Tag Archives: uncle rock

The Gods Await to Delight in You: Playing and Enjoying Music in the Catskills

Originally published in the Woodstock Times

RBW, with Satellite Paradiso, 2016, pic by Hans Wendland

RBW, with Satellite Paradiso, 2016, pic by Hans Wendland

Hudson Valley life affords me more opportunities to play music in front of people than any other place I’ve lived, and that includes New York City. The Catskills, in fact, feel like one big stage, with accommodating spirits hovering, encouraging, constantly offering chances for musicians and music lovers to step out of everyday life and into the timelessness of song. I completely understand why Dylan, the Band, Hendrix, John Sebastian, Van Morrison, Rundgren, Bowie, and many other musicians have lived – or still live – here. And why Woodstock (in Bethel) happened in these hills, and why its scope and vibe has never really been repeated elsewhere.

In his poem, The Laughing Heart, Charles Bukowski wrote, “The gods await to delight in you.” In our rolling, mysterious hills, this notion feels quite real. Our local gods, in the rocks, the waterways, and lush mountainsides, await to delight in us, musicians and music-lovers alike. Their desire is palpable.

Uncle Rock & Noel Fletcher, Wilson Campground, Mt. Tremper, NY, 2006

Uncle Rock & Noel Fletcher, Wilson Campground, Mt. Tremper, NY, 2006

~

I’ve actually lost track of the venues in which I’ve performed. The list runs the gamut from the Bardavon and First Steps Preschool, to the Bearsville Theater and the Woodstock Farm Festival. Almost every church. Definitely every school in the Onteora system. Mountain Jam? Did it, more than once. Santa’s arrival on the Woodstock Green? Played that, with my band, on a flatbed truck, with Santa himself on lead guitar. Adoption ceremony in Delhi, at which foster kids officially became family members? Check. Garlic Festival? Several times, ate the garlic ice cream. Glenford Church? I turned fifty on that stage. New World Home Cooking? Yes, broadcast on WAMC. Utopia Soundstage? A lot. Levon’s Barn? God yes, with Levon on drums. Harmony Café? Yes, and walked off with a cannabis-scented, crisp fifty dollar bill, pressed into my hand by a very friendly, very high dude in a Grateful Dead hoodie.

RBW, Kleinert/James Gallery, Woodstock, NY, 2014

RBW, Kleinert/James Gallery, Woodstock, NY, 2014

Also: Kleinert/James, Byrdcliffe Theater and Barn, Colony Café, Tinker Street Café, every bookstore in the region, every library, Proctors, The Linda, Rosendale Café/Street Festival/ Theater, Clearwater (Sloop and Fest), Taste of the Catskills, Belleayre, summer and winter Hoots, Tinker St. Cinema, the Shandaken Theatrical Society, Empire State Railway Museum, Woodstock Animal Sanctuary, Woodstock Community Center, ‘Cue, BSP, Market Market, and probably your neighbor’s house. Maybe even your house.

Uncle Rock, First Steps Preschool, Bearsville, NY, 2015

Uncle Rock, First Steps Preschool, Bearsville, NY, 2015

RBW with the Catskill 45s, house party, Mt. Tremper, NY

RBW with the Catskill 45s, house party, 2014, Mt. Tremper, NY

Every venue offers something different, and affects music, music-maker, and audience. As a musician, you become accustomed to how you sound while practicing, usually at home or in some hovel. But once you play out, that sound changes; the music takes on characteristics of the room (or the outdoor space), the people, the communal vibe of the day, which is nigh impossible to predict. After some time, you learn to gauge the space, the people, and adjust. You learn to pivot.

RBW in Rocky Horror at Byrdcliffe Barn, Woodstock. Pic by Dennis Oclair

RBW in Rocky Horror at Byrdcliffe Barn, Woodstock. 2013, Pic by Dennis Oclair

Sometimes the venue is charmed, and energizes, imbues you with power. Alternatively, even in our music-friendly region, a space can work against you, with bad tech, crappy acoustics, and/or a clueless or hostile crowd that’ll make you feel like you’ve been thrown to the lions. At which point you must suck it up and play on.

