THIS JOURNAL DOCUMENTS MY INTAKE OF ONE BOOK, ZINE, CD OR DVD A DAY. RATINGS ARE: ***** = Godhead, **** = Great, *** = Good, ** = Fair, * = Why Bother?

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Aqua Ink Greeting Cards

Aqua Ink, Inc.
Ken Hobart & Virginia Nichols

"Postcards, artful or truly awful, grow sillier but more valuable with age." - Joanne Ostrow ("It's In the Cards," Washington Post, Oct. 9, 1981)

The Leather Underground on Read Street

Back in the day, the original Leather Underground, a gay-friendly fetish store on Read Street, had the best - and most risque, most outre, most tasteless - greeting cards in Baltimore. Needless to say, I am a fan of all things risque, outre and tasteless, and so - although I am more a tepid Tom of Tory Towson than a torrid Tom of Finland type - I often visited the Leather Underground for my holiday and special occasion greeting cards. Read Street was happening back in the '80s and continued to be so even up through the late '90s, with nearby businesses like Atomic Books and Modern Music across the street, and the Baltimore City Paper right around the corner.

"Walk-ins  are always welcome at The Leather Underground!"

Leather Underground's holiday cards were especially great, with an assortment of trashy Dreamland Studios/John Waters stars like Divine, Edith Massey and  Jean Hill adorning cards saying "Have a Divine Christmas" or "Season's Beatings" (featuring a leather-bound, whip-whipping Edith Massey disciplining Santa-on-a-leash).

"Season's Beatings" from Edith Massey (Rockshots, 1982)

Dreamlander Bob Adams carried these cards at Fastback, the Fells Point thrift shop he co-owned with Edith Massey, and you could also find them at Spencer's Gifts in the suburban malls. But my all-time favorite holiday card that I picked up at the Leather Underground was this one, featuring Baltimore's notorious Grinch, Abe Sherman, proclaiming (in true cantankerous spirit), "Holiday Schmoliday...Where's the gifts already?"

Abe Sherman's "Holiday Schmoliday" holiday greeting card
(Photo: Hobart-Nichols, Aqua Ink, 1983)

Inside of "Holiday Schmoliday" greeting card

For years, this card disappeared off the camp greeting cards market, until recently, when I entered the American Visionary Art Museum's Sideshow gift shop to see old Abe Sherman staring me in the face! "Yes, finally!"  I exclaimed, as a store employee said, "You know who that is, right?" "Of course," I cried, explaining that it was my favorite holiday card, as I proceeded to clutch dozens of them in my arms.

The Grinch Who Stole Book Browsing
"You are a Baltimorean from way back if you shopped at Abe Sherman’s downtown newsstand and felt Abe’s eyes boring into the back of your head while browsing. He’d toss you out in a heartbeat if he thought you had mistaken the newsstand for a library." - Richard Berglund and Kathi Santora (dyingtotelltheirstories.com)
So who was Abe Sherman, you ask? Starting in 1919, Sherman operated a newsstand at Baltimore’s Battle Monument at Calvert and Fayette streets, up until 1970 when until he opened Sherman’s Books uptown at the corner of Park Avenue and Mulberry Street.

Abe Sherman's original news stand under Baltimore’s Battle Monument at Calvert and Fayette streets

Besides making his mark as a gruff news vendor and civic figure who rubbed elbows with Babe Ruth, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H.L. Mencken and William Manchester, Sherman was also a celebrated military hero; he served with Maryland’s 29th Army Division (175th Regiment) in both world wars, receiving a Silver Star for bravery at Normandy in WWII.  He was the oldest Baltimorean serving in WWII, enlisting as a 43-year-old private after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. In 1991, Gov. William Donald Schaefer joined with military officials to dedicate a Maryland National Guard dormitory near Reisterstown, Maryland, Abe Sherman Hall, in his memory. He died in 1987, age 89, and is buried at Mikro Kodesh Beth Israel Cemetery on Bowleys Lane in East Baltimore.

Military plaque dedicated to WWI & WWII war hero Abe Sherman 

He was also a legendary grump, famous for telling customers, "This ain't no library, kid. If ya ain't buying nothin', get the hell outta here. I ain't running no charity operation." Abe would then direct page-flipping customer up the block to the Enoch Pratt Central Library, where I currently work. I wonder how much business he sent our way back in the day (I think we owe him many thanks!)?

For more on Abe Sherman, see "Abe Sherman's Newsstand/Bookstore" (baltimoreorless.com).

Abe Sherman referrals were always welcome at the Enoch Pratt Library!

Delving Deeper into the Aqua Net

"...the cards...are usually crammed with stuff as high in camp and as low in taste as possible." - Lynn Williams ("The Right Touch Is a Light Touch," Baltimore Sun, April 12, 1986)

Though I didn't know it at the time, many of the Leather Underground cards were "Aquavision" cards produced by a now-defunct design company called Aqua Ink, Inc, whose cards could also be found at discerning boutiques around town like Harborplace's Wish You Were Here store, among others. Aqua Ink was founded in 1980 by two former Syracuse University classmates, Ken Hobart and Virginia Nichols, and lasted until they sold the business in 1986. Their cards often featured color photos of themselves, as well as friends and family, dressed in what a 1986 Baltimore Sun article ("The Right Touch Is a Light Touch," by Lynn Williams, Baltimore Sun, April 12, 1986) described as "bizarre characters in wild costumes" and usually "crammed with stuff as high in camp and low in taste as possible." It was taken as a compliment!

Ken Hobart and canine friend (Photo: George H. Cook, Baltimore Sun).

And, Baltimore being Smalltimore, it turns out that Kevin Gassman - the hair stylist who has cut my wife's hair for almost 40 years (!), and who worked on several John Waters film productions - was a former roommate of Ken Hobart, back when a group of friends rented a house near Druid Park Lake. So it made sense that the back of the "Holiday Schmoliday" card credited Kevin Gassman for "location" - Gassman's Read Street apartment provided the backdrop for the Abe Sherman picture - as Aqua Ink was all about using their friends and area locales for their shoots.

