The Visual Side of the Vinyl Shop

“Queen City Records: Record Stores of Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky” captures the essence of local indie record stores via photography and interviews

BY STEVEN ROSEN / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT /
 DEC. 12, 2017
Cover1213Mike Spitz Cassie Lipp HB11

 

Growing up on Grand Vista Avenue in Pleasant Ridge, Mike Spitz would often visit Everybody’s Records, a neighborhood and city institution for lovers of recorded music since 1978.

“I discovered Everybody’s from walking down Montgomery Road to go to other stores,” he says. “My middle brother Paul was really into records and got me hooked on it — he’s six years older. And my older brother had a lot of Beatles records, so they influenced me. I just started buying a lot of my early records at Everybody’s and my interests grew. I still have most of them today.”

Spitz, age 50, has been living in Los Angeles since 2000, so remembering the favorite record stores of his Cincinnati youth — he also has kind words for ones that have not survived, such as Norwood’s Record Theater and the Wizard and Ozarka outposts near University of Cincinnati — may seem purely an exercise in nostalgia.

But it isn’t. He’s turned it into a new book, Queen City Records: Record Stores of Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky. It debuts this weekend with signings at two stores featured in the book — 2 p.m. Saturday at Everybody’s and 4 p.m. Sunday at Jet Age Records in Newport. Both will also have live music — 1:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Spitz’s initial printing is just 250 books; he’ll do more as needed.

A photographer when not busy with his full-time job as a licensed clinical social worker/therapist specializing in the problems of children and teens, Spitz’s book portrays the environments of 13 existing record stores (plus one that recently closed) as sometimes funky and cluttered, sometimes chic and art-designed. He worked on it during visits here to see his family.

The stores featured in the book include several long-established ones — Everybody’s, Northside’s Shake It Records, Clifton Heights’ Mole’s CD & Record Exchange, Newport’s C&D Record Bar and Latonia’s Phil’s Records.  Then there are the newer ones — Bellevue’s Torn Light Records, Loveland’s Plaid Room Records, Covington’s Hail Dark Aesthetics, Oakley’s MetaModern Music, Newport’s aforementioned Jet Age Records, Black Plastic Records in Northside and Over-the-Rhine, downtown’s Herzog Music and Over-the-Rhine’s Shakespearean-named Another Part of the Forest. Also included in the book is Newport’s Sugarcube Records, which recently closed. Sometimes used vinyl is all they sell, but many shops also sell CDs, cassettes and music-related ephemera such as turntables, band T-shirts, books and magazines, concert posters and even bobbleheads of favorite rockers.

Of the 14 stores profiled in Queen City Records, nine have opened since 2010 (including Sugarcube). Three profiled in the book have opened just this year and a fourth (Morrow Audio in Florence) opened too late for inclusion. They have benefitted from the vinyl revival, which has increased the popularity and prices for both used and new vinyl records.

They have also provided Spitz’s book with currency. “There would have been less stores to take pictures of,” he says. “There are new businesses following that resurgence.”

This isn’t Spitz’s first book featuring record stores. In 2015, he published (via Rare Bird Books) The Record Store Book, featuring 50 in the L.A. area. It received national distribution and exposure. But he actually started on the Cincinnati project first.

“In 2011, I got this idea to do some kind of book about storefronts,” he says. “I had seen a book about the storefronts of New York that was very nice. So I thought maybe I’d do a book on those of Los Angeles. But it seemed too broad, too big. So I thought about how I could narrow it down to something more specific.

“Well, I like record stores and I remembered Everybody’s and thought, ‘Why don’t I try that?’ I went home for a visit and went to Shake It, Everybody’s, C&D and Mole’s and took pictures of those four stores.”

But he also thought he should do something larger — if not record stores of the world, then at least of Los Angeles. Among other benefits, he could fit the work around his daytime therapist job.

That resulted in the first record store book, which also featured interviews with record store owners by writer Rebecca Villaneda. “Then we started thinking, ‘Why don’t we do Seattle, Portland, Chicago or New York?’ ” Spitz says. When that idea fell through, he figured he already had begun a Cincinnati project, so why not finish it?

He wound up doing additional photos of the four stores he had photographed in 2011, as well as new ones.

To do interviews and provide history, Spitz hired writer Cassie Lipp, a 2016 University of Cincinnati graduate and also a CityBeat contributor. She responded to an ad that a UC journalism professor had sent.

“I go to record stores all the time since 2012, my first year of college,” Lipp says. “I was writing a paper for my Rhetoric class on Bob Dylan at the time and I went to Everybody’s Records and bought some Dylan records. I thought, ‘Hey, this counts as homework, doesn’t it?’ After that, I started exploring record stores.”

One thing Spitz had learned from doing the Los Angeles book is that he couldn’t just feature storefronts, as his original inspiration — Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York — did. “It’s what’s inside the store that’s more interesting,” he says.

For those stores that have been around awhile, “they’ve created this nostalgic ambiance for you,” he says. But newer stores can be different. “Some of the newer boutique-y younger stores are tidy, clean, neat and just focus on new stuff. They’re trying to establish something different about them, something unique.”

