Tag Archives: Fleshtones

My Rock & Roll Paris

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RBW, Paris, ’87

FLESHTONES MANAGER BOB SINGERMAN was on the phone. The band had discovered me playing bass for the drag queens at the second annual Wigstock Festival in Tompkins Square Park; Fleshtones’ guitarist Keith Streng later met me in King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, where I tended bar; they’d lost their bass player, and was I interested in auditioning? I said hell yes, and the gig was now mine. A new album, Fleshtones vs. Reality, was about to drop, and tours were imminent. Bob was calling to give me details. It was late 1986. I was twenty-one.

“Robert,” Bob said, a smile in his voice, “how do feel about… opening for James Brown?”

From my rumpled sheets in a three-room tenement on Avenue B in the East Village, I told him I felt great about that.

“How do you feel about opening for James Brown… in Paris? In April?”

Naturally, these were all rhetorical questions. I was beyond excited, like I-won-Lotto excited. First of all, I would be seeing Paris for the first time, and I’d be traveling under optimum circumstances – as a rock and roll ambassador. Secondly, I’d be sharing a stage with the Godfather of Soul, fer chrissakes, a mountain of a man whose music inspired and influenced me. Also, although I was a New Yorker, I’d been raised in Georgia, where James Brown enjoyed folk hero status, not unlike, say, Ted Turner, MLK, and Gladys Knight. In Georgia, my people proudly claimed Mr. Dynamite as one of our own.

It got better. Bob went on to explain that the Fleshtones would be beginning the French leg of a European tour with a one nighter opening for James Brown not just anywhere, but at the 16,000-seat Bercy arena, a venue only slightly smaller than Madison Square Garden. Mr. Brown’s single “Living In America,” from Rocky IV, was a hit, and he was enjoying yet another resurgence in popularity, especially in Europe.

While somewhat “underground” at home, the Fleshtones were very popular overseas, particularly in France, where they’d recorded not one but two live albums – Speed Connection I and Speed Connection II – at Paris’ famed Gibus club. They’d regaled me with tales of their previous exploits among the diehard French fans, all of whom worshipped rock and roll and were skilled at having a good time.

“Fasten your seat belt,” the Fleshtones’ red headed saxophonist Gordon Spaeth told me, grinning maniacally. “Or don’t.”

Fleshtones ’86

I quit the bars and spent the winter of ’86-’87 hitting the U.S. college and club circuit with my new friends. The band had already been at it for almost a decade, releasing several LPs and singles, and they were quite a well oiled machine into which I fit pretty easily. It was sweaty, intense, fun work. Singer Peter Zaremba, it turned out, was not unlike James Brown, conducting and morphing the grooves we laid down while simultaneously enrapturing audiences. Onstage, we were untouchable, playing marathon sets of our own mix of garage, psychedelia, and R & B, referencing great soul like Stax Records, edgy proto punk like The Stooges, and gutbucket blues like Howlin’ Wolf.

Peter was still hosting The Cutting Edge on MTV, a once-a-week lo-fi program showcasing up-and-coming bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Husker Du, Los Lobos, and R.E.M. The band had been label mates with R.E.M. and the Go-Go’s, and enjoyed a loyal fanbase of college kids, new wavers, and some punks, all of whom turned out en masse to our shows, regularly packing clubs and small theaters to dance and holler and hang out with us. We toured into the south, arriving in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, stopping off in Athens, where Peter Buck joined us onstage and got us drunk back at his new house. Several times, we tooled up and down the East Coast in a van, arriving back at our practice space, the infamous urine-soaked Music Building in Hell’s Kitchen (“Madonna used to live here!”) in the chilly, wee small hours, unloading our gear with the help of our driver/road manager/sound man, and going home to sleep for a few days before heading out again, back into the buzz of the oncoming spring of ’87.

I was enjoying my first real taste of Life on the Road, watching the landscape zip by from a van window, often the only Fleshtone awake on the post-gig ride, my long legs cramped, ears ringing as my bandmates snored around me, their exhalations filling the Econoline with stale beer breath and various other man smells.

