Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Aural Sects: Punk Rock Oral Histories

I just finished reading John Robb's Punk Rock: An Oral History (Ebury Press, 2007), which is the latest entry in the punk/postpunk oral history category, a genre which got kick-started in 1997 with Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's still-unparalleled Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. (Of course, pop culture's attraction to oral histories really started with Jean Stein and George Plimpton's groundbreaking Edie: American Girl (Grove Press, 1982).)

I've read just about all the punk and postpunk histories because it was the defining music of my generation that's stuck with me through college and long afterwards. (I'm very resistant to change, like Italo Calvino's Aquatic Uncle in Cosmicomics who refused to jump on the Amphibian Bandwagon and evolve!) John Robb is a musician (ex-Members, Goldblade) as well as journalist, and his foray into this burgeoning field is pretty good, emphasizing a lot of so-called "second wave" working-class punks (Angelic Upstarts, Discharge, Sham 69, UK Subs, Comsat Angels, Rudi) who walked-the walk and not just the talk that many of the first-gen university and art school-educated bands (The Clash, Stranglers, Howard Devoto, Gang of Four, Cabaret Voltaire) gave voice to. There's a lot of quotes from Steve Diggle of Buzzcocks and Pistols cast-off Glen Matlock (Rich Kids), though of course the book ends with Johnny "Rotten" Lydon's summation of the punk ethos: "Don't copy, think for should make your own of everything."

I don't have the energy to write a detailed analysis because, quite frankly, I'm feverishly sitting here zonked out on meds and twitching uncontrollably from a poison ivy encounter (a Man vs. Nature battle in which, yet again, Nature has vanquished homo gardening nincompoopis! See my pustule pix below).

Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of Calamine Lotion!

I'm including Simon Reynolds' superb Rip It Up and Start Again, which is not an oral history per se, but has to be mentioned because it's the definitive word on the postpunk period (which started with the breakup of the Sex Pistols in 1978), and which is based on reams of interviews conducted by the well-versed author.

Anyway, here's how I stack the books on this subject.

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored History of Punk Rock
by Legs McNeil and Gilliam McCain
(Grove Press, 1997)

Though Cleveland and Detroit get their nods, this one could have been subtitled "New York, New York." The first cut is the deepest and Please Kill Me is still the one to beat as far as chronicling the true "first wave" of punk, which was conceived in the burned-out husk of Midwest cities like Detroit (Stooges, MC5) and finally breach-birthed in New York City. Features the best in-depth interviews with the major players and bands, including the Velvet Underground, Ramones, New York Dolls, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Blondie, Dead Boys, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith; the local club/performance spaces like Mercer Arts Center, CBGBs OMFUG, Ritz, The Bowery, St Mark's Place; and the scenemakers like photographer Bob Gruen, Robert Mapplethorpe, Leee Childers, Jim Carroll, Danny Fields, Hilly Kristol, Punk magazine, New York Rocker, etc. 'Nuff said: read and bleed!

Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984
by Simon Reynolds
(UK Faber and Faber edition 2005; US Penguin edition 2006)

You can't have postpunk with having had pre-postpunk, so there you have it. It's all there, especially John Lydon's post-Sex Pistols PiL, who provide the inspiration and jumping off point for Reynolds' unrivaled history of the bands and music that not only chronologically succeeded but, in effect, trumped punk: Joy Division, Talking Heads, Throbbing Gristle, Scritti Politti, Gang of Four, Wire, The Pop Group, Cabaret Voltaire, Slits, Magazine, Pere Ubu, The Fall, Young Marble Giants.

Reynolds' approach, unlike other punk histories, forgoes chronological order (there was too much overlap) and instead breaks up his narrative into micro-narratives arranged by geography - by city, like the lesser known northern provincial music scene towns of Coventry (Specials), Sheffield (Cabaret Voltaire, Human League), Leeds (Gang of Four, Mekons), Birmingham (English Beat), Cardiff (Young Marble Giants); regions (Ohio's Cleveland-Akron Rust Belt); or even whole countries (Scotland) - while other chapters are based on genre or sensibility - synthpop, industrial, New Pop, the influence of writers like William Burroughs, Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard (especially on Ultravox!) - or the Postpunk Record Labels (Postcard, Creation, Rough Trade, etc.). I really loved the chapter on Scottish bands from Glasgow and Edinburgh and the whole Postcard Records scene - Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, The Skids, The Associates, The Fire Engines, and Josef K. - the last a band I only recently discovered and now love.

