Q Magazine - October 1990 - No. 49
Pages 1, 46, 47, 48
Meet the family
There's Debbie, and there's Tina and, let's see, there's little Joey, hasn't he grown? Then there's Chris and, uh, Chris... From the shadowy depths of New York punk club CBGBs, the class of '77 - including The Ramones, a bit of Blondie and most of Talking Heads - has reunited for a US tour. Hey, gang, this is Mat Snow. Group photo: Neal Preston/Outline.
In the commodious open-air auditorium that is Los Angeles's Greek Theatre, some 5,000 expensively togged and shod Californians are at the business end of a jarring culture clash. And they're loving every moment.
As balmy breezes waft from nearby Griffith Park in this notably salubrious and well-heeled part of town, a frightful shrieking noise emanates from the stage. It is a guitar being artfully strangled by Chris Stein, a gentleman whose deathly pallor contrasts horribly with the healthy bronzing of this designer-labelled throng, and it accompanies his former paramour Deborah Harry's rendition of that well-loved chestnut from yesteryear, I'm Waiting For The Man. To hear the acclaim that greets this deadpan description of "scoring a fix", you'd think the band were instead rendering Fun Fun Fun. Indeed, the only discernible difference between tonight's crowd of Californian mall bunnies and one that might turn out for the annual Beach Boys jamboree is that you'll see more mohican haircuts at the latter.
Fifteen years after debuting in New York's nocturnal and subterranean new wave club scene, tonight's package of Deborah Harry, The Ramones and Tom Tom Club/Jerry Harrison (essentially, Talking Heads without David Byrne) - all of whom are managed by Beetlejuice lookalike Gary Kurfirst - are the toast of this summer's oldies circuit.
"New wave" they may have been, but in one respect the bands on this democratically headline-rotating bill are doughtily old school. They honed their acts live night after night, and on the boards is where they still reckon to feel most at home. The Ramones are, of course, road monsters of long standing; Deborah (don't say Debbie) Harry relishes the smell of greasepaint once more after years away cultivating a sporadic movie career and nursing Chris Stein through a long nervous illness; and while David Byrne is travelling the world with his Brazilian troupe, his fellow Talking Heads like to rustle up a little action for themselves rather than just sit around waiting for the reunion that may never happen.
Over a decade after New York's new wave scene fragmented as its component acts followed their stars to varying degress of success, three of its major sets of players delight in recovering the camaraderie of the old days, to their surprise even discovering new things about each other. Like, as Deborah found to her amusement, that Ramones singer Joey warms up by running his trademark rallying cry "Hey ho, let's go!" up and down the scale. ("What did it sound like?" enquires Chris Stein. "A moose in heat?") Then there is that make-or-break bond of adversity which life on the road so lavishly bestows on its travellers. "In Kansas City there was two feet of water on stage, and everyone was standing in it, hitting pipes together and singing rain chants à la Woodstock," muses Chris. "It didn't work." And for the package's second LA gig, at the Palace Club, Deborah's act is interrupted six numbers in, during Heart Of Glass, by local fire marshals. They order everyone out for a head count, and then, having deemed the legal crowd limit to have been exceeded, close the show. As she exist the building, Deborah gets a round of applause from the multitudes of 14-year-old Mexicans in their Ramones T-shirts. It's almost like old times.
Those times started in Manhattan's gruesome Bowery district in 1975 when Hilly Kristal decided to try to increase custom at his "dive bar" by turning it into a rock club, called Country, Bluegrass and Blues, and Other Music For Urban Gourmets, known acronymically as CBGB and OMFUG, or, more commonly, just CBGBs.
"It was so nurturing, even by its mere shape," recalls Talking Head Jerry Harrison. "It's a long, narrow room, so even if there's only 20 people there, they'll be at the front so it at least feels like there's an audience. And if you didn't like a band, you could just go to the bar at the back or even out on to the sidewalk and talk with your friends, and move up front for someone you really wanted to see. Hilly Kristal made it feel like our club, and thus allowed the scene to happen."
The strange but gentle six-foot-three stick insect that calls itself Joey Ramone likewise has fond memories: "The first time we went to CBGBs to audition, Hilly said, Nobody's going to like you guys but I'll have you back! He knew we had something. Our first show was just the bartender and his dog, but then we got the Warhol arty crowd. It always seems to be gays who pick up on things first."
