Children By the Million Sing for Alex Chilton

Let it Be

One of my all time favorite records is the Replacement’s Let It Be. I wore the grooves out of my scatched up copy in my tiny basement in-law apartment of my grandmother’s house. For as much as I liked the band, I never really got to see them live, just one song at the Shoreline Theater. They opened for Tom Petty, and played at the ungodly hour of 8pm- way too early for and self-respecting hipsters to make the scene.  We missed most of their set, catching only “I’ll Be You” while they rocked about as tiny ants on the stage from our vantage point on the lawn.

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I was given a cassette tape of Pleased to Meet Me, and loved the song Alex Chilton so much, that I would listen to it, flip the tape over and listen to Skyway and keep repeating until I finally broke the tape. I can’t tell you any other songs on the album because those were the only two I ever heard from it.

As much as I liked the song, I never went any further into an investigation of Alex Chilton. A friend at work raved about him- told me he  was a brilliant songwriter, but had eschewed rock and roll and fame, and now worked as a dishwasher in New Orleans. I thought that was interesting and promptly forgot about him.

One day I was talking about food with my friend Barry, and he mentioned he was going to New Orleans. He  had a plan in place for each meal while he was there. He said it would be a challenge to eat that much food- breakfast, lunch and dinner at well known restaurants, but he’d made the reservations and was going to go for it. Was I up for it???  Do you even have to ask? I once peeled and ate 20lbs of crawfish at an “all you can eat” crawfish boil in New Orleans. When I told the bartendar I was from San Francisco, he said I did a good job, for a tourist of course.

Barry also was planning to see his  good friend Alex Chilton, who would be playing his annual New Year’s Eve gig, and go to a football game that takes place on New Years Day.  “Oh, the dishwasher!” I thought. That would be interesting. And I could see my cousin, who now lives in New Orleans. We are each half Scottish, and Hogmanay is big with the Scots, so I’d go first footin’ with him.

So I wound up meeting Alex very briefly on the trip. We visited his house on New Year’s Eve day to say hello and hang for a little bit, as it would be too busy to chat at the gig. He lived in a typical New Orleans house, small but efficient, and had loads of guitars lying about. I looked around while he and Barry caught up. I remmeber him being quiet but humorous. He’d had a good year, money wise, as That 70’s Show was using one of his songs as their theme song. He was getting royalties. He wasn’t washing dishes. I don’t know if that was actually true ( I certainly didn’t have the balls to ask him), but he seemed to live a comfortable, simple lifestyle. This was pre-Katrina but you could still have a nice quality of life in New Orleans without making a ton of money. We left early so he could get a nap before his gig. I was impressed that he could sleep before he played. It was his ritual.

We had an awesome time in N.O. and Alex’s gig was great, but I did have hard time holding up my end of the bargain as far as food went. “Breakfast, lunch and dinner!” Barry would chant each day. But after 3 days I groaned “Breakfast and dinner! Breakfast and Dinner” !!! I hadn’t trained for this, and I had to beg off of a couple of lunches to give myself a rest. Barry eventually forgave me.

Over the many years of our friendship, I would often consult Barry’s travel plans. He travels A LOT- always going to SXSW, New Music Seminar, Giants Spring Training, not to mention lots of various gigs like Coachella, Lolapalooza, and events like Sundance. Then he said he was branching out and going to Europe. We compared calendars, and saw we’d overlap for a week in Europe for our planned vacations. He was going to see Alex play some gigs in England. Alex had a gig in Italy while I would be there, so we planned to meet in Milan.

I flew to Milan, and of course was a little delayed. I texted Barry upon landing and he told me to come to the hotel NOW. We could get a ride on the tour bus to the gig. It took me a while to get through customs, and the texts from Barry started to get a little frantic. The gig was at a stadium on the edge of Milan, and we didn’t want to miss it. The cab driver let me off at the hotel and I saw Barry pacing in front of the tour bus. I ran across the piazza yelling “Barry, Barry , Here I am!!!”. He grabbed my bag and tossed it on the bus. As soon as I boarded, the driver shut the door and sped off. I looked around the bus and it was packed with nicely dressed people in evening gowns and tuxedoes, all starting at me with curiosity. Huh? I was underdressed in comfy jeans and a tee- my crossing-the- Atlantic flight gear. I mentioned this to Barry, and he said “Oh that’s just the London Symphony Orchestra”.