Back of "Holiday Schmoliday" card.
Location: Kevin Gassman's Read Street apartment provided the backdrop to Abe Sherman's photo

Abe Sherman would have been around 85 years-old when this photo was taken, and he had either mellowed out a bit or was really impressed by Kevin Gassman's place - because it looks like he's almost smiling (er, or is that a grimace?). Ken Hobart was also a fan of Kevin's apartment, posing in his vintage kitchen for this "Nothing says lovin' like something from the oven!" card:

"Nothing says lovin' like something from the oven!" Model: Ken Hobart (Aqua Ink, 1983)

Tragically, Hobart, a former creative director of the Becker Group design company, died of AIDS in July 2001. But Virginia Nichols still lives in the Baltimore area and reportedly runs a pet services business; formerly, she co-founded Setco Scenic Services, a Highlandtown company that built sets for films and television commercials.

According to the staff at AVAM's Sideshow gift shop, Nichols is responsible for the sudden reappearance of their "new" line of old '80s Aqua Ink cards."She was just in this week to drop off some holiday cards," one informed me. And I'm so glad she did, as she made this 62-year-old man-child's Christmas Miracle a reality this year.

I made sure I picked up one of every Aqua Ink on offer, mainly out of curiosity as to what the owners looked like - they pop up on just about every card!

Cheers! Ken Hobart and Virginia Nichols

Merry Christmas card. Models: Ken Hobart & Virginia Nichols

Happy Holidaze card featuring Virginia Nichols

Ken Hobart rockin' around the Christmas Tree

Ken Hobart posing for an Aqua Ink card

The Aqua Ink crew dig up the dirt at Greenmount Cemetery

Bon Voyage! Showcasing the Inner Harbor circa 1983

In the early '80s, Hobart and Nichols apparently also briefly partnered with collector Ellen Zegar, working out of a Capitol Hill, Washington D.C., home to make making a series of what Washington Post writer Joanne Ostrow described as "sleazy-tacky postal and greeting cards" ("It's In the Cards," Washington Post, October 9, 1981).

Ostrow went on to describe the cards as follows:

"Mmmm, what a spread," is a typical tableau: plastic nude doll on salad greens, "bottoms up" swizzle stick in a glass, surrounded by knife and fork on a place setting of leopardskin. Another is a Fifties-style montage of a woman in a wolf suit leafing through True Confessions, a box of chocolates and a frothy drink on the Art Deco mirror table before her. Aqua Ink's new "Non-Traditional Christmas" line includes "Hark and the Herald Angels Sing," a black-faced rock act with the inscription, "Deck the Halls shoo-bop shoo-bop." Then there's a red- suited Santa spray-painting an alley wall: "Santa Lives."

Santa Lives!

But the Aqua Ink cards at the AVAM gift shop all credit just Hobart-Nichols. Regardless, I'm so glad Virginia Nichols has shared her backstock with Sideshow. Though Aquavision cards may seem somewhat dated and innocent in today's "anything goes" Internet world of trolling and transgression, I'm thankful for the trip down Memory Lane via this time capsule of old school kitsch and charm.

Aqua Ink party invitation cards

Related Links:
"The Right Touch Is a Light Touch" (Lynn Williams, The Baltimore Sun, April 12, 1986)
"Abe Sherman's Newsstand/Bookstore" (Baltimore Or Less, 1-13-2014)
"Abe Sherman: An Unforgettable Bookstore Owner and War Hero" (Dyingtotelltheirstories.com)
"It's In the Cards" (Joanne Ostrow, Washington Post, Oct. 9, 1981)
"Edith Massey Christmas Card Collection" (Baltimore Or Less), December 23, 2014)

Monday, October 28, 2019

Go Dog Go at WTMD's Block Party (6-15-19)

(June 15, 2019) - Go Dog Go were Top of the Pops tonight! Amy and I loved seeing & hearing this live streaming show at WTMD (89.7 FM)'s funtastic Baltimore Block Party fundraiser at their Towson performance studio, where 11 bands competed to win a spot in September's First Thursday Festival and a $2,500 cash prize for best performance of the night. OK, Go Dog Go didn't tally enough ballots to finish first in fundraising for TMD (that honor went to a band named Reality Jones), but they were A-1 on our jukebox as far as we were concerned, with an energetic set that saw keyboard chanteuse Julie Smith give a special shout-out to the ghosts of Towson's live music past (Oddfellows Hall, The Dulaney Inn, An Die Musik) and guitarist Tom Cohan (cranking his Marshall amp past 11 into overdrive) never sounded better as he showed Today's Youth how it's done.

Go Dog Go (l-r): Tom Cohan, Greg Breazeale, Brandon Breazeale, Julie Smith

Besides their familiar setlist, bassist Greg Breazeale unveiled a new tune ("Remember When"?), and Julie rescued Gary Cartwright's "Stop and Think It Over" from obscurity with a version that surpassed that of Cartwright's Compulsive Gamblers' original that appeared on their Crystal Gazing Luck Amazing EP.

Compulsive Gamblers EP

When I complimented Julie on the lyrical gender-flipping, she said that actually came courtesy of Mary Weiss, the former Shangri-Las singer and Leader of the Pack, who released a cover version backed by the Reigning Sound on her 2007 Norton Records release:

Mary Weiss - "Stop and Think It Over" 45 (Norton Records, 2007)

We timed our appearance to be fashionably late and were rewarded by catching the two best Baby Boomer bands of the day (our contemporaries!), as the following act was Vagabond Motel, featuring former Industrial Dance Band mates Natasha Ramirez Farr and Mikel Gehl and crack lead guitarist Ralph Reinoldi (whose enviable axe arsenal included a gorgeous-sounding mando-guitar).

