Friday, April 11, 2008

Club Baby Head, Pt. 2: Au Revoir, Buffalo Tom!

I was off to France. It had been quite a summer. In many ways I was already finished with college. I started working at a group home for adults with developmental disabilities. I spent time out in the woods cutting down trees with these new strange co-workers and got Lyme's Disease. And all along I prepared to leave the United States.

The Lyme's Disease put a big crimp in my work/social schedule. Mostly I sat around and watched movies. Two movies to be more specific. 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' and 'Goodfellas'. Seen back to back, their dual nihilism and dark-hearted joy matched my innards perfectly.

I'd made many new friends through the group home, including a family from Westerly, the Mahoneys. John was a big good hearted environmentalist and artist. His brothers and sisters were all interesting folks with eclectic pursuits. We bonded over music and illegal drugs.

I attended many parties connected to this new crowd. I remember being surprised that I'd made new friends in Rhode Island. Just as I was leaving the country a whole new scene opened up for me, a scene I would revisit upon my return in a year. In fact, my band would wind up named The Mahoneys as a joke which stuck.

I remember a sprawling lawn at their Westerly compound swarming with inebriates. Pockets of people stood around acoustic guitars. The statues that John had been making out of scrap iron stood like sentinels. Fires blazed in garbage cans. John's sister was down from Boston. We struck up a conversation which almost immediately centered around my leaving for France.

She had a young baby which was asleep in the upstairs bedroom of the house. In what seems to be a pattern (see earlier post 'Before Sonic Youth'), she wanted me to see her baby. Her marriage was troubled. She was at a crossroads.

Somehow my newness to the circle combined with the fact that I was so shortly leaving created an immediate sense of intimacy. We stood in the darkness and looked down at the sleeping beauty. Why she needed me to witness this I couldn't say. There wasn't anything illicit or sensual about it but it went far beyond simple parental pride.

The rest of the summer was a blur. Every event I attended became a farewell. My leaving lent intensity to gatherings. Old flirtations were revived and admitted.

Once again cousin Liam comes into play. He'd given me a copy of Buffalo Tom's eponymous debut album. I love this album. I almost wore it out that summer. So when Club Baby Head announced their August schedule and Buffalo Tom was on it, I knew I wanted to tie it in to my farewell party.

All of my disparate crowds met in Providence that night to see Buffalo Tom. Some like the Mahoney/group home crowd were indie music aficionados and knew all about BT. Others, like my theater crew, had never even heard of Club Baby Head, let alone Buffalo Tom.

If you've never seen Buffalo Tom live, the main thing to keep in mind is passion. They are never less than fully engaged. You always have the sense that they are playing as hard as they can. They sweat, they laugh, the egg each other on. I've come to know them over the years...Bill Janowitz wrote music for a play my cousin Mike wrote that I acted in, he wrote a new theme song for 'Yes, Dear' at Mike's insistence, Buffalo Tom actually reunited to play Mike's wedding for pete's sake!

But at this point they were not known to me personally. Their emotional commitment gave me and all of my fellow revellers the permission to go whole hog with sentimentality over my impending ex-patriation.

Who showed up? John Mahoney's sister. She'd heard about it through John and driven down from Boston to say good bye. I'd only met her once before! She gave me her address and asked that I write to her from France. It would let her know that the world was larger than her particular set of problems. I agreed and we did wind up writing a few letters back and forth.

In one of them I recounted to her how I'd gone to London to visit an ex-girlfriend/old friend. We'd gone out on the town and taken in a concert. Buffalo Tom! In London!

I don't know if her marriage survived. I know that the Mahoneys have faced some difficult times of late...I've heard this through the grapevine 73 times removed. How strange that Bill Janowitz knows my name and hugs me when we meet and the Mahoneys have receded into my past.

Like Woody Allen sitting with Martin Landau discussing murder, like Ray Liotta in slippers on his Arizona doorstep, I stand in disbelief at how far I've come.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Club Baby Head, Pt. 1: The Enduring Mystery of the Opening Act

Anyone remember The Goats?

