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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Bobby Keene Shares A Few Words About Tommy Keene With His Friends and Fans

Tommy Keene's friend Rob Newmyer shared the email he received from Tommy's brother Bobby following Tommy's sudden but peaceful passing on November 22, 2017 at the age of 59 (see obit here). I am posting it here so that these wonderful recollections may be shared and archived for all time with fellow fans. - Tom Warner

I received an e-mail from Tommy Keene's brother Bobby who offers a lovely and heartbreaking set of stories and reflections below on Tommy and their amazing life together. The photo is from the rehearsal at Chuck & Susanna Sullivans house (the Bandhouse) for the 2004 Nils Lofgren tribute at Strathmore. Chuck and I were both big Tommy Keene fans and Tommy was the only one of the singing guest performers that we had do a song with Nils. This was not meant as any slight on the others but Nils was already somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of appearing at his own tribute and didn't want to hog the spotlight. But Tommy was flying across the country to honor Nils and it was exactly the kind of dream pairing of two Bethesda raised guitar heroes that got us excited about we could do with a tribute show that gave BandHouse Gigs life and a reason to be. And the results were magic. Bobbys recollection below of exactly how much this meant to Tommy is a bit of a surprise, takes the wind out of me and makes me miss him even more. There are some hilarious and absolutely wonderful stories in his piece so enjoy Bobby Keenes tribute here. - Ron Newmyer

*** A Few Words About Tommy to His Friends and Fans ***
by Bobby Keene

Tommy was my little brother. Well, at least until he was twelve, when he morphed into my younger brother. As such, I understood and accepted, from my earliest memory, my role to take care of him and to protect him. This role became even more evident at the respective ages of 8 and 5, when our parents separated for several years. This role then became a primary force in my life after the tragic death of our mother in 1977, when I was 21 and Tommy was 18. With that tragedy, I thought we were done with our fair share of tragedies. Then we lost Kathy in December 2015. And now we lose Tommy. It feels like being struck by lightning three times. To say I am struggling with it all, is the definition of an understatement.

With the news I received at approximately 8:15 EST Wednesday night, I could not escape the thought, as only a big brother or parent would think, that after 59 years, I must have somehow failed to fulfil my role as big brother/protector. Like I should have felt some disturbance in the force from 3,000 miles away and been there to save him. If only I could have recognized something. I could have told him not to go to sleep Tuesday night or to wake him up before whatever happened, happened. I was supposed to be the rock in the family. I was supposed to be able to save Tommy so all of you could count on his continued presence.

I can assure everyone, that he was not sick, did not have some hidden deadly illness or that Tuesday night was any different from any other night. He exchanged texts with my son, Hunter at 1:48am and was in the process of making a dish to bring to a Thanksgiving dinner Thursday night. There was no sign as far as I knew of any impending tragedy. I am as stunned and paralyzed with disbelief as everyone else. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I can’t leave my house. I don’t want to answer the phone or open my email. I have chests in my pains. Every time I see an article or tribute, I feel like I am dreaming. I just shout out loud that “this did not happen”. To put it into Beatle terms, which Tommy would appreciate, it is “All Too Much” to process. My Christmas present to him sits unwrapped on a table in my living room. It is a DVD of the documentary about Mick Ronson. Tommy would have been so into that movie. I am just so ready for this Tom Sawyer/Eddie and the Cruisers stunt to be exposed so we can concede to Tommy that he punked us good.

As much as my background would like for this writing to be of novel or appellate brief quality, this essay is just my momentary attempt to bring some sense to everyone’s crushing devastation and loss. My hope is that by sharing some of my immediate thoughts with you, I might offer some insight into the person Tommy was. (As tears instantly well with my use of the verb was.) I apologize in advance for the rambling stream of consciousness nature of this composition. I know it lacks the structure of a proper written essay. For that I apologize to the journalists, lawyers and English majors reading this. My motivation is simply that my little brother deserves so much more than the cookie cutter timeline obituary being repeated by the publications or the tributes of 140 characters or less. (Except for the John Davis piece in the Washington Post which was beautiful.) Those of you who also agonize over this loss, deserve so much more as well. This is my dazed and confused attempt to reach out to all of you, his friends’ and fans, to offer some additional insight into Tommy, my little brother and to maybe relate some stories that you may have never heard.

To say that music was the soundtrack of our lives sounds way too cliché, but it is true. With our collective photographic memories, we could tell you the time, place and circumstances of our first listen to any song. “Thank You Girl” on the long family drive to Florida, “White Lies”, the first Grin song we ever heard live in Greenbelt, “What is and What Should Never Be” at the first Zep show because it is such an unforgettable title to a 10 and 13 year old. “Incident on 57th Street” the first live Springsteen song at DAR in 1974 with Suki on violin. “Rebel, Rebel” on our first visit to The Whiskey a Go-Go. The Lovin’ Spoonful at Disneyland. The Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out Stones at Madison Square Garden in 1969. The list goes on and on.

Music reminds us all of what was once good and memorable in our lives. We hear it with an idealistic filter that can transform us back to past times and to places and moments in our lives. To PLACES THAT ARE GONE. A song on the radio, the people you were with, the summer adventures, experiences and loves. These are the places that are gone. We all have them, and they are all different. There are but few events in our lifetime about which we vividly remember where we were and what we were doing at the very moment of the event. Most are negative such as 9/11 or JFK’s assassination. (If you didn’t, you will now.) If you add music to that concept, the memories become positive and the recall is usually one of fondness and of good times and thoughts. BASED ON HAPPY TIMES, not what I feel right now. This is the gift Tommy has left us. His soundtrack for the places and memories of our lives. Those memories are all around us. We don’t even need to look for them. They will find us. Magically, as I printed this rambling mess out to try to proof read it, “Eight Days a Week”, the Ron Howard Beatles movie popped up on the TV, right at the exact point where the Beatles played their first American concert in DC in February 1964. It was that very concert and the guilt we imposed upon our parents thereafter for not taking us, that liberalized the parental controls and started our life’s concert and musical journey. We went to every concert we wanted to after that first denial.

These are some of my random places that are gone.

Somewhere there is a very nice couple who have the memories of Tommy playing at their wedding. His one and only wedding gig ever. He had declined the invitation to play at my wedding.

I have been listening to a recording Tommy made at the 1975 Led Zeppelin show at the Capital Center. To the chagrin of Mr. Peter Grant and all the other tour managers, we routinely smuggled our little Sony TC 119 cassette recorder into concerts. Listening to this show transports me right back in time as if I can now be the fly on the wall going back in time to that show. It is February. It is cold. It is at the very beginning of that 1975 tour, which is regarded as the band’s highpoint. On the tape Tommy is heard singing along to the songs in perfect pitch even when the flu stricken Mr. Plant could not. The performance is interrupted intermittently by the high-pitched voice of my high school girlfriend, Annie and Tommy’s protestations to her that she be quiet.

Last Christmas, I had many of the self-made bootleg recordings transferred to CD as a present for Tommy. With them, for sentimental reasons, I included a very used Sony TC 119 cassette recorder exactly like our original. I purchased it on eBay for $25. I am told by Mike that Tommy was using that 50-year-old recorder to demo new songs he was writing in the very days just before he left us, just as he had done with our original recorder at the very beginning of his song writing days.

As the big brother, it was my role to share his interests, notwithstanding his disdain for many of mine. Tommy was never the sports fan and I have always been. In fact, he never missed a chance to deride me for being like the other Bob “Keene” brother, Mr. Pollard. “You’re just like Pollard, you can’t look away from any game, whatever it is.” Mr. Pollard will be pleased to hear that Tommy was very much into this year’s world series and was texting me during the games to get my thoughts on the games.

I thus accepted and cultivated his interests by becoming the chauffer to all concerts, the driver and default roadie to all his gigs, leading eventually to a career as the default manager, tour manager, lawyer, financier and whatever else was needed. (But he never asked me to play drums.) I was three (3) years older and he literally started serious gigging at age twelve (12).