"Very freaky," is how Chris Stein describes the clientele. "The guy who did The Ramones' artwork, arturo Vega, used to come to CBGBs wearing a Mexican wrestling mask; for six months he was known only as 'the guy in the mask'. The guy from The Screamers, Tomato Du Plenty, Gorilla Rose, and Fayette Hauser, who's the sister of one of the guys in Manhattan Transfer, used to have this weird drag cabaret, and us and The Ramones used to open up for them. Everybody was very supportive; only when the attention came did rivalries start."
"People like would come down and help us," recalls Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club bassist Tina Weymouth. "John Cale would invite David Byrne on stage to play guitar with him, and that gave him credibility - everyone had thought he was just this psycho chicken. Lou Reed would take us aside and give us some hilarious tips; he would say, David, you have to make a decision - are you going to wear long sleeves or short? - because you have pretty hairy arms. And then he'd say to the rest of the guys, Smart move getting a chick in the band - wonder where you got that idea...
"He'd come into the club in the middle of winter just wearing the thinnest T-shirt and leather jacket. Chris (Frantz, TTC and TH drummer and Tina's husband) would say, Wow, man, you really don't dress for the weather. And he'd reply, That's right - rock stars don't dress for the weather. He also said, Watch out for the record company people, don't be too friendly; more than anybody else, they want to see you as a rock star and have stars in their eyes when they look at you. But on the other hand, he said, make friends with the press..."
Which they did. What one might call journalistic input was vital to how new wave was shaped and presented to the outside world.
"The bathroom at CBGBs left a lot to be desired," grimaces Chris Franz, "but I absolutely had to go, right? So I'm in one of the stalls when I hear these voices that I recognise. One is Robert Christgau, the 'Dean of Rock Criticism', as he calls himself, and the other is James Wolcott, a champion of ours in the very beginning. That same day we'd had Seymour Stein of Sire in our loft, saying, I really want to sign you guys, get you at this stage. So I'm sitting there with this knowledge trying to evacuate my system and I hear Christgau say to Wolcott, I've come down to see these Talking Heads because there's a buzz about them, but I don't think they'll ever be able to make a record; who would want them to? Wolcott was saying, Well, perhaps by some weird twist of fate they might be successful one day. So all of a sudden I come out - Excuse me, gentlemen, but I have to wash my hands...!"
By late '75 the CBGBs scene consisted of The Ramones, The Stilettos (precursors of Blondie), Patti Smith reciting poetry, and the original Television with Richard Hell, "a strange bunch, pretty anti-social," recalls Joey. "Everybody was unique and worked hard. But there was a black cloud in the nobody was signing New York bands because of the failure of The New York Dolls. It doesn't make sense, but that's how it was."
To remedy this injustice, CBGBs mounted a festival of "the world's 40 best unsigned bands", headlined by The Ramones. The hippest rock journalists foregathered and the former manager of The New York Dolls, then a London clothes shop proprietor (with one or two interesting little sidelines), Malcolm McLaren, was there too. But the bands' first forays outside New York's womb proved that not all the world was quite ready for them: "One time we played a college in Long Island," recalls Tina, "and I remember people just sitting there, and saying quite distinctly between songs, Is this supposed to be a comedy act?"
"Our record company felt that we should tour with Black Sabbath, to get more exposure," remembers Joey Ramone. "We never really felt it was right, though we were big fans of Black Sabbath in their heyday. In those days there was a real barrier between punk and heavy metal, and when we arrived in San Bernardino, California, the promoter, who was pretty ignorant, did this billing, which was The Kings Of Heavy Metal Versus The Kings Of Punk Rock, make it like a battle. Real stupid. There were all these motorcycle, redneck farmers there, drinking pints of whiskey. We were 20 minutes into the set, doing Surfin' Bird, and it started raining whiskey bottles, carburettors, sparkplugs, icepicks and food. It was getting pretty hairy, so we walked off the stage, and this stage manager, about 85 years old, said, Last time I saw a reaction like that was the first time The Rolling Stones played America. Pretty complimentary! When Black Sabbath came on, their loudspeaker cones were full of salad and baloney sandwiches - I don't think Ozzy was too thrilled."
Europe cottoned on far quicker, as Joey recalls of their London debut in '76: "At our soundcheck at Dingwalls, all these kids - Johnny Lydon, Joe Strummer - were there, telling us that we were responsible for turning them on. England was like a freak show, a circus, with the different-coloured hair and all. It was great, but kinda crazy. One day I was walking around and I got chased by some Teds - that was scary! That was the beginning of the world explosion in England - and then the world changed. Everything changed. It wasn't just the music. There was a whole new philosophy and attitude. Everything changed drastically for the better - '76-'77 was like '64-'65 and the English Invasion. We put the spirit and guts back into rock'n'roll."
