BEEN THERE, DONE THAT, STILL DOIN' IT: An interview with Bob Bert
Nov 21, 2007, 04:16
It isn't often you get the opportunity to read about a musician who throughout his or her career has played behind the scenes. Usually, 9.9 times out of 10, there's an interview with the singer/songwriter, the front person's views, the self-absorbed, addled, moribund ramblings of the lead guitarist, etc. In the case of Bob Bert that attention is long overdue.
Bob's been involved in the underground music scene since the late 70's. His contributions have been numerous, not to mention integral (Sonic Youth, Pussy Galoreâ€¦). And if you get right down to it, this denizen of NYC was there right from the start, giving him an unusually rare cat-bird seat perspective. After receiving the fifth edition of Bob's fanzine, BB Gun, this past spring, the concept of having a chat with him became all too clear; Bert is someone who has seen the ever steady rise of underground music over the years—from its infancy to the present—and has been a prime mover within that scene the entire time.
Looking back on those years, Bob Bert's participation is obvious as one of “workers” who helped erect the current music scene infrastructure. We are indebted to him and many others like him who helped forge the intrinsic and viable support network we enjoy today.
I've been in the same room with this guy more times than I can count on my own physical extremities and in hindsight, I'm amazed that he and I have never exchanged anything more than your common, everyday, “Hi, how are you.” From what I can tell, based on this past history and our following email conversation (conducted over the course of late May through the larger part of this past Summer), Bob's a measured, quiet, and reserved person. Relatively selfless and still obviously enthusiastic about fighting the good fight. There were times during our exchange when I would have liked him to be a bit more forthcoming, and a bit less diplomatic and concerned with how others might feel or interpret his views. This isn't to say I'm not pleased with the outcome. After all, maybe it is because of these very attributes that Bob's been able to persevere and remain an optimist, continually impassioned with the things he's most interested in and with which he is ultimately still involved. From where I'm standing it appears that the glass remains half full.
YOUR FLESH: Give me a basic rundown on when you were born and where you were raised.
BOB BERT: Born and raised in 1955 in Clifton, NJ, 10 minutes from NYC, which I started hitchhiking to when I was 14, the same year I first took acid. 1972, cut school one day to see Warhol's Trash and a few months later saw the New York Dolls at Max's [Kansas City]. It was all down hill from there.
YF: So, at the age of fourteen, what was it that propelled you toward the city and what was it that intrigued you about Warhol and the NYC scene in general?
BB: At the time the drinking age was 18, but in NYC you could walk into any liquor store and get served, so friends and I would hitch in, buy a bottle of German May wine and wander around Time Square and check out all the different types of people and whores that we didn't have in the suburbs.
I got into Warhol after a high school field trip to the Whitney to see his retrospect. From there [on] I went to see his films whenever they were shown: Trash, Heat, Chelsea Girls, Vinyl, etc.
When I moved out of my house, I bought on layaway a print of his of a black drag queen for $1,200 which hung on my wall for years, until I sold it in the early 80's for $5,000.
I went to the School of Visual Arts to learn silk-screen printing and did fine art printing for10 years, through [my years with] Sonic Youth and Pussy Galore, and wound up printing most of Warhol's art till he died in 87.
YF: Any interaction with the man?
BB: No, Just a few times on the phone, but one time I was working the night shift by myself and was told that someone was stopping by to check the place out and to give them a tour. It turned out to be Debbie Harry (who was really nice) and Stephen Sprouse (who was kinda snobby) then of course there was some controversy when the print editions of Lenin which were still being printed after Warhol died, ended up being signed.
It was really fun printing the gigantic last supper paintings.
YF: What was it you found interesting about screen printing that you made it a career choice?
BB: Being a big Warhol fan and after taking classes in silk screening, lithography and woodcuts, I found screen printing to have the most creative possibilities and [it was] the most fun.
YF: When did you start playing music?
BB: I took drum lessons for a year when I was 12, had a few bands in Jr. high that never got out of the basement doing The Standells “Dirty Water” and whatever Cream songs we could get through. [I] learned a lot from the drum solo in “In a Gadda Da Vidda.” Didn't play from the time I moved out at the age of18 till the discovery of No Wave and forming Drunk Driving with local Hoboken crazy man Peter Missing and Jeff Holiday. We use to throw tons of garbage around at our shows which sounded like 3rd rate Flipper, the final straw for me was getting smacked in the face with a hard cover book at Tramps while playing. This lasted about 5 months and then I joined Sonic Youth. If you wanna call this playing music.