Our travails and stories of our concert going days are legendary. Check out Tommy’s article for Magnet magazine about our first Led Zeppelin’s show in 1969. The article is now preserved on Led Zeppelin’s official website. There are dozens of these stories which were to be the subject of a planned co-authored book and which I will now have to write alone someday. We were eager and resourceful. Two of the most ardent true blood rock fans you could ever imagine. Our collective “collected stuff” could literally be a rock n roll museum by itself. Somehow, we always figured a way to not only get to the shows, but in many cases to get backstage to meet our rock lords. It never occurred to us that we could be living that life for real just a few years later.

There was the parent drop off shows. The Bobby can finally drive shows. The we must spend the night shows, because the band was only touring in cities far away. The if we can’t spend the night we will drive there and back, it is only 4 hours each way, shows. The shows without tickets where we had to befriend someone to get in and the pre-drinking age shows where we were not old enough to even get in. The Bobby has a press pass shows where he had to go for work and where we didn’t need to worry about getting in or getting backstage. This behavior continued through these most recent years as we travelled to and from over 50 post 1999 Springsteen, Stones, Aerosmith and Cheap Trick shows in cities across the country. Somehow, some way, we always managed to find a way to make it work.

Here are a couple of the little-known concert adventure stories.

For Tommy’s 14th birthday I drove Tommy and two of his friends to a concert at the Bowie Ice Rink. At the time, this was somewhere in the middle of nowhere between Washington and Baltimore. The bill was headlined by a heavy metal prog band from England called the Groundhogs. The opening band was the Razz with Ted Nicely. A band Tommy would join just years later. The intermediate act was a Long Island power rock trio called Dust, featuring Marc Bell, later to become Marky Ramone and a bassist named Kenny Aronson. As Dust roared into its opening song, it was apparent that Kenny’s bass amp had malfunctioned, and he could not be heard at his cue after the opening guitar riff. While Kenny frantically searched his cord, amp and bass to correct whatever the problem was, his bandmates just continued playing without him. It was an embarrassing scene that only obnoxious know it all fans like us could make fun of. For years after that, when any sonic malfunction occurred in Tommy’s band, visions of poor Kenny’s equipment failure and his vain attempts to fix the problem were mocked, imitated and laughed at.

Fast forward to 1980 and Tommy gets an audition in New York for a singer named Suzanne Fellini’s touring band. Tommy walks into the audition room full of snooty pro New York musicians, knowing none of them. However, he quickly recognizes that the bushy haired bass player, fiddling with his amp in the corner, is none other than the same Kenny Aronson of Dust. He had just finished playing with Derringer and Tommy and I had seen Derringer at the Bayou in Georgetown. Without saying a word Tommy rips off the exact Van Halenesque guitar opening from “Loose Goose”, the very opening song Dust had blundered years before, inviting Kenny to join in at the very moment his amp had failed in that 1972 show. Tommy could hear a tune once and still be able to play it years later for the very first time. That’s how gifted he was. Ask any musician who has shared the stage with Tommy and they will tell you what an acute awareness and command he had on stage. Astonished by the challenge, Kenny takes the cue from this new kid auditioning and rips into the song in the original loud power trio bass line. Everyone in the room is going WTF? How are these guys playing that without ever seeing each other before. They hadn’t even been introduced to each other. Both Kenny and Tommy got the gig. Tommy left the University of Maryland in his last year and toured the US and Europe for months with Suzanne Fellini. Thereafter, Kenny and Tommy were in a short-lived New York power pop band called Pieces together and Kenny played some of the bass on Strange Alliance, Tommy’s first solo record. He most recently played bass for the New York Dolls and the Yardbirds.

In 1971, having read about the legendary Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher, we set out to see his first solo show at a bar in downtown DC, on a school night, no less. I had called the club in the afternoon and asked whether we could get in, being under 18 years old. With the assurance of the nice man who answered the phone at 4:30 in the afternoon, we convinced our parents that all was well and set off in the car. I was just 16 and Tommy was 14. As we tried to enter “My Mother’s Place”, we were stopped for ID’s by a rude man who apparently had not spoken with that nice man I spoke to earlier in the afternoon. As we walked away denied and dejected, only Tommy could find that perfect hypothesis of what had transpired. “When you called with your pre-puberty high voice, that nice man thought you were speaking for under aged girls who they would surely allow entry to without ID.” Never willing to concede defeat, I insisted we wait a few minutes, as if an act of nature would somehow address the issue and allow us access. As we stood there in the freezing cold, Tommy implored me to leave. When all hope seemed to be gone, a frigid figure with flowing long hair appeared in a blue navy pea coat. (Rick, the memory is genetic.) It was Rory Gallagher himself. Excited as the under aged girls might have been, we approached the guitar god just to say hi and to be recognized as fans of his on the other side of the pond. After the “we are your biggest fan” pleasantries, Rory asked why we were outside in the freezing cold. We related the woes of our under aged status and he said that we should stay right there, and he would see what he could do. He was gone for what seemed like a long time. Tommy again insisted we leave, but I held out with some idealistic thought that something really cool might happen. Soon thereafter, Rory’s brother/manager came out and proclaimed that we could see the show on two conditions. Oh my god, what had we gotten ourselves into? First, he said we had to stay in the band’s dressing room until the show started. Okay, no problem with that. Second, he sternly apprised us that when Rory and the band came on stage, we had to sit on the side of the stage with the band for the entire show. Well that doesn’t sound too tough now does it? “You better not have to go to the bathroom again”, Tommy joked to me. (Read the Led Zep story for context.) So, there we were in Rory Gallagher’s dressing room, with his band and a who’s who of the DC music scene (i.e. the Barry Richards crew), there to see Rory on his first US tour. And we were with the band. We hung out in the dressing room absorbing everything we could understand from the brutal Irish accents and used every penny we had for the pay phone to call our friends to brag about where we were. If you watch Rory’s 1973 Irish Tour video, it was that band and those songs. When the show started there were two folding chairs set off to the side of the stage for Tommy and me. After that show, any time Rory came to town we were on the guest list and even made it backstage at the Baltimore Civic Center when Rory later opened for Deep Purple. This was the very same backstage where the scenes from Led Zep’s “Song Remains the Same” was filmed. (Tommy would later use that dressing room when he opened for The Stray Cats.) Although Tommy didn’t start to play guitar for years later, you could see the huge influence that night had on Tommy’s guitar sound. That raw rough dirty Fender signature guitar tone of his, came from Rory Gallagher that night, on those two wonderful conditions. His affection for his fans and his willingness to interact with them was also undoubtedly informed by that night with Rory.

After Kathy’s passing, I haven’t wanted to leave my now empty nest cocoon very often. It takes a Nats game, a Tommy show or a Springsteen show to get me out into the public domain. Early last year a friend persuaded me to go out with him to see Clem Burke’s band, the Split Squad. I was reticent to say the least. It was a cold weeknight at this tiny and typical rock bar in the Petworth neighborhood of DC. There were maybe 20-25 people there and there was no admission or cover charge. The band was great. Rockin’ out in a 70’s hard rock style right in my 60’s wheelhouse. During the show I noticed two adolescent kids in the back, looking very out of place and gawking in awe at Clem and his band. They were so trying not to be noticed for fear they might be asked to leave this party of adults 30 to 40 years or more their senior. They looked like high school brothers. They were recording the show on their phones. I turned to Jeff and pointed at them. “Looks like Bobby and Tommy are here tonight”, I said. He looked very confused. He didn’t get the joke until I explained my thought.

Of all his accomplishments, playing just one song on August 25th, 2004, was Tommy’s unstated and most cherished childhood dream come true. That one song meant more to him than any TV show, concert, record review or accolade of any other kind. That night he took the stage next to his childhood role model, Nils Lofgren. Those four minutes playing with Nils meant so much more to him than all his 15 minutes of fame combined and meant more to him than anyone will ever know.

As two kids from Nils’ own North Bethesda Junior High School, (the very school upon which the Wonder Years TV show was based), we were two of Grin’s biggest fans. We saw literally every show we could. We recorded them on our portable bootleg cassette machine, filmed them on our Super 8 color movie camera, travelled to New York City to see them twice (both times playing with Black Oak Arkansas?) and continued to see Nils when he went solo for years beyond Grin. This does not even count the 75 times we have seen Nils play with Mr. Springsteen. In those early years, seeing Nils, as a 7th grader through high school, was the “I could do this” inspirational moment that ignited the spark and drove Tommy forward with music. So, jumping on that stage as a peer to Nils, trading vocals and guitar parts with Nils, in a song he had heard Grin play everywhere from the Alexandria Roller Rink to the Academy of Music in New York and everywhere in between, was the proudest inner moment of his career. It was like being accepted as a rookie on a team with a veteran superstar teammate destined for the Hall of Fame.

