Birth of the Poptarts
Just like the protagonist in my fledgling novel, I went north to school (well, to grad school) with rather lofty and serious ambitions: I wanted to be a medievalist and teach in a university. My destination was central New York rather than Manhattan, though, and Syracuse University. Why Syracuse? They gave me the most money and a teaching assistantship.
It is odd, though, now that I think of it. When I was applying, I had a short list of schools. I had already been offered a free ride at my alma mater, which was then Madison College, but I wanted a change. I applied and was accepted at William and Mary, Vanderbilt, and Duke, but of those, only William and Mary offered any financial assistance, and that was in the form of a research assistantship. I didn't relish the idea of doing some professor's research for him or her. Then there was Syracuse. I had put my hand on the catalog while browsing grad school catalogs in the library one day and thought, "Say... maybe I should go north." So I applied. And along came the teaching assistantship. So north I went.
I decided about two weeks into that first semester that a) I hated teaching (could that have had something to do with teaching English 101?) and b) I was thoroughly sick of going to school. I'd been in some sort of school since I stepped inside Mrs. Wright's Playtime Nursery School at the age of four. I was tired of the whole thing. But here I was... might as well slog through. Maybe it would grow on me again.
Before too long, I was part of a little clique of fellow first year English department TAs who were also struggling with the whole nightmare of teaching bored kids "General Essays" (you don't want to know): Gael, who was in the poetry workshop; Marie, who was in the fiction workshop; and Susan, who was a Shakespeare fanatic. We did a lot of kvetching about the department and our fellow grad students. We tried to find something amusing to keep us occupied in Syracuse during its snowiest winter on record. We didn't have much luck. Although one weekend we stumbled upon the Casa di Lisa, a jazz dive in an old diner on Erie Boulevard, where one of our professors was playing piano with a trio. I think he played piano. Anyway, the trio played "Alice Blue Gown" for an hour. That was all they played, while we tried to force down drinks made with powdered mixers. At least the place had a nice seedy bordello-ish vibe. That's the bar, up top of this post. Here are Marie and Gael enjoying the show:
We needed a change. It came in the form of a fellow grad student, Mark Roberts. Or, as he was known on the local music scene, Buddy Love.
He was the front man for a local band called Buddy Love and the Tearjerkers, and we started going out to clubs to watch him play. The band was pretty sloppy, and Buddy was the sloppiest of all, but they were also very engaging. The first time we saw them, they opened for a band called the Flashcubes, the premier "New Wave" band in town. We thought they were way too slick, compared with the Tearjerkers. Har! But we were inspired. If Mark could be in a band, we could too. And Gael and I, at least, could play guitar a bit. And we could sing. And Gael was a poet. She could write lyrics. Pretty soon, we had a pretend band going. It was called The Ball Turret Gunners. What can I say? We were English majors. Who needed real gigs? We had t-shirts made.
We still mostly sat around and kvetched about the department and our students and all, but now we also played guitars and Gael and I would sing Beatles songs and our own originals--ditties such as "Cock of the Wok" (a paean to our favorite Chinese take-out emporium, the Ding-How) and "Lookin' for a Munchkin Mama" (a politically incorrect glance into the psyche of the department's "little person," who also happened to be a rather loathsome troll and would have been so had he been six feet tall). We took on punk pseudonyms: I was "Whippet Out," Gael was "Knickers Down" (to form the songwriting team of Down and Out), Susan was "Bertha d'Blues" (get it?), and I forget what Marie's moniker was.
But then Buddy stopped singing with the band and the Tearjerkers went on hiatus. We began to go see the Flashcubes more, as well as other local bands on the budding punk/new wave scene. One day, we heard that two other girls whom we saw regularly at all the gigs--Meegan and Margie--were going to put a band together--and their name was going to be The Poptarts. We heard they were going to be at the party after Buddy's poetry reading for his thesis, so Gael and I made a tape. We turned off the voice tracks on some of the early Beatles songs (you could do that on the older Beatles LPs--the "stereo" was voices through one speaker and instruments through the other) and recorded ourselves against the instrumental tracks. Gael sang lead, and I sang harmony. We took it to the party and slipped it in the tape deck and Meegan flipped out and cried "It's my dream!" Susan and Gael and I came back from the party no longer Ball Turret Gunners but Poptarts. Marie hadn't gone to the party, and anyway, she was not all that into the whole music scene anyway. She kind of drifted away...
But the Poptarts became a real band. Margie had been learning bass--she had an instrument. Meegan borrowed a Gretsch from her boyfriend Arty, who was the lead guitar player for the Flashcubes. (She later bought herself a powder blue Fender Mustang.) I persuaded my brother to lend me his 1959 short scale Gibson Melody Maker until I could afford my own guitar (which turned out to be my lovely 3/4 scale Rick). Gael was going to be the singer (but she later acquired a black lefty strat--her being a lefty and all, and she and Meegan would trade off lead vocals). Susan bought a set of drums and started to practice, but until she was up to speed, Arty sat in on drums and Susan was our go-go dancer. (Really!) We started practicing, wrote a few songs, learned a few covers, and within three weeks we were playing out, opening for a local band. by our third gig, we were sharing the night with the Dead Ducks (another new-ish band--they couldn't really play either, so we were a good match!). Here is photo evidence of the gig--and notice: Susan is dancing!
By our fifth gig, Susan was sitting behind the drums, and we were opening for a national act, the Laughing Dogs. (Never heard of them? I'm not surprised!) And suddenly we had a real manager and label interest.
To be continued...