Two Books Worth Checking Out

The Risk of Being Ridiculous by Guy Maynard got me interested in blogging about the 1960s. Maynard grew up in Urbana, Illinois, a year ahead of me, and was one of the leading figures in the garage-band movement that started around 1966. His book takes place in 1969 and really captures the intensity of the times. I gave it a rave review in High Times and it inspired me to dig up my own archives from the 1960s, especially a short story I wrote called “The Steam Tunnels.” I was surprised at how well my story had held up over the years. I’d forgotten most of the trauma I went through in the mid-’60s. People called it a “Generation Gap” but it was really a “Generation War.”

Well, there’s another novelist from my home town who wrote extensively about Carpenter and Cole, who (along with Guy and George Faber) had led the garage-rock movement in Central Illinois. Mandy Moores was actually one of my sister’s best friends in high school, and she ended up briefly married to Carp, and lived with him down in New Orleans when he and Cole were both deep-sea diving off oil platforms around the world. It was incredibly dangerous work, although the pay was pretty good.

Mandy’s book, Dream Palace, came out many years ago, but I just got around to reading it recently. Mandy’s brother, Brian, was the original drummer for my band, the Soul Assassins, as well as one of the drummers for a later incarnation of The Finchley Boys, the greatest garage band to emerge from Central Illinois. I’ve lost touch with both Brian and Mandy, so maybe this blog will bring them back into my orbits.

You can pick up a copy of Dream Palace for around a buck on Amazon. I kinda wish I could have helped Mandy edit this project, because she’s clearly a very talented writer. This first novel could have been something spectacular, on a similar level as Maynard’s book, but it has some flaws. For one, Mandy was a little too close to the subject when she wrote this, and had a lot of issues she was working out. Carp had a well-known anger-management problem, and we all knew you didn’t push his buttons unless you were looking for serious trouble. But Carp could also be a heroic figure, and this side of him is mostly missing. I also would have loved to have gotten more details on his garage band origins in Urbana, as well as more details on the dangers of deep-sea diving. For example, When Doug Blair got beat-up for making fun of the football coach (Smitty),  it was Carp who went after Frank Sowers to take revenge. Reading the book, I couldn’t believe how tough Mandy was, pushing Carp’s buttons big-time, forcing confrontations with him, and basically not taking any shit at all. Unfortunately, their marriage was doomed because they were headed in completely different directions. Mandy had a fairy-tale view on life when in high school. I remember her many paintings that evoked this magical dream life. The book does a good job of capturing this side of her personality, but her fairy tale turned bad when Carp started getting violent.

Bugsy’s not in the book far as I could tell, although he was also part of that New Orleans crew, working as a deep sea diver. Carp always had some major schemes going on. Mandy goes into great detail on his 50-foot sailboat that he overhauled and eventually took to Jamaica for a load of pot. Unfortunately, this trip coincided with an anti-smuggling campaign supervised by then-Vice President George Bush. On their way back to the Florida Keys with a boatload of ganja, Carp and Bugsy were unexpectedly intercepted by a fleet of warships that had been deployed to root out drug smugglers. With the Coast Guard bearing down on him, Carp went into action-mode, and tried to dump all the bales before they were intercepted. Unfortunately, he wasn’t fast enough and the Coast Guard was able to pull a bunch of the bales out of the water.

In a most amazing coincidence, the head prosecutor in Florida handling their case was none other than Ralph Hersey, who’d been a columnist for my underground paper, The Tin Whistle. I tried to recruit all the best writers in my high school and Ralph had been suggested by one of the English teachers. Ralph was a good counterpoint to Charlie Gerron. They were both black, but Charlie was angry and confrontational, while Ralph was the model of common sense and morality. We also had a great poet in our class, Jim Guthrie, and I remember going to Jim’s house and trying to recruit him. Jim took one look at the first issue of The Tin Whistle, however, and decided it wasn’t for him. His work was considerably more mature than what most of us were doing at the time and Jim would go on to win many poetry awards in the 1970s.

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.

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.