Tag Archives: RuPaul’s Drag Race

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.

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Not A Misspent Youth part 5: Who Wants Gum and Pizza

Once in a while, my past pops up on YouTube. So far, it’s been very pleasurable, and this clip, circa early 1983, is no exception. (Thanks to Julie House for bringing it to my attention.) This is footage of Wee Wee Pole featuring RuPaul and the U-Hauls gigging at the 688 Club in Atlanta. That’s me on bass in the loud sweater. This was one of our first performances. I was seventeen, a senior at Northside School of the Performing Arts, majoring in drama, minoring in music. (I’ve written a good bit about this here and here.) My best friend Todd Butler is on guitar. “Pizza” is the first song Todd, Ru and I wrote together, in the front room of Todd’s house, before Todd’s mom kicked us out. We never recorded it, and prior to this, I thought it was lost to the ether. (More about Todd and me here.)

Like a lot of Wee Wee Pole video (maybe all), this is courtesy of Dick Richards, of Atlanta’s American Music Show. The American Music Show was a public access variety program that chronicled a glorious time in Atlanta’s New Wave Queer Underground. Did Dick and his cohorts know they were creating invaluable documents? I suspect they did. It didn’t cross my mind, though. I was quite in the moment, and not taking time to do much but live, live, live. These clips, a few photos, some boxed-up letters, and the music that survives are as close as I have to a diary of a seismic, charmed time. My gratitude to The American Music Show runs deep.

This video captures the golden age of Wee Wee Pole, when the blush was still very much on the rose. Soon Gina and Chrissy, the U-Hauls, would get fed up and quit, but in this video, it’s all about love and excitement (and Krogering). The interaction between Ru and the gals is priceless. I cannot explain the sweater I am wearing.

Wee Wee Pole featuring RuPaul & the U-Hauls (and opening comic David Cross) FIRST GIG, 1983

More Wee Wee Pole action.

Many thanks to Dick Richardson and James Bond (brother of Senator and Civil Rights icon Julian Bond), whose American Music Show captured much of the ’80s Atlanta New Wave Queer Underworld, and, it turns out, a crucial moment in my life. The clip above contains some entertaining segments of the very first “Wee Wee Pole featuring RuPaul and the U-Hauls” gig at the Nitery Club sometime in winter, late ’82 or early ’83. Trash funk combo The Now Explosion graciously invited us to open for them. They’d amassed a substantial fanbase, and Ru and the U-Hauls had performed with them as go-go dancers. The place was packed. Folks were mighty curious about the drummer-less band featuring the two high school kids who’d joined forces with scene-maker Ru. Even then, he was calling himself a “superstar in exile.”

I was 17, barely two years older than my son Jack is now. My dear friend Todd, the redhead Ru introduces as Yettiva Antoinette (or something) was 18. Ru was 22. I have no idea how old the U-Hauls were. They were easily fed up and quit a few months later.

My old friend David Cross, also 18, was on the bill, too. He’d just finished his set, which went great. He and Todd and I were drama majors at Northside School of the Performing Arts. (Todd and I minored in music. Northside was like a college, with a major and minor.) Todd, also a visual artist, had designed a poster that was all over the school. Drinking age in Atlanta was 18 at that time, so technically, high school seniors could get in. And they did.

I think this was David’s first official stand-up gig, although he’d braved some amateur nights. You can see him around the 1:15 mark, putting a cigarette in my mouth. Not long after this he would move to Boston to attend Emerson, then to L.A..

The clip begins backstage, and we’re all goofy and nervous. I’d played clubs with my first band The Latest, but we’d never generated the kind of excitement that was percolating on this night.

Apparently, Dick uploaded this last April. I only just came across it. I envision shelves in his home loaded with VHS (or maybe Beta) tapes. Occasionally he finds time to digitize and upload them, and every once in awhile, a scene from my not-misspent youth pops up on YouTube. These clips always astonish me, brightening the corners of my memory. I really hope he has more (at least I think I do). I recall him being everywhere back then, a huge video camera on his shoulder.

As you can see around 1:20, RuPaul jokes that I’m being “artsy fartsy Athens.” He had my number, that’s for sure. In the early days of the band, I tried to look like I was in R.E.M., while the rest of Wee Wee Pole went for a cross between Prince’s band and Bauhaus, with much attention paid to hair. Towards the end I capitulated, and started wearing a funky hat, which you can see in the video for our local hit “Tarzan.” I’m pretty sure it’s the lowest budget video ever.