So what did he find inside Cincin- nati record stores?  Some examples from the book:

• At C&D Record Bar, established in 1957, owner Dave Heil stands in front of shelves full of 45 rpm records while holding an old Andy Williams LP called Lonely Street, in which the late Pop crooner is on a sidewalk, leaning against a building in what looks to be a forlorn part of town.

• At the connoisseur-ish Mole’s CD & Record Exchange, which started on Short Vine in 1974 and moved to Calhoun Street after Dean Newman bought it in 1989, Newman stands behind the counter, proudly wearing a T-shirt with the image of the late guitar god Tommy Bolin and propping up an album by Prog Rock band Spock’s Beard.

• Hail Dark Aesthetics is as much a cabinet of eerie curiosities, or oddities, as a used record store — one photo shows a doll baby’s head atop an animal horn with a stuffed squirrel holding an acorn nearby.

• At Jet Age, which opened this year, the look is spare and retro-modern — there’s a red Formica table and chairs near a coffee bar. The listening station features a turntable with a bright red, futuristic-looking base.

“Having done the first book, I know what works and doesn’t work,” Spitz says. “Usually I don’t know what the store is going to have in it, so I go in with a clean slate. But I tend to gravitate toward the same things. With images of people looking through records, the person has to be interesting. I take pictures of tapes, records — always used records out of the shrink-rap. And if I can, I try to get a shot of somebody who’s not just an old crusty record collector. I really try to break the cliches of record stores.”

He also had an eye for the unusual. “With Hail Dark Aesthetics, what other store has dead animals on the wall?” Spitz asks. “You can’t ignore that — it’s what’s unique about the store. For Jet Age, I made sure to get the Formica table and a shot of the coffee sign in the back.”

“And I always want to get a shot of the manager or the owner,” he continues. “You always get a guy like Dean Newman (of Mole’s) — the older guy, store’s kind of cluttered, very nice but tough veneer. And then the newer stores have the young hipster types with the tattoos. And then you also have the cynical guy whose business is not doing well and he’s pissed off at the world.”

There was one like that in L.A., Spitz says, and also in Cincinnati.

You might call record stores a labor of brotherly love. No less than three sets of brothers own one locally — Darren and Jim Blase of Shake It, Terry and Robert Cole of Plaid Room and Kevin, Tom and Mike Schraer of Jet Age. And there are two women owners — Iris BookCafe’s Julie Fay, who has kept the adjacent Another Part of the Forest open since its founder and her business partner, Mike Markiewicz, died in 2014; and Marilyn Kirby, who has run Everybody’s, with loyal employees, since 1978.

Writer Lipp found her story inspiring. “She was a single mom raising two young sons when getting her record store off the ground,” she says. “She said some of her friends and people working in the music business would help her with her store and her family. I felt that was a neat story, how everybody came together for her as a community.”

That may be the key lesson from the photos and stories that comprise Queen City Records. Each indie record store is a community unto itself.

Queen City Records will soon be available at select record stores and Joseph-Beth Booksellers at Rookwood Pavilion, as well as from mikespitz.com.

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A Cincinnati Gallery’s Relationship with Pop Art Pioneer Richard Hamilton

 BY STEVEN ROSEN / OCT 5, 2011 / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT

 

At Carl Solway Gallery in the West End, on a wall by a stairway leading up to his office, is a small but heartfelt tribute to the British Pop Art pioneer Richard Hamilton, who died last month at age 89. 

On the wall is one of Hamilton’s prints: “Kent State,” based on a photographic image he snapped from his television set during news coverage of the 1970 killing by Ohio National Guard troops of four university students on their campus. Next to it is a photograph of Hamilton with that print.

Solway knew and supported Hamilton. When the artist made his “Kent State” series in 1970, Solway immediately bought 35 to display and sell. And later he initiated and published a small edition of one of Hamilton’s quirkier Pop artworks, 1989’s “Epiphany.” It is an enlarged “joke button” — cellulose on aluminum — reading in blue lettering against an orange background: “Slip it to me.” 

This edition was inspired by an earlier version — a one-off giant button — that Hamilton did in 1964 and that has a fascinating history. He had come to Pasadena to see the now-famous Marcel Duchamp retrospective at Pasadena Art Museum. While in Los Angeles, he visited Venice Beach and became delighted by a button at a joke shop. Sensing its wit wasn’t that far from Duchamp’s own humorous conceptualism, he had his “Epiphany.” It was Solway’s idea, two decades later, to create the edition for an art fair. Hamilton produced 12 (plus two artist proofs). Solway sold them for $10,000 each — it took years, but he found buyers for all. Recently, one resold at auction for $270,000.

While Hamilton maybe isn’t that well known in Cincinnati, or even to the American art world in general (a major U.S. retrospective opens next year), it’s all one more example that in Solway’s long career he has worked with many of the pioneers of Pop and subsequent movements in post-war Contemporary art. Next year, he celebrates his 50th year as a gallerist.