YF: “3rd rate Flipper"? I thought HOSE had that dubious honor, or was that before their time? Drunk Driving ever record anything? (Peter Missing as in "Missing Foundation"? Whatever happened to them anyway?)
BB: You are right, Hose did have that dubious honor. I guess I was thinking more in graffiti terms (the martini glass that was everywhere you looked was the Drunk Driving and then the Missing Foundation logo and the Chaos Factor). This was early 1981, we did make a five song demo that you will never hear and I believe they released a cassette after I split. There are some photos from that period that are funny. I never saw the Missing Foundation play which always made the papers with the fires and disasters they caused resulting in a network TV report accusing Peter of satanic rituals and causing the Tompkins Square riots. He then disappeared to Germany for a long time and was back in NYC recently living in a squat and peddling CDs. The last time I saw him was over 10 years ago...
YF: So what was going on around town at that time and what led up to you getting into Sonic Youth?
BB: [The] No Wave scene was puttering out although DNA and UT were still playing around. 99 Records was the groovy record store [where] funky grooves were happening. Bush Tetras, Liquid Liquid, ESG, which 99 also put out. Also, west coast bands like the Gun Club, Black Flag, Lydia's [Lunch] 13:13. Good clubs like Danceteria, Peppermint Lounge, Tier 3, Mudd Club. Rap and Hip Hop were just starting to break out. Graffiti Art and the gallery scene shifting from Soho to the East Village. The early 80's were a great vibrant time in NYC. 99 also put out Glen Branca's Lesson No. 1. Branca soon started his own label Neutral whose first release was Sonic Youth's debut EP. I bought it immediately and to this day it is still one of my favorite SY records. I feel the need to point out that it is their only record that Kim and Lee sing a song together (“I Dreamed I Dream”). I went to see them a few times and dug it even though at that point there were like endless gaps between songs as they weirdly tuned.
After the Drunk Driving experience, I had bought tickets to see PIL at Roseland right when Flowers of Romance came out. I stood up to go to the show and was so dizzy from the flu that I couldn't go. I was so bummed that I paid for the tickets and it was too late to even give them away. I was sick for a week or two, when I finally felt better I [had] wandered into Rocks In Your Head, a store that still exists in Soho and there was a flyer that said Sonic Youth needed a drummer, I ripped it down--still have it--and called 'em. [I] met them at Lesko's Diner on Avenue A and auditioned in Mike Gira's windowless bunker on Sixth and Avenue B.
YF: What's Michael Gira like? I've never met him but I get the impression from his work and by reputation that he's sort of a tough nut.
BB: Michael could be a tough nut especially back then, I've witnessed a couple explosive incidents like pummeling a guy for pogoing at the 40 watt club in Athens but I always got along good with him. He is a dedicated hard worker. He's living back in New York now and we hang on occasion. I've never experienced working with him which I've often heard can be grueling.
YF: Before we move on to the SY stuff, would you mind describing what was going on around Alphabet City back in those days? I remember being on the road with Toxic Reasons around 1983 and going to the Lower East for the first time as a young adult and being immediately astounded by what a surreal scene it was there; St. Marks and Avenue Aâ€¦ just nothing in life up to that point had prepared me for it. Your being a resident I think might add some insightâ€¦
BB: St. Marks was always a happening little strip, When I was a young lad, it was the only place to get underground comics like Zap which I would pick up on the way to the Fillmore East. There were also a bunch of head shops and record stores (these things that existed before CDs). Then in the mid to late 70s it was definitely the punk hang with stores like Manic Panic, Trash and Vaudeville (still there), St. Marks Books (now on 9th street and 3rd) and various members of the Dead Boys or whoever hanging out.
The 80's: Still some good record stores and lots of homeless Mohawk hardcore kids begging for change. Still the best street in NYC to purchase cheap, cool sunglasses.
As for alphabet city, in the 80's, walking past Avenue A you were taking your life in your hands or you were copping drugs or needles or both. I never lived there but rehearsed on 6th and B with Sonic Youth, Houston and B with Pussy Galore and 4th and B with the Chrome Cranks and still with the Knoxville Girls. Avenue A is now like Sunset Strip, and Avenue B is filled with French restaurants and limos. There's still the Lakeside Lounge, a great bar owned by The Hound with by far the best jukebox in town and of course Manitobas's, where you can order your drink from Handsome Dick himself.
In the early 90's I got a car and around then it was easy to park anywhere in the East Village. You would just have to worry about the car being fucked with which it usually was. Now there's nowhere to park but when you do find something it's usually between a Volvo and a BMW so there's no need to worry. It's filled with all student types and now the new East Village is Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Rudy fucked up the whole city. Times Square now looks like Blade Runner.