The live section in the Nitery clip is our song, “I Gotcha.” The drum machine you hear belonged to Todd’s dad, Jack Butler, who’d had careers as a lounge pianist and writer of piano instruction books. It’s ancient, but distinctive. I retain a vivid memory of looking out during this song and seeing people dancing for the first time to music I was helping make. I was elated. Towards the end of the clip, Ru is backstage, changing costumes into “something sexy” so can re-emerge to sing “Love Hangover,” our one cover. I hope Dick or someone has footage of this. It was a show stopper.

If you want to read more about Wee Wee Pole and see more video, click HERE and HERE. We never released a record, sadly, but Ru used our 8-track demos as the B-side of his 1985 EP Sex Freak, which you you can buy on vinyl for $40.00 here.

You can read about Todd and me HERE.

Thanks again, Dick Richardson and James Bond, for the fun, albeit bittersweet, time travel.

R.E.M., Todd & Me

 

I’ve been wondering if R.E.M purposefully scheduled their break-up announcement for autumn. I would not put it past them. Their deft use of symbolism always was one of their strong suits. They’d been discussing it for some time, but they made it official as the natural world was dying gracefully around us. Leaves curl, darken and spiral down, the balmy air and long days of warm sunshine dissipate, shadows lengthen ever earlier, and R.E.M., a band most fans would place in the summer of their lives, is dead, going out as they came in thirty-one years ago: at one with the gods.

 

The news hit me hard, and the ache continues to play out with the unpredictability of a middle-aged man’s malady; it’s gone, then it’s back with a vengeance, radiating, referring itself to other places. Then it’s gone again. (I’m sure the guys in R.E.M. could relate.)

 

Not only was R.E.M. the first band I remember claiming as “one of my own,” they were the first band I discovered and shared with someone – my dearest friend Todd. I always think about Todd this time of year because of his Scorpio birthday and the fact that he killed himself in September, 2004, just shy of his fortieth birthday. We’d been friends since 1972 – my oldest and deepest friendship. I’m sure I am conflating my sadness at his loss, barely numbed after seven years, with the loss of “our” band. Whatever the case, I find myself playing the shimmery VHS tapes in my mind, my recollections of Todd, R.E.M. and me.

 

Todd and I were gawky, spotty teen misfits, and we’d shared a love of music since we’d met as seven-year-olds. Beatles, Wings, Elton John, Queen, Kiss, Led Zeppelin – these were our totems. But with puberty came punk and Todd, a fat kid with bright red hair, glommed on to all things edgy, even cutting the word FEAR into his forearm to freak out his tormentors at school (it worked). He lost a lot of weight and literally rebranded himself a punk, sporting a Mohawk, painting the words Killing Joke across the back of his leather biker jacket. I listened to The Cure, U2 and Flying Lizards LPs with him, but I wouldn’t find true, shared sacred ground with my friend until R.E.M.

 

Even though Todd had cast his lot with the punks and the Rocky Horror kids, he and I both were somewhat lost. He was more troubled than ever, actually. (Hormones giveth and hormones taketh away.) After one evening of Rocky Horror, in which he played Riff Raff in the “floor show” (as he would do hundreds of times) we went to Denny’s and hung out with the alpha queer kids, eating pancakes and drinking vats of coffee well into the wee small hours. Later, in the parking lot, Todd opened up, crying as he told me he was thinking about killing himself. He was 17, I was 16. He felt lost, deeply alone, a stranger even among his friends. I don’t recall what I said other than I loved him and really, really, really wanted him to stick around for the second act of our lives, which he would do. 

 

We needed a tribe. Prior to discovering R.E.M., neither of us had enjoyed that particularly enveloping warmth that comes in the light of recognition of a band as one of your own. One of a handful of lifetime epiphanies. In time, this very discovery would give Todd strength. That communal intensity, particular to youth, can be quite the (temporary) panacea. 

 

We loved our bands, sure, listened to them relentlessly. I learned to play my bass along to their records as Todd strummed a Univox guitar and frequently corrected me. That was devotion, right? Yes, but we felt no real kinship with Robert Plant or Freddie Mercury. We’d bought into the paradigm of fandom as being akin to “Lord and Subject.” In typical youthful arrogance, we figured the Beatlemaniacs, Deadheads, and all those who felt a sense of family fandom were just, well, loopy. We didn’t know what we were was missing.   

 


Queen, My Best Friend, 1975

 

On December 13th, 1981, all of that changed. Todd and I went to see a band to which we’d sworn fealty: Bow Wow Wow. Todd liked their punkiness and the fact that Malcolm McLaren, former Sex Pistols svengali, managed them. I was still a little snobby about chops and liked that they knew their way around their instruments, a rarity in those days. And we both lusted after sixteen-year-old singer and former London laundromat worker Annabella Lwin. We’d pored over their singles, cassette EP, and one album. These were our Talmudic texts.  