In my experience, the local venues I’ve loved playing are, not surprisingly, often the venues in which I’ve also seen some unforgettable shows. Best acoustics? Easy: Levon’s Barn. Thick, rough-hewn wood, few windows, and somehow, even though you feel you’re in someone’s home (because you are in someone’s home), the Barn features top-notch sound equipment and sound operators – usually Brendan McDonough.

When I played the Kids Ramble in 2007, I stepped onto the thick rugs of the performance area and recalled how, three years before, I’d seen Levon sit in with Ollabelle at the first Midnight Ramble I attended. We’d been told Levon couldn’t sing, due to his cancer treatments. But to everyone’s astonishment, he did sing, in duets with his daughter, Amy. The energy between them was magic, a glowing thing. And like I say, it all sounded fantastic; perfect volume, all instruments discernible as individual waves, but also part of a whole, touching the audience’s insides, enlivening us, making us one.

Uncle Rock and Tracy Bonham, Fiber Flame, Woodstock, NY, 2014

Uncle Rock and Tracy Bonham, Fiber Flame, Woodstock, NY, 2014

Because most of us listen to music on substandard speakers, earbuds, or through bad systems operated by amateurs, you forget how great amplified sound can be. So, excellent live sound is often revelatory. And that’s what you get at the Barn.

And by the way, Levon was not supposed to play at that 2007 Kids Ramble gig, either. But he did. Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower, with whom I, as Uncle Rock, shared the bill, played the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On,” and they drafted me to play bass an arm’s reach from Levon, who laid down a funky beat and grinned at me like a Cheshire cat. I will take that one with me when I go.

~

When folks talk – and/or post – about “best concert(s) I ever saw,” I always include Richard Thompson at the Bearsville Theater, solo acoustic, Rumor & Sigh tour, 1991. (My wife and I were weekenders then.) First time I saw him, first time I heard his now classic “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” The sold out, 400-person capacity room was the perfect venue. Any bigger, and it might’ve lost some intensity; any smaller, and the crush of people would’ve distracted. His songs, jaw-dropping fingerpicking wizardry, and quiet charisma mixed with a mysterious element he conjured among the congregation, a sense of community. I’ve seen many shows in this room, full bands and solo performers, and I’ve played in various configurations – solo, band, huge band – and for me, the Bearsville Theater excels with smaller-scale acts. Again, much wood makes for good acoustics, the vaulted, church-like ceiling gives a sense of quiet grandeur, and the separate space for the bar means no glasses clinking during quieter moments.

When I finally played Bearsville Theater about fifteen years later, my first thought was, “This is where I saw that amazing Richard Thompson gig.”

RBW in Paul Green Rock Academy's Christmas Spectacular, 2014, Bearsville Theater

RBW in Paul Green Rock Academy’s Christmas Spectacular, 2014, Bearsville Theater

~

My favorite local gig of all – one that I played – was impromptu and just three years ago. I’d performed at Mike and Ruthy’s inaugural summer Hoot at the Ashokan Center, first on the Toshi Seeger stage, then throughout the grounds over the course of the day. It was a perfect summer day, ideal temperature, few bugs, verdant surroundings. The Hoot was well attended, with great food, reasonable prices, and much spontaneous fun for kids and adults. It was the kind of day that makes everyone a better person.

Summer Hoot, 2013, Toshi Stage, Ashokan Center

Summer Hoot, 2013, Toshi Stage, Ashokan Center

I was officially done, and Mike Merenda asked if, after Natalie Merchant’s set, I would commandeer a “song swap” at a bonfire atop the hill overlooking the Pete Seeger stage. It would be an alternative for folks who didn’t want to go dance at the Killian Pavilion, an opportunity for the many campers who’d brought instruments to play together. I said sure, thinking, “No one will come. Everyone will go dancing.” I was wrong.

RBW, Kingston, NY sidewalk, 2012, by Tania Baricklo

RBW, Kingston, NY sidewalk, 2012, by Tania Baricklo

The perfect day melted into a perfect Catskill summer evening, starlit, no sounds of heavy industry audible, dew in the air. Someone lit a huge bonfire on the hill, just as Natalie said thank you, good night. The crowd below dispersed into the deepening dark. To my surprise, a wave of people ascended the hill, and campers stepped into the firelight with guitars, mandolins, banjos, and ukuleles. The congregation swelled quickly, from twenty, to fifty or so. Maybe more. The crowd, as an organism, was initially bashful. I was wondering how to engage everyone, when out of the darkness, a woman’s voice asked, “Anyone know ‘I Love Rock N’ Roll’?”

