Steven Rosen's Writings

A topnotch site

How ‘Don’t Stop Believin” Became a ‘Monster’ Hit



POP STARS OF disparate ages and musical styles, when forced to share a stage, can be as awkward together as “strangers waiting up and down the boulevard”. They need a song to bring them together – and the one they choose, if it works, can have all the pop-culture portent of a classic TV show’s finale.

There’s no better – or odder – recent example of a musical common bond than the spectacle of seeing Sting, Blondie’s Deborah Harry, hoop-skirted and gray-hair-bewigged Lady Gaga, Elton John, Goldfinger‘s Shirley Bassey and a guitar-strapped Bruce Springsteen on stage in May at Carnegie Hall at the end of a Rainforest Fund benefit. Their unifying hymn? Journey’s 1981 power ballad, ‘Don’t Stop Believin”. The song reached No. 9 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 – by Journey standards, just average – and had faded from pop culture until a comeback in this century’s first decade.

Lady Gaga – the youngest of the sextet and unburdened by being a “rock” legend or interpreter of older show/movie tunes (like Bassey) – seemed a natural for it. But the others? ‘Don’t Stop Believin” used to be thought of, in hip rock circles, as the kind of overly emphatic Top 40 power-ballad – with Steve Perry’s grandiloquent vocals stretching out inspirational catch-phrase lyrics – that Blondie’s and the Police’s New Wave, not to mention Springsteen’s backstreets authenticity, were created to battle. And what’s with that “south Detroit” reference?

But there they were, singing it and looking pretty happy. Maybe not quite as happy, however, as the cast of “Glee,” in this summer’s season finale, where their defiant, fist-pumping version brought a Journey medley to an emotional climax.

‘Don’t Stop Believin” was not Journey’s biggest radio hit. ‘Open Arms’ and ‘Who’s Crying Now’ were bigger and the group had three other songs make the Top Ten. In the immediate decades after the release, it certainly could be heard on classic-rock radio, but it wasn’t considered one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest anthems.

But now, according to Wikipedia, it is the top downloaded pop song – almost four million – of any recorded before the 21st Century. This past summer, Journey’s version was one of iTunes Top Ten most-recorded pop songs. It’s even made Broadway – it’s a showstopper in the hit musical Rock of Ages.

‘Don’t Stop Believin” seems to have been reborn as a heartfelt anthem, an instant evocation of youthful hope and desire for the future. But also one with a film-noir-like dark undercurrent. And both elements appeal to contemporary pop culture.

Though it ends triumphantly, the song opens with Jonathan Cain’s foreboding keyboard signature and then Perry, in a voice choked with melancholy, begins “Just a small town girl/living in a lonely world…” He moves on to describe a scary urban landscape filled with “the smell of wine and cheap perfume,” “shadows searching in the night,” and those “strangers waiting up and down the boulevard”.

It’s the song’s triumphal aspect, no doubt, that has spurred much of its revival – Glee taps into it, as did the Chicago White Sox when they made the song an anthem of their 2005 World Championship season.

But Sopranos creator David Chase tapped into the noir quality when he had Tony Soprano choose it on the restaurant jukebox for the dark, mysterious, final episode of the series. The show stops abruptly right after Perry sings ‘Don’t Stop’ at the fade-out.

Perry, who long ago left the band – and, seemingly, being an active musician although he had a 1984 solo hit, ‘Oh Sherrie’, much bigger initially than ‘Don’t Stop Believin” – addressed the resurgence in an interview earlier this year with Britain’s Planet Rock radio station. He recalled how, even though the song was not that big on radio, it resonated with fans at concerts. That helped him believe in it. “Personally, it’s something that means a lot to me,” he said. “…Everybody has emotional issues and problems, and the song has helped me personally to not give up, and I’m finding a lot of people feel that.”

To this writer, the song’s renewal was most helped by its inclusion in 2003 indie film Monster. (Perry gets a credit as music consultant.) It’s a tough, gripping and ultimately tragic story of Ailenne Wuornos, the Florida prostitute executed in 2002 for killing her johns. The movie wasn’t widely seen, but had a strong impact on the creative community – Charlize Theron won the Oscar for transforming herself into the downtrodden, homely Wuornos. (Theron was also a producer.)

Early in the film, the song plays when Ailenne roller-skates at a rink with a girl (played by Christina Ricci) who finds her attractive. They start kissing on the rink, then passionately embrace outside. For both, this constitutes a bold, public moment of coming out and finding love – and, for a while at least, hope. It makes what follows all the sadder, because we glimpse a different path. Monster gave ‘Don’t Stop Believin” a newfound profundity. It was no longer just nostalgia.

In 2003, I interviewed both Theron and director Patty Jenkins about the song choice. “We shot the scene listening to Journey, and it does so much for the movie because it’s such a great song for the movie when you listen to lyrics,” Theron said. “But we had no money in the budget, so I wrote [Perry] a very nice letter just very truthfully saying we had always dreamed of doing this song. We sent all the band members a tape of the movie to watch. Steve called us back. He really loved the film and said he saw what we were trying to do with the music, and that it was a very authentic moment for us in that film.”

He gave approval, and helped Jenkins with other song choices. And in return, Monster helped ‘Don’t Stop Believin”s path to becoming a monster hit all over again.

Happenings 50 Years (+) Time Ago: The Night the Yardbirds Played My High School Prom




(This story by Tim VonderBrink originally ran in One Shot, a fanzine I published in the 1980s, with the headline “Happenings 20 Years Time Ago.” I am publishing it on my blog, with his permission, because interest in the event only grows stronger with time and he frequently gets asked about it. The May, 2020 issue of Cincinnati Magazine has a superb story about it by Lisa Murtha, a detailed and fascinating oral history of the event. The photo is from Wikimedia Commons, which maintains freely usable media files.)



IT WAS PROM NIGHT, 1968. Boutonnieres, corsages, tuxedos, the works. Guys shaving their peach-fuzzed faces, adjusting their cummerbunds and climbing into their dads’ cars to pick up their girl friends, or maybe someone they’d only talked to on the phone.

It was a prom night, in most ways like any other, except this was Cincinnati St. Xavier High School’s Junior Senior Prom. And this was the Yardbirds.

That’s right. A British-Invasion band more experimental than any of its time, one that nurtured three of rock’s most influential guitarists and who had destroyed their guitars onstage in the movie Blow-Up, played at my prom.

While most of us at St. X were thrilled (and fairly incredulous) when the prom plans were announced, the choice was not universally hailed. The Yardbirds cost $2,500 – a pittance by today’s standards, but quite a chunk of change compared with the $200-$300 that would fetch most local bands. So tickets would cost more. And after all, the critics cried, how can you slow-dance to the Yardbirds?

Tickets cost $18 (hacking off those who didn’t really care for the Yardbirds), and the usually separate junior and senior proms were made one event (hacking off the seniors) at Cincinnati’s convention center.

The Yardbirds’ amazing career had passed its peak by 1968. Hits like ‘For Your Love’, ‘Heart Full of Soul’ and ‘Happenings Ten Years Time Ago’ were part of a pyrotechnic past when Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page sharpened their skills and did some of their most influential guitar work. Shortly after their prom appearance, the Yardbirds would be no more. Perhaps we had something to do with that.

