Tag Archives: James Brown

My Rock & Roll Paris

paris87

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.

©Christian Rose/Fastimage.
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

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50 Bands

This is my version of the “50 Bands I’ve Seen” meme that has been circulating on Facebook. The double-edged sword that is my memory got slightly carried away, but it was a fun little trip.

1. My dad playing guitar at my seventh birthday, 1972. On the setlist was “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Country Roads,” “Home Grown Tomatoes,” “If I Had a Hammer.” It was raining outside, the screen door banged in the wind.

2. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at the Great Southeast Music Hall in Atlanta, probably 1973, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” tour. Went with my mom, Grandfather (entertainment editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) and my brother. I was so overwhelmed, I cried. People kept asking what was wrong and I didn’t know what to say, so finally I just lied and said “It’s too loud.”

3. Linda Ronstadt at Atlanta Civic Center, “Hasten Down the Wind” tour, 1976. Great LA band. Went with Todd Butler. We were smitten with La Ronstadt. I thought “That’ll Be the Day” was her song. Sadly, she did not wear the Cub Scout uniform.

4. Kiss at the Omni, in Atlanta, “Love Gun” tour, 1977. Went with Todd. Without realizing it was illegal, we taped the show on a Panasonic cassette player, which I carried under my down jacket. Kiss always said they gave the fans something “different,” which of course they did, but it was all very predictable. The songs, however, were – and still are – great. Inhaled lots of second-hand pot smoke, then got picked up by Todd’s mom. I remember my ears ringing.

5. Rush at The Omni, Atlanta, “Hemispheres” tour 1978. Also with Todd, also ears ringing. The idea of forming a band had taken root and soon would sprout. Rush played Taurus pedals with THEIR FEET while flawlessly playing guitars and keyboards – and in Geddy Lee’s case, singing – in odd time signatures. Like watching acrobats. Somewhat Spinal Tap. But as long as there are awkward teenage boys, Rush will rule. I recently heard they are among the Top 5 album sellers of all time. For whatever that’s worth.

6. Champagne Jam ’79, Grant Field, Atlanta. I went alone, dropped off by my mom in the early morning. Hung out with two charming 20-something hooting and rebel-yelling redneck girls, who took turns riding on my shoulders. I had recently grown to six feet and the sensation of blue-jeaned thighs on my neck was a new one. I did not get lucky with them. On the bill: local bands Whiteface and the criminally underrated Mother’s Finest, the Dixie Dregs, and headliners the Atlanta Rhythm Section. Also on the bill: the Cars and Aerosmith, both of whom sucked. The Cars were gawky and stiff – and everyone thought they were from England. Aerosmith was wasted. Especially Steven Tyler, who could not hit the high notes and gave the audience the finger. I still have a T-shirt from this show. I had just started playing bass, and would spend hours learning the bass solo from the ARS song “Champagne Jam.” It was a sure-fire way to impress the ladies. My mom picked me up around 11 PM.

7. Kansas, “Monolith” tour rehearsal, 1980. I wrote for the local teen paper the Purple Cow, and got the gig to write a preview of Kansas’ upcoming tour, gaining access to their airplane hanger-sized rehearsal space in Atlanta. I kid you not, the stage had a huge backdrop of an Easter Island-looking monolith. My hot girlfriend Paula drove us, and the drummer, who I clumsily interviewed, ogled her as she took photos for the piece. We watched a rehearsal, which included state-of-the-art lights and flashpots. My article was titled “Inside A Kaleidoscope with Kansas.” My first few cover bands would follow – Voyage and Ickee Phudj.

8. Van Halen at the Omni, Atlanta, “Women & Children First” tour, 1980. Took aforementioned hot girlfriend Paula, who rode on my shoulders. We had floor seats and my most prominent memories of the music are of David Lee Roth saying “People ask if those high pitched sounds I make are from machines and I say NO, THEY’RE FROM DRUUUUUGS!” (Wild applause.) Mostly I recall the following: I was nervous because an army of rednecks was giving my girlfriend the hairy eyeball, and, excruciatingly, I remember her on my shoulders grooving to “Dance the Night Away,” then me losing my balance and tumbling over backwards into the row behind us. The only thing seriously injured was my pride. But I recovered, in part because she was sweet and very forgiving.

9. Aerosmith, the Omni, Atlanta, 1980. Went with Todd. Hoping one of my faves would redeem themselves, but no they still sucked. Gotta love them drugs. Notable in that this was a rare tour without Joe Perry, who had quit. Replacement Jimmy Crespo didn’t do much to counter the suck factor.

