Friday, November 16, 2007

Heavy and Light

The Vapor Rhinos were a fun band that always put on a show, but because all their songs were comical and rudely off-color, other bands didn’t seem to appreciate them. Our lavish coverage of the Vapor Rhinos resulted in much jeering. They had elaborately painted stage sets at every show and often shredded a bunch of stuffed animals at the finale. They’d buy up all the stuffed animal stock at thrift stores for these ritual sacrifices.

The band was Tommy Rodriquez, the guy who actually builds guitars, on guitar, George Reuther on bass, Dean Owen on drums and Peter Headley on vocals. Not only did they play out a lot, they went to see other bands a lot, so you saw this gang, together or apart, everywhere all the time. They became part of stories that weren’t even about the Vapor Rhinos. George has disappeared, but the other guys are still in town.

One of the first places I went to see them was New Year’s Eve at the Red Light Inn on Grace Street, a topless bar. This bar was a loyal advertiser for many years and the easiest money I made. I’d walk in, find the guy who had the money and he’d hand me the $25 for a quarter page ad without any discussion as soon as he spotted me. Handing cash to women was just second nature in this club.

The band was never serious, so all the stories verged on crazy. I did the band interview in person at Marvin’s, with everyone around the table arguing with the waitresses about mayonnaise and complaining about morning hair, even though it was 11 p.m. It was like a scene from a Marx Brothers movie.

I used the same basic 20 questions for all my band interviews, one of which was “origin of the name.” Before this, I had never thought about the band names that were combinations of light and heavy images.

George and Tommy were sitting in the Village trying to think of a name, and Tommy wanted something heavy, and George wanted something light and airy. Like Iron and Butterfly. But it was taken.

Or Concrete and Blonde.

Or Led and Zeppelin.

Hence, Vapor and Rhinos.

Can you think of more?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Brushes with Greatness

In the first year of the paper, we covered some Brushes with Greatness. When David Letterman had the good late night show on NBC, not the one he has now on CBS, he would go into the studio audience soliciting stories of commonfolk encounters with celebrities.

Seeing Fishbone was in itself a brush with greatness. I described their show at the Flood Zone as “a happy version of Dante’s Inferno.” The lead singer was wearing baggy gray pants held up by suspenders, but not held up enough. His pubic hair was visible. The drummer wore only boxer shorts and played with his back to the audience, the better to show off the fish skeleton tattoo on his back.

Our technical brush with greatness was encountering Bruce Hornsby on the top level of the Zone, autographing women’s breasts. From there, we watched a female crowd surfer in white stockings, a lacy aqua bra and a flowered dress get passed repeatedly over the heads of the crowd on the floor. Each time she broke the surface and sailed over the crowd, she was missing more of her clothes.

The highlight of the show was a song called “Swim,” which seemed to consist entirely of the lyrics, “swim, muthafuka, swim muthafuka, swim, muthafuka, swim.” The singer climbed onto the amps, reached the rail of the balcony, climbed up and dangled himself over the crowd, which beseeched him to “Swim!” A stagehand kept feeding him more mic cord as he continued to climb along the balcony and finally made a dramatic leap into the crowd. He was cleanly caught and sailed as if sliding on ice from one end of the Flood Zone to the other, still holding the mic. It was totally awesome.

Then we had the pleasure of publishing Anthony Dowd’s story of playing piano for Frank Sinatra at the Jefferson Hotel before Sinatra played the Mosque and passed out from the heat. Dowd was offered twice his usual fee to extend the hours he played at the Lemaire Restaurant until Sinatra left.

Sinatra arrived at 10 p.m. surrounded by guys with walkie-talkies (remember, this is pre-cell phone days), an advance man with a clipboard, comic Tom Dreesen (Sinatra’s opening act), two beefy bodyguards who handled the money, and a coterie of friends. They stayed in a private dining room for an hour while Dowd played, then came out and sat around his piano. Sinatra sang along to “Autumn in New York,” even though he had just performed a show. Then he stumbled through “Everything Happens to Me,” forgetting the words.

Dowd’s hands were aching by this time, but saxophonist Skip Gailes came in to help, and the bodyguards slipped him a $200 tip. Various people kept whispering for him to play “Laura,” Sinatra’s favorite song. He did twice. Sinatra and his party stayed until after 1 a.m., then left. The next night, the singer collapsed at the Mosque and was taken to MCV.

The last brush belongs to the band Animal Farm, a group that moved to Richmond from North Adams State College in Massachusetts because they heard Richmond was “nice and cheap. We didn’t know the crowds were going to be so tough. In Boston, the crowds were just more. It was a bigger, more active scene.” Like it was really going to be easier to launch a band from Richmond. Ha!