 


Bow Wow Wow, Top Of The Pops, 1982

 

Due to Annabella’s age, the gig could not take place around alcohol, so it was an all-ages affair in the basement of the Biltmore Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia. Opening act: R.E.M. (This has been erroneously reported as an R.E.M. headline date.) I was sixteen, Todd and I were high school seniors.

 

We loved R.E.M. The fact that we didn’t plan to see them – in fact, knew nothing about them – lent a touch of the fateful to our discovery and subsequent adoration. Most of the crowd consisted of frat guys and their dates mixed with arty kids, both groups from the University of Georgia in Athens. Despite historic disharmony between these two cliques, something about being in the basement of the Biltmore, digging the pop-punky R.E.M., equalized them all. (I maintain this rare synthesizing factor borne perhaps from Peter Buck’s status as former frat boy and Michael Stipe’s erstwhile art major cred as being the cornerstone to the band’s eventual worldwide success.)

Although R.E.M. had been together a little over a year, they’d risen fast. The audience screamed requests between songs and danced until the floor was slick with sweat. I saw the band live at least ten times after this – even saw them inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007 – and they often kicked ass, but R.E.M. was never better than in that hotel basement in 1981.


REM, The Pier, Raleigh, NC, 1982

 

As I mentioned, prior to that night, we’d lusted after Annabella. But the chiming, leaping, bass rumbling, Cousin It-style Stipe-swirling and Rickenbacker strut of those four still-pimply garage rock stars gave rise to Todd’s and my first man crushes, our first rock and roll bromances. We would each buy R.E.M.’s much-ballyhooed debut single “Radio Free Europe b/w Sitting Still”  – for a buck, I think, at the Biltmore – and go home with ringing ears, touched soul-deep by the evening’s events.

 

Bow Wow Wow, incidentally, was great, very exotic, with piratey conceits, a couple Mohawks, and impressive instrumental facility; plus Annabella, swirling to the Burundi beat, was just as teenage gorgeous and come-hither charismatic as we’d hoped. But the four skinny dudes tearing shit up like nothing we’d ever seen had already stolen our hearts and provided us with that first blast of these are my rock and roll people.

 

Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe seemed like family; they easily could have been our big brothers or neighbors. (Eventually, they would be the latter for me.) As with older siblings, we were fascinated by their clothes; the wrinkly, Rimbaud-esque, Patti Smith Group-inspired threads, Buck’s Beatle boots, Townshend leaps and flopping French cuffs, Stipe’s layers of threadbare sweaters and thick tangle of bangs shrouding his pock marked cheeks, willowy Mills’ gray coveralls and high tops. They looked cool yet seemed not to have invested much time in doing so. “Oh this ole thang? I just got it at AmVets for, like, fifty cents.”

 

About their fashion: Make no mistake, while R.E.M. made early claims (finally abandoned sometime in the nineties) that it was all about the music and only the music, these guys had contrived (and I don’t say that pejoratively) a look, a style, and they worked it. And, picking up our cues from them, we noticed, but claimed not to notice. All wide legged trousers and knit shirts went into the garbage with the running shoes. The thrift store shabby chic, with the Future Farmers of America jackets, occasional bolo tie and cavalierly unpressed dress shirts, made the fashion bell clang loudly for the first time in our teen brains: time to get schooled in this new look, which, by design, required not money but knowledge of the right shops (Potter’s House in Athens was deservedly legendary) and much imagination if you wanted to make an impression without looking like you were trying to make an impression. Todd was better at it than me. Almost every post-R.E.M. Athens band – and many elsewhere – subscribed to this look until everyone’s houses smelled like thrift stores.

 

And yes, like everyone else, we had no idea what mushmouthed Stipe was singing, not a fucking word, but like legions of fans, that genius stroke – not wholly original (see “Louie, Louie” and almost all the great Rolling Stones songs) – seduced us, eventually prompting repeated listens, conversations, bemused irritation and hilarious imitations. The hilarious part was not always intentional.

 

Todd got really good at aping Michael Stipe’s look, with hair in the face, dervish dancing and baggy, secondhand clothes, which he had a knack for digging out of piles of fabric in dusty, dried out thrift store backrooms. He even had Stipe’s body language down – an effete, hip swaying mix of hauteur and coiled shyness. (Stipe himself would later coin the term “loud shy” to describe this.) In the early 80s, drinking age was 18 in Atlanta, so Todd made it into the clubs – mostly 688, Atlanta’s premiere “new wave club” – for a few months until I got my fake ID sorted. Todd’s future wife Clare Parker – a former flame of Stipe’s – later confessed to Todd that she and her crew made fun of him mercilessly, calling him “The Michael Imitator.” He charmed them anyway.

