Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Jim & Frank's Excellent Adventure

Irony. You gotta love it. I wrote a song a while back called "Punk Rock Is Not Daycare." It's my protest song about the proliferation of 'tweens (that awkward age between being a little kid and a teenager, generally 12-14) at punk shows. It always gets a good laugh, especially from bands who do the all-ages circuit and often find themselves playing to a crowd of little kids. What goes around, comes around, though... so this past Friday, I found myself performing at my friend Frank Phobia's amazing all-ages rock club, Soundwaves, out in Reading, PA... to a crowd that was almost completely comprised of 13-16 year olds.

Let me tell you about Soundwaves first. Frank - a good friend of mine for nearly 15 years, and the lead singer of Anthrophobia, a kickass hard rock/metal band - and his wife Jen sunk their life savings into a skatepark for kids about two years ago. It's a big warehouse-like space with ramps, rails, verts -- all the stuff kids need to skateboard or inline skate, in a supervised environment. You can't skate there without a helmet and safety pads,and they have older kids giving lessons. It's been a tough go. Twice, the place was literally ruined by mudslides that cascaded down a nearby hill and covered the place in slimey ooze. Do you know what happens to wooden floors and skate ramps when you cover them in wet mud? Miraculously, Frank and Jen survived both calamities and WoodenWaves lives on... for now. Attached to the skatepark is Soundwaves, an all-ages rock venue that hosts both local and touring bands. It holds about 300 kids, has a big stage, full concert lighting, an amazing soundsystem, and is roughly the size of the Bowery Ballroom in NYC.

Frank also runs a record label, DRP Records, and one of my songs appeared on DRP's most recent compilation, Gimme The Medicine II. Which is how I got the gig.

I was opening for Mary Prankster, a female singer/songwriter who tours the all-ages punk circuit as well as adult clubs. Her songs are cheeky, funny, and bluesy, peppered with a lot of four-letter words. Kids love her. And if they'll listened raptly to a twenty-something woman with an acoustic guitar, Frank figured maybe they'd sit still for a middle-aged zine editor to sing a few songs as well. This was also the debut show of Erika Bossler, who used to front the popular Reading trio D'Arey October. After her band broke up, Erika - who is a very attractive young woman - left music for a while. This was her comeback show. D'Arey October was a very young band when they started, younger even than some of the kids in this crowd, and for years, Erika was the diva of the Reading 'tween set. So there are a lot of girls here who consider her something of a role model, and a lot of boys drooling salaciously over her. There was also a high-school screamo band opening the bill to bring some kids in early, and a touring ska band called Mandorico. And somehow, me.

Frank knew as well as I that this could be a disaster. Even smart kids today tend to be ADD-riddled little cretins with zero attention spans and very provincial tastes. And they all knew Mary Prankster; they had no idea who I was.

But we gave it a shot. And let me just say, thank you, Frank Phobia. It was one of the most enjoyable shows I've ever done.

Of course, it took a little extra engineering to make it work. Mandorico played right before me. Although they have horns, this is not a ska-punk band, but a real ska band, with a lot of reggae, African, and Latin rhythms in their music. Most of their set went over the kids' heads and left them bored and uninvolved, but I saw four kids - two boys and two girls - dancing up a storm. They weren't really skanking - they clearly didn't know how - they were just spastically jumping around having fun. So as soon as Mandorico finished, I asked them if they'd like to come up on stage and be my go-go dancers for a song. Luckily, they were TOTALLY into it. Okay, Step one.

This was Friday night. The final episode of Friends had aired the night before, and I figured that most of these kids probably watched it. So I take the stage, introduce myself, and say, "I'd like to start off with a traditional American folksong. Some of you may have sung this around the fire at camp, so if you know it, sing along!" And then I bust into the theme from Friends. Sure enough, as soon as they recognize what I'm singing, it's all big smiles and they're all singing along to the chorus. I have their attention.

Okay, song #2. "Will the Jim Testa Dancers please report to the stage." And my four little friends hop up on stage on either side of me. "This is another song about a TV show. You probably don't watch it, but if any of you have two daddies or two mommies at home, I bet they do." And I break into my song "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy," which is a very garagey four-song riff. My dancers start frugging and twisting to the Sixties beat and, oh my God, the whole room of kids is dancing along too. The lyrics might be a bit over their heads, but they're dancing. I am in seventh heaven.