I didn't think so. The Goats were a rap collective from Philadelphia that flirted with mainstream success in the early '90's. Y'know, back when hip-hop was supposed to either ruin or save the world depending on who you talked to.

A friend had turned me on to them, giving me a cassette (!!!) of their fiery album 'Tricks of the Shade'. It was interspersed with skits depicting two lost orphans Chicken Little and Hangerhead. Hangerhead is the result of a botched back-alley abortion. These guys weren't fucking around. Chicken Little and Hangerhead are at Uncle Scam's Circus trying to make their way home.

They had songs about homophobia, the contradiction inherent in the fact that we condemn the Holocaust but seem to be ok with the one we inflicted on Native American peoples, the effect of urban sprawl on family life, y'know, important shit!

Anyway, mix that in with awesome beats, live instruments, several different distinct style of rap/singing, and presto! Weeks of obsessive listening!

When my buddy and I heard that The Goats would be playing Club Baby Head, there was no question that we would be going. One of the cool things about underground less popular music is that you don't have to have some sort of huge plan in place. You just hop in the car and go.

We took the ritualistic drive up I95 to Prov. This drive will forever mean anticipation of musical abandonment to me. It is a highway of music.

Club Baby Head was like the spastic little brother of The Living Room and Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel. It favored less established acts and was decidedly dirtier, more lawless, and temporary. You always had the impression that the owners might make a break for it on a stolen boat trying to get to Cuba from Central Falls.

All that being said, it was quite the fixture on the scene for the better part of 10 years.

We arrived late enough that we hoped to skip the opening band, someone we'd never heard of with a stupid name. But unfortunately (or so we thought...) The Goats were nowhere near ready to perform. They were probably only a third of the way through the garbage bag of weed they'd demanded in their contract. We sat at the bar, sipped beers, and waited patiently, hoping that this opening act wasn't too excruciating.

G. Love and Special Sauce??? What the hell kind of stupid name was that? We joked that they would probably be some sort of boy band doing bad dance steps across the puke splattered Baby Head stage.

In contradiction of our expectations a roadie set up a spare instrumental grouping...a stand up bass, a teeny drum kit, a gorgeous old electric guitar. This was no New Kids on the Block redux, no Color Me Badd.

Out strolled one of the more gorgeous human beings you are ever likely to see. Easily 6'5" tall, G. Love wore a smoking jacket. He reminded of Elvis right off the bat, the Elvis who is just about to join the military. He nonchalantly shrugged the guitar over his slim shoulders and started strumming.

Special Sauce dove in behind him and suddenly all thoughts of The Goats disappeared. Who the hell was this guy and why wasn't he a SUPERSTAR? In a matter of months these questions would both be answered emphatically but that night? I have never been more blindsided in my life.

First there were the songs. Catchy and insistent but laid back. Bluesy but funky. Raw but polished. Here was a guy doing what seemed like a very natural thing to do...playing the blues with a hip/hop stoner vibe instead of the pained preacher tone that was so pervasive at that time.

Our collective jaws hit the floor. Most of the crowd was as flabbergasted as we were...his album had not been released yet and he was just out playing with his Philly brethren. To The Goats' credit, they came out and put on an equally astonishing show, as high-octane as they come. There seemed to be 20 of them on stage, guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, horns, several rappers, guest stars hopping on one point I thought the compact lead rapper was going to shout his lung out of his body. They didn't disappoint.

But the beauty of the unknown act is what I will forever take away from that night, the night that I saw a star before his light had yet to reach the earth.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Candy Butchered

I sat at my desk pondering what musical memory to tackle next. This process is random. I flip through the ol' rolodex upstairs and wait for something to give me pause. When I thought of Candy Butchers at Fez in NYC a lump came to my throat. That seemed to be as good a sign as any that I'd found my topic.

As usual I heard about Candy Butchers from cousin Mike. Seems my musical horizons are always on the move with Mike and Liam throwing coordinates into the melodious mapquest. Before I ever saw them live they had reached mythical status to me through word of mouth.

Here is what I'd heard.