As much as anyone, Hamilton can lay claim to creating Pop. His 1956 collage entitled “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?” assembled images cut from magazines to create a dizzying and disorienting mix of commercial imagery turned into art. On a the wrapper of a lollipop extending from a bodybuilder’s crotch is the word “POP” — a reference to Tootsie Pop but also the start, many believe, of one of art’s greatest movements. Hamilton also designed the Beatles’ “white album.”

 

Solway first became acquainted with Hamilton in early 1970, when he visited him in his London studio. Solway’s Eye Editions had just successfully worked with John Cage, so he suddenly had access to great artists. Hamilton discussed a problem he had with an earlier screenprint, 1964’s “Five Tyres Abandoned,” in which he had first had tried to create an embossed relief showing tread-pattern changes through use. But he couldn’t figure out how to accurately draw the geometric changes from a single perspective and settled for something less.

“So I said, ‘Richard, a computer can do that,’ ” Solway recalled. “He said, ‘Can you find a computer company in America I can work with?’ We (Solway and assistant Jack Bolton) actually did find somebody in Boston, and Richard came to the States and worked with this company and actually finished it. It was called ‘Five Tyres Remoulded.’ ” 

Solway says that was one of the first artworks to be created by computer. Although Solway didn’t publish the resultant print portfolio, Hamilton thanked him in print. “I had for years around here all the punch cards in great big boxes,” Solway recalled. “I gave them all to Yale because they wanted a set of prints.”

The Triumphant Andre Williams

andre

After decades of struggle, R&B artist Andre Williams finds his way back

SEP 8, 2010 
CINCINNATI CITYBEAT

Rock & Roll and Rhythm & Blues have their legions of foot soldiers — men and women who played a role in the recording, writing, producing and/or performing of great old songs but, for whatever reason, never became known outside their tight-knit world.

Yet, as the decades go by and the music retains its staying power, a surprising number attempt to step out of the shadows and create a career — however late it might seem — as a creative artist whose work matters. And they hope that, to paraphrase the title of the first track on Andre Williams’ new Bloodshot Records album That’s All I Need, their time will come.

Williams, 73, has been one of those foot soldiers. His nickname, “Mr. Rhythm,” was given to him by Redd Foxx way back in the early 1950s, when the two performed at the same club in San Diego.

Williams went on to make sometimes-salacious R&B records like “Bacon Fat,” “The Greasy Chicken,” “Jail Bait” and “Loose Juice” for independent labels, especially a classic pre-Motown Detroit company called Fortune. He also helped Motown founder Berry Gordy get his start, produced Ike Turner, did live shows with Little Willie John, managed Soul singer Edwin Starr (“Agent Double-O-Soul”) and wrote a couple of 1960s dance classics for others — “Shake a Tail Feather” and “Twine Time.”

Williams also slipped into drugs, alcohol and homelessness in the 1980s. It was a struggle to survive but he managed to do so and, starting in the mid-1990s, he began to record again on small, hipster labels with retro sensibilities, often supported by younger Rock musicians steeped in Garage Rock/R&B history, like The Dirtbombs and The Sadies. A young Jack White even played on one of his records. Williams remerged as everything bands like The Cramps and Detroit Cobras idolized.

And, slowly, Williams began to build a reputation as a performer with an expressive voice that walked the line between talking and singing, giving his songs a kind of monologue-like authenticity. He also started to finally get known for songs with a sleazy, raunchy in-your-face element, like “Can’t Take ‘Em Off” and “Pussy Stank (But So Do Marijuana).” He became the subject of a documentary and more recently published a short-story collection, Sweets, that has won praise from writer Nick Tosches.

While that leadoff track, “My Time Will Come,” on his new album addresses the future, Williams believes it has now arrived.

“ ‘My Time Will Come’ is exactly what’s happening now — my time came,” Williams says. “Now I feel like I’m in the middle of what I was struggling to accomplish. After all the people I met, all the struggles and trauma I’ve been through, the drugs and alcohol and bad experiences, I was able to come through alive and well. My time has come.”

But with this growing success has come a change. That’s All I Need, co-produced in Detroit by Williams with a tight group of seasoned Blues/Rock/Soul musicians (including Motown guitar great Dennis Coffey) isn’t as, well, nasty as some of his efforts.

In fact, at times — like on the title song, “There Ain’t No Such Thing As Good Dope,” “Amends” or “Cigarettes and My Old Lady” — Williams can wax philosophical in a streetwise, life’s-lessons-learned way. Sort of like Gil Scott-Heron with a nod to Howlin’ Wolf. He can also pack some political wallop, like his knock at the self-righteousness of the religious right on “America”: “Just because you don’t see me on Sunday/Sitting down on the front-row pew/That don’t mean I don’t like America/I like America, too/Just like you.”

Williams seems to want to make a major statement.

“You put your finger on it,” he says. “I felt this time I wanted to write about some struggles I have seen and been through. I wanted to do it for my grandkids. I wanted to give them something they can go back to and be proud to have it in their house. I wanted to leave them some substance. These songs are not fantasies; that’s why this is so different.”

