Ye Olde Blurte Editore reflects on his 1987-92 musical romp across the Charlotte, NC, skyline…
BY FRED MILLS
Sweet memes are made of this: I recently met a fellow North Carolinian who, it turns out, was living in Charlotte during part of the same time I lived there. We apparently did not know each other, but we did have a mutual friend, photographer Don “Bongo” Swan, who passed away in 1995, so it was natural to share stories with one another. Don was loved by pretty much everybody in Charlotte, and I had the good fortune of working with him on numerous occasions in my capacity as Music Editor for alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. The conversation left me feeling more than a tad nostalgic, so I did a search online and found a story I wrote for the Loaf in 1997 to mark the paper’s 10th anniversary. Rereading it now, a lot of memories came back, including plenty of Don. He took the photo pictured above, in case you were wondering, of my editor John Grooms, the Domino’s pizza noid, and me as we took part in an attempt to land the Guinness Book record for “most guitarists playing ‘Louie Louie’ at the same time,” go figure. (Somewhere in my files I also have the original image that Don gave me. I need to get that framed.) So at the risk of seeming hopelessly self-indulgent, I thought I’d republish the article here for posterity. Let me just add – this one’s for you, Bongo.
Rock through the first five years
Charlotte music from 1987-1992
If, as historians advise us, eras have their defining moments, then so, too, do smaller periods contain their own seeds of identity and character.
Looking back at the first five years of Creative Loafing, during which I served as the paper’s music editor, I get the sense that there were a number of “defining moments.” Viewed as separate points on a time line or as linked incidents on a continuum that has now stretched to 10 years (and counting), these moments do seem to paint CL in a myriad of hues and shadings. Put metaphorically, if Charlotte’s daily newspaper is black and white (and, like the musty joke adds, “read all over”), then this city’s alternative weekly is as colorful and rich in depth as a Hockney painting. And at times, suitable for framing.
One such event that will always represent, to me at least, what CL — as an alternative to the mainstream — was all about transpired in January of 1990. For weeks Charlotte had been fudging its undies over Tom Cruise and the filming of Days Of Thunder at the Speedway. The Observer in particular was a lighter shade of brown at the time, logging the star’s real and imagined movements around town as if he were Mother Teresa touring local leprosy wards. Imagine the chagrin, then, of the daily paper when we reported from the front lines and even buttonholed Cruise for an exclusive interview.
Seems that the Belmont Playboys got the wrap party gig, and the band smuggled me in as their roadie. I duly reported the arrival of Robert Duvall, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, not to mention the impromptu jam session involving the Playboys and the Duvall entourage (Cash was particularly smitten by the band’s version of his “Rock & Roll Ruby”). More importantly, and sensing my duty as a journalist, I engaged Tom Cruise for our “exclusive interview.” The entire interview went thusly: “What did you think of the Playboys, Tom?” “Man, they were rockin’!”
Yessir, Creative Loafing (not to mention its worldly music critic) had finally arrived into high society. Of course, we had to come through the back door with the servants and hired help, but still …
Damn. Time flies. Here it is, seven years later, and I’m browsing a Tucson record hole when I spot a CD called Wolf Patrol by none other than my ad hoc employer, the Belmont Playboys!
Even though talent naturally rises, it’s hard not to feel like CL had at least a small hand in boosting the band’s career. One of our prime directives from the git-go was “support local music.” Before our first issue was published in April of ’87, editor John Grooms and I had lengthy discussions over what role the paper should play with regards to the area’s music scene. It had always rubbed both of us the wrong way that the media powers-that-be (including Charlotte’s candy-ass radio stations) tended to treat local bands with the same kind of embarrassed condescension usually reserved for that eccentric, flamboyant relative who turns up tipsy and in a feather boa at the family reunion. To that end, we set out to champion our rock ‘n’ roll underground — what the hell, let’s crash the party and get drunk with the rest of the freaks! — and challenge the rest of the populace to keep up with us.
A poorly kept secret around the Loafing office is that Break, the entertainment tab started up in 1987 by the Observer in order to complete directly with CL for advertising revenue (let’s face it, it sure wasn’t for prestige), tried to hire me as a music writer. As the editrix schmoozed me over instant coffee and stale donuts, I inquired as to the level of music coverage Break had in mind.
“There’s a Billy Joel show coming next month to the Coliseum. I think our readers would enjoy a 750 word profile on the man.”
When I mentioned that Antiseen and Fetchin Bones had gigs coming up too, I was met with a blank look. ‘Nuff said.
I’ll admit it, we were as arrogant as we were hip. Case in point: taking it upon ourselves to paint Charlotte’s Springfest celebration in its true colors — a crashing bore or a yuppie circle jerk — we proceeded to muscle a local rock and blues stage into the annual goings-on for a couple of years. When Springfest organizers tried to water down our efforts, we opted out entirely and put on our own Nightfest (the name we judiciously picked over “Counterfest” and “Screw You Springfest”) in ’90, staging bands after sundown in three clubs during Springfest weekend. The idea seemed to fly despite some territorial pissing among competing club owners (don’t ask), so in ’91 we put the call out en masse and wound up with three nights, seven clubs and 27 local acts. The entire spectrum of Charlotte talent was showcased: folk, blues, heavy metal, alternative, punk, psychedelic, etc.