YF: As to 99 Records: What was “groovy” about it? I know Terry Tolkin worked there at one point [former Touch & Go employee; A&R'ed for Elektra, signing Afghan Whigs, among others during his tenure there; still releases records via his own label, No. 6] but what set it apart comparatively from all the other record stores in NYC at the timeâ€¦
Bad Moon Rising outtake
BB: Ah Terry Tolkin, I know him well. No. 6 put out both Bewitched albums where you can hear me sing (luckily way out of print although there are a few people that dig them). 99 was cool because they carried the latest singles from England and the rest of the world, and records that you didn't see anywhere else. It was owned and run by a tall guy named Ed Bahlman, It was in a basement on McDougal and there were 2 turntables behind the counter and Ed would gladly play anything you wanted. After he put out a bunch of records, (one of the first indie labels) he was pissed when Sugarhill had a big hit with Grandmaster Flash's White Lines whose music was directly lifted from a Liquid Liquid song. He tried to sue and Sugarhill would send goons downtown to threaten him and stuff, this is when Terry (who takes credit for introducing Thurston to Kim in 99, although that's not how they tell it) worked there because Ed was scared. After that the store closed and Ed disappeared, refusing to license any of his releases. Lately there's been a slew of bootlegs and reissues of the 99 stuff. There was a gigantic article on the history of 99 in a fanzine called Tuba Frenzy that came out last year which was amazing.
YF: What did you guys discuss at that first “sit down” at Lesko's?
BB: Thurston said he recognized me from being around; they asked me what bands I was into, I believe I said DNA, Flipper, 13:13. etc. He asked me if I was into Black Flag and hardcore which I wasn't although I later appreciated the first Black Flag album and Minor Threat.
We then proceeded over to the Swans rehearsal space and home to Michael Gira, a windowless bunker on 6th and B to audition.
YF: What exactly was it about Sonic Youth—musically and I would assume as people--that you found compelling?
BB: I bought their first EP which had Richard Edson playing drums and really dug it. I saw them play a few timesâ€¦ I just loved the way they were combining no wave and grooves, taking it to a new dimension. There really wasn't a ton of stuff going on in NYC at the time so they stood out to me. As people I was impressed that they were intelligent, well read and [were] bringing a bit of the art scene into the music scene. I also was aware of the fact that Thurston and Lee both played with Branca. I loved the fact that they were experimenting with sound and tunings. This was before guitar players had tons of pedals.
YF: Do you feel your experiences with drugs informed your overall artistic or general purviews? You know, like do you think for instance you'd have taken paths you've taken without them?
BB: Who knows? I'm sure experimenting with psychedelics as a teen may have opened up some channels especially for liking strange, fucked up music.
YF: So what were those early rehearsals like?
BB: Working on the songs for Confusion Is Sex, I was still a pretty primitive drummer at the time; lots of waiting while Lee and Thurston re-strung, re-tuned, and generally ripped guitars apart, learning how to play the songs on the first record.
YF: How long did you guys rehearse before going at it live?
BB: I think about a month. The first show was at CBGBS with Swans, and Don King (ex Mars). Then shortly after we went on the Savage Blunder Tour, down south with Swans and then out to the Midwest to play at First Avenue in Minnesota which was set up by the Walker Arts Center to play to 10 people. We did get to hang with Ron Asheton and Niagra in Ann Arbor which was a thrill.
YF: "Savage Blunder Tour"? That had to have been named as such afterwards, yeah?
BB: Nope, before hand. I have the poster to prove it. I guess we were psychic.
YF: Walker Arts Center. That must have been back when Tim Holmes was doing it...
BB: That name sounds familiar, so it probably was.
YF: What do you feel you brought to the creative process in Sonic Youth?
BB: A thick, loud, steady, tribal stomp. After the Midwest thing I was fired and replaced by Jim Sclavunos who played on Confusion except for “Making the Nature Scene” and the live version of “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” Smells Like Records released a CD a few years back called Live In Venlo from 83 (unfortunately out of print) which documents my approach to most of the Confusion material. Thurston, I think wanted a hardcore thrash style of drumming at that point which I wasn't capable of doing.
YF: Why were you fired and how did you take it? What did you do?
