Tuesday, October 18, 2005

From the Hip

LITTLE HIPPODROME--227 E. 56th Street, between 2nd & 3rd Avenues. This dinner theater/cabaret type of place is most notable as the site of the New York Dolls' final NYC shows, during their ill-advised (by Malcolm McLaren), Commie-inspired Red Patent Leather period in 1975. Nina Antonia explains it all in Too Much, Too Soon (London: Omnibus, 1998):

Malcolm...secured the band four dates between February 28 and March 2 at the Little Hippodrome. Situated on E. 56th Street, the theatre had a capacity of 2,000 and was more familiar with drag shows and stand-up comedy than rock groups, although the New York Dolls combined all three elements. The Little Hippodrome was out of the Dolls' usual venue circuit but that suited McLaren just fine, even if it proved a little disconcerting for their old fans...[Part of Malcolm's press release read], "The New York Dolls...have, in fact, assumed the role of the 'People's Information Collective' in direct association with the Red Guard. This incarnation entitled 'Red Patent Leather' will commence on Friday, February 28 at 10 p.m. continuing on Saturday at 9 and 11 p.m. followed by a Sunday matinee at 5 p.m. for our high school friends at the Little Hippodrome. This show is in co-ordination with the Dolls' very special 'entente cordiale' with the People's Republic of China."....Malcolm took the Communist Party image further by insisting that all tables in the Little Hippodrome should be draped in red fabric and even suggested that every drink sold while the Dolls were appearing should have an injection of red dye. The major theatrical gesture, aside from the band [attired in red outfits], was a huge red flag bearing the hammer and sickle which would be hung as a backdrop behind the group.

On the first weekend the opening act was Pure Hell, an all-black band. By the second show in the run, Jerry Nolan proved too drug-addled to perform, and Pure Hell's drummer Spider was asked to fill in. Arthur Kane was also undergoing some heavy drug problems at the time, managing to make it only to the final show; a bass player named Peter Jordan played the other shows in his stead. The following weekend, March 7-9, featured Television as the openers--their final shows with Richard Hell in the line-up. Wayne County DJed between the sets; David Jo had him intersperse his usual garage rock classics with tracks from a Communist Worker's Party album, much to Wayne's and the audience's chagrin.

Accounts vary widely as to how well, or how terribly, the Dolls went over on these dates.

From Too Much Too Soon: David Johansen clutched a copy of the Maoist handbook like a Bible and wondered who was going to be the next in line to fall. In the fact of adversity--in reality the only face they'd ever known--the Dolls performed as pluckily as ever. Unfortunately, the band didn't sound totally at ease with the new numbers and neither did the audience who lit up only when the Dolls broke into established favourites....Paul Nelson: "It was a disaster...It was very strange, you didn't know if it was supposed to be funny or not."...If McLaren had staged the Dolls' red uprising in Europe, the audience's sensibilities might not have been so ruffled, but 56,555 American soldiers had died in Vietnam attempting to stem a Communist take-over. It was too much of a sore point for most to understand the intended irony of the Dolls' attire.

In McNeil & McCain's Please Kill Me (New York: Grove, 1996) Jerry Nolan complains about the artsy-fartsy stupidity of the Red posturing. But in contrast, Clinton Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voidoids (New York: Penguin, 1993) has quotes from Nolan and Chris Stein attesting that these were among the greatest, tightest, and least erratic shows the band ever put on. Regardless of what actually went down at the Hippodrome, it wasn't long before a combination of less-than-stellar Florida gigs and over-the-top drug abuse led to the final dissolution of the Dolls. One of the Hippodrome shows was documented on a live album, Red Patent Leather--currently available as part of a two-disc set entitled Great Big Kiss.

Seems as if few other bands played at the Little Hippodrome--I've found references only for Orchestra Luna and the Steve Lyons Eyeshow. Not sure when the theater closed, but the site is currently occupied by a fancy old-school (but not Red) Chinese restaurant called Bill Hong's.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Midnight ravers

MIDNIGHT RECORDS--263 W. 23rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues (also occupied the adjacent storefront at 255). Though many in the record collecting and garage rock "communities" have mixed feelings about Midnight Records and its proprietor, most cannot deny the contributions J.D. Martignon's store/record label/mail-and-Internet-order business have made to the scene. Timothy Gassen's garage-revival reference book The Knights of Fuzz (Telford, U.K.: Borderline, 1996) sums up Midnight's influence succinctly:

