Saturday, March 29, 2008

I Should Have Brought My Camera

While running my Saturday errands solo this afternoon (Jeff's on his way back from a conference in Boston as I type this), I decided to check out an antique mall a friend told me about. It's in one of the relatively near North Shore suburbs, and I thought it might have some cool stuff. If it was a true treasure trove, we could add it to our semi-annual rummage sale forays...

Well, it has a lot of very nice stuff. A good mix of jewelry, china, glassware, hanging lamps, paintings, and furniture. But cheap, it ain't.

Now... there are a couple of antique malls in the city about two miles south of us, and they are not bargain emporia either (which is why we prefer to drive an hour an a half up to Wisconsin for our main treasure hunts--those troves are FULL of bargains). But this place puts the city malls to shame!

A sample:

A beautiful black lacquered Chinoiserie secretary for $795. Well, to be fair, I would expect to pay something like that for something like that. Still--not what you usually find in antique malls...

Jars of buttons (as in, old jelly jars, and not the king-sized ones either): $15-$20.

An 8 X 10 vintage photo of a kid in a 50s/early 60s style pedal car (unframed): $85.

An empty turtle shell: $40. (I mean... huh????)

And the piece de resistance--the reason I wish I had my camera because you would just not believe this one--a grossly amateurish oil painting of a nude, a piece perhaps more befitting an exhibit of thrift store art: $295!!!

Two hundred ninety-five samoleans! For a nephew-art nude!

My guess is that we won't be doing a lot of treasure hunting here! We'll save OUR samoleans for the Glenview Treasure House and School Days Antique Mall in Sturdevant, WI, thank you very much!

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Welcome, Spring!

Look what greeted us here in Chi-town on the very first day of spring!

I tell you what--I like a nice dusting of snow now and again in its proper season, but I'm sick and tired of this stuff by now. It's almost April, and I have not seen one crocus yet!

They say April is the cruelest month (well, T.S. Eliot did, anyway), but this March is giving April a run for its money. Tomorrow they say it will be close to 60. Then it will dip back into the 30s and... you guessed it! Snow. Feh.

If April is crueler than this, then can we just skip it and get on with May?

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

It's Not Your House Anymore!!!


Fortified with a nice glass of Cotes du Rhone, I sat down this evening to watch a bit of television. I surfed around and landed on TLC and a show called "Moving Up." The premise of this show is stunningly simple: Two houses, one a starter home, the other a step up from a starter home. First-time buyers purchase the starter home and proceed to renovate it to their own taste. The couple who sold their starter home to the first-time buyers purchase the step-up home and proceed to renovate it to THEIR taste. Then the people who sold the first-time buyers their home come back to tour the renovated house and comment on the changes, and the people who sold THEM their step-up home come back to tour that house (which has also been renovated) and comment on the changes.

For some reason, none of the sellers seem aware that once someone else buys and moves into the house you sold them, IT'S NOT YOUR HOUSE ANYMORE!!!!

Now, I'm sure that the couples who come back to tour their erstwhile homes are instructed by directors to find as much fault as possible, but DAMN, people! At least TRY to be consistent!!

Case in point:

In tonight's episode, the first-time buyers changed a retro-looking battleship-grey kitchen with standard black granite countertops into something a bit warmer. They installed cherry cabinets and a counter of mottled beige and brown granite. Not really to my taste (which shifts rather violently between sparkly granite like uba tuba butterfly--which we wanted but couldn't ultimately afford for our kitchen redo--and retro boomerang Formica in turquoise or red with assorted pastel motifs), but not horrible. Just different from what the old owners had.

When the former owners (we'll call them the step-ups) came to see the renovation, though, they were offended by the change. They didn't like the cabinets. They were especially put out at the granite, because they believed their old granite to be "perfect." Okay... the new kitchen is not to their taste, but hey! IT"S NOT YOUR HOUSE ANYMORE!!!!

Fast forward a bit to the walk-through of the step-up's newly renovated home. When the step-ups bought the house, the kitchen was all white save for a butcher-block wood countertop. Care to guess what kind of cabinets and countertops the step-ups put into the kitchen once THEY bought the house??? Walnut cabinets (ooohhhh.... so NOT like cherry!) and the VERY SAME beigy-brown mottled granite for the counters!!! Huh??? It's blasphemy in your old home, but it's what you love in your new one?? Oy, gevalt!

But wait!! There's more!!