And no one else has come close to documenting the DIY/Postpunk Movement celebrated in the chapter "Messthetics: The London Sound," which is the best guide to the music now available from Hyped2Death Records, much of which represents lone single or cassette releases by complete unknowns, hicks from the sticks who took the anyone-can-do-it aesthetic to heart. ("Messthetics" takes its name from a Scritti Politti single.) See Hyped2death's full line of Messthetics regional releases: Messthetics: UK DIY/Postpunk 1977-1982.

For some reason, the UK version of Reynolds' tome has three additional chapters on the US postpunk scene, including New York's Mutant Disco/No Wave Scene, Progressive Punk and SST Records, Second Wave Industrial and ZZT Records.

London's Burning: True Adventures on the Front Lines of Punk, 1976-1977
by Dave Thompson
(Chicago Review Press, 2009)

I love all of Dave Thompson's books. (Again, this is not an "oral history" per se - there are no big blocks of rock personnae quotes filling up the page - but it has a vibe similar to the genre, with the added bonus of Thompson's distinctive prose.) This one reads like a "I-was-there" day-by-day, release-by-release account because, well, Thompson was. In the spring of 1976, he was a 16-year-old getting his schooling at a record store, where he found himself in the right place at exactly the right time. He went to all the right gigs, like at Don Letts' Roxy, and crammed in as many shows a week as he could see in the year of the Queen's Jubilee and subsequent musical jubi-Melee. The most info you're likely to find about The Damned and the Adverts on tour, Ian Dury's Kilburns, the Maniacs, and The Stranglers, as well as the Finchley Boys crew - I even learned the sad fate of the Stranglers' No. 1 groupie, "Daggenham Dave" (who is not to be confused with the guy Morrissey sang about). And at the end of each chapter, Thompson provides a recommended playlist.

Thompson really sets the stage with his in-depth account of how reggae and the squatters came together to forge a DIY culture that allied blacks and whites together against the establishment, especially after the Notting Hill Carnival riot.

The book also name-checks many of the bands kicking around that got left behind in the history books when punk broke, like Roogalator, Dr. Feelgood, and The Heavy Metal Kids.

We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk
by Mark Spitz and Brendan Mullen
(Three Rivers Press, 2001)

Outside of X, The Dickies, Fear, The Zeros, Dead Kennedys, and the Weirdos, I never much cared for the West Coast punk bands, but I was interested in learning more about its scene - which included the fascinating DJ/scenemaker Rodney Bingingheimer - and this oral history is the best book on the subject out there. Mullen was a Scottish ex-pat who briefly ran The Masque club and practice space. The Runaways, their Svengali-hypemeister Kim Fowley, Tomata du Plenty and The Screamers, The Nuns (whose proto-pretty singer Jennifer Miro was the West Coast fetishist answer to Blondie's Debbie Harry), Michael Des Barres, Black Rodney, The Bags, Agent Orange, Germs, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, TSOL, Adolescents, The Go-Gos, Akron ex-pats Devo in their Californication phase - they're all here. Plus quotes from Beck's mom (and former Warhol star), Bibbe Hansen and great photos by Jenny Lens.

As companion pieces, I recommend watching the Rodney Bingenheimer documentary The Mayor of Sunset Strip, as well as Dick Rude's documentary short LA Punk: The First 5 Years (included as an extra feature on Don Lett's Punk Attitude documentary) - and, of course, Penelope Spheeris' cult classic The Decline of Western Civilization. Oh, and Kim Fowley's tripped-out appearance on Tom Synder's The Tomorrow Show: Punk & New Wave is great, too. Essentials, all.

From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World
by Clinton Heyward
(Penguin Books, 1993)

Very good on the (mostly) New York and (some) Cleveland scenes, though Dave Cawley points out that he's sick of reading the obligatory punk references to Pere Ubu that seem to accompany any oral history. (Can you tell he's not a fan?) Too bad, Dave, Ubu, Dead Boys, Rocket from the Crypt, The Mirrors, Suicide Commandoes, and Tin Huey all get their due here, but mostly it's Detroit's Iggy & The Stooges/MC5 and New York's punk 'n' New Wave pioneers (Ramones, The Dictators, Blondie, Suicide, Talking Heads, Blondie, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Television, Richard Hell & The Voidoids, The Mumps, Tish and Snooky, etc., etc.) In fact, this is probably the best dirt dished on Wayne County, Neon Boys, Television, Verlaine and Richard Hell - I really learned a lot from it.