That’s not to say there aren’t funny elements in this album’s songs — Williams likes humor. And it doesn’t mean he’s forsaken his past, either. He’s proud of it.

“Those are my entertaining songs,” he says of his back catalog. “Those are the songs for after I get done telling about the realistic side of life. You’ve got to slide some humor into it, and the humor is the sleaziness.”


ANDRE WILLIAMS performs in the Southgate House’s Parlour room Thursday with The Goldstars and Eric Stein. Go here for show and venue details.

How Cincinnati’s King Records Gave Soul/Blues Performer Syl Johnson his Start — and his Name.

syl-johnson

BY STEVEN ROSEN / BLURT /2010

There are those who believe Syl Johnson’s reputation isn’t commensurate with his musical accomplishments.

And fortunately for the 74-year-old Chicago blues and soul singer/guitarist/producer  —whose fascinatingly long career includes the R&B hits “Different Strokes,” “Come On Sock It to Me,” “Concrete Reservation,” “Dresses Too Short,” “Is It Because I’m Black?” and the original hit version of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” — one of his true believers is the Chicago-based archivist record label Numero Group.

On Oct. 19, it is releasing a combination four-disc/six-LP boxed set called Syl Johnson: The Complete Mythology, focusing on his solo career from 1959-1977 (excluding his already well-documented work for Willie Mitchell’s high-profile, Memphis-based Hi label in the early 1970s, where he first recorded “River”).

Four years in the making, it includes 81 tracks from the Federal, Cha-Cha, Tmp-Ting, Special Agent, Zachron and especially Chicago’s Twilight/Twinight labels, where his hits like “Sock It To Me” and “Different Strokes” have gone on to be sampled by a who’s who of contemporary rap and hip-hop. The set also contains a 52-page booklet, scholarly notes on his recording sessions and facsimiles of his two Twinight LPs, Dresses Too Short# and #Is It Because I’m Black?

Johnson, by the way, is still very active touring and producing. But he took some time recently to talk on the phone about his musical roots. Born in Holly Springs, Miss., as Sylvester Thompson, he moved to Chicago where he and his two equally musical brothers started carving out careers in the lively 1950s blues scene. He worked with the likes of Elmore James, Billy Boy Arnold, John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells and Jimmy Reed.

“There was this (Chicago) label Veejay, and I was there there making a session with Jimmy Reed,” Johnson recalls. “He used to be a drunk and we’d wait on him to get his whiskey and stuff and we’d be sitting round the studio. I was showing how I could sing, and somehow Vivian Carter (the label co-owner) heard me and said to (her brother) to get this young boy to sing. He told me to write a song, put it on a dub and bring it.”

And Johnson — still known as Sylvester Thompson — did that. Except, as he was walking down the city’s fabled blues-music center, South Michigan Avenue, with his record, he saw another record company. It was a branch of Cincinnati-based King Records, an R&B/blues music giant of the day. “And there was a guy there named Ralph Bass and I gave him my dub — it was song called ‘Teardrops,” Johnson says. “And he wouldn’t let me go. He said, ‘We’re King Records, a big company; we have James Brown.’”

So he recorded it properly for King subsidiary Federal, and then went on to record other sides for the company. While nothing became a hit, the King experience was notable because the label’s president, Sydney Nathan, ordered his name changed on the records. “He said, ‘Sylvester Thompson sounds like a governor or something.’ So he changed it. He said that will be a stage name – like B.B. King or Satchmo. So Syl Johnson it was.”

All these years later, Johnson has but one regret. “I thought it should have been Sly,” he jokes.

Notable Regional Books of 2018

From a collection of poetry penned by late Aralee Strange to novels that explore the opioid crisis and more.

BY STEVEN ROSEN / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT / NOV. 28. 2018

Bookcovercollage2018These are among 2018’s books with regional appeal.COVERS: PROVIDED

A “regional book” can be defined broadly (the author is from Cleveland) or narrowly (it could be about University of Cincinnati’s history). As a result, in any given year there are many to choose from. Thus, this survey of 2018’s most notable regional books is necessarily selective.

To me, the most significant 2018 book of regional interest is a collection of poetry. That’s not only because of what it is, but also because of whose writing it features. The Road Itself (Dos Madres Press) is an overview of the poetry of Aralee Strange, who was very much a part of Cincinnati’s arts community for the approximately 20 years she lived here. Although she died in 2013, she has continued to be a source of inspiration for those who knew her.

After time spent in Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala., Cambridge, Mass. and New York City, Strange lived in Over-the-Rhine and Adams County, Ohio from the ’80s through the ’00s. She then moved to Athens in her home state of Georgia, where she died.

At a time when OTR’s Main Street had urban blight (but also a developing Bohemianism), Strange found strong, vivid source material there. She wrote the poems “dr. pain on main,” “dr. pain’s downtown ramble bone” and “dr. pain’s main street remedy,” which are all included in The Road Itself. As she was close with visual artists, the book features cover art by Jay Bolotin — also a Cincinnatian — and contributions from others.