 

In the early days R.E.M. was still accessible. Todd came home from seeing R.E.M. play The Strand in Marietta, Georgia with news that he’d struck up a conversation with Stipe, who was sitting alone on the curb being arty cool, probably smoking unfiltered Camels. Todd labored to maintain his composure as he related Stipe telling him, “Nothing’s really changed except we can pay our rent now.” Yeah. Right.

 

Stipe also told Todd about the impending release of their EP Chronic Town, the booster rocket that would carry them to a height where the blast of their debut LP Murmur would send them into the ether. Todd and I began playing our own instruments with more inspiration, heading down the trail of “what would R.E.M. do?” Within months, our own Converse-clad feet were treading the same beer-soaked boards on which Our Heroes had rocked, and we enjoyed a sustained feeling of fraternity as we watched our surrogate older brothers ascend to bigger and bigger stages like the Agora Ballroom, The Fox Theater, and, amazingly, Late Night with David Letterman, where, to our astonishment, they acted bratty. (Stipe virtually ignores Letterman.) Their passionate stance on videos – they railed against them, made them under obvious, snotty protest – also struck us as singularly, perversely contrary. Didn’t they want to be stars? It took us awhile to catch on, me longer than Todd. (Eventually, they would make some groundbreaking videos, largely Stipe’s vision, accomplishing this turnabout with integrity intact. They would also make the execrable, unwatchable “Shiny Happy People.”)

 


REM. Letterman, 1983

 

Above all else, though, R.E.M.seemed like a gang, a confraternity greater than the sum of its parts, an amalgam of nerds, hipsters, rock scholars and artists whose combined power could sell out the venue and rob you of your girlfriend. (They’ve acknowledged this.) And this tight-knit quality was part of their template: “We’re friends, first and foremost. This is the source of our power. Letterman can kiss our cracker asses.” The balls! Todd and I were inspired by this and tried to adhere to it, but the fact is, being in a band together strained our friendship. Our band lasted only one year, but luckily our friendship endured.

Our band Wee Wee Pole, featuring RuPaul & the U-Hauls, 1983
(Todd’s the bespectacled guy in the “Music 101” T-shirt. You can read more about that particular episode HERE.)

 

Friendships are work under any circumstances, but alliances that remain within longterm groups are rare indeed. Who else? U2? The Stones? One is hard pressed. It almost seems Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe  – all songs credited to the group, regardless of who wrote what – stumbled onto a formula as unlikely and as potent as the recipe for Coca Cola, also an accident, also from Georgia.

 

 

I moved from Atlanta to Athens in 1984, ostensibly to go to school, but mostly to partake of the scene. I crossed paths with The Guys several times. They were all gracious, especially Bill. Mike Mills was a little prickly. I was playing in Athens band Go Van Go, helmed by the “granddaddy” of the Athens scene Vic Varney, whose first band The Method Actors (cited by Buck as a “huge influence on R.E.M.”) had been part of the First Wave of Athens bands which included the B-52s and Pylon. Vic goes down in history as offering R.E.M. their first out-of-town gig, and his cachet opened a lot of doors for me; I have memories of falling asleep on couches as everyone puffed on unfiltered Camels and partook of Art Discussions way beyond my ken, erudite Tennessee Williams-esque southern voices echoing in the tin ceilinged rooms of antebellum houses.

 

In interviews around this time, Mills was quoted as saying R.E.M.’s ambitions extended thus: “We’ll be happy if we’re considered as good or popular as The Method Actors, The English Beat and The Fleshtones.” Yeah. Right.

 

When I settled into a room in Vic’s house, a stone’s throw from a couple R.E.M. houses, the band were still intent on staying in the cheap little town that birthed them, despite being able to afford to live anywhere, even then. Bill allowed himself a cool vintage car and they all bought houses, but mostly R.E.M. was absent the year I was there; the boys were in an Econoline, on the road, flogging sophomore LP Reckoning to their metastasizing fanbase. Go Van Go happened to be in New York, playing at Danceteria around the same time R.E.M. was playing the Beacon Theater, and they put us on the guest list with Kate Pierson of the B-52’s, who had a place in NYC. Kate looked around at the sold out crowd and laughed, “Sea o’ white boys!”