Punk Rock: An Oral History
by John Robb
(Ebury Press, 2007)

A valuable addition to the genre that I would recommend reading after first taking in the books above. I learned a lot about the early Clash - back when Mick Jones and Keith Levene and Tony James and Brian James were hanging out (and yet to meet Joe Strummer and his 101ers). And a great appreciation of Pub Rock - Wilco Johnson and Dr. Feelgood, the Kilburns, and so on, from this book. Robb interviewed more than 100 contributors, including in-depth talks with Glen Matlock, Mick Jones, Don Letts, Slash, Billy Bragg, Hugh Cornwell, Steve Diggle, and Captain Sensible.

Punk Lives!
But having just picked up the 2-disc Punk Lives! CD, which features tracks by a lot of bands I was unfamiliar with (including many good-quality live performances at Don Lett's Roxy club), I was glad to learn more about the Angelic Upstarts, Sham 69, Slaughter and the Dogs (who were on the bill with the Sex Pistols at their legendary Lesser Free Trade Hall gig in Manchester), UK Subs, and their ilk.

England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond
by Jon Savage
(St. Martins revised edition, 2002 )

Never mind the bollocks, read Jon Savage! I've never read it all the way through (just the Buzzcocks bits), but it's considered the final word on the Brit punk movement and any punk history worth its muck always quotes Savage. The definitive story of the Sex Pistols and the first punk wave (well, in England, at least). I did read Savage's The England's Dreaming Tapes, which is a straight "oral history" transcription of the voluminous interviews Savage conducted before penning England's Dreaming, and loved the chapters on Buzzcocks and their talented graphic designer Linder Sterling (also an erstwhile musician in Ludus), who co-edited The Select Public graphic (and I do mean graphic!) collage-zine with Savage.

And if you're into the Pistols, it behooves ya to check out the story of their legendary gig at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall, I Swear I Was There: The Gig That Changed The World by David Nolan.

I Swear I Was There: The Gig That Changed the World
by David Nolan
(IMP, 2006)

This is a detailed book account of the Sex Pistols' famous gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester on June 4, 1976. (Though the tickets were misprinted as "4 June 1076" - collector's erratum item!)

I Swear I Was There: "4th June 1076"

Organized by Bolton Institute of Technology students (and fledgling Buzzcocks) Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley - after they drove down to London to see the Pistols perform and wanted to bring the "What's the buzz, 'cock?" excitement back home - this was the gig(s) that supposedly launched dozens of punk and postpunk bands - including Buzzcocks, The Smiths, New Order, The Fall, Warsaw/Joy Division, Simply Red, A Certain Ratio, Ludus, Magazine - because it drew a Who's Who of musicians and influential journalists (including Paul Morley and Tony Wilson, later of Factory Records, Hacienda, and "Madchester" fame). It was also the gig(s) where future 'cock Steve Diggle was recuited into Buzzcocks following a missed audition rendezvous. The gig was voted by Channel 4 television as one of the three most important gigs of all time, and was featured in the films 24 Hour Party People and Control.

The Sex Pistols' performance that night before a handful of fans has been named by critics as one of the most pivotal performances in music history, not for its quality but because of the effect the music had on the audience, many of whom (Mark E. Smith, Morrissey, Peter Hook, Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner, Mick Hucknall) went on to form their own bands. What's lesser known about the Lesser Hall gig is that many have forgotten that there were actually two Pistols gigs there - most people (like Ian Curtis) went to that second gig, which took place six weeks later on July 20.

"Until now, everyone's been happy to print the legend. For the first time, here's the truth," reads the jacket blurb and Nolan's account meticulously defogs the mystery surrounding the events, with many previously unpublished photos, interviews with key players and fans (John the Postman!), and audience members. The legend mentions all the future influential bands members in the audience, but does anyone remember the name ofthe opening band on 4 July 1976? It was a prog-rock band called Solstice, recruited at the last minute when Devoto and Shelley realized Buzzcocks weren't yet ready for prime time.

Buzzcocks played at the second gig on July 20 along with a then-glam rocky Slaughter and the Dogs, who printed up flyers giving themselves top billing - and relegating the 'cocks to the ignominious billing of "Plus Support"!

Nolan also produced a Granada TV documentary film of the Lesser Free Trade Hall gigs under the same title that aired on ITV.

Watch I Swear I Was There.