The guys took a real shine to me. They were all contentious and egotistical by nature – which is what you want in a rock band – and they nursed grudges at the world, insisting they should, in fact, be as famous as their ever-more-successful and inferior contemporaries. But for the hex someone had put on them, they would be. One of the Fleshtones’ best songs was actually called “Hexbreaker,” a funky rave up we usually saved for the end of the set. Several times, Zaremba looked at me in the darkness of the van, placed his big hands on my shoulders, and said: “You! You are the hexbreaker, Warren! You’re the hexbreaker! Our luck is gonna change!”

It was one of the happiest times of my life. And it was all prep for Paris.

The April afternoon we left JFK for Paris was a Perfect Manhattan Spring Day, blossoms in the East Village trees, bare-legged folks in T-shirts, music spilling onto the cracked pavement from open windows. Artists everywhere, all of us poor and, for the most part, happy; tolerated or even beamed at by the old Ukranians and Poles whose neighborhood we’d invaded.

Our meeting spot was outside the Pyramid Club on Avenue A. We waited for the van, our instruments and bags encircling us. Sweet anticipation connected all as we sat in the warm late afternoon sun. We laughed a lot. The van was running late, so I walked across the street to King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut to see some friends and have my customary double espresso with Sambuca. I must’ve been radiating something, because a beautiful young woman sidled up to me and struck up a conversation. I told her I was a bass player, and I was waiting for a van to take me to the airport, as my band was going on tour, and our first gig on French soil was opening for James Brown. I asked about her, and she told me, quite unapologetically, that she was a mistress. That was her job. And did I have time to come back to her apartment and, you know, hang out? I told her I did not. Sadly. She kissed me and told me to have a good time and be careful. I would never see her again.

About eighteen hours later, an official was stamping my passport at Charles de Gaulle airport. I rarely sleep on planes, and this flight had been no exception. I was too excited and amped up on coffee. These were the days when you could still smoke on planes, and even though I was not a smoker, I bummed a French cigarette – a Gauloise blonde – from a Parisian guy heading home. Just to have something to do, and to talk to a French person, as prep. He had not heard of my band, but was a fan of James Brown. Although Zaremba had told me I didn’t need to worry about speaking French, as I would be conversing in the language of rock and roll (this would turn out largely to be true) I still wanted to try to resurrect my high school French.

Friends of the band picked us up at the airport and, as French folk are wont to do, they took us to their house, where we sat, bleary-eyed behind our shades, on a terrace in a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, and drank yet more (sublime) coffee, the best red wine I’d ever tasted, and Kronenbourg beer. I cracked open my first still-warm-from-the-neighborhood-bakery baguette and smeared it with the best butter I’d ever tasted. I caught the occasional word and gist of the conversations around me (although our hosts, like most French, endeavored most often to speak English in our company), and the name James Brown was excitedly uttered amid the occasional flurry of French. As the sun crept low over the russet tiles of the surrounding roofs, fatigue finally began to pull me under.

Another drive took us to our accommodations, the Hotel Regyns, in Montmartre. We careened down cobbled, tiny avenues, and diesel-choked thoroughfares, all of which looked, to my bloodshot eyes, like a cross between Breathless and the 1981 film Diva. Everyone was slim and urbane and beautiful, or dignified and happily elder, with, I shit you not, berets and tiny glasses of wine on folding tables outside apartments and cafes. Seemed like everyone was smoking, everywhere, and everyone was kissing hello. A subculture of dogs seemed to roam freely, even in and out of shops. And among the clearly Gauloise faces were enfolded Turks, Africans, Middle Easterners, every color of the world, gracefully woven into a fabric I could reach out and touch with my naked eyes and eager hands. It was even more effortlessly multi-culti than New York.

I felt like Henry Miller, like Jim Morrison, like I’d stepped into a painting, like I was falling, happily exhausted, into the embrace of an ancient culture of arts love, of sensual, guiltless pleasure. It began to dawn on me in a visceral sense that I was in the land where the creators are revered; Paris greets artists with an affection so strong it gives an energy boost, life force, enabling one to go back to the blank space with faith, with no fear. And indeed, I was not afraid. I was the opposite of afraid. They don’t call it the City of Lights just because it literally shines at night; they call it that because of what it does to your insides.