I threw "Bad New York Band" at them next, which they didn't really get, and then "Punk Rock Is Not Daycare." A lot of kids didn't like that one at all, they thought I was making fun of them (which, in a way, I was... although I introduced it by saying, "Usually I sing this song about you, tonight I am singing it for you.") Uh oh. Time for my last secret weapon. "Any D'Arey October fans here tonight?" I asked. Lots of cheers. "Well, then, let me introduce my special guest, Erika Bossler!" Erika comes out and we bust into Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe," which I literally had taught her in the dressing room about five minutes before the show started. The kids loved it. And damn, I loved it too. "Babe, I got you babe..." After Erika left the stage to a thundering ovation, I introduced "Sally Has a New Tattoo," the song on the DRP comp. That went pretty well. Then I got serious. "I know that the presidential election probably doesn't mean a lot to you, and you think all the stuff on the news is kind of boring." Nods of agreement, looks of ho-hum boredom in the crowd. "But I want you to think about something," I said. "If you're 15 years old today, you're going to be old enough to be drafted by the time George W. Bush leaves office, if he gets re-elected. So this election and this war really are things you have to care about. This is a really old song, but I think it has a lot of say with what's going on in the world today, and it's the way I feel. I hope you'll think about it and do whatever you can to get your parents and your older brothers and sisters to get out and vote this year." And I break into Phil Ochs' "I Ain't Marching Anymore." I get to the first chorus and shit, something's wrong. I'm reaching for the notes. Damn! I usually capo this song up two frets and I forgot, so I'm singing it in the wrong key. But I soldier on. I get to the verse about "fighting in your bloody Civil War" and I work up the courage to look down at the crowd. They're all sitting on the floor, knees crossed, dead silent, looking up and listening to me. Score!

So that was my all-ages adventure. The kids are (still) all right. And Mary Prankster, by the way, was wonderful. She had about 100 kids crowded up to the foot of the stage, hanging on her every word, singing along on the older tunes, listening raptly to the new ones. She was sexy, witty, sometimes thoughtful and sometimes just laugh out loud funny.

Is That It?

Friday night/Saturday morning, 12:32 a.m. Just saw the Strokes on Letterman. God, they were awful. A catatonic frontman and what was with that dinky one-string guitar solo?
This is what happens when you become a superstar before taking the time to learn your craft... 

I saw Kate Jacobs and her band earlier tonight at a benefit at the Housing Works Bookstore. I felt a little guilty, it was a benefit with a $25 ticket, but Kate (whom I just interviewed for the next Jersey Beat) put me on her guest list. I intend to overcompensate by donating a pile of books I have here and spending a lot of money there soon.

What a gorgeous space. It looks like the big old-fashioned public library in The Music Man: High vaulted ceilings and real wooden bannisters and walls covered with bookshelves, stuffed with books. Yet improbably, there's a stage in the middle of the room, and a nice little snackbar in the back (and they serve alcohol.) The acoustics are wonderful too. The place is easy to find, just a block from the busy intersection of Broadway and Houston at 126 Crosby St. The bookstore donates all profits to benefit homeless men suffering from AIDS and HIV. Go there, buy some books, and the next time they have a performance there, check it out!!

Hey, we have a lot of cool stuff in the works for the summer, including several boffo Jersey Beat benefits. Rumors have been coming back to the me that the zine is on its last legs. That is NOT true but we are in considerable debt and I'd like to get that fixed before our Fall issue. So... Mark your calendars and don't leave town -- Saturday July 3 at Maxwells, Saturday July 24 at the Court Tavern, and I'm working on something in Asbury Park...

I'd love to do a show in Manhattan too so if anybody has any pull at a good club, let me know...

Felix Unger, RIP

Tony Randall said not too long ago that a funeral should be planned as a celebration of life... and a little humor doesn't hurt either. Nothing funny comes to mind as we bid adieu to this fine actor, humanitarian, and supporter of the arts, but I'll give it a shot anyway.

Other men sneezed and wheezed and whined in the role of Felix Ungar - Art Carney created the role on Broadway, Jack Lemmon brought it to the movies - but for most of us, Felix will always be Tony Randall: Prissy, well-dressed, loyal, neurotic, and almost terminally obnoxious. He was the quintessential metrosexual back when the guys onQueer Eye For The Straight Guy were barely out of diapers. But Tony Randall was born to play Felix Ungar; he wore his sexual ambiguity with pride and conviction long before it even approached respectability, like when he played pretty much the same role as Rock Hudson's androgynous buddy back in those 1950's Doris Day movies.