BB: I read recently in this Michael Azerrad book [Our Band Could Be Your Life on Little, Brown, Co.]—which I am unhappy with the way I am represented in there, and Alec Foege's, Confusion is Next—that Thurston was taking out his frustrations by abusing me about my drumming which I'll totally admit wasn't at its peak yet, plus I didn't even own a decent kit back then, and was faced with a different set up all the time. So after we came back from the Midwest, there was a show coming up at the Mudd Club and I couldn't figure out why I wasn't being called to rehearse. Kim finally rang me and said I was being replaced because the chemistry wasn't right. I was completely bummed and baffled. They played the Mudd Club with some guy whose name I don't know but believe he's a record exec in LA now [Tom Recchion according to Thurston]. Then Jim Sclavunos (Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, Eight Eyed Spy, Panther Burns, Cramps, etc. Currently in Bad Seeds and his own band, Vanity Set) joined, and did maybe 3 gigs, recorded Confusion and then quit to play with his then wife in Trigger and The Thrill Kings. Meanwhile I had been rehearsing steadily with some locals and my skills improved immensely. Thurston called me and was real casual saying that there were no hard feelings and they just wanted to give Jim a try. I had still gone to see them play various things and kept a cordial relationship. They had the Speed Trials show coming up at the White Columns gallery at the time with the Beastie Boys and The Fall on the bill. When we rehearsed, they were amazed at how much better I got. At the Speed Trials show we were given the first copies of Confusion Is Sex, with my recording debut of two songs and my name spelled wrong on the liner notes but [I] was still proud. Lee and Thurston were leaving the next day to tour Europe with Branca while setting up Sonic Youth's first tour there. They asked me to do it with them and I made them promise that it wouldn't cost me anything and I would remain their drummer.
YF: About your drumming: Thurston didn't tell you what the problem was with it originally or did you at least ask?
BB: I don't really remember the specifics, I did try my hardest but I don't know, we were both kids. I was definitely still learning but I guess not measuring up to Minor Threat.
YF: So tell me about your second round in the life of Sonic Youth. What happened next?
Sonic Youth as pups
BB: Flew to Europe by myself traveling for 24 hours to meet them on stage to a rioting crowd of Swiss people. Sonic Youth definitely paved the way for American indie bands touring Europe. That first tour was done carrying 13 guitars, cymbals, snare and luggage on trains with Euro Passes. Sleeping on cat piss soaked or freezing floors like that of The Ex's in Holland. We recorded the Kill Your Idols EP, played NYC a bunch. Toured Europe at least two more times for six weeks a pop, making no moolah. Went to LA, stayed at Kim's family's house for a few weeks, playing three gigs there including the legendary Gila Monster Jamboree in the desert with Redd Kross, Meat Puppets and Psi Com (Perry Farrell's pre Jane's Addiction band), recorded the “Halloween”/”Flower” 12" out there. Played Seattle with Green River and The U-Men opening. Composed the Bad Moon Rising album; played every NYC club. Hooked up with Blast First records which was a step up from Homestead. Went to Europe again, toured England opening up for Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. At the end of that tour, which was in 1985 I gave my notice.
YF: What do you think was pioneering about Sonic Youth's forays into deepest, darkest Europa back then?
BB: It was pioneering because, here was a band with one or two records out and making music like nothing else that'd been heard outside of NYC. A lot of the clubs that we played (like the Vera in Gronigen, Holland) are still around today. Each night was a different experience, whether it was a government sponsored youth center that we would pull into and see a bunch of skinheads and big pointy mohawk dudes huffing glue out of paper bags, or a small bar across from a cow pasture out in the countryside of Germany where the crowd would be out of their minds drunk, and a humongous barmaid probably named Helga would force us to do shots before forcing us back on stage where we would try to finish. At some point we hooked up with a German label called Zensor who released our first record, Confusion, and Kill Yr Idols. These tours were set up mostly by a good Dutch friend of theirs named Carlos who still is somehow associated with them. Lee had played in a band called Plus Instruments with his friend David Linton and a Dutch girl named Truce who Jim Sclavunos later married and started a band with called Trigger and the Thrill Kings (I may of mentioned the latter here already).
YF: This was Blast First records, right? SST records was all postÂ BB, correct?
BB: Actually, Blast First and Homestead released Bad Moon Rising, the Halloween 12", and the Death Valley 69 12" together. Blast First was recommended to us by Lydia Lunch. The label was formed by members of Cabaret Voltaire and run by Paul Smith who was connected to Rough Tradeâ€¦ He let us ransack their warehouse which was a great score!
YF: Why was the jump from Homestead to Blast First in your estimation a "step up”?