Always the perfectionist, and never shy to point out any stage deficiencies, his first comment off the stage that night was that he would have sounded so much better if that “Skunk guy” hadn’t pulled rank and switched amplifiers at the last moment for his pedal steel set up. He commandeered Tommy’s meticulously set up rehearsal amp and left him a cleaner lower watt reject for Tommy to use. Frantically doing his best Kenny Aronson imitation, Tommy quickly adapted to tune and crank up that “shitty sounding country amp” that the Skunk Baxter of the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan had left for him. It wasn’t noticed by anyone except Tommy. Tommy was great and fully intoxicated with the pride he personally felt pulling off that song next to Nils. I remember approaching Nils after the show and thanking him as only a big brother could. He was very gracious, as we tend to be growing up here in Bethesda, but I am sure he thought to himself, why is this guy thanking me? He didn’t even play tonight. A very special big brother thanks to Ronnie Newmeyer for making that special moment happen for Tommy.

From the earliest of his shows, on stage is where Tommy was most comfortable and most content. He was at home there. It always came natural and easy to him. No matter how crummy the dumpy club was or how small the crowd was or how tired and sick he might have been, he was always the same on stage. Very serious but in his own world and doing his own thing, his way. He never phoned in a show or gave anything less than everything he had. It didn’t matter if there were only 3 people in Baltimore on a cold rainy Tuesday night or a sold-out show at the Fillmore in San Francisco with Green Day’s Billie Joe watching from the wings. His drive, passion and command were always there.

I can remember the sold-out show with Paul Westerberg at the 9:30 in 1996. After a rousing version of “I Will Dare”, Paul looked over at Tommy with this WTF look and announced to the audience that after all the years, “Tommy was the only one who ever played that song the right way”. He was that good.

I once called him a “gamer” and he had no clue what I meant and even thought it might be an insult. I then had to explain the sports term to him as the description of an athlete who no matter how hurt or tired he was or how poorly he practiced or how slow he appeared to be against the other players, showed up for the biggest plays in the biggest games and always delivered at the most clutch times. An athlete you could always count on to be there for his team. Tommy liked that and began to use that term a lot.

To anyone like myself who ever wished you could just play a song melody on the guitar like Tommy, let alone to compose that melody, let me dissuade you of any notion that it can be done with a certain expert level of commitment, practice and study. You are either born with the gift to do it or you never will do it. Tommy was born with a gift that can neither be bought nor learned. From his earliest moments, he was born to steal the spotlight. The story has been told of a 2 and half year old who once asked his mother if she could now take the new baby back to the hospital because he was suddenly standing in this 2-and-a-half-year old’s spotlight.

After my mother’s tragic passing in 1977, I gladly assumed and tried my best to act in the stead of our departed mother. That is, I was to encourage, challenge, praise and drive Tommy to what only a mother could want for her child. There was no criticism, no scolding no self-pity. Only positive reinforcement and the challenge to him to be as good as she thought he could be with his musical gift. As if it was yesterday, I can remember after our mother’s funeral, Tommy sitting at the family piano in the next room and playing for the first time as if he was possessed. He played with a tone of sadness and soul that few musicians can and which Tommy had not displayed to this point in time. He played with that passion and soul as if the tragedy had at once transformed his latent talent through some supernatural fission process into the very same gamer passion he played with through this last tour with Matthew Sweet. It was a lightbulb moment for the older brother in the next room. The emotion you can feel from his songs, lyrics and guitar was Tommy’s signature.

Carlos Santana was asked once what makes a great guitar player. His response was that there were hundreds of thousands of guitarists that could fundamentally play the same song competently and they would all sound the same. But there were maybe just less than a hundred guitarists who you could identify immediately just by sound, because they had their own unique guitar tone and played with a unique aura that could evoke sadness, gloom, or any other emotion. Tommy was one of those guitarists. That guitar tone and the bittersweet melancholy themes described by all the critics, that are so associated with Tommy, were born on that day on my mother’s piano. The quote I coined to recognize such greatness after a Springsteen song called “You’re Missing” brought me to my knees thinking about Kathy, goes as follows “Any musician can touch a listener’s ear or touch a listener physically, making them sing a long, shout, tap their toes or to dance like a fool. But only the truly great musicians can reach out and touch your heart and soul to make you cry.” Tommy undeniably was that great, as he touched the hearts and souls of so many people with an emotional sound totally his.

It is amazing how fate, genetics and life seem to sort out, balance and direct our individual paths in life. Tommy and I were very different, but inextricably connected by our genetics. Tommy and my wife Kathy shared the same view of life and the world. Kathy and Tommy were two peas in a pod. She was more like him than me. In fact, our marriage may have never occurred without an intervention by Tommy. When Tommy got the Fellini gig he needed a place to live in New York. I knew one person who might be able to help. Kathy and I had dated a couple of times but after she graduated from the University of Maryland she moved back to New York. I called, not for a date, but to ask if she could put my brother up while he was in New York. Tommy lived with Kathy through his time with Pieces at 65th Street and 1st Avenue. It was this reconnection that kept us in touch going forward and eventually led to a very long courtship and eventually our marriage and family. When I wrote her eulogy, I attributed the Sinatra song “My Way” to how she led her life, but suggested that she would have insisted that the song be sung by her favorite singer, Elvis Costello. I could now just as easily use that same metaphor to describe Tommy. By the way, the first dance song at our wedding was Baby Face, Kathy’s favorite TK song.

They were both as tough as nails. I dare say that I have never met two more stubborn “do it my way” people. She was the sister Tommy never had and he was the brother she never had. Both maintained a walled off emotional defense system and a drive to accomplish their goals, if I can quote Mr. Pollard, with a “surgical focus”. You could not get either to show their emotions and they both rarely shed a tear. And they could hold a grudge with the best of them. After Kathy passed, Tommy asked me if there was anything he could do? Never wanting to burden my little brother and for probably the first time, I did ask him to do something for me. I asked him to help look after Hunter through this tragedy because he had experienced the same loss at the same age. And he did! He loved Jason, Hunter and Kathy and was more of a family man than he would ever admit to himself. The first time he ever played with Hunter was the party Kathy called his Bar Mitzvah. It was not a religious ceremony, it was just a party. She had asked me if Tommy would come and play with Hunter in front of his friends. Thinking there was no way in hell that Tommy would ever do it and not wanting to be on the receiving end of his response, I told Kathy that she had to spring the question on Tommy. Without ever offering even a signature snide remark, Tommy was there playing Places That Are Gone to a group of 13-year-old kids with Hunter on drums.

Brad Quinn once made the observation that life was “black and white to you Keene’s”. There was good and bad and right and wrong, with no gray area ever in between. You were to be polite and respectful and never greedy. Brad was spot on with that observation. I can remember being told by a record company person in the Geffen era that we were just too nice to make it the music business. At which we both shrugged and thought maybe that is true. But we knew no other way. In our world, being respectful and trusting an employer that was investing hundreds of thousands of dollars should be the right way. We weren’t going to be greedy by making demands like Tommy was already a star the way all the other Geffen artists acted. A member of a female Geffen band is written to have stood on Tom Cutout’s desk and pissed all over it, in protest for not getting what they wanted. The band eventually got everything they wanted. We weren’t going to act that way. Tommy did it his way. He lived his life his way. It was on his terms or on no terms at all. He disliked the commerce of music and was always embarrassed at the notion of getting paid by his fans for what he did. It was show art to Tommy, not show business. He didn’t turn away the money, but he did not solicit it either. It just wasn’t the intent and purpose for why he did what he did.

