My music career

Just listening to some ancient cassettes of an old band of mine, thirty years ago. I was in a lot of bands for a couple crazy decades there–no one you’d ever heard of–but this band was my favorite. It was the apex of it all. I hadn’t listened to us in years, though. Not in forever. I didn’t realize I played so very fast back then. Wow. No high hat, either–I remember picking it up and throwing it in the corner when the linkage broke, kept playing and didn’t bother buying another. I was free baby, all over the place. The music was crazy hard, loose, wild, funny, loud and out of control. What a ball we were having. I think we might have been a wee bit high. And no, you will never hear it.

I’d even forgotten some of the titles. Things like Baby Baby you blow my mind! (“Oh baby, you blow my everloving mind!”). Or I love you oh baby oh yeah! yeah! yeah! (“I love you, oh baby, oh yeah yeah yeah/Will I leave you, oh baby, oh no, no, no”). The classic  “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, No, No, No” (“every time I wanna say yeah/everybody else wants to say no”). And a version of Mrs. Robinson we did because you could say “yeah” eighteen times in a row. That was important. The singer/guitar leader thought all rock songs should say yeah and baby. All of them. Indeed, that is all they had to say. I remember on one song I couldn’t make out the lyrics between the baby baby chorus, but it was because there weren’t any, the singer was making rock star noises. You don’t need words in rock’n’roll, he said, you just have to make rock star noises. Apparently he’d been listening to Exile on Main Street on acid, and on “Happy” Keith Richards made rock star noises. Those aren’t really words, he said. He had a point, and I wasn’t even tripping. I never did. But he did a lot of tripping. As did the bass player. I was ground control, I guess. We seemed to do a lot of tunes about acid. My favorite was My Balls Feel Fine where a guy goes to a love in and is afraid he got the clap, “but I look them over/ and I feel them over/ but they feel fine/ and I’m feeling fine/ Because my balls feel fine/ I said my balls feel fine/ I took LSD/ but did I also get VD….”. Can’t remember the rest–I lost the notebook with all his lyrics. This would be about the time in the set when I’d look at the crowd and they were sitting there, jaws dropped, bewildered and uncomfortable. Even the ones who hated us. The ones who thought we were the greatest thing ever were singing along. It did have a catchy chorus.

There were a lot of stoner tunes, too. “Let’s Get Naked and Smoke” (“I wanna use your boobs for a roach clip baby!”) was a crowd pleaser, even danceable, not to mention on our very rare button. No one made buttons then, they were so thin tie new wave hokey, so of course we did. There were two, but all I can remember is Let’s Get Naked and Smoke. We also did a million covers, none of which sounded like the originals….we filled them with yeahs and babys and people probably couldn’t recognize half of them. Somebody once told me that our song that goes we’re caught in a trap, we can’t get out really hit him hard, because he was caught in a trap and couldn’t get out either. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was an Elvis song. Thing was he really was caught in a trap, but that’s another story.

I remember playing the Cathay de Grande here in Hollywood and the hardcore kids hated us, one of them–he looked exactly like Ian McKaye–marched back and forth in front of the stage screaming you suck and flipping us off through every song. He was wearing a “make noise not music” tee shirt. Apparently we were too musical. Some proto-grunge long hairs were going nuts like we were the saviors of rock’n’roll. Everyone else just stared, bewildered. That made us feel good. Played again and the same reaction. Pretty much the response we wanted. If 90% of the crowd hates you then you must be doing something right. Every gig, though, we picked up more fanatical fans. This was just before the eighties underground explosion, when hardcore punk rockers rediscovered rock’n’roll and weirdness. We were on the cutting edge, I suppose, though we had no idea. We were just in this crazy band. We were original class of ’77 punk rockers, and had that edge. We didn’t care about politics or causes or ideology, we just wanted to act crazy and bug people and fuck shit up. There were a lot of bizarre onstage antics, anarchy, surrealism, Marx Brothers moments and unbelievably stoned weirdness. We were a power trio. We were incredibly loud. The guitar player–dubbing himself Charles Joseph Renfield III–came off like a cross between Jimi Hendrix and Wayne County and that really weird guy in your high school gym class. Totally demented look, and this was 1984, when everyone looked like Ian McKaye and Henry Rollins. The bassist looked like a redneck–he was, actually, from Kentucky–talked and sang in a thick stage drawl and went by the name of Keltic Runes. I looked like a truck driver, a big giant strong as an ox working man–which I was–beating a tiny little jazz kit. I never stopped playing no matter how catastrophic it got on stage. One memorable night the other guys got tangled in each other’s chords during the long instrumental stretch in Let’s Get Naked and Smoke–I think they were copping the Mick Ronson-Trevor Boulder dance routine from Ziggy Stardust–and the bass became unplugged and the guitar amp toppled over with an enormous reverbed bang that echoed over and over. My brother jumped up on stage to helped untangle the mess–it looked like a Gordian knot of cables–and get everyone plugged back in, I’m still playing, the bass player joins in, the guitar player starts tuning up over the groove and finally comes back in like nothing had happened. People applauded with relief, I think they were sure we were just going to end it there, tangled and unplugged and sad. Afterward someone came up and asked if we’d planned all that. I said we had. He said he figured as much.