BB: We got connected with Homestead through our friend and early supporter/Conflict fanzine maker Gerard Cosloy. Back then anyone who would put out your record was gold. Gerard worked there and brought in all the good bands but the place was actually owned and run by a guy named Barry that I swear when we met with him, was your typical chump with a picture of the wife and kids on the desk with Light FM playing in the background. He freaked when I put a Walkmanâ„¢ on the desk to record his bullshit. Anyway for years and years as Sonic Youth was climbing the ladder, they kept the stores filled with Bad Moon and the band never received a dime. Being based in London, Blast First had a much bigger hand in the band's success and were a little bit more honest.
YF: Do you feel as though Blast First's practices were questionable?
BB: No, I think things were cool. It was after I quit that Blast First put out the double live bootleg, Walls Have Ears without the band's approval. I was happy though that one of the last shows that I played with them, opening for the Bad Seeds, was fully documented on disk two.
YF: Ever any regrets about giving "notice"?
BB: Definitely at different times, but not for at least seven years or so. When they became huge around 1990 or so it was kind of weird because everyone I knew ended up working for them or licking their ass. While I floundered through many a shitty band, they did everything a band could dream of: soundtrack work; giant festivals all over the world; full crew and royal treatment; jamming with Iggy and Ron Asheton (separate occasions). The only band in existence that could play rock fests and jazz fests! In fact, they just got back the other week from a tour of classical fests supporting the Goodbye 20th Century LP series that they did a few years back covering avante garde and minimalist composers.
Early Pussy Galore line-up
When I quit I never would have imagined that they would ever become so accepted and still be around after 20 years. On the other hand I am glad that I was in Pussy Galore and have had a lot of other experiences with all different types of people as a result. I am very proud to have been a part of Sonic Youth's early history and hate it when different journalists have given me the Pete Best approachâ€¦ and the next question that everyone asks after that one? Yes, I am still in contact with them and was always treated fairly and always enjoy being around them. Saw them play 3 times last year, twice while I was in Europe with the Knoxville Girls and once in New York and they continue to slay.
YF: Can we expand on your quitting the group? I'd like to know what specifically was going on with you at the time that would compel you to hand in your walking papers? Were you burned out, missing home, what was up?
BB: It was our 3rd or 4th six week tour of Europe without making much money. I was broke, kind of tired, and just wanted a change of scene (I highlighted “of” because a long time ago I gave this same reason and was misquoted as saying “change the scene,” which has come back again to haunt me in Azerrad's book). I was also a newlywed which didn't help matters. I gave it a lot of thought because I really dug what we were doing. As I said previously, I really had no idea that the band would be around forever and become so legendary. People were quitting bands everyday back then; the Swans had already been through like ten people. If I had a nickel for every time I've been asked this question, I'd be a millionaire. I just wanted the freedom to try other things.
Chrome Cranks by Michael Lavine ©
YF: Care to elaborate on the “Pete Best” comment?
BB: There was a Pussy Galore article, I believe in Melody Maker when Sonic Youth was starting to get a ton of press that referred to me as “Bob Best,” and there's been things written like in the Foege book that paint the picture that I'm a loser for quitting this genius band. I should point out that Pete Best was fired before The Beatles really recorded anything, where as, I quit on good terms after five years of recording and touring.
YF: So, you bailed on SY, and then took a break I imagine. What was next? Was it Bewitched or were you fiddling around with that prior to your official exit from SY?
Pussy Galore by Michael Lavine ©
BB: Right after Sonic Youth, a printing place that I was working for went out of business, so I had the extreme change of working full time and rehearsing three nights a week to collecting unemployment and figuring out what was next. When asked by a UK mag about what I was up to, Thurston made up this story that I had a new band called Bewitched with Suzanne Sasic who worked for them at the time and [eventually] became their lighting person and moved on to work with Nirvana, Stereolab, Beck, Tom Waits, REM etc. Paul Smith of Blast First said he would put out a record if we made one, so accepting the challenge I booked time with Wharton Tiers and got some friends together; Dave Rick from Phantom Tollbooth [former Bongwater and King Missile alumni and regular Your Flesh Â contributor] and Mark Cunningham from Mars and Don King on Trumpet. Dragged Suzanne there who was completely performance and camera shy and she screamed over the jams. The result was a 12” 45 called Chocolate Frenzy because of Suzanne's love of sweets. The flip side was a real cool tribal jazz, 10 minute piece called “Swamp Shoot.” I sent it in to Paul and he said I should remix it. It was then remixed by Jim Thirlwell and Paul hated it, which was okay if only he had just told me, but instead he avoided my calls and I had to find out from Thurston. So I put it out myself instead and I used Pussy Galore's label name Shove, as I had just started to rehearse with them.
YF: What in your mind was the premise behind Bewitched?
