Return of the Soul Assassins

Prior to the arrival of Cream and Jimi Hendrix, it was pretty much unheard of not to have a dedicated rhythm guitar player in almost every ’60s’ garage band. In fact, my former band, the Knight Riders, was actually one of those few since John Knight played organ. I played bass in the Knight Riders, a beautiful Gibson SG.

Twenty years later, when I started the Soul Assassins in my Upper West Side apartment in New York City, I began by playing cardboard boxes with drum sticks. Brian Spaeth was the first actual instrumentalist in the Soul Assassins, since he played both bass and sax. Bob Brandel, one of the leading guitar players from the original garage band scene in Central Illinois came in next on lead guitar. As soon as Brian Moores, a former drummer for the Finchley Boys came on board, it was only natural that I start playing rhythm.

One afternoon we were practicing “Just Like Me,” when, out-of-the-blue, I took a timid little solo on top of Brandel’s howling solo. And when we were listening to the tape later, the band went crazy: two guitars soloing at the same time! They thought it sounded great! Me, I had the exact opposite reaction. I thought the song lost all intensity the second the rhythm guitar dropped out and I vowed never to let the rhythm drop out of a song again. It was my first and final guitar solo.

Years later, I remember talking to Chip Znuff, who was a big Soul Assassins fan. I said something like, “I’m just a rhythm guitar player.” He looked stunned. He couldn’t believe I didn’t understand the crucial and central role played by the rhythm guitar in many bands, including the Soul Assassins. But as the Ramones proved so well, any band can get can by with no lead guitar. But few get by without a solid rhythm. In fact, it’s the rhythm guitar that defines the sound of many rock bands. The Rolling Stones would be a perfect example.

I was playing a Fender Telecaster out of a Fender Deluxe Reverb with trebles cranked up on both. The sound was super crunchy like a saw-blade carving up chunks of chords and spitting them out. Brandel’s lead guitar usually landed between me and the bass. That’s how far up in the treble atmosphere I normally resided.

Anyway, for those who care, the Soul Assassins are coming back for a grand performance soon. Dino Sorbello is on bass, Rodway on drums, Brandel on lead guitar and me. We’re all looking forward to loading up that old lumber truck for another ride down the mountain—two wheels on all the curves— a style also known as “r-r-r-real rock’n’roll.” To commemorate this occasion, I’ve been digitizing some of the old Soul Assassins tapes and I actually found that one and only guitar solo I ever took on “Just Like Me.” You can find it by clicking the link at the top-right column of this page that says “click here to listen to the Soul Assassins.”

Scream (West Side version)

I recently started listening to some old tapes recorded at my Upper West Side apartment back in 1986 when the band first started, and I was amazed at how great the band sounds using a Walkman Pro with stereo mike to record. One of the first things I did after forming the band was invest in a small PA system. If we were going to rehearse in my apartment, I wanted the singers to be able to blast over the amps and drums. And I didn’t want to rely on the crummy house PA’s that you always find in the bottom-tier of venues. On hot days we’d open the window and just let it blast! Saturday afternoons were our usual rehearsal time. I knew we had something when a bunch of people hanging out the windows in the building across the street on West End Avenue all started applauding and cheering after we finished a particularly rousing version of “All Night Long,” a ’60s garage tune from Texas that’s particularly hard to play. That first spring we actually developed a fan club in the windows across the street who knew our regular rehearsal schedule. Later, we moved the rehearsals to real rehearsal rooms and eventually to Giorgio Gomelsky’s, as my building started rattling sabers about the noise. It didn’t help that the super lived in the apartment next to me, or that we had clouds of marijuana smoke drifting into the elevators.