10. Ruckus, St. Pius X High School, Atlanta, 1980. Premier cover band came and played in the cafetorium. I wish I could say if they really were great. At the time, they were. They played covers by Styx, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and even funky stuff like Hot Chocolate, Wild Cherry, and the Ohio Players. I will say this with conviction: get a bunch of Catholic school adolescents who’ve been taught that the flesh is forbidden in a dark room with loud, live rock and roll playing and very interesting things will happen, with or without alcohol. Just don’t tell the principal Sister Rita you heard that from me. Very influential in spurring me on to form my own band.

11. Bow Wow Wow, with opening act REM, Biltmore Hotel, Atlanta, 1981. Went with Todd. This one was amazing, in part because I had no idea who REM was. Todd Butler and I were big fans of Bow Wow Wow – we loved the raggedy Pirate fashion, the surf-funk-Burundi drums music, the attitude, and not least of all, Annabella Lwin, who was 15 and who was naked on their album cover. Good times. REM’s much-ballyhooed debut single was freshly out, and they came onstage and tore it up. They had their Television/Patti Smith Group thrift store fashion sense down, and they had that elusive, money-in-the-bank greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts four-headed-monster band quality possessed by every great group. And some instantly memorable tunes, which insured their subsequent stratospheric success. Frat guys, new wavers and art students had come from Athens and they all hollered out the names of songs and went nuts. It was what I imagine it was like seeing the Beatles at the Cavern in 1962. One of the only seminal “I was there” gigs on my list. I soon would form my first original band, The Latest.

More on this HERE

12. Method Actors with opening act The Latest at the Strand in Marietta, Ga, 1982. My punky pop band The Latest – featuring drummer extraordinaire Harry Joiner and guitarist/vocalist Teddy Murray – did great before an audience of complete strangers. At least that’s how I recall it. I also recall friends in a local “progressive rock” band checking us out and muttering jealously. Very satisfying, that. The Method Actors had a loyal arty following from Athens, who came and danced to their band’s quirky, loud, attitude-heavy music. The Method Actors were a trio of drums, sax and guitar/sometimes bass. Leader/frontman and Athens luminary, Vic Varney was an impressive perfomer who, a couple years later, would invite me to Athens to play in a new band, Go Van Go. Saxophonist Stan Satin was fantastic and really nice. I would later be in his NYC band Sayso in 1985.

13. The Press with opening act The Latest at the Bistro, Atlanta, 1982. The Press was the hot local new wave band always on the edge of breakout success, getting airplay with their tuneful, non-offensive pop. The Bistro was a pretty tiny club – maybe 300 folks could get in there – owned and run by another “Local Band on the Verge” Baby and the Pacifiers. If memory serves, I totaled my mom’s Volkswagen Beetle en route to this gig. She forgave me.

14. The Now Explosion at the Strand, 1982. I went with Todd, who was literally in love with the Now Explosion and eventually would marry one of its members, Clare Parker. They were a trashy, hilarious, and seriously funky five-piece unfairly compared to the B-52’s. I’d never seen people having so much fun onstage, making up for what they lacked in instrumental prowess with charisma and some solid tunes. When I quit The Latest, they would have a significant effect on Todd and me as we formed the band Wee Wee Pole with then-fledgling superstar-in -exile RuPaul Charles.

More on this HERE

15. Split Enz at the Agora Ballroom, Atlanta, 1983. I was a big fan, particularly of younger Finn Brother Neil – later of Crowded House – who was a teenager. I went to this show alone. When they played “I Got You,” everyone, including me, went crazy. I would soon go in search of the Perfect Pop Song.

16. The Clash at the Fox Theater, Atlanta, 1982. First show after Joe Strummer’s unexpected walkabout in France, on which he ate lots of cheese and got fat. He was tormented by his band’s success, apparently, and had abandoned the “Combat Rock” tour. Returning with a Mohawk, he temporarily resigned himself to success just in time for the Atlanta show. Secret weapon/underrated drummer and, sadly, junkie Topper Headon had quit and headed home to London, so original drummer Terry Chimes/Tory Crimes filled in. It was almost like watching a rehearsal. A disappointment. There was a pathetic attempt by Atlanta punks to incite a riot after the show, but it was quickly tamped down by the cops.