Acoustic troubadours Vagabond Hotel

We enjoyed all the bands we heard, and what a treat to get a selfie (along with Go Dog Go fanboys Greg Breazeale and Tom Cohan) with the cool dudes from vintage garage rock revivalists Strawberry Sleepover. We missed their set, but I had heard their music on TMD before and thought they were a '60s band. Talk about verisimilitude! These young guys sound like they were weaned on a steady diet of Nuggets (Lenny Kaye's, that is, not McDonald's).

Strawberry Sleepover with fanboys

One of the young bands we discovered this night was an Annapolitan power trio called Mojo Bozo's Electric Circus, which sounds like a '60s Haight-Ashbury hippie head shop. Comprised of brothers Ryan (guitar) and Shane Walsh (drums) and bassist Jeremy Hayes, they list their influences as surf rock, psychedelic rock, and progressive rock - in other words, an eclectic mixed bag. The psychedelic vibe came through most to my ears, as well as my eyes - they performed in front of a video projected backdrop of crazy clips tailored specifically for each song and ranging from The Wizard of Oz to Forbidden Planet - though their three-piece lineup suggested Cream and muscular guitarist  Ryan reminded me of none other than Spirit's Randy California.

Surrender Dorothy! Mojo Bozo's Electric Circus kick out the jams

All in all, a great night out, and it was great to see old friends on hand like Saxton White and ageless beauties Sue Borchardt and Aziza Doumani making the scene as well!

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Remembering Bandland

400 block of Eutaw Street, between Franklin and Mulberry Streets. Across from Sgt. Pepper/Hanratty's and Gary Beauty Supply.

A View Askew from Bandland. Note Sgt. Pepper club (formerly Hanratty's) across the street

Tom Cohan recently brought back memories of jamming at Bandland, a dumpy warehouse a few blocks down from the Marble Bar run by a character named Mr. Walter Malloy (I can still remember his voicemail recording: "Welcome to Bandland, this is Walter Malloy. Leave a message at the beep and have a tremendous day!") that was a practice space for such bands as Zehn Archer and the all-girl She-Devils, among others. If memory serves me right, it was the old Stanley's Furniture building on Eutaw and Mulberry Street.

Stanley's Furniture on Eutaw and Mulberry: Home of "Bandland"

This would have been sometime around 1981, after Katie Katatonic and I were in Thee Katatonix and The Boatniks. (My "gap year" before I threw in the towel and moved on to Law and then Library School and my subsequent life of quiet desperation.) As the photo above attests, it was across the street from Sgt. Pepper (formerly Hanratty's), which was home to Jules' Loft (2nd floor) and Da Moronics (3rd floor). Jules' Loft would become a major hardcore performance space in the '80s.

Katie Kat insists: "I wasn't there!"

Tom said he was inspired to expand his musical horizons after hearing me playing there with a bass player that was either Katie Katatonic, David Cawley or George Poscover. Hmmm, that's three bass players who all went to Towson High (and in the same class, I think - go figure!). Tom Cohan seems to think we played Joy Division/New Order's "Ceremony.

New Order - "Ceremony" (Factory, 1981)

The recollection has become somewhat of a Rashomon phenomenon of differing perspectives, for my memory banks are depleted, while Katie insists she wasn't there (or if she was, she wasn't playing bass) and Tom Cohan may have conflated the gender of said bass player, perhaps assuming Katie was playing because of our legacy as the Katatonix and Boatniks rhythm section.

The cavernous halls of Bandland

Tom Cohan: "I was early for band practice [with Richard Taylor and Zehn Archer]. I started walking up the stairs to our space at Bandland. I heard these wonderful sounds coming from a rehearsal room. I poked my head in. It was you [Tom Warner] and Katie and maybe someone else looking cooler than anything I had ever seen before. (Not Dave Cawley. I met him a bit later in another dumpy band rehearsal space on Saratoga singing songs about dinosaurs.) You were so friendly. You invited me to play with you. I started playing "Ceremony," as I was a huge Joy Division fan and that New Order single had just come out. You guys jumped in and it sounded amazing. It was truly a very influential moment for me."

Inside Bandland. Nice decor, eh?

I remember jamming there another time with the boy band wannabes Young Prufrock Alliance, featuring Dave Cawley (post-UXB and Nu-Beats but pre-Berserk) and Towson Public Library co-worker and prog guitarist extraordinaire Dan, who was totally into Rush and who said he would be embarrassed to play 3-chord songs in public with us. Dan didn't get "Punk," but he could read sheet music and fancied himself an intellectual like Geddy Lee (but we wished we could "turn" him because he sure could play guitar effortlessly!).

An Unholy Alliance: Young Prufrockers Dave Cawley and Tom Warner

Dave Cawley and I later also played with George Poscover at Bandland, but George was entering his post-rock, all-classical music phase and the nascent promise of YPA was thankfully aborted.

George Poscover

Dave Cawley: "Yep.  Me and you and Dan made a tape and jackass Adolf [Kowalski of Thee Katatonix] threw it at a wall.  I guess we were out of college? It was about the time [Talking Heads'] REMAIN IN LIGHT came out... When we saw Byrne on Charles St. (You have to write that up on Facebook!  It's a good story!) I played bass with u and Dan and guitar with u and George. Fun times! Then just u and me played.  "Study Group" [A YPA original song celebrating good study habits]!   You were such a commercial sell out."

Dave Cawley of the the short-lived Young Prufrock Alliance

Prior to his change of heart, George was in an post-punk group called Non-Erotic Male Bonding, or N.E.M.B. Singer Lee Warren, guitarist Bill Carey and drummer David Bowman were formerly in a Florida band called The Stick Figures. When the drummer dropped out, Lee bought a Roland CR-78 drum machine, giving their slashing guitars and blunt beats an edgy, Cure-ious, Gang of Four vibe. N.E.M.B. released a lone single, "Torture" b/w "The Middle Room" (Green Records, 1981).

