Monday, October 05, 2009

Doing the Math at a Comfortable Rock and Roll Reunion

I didn't go to my 30th year class reunion at Rich Central High School. For one thing, I coudn't afford it. I'm unemployed, remember. Plus, while I would have loved to have seen and chatted with most of the people who showed up (none of the assholes I hated were there, as far as I could tell), with the exception of a few people I'm connected with on Facebook anyway, this wasn't my crowd. I liked about 5% of the people at Rich Central, which, doing the math, amounted to about 80 people. That's all well and good, but I knew that ratio would be the same wherever I went to college. That's why I didn't go to a small private school. That's why I chose U of Illinois, with its 30K undergrads, and yes, I ran across HUNDREDS of people I liked/loved. And a good portion of them were Vertebrats fans.

So when the Vertebrats decided to have a "last" (oh, we'll discuss that later) reunion show, I dropped my independent pride and accepted the offers of people to give me a place to stay, meals (and drinks, don't forget drinks) on them, and general open arms. I decided to load up my GPS with plenty of caches along I-57 and make a quick day trip to Champaign for the 30th Anniversary Reunion of probably the most memorably great band the Champaign has produced.

(Uh, guys, it's not like you were the kings of marketing anyway, but all this "Thirty Years" stuff is not exactly something your target demographic wants to be reminded of. We were all doing the math: hmmm, we were in our late teens/early 20s in your heyday, so 19 plus thirty, carry the one..... uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. I can't tell you how many times I heard the phrase "30 years? Jesus." Pass the ibuprofen.)

My darling hosts, Cynthia and Ernie let me get settled into their living room couch, and it was off to the Esquire to dine with Wendy and Berni. Wendy and Cynthia were dance floor denizens at Vertebrats shows; Ernie was to Cynthia the cute guy who worked at the record store (there were, come to think of it lots of Cute Guys Behind The Record Store Counter in Champaign-Urbana); Berni was the bass Player for the B-Lovers, Wendy and Cynthia (along with Tina and Mimi and Melissa and Becky and Ile and ......) a bunch of college girls who between songs and beers discussed everything from that damn paper that was due Monday to that new album by the Soft Boys. All of them, as I remember, were kickass writers. I spent dinner contemplating that the Esquire was no longer just an old man banker joint in downtown Champaign, and as I looked at the menu I had to wrap my head around "Oh, the Esquire has a kitchen."

We setteled into a nice table at the HighDive, the venue for the reunion. The fabled Mabel's is now closed, but this place had some Vertebrats history behind it anyway. It used to the the Illini Theatre, a porn movie house (remember, back then you usually had to go to a theater to see porn) and was the site of probably the most used of Vertebrats promo pictures -- the four of them, looking cooly sheepish, underneath a sign which boasted "Continuous Shows."



Matt and the 12 string
Originally uploaded by V'ron.
They should have issued name tags, like a real class reunion because between new haircuts, (and new hair color!), gained and lost weight, new glasses (or lack of them), and just the changes that THIRTY YEARS makes (do the math) wreaks on people, plus, this was a typical bar so it was dark. Lots of squinting going on, and fortunately, nobody though it was rude to ask, "And what was your name again?" The 'Brats had played the night before, so a lot of folks had a bit of advantage on us. (Milktoast and the Outnumbered also played...).

So the band takes the stage and amazingly enough, it didn't seem like thirty years ago today, we all just gravitated to the spots near the stage we always did, and fell naturally into our awkward, swaying early 80s mode of "dancing." The band says, "Hi, we're the Vertebrats" and jump right into "Johnny Avante" and instantly I'm 20 years old again. Nothing seems to have changed. They sound the same, shit, after all these years a CU soundman STILL can't deliver monitor good enough for Matt Brandabur to hear himself (unless plugging his ear with his finger is just now a force of habit, like pushing up your glasses even when your contacts are in). Doesn't matter, he still has his guitar chops and still can flip off riffs that take normal people years of practice to get right. (Truth be told, a few literally minor chord biffs, but they were the kind where that chord was a seventh or ninth or something, and he just played a straight up chord instead. We all knew because we know these songs like the back of our hand, but we didn't care.) Kenny Draznik (is he "Ken" now, or do we still call him Kenny when he's on stage) still has that perfect garage band voice: not too sweet, not too raspy, just everyman enough to be sincere and believable, even though he's probably gotten over all those broken hearts and frustrations with the phonyness of the world. Jimmy Wald is not on drums tonight. Apparently he really wanted to play guitar this whole time, and so the 'Brats brought in John Richardson, who is a good enough drummer. (It's OK John, you don't have to play the drums exactly like Wald did. Nobody ever mistook Jimmy Wald for Simon Phillips. So just because Jimmy would have never noticed, much less used those two floor toms you bothered to load in doesn't mean you can't.) No Roy Axford tonight: death in the family took precedence, and that was sad. Axford (again, not John Entwistle here) was part of the whole Vertebrats personality, what with those jowls, that 50s badass biker look, and the deadpan way he'd deliver "This is Not Earth."