Bands and sports teams are very similar in that they rely on energy harmony and transference. Some days the energy and harmony and transference are working, and some days they’re not. Going into studios to record would always boost our energy, but it could never guarantee those transcendent performances. Flick especially seemed to do his best work when the band was alone, or even late at night when we were just hanging out drinking beers and smoking joints, when he’d suddenly bust into his Lil’ Miscreant cartoon character and start channeling the ghost of Elvis or anybody else he wanted to. But once Flick got on stage, much of that improvisational energy would evaporate, and while Flick always put on great performances, that special magic we knew existed deep inside him seldom surfaced full bloom in recording studios or even onstage. To give a little demonstration of this, in case people think I’m just talking shit, I just put an alternative version of “Scream,” the first rock song I ever wrote on bandcamp just so our fans can hear that other Flick Ford for the first time. I believe this was recorded the same afternoon as that rousing version of “All Night Long.” Certainly the performances are better on this than any other version I know. And this was the original version of “Scream,” before Gordon Spaeth told us my song sounded too much like “Have Love,” and I re-jigged the guitar riff and sped up the tempo. After Flick goes off you can hear Brandel step up to the plate and knock his guitar solo out of the park, and if you listen close, you’ll hear Brian do the same thing on his bass soon afterwards.

http://theoriginalsoulassassins.bandcamp.com/track/scream-west-side-version

In case you just stumbled onto this blog, I’ve been telling the stories about the Finchley Boys and Knight Riders (and Seeds of Doubt)  from central Illinois from 1966-69, while, at the same time, telling the story of the Soul Assassins, my New York City garage band from 1986-89. Check out my free eBooks, links top-right column. And thanks for stopping by.

First Visit to a Recording Studio

Unfortunately the Soul Assassins made only a few trips a recording studio, the first, in fact, with the original Assassinettes (Claudia, Helena and Mean Jean), as well as original drummer Brian Moores on January 2, 1988. Flick and Brian Spaeth found the studio in the East Village where we eventually did most of our recordings. I guess it was run by some coke-head because the sound we got out of that place was always terrible. The owner was going to record and mix us one afternoon, but after a few songs, he split and left some crack-head behind to do the mixing. Of course, that dude was being paid by the hour, so he kept us there all night, twiddling knobs, acting like he was souping things up. What a joke. Garage bands sound best with zero mixing. But you have to know how to mic and EQ the instruments, which these guys obviously didn’t have a clue about. Even the demo tape they gave me on a cassette tape had crazy levels, one track riding the red all the time and the other barely there at all. It was sad that we never really stepped into a competent situation in a studio or who knows what sort of records we could have produced.

Flick and Brian were masters at showing up at the studio armed with Brian’s ancient tape-recorder and a brand-new song they wanted to do. Brian would play some Bill Kelly Show taped off his equally ancient radio. It was like a game of telephone tag trying to decipher those faint and scratchy sounds. I’m hopeless at transposing anyway, practically tone-deaf, so Bob Brandel would always work out the chords for me. He was so amazing on guitar that it usually only took Bob a few seconds before he riffed off some major chunks that sounded just like the record, only better.

In fact, it was a testament to how great the band was that we could even learn a song and record it minutes later as if we’d been playing it all our lives. I just put up a new track on our bandcamp site (see link top-right column). It’s from that first session: “That’s the Bag I’m In,” perfect for Flick’s bulldog personality. We also recorded two originals I wrote that day, “Scream” and “Higher Ground,” as well as “All Night Long,” “Down at the Nightclub,” “”Have Love,” “The Assassinettes Theme,” and a few others. The reason we picked up “Have Love” is Brian’s brother Gordon (a member of the Fleshtones) told us my song “Scream” was a copy of “Have Love” (even though I’d never heard that song before). But once I listened to “Have Love,” I realized it blew my humble tune out of the water. Gordon would eventually teach Flick how to play the harmonica.

The original Assassinettes had no problem with “Scream” but their replacements did. At least Abbey did. After she heard the song on the radio one day, she told me we couldn’t play it with her on stage because of the line that went: “If you got a gal that don’t know her place, all you have to do is laugh in her face, and just scream!” Abbey didn’t dig that line, so we dropped the song. I just posted a bunch of songs from that first session on our bandcamp site for the first time, so you might want to check them out.

Why not check out my band, the Soul Assassins, or my free eBooks, just click the links at the top-right column of this page. And please subscribe so you don’t miss any future posts. And thanks for stopping by.

The Plan to Make Rock History: Phase 2

I guess you could say Phase 2 of the Soul Assassins’ plans to make rock history began in a rehearsal studio in the East Village, when I met four people for the first time, three of whom would become longtime friends. We must have been operating on a very high magic-factor, ’cause a Hollywood screenwriter could not have concocted a better set of characters for our script.