J.D. Martignon's New York Midnight Records label and store became an important counterpoint to the California scene as well. Martignon released early efforts by the Fuzztones, Plasticland, the Outta Place, Plan 9 and a slew of others--continuing its mission into the 1990s. (The Midnight retail store and mail-order became a mecca for rare new garage/psych discs, and it has continued in its role as a candy store of goodies for this writer on numerous occasions.) Martignon points out that his widely circulated mail-order catalog, The Midnight Thymes, "had articles, a news section, and loads of hype on the garage/psych scene. It helped to propagate the music and the distribution of it worldwide." Midnight published one of the first books detailing the contents of 1960s compilation albums, which Martignon notes "was very influential on bands and collectors." Martignon also says rightfully, "Midnight became the inspiration for many of the (garage/psych) labels, mail-order companies, and distributors both in the U.S. and overseas--whether they will admit to it or not!"

Midnight deals in domestic and imported rock & roll, R&B, and blues, and particularly specializes in '50s and '60s sounds and revivalists thereof--on vinyl and CD. "Limited edition" live recordings and "rarities"--otherwise known as boots--are staples. The Midnight International label had a number of '80s garage bands and comps on its roster. The mail-order business, founded in 1978, has long been an essential resource for hinterlands garageniks (including my husband, who used to have $100+ orders shipped to his native Thunder Bay, Ontario home on a near-monthly basis). But the darkly atmospheric, intermittently open shop was shut down in early 2004, as reported in this Village Voice article by Hillary Chute from the March 17-24 issue:

On its last day, March 6, Chelsea's vaunted garage-rock record store Midnight Records was packed for the first time in recent memory. Owner J.D. Martignon—ever the enigmatic Frenchman, with cigarette, rattail, and paisley shirt—chatted with lightly eyelinered Rudolph Grey, who reminisced about using chainsaws in his late '70s band Red Transistor. Martignon's son, 10-year old Clovis—ever the '60s rocker, in a gorgeous mop-top and bemused expression—wandered crammed aisles. Shaggy-haired collectors, some spending upwards of $700, scoured rows of hard-to-find vinyl, grumbling "sad reflection" and "damn shame."

Part of the cult band Dagon in France, Martignon followed a woman to New York in 1973 and never left. A journalist for the underground magazine Parapluie, he covered the Stooges and the Dolls, interviewed the Cramps and Real Kids before they put out albums, and blew his mind on DMZ at CBGB. Punk bands were playing '60s garage, he noticed. Martignon began collecting records, but quickly amassed so many that he "had to sneak them into the house when my girlfriend wasn't around"—so he decided to start selling them. He kick-started a mail order business in 1978, and the store—which became the center of New York's garage revival in the mid '80s—opened six years later. Martignon even ran his own label from 1984 to 1993, putting out cult bands and Screamin' Jay Hawkins live tracks.

Now Martignon is fighting eviction and a lawsuit. The landlord wants to double the rent, and business has not been booming. (The current garage revival "generates zero sales" of his obscure inventory, Martignon says.) Meanwhile, Martignon is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's office in conjunction with the RIAA for the sale of, to quote one of his lawyers, "what they're alleging are unauthorized recordings of concerts." Midnight is the only store of its kind facing prosecution. "A collector's store that cannot sell some bootlegs is kaput," the owner sighs. According to store employees, when Midnight was busted in September, Martignon was led off in handcuffs, protesting, "We're not harmful people! We're music people!" For now, he's mired in his court case (famed Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig is working pro bono) and wants volunteers to revamp
midnightrecords.com, where the store will now solely exist.

Seems like Ms. Chute had a soft spot for Monsieur Martignon. In the Voice's 2001 "Best of NYC" issue, she voted the shop as "Best Store for Rare Garage and Psychedelic Records," and praised its "supernice staff" and "long, easy-to-decipher catalog." In the 2004 "Best of" issue, she dubbed Martignon "Best garage-rock cran" (?), though she carefully notes that he "does not hesitate to get all Frenchman-bitchy on your ass." That may be something of an understatement. I never personally experienced his near-legendary surliness, but perhaps I'd been so intimidated by other customers' stories that I just knew to steer clear. He had a rep for unsavory business practices as well, but again, I always got decent service from the store. Read some of these accounts and decide for yourself.

In late September, 2004, Martignon made headlines when his federal indictment was dismissed on the grounds that the 1994 bootleg law was deemed unconsitutional. Google Jean Martignon for further details.