The lead singer had been a musical prodigy. There was a fierce bidding war going on over his songs. He was represented by Tony Bennett's son. He'd lost his first and only love to cancer, the girl he'd been with since he'd been a teenager. The band consisted solely of him on acoustic guitar and vocals and his oldest friend on a snare drum with brushes singing harmony. They had a residency at Fez under Time Cafe right off the campus of NYU.

I'd not been in New York very long at this point so every experience felt almost religious. As I picture it in my head, it is almost like the feeling you get when you see a photograph of yourself as a baby. It goes beyond nostalgia to something inexplicable, something that can never be recovered.

All was promise. All was ahead.

Fez is all red velvet, mirrors, and sparkling lights. More like a supper club than a rock joint, plush booths encroach upon the stage. Candy Butchers packed the place to the point of discomfort and we would order two drinks at a time from the inevitable beleaguered hottie waitress.

Mike Viola is Candy Butchers and his career has continued to this day...he recently wrote/recorded/played in the fictional Dewey Cox film 'Walk Hard'. He also wound up co-writing/singing on Tom Hanks' 'That Thing You Do' soundtrack, a great album.

I wonder if his view of this time echoes my own. He owned this club once a month. Very much a showman, he would split the crowd into groups for sing-alongs to kitschy 80's hits. Or as instrumental additions to his own songs which people knew by heart in spite of the fact that he hadn't released anything yet. His friend sat at the snare drum behind him and rolled his eyes good naturedly when he would play the rock star. They were at once polished and raw.

The songs he sang about his deceased love would come out of nowhere in the set. He described a long leafy road out of his hometown and waiting for her in his car. He imagined her next to him while in bed with some new fling. She was always talking to him. I was more than once moved to tears.

Then boom! Right back to up-tempo fun!

Over a year of shows I probably went 6 times. Which in New York is almost like being a Dead Head. I told friends about him. I sent my music to Tony Bennett's son just because.

In a strange twist of fate several years later, I had to drag up every ounce of energy I had to go to my Uncle's wedding in Greenwich Village. I was sick as a dog and in a deep depression. When I say that word about that time it has a visual element, as if I am standing at the bottom of a deep crater while life rages on above me. My life had fallen apart in an astonishing way.

As I made my way around this celebration trying my best to behave appropriately, who did I see but Mike Viola! Turns out he was a cousin of my new Aunt or his wife was a cousin of my new Aunt. I can't remember which.

I hadn't seen Candy Butchers in years but I'd charted his progress. As I watched him stride through this party with a lovely woman on his arm I couldn't help but think of his poor dead love. He was obviously happy and that gave me hope. Couldn't I be happy? I didn't even have a comparable tragedy to overcome! If he could do it so could I!

So Mike Viola, wherever you are, thanks for all the musical memories and thanks for turning your pain into such beautiful art. And thanks for going to my Uncle's wedding.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Legendary Boy In The Rafters

When I first saw The Replacements at The Living Room in 1987 their entire world had changed. They had fired founding member Bob Stinson, recorded an album 'Pleased to Meet Me' as a trio, and hired Minneapolis six-stringer Slim Dunlap as Bob's (ahem)replacement for the tour supporting the album.

I was bummed that I'd not seen the gang in their original form with Smokin' and Drinkin' Bob Stinson hammering away in a dress or a garbage bag but the album was amazing and I preferred the survival of the band to a drunken mess. Advance word had it that they were scorching every stage they touched. Advance word was right.

I've talked about this show before but I keep coming back to it for a number of reasons. Primarily because it holds up in my mind as the greatest rock and roll show I've ever seen but also because of the simple fact that live rock and roll was still a new phenomenon for me.

The preceding year had been a difficult one for my school, my town, my friends. A well-liked classmate had killed himself. This had perforated any remaining innocence I could have claimed and channeled me towards darker and darker realms. I was about to enter college, my best friends were both leaving town which meant my band was leaving town, and I knew I would miss them terribly.

So in the midst of this, The Replacements' new album was akin to a new set of gospels being discovered in your own backyard. One song in particular seemed oddly apt, a bleak upbeat howl called 'The Ledge' sung entirely from the perspective of a teenager on the brink of suicide.