What? It turns out that the gig was a tribute to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heartsclub Band, and the Symphony would be playing the music. Each song would be sung by a different performer- all of them stars in their own way. Barry had managed to hold up the tour bus by telling the driver that I was someone important flying in from the states. So that explained the odd looks as they tried to figure out which famous rock star I was. Ha ha.

We got to the gig and went backstage to look for Alex. It was a little honeycomb and we peeked into various rooms before we found him. I caught a glimpse of Marianne Faithful warming up. We chatted with Alex for a minute and then left to give him a chance to prepare in private. As we walked over to the backstage bar, we ran into Peter Murphy. “Peter!” Barry exclaimed, “Have you met Carmela? She just flew in from San Francisco!” Peter Murphy smiled and shook my hand. He was being polite, but I’m sure was wondering “who the hell are you?” It was fabulous, Barry did this with everyone. I got to shake Marianne’s hand, and then she grabbed my arm and muttered “the horrors, the horrors”. Turns out she has terrible stage fright and has to be dragged to the stage to preform.

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The show was awesome. Besides Alex, Marianne and Peter Murphy, Robyn Hitchcock and the Residents played. There were some other famous people performing (Badly Drawn Boy and Beth Orton) that I didn’t really know. After the set we were able to take the tour bus back to the hotel. I sat next to a guy on the bus and introduced myself. He said he lived in Berkeley and we chatted for a minute before he told me that he was one of the Residents. OMG! I was a big fan, but obviously couldn’t recognize anyone from the band. I mentioned this and he said it was great being a Resident because you could be incognito. He introduced me to a couple of the other Residents. I told then how I used to watch the garage door of Subterranen records as I painted apartments across the street with my dad. I wanted to catch a glimpse of a Resident but it was like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.  They agreed that “no one every goes in, and nobody ever goes out.”  Alex got on the bus and sat behind me. He leaned over and asked me my birthday. A couple of minutes later he told me I was the King of Diamonds. I said “It’s good to be king!” He replied “It’s lonely at the top”. He then asked the young guy next to him what his birthday was, and then told him what playing card he was, and they wound up talking all night.

Barry told me that Alex had a system where he calculated which card of the deck you were- by adding up the numbers of your birthday, and probably some other information. The card told him a lot about you- some cards were good, some neutral, some bad. He based a lot on the cards. I don’t think the King of Diamonds was that great of a card but he was still very nice to me. The guy next to him must have been a good card because Alex spoke with him the rest of the evening. I guess the system worked. He probably had a lot of crazy fans, and it was a way to screen people that somehow worked for him.

We wound up going out to dinner with some of the Lonely Hearts. I sat at the table with Robyn Hitchcock and his wife. Peter Murphy was also there. We went to a restaurant that opened up just for us, as it was quite late. I was jet lagged but managed to stay awake, texting my roommate back home “I’m eating dinner with Peter Murphy!!!! I love Italy!” It was surreal to say the least. I was a bit intimidated. Everyone was very nice and were asking each other about their upcoming touring and recording plans. I was a bit out of the element. My tour plan was an upcoming gig at the El Rio.

The next day Alex flew back to London, and Barry and I scoured Milan looking for something to eat. We couldn’t seem to find a restaurant that was open, much less breakfast, lunch AND dinner. It was during one of the famous fashion weeks. We assumed all restaurants must be closed because fashion people don’t eat food, and the restaurants figured it’s a good time to close for vacation (and it wasn’t in August either). We finally found a place open and it was the first time I’d seen a bathroom where literally there was just a hole w/drain on the floor. I’d heard rumors that this happens in some places in Italy, but I insisted Barry go take a look, even tho he didn’t need the lav. It was hilarious.
I left Barry the next day to catch a train to Florence to meet up with my parents, and he was headed back to the States, I think hitting New York on the way back.

When Alex passed away I called Barry to offer my condolences. He was at an event that Alex was supposed to play at, and it became an impromptu memorial. I was sad for him. We laughed about our time in Italy. Barry said “I’ll never forgot you running across with piazza with your suitcase, blond hair flapping around,  yelling “Barry, Barry, here I am” with the London Symphony craining their necks out the bus window, wondering “who’s the famous blond?” Britney? Christina ? Madonna?”

Nope…it’s King Diamond!

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Closer To The Stars: Soul Asylum

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When I was in Short Dogs Grow, the band I most aspired to be like was Soul Asylum. They were signed to Twin Tone – the label that brought you Husker Du and the Replacements, they didn’t have day jobs, and they rocked ripped jeans and flannels shirts 15 years before Nirvana hit the scene.  In other words, they were cool. While I think Short Dogs had better songwriting, Soul Asylum toured relentlessly and had a brutal live show.

