around my head. I was very 'uncool' b/c punk was already stylized & codified by then. Fuck that. Then the documentary guys asked us if they cd shoot footage of us. Valerie agreed & they went back to her place to shoot her elaborate make-up process. I declined. Punk was too dead to be associated w/ anymore. Too conformist. Now I kindof wish I'd done it. It wd be a nice record of the times. I'd still like to see the movie someday.

Then, yrs later, "BANNED IN DC" came out. People were excited! A bk about the punk scene! There was triumph in the air! As if by having a bk to document DC's scene, punk in general was validated as somehow REAL - rather than just the ephemera of a bunch of suicidal losers. I didn't care, I'd long since moved on, I'd never REALLY been a punk anyway - I was too extreme even for the punk scene. Still, though, looking thru this bk, I feel how important it was all over again.

To an outsider looking at this bk, the punks might look deranged, fascistic, riotous, dangerous - but to an insider, we were people who were trying to live freely & to the fullest. Most of us were barely surviving, the music was one of the only fun ways to make some extra bucks, to possibly escape from the deadend jobs. I'm grateful that "BANNED IN DC" exists. How much of that intense era has really survived? The music, sure, but that seems somewhat secondary to me in contrast to the hell-raising so many of us did. "BANNED" at least shows the people. Seeing them in the bk makes them seem somehow 'normal' in context - but in the rest of the world life cd be pretty dangerous for us given that the hatred for deviance was being expressed violently.

Thank you, Leslie [BANNED IN DC co-author Leslie Clague].

Related Tent Links:
Goodreads author profile for tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE
a mere outline website

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