Non-Erotic Male Bonding "Torture" b/w "The Middle Room" (Green Records, 1981)

George lived with artist tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCe (tENT for short) for a while and it was probably during this period that NEMB got involved with the "Gender-Fuck Party." As the Cheap Rewards Record Blog writes:

On Saturday April 4, 1981 a Gender-Fuck Party was held where attendees went into a closet where a Bolex film camera was setup with a cable release that advanced the film one frame at a time. On that night a version of NEMB that included Lee, George, and a guitar player named Charles Freeman performed.
Lee’s old band mates Bill and Dave took a hiatus from Stick Figures and came up to Baltimore in the summer of 1981. They joined Lee and George, who were working on some NEMB demos. The temporary line-up recorded two songs that would be released as NEMB’s sole output in a run of 500 copies. Their version of “The Middle Room” became the soundtrack to the Gender Fuck Party film that had previously been shown without an audio track. Lee and George can be seen in the film between :07 and :14. 
Here's the film, as posted by tENT (aka BalTimOre, etc.):

If you look closely, I think you'll also see another Towson High grad, future model Genie Vincent, in this video, around the 1:39-1:44 mark. (Genie went on the be the model on the back cover of Malcolm McLaren's 1984 record Fans.)

George eventually gave up pop music, went to pharmacy school, then became a physical therapist (my PT, in fact!) and bicycling enthusiast. He has treated my various tennis and running injuries over the years. At one point, my sister Nancy worked with George at his Timonium PT office. Small world, eh?

Dave Cawley went on to achieve fame and a Go-Kart record contract with local pop-punk favorites Berserk. Though he still sings the praises of dinosaurs, Berserk became cult heroes thanks to their tunes about "Giant Robots" and Japanese superheroes like Ultraman and Kamen Rider. Today he plays (along with his Berserk bandmate Skizz Cyzyk) in the garage-surfpop quartet Garage Sale.

Dave Cawley loves his Giant Robots

Tom Cohan, of course, went on to branch out from Zehn Archer's Rolling Stones-indebted '60s R&B to pursue broadened musical horizons, with Square One, Big As A House and currently Go Dog Go, among other indie-minded ensembles.

Hmmm, I wonder what would have happened if Tom Cohan, Tom Warner and George Poscover/Dave Cawley had formed a band? The mind boggles - though I'm sure we still wouldn't have been able to quit our day jobs!

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Still Moronic After All These Years

Da Moronics
Live @ CBGB's 1978
10 Year Anniversary Show: Live @ Oddfellows Hall 1987

Dunce Disc 1: Moronics live @ CBGBs 1978
Neanderthal Man Disc 2: Moronics live @ Oddfellows Hall 1987

It's one of the tragedies of the pre-Cloud, analog world that the best local bands of my youth, specifically those performing during the Marble Bar Era 1978-1985, recorded just a handful of songs during their existence. To wit, Annapolis' Judies Fixation and Da Moronics - the latter Baltimore's first punk rock band. Though these two must-see bands ruled the roost at the Marble in the late '70s, the Judies only recorded output was one track on a 1978 D.C.-area compilation album ("Martyr Me" on Limp Records' 30: Seconds Over D.C.: Here Comes the New Wave!), while Da Moronics contributed a live recording of "Mr. President" to the same compilation and a lone studio recording of "Flying Saucers" to 1979's The Best of Baltimore's Buried compilation on Balto Weird Records. They also recorded "Sub Shop" and "Neutron Bomb" in 1977 at Waverly's Mauro Studios, but these tunes were never released commercially - in fact, I only recall hearing them on a 1979 Rod Misey's WCVT 89.7 Towson University radio show - though "Neutron Bomb" has appeared on a few punk CD-R boot comps like Big One Records' Bloodstains Across Maryland: Punk Rock Rarities 1977-1983 (which, surprisingly, also features a live recording of the Judies' "Kryptonite") and Fab Fuhrer's Waiting For World War III: Punk Rock Rarities 1977-1983.)

But now at least one sin of omission has been remedied by the digitization of two long-buried Moronics tapes that are now available as a double-CD. "Get 'em while they last!" To order, send $20 via PayPal to: thomas.tttucker@gmail. 

Disc 1 (depicting a moron in a dunce hat) celebrates the 40th anniversary of the band at its zenith, playing at Hilly Kristal's CBGB in New York City - the "punk rock mecca of the times" where Blondie, Patti Smith, The Ramones, The Heartbreakers, Television, Talking Heads and other legendary bands shared the same stage - in August 1978; Disc 2 (depicting a Neanderthal man and mislabeled "Live @ CBGB's") captures a 1987 "10 Year Anniversary Show" at Odd Fellows Hall in Towson, Maryland (that's Lodge #79 to you odd fellas!).

Da Moronics were a bunch of bored MICA (Maryland Institute of Art) art students and drop-outs, formed and led by the songwriting duo of poets Bill Moriarty (vocals) and Tom DiVenti (guitar). Initially it was just Moriarty and DiVenti reading poetry and doing performance art around town until the band concept evolved. Early members included the late Pete Haskell on drums and guitar and guitarist Mac Lore, before the original lineup finally morphed into bassist Dave "The Rave" Brubaker, drummer Hoppy Hopkins and percussionist Jamie Wilson.

Da Moronics: Jamie Wilson, Dave Brubaker, Bill Moriarty, Hoppy Hopkins and Tom DiVenti (photo by Paula Gillen)

In his "Anarchy and Apathy in Charm City" review for Slicetoday.com, DiVenti recalled the "Hey, ho, let's go!" epiphany that led to the band's founding:

A spring afternoon in 1976, Billy Mo [Bill Moriarty] and I were sitting around scheming, drinking and thinking up our next “poetry performance” piece when Piggy arrived with a new album hot off the record shelf. He put it on the turntable, cranked up the volume, and our lives were instantly transformed the moment we heard, “Hey! Ho! Let’s go!” The Ramones had arrived to save the day. Of course we already had Iggy Pop and the Stooges, The New York Dolls, Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart, T Rex, even the dinosaur bands like Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, Sabbath, The Stones, Bowie and Eno, but in some primal way this was different… three chords and almost three minutes of the truth and a prayer that you could survive anything with the right music. That was the day Da Moronics were born...Our band name Da Moronics came from a combination of the name “Baltimorean” and the moronic idiocy we saw around us daily in America, very much like the scene today. Also the fact that the lyrics to many Ramones songs were moronic too.
The Ramones inspiration is obvious and key to their artistic vision, as Da Moronics reveled in unpretentiousness, both lyrically and musically. Their songs celebrated low-brow American pop culture, as primitive as an Etch-a-Sketch drawing and as simple to understand as a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. And nothing at that time was as low-brow as the Boob Tube. Though art school bohos, their taste was never even remotely Masterpiece Theater, but always grainy black-and-white UHF, with songs about The Flintstones, Starsky and Hutch, Perry Mason and late-night movies that were "real Science-Fi, like on Channel 45."