The Yardbirds were not the first choice of the prom committee. In fact, desperation had a bit of a hand in it.

Prom coordinator Rip Pelley says Cream had originally been hired, but the supergroup trio of Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker failed to pass a popularity contest.

A Jesuit priest at St. X asked ten students if they would pay $18-20 if Cream were to play the prom. Eight of them not only said no, but confessed they’d never heard of Cream – still a few months away from hitting the American charts with ‘Sunshine of Your Love’. So Cream was out.

Next came the Grass Roots, a more mainstream pop band best known for ‘Midnight Confessions’ and ‘Let’s Live For Today’. They were signed on and tickets were sold with the Grass Roots as headliners until 30 days before the prom, when the manager called to say they would have to cancel.

But the manager said he could line up the Yardbirds, who were filming a TV spot in Cleveland the night before the prom. It was too late for popularity contests. The Yardbirds it would be.

The first clue the group had that they were playing a prom is when Pelley met the group at the airport in his tuxedo. “Jimmy Page thought it was hysterical,” Pelley says.

After the more traditional dance band (hired to appease those who wanted their prom to be a bit more like the ones their parents told them about) had sauntered through the last ballad, the Yardbirds took the stage.

Looking scruffy, rebellious and nothing like a prom band, the Yardbirds soared through their classics as if they were playing to a crowd of thousands. If they were amused by the tuxedoes and formal gowns they looked out on, they showed it only with a few knowing glances between songs. These guys were pros.

While Keith Relf’s harmonica propelled ‘Smokestack Lightning’, the prom crowd stood and stared. Should we dance? The music demanded it but the gowns forbade it. At last, everyone just sat on the floor and gawked at the celebrities that somehow had been lured to a high-school dance in Cincinnati.

‘Over, Under, Sideways, Down,’ ‘Ha Ha Said the Clown’ – they played them all while we just sat and stared. In the middle of one unfamiliar song, Jimmy Page stroked his guitar with a violin bow. The sound was unearthly but quite lyrical. The song, ‘Dazed and Confused,’ would soon appear on an album by a group that Page would first call the New Yardbirds, then Led Zeppelin.

After two 45-minute sets of high-energy electric rock, the Yardbirds bade everyone good night and even thanked us for allowing them to play.

A bit dazed and confused ourselves, we filed out of the convention center, buzzing about the performance.

Pelley, now vice-president of marketing for Allied Artists, a new record label in California whose first release was Luis Cardenas’ ‘Runaway’ remake, has only praise for the Jesuits who, however grudgingly, allowed the Yardbirds to play. “After all, they let it happen,” he says.

Most of those who had wanted a “regular” prom band hadn’t changed their minds after prom night, but even they knew they’d have a story to impress friends with in years to come.

And, come to think of it, the Yardbirds might have felt the same way!

© Tim VonderBrink, 1987

All the Way to Memphis: Big Star and the Great Rock Writers Convention of 1973


(photo of Alex Chilton graced the cover of Holly George-Warren’s biography of him, A Man Called Destruction.)


The respect shown to Alex Chilton upon his recent death — from the press, blogs, fellow musicians, South by Southwest attendees, the pop world in general — revealed just how well-loved his work with the band Big Star had become.

Not that Chilton, who was just 59 when he succumbed to a heart attack in March, had done nothing besides sing/compose/play guitar for the short-lived Big Star. He had been the teenage lead singer with the Box Tops previously, had a long and varied (and controversial) career as a solo artist after Big Star, and even occasionally played and recorded with an updated Big Star II from the early 1990s onward.

But it was the two albums that the youthful Memphis band Big Star put out on Ardent Records (and recorded at Ardent Studios) in 1972 and 1974 that are considered his classic, most enduring work. More, they’re considered rock classics, period — game-changers that pointed the way out of album-rock’s virtuosic excess and toward sometimes-quietly introspective, sometimes-celebratory, always-tuneful and intelligent alternative rock.

They also showed at times an intimately disquieting, disaffected edge that rejected the braggadocio of the era’s strutting big stars in favor of the more intimate, maybe more melancholy, work of the Beatles of “Norwegian Wood” or “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” (A third album bearing the Big Star name, but recorded under different conditions and with a different spirit, came out in 1978 after the band had ceased to exist.)

The band’s legacy has now outlived Chilton, just as it has the band’s originator and co-writer/singer (on the first album), Chris Bell, who left before “Radio City” and died in 1978. And it seems a safe bet it will keep on lasting — “Keep an Eye on the Sky,” a four-disc retrospective with a variety of previously unreleased material, came out just last year.

But Big Star’s ongoing power isn’t the result of the strong sales or radio play that accompanied 1972’s “#1 Record” and 1974’s “Radio City,” despite their deceptive titles. Both were ignored in the marketplace — partly because of problems that Ardent’s parent company, Stax Records, had with its national distributor, Columbia Records.

Rather, the Big Star legacy is due to something that now seems quaint and even endangered in this Internet/download/“American Idol” age — the power of the print press, especially music critics, to champion and call attention to a band’s music at the time of its initial release. They made Big Star stand out — and while it took time, eventually the world noticed, especially other musicians who found themselves attracted to the same unpretentious values.

In Big Star’s case, the initial press came as the result of an extraordinary one-of-a-kind event that once seemed comical but, as time passes, can now be seen as extraordinarily prescient. It was the convention of the National Association of Rock Writers, sponsored by Ardent and held in Memphis over Memorial Day weekend in 1973.

More than 100 — some sources say as many as 175 — rock writers descended on Memphis from all over the U.S. (and England) for the event. Among those who attended were Richard Meltzer, Lester Bangs, Lenny Kaye, Bud Scoppa and a teenage Cameron Crowe. On the final night, a three-piece Big Star closed a multi-act concert and wowed the attendees, resulting in many loyal champions and good press when their album “Radio City” came out the next year.

The “comical” aspect was due to the fact that rock-writing was not a highly evolved “profession” at the time and a lot of the people who came didn’t have much money. That meant they were eager for the free food and drink made available by Ardent. (According to anecdotal reports, the writers angered Memphis hookers because – unlike other conventioneers – they had no spending money.)

But some of the historical accounts make it seem like freeloading was all they were interested in. There was more to it than that – there was even hope of starting a union. “The context of the time was that music criticism was not taken seriously by mainstream anything,” recalls Billy Altman, who attended from State University of New York — Buffalo, where he had started an irreverent fanzine called Punk that had put the 1960s garage band the Seeds on its cover. “Nobody outside our little community thought anything we did had any validity. So what we were doing was to at least validate our own existence.”

In retrospect, with Big Star they did. But it took time for the word to get out. “I felt after that convention that it wasn’t happening — rock critics were really powerless,” recalls Jon Tiven, who had started New Haven Rock Press and had become a writer for several national music magazines while still attending college. He had helped organize the convention at Ardent’s request. “Here we had Big Star and all the critics liked them, but rock writers didn’t have impact at all and it was very frustrating. But I proved myself wrong,” Tiven says.