BB: Freedom and fun. Big Stick had just released the Drag Racing 7-inch. That and the Buttholes were an influence along with Fela Kuti and other African stuff. I just wanted to do something loose with whoever I felt likeâ€¦
YF: How'd the hook-up with Pussy Galore come about?
BB: I was getting itchy to play again after close to a year and was fielding some offers. Ran into Kim and Thurston at the Cat Club. I believe it was at a Neubauten show and asked if they knew of anyone in need of a drummer. Kim mentioned Pussy Galore who had just moved to NYC and were there at the show, so I met these young kids with black hair trying to look cool. Picked up their first 7-inch EP, Feel Good About Your Body the next day at work at Pier Platters. A few nights later Jon approached me at CB's and handed me a fresh copy of Groovy Hate Fuck. I asked if he needed a drummer and he wrote his number on it.
YF: What was your initial impression of Feel Good About Your Body? Comparatively speaking, it's a significantly different disc stylistically than Groovy Hate Fuck
BB: I totally agree, I dug Feel Good but after hearing “Cunt Tease” and the rest of Groovy I was sold.
YF: What was it that captured your interest in the band? How would you describe it?
BB: I knew right away from their name that they demanded attention and I liked the combination of the metal percussion, garage rock riffs and the way the swear words jumped out from the rest of the lyrics
YF: Whose idea was it to replace the snare drum with an automobile gas tank?
BB: When they first started up in DC, they had a drummer and a person who played metal—that's the way it was at the first few rehearsals with me on drums; Rick Hall who was Julie's boyfriend at the time, banging metal. Julie, Jon and Cristina on guitars, Neal Haggerty moved up shortly after. Anyway Rick split, and Jon decided to have me do both which I was way into. We wired two metal plates together loosely on a snare shell, Put a gas tank on top of the bass drum with a spring and two cowbells on top of each other that clanged together, a floor tom, hi-hat and 2 cymbals. As time went on Albini's cock ring was added for extra vibration on the snare and a real snare drum set up was added next to the floor tom. This was all rocked with a metal rod in my left hand and a drum stick in my right. I think I wore out about five gas tanks during my time in the band. Spent a lot of time in junkyards.
YF: So do you have an affinity for any specific make of gas tank?
BB: Just like some people feel about dicks, the bigger the better. It was pretty funny when we went to Japan and the promoter, when told to supply a gas tank went to a Jaguar factory and got a brand new, untouched by grease, shiny one. Going to Europe the first time with PG, I had to spend the first day trudging through sludge and rats for hours because the gas tanks there are so small. Mostly they were found in the junkyards of Hoboken which had stacks to the sky.
YF: I take it Spencer called the shots... what did he tell you they were after when you were joining?
BB: EinstÃ¼rzende Neubauten + early Stones + Pebbles tracks was the general idea as later laid out for all on the cover of the Sugarshit Sharp EP. Jon called the shots but it wasn't as much a dictatorship as one might think; a lot of riffs were Neal's and a lot of beats were mine. Julie's and Neal's lyrics were their own.
YF: What was it like being in the band.
BB: A lot of fun, despite being ten years older then everyone else. I got along with everyone even though they had their differences between each other. I was the only member besides Jon that was consistent to the end.
YF: I guess that must say something about your sense of decorum—you as a person, being able to avoid falling in the middle of inner band squabbles and the like. What were the differences among the other members? Why so many shifts in personnel?
Action Swingers by Michael Lavine ©
BB: Usual shit: Neil quit the first time after diving across the van to throw an unsuccessful drunken punch at Jon because he wouldn't buy Neil a pack of cigs because he wanted to use the 40 bucks we got paid at a NJ gig to put gas in the van. They were also roommates at the time which is always the kiss of death. Cristina got the boot after the first tour because she wasn't needed. Julie left after the Dial M tour of Europe because she and Jon were not getting along anymore and the fact that an NME writer stormed off to a pub after trying to interview us and Julie followed him explaining that “Jon's not such an asshole all of the time,” which of course everything she said got printed in the publication.
Toured the USA as a four piece guy band; re-formed as a three-piece, me Jon and Neil, recorded the last LP—Historia De La Musica Rock; had European tour booked when Neil split to Frisco without telling anyone.
YF: What was the general reaction among the band regarding the Lydia Lunch screed in Forced Exposure.
BB: I guess they were a bit bummed, it was kinda weird because she's a good friend of mine now—and then—and despite trashing the band she said complimentary things about me. I think the criticism was good for them. Most of the other press had been good and we got support in the press from Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus and Mary Chain and then [much] later from Beck.
YF: Why do you think the criticism was good for them? Did it precipitate anything special?
BB: They started wearing less all-black clothing.