Tom DiVenti ascends his throne (photo by Paula Gillen)

Not that there wasn't depth to be found hidden beneath the frivolity and trademark humor. "Our original songs were varied," says DiVenti, whose personal faves dealt with darker themes like war, disease and (gulp!)...disco!

 "A few of my favorites are “Cancer,” a scathing condemnation of the state of medical care and how it’s cheaper to die in America. After a show one night a young lady who had cancer was verbally attacking us, saying there was nothing funny about the song and she was offended by it. “Cripple Green Beret” was a song about a Vietnam veteran without arms and legs. “Coma Baby,” about the infamous baby that was making headlines then. “Child Molester,” a song about a creep who might live on your street. “Mr. President,” about a letter written to Jimmy Carter, which made it to yellow vinyl disc in the punk compilation, Thirty seconds over DC. Disco Sucks, our anthem against disco.

Listening to these live recordings, I'm reminded of DiVenti's observation that, "What we lacked in musical abilities, we made up for in energy and insanity." True dat. Or as fellow MICA artist Michael Gentile (Dork Brothers, Dead Strippers) put it, Da Moronics modus operandi was always "mayhem, savage vocals and guitar jangle." In Banned in DC: Photos and Anecdotes from the DC Punk Underground (79-85) by Cynthia Connelly, Leslie Claque, Sharon Cheslow, artist tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE championed the band's Ragged-but-Right aesthetic:

"Punk Rock was saved by a few obvious things: a sort of fuck-it! attitude that encouraged DIY raw flying-by-the-seat-of-yr-pants & Da Moronics exemplified this...Da Moronics did songs about the most miserable shit, like cancer, w/ a great deal of irony & fuck-it!-that’s-the-way-it-is! frankness. They were totally ragged at 1st but, as w/ most punk bands, they didn’t let that inhibit them. They were fun."

Hearing these tunes again takes me back to Baltimore's subversive, underground art scene in the late 1970s, to a culture that spawned Da Moronics and a whole generation of misfits yearning for a new form of expression. As Michael Gentile observed, "Baltimore's always been home to an eclectic collection of artists. If you were a regular in the Marble Bar subterranean catacombs or worked at Martick's, Second Story Books or Louie's with every other artist, lurker or misfit, you were privy to an abundance of engaging artistic expressions. These were just a few of the city's cultural conduits." ("Everything Was Punk," splicetoday.com, March 26, 2018)

But though the band may have been learning its craft via on-the-job training, it's also instantly clear that the most musically skilled player heard here is drummer Hoppy Hopkins, a veritable monster on the skins, who now plies his trade with Mambo Combo. (Full disclosure: I went to high school with Henry P. "Hoppy" Hopkins III back in the '70s.) He's so good that Jamie Wilson, a gifted drummer who would be a starter in any other band, settled for a supporting percussionist role in Da Moronics. (Wilson would go on to drum for countless ensembles, from former Guv'nor Martin O'Malley's March to Buck Subtle & The Little Planets.) Songwriter DiVenti was no slouch either, but he got really good as he seasoned his chops over the years, eventually moving past punk basics to embrace Americana, his genre of choice these days in the T.T. Tucker Bum Rush Band, where (in the tradition of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams) he continues to "blast cowboy songs and ballads into the dark American night."

As time went by, Da Moronics moved past their early motto of "We're the worst, that makes us the best!"- back when, in DiVenti's words, "We were unwelcome in most places" and scraping for gigs at Hanratty's (they lived in the loft upstairs) and any other club that would book a punk band - to become a really tight group. And you can hear it on that Odd Fellows Hall anniversary recording. Unfortunately, by the time 1980 rolled around they called it quits, with Moriarity departing to the West Coast. But they got back together to perform on-and-off throughout the '80s, with another MICA pal, Don White, taking over the vocals.

Billy Mo and Da Moronics @ Marble Bar (photo by Paaula Gillen)

So what do we got on these twin platters? First up is the infamous August 1978 show at CBGBs, which started with a bang before ending with a whimper when The Worms, another band on the bill that night, stole all their microphones and percussion. "One of our drummers said all he remembered from that night was waking up the next morning with some strange girl’s butt in his face," DiVenti recalled. (Her name was not Bertha and she did not have a sister.) "That’s more than I remembered from that night."

CBGB OMFUG, 315 Bowery Street (1973-2006)

Still, before the hangover, there was the high of the performance. "It was a great gig...at the time we didn’t realize the significance of it all." Well, it was significant - after all, this was the legendary Bowery club CBGB (officially CBGB & OMFUG - Country BlueGrass Blues & Other Musics For Uplifting Gourmandizers) -and now the world can hear it, warts and all!

OK, first things first. The track listings for these two shows (as shown above) need some Track Fact-Checking. "Flying Saucers" does not appear on Disc 1, and missing from the dozen printed tracks for the CBGB show are four more: "Black Velvet Painting," "Mama Choked," "Love Conquers All" and "Africa." The 1987 Oddfellows Hall show replicates the CBGB set list but adds "Sub Shop," "Awite" and a live recording of their finest moment, "Flying Saucers." There's also an updated letter to "Mr. President," this time addressed to "Ronald Ray-gun." And instead of Disc 1's Hank Williams cover ("Your Cheatin' Heart"), the boys do a loose romp through The Troggs' "Wild Thing" as a set-ender.

