Friday, February 1, 2008

The Living Room, Pt. 2: 7 Seconds of Bliss

Summer before my junior year in high school. I'm psyched to finally join the ranks of upperclassmen. My comfort level has actually settled in and I'm enjoying myself. The strange underground world of punk rock has started to become a real force in my life. Being a soccer player and good student makes me something of an outsider in the punk world but my Chuck Taylor hi-tops and 7 Seconds t-shirts let the in-crowd know that I'm not that IN.

This has started to cause some tension in my life, but it is an exciting kind, knowing that I am starting to define myself in ways that might threaten other people. Just what a teenage boy could want. And it was sincere! I truly loved this music, how completely unconcerned with mainstream success they were, how they lived their dreams.

The glamour band of the scene was definitely Reno, Nevada's 7 Seconds. We'd been listening to their 'Walk Together, Rock Together' album nonstop. It was chock full of one and a half minute epic anthems of unity and disenfranchisement.

The singer was a broodingly handsome guy named Kevin Seconds. His brother played bass and they'd started their own record label. They had made this band their entire life. They were teenagers and yet they ran a mini corporation. The whole punk teen population had man-crushes on Kevin Seconds, firstly because of his talent, and then because he was doing what we all dreamed of.

When I heard that 7 Seconds was coming to The Living Room that summer, it instantly became the focus of my every thought. I was too young to drive but I knew a couple of punks who were going to the show. 7 Seconds were part of the straight edge movement, which meant that drinking and drug taking were NOT done. I knew if I drove with John Smith he wouldn't get wasted and strand me in Providence.

A whole crew of us piled into his car and we took off. It was an all-ages show, as many of the punk shows were, so we weren't worried about getting in. John and his girlfriend Kristin were sort of the glamourous punk couple of the town. They were both really good looking so their strange haircuts were more like fashion statements than political ones. I never went in for the extreme punk look so I always faced a good amount of scorn from the TRUE punks who thought I was a poser. That word was like the kiss of death in the punk world, it called into question your authenticity as a fan and a person.

7 Seconds took the stage and it was like a peace rally. Tom and I remarked that we'd thought Kevin Seconds would be taller. But he was still an amazing presence, all positive energy and openness. They barely paused between songs and barreled along, sweeping us up with their energy.

I was in a small crowd with John, Kristin, and their circle, a circle I wasn't too familiar with. In front of me stood a girl with a shirt on that clasped at her neck and draped down in two sheaths of fabric. Her back was bared but from the front you would not be able to tell. My attention was split away from the music as I stared at this brazen fashion choice. I couldn't see her face but her back sure looked great.

At some point during the show we were introduced. Her name was Maria and she was spending the summer in Rhode Island. She was from Ireland. She responded favorably to my Irish name and she was unfazed by this crazy American punk music. And, come on, she was wearing a shirt that didn't have a back.

Through no fault of my own, we began to make out. Now, up to this point in my life, I had kissed exactly one girl. So the quick moving kiss was certainly not my initiation and I'll always be grateful to her for her bravery. 7 Seconds roared away on stage and my hands had nowhere to go but her bare back.

One doesn't often think of romance when listening to hardcore punk music. But all across this great country of ours there are legions of middle aged men and women who first bridged the puberty gap with other horny misfits at dirty all ages shows.

Maria went back to Ireland, Junior year began, and before you know it, here I am.

Don't let anyone ever tell you that youth is wasted on the young.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Living Room, Pt. 1: One Shoe On

Like many of my rock and roll tales, this one concerns the now defunct Providence club The Living Room.

Now, I've seen shows in totally unmemorable places that became memorable through the performance itself, or through what happened to me while I was there (Emmitt Swimming at Cat's Cradle in 1999 immediately comes to mind but that's for another day). But for sheer character, give me The Living Room.

You can go to The Living Room today, but it is not in the same location as the club that dominated the punk rock scene in the 1980's in Providence. In fact, the old club meant so much to me that I never went to the new location even though I lived almost within walking distance during my years living in Providence.