YF: In hindsight it seems as though the band releasing Pussy Gold 5000 via Buy Our Records was a bit incongruous given the kinds of bands (Adrenalin OD, etc) the label was known for releasing. What was up with that?
BB: Lenny who ran the label loved Pussy Galore. It was a limited one-off that sold out quickly. He also got us on the Uncle Floyd show which was fun.
YF: What was The Uncle Floyd Show? I take it, it was something along the lines of Bozo...
BB: Closer to Soupy Sales actually, The Uncle Floyd Show was a great New Jersey cable TV show that was on through the 80s. Kind of a kids show geared for stoners. Along with Uncle Floyd it featured his sidekick puppet Oogie, Looney Skip Rooney, Netto and a bunch of other nutcases. It had a lot of local bands on including the Ramones, Misfits, David Johansen, Speedies etc. The Pussy Galore appearance can be seen on the Maximum Penetration video that was released by Atavistic and can still be found around.
YF: What ever happened to Lenny of Buy Our Records?
BB: He manages a giant record store called Vintage Vinyl in NJ. Run into him on occasion at shows. Real nice guy.
YF: In what ways—if any—did making the move to Caroline Records benefit the band? Were there other labels interested?
BB: We were all ready to go with Homestead. Gerard was way into the band but when Jon delivered a bunch of the Exile On Main Street cassettes to Caroline for distribution, he was called into the office and they made a much better offer. Caroline was real good to us.
YF: The Exile On Main Street project was pretty interesting. Kind of a “warts and all” affairâ€¦in-between song squabbling, totally live, etc. In hindsight, how do you feel about it now by comparison to how you may have felt about it at the time it was released? Also, I'm sure there's people out there who would like to know how many of those were made?
BB: That was done soon after I joined the band as a statement in response to Sonic Youth saying they were gonna cover the White Album by the Beatles [which wound up being more of a homage to Madonna entitled, The Whitey Album]. I enjoyed doing and listening to it then and still enjoy it now. I have a tape of it straight before they did the crazy mixing of it. Exile was released as a limited numbered cassette of 500. It got us a lot of immediate attention.
YF: I'm not sure that most people know this, and perhaps I have it backwards, but it has always been my understanding that PG was single handedly responsible for creating a network for American bands of the progressive, underground ilk to tour Japan. Is this correct and if so how was it accomplished?
BB: We hooked up with this guy Keiji or something like that. He brought us over and treated us like kings. We played two shows in Tokyo and one in Osaka (first exposure to the Boredoms who opened). He also put out that very rare limited live album. He later brought over Sonic Youth and Cop Shoot Cop. He [later] supposedly got extremely in debt, then disappeared and was never heard from again.
YF: Strictly a collector scum question: what's the story on that rare Japanese live album? What tracks were on it, how many were pressed, and how many do you have stashed away?
BB: The guy who brought us over there put out a limited run of one thousand. It's called This Friday Night Only. [It has a] great cover of a naked woman from a truck stop sticker with smaller live shots down the left side. I only have one at this point, sold a few others when I was hungry. It usually sells for about a hundred, but I haven't seen one for sale in a long time. The tracks aren't listed so I'd have to listen to it to tell you. The only unusual tune [on it] is a cover of DMZ's, “When I Get Off” which we played for years but never properly recorded.
YF: What brought about the demise of PG?
BB: After the last long US tour as a four piece, the last show at CBGB's that was recorded and released just a few years ago as Live In The Red, we kind of went on hiatus, I don't remember if we officially broke up at that time. Then, like I said before, we reformed as a three piece and wrote and recorded the last album in 2 weeks. After Neil split without warning, Jon and I got flown to London by Rough Trade for a week just to do press. Jon called me a few months later and said he found a guitar player that he liked [Mr. Judah Bauer] and would I be in his new band [JSBX]. I passed on it because I had Bewitched up and moving at the time and was playing with the Action Swingers. I guess I haven't made some of the best career decisions in my life.
YF: So, the official end of Pussy Galore was what year? Were you bummed?
BB: I think 1990 but I'm not positive. I was a little bummed but felt like it ran its course.
YF: What'd you do next?
BB: Bewitched somehow became a real band, we recorded two albums for #6, Brain Eraser and Harshing My Mellow. Opened shows for The Jesus Lizard, Sonic Youth, (East Coast Goo tour, got booted off the rest of the tour run for some band called Nirvana). Also played in the Action Swingers who I got hooked up with when Thurston called me the night before a CBGB's show where the line up was Ned, Julie and Thurston, I learned the songs during sound check (no big feat).