17. REM and Jason & the Nashville Scorchers, Agora Ballroom, Atlanta, 1982. Jason & the Nashville Scorchers gave the Rear End Men/Raving Ego Maniacs (what jealous Atlanta bands called REM) a run for their money on this one. I came in during Jason’s set and almost had my face peeled off. They were intense, funny, and unapologetically country-punk showfolk. I’d never seen anything like it. Jason was a shirtless, sweaty, glorious mess, the band spun and engaged in all kinds of stage moves with total conviction, and the crowd was just this side of out-of-control. When REM hit the stage – with sideman Peter Holsapple – they had their work cut out for them. But they delivered. “Chronic Town” had been released and I played it every day. They had more dynamics than Jason et al, and, of course, they were prettier. And they had those songs. No small thing.

18. Stanley Clarke and George Duke, Chastain Park, Atlanta, 1984. I was a big fan of Stanley Clarke, and I studied his bass playing intensely. I wanted to play fast and funky and he was the king. He’d released some music with keyboardist George Duke that was not my cup of tea – sexless R & B – but I wanted to see him. The show turned into a fiasco – none of Duke’s synthesizer keyboards worked, and nothing looks goofier than a well-respected jazzbo playing a handheld keyboard that does not work (or even one that does). Duke had a tantrum, threw the keyboard down violently and stalked offstage, leaving Stanley Clarke to riff for about 30 minutes. At the end, Clarke lifted up his hands and said “I HAVE LOST MY POWER.” I didn’t think rapid-fire bass playing would ever bore me, but it did.

19. Psychedelic Furs, outside at UGA, Athens, 1984. The P Furs had released “Mirror Moves” – one of the albums that would “put drummers out of work” because of the “amazingly real sounding” Linn Drum. They were great, and Richard Butler had an odd, catlike grace that I’d never seen before. There was some kind of fracas with some “Athens punks” who were being obnoxious. Butler spilled water on them intentionally and the cops escorted them away. Very exciting.

20. The Alarm, outside at UGA, Athens, 1984. Awful. Just dreadful. The singer sort of sang like Bono and they played acoustic guitars that were amplified and sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard. They billed themselves as a cross between U2 and the Clash and they sang about fighting for their rights, etc. Totally obnoxious. And worst of all – no tunes.

21. Waitresses, 688 Club, Atlanta, probably 1982. The only original members were singer Patty O’Donahue and, I think, sax player Mars Williams. They were great and at the climactic moment in “I Know What Boys Like,” Patty, who was a great frontwoman, leaned down to my sweaty face and said “SUCKER!” But she winked and I felt honored. And turned on. A few years later I would chat with her across a NYC bar at which I was working. She was very sweet.

22. The Neighborhoods, 688 Club, Atlanta, 1982. Word on the street was that this Boston band was hot shit on a stick, and they were. They tore the roof off that sweaty little bunker of a club. Amazing, meaty, danceable new wave funk.

23. Red Hot Chili Peppers, 40 Watt Club, Athens, opening band – my band – Go Van Go.1984 I was a huge fan of their first album, which was produced by Gang of Four’s Andy Gill, and I was thrilled when my band got the opening slot. Go Van Go was an arty Athens dance band helmed by Vic Varney in which I played a lot of funk bass. With foxy Tanya Tucker lookalike Dana Downs sharing vocals with Vic, we approximated a X-meets-Gang of Four inensity that, I regret to say, was never adequately captured on tape. I was a disciple of Flea’s bass playing so I went to see the RCP sound check. They’d just driven into sleepy, hot little Athens and they were hungover and pissed off that the club was so dinky and there were no posters up. Later that night, they really burned it up onstage. Flea was Flea and I was stunned at his punky slap bass, Anthony was wearing a black leather jacket with his favorite coffee cup attached to the epaulet, and the late great Hillel Slovak – who had a piece of foam rubber attached to his head – played Hendrix-meets-punk-meets-funk guitar like nothing I had ever seen or heard before. I went home and picked up my bass and practiced until there was blood on the pick guard.

24. Police/Go-Gos, Synchronicity tour, the Omni, Atlanta, 1983. I actually enjoyed the Go-Go’s more than the Police. The Go-Go’s had a lot of garage band attitude and presence and really rocked the joint, making the arena feel like a steamy little club. I wrote about this show for the Purple Cow and was burned in effigy at a keg party by my former band mates in my heavy metal cover band Ickee Phudj for “going new wave.” The Police were tight and professional and had back-up singers and yadda yadda yadda. But I wasn’t all that impressed.