(As an aside, I supervised the pop-music section of the Harvard Coop’s record store when “Radio City” came out and remember featuring and promoting “Radio City” because of its great press. I also tried to order in “#1 Record” but Columbia Records — Ardent/Stax’s distributor — wouldn’t fill requests. So I know first-hand how crippled the band was by distribution problems. I also saw them play the Performance Center in Cambridge on a short tour supporting “Radio City” and opening for Badfinger, although only Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens from the original line-up were left. I can attest they were indeed magical live.)

John King III, the Ardent promotion manager who was close friends with head of Ardent Records/Ardent Studios John Fry, came up with the idea for the convention based on the good reviews “#1 Record” had received in the still-small rock press. The two believed in Big Star. But with Bell gone, Chilton, Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel were struggling to stay together. They’d recorded a few new songs but were undecided.

“I wanted Big Star to stay together and have a venue where these writers who really seemed to like them a lot could come into town and see them,” King recalls. “I had hero worship. Here were these guys who were passionate about music, while sometimes I was more passionate about the business. So I had a fascination with their magazines. And at that time, I really did hope an association could be formed from the meeting because these people weren’t getting paid.”

If the convention was dreamed up by King as a way to showcase Big Star, it became something more in order to get Stax approval. Primarily a soul-music label, Stax had signed a journeyman British rock band called Skin Alley and saw the event as a way to announce its intentions to move into rock. (Skin Alley’s presence helped lure the British press.) Another act on Ardent, Larry Raspberry and the Highsteppers, were soulful rockers with a volatile live act, fronted by the former lead singer of the Gentrys (“Keep on Dancing”). They were beloved by Stax co-head Jim Stewart.

By setting up a convention-ending show at a venue called Lafayette’s Music Room in Overton Square – featuring Don Nix (a Southern-rock singer-songwriter who was on Stax’s Enterprise label), Skin Alley, Raspberry and finally Big Star – King guaranteed funding from Stax. “That’s how the Rock Writers Convention squeaked through in getting approval,” King says. He estimates it cost Stax about $100,000. “That was a substantial sum, but I tried to protect Stax too, from things like long-distance calls from hotel rooms, without being a chintz ass,” he says.

King turned to Tiven for help because he was among the first to herald “#1 Record.” His story on it appeared in Boston’s Fusion magazine, a rival to Rolling Stone, and was teased on the cover. “I remember how many thousands of Fusions we had with ‘see page 56’ on the cover,” King says.

As a result of Tiven’s coverage, and before the Rock Writers Convention, Ardent had invited him to Memphis to see the studio, and then flew him to San Francisco to attend a Bill Gavin Radio Convention where the label was pushing Big Star. “They made me part of the team and I was happy to be part of the team – I was very happy to be part of t he team,” Tiven says.

Tiven, now Nashville-based and a record producer whose recent projects include new albums by soul-music veterans Howard Tate and Garnet Mimms, has complicated feelings about Big Star today. After befriending Chilton, he had a difficult time trying to produce his 1975 solo session that resulted in the 1977 EP “The Singer Not the Song.” In fact, during this interview, he told some horror stories about Chilton’s conduct during the period, both during the recording sessions and afterward. Also during the mid-1970s, Tiven moved to Memphis and got to know Bell.

“I found out Chris Bell was what I liked about Big Star,” Tiven says. “His songs were great – the songs that had his stamp on it were the things that really had struck me the hardest. By the time I was interested in Big Star, everybody was pushing Alex because Bell had left and nobody wanted him to meet anybody.”

There were some other events at the convention, headquartered at Holiday Inn – a screening of “The T.A.M.I. Show,” a bus trip past Graceland, a party on a Mississippi riverboat that featured music by bluesman Furry Lewis. And drinks did indeed flow. There was also a lot of talk, formally and informally, about rock writing.

And there was the big show. However well the other acts on the bill played at the convention, Big Star’s show defined the event. “Their performance was really terrific,” Altman recalls. “It was a tough gig because they were doing a show for rock writers, but everybody was blown away. They were really doing more of their newer stuff – songs most of us weren’t familiar with, but they sounded really good. I do remember being impressed with how good a guitar player Chilton was, because in the Box Tops he was a singer.” (The band also threw some oldies into the mix, including a version of the Box Tops’ “The Letter.”)

And that success convinced Chilton to stay with Big Star, at least long enough to record the great “Record City.” The critics supported it – Altman still calls it “lightning in a bottle.”

“They nailed it,” King says of Big Star’s performance at the convention. “And Alex was going to leave the band. I talked to him and said, ‘You’ve got all this publicity, it’s foolish to throw it all away. Do another album. That’s why they stayed together.”

They didn’t stay together that much longer, actually. Just long enough to become iconic. As for the National Association of Rock Writers – it changed its name after the convention to Rock Writers of the World. Nothing much happened with that. But, all these years later, they have proved their worldwide influence by supporting Big Star.

(In addition to interviews with Altman, Tiven and King, I also used as resource material a variety of articles available at, including Barney Hoskyns’ “The Great Lig in the Sky” and his 2000 Big Star article for Mojo. Bruce Eaton’s 33 1/3 book “Radio City” and the pamphlet accompanying Stax’s 1992 re-release of the first two Big Star albums were also sources.)

Legendary Rock Guitarist Wayne Kramer Talks MC50 Tour, Free Jazz Influences

Kramer and members of Soundgarden, Faith No More and Fugazi perform MC5 classics at Bogart’s on Oct. 25 


MUSIC11024Wayne Kramer Photo Jenny RisherWayne KramerPHOTO: JENNY RISHER

Among the immortal rallying cries of Rock & Roll — a list that includes “You gotta fight for your right to party,” “Sex and drugs and Rock & Roll” and “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” — the most raucously confrontational yet ecstatically celebratory is MC5’s “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!”

It’s the in-your-face opening exhortation to the title song from the Detroit band’s first album, 1969’s Kick Out the Jams. It made the group — which was into countercultural rebellion, Pre-Punk Rock, Free Jazz and sweaty dancing — revered by those who identified with them (especially in a pre-Rust Belt Midwest). It also made them the enemy of authorities — their politically-charged stance, fueled by manager John Sinclair’s leftist White Panther Party, was not appreciated in a tough city still recovering from a rebellion against segregation by African-American residents in 1967.

But the quintet’s messily high-energy Rock never really translated to a wider youth audience.

Two more MC5 albums followed, both showing growing ambition in the writing and performance, but the moment and momentum was gone and the band quit in 1972.

MC5’s reputation has only grown, however, as new artists have come to revere the group’s hip, gritty street credibility. But the kids of MC5 did not have an easy time of adulthood. Three have died — guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith and singer Rob Tyner, both at 46, and bassist Michael Davis at 68.

And while guitarist Wayne Kramer is still with us (as is drummer Dennis Thompson), his road to being here has not been easy: off-and-on work as a journeyman musician; struggles with drugs and alcohol; even a prison term in the mid-1970s at Lexington, Ky.’s Federal Correctional Institution, famous as the nation’s “Narcotic Farm,” for housing junkies and other drug users. Yet, as Kramer’s new and thoroughly engrossing

MUSIC11024MC50Photo Chris Mc KayWayne Kramer (center) and his MC50 bandmatesPHOTO: CHRIS MCKAY


memoir The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5 and My Life of Impossibilities reveals, since the mid-1990s he has slowly emerged not just to reclaim some of MC5’s heritage, but to shape a principled and inspiring Rock & Roll life that includes marriage and parenthood.