Jimmy sits in The Chair
Originally uploaded by V'ron.
Only big surprise was that unlike the "last" reunion I saw (that was fifteen years ago or so), they did some covers! A little Neil Young, a touch of CCR, Johnny Rivers' "Secret Agent Man", and even a Stones cover. Doing that wrapped it up, because here's the thing about this show, and the Vertebrats in general. Their songs were timeless. You can't really call them an 80s band because they were just a darn good, straight up American rock and roll band that wrote and played very good songs. Fundamentally they were a good garage band, in the songwriting vein of (their claimed influences) of the Flamin Groovies, most British Invasion bands, and I'll also suggest they hit pop perfection on the level of Sonny Bono (if they never covered "Needles and Pins" they should -- and they'd pull it off). If you're reading this, and you weren't there (either this weekend or in 1981), and you don't believe me, go toParasol Records and drop ten bucks on their CD. You'll wonder why they never hit it big. Because they had it all: good songs, good playing, great onstage presence that was natural, not contrived, and they were approachable guys to boot.

But when they played Saturday night, it was timeless, in a very comfortable way. In a "Hey, they can do covers at a reunion show and it's just like we were at Mabel's early in their career" sort of way. In a very "Hey, I'm cleaning out this closet and I found these old shoes, and they still fit, and they still feel great, and I can dance in them too!" kind of way. That's how comfortable the music was. I put my drink up on the stage just like I did at Mabel's 30 years ago. They brought up Kenny's dad to read Jimmy his last rites for "Electric Chair", they brought up achorus of fans to sing along with "Big Yellow Bus" and in the crowd I could hear everybody singing along to almost every song, just because after thirty years, it was like riding a bicycle. Once these songs screwed their way into your head they were there to stay. They had nothing to prove to anybody. We were there to be 20 again, and maybe remember that some things -- and people -- never really get old.

The second to last song -- the Stones cover -- was "The Last Time" and I'm wondering if they chose that one to send a message. After all, the word out was that this was indeed The Last Time, the Last Reunion Show, blah blah blah. But that's the title of the song. The lyric at the end of the chorus is: "Maybe the last time, I don't know....." And that was a Rolling Stones song, and how many "Last Rolling Stones Tour" shows have you been to? (I saw the "Last Rolling Stones tour -- at Soldier Field in '78). But I digress. If for no other reason, you guys can't let a Roy-less show be your last.


Brad Elvis
Originally uploaded by V'ron.
Afterwards, we all chatted up and headed over to the Cowboy Monkey, where Friday's show (that I missed) was, to see Brad Elvis's latest band, The Handcuffs. Brad Elvis was one of the Elvis Brothers back in the 80s (and the name pretty much tells you what they were like). I didn't realize what a terrific drummer Brad Elvis was/is. Animated and manic, and probably too much for this band. The Handcuffs are one of those bands I've written about before: very very good at what they do, and not my cup of tea. I couldn't figure out exactly why for a while, though. Brad Elvis was a fascinating drummer to watch, almost upstaging his chick singer, Chloe. Bass player was competent, but forgettable, and guitar player Ellis was very interesting musically: had a million riffs up his sleeve frosted with a touch of that U2/The Edge sound. But when you put it all together, it seemed like it was trying too hard to be a new millennium version of 80s New Wave. (And I've recently realized that of all the stuff that came out in the 80s -- post punk, hardcore, two tone, new psychedelia, etc, with the exception of Devo and a couple of others, I really didn't like 80s New Wave -- because of the same thing.) I like the musicianship, I liked them> -- but this was a case of the sum of the parts was greater than the whole. So I stepped on the patio and shared some drinks with some friends and caught up on old stories. Didn't get a chance to talk to any of the Vertebrats themselves. I likened this whole thing to being at somebody's wedding: the bride and groom have barely a chance to say hi to all the people who flew in, and all the guests sectioned off and would mingle with the "And how do you know them" questions. And being 30 years later, wer were alltoo tired to ask "So where's the party." Midnight or 1 ish was late enough for all of us, thank you.

Sunday morning a fabulous brunch hosted by fabulous artist Sasha Rubel closed all the gaps. In broad daylight, where we could all recognize each other, all the old gang could touch base, trade addresses (or at least say "Find me on Facebook") and be seated in comfort. Lots of hugs, lots of picture snapping, lots of excellent quiche. Ernie and Cynthia drove me back to their house, and I looked at my watch, did some math, and reluctanly admitted I needed to hit the road so I could get back in Milwaukee, rested and read to go job hunting again. But overall, I did the math and it was worth it to go, in ways numbers can't quantify.

5 comments:

the sandwich life said...

It was wonderful having you Vron.....our couch is always yours!!

Liesl said...

Getting to live the dream once is an amazing thing. Getting to revisit it - no matter what level - 30 years later is a blessing! What I wouldn't give for having my own record store/college radio daze. And you have the gift to document the experience!

Bob Draznik said...

Your article is a HeartToucher, Vron....Bless you...Bob

Anonymous said...

well crafted toots. and yes, i did steal the balancing drumstick on my hand schtick from brad elvis. so what? did the 'brats play "left in the dark?" still, for my money, one of the most perfect power-pop songs ever. cheers, rob

matthew said...

(unless plugging his ear with his finger is just now a force of habit, like pushing up your glasses even when your contacts are in)


- it is.