That was the same night that the guitar player, quite out of his mind–he wound up in a mental hospital soon afterward–tried to get in a fist fight with the Cathay’s doorman, Lawrence Fishburne, who’d have none of it. He just spun him around and I nearly got clocked instead. His fist stopped an inch from my face. He would have knocked me out cold, I’m sure, he was so high on whatever, vibrating, tweeked, quite mad. But he dropped his fist. Sorry Brick, he said. Then he started raving at the kids, trying to start a riot. They just stared. I managed to get him down into the bowels of the club and onto the stage. He’d used about two cans of hair spray and in profile had this incredible alpine pompadour that from the front was maybe two inches wide. Not a hair out of place, though. The rest of his get up included beat up jeans, demented high heeled boots with doll heads attached and a girl’s blouse. A scarf, too. He was a PCP hallucination of Jimi Hendrix. His stage banter was half Elvis, half Hendrix, half cartoons. I know that’s three halves, but then so was he. If you’re gonna be weird, be weird. I remember him once telling somebody we were the greatest band on the planet. They scoffed–on the whole planet? Yeah, he said, just not this planet. It became our slogan.

We never did record. We were supposed to do a session for Mystic Records but I had to cancel it because Charles Joseph Renfield III had been out all night plumbing the depths of downtown L.A. on dust and was a mess. I didn’t even know people were still doing dust. But the end, clearly, was nigh. He’d actually become his stage persona, Charles Joseph Renfield III. Weird thing to watch. We later talked about just recording one of the gigs and calling it Liver Than Living Fuck. But it was too late. He was way out there by that point–it got very strange, strange and disturbing–and I had to break up the band. Shades of Ziggy, I know. We all went our own ways. He got strung out, stayed that way for years, was in and out of mental hospitals and eventually died a sad, messy death. The bass player moved to Nashville to sell used Cadillacs. I wound up a jazz critic. Years later I’m at some club looking sophisticated and some geezer comes up to me and said he saw us at the Cathay and we’d changed his life. I thanked him and edged away….

A couple years after all this we were reviewed somewhere–Flipside?–which surprised the hell out of me. It came out of nowhere, a previous life. The reviewer said we “were either the world’s laziest musicians or light years ahead of everybody else or both”. I was very proud of that quote…. True on both counts. The only other review I ever remember getting was for my first band and Flipside said of us that “they could hold their own with Fear and Black Flag in a hardcore guts contest.” I’m still proud of that one, too. I even had my picture in the ‘zine. That was so long ago, 1979 I believe, and I don’t think I even have a copy of that. Of either. I just remember the quotes. But those two quotes were enough for my music career.

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The Bags

A great band the Bags were, hard and fast and smart and totally L.A. They didn’t need the English, not the Bags. This was home grown, our own town sound. Actually, there never was an Alice Bag Band as they call them in the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization…legal reasons meant they couldn’t be listed as the Bags (there was  a law suit, ugliness). It’s a shame when a band gets their shot at posterity and finds out they can’t use their own name. Oh well. I still have their lone single, on Dangerhouse, I bought it back then. Its B-side was their best tune, I always thought, Babylonian Gorgon:

Don’t need no false reasons for why I’m out of place,
I don’t goose step for the master race.
I don’t scream and twist just for the fun of it.
I’m poison blood when I’m pissed! *

And oh yeah, Alice was hot. Dangerously hot…

Alice Bag gun

(Great shot, that I believe was sliced from a larger photo. I wish I could credit the photographer but I have no clue.)

This clip of the Bags playing “Gluttony” (see below) is from The Decline of Western Civilization. We even knew back then that it was a classic flick. Director Penelope Spheeris nailed it. If only she could have filmed twenty bands, there were so many great bands in town back then. Spheeris and her camera people really captured the feel, sound, smell, and energy of those shows. The exhilaration and the scariness. It was cool, that music scene, it was happening. We went opening night. You’ve never seen so many cop cars. Hollywood Blvd looked like a black’n’white parking lot. Fuck the pigs we said. Not long afterward like Lee Ving I spent a night in the Wilcox Hotel, aka the Hollywood jail, where I took on eight cops. They won. Later I became a well behaved intellectual.