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The tiny Hotel Regyns, overlooking the Place des Abbesses metro, was the rock and roll hotel of Paris, famed among bands as being laissez faire about all night carousing and guests. But none of us partied that night. In twenty-four hours, we would be rocking the Bercy. Best to be somewhat rested. We all crashed at a “reasonable hour” for once, our casement windows open to the misty springtime air laced with the scents of diesel and cooling stone.

I awoke around 4 AM, eyes wide, senses on hyper-alert. I got dressed, pulled on my Chelsea boots, and made my way through the streets of Montmartre as dawn paled the sky peach and the warm yeasty smell of bread baking rose in the coolness. I actually saw a squat, beret-wearing man in rumpled tweed walking along with a baguette tucked under his arm. I am in a tourist postcard, I thought. I found his bakery, a sunny little storefront where they smiled indulgently at my lousy French; I purchased coffee and the absolute finest croissants of my life, which I ate on the steps of Sacre Couer as the sun lit the red ceramic roof tiles of the 18th arrondissement. I made my way back to the hotel, passing the painters setting up their easels in the plaza, awaiting tourists; meanwhile, young, beautiful drunk couples were making their way back from nearby Pigalle to collapse in bed together. I bid them all a shy Bonjour and crawled back into my bed.

We arrived for sound check to the echoing strains of James Brown’s band laying into a hard groove: “(Get Up I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine.” I heard James’ voice and hurried into the empty, cavernous house, where techs were rigging lighting and tweaking the massive sound system. I was stunned by the size. I’d never played anywhere remotely that large. Somewhat to my disappointment, James was not there. One of his backup singers, a slender man with a Jheri curl, was checking for him, sounding exactly like him.

The rest of the Fleshtones headed for our dressing room while I watched the bass player and sax great Maceo Parker navigate a couple more grooves. I finally approached and introduced myself, and they were nice as could be. The bassist had been in K.C. & the Sunshine Band, and that man was funky. Maceo, of course, was one of James Brown’s many indispensible collaborators, and clearly the actual bandleader. We chatted for a while and he said he’d try to get us an audience with James, the prospect of which made me ambivalent.

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James Brown & Maceo Parker. 1986.

A few hours later, as we waited to go on, we were informed James couldn’t meet with us due to problems with his teeth. Maceo, however, came by to tell us to break a leg. We hit the stage and a cheer rose in the three-quarter filled venue, but the audience was not there for us. We rarely opened shows, and while our thirty minutes was fun indeed, it wasn’t nearly as fun as our usual club show, for which we were deservedly famous.

While most expressed appreciation to the five white dudes called the Fleshtones opening for the African-American dude who sings “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” at least one Parisian did not care for us. As I walked the lip of the stage during my fuzz bass solo, an orange object spun to my left. When the lights went up, I saw what it was: an orange-handled, blunt, rusted straight razor, flung at us during our set.

I showed it to Maceo who laughed like Santa Claus and went out and worked the Bercy crowd for about fifteen minutes, the band pumping behind him. He actually gave a more inspired, energetic performance than The Hardest Working Man in Show Business. Once James hit the stage, the energy level actually dropped. Nevertheless, it was an amazing show. An off day for James Brown is probably way better than a stellar day for most musicians.

When it was all over, we went to the Bataclan, danced and drank, then back through the lamplit streets to our hotel. We caught a few hours sleep, some of us alone, some of us not, before meeting our French road crew – two lovable, hardboiled Parisiens – who would drive us through Europe in a red converted bread truck, leaving a plume of diesel in our wake, listening to the Stooges on a handheld tape recorder.

Paris faded in the rearview, but we would soon return triumphantly after playing for adoring crowds in the provinces. At our final gig for this leg of the Fleshtones vs. Reality tour, before heading to Italy and Germany, we led the audience of La Locomotiv out of the club to the sidewalk, and we climbed into the trees, up among the streetlamps, our instruments dangling, completely unconcerned with possible trouble from the Gendarmes, because indeed, they did not care.