In the biggest step yet in his long, slow comeback, Kramer is currently touring with a group of MC5-influenced musicians — Faith No More bassist Billy Gould, Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty and singer Marcus Durant of Zen Guerrilla — dubbed “MC50.” The tour celebrates the 50th anniversary of the original live recording of Kick Out the Jams at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom on Halloween of 1968. The album will be performed in its entirety, with space allowed for improvisation.

“I’m happy to report that Kick Out the Jams is holding up very well 50 years down the road,” says Kramer, who recently found out MC5 has been nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the fourth time.

The audiences have been shouting along on the title song’s defiant opening chant.

“Usually, a fairly large contingent of the crowd will scream that back at us exactly like we do that,” Kramer says. “Those are people in their 40s and 50s, and some younger people. There aren’t many people who are my age — I’m 70, and 70-year-olds aren’t going out to Rock shows much. But I get a few every night who tell me, ‘I saw MC5 in ’68.’ ”

When Kick Out the Jams first was released in 1969, it drew complaints from reviewers that it sounded messy. But what those early critics missed, and what seems ever more important now, was the influence of avant-garde Free Jazz, which had been introduced to the band members by Sinclair. Kramer has worked hard with his MC50 members to achieve that kind of playing now. It’s where the original MC5 wanted to ascend to in 1968.

“Our music was rooted in the fundamental Rock & Roll of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the early instrumental Rock bands,” Kramer says. “But we reached for the future, and the planets, with Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor. We were striving to move forward. I could play what popular guitar players were playing, but my question was, ‘Where does music go next, and where could I take it?’

“The Free Jazz movement showed me, and that’s where I wanted to go — to leave Western thoughts of music behind and enter into a more pure sonic dimension, more visceral, more human, more expressive than scales and modes and chords would allow.”

So Kramer found himself practicing for hours to play guitar in a style influenced by the  Images Uploads Gallery Wayne Kramer©Mike Barich1969Fest BwWayne Kramer with MC5 in 1969PHOTO: MIKE BARICH


great Free Jazz saxophonists John Coltrane and Albert Ayler — to “move from scales and modes and notes into pure sound.”

With MC5’s demise, Kramer started dealing drugs and was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Agency and eventually sent to Lexington. The Narcotic Farm had a history of housing musicians as inmates, and one day the great Jazz trumpeter Red Rodney — who struggled with heroin addiction for much of his life — arrived. He and Kramer bonded, and began leading Sunday afternoon jam sessions for inmates.

“I was much younger, coming from the world of Rock, and we met in the music, itself,” Kramer says. “He discovered I could actually play some of the material he was used to playing, and he liked me and was a very generous man. And he became my teacher and mentor. We also had drugs in common from two different perspectives. We became very close for those couple years we were together.” (Rodney died in 1994, at age 66.)

Remembering how making music helped get him through his prison stint, Kramer in 2007 co-founded the nonprofit organization Jail Guitar Doors USA with British troubadour Billy Bragg, who earlier had started the organization in the U.K. (The name comes from a song by The Clash that mentions Kramer’s time in prison.) To date, the organization has placed guitars in over 120 U.S. prisons.

“I see music as serving an important and fundamental purpose,” Kramer says. “It’s a way to express yourself, tell your story, contribute something to the world of beauty. Most people in prison never have that opportunity, and if we don’t do something to help people change for the better while they’re in our custody, they’ll most certainly change for worse.”

MC50 performs Thursday, Oct. 25 at Bogart’s. Tickets/more show info:

Tommy James: The Rocker who Tried to Influence a Presidential Election



The presidential campaign shifts into super-high gear Monday, when the Democratic National Convention begins in Denver.

And if presumptive nominee Barack Obama emerges from Denver as the party’s standard-bearer, he will be able to count on active support from many Rock and Pop stars. Already, according to Wikipedia, such names as 50 Cent, Arcade Fire, Sheryl Crow, The Decemberists, Wyclef Jean, John Mellencamp, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen, Rufus Wainwright, Kanye West — even Bob Dylan — have endorsed Obama.

While Obama is bringing it to a new level, support for Democratic presidential candidates by Rock stars (as well as other performers of youth-oriented or -originated music) is hardly new. But one man who could make a strong case for pioneering it, were he alive today, would be Hubert Horatio Humphrey.

In 1968, while serving as Vice President and running for President, Humphrey campaigned with Tommy James & the Shondells, whose Garage-Rock-tinged dance tunes like “Hanky Panky” and “Mony Mony” had brought them Top 40 fame at the time. The band played at numerous Humphrey campaign stops. (Humphrey also received an endorsement from James Brown that year.)

The year 1968 was when Boomer-generation young people made their voices heard in politics — usually in protest, sometimes violently. Though a Democrat and mainstream liberal, then-57-year-old Humphrey was the target for a lot of that protest.

Humphrey had trouble breaking with President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War and was nominated amid the police riot against youthful demonstrators during the infamous Chicago Democratic convention. As a result, he couldn’t quite unite his party and just barely lost to Richard Nixon.

As The Charlotte Observer reported when the Shondells opened for Humphrey in October, “For the first time, presidential candidates are catering to the growing bloc of young people just under 21, or over the 18-year-old voting age in some states.” (This was before the 1971 federal law giving 18-year-olds the right to vote.)

Today, James — a Dayton native — is a youthful-looking 61 and on the oldies circuit. A few months ago, he played a sweaty, vigorous set at Grand Victoria Casino in Rising Sun, Ind., working loudly with a younger band — to an older crowd — through his late-1960s hits, which also included “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mirage” and “Sweet Cherry Wine.”

Backstage before the show, dressed in a “Censorship Off/Free Speech On” T-shirt, James eagerly recalled his work for Humphrey in 1968. With him was an original Shondell, bassist Mike Vale, who had come to visit.

“We had been asked to play (in May) for the Democratic Party at a generic rally,” he says. “We weren’t endorsing any candidate. We played in the afternoon and there war protesters calling us sellouts.” (James says he believes the Lovin’ Spoonful also played.)

After Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated on the night of the June California Democratic primary, James says he went into a funk for several weeks. That was broken when Humphrey’s secretary called his record label to see if he might be able to appear with the Vice President after the convention, assuming Humphrey won the nomination. James agreed, thinking anyone would be better than Nixon.

The Shondells first opened for Humphrey at a rally in Wheeling, W. Va., and met the candidate and his wife, Muriel. “We became his opening act,” James says.

For Humphrey, James figured, his band was a way to attract young people and increase crowds. But, he now surmises, there was more to it than that.

“He wanted very much to be taken seriously by young people,” James says. “He wanted to know how he was viewed, and I was 21 years old.”

As a result, James says, a friendship developed that included late-night, post-rally talks on a variety of topics. At one point, he says, Humphrey asked his take on calling for a national referendum on ending the war. Another time, James says, he was asked to become Humphrey’s advisor on youth affairs if he won the election.

“He wanted everything from Rock festivals to an open dialogue with young people,” James says. “It really bothered him he was thought of in such a terrible way, as a warmonger.”

After the election, the Shondells made a splash with a new sound, the neo-psychedelic Pop Rock of “Crimson and Clover” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” Humphrey wrote the liner notes to the resulting album, Crimson & Clover.