My ears bear witness that the true set list for CBGBs is as below:

Da Moronics @ CBGBs 1978
01. Cripple Green Beret
02. Starksy & Hutch
03. Disco Sucks, Disco Blows
04. Perry Mason USA
05. Cancer
06. Black Velvet Painting
07. Child Molester
08. Mama Choked
09. Coma Baby
10. Fred Flintstone
11. Your Cheatin' Heart (Hank Williams)
12. Love Conquers All
13. Africa
14. New York State Lottery
15. Mr. President (Jimmy Carter)
16. Clean American

Let's check out the blood on these tracks, blow-by-blow:

01. Opener "Cripple Green Beret" answers Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler's unlikely 1965 hubristic hit "Ballad of the Green Berets" with a "what-for?" retort about the futility of war. "Walk down the street today to visit my friend the Crippled Green Beret/He ain't got no arms, he aint got no legs..." As Moriarty bellows "Where did his arms go? Where did his legs go? You dunno! I dunno! Nobody knnoooows!" it reminds me of The Dickies Sammy Davis Jr. homage, "Where Did His Eye Go?" (Hmm, the Dickies "dunno" either!). Intentionally provocative and offensive, it sets the tone for the band's mix of black humor and dumb fun to follow. As the final note sounds, Moriarty screams, "Starksy and Hutch, 7:30!" and the band segues into TV Land...

02. "Starsky and Hutch" - Having warmed up, Da Moronics launch into Prime Time to laud the exploits of Hardly and Not Much, as DiVenti revs up some car chase guitar and Billy Mo sings, "Starsky and Hutch, they're too much/A muscle man and a muscle car!...Gonna kick you in the groin/Gonna put the handcuffs ah-won...Starsky catch your bullets in his hand/Doesn't have to sweat to get his man."

03. "Disco Sucks, Disco Blow" - No sir, Da Moronics don't care for it! Amazingly, the punk and disco movements happened simultaneously in the late '70s, but musical battle lines were quickly drawn except maybe in NYC, where the eclectic underground embraced it (Blondie, Talking Heads, Ze Records, etc).

But down south, the Balto-DC New Wave bands of the time routinely dissed disco, from the Original Fetish's "Standing In Line At Studio 54" to The Slickee Boys' "Put A Bullet Thru the Jukebox ("Gonna make my stand on the AM band, 'cus Disco makes me wanna puke!"), and Da Moronics paid their two cents worth in this upbeat beatdown in the very town of Studio 54 renown. It's not really disco, but DiVenti's slick guitar riffs and skin twins Hopkins and Wilson's backbeat rhythms mimic the genre, while Moriarty intones his dance partner to get close to his sweaty body. "Hey, I'm in New York, maybe I'll check out Studio 54 - I'm a whore!"

04. "Perry Mason USA" should be a split single with Della and the Detectives' "Drake On the Move." Alongside "Mr. President" and "Flying Saucers," I plead guilty to this being my favorite Moronics song. "Perry Mason USA, he's in court three times a day, Perry Mason USA!" Moriarty yells as he pleads his case on Perry's merits, testifying that "They caught me with a gun in my hand/Perry said I was a good man/He got me off - I'm doing fine, now I'm on cloud 9...I'm pleading the 5th Amendment, I aint gotta talk - I got a lawyer! Not guilty! Next case on the docket, puleeese!"

05. "Cancer" - DiVenti and Moriarty's condemnation of American healthcare sure could have used Perry Mason filing a malpractice suit. "Cancer, they're sure they see/Cancer, the 1970s/Cancer, it's what you got/Cancer, you'll rot, rot, rot!" Like disco, it sucks and Da Moronics put it in its place. Ironically (Moronically?), they played this song at a club whose owner, Hilly Kristal, would later die from lung cancer in 2007.

06. "Black Velvet Painting" - Along with "Love Conquers All," this ballad was the closest Da Moronics ever got to writing a love song. Of course, as any MICA student worth his paintbrush knows, black velvet paintings - those cheap, gauche images of Elvis, matadors, scary clowns and unicorns that Mexican painters originally sold to American tourists in the 1950s - represent the pinnacle of tackiness. Which makes them the perfect symbol to embody the pathos and emptiness of a breakup story in which a lover took everything of any lasting value. Over DiVenti's shimmering guitar chords, Billy Mo waxes poetic over that "Black velvet painting with a chromium frame/Black velvet painting, a bullfight in (s)pain/Black velvet painting, that's all that's left/Black velvet painting, you took the rest." Unlike it's title, this tune is almost poignant.

"Black Velvet Painting: that's all that's left."
07. "Child Molester" - This song about "a creep who lives on your street" was always a highlight of Moronics live shows. Alongside "Coma Baby" this was one of their nastier punk romps. "Child molester, you raped my sister, you waited outside the school/Child molester with a bag of candy, you were really cruel!"

08. "Mama Choked" - The premature passing of Baltimore's own Mama Cass Elliot (aka Ellen Naomi Cohen - she went to my dad's alma mater, Forest Park H.S., and her hometown later declared August 15, 1973 to be Cass Elliot Day!) in 1974 is name-checked in this riff on the famous urban legend about how she died: choking on a ham sandwich in Harry Nilsson's London flat (the same flat where Keith Moon would die four years later in 1978 - spooky!).

The Donald declares August 15, 1973: Cass Elliot Day!

Bill Moriarty takes artistic license in changing the instrument of death to a turkey sandwich, but it's still a black humor classic. "If only someone did the Heimlich maneuver, she might still be a groover!" Mama choked, it's no joke - but it is a funny song and Da Moronics used it as a put-down of hippies. Respect!

09. "Coma Baby" - Inspired by the then-in-the-news plight of Karen Anne Quinlan, who fell into a coma after chasing Valiums and booze, this is perhaps the punkiest of Da Moronics' canon ((it could well have fit into a Katatonix set list alongside "Basket Case" or "Valentine's Day"), with lines like "Coma baby, come out of your trance/Coma baby, I wanna get into your pants! I wanna fuck you, but you're asleep/Cold as ice, that's not nice!" But beneath the offensiveness, there was food for thought, as the Quinlan case was a milestone moment in the right-to-die movement for coma babies everywhere.