And whether or not any of the bands and performers went on to bigger and better things isn’t the point — what matters is that someone was taking local talent seriously, not as minor league players. (You want serious? Seven months later CL threw its weight behind striking members of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and helped put together a fundraiser for the out-of-work musicians. The sight of our beloved Spongetones onstage, backed by seven string and three horn players, as they played a dead-on set of Beatles songs was one of the best Christmas presents we ever received.)
Nowadays, of course, judging by the club ads and CL “Soundboard” listings, it seems that on any given night of the week you can catch a reasonably hot gig. But for those with short memories, let me assure you that there was a point in time when Charlotte’s idea of a thriving club scene meant folksingers doing Kenny Loggins and Eagles covers, blues bands who performed entire sets sitting down, and multiracial reggae-cum-fusion outfits listlessly jamming on Fridays after five on the watering holes’ outside decks.
Likewise, 10 years ago it was simply not an option for a local band to release a CD; I recall a Major Event being defined as so-and-so putting out a three-song demo cassette, and when a regional compilation like Statements Vol. 1 or Metal Mythos appeared in the stores, declaring a civic holiday was in order.
So even though the term “thriving” is relative (and probably cyclical as well), Charlotte would be a far poorer community had it not been for the efforts of a small but dedicated network of musicians, club bookers, fanzine editors, record store owners, independent label and recording studio heads, even the occasional radio visionaries (you may all turn in the direction of Spindale and genuflect). I’d like to think that CL helped transform the scene — oh, screw modesty, I know we did, as anyone who’s ever turned to the “Music Menu” or filled out a ballot for our annual “Best of Charlotte” knows.
Defining moments aren’t necessarily positive in nature. Sometimes they can be downright notorious. (Just ask people who attended the dung-flinging ’87 appearance at the Church of Musical Awareness by punk nihilist G.G. Allin.) No recounting of our first five years would be complete without mention of the Great GWAR Obscenity Bust in September 1990. The incident has long since passed into the realm of rock ‘n’ roll lore, and the band itself has even been immortalized in song and on video the night when Charlotte vice and ALE agents, acting on a “tip” provided by scanning the CL Music Menu concert preview, raided the 4808 Club and toted vocalist Oderus Urungus and his two-and-a-half foot long penis (in two separate paddy wagons) off to jail.
Not to romanticize the event unnecessarily, but a bit of local innocence was lost that night as well. 4808 had long gotten up the noses of local authorities anyway, staging all-ages punk and hard rock shows right in the heart of the downtown area. (Unlike the Milestone Club, which garnered some negative reactions over the years but was “lucky” enough to be located across town on the other side of the tracks, so to speak.) So hosting GWAR, with the show’s explicit, if cartoonish, sexual content, simply blew out the fuses, and when the dust cleared, 4808’s owner had been charged alongside the band with disseminating obscenity, ultimately getting his beer license revoked. The club closed, and Charlotte seemed just a little less friendly a place to be for working musicians. Maybe the arts community too; is it my imagination, or did a theater production have a similar clash with the prevailing Bible Belt mentality around here less than a year ago?
In my own arrogance, it was a rude awakening. I actually believed it was my duty to further the subversive agenda of latex-covered, heavy metal practitioners of sodomy and ritual disembowelment. Antiseen’s as well.
Ah well. In the words of CL‘s staff photog at the time, the late Don Swan, “Fuck ’em, man.”
People and personalities also defined the paper and its first five years. Too many to list here, including the bums who entertained us with their grunts and moans of alcoholic lust as they previewed skin magazines at the convenience store across the street from our South Boulevard location. Don Swan, though, was quite the bon vivant, and I was proud to have worked with him on assignments. In 1995, John Grooms called me with the news that Don had died and asked me to pen a brief remembrance for the paper’s farewell to him. The first thing that came to mind was of one night when Don and I were covering the Scorpions at the Coliseum. I made the observation that “there’s something kinda weird about a 40-year-old man dressed in spandex and wiggling his butt and making goofy faces.” Don thought for a second, then turned to me and stated matter-of-factly, “Yeah, but I bet he gets laid tonight.”
Now that was rock ‘n’ roll. I would end up naming a kitten I’d adopted around the time Don passed away Bongo, in his honor.
I could produce a laundry list the length of Oderus Urungus’ erstwhile member of moments sublime and surreal that stand out in my mind as significant during my tenure at Creative Loafing. Come to think of it, I already did, in the April 18, 1992, fifth anniversary issue.
But overall, what the experience meant to me was being able to treat music and music culture with the kind of respect, passion, and yeah, adolescent irreverence that I thought it deserved. I mean, what could be more pointless yet life-affirming than spending weeks debating behind closed doors with Grooms, then proudly writing a cover story called “The 100 Greatest Intro Guitar Riffs Of All Time”? Or heading south to the Gaffney Peachoid with Swan and Grooms, to help break the record for most people playing the three chords from “Louie Louie” over and over?
When I surrendered my duties at this paper in ’92 to move to Tucson I received two retirement gifts. One was a lifetime (theoretically) gratis subscription to Creative Loafing. Reading it from afar, I’m proud to have watched it grow in size, scope, and just plain huevos.
The other gift was a colorful T-shirt custom-designed by none other than Rene Escarcha, aka Renelvis, aka the only known Charlotte-based Filipino Elvis impersonator. Displayed on the back of the shirt is the music column I wrote in which CL “discovered” Renelvis during his residency as the floor show of a local Chinese eatery — clearly, in tone and texture, one of the paper’s singular defining moments.
I can’t think of a more appropriate way to sum up five years worth of rock ‘n’ roll memories. See the concert, get the T-shirt.