There was, however, but one regret Tommy had in his career which he would never admit to anyone, even himself. That was his decision to part ways with Seth at the behest of the Geffen record company. Tommy loved Seth and Seth loved Tommy. I think it took a few years for Tommy to come to terms with the fact that there is no amount of fame or fortune that can supplant the kind of loyalty and devotion between friends that are in effect family. Tommy was seduced by the siren call of the major label which soon thereafter would show its true colors of not giving a shit about the person. Seth was an unknown to Geffen, so they never even gave him a chance. I tried to put my foot down and insist that he reverse course but like Ulysses, Tommy was already to close to the shore and the bullshit and false promises filled his head. I know he looked back on that disappointed with himself that he had allowed Geffen to unduly influence his career decision. For Geffen there was the Animal House type defense in his mind of “You fucked up. You trusted us.”

Back to this genetic thing. The musical genes from my mother’s side of the family apparently skipped right over me and my oldest son, but found their way into Hunter. There is just a different rhythm to life in their heads. I have heard the theory that siblings and offspring are somehow musically connected by these genetic markers. Brothers, sisters and families can harmonize vocally at a level that others can never attain regardless of the practice time. Think of the Everly Brothers, the Beiges, the Beach Boys or the Cowsills. Hunter and Tommy were likewise connected musically. It was inherent in their genes. I remember Tommy calling me when Hunter was 15 and asking me if I would bring Hunter to SXSW to play drums for some shows with Brad and Steve. My immediate parental reaction was a resounding “no way”. First, I was not going to take Hunter out of 10th grade for a week and expose my still innocent child to the rock n roll world on such a big stage and big scale. Even the slightest failing might impair and scar Hunter for years to come. Second, he would be on stage with the stage General himself and I did not want to be in the middle of a scolding of how he might screw up an arrangement or miss a cue. After I explained my reasoning to Tommy, he simply replied that Hunter needed to find out if he could cut it someday, so why not now. I said because he was only 15. Tommy jumped right in to say that he did it at age 12 and that he had no doubt Hunter could shine given the opportunity. He just genetically knew that all would be well. As the band left the stage from that first SXSW show, I could not look anybody in the eye because the tears of pride and joy were streaming down my face seeing Hunter playing those songs with Tommy. I thought about our mother maybe watching from above. As I rushed to the bathroom to hide my tears I quickly caught a glance at Hunter’s emotionally stonewalled mother as she rushed into the bathroom with the same tearful reaction of pride as me. Tommy’s only statement to me after the show was a matter of fact braggadocio “I told you he could do it”. Somehow, he just knew.

After the most recent Japan tour, Hunter confessed to me that Tommy would invariably blame Brad for Hunter’s mistakes in the set. Sorry Brad, but that must be the genetics at work.

In all these years we never talked about his lyrics. I never asked, and he never volunteered an explanation. We didn’t need to. I just seemed to understand them. If I didn’t understand them, I was too afraid to ask. The “bar that’s only painted green” is the Greene Turtle in Ocean City Maryland. Our parents were standing in front of the Greene Turtle when a drunk driver, fleeing the police without lights picked them off the sidewalk, killing our mother. It was a Saturday. Thankfully, my father survived and still lives in our childhood home at 94 years of age with a Saint named Dorothy.

My last text exchange with Tommy was when I sent him a photo of a 1974 black and white advertisement by a hair salon called Volumetrics in New York and featuring photos of David Johanson and other decadent looking models. His single word response, my last ever communication with him, was “Great!”. Volumetrics was where “Bobby got a new haircut” in the song Black and White New York.

There are so many more stories and memories to share, people to acknowledge and thank, but that may have to wait for another day. As soon as I finish this, I need to assume another role by default for Tommy. A role that I could never ever have imagined in my worst nightmare. I now must go to LA to bring Tommy home to Maryland to be laid to rest next to his inspirational muse, our dear departed mother. And yes, she really did look like Marilyn Monroe.

For all you know
They’ll never let you know
Just before your life is over
The Story Ends

Somehow, he just knew, because he was that good.

Tommy loved all of you wherever you might be reading this and whenever your paths may have crossed during Tommy’s journey.
My personal special thanks to all of you who over all these years helped provide the opportunity for a big brother to be so proud of his little brother (with no exclusions intended). Michael Lundsgard, Matty, Seth, Ted, Billy, Doug, Joey, Brad, John, Rob, Steve Gerlach, Walt, Leach, Steve Carr, Brother Bob Pollard, Paul Westerberg, the Goo-Goo Dolls, the Gin Blossoms, the Replacements, the Crush, Rick, Paul, Jeffrey, RIP Jay Bennett, Girard, Matt, Bob M., Kevin, Steve Judge, Ed M., Matthew, Ivan, Abaad, Bill, Ronnie, Nils, Mike, Tom, Vince, Ani, John, Josh Grier, Peter and Jennifer, Joanna, Shirley, Tom, Theresa, all of the clubs and promoters who ever booked Tommy … and every-one else.

The Story Ends: Tommy Keene, 59

Thomas Clay Keene (June 30, 1958-November 22, 2017)

Tommy Keene with yours truly

"Power-pop legend, acclaimed singer-songwriter, and venerated guitarist Tommy Keene has died. The 59 year-old Keene passed away unexpectedly, but peacefully, in his sleep at his Los Angeles area home Wednesday...Keene is survived by his longtime partner Michael Lundsgaard, his father Robert Keene, step-mother Dorothy Keene, brother Bobby Keene, nephews Hunter and Jason Keene, and his beloved dog, Coco." - tommykeene.com

The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down and It's All Happening Today: Twilight's In Town, Tomorrow's Gone Tonight and it's Time to Say Goodbye (The Long Goodbye) to Tommy Keene and all those memories Based On Happy Times and Highwire Days A Wish Ago that are now Places That Are Gone. The Story Ends, he's Away From It All - All Gone Away - and won't be Back Again. It's Back To Zero Now. I wish This Could Be Fiction but When the Truth Is Found that would only be Paper Words & Lies. Tommy, your sudden passing leaves me Weak and Watered Down - Down, Down, Down - Crashing the Ether in Disarray, Alone in These Modern Times at an Isolation Party where I'm Hanging on to Yesterday, Soul Searching while Waiting Without You in a stunned Silent Town. I Don't Feel Right At All but it's not the End of the World: Nothing Can Change You and the
Light of Love that was your music will make me Laugh in the Dark and Save This Harmony that was your voice, while I will cherish your words that were A Secret Life of Stories. You had a Good Thing Going and All Your Love Will Stay, Today and Tomorrow, because while Love Is a Dangerous ThingLove Is the Only Thing That Matters. But I will be a Long Time Missing and Getting Out From Under You. I Can't See You Anymore Before the Lights Go Down on the Landscape In the Late Bright. You Quit That Scene. Though you're Behind the Parade, we Begin Where We End, so you'll never be Out of My Mind. Don't Get Me Wrong - I know it's Gone To Midnight of The Final Hour and Time Will Take You Today (You Can't Wait For Time - there's no Compromise). I just hope you are Safe in the Light (perhaps the Northern Lights), up in the Technicolor Big Blue Sky.



Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Tom Warner's Journals, Part 1



I love journals and notebooks. With an ADD-addled mind like mine, I'm constantly jotting down thoughts, observations, quotes, lists and reminders that I promise myself I will update to the cerebellum later. Problem is, I have as many journals/notebooks as thoughts, online passwords and clutter. In other words, things get lost!

Today, I needed to write something down and I grabbed a notebook from a pile of them laying in the windowsill. It was from 2008. Here are some sundry selections from nine years ago that I found amusing.

**********

"Everything one does in life, even love, occurs in an express train racing towards death. To smoke opium is to get out of the train while it is still moving." - Jean Cocteau ("Opium: The Diary of a Cure")

Quote from Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le Corbeau (aka The Raven, France, 1943). In the Mass scene, Dr. Germain asks the cuckolded psychiatrist Dr. Vorzet if he's religious: "Religious? No, just cautious. I like to take out insurance. It doesn't cost much."