The old club was in an ancient mill complex just West of I-95 in the heart of Providence. You could see it from the highway as you whizzed past...the complex began at the bottom of a steep incline. If you parked at the bottom of the hill there were several ways to enter. You could walk up the sidewalk until you reached a small archway that led onto the courtyard outside of the club. Or you could walk across the flat parking lot to a set of steps that wound up from the base of the brick basement level to the club level. The overall effect was of a giant set of steps from the parking lot with the club being on the first level.

Nestled into the left hand corner of the courtyard was a small nondescript door. From the parking lot you could see the giant bubble window that protruded from the inside of the club. I can remember standing inside the club nursing a beer slowly leaning out into the inverted arc of the bubble and looking down on the tailgaters and ejectees who lingered in the parking lot.

Everything except that window was red brick.

As you entered the club, the stage was immediately on your right hand side facing the interior which stretched away from the entrance. The bar was a hard U pushed up against the left with a small walk space that let you look out the bubble window. At the rear right hand side was the entrance to the bathrooms. The wall space between the bathroom doors and the bar was broken up by a few couches.

Side note on the couches. I saw countless shows here, at most of which I was exhausted beyond measure from exertion and elation. At no time during any of these shows did I ever consider EVEN FOR A FRACTION OF A SECOND sitting on any of these couches. If it is possible for furniture to be hostile, these were. Upon closure of this incarnation of The Living Room, the couches were whisked away to Langley to be used in clandestine torture by the CIA.

I don't know what the capacity of The Living Room was, 500 legally, 800 death wish style, I couldn't say. When I saw The Ramones, I literally felt as if I were a particle of sausage in a vacuum packed container. There was absolutely no room. At that show the slam dancing ejected me up several feet and onto the bar.

These well attended shows seemed to clue us all in to the fact that the image being pedaled in the mass media was not quite commensurate with reality. I rarely was at The Living Room when it felt empty. The audience for this type of music was vital and growing. It was like being a member of a secret society.

I'd already seen my The Replacements tear the roof off of the place the summer before in 1986. I'd seen The Violent Femmes. I'd seen The Ramones. A let down seemed inevitable as I experienced my heroes up close. Would Husker Du be the first to disappoint?

Ah, no.

In retrospect I was massively lucky. The Huskers had just put out their latest double album Warehouse: Songs and Stories. The recording of this album had been, to put it mildly, contentious. The band was coming apart at the seams and tearing each other to pieces as they went. Just before they were to kick off the tour to support the double album (which Warner Brothers had pressured them to condense into a single album...) their long time tour manager committed suicide. The tour went on in spite of the tragedy and they were a fiery furnace of grief and rage.

If you don't know their music, suffice it to say that adding that layer on top of their combustible mix of distortion and volume was like lacing the A-Bomb with Napalm.

They played for what seemed like hours. They were a power trio with two primary songwriters, guitarist Bob Mould and drummer Grant Hart. Each sang their own compositions. The bass player bounced around silently sporting a handlebar mustache. I have no recollection of the songs they played, although I assume they focused primarily on the new double album. But they also played almost an hour's worth of material I had never heard.

They broke up a few months after this concert, cutting the tour short. The intensity of their performance made me wonder how they could maintain it even for the rest of the evening, let alone a world tour.

Now, there are all sorts of places you can go to find out what happened to Husker Du. It is a sad story of ruined friendship, creative competition devolving into bitter fueding, and drug abuse.

But this is a post about my shoe.

As I mentioned, Husker Du whirled all over The Living Room like a distorted dervish, all beat and propulsion and scream. The audience reacted appropriately. A sort of death dance gripped everyone as they ricocheted off of one another. The overall effect was of a souped up jalopy accelerating down a one way street towards a munitions factory.

They didn't do the normal 'leave the stage' til everyone claps loud enough encore bullarkey. They played so long that it soon became clear to everyone that they would simply stop when they couldn't go any further. And we did the same.

When I say I was sweaty, I don't mean a light mist that could be dabbed at with a hanky. No, the knees on my jeans were soaked through. My knees were sweating. MY KNEES.

All of a sudden it was over. The lights came on. Everyone was stunned. I remember it being really quiet. I had no idea where my friends were in the club. Total individual dance expression had been necessary and we'd all splintered off into our own Astaire-in-a-meat-grinder whirlwinds.