In time I would return again and again, as a Fleshtone, as a newlywed, and several more times as a visitor. I sought out the sad-eyed smiles of the citizens of the City of Lights; all speaking passionately of politics, art, and wine, no matter their standing: millionaire’s daughter or a squat dwelling punk. The welcome was always there, that familiar touch of the emboldening friend. That contagious passion drew me back again and again to my Paris, rock and roll town extraordinaire, multi-hued haven of beauty, art, erotica, and courage, all offered to anyone visiting the City on the Seine. I took all of it with me and ran into the creeping evening of age. But I will be back.

This essay originally appeared in The Weeklings

Not A Misspent Youth, Part 7: Wee Wee Pole/RuPaul and me in Marietta, Ga., 1983

It happened again! An episode from my youth as part of the New Wave Queer Underground of Atlanta popped up online, thanks to YouTuber rottingtapes, who once managed the Marietta, Georgia-based band Guadalcanal Diary. My band Wee Wee Pole – featuring RuPaul – shared stages with Guadalcanal Diary several times, and I think this was one of them. It’s June of 1983, and my friend Todd (on guitar) and I are about to graduate high school. We’ve just acquired our new drum machine and percussionist David Klimchak. Back up singers/dancers the U-Hauls have quit in a huff. But we are in good form.

The venue is “new wave” club The Strand in Marietta. Marietta’s about 15 miles from where I grew up in Atlanta; it was more country then, but it’s now an Atlanta suburb. RuPaul is ON, and as you can see, the audience loves him. The song we’re playing is “Hips.” Most of the lyrics are indecipherable, but the tag line is, “her hips were made to kill!!!” Please enjoy. More to come.


More about my time in the New Wave Queer Underground HERE.

More about Todd and me HERE

More about My Life in Music HERE.

Not A Misspent Youth, Part 6: Fleshtones, Somewhere In France, 1988

Once again, someone has posted a scene from my youth on YouTube, and it’s a doozy. (Thanks to Fleshtones biographer Joe Bonomo for bringing it to my attention.) This is the Fleshtones, circa 1988, somewhere in France, performing the 2-minute super rock “In My Eyes You’re Dead” on a local program, no doubt promoting a gig. Why Peter Zaremba is sitting at a desk in the beginning I cannot tell you. Please enjoy:

This song appeared on the LP The Fleshtones Present: Time Bomb, The Big Bang Theory. The album featured the band’s many side projects, including the Peter Buck-produced Full Time Men, in which I also played bass, my own short-lived Cryin’ Out Loud, Zaremba’s Love Delegation, a few other side projects, and some Fleshtones tunes that hadn’t made it onto LPs.

“In My Eyes You’re Dead” was inspired by graffiti Zaremba saw somewhere in NYC. An angry soul had spray-painted the song’s title on a wall, and it stuck with Peter. He and Keith wrote the tune. They sang a lot about partying and girls, but they also really loved digging into what they called “the revenge motif.” “In My Eyes You’re Dead” is one of three Fleshtones recordings on which I played bass in my two-year tenure with the band.

 

Alex Chilton, A Personal History

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Alex Chilton, RBW, Jack, outside Alex’s Treme, New Orleans, cottage, spring, 1998

A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, my wife Holly George-Warren‘s biography of Alex, hits bookshelves this week. (You can keep up with events and enjoy videos and reviews at the Facebook page.) In advance of that auspicious occasion, Paper magazine commissioned me to write an essay about how Alex and his music and life impacted my family. I’ve pasted the first paragraph below, with a link to the rest of the piece. Please enjoy!