Notes from the 2008 Maryland Film Festival, which I worked as a volunteer, videotaping director Q & A's with the audience:

  • Alex Gibney intro'ed his film Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson with a Thompson quote: "You bought the ticket, enjoy the ride!"
  • I sat next to the most annoying woman. Middle-aged. I noticed she wouldn't turn her cell phone off. Hid it under a shawl the first 15 minutes of movie. Then she systematically chewed her fingernails - all 10 of 'em! - throughout the movie! (Thank God it was only two hours, any more and she'd probably move on to her toenails!) Then she would transfer her remnants to her left hand and delicately rub the detritus off, like she was rubbing away the salt from pistachios or chips onto the floor near my camera bag. TOTALLY DISGUSTING, She saw me staring at her - I was hoping to shame her, but she was well beyond shame, and I had to cup my head with my right hand, like blinders, so I could escape from her wretched, and most unfortunate, presence in the last good seat in the house in the front row.
  • Q&A: A woman asked why Hunter S. Thompson always wore shorts. "Do you know why he always wore shorts?" Laughter. Long pause from Gibney, after repeating the question, then a simple reply: "No." The mystery continues.
  • Dumbest question of the night, as usual from Charles Theater fixture Charles Johnson: "Where did Dr. Thompson get his doctorate?" Gibney explained that Thompson bought his title from the Universal Life Church sometime in the '60s, adding that he himself has a "doctorate" from the Universal Life Church. As do I!
"Is there a Doctor in the house?"




Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Music Coach

"The Music Show" with Andy "The Coach" Moloney, WKHS 90.5 FM
Saturdays 10 a.m.-Noon, Sundays 8 p.m.-Midnight



One of my favorite commutes is driving down to Dundalk with my wife Amy on Saturday mornings to have brunch with her parents. That's because Amy and I beat the Beltway Blues by listening to one of our favorite weekend radio programs, "The Music Show" on WKHS (90.5 FM), which is hosted by "The Coach," Andy Moloney, from 10 a.m. until Noon. (The Coach also hosts a "Music Show" on Sunday nights from 8 p.m. until Midnight. See full WKHS schedule here.)


WKHS broadcasts out of Kent County High School in Worton, Maryland, and on weekdays is staffed by the school's budding student DJs. But at night and on weekends, WKHS is staffed by local "community volunteers" like Andy Moloney, who at one time coached the school's basketball team; he may still be a coach at the school - there's hardly any information on the web about Moloney as either a coach or DJ - but he's definitely a jock at heart because he provides play-by-play of Kent County H.S. Trojans basketball games on WKHS with "Little C" Joey Cichoki and also reads sports scores as host of "The Scoreboard" on Saturday mornings from 9-10 a.m. (He even cancelled one Sunday night broadcast so he could concentrate on his Fantasy Football League draft!)



(When the students and community members aren't there - summers, weekends, late nights - WKHS simulcasts WXPN radio from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.)

As a broadcaster, The Coach is far from slick, but his taste is Eclectic Old School, with an emphasis on obscure '70s hard rock, Psychedelia in all shapes and forms, and unapologetic Prog (a four-letter word that dare not speak its name these days, unless "ironically"). Moloney reminds us that the 1970s ushered in the era of album-oriented FM radio, when "deep cuts"replaced the singles hit parade and "heavy rotation" playlists. Many bands during this era released a single record and disappeared without a trace, but Coach proves there's still a glut of undiscovered treasures to be unearthed on all those long-players. (As a child of the post-Beatles '70s, I had always ignored most of the music scene that existed before Punk and New Wave, erroneously believing it to be landfill fodder; now I'm retrospectively atoning for my audio ignorance.)

Sure, he loves classic mainstream hard rock like Bad Company, Mott the Hoople, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, Grand Funk Railroad and Loverboy ("Working for the Weekend" opened a recent show), but Amy and I discover bands and tunes here that we never hear anywhere else - songs that challenge my Shazam app's "name that tune" recall abilities. Bands with names like Aardvark (an organ-heavy UK Psych group featuring guitarist Paul Kossof and drummer Simon Kirke before they joined Free), Agnes StrangeBang, Black Sheep (featuring the pre-Foreigner Lou Gramm), Home, Omega (the Hungarian rockers whose '69 international hit "Gyongyhaju Iany" - roughly "Pearl-haired Girl" - was later cover by Scorpions and sampled by Kanye West), Pipe Dream, Ram Jam (see video below) and Pulsar - the latter an amazing French prog band whose Pink Floyd- and King Crimson-influenced 1975 debut Pollen album is well worth picking up. (How I wish WKHS posted its playlists - can't those students teach the volunteers some basic HTML?)



On a recent Saturday, for example, we heard such obscure groups as Dutch rockers Drama, Earth Quake, Elmer City Rambling Dogs, the Chico Magnetic Band (from France, like the Coneheads!) and - wait for it - Gong! Not Pierre Moerlin's Gong, but the original Teapot Pixie himself, Daevid Allen's Gong! Yes, the pioneering Anglo-Franco Psychedelic Hippie Space-Rock band formed by Daevid Allen (previously a founding member of UK prog-rockers Soft Machine) and his muse Gilli Smyth in 1968. (Allen died from cancer in 2015; Smyth followed, succumbing to pulmonary pneumonia, in August 2016.) The Coach - after reading all those mind-numbingly dull sports results from 9 to 10 and then opening his music show with Loverboy - played Gong's "Magick Brother"!

The minute I heard Gilli Smyth's erotic "space whisper" on "Magick Brother," I knew it was my college faves and had to pull over to listen. Amy loves anything weird, so she was entranced as well!



Listen to Gong's "Magick Brother" LP.




As if hearing one Gong song wasn't cool enough, Coach followed "Magick Brother" with perhaps Gong's signature sing-along, "Pot Head Pixies"! "I am...you are...we are...CRAZEE!" (Parenthetical thought: This would make an excellent segue into P. Frog's "We Are Crazy." Just a suggestion, Coach!)

Listen to Gong's "Pot Head Pixies."



You see, back in the late '70s, I was a fan of all things Gong - be it Chuck Barris' The Gong Show or Daevid Allen's trippy-hippy-dippy musical troupe - during my "progressive" phase. Gong were definitely Prog (incorporating Allen's spacey "glissando" guitar with elements of jazz, rock and psychedelia), but were never overly serious or pretentious about it. They were fun and silly, dabbling in Far Eastern mysticism while creating a stoner mythology on vinyl about Zero the Hero and his pothead pixie pals zooming around the cosmos in their flying teapots (aka, The Radio Gnome Trilogy: Flying Teapot, Angel Egg and You). Richard Branson signed the group to his new Virgin Records label in 1973 and the original members were soon augmented by guitarist Steve Hillage, synth player Tim Blake, bassist Mike Howlett, and drummer Pierre Moerlen.

A Pot Head Pixie in his Flying Teapot

Back in 1978, a bunch of us Prog-heads (Tom Lehrer, John Lorch, Carlos?) drove up to New York to see Daevid Allen and various manifestations of Gong (Mother Gong, New York Gong) at the avant-rock-experimental Zu Manifestival...


...and in 1979 I saw Gong perform a midnight show at Johns Hopkins University, a gig at which my old bandmate Adolf Kowalski promoted our group by canvasing the campus with Thee Katatonix graffitti - promptly getting us banned from JHU! After the show, my ex-wife Katie and I even got our photo taken with Allen and his missus, Gilli Smyth (aka Shakti Yoni).

Tom, Daevid & Katie at Gong's 1979 JHU show

Chanteuse Gilli Smyth space whispering at Gong's 1979 JHU concert


I remember Gong were big on Lunar Lunacy, preferring to perform their sets under a full moon - and the Hopkins concert was no exception (and probably why Adolf killed time waiting for the midnight curtain call by roaming the halls and defacing the walls of Shriver Hall).

Before that, the Coach had introduced us to the crazy sounds of the Lyon-based Chico Magnetic Band, dropping something called "Explosion" onto our curious ears.

Listen to Chico Magnetic Band play "Explosion."




I think Coach was sampling their album for the first time, because he admitted afterwards, "I really wasn't sure what I was getting into with these guys!" He was probably as gobsmacked as we were by the crazy sounds he unleashed from their lone LP, for hearing these French acid-rockers truly is a shock to the system. Here's how reviewer Seth Man described Chico's album for Julian Cope's Head Heritage web site:

“Explosion” begins the album not with a whimper nor even a bang but Chico’s entire reason for existence all laid out in one glorious collision after another with Chico yammering, barking, guffawing and channeling consonants in a way irrespective of enunciation and rarely with a literal clue as to what he is freaking out so badly over as his ever-heaving, pulsating soul forces out a welter of incomprehensible sounds in such a riveting and demonstrative manner they almost make even [Can's] Damo Suzuki’s English/Japanese/neither dreamtime-to-Samurai-rage vocals seem like the Queen’s English by comparison...He’s dropping consonants and vowels left, right and centre and I can only make out “My sweat tastes like a river!” until it’s directed into a 4-lane highway of vocal gibber along the lines of: “Nuuuaaarrgugug!,” “Nene waundah orf zarebbb!” and even “Anmyne cloth iss fallin dawn!!...The entire album could just be this first track, and it would STILL be a killer. Ooh-la-fucking-la.