There is a book release celebration on Tuesday, Nov. 27, at Over-the-Rhine’s Woodward Theater, presented by Word of Mouth Cincinnati.  Strange’s poems will be read by Pauletta Hansel, Matt Hart, Jim Palmarini, Stacy Sims, Mark Flanigan, Steven Paul Lansky, Ali Edwards, Richard Hague, Michael Henson, Heidi Joffe, John Ray and Michael Burnham; the band Ruby Vileos will reunite and play in tribute to Strange. The event starts at 7 p.m. and is free.

Moving on to regional novels, there were some that attracted national attention in 2018. Leah Stewart, a creative writing professor and chair of the Creating Writing: Fiction program at University of Cincinnati, published What You Don’t Know About Charlie Outlaw (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) in spring. It’s the story of an actor who gets kidnapped when he leaves the U.S. for a secluded island. CityBeat called it “a carefully crafted meditation on modern identity and the divisions between our private and public selves” and Entertainment Weekly listed it as one of 10 books to read if you love A Star Is Born.

The opioid crisis factors into two attention-grabbing regional novels, both debuts by relatively new writers.

Stephen Markley’s Ohio (Simon & Schuster) is set in the fictional town of New Canaan and concerns four former classmates experiencing the Rust Belt’s decay. NPR called it “a sprawling, beautiful novel that explores the aftermath of the Great Recession and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a powerful look at the tenuous bonds that hold people together at their best and at their worst.”

Nico Walker’s Cherry (Alfred A. Knopf) just landed on The New York Times’ list of 2018’s 100 Best Books. A literary exercise in tough, violent noir, it follows a damaged, dope-sick Iraqi War medic who returns to Cleveland and robs banks. It’s also semi-autobiographical — Walker wrote it while serving time for bank robbery at a federal prison in Ashland, Ky.

In non-fiction, the University of Cincinnati Press is preparing for the school’s 2019 bicentennial with a collection of fascinating, thoughtfully written essays about its history. From the Temple of Zeus to the Hyperloop: University of Cincinnati Stories, was edited by Greg Hand, UC’s former vice president for public relations. And Dylan Taylor-Lehman looks at the colorful task of governing in Yellow Springs, Ohio — home of the progressive Antioch College — in Dance of the Trustees: On the Astonishing Concerns of a Small Ohio Township (The Ohio State University Press).

Cincinnati historian/writer Jeff Suess released a lovely book with great photographs called Cincinnati: Then and Now (Pavilion Books). You may not be pleased when you see what now stands where the Shubert Theater or the Price Hill Incline were located, but other landmarks — like Union Terminal and the Roebling Suspension Bridge — have aged very well.

This year’s Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China was the highest-attended ticketed exhibition at Cincinnati Art Museum since ’82-’83’s Treasures of the Tower of London, and you can relive it with the hardbound catalog, authored by Li Jian and Hou-mei Sung and published by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

It’s been a busy year for books about music history and the music business. Hamilton, Ohio-based music writer Randy McNutt has just self-published his latest work, Spinning the Groove: An A-Z Guide to the Lingo and Legacy of the Old Record Business. Want to know what “sleepersville” or “glue job” meant? The definitions of those terms and many others are here.

Fran Belkin, whose husband Jules (with his brother Mike) was probably Ohio’s most important concert promoter during the Rock era, has written about their many memorable shows in her self-published Rock This Town! Backstage in Cleveland: Stories you never heard & swag you never saw. Although Belkin produced Cincinnati shows, the book is focused on northeastern Ohio concerts. Among other things, Belkin Productions booked David Bowie’s first U.S. concert (in 1972 at Cleveland’s Music Hall) and filled the city’s 78,000-capacity Memorial Stadium for The Rolling Stones.

Cincinnati-based cartoonist Carol Tyler’s Fab4 Mania: A Beatles Obsession and the Concert of a Lifetime (Fantagraphics Books), is a poignant graphic novel based on a diary-like book she made at age 13 about wanting to see the Beatles play a concert near her Chicago home in 1965.

And while Susan Whitall’s Fever: Little Willie John — A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul (Titan Books) isn’t new (it was published in 2011), it is newly relevant because the character of John — a 1950s-era King Records singer who first recorded the classic “Fever” — plays such an important part in Cincinnati Playhouse’s current Cincinnati King. Whitall’s book offers a chance to learn more about John.

Hackamore Brick: One of Rock’s Great ‘Missing Links’

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BY STEVEN ROSEN
09/20/2013 HUFFINGTON POST

Look at the website All Music’s artist-biography page for Hackamore Brick, which released one album in 1970, and it’s pretty impressive for a band too obscure to even be called “cult”:

“Hackamore Brick are one of the great missing links in the late-‘60s New York music scene. In some circles, the Brooklyn-spawned quartet is considered notable as the first band known to cite the Velvet Underground as a source of inspiration; all four members were part of the Velvet Underground Appreciation Society and one can, indeed, hear their influence throughout the music on…One Kiss Leads to Another, cut for Buddah Records’ Kama Sutra imprint, no less.”

