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WIZN's assistant program director Mike Luoma shakes his shaggy mane and drops down more tall tales of his life as a Burlington music scenester. This issue Mike remembers Ninja Custodian, the Home for the Holidays compilation, and the night Jon Fishman got naked with Arty LaVigne!
Right after writing the last part of this series, I was in Pure Pop and chanced across a cassette I had been listening to while I was writing: Ninja Custodian's Dancing With the Big Guy. The one I was listening to wasn't mine, so I bought this one. I had to have it. Dancing... came out in 1990 and at this point my chronicles have only covered up through 1988-let's begin back in early 1989...we'll get to Ninja.
This is a series of memories, sometimes a bit fuzzy, but I try to remember the music, the players, where they played and how the music moved me. In my memories, 1989 and 1990 were golden years-fuzzy, yes but golden. The Front had been a strong attraction, booking lots of local music and medium-sized touring acts. Their connections brought up some of the bands playing New York City, like Blues Traveler, The Spin Doctors and others of their ilk to play the club. And it became the place to see Phish in town.
By 1989 I was heavily into Phish. I loved their Nectar's days, but it became impossible for them to play there. They were drawing too many people-people were standing on the chairs, the tables, crowded to the corners... ust too many people. So they began playing at the Front almost once a month. The Front gave them the space that they needed-for a while.
When Phish stopped playing at Nectar's, I heard a grumble I've heard more times than I can remember since then- "Oh, Phish have gotten too big-they've sold out, they're too successful..." etc. etc. Every time Phish have reached a larger audience, those who enjoyed the band as their little secret have grumbled about it. To me it's funny, I've heard the same grumbling since the early days, and I've never seen a group of musicians keep their heads level and their feet on the ground as well as the guys from Phish. There will always be those who condemn success, I suppose.
What is success anyway? Winning a competition, a battle of bands? These days the musicians in the major bands around Burlington won't go for this kind of competition. Some don't like the cut throat nature competition brings out in people. Others refuse to measure success this way. But back in April of 1989. The Front held it's first such battle, "The Rumble," and the bands came out in force.
The bands I best remember from that Rumble were Phish (natch), Hollywood Indians, Gidget and Ghandi with their zydeco rock, Sundog with their world music, Peg Tassey and her incredible vocals, The Fortune Tellers with their no-nonsense and no frills rock and roll, The Cuts, The Switch and Dark Hollow. What a great time! Two nights of preliminaries, one night of finals...and free beer for those with a backstage pass!
I suppose the free beer might explain the fuzziness I mentioned earlier...
I was a judge in the 1989 Rumble, with Phish as the heavy favorite to win, I tried to be objective, but they did put on an unforgettable performance. Jon Fishman's entrance was especially memorable.
Arty Lavigne from WIZN was master of ceremonies and Phish gave him an introduction to read. According to Arty, it was a lot of complex gibberish, written in blue ink, and when he got to the microphone to read it, they bathed him in a blue light-making the blue ink just about disappear.
I was in the back of the club, watching them from the raised area where the put us judges. I could just barely hear Arty over the crowd. He was leaning over, trying to read Phish's intro. As he squinted down at the paper, trying to decipher the words, the crowd gasped. Jon Fishman suddenly dropped down out of the rafters over the stage, totally nude. He hung there for a long time. Arty managed to mumble out a stunned "Phish," and he got out of the way as Fishman dropped down to the stage, got behind his kit and started playing- it was a classic moment.
I don't remember what they played, but they played well enough to win the Rumble that year (thanks, in part I suppose to my own judging) another feather in their cap as their popularity continued to grow.
I remember talking to Jon about the stunt later on, over a beer at the OP during that summer. He wanted me to apologize to Arty if he was offended. When I told Arty, he just shrugged it off. He thought the club might get in trouble, but they didn't. Just chalk it up to rock and roll.
New bands were always appearing on the scene in Burlington. I think it was in the summer of 1989 that I first saw Zero Gravity play at Nectar's, and also checked out the electric Jalepeno Brothers. (I know that I had seen the brothers play back then-I'm not sure when they were electric.) Some major bands came though town too.
I think it was that summer that Metallica played at the Memorial Auditorium on their "...And Justice For All" tour. I checked out the show to see opening act The Cult. It was steaming hot in Memorial and Metallica was the loudest band I've ever seen there. I had to leave during the bass solo and I wandered down the street to the Border, as the space upstairs from Nectar's was then known.
The Border was thriving in 1989 as the alternative/dance club, booking bands and dj's. I stopped up that night to check out my friend Joe Egan's band, Ancient Chinese Secret. Quite a change from Metallica! They put out a cassette-I saw it again at Pure Pop when I picked up that Ninja Custodian tape.
Ninja played out a lot through 1989. There were dropping their classic rock covers, concentrating more on original music, but I still loved to hear them do psychedelic Moody Blues and Beatles tunes and quirky covers like "Shake Some Action," originally by the Flaming Groovies, or "That's When I Reach for My Revolver" from Boston's Mission of Burma-later made famous by Moby. Every time I hear that song, I hear Ninja Mike on the drums, firing off a drum roll like he was shooting a gun.
Ninja played at Sam's, until it became a Wendy's (now Manhattan Pizza), and at Nectars. I don't think they played the Front too often- but they did play the Rumble in 1990, and they won...kind of.
Ninja Custodian played the next Rumble, at the Front in April of 1990, along with mope rockers Brave New World, Gidget and Ghandi, The Fortune Tellers, James O'Holloran's blues rock band Plan B, the acoustic duo of Dan Parks and Matt Vachon- The Limit, WIZN's "Mr. Charlie" and his crew, Off The Cuff, and Tom and Terry, an acoustic duo from Saint Mike's.
