Thursday, September 22, 2005

Starship trouper

In this day and age when just about every near-forgotten factoid of rock & roll history has been exhumed and exposed, it is truly mysterious that no pictures of Jeff Starship--the glitter guy who later evolved into Joey Ramone--have surfaced. Neither have any photos of his pre-Ramones band, Sniper, seen the light of day. None that I've been able to find, anyway. I mean, come on--there's at least one photo of the Tangerine Puppets (featuring Johnny and Tommy Ramone) in circulation, On the Road with the Ramones (London: Sanctuary, 2003) contains a few choice shots of Butch (featuring a slightly glammed out Tommy and "Really Well-Organized" Monte Melnick), and I swear that one picture in Jim Bessman's Ramones: An American Band (New York: St. Martin's, 1993) shows Johnny in what appear to be skintight silver satin slacks. Yet the only evidence we have concerning Joey's glam alter ego is anecdotal.

Joey, quoted in Ramones: An American Band: I was into dressing up in my own style. I had a black satin-like jumpsuit made of stretch material with a bullet chain hanging around the groin with the zipper open, and elbow-length black leather gloves and a chain. I had pink-lavender boots with six-inch platform heels, a leather jacket, black sunglasses, long hair. It was pretty androgynous, but in those days you could let go. Still, a lot of people wanted to kill me!

From McNeil and McCain's Please Kill Me (New York: Grove, 1996)--Mickey Leigh: Joey really got into the glitter thing. He was stealing all my mother's jewelry, her clothes, her makeup, and her scarves, which created even more fights between them. She would flip out when she saw all her clothes were missing...[I]t was really dangerous to hitchhike down Queens Boulevard looking the way Joey did. Joey's so unusual looking to begin with, so tall--he's about 6'6'' naturally, but in platform shoes he stood over seven feet tall. And he wore a jumpsuit. At that time, you really couldn't be doing that safely. You were taking a chance hitchhiking down Queens Boulevard looking like that. Joey: When I was hitching I'd be completely decked out. I used to wear this custom-made black jumpsuit, these like pink, knee-high platform boots--all kinds of rhinestones--lots of dangling belts and gloves. I got rides, but that was my first time experiencing queers. All of a sudden you'd be halfway there and they'd say, "What do you think about going under the bridge?" Usually, if I was close enough, I'd just jump out of the car.

Evocative imagery for sure--but I'm jonesing for an actual IMAGE. Was he camera-shy in those days? Or did he burn all potentially embarrassing mementoes of past lives? What gives?

At any rate, the end destination of those risky Queens Blvd. hitches was a club Jeff Starship frequented as both a patron and, later, performer.

THE COVENTRY--47-03 Queens Boulevard, Sunnyside, Queens. One could be forgiven for never expecting rock & roll to emerge from the squaresville shadows of the 7 viaduct. Yet this little Queens club held pride of place as one of the few regular venues for new bands in the pre-CB's city. "The Coventry was one of the glitter-rock places in New York, and if you were doing original music, that was the ONLY place to play," says the Dictators' Andy Shernoff (in this interview). I'm not sure of its opening year, but the place was originally called the Popcorn Pub as popcorn was a featured concession at the bar.

According to Nina Antonia's Too Much Too Soon (London: Omnibus, 1998), the New York Dolls "took the Coventry in Queens by storm and established the club as a rock joint." But the Coventry is most famous for being the site of KISS' earliest gigs ever in late January, 1973. With fewer than 10 people in attendance (including the bar staff) at their first show, they certainly had humble beginnings--but by the end of the year they were booked at the Academy of Music, and were soon thereafter hot on the (platform) heels of "hottest band in the land" status. Check out the flyer for some September '73 Coventry gigs, and guffaw heartily at these examples of Coventry-era KISS outfits and makeup. The KISS-themed "Psycho-Circus" video game included references to the Coventry. (Speaking of Queens-KISS connections--some legends have it that the band's name is decidedly NOT an acronym for "Knights In Satan's Service," but rather a reference to Kissena Boulevard in Flushing. And for a brief period I did a fill-in gig at a Queens Library branch where one of the staff members was Gene Simmons' aunt.)

The Dictators were fixtures at the club in '74 and '75, despite the fact that they didn't quite fit the prevailing aesthetic. According to a John Holmstrom article in Punk magazine, "they'd often heckle and call out the other groups, calling them fags, wimps and homos. Remember--this is 1973 when glitter is in. Dictators weren't." "We were the only punk rock band playing there so we were outcasts there," says Andy Shernoff in this interview. Enjoy these ads for several 'Tators Coventry shows. The ads also make reference to a Coventry II club on the Upper East Side (1550 First Avenue @ 80th Street). Lord only knows who played there, though--seems like the Queens outpost was hipper than its Manhattan counterpart.

As for that otherworldly Jeff Starship creature, I'll let Handsome Dick describe his presence at the Coventry: Back in 1974, the Dictators were playing regularly at a joint on Queens Blvd. called the Coventry. We saw Kiss play there and we opened for bands like the NY Dolls & the Harlots of 42nd St. I always noticed this guy at the bar at the Coventry. He was ALWAYS hanging out. You couldn't help but notice him. He was very tall, very skinny, & very unique looking. "Who is that guy?" I wanted to know. "That guy?--that's Jeff Starship--he's got a band called Sniper!" Well, Jeff soon became Joey and his band soon became the Ramones!

That's not quite correct--Joey was the only future Ramone in Sniper. But it was through Sniper that Joey made his Ramone connections and honed his onstage persona. Though they both grew up in Forest Hills, Dee Dee and Joey didn't really meet until Dee Dee was in a Sniper audience.