In the starter home, the original bathroom was an artifact of the 1950s, complete with cotton-candy pink ceramic tile surrounding the entire room. I have to admit, that had its charms for me. I probably would have worked with it, myself, although it's not what I envision for the master bath remodel we are planning for our own place sometime in the future (like when we pay off the kitchen reno in about eight years or so...sigh). But the first-time buyers didn't like it. They tore out the old tile and put in beige tiles (I'm sensing a "color" preference here).

As you have probably already surmised, the step-ups were outraged that the first-timers had torn out a piece of history. It was original to the house and it was now gone forever! How dare they?? Because (time for a clue...) IT'S THEIR HOUSE NOW--IT'S NOT YOUR HOUSE ANYMORE!!!

But oh, the irony... What did the step-ups rip up when they reno'd the bathroom in their step-up house? Why, nothing other than the original yellow 1960s tile, original to the house! And what did they replace it with??? BEIGE tile!! Good grief!! And when the former owners commented that the step-ups had torn out a piece of history, the step-ups were--you're way ahead of me here, I can tell!--outraged!! That old tile was hideous and outdated, thankyouverymuch!

I have to tell you, I was channeling my dad, yelling at the TV, trying to holler some sense into these idiots.

Oh well... I just had to share.

I don't think I've had enough of that fine French wine yet, do you? Heh!

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

August Is a Wicked Month

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.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Fresh from the Toaster!

Some Poptarts trivia:

Just as with the Ball Turret Gunners, we all took on stage names, although these were more "pop" names than "punk" names. Mostly they harkened back to the British Invasion. I became Cathy Kensington (I liked the alliteration, but I was not about to change my C to a K for symmetry's sake). Gael S. became Gael McGear (a nod to Paul McCartney's brother, Mike McGear). Susan J. became Susan Mersey (get it? as in beat?). Margie F. became Margie Shears (sister, no doubt, to Billy). And Debby R. became Meegan Voss... and eventually she became Meegan Voss for real and true and legal.

We never, ever played out the first cover tune we learned, which was "Sugar, Sugar" by the Archies. We came up with a killer harmony arrangement for it with vocals that swirled all around each other, but we couldn't figure out a way to end it properly. And once we had figured out how to do segues, it just didn't occur to us to resurrect a cover.

We never played out the first original we wrote, either, which was inspired by a story in the Weekly World News. It was called "Baby Elvis," and was about an infant who was said to look just like Elvis as a lad. There were photos to compare, with the supposed reincarnation's gas-inspired sneer providing all the evidence anyone could need.

Margie created a signature stage move, a kind of dreamy back and forth shifting that we called "doing the Ventura," after the model of her first used bass.

And, yeah. Before we ever played out, we had a logo and t-shirts:

Here is Gael, modeling a blue one for the folks in NYC.

Anyway... we were on our way. The very first time Susan played the drums officially was on our three-song demo. Gary Allen, local radio DJ, had a new wave show called "Off the Boat" that aired on Sunday nights. He played imports and demos or singles from local bands. He asked us for a tape, so we pulled Gary Frenay and Arty Lenin from the Flashcubes and Ducky Carlisle from a band called the Ohms to record us on Frenay's state-of-the-art four-track reel-to-reel. It was recorded in the upstairs flat Gael and Susan and I shared on Lancaster in Syracuse's student ghetto. We recorded "I Won't Let You Let Me Go" and "Glad She's Gone" (the bitch song from hell about how happy we were that Paul, also of the Flashcubes, and his harridan of a girl friend had broken up--alas, they reunited by the time we recorded the song...) with Susan debuting on drums. The third song, "My Boy," was accompanied only by Arty playing a classical guitar as Meegan, Gael, and I sang. It was a ballad that originally was called "Everybody's Love," in "honor" of our inspiration, Buddy Love (get it? Every Buddy's Love?), who also turned out to be a heartbreaker. Well, according to Meegan. All of the songs were originals. They were pretty rough sounding, but good enough to play on the radio. We went into the studio for an interview when Gary Allen first played the tapes, and we talked about how we envisioned product placement schemes (Meegan Makeup!) and how we wanted our pictures on lunch boxes. Like the Beatles, we were sure we were headed to the toppermost of the poppermost!

Gary Allen became our manager.

And he had contacts.

One of them was Harvey, a rather famous producer, then at Epic. Harvey didn't think we were right for Epic--not yet at least--but he did start bringing A&R guys around to see us. Those were heady times!