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Technically, my wife Holly George-Warren worked on A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton for about three years, but she’d been talking about it for almost two decades. A fan since the ’70s, she met Alex when he was washing dishes in New Orleans in the early ’80s. He was in the “rags” part of his riches-to-rags-to-riches arc, scraping jambalaya off tourists’ plates to make ends meet. Holly and Alex hit it off. A couple years later, he produced her band Clambake, an early step on his winding path back to musical activity. I came on the scene in 1987, when Holly’s band Das Furlines and my band the Fleshtones shared a bill. All I knew of Alex was that he’d been the 16-year-old white singer of The Box Tops, a kid who’d sounded like a 40-year-old black man on the 1967 smash “The Letter.” I’d heard-tell of his ’70s cult band Big Star, but I’d not checked them out. I learned more — a lot more — via Holly’s stories of Alex, and her expansive record collection, which included Box Tops LPs and the Big Star oeuvre alongside Alex’s eclectic, occasionally slapdash, intentionally confounding solo work. Holly also possessed The Cramps classic debut LP, Songs the Lord Taught Us, which Alex produced. I am partial to Big Star, but Holly loves it all.

                                                                                                                         Read more HERE.

Farewell to my Rabbi, Leonard Cohen

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September 10th, 2016

I originally wrote this in commemoration of Leonard’s birthday. I’ve edited it a little, but kept it in the present tense, where it will remain.

If it be your will that a voice be true

From this broken hill I will sing for you.

From this broken hill, all your praises they shall ring

If it be your will to let me sing.   

My rabbi Leonard Cohen passed away today. I am bereft and weeping.

Your rabbi? you say.

Let me explain: A couple decades ago, I was faltering, making a mess of my life. During this time, I awoke from a dream in which Leonard Cohen was my rabbi. I recall no images, but just before my waking reality and timeline clicked into place, I thought, “Leonard Cohen is my rabbi.”

I am not Jewish – I prefer the terms evangelical agnostic and/or possibilian – but, as a fatherless kid brought up with no particular spiritual discipline, I’ve sought out older male figures to help get me through life. Leonard occupies a significant place in that pantheon, especially since that dream. Prior to that, I was a fan, but the dream altered Lenny’s and my relationship, took it beyond mere fandom. He is my spiritual authority figure, his songs (well, a lot of them) are my sacred texts. Prayers. Affirmations. Codifications of gratitude or even vindictiveness. Yes, vindictiveness. There’s a lot of that in the Bible, too, FYI.

Leonard is also the man I consult over matters carnal and practical. And he has not let me down. Threaded throughout his greatness are some awful songs and some questionable decisions regarding presentation and production, but that’s fine. His imperfection – like Dylan’s, Neil Young’s and Patti Smith’s – humanizes him.

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

I initially came to Leonard Cohen in his late-80s phase. Remarkably, my conversion happened when I was playing bass in garage rock titans The Fleshtones in 1988. I was 22. I’d heard “Suzanne,” and maybe a couple others from his 60s-70s period, but his dense lyrics, lecherous-hippie troubadour attitude, and keening, nasal voice annoyed me. I was a rocker, and his sensitivity made me feel vulnerable, embarrassed. 

The Fleshtones had finished our soundcheck at a roadhouse-type joint in New Jersey. It was springtime, and much was afoot in my fevered brain; I was considering leaving the band. I wanted to write songs, front my own group, play solo acoustic, not be a sideman. The prospect of actually doing these things made me both anxious and excited, a combo that most often manifested as inarticulate crankiness. Leonard arrived and gave me clarity.

If you want a lover, I’ll do anything you want me to

If you want another kind of love, I’ll wear a mask for you.

If you want a partner, take my hand

Or if you want to strike me down in anger, here I stand.

I’m your man.

The Fleshtones had dispersed after soundcheck – lots of time-killing between soundchecks and gigs in those days – and I wandered alone into a nearby cafe, in full-on Fleshtone mode: dyed black pompadour, skintight red twill jeans, Chelsea boots, and a biker jacket with Mardi Gras beads hanging from the epaulets. The TV over the bar was on PBS (!!) and a new Lenny documentary had just started. He was  playing “Bird On A Wire,” and suddenly I was a goner. I ordered a double espresso – perfect, right? – and sat, transfixed as the Bard of Montreal spoke at length of songs, poetry, and his remarkable life (which would only get more remarkable in the coming decades). He also sang live, songs both old and new, and I recognized him at last. It was a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment, one of only a few I’ve experienced. 