“We don’t know where that came from,” says Tommy Moonlight, the group’s co-lead singer and -writer as well as co-keyboard player and guitarist, today. He explains that none of the band’s four members – him; Chick (Charles) Newman, the other co-leader; bassist Bob Roman, drummer Robbie Biegel – was ever in the VU Appreciation Society.

“I had heard the record with the banana on it — Bob had that record,” he explains. “We don’t count it as one of our influences.”

 

Yet, one listen to One Kiss confirms that, at least at times, Hackamore Brick did indeed sound like the Velvets. All Music got it right when it said that “Lou Reed’s singing style is in evidence throughout Chick Newman’s flat intonation, but other attributes here range further, eerily anticipating the minimalist charm of Jonathan Richman, while some of the material, such as the Bob Roman/Tommy Moonlight-authored ‘Peace Has Come,’ makes one think of an embryonic Television.”

 

So what does all this matter now? Well, first, tracing the manner by which Velvet Underground’s alternative vision of rock ‘n’ roll came to permeate pop culture is serious business – the stuff of college courses and scholarly books. And second, because 43 years after One Kiss’s uneventful release and quick departure, it has finally gotten a reissue by Real Gone Music. Not just on CD, but also on vinyl. And there is interest among music cognoscenti: Moonlight and Newman, with support musicians, performed the album live, as Hackamore Brick, for a late-July broadcast on taste-making radio station WFMU-FM.

All this has brought the 60-something Moonlight (a stage name he still prefers to use) and Newman into the daylight, so to speak, to talk (via telephone) about the band and its influences. Moonlight lives in Long Beach, in New York’s Nassau County, while Newman is in Brooklyn while his hurricane-damaged Rockaway home is repaired.

 

And Moonlight also wants to clear something else up. “I don’t think I’m Lou Reed,” he says. “You’re not,” replies Newman. Somehow, the rumor got started that Reed – between his departure from Velvet Underground in 1970 and his first solo album in 1972 – recorded One Kiss under the “Tommy Moonlight” moniker.

 

That rumor was floated in Creem magazine, Moonlight says, a couple years after Hackamore Brick’s album had disappeared. It gained a certain credence because the band’s producer, Richard Robinson, also produced Reed’s solo debut.” (As an aside, this writer remembers meeting a Velvet Underground Appreciation Society member in Denver in the early 1990s who swore that “Tommy Moonlight is Lou Reed.”)

 

The two music lovers met as City College of New York students in the late 1960s when Newman was playing Farfisa organ in an existing band. With Biegel, they first formed Ice and then (with Roman added) Hackamore Brick. A “hackamore” is a type of headgear for horses. “We both had interest in thoroughbred horses, knew what a hackamore was, put it together with ‘brick’ and to this day I don’t know what it means,” Moonlight confesses. (He also confesses to an offbeat sense of humor.)

 

The album, by the way, is very good. Without prominent lead guitar, the group uses keyboards and rhythm guitar to get a driving, minimalist sound for the original songs, sometimes droll and sometimes earnest. The vocals are delivered by either Moonlight or Newman in a deadpan, conversationalist manner that is mixed down in production. Some of the songs, like “Zip Gun Woman” and “Oh! Those Sweet Bananas,” have a cheeky irreverence. Others, like “Reachin’” and “Peace Has Come,” are touching in their yearning directness and youthful anxiety.

 

Moonlight’s riff-insistent “Radio,” for instance, is a close cousin to Reed’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll” and Richman’s “Roadrunner” – the three are almost a secular Holy Trinity. But it’s also a perverse put-on that owes a bit to J. Frank Wilson’s “Last Kiss.” A drag-racing couple, trying to hear their dedication on Top 40 radio, finally does just as the girl falls out of the car giving a competing driver the finger. She hears it as she lay dying.

 

As a result of its attributes, the album has the kind of gutsy street cred that was — and still is — a refreshing parallel vision to the virtuosity (some might say the bombast) of the Beatles, the Who, Led Zeppelin or other supergroups of the time. It would certainly seem to owe a debt to the Velvets’ third album, and one might indeed call it pre-punk.

 

Really, Moonlight says, Hackamore Brick’s key influence was the many New York folkies turning to singer-songwriter-rock in the wake of Bob Dylan’s success. And there was a countercultural influence, too – photos in the CD booklet show that the guys were longhaired hippies. (Biegel, in particular, with his thick curly hair and cool blue outfit — jean jacket, patched blue jeans and blue T-shirt — really stands out on the album cover, shot on the fire escape of photographer Joel Brodsky’s studio.)

“Pretty much all the guys walking around Brooklyn at time looked like we did,” Moonlight says. “At that time, there were a whole lot of folk singers who decided to do rock, and they didn’t play electric guitar the way the British did. That was a New York sound to us more than a Velvet Underground sound.”

 

According to Newman, Hackamore Brick immediately got some gigs — at a Staten Island club called the Ritz, at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and at Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric wing. (He insists the last mention is not a joke.)