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Monday, August 27, 2012

Close Encounters of the MRI Kind

MRI: A Long Day's JOURNEY into Piped-in Muzak

This past Sunday, I visited the gleaming, new state-of-the-art Sheikh Zayed Tower at Johns Hopkins Hospital to get a state-of-the-art 3-Tesla MRI (Magnetic Resonance Image) of my troublesome foot, which I injured following an ill-advised 10K race back in April of this year. (Yeah, I finished in the top 15% of that day's field, but big whoop-dee-frickin-doo: I haven't run since!)

Magnetic Resonance Imaging is a medical diagnostic technique that creates images of the human body using the principle of nuclear magnetic resonance. It can generate thin-section images of any part of the human body - from any angle and direction. Now, I had never heard of a "3T MRI," but apparently it's the most detailed MRI one can get. If a picture is worth a thousand words, so the saying goes, a 3T MRI is worth an Encyclopaedia Brittanica. And I like that the top-line 3T MRI name-checks its pioneering founder Nikola Tesla, whose 1882 discovery of "Rotating Magnetic Fields" was the springboard for subsequent magnetic resonance imaging technology. Take that, Edison!

I had been told by the office secretary to expect to be there for up to three hours and that I'd probably be enclosed that whole time. I was dreading this, because I have a phobia about being enclosed - to this day I rarely take elevators (or "steel coffins" as I like to call them) because of this fear of entrapment (plus stairways never break down, in my experience) - but in truth, the whole experience was rather pleasant. The entire procedure only took 45 minutes and only my leg had to go inside the MRI device, which was open at both ends. Whew!

The staff was friendly (a cute blonde was my radiologist) and reassuring. When I told a lab assistant about my elevator phobia, she empathized and told me about her experience last year when that she and her husband were trapped in an elevator at Baltimore's Monoco Hotel. I shared my recollections of being trapped inside one years ago at one of the City Paper's "Best of Baltimore" parties at the Belvedere Hotel. (I had hesitated getting in the tiny lift because it was crammed with a bunch of sweaty, huffing fatties anxious to make a bee-line for the buffet shrimp on the 13th Floor - and, sure enough we got stuck, with little folk like me left to inhale their excess gas and body odor while they gluttonously hogged all the oxygen. Never again!)

But most of the fuss about getting an MRI has to do with the sound of the MRI machine - not only did they give me headphones to listen to "soft rock" to offset the noise, but they also gave me a panic button to press if I was "freaked out" by the experience.

Much ado about nothing! I actually dug the loud MRI sounds! As I texted my girlfriend aftewards...
"Just got out of my MRI cocoon. They are burning me a CD (which I'll add to my "Tom's Body A/V Collection," which also includes my Colonoscopy Photo Gallery). The hardest part of the procedure was listening to the piped-in "soft rock" muzak of Journey ("Don't Stop Believin'") and The Doobie Brothers ("Listen to the Music"). I actually liked the MRI sounds - really loud electronic/industrial noises...or "real science-fi like on channel 45," as Balto-punks Da Moronics would say...kinda like Kraftwerk meets the soundtrack of Forbidden Planet!"

[Forbidden Planet, a 1956 sci-fi movie adaptation of Shakespeare's play The Tempest, featured the first entirely electronic film score, composed by Bebe and Louis Barron.]

I eventually took my headphones off, dreading that a Phil Collins aural attack was imminent (which made me think of Alec Baldwin's classic riposte from the first season of 30 Rock when someone asked if he liked The Prince of Pablum: "I have two ears and a heart, don't I?"). After all, in Inner Space no one can hear you scream!

Hopkins gave me a CD of images from my procedure, but I wish it had an audio track of all that great MRI machine noise!

I was so in the mood for electronic music after my MRI experience that I made a dash through a raging rainstorm afterwards to go to the Towson Record & Tape Traders to pick up an out-of-print Cabaret Voltaire LP I had seen there in the Bargain Bin two days prior. But, alas, somebody beat me to Code - used copies of which go for $40 on Amazon. (Someone also snagged the Van der Graf Generator LP I had my eye on, plus Leslie West's The Great Fatsby and Mick Ronson's Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.) He who hesitates is lost - unless it's a crowded elevator, that is!

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Howard Wuelfing's "Descenes"

"Descenes" celebrates the Insect Surfers (June 1980)

I recently posted some pix from Baltimore's early '80s Marble Bar fanzine Tone Scale. As we Baltimoron natives well know, we live in the armpit of our upscale neighbors down I-95 in Washington, DC, so it should come as no surprise that their slick music fanzines from this period make ours look like neolithic cave drawings.