For all of us who honk through our noses, like to cook and play chess and listen to show tunes, and don't knock out the ladies like Brad Pitt, Felix Ungar was more than a tv character. He was a hero, and a role model. Tony Randall was a lot like Felix. He was reportedly a bit of a fusspot, and not the easiest human being to get along with; but like Felix Ungar, he was fiercely loyal. When his Odd Couple co-star Jack Klugman lost his voice after a battle with throat cancer, Tony RAndall mounted a stage production of The Odd Couple and dragged Klugman out on the road, preserving his career as an actor. Like Felix, Randall loved New York City. Felix went to the ballet and opera; Randall did too, and in more recent years, he invested his personal fortune to become a patron of the arts, supporting his own NYC theater company.

What a guy, what a pal, what a Felix. Tony Randall, we salute you.

Doin' The Open Mic

Middle-aged men like me aren't supposed to be out till 1 a.m. carousing with a bunch of drunks on a Monday night. Nevertheless...

I showed up at Uncle Joe's open mic at around 9:30. My thought was to hang up a few flyers for my show there this Saturday, give away a few zines, and get home in time for Letterman. Well, one thing led to another... Keith Hartel was there with Tammy Faye Starlite, and heck, how often do you get to hang out with somebody named Tammy Faye Starlite? I met Billy Filo from The Rules and a guy from the band Higgins (who also lives in Weehawken like I do), and Joe Condiracci, who runs the open mic nights, and a couple of guys from a band called Dasher who just moved here from Peru... I wound up doing a couple of songs, Keith wound up doing quite a few songs, including about a half dozen Bowie covers, the guy from Higgins did half of a Squeeze cover and a really pretty original... and everybody but me and Joe got pretty drunk. About midnight, the sky started flashing and by the time I left, we were in the middle of a full-bore thunderstorm. I got soaked running for the PATH train, soaked again grabbing a cab in Hoboken, and by the time I got into bed, it was after 2 a.m. No way for a grown man to be spending a Monday night.

Can't wait for next week.

Doin' The Charleston

As Tom Lehrer once said, "Life is like a sewer - what you get out of it depends on what you put into it." The Charleston Bar in Williamsburg has its faults. One of the owners is old and cranky, and none too friendly to minorities or punk-rockers. There's no cover, but the drinks are still a bit on the pricey side, so it's hard to draw a crowd and get them to stay all night. A lot of bands won't play there - either they feel the gig is beneath them somehow, or they want to get paid, or they don't like the owners. But it's got a great location, right in the heart of Bedford Ave. next to the subway, and they've been nice enough to let me book the 4th Saturday of the month there now for a while.

One of the bands I had in recently was a young quartet named Eisenhower who had just moved to Brooklyn from New Orleans. Why anyone - especially an unsigned band - would want to leave New Orleans for New York City is beyond me. But as you can imagine, they've been having a rough go of it, knocking on doors and trying to find gigs while also finding and keeping day jobs that pay enough to cover the ridiculous rents you pay in NYC. Then they played the Charleston. They liked the bar but more importantly, the bar liked them. And now they've got the 1st Saturday of the month to book. For a new band just starting out in the city, a residency like that is gold. It's a way to build an audience, work in new material, and maybe most important, network with other bands. Eisenhower loves the Charleston Bar. And can you blame them?

So I went to the Charleston for Eisenhower's first official night there. I felt like a tourist in my own hometown. It's so nice to just see a show sometimes and not have to worry about being in charge - about fretting over the draw and making sure all the bands are happy (and organized, getting on and off stage on time.) It was fun. The night started with Olivia Newton Rat, a latterday grunge band (and truth be told, a jokey side project from members of Plastic East and the Atomic Missiles.) The band plays slow sludgey Seattlesque rock with gloomy lyrics and then acts all dreary and apathetic between songs - conceptually, a near-brilliant send-up of Generation X, although given the high number of truly awful bands in NY, you could easily watch the set and not get the joke.

The "real" Atomic Missiles followed. What can I say? These guys have become four of my best friends, and three of them perform as my backup band, The Charleston Chews.
They rock, they're fun, and they keep getting tighter and smarter, writing better and better songs. They threw a couple of oldies into the set tonight that I didn't remember and one new song.

Eisenhower are up next. Bass, drums, guitar, and a lead singer on a Korg. The keyboards add a nice touch. As Tris McCall would say, having a synth as a lead instrument keeps the songs feeling more open and airy, without being dominated by the lead guitarist's BDARG (big dirty-ass rhythm guitar sound.) He can play it like a piano, an organ, or a synthesizer, giving each song a unique feel. What I like about these guys is that they each bring a different vibe to the group: The guitarist bellows his backup vocals in a post-metallic roar and plays some ferocious licks, the singer on keyboards has a laidback, witty, erudite vibe, and the drummer is a sweaty, hairy, shirtless monster flailing away as he twirls his drumsticks: James Hetfield meets Randy Newman meets Animal from the Muppets. They're sending me their new demo and their closer "Red Beans & Rice" had better be on it, or I'm sending them back into the studio to record it, pronto! 