25. Test Dept, the Ritz, NYC, 1985. I have no idea how I ended up at this show, alone. Test Dept were a very mannered English band whose gimmick was that they traveled with no instruments. Rather, they would pick up metal trash in every city and bang polyrhythms on it while a guy played a cornet and another guy projected black and white films of socialists working in factories, etc. The loudest racket I have ever heard.

26. GBH, some underground club, London, 1986. I was traveling alone through Europe, staying at a hostel in London. An Italian kid invited me to “come see a punk rock band!” Probably one of the only actual real punk rock shows I’ve ever attended. The crowd seemed as much a part of the performance as the band, who were excruciatingly loud (DUH) aggressive and dangerous looking.

27. Fleshtones, Lone Star, NYC, 1986. I went with some friends to see this “you gotta see ’em live” quintet at the great old Lone Star club, and I was really taken with them, especially Peter Zaremba, who worked the crowd and the band like a white, heavy-Queens-accented James Brown. They stopped and started on a dime, working the crowd and getting everyone dancing. Within a few months, I would be in the band. But that’s another story.

28. Motorhead, the I-Beam, San Francisco, 1987. On a night off during a tour with the Fleshtones I went to the I-Beam to check out Lemmy & Co., and I was not at all disappointed. They kept blowing out the PA, which was an added entertainment value, as the band would be playing hard, fast and loud, then BAM the circuits would go, and for a few moments, they’d still be rocking out in complete silence except for the drums. Very, very funny. Then Lemmy would scream that the next time they’d bring their own PA. I got the impression he said that a lot.

29. James Brown, a very large hall that I don’t recall, Paris, 1987, with opener the Fleshtones. My first gig in a foreign country. We opened for James at this 5000-seater, and the crowd did not care for us. Someone threw a straight razor onto the stage while we played. Then James came out and, even though he seemed to be phoning it in, he was still great. He had a crack band, of course, including a tall skinny guy who covered for James on some of the difficult vocal parts. The real star was actually sax man Maceo Parker, who came out worked the crowd for 15 minutes as the MC said “The Tower of Power, the Sex Machine, the Hardest Working Man in Showbiz, etc, etc.” over and over like a mantra. We wanted to meet James but it was forbidden due to James having “trouble with his teeth.”

30. Chuck Berry, outdoor concert in Barcelona, 1988, with opener the Fleshtones. Chuck Berry did exactly what I’d always heard he did: He drove up in a rental car, got his out-of-tune-guitar out of the trunk, got paid in cash, went onstage, met the band, and proceeded to suck. We’d opened for him to a massive crowd who received us pretty well. I did not get to meet him. He played all his hits, but never tuned his guitar and never even looked at the hapless band. The band was actually American 70s hit-makes the Climax Blues Band, who were touring Spain and, I guess, needed some extra cash. After Chuck split in a cloud of dust, they played their soft rock hits. VERY ODD.

31. Das Furlines, the Jag, East Hampton, Long Island, 1987. I got to know my future wife at this gig. Das Furlines were a punk polka band inspired by obscure garage rockers the Monks, who were American GI’s living in Germany in the 60s. Way ahead of their time, the Monks.

Like the Monks, the Furlines played proto-punk with a polka beat. The Furlines’ between-song patter was very bawdy, very Benny Hill. An all-female quintet, they dressed like beer hall girls, with bustiers and crinolines and wild hair-do’s and hats. They covered Monks songs and spoke in fake German accents. My wife Holly – aka Holly Hemlock – played a 1958 Fender Jazzmaster and her hair was tinted “tail-light red.” I was smitten. Within two years, we’d be married. Just celebrated 20th anniversary.

32. Waterboys, the Beacon Theater, 1989, Fisherman’s Blues Tour. Went with Holly, as we were – and are – huge Waterboys fans. A revelation, this show. I’d been a fan of their early, dense, chiming, anthemic stuff, and then Mike Scott broke it all down and built it back with a tweedy, rootsy, folky palette and it all worked. His band – multi-instrumentalist Anthony Thiselthwaite in particular – really rose to it. They did the early “Big Music” material as well as the newer, acoustic-y raggedy numbers and everything felt a part of a greater whole. I was disappointed but not surprised Scott couldn’t sustain the intensity of this version of the Waterboys. He hasn’t made a great record since.