“I do!” I said. And I played it, and everyone sang, and we were off. As the hours passed, people grew ever bolder, singing folk songs, country, rock, punk, and originals that ranged from a cappella emo laments to crusty sea chanties. As goes it with a successful song swap, a momentum asserted itself, and young and old alike settled into our temporary little firelit tribe, tapping into ancient strands of collective memory. Humankind as a species has spent much more time singing songs around fires than any other activity, and a sense of familiarity takes hold, a constant déjà vu.

Finally, around 1 A.M., I grew tired and took my leave to drive home while I still could. The circle kept singing, barely conscious of me, piling on logs, sending sparks aloft as they engaged in song after song after song. I could still hear them from the darkness of the parking lot, where I reluctantly re-engaged with modern life, i.e. my car. Just before I turned the ignition key, I could also hear, ever so faint, the laughing of the delighted gods.

bonfire

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A Song Shall Lead (And Annoy) Them: “Let It Go” from Frozen at The Weeklings

Ahoy there and Happy Spring.

Songs fascinate me. I play them, I write them, I obsess over them. I throw myself at them like a drunk. Last year, at the preschool where I play once a week, an encounter with a three-year-old inspired me to find out more about “Let It Go” from Frozen, which, you probably know, is an international phenomenon, and the engine behind the most successful animated movie in history. I wrote about it for the Weeklings. Please enjoy by clicking HERE or on Elsa below.

snow_queen_elsa_in_frozen-2048x1536

Also, I have a Facebook Author page. Why not LIKE me?

Thanks for reading, folks.

sound as ever

RBW

Happy Solstice / Season of Light

Levon Helm, Our Shining Pride

“You’re my pride, Loretty. My shinin’ pride.”


That was my introduction to Levon Helm. Perfectly cast as Ted Webb, father of Loretta Lynn, in the superlative 1980 biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter. (Put it in your queue. Just do it.) In the above-quoted scene, Levon, in his acting debut, calls up a complicated mix of love, dismay, and resignation to convey a father’s singular pain at letting a fiery 13-year-old (!!) marry a 22-year-old force-of-nature wingnut he does not care for. With only a few lines to get the job done, Levon lets us inside Papa Webb’s thorny knowledge that keeping his eldest daughter home (with seven other kids) will kill her spirit, which he respects with a depth even Loretta won’t understand for years. The affection for this spirit is what lets her go, and it is what gave the world Loretta Lynn. It’s a love scene that has nothing to do with romance, and Levon nails it.

I was 15 years old when I saw Coal Miner’s Daughter, and ignorant of any kind of love other than the hormone-y, adolescent variety. Fumbling towards musicianship, I was familiar with The Band not as personalities, but simply the men behind the catchy but lyrically trippy “The Weight,”in frequent rotation on WQXI in Atlanta. Someone told me Ted Webb was Levon Helm, The Band’s drummer. You know – the cool hillbilly guy in a constant alpha-male duel/duet with Robbie  Robertson in The Last Waltz. The one who sings his ass off while at the same time laying down the country funk.

Oh yeah. That guy. Click.

I was just learning. Of course I had no idea I’d one day shake this guy’s hand in his home as he thanked me for working at a nearby preschool, nor could I have imagined  I’d make music with him, as part of Elizabeth Mitchell’s impromptu band during an afternoon Kids’ Ramble. The Kids’ Ramble was one of the many occasions Levon and his people raised funds for local public school district Onteora’s music program. Needless to say, I frequently conjure the memory – one of my top five musical recollections – of his joyful jack-o-lantern grin on me as I threaded my bass to his kick drum on the Lou Reed song “What Goes On,” while Liz, her daughter Storey, and husband/co-conspirator Daniel Littleton rocked, and families danced around us.