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We opened their Bay Area debut at the VIS Lounge in San Francisco- a club that likely had its heyday in the Fillmore blues scene. As most clubs that hit hard times, it started doing punk rock shows.  They remodeled later, and it became the Kennel Club, now it’s called the Independent. The next night we played with them at New Method Warehouse, Greg Foot’s vegan co-op,located in Emeryville, a “nuclear free zone.” New Method didn’t have a cabaret license, so they hung a banner above the entrance that read “Happy Birthday Bob!”  and sold beer out of a little side room that had a sliding glass window, like a speakeasy. The neighborhood was so dangerous that it was unsafe to walk alone across the street to Jugs Liquor to buy alcohol. There was always some punk hanging around who was happy to escort you. (my favorite was Todd from Christ on Parade.) Today Emeryville is home to Novartis, Pixar and Jamba Juice, Inc.and people drive there just to eat meatballs at Ikea.

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At sound check, Grant Young, Soul Asylum’s drummer, and I chatted on the sofa. He said everyone in Minneapolis was named Karl or David.  We exchanged addresses and he sent me an original cartoon drawing of a googily eyed guy who demanded “more beer!”

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The next year, Tom was hanging out of his window on Pierce Street and spied them walking down the street.  Guest listed, Tom called me to go, but I think I was under 21 and didn’t have a fake ID. Tom went, (he had Foot’s ID) and said they were great. There were only a few people there, but they were important: Jello Biafra, Ruth Schwartz, Tim Yohannan.  We saw them later that year at the Mabuhay Gardens. At the end of the set, Dave left a guitar onstage and wandered off. Erik Meade picked it up and jammed with Dan. A photo was taken, fueling the rumor that Erik had joined Soul Asylum.  Actually, he would have been a great fit.

erik meade with sa

Then they played some shows at the Berkeley Square.  At one, the bouncer grabbed Helga by the hair, threw her down on the ground, and started dragging her out of the club. Jessie jumped in to stop him and another bouncer started dragging her out too. I jumped on Bouncer #2’s back, and wound up tearing his shirt off. They had wanted to see Helga’s ID.  When she couldn’t produce it, they bouncer immediately resorted to violence, which made sense as Helga was a 5’2”, 100 lbs, vegan.  Bouncer #2 turned out to be Hector, the booker of Berkeley Square, and later the drummer of Buck Naked and the Bare Bottom Boys,. We had an awkward conversation about the incident when he called me a few months later to book us with Mr. T Experience.

“You ruined my shirt!”

“You hurt my friend!!!”

“You suck!”

“You suck more!!!”

“Wanna play a show with Mr. T?”

“Ok.”

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One of the happiest moments of my booking life was scoring the opening slot for Soul Asylum at the IBeam.  They only did shows on Monday nights at that time. All that stood between Short Dogs Grow opening for Soul Asylum was the band Bomb. I spend days trying to convince the booker that SDG and SA could fill the club. Finally she dropped them, ha ha.

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Our first gig in Minneapolis was at the 7th St. Entry, the small club next door to First Avenue- the club featured in Prince’s 1984 movie Purple Rain. When we arrived, Tom called and demanded that Dave Pirner come to the show. Dave tried to beg off. He’d just gotten home from tour; he hadn’t seen his girlfriend in 6 months; he’d been drinking all day. Tom wouldn’t take no for an answer; Dave showed up. Grant snuck me into First Avenue. We drank a beer in Prince’s booth and climbed into the rafters. Grant showed me his secret rafter spot where he would sit and watch Prince’s band play. I didn’t understand Prince’s genius at the time, but these guys grew up with him. At the end of the night everyone crowded into 7th St.’s backstage, and the club manager was yelling, “Everyone out! I don’t even care if you are in Soul Asylum, you have to go home NOW!!!!”

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The next time in Minneapolis, we all went  to see mutual friends Electric Love Muffin. It was my birthday and Dave gave me a birthday kiss on the cheek. I immediately ran to the nearest pay phone and called Jessie. When I got home, the only thing my female friends asked about the tour was “What was it like to be kissed by Dave Pirner?”

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All of a sudden they were playing the Warfield. We went backstage, and Dave was distracted- trying to see if he could get a keyboard to play We 3. Short Dogs was getting dropped by our label, and they were playing the Warfield. It was a rough time.