Seth Man goes on to call Chico's self-titled album "chock full o’ balls and amazing riffs that consistently make all the right moves at the right times...Put simply, this freakin’ album has EVERYTHING. And by that I mean it draws from elements of approaches set down by “Phallus Dei”-era Amon Düül Zwei, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Silberbart, Straight-era Alice Cooper, Can, Guru Guru, Groundhogs, Speed Glue & Shinki, Led Zeppelin, Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band, Tiger B. Smith and “Free Your Mind”-period Funkadelic (so help me Eddie) and are seamlessly wedged into one album." Seth Man concludes that "Chico IS...The Man."

And speaking of Hendrix, I note that the band are three white guys and black dude whose Afro makes him looks a lot like Jimi. That would be singer Mahmoud "Chico" Ayara. His bandmates are guitarist Bernard Lloret, bassist Alain Fabreque and drummer Patrick Gael. Chico Magnetic Band continue the Hendrix comparisons by choosing to cover "Cross Town Traffic" (though you'd hardly recognize it) and "If 6 Was 9" (an early single).


"Chico IS...The Man"

More prog followed with a Dutch quartet called Drama, comprised of Polle Eduard (ex-Tee Set, on bass and vocals), Uly Grun (guitar, keyboards and vocals), Frank van der Kloot (guitar and vocals), and Shell Shellekens (drums). I don't remember much beyond them sounding equal parts dreamy prog and blues-rock . They released a bunch of singles and one album called, appropriately enough, Melodrama.

Listen  to three songs ("Dreamed I Was the President," "No Doctor," "Melodrama") by Drama.




Coach then got a little grittier by spinning "Little Floozy" by Elmer City Rambling Dogs. This harp-driven blues-boogie number sounds like an early Doors workout, especially given the singer's Jim Morrison imitation.

Listen to Elmer City Rambling Dogs play "Little Floozy."


Elmer City Rambling Dogs

"Jam It" (1975) LP by Elmer City Rambling Dogs

Coach even plays some more uptempo Powerpop on occasion, surprising us with cuts from San Francisco's Earth Quake (the Beserkley Records quartet that at one time backed Jonathan Richman on an early recording of "Roadrunner") and Glen Matlock's post-Pistols Rich Kids.

Listen to the Earth Quake single "Tickler."




Listen to Rich Kids play "Cheap Emotions."




Coach is also big on Philadelphia's '70s proto-Heavy Metal Bang, who obviously like Blue Cheer, Black Sabbath, Pentagram and their ilk - but also the Beatles, so their heavy rock is not adverse to pop melody. They had a minor hit with "Questions." Coach has played quite a few tracks from their back catalog.

Listen to Bang play "Questions."




Bang are still banging around (check them out on Facebook and Twitter @bangtheband, or read about them in the just-released biography "The Bang Story") and are still the power trio of Frank Ferrara (bass & vocals), Frank Gilcken (guitar & harmonies) and Tony Diorio (drums, lyrics, graphics, videos).

So there you have it, sports fans: a sampling of just one day's partial playlist from The Coach. When it comes to sampling the eclectic platters of 1970s album-oriented rock, there's no baloney with Andy Moloney - just choice cuts.



Related Links:
90.5 WKHS (www.wkhsradio.org)
90.5 WKHS (Facebook)
WKHS Celebrates 42 Years on the Air (ChesaDel Crier)
I Belong To the Blank Generation: WKHS' Martin Q. Blank (Accelerated Decrepitude)
WKHS' Disc Jockeys Harken Back To Radio's Golden Age (Baltimore or Less)
Listen to Aardvark's lone self-titled album (1970)
Listen to Pulsar's "Pollen" (1975) LP
Listen to Pulsar's "The Strands of Future" (1976) LP
Listen To Bang's "Bang" (1971) LP
Listen to Bang's "Bow To the King" (1972) LP



Saturday, August 5, 2017

Mad Habits

Mad Habits cassette

1. Monkey On His Back
2. No News
3.I Don't Like You
4. Too Selfish
5. When Will I Learn
6. Career Girl

Mad Habits was a Chuck Gross synthpop band from the 1980s that later changed its name to Laff Clinic. I don't know much about the band because Chuck keeps such a low profile that he's virtually subterranean. I assumed it was just Chuck playing everything until I learned just recently that journeyman local keyboardist Mark O'Connor was also in Mad Habits; apparently, they even played the Marble Bar back in the day. All I know is, Chuck gave me a six-song cassette tape many years ago that I never really listened to all the way through until quite recently, when his name came up in casual conversation at The Peanut Shoppe. I had just seen Chuck at Baltimore Soundstage for The Specials show and, in the course of gabbing about the concert, my Peanut Shoppe gal pal Stacey asked if I knew how to contact him. She was a fan of his days playing with Rupert Wondolowski in Little Gruntpack, whereas I knew Chuck mainly from his days playing with Mark O'Connor in The Toys and The Beaters. I went home after this conversation and dug out the Mad Habits tape and...it's great!




My wife Amy heard me playing it and said it reminded her of Henry Badowski's similarly light-hearted electronic pop. Or, I would add, like Patrick D. Martin (remember his hilarious 1981 single "Computer Datin'"; most people first heard it on the IRS Greatest Hits Vols 2 & 3 compilation). "No News" is her fave ditty ("No news is always good news to me...I don't want to know if it rains or snows/Or if Russia invades Tokyo" - and boy is it ever topical today, what with the 24/7 news - both real and "fake" - cycle), while my pick has to be the dating nightmare "Career Girl," about a Material Girl on the prowl for a guy with a fast car and lots of money ("She is counting, 1-2-3"). But all the tunes are throwback-to-the-80s synthpop classics.

Click here to listen to the "Mad Habits" tape in its entirety.




Amy was sold the minute she heard the zany electronic squonks and and squeals on the first track, "Monkey On His Back," that made her blurt "Wow, that's sooo DEVO!" So Devo and so like the best practitioners of '80s synthpop - but always with a sense of humor (more Devo and Silicone Teens than, say Gary Numan, Depeche Mode and Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark); any of these songs would be at home on the 4AD or Mute Records labels. Now we can't stop singing along to this six-pack of unknown songs on an unknown tape by an unknown musical genius. The instrumentation is mostly synths and electronic drums, though I definitely hear snatches of real electric bass (especially that great bass line on "Monkey On His Back") and guitar (the Exacto knife-sharp Gang of Four riffs on "Career Girl"). According to Mark O'Connor, who provided the ARP Odyssey synthesizer sounds, Chuck wrote all the songs and played everything else: "That's him on bass, guitar and drum machine."

"Monkey On His Back" opens with an ominous-sounding undercurrent, as befitting the subject matter: a drug addict's best friend, the monkey hunched on his back. Monk keeps his BFF dressed in sunglasses and long-sleeve shirts even when it's 110 degrees in the shade. "He insists he'll never bother you, just as long as he gets what he needs/But then again he says he'll do most anything/He'll always keep the friend that he feeds." So true, dat.

"No News" describes the folly of following the world's foibles and failings, no doubt one reason Gross has dropped off the social media grid. He'd rather being making music than listening, reading or watching the world go by. "I could care less why they are on strike, or why workers need a fat payday hike/No news is good news that I am always looking for/And I don't need my paper all wet, left by my front door/Please don't you tell me that the end is drawing near/No news is good news, that's what I always want to hear - I don't like the...NEWS!"

The remaining four songs all deal with dating and relationships, with tones ranging from serious ("I Don't Like You") to self-reflective ("Too Selfish"), but mostly just humorous ("When Will I Learn," "Career Girls").