We have lost Levon, and the community grieves en masse. As I write, memorials are being planned in Woodstock. Of course, memories are flowing. My son is one year younger than I was when I sat in a dark theater and took in Levon’s instructive, moving performance in Coal Miner’s Daughter. But while I give props to that resonant bit of acting (even more potent now, as I am increasingly Papa Webb, less Loretty) the regard I feel for Levon’s Ted Webb is nothing compared to my awe for Levon the musician, and my respect for Levon the community man, a guy who kept coming back from adversity, swinging those tough, gnarly arms, giving and giving, and smiling ever more broad as time nipped at his heels like the goddamn dog that it is. (Seriously – do a Google search; the older Levon Helm gets, the more he smiles.)

Which brings me to: Levon is one of the few members of the rock and roll firmamanet who made me unafraid to grow old, because he did it with such style, dignity, fun, fierceness, and even sexiness. He left behind a unique template that I will struggle to follow.

While I appreciated Levon and The Band as I moved through adulthood, their music finally sunk into my marrow not long after my family and I moved into a 1910 Victorian a few towns over from Big Pink. This was 2002. By then I’d been a musician most of my life, and I’d sat around plenty of campfires and/or in the light of the Waffle House jukebox, slaughtering “The Weight,” but after getting that mortgage, things got serious with me and The Band. Sometimes music calls to you, and so it was with the Across The Great Divide box set, which asserted itself as I was negotiating some very grown-up problems; I needed adult blues poetry and ramshackle funk to help me settle into homeownership, parenthood, and joy-tinged-with-resignation, i.e. – the next chapter of my life. Levon and Co. fit the bill perfectly.

It took about two years for Levon and me to meet. My family and I gradually settled into our new country life, enrolling our son Jack in Phoenicia Elementary (part of the afore-mentioned Onteora), shopping locally, finding our folks. It seemed everyone had something up-close-and-personal to say about Levon; about the fire that had consumed his house, about his band, his continued rocking at local bars, his daughter Amy’s new group Ollabelle, his autobiography, his cancer and the subsequent loss of his voice, and finally, come 2004, his Midnight Rambles, a nighttime concert series in the barn/studio adjacent to his (rebuilt) home, begun as a means to pay off his medical bills.

By then, I was working as a teacher’s assistant at School Of The New Moon in Mt. Tremper (apparently, bartending and playing in bands is great prep for wrangling tots) and word on the two-lane-blacktop was that firemen and teachers got in free to the Rambles. By the time the scuttlebutt filtered down to me, it was around Thanksgiving, 2004, and the ticket price, if memory serves, was $100. It was potluck, too, with everything from epicurean delights to M & M’s, depending on who showed up. (The food was always good and plentiful, it turned out.) If my preschool teacher’s assistant status didn’t cover it, I was going to fork over the dough anyway and eat my weight in M & M’s. (Holly did pay. And it was the best C-note she ever spent.)

We’d heard the Rambles were shaping up to be must-see events, with local luminaries like Donald Fagen, Garth Hudson and John Sebastian frequently dropping in, and music extending into the wee hours. Shenanigans were afoot, old school man-mischief, people walking away grinning like Cheshire cats. I’d been assured Levon was in excellent form, cancer can kiss his hillbilly ass, and although he was not singing due to radiation treatments, elder bluesman Little Sammy Davis was handling the vocal duties admirably. When word got out that Howlin’ Wolf’s guitaristHubert Sumlin and Ollabelle were booked, Holly and I were strenuously advised to get a babysitter for Jack and get our butts over there.

When I said, “I’m a teacher,” the door guy not only let me in gratis, he slapped me on the back, and welcomed my wife and me to a sold-out Ramble. Excellent beginning. Guys were gathered around burn barrels, helping people park. Inside, it was packed, but just enough to be warm and comfy. Downstairs was schmooze and merchandise, with Levon’s many framed photos and posters on the walls, and comestibles in what once had been a garage. Very homey. In those days, upstairs seating in the high ceilinged barn/studio was a bit more laissez-faire, with folks plopping down cross-legged in front of worn Persian rugs on the small stage. I think about 150/200 folks could get in. Balconies had been built around the edges of the performance/recording area. The hum of equipment and the smell of warm amplifier tubes permeated the air alongside the familiar stank of sweaty, excited people.