 

Band members also had a contract with Koppelman Rubin, a powerhouse New York record-production company, but were hampered because Biegel — a minor at the time — couldn’t sign so they lost a key member. They did make some recordings that so far remain unreleased.

 

With Biegel back in the band, they went shopping for a label in 1970. They tried Kama Sutra, which had been very successful in the mid-1960s with New York folk-rockers Lovin’ Spoonful. By 1970, it had a reputation (with its mate Buddah, which pioneered late-1960s bubble-gum music with hits like Ohio Express’ “Yummy Yummy Yummy” and “Chewy Chewy”) as a singles label in an album-rock world. To try to change that, it hired Robinson as a producer. He had been a New York rock writer.

 

“We brought three songs to a reception guy,” Newman says. “He liked it, and I guess he showed it to (label head Neal) Bogart, and he brought it over to Robinson. He liked it.”

With a label interested, Moonlight and Newman worked hard on songs — mostly individually, but they shared credit on “Zip Gun Woman” and Moonlight provided music to Roman’s lovely lyrics on “Peace Has Come.” They recorded in late spring, got the album out later that year, and played a weeklong showcase at the Bitter End.

 

The idea to make the vocals naturalistic and somewhat off-handed seems to have been both Robinson’s and Hackamore Brick’s. “We had an idea to have the vocals mixed down a little bit, which to this day I think was a mistake,” Moonlight says. “The flatness of it could have been Richard. We just didn’t want the vocals to be way up over the music.”

Hackamore Brick redid versions of “Radio” and “I Watched You Rhumba” with clearer vocals for a single. Those and a version of the Coasters’ “Searchin’” are bonuses on the newly issued CD.

 

That winter, Hackamore Brick departed for an extended gig in the Virgin Islands as the album headed toward oblivion, despite some good reviews. In 1971 they started to record a second one, but fought with the label over the choice of a studio. And Robinson had departed for RCA, where he would work with Reed.

 

“We wanted to go somewhere else,” Moonlight explains. “We thought maybe we’d get a deal with RCA, so we walked out of that contract.” But Robinson soon departed RCA and the band, without a label contact, broke up. That was 1972, Newman recalls, but Hackamore Brick first recorded some new songs meant for a second disc. They have never been released.

 

The story gets a bit hard to follow after that, but the essential points are that Newman and Moonlight never stopped making music in the New York area, together with a group, as a duo, or separately. At some points, they used the Hackamore Brick name. Other times they played as Moonlight, Stars, or Blue Yonder.

 

They got some inkling that their album might have made an impression in the mid-1970s. At CBGB gig, Andy “Adny” Shernoff and Scott Kempner of the Dictators, a similarly irreverent band that had started up in 1973, came to encourage them.

 

“We didn’t know them then, but they were in the audience requesting songs and we couldn’t imagine how anyone would know our songs,” Moonlight says. But nothing much else happened. They did record more songs, also never released, in Austin in the 1980s.

The four Hackamore Brick members last played together in 1981 at a reunion of sorts in a studio. Roman now lives in Maine and Biegel in Florida — both have pursued music. For awhile, Moonlight and Newman supported their musical ventures with secondary jobs; eventually the music became secondary to the day jobs — Newman as an antiques seller; Moonlight in retail.

 

“We’ve been friends throughout, but musically we weren’t doing a hell of a lot together for awhile,” Newman explains. “We’d see each other socially and play for our friends. Around mid-2000, we started getting together again.”

 

In 2006, the duo played a wedding as Hackamore Brick. Buoyed by the response, in 2009 they released a six-song CD of recent recordings called Long Way Home (available at http://www.hackamorebrick.com) and decided to promote it with some shows in the Lower East Side. By then word had spread that One Kiss was a “lost rock gem” to attract an audience.

 

“It was just Tommy and me and we advertised it as Hackamore Brick,” Newman says. “Much to our surprise, we got quite a few Hackamore Brick fans, some writers and DJs. We got choked up a bit.”

 

The plan now is to play some more gigs as Hackamore Brick, either as a duo or with support on bass and drums, to capitalize on the reissue. And they want to finally release some of those Hackamore Brick recordings made but then shelved for decades. As for a full-scale reunion, perhaps at an “unsung heroes” festival like Ponderosa Stomp? “If things develop and people are interested, we can see what Bobby and Rob are up to,” Moonlight says. “They are far away.”

 

But Moonlight is impressed Hackamore Brick has gotten this far. “I used to say the orginal 17 people who bought our record were the only people paying attention. But I was proved wrong.”

 

(This is an edited/excerpted version of a story that first appeared Sept. 17 at the http://www.blurtonline.com Website.)

 

(Photo is of the band’s 1970 album)

Remembering Vic Chesnutt

Veteran singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt finds inspiration in authors, artists and bands

By Steven Rosen / Cincinnati CityBeat/ Oct. 28, 2009
 (Note: This interview with Chestnut was done in advance of a concert appearance in Cincinnati in connection with his then-new At the Cut album. He died on Dec. 25 that year, and continues to be missed.)
vic
Ever since he released his first Michael Stipe-produced album Little in 1990, Vic Chesnutt has carved out one of the most unusual careers in the singer/songwriter pantheon.