One of the best was Howard Wuelfing's Descenes, a punk/New Wave fanzine which came out circa 1980 on the heels of former WGTB staffer Mary Levy's similarly-themed Infiltrator. (Wuelfing also was involved with the Dischords music 'zine.) In Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins' Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital, Wuelfing explained "I wanted it to be like the original New York Rocker, where the people in the scene who saw each other's band would write about each other."

Insect Surfers profile pic

And they did. Besides Wuelfing - an erstwhile Slickee Boy and founder of The Nurses (whose byline was "HSMW" for Howard S-M Wuelfing) - Descenes featured the reviews of such musicians/music critics such as Mark Jenkins, Jim Testa, Robot Hull, and Michael Mariotte (Tru Fax & The Insaniacs' drummer). Besides Wuelfing's band, the paper gave a lot of coverage to the Insaniacs - and why not? Mariotte was not the only staff writer with an Insaniac connection. Mark Jenkins dated Tru Fax (and ex-Shirker) bassist Libby Hatch while Tru Fax singer/guitarist Diana Quinn was a staff photographer (as well as helping with typesetting and production), and Tru Fax lead guitarist David Wells was listed on the bannerhead as "Research Director." Incestuous? Sure, but hey, like Wuelfing intended, it was a labor-of-love production by people-in-the-scene for people-in-the-scene.

Ebeneezer & The Bludgeons profile pic

Its pages celebrated a Who's Who of "Beltway Beat" bands (mostly DC but plenty of Balto groups represented as well): The Insect Surfers (a surf-rock band billing themselves today as "the Planet Earth's longest running modern surf band" who play the type of music best represented around Charm City these days by Garage Sale, with their Dave - Dave Aronson - aptly matching GS' manic ball-of-energy Dave Cawley, leap for leap, bound for bound, as shown in the videos below)...

...not to mention the aforementioned Tru Fax & The Insaniacs, Slickee Boys, Bad Brains, Tiny Desk Unit, The Razz, The Dark (featuring Ted Niceley and Doug Tull of The Razz), Nightman (featuring ex-Razz guitarist Bill Craig), Original Fetish, Tex Rubinowitz and the Bad Boys, Tina Peel, The Puppets, The Barriers, The Trend, The Pin-Ups, CoAccident, Shop Girls, Dirty Work, Interval On, Teen Idylls, Brad Knox Group, Krononautic Society, Citizen 23, Resistors, Cancer Girls, D. Ceats, The Chumps, Penetrators, Shirkers, Young Turds, Scientific Americans, The Untouchables, Black Market Baby, Billy Hancock, Westminster's Half Japanese (Wuelfing briefly played bass in one of their constantly revolving lineups), College Park's The Breakers, Anne Arundel's Casual Carriers, and Baltimore's Ebeneezer & The Bludgeons, Tinklers, Raisinets, Catholics, Oho, and the Darkside. Even Baltimore's "the Catatonix" (sic) got a mention in one "Overbytes" music news column (June 1980 ish).

Ad for Insect Surfers "Into the Action" b/w "Pod Life" single

And, needless to say, HSMW's own The Nurses. I always liked Wuelfing's songs. At a time when the Balto-Washington music scenes were dominated by punk, New Wave, Garage, Rockabilly-Psychobilly and other niche genres, his tunes always were poppy, tracing roots back to British Invasion/Mersey Beat sounds - he clearly liked bubblegum and melodic pop. Back when he was in the Martha Hull-fronted Slickees, his "Heart On" was easily the stand-out original on their Mersey, Mersey Me EP.

But as his friend and colleague Mark Jenkins observed on the Nurses' MySpace page, The Nurses were never an especially marketable proposition. "At a time when the local punk/new wave scene had cleaved between art-rock and power-pop - with hardcore galloping up on the outside - the Nurses didn't fit into either camp. Howard's high, thin voice, Marc's abrasive guitar, and Harry's forced beats were definitely punk, but the band's songs were sprightly and melodic." Plus, in his guise as a rock critic, Wuelfing alienated a number of DC bands - especially the Urban Verbs (Wuelfing led a boycott of the old Atlantis, which was the practice space and home club of the Verbs). No wonder a Nurses single was called "D.Y.F." (Destroy Your Friends)!