10. "Fred Flintstone" - "Fred Flintstone is a friend of mine, Fred Flintstone we go bowl all the time!" Fast, funny and furious, Da Moronics race through Bedrock through the courtesy of their 10 feet, ending with Moriarty's (prehistoric) primal scream of "WILMA!!!" Ideally, this should also be a split single with The Dickies' 1980 "Gigantor" B-side, "Bowling with Bedrock Barney." Barney, like Fred and Da Moronics is, after all, the life of the party. Yabba dabba doo!

11. "Your Cheatin' Heart" - The boys pay props to the hard-drinkin', hard-livin' country music legend, Hiram "Hank" Williams, playing one his best-known hits, another love-gone-bad ballad.

12.  "Love Conquers All" - As Diventi recycles a Who "Can't Explain" riff, Moriarty chants "Love conquers all, but beauty's skin deep." Yet another surprising love song by the not always cynical wild boys.

13. "Africa" - "Let's take a trip to the Southern Hemisphere," Billy Mo begins, because "That's where things are happening this year." Like World War III, thanks to Soviet-American relations that have nothing to do with the native nations. Though one of their lesser known songs, it's perhaps their most political, deploring the colonial and post-colonial "Commie watch" exploitation of the land where all life began. "Africa, you're a sacrificial lamb/That's because they want your land...Rubbing the soft underbellies of the world/Fondling them like the girl next door/Africa, you're a sacrifice lamb/You're the girl next door, you're just a whore -they're gonna rape you, Africa!"

14. "New York State Lottery" - Like "Sub Shop," this is another take on achieving The American Dream, albeit one taking the Express Lane without bothering to cut the cheese or hold the mayo. "You gotta play to win!" Moriarty intones as he boasts of all the cool shit and babes he'll amass after he wins: "If I could only win the lottery, I'd buy a Monte Carlo and a bag of weed/I'd move down to Florida and soak up the sun/I'd be the lucky one!" Ah, American Excess, don't leave home without it! You can even buy a color TV! Significantly, the first and last words of the song are "Illusion" and "You lose." 'Nuff said!

15. "Mr. President" - A bona fide classic and arguably the best Moriarty-DiVenti composition ever. Taking the form of a letter written to POTUS #39, I'm not sure if it's a tribute or a razz on Mr. Peanut - I hope it's sincere because while Carter's place in Presidential history isn't too celebrated, he's probably my fave modern prez, because he reminded me of a Jimmy Stewart character in a Frank Capra movie (Mr. Carter Goes To Washington?). He had a soul and wasn't a scumbag and was honest (what other politician will cop to "lusting in his heart" for other women?), but the Iran Hostage thing didn't do him any favors in the history books and he remains the obvious whipping boy for all Reagan Republicans.

Mr. President, Mr. Carter

After pleading his devotion to the new guy in the Oval Office ("I love you, I voted for you, I want you in '80 too!"), Moriarty vows his sincerity by stating, "I wouldn't lie. I'm Catholic and we gotta do everything right." Hilarious!

In the background, Hoppy Hopkins' tight stop-and-start poundings give way to a full-on jam, as DiVenti takes one of his finest solos. "You're so lenient," Moriarty sighs ambiguously as the last note sounds.

16. "Clean American" - The set closer, "Clean American," is a companion piece to "Cripple Green Beret" as a criticism of God, Country and Apple Pie. As Diventi comments, it's "a haunting tune rejecting all American values and morals. A show we performed one night at the Towson University Student Union Center was met with fierce opposition by the Towson Tigers football team. During the song...Billy Mo grabbed an American flag that was near the stage and started dancing around with it. The football jocks pelted us with cups full of beer, plastic beer pitchers and ashtrays. Eventually they stormed the stage and wrestled the flag away but we kept on playing."

Ha! I was at that show and can attest to the description of what went down. As the Ramones inspired Da Moronics, so Da Moronics would inspire my fledgling band Thee Katatonix, who, far from being art school kids, were toothless Towson Tigers at that time. But we learned the value of agit-prop provocation, which our fearless leader Adolf K. later characterized as adding "assault to insult."

That was the gig, performed in a legendary club that now only exists only in memory. CBGB, originally a biker bar that opened its doors in 1973 as a venue for what owner Hilly Kristal hoped would be country, bluegrass and blues music before becoming synonymous with Manhattan's Punk/New Wave scene, closed in for good in 2006. Patti Smith played the final concert there on October 15, 2006. It is now occupied by clothing designer John Varvatos.

Da Moronics Live @ Odd Fellows Hall 1987

Odd Femme outside Towson Odd Fellows Hall Lodge 79

This anniversary show roughly 10 years after their formation finds all of the original members save Dave Brubaker, who is replaced by latter-day Moronic bassist Charles Freeman (of Scratch 'n' Sniff, Buck Subtle, etc. fame), and the addition of second guitarist Brian "Love" Jones - variously known as Lumpy, Bill Bored or just plain Bill Sutherland of (wait for it...) Judies Fixation.

The 1987 Odd Fellows Hall show replicates most of the CBGB set list, but sonically the twin guitar attack beefs up all the early songs and allows DiVenti and Jones the freedom to rock out with extended solos, most notably on "Sub Shop" and "Mr. President." The new additions to the set list this time around are an updated letter to "Mr. President" (this time addressed to Ronald Reagan, already embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal and a literal target for dissenters and Jodie Foster fans alike), "Sub Shop," "Awite," "Flying Saucers," and a just-for-the-fun of-it romp through The Troggs' "Wild Thing."

