Nobody: the Early Years

I kinda doubt that anyone is really interested in this but I feel like telling the story.

The first gig I ever played, actually the first time I ever played in front of an audience, was at CBGB, legendary dump of yore. This was 1977. I had been going there since the summer of ’75, when I first moved downtown. CB’s was indeed a dump but I saw some great sets there, above all the Heartbreakers, but also the Ramones, Blondie, Mink DeVille, Tuff Darts (with Robert Gordon), and the Dots, a criminally unknown band with the only girl I ever saw who could really play rocknroll guitar (damn few boys can either). The late Alison East, she deserves to be remembered. I also saw many interesting sets (Talking Heads, Television, Marbles, Testors, Patti Smith) and many terrible sets.

Seeing those bands, and the New York Dolls before them, was a revelation to me. I had fooled around on guitar since I was 12, but I wasn’t very good and I came from a super snob musical town. Felix Cavalliere of the Rascals was from Pelham, NY, and from 1965 on there were bands all over the place, and plenty of high school dances and later bars to play at.

Almost immediately, music in Pelham became all about virtuosity. By 1970, when I was 15, if you couldn’t play Hendrix and Clapton and Page you were nobody. I was nobody. And yet I bought into the zeitgeist, musically anyway. As an aside, this brutal competitive reality was the early tipoff to me and my friends that hippies were full of shit. It was a great advantage to see the Flower Children from the bottom: the guys who regularly beat the shit out of us were suddenly flashing peace signs and mouthing the slogans of equality. We couldn’t afford to be fooled.

My split with the common musical culture came on a summer night in 1970, when there was a TV special called Midsummer Rock. An hour and a half, five bands, nothing like it had ever been done on TV that I know of. The headliners were Grand Funk Railroad, Traffic, and Mountain, all big names at the time. Two other bands appeared (it was all filmed at a festival in Cincinnati), two bands we had never heard of: Alice Cooper and The Stooges. Alice played Black Juju and we were not impressed. We thought he was inane. (I later discovered that Black Juju is by far the worst song on the Love It To Death album.) But then The Stooges came on to do TV Eye. This was the famous peanut butter incident. My friends thought Iggy was hysterical, but not in a good way. All of them. Five or six besides me. I thought the music was fantastic. It took me another year to buy another guitar (my Korvettes Tiesco was long gone), but when I did I knew what I wanted to play. Almost nobody else wanted to play it.

Long story short, I knew that to play the music I wanted to play I would have to hook up in the city, so I did. I answered an ad in the Village Voice for a guitar player, “Dolls/Stones/Kinks” is how I remember it. The ad was placed by songwriter/singer/keyboard player Andy Towns. Andy had come up from Monroe, LA a few months before. He had already made a little name for himself in NYC as “Rent-a-Punk”, singing his songs at parties with a keyboard. He had a shaved head, huge round white glasses, and always wore tight blue jeans with a plain white T-shirt. Always. Andy got 40 responses to his ad and threw them all away, deciding that the one who called him back would get a hearing. I was that guy.
We went to a rehearsal studio on W 30th St (punk Tin Pan Alley). He gave me loose leaf sheets with the chord structures of the songs and we played them. They were good songs, and I immediately came up with some guitar parts. Andy liked them.
He brought a drummer next time, a chaotic fellow named Mark, down from Vermont with his Troggs-like skins. A little slow but he hit hard. So hard that he used to knock his cymbal right into the back of my neck, all the time. It was a small room, I had nowhere to go. We got an audition gig at CBGB.

We did alright. We were raw. Some song I recall: “I’m Paralyzed,” “Love is a Hole,” and “I Bombed the Sistine Chapel.” Halfway through the set my strumming hand felt squishy, so I looked down to see blood all over it and blood all over my strings. I was that nervous and oblivious. Mark fucked up in one song, knocked his cymbal stand over again (missing my neck for once). But overall we got over. Before we got offstage who but Patti Smith came onstage and started playing Andy’s electric piano (which had a unique harsh sound), and I joined her. We played together for I don’t know, a minute or two, then she turned to me, obviously very stoned, and said “You have good songs but you need a good drummer.” Hilly Krystal liked the songs too, and gave us another gig.

I’ll keep going if you ask nicely.

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