Where to begin?

Ok, Allegra’s friend, Abbey Lavine, she’s the super hottie on the left. Notice the Betty Page haircut (long before that craze took off). In fact, Abbey once played Betty in an independent film. She was a literary scholar and librarian. A brainiac. She was also semi-famous as the world’s greatest female 8-track music collector and appeared in a documentary on the subject. She was also a go-go dancer at a Queens strip club when she needed the money, but she vetoed the idea of me coming to see that performance once so I won’t be offering up any photos along those lines. Abbey was the first vegan I ever met and she knew garage rock history as good as I did! She hailed from Boston originally, and her crowd from Boston included Dino Sorbello, who was sort of the unofficial king of the garage scene at the time. He courted Abbey for years, and even won her heart for a while, and they lived as king and queen of garage rock on Sixth Street. Some of the best bands at the time were from Boston (Lyres), and the best after-parties were always at Dino’s, where the band could crash when the sun came up. But enough about Dino. Abbey had a very sharp wit, and sometimes put some camp into her go-go dancing. I particularly remember her “bunny” moves with paws outstretched. I do have video on that move.

Kimona 117 (above, far right) had a voice, though, nobody could fuck with. The second she started singing, the energy in the room shifted, with her at the center of gravity. We instantly hailed her as the female alpha in the band  just based on voice alone. She also had great style and a voluptuous figure. Kimona wasn’t comfortable and at-home with the music the way Abby was: she had yet to get her schooling in garage rock history, but that would come easy. You can see in the picture she has not yet assumed the regal bearing of garage rock goddess she would soon attain. Kimona was struck by many tragedies, unfortunately, and was struggling with a law-suit and bad-news boyfriend the day we met her. One of her best friends was on crack. So we quickly pulled Kimona out of that scene and she became our hang-out-every-day side-kick. We all knew instantly we had a diamond, not even in the rough, she was pretty polished even back then.

Drummer is always the hardest position to fill in any band. I got a whiff of the reason why when, for a micro-second, I was going to play organ and guitar in the Soul Assassins, before I figured out all the shit I was going to have to drag around to the gigs. Well, that shit doesn’t even come close to what a drummer needs to drag around to the gigs. Brian Morse had been the real thing, a former drummer for the Finchley Boys, the most famous garage rock band of central Illinois. But Brian could not shake a stick compared with the pad-pounding Dave Rodway! Holy cow, that guy had some crazy energy and the strength of Hercules! Dave was also an accomplished martial arts expert and his idea of a fun thing was to sleep on a bed of rocks. He avoided mattresses like the plague. It softened him up too much! Dave was a rock! I’ve never seen anybody so chiseled before or since. He was the dream drummer for any rock band, and of course, other bands instantly wanted to steal him away. Dave had a blast at the rehearsal, though. He had his pick of any band, any style he wanted to go for, but he went for us. He told me that day he loved playing off my rhythm guitar. That’s Mr. Brandel on the right. I don’t think he’s been properly introduced yet.

But the Joan-Jett lookalike in the middle (top photo)? That’s Kimona’s friend  Joia Morello, who left town the day after doing one gig with us. And wouldn’t you know it, Abby knew a garage rock goddess who wanted to join. And she was a blonde, which might go good with Abby’s black, and Kimona’s red. And she would actually evolve into the greatest of all the East Village garage rock goddesses, the favorite runway model for the top designers looking to achieve that magic “East Village” effect. But you’ll have to wait for the next episode of this blog to meet her.

If you like these stories please check out the Soul Assassins Greatest Hits on bandcamp, just click the link at the top-right. Also subscribe to my email alerts so you don’t miss any future posts. And please check out my free eBooks on smashwords. And thanks for stopping by. And….

Hip Hop to Soul Assassins

While I was researching my hip hop book and film project, I got inspired to get involved in music again. I’d left that scene behind in 1967 after being kicked out of my Illinois garage band for taking LSD. In all fairness, the Knight Riders did offer me to rejoin a few days later, but the chemistry was already ruined.

