Sunday, July 23, 2006

LIVE ROCK: Cheap Trick Live On The Levee

I saw Cheap Trick at a big free show on the St. Louis riverfront last night. Believe it or not, it was the 39th time I’ve seen them live, and it was a good one—the best I’ve seen them in several years. The very big news is Robin’s live singing voice is BACK! The last couple of times I’ve seen them his voice sounded scorched and strained, but last night his amazing and magical vocal instrument was back in top notch form. His singing was outstanding.

The boys were very loose, somewhat real sloppy at times, but were definitely having a ball as they all took turns cracking each other up throughout their set. And the set list? No surprises, "Taxman" the lone representative from the first album, but an above average version of their "state fair" set. Tom’s 12 string bass playing was it’s usual thing of wonder, and he did an interesting little bass solo bit quoting Jimi Hendrix’s "Burning Of The Midnight Lamp" before segueing into the lead vocal spotlight on "I Know What I Want." He remains a bass god among us mere mortals who also try to play the instrument.

They closed the show with the best darn version of "California Man" I've ever seen them play. Much to my surprise, Robin really drew upon the spirit of the Roy Wood original version as he sang the hell out of it. "Goodnight" followed and featured a series of Bun E.-orchestrated manic false endings. When Bun finally decided to end it, he stood up, dropped his sticks, and I was close enough to the stage to read his lips as he looked at Rick and yelled, "Let's go home!"

And so a good time was had by all. Delivering a good live performance in support of a good new album, you just have to appreciate the fact that they’re still at it and clearly still enjoying what they do, cause you know you’d miss them if they weren’t around anymore. They still make me proud to be from the Midwest, as they continue to musically epitomize the great Midwestern enigma that is the simultaneous appreciation of the intellectual and the stupid. May they forever rock...

And y’all better believe I still want to be Tom Petersson when I grow up!

The 12 string godlike bass genius of Tom Petersson.

The great Rick Nielson on high.

Robin Zander & Bun E. Carlos.

The million dollar smile of Tom Petersson.

Rick and Tom rocking.

Robin and Tom rocking.

Tom singing "I Know What I Want."

"We suck!" :)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

STEVE ROCK: An Anniversary Of Sorts For My First Band

The Singapores, summer of 1978: Left to right: Craig Weithop, yours truly, Dave Thomas, & the late Jeff Gower.

Like a good "first love," the experiences I had with my first band were all good for all the right reasons. The Singapores were formed in Dave Thomas’ mind in early 1977 on a road trip to Chicago with Debby Sue Mikles and me to see Iggy Pop and the original line up of Blondie. Dave and I had met in late 1976 and became immediate best friends, as we bonded over this new music bursting out of England called punk rock. Dave was a Washington University student at the time, and had begun playing this new music on his Friday night show on the college’s radio station, KWUR.

Word of Dave’s radio show began to spread among those small pockets of kids in town who were also into the new punk rock, yet remained hidden in the woodwork. Dave’s show gave the first solid proof that there were other like minded people in town when it came to this music. Problem was KWUR was only ten watts—you lost reception in it’s parking lot. Soon Dave was getting calls from kids asking if they could actually come down to the station and listen to his show, cause they really wanted to hear it that much. And soon a mini-scene developed, as a dozen or so "regulars" began to hang out in the lounge of KWUR every Friday night, just to listen to Dave’s show. And in the context of those times, knowing about this music, let alone liking it enthusiastically, immediately put you on the fringes. So it was good to finally meet and be among the few fellow travelers we found in our town. And so the fun began...

About a month after that Iggy show, Dave sits me down one day and says, "You and I are starting a band!" "We are?" was the only reply I could sheepishly muster. "You bet we are!" Dave shot back. So I guess we were starting a band, whether we were actually ready to or not, cause Dave’s charisma was definitely hard to resist back then. He was the perfect gang leader, easily earning the "Cult Hero" nickname that the regulars at the station had half-jokingly bestowed on him.

Were Dave and I good enough musicians, could we write good songs to sustain a band? Uh, no. Were we musicians at all? Uh, hell no. That didn’t matter and that wasn’t going to stop us. New times, new music, new rules. You didn’t have to have the skills of a pro anymore. The kids on these 45s from England that we were scarfing up every week were no different from us we thought, and thus we took our inspiration from them.

Dave had begun to play a little guitar while in high school. His skills were rudimentary at best. I on the other hand had miserably failed my older brother’s attempts to teach me how to play guitar, but one day he brought home a bass and started to show me a few things on it. For some reason this instrument just felt more right to me, and so I plunked on it in my bedroom, trying to play along to these great new records I was bringing home by groups like the Damned & the Ramones. But who else were we going to get to join us? When Dave asked if I knew of any guitarists who might want to play with us, I said, "I’ve got just the right guy..."