33. Leonard Cohen, the Felt Forum, 1992, The Future Tour. Went with Holly. I once read a description of Jakob Dylan that included the phrase “sluggish rabbinical charisma.” Having seen the Wallflowers, I cannot concur on this point – it was a snooze of a show. “Sluggish rabbinical charisma” does, however, apply to Leonard Cohen, who puts on a performance that is unlike any other. There is an intensity that feels like a devotional ceremony, yet there’s humor and sex and hypnotic tunes and, above all else, the power of language to transform a sizeable crowd of people. I’ve never been to show where the words held the collective attention of a crowd so completely. At times it seemed Cohen would implode into the depth of his songs, crumpling into himself, croaking out one compelling phrase after another while his sleek, sexy back-up singers cooed like angels and his yeoman band – a multi-culti lot of Eastern and Western – kept everything on firm ground. Like the Springsteen show I attended sometime later (see # 50) I left feeling like I’d been to a holy site and been filled with spirit. No joke.

34. Midnight Oil, the Felt Forum, 1990, Blue Sky Mining Town Tour. I was a fan of Diesel and Dust and was told that these Aussies were great live, a must-see. Indeed, they were. Not only are they all great musicians – especially the drummer – they all sang with gusto. Sonically, they incorporated acoustic guitars quite a lot, and I’d never heard such a true, pe rcussive amplified acoustic sound. They were riding a wave of radio and MTV/VH1 acceptance in those days, and they had very solid, passionate tunes.

35. U2, Giants Stadium, Popmart Tour, 1997. This was a disappointment. I’m a fan and I’d never seen U2, and the only time I got it together to go was for their only misstep album/tour. Bloated, unfocused. The big lemon that they emerged from – all very ironic and consciously Spinal Tap. I remember thinking crew-cut Bono looked like Jimmy Cagney. Jeff Buckley had just died and they did an impromptu salute to him. Of course a lot of the songs still had magic, but the guys seemed tired and uncommitted. This was no Joshua Tree or Zoo TV.

36. Steve Earle solo, Irving Plaza, 1996. Shortly after getting out jail, cleaning up and releasing the classic “I Feel Alright” Earle played what I recall as the longest solo acoustic show I’d ever seen – probably 2 and a half hours. Although a technically limited player and singer, he put on a riveting show. It was all about the songs and his rapport with the crowd. A true troubadour, perhaps the best I’ve seen.

37. Steve Earle & the Dukes Tramps, NYC, 1995. All of the above but with a great band, less talk and considerably more volume.

38. Townes Van Zant & Guy Clark, The Bottom Line, NYC, probably 1997. Townes was a wreck and, due to the DT’s, could barely play. It was excruciating. The songs were undeniable, though. Guy Clark, whose son played great bass, opened the show with understated professionalism that got on the nerves of some of Townes’ fans. But I was impressed. Again – amazing songs.

39. Levon Helm and Ollabelle, Levon’s Midnight Ramble, Woodstock, NY, 2004. I was a teacher, so, as per Levon’s policy, I got in free (firemen and teachers got into Rambles free in those days). Went with Holly and we were both under the impression that, due to his throat cancer, Levon’s voice was gone. We only expected him to sit in on drums. WRONG. Although he seemed frail and skeletal when he came out, once behind his kit, he came to life, and when he sang, the room filled with energy and he seemed to glow from within. It was a spiritual experience. He duetted a lot with his daughter Amy and the joy was palpable. An amazing night.

More on Levon and me HERE

40. Hedwig & the Angry Inch, Jane St. Theater, 1999. Technically, this was a rock musical – far and away the best rock musical I’ve ever seen, the most seamless example of marrying rock and roll with theater. Writer-performer John Cameron Mitchell was leaving, so Holly and I rushed to see him and we were blown away by the songs, the humor, the soul, the story, everything. I would return to see Michael Cerveris as Hedwig, and amazingly, he was every bit as good. The movie does not compare to the live show, which moved me and rocked me with equal force.

41. Prince, the Bercy, Paris “Sign O’ the Times” tour. 1987. I am now, and have been for most of my life, an ardent Prince fan, and this was the only time I’ve seen him. He did not disappoint. The French LOVE them some Prince, and the Bercy is, if memory serves, comparable to Madison Square Garden, so there really wasn’t a bad seat in the house. Sheila E. played drums and she almost stole the show, coming out from behind the kit to rap at one point (on Alphabet Street) while the Purple One kept the beat. The only downside was that many of his best songs were compressed into medleys. But that’s mere quibbling. A master showman/musician/singer/evangelist with an amazing band. Opening act Madhouse played funk instrumentals shrouded in burka-like robes that obscured their faces. They got the crowd sufficiently riled for His Royal Badness. Rumour was that Prince was the drummer.