Howard Wuelfing on cover of Nurses "D.Y.F." single

I always thought of Wuelfing as DC's answer to Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols - the guy with the pop sensibility immersed in a Punk/New Wave scene where "harder" sounds were the sign of the times. The Nurses sound was solid punk-pop in the vein of Buzzcocks or (locally) Berserk, spearheaded by Wuelfing's singing/writing and Marc Halpern's guitar playing. They were just as likely to cover The Monkees as they were the Velvet Underground; some reviewers even compared them favorably to the dBs and Robyn Hitchcock's Soft Boys (it's always a good thing to be compared to those guys!).

The Nurses released four singles, followed by two cassette-only comps in 1981 (each in a limited edition of 100 copies). I only heard Nurses tracks on Limp Records compilations like :30 Over DC: Here Comes the New Wave and Connected, but the folks at Hyped2Death records carry a CD-R of live songs and demo tracks from their peak period of 1979-1981 called Destroy Your Friends. In his review, Jim Testa wrote:
Although they were one of the first and arguably one of the most important bands in Washington DC's late-70's punk scene, the Nurses (and contemporaries like the Urban Verbs, Razz, and Slickee Boys) have been relegated to the dustbin of musical trivia, overshadowed by the D.C. hardcore punks who followed them in the Eighties. I was lucky enough to have spent a lot of time in D.C. back in those days (only because Nurses' frontman Howard Wuelfing was one of my best friends from college,) so hearing the 20 or so songs captured on this disc (culled from a handful of demo sessions and several live recordings) brought back a rush of nostalgia. The weird thing is that although I hadn't heard any of these songs in a good 20 years, I remembered almost all of them immediately. And if this disc were released today by a new band, people would be raving about the Nurses' fearless genre-bending and their fresh approach to punk. The pre-hardcore D.C. of the late 70's had its own well-defined niches - garagey power-pop on one side, pretentious art-rock on the other - but the Nurses tread an indefinable middle ground, mixing up everything from Buzzcocks-powered punk to ragged reggae-dub rhythms to Monkees power-pop. Howard Wuelfing's high, thin but pleasingly melodic vocals, Marc Halpern's inventive slashing guitar parts, and Harry Raab's precise drumming all sound as vital and alive today as they did 20 years ago. The Nurses' career ground to a halt in 1982 when Halpern died of a heroin overdose. That was a sad day for music, but it's great to see the Nurses' legacy live on.

Related links:

Follow Howard Wuelfing on Twitter.

Check out Howard's company Howlin Wuelfin Media.

Nurses discography (Discogs)

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Marble Bar's "Tone Scale" Zine

Tonescale Vol. 1, No. 2 (Oct. 1982) - cover by Dave Brubaker
In the pre-Internet age the photocopier was king, with primitive fanzines, posters and flyers benefitting from the new, fast and furious cut-up montages of high energy art and stenciled graphics that became a punk rock staple.
- John Robb, "Punk Rock: An Oral History" (2012)

My lifelong-bachelor friend Bernie Ozol is getting married soon and, as part of his pre-nup, he's been cleaning out the detritus from his house in Baltimore's Barclay neighborhood. This modern day equivalent of Hercules cleaning up the Augean Stables (a perennial labor-of-sloth I know all too well!), resulted in Bernie offering me all of his old music mags and zines en masse. One hoarder offering another his bounty of treasures is like a drug dealer offering testers to his junkie clientel: 'twas an offer I simply couldn't resist. So now I have mountain-high stacks of musty and dog-eared Trouser Press and Creem mags from the '70s and '80s.

I loved these publications back in the day, but buried beneath one box of mags was the true diamond in the rough: an assortment of old Tone Scale 'zines - the official music newsletter of The Marble Bar back in the early '80s. The publisher was LesLee Anderson who, along with her husband Roger Anderson, ran the Marble Bar rock club in the basement of The Congress Hotel from 1978 until 1985. (Roger Anderson tragically passed away from a heart attack in April 1984, and LesLee soldiered on for one more year before other parties - including former Marble Bar bartender Robin Stuprich, her husband Ed Linton, Joe Gary, and later Vermin Supreme - tried their hand at putting on shows there, before Supreme moved upstairs to carry on the tradition and add his Jockee Clubbe/Subgenius extravanganzas in the Galaxy Ballroom.)

I think the first Tone Scale came out sometime in 1982, because the earliest issue in Bernie's collection was Vol. 1, No. 2 dating from October 1982. I don't know much about this zine because I fell out of the Marble Bar scene after 1982, but I'm sure it's familiar to area musicians dating from that period.