We played dives and we played respectable gigs. We opened for national acts, including the Tourists, an early vehicle for Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, pre-Eurythmics. Their roadies stole our tambourine. Bastards! We opened for Robin Lane and the Chartbusters--her bass player was the session man who played bass on the Archies album--Sugar, Sugar! See how the fates were aligning?

It wasn't all fun and games... we got threatened with eviction for practicing in our flat (although the frat boys on the first floor had the police around every single weekend, threatening to break up their keggers--we, on the other hand, were practicing on weeknights...). So we found a practice space in a west-side church hall. That lasted until someone broke into the storage closet and stole Susan's sparkly silver Lugwigs. She somehow got her parents to front her some money (they didn't yet know, I don't think, that she had dropped out of grad school to practice full time), and she bought a brand new set of Ludwigs--these were candy apple red. We found another church hall... this time on the east side of town. We practiced every night we didn't have a gig. The only days we took off were the days after gigs... unless we had another gig scheduled. Looking back on it, we played out a LOT.

We played a military base up near Lake Ontario. If you've seen This Is Spinal Tap, you can pretty much imagine what that was like. Except that we were five women in skirts hemmed up to our asses, and there was no stage. It was right after the dismal failure of the attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages and, in some kind of misplaced effort to win these leering, slavering guys to our side, Susan decided to pipe up and dedicate a song to the hostages. The response? The whole hall erupted in shouts of "Fuck Iran! Fuck Iran!" The shouts soon morphed into a chant. And we somehow found a way to get ourselves and our gear out of there before the testosterone-crazed mob converged on us!

We plucked a plum of a gig opening the season up at Alexandria Bay--gateway to the Thousand Islands. Or so we thought. Turns out the promoter who booked us got the date wrong. Our gig was actually the weekend BEFORE the season opened, and so we played to a cavernous and pretty much empty hall. We looked good, though!

Left to right, Margie, Meegan, Me, Gael, and Susan, in the "dressing room" at Alex Bay

Another bit of trivia: Several years after this gig, the promoter was found dead in a parking lot in Syracuse. He'd been shot in the head. I wonder whose gig he screwed up to deserve THAT? Yikes.

We had some wonderful times, though. We played twice at Dobbs on South Street in Philly. Dobbs is a bonafide rock 'n' roll institution, and they had us back! We played the Haunt in Ithaca, which had really cool t-shirts. We asked if we could have some, and when the management said no, we had to buy them (BUY them?? We've been selling your beer and filling your coffers for three frickin' sets, ya skinflint!), we found several boxes full of them in the dressing room and just helped ourselves. I think that was the moment when we realized that we really, truly had become a band! What punks we were, bonding over petty larceny!

And we had some adventures--some were great highs, like when we were grocery shopping after rehearsal a little after midnight one morning at Price Chopper on Erie Boulevard, and we heard one of our songs, "Jealousy," come on the radio that was playing through the PA system in the store. We screamed and ran down the aisles, we were so excited! So what if it was the middle of the night! We were on the radio!

Other adventures were not so much fun. For example, we agreed to record an LP side with some wannabe producers who were looking to get a label deal for themselves, and if they did, they would bring us with them. Except they turned out to be jerks and no-talents (and what a surprise THAT was... hmmm). They recorded us at the facilities at Newhouse, on the Syracuse University campus, at night. All night. And Susan, who tried her hardest--harder than anyone else in the band, without a doubt--just wasn't quite up to snuff. Because we were looking for a "live" sound, we recorded all the instrumental tracks as a band, but that meant that if any one of us fucked up, the whole take was lost. One night we did more than 70 takes of "August Is a Wicked Month," most of them due to drum issues--and most of those drum issues occurring right at the end of the song. When we finally decided to give up (it was about 5 AM, and we would have to relinquish the suite to students soon), the door stuck and we couldn't get out of the studio! Argh! And after all that, when we finally heard the tapes, the assholes had stripped out all the instruments anyway and put in lame synthesizers and drum machines! Sigh...

But despite it all, it was wonderful to be a part of something so creative and all-consuming. We had label interest. People were telling us we really WERE going to go to the toppermost of the poppermost... and we started making lists of things we'd buy when we were rich. Things like custom short-scale Les Pauls with hot-pink polka dots and Telecasters finished in turquoise glitter. But you know what they say about pride and wish lists coming before a fall...

To be continued...

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