YF: How'd the Chrome Cranks come about?
BB: Met Peter the front man when he booked Pussy Galore (Chrome Cranks first show was opening for PG) and Bewitched in his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. He moved to NYC to be a rock star and was bugging me to join. I was very hesitant because I didn't like the band and thought it was too close to Pussy Galore and the Scientists and not half as good but I liked Jerry [Teel, previously of the Honeymoon Killers] and the rehearsal space and wasn't doing anything at the time. It was a struggle from day one. Peter and I are from two different planets. This lasted five years longer than it should have and I try to forget that I was in that band.
YF: I guess I don't understand: If you didn't enjoy what you were doing, why stay with it for so long?
BB: There was always something on the horizon like European tours to places I hadn't been to like Spain or southern Italy and I got along well with Jerry Teel who played bass in the band. I was also always looking for something better (auditioned for the Muffs and the Breeders) because I would rather play in a band and try to further develop my skills than do nothing at all.
YF: Ever the diplomat, aren't you?
BB: Yup. Can't deny that there were some good times and good shows but that didn't outweigh the bullshit. The best thing to be said about the Cranks was that it lead up to the Knoxville Girls.
YF: How did the Knoxville Girls come about?
BB: Right as the Chrome Cranks split up, Jerry split up with his long time girl friend Lisa who played with him in the Honeymoon Killers and then his country flavored side project, Little Pork Chop. Jack Martin who was also in LPC was moving to New Orleans so we wanted to get some jams of him, Jerry and I on tape for the hell of it. Barry London had recorded at the Fun House (Jerry's rehearsal space/ studio) with a band and became friends with Jerry. After the basic tracks were laid down we slowly built them up and formed them into songs along with the covers, asking various musicians we knew to help out where needed. Kid Congo moved into Jerry's apartment when Lisa moved out and added his flair to a number of tracks. Larry Hardy (In The Red Records) who I became good friends with through the Muffs and from putting out Pussy Galore's Live In The Red offered to put out our first album without even hearing it. We had no real intention of becoming a band. Just as Jack was about to move back from the south Mark Arm offered us a show at the Bowery Ballroom opening for Mudhoney and we couldn't resist the challenge. We pulled it off with 2 rehearsals and it took off from there.
Gas Tank as Snare Drum
YF: You started doing BB Gun fanzine sometime during your tenure with the Chrome Cranks. What motivated you and what was it you've hoped to achieve in publishing it?
BB: Partly, to try and fill a creative gap that I needed to fill while being in the Chrome Cranks and also to attempt to fill a tiny void that was left by the extinction of all my favorite mags growing up like Rock Scene, NY Rocker, Killer, Forced Exposure, Flesh and Bones, Punk, Vacation, etc. All I hoped to achieve was to entertain with good interviews and large, hot pix, and to turn a few people on to a slice of underground culture. In that respect I feel I have succeeded.
YF: Someone said to me recently something to the effect that “no matter the intellect (insert stereotypical drummer joke HERE), whatever, a drummer is the member of the band that wields the most amount of clout,” so based on this, have you ever felt that being a drummer has placed you in the position of having the rest of the band over a barrel? What's your position on this?
BB: Q: What does 7-11 coffee and Ginger Baker have in common? A: They both suck without Cream. Of course I always refer to the statement that “a band is only as good as its drummer,” the Who and Zep being the perfect examples. In Sonic Youth and Pussy Galore, I enjoyed being in the back seat and not having to deal with much of the business aspect—just call me and tell me where to be. I did use my clout in the Chrome Cranks fighting for song writing credit for the rest of the band, and canceling a tour that was ridiculous. I pretty much manage the Knoxville Girls now, not out of clout or choice but because if I didn't do it, nothing would happen.
YF: I heard recently that Knoxville Girls may be coming to an end. Any truth to this and if so what's the deal?
BB: No, there is no truth to this. Kid left the band to work with Matador recording artist DJ Kahn and to continue with his own band the Pink Monkey Birds and to find a new place to live. The Knoxville Girls are forging on as a four piece, playing a bunch of shows in September and starting work on our third album.
YF: What's going on out there in the world that's got Bob Bert excited these days?
BB: Early Dylan, Ikue Mori, Tonic (club), Jean- Michel Basquiat, the movie Downtown 81, the book Positively 4th Street, King Brothers, Yoko Ono, Reality TV especially Bands on the Run and Survivor, 00I00, Hank Williams, Cecil Taylor, Suicide, Stooges, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Lee and Nancy, ESG, swimming, popcorn, etc. otherwise not much at all.
This article originally appeared in Your Flesh #47