It was only after standing and breathing heavy for a few minutes and waiting for the club to clear out enough for me to find my crew that I realized something. I was missing a shoe. Somewhere it had been ripped off of my body and I hadn't noticed until I stopped dancing. I know that sounds hard to believe but I promise you it is true.

Here's the strangest part of all.

I waited until that club was empty. I searched high and low. I found many other single shoes. I walked past the infamous bubble window down the million red brick staircase and into the family station wagon. I pressed the clutch in with my sock and drove my sweaty ass home.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Frere Jacques, Bitches!!!

As I revealed in an earlier post, I spent a year living in Orleans, France, as part of a student exchange program through URI. This experience continues to echo strongly in my psyche and will forever be a landmark on my timeline.

Today's post tells the story of my last night in France.

My circle spent a good deal of time in Paris throughout the year, making the hour long train trip or borrowing a car to cover the distance. A French friend of a friend had a studio apartment somewhere in Paris. His father was an international businessman who had recently insisted that his son start to take part if the gravy train were to continue. So he was frequently out of France and he left his crazy American friends a set of keys.

5, 6, sometimes 7 of us would traipse up to Paris and squat for a couple of days. Dingy, miniscule, the apartment held all the mystique and flavor that you could ask for. A futon and a fridge. No other furnishings to speak of but for a boom-box and the recently remastered Led Zeppelin box set.

Now, I've been very up front about my punk leanings. I had rejected Led Zeppelin as part of the old guard and had never paid them any attention at all. Sure, I tried to make out with girls at the end of dances when they played 'Stairway to Heaven' and I knew 'Communication Breakdown' but I had purposefully denied them any space in my listener head.

Well, to anyone else who won't bow down to the fiery Hindenburg of monstrous rock and roll, I invite you to spend a weekend in a small French studio with cheap wine, baguettes and cheese, fruit, and the remastered box set of Led Zeppelin's complete works. By the end of the first weekend at the place, I was a total convert.

But that isn't what this post is about.

The year was drawing to a close. The feeling of nostalgia in the present tense was overwhelming. Every day was vivid and intense, dreamlike. This universe that we'd existed in, which always seemed to be oustide of reality somehow, was now going to pass out of reality and into the realm of memory. In other words, the partying was out of control.

We'd started a tradition earlier in the year. On campus there was a small man-made lake with an island reachable via foot bridge. The island was a domed hill that sunk to a small brick amphitheater. The base of the theater was below water level and thus hidden from sight from the rest of the campus. Adding to the privacy was the fact that there were no dorms or classrooms near and the lake was at the center of the campus far from the public eye.

Thus the fire at The Tit was born. The domed hill that made up the bulk of the island had once had a flagpole on top of it. It had been torn down so all that remained was the concrete base. At night, the hill would silhouette into a perfect breast replete with a nipple. I am proud to say that none of the Frenchies had noticed this but to this day, thanks to the crazy American, the hill is known as The Tit.

We scraped together as much driftwood as we could, raiding pallets from construction sites around the campus. We lugged them across the footbridge and down into the dell. Then we lit that shit on fire and started partying. We toasted marshmellows, sang songs, made rules of participation, basically started a party cult.

If you wanted to join The Tit, you had to burn something of yours and you had to sing a song for everyone. This wasn't so bad at first but by the end of the year, this might entail belting out a Stones song for 80 people. Guys primarily burnt pictures of girls that they pulled out of their wallets and girls primarily burnt lingerie. That they'd worn that evening. Needless to say, this party quickly became the toast of the town.

It is also the reason I finally really learned to play the guitar. I bought the cheapest classical acoustic guitar I could find, probably $60 or so. And I set out to learn. I would come back to America and immediately start a band. Thanks, Tit!

Again, the history of The Tit is not the true subject of this post but it is necessary context.

As June approached and we Americans prepared for repatriation, we wondered how the year was going to possibly climax. We'd road tripped to the Mediterranean, sand surfed the Dunes of Pyla, kissed French girls, burned personal items in our ceremonial pyre, and had our lifelong image of how the world worked daily challenged with a new (to us) and ancient society. How could we possibly plan anything to sum this up, to cap it, to exceed it?

Turns out, we couldn't possibly plan anything like that. But MTV could.