No longer a licorice pizza parlor, the storefront now serves up Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

Hey Johnny, hey Dee Dee, Little Tom and Joey

PERFORMANCE STUDIOS--23 E. 20th Street, between Broadway and Park Avenue South. At this rehearsal/recording studio-cum-punk rock laboratory, the Ramones were invented and unleashed on the world. The facilities were designed and built by Tommy Erdelyi and Monte Melnick, as explained in Monte's On the Road With the Ramones (London: Sanctuary, 2003):

[M]y cousin Ivan...was a locksmith and had installed a lock in a loft for this lesbian couple on E. 20th Street. One girl was a musician and the other had lots of money. They wanted to make some money by turning it into a hip studio and asked him if he knew anyone who could do it. My cousin asked me about it since I was in the music industry, and I called Tommy since he had the studio experience [He had worked at the Record Plant and other studios in the late '60s.--Ed.]. We built that place by hand; designed it and everything. We had a main stage, a separate booth with a glass wall for a four-track recorder, a rehearsal studio, offices and a lobby. We provided much of the gear ourselves, so we got all the free studio time we wanted in return. Unfortunately, we were in a residential neighborhood and kept on getting dragged into court due to noise complaints...Eventually they shut us down, but we managed to make a name for ourselves in the meantime.

The book includes reprints of the floor plan and business card, which extols the studio's many virtues: "Quality sounds, creative environment, baby grand, Hammond, Marshall, Sunn, Ludwig, Shure P.A, Wurlitzer, Peavey, 4-2 track TEAC, air conditioning."

People like Blondie and the Dolls were rehearsing there. I was working with a group called Smiley. We'd make flyers, charge a coupla bucks at the door, get a crowd, talk some label people into coming down and made our own little scene. I was doing the sound and lights at the time, which Tommy taught me how to do. On the side, Tommy was working on this unknown group, the Ramones. They were terrible...I thought it was a joke. I was a musician. I had two albums out. I was into four-part harmonies. I played with a symphony orchestra for chrissakes! I came from a different world. I thought, "What is this? What the hell is going on? Forget about it!"

Famous last words--he'd go on to spend the next two-decades-plus as their long-suffering tour manager. Tommy, who had initially served as the band's advisor/musical director, was also recruited into the fold--but not until after their first gig. The original line-up, which began practicing at Performance in January '74, consisted of Johnny on guitar, Dee Dee on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Joey on drums, and a fellow named Ritchie Stern on bass, who quit after just a couple of sessions. Dee Dee took over bass duties, but had some trouble singing and playing simultaneously. He also a tendency to get hoarse after just a couple of numbers, so Joey would sing a few from behind his kit. Their first public appearance, and their only one as a trio, took place at a Performance Studio showcase on March 30, 1974.

Johnny, quoted in On the Road With the Ramones: We took ads in the Village Voice and we played one show for our friends around March 30, 1974. We were awful. We didn't have the image down yet. Our friends didn't even want to talk to us anymore after that.

Tommy got the bright idea that Joey should be the frontman--which necessitated a search for a new drummer. The cats who came to audition tended to play in a busy Bonham or Appice-like manner, as was the style at the time. Though not a drummer himself, Tommy would try to demonstrate a simpler, Slade-like way of playing to these prospects. They just couldn't seem to grasp proper Ramone technique, though--and so Tommy eventually realized he was the only logical choice to join the brudderhood. The first show with the new complete line-up was at CBGB on August 16, 1974--but they continued to do showcase gigs at Performance throughout '74 and '75, sometimes sharing the stage with Blondie.

It's unclear exactly when Performance closed down or what replaced it. Monte Melnick of course went on to be the Fifth Ramone, and in mid-1978 Tommy conceded his Fourth Ramone status to Marc Bell when he decided to re-devote his energies to sound engineering. The address is currently occupied by the Trixie + Peanut Pet Emporium, a purveyor of pricey pet paraphernalia.

All the news that's fit to use as T.P.

You know the world's gone wacko when a nostalgic tribute to the bathrooms at CBGB gets printed in the paper of record! Here's an excerpt from the article, written by Steven Kurutz and published in the City section on October 2, 2005.

[T]he bathrooms reach sublime levels of neglect and deconstruction. They are in the basement, down a steep set of steps. Strictly speaking, neither is designated as male or female, but one room contains three urinals and has the stripped, utilitarian feel of, say, a tool shed. The toilet is situated by itself on an elevated cement platform. A bare bulb casts a pale yellow glow.