What I'm Not Doing This Weekend

Our favorite NYC teen band Surefire is playing a weekly party called Misshapes in Chelsea. Check out the website and the photo galleries. Talk about Hipster Central - it looks like a costume party where 3/4 of the guests decided to come as the Strokes.

NJ's psyche-rockers The Ankles are at Maxwells tonight with Houston McCoy and 90 Day Men...

The QueerCore Blitz Tour is at Sin-E tonight with The Dead Betties, Davies Vs Dresch, Triple Kreme, BoySkout, and other gay and gay-friendly bands. Sounds like a trip.

The Muffs and their East Coast counterpart The Kowalskis are at Maxwell's tomorrow night too...

Local H is at Tribeca tonight but Cobra Verde cancelled... in fact they cancelled the whole tour with Local H and went home to Cleveland because their drummer broke his hand...

So what am I doing this weekend? Hanging with my homies the Atomic Missiles and Plastic East at Siberia tonight... Hopefully the assholes who run Siberia won't have a party with bands upstairs competing with the show downstairs like they did the last time the Missiles and Plastic East played there... Tomorrow night you'll find me at Uncle Joe's in Jersey City rockin' out with Mason Dixon, who will hopefully do one of the Springsteen covers they learned for that tribute show they just played...

There's an article on AOL News today about James Galdofini being inducted into the Rutgers University Hall of Fame. That's nice, but mamma mia....our two most famous allumni are Bob Torricelli and Tony Soprano, a sleazeball and a wise guy? And to think I coulda gone to Columbia!

A Review A Day #3

JAWBREAKER – Dear You (Blackball Records, 2745 16th St. San Francisco CA 94103) 
When Dear You first appeared on DGC/Geffen Records back in 1995, most Jawbreaker fans – me included - greeted it with a mix of disappointment and revulsion. Here were the gods of indie-punk not only signing their souls away to a major label, but seemingly bending over backwards to make their gruff, hoarse, choppy, and utterly wonderful brand of punk more “radio friendly.” I wound up reviewing up the album for The Trouser Press Guide To 90’s Rock, writing that Dear You had “all the earmarks of a major label sellout.” Ouch! You probably know the story after that: Personal conflicts soon ripped the band apart, the album tanked miserably (at least by major label standards, and especially in the wake of Green Day’s concurrent multi-platinum success,) and Geffen/DGC remaindered it shortly after its release, turning it into an instant collectible. It’s been bootlegged and available in used record bins and on eBay for years, but now it’s back on Adam Pfahler’s Blackball Records, beefed up with several “bonus” tracks. So… was I wrong? Well, yes and no. After a decade of corporate punk, the glossy production by Rob Cavallo doesn’t seem that egregious anymore. Compared to the likes of Simple Plan or Good Charlotte, Jawbreaker is plenty punk, even with Blake Schwarzenbach’s post-surgical vocal cords allowing him to sing with almost none of the rasp that trademarked Jawbreaker’s earlier albums. Tracks like “Save Your Generation” and “Bad Scene, Everyone’s Fault” stand up to the best of the band’s songbook; but overall, Dear You still ranks as Jawbreaker’s weakest album, a harbinger of the emo onslaught that was to follow. It’s filled with dreary, bleak, humorless lyrics and little of the band’s bouncy pop-punk punch. The bonus songs (all from the original Dear You sessions) don’t add much; most of them were already available on the outtakes & B-sides collection Etc., and the remake of “Boxcar” – although one of my favorite Jawbreaker songs – seems unnecessary The cover of the Psychedelic Furs’ “Into You Like A Train” is fun, but the one previously unavailable song, “Shirt,” doesn’t add much to the Jawbreaker canon. One thing that’s clear now and wasn’t in 1995 – Dear You does make sense as the transition between the raw brilliance of 24 Hour Revenge Therapy and the far lighter and poppier sound of Jets To Brazil, the band Blake would form after he got over the trauma of losing Jawbreaker. If you’ve already snagged a copy of Dear You, I’d pick up Etc. and leave it at that. But if you’re a Jawbreaker fan and don’t own Dear You, well, you need this. And let’s face it; in 2004, you’re probably already buying most of your “punk” albums on major labels anyway. – Jim Testa