The next year Short Dogs was basically over, and I went to see Soul Asylum by myself at Slim’s.  A friend asked me if I would go talk to them. I said, honestly, “I don’t think they would remember me.” Immediately after that Dan walked up to me and said “Hi Carmela! Wanna have a beer?” My friend just laughed as Dan led me off. Dave demanded to see Tom, but he wasn’t coming, so Dave dragged me to the phone booth in the basement. Tom answered, and I said “Uh…there’s someone here who wants to speak to you.” As I handed the phone to Dave, he transformed from an aggressive madman, to a man speaking gently, as to a child. He asked how Tom was doing, told him he’d put him on the guest list, would leave cab money at the door if he needed it. But Tom declined. Dave had career highs and lows; he understood where we were coming from. After the gig we went across the street to the Paradise. Some of the local rocker girls followed us and, surprise! They actually wanted to hang out with me….and Dave. The girls were begging me to bring him to their house “to party”, the first time they’d ever invited me. Selfishly I asked Dave if he wanted to go- knowing he had a gig the next day, but drunk enough to be manipulated. He said yes, and I told the girls we would be there in 20 mins. As he was struggling to pull my helmet over his dreadlocks, a van pulled up- full of his pissed-off band mates. They had a gig the next day in L.A.; they were leaving NOW; you better get in the van NOW!!! When I got home, the phone was ringing.  The rocker girls wanted to know where we were. Or more likely, WHERE WAS DAVE? I told them the story, but don’t think they believed me. They had probably drawn straws to see who was going to sleep with Dave, and there I was, messing up their plan, keeping Dave to myself.

I didn’t see them play again in the 90’s- they released Grave Dancer’s Union in 1992 and were on MTV.  I wasn’t into the album- it lacked edge.  In 1993, however, I got an interesting phone call.

“Is Tom home?”

“There’s no one here by that name.”

“Tom. Tom Pitts.”

“Oh….” I was evasive, maybe Tom owed someone money. “You can give me your number, and I’ll give it to him.”

“Carmela? This is Dave.  Dave Pirner.”

WTF?

He told me that he was in Amsterdam, on tour, in a hotel and had insomnia. He said he always felt better if he talked to a friend before he went to sleep. We chatted for about an hour. They were opening for Guns N Roses, my current favorite (they had an edge.) I thought playing in Europe, staying in a nice hotel (there was a phone!!!!!), having a hit on MTV, and opening Guns N Roses would be the highlight of my life. He hated all of it. He said he was grateful that they were having success, that he had a room to himself, and that he could call the States (SUPER EXPENSIVE  back then) But he didn’t like playing stadiums- (you can’t see the fans), didn’t like the new label (they went from big fish/small pond to small fish/ocean),and he didn’t like Guns N Roses- (they made fans wait hours for them to come onstage, which he found very unprofessional. Prince would never do that.) He had tinnitus from years of loud music. He sounded terribly lonely. It was a tough transition from the van to the tour bus. As we wrapped up the conversation, he sleepily told me he had two regrets in life. He said  “the first on was agreeing to open for Guns N Roses, and the second is that I didn’t go to that party with you. I should have jumped on the back of your bike instead of getting in the van with the guys.” I laughed and said that he was probably the only person in the world who would lump me together with Axl Rose.

Grant left the band in 1995. They released two more albums in the 90’s. Sadly, Karl, the bass player, was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2005 and died in 2006. Tommy Stinson took over bass until just recently because he now plays with…you guessed it…Guns N Roses!!!!!

tommy and axl

Soul Asylum played recently at the Independent.  I bought tickets right away, thinking OMG…..it’s gonna sell out. Scarlett, the drummer in my band, works at the club and put me and Mike on the guest list, so Tom and Cheryl joined us. About halfway through the set I went to use the restroom. As I was peeing, someone on stage mentioned Short Dogs Grow. Scarlett ran into the bathroom and said “Hey Carmela, they just gave you a shout out!” Sigh.  When I got back to our seats, Tom said “Good old Dan- he always liked Short Dogs.” Scarlett got us backstage and immediately we were accosted by their tour manager, an angry, skinny woman, demanding to know who let us back there.  There was no one backstage, no one trying to get backstage, (the attendance at the club was minimal – maybe about 100 people?) and no mob of angry fans. I told her that we were just old friends wanting to say a quick hello. Very uncomfortable.  The door opened and Dave waved me in. He said they’d been talking about us that morning as they crossed the bridge. I told him we met in this location together 25 years ago. Dan, looking pretty tired, smiled and asked if I heard the mention. Tom said a quick hello and then we made our escape. It was all very tense back there. Scarlett told me later that she thought the tour manager and Dave were an item, and that she was trying to keep all women out of the backstage.  Girls are still trying to get him “to party” and miss his ride, I guess. 