In her intro to that second issue, LesLee wrote "I'm sure I can speak for all the people who contributed to its production that [Tone Scale] was one of the most rewarding things I've done in my life...For all of us to pull together and cause something to happen for arts sake in Baltimore, is a great feat. Like I've already expressed in the first issue, we're not journalism majors, and we'll admit it. But if you're in France, and can't speak French and really have something to say...I'd just bet you'd find a way to say it. So do we."

Tone Scale was a "'zine" in the true sense of the word. It was a Xeroxed-and-stapled publication featuring photostat copies of typewriter-created articles and local band gig flyers. Copies sold for 25 cents and the name of the zine seemed to change with each issue, the February 1983 ish even calling itself Valentone.

Valentone Vol. 2, No. 2 (February 1983)

Katatonix flyer in same ish touting "Valentine's Day" single

It had regular columns by George Ches, Roxy Berlin (Marble Bar bartender Jackie?), and Donna Diode (aka Donna Stinnett Bowen). Donna was easily the most-accomplished staff writer and the one most interested in all the performing arts (I particularly liked her film reviews). She and Roxy Berlin even wrote reviews of other bars - I liked the one about the old Peabody Book Store & Beer Stube (which has been many things since, including Liam's Pint Size Pub).

Tones Vol. 2, No. 3 (March 1983)

Tone Scale also featured record and concert reviews by Mark Harp of Null Set...

Mark Harp's "A Side" column

...and Adolf Kowalski of Thee Katatonix ('dolf's scribblings were a precursor to his regular Maryland Musician column in the late '80s).

Adolf reviews the Go-Gos/Flock of Seagulls concert at Merriweather

(By the way, I love that Mark Harp's "A-Side" column includes a review of Haysi Fantayzee, a band whose mere mention makes Amy Linthicum gag to this day! Harpo really liked their Battle Hymns for Children Singing LP, which included the singles "Shiny Shiny" and "John Wayne Is Big Leggy," giving it three stars and writing "A cult group with hair and clothes style in U.K., the music is sorta like Bow Wow Wow with cowboys in there somewhere. I like Kate." That would be singer Kate Garner - to which I would add: who doesn't like a leggy Welsh model-turned-chanteuse?)

More importantly, Tone Scale was one of the few outlets available for musicians and fans of the Punk/New Wave scene to talk about their scene and their music. We forget this in today's Internet-obsessed world, where every event is posted, experienced and reviewed on Facebook or other social media channels. Primitive? For sure. But heartfelt and endearing? Totally! It was kids making messy little mudpies - but they were their mudpies to sling around at the world.

"Mickey and Judy at the Marble Bar" by Mary O'Brien

Rereading these missives from the past reminds me of shows and events long forgotten and rekindles the excitement and fun of that era. One article in particular, Mary O'Brien's "Mickey & Judy at the Marble Bar" (a reference to those old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland "let's-put-on-a-show!" movies), is a time capsule that perfectly recalls the variety of events that took place at the Marble, name-checking just about every underground player in town. Following is the full article (with my highlighted text added):

A rerun of Dead Strippers by Michael Gentile. Genie Vincent stripping to her underwear. Painting and poetry by Gary Wimmer. A chubby redneck in black Spandex pants doing an impromptu Elvis impersonation. Poverty & Spit at CBGBs. Poet Joe Cardarelli proving that the beat goes on. Knights and dragons sculpted from animal skeletons. A band of Dead Heads playing "Fire on the Mountain." Prizewinning films from Steve Estes. Gorgeous Cassandra VonRinteln in a scanty lavendar costume. A collage by Don White, whose erotic art is considered too hot to handle by every gallery in town. Reggae from Tyrice Dixon. Baltimore's punks on Evening Magazine. Richard Sober breaking hearts with pieces of his novel. Graffiti-on-canvas, as SPAM changes into VIET SPAM. Harpo guest-starring with the Casio Cowboys. Videotapes of the last SubGenius convention. Joe Greenbaum launching paper airplanes, Randy Hoffman making red crosses, and D.S. Bakker tying himself in knots while Keith Worz creates a picture right before our eyes. Bill Moriarty's painting of Thanksgiving dinner, with Sonny lunging at Mom across the turkey. Daniel Carney improvising on guitar. Three fist fights.