I think they really moved down here because vocalist Mike Hsu got a job as a DJ on WVGO on the 2-7 p.m. weekday shift. The other guys, Wayne Driscoll, Steve Gullotti, Aaron Tunnell, manager Gary Engel and soundman Bill Crowell, had to make do in this foreign, backward land. Driscoll worked at Sign Graphics, Tunnell was a dispatcher at Dominion Service, Gullotti was a “food service manager.” They shared a practice space in Shockoe Bottom with Zag Man Zig, All Natural Band and Mirage. But the band’s best days were behind them, back in Boston. Richmond was the beginning of the end. There were rumors about this one getting extreme religion and that one putting a hand in the collective kitty. Either can break up a band.

But here’s their brush with greatness. They met Jon Stewart, then a show host on MTV, now the mega-star of the “Daily Show” on Comedy Central. He was doing stand-up at Shotz in Farmville and dropped in on their gig. “He said we were awesome.”

Monday, November 05, 2007

When Harry Met Sally

Women who aren’t married and want to be sometimes ask me how I met my husband. It was a long path through a chain of bands, which could have gone several different ways – and in that sense, it seemed like fate.

I could have met him right away if I had gone to a Stiff Richard show at the Metro. There was a blackboard above the downstairs bar that listed the bands for the week and I saw the name. The band was Guy Pettengell, guitar and songwriter, Billy Britt, drums, and Bobby Jorgenson, bass. In due time, I received their CD “Squeeze” in the mail and gave it to Peter Bell to review because he knew Pettengell from somewhere and was eager to review it. The review was okay but not glowing.

Time passed and Bell himself got into a band, October. Ironically, Jorgenson was playing guitar in that band, a holdover from the original line-up called Solid Ground. Bell urged me to see them because, he promised, Jorgenson looked like Frank Daniel, a guy from Single Bullet Theory and My Uncle’s Old Army Buddys who I had a futile crush on.

It was true. They could have been related. I saw October at Jimmy Ryan’s and Moondance. Before the Moondance show, the band Thelma Shook had decorated my front door in the dead of night with flyers and cardboard “Shook” eyeglasses, and left me a whole box of cassettes. I was passing out those cassettes to everyone at Moondance, encouraging people to submit reviews. One of the people who got a cassette was Jorgenson.

I still remind him that if he had only written a review and gotten in touch with me to submit it, we might have met a year sooner, but he didn’t. (Small World aside: He went on to play bass in Thelma Shook.)

Time passed. I had heard of the band Joe America. Frank used to go see them play, and never invited me, which made me very curious about this mysterious local music scene that hardly anyone knew about that didn’t start until 11 o’clock at night. We’d go to dinner and a movie, and then he’d leave and go on for part two of his evening without me. Where did he go? What did he do? Who did he meet? That curiosity birthed the Richmond Music Journal, so now I had a reason to see Joe America for myself, without a date. I was a reporter.

This band took me to venues I had never been to before, and never went to again, like the Bus Stop in Shockoe Slip and Cimarron Rose on Midlothian Turnpike, a steakhouse famous for its superdelicious cinnamon buns. There’s a Walgreen’s now on Buford and Midlothian where this place was. I loved their cassette, “What World?” and knew all the songs by the time I first saw them, so their originals were as familiar as covers to me.

The band was Chris Douthit, JJ Loehr, Keith MacPhee, Chip Farnsworth and Merewyn, a background vocalist. The other background vocalist, Chuck, had been promoted to “management” and their soundman, Flash, had gone on tour with Reba McEntire, so now they had Bill Murray on sound and lights. It was the first big operation outfit I encountered. (Small World aside: MacPhee had been in Single Bullet Theory, too. Loehr had traveled with Bell as an opening act when Bell was in Ten Ten and had been in a band with Frank.)

Even before 9/11, Joe America stood for patriotism. “We’re watching CNN, a lot of political debates, we’re thinking about racism, looking at both sides of things. We’ve got the best of everything in America and we should be praising that. That’s Joe America. We go after things harder. We can stand in the face of all kinds of things. America is still a place where if you try, and work hard, it’s going to come true for you.”

Their song “Bad Days” was a tribute to people who fought in Desert Storm.

They had talent, equipment, great songs, enough covers to placate the bookers, a great PA, lights, and touring truck, but there was mysterious “bad blood going around town with the clubs…if you get on the wrong side of people in this town, it really hurts, and we’ve made the mistake of trying to expose ourselves at some wrong times.”


“Where we belong is having the Dave Matthews Band open for us. We have values, we’re straight with people; we’re upfront; we don’t tell lies. That’s the greatest thing about our band. We’re trying to work through the music scene in Richmond, but there’s a whole lot of schmucky people.”

Douthit was proud of the fact their songs varied. “You check the Beatles out. Every song doesn’t sound the same. But you go down to hear Fulflej, the Pleasure Astros, every song is the same, even the same lyrics. These kids have one good idea and they do it every time on every song. We do acoustic, electric, go over the edge, overdrive, but we keep it dynamic.”

