In Praise of Flick Ford

sc00055444After the Soho Weekly News folded, I went looking for a new place to publish my landmark 1980s uptown-downtown journalism. Ah, yes, the tawdry East Village in the 1980s, a time and place that someday may be as widely celebrated as the Summer of Love in San Francisco, because it was equally revolutionary and exciting.
My first book, Hip Hop, had disappointed me as it looked rushed out and I guess it was. For my next book, I wanted to work more closely with the designer. I noticed the East Village Eye on a newsstand and that caught my eye because I loved the new wave art direction. Soon, I met the publisher Leonard Abrams, and the art director David Allen, who had two other art directors he loved working with, Flick Ford and Brian Spaeth. The illo (above) was drawn by Flick, a portrait of the two of us, based on a photo from the East Village Eye.
I was living on the Upper West Side, where I still reside, a former reporter for the New York Daily News, hanging out mostly with friends from Illinois who had all penetrated the upper ranks of the corporate media world. But suddenly I shifted gears and started hanging out in the East Village almost nonstop for ten years.
I’m shy, so I like extrovert buddies who can start a conversation. Larry Green was my sidekick in high school and he always reminded me of a young Fred Astaire. Very suave and he loved to dance. I remember thinking: odd, a dude in the dance club, but then Larry told me it was the easiest way to meet hot girls.
Well, Flick reminded me of a young James Cagney and he could entertain and sweet talk the opposite sex better than anyone I knew, excepting Chef Ra, and Flick became my sidekick for the next decade. He certainly had a style all his own and I radically adjusted my look just from hanging around with him.
1375810819_WILD-2Flick, Brian and I would go on to form the Soul Assassins, a legendary band from the period. We all worked at High Times at one point, and now we’ve gone in different directions, although I think all three of us are doing our best work right now. I’m tremendously impressed with Flick’s latest book, Wild, 75 Freshwater Tropical Fish of the World.
I didn’t catch on to Flick’s obsession with fish until one day when out of the blue he got a small tank for his apartment. I returned a few weeks later and his apartment was filled with huge tanks, fresh and salt water. It’s safe to say the fish were talking to Flick. And what do you think they were saying? Save me?
Of course, that was 30 years ago. Today, Flick is widely recognized as one of the world’s greatest fish painters. He travels the globe catching fish so he can watercolor them straight from the water and then he mostly returns them to their habitat. Wild is an attempt to document the earth’s freshwater phenotypes. I guess you know life began in water so these fish are some of our oldest ancestors. And many are disappearing and have been replaced in captivity by flashy hybrids, which is cool, except what happens when all the original phenotypes are gone? In case of emergency, it’s up to the conservationist to capture, protect and preserve these phenotypes and that’s really what Wild is all about: inspiring a new generation to respect the natural order by honoring the ancestors of the earth. This is not just a book of paintings, however, but an encyclopedic compendium of vital information and includes maps of origin and instructions on captivity.
1349797378_artpic-bowHere’s Flick’s Rainbow Trout from the Upper Missouri. You can’t really do these images justice with web shots, however. The fish literally jump off the pages and many are so colorful you wonder why anyone felt they needed to be enhanced through breeding. Even more astonishing are the prints and original watercolors Flick carries when he’s on tour. I thought I’d give you a heads up on a rare opportunity to meet a colossal talent in person.
Art exhibition: Jan. 11, 2014 – Woodstock, NY
And check out Flick’s website here: http://www.flickford.com/

The Bronx Crusaders

BronxCrusaderslogo

I had a period that lasted less than a year when I was considered a hot, emerging screenwriter. Of course, as soon as Beat Street came out, that myth evaporated because even though the movie did ok, the script was awful, not that they used a word of my dialogue—in fact they didn’t keep anything but the characters’ names.

But there were a few months when I got to know what it feels like to be constantly courted for one project or another. I started working on a couple of treatments before Beat Street came out, one was the story of Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers that I was working on with a young black director, and the other was a comedy about the South Bronx, featuring a parody of Curtis Sliwa battling a local crack-head drug lord.