"I Don't Like You" peels away a failed romance to its core: "Sometimes we don't realize, that we just keep on living lies/We don't seem to realize the feelings in our hearts/We dance around and smile at each other, underneath the nightclub cover/We gave it all we had, it was a nice start." Chuck sings "It's hard to come to terms with the way we feel" but admits "I don't like you, you don't like me anymore, there's nothing left to do or say/Please don't teach me, try to reach me anymore/And then we'll both be on our way." Love isn't always meant to be and, once gone, is only legacy.

In "Too Selfish," Chuck laments that "you want me all to yourself, but I'm afraid that's impossible my dear," confessing that he's "too selfish to love only you." Amy and I refer to this as the "Skynth" song because it lays a guitar-driven Ska beat over a synthesizer base; the playful rhythm takes the edge off the "It's not you, it's me" romantic drama.

Being stood up is only one of Chuck's complaints in "When Will I Learn." "When will I learn/I'm really getting tired of being burned by you - yeah you!" He's "really glad that I met you, but I soon found out I'd rather forget you/I didn't know what I was getting into." Now he's looking for an escape clause...

"Career Girl" chronicles the plight of a single man fighting off women with their eyes on the prize: a sugar daddy who brings home the bacon."This girl pursues a man, she'll never take a rest/Don't care what they look like, his money makes him best/ Avoiding these girls seems to be the only key/Or you could wind up losing all your best friends, most of your hair and your sanity." I like the interlude where Chuck has two "Career Girls" talking shop about their prey: "What's his name, how's he dress?" "Name is Dion, Barclay James...a rising exec, I gave him the test."

And while Chuck documents his romantic setbacks, it's never dire. "Mad Habits" is consistently entertaining and enjoyable and full of infectious hooks and memorable lines that Amy and I can't stop singing!

But as far as contacting Chuck Gross, Stacey...well, he is totally off the grid and n'exist pas as far as the Internets are concerned. You can't find one picture of him: nada. So, for the purposes of this review, I'm going to substitute this picture of Peanuts character Pigpen playing bass to represent him (the real Chuck Gross would be wearing a hat, of course, and he'd be very clean):

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Peanut: Chuck Gross

Yet he has a storied musical history, especially with "GOHOG Revue"-related bands - that collection of performing and recording musical pseudonyms whose ranks included members of OHO, Food For Worms, Dark Side, Trixy & the Testones, Razor, The Toys, Unyflow, BLAMMO and the Beaters. And Chuck Gross references abound throughout Joe Vaccarino's local music tome Baltimore Sounds (2nd Edition, 2012), where you can find listings for Chuck's former bands Laff Clinic (circa 1984-1985; they released one single, "Pariah" b/w "Action Figure Knickknacks"), Little Gruntpack, the Toys, and (my personal fave) the Beaters.

Mark O'Connor of The Beaters (and countless GOHOG bands)

The Beaters were a short-lived local New Wave supergroup, a 1980 "Marble Bar All-Stars" ensemble comprised of O'Connor (keyboards, guitar & vocals) and Gross (bass) from the Toys, drummer Joe Manfre and guitarist Mikel Gehl from Neige, and Cindy "Bobby Sox" Borchardt (later of The Monuments) on vocals. The Beaters billed themselves as "the fastest band in town," and they mixed clever originals ("I Wanna Be Like a Woman," "Fun In Nicaragua" - the latter an O'Connor song from his days in Dark Side with a great shout-out to Orioles pitcher "Dennis Martinez, your home is where the heat is!") with a diverse selection of covers (Beatles, Blondie, The Fugs/Holy Modal Rounders' "Boobs A Lot," The Vibrators' "I Need a Slave," The Eyes' "TAQN" (Take A Quaalude Now), and The Curse's "Killer Bees," the latter a showcase for the insouciant vocal stylings of Cindy Borchardt).

The Killer B: Cindy Borchardt

Of course, any band with O'Connor and Gross in it is also going to be funny, and the Beaters were no exception. I recall them being heckled at one Marble Bar gig by Thee Katatonix frontman Adolf Kowalski and O'Connor responded by dedicating a song about unwanted pregnancies with the bon mots, "This one's for you Adolf!"

Before that, Chuck and Mark O'Connor were in the Parkville-based Toys, whose original name was Concert (allegedly in response to hearing there was a local band called Audience). Concert/Toys were a Top 40 rock band that played at high school dances and area clubs from 1974-1980. According to Baltimore Sounds, they were the weekend house band at the Red Balloon on Belair Road and would also don Sgt. Pepper's costumes to double as a Beatles cover band. Their highest profile gig was headlining a New Year's Eve show at (the now long-gone) Painter's Mill Concert Hall. O'Connor replaced original keyboardist Tim Kilgore and was himself later replaced by Ed Weber (ex-Seed, Shane); the other members were Gross (bass), Randy Hammond (vocals), and Bruce Crawford (guitar).

Chuck Gross is probably most associated with Little Gruntpack, the Captain Beefhearty Blues-Boogie Art-rock band whose other members included leader Rupert Wondolowski (guitar & vocals), his Normals Books & Music cohort Alfred "Angus" Merchlinsky (guitar), Chuck (bass), Chris "Batworth" Ciattei (drums), Scott "Swede" Larson (accordion), and Ralph Stewart (harmonica), with contributions from journeyman horn player John Dierker (sax). The band reflected the literary and avant-garde influence of the Normals-Shattered Wig-Red Room "poets-'n-painters-with-guitars" mindset, as many members and contributors were published authors and artists. Gruntpack released a single and two albums: 1997's Slipping Off the Map and 1999's Lurking.

Little Gruntpack 45 - "Slipping Off the Map" b/w "New year's With Guns"


Little Gruntpack 45 back cover

Little Gruntpack - Slipping Off the Map (1997)


Little Gruntpack - Lurking (1999)

Lurking was the only Gruntpack album I ever owned (curiously, I picked it up from a "Free Music" pile at a Govans yoga studio on Bellona Avenue that I suspect was left there by nearby resident Batworth or his wife Jenny Keith!), and it's pretty good. My fave songs are "B-Side Shenanigans" and the two instros, "Caution Your Head Samba" and "My New Pants," which are guitar-bass-drums workouts highlighting the technical skills of Rupert, Angus, Gross and Batworth. And the closing "Lonely Motel 6" lets John Dierker release his inner Ornette Coleman, as he honks, squonks, squeals and blows with wild abandon over a steady Gruntpack groove that would not be out of place at a Red Room jam. At times, Dierker's sax even sounds like Chris Wood flavoring an extended Traffic tune. After about 30 seconds, this final song is followed by a gem of a "hidden track," as Rupert turns into Choo Choo Charlie, singing a folk paen to a "freight train, freight train" rolling down the tracks. Propelled by Batworth's locomotive beat and "Swede" Larson's accordion, Rupert pleads "Don't tell them what car I'm on, so no one will know where I've gone."

In 1997, "Chuckie" teamed up with Little Gruntpack mates "Batworth" (drums) and Ralph "Stoo" Stewart (guitar) to form the surf instrumental trio The Soul Gamblers; they disbanded to go back to Gruntpack before reforming in 2000 to record their lone album, Souled OutThe Reverb That Wouldn't Die web site described them thusly: "Inspired by the traditional surf music of the 60's, B-movie schlock, and the garage/neo-surf sounds coming out of the Pacific Northwest via Estrus Records, The Soul Gamblers put together a sound that has been described by noted film/music critic Rudolph Carresso as 'the aural by-product of a three-way collision between a Woody Wagon, a '65 Pontiac Hearse, and Dracula's record collection.'"




The Soul Gamblers album features a 50/50 split between classic surf covers and Ralph Stewart originals. They were a worthy addition to Baltimore's resurgent garage/instro-surf-rock scene, which at high tide included Garage Sale, The Diamondheads, The Tridents (another Batworth band!), the Delmarvas, and countless others.

As you can see, Chuck Gross has a varied - and very interesting - musical C.V. Let's hope he revisits his electronic phase sometime in the future because his "Mad Habits" are habit forming!

Coda: The last time I saw Mark O'Connor (sometime around October 2017), I asked him if he knew how to contact Chuck Gross. "Of course - we're actually playing in a band together," he said. Some things never change!