Odd Fellows Hall was not Da Moronics favorite venue by any stretch. For one thing, it was in the 'burbs, just up the street from Towson University where patriotic jocks once took umbrage at Mr. Moriarity's flag waving technique during "Clean American." And there was often bad mojo associated with it, like the time some unruly hooligans (probably from the bar up the street called Hooligans) threw pitchers of beer at Billy Mo. Not to mention the contretemps involving post-Moriarty singer Don White, who had his head used as a hackeysack by some more jocks following a 1980 gig there; luckily, Bob Greenberg of The Raisinets was there to drive him to GBMC for stitches.

OK, bad mojo aside, here's a look at the "new" old tunes on offer that night which, despite the surburban setting, sounds like it was a great show...

"Mr. President (Ronald Reagan)"

I think I love this updated version reflecting the change from party affiliation even better than the Jimmy Carter original. Times change, but Da Moronics don't - they still call out bullshit and hypocrisy. OK, in today's trigger-warning-happy PC times, the lyrics may be a little harsh, but keep in mind Moriarty is an agent provocateur, with tongue firmly in cheek. It's poetic punk-rock license, OK? Unlike the Carter-era "Mr. President" ("Don't pull a JFK - that wouldn't be OK, in my book!"), here the band issues a duck-and-cover reproach to POTUS #40.

Mr. President, Ronald Ray-gun
Oh man, are you having some fun?
In Washington D.C., oh man
They're committing suicide all over the lawn

Mr. President, Mr. Ray-gun
They're already gunning for you and Nancy too
And your faggot son
You ducked, well you better duck again
Too bad they didn't get you in '80, too

Mr. President, hey Ronnie Reagan
You ain't having no fun
They're putting the screws to you
Oh it's true, they should have blown you away in '80 too

"Sub Shop"

"Sub Shop" is all about The American Dream, the belief, as Moriarty says, introducing the song, that "If you work hard enough, you will succeed."

At the sub shop with Mendaleen
Me and her are illegal aliens
You say you want breakfast?
We don't serve breakfast at the sub shop after 11:30
Have a hamburger, a roast beef sandwich
Hey Mr. Bornsteen, ham and cheese - hold the mayo! 

Tom and Bill may never have worked at a sub shop, but they were hired hands at Martick's, where they seem to have been just as devoted to the owner as sub shop entrepreneur Mr. Bornsteen - "He's really neat, man, he's really keen." The tune has a relaxed, almost island-flavored vibe to it (after all, aren't most diness and sub shops owned by Greeks or Italians from warm-water climes?) and, live with two guitars it sounds almost like a Grateful Dead number, like Jones and DiVenti are imitating Garcia and Weir. I think it sounds even better than the version they recorded in '77 at Mauro Studios, as included below:


Dedicated to Moriarty's friend Eric, who apparently was fluent in the urban patois favored by today's hip-hop artists and Eminem wannabes. Billy Mo introduces tune by man 'splaining that the entire song is comprised into just two words compressed into one, portmanteau style: Awite. "Hey Eric, wanna get a beer?" "Awite." A song that anticpates the linquistic laziness of today's less-is-more Twitterverse and texting acronyms.

"Flying Saucers"

This is a surprising faithful live rendition of the song (their best) that they recorded with fancy production techniques at Sheffield Recording Studios in '79 for the Best of Baltimore compilation record. Partly that's because Brian Jones helps out on 2nd guitar and then there's that wonderful theremin sound evoking flying saucers and alien hijinks. The song is a showcase for everybody's chops, with mad percussion, guitar solos and crazed vocals on top of the killer riff DiVenti came up with.

This tribute to the glory days of late-night schlock movies airing on Baltimore's UHF channel, WBFF Channel 45 (home of "real Science-Fi," as well as Creature Feature and Ghost Host!), finds Moriarty spotting "Flying saucers up in the sky, flying saucers - I wonder why?" before encountering all those little green men that "ain't got no ears" and "ain't got no fears." It's helter-skelter, head to the bomb shelter time as Billy Mo cowers in his "cousin Joe's room- he's in college now, he don't need it anyhow."


After a raucous, free-for-all jam on the set-ending "Wild Thing," Moriarty invokes the hellfire spirit of a televangelist to sign off with something (the audio is garbled) along the lines of, "I preach, dear friends for you to receive...[garbled audio]...for nicotine and the temptations for thee!"

And that's it, two great performances by Charm City's nascent art-school punks, separated by over a decade and covering just about everything from the back catalog except "Neutron Bomb." The time has finally come to feast on a bounty of riches by these pioneers who previously only had two or three songs that fans could listen to. Now if only Judies Fixation could unearth some tapes and release a few more treasures...


Note: In the intervening years between these two recordings, Don White stepped to the mic to fill Billy Mo's shoes whenever he took a leave of absence or was on sabbatical. It's a crying shame there is no aural record of his time fronting the band, because I remember liking him. I still recall him tapping the microphone and ad-libbing "Spinal tap, I got a spinal tap" to kill time while the band was experiencing technical issues at the Marble Bar.

Don White pours on the charm in a scene from Michael Gentile and John Ellsberry's film Dead Strippers (photo by Alan Petrulis)

Fittingly, the same year this anniversary gig took place, Da Moronics played the last-ever show - "Marble Bar Closing Night III" - at the Marble Bar on May 9, 1987.  Billed as "Balto.'s Fathers of Punk!", they put the club to bed at a show featuring fellow punk circuit vets Thee Katatonix and Human Remain. I wonder if it was Moriarty or White on vocals that night?

Either way, '87 seemed to be a last hurrah, a blast from the past, a kind of farewell tour to a fading scene. Hard to believe that was over 30 years ago. Harder still to believe this was a band that originally formed almost 45 years ago. But we all should be glad to have these mementos of a bygone era.


Related Links:
Tom Diventi Collected Works (www.tomdiventi.com)
Bill Moriarty – “The Expectation of Deliverance” (CD Baby)
tENTATIVELY a cONVENVIENCE Remembers Baltimore’s Punk Scene (Baltimore Or Less)
Rod Misey Interviews Da Moronics (WCVT, 6-17-79)
BaltiMoronic: Da Moronics Take On Baltimore (baltimoreorless.com)