42. Dolly Parton, Joe’s Pub, NYC, 2001. Due to Holly’s press cred, we got in to this intimate performance, which featured mandolin phenom Chris Thile from Nickel Creek. Dolly had released her bluegrass CD “Little Sparrow” and I had never been that close to someone who’d had that much plastic surgery. She looked like an alien. And she seemed nervous in the live context. She had a TelePrompTer to help her remember lyrics. But the songs – both new and old- were the real stars. And Thile. I got the impression folks who saw Hendrix at Cafe Wha? in the mid 60s probably felt the same way. I talked to the band afterwards – they were smoking on the street,totally ignored – and asked why Dolly didn’t do more shows. “She’s too busy with her production company,” the guitarist said. “You know that show ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’? That’s hers.”

43. Johnny Cash, Hunter Mtn. NY, 1996. Johnny had June, the Carter Sisters, John Carter Cash and the Tennessee Three at this gig, and it was great. Like going to Mt. Rushmore. Johnny and June’s stage patter was identical when I saw them later at the Ritz in NYC.

44. NRBQ, some underground club in Durham, near Duke University, 1988. The Fleshtones had opened for Jonathan Richman at Duke earlier in the day, and we ended up at this club where this band I’d heard about as another “must see live” experience was playing. They were stunning, easily one of the best bands I’ve ever seen. It was the classic lineup of Big Al, Terry, Joey and Tom, and they played more styles than any one I’d ever seen, and they made it all sound of a piece. One of the most joyous concert experiences of my life. The Fleshtones would later share a bill with them in Martinique, of all places, where no one knew who they – or, indeed, who we – were.

45. Tom Jones , the Buckingham Palace Theater at the Friar Tuck Inn, Catskills, NY, early 90s. This was right when Tom started to become hip again. He’d just covered EMF’s “Unbelievable and Prince’s “Kiss.” He was amazing. He opened with the Richard Thompson song “Break Somebody’s Heart” then did lots more cool covers. In the middle of the set he did all his hits back to back, then went back to the unexpected stuff, like Johnny Winter’s “Still Alive & Well.” His voice was a revelation, very rich and dramatic. And even though his band all had mullets, he rocked the joint, which reeked of Mafia and was filled with middle-aged women.

46. Emmylou Harris and Spyboy, Joe’s Pub, 1999. Another intimate press-only event. I’d been a fan of a lot of her stuff, which Holly had introduced me to, and this gig featured an amazing band with Brady Blade and producer/guitarist Buddy Miller,. We’d seen Emmy at the Beacon with Daniel Lanois and were knocked out, but with Buddy Miller in tow, she really took everyone to another plane. She even made a menopause joke sexy.

47. Van Morrison, the Beacon, 1989. “Avalon Sunset” tour. I got up early in the morning and waited outside the Beacon for tickets. This was an added show which culminated a six-night stint at the Beacon, and it was to be filmed for a concert video. I hadn’t camped out for tickets since I was a teenager. It was worth it. Van’s voice was shot, but it didn’t matter. He had Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames as a band and guests Mose Allison and John Lee Hooker. Holly and I both are huge fans of Van and we were not disappointed. He was not at all prickly – quite engaging and “on.”

48. Richard Thompson, Bearsville Theater, “Rumour & Sigh” solo acoustic tour, early 90s. The best solo acoustic show I’ve ever seen. Also the first time I ever heard “52 Vincent Black Lightning,” my favorite song of his. A real triple threat – guitarist, writer and singer/performer – with great stage presence and patter and jaw-dropping chops.

49. Gogol Bordello, Austin City Limits Festival, 2008. These odd, raggedy, rock and roll gypsies really owned the festival. A big band, with bearded, crazed men singing and flailing away while girls in bicycle shorts pound on big bass drums and do choreography as an intensely tight band executes an Eastern European version of the Pogues-meets-Iggy Pop. They had the crowd enthralled and no one knew what they were singing about. I heard later that they stayed up all night on the festival grounds, singing, dancing, drinking and roasting a pig in the ground.

50. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Madison Square Garden, 1999. This was the tour on which he played “American Skin,” – his song about unarmed Amadou Diallo being shot 41 times by the NYPD. Not only was that song intense and chilling, the whole show was like a rock and roll tent revival meeting. One of the best rock shows I’ve ever seen, if not the best. The songs, the performance, the connection to the crowd, the energy… a spiritual experience. A rare opportunity to see and hear a band that has been together for decades and thus posses a simpatico vibe that can never be rehearsed, only accomplished after untold bus rides, plane trips, hotels, road food, and, of course, simply playing together for most of their lives.