I had met Jeff Gower a couple of years before at my brother’s house. Jeff was there to score some MDA from my brother’s drug dealing roommate. Now my brother and his hippie musician friends used to have regular Allman Brothers-esque jam sessions in his basement. So imagine my surprise when I walked down there one night and saw a heavily made up, platform wearing guy banging out Who-like power chords on a Gibson SG. Where did this guy come from and what the hell was he doing here? So Jeff and I immediately bonded that evening. I remember the first Tubes album being the icebreaker, which for some long forgotten reason I had brought along with me. I couldn’t believe I was meeting someone else who had heard of them! We quickly became fast friends and hanging out drinking buddies. So when I asked Jeff to join up with me & Dave, he said, "Sure, I’ll try anything once..."

The only drummer I knew besides future Love Expert Bob Trammel (who was then playing with what was to become the legendary Raymilland), was Craig Weithop, one of my best friends from high school. His coming on board was key, cause that meant we got to rehearse in the beautiful basement of his parents’ suburban South County home. And so we were off to the races. The band name? While driving around Chicago on that Iggy trip, we passed a tavern called The Singapore Lounge. I casually mentioned, "The Singapores—wouldn’t that be a good name for a band?" Unbeknownst to me, Dave made a mental note of my suggestion, and later revealed that it was at that moment he decided that he and I were going to be in a band together.

And so we began to "rehearse." What a horrible racket we made with our feeble attempts to make it through impossibly complicated songs like "Sweet Jane" and "Wild Thing." But as the summer of ‘77 wore on, we actually started to sound ok. And one day Craig’s mom said to us, "You know it’s actually starting to sound like music." I also remember the afternoon she yelled down to us in the middle of a band practice, "Hey you guys, Elvis Presley just died..."

In February of 1978 my brother decided to throw himself a big birthday bash at a hotel that he and I had worked at. He was going to have his band and a couple of his hippie friends’ bands play. For some crazy reason he asked me if my band wanted to play. He had never heard us and really had no idea what we were all about, but figured the more the merrier for his party. So we jumped at the chance to play our first gig, and a wild one it was! A couple dozen of our gang showed up, and my brother’s hippie friends thought a space ship had landed. The battle lines were immediately drawn. We took the stage, and with our friends pogoing and cheering us on, it was not stop pandemonium. We may as well have been sacrificing goats as far as the hippies were concerned. Now of course I would later go on to play hundreds of better shows as an actual "musician," but that first show is still the best and most natural performance I’ve ever given on a stage...

Back in the fall of 1976, I had traveled to Memphis to interview Alex Chilton for BOMP! Magazine. One day while there, Alex took me over to watch the band practice of some friends of his called The Scruffs. Holy crap—these guys were amazing! At that post-glam, pre-punk point in time, the Scruffs were all scarves and chunky Faces haircuts. And man did they rock hard what a couple of years later would come to be known as power pop! Their lead guitarist Dave Branyan and I hit it off, and we became fast, long-distance friends. We soon started taking turns making trips to each other’s city to hang out. Dave even let me come with him to the sacred Ardent Studios to watch them cut their album, Wanna Meet The Scruffs?, which was produced by the legendary Jon Fry, of Big Star fame. Dave also introduced me to some of the old decadent Memphis "Mid-Town scene." Good times indeed.

Shortly after the Singapores’ first gig triumph, our buddy Jim Roehm, then a student at Kansas University, landed us a gig in Lawrence. Oh my god, we’re playing out of town! We had a blast and another memorable performance. No hippies hassled us this time, though Dave almost got us all killed when he pissed off a giant Native American in a bar we wound up going to after the show, and we had to hi-tail it out of there in fear for our lives!

Meanwhile the Scruffs were dying to come to St. Louis, and I was bound and determined to find them a place to play. This was still at a time when there really wasn’t anywhere in St. Louis for bands like us to play, though it never dawned on me to maybe rent a VFW hall, which would become a popular local practice for punk/new wave bands in the years to come. So I decided to give this place called Stonehenge a shot. It was across the river in Lebanon, Illinois, about a half hour away. To this day some folks still ask, "Why Lebanon of all places?" Cause the drinking age in Illinois was still 19 then, that’s why. This was as close as we were gonna get to "all ages," which was still unheard of in a club back then. And Stonehenge had also previously brought in the Ramones for their first ever appearance in the St. Louis area, so I figured they might be receptive to our little new wave cavalcade.

Of course we Singapores were gonna be on this bill, and we also asked our good friends and KWUR regulars the Welders to join us. The Welders were four girls in their late teens who had been playing together since 1975 or 1976. They were truly wonderful and an instant party wherever they went—definitely the biggest stars of our little scene.