He’d just released his 8th album I’m Your Man. He’d not put out an album in four years, and the buzz was lively; I’m Your Man – one of the last LPs I bought – was radically different than anything he’d done before. It was brazenly synth-heavy, even occasionally Euro-disco; his baritone had dropped to the sub-basement, and slow-burned with a laid-back intensity. He’d forsaken his Spanish guitar for a drum machine and a cold keyboard, and all was digital crispness. The lyrics – pared down, concise koans of wit – were often mordant and funny, quite direct instead of the oblique, meandering, freeform stuff of the past. Those pithy, much hewed-at couplets, combined with a quiet swagger, comprised my entry point. And it was all sexy in a way that I’d not yet clocked. He was riffing on getting old(er), embracing darkness and loss, but also the glories of sensual life, with a kind of candor that struck me as particularly brave. “First We Take Manhattan” was – and remains –the finest revenge fantasy song ever written. 

Ah you loved me as a loser, but now you’re worried that I just might win

You know the way to stop me, but you don’t have the discipline

How many nights I prayed for this, to let my work begin

First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

What struck me was this: Lenny had been through some kind of shit, some full-grown-man drama, yet he’d come out the other side with a kind of ritual scarring, wrought into stark, tuneful art. Perhaps it finally hit me because I knew my own dark road lay ahead (I was right, and how) and this work offered a kind of emotional map, much more expansive than what I’d previously attached myself to. It wasn’t rock and roll, but I liked it. I walked out of that New Jersey establishment caffeinated and changed. I was a fan. He was my man, indeed. By the end of 1988, I’d staked out a new path.

Against the odds of time, commerce, and human frailty, he got even better. He would overcome addictions to alcohol and nicotine, and speak freely about his depression, anxiety, insomnia, etc., and he would joke about his dance with a vast array of pharmaceuticals, legal and otherwise. His song “Hallelujah” would become a standard, and, much to the chagrin of some fans, be mangled like “Stairway to Heaven” innumerable times, yet rise to be mangled anew. (Full disclosure: I am sick of that song. Still, it remains a marvel to me, technically speaking.) As you read this, it is being mangled –perhaps by me – around a campfire somewhere, and being referred to as “Jeff Buckley’s best song.”

After my conversion, Leonard would help me come to terms with loss, with getting older, feeling mean, being betrayed, betraying, making amends, and, if not making peace, then recognizing the road to reconciliation, even the sinful detours one may allow one’s self in the secret heart. His ability to crystallize moments has improved my ability to do the same. He has made me less afraid of death, but more importantly, less afraid of getting older, which is quite helpful.

My friends are gone and my hair is gray

I ache in the places that I used to play

And I’m crazy for love, but I’m not coming on

I’m just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song.

I’ve been to see him three times, and one of those shows – Madison Square Garden, just a couple years ago – was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. (And I’ve seen plenty.) He and his band cast a spell of open-mouthed amazement, then sent us on our way. His fortune had been stolen, so he went back out on the road like a yeoman, or a soldier, and turned his loss into a triumphant return to form, skipping onstage to rapturous applause, hushing thousands with the power of song. We swooned, hooted, and threw money at him with no regrets. 

He’s enriched my life deeply. I’ve learned a few of his songs, aped him shamelessly, even recited the poem “A Thousand Kisses Deep” at a gig.  I have no idea how he celebrated his last birthday, whether on Mount Baldy with his sensei, in a VIP lounge with his girlfriend, hanging out with his kids in Montreal (a big plus that he’s tight with his adult kids Adam and Lorca), or alone in the Hollywood Hills, breathing in the sage, sneaking a smoke, and laughing. The very fact than any one of those situations is highly plausible says a lot about why I’ve loved him so.

I loved you for a long, long time

I know this love is real

It don’t matter how it all went wrong

That don’t change the way I feel

And I can’t believe that time’s

Gonna heal this wound I’m speaking of

There ain’t no cure,
There ain’t no cure,
There ain’t no cure for love.


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