 

The rare occasions R.E.M. was around during my twelve months in Athens, they endured the palpable adulation choking the air when they entered a party or bar, and the increasing sniping of jealous fellow Athens bands who clucked about their drug use, salivated over their money, murmured about their sex lives, and variously called them Raving Ego Maniacs and Rear End Men. Sometime in the 80s I read felt tip pen graffiti on a bathroom stall that proclaimed: “I gave R.E.M. herpes.”

 

Some Athens friends of mine were a kind of “inner circle,” who shared a “secret history” of the band. Lots of “You didn’t hear this from me.” (In the newfound lack of privacy that is the Internet age, this all seems oddly quaint.) For instance: Michael’s tenure as lead singer in Athens New Wave cover band Gangster, in which he wore a skinny leather tie, was not to be discussed, nor the fact that, as a teen, he’d scraped the names of bands like Boston, Kansas and Lynyrd Skynyrd onto some candles in his bedroom, one wall of which sported a poster of a shirtless, lion-maned Roger Daltrey. When I was shown a photo of a pre-R.E.M. band featuring teenaged Mills and Berry sporting bellbottoms and stoner hair, I was sworn never to reveal that photo’s existence, an oath I have only just now broken.

 

After I moved to Manhattan in ’85 and joined the Fleshtones soon thereafter, Todd became a respected musician in Atlanta. Our separate paths would continue to intersect with R.E.M.; to our delight, we both would work with members. Although, in my case, “working” meant sharing the stage of the Uptown club with Buck as The Fleshtones tore through several three chord songs on a tour stop in Athens. Onstage, Pete was brazenly sloppy, cocky and magnetic, his face a manic mess, his body blundering into mine by accident and by design as he screamed into my microphone. I mostly retain images of repairing to Pete’s impressive, refurbished old house and drinking more beer than I ever had before and later paying the price on the tiles of a pretty young woman’s bathroom.

 


Fleshtones (me on bass) France, 1986

 

While R.E.M. was reaching its early 90s apex, Todd was helping eccentric Atlanta scenester Benjamin form The Opal Foxx Quartet. This band often consisted of at least twelve members and mostly played covers in a distinctively shambolic-yet-mesmerizing style; Benjamin dressed in drag, performing as Opal, barking and braying like Nick Cave and/or Tom Waits. On a good night, the band would bring the house down. (Benjamin Smoke, a documentary on Benjamin, who died from Hepatitis C in 1999, is available and worth watching, and there are some entertaining Opal Foxx videos on YouTube.) Benjamin knew everybody, including Michael Stipe, and Stipe, an Opal Foxx fan, asked to produce the band.

 

Everyone was understandably excited, and the sessions went fine, but despite Stipe’s imprimatur, no record company would touch The Opal Foxx Quartet. (The recordings are available online as The Love That Won’t Shut Up, also well worth your time.) The Stipe connection did offer them a bit of juice and got them to Manhattan for a gig or two, a trip the sweaty horde made packed into an illegally converted U-Haul, which I will never forget seeing and smelling on a summer day in the West Village. During this time, Todd stayed with my wife, Holly, and I. Holly loved Todd, and he and I always effortlessly picked up the thread of the ongoing conversation that was our friendship. Regarding working with the guy who, a decade earlier, had been so inspirational to us, Todd was surprisingly circumspect, even nonplussed by Stipe’s stardom. (That would have been harder for me.) He had nothing bad to report about Michael, no real diva gossip, although he did say Michael once pulled rank on the raggedy band, half-jokingly saying his opinion on a certain vocal track should be appreciated because he was “one of the pre-eminent rock stylists of the twentieth century.”

 


Opal Foxx Quartet (Todd on lap steel) Avondale Town Cinema, Atlanta, early 90s

 

It was not long after this that R.E.M. lost me. 1996’s New Adventures In Hi Fi was the last album I listened to all the way through, and when Bill Berry quit in ‘98, they just weren’t the same band anymore. A really good band, but just not as good, for my money. Bill was the secret heart, an accomplished songwriter. (“Everybody Hurts,” “Perfect Circle,” and “Driver 8,” I’m told, are his and “Fall On Me” is mostly his.) He also was a great backing singer, an invaluable multi-instrumentalist and, I know from a good source, a sublime whistler. (Still is.) Lots of folks thought the band lost its mojo when he quit, but R.E.M., true to form, gave the impression they could not have cared less what people sniped about. They made some wonderful singles, Michael became a successful film producer, Pete played on and produced lots of CDs, and the band took on the stadiums of Europe with bona fide rock star gusto, laughing, as ever, in the face of age, health problems, divorces and rumors of Michael having AIDS. Who cares? We’re playing Rock In Rio!