The real reason their songs sounded different was they had three very distinct songwriters, MacPhee, Loehr and Douthit, bringing in material. I especially liked Loehr's "Think About a Song" and "Every Little Danger." I still have a version of the latter on my iTunes. "Guardian Angel" and "Lies" were my MacPhee favorites.

Soon enough, they dissolved. Time passed. When MacPhee formed a new band with Keith Clarke called Grumbledog, I got a call from Clarke to come out to see them at Twisters. It was MacPhee’s Joe America songs again, interspersed with Clarke’s excellent pop tunes which sounded like radio-ready ‘90s hits. It was a good show, so I was ready to go see them again next time they called. They were going to be at the Sunset Grill. But they weren't a three piece anymore. They had a new drummer, Farnsworth from Joe America. And oh….they added a second guitar, Bobby Jorgenson. By the end of their set on the Sunset Grill’s outdoor stage, I had made up my mind. It took a couple more shows to bag him.

And that’s how we met. It only took three years and four bands. No woman who has ever asked to hear this story has made it to the end. They want to know an easier way to meet a guy. Or at least a quicker one.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Letters, We Get Letters

Several months into the first year of the paper, the letters to the editor section was rocking, and it stayed rocking almost until the end of the paper’s run. We’d often have two full pages of them, and not made-up letters like Punchline or Brick, either.

This was accomplished by eliminating the biggest hurdle to writing letters to the editor: the writing part. This was before email became commonplace. You actually had to put a stamp on a letter back then. I got a second phone line and put an answering machine and a fax on it just for letters, comments, complaints, whatever, day or night, and that line often rang through the night. This was also more than a decade before the Richmond Times-Dispatch thought up the “Your 2 Cents” call-in line.

The fax line did okay, but the answering machine steadily produced pages of copy for the paper every issue. People called in from the clubs to shout their approval of whatever band they were watching…and this was also before cell phones were affordable, so they were calling from pay phones. Someone regularly called from the Village pay phone to complain about the local music scene. Guys called post-coitus from bed and put their husky-voice girlfriends on the line to comment. Mostly they called to complain about the paper, complain about the music scene, complain about local radio, and promote themselves.

“It’s weird to me that you guys are trying to promote local music, yet every issue is about what you guys did every night at a club. There’s more than three or four ways of looking at the scene here in town.”

But I only had three or four writers.

“The jazz scene in Richmond is tired. Jazz is an emotional thing, and all these white guys in Richmond are trying to make it a technically academic, non-emotional thing, headwise great jazz, but heart-wise, no…All the same guys are still all the same guys. The ones who were popular 10 years ago and running the show are still doing it.”

Guess what, still all the same guys.

“We want to read more about the new bands. You could be using the ‘Lyrics and Deep Thoughts’ page for more band interviews. Just do band interviews and record reviews.”

There is nothing duller than a band interview. It is essentially the same story over and over. Guys meet. Form a band. Think they have lightning in a bottle or a different sound. Want to get discovered. Gigging for dollars in crappy bars to small crowds of indifferent beer drinkers watching sports on the TV right over the band’s heads. Van keeps breaking down. Drummers keep quitting. Get money together to finally record debut album. Recording process is so acrimonious, band breaks up when the album is finished. The two guys most serious about the music, usually the ones who wrote the songs, form a new band. Process starts over.

Then for a few lucky ones, they actually do get signed by an offshoot of a major label, or even a major label. Record producer makes them change their sound to something more like what is currently popular. The songs that got them noticed are homogenized until they sound derivative and overproduced. The band is sent out on some grueling tours with little marketing support for the tour or the album. Label doesn’t pick up their option. They come home, sometimes broke and with nothing to fall back on, sometimes with just enough money to buy a house, start their wife in a business, or open a recording studio.

I don’t know if that’s exactly what happened to Fighting Gravity, Agents of Good Roots or The Ernies, but I do know their shows and their self-produced music sounded better than their label releases. I was especially disappointed in Agents. Their little cassette they sold at shows was terrific. Their label debut CD: barely recognizable as them.

“Nobody cares about bands like My Uncle’s Old Army Buddys and Useless Playboys. You should be writing about bands like King Sour, Kepone, Used Carlotta, Spike the Dog, Bucket and The Seymores. They’re all signing record contracts.”

Then there was Frog Legs, who found a way to do theater on my answering machine. With various members on different extension lines, they could record nonsensical improv in tandem.

“Well, I was riding the mechanical bull with the fly roper and the transcendental maggot when I was surprised to see the munificent cheerleader with the rose pink memorandum stapled to her forehead. Written in lipstick across that piece of paper was: ‘Pretty girls love Frog Legs.’”

This was before digital answering machines, when there was a tape I could remove and put into a tape player to transcribe. I couldn’t do that today. There’s email, but that isn’t as purely anonymous and impulsively liberating as voice messages left in the dead of night, and that anonymity gave birth to much creativity and safely vented the frustration from the local music community.