Then there was that quaint British custom, "gobbing": "The first time we played The Roundhouse, with The Ramones at the Queen's Jubilee weekend, it was like a snowstorm, a blizzard in the lights," shudders Chris Frantz. "That was one time we were glad we didn't have to sing," smiles Tina. "Poor David had to open his mouth..."
Things got worse by '82 when Talking Heads had expanded into a pan-global funky big band. After a hideous few days in Italy where they were variously canned, tear-gassed and blockaded 100 yards from their audience by a ring of armed carabineri, Talking Heads arrived in Athens.
"The government suddenly got scared of our arrival - they thought we were some kind of punk band," Tina arches her eyebrows. "I was about five months pregnant. Around 5,000 people paid to get in, and about 20,000 broke down the gates. The government decided they didn't want the soccer field walked on, so they set us up in the stands - but backwards, so perhaps 1,000 people could see the stage, a great tower of people, and behind us were some 24,000. Behind the stage they strung up some chicken wire so we wouldn't fall off. This became a net for every flying object they could throw at us. Our manager wanted to pull us off, but I felt perfectly safe, since my pregnant stomach was protected by my guitar. So he stood at the front of the stage grabbing the missiles in mid-air which we couldn't see because of the lights. Afterwards the promoter said, Don't be upset at the way people responded to you - that's what they do to all their heroes. And if they really love you, they'll throw a full can of beer straight at your head! After that, gobbing seemed wonderful."
It wasn't all beer and skittles though, as Tina recalls of the band's show at Red Rocks, Colorado: "David had a little routine in Life During Wartime. He would run around the back of the stage, and that night, because there was an entrance to the backstage area which was in the audience through a little door right under the soundboard, he ran directly into the audience with the spotlight following him, and disappeared through the little door - but the spotlight did not follow him any further. It stayed pinned to a couple writhing away erotically; they were actually doing it then and there - fascinating, like insects under a microscope. Everybody was watching, of course, so when David reappeared on stage, after this fabulous theatrical coup, nobody was paying him any attention."
Over the years the new wave has sent ripples into some unexpected corners. During the filming, for example, of Talking Heads' concert movie Stop Making Sense, Brian Wilson came backstage.
"David Byrne got really angry," reveals Tina, "because all Brian wanted to do was meet me. All he said was, I didn't know if I was going to like you so much with your long hair - but I guess it's OK... And the rest of the show he just sat quietly in a corner."
The Ramones, paragons of doing one thing only, but very well, have also found unlikely disciples: "U2 are big fans and invited us on the Milton Keynes bill in 1985," vouchsafes Joey. "Before they went on, Bono told me the story about when they auditioned for a TV show in Ireland they played three Ramones songs instead of their own - that's how they passed. Really cool, you know."
And in 1988, when Tom Tom Club returned to CBGBs for a 15-night residency, The Grateful Dead were likewise putting in a marathon stint at the somewhat more capacious Madison Square Garden, and Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia would go down to CBGBs after their own show. Months later, TTC got the call from the Dead asking them to support in San Francisco on New Year's Eve. The new wavers have had a long-haired West Coast following since.
Of their contemporaries, Willie De Ville and Robert Gordon have dropped out of sight, but Richard Hell is still around, making movies and working on sundry poetry projects (including one with his former partner in Television, Tom Verlaine). Recently, however, the remnants of that mid-'70s scene have been depleted by quadruple demise: Stiv Bators, former Dead Boy and Lord Of The New Church in a road accident; Richard Sohl, pianist in the Patti Smith Group; Designer and scene maker Steve Sprouse; and transexual adornment to the scene, Crisis, died from her hormone treatment. But do our valiant troupers on the road still walk on the wild side?
"Definitely not," protests Chris Stein. "Joey takes 20 tons of vitamins before he goes on stage. Sure everybody used to get totally fucked up on everything, but everybody learned their lesson one way or another - a few people hung on and died."
So no drugs?
"Some of the guys in the crew do mushrooms," he volunteers. "I can't guarantee what the crew do; they have a hard task - what they do is like signing on for the merchant marine - and may well be chemically motivated. But all of us take loads of vitamins and stay healthy; Debbie goes to the gym every day."
And no rock'n'roll misbehavious whatsoever?
"There was a big party at Gary Kurfirst's house and everyone went into the swimming pool with their clothes on... the usual. It's very workman-like now; nothing too wild and crazy goes on any more. Those days are gone," he sighs ruefully. "We're all too old for that shit."