Hubert Horatio “Skip” Humphrey III, 66, the vice president’s son and a former Minnesota elected official himself, was eager to talk about James’ relationship with his father.

“I know that Tommy James and his group were helpful in the 1968 campaign,” he says in a phone interview from his Minnesota home. “My wife and I had an opportunity to be with them a couple of times. I don’t recall the specifics, but I can assure you that Tommy James and his group were supportive of Dad and helpful.”

Also eager to speak about the relationship was the late vice president himself — courtesy of a tape of a post-election radio interview sent by James in a package of newspaper clips and other corroborative materials.

“We used to sit up late at night and discuss politics after they’d entertain for us,” Humphrey says on the tape. “Gee, they’re fine young men. At midnight, we’d sit around and have a visit and talk about what had happened during the day. These are bright young men that want to know a lot about their country.”

Incidentally, James now favors Obama.

“What we need is a breath of fresh air,” he says. “I really believe what we need most is somebody to make us feel good about ourselves.”






Blurt Online / June 9, 2009


Growing up in rural Clarksville in southwest Ohio, Chuck Cleaver learned early to hide his artistic interests from friends — even though at age six he had a gift for making up songs.

“I think in the community I came from, any kind of artistic
aspirations that a male had were considered wussy or gay, and you just don’t
want to be that in a small town,” he says. “So I never let on.”

Cleaver, who turns 50 in June and now lives in more arts-friendly Cincinnati,
isn’t sure if that memory is the impetus for the name of his band Wussy. It’s
the successor to the critically beloved but commercially iffy alt-rock band he
led, Ass Ponys.  In Wussy, he shares singing and songwriting with Lisa Walker, his significant other.

“Wussy just looks right,” he says of the name, during a
weekend breakfast at Blue Jay Restaurant in the city’s scruffy but hip
Northside section.

Active in the local music scene for three decades, he knows
just about every person in the divey, friendly place. The restaurant also
happens to be next door to Shake It Records, the city’s premiere record store
and also part of the enterprise that releases Wussy’s music.

On its new self-titled album on Shake It – the band’s third
since 2006 (plus an EP) – Wussy is looking right to a lot of people. Besides
Cleaver and 36-year-old singer-songwriter Walker, Wussy consists of Mark
Messerly on bass and late-arrival Joe Klug on drums (recently replacing Dawn
Burman). Its sound is often foreboding and intensely urgent, yet eminently
tuneful with an approach that recalls R.E.M. and the Velvet Underground.

Cleaver and Walker’ voices work well in harmony and solo; he’s capable of an imploring falsetto, she of compelling insight. Cleaver gets credit for the lyrics to five songs; Walker six. On a twelfth song, he wrote “most” of the lyrics; she “the end.”

The literate, mysteriously imagist quality of the songwriting about relationships (“Little Paper Birds” and “Gone Missing”) or life’s meaning (“Happiness Bleeds,” “Scream & Scream Again”) is striking. For instance, on the song “Happiness Bleeds,” Cleaver rhymes “porn” and “born” not in a jokey or smutty way, as so many bands might do, but rather almost existentially as he envisions a compellingly strange scene from rural youth:

“Trampling through the brambles til our pants were all
searching for a paper bag of mildewy porn/ reflecting on the neverending question/why had we been born?”

Wussy will be touring the East Coast and Midwest
this summer in support of the album. And in September, Cleaver and Walker will
do acoustic shows in Great Britain.  It will be his first time overseas. The Ass Ponys once were about to go, even had dates booked, but the original guitarist suddenly quit.

“We had gotten back from a 2½-month tour and his infant daughter didn’t know who he was,” Cleaver recalls. “So he said, ‘Screw this.’ By the time we got a new guitarist, the tour was over. That was between Electric Rock Music and the album after that.”

Electric Rock Music was Ass Ponys’ shining moment in the culture at large. Although that 1994 album was the band’s third, it was the first on A&M Records. The band had been signed when the majors chased offbeat and impassioned indie-rock acts in the wake of Nirvana’s breakthrough. It even spawned a modern-rock hit, “Little Bastard,” and earned the band a spot on tour with Pavement. But by the time of a 1996 follow-up on A&M, the
moment had passed. It came and went quickly.

“I think the label felt it had the next big thing, and for a while there was some frenzy,” Cleaver says. “But we were a bunch of midwestern guys, not especially good-looking and in our thirties, so they did not have the next Nirvana. We always got the impression they wanted us to be a little less heavy and to dress a little better. But we were like old grumpy men who didn’t want to do what they’d say.

“The guy who signed us to A&M really liked us,” he continues. “He signed a lot of ‘odd’ bands – Kitchens of Distinction and a band who were all really little and marveling at how big we were. They were really tiny people and looked like they all could be on charm bracelet.” Cleaver remembers that band had a one-word name, but can’t recall what it was.

Cleaver, it should be noted, is still a strapping guy – 6-2, heavyset, with a thick graying goatee, darker tousled hair and prominently framed glasses that give him a seriously bookish presence, like Trotsky. The tattoos, however, hint at a life on a hipper, alt-culture edge. He fits in both camps – he has a degree in fine arts from University of Cincinnati,
where he also started playing in experimental-music bands.

Ass Ponys continued on after the A&M moment passed. Two albums on Checkered Past, 2000’s Some Stupid With a Flare Gun and 2001’s Lohio, won praise for their committed rock and their witty and offbeat pop cultural references.

But something was happening to Cleaver around that time. “After we made Lohio, which was my favorite record, I thought I don’t know what’s beyond it,” he confides. “We were coming up with new material, but having trouble getting into it. I felt I needed a break. I’m not sure the Ass Ponys ever broke up, just faded out.” In fact, Ass Ponys is planning a
compilation, The Checkered Past Years, for release this summer on Shake It. It will include both albums, plus some live tracks and songs from various compilations.

After an Ass Ponys gig at a club in Newport, Ky., just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Cleaver was sitting on the building’s front porch when a younger women he had never met – Walker – came up to him.

“She picked up my guitar and started playing a song she had written and it was actually really good,” he says. “I tend to be a little picky – writing is the only thing I can do really well. So I was really impressed by that. And when she sang, Bam! That’s about all it took.”

Cleaver had earlier agreed to play a solo acoustic gig – a rarity for him – at a local festival. After that, “We thought maybe we can do this,” he says.

It was a tough time for them. Both were in the process of having their marriages fail. Cleaver was so financially strapped he had all his electrical musical equipment and gave up his fulltime business as a collectibles dealer. (He now works as a stonemason.) Then romance ensued. “We sort of went with it,” he says. “When you meet somebody, you don’t really have control over it. Our intention was never to be a couple.”

It has not been the easiest of relationships, Cleaver says, and some of that might be reflected in the songwriting. But, however much his image of the “old grumpy man” may persist in certain quarters, he feels renewed.

And, as he turns 50, he’s optimistic his best songwriting lies ahead.

“I hope so,” he says. “I always kind of hoped it was.”