At the time, I was working on Art After Midnight with art director Flick Ford, and Flick had a business partner named Rob Taub, who was also a comedian who was dying to work on a project with me. Curtis Sliwa had just emerged at the time and I thought his organization, The Guardian Angels, was ripe material for satire. Curtis created an unarmed citizen militia that began riding the NYC subways in uniforms to make the passengers feel safe again and provide a free emergency response team. Before that he managed a McDonald’s in the South Bronx. Curtis turned out to be quite savvy about manipulating public events to promote his all-volunteer force. Who knows, maybe Curtis even inspired me a little, because within in a few years I’d create my own emergency response volunteer force, The Freedom Fighters, the first hemp legalization organization in America, founded by me and Jack Herer just three years later.

Imagine my surprise when five years later, I end up going on the road to major college campuses for a few years debating Sliwa on the issue of marijuana legalization, which he was against naturally. Curtis’s favorite phrase was “sensory mind wing ding,” which was his term for a hippie pothead. We got along great as Curtis is a charming guy and not exactly the Archie Bunker character he plays on stage and when he’s on the radio, although he can lapse into one of those rants anytime, it is often mostly for comic effect.

imagesThe cops really hated Sliwa, though. In fact, some of them hated him so much they hired the mob to rub him out. The hit was supposed to take place while he was locked in the back of a taxi cab and everything went off as planned, except Curtis jumped around so much in the back seat they only managed to plug him a few times in the gut. Somehow, he got out of that cab and got to hospital and spent years trying to track down the mobsters and cops who set him up. My impression of Curtis certainly improved after he showed his mettle in this incident, although the media tried to play it like maybe Curtis invented the whole story? Yeah, sure, Curtis shot himself a few times so he could blame it on the cops? Not very likely.

But that film script, Bronx Crusaders? That went out to Hollywood where the bigwigs said “it’s not funny.” See, Len Bias had just died and coke was now considered something you couldn’t joke about, even though I always thought cokeheads were pretty funny. The execs were all rushing into treatment programs. I mean, Cheech and Chong made millions poking fun at potheads, why can’t we have a classic cokehead comedy to match up against Scarface?

Unfortunately, that media company Flick and Rob started was working with all the big corporations at the time and initially very successful, but didn’t survive the rapid technological changes that were on the horizon. In fact, the failure of that business created a cascade of tragedies, the foremost of which was the breakup of Flick’s first marriage. I even trace the dissolution of the wonderful Soul Assassins, who would have been famous had Little Steven’s Underground Garage only been around at the time, with that same spiral of doom, as John McNaughton would say.

I found the treatment for the Bronx Crusaders and was thinking about putting it up for free on Smashwords if anyone wants to check it out. I guess there’s still hope for some of these projects I once tried to manifest.

Fun Gallery…the true story by Patti Astor

I was hoping to run into some old friends I haven’t seen in a while, like Fred, Futura and Zephyr, but none of them made it to Patti Astor’s book signing. The four of us belong to a very special group, you see, one that also includes Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. We all had shows at the Fun Gallery, although mine was the only photographic exhibit ever held at that gallery. (Only one photograph sold, btw, an Andre Grossmann blow-up of an early breakdance competition, which was purchased by Gary Pini for around $150. Last time I saw it, it was hanging over a fireplace in his townhouse in Brooklyn, although I haven’t been there in over a decade.)

Patti was a true Queen of the East Village during its glory days. The scene back then was divided between the older, more sophisticated Mudd Club crowd and the retro Club 57 crew, both of which were pursuing much different esthetics, although both worlds got suddenly pulled together when hip hop arrived. Patti and Jean-Michel were part of the core of Mudd Club, while Keith, Kenny, John Sex and Ann Magnuson were the emerging Club 57 stars. The Mudd Club was mostly on heroin at the time, while Club 57 much preferred mushrooms. Later cocaine took over everywhere.