Dee Dee, in Please Kill Me: I saw Sniper play with Suicide one night, and Joey was the lead singer and he was great. He was really sick looking. I thought Joey was the perfect singer because he was so weird looking. And the way he leaned on the mike was really weird. I kept asking myself, How's he balancing himself? The thing was, all the other singers were copying David Johansen, who was copying Mick Jagger, and I couldn't stand that anymore. But Joey was totally unique.

Joey, from Ramones: An American Band: I knew John from seeing him around and hanging out after high school. He and Tommy were friends, and he was in a band with my brother Mitch. Then I got to be friends with Dee Dee, and he and John were friends, too. He mentioned me to John, and John called and asked me to be in a band...I thought John and Dee Dee looked really cool. John had the same kind of haircut as now, and his presentation was the same as when he plays--a very intense demeanor. We didn't have the superficial image of bands today. Maybe we were more dressy in the glitter days, but the later look became jeans, sneakers, leather jackets--what we wore when we walked around the street. We are like we seem.

Goodness knows what happened to the other members of Sniper--but I needn't elaborate on Joey's destiny. While Sniper were apparently Coventry regulars (as were the aforementioned Butch), the Ramones are known to have played there only once, as openers for the Heartbreakers on May 30, 1975.

Other Coventry-affiliated bands include the Dogs, the Brats, Television (ad enlargement here), Alexis, and Piper. I presume the place closed around '76 or so as I've found no post-'75 references. The address currently appears to be occupied by a neurologist's office.

Take a stroll down Queens Blvd. courtesy of I'll leave you with a Queens-centric excerpt from a 1991 Fleshtones interview:

Most people in Australia would have absolutely no idea what you mean when you say you grew up in Queens and there is a "Queens Sensibility." What exactly is it?

Keith Streng: There's New York City and you have five boroughs. Everybody is generally into Manhattan, that's where everything's happening, but you have the boroughs around where all the lunatics grew up, like us. I tell you, like, the Ramones are from Queens, Dictators are from Queens, some of the members of Television were from Queens, and the Fleshtones are from Queens.
Peter Zaremba: Right, and a lot of the [New York] Dolls.
KS: A lot of the Dolls. I think even people from, like, even groups as horrible as Kiss, but, um . . .
PZ: [laughing] Kiss was from Queens.
KS: They are, they are! They played at The Coventry, you know, they were a bunch of, you know, Jewish guys from Queens.
PZ: Definitely.

So what is it about Queens that breeds rock & roll musicians?

PZ: I think the only thing that breeds rock & roll musicians, is just, there's a lot of people there, so out of all those people--
KS: Right, somebody's gotta do something.
PZ: Right.
KS: I don't know about the other boroughs, but in Queens we were the people that were meant to do something.
PZ: Right. It's a bedroom borough, they call it, and it's just a bunch of bored people.
KS: Also a lot of garages for bands to rehearse in.
PZ: Ah ha! And basements.
KS: And basements. I prefer a garage, you know you can get sunlight.
PZ: But we had a basement.
KS: [laughing] Yeah. You know.
PZ: We made do.

UPDATE 7/20/2007: I recently came across the fab, which is loaded with images of rare memorabilia, including a number of gig flyers. There's a primitive flyer for a series of shows the Magic Tramps did with Link Wray at the Popcorn Pub, the Coventry's earlier incarnation. The dates are listed as September 1,2,3/8,9,10; no year is given but I imagine it was probably '72. Also check out the photo page, with has a couple of shots of the band taken at the Coventry.

UPDATE 5/26/2010: NYCDreamin' of This Ain't the Summer of Love did a magnificent annotated Coventry concert chronology in September 2009. (OMG, even Link Wray played there!!!) Quite a while ago, I was contacted on myspace by the son of a former Sniper member. He was going to find out whether his Dad might have any photos of the band and Jeff Starship, but I never heard back from him. I'm waiting on a library-reserved copy of Mickey Leigh's I Slept With Joey Ramone, but I did have a look at its photo pages at a bookstore last Boxing Day...still no pics of a glammed-out Joey to be had!

UPDATE 8/25/2010: Read Binky Philips' incredible account of one dangerously memorable night at the Coventry here.

UPDATE 9/17/2013:  You need to get your grubby mitts on the essential Nothin' to Lose: The Making of KISS, 1972-1975 by Ken Sharp, which includes a lengthy account of the band's stint at the Coventry.  Here's Binky's review.


ira said...

I saw one memorably Dolls / Dix show at Coventry when I was a snobby Manhattan groover who only found his way because my girlfriend was from Astoria and knew her way around Queens. I'm sure the only other time I'd been on the 7 was to go to the World's Fair. Anyway, a few years later, I'm married to said g/f and living in Astoria and we go to check out a large Korean restaurant on Queens Boulevard -- and it suddenly hits us that this was Coventry. Pretty funny.

Anonymous said...

I own one of the only extant photos of Sniper, but it's after Jeff Hyman (Joey Ramone) was dumped. I also have a copy of their demo. As for what happened to the other members, Bob Butani joined Tuff Darts and Frank Infante went on to play with Blondie. I don't know what became of Danny (guitar), Pete (bass), or the drummer, whose name I forget.

Anonymous said...

Excepting The Dolls and Kiss, the NY "glam scene" was, in a word, pathetic. I went to Coventry twice to check out bands, hoping for another Dolls, or something. I saw Luger, Butch, Bangzoom,& Teenage Lust (who at least had a campy Vegas-like show). Everybody cld play decently, even professionally but the songs blew dead rats...& the flashy star trip ringed punk was inevitable.

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Charles Giarratano said...

I played there on wendays I gave joey Ramon a mike hie didn't work the band was named sniper at that time name of my band was zoom spoon we did one Saturday gig opened up for Roy Buchanan I'll never forget it......charlie