(Photo, above, of Chuck Cleaver of Wussy by Jesse Fox)

Mocking Monikers


What’s in a band name? Often just a twisted version of another name


Keeping up with today’s popular music performers is like walking past a funhouse mirror. For every favorite culture or literary hero you or anyone else is liable to have had, real or fictional, there’s probably a contemporary Rock act appropriating the name. Sometimes it’s done as a straight-up tribute; sometimes it’s presented in a humorous or punny way.

Just check the Cincinnati concert listings. On Thursday night, Gringo Star plays Northside Tavern (that’s them in the photo). No, it’s not the drummer of The Beatles in a mischievous mood. Rather, it’s a young Atlanta band celebrating the release of its debut album All Yall, whose scrappy, tuneful sound and concise songwriting recall The Kinks and Rolling Stones.

On Friday, Steve E. Nix and the Cute Lepers — not by a long shot the bewitching female singer of Fleetwood Mac and some critically ill pals — is at Southgate House. Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head arrives at the Mad Hatter April 14.

And that’s not counting acts who have either been here recently or could come if they chose — Joe Buck Yourself, the Lloyd Dobler Effect, Merle Jagger, Franz Ferdinand, Abe Vigoda, Jackie-O Motherfucker and too many more to list.

There are so many such acts there could be a festival devoted to them. In fact, the close but prickly relationship between two such bands — The Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre — was the subject of an award-winning documentary a few years back, DiG!

What’s causing all this? In a word, cleverness. Maybe too much.

“The short answer is that, more often than not, the Spinal Tap axiom applies: ‘There’s a fine line between clever and stupid,’ ” says Aaron M. Kerley, an instructor in Humanities, Media and Cultural Studies at University of Cincinnati’s College of Applied Science. “When it’s done right, you end up with Warhol’s silkscreen of Mao — recognizable as a celebrity icon (and) playing off the celebrity icon but slightly debasing the notion of celebrity as well, recasting the icon in a contemporary context.

“Of course, when it’s too obvious or it reveals little about the artist and the art or makes no real comment, it is merely clever for its own sake. It exploits the reference rather than contributing new meaning to it. It’s merely jokey: ‘Ha ha.’ ”

The specific reasons for these names vary as greatly as the names themselves. Nicholas Firgiuele of Gringo Star explains, that it was never the band’s intention to name-check Ringo. The “Gringo” reference was a nod to their outsiderish love of Mexican culture — the cuisine as well as the mariachi music — and the “Star” just sounded good.

And there was a wise reason to not spell its name “Starr,” like the Beatles drummer, Firgiuele says: “There’s also an Austin band called Ringo Deathstarr.”

The real Ringo — who was born Richard Starkey — has stopped Gringo Star from copyrighting its name but is otherwise alright with its existence.

The River Phoenix, a new Danish Post Punk/Power Pop band, makes a pun out of the deceased actor River Phoenix’s first name by putting a “the” in front of it.

“Over the years, struggling as a band, our friendship got stronger and stronger,” says its lead singer, Kristian Kristensen. “It was rather like the movie Stand By Me, starring the late River Phoenix as a young boy, in the sense of that friendship, and suddenly it seemed to tie in with the quest we were on. Stand By Me sounded too sweet as a band name though — like a Danielle Steele novel!”

Actually, there’s a long history of referential names in popular music. In the early 1960s, Chubby Checker became a teen sensation with a name that reverse-echoed Rock pioneer Fats Domino. And The Beatles’ name was a somewhat obscure insect shout-out to one of their favorites, The Crickets, Buddy Holly’s band.

One Robert Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan, possibly a nod to the poet Dylan Thomas. British Psych Rock pioneers Pink Floyd are named after two obscure American bluesmen, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. The 1970s-era Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd misspelled the name of a conservative high school teacher to rib him.

The Punk and New Wave era was filled with acts rebelling against cultural complacency and hero worship: Elvis Costello riffed on Elvis Presley, and The Dead Kennedys, led by one Jello Biafra, were in-your-face about it.

The plethora of acts with such names today is partly a result of Rock — especially literate, artsy Alternative Rock — becoming a legitimate career path for college grads. They want to show you what they’ve learned.

Patrick Stickles, singer/guitarist/keyboard player for Titus Andronicus — a thrashingly melodic New Jersey band in the tradition of The Clash — was a literature major at Ramapo College in New Jersey. He says he had a great class in Shakespeare “one magical semester.”

Thus his band is named after one of Shakespeare’s earliest — and goriest — plays. (The band plays the Southgate House on April 23.)

“The truth is it isn’t one of the better Shakespeare plays, but I do think it has the best name,” he says of Titus Andronicus. “So I thought, he’s been dead for a while and probably won’t mind if we borrow it.”

The forgotten ’70s band Jade gets a new life

James Aumann was doing his usual tax-collecting work as Warren County Treasurer late last year when he received an email about a secret from his long-ago past.

It was from Darren Blase, co-owner of Northside’s Shake It Records store. He wanted to know if the county treasurer was the same James Aumann who once led an obscure and short-lived local rock group called Jade.

The band had issued one album in 1971, Faces of Jade, on a small Cincinnati label called General American Records. It appears to have been barely released.

“I called him and said, ‘Darren, this is Jim Aumann. I give up – you found me,’” Aumann recalled recently.

Blase wasn’t threatening to embarrass Aumann, a Republican who, in 2012, was elected unopposed to his third term. Instead, he was interested in reissuing the vinyl album on his Shake It record label because he liked it so much.

“I was really pretty astounded,” said Aumann, 65. “Obviously back when we did this record, we were hoping for big things. I was hoping to make a living from this. When it didn’t happen, it was seriously disappointing.”

Aumann had quit Miami University to pursue Jade at the time. When that failed, he went into banking – getting a degree in finance from American Institute of Banking and rising to become vice president of Warren County’s old Community National Bank. Fifteen years ago, he was hired to be the county’s chief deputy treasurer and he then moved up.

On Friday, Shake It will debut its vinyl reissue of Faces of Jade, with original album-cover art. It will be for sale at the store to launch Black Friday, the kick-off for the Christmas shopping season. There is a new 500-copy pressing (on green vinyl, with download code included). It will also be available via Shake It’s website,, starting on Dec. 2.

Blase believes that Faces of Jade holds up well as an example of the way a regional American band was inspired by the sophisticated, boundary-breaking rock and pop of the Beatles. Its 10 songs are artistically ambitious. Aumann and the band used the studio to create songs with ambitiously ornate instrumental and vocal arrangements, innovative recording techniques, and substantial melodies. In short, it wasn’t just garage rock. Parts of songs like “Prelude Willow’s End” and “My Mary (More Than Ever)” fit well into the psychedelic-rock genre of the time; other passages are more folk-pop.

“It’s such an odd record for Cincinnati,” said the 46-year-old Blase. “Nothing here was ever on my radar that’s this overtly Beatles-influenced a kind of sound.

“On top of that, I found my copy of that Jade record at Mole’s (a used record on Short Vine), probably in 1985,” he said. “I would buy everything that had a Cincinnati address on it. I had no expectations of what it was – it looked kind of hippieish. It still had its 99-cents price sticker.”

Actually, the international audience for collectible rock had also discovered Jade. A bootleg CD of the album had appeared in Europe last decade, and music-oriented blogs like Robots for Ronnie and Tyme-Machine have praised the group.