 


REM, Rock In Rio, 2001

 

I always was happy for The Guys and glad to have crossed paths with them on their way to that hallowed ground of “dream come true.” Todd and I – and many of our peers – had striven for what R.E.M. accomplished. Simply put, we failed. Yet for me, the connection Todd and I made to the band in those early years has remained strong, visceral, emotional, the soundtrack to the teenage chapter of our friendship. Many R.E.M. tunes from the 80s and early 90s have attached a memory of my friend, in times not always happy, but always charged with life. As often happens with a band one discovers during the crucial crucible of teen-dom, the music retains a singular power to reconnect to a priceless time of discovery, a promise of long days and summer pleasures that seem, for the duration of the music, not so far away, still visible in the rearview as we hurtle ever faster on a one-way road into the future, into the autumn of our lives.

 

By the late 90s, my moment with R.E.M. had passed. I was in the thick of a new phase. I turned off the rock and roll road and took a stab at stability, finding joy as a stay-at-home dad. Sometimes, in that rare eye-of-a-hurricane stillness when my son slept, I noticed the ever-fading ringing in my ears left over from the old days, and I smiled. My son grew and childhood memories rose in me, refreshing images of Todd and me, enjoying music, taking on life together, as friends. Much like our heroes in R.E.M. had done. My son moves into the world now, finding his traveling companions, connecting to bands that will be the soundtrack to his own adventures.

 

Todd became a dad too. But the new millennium brought a resurgence of psychic demons that had first entered his life in our teens, and, with the complicating factors of physical illness, financial woes, poorly maintained medication and other mitigating circumstances, Todd killed himself in September of 2004, leaving behind a wife and two-year-old daughter.

 

I’ve read that one of the difficulties of divorce is that one loses the repository of information provided by a spouse, which includes shared memories made more real in the sharing. Anyone who has endured any kind of loss, be it broken marriage, crumbled friendship, death, or relocation, knows all about this. Sometimes it’s a good thing, of course; some relationships share mostly painful memories and are better left severed. Either way, the connections to the past grow more threadbare, details crumble like the edges of a leaf and, for better or worse, the unknowable future looms ever larger.

 

I’m glad the guys in R.E.M. stayed close. I know they lost friends along the way, through death, distance and acrimony, but apparently, their four-way friendship survived, against incredible odds. The landscape of memories they share is incomprehensibly vast to me.

 


REM, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction, 2007

 

And I’m glad they told us all about their breakup in autumn. Perhaps it is easier to accept loss as Nature is reclaiming the warmth, the green, and the light, all the while offering up bounties of that which grew in the summer sun.
For me, that bounty includes standing next to Todd in the basement of the Biltmore Hotel as four scruffy guys opened up our hearts and minds to a whole new way of playing in a band; sitting on Todd’s bed in his teenager room, marveling at the lush sounds of Murmur, hearing our fluttering, inchoate desires and attitudes given melody and form, if not distinct words, our friendship galvanized by the music; sitting on a porch at a beach house in 2004, reminiscing deep into the night as our families slept, just weeks before he took himself out. We talked about art, music and women, the expansive past we shared and the possibilities of the future, all while the waves rolled in, and out.

Todd & me, Kure Beach, NC, 2004


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.

Me & RuPaul

RuPaul and me, ca. 1983

By Robert Burke Warren

Before I met RuPaul Andre Charles, I saw him do a stand-up routine on amateur night at an Atlanta comedy club in 1982. I was seventeen. A twenty-two-year-old RuPaul came out in pasted-on tassels and glitter. In front of an unsuspecting congregation of white frat guys and their feather-haired dates, he gestured to his get-up and squealed, “You like my outfit? Well… this is the front…” then, after a dainty spin, he added, “and this is the back!” It didn’t go over well. I recall feeling pity and fear that he’d soon be gay-bashed in the parking lot.

Almost two decades later I would see him do this same bit on his own national TV show, and it would kill.

A year or so after that night, I was forming a band with my best friend, guitarist Todd Butler. Todd had come into his own at the local art house theater portraying Riff Raff in the live floorshow of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I’d been playing bass in a punky pop band.

Through Rocky Horror, Todd had gained access to the new wave queer underworld of Atlanta, and had fallen in love with trash-funk band the Now Explosion and their back-up singers/go-go dancers RuPaul and the U-hauls.

Chrissy, RuPaul, Gina

Chrissy, RuPaul, Gina

One day Ru took the bus to Todd’s house, but unlike the cringe-worthy “comic” I’d seen, this RuPaul was charming and magnetic. The three of us fired up an ancient drum machine from the 60s and christened ourselves Wee Wee Pole – “like something a little kid would say.” In short order we appeared on public access and booked our first gig – opening for the Now Explosion at a seedy downtown club. We tore the roof off the place.