The bathroom next door is, presumably, the ladies room. If so, it shatters the notion that women's bathrooms are cleaner than men's - although, above each toilet in a feminine touch, are hung rolls of paper like ornaments on a Christmas tree...

You often hear about the graffiti that has accumulated on the bathroom walls at CBGB, which implies a kind of artistry, or at minimum decipherability. This is misleading. Occasionally, you can make out a line or two, but, in general, there are so many layers of scrawl that the writings have bled together to become a kind of punk rock hieroglyphic.

Perhaps somewhere among the dark scribbles and the band stickers - Crushpile, Sons of Mothers, Country Club and the Porn Horns - is a clue to whether the club will be able to remain on the Bowery. But the only thing a visitor could decipher was a line written in ink on the ceiling that said that a band called Mindlessanity had urinated there.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Mother's ilk

MOTHER'S--267 W. 23rd Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. A gay bar that briefly served as an early punk club in the mid-'70s. Clinton Heylin writes in From the Velvets to the Voidoids (New York: Penguin, 1993), "In the spring of 1975 Mother's, a gay bar on 23rd Street, began competing for the best new bands...[it soon became] the main alternative to the CBGBs/Max's duopoly." Peter Crowley, who was then Wayne County's manager, handled the bar's booking duties. Among the bands he booked were:

Blondie, October 3-5 and November 13, 1975, and an unspecified date in January, 1977. In Making Tracks (New York: Da Capo, 1998), Debbie Harry remembers, "The first gig we played together [with Jimmy Destri] was at Mother's, which was a bar made into a small club on W. 23rd Street across from the Chelsea Hotel, where everyone played at least once."

The Ramones shared those October dates with Blondie, and also played December 5-7, 1975 according to this ad (accessible from the Blondie gig list above if this link doesn't work). An A&R-hunting Linda Stein checked out the band on one of these nights, and later gave a full report and thumbs-up to her flu-stricken hubby, Sire Records owner Seymour Stein. As she recalls in Jim Bessman's Ramones: An American Band (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), "It was a gay bar for elderly gays. It was really a cold, winter, snowy night. Of course, they did 'Blitzkrieg Bop' and all the standards. I was fascinated by the simplicity of the lyrics and the beat, and by Dee Dee, who was always so sexy and cute! I came home and told Seymour, 'You gotta sign them!'" He auditioned them soon thereafter, and the rest is gabba gabba history.

Dig some of the other bands listed in the ad, including Mink DeVille, Sniper (so they did continue after Joey's departure after all), the Fast, Tuff Darts, Knickers (Jimmy Destri's pre-Blondie band, also featuring future Trouser Press scribe Ira Robbins), Rosie Ross (formerly with the Stillettoes), the Heartbreakers, Talking Heads, and Wayne County. The ad's heading reads, "County Line presents New York's hottest rock & roll bands"--I guess Crowley named his company after Wayne.

Speaking of the Heartbreakers, their 1976 Live at Mother's is available from New Rose/Fan Club Records.

Television, with Bananas, October 17-18, 1975. Richard Lloyd describes the place as a "little teeny crappy club" in this article.

I kinda figured Nancy Spungen would have been a regular there, since she lived about a block west on 23rd Street during this time. Her mother Deborah makes no mention of it in the essential And I Don't Want To Live This Life (New York: Ballantine, 1983; reprint, 1996), but McNeil & McCain's Please Kill Me (New York: Grove, 1996) does have an anecdote from the Senders' Philippe Marcade about the night she introduced herself and asked him to teach her how to shoot up properly.

That's all I've been able to find thus far. Peter Crowley went on to book shows at the second incarnation of Max's. Reports in Yvonne Sewell-Ruskin's High On Rebellion: Inside the Underground at Max's Kansas City (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1998) state that new owner Tommy Dean was attempting to give the place a misguided T.G.I.F.'s-style makeover, replete with stained glass decor and bow-tied waitresses, when Crowley stepped in to bring rock & roll back. "He basically came on board as Wayne County's manager, and since Wayne was the DJ and was an attraction at Max's, Crowley became insinuated and sold himself to the Deans, who I think really didn't know the music at that point," says musician/writer Jim Lalumia. Under Crowley's direction, Max's shared--or rivaled for, depending on your P.O.V.--punk prominence with CBs, until its 1981 closure.

Not sure when Mother's closed, but the space is currently a branch of Ricky's, the beauty-supply chain.

[UPDATE 2/7/2007: Here's some further info, generously provided by Peter Crowley!]