In Jade, Aumann played keyboards and was a songwriter and singer who worked on arrangements. Other members were guitarist/songwriter/singer Randy Morse, bassist/singer Nick Root, drummer Timothy Nixon and business/songwriting partner and co-producer David Smith. The band was active from roughly 1970-1973.

Aumann believes he had a gift early for music composition. “I could write vocal parts in my head,” he said. “My dad and I used to do a lot of singing and harmonizing when I was growing up, and so did my brother and I.”

While at Mason High School, he and Smith played together in a band called the Villains. That ended with college, but Aumann continued writing at Miami University. Smith visited him from Ohio State in 1969, heard the song “Willows” and suggested recording it and several more. The two first cut the songs with studio musicians at Lockland’s Artists’ Recording Studio. But access there ended when the studio’s president died of a heart attack.

They realized they couldn’t afford to continue recording with expensive studio musicians, so they sought other band members. They decided to call themselves Jade. They found the other members from area bands and started recording at Mount Healthy’s Jewel Recording Studio. And they made contact with a record company.

Aumann thinks highly of the band members he and Smith chose. Morse turned out to be a substantial writer, himself, contributing “Well,” ”We (Got to Make It Thru)” and two other songs to the album.

Now 63, Morse went on to a career in the tech industry but has also played guitar regularly in Nashville, his home for the past 20 years.

“Though we’re not ‘rich and famous,’ we created music that has been appreciated beyond our wildest imagination, over 40 years later,” he said, via email. “A real artist is not in it for the money, though it validates our work.” (After sending this email, Morse had to go to a hospital with a minor stroke, Aumann said, adding that he is doing well.)

Nixon, 63, lives in Mason and is an ATM technician for Diebold Inc. Smith, 65, is semi-retired and lives in West Chester. Root, 61, of Fort Thomas, said in an email he has continued playing music off and on in this area. He joined Aumann and Morse for a reunion this year.

Aumann had never received money from Faces of Jade until Blase recently sent $145 for songwriting/publishing rights.

That’s a milestone, but Aumann says he is not yet ready to quit his prestigious day job to resume a music career. (He’s actually recorded some music at home.)

“As Darren said, if this does really well, we can probably all go out for a nice dinner,” he said.



Should Richard Hell Be in the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame?



(Note:  In November 2017, there will be a deluxe 40th anniversary reissue of Richard Hell & the Voidoids’ ‘Blank Generation.’)

SO FAR, this has been a hell of a year for Punk.

By that, I mean it’s been a great year for recognizing the formative influence that Richard Hell, now 63, has had on Punk — and, by extension, all Rock & Roll and pop culture that has followed in its aggressive, assertive, rebellious wake.

Hell just published a literary, frank, edgy autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, that has earned comparisons to Patti Smith’s Just Kids. It tells how the roots of his restless disaffection with society, his hell-raising personal conduct and his interest in the arts (and Rock music) all began while growing up as Richard Meyers in Lexington, Ky. His dad, who died when Hell was just 7, was an experimental psychologist at the University of Kentucky.

Hell can also claim a very important role in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new blockbuster fashion exhibition, Punk: Chaos to Couture. His impact on the creation of 1970s-era New York Punk is represented in the very first gallery, which is devoted to the Bowery punk club CBGB where he performed. Also, a late-1970s photo of him in a signature ripped-around-the-collar T-shirt is one of the show’s more widely seen images. He and John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) wrote prefaces to the show’s catalogue; fitting, as the two have been singled out as the New York and London originators of Punk.

A restless sort, upon arriving in New York and deciding upon music, Hell left bands Television and the Heartbreakers before either had developed much of a following. But his own Richard Hell & the Voidoids did release a famously influential album on Sire in 1977, his pinched voice delivering up such classics as title song “Blank Generation” and “Love Comes in Spurts.”

It took him five years to come up with a follow-up, Destiny Street. By then, his momentum was gone; it wasn’t until 1992 that he joined up with Dim Stars — a Punk/Post-Punk studio super-group — for an album. He was trying to rid himself of a drug problem by avoiding the music scene, he explains in his book. But he has kept busy as a writer of fiction, poetry and non-fiction.

For Hell, this current national recognition has been a long time coming. As it happens, it coincides with a similar musical awakening by residents of Kentucky who take pride in their Bluegrass State containing “the roots of popular music,” as the subtitle of a 2012 book by Jason Howard, A Few Honest Words, puts it.

But should Hell be among those musicians that Kentuckians revere? After all, the music usually associated with Kentucky is Country, Bluegrass and Appalachian Folk.

Punk? Not so much.

At the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum, a Renfro Valley complex built by the state and operated by a nonprofit, he’s gotten some recent public nominations for inclusion.

“The guitarist from Lexington? Yeah,” says Robert Lawson, the Hall of Fame’s executive director, when asked if Hell has ever been mentioned as a possible inductee.

To qualify for inclusion, a potential inductee must have spent part of his or her life in Kentucky and have been active in music for at least 10 years. While public input is welcome, the official selections are made by a designated committee, which has inducted classes six times since 2002. Current members include the Everly Brothers, The Judds, Rosemary Clooney, Bill Monroe and Grandpa Jones.

Hell has a very influential supporter in Ron Pen, professor of music at University of Kentucky and director of the school’s John Jacob Niles Center for American Music. (Niles, a Kentucky Folk singer/songwriter/folklorist who was one of Bob Dylan’s influences, is in the Hall of Fame.)

“I was on the Advisory Board of the Kentucky Music Museum and some years ago I suggested Richard Hell and (Covington-born virtuoso Rock guitarist) Adrian Belew, even though they did not fit the ‘mold’ of the traditional and Country musicians generally associated with the Commonwealth,” he wrote in an email.

“Meyers certainly is an easy sell for the Kentucky Music Museum, but I have not assembled the biographical material, etc., to submit his name. If there is an autobiography out now, that should be all the ammo you need. He was a core cultural icon in the (Punk) movement, though it was his work in New York City and on recordings, not in a scene in Lexington, that was central to Punk.”

Hell’s publisher, Ecco, declined an interview request and Hell did not respond to an email. But in A Very Clean Tramp, he explained how life in Lexington inspired his Punk attitude.

You can see the seeds of the album Blank Generation arising from this description of suburbia: “My flat, vacant, smudged 10- or 11-year-old face. There’s a panorama or montage of local vistas, the empty suburban hills shifting slowly behind it, all silent and soft and cold, with visible grain, as I glide around the quiet newly built streets on my bicycle, alone, with no else in sight.”

He moved with his mother to Virginia in 1965 and left on his own for New York around Christmas 1966, while still a teen. His background and attitude might make him a somewhat radical choice for an institution that this year chose as inductees Exile, Christian music star Steven Curtis Chapman, Kentucky Headhunters, Skeeter Davis, ‘50s vocal group The Hilltoppers, Old Joe Clark, and Emory and Linda Martin. (Emory was a one-armed banjo virtuoso.)

This year’s induction class has its Rock influences. Kentucky Headhunters make Country Rock. Exile — before becoming Country mainstays — had a sexy hit with a Rock ballad in 1978 called “Kiss You All Over.” And the late Country singer Davis, born in Dry Ridge, Ky., had a huge 1963 pop hit called “The End of the World” and two decades later recorded an album with the Louisville-originated rock band NRBQ, whose bassist Joey Spampinato she subsequently married.