Earlier in the year Guns 'n Roses had released their bloated awful quadruple album masterpieces, Use Your Illusion I & II. I am an unapologetic fan. These two albums became a soundtrack to much of the above and to this day I hear 'Breakdown' and feel as if I am in France.

The Gunners immediately hit the road behind the album, in spite of the departure of Izzy Stradlin. In hindsight this would seem to be the beginning of the end for the group, but at the time they were still the biggest band on the planet. They planned a live broadcast to be aired on MTV as a Pay Per View event. An unprecedented occurrence and quite a big deal. The date of the concert was June 6th and it was to take place at a horse racing track on the outskirts of Paris. My ticket back to the States was for June 7th.

We got in touch with our friend with the Paris apartment and he gave us the go ahead to crash for the weekend. We bought a host of tickets and encouraged anyone who could to make the pilgrimage to see Guns 'n Roses and give us Americans a proper send off.

The symbolic nature of going to see a group that embodied everything distasteful about American culture in the city that represents the height of French culture was not lost on any of us. We weren't going to honor Frenchy on our way out, we were going to rock.

It was a beautiful spring night and we all took the subway from our crash pad out to the race track. We'd had a lovely afternoon of French partying, eating meats and cheeses and sipping wine. But we were gearing up to blow off all the steam we'd accumulated in the run-up to our departure. The evening didn't disappoint.

Soundgarden opened the evening to a crowd barely assembled and distracted. But I was entranced. They had 40 minutes as an opener and I was impressed that they only played 4 songs. They could have tried to jam as many in there as they could but they just played the way they wanted.

Faith No More came up next and the lead singer kept shouting 'Je suis laid!' and 'Quoi?' over and over. Translated: 'I am ugly!" And 'What??' They were tight and fun and got the crowd primed for the headliner. We were drinking lite beer by the boatload and revving our engines. We repeatedly urged the crowd to let loose a little bit. We took pleasure in shouting in heavily accented French orders along the lines of, "Come on people! This is rock and roll! Let your hair down! No one's looking!"

In our general vicinity this had a galvanizing effect. Our party merged with most of the blankets around us so that by the time Guns 'N Roses took the stage, we were a club sized enclave of revelers.

The show lived up to our unreasonable expectations. Axl was at the height of his powers and shape. He seemed like the Tazmanian devil...never still, different costumes at certain points in the show, playing the piano to 'November Rain' while 70,000 mostly French people lit lighters. Sure it was cliched but in the way that chocolate is a cliche. It totally satisfies in predictability.

As the night grew to a close, our looming departure gave the proceedings a surreal sensation. We reminisced and basked in the glory of the moment simultaneously. The band finished their bombastic encores and the lights went on all around the sprawling landscape. To exit the arena there were roads that actually tunneled through man made hills and dales. For maybe a quarter of a mile you left the beautiful night air and entered what felt like a corrugated tube with fluorescent lighting. Surreal and strange, the crowd hushed as they moved shoulder to shoulder towards the exit point.

We weren't ready to be hushed. We yelled that we were American, that this was our last night in Paris and that we didn't want to stop partying. And then, the year long ice cream sundae of my time abroad was topped with the strangest cherry of all.

We started singing 'Frere Jacques' at the top of our lungs. At first we were alone, and probably mocked. But we kept on. Slowly the tune spread among the shuffling horde, until it seemed that thousands echoed, wondering if John was sleeping and where all the mornings had gone.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Black Godfather in Amsterdam

While this story ends in Amsterdam, it starts in lower Manhattan. Which is rather ironic when you think of those Dutch settlers founding New Amsterdam only to be swallowed up by the American Dream.

My cousin Liam is one of those people who, when he asks, 'Have you ever heard So-and-so?' you pay close attention. Chances are your mind is about to be blown. This has happened on more than one occasion. This story concerns one in particular, but in the interest of credibility, I'll do a quick rundown of the music Liam has turned me onto over the years. (His brother Mike is no slouch in this department either, but we're usually too busy doing improv to bother with tunes...)

Late 1980's: Liam is living in Boston, I'm in college in Rhode Island. Liam's band is playing. I go to see him and I think I visited his apartment. I could be confusing/combining two different days, I'm not sure. He told me about this band Buffalo Tom and gave me a copy of their first (and to my mind without question best) album. This tip, which he passed on to his brother as well, has played out over the years into numerous adventures. I saw Buffalo Tom in England, for pete's sake!