It wasn’t until I began interviewing all the kids in the South Bronx who created hip hop, that I got the urge to get back on stage. And at first, I edged into hip hop as a deejay, enlisting my two best friends, at the time, David Bither and Jeff Peisch, to join as my emcee group. Jeff rapped his own lyrics, while David blew wild sax solos, and I scratched up some break beat records Bambaataa had clued me onto. We held a performance at the cavernous apartment on the Upper West Side Jeff and I were living in. All three of us were rising freelance writers at the time, working for Horizon magazine, and other publications. Jeff and David got a cushy gig that summer with Lincoln Center. “High-level executive meeting” was Jeff’s code-phrase for smoking a joint during work. Our initial performance was attended by many critics and music-industry insiders, all of whom positively raved about how great we were. If nothing else, we certainly had attitude. Dave’s sax playing is what took it over the top since Jeff’s rapping style was more of a white-boy parody of real rap, talking about his Sony color TV set and Klipsch speakers, and other toys he coveted. We probably could have become something, but I had also been moving in circles around the East Village, writing for the Soho News and East Village Eye,  and soon discovered garage bands were very much in fashion downtown. Laurie Lennard was going out with Jeff at the time, and was one of the top goddesses on our scene, a real go-getter who eventually landed a job booking talent for David Letterman. Laurie would later become famous for marrying Larry David and producing “An Inconvenient Truth” with Al Gore. According to Jeff, her body was an exact replica of Marilyn Monroe’s. That’s her in the red sweater with her arm around me in the above photo. Jeff would soon become news director of the newly-created MTV, and then an award-winning producer for Time/Life, while David eventually landed his dream job co-running Nonesuch Records.

I’ve always been a rocker at heart. So I switched gears and told my friends to come to a rehearsal for a garage band I was going to start. I had two cardboard boxes set-up in my bedroom and a pair of drumsticks. That was going to be my instrument to get started. I tried to enlist Dave to play organ, as he knew music theory, could write songs, and sang like a bird. But Dave would only come to the rehearsal if he could play lead guitar. He’d already been in a few bands as a keyboardist and wanted to make the switch. Flick Ford, my favorite art director at the Eye, was a natural choice as a lead singer. He had a dynamic energy that could bowl you over when he was on. But I didn’t know if Flick could sing, so I also invited Rick Dehaan to show up because he had a great rock’n’roll look and had recently tried to commit suicide. I thought this project might pick up his spirits. Rick’s psychiatrist asked him what concrete steps he was taking to make improvements in his life, and Rick replied: “I’m playing the lottery.” “But that’s not very concrete, is it?” replied the psychiatrist. The next day Rick won a million dollars. At that point I was probably thinking we could use Rick to buy equipment. Brian Spaeth helped me conceive the whole project. Brian had been through a similar experience as me, having been unceremoniously booted out of the Fleshtones, the reigning gods of garage rock in New York. The only band that could touch the Fleshtones at the time was probably the Lyres out of Boston. I met Brian when I began working at High Times as Executive Editor. It was a relief to finally land a weekly paycheck after being a freelancer for months. Anyway, I told Dave I’d already promised lead guitar to Bob Brandel, one of the best guitar players from the garage scene in Illinois, who was now working for NBC news as an art director. So that became the core of the band, which I soon named “The Soul Assassins:” Brian on bass, me on cardboard boxes, Bob on guitar and Flick singing. We knew right away we were onto something. Brian didn’t like the idea of two lead singers at first, but I told him the lead singer’s ego was always the biggest issue in any band and that if we had two, it would help keep their egos in check. Rick never had an ego, but Flick soon developed a whopper. But then so did I, I suppose. (I guess the funniest confrontation was the night Flick got drunk and said, “I am the head dick in the band.” To which I replied: “That’s right, Flick.” We were both pissing on the roof at Dino’s on Sixth Street.) I soon pulled in Brian Morse, who had drummed briefly for the Finchley Boys back in Illinois, which allowed me to switch to rhythm guitar. Our first gig was a High Times Christmas party, and the film director John McNaughton (a grade-school friend of Bob’s) flew in for the party and played organ on a couple of songs. You can listen free to the band, and download songs for 99 cents by clicking the Soul Assassin link in the middle of the links at the top-right of this page.

Below from left to right: John, Bob, Flick, Me, Brian Moores, Rick, Brian Spaeth, moments before taking the stage for the first time.