Previous induction classes have had a few rockers — besides the Everly Brothers, Louisville-born Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary is in the Hall, as is Pikeville native son Dwight Yoakam, who brought a Cowpunk sensibility to Country.

The engrossing museum, itself, has far more variety in its many exhibits. NRBQ is represented, for instance, as is Harlan-born Rusty York, a Cincinnatian who had the Rockabilly hit “Sugaree” in 1959. For more information, visit

In Northern Kentucky, Covington’s Behringer-Crawford Museum has partnered with Northern Kentucky Music Legends Committee to start a separate induction process just for their own hall of fame. The first 13 were selected in tandem with a related exhibit that opened June 2 and continues through Sept. 1. It’s a “strange brew” of initial inductees, ranging from 1960s/1970s local television-show/singer Bob Braun to Belew, with an actual band called Strange Brew among the others. For more information, visit

Hell, short of a statewide (or national) public campaign, probably isn’t going to get into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame anytime soon. But just in case, executive director Lawson says he plans to learn more about his music.

After all, Hell is a Kentuckian.

“I take a lot of pride in trying to learn something new each day and figuring out more artists, because we’ve got to honor and support them as much as we can,” Lawson says.

(This appeared in Cincinnati CityBeat; 6-19-13. Photo supplied by Harper Collins; credited to Inezvan Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin.)



Remembering the Ramones in the documentary ‘End of the Century’


By Steven Rosen
(From The Denver Post, 2004)

The Ramones documentary is called “End of the Century” – a tribute to a troubled record of the same name that the groundbreaking punk band made with the ultra-difficult producer Phil Spector.

But it could be called “End of the Ramones.” The film arrives in Denver like a celluloid epitaph.

Three members of the original quartet that started in 1974 and split up in 1997 are now dead – guitarist Johnny Ramone died of prostate cancer last month. The lanky, rail-thin lead singer Joey Ramone died of lymphoma in 2001; colorful bassist Dee Dee Ramone died of a drug overdose a year later, shortly after the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Only drummer Tommy Ramone survives of the original quartet.

“He wasn’t the friendliest guy in the world,” said “End of the Century’s” co-director Jim Fields, in a recent E-mail following news of Johnny’s death. “But I didn’t care because he was straightforward and authentic, and you always knew what he said is what he meant. In the film and music biz, that is invaluable. I just feel honored to have been able to work with the Ramones and with Johnny.”

The Ramones, on stage and on albums, projected such an image of brotherly solidarity – often-funny three-chord songs kept short and played buzz-saw fast by guys who always looked alike in their “Wild One” gear – that it still comes as a surprise for many to learn they weren’t actually brothers. Joey’s real name was Jeffrey Hyman, Johnny was John Cummings, Dee Dee Douglas Colvin, and Tommy is Tom Erdelyi. (According to websites, the name is a tribute to the pseudonym Paul McCartney used – “Paul Ramone” – when appearing on albums by his brother Mike’s band, Scaffold.)

And the Ramones never seemed to get old. They were – are – rock in the way that Mount Rushmore is. They projected an image of family and a code of loyal solidarity. At first dismissed by many as cartoonish, the Ramones grew to be considered heroic in their unbending “true believer” stance.

As Rob Zombie observes in “End of the Century,” the compelling film by Fields and Michael Gramaglia, “No matter what weird trends came and went, you’d go see the Ramones and it’d be like, ‘What year is it, anyway?’”

And yet, the Ramones most decidedly were not family – or at least not one big happy one. This is the shock and wrenching poignancy of “End of the Century” – it reveals that the true story of the Ramones was a tragedy long before the early deaths.

Key to the band’s tension, and painstakingly documented in “Century,” was the estrangement of the band’s two leaders, the romantic Joey and the blunt Johnny, who together owned Ramones Productions. Johnny had married Joey’s beloved girlfriend, Linda, and Joey never forgave him.

“When he (Johnny) saw the film, he called up and said, “I come across as pretty bad,’’ Gramaglia said, in an earlier telephone interview from his New York editing studio. “He showed it to a lot of his friends and they said, “But that’s the way you are.’ And he said, “I guess that’s the way I am. Leave it the way it is.’’’

Gramaglia, who had long worked for Ramones Productions, and high-school friend Fields earlier had made a more celebratory, music-oriented documentary about the band, 1997’s fan-oriented “We’re Outta Here.” Like the Ramones, they are New Yorkers. Being privy to the closely guarded story about the rift between Joey and Johnny, they pushed for a more personal, revelatory film.

“I called up Joey and said I don’t even want to start if he’s not interested,” Gramaglia said. “They both were partners in the company and they made 50-50 decisions on everything. He said, ‘I’ll do it if John talks about Linda.’

“This is something they’ve never talked about – they’ve never talked to each other about it,” he continued. “They never aired it and cleared it up. Joey said, ‘I don’t want it to be a whitewash, I want the real story. Ask John if he’ll do that.’ I called up John and said, ‘Joey has presented this challenge – will you talk about Linda?’ John was silent for a while and then he said, ‘Yeah.’ That opened it up.”

But because of Joey’s illness, he delayed talking to the filmmakers – until it was too late. “He was sick and that prevented it,” Gramaglia said. “We had a lot of interviews scheduled that he’d cancel because he had a bad day. Then things dragged on, so we decided to interview everyone else and go back to him.”

Fields, sharing the phone with Gramaglia, continued: “There was also a problem (interviewing Joey) because the first person interviewed was Dee Dee and then we went to L.A. to interview Johnny, so he felt a little paranoid that we might be in league with (Joey) and we had a hard time getting his trust. After about a year, we put together a short idea of what the film would be like, and he really liked it. That was a short time before he died, and that’s when he got excited about it.

“He sent an E-mail that he was ready to schedule the interview and was feeling good,” Fields said. “We had seen him perform at a Christmas (2000) party and he was in great voice and looked good and he was feeling really good. And then he slipped and broke his hip going out, and that was it.”

Yet at the same time as “Century” reveals this tragic rift and more, the film consistently celebrates the power of the music. It offers extensive footage from the band’s earliest days at New York punk club CBGB’s to a later tour of Brazil where they were received like superstars. It also shows Dee Dee to be a hilarious down-and-out junkie raconteur; an over-the-top, self-destructive figure who knows his weaknesses yet always conveys a sensitive and romantic side.

During the making in 1980 of the album “End of the Century,” producer Spector pulled a gun on the band during recording sessions. Given Spector’s current legal problems, this episode is extremely timely now and is recalled at length in the film.

Last year, Spector initially was charged with murder after a 40-year-old actress was found shot to death at his L.A. mansion. He has pleaded not guilty and been free on bail during an extensive investigation of the circumstances surrounding the event.

Johnny’s comments in the film about Spector – himself a legend from the 1960s for his “Wall of Sound” productions for the Ronettes, the Crystals and Righteous Brothers – are typically unsentimental and caustically direct: “A little man with lifts on his shoes, a wig on his head, and four guns.”

That was Johnny Ramone. Like the band, itself, no-nonsense.

(This story is adapted and updated from an article that originally appeared in Harp magazine. Tommy Ramone died in 2014.)