The ever wonderful Welders. Left to right: Jane, Colleen, Rusty, Caroline.

And so the entire scene at that time makes the long drive over to Lebanon for our little rock show, which actually turned into kind of a big deal at the time. I just about fell over when I spotted Lou Whitney and Donnie Thompson from the Symptoms in the crowd. The Symptoms had started to come up from Springfield, Misssouri regularly to play Mississippi Nights, and we had befriended them. They quickly became huge heroes to us as we stood in awe of their total rock godliness. "You drove all the way up here to see us?" I incredulously asked Lou before the show. He replied, "You bet Stevie baby, we wouldn’t have missed this for the world!"

The Welders opened the show, and I remember all of their unique Welders’ wonderfulness being particularly "on" that night. Also in attendance was then Collinsville, Illinois resident Michael Stipe, a shy newbie to our scene, who had just joined on as singer in our friend Joe Haines’ fledgling band, Bad Habits. I recall standing next to Joe & Mike during part of the Welders set, and Mike, in very heavy eye make up, was blowing kisses to the Welders and jumping up and down like a little schoolgirl during their cover of the Dolls’ "Lookin’ For A Kiss". It's a wonderful image that’s vividly burned forever in my memory. Bless that Michael guy, wonder whatever happened to him?

We came on next, and opened with our cover of Johnny Thunder’s Heartbreakers’ cover of "Do You Love Me?", which I, ahem, "sang." We immediately noticed tomatoes flying at us from the club’s balcony. What the fuck? We carried on, bashing through covers of Mott’s "One Of The Boys" and the Flamin’ Groovies "Teenage Head," as well as our primitive yet inspired originals like "Trash Can Rock" and "The Kids Are Younger Than Yesterday." Half way through our set we brought up the band’s official "den mother," Debby Sue Mikles (now of The Misses), to sing the Troggs’ "I Can’t Control Myself." Debby brought down the house.

Her Majesty Debby Sue!

But the tomatoes kept flying at us as we trudged on through our set. I recall one zinging right past my head and landing—splat!—smack on my amp, the stains from it lasting for months afterwards. I do recall Craig getting hit, cause he then came from behind the drums and made some threats over the microphone in between one of the songs. He then began to fire some drum sticks into the balcony when we resumed playing. So who was firing tomatoes at us? The best we were ever to determine was that it had to have been someone we had pissed off at that first show we played at the hotel. They must have somehow gotten wind of us playing Stonehenge and were determined to get back at us for what they interpreted as our desecration of rock music. In hindsight I give them a lot of credit—driving a half hour and sneaking in a load of tomatoes to zing at us was pretty inspired!

Singapores rocking Stonehenge: Left to right: Me, Craig Weithop, Dave Thomas, Jeff Gower. Dave put each of those polka dots on my bass for me by hand!

So we cleaned the tomatoes from the stage and made way for the Scruffs, who blew the house down. These guys were actual pro musicians, and what a phenomenal and powerful live band they were! Sadly, their live power was never really captured on any of their records.

Memphis power pop legends The Scruffs. Left to right: Rick Branyan, Steve Burns, Dave Branyan.

We declared the evening a bonafide success and headed back to St. Louis for a communal late night breakfast at Denny’s between various band members and scenesters. I felt like I had "made it" as Scruffs drummer Zeph Paulson drunkenly kept telling me how much he "loved" my bass playing. I hit bed a happy man as the sun was coming up...

About a month or so after that Stonehenge show I quit the Singapores in a fit of shameful ego. I really wanted to be in a full-on power pop band, and I knew the Singapores didn’t have the desire or chops to be that. So I formed the Nancy Boys with future Love Expert Dominic Finocchio, ace guitarist Billy Love, and mighty drummer Jeff Evans, who I would later go on to play with in the Dave Branyan Band, B-Lovers/Turning Curious, and Blown. At that time I thought the world really needed to hear Dominic's wonderful original pop songs. We were really good, but the band was very short-lived and sadly broke up without ever having performed in public.

These days I'm still at it, playing bass in the Love Experts, Finn's Motel, and whenever we rev it up, Prisonshake . Dave Thomas went on to direct the amazing yet starcrossed rock documentary, MC5: A True Testimonial. I last saw Craig Weithop at an Al Franken booksigning about five years ago. Jeff Gower passed away a few years ago. I miss that crazy guy....

The eternally lovely Kelly Draper, a.k.a. Rusty Welder, laid all of these old photos presented here on me the other day. She said her archives had this show down as taking place on July 16, 1978. For those of you out there who were there that night, I still love each and every one of you, and I hope your memories of that evening are as fond as mine are.

There’s nothing like your "first love"...