Update (December 2017): Chuck Gross apparently saw this blog post and contacted me via email - hooray! This is what he had to say:
"Wow you have an old tape there. MAD HABITS was a recording project that consisted of Mark O'Connor and me. I wrote the songs. We recorded at Bill Pratt's 8-track recording studio. 
"Career Girls" was awarded first prize from the MID-ATLANTIC song contest. The winners performed a show at the HOLLYWOOD PALACE. The line-up included me, Rose Wampler [of Spitshine, Elements of Design, Harlan County Kings, etc.] on guitar and Mark O'Connor on keyboards, along with the drum machine. 
The project went from studio to live. The band name was changed from MAD HABITS to LAFF CLINIC. We played with OH BOY, OHO, etc., etc. I think Rod Misey [former WCVT, Towson University radio DJ] may have an interview or two archived somewhere."


Friday, July 28, 2017

Poets with Guitars: Markman & McQuade

Howard Markman & Acoustic Palookaville at Village Square cafe
After a recent social media post about Club Charles closing and attendant lamentations over other Charm City institutions that have bitten the dust over the years, I dug out Howard Markman’s Palookaville ditty "Between Glasphalt and the Stars," which name checks several Baltimore cultural landmarks. Like Rafael Alvarez and Tommy DiVenti, Howard is a deft chronicler of the many charms of Balti-lore, and I am glad I got to see his recent gig with Acoustic Palookaville (aka Howard, bassist Thom Huntington, and guitarist Andy Thurston - with backing vocals by Celeste Thurston) at Cross Keys' Village Square Cafe. (Non-acoustic Palookaville is Howard, bassist Chas Marsh, drummer Jim Hannah, and keyboardist Glenn Workman.) In songs like "Glasphalt," "Welcome To Smalltimore," “Baltimore To Bethlehem” and "Anna," he recalls bygone haunts like the Marble Bar, Martick's, and No Fish Today, images that still evoke what Howard would call "half smiles" and "blue skies." In his song "If I Were a Poet," Howard sings "Poems are forests and words are trees"; if so, Howard's songs are like splinters that get under one's skin and stay there, embedded as ear-worms
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The Dharma Bums at the Village Square Cafe



Village Square Cafe's live music series is great (and so is the food - featuring the town's best Black Bean Burger!) and at Howard's show we sat with Helene Cooper and Brian McQuade of The Dharma Bums. The Dharma Bums had played there just two weeks before and I got to thinking how similar Brian McQuade and Howard Markman are. In the musical equivalent of Ancestry.com, both are descendants of Dylan, poets with guitars, oral story tellers who make us want to turn the page with them. They're part of the great American singer-songwriter tradition, one in which peers Dylan, Newman and Nilsson would look down on their graying heads with approval and give them a hearty thumbs up. And what great stories they tell! Both Howard and Brian can rock out (viz Howard's "Big Hair" and "Pennies On the Floor," Brian's "Johnny Says" and the Swingin' '60s spy spoof "Black Russian"), but at their core they're introspective, sensitive souls whose most intimate songs are tinged with melancholy and self-reflection - like all great artists (see: Chilton, Cohen, Keene, Lennon, Reed, Pete Ham). Howard even manages to half-smile at his blues in songs like "Glasphalt," "Sashimi To Go," and "Carla Bley."

And both do interesting takes on other artists' songs, Howard slowing down Prince's "Little Red Corvette" to cruising speed while Brian deconstructs Mountain's "Mississippi Queen" to its gnarly roots in Americana folk-blues. The Dharma Bums are also big time Stevie Nicks fans, so it's a given that they would utilize Brian's guitar prowess to back Helene's heartfelt vocals on Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide." Brian also covers or pays homage to Dylan (obviously), The Beatles ("Norwegian Wood" and his Lennon tribute "Johnny Says"), Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, and his guitar idol Richard Thompson. Howard gives props to his tie-dyed past (yes, before he had his eyes opened wide by the Punk and New Wave movements, he was a member of the late '70s jam band Milton Freewater/Freewater) on the Grateful Dead's "Brown-Eyed Women" (on 2010's Welcome To Smalltimore album).

Howard has released four albums, as shown below, all of which can be purchased on Amazon. Three of them are even available at Baltimore city's central library (I wonder how that happened?).

Symptom Recital (2002)

Half Smiles Blue Skies (2006)

Half Smiles Blue Skies is my favorite Markman release, a solid long player of poignant love - and l'amour perdue - songs ("Anna," "I See the Rain") and uptempo rockers, with "Stuck In the Middle" standing out as arguably the best tune Howard has ever penned. It's a perfect mid-tempo pop song, packed with memorable images and clever wordplay. Flawless. "Anna" would fit nicely on a John Prine record (that's high praise in my book!), "Almost Home"'s fluid guitar lines would be at home on a Dire Straits album, and the snarly "Big Hair" ("Big hair, no brains/After sex, nothing remains...Big chest, no heart/Is this where the trouble starts?") is a total buzz-cut with a downright nasty guitar solo. "Almost Home" and "Iowa Skies" are intriguing on-the-road stories, while "Sashimi To Go" shows that even when life gets you down, there's always something worth living for. Who can argue with raw fish as salvation?

Welcome To Smalltimore (2010)


Another Day (2016)


Brian recently gave me his 2002 solo album, Lone Wolf (which I hope was NOT inspired by the 1983 Chuck Norris movie Lone Wolf McQuade - though both men appear bare-chested on their respective covers)...

Lone Wolf (2002)

...and I think he should either re-release it or upload it to the Cloud, because it's one of Baltimore's great undiscovered albums, as is Howard's 2006 magnum opus Half Smiles, Blue Skies (which gets bonus points for the back cover picture of Howard reading a book - a book with words! - outside Club Pussycat on The Block!).

"There's no one like McQuade" - except Chuck Norris!

Brian - the other "Lone Wolf" McQuade

Howard likes to read


Brian donned his Todd Rundgren Something/Anything hat for Lone Wolf (which he co-produced with Mac Walter), playing most of the instruments - guitars, drums and percussion, piano, organ, harmonica, accordion, even digeridoo (!) - with a little help from his friends Ralph Reinoldi (bass, mandolin), Bill Phelan (playing majestic electric 12-string guitar on "Givin' Up On Love"), Mac Walter (classical guitar on "Sky Is Bleeding," violin on "Children of the Wind," bass), Chris Weaver (drums on "Lone Wolf"), and Helene Cooper and Jim O'Hara (harmony vocals on "Sky Is Bleeding").

The snarky "17 Syllable Blues" is the album's highlight, a clever mesh of words and music that the Bard (the one from Hibbing, Minnesota, that is) probably wishes he had written, while "Sky Is Bleeding" and "Givin' Up On Love" (fave lines: "Well I got a good car with a stereo and the tunes I can't forget/I can walk around naked in my living room just like Alanis Morissette") are also standout tracks. "Givin' Up On Love" is a really upbeat breakup song, with Brian looking forward from the past ("I'm gonna let this go through me, I won't hold on, I'll forget what she said/I'll just let the wind blow through me, but I'll still hold on just like the spider's web") and even name-checking Dylan: "Well I got the new Dylan and some bongo drums and a good six-string/I'm writing these words in the woods, so no one can hear me sing."

There's a nice variety to the album, with instrumentals ("Blue Walkabout," the sparse piano and guitar interlude of "Dreamtime"), the topical ecological concerns of "Green Planet Blues" ("No ozone, the layer is blown/I better own some sun screen 30"), Middle Eastern-flavored worldbeat on "Children of the Wind," straight-up blues on "Medicine Girl," a philosophical acceptance that "All Things Must Pass Away" ("All things must pass away/to the sun, the darkness must give way"), and a celebration of the things that make Brian happy - nature and the joys it affords those who seek solitude far from the madding crowds ("Lone Wolf," "Wolfsong," "On the Beach"). Or, as he sums up in "Waltzing in the Snow": "The world's a cake and the frosting's all there." The only song I recognize from the Dharma Bums' set list is "La Vie Boheme," which makes sense because Brian and Howard are both, at heart, modern day Boho's, marching to the beat of a different drum. I hope one day others will join their parade and that their songs will be appreciated for the little gems they are.

Related Videos:
Howard Markman - "Welcome To Smalltimore"
Dharma Bums - "Black Russian" (Live at Village Square Cafe)
Dharma Bums - "A Brand New Song" (Live at Village Square Cafe)