Patti’s drug of preference, however, was probably Veuve Clicqout. At least that’s what usually emerged when a major ceremony of her’s was about to go down. Patti was the greatest master of ceremonies in New York at the time, which is why all these artists wanted desperately to show in her gallery.

Her book is a masterpiece of counterculture literature, and a way better guide to the era than what has been published so far (with the possible exception of my book Art After Midnight). I read it in one sitting and it really took me back to the period. Despite the emergence of AIDS right in our midst, the infusion of hip hop into the downtown scene was monumental. Fred Brathwaite was really the first person to catch onto the potentials of merging downtown with the South Bronx. He met Patti at a cocktail party and the rest is history. In the book, she refers to him as the “chairman of the board.” I had to read the book to discover they were also lovers for a brief time. One of my favorite scenes in the book happens after Patti breaks up with her husband Steven Kramer and moves quickly from Fred to Futura to Jean-Michel. Walking home late at night, Fred looks over at Keily Jenkins and snarls “You’ll probably be next.” “Really?!” says Keily. Not only was Keily next, but he was the one who actually stuck. Of course, Patti wasn’t there to see that conversation. She heard about it later from Keily, one of the many luminaries from that time period who died too young to comb his grey hair.

Charlie Ahearn, Michael Holman and me really stood out as the survivors as we all had a hand along with Patti in bringing hip hop to the rest of the world. I wish I’d taken a photo of the three of us, as our paths may not cross again for another 10 years.

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.

Birth of the Assassinettes

Our first gig (a High Times Christmas party) was a huge success, drawing a standing-room-only crowd of over 500 to the restaurant on the first floor of the McGraw Hill Building. We couldn’t wait for our next performance. The success, I knew, was at least partially due to distributing free mushrooms to the crowd. We resolved to continue that tactic for all future gigs. The great thing was we got people dancing at a time when people didn’t dance in New York. The only band I knew that created an instant dance scene was The 52’s, so we were in good company. I also knew that in order to build our fan base, we needed female fans. Guys show up in force at gigs where they know hot girls can be found. How were we going to attract a bunch of hot girls, I wondered? I soon came up with a plan: we would form a sister organization for the Soul Assassins called “The Assassinettes.” My girlfriend at the time, Claudia Cuseta (who I’d met working the front desk of Tommy Boy Records) was the first one to be inducted and she quickly recruited her best friend, Helena, to join as well. Flick came up with the third girl, Mean Jean, who was going out with his hairstyling buddy from high school, Romeo. That’s them in the photo, from left to right: Claudia, Helena, Jeannie. Hot, eh? Yes, they added quite a lot of pazazz to our second show, even though they only performed on three of our ten songs. Flick had booked us a gig in a bar downtown and Captain Whizzo, who had recently dropped by High Times to introduce himself, agreed to add his psychedelic light show to the festivities. I think we paid him $50 and all the mushrooms he could eat. Of course, we also brought shrooms to hand out to the crowd a half hour before showtime. Much to my surprise, East Village Eye rock critic James Marshall showed up. I wasn’t sure if James liked me at the time; I knew he was extremely hard-to-please musically-speaking. Imagine my surprise when he comes down to the dressing room in the basement after the gig to tell Flick and me how much he enjoyed the show. At that point, I knew nothing could stop us. The crowd, needless to say, had gone berserk cheering us on. I remember getting eye-contact with Flick during a peak moment and both of us smiled as if to say, “It’s working, man!” Problems would soon emerge, however, as the Assassinettes began to squabble. Jeannie and Claudia were clashing, and inexplicably, Helena was taking Jeannie’s side against her best friend.  I was head-over-heels in love with Claudia at the time, and I couldn’t take the stress of refereeing the disputes. This conflict was also affecting my relationship with Flick, so I disbanded the original Assassinettes. We needed to look for three new Assassinettes, I told Flick. And the number one rule next time around is nobody from the band sleeps with any Assassinettes! This would solve the problem, or so I thought.

You can listen to the Soul Assassins for free, or download some of our best tunes for 99 cents at our Bandcamp site.

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.