It's any Wednesday at the Marble Bar, a poetry series, amateur night, art exhibition, comedy showcases, old Uncle Tom Cooley and all.

MC Tom DiVenti haphazardly rehearses his comedy routines. He also trades insults with hecklers. Four campus cuties got the better of him in a recent exchange, but he bounced back to con the customers out of $7 by staging an off-the-cuff benefit for victims of "spina bifida memtosa." (The beneficiaries turned out to be bartenders at the Club Charles.)

Stephen Parloto hangs paintings, tends bar, schedules acts, bouonces drunks, reads poetry, and dodges ashtrays. In February, he hung one of his own paintings, a huge scary portrait of what might be a man attacked by dogs or a beast attacked by demons.

Some artists fret about showing their art in a bar, but so far nothing's been dented and a hell of a lot has sold right off the walls.

Those performers who call around to their friends beforehand have managed to pack the joint. Other nights it's been like Death Valley. But a small crowd can sometimes produce a big burst of excitement. Maybe an unknown poet, tired of hearing a latter-day hippie drone on, will mutter, "I can do better," grab the mike, and put the planned reading to shame. Maybe a lounge singer will be boring everyone with his rendition of "Feelings" till the boys on the barstools sing back at him and drown him out.

If you want to play Mickey and Judy put on a show in the Marble Bar."

Dead Strippers photo collage

I love this review because I was at that Dead Strippers screening - that was the 16mm film Michael Gentile and John Ellsberry - later to achieve fame as The Dork Brothers - worked on in 1979. Gentile and fellow MICA student Brian Donegan directed the film, with John Ellsberry serving as director of photography.

Dork Directors: Michael Gentile and John Ellsberry

They shot it down on The Block at the Oasis Club...

...with painter (and latter-day Moronics singer) Don White dressing up in drag.

Don(na) White discovers his feminine side in "Dead Strippers"
(photo by Alan Petrulis)

Don White in "Dead Strippers" (photo by Alan Petrulis)

Don White gets jiggy wid it in "Dead Strippers" (photo by Alan Petrulis)

Dead Strippers also played at more upscale venues, including the Charles Theatre, MICA, and several festivals. It even got the thumbs up from John Waters who, in the September 1981 issue of Baltimore magazine, cited the film as one of five local examples of “good bad taste.”

It seems everyone was making movies back then; I was even in one with Adolf Kowalski that I think was called Chocolate Asphalt. (It was directed by our pal Wendy Wallach.) I remember my scene had me being "raped" by a bunch of Manson Girls somewhere on York Road near the Senator Theater. I recall walking to my car in nothing but a pair of tighty whiteys covered in ketchup (i.e., low-budget "blood"). Anything for art.

The same article mentions model Genie Vincent stripping down to her underwear. (Wish I remember that!) I do recall that Genie was a very young, very tall, very attractive girl who started modeling in high school, went overseas to do Italian fashion covers, and even appeared on the cover of some New Wave band's 12-inch. Didn't she go to Towson High?

Regardless, I gotta find that Evening Magazine profile of Baltimore punks that Mary O'Brien mentioned!

And here's a "Domestic Affairs" music news report that mentions Marble fixture Tommy Reed being aquitted on drunk driving charges! (It's all coming back to me now!)

"Domestic Affairs" music news column by Pepper

Marble Bar Flea Market flyer

The flyer above reminds me that what goes around comes around. Today's Station North Flea Market (do they still hold these?), attracting the Station North and Ottobar hipster crowd, is just the latest incarnation of the Marble Bar flea market.

Following are some more pages I scanned in that are representative of Tonescale's typical content. And, if anyone has any more Tonescale info or issues, please let me know!

Null Set Marble Bar Premiere: October 1982

More Mark Harp SubGenius graphics

Typical Marble Bar monthly calendar

G. Ches' Magazine review

Thee Katatonix flyer retooling Elvis Costello's stance

George C.'s "Livin' in the City" comic strip

George C.'s 1982 Music Poll article

"Domestic affairs" column citing Boy Meets Girl 45

The Click with Kidstique flyer

"Say Hon!": Chick's Legendary Records ad

Chick's "A-Side and B-Side" record reviews

Roger Anderson interviews Adolf Kowalski

Haute (or 'Ho) cuisine? Renaissance Room menu

Flyer for Ventures & Slickee Boys show at Marble Bar

I was at this great show! (See Jack of Hearts' Flickr photo set of this historic February 19, 1983 gig.)

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