The seeds of the band's demise were sown quite early, all told. And, in hindsight, it's not hard to see the cracks as they developed. But it seemed like such a perfect story, and so much was happening so fast... it got away from us before we even realized it.
Never forget that this band started out as a lark. It was for fun. A chance to stave off the inevitability of growing up--at least in one part of our lives. It was a chance to be a part of something exciting--no matter that Syracuse was the buckle of the rustbelt, in the late seventies it had an amazingly robust music scene. And we got swept up in it like we were riding a tornado. Once we started getting label interest, we figured the rest was inevitable. Yeah... we were babes in the woods.
The thing is, once we started to see that we could maybe make a living off this--and be rich and famous (and new-wave superstars!)--it was not a hobby any longer. It was business. And there are aspects of the music business that don't exactly lend themselves to happy-go-lucky friends just having fun playing in a band.
Things like royalties. The people who make the most money in a band that does original material are the band members who write the songs. They get publishing rights and royalties. A band member who doesn't get a writing credit makes a lot less. A LOT less. And Meegan was our main songwriter, although Gael would often come up with a bridge for her songs. And our signature three-part harmonies? Most of those were my brainchildren. But without the writing credit, monetarily it was "so what?" It became clear that our best financial interests lay in writing songs. Now, I'm not much of a songwriter--we only performed one song of mine--but Gael stopped providing bridges and started writing songs of her own.
This effort became even more important once Meegan, who at first had been content to let Gael front the band, decided that she wanted to sing her own songs. If Gael wanted to sing lead on anything other than some of our first songs and the few covers we did, she would have to write those songs for herself. And then there was the tension over which songs we'd learn next, where they would go in the set, what we would have to drop to fit new songs... For a long time, we managed to handle that pretty well, I think. But a rivalry was growing, ever so slowly...
Then there was the problem of Susan. Susan was the weak musical link. Not that any of us was a power-awesome magic-woman on her chosen instrument, although Margie had the makings of a knock-your-socks-off bass player. She came up with lovely, quirky, memorable bass lines, but they were melodic rather than your standard bass-and-drums-as-rhythm-section parts. Coupled with our voices, which carried us far, Gael, Meegan, and I were passable guitar players, and improving all the time. Susan, though... it was frustrating.
Susan could play any weird-ass beat you put in front of her. Reggae? She was rock steady. That signature Bo Diddley beat? She could lay that sucker down like there was no tomorrow, where my forearm started cramping after about twelve bars. But a straight 4/4 rock beat? Limp as a string of linguini. There was no snap to it. And she just could not keep the tempo steady. Throughout any given song, she'd just start flagging. She'd slow down to where there was no feel left.
As the designated rhythm guitar player (and, with Gael and Meegan switching off guitar duty depending on which one of them was singing lead, the only full-time guitarist in the band), it fell to me to keep the tempo up. Since my stage stance borrowed heavily from John Lennon circa '63 (legs slightly apart, knees bent, subtly bouncing to the beat), I would try to keep Susan going. And if she started slowing down, I'd bounce more emphatically to try to speed her up. More often than not this would work, but it would also piss her off. And once she was pissed at me, she would conveniently start losing her grasp on her left drumstick. Somehow, it would go flying out of her fist on a trajectory straight for my derriere. On a bad night, she could send half a dozen sticks or more sailing straight for my ass!
The thing is, we knew that if we were going to grab that brass ring, we had to replace Susan. And nobody wanted to do that. She had quit grad school to practice full time. She practiced all day on her own, and then she practiced or played out with us most every night. She put in more time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears than any of us. And it was becoming clearer and clearer that she would be the only one of us who would be left behind if we really did take off to the toppermost of the poppermost. And worst of all, she was our friend. How do you fire a friend? How do you even THINK of firing a friend?
The guilt and the frustration that caused wore on us all, and we ended up taking out a lot of it on Susan herself. Nobody was worse about it than I was. I'm not proud of that. Not at all. But it's the truth. By the summer of 1980, the cracks were showing, and they were widening alarmingly.