Mid 1990's: After Boston, I went to France, Liam went to San Francisco, but then our paths crossed in NYC again. He'd moved back East and now we would be living in the same city. He and his girlfriend were apartment sitting in an hilarious upper West Side apartment with homo-erotic chess games, potholders, bed-posts, anything-you-could-shape-into-a-phallus, etc. We sat and celebrated their arrival in the city by ingesting various substances, legal and otherwise. Somehow Liam became aware that I'd never heard of Sweet. I can never remember if it is Sweet or The Sweet, but these were the English glam rockers who gave us 'Little Willy', 'Ballroom Blitz', and the one that blew my mind most that first night, 'Fox On The Run'. We rocked out to the impossible helium harmonies and giggled our asses off.

Those are just two examples to set the tone. Basically, when Liam said listen, I did. He called me on a Thursday or Friday and asked if I was free to go see some music at Chicago Blues, an old time blues club in the Village. I said yes. And thus begins the saga that ends with The Black Godfather in New Amsterdam.

Who is The Black Godfather you ask? And so did I as I met Liam at the club. We ordered beers and sat at a small table up against the wall with a sideways view of the small stage. I can't remember if there was an opening band, but we wouldn't have been paying too much attention because Liam would have been filling me in on what I was about to witness.

How he heard of Andre Williams, I don't recall. As Liam told it, Andre Williams was a blues singer from Chicago who'd had quite a following in the '50's but had dropped out of sight and was rumored to have lived on the streets. He was known for playing blue material, underground club type blues that was lewd in lyric and delivery. Somehow someone had rediscovered him and got him back performing again. The show we were about to see, a club date without fanfare, was his first appearance in New York in over 30 years.

The band came onstage. Guitar, bass, keyboard, horns (I think?), drums, back-up singers, the whole nine yards. The overall impression was of that great wedding band you saw once, the kind that brought honor and power to that genre, the kind of band that would leave you sweaty and spent if you gave them an inch. And that was before Andre took the stage.

How to describe him? Small in stature, thin and dapper, pencil moustache, immaculate suit. He proceeded to growl and moan, shout and holler, VENTILATE. Vulgar is too mild a word to describe the lyrical content. I've since bought several of the records he's put out since he began recording again, and they are filthy. Some illustrative titles...

Sling It, Bang It, And Give It Cab Fare Home
Let Me Put It In
Humpin' Bumpin' and Thumpin'
Jail Bait

These are the clean songs. His delivery reminded me of the character Willem Dafoe played in 'Wild at Heart', the David Lynch film with Laura Dern and Nic Cage. Dafoe basically sexually assaults Laura Dern but is so aggressive and carnal that she responds unwittingly with reciprocity. With Andre Williams, you know you are being molested, but he's so damn cool that you just lie back and let it happen.

Liam and I were transfixed and amazed. We constantly clinked our beer mugs after songs, we hurriedly reviewed each song the instant it was over before the onslaught began anew. We were witnessing something that was tied all the way back to chain gangs and folk songs, Paul Bunyan and John Henry, something that pre-dated the Beatles and the Europe impact on American music. At this point he was still calling himself 'Mr. Rhythm' which had been his moniker back in the '50's and '60's. He was the dirtiest old man you'd ever seen. But I'll bet he took a pretty young thing home with him that night, and who could blame him? Or her?

Suddenly it was over and we were outside in the cold. It might have been summer, but things in the club had been so hot that a New York August seemed glacial. Over the next couple weeks, Liam and I probably reminisced about the show, but new experiences were always around the corner and soon the show was part of the past.

Fast forward to early 2000. My marriage is falling apart. My oldest friend had fallen in love with a woman from The Hague, in the Netherlands. Their marriage was in the spring. We planned a trip to the city of Bruges and then we'd make our way to The Hague for 3 or 4 days to celebrate the marriage. My ex, the mother of my child and a good person, was hoping this trip would rekindle the dying embers of our union. But the romantic setting only brought into focus the gulf between us and how unbridgeable it seemed. By the time we got to Amsterdam, things were tense. To put it politely.