A paraplegic using a wheelchair since breaking his neck in a 1983 car accident, the 44-year-old, Athens, Ga.-based Chesnutt may be physically confined but not creatively. Through 15 albums — including the brand-new At the Cut — and constant touring, he has made a name for his meandering, gorgeous melodies and his fearless exploration of dark and mysterious, often-autobiographical subject matter.

His deepest thoughts are revealed through his arresting wordplay, which can be surreal, spookily Southern Gothic and starkly straightforward. And his voice exudes rustic authenticity as it jumps from falsetto sweetness to biting anger or world-weary confession.

It is music both peacefully down-home and very, very ominous, like The Band playing outdoors as a storm gathers.

Chesnutt has also steadily collaborated with bands like Widespread Panic, Cowboy Junkies, Elf Power and Lambchop, judiciously working with innovative arrangements and growing ever stronger as a rocker. At the Cut is his second collaboration with members of cutting-edge Indie bands Thee Silver Mt. Zion, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Fugazi. In 2007, they all worked together on North Star Deserter, which was recorded in Montreal by former Arcade Fire member Howard Bilerman, just as At the Cut was.

Chesnutt believes this is his best album to date.

It covers wide territory — the swelling orchestration on the imploring “Coward,” the intimately minimalist acoustic “When the Bottom Falls Out,” the slashing rocker “Philip Guston” and the powerful “Flirted With You All My Life,” maybe the most intensely felt song about death since Ralph Stanley’s “O Death.”

“It’s a very adult album in many ways,” Chesnutt says. “And it encompasses most of what I do in my singing and songwriting. The musicianship and arrangements are incredible. I think it’s a very sophisticated album musically. It’s very raw in some places but also very architecturally sound. I’m very proud of it.”

Whatever else about Chesnutt, his lyrics keep you riveted to (and sometimes mystified by) what he has to say. On an At the Cut song like “Chinaberry Tree,” he’ writes, “Me with a Machete/Going at the chinaberry tree/All the Key Players watching me/ Through their simian groupthink.”

Then again, “Flirted With You …” is poetically direct: “When my Mom was cancer sick/She fought but then Succumbed to it/ but You made her beg For it/Lord Jesus, please I’m Ready’/o’Death … Clearly I’m not ready.”

“I’ve been accused of being a poet for a long time,” Chesnutt says. “Where I do use poetic devices a lot — metaphor, symbolism, simile, rhyme, of course — I don’t consider myself a poet. Poetic maybe. I’m not as schooled as real poets are. I’m a folksong writer; it’s pretty much Rock & Roll and folksong structures.

“I write songs all kinds of ways,” he explains. “Sometimes lyrics first, sometimes I have a melody and chord progression and plug in the lyrics, sometimes I write lyrics and melody at the same time — the way I prefer to do it. I hardly ever write in the presence of other people. I write all the songs on my own and the collaboration is on the arrangements.”

When Chesnutt first went to Montreal to record North Star Deserter, he went at the request of a friend and supporter, the filmmaker/photographer Jem Cohen. He didn’t really know the musicians, except for Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto.

“As soon as I went up there, I fell in love with them all,” he says. “I thought we had a musical rapport and a personal friendship. And then we made that album and went on tour and it developed a whole different level of intimacy.

“We knew, ‘Wow, we’ve got to make another record because we’re in love.’ It felt great. This band is an incredible brain trust — a Punk Rock supergroup. I’m flattered I can surround myself with such luminaries, such incredibly talented people.”

One of the great pleasures of Chesnutt’s idiosyncratic work is in knowing the literary and artistic references that inform it. The explosive lead track, “Coward,” begins with a quote from writer Frank Norris’s McTeague: “The courage of the coward, greater than all others.” It also quotes from Joseph Roth’s novel Radetzky March.

“I wrote this song with this band in mind right after I came home from recording North Star Deserter,” Chesnutt says. “It was inspired by several things. Jem Cohen wanted us all to read Radetzky March. Reading that, I also had the idea I wanted to write a song about a coward. We played it every night during the North Star Deserter tour so we knew it would be the centerpiece of this album. That song is a hangdog manifesto, straight from my lips.”

Chesnutt’s “Philip Guston” is a tribute to the forcefully expressionist American painter whose best-known work featured bluntly cartoonish figures and offered sometimes scathing takes on political issues like racism.

“Every word in that song is taken from his paintings — he has a lot of writing in his paintings, as well as the titles,” Chesnutt says. “I like his humor, his politics and his kind of boldness. He’s a rough and tumble dude with very manly paintings, and I like that.”

In such ways, a Vic Chesnutt concert is a lesson in American arts and history — with music.


VIC CHESNUTT and his “supergroup” of indie rockers play the Southgate House Nov. 4. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get club details here.