The video was controversial, which for The Replacements was a bit ironic. They had balked at making videos once signed to Warner Bros. For example, the video for 'Bastards of Young' consisted of an LP spinning on a turntable next to a speaker. At the end of the song, a Converse clad sneaker kicks the speaker in.

MTV banned 'The Ledge' from regular rotation. I've actually never seen it. Don't really care to.

Back to the show...

It was about a thousand degrees in the club, to the point where a shirtless guy wasn't seen as some sort of imposition or brag. The band raised the temperature a number of degrees with a blistering set. I fought my way up to the lip of the stage and stared up at my idols.

Well past the two hour mark, they tore into 'The Ledge'. For a teen who had been recently shaken to the core by suicide, this might have been the most healing thing that could have happened. All that pain and confusion muscled into a sing-along!

During the song, everyone became aware of a scrawny kid who somehow had made his way up into the rafters of the club. He hung over the stage listening intently. Tommy Stinson banged away at his bass but managed to bid the kid be careful when he danced up to the mike to sing backup vocals. Paul Westerberg was too far into the performance to notice but the content of the song combined with this mini re-enactment to create an almost unbearable tension.

As the band wound the song down the kid followed meekly and made his way to the edge of the stage. The bouncers were so relieved they didn't even throw the kid out. He took a spot at the foot of the band like me and took in the rest of the show.

'All the love that they pledge
For the last time will not reach
The ledge'
- The Replacements 'The Ledge' off of 'Pleased to Meet Me'

Monday, April 7, 2008


The title of this post comes from 1988. I was in college and as far into my obsession with Elvis Costello as I would ever go. I don't know how to describe what happened with Elvis and I, only that I feel much like one half of a famous divorced couple. I only have nice things to say about him but we aren't together anymore.

Don't get me wrong, now, the man is one-in-a-million. His creative stretch from 1984 to 1990 was astonishing. 1986 alone has two MASTERPIECES. 'King of America' and 'Blood & Chocolate' came out the same year and are almost diametrically opposed in a stylistic sense.

'King of America' was recorded live with crack session musicians and prefigures the whole alt-country movement by about 10 years. If you ever listened to Wilco and thought they invented that wheel, you ought to check this album out.

'Blood & Chocolate' was recorded with The Attractions. They all hated each other and him at this point. The album doesn't suffer for it, in fact the discord etches these songs indelibly into the memory. You can hear every single breath that Elvis has to take in order to spew the vitriol and pain. 'I Want You' is 6 minutes of exposed id. He begs a lover who has betrayed him to tell him every detail, to explain the unexplainable, to account for the devastation he is left with. And the love is always the primary emotion that comes through in spite of the anger and the rage.

It is this song upon which the title of this post hinges.

I had gone to Keaney Gym with my sister's boyfriend at the time, as much of an Elvis fan as I. We snuck in a flask of vodka which we mixed in with Del's Lemonade. Anyone from RI will know what this means. If you aren't from Little Rhody, imagine the best crushed ice lemonade drink ever, multiply it by several million, and then you'll approach the delicio-sity of Del's Lemonade.

Nice and toasty from our subterfuge drinks, we settled back to take in Elvis solo. Nick Lowe opened and he was fine. But he just seemed pleasant compared to the artistry that came after.

Elvis played what seemed like 70,000 songs. Each one a bigger hit than the last. The acoustic format was a bit of a stretch for an arena of that size but he filled the space easily. He added a drum machine and distortion for 'Pump It Up' and many other sound effects/embellishments made for as varied an array of sounds as a single man with a guitar could hope to make.

During his encore, which came well past the two hour mark, he started the immediately recognizable chords that open 'I Want You'. Stark and minor, he went through the intro which itself lasts almost two minutes, and ends with him saying 'Anything else is a waste of breath'. Then the song goes on for almost 5 more minutes.

In the pause between '...waste of breath' and the kerang of the opening chord to the bulk of the song, the tension in the arena was palpable. His emotional performance was WRENCHING. It was as if we 3,000 strangers were listening in on his break-up call.

In that pause, some bozo screamed 'BUDWEISER!!!!' at the top of his lungs.

Even anonymous intimacy is too much for some people.