I was relieved to put my friend and his celebration at the center of my attention. I'd been asked to serve as an official witness, signing the union into legitimacy. Another old friend was to serve as the best man, giving the traditional speech. My great friend threw me for a loop by asking me to give a speech as well. This threw me into a frenzy of anxiety, probably exacerbated by The Netherlands' insistence on legalizing hashish and marijuana. To have my own marriage in such a precarious place, to know down in my gut that I would soon be dissolving this holiest of contracts...let's just say I freaked out.

But, before all that, something magical happened. A whole crew of us were wandering around Amsterdam. The wedding was 2 days away and the American crew had to try and wear Amsterdam out. We passed what looked like an old church, a huge gothic European structure that screamed history at you. It was a club. Who was playing that night? Andre Williams. I immediately insisted that ALL PLANS THAT HAD ALREADY BEEN MADE HAD TO BE CHANGED.

We all went to see The Black Godfather in Amsterdam. The primarily African-American wedding band had been replaced by 3 young white punks. The sound had morphed from a party band into a greasy bottle rocket of lust and resentment. Andre alone seemed unchanged, he bullied, he cajoled, he unzipped his fly so slowly that it was up at the beginning of a song and only completely open by the end. It was thrice as loud and relentless.

The group was a bit taken aback by this, the discrepancy between what I'd described and what they were subjected to, and there was the vague feeling that I'd been inappropriate. Like DeNiro inviting Cybil Shepard to the porno in 'Taxi Driver', I'd vouched for something that was so lascivious as to be criminal. Don't get me wrong, they danced, but the group wanted to leave before the show was done and they were more perplexed than entranced. I felt as if I'd bragged to strangers about my porn collection.

Later that night I could not sleep and slipped out of our hotel room to go get a coffee. I saw the red-light district across a canal and it no longer seemed like a tourist trap. It was a universe unto itself which mirrored the easy lust and un-self conscious libido of The Black Godfather and his oeuvre. Was that the best I could hope for? Should I slink across the cobblestone bridge and lose my identity in a staged physical encounter? I paid for my coffee with the strange coins and went back to my hotel.

Somewhere in Amsterdam Andre Williams disapproved.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Jazz Douche

How do you know if you are a Jazz Douche?

Here are some common indicators...

1. A beret that looks as if it was kidnapped off of the tete of Marcel Marceau's bastard nephew

2. A storage space with alphabetized vinyl in milk crates

3. Your facial hair requires constant attention yet still looks like some sort of rabid animal attack

4. You wear a fanny pack

5. You say things like 'Dig?' and 'Cool, daddy-o.'

6. You know that Hector "Gobble-Neck" Ramsay played on the first take of The Kansas City Trio's version of 'Chatanooga Choo-Choo' but then he ate some bad fish so they had to call in Arizona Smith for the second take. But, see, on the second take, they had Arizona set up in the bathroom and his stand-up bass kept scratching up against the faucet so they wound up using Gobble-Neck's take anyway, in spite of the fish.

7. You can't play an instrument.

8. You play Santana records to get in your wife's pants.

9. You smell like bologna.

10. Your pants have pleats.

11. For a brief shining moment, you thought Yes was going to change EVERYTHING.

12. Listening to Frankie 'Two-Tone' Walters' recording of 'Opus Etude Interlude No. 27 in A Minor' for the first time was the catalyst for ending your second marriage.

13. You wrote a short novel imagining a militia led by Miles Davis overthrowing the MTV Total Request Live set and playing 'Sketches of Spain' on an endless loop.

14. You used to have a hoop earring in your right ear until your boss at the convalescent hospital made you take it out because it was unsanitary.

15. You have an 'I'd Rather Be Be-Bopping' bumpersticker on your Ford Escort.

16. Your eyelids are heavy.

17. After you've had a few cocktails, you start raving about how everything would have gone differently if Chet Baker hadn't died...he'd have been the teen idol, the Beatles wouldn't have made such a splash, and the world would be grooving to Chick Corea a little bit more.

18. You have bad dreams about guitars.

19. You like Pauly Shore comedies.

20. You are deeply ashamed of it, but you secretly prefer Julie Andrews' version of "My Favorite Things" to Coltrane's.

There. If you need any further help in identifying a Jazz Douche, either in the mirror or in your general vicinity, check back in with me.