We were planning to cut a single in early September, once we got back from a week of gigs in Cleveland, Gael's hometown. After that, Gary was trying to set us up some gigs in Manhattan. The big time! But Cleveland came first.
Now, a pause for some context. Ever since that night we got stuck in the studio (see the previous entry), we used to laugh that the song we'd been trying to record, "August Is a Wicked Month" (we were big Edna O'Brien fans), was jinxed. In addition to the tons of takes we'd done without getting anything good down, we were recording the song in the month of August. And now, almost exactly a year later, we were headed for Cleveland. And among the dives we'd booked, we actually had some prestige clubs booked as well. And an appearance on "Afternoon Exchange," a local TV program:
For some reason, they weren't equipped to mic the drums properly, so Susan just stood there holding her drumsticks and swaying as we performed "My Boy."
The gigs were up and down--one place turned out to be an erstwhile strip club, and the audience didn't quite know what to make of us. Really short skirts... but they're not taking them off?? Heh. One gig, though, at a club on Euclid near the university, was glorious:
We were "on" like never before, and even Susan was playing like a pro. People were dancing like crazy. It was such a rush, and I remember clearly sitting in our closet of a dressing room between sets and thinking "This is what I want to do when I grow up. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life." Famous almost last words...
There had been quite a spotlight on Gael throughout the week of gigs. It was her hometown, after all. But we were all kind of sniping at each other. And trying our best to find time away from each other. We were too much in each others' pockets, and the split was largely three ways: Meegan and Margie on one side, Gael and I on the other, and Susan way out in no-man's-land.
But things seemed pretty good the night we played out last gig:
Oddly enough, I wore one of Gael's dresses that night--in fact, I wore the dress she wore for our very first gig. Of course, none of us--except maybe Meegan and Margie...maybe--knew that it would be our last gig.
A few days after we returned, Meegan and Margie called a band meeting and told us they were quitting. They were going to move to Rochester and start a band with their boyfriends. And that was it. August, as it turned out, was still a wicked month.
Susan moved back to Miami, where her family lived. She got married soon thereafter, and now she's a mom and a bankruptcy attorney in Baltimore.
Gael and I put another girl band together called "Only Desire." This one was a little harder rocking than the Poptarts--sort of a distaff Stones rather than Beatles. Well, in concept if not in execution!
It, too, fell apart after a year or so.
Then I teamed up with Meegan and Margie again in the original line up of the Antoinettes:
That band far outlasted my involvement in it... I left it after about a year or so to follow my then significant other to Boston, where he was trying to get his budding comedy career off the ground. Before that, he had been the frontman of the re-formed Tearjerkers (minus Buddy Love). Small world, huh?
The Antoinettes, originally based in Rochester, replaced me with a keyboard player and a hot guitarist (Meegan became the singer and the singer only) and moved to New York City shortly after I moved to Boston. They played there for years and, like the Poptarts, kept almost grabbing the brass ring... but New-Wave Superstardom eluded them as well, and they disbanded eventually after the longest run of all three bands, by far.
The last time I heard from Margie, she was married and living in Westchester and working as a graphic designer. That was at least a decade ago. Gael stayed in Syracuse, married one of the Tearjerkers--a rhythm guitarist--and immersed herself in getting her PhD. She still teaches at S.U., and she and her husband play in a trio called "Knickers in a Twist" now and then. Meegan is now married to a well-known and respected drummer. They live in Manhattan, and they have recently put out a CD as The Verbs. It's worth a listen. I quite enjoyed it.
And me? Well, I went from being an integral part of the local music scene
back to being an ardent fan.
But one thing is for certain: I'll always be a Poptart. I'd like to think that all five of us would be proud to say that.
Oh, and by the way... August is no longer a wicked month. I met Jeff in August. And the next August after that, I married him. So there.
Labels: antoinettes, elusive new-wave superstardom, only desire, poptarts