Ollabelle‘s T-Bone Burnett-produced eponymous CD was freshly out, and the band had a bit of the golden buzz. All five members came across as pure naturals in the stage lights, laying down a deep-dish blend of folk, soul, and rock and roll, immediately winning everyone over. It was my first time seeing Amy, and I was struck by how her moves sometimes resembled her dad’s when she played mandolin. 

Speaking of her dad, I spotted him during Ollabelle’s set, walking around, shaking hands, embracing audience members, nodding in approval at the music, grinning wide. But he was so skinny, so… slight. I’d not seen him since checking out The Last Waltz at a midnight movie decades ago, so I was expecting him to be older, but… I was worried. I wondered if he’d actually be getting behind the kit.

Then he did. And that was magic. Like Disney-style magic. As soon as he picked up the sticks, a glow emanated from him, expanding his presence beyond his body, across the stage and into the room. It was breathtaking. In all my years as a musician and a fan of bands, I’d never seen anything like it. All his frailty was gone, and first the band, then the entire room, filled with energy.

All of Ollabelle responded, but Amy in particular connected to her dad, and he to her, in a rare, wordless stage communication. Their eyes met and before I knew it, someone put a microphone in front of Levon’s face and he opened his mouth and sang.

Pandemonium. No one saw that coming.  The surprise and subsequent communal joy resounded off the walls. As intense as the atmosphere already was, it ratcheted up a couple notches. Levon and Amy duetted on a few tunes, both of them laughing and smiling like: welcome to the miracle. I recall thinking, I heard his singing days were over. But they were not. Radiation can kiss his hillbilly ass.

When Ollabelle finished, Holly insisted on meeting Levon. I was shy, but luckily, she dragged me over to him, as is her wont. He was sweaty, but still in his music-enhanced state, vibrant, moving from person-to-person, touching people like a the wise rock and roll elder he was. I was dazzled and mush-mouthed, but as I shook his hand, I thanked him for his “teachers get in free” policy. To my amazement, he kind of bowed to me, Japanese-style, and, hand to his chest, thanked me for working with kids. He said he knew teachers did not get enough respect and anything he could do to remedy that, well, he was gonna do it. It was one of the only times we spoke, but those hoarse, heartfelt words echo around in me like a benediction from a holy man. Because that’s what they were.

Over the next few years I would come to know a few of Levon’s band and crew, his sentinels, his protectors, the folks who spun a circle of love around the man and helped him to wrench a surprising fourth act out of his life, a span of extra credit time in which Grammys glowed and the once-forsaken road beckoned. I am proud to have been a small part of this unexpected reprieve, when Levon used his windfall of time to bring music and much-needed attention (money) to those in need, those who suffered, those undervalued and taken for granted. He used his age and status to lift folks up in ways both material and spiritual, and it is one of the joys of my life that I can say I was there and privileged to be a part of it with the Kids’ Rambles.

Levon’s largesse is catchy, too. Just last year, his core band – Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Amy, and Byron Isaacs – played a benefit to help raise funds for my small-town library, which had suffered a devastating fire. Thanks in part to them, rebuilding will soon commence.

The last few times I attended Rambles, Levon didn’t do the rounds in the audiences. I reckoned he was pacing himself, saving it up for the stage, which consistently lit up with his presence as it had that first time. But the audiences had swelled and folks could be smothering, so I reasoned he needed his space prior to showtime. Then I saw him perform at the Apollo with Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Richard Thompson, Larry Campbell, and Allen Toussaint as part of Elvis’s Spectacle, and he did not sing (Ray LaMonagne did). I put that down to his touring schedule. Or a virus. Or the crazy way he sat and played drums, wrenching his body. Anything but the  inevitable, which I’d started to believe he’d somehow avoided, like a musician in a folktale who has outfoxed the devil.

Why would I think that? Because I saw Levon do magic. And the kind of magic he performed still lingers among us, and will fill the air as we celebrate him this weekend and beyond, as his music plays on down the decades. I will be there for any celebrations this weekend, and I am certain wherever he is laid to rest will attract pilgrims far into the future. As for me, I will visit him often in my memories, as I grow old and try ever harder to be like him.

Rest In Peace, Levon. And thank you.

RBW, Paris 4-25-12

P.S. photo credits to follow…

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