My only regret from that time is not being happy for my friends’ successes. I wish that instead of being disappointed in having to work for a living, I celebrated my friends’ victories in the music world.  Being a rock star certainly has it drawbacks- Pirner lost the bulk of his hearing, Kurt Cobain committed suicide, and Tommy Stinson has to deal with Axl Rose. But San Francisco had an insulated, small, special music scene .I wish I had been more respectful and supportive at that time.

soul asylum chills

Punk Rock Prom and beyond..Rancid and Green Day

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Rancid’s 21st anniversary show was last week. This triggered many thoughts of “Another East Bay Night”…..

 

My friend Aaron didn’t have a date to the Berkeley High prom, and being a budding historian, felt that he would be missing out on an important phase of youth if he didn’t attend.  While I disagreed with his motives, I offered to go with him to document the moment.  We met up with his friend who had dragged Tim along as her date. He was pretty drunk by the time they arrived and didn’t want to dance. He gave me a Basic Radio tape, and kept saying we should go out to the limo and listen to it.  That sounded like a lot more fun than being at the prom, but I didn’t want to let Aaron down.   A few years later I went to see Death Angel at Nightbreak, and it was sold out, so I wound up hanging out with Tim (who couldn’t get in anyway because he was underage), sitting on the curb between cars and drinking beer. A few days later someone (Greg Foot?) told me that I’d been spotted making out with a young guy on Haight Street.  Making out in public is not really my M.O. I figured someone must have seen me with Tim and gotten the wrong idea.  Many years after that I ran into Tim when I was with Gary Indiana at the Bammies at the Warfield, and he told me that I have been present at the two weirdest moments of his life- the prom and being nominated for an award (both fairly non punk rock events).  I thought,  wait, what about the time when we made out at Death Angel????

 

I’ve never met Lars, but I stood next to him at the Parkside for a while.  I was selling Psychology of Genocide t-shirts and he was selling Agnostic Front t-shirts. Well, I wasn’t really selling shirts because no one was buying any. He was incredibly busy. I’m not sure if everyone on the planet wanted an Agnostic Front shirt that night, or if everyone wanted to buy something from LARS FROM RANCID.  A guy with many tattoos sat down next to me and started chatting. He asked if I wanted a beer and I said, no thanks, I don’t drink. He told me that he used to be sober but that he was experimenting with heroin again. I asked him how the experiment was going.  “Not too well” he answered seriously. I mentioned that he might want to talk to Lars about that. He said he had, and Lars didn’t think too much of his experiment either.

 I ran upstairs to the backstage room and when I opened the door 10 or so tatted out skinhead dudes stopped talking and looked at me.  “I, uh, I’m just here to use the loo” I stammered. Roger Miret said, “What do we have here?” and I thought he was going to pull a knife on me or something. Then he said “Ah, a New York Doll” and smiled and nodded his head. I smiled back, confused,  and edged towards the bathroom. When I got inside, I saw in the mirror that he had been acknowledging my NY Dolls t-shirt.

 

post prom run-in

GREEN DAY:

I was taking BART home from Berkeley and Aaron (of the prom) got on my train.  He smelled really, really bad and everyone was moving away from him.  Except me.  “Coming home from tour?” I asked. Only being homeless or being on tour with a punk rock band can make you smell that bad (I know from experience. When I came home from my first tour my boyfriend said I smelled like I’d been sleeping in a dumpster).  Yes, he answered.  He’d been out for a very long time with Green Day.  He used to be their roadie, and I want to say he played drums with them for a while, but I could be wrong there.

Many years later I was at a Paul Westerberg show and I saw Billy Joe.  People were asking for autographs and stuff and my friend got caught up in it and said, don’t you know him? Go say hi. I’d never me the dude, but I wound up standing next to him a bit later, so I turned and said “Is Aaron here?” He looked surprised and said ” I left him a ticket at the door, but you know how he is.” And then he said “You’re Carmela from Short Dogs Grow!”. I was shocked and told him he had a great memory. He said he remembered me from Gilman Street.  And then some more fans came over (his, not mine :)), so I was able to make a quick escape.

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