On October 30, 1968, MC5 vocalist Rob Tyner shouted, "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!" to the crowd at Detroit's Grande Ballroom and rock 'n' roll was rescued from the low-energy vibe of the hippie generation. On September 30, 2006, Eighteen Visions vocalist James Hart screamed, "You wanna get fuckin' rowdy?" to a South Florida audience and absolutely nothing changed.
It was a mild but sunny afternoon at Markham Park in Sunrise, where the 93 Rock End of Summer Slam jump-started the fall season (fall for South Florida, anyway). Fats, along with Jake Smith (AKA Big Pimpin' Pappy), arrived shortly before Eighteen Visions' set began. My intention was to scope the scene, not to give some type of overblown musical critique like the one you're about to read. That's just not how I roll... normally. I'm more interested in understanding the overall event the people not every minute guitar riff and lyric. But stage banter is another thing entirely. It sets the mood of the show, and it's a true measure of the personalities behind the music. So when all a band offers between songs are clichés and the obligatory rawk profanities, it's hard to discern any type of personality. It all comes off as a bit contrived, if not scripted. Personally, I'd rather hear a vocalist throw out a few corny one-liners than a string of banalities.
"Put your motherfuckin' horns in the sky right now!" and "I wanna see you motherfuckers pump your fists!" were two of the many enlightening sound bites Hart had to offer. Keep in mind, the guy was dead serious. I mean really how can you say that kind of shit with a straight face? Shouldn't unprovoked cursing be just a little fun? There's nothing wrong with a frontman letting his guard down and saying, "Ah, what the hell! I'm gonna fall on the stage and roll around in the mic cable until I'm stuck. And if I miss a verse or two, so what? The crowd will be entertained."
Of course, that rarely happens nowadays. Spontaneity just ain't cool. Or is it? I sure remember how the audience dug it when the Cramps tore up the Culture Room in '03. Vocalist Lux Interior crawled and careened across the stage (and beyond), bending mic stands in half even deep-throating the mic a few times before drinking the sweat from one of his black leather boots. I also recall the more subtle shenanigans of Jonathan Richman's 1998 performance at Respectable Street, where he'd stop playing midsong, announce that he was about to solo, and then begin. During other songs, he'd put down his guitar and dance around it, leaving nothing but the drumbeat to carry the tune. It was quirky as hell, but every single person in attendance felt it. There's nothing that beats this feeling, when everyone's in the moment and little things like clothing style and genre affiliation don't matter. That's rock 'n' roll at its finest pure, unadulterated experience.
I don't mean to pick on Eighteen Visions; they're just one of many groups that do the deadpan rawker thing, and they're really not that bad, per se. But think about it: When a band is onstage, it has creative license to do whatever the hell it wants to do. That means anything all manner of theatrical antics are at its disposal. But what do most bands do? Nothing. It's one song after another, held together by predictable blather about being aggro or whatever. And you know what? Such predictability is not just the bands' fault. Because when it comes down to it, performers must work with the audience they have, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld. Hell, that's an example right there the topical/political reference that works for those who get it but goes over the heads of the rest who don't. I was reminded of this fact later on that night, hours after the sun set on the End of Summer Slam. September 30 was, after all, the day after former Rep. Mark Foley proved to be just another Gary Glitter in congressman's clothing. Pappy and I ended the night at Alligator Alley, hoping to catch the recently reunited Drug Czars, whom I hadn't seen since the late '90s. But first onstage were the Creepy T's, whose keyboardist, Thomas Dementrius, was all over the Foley issue like, well, Foley on a congressional page.
"We're collecting money for the Mark Foley relief fund," Dementrius told the crowd between songs. The room was full to capacity, and everyone heard the joke. But only about three people made any responsive sounds whatever. I wasn't surprised. I know from experience how hard it is to do topical humor when you're playing to a music-hungry audience. You know the cliche: "Less talk, more rock." It's shouted from the audience at least five times at any given show. At one time, I might have agreed with that saying. Now I understand its real significance some people are afraid they won't get the stage banter that's hurled their way. So they reflexively blurt out the "LTMR" mantra between songs, hoping to ward off any unnecessary use of brain cells.
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Toward the end of the T's set, Dementrius made another Foley joke. Standing to the right of me was a guy who looked to be in his late-30s. He was laughing. Good, I thought, I'm not the only one who appreciates a little Daily Show-styled humor with his rock music. But then the guy turned to me with a question.
"Who's Mark Foley?" he asked. I don't think I need to explain any further.
It may sound like Fats is on some jaded "these damned kids" type of trip. Sorry, I already went through that phase. But I know there's more to stage performance than shouting motherfucker ad infinitum or hitting on current-affairs topics. There's plenty of middle ground, as frontmen like Lux Interior and Jonathan Richman showed me years ago. But for fuck's sake (have I reached my profanity quota yet?), bands need to stop being so goddamned serious. Loosen up a little, guys. It's only a matter of time before your stage banter's all about the "good old days."
Now, on to a more important matter: Did you hear about Mark Foley's new book? It's got no cover, just lots of pages. Zing!