Everybody had the soundtrack album, I still do, and most of us can recite extended passages from memory. I even quoted this movie a few times while writing all those Brick’s Picks columns, and the jazz fans never knew. I wonder if they wondered who Lee Ving was. One of those session cats, maybe. Or a bebop disc jockey from Hong Kong. I never explained.

Wow, going back,way back…that scene was thirty five years ago almost. A swell time was had by all, though a bunch died. In fact two of the Bags did. It happens. Though listening to this cut, about a minute in, when the tune explodes out of a dirge into pure, electrifying L.A. punk rock, you’d think nobody is gonna die, ever.

Oh yeah, check out Alice Bag’s well crafted memoir, Violence Girl. Saw her do a reading a few months back at a hip hang in Los Feliz. She read a chapter, talked some, and then did a remarkable little take on “Babylonian Gorgon”. Glad I went.

And lastly there’s a memorial page for guitarist Craig Lee, who had become the quintessential LA Weekly music critic. AIDS killed him in 1991. People took it hard. The next day someone spray painted “We Miss You Craig!” all along Hyperion Avenue in big broken hearted punk rock letters.

“Gluttony” by the Alice Bag Band from The Decline of Western Civilization:

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* “Babylonian Gorgon”….I think Craig Lee wrote both song and lyrics. I assume he was talking about what they used to call the Huntington Beach scene in 1979, the year this single was released. Though maybe he was alluding to Darby Crash (of the Germs) as well, who seemed a little fascinated with the dark side. That Bowie thing that people have forgotten about. Neither of them meant it, it just shocked the hippies. That went all the way back to the Velvets, with Lou Reed going on about shiny boots of leather…that weird place where bondage and leather and Nazi look and fashion meet. I think that theme has exhausted itself here in the States, maybe so many of the devotees died during the AIDS epidemic, and most bikers you see now are lawyers and stockbrokers. Europe seems as fascinated as ever, though. Then again they invented both kinky leather bondage and fascism, not to mention nice uniforms. We’re just dumb,sloppy Americans. Even as the Third Reich met its cataclysmic end in fire and ruins and annihilation, you have to admit their soldiers looked better.

But I think Craig Lee was also over reacting to the demographic change then taking place in the L.A. punk scene. By 1979 kids were pouring in from the suburbs. They’d listen to Rodney on the Roq spinning all this amazing music and get their high school outcast buddies and head to the Hong Kong and Madame Wongs and raise holy hell and scare the bejesus out of the jaded old–almost twenty five, some of them–Hollywood scenesters. And the English music press–which is what we all read then, Zig Zag and Sounds–was full of frightening fascist punks and the Rock Against Racism response, and I think Craig saw those white surfer kids here with their close cropped hair from “the Beach” (Huntington to Hermosa, inclusive) and assumed they were all big scary nazis. But this wasn’t England, and these kids weren’t nazis, they were bored surfer kids exploding with testosterone and energy. And as the Hollywood scene sank into heroin the best new stuff began coming out of Fullerton and San Pedro and Hermosa Beach anyway. But that was still in the future a bit. The Bags were part of the first wave of Los Angeles punk bands who played the Masque–that demented bashed up little hole off Hollywood Blvd–and  helped changed rock’n’roll forever. For a couple years there, from 1977 to maybe 1980, the Hollywood punk scene–all the Dangerhouse bands–made some of the best rock music of its time. There was so much creativity in the clubs back then, all this spontaneous brilliance and inspiration, and rock’n’roll–our rock’n’roll, raw and new and uncompromising–seemed like the most important thing in the world.

Now that was a footnote.

You could wipe your hands on them

I was at a party at a westside club a couple years ago. One of those afternoon things, cheap beer, hot dogs, loud music, old friends, good times. The place was Liquid Kitty, a sweet little watering hole on Pico. I’ve known the owner since Ye Olde Days, maybe a quarter century or so back. We were both thin and had lots of hair then. Now he is thin and has lots of hair and every once in a while he books a bunch of Ye Olde punk bands from Ye Olde Days and they play all day long in the joint to a crowd half full of Yo Olde Geezers and half under thirty types who think we are soooooo cool. You knew Darby Crash? Was he just like the movie? You opened for Black Flag? Wow!!!!! I always want to point out that was over thirty years ago and shame on them for not coming up with their own musical rebellion like everyone else did before them since the days of ragtime, but I refrain. They’re so cute. And clean. You could wipe your hands on them. And they’d let you.