Within months we added percussionist David Klimchak – the only “functioning adult” in the band – made a three-song demo, and began gigging regularly. One memorable night we played at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, and RuPaul dared to voice what everyone was thinking, screaming from the stage, “Where’s MICHAEL STIPE? He’s so CUTE! I just love him!” Sadly, or perhaps not, Stipe was on the road.

Inevitably, we fell out with Todd’s mother, Betty Butler. Initially, she’d tolerated our rehearsing in the front room of their house; we’d spend after-school afternoons concocting a Prince-and-Blowfly-inspired new-wave-y funk repertoire, our sweaty sessions often overlapping with her coming in the door around 6, exhausted from working all day at the Shriner’s Temple. Despite – or perhaps because of – Mrs. Butler’s devout Christian beliefs, she accepted Ru’s screamingly obvious gayness, never even addressing the non-issue. As an added delight, the Butler family had a bursting, starch-sugar-carbonated-deep-fried-Twinkie-fied dream of a kitchen, which we were allowed to raid, no questions asked. One day, however, she overheard the lyrics (that I wrote) to a song called “Get Sexy” (“Perfume on yo’ cleavage, perfume on yo’ toes/Perfume on yo’ privacy, where everybody wants to go!”) and Mrs. Butler evicted us. We had officially tried the patience of a saint.

Regardless of minor setbacks, RuPaul went into promo overdrive. He Xeroxed fanzines about himself and wheat-pasted Wee Wee Pole gig posters all over Atlanta. One featuring a photo of him clad only in a loincloth was stuck on my grandmother Gammie’s street in a conservative Atlanta neighborhood. She was not pleased. (It would be years before I would convince her I was not being “recruited by the gays.”) It all paid off; soon our local hit “Tarzan” was getting airplay on Georgia State’s WRAS, we were opening for national acts, and headlining clubs.

RuPaul didn’t do much full drag in the early 80s. It’s expensive, for one thing, and he was dirt poor. He was an impressively inventive thrift store cross-dresser. I recall a feather boa wired into his short Mohawk, an oversize diaper, football shoulder pads affixed to his shirtless torso, and a pair of size 13 fisherman’s waders worn with hot pants.

On the downside, RuPaul could get pretty drunk and cavort sloppily onstage with drag queens while Todd, David and I vamped interminably on “Love Hangover.” I had no patience for that and I made sure everyone knew it. How I wish I had tapes of our band meetings from that time, just to hear things like: “Ru, you cannot invite Ty-D-Bowl on the stage with you, he ruins everything.”

The tech department at my alma mater Northside School of the Performing Arts had brand new video equipment and they were eager to do a live shoot with an audience of students. I volunteered Wee Wee Pole, worried yet thrilled at the risk. Ru did not hold back one iota – parading amongst the teens and dumbstruck teachers in one of his trash-glam ensembles, cutting loose with some over-the-top moves and cries of faux ecstasy, exhorting the spellbound kids with “EVERYBODY SAY LOVE!” I retain hope of this performance giving courage to some secret misfit kids.

I sent our demo tape to New York City, and from my grandmother’s kitchen I booked a Thursday night at the Pyramid Club and a Friday at Danceteria opening for Gene Loves Jezebel. Our fellow Atlanta scenesters took it upon themselves to warn us about “New York audiences,” clucking that the folks up there wouldn’t clap and perhaps might even boo, and not to take it personally.

We made the trip from Atlanta to New York City in one twenty-hour shot of continuous driving, done mostly by Ru, who once had earned money as a drive-away car guy and loved the open road, especially after he’d smoked a joint. It was late fall of ’83, I was eighteen, and the gigs we would play would be my last with the band. Athens, Georgia was calling like a siren.

Since R.E.M. had started their precipitous climb, the stock of the sleepy little college town had risen, and I was enthralled from 65 miles away in Atlanta, where I’d spent my whole life. Invited by well-established musician Vic Varney to start a new Athens band, I was drawn to the presumed depth and artiness of the scene.

(more about this episode HERE)

In spite of Wee Wee Pole’s success, I’d grown frustrated; I told myself we were destined only to do songs about sex, partying and fun, as if that was a terrible fate. I decided this was a bash I wanted to leave early, and a New York tour was a perfect swan song. But I told no one.

Wee Wee Pole arrived in Manhattan on a cold autumn evening. We crashed on the Chelsea apartment floor of Dan, an old buddy of my girlfriend’s mother. A former male-model-turned-professional-waiter, Dan was prone to walking around his apartment completely naked, which seemed fine at the time and caused no incident. In fact, his shower was in his kitchen, so there was no way around it. None of us took showers.

The next night we played the Pyramid Club on Avenue A in the East Village. Within moments of our first song, it was clear that the sizable Thursday night crowd loved us. With applause still ringing in our ears, we stumbled into the post-midnight chill deliriously happy, relieved, and nowhere near tired. Ru had begun some celebratory drinking and although Todd, David and I didn’t drink, take drugs or smoke pot, we all got caught up in his elation. Our good friend Margie Thorpe suggested the Staten Island Ferry as a cheap, touristy adventure. Excellent idea! The early morning hours found us heading towards the water, the band and Margie all packed into the van, laughing, giddy, afraid of nothing.

We parked on the ferry and found seats upstairs. The fluorescent lights and sad, dingy colors of the boat could not suppress RuPaul’s drunken gaiety. He ran full-tilt from bow to stern, getting right in the faces of the taciturn late-night commuters, crowing “JESUS LOVES YOU! YOU ARE SO GORGEOUS! WHO WANTS GUM? I DO, I DO!” Todd, David and I were still buzzing from the gig, and Margie was beaming so proud, we took no notice of some sneering Mean Streets-looking toughs who growled, “You gotta wake up to reality, man… wake up to reality!” FUCK THAT.

It wasn’t until we landed on Staten Island and went to retrieve the van that we noticed our tires had been slashed. We drove our crippled vehicle onto the Island, temporarily marooned. Ru’s high came crashing down and he moped and dozed in the front seat while we cuddled in the back. (Thank God for Klimchak’s credit card and for his wisdom to pay a little extra for insurance. He is the hero of our little tour.) As we awaited delivery of a new rental, the sun rose, our adrenaline dipped, and silence set in. In my memory, this was all part of the fun, an element of the adventure, but at the time I’m pretty sure it was a bummer. Except for the cuddling.

We slept at Dan’s most of the day and awoke in time to go play our Danceteria gig. I have no memories of eating. We kicked ass, and once again RuPaul had the crowd by the balls – in a good way. It was another triumphant night and I daresay we blew Gene Loves Jezebel off the stage. The next day we would retrieve our hapless new van – which had been towed – from a carbon-monoxide drenched garage and hit the road for home, satisfied and eager to relay news of our conquest.

Within weeks I quit. No one was surprised – my dissatisfaction with the band was no secret and there had been friction, complete with morning-after recriminations and apologies for missed cues and drunken lewdness. But if RuPaul ever bore me any ill will, I certainly never felt it.

The three songs Wee Wee Pole recorded ended up as side B of Ru’s first album Sex Freak, which you can find online for 50 bucks at Discogs. And/or you can enjoy these video versions from YouTube:

In My Neighborhood

Tarzan

and a live version of Body Heat, which was banned from Atlanta radio due to faux orgasms.

Ru and I would cross paths several times over the next couple of decades. After spending most of 1984 playing in Athens band Go Van Go, wanderlust overtook me again. I pulled up stakes and moved to Manhattan at the age of nineteen. In the 17 years I lived there, Ru would be a sometime-New Yorker and I was called in to play guitar and bass on his LP RuPaul Is Starbooty. We had a ball. The album is crazy expensive on collectors’ sites, but you can enjoy the track “The Mack,” featuring my fuzzed-out guitar, in this video:

After getting sober and hooking up with ace management in the early 90s, Ru’s star really began to rise. At that time, I ran into him on lower Broadway and he had a whole agenda laid out – hit single, TV show, book, movies. Within a few years, it all happened. And when my elderly Gammie called to tell me she’d seen his career-ma king spot on Arsenio – “I saw that RuPaul on the TV!” – it seemed a part of the natural order of things. RuPaul was a “Superstar In Exile” no more.

The last time I saw RuPaul in the flesh was during my late-90s years as a Manhattanite stay-at-home dad. I was carrying my toddler son Jack through the East Village in a backpack and there was Ru, dressed in a sharp suit, passing unrecognized through my neighborhood. He had all the time in the world for us. He’d had his hit single “Supermodel,” his talk show, and various roles in Hollywood movies, and at that time he was a popular morning DJ on WKTU FM New York, splitting his time between Manhattan and L.A. His freckled face beamed goodwill and happiness for me, and he expressed empathic joy for my new life as a parent, and even hope that one day he might be able to take on that particular challenge.

It would not surprise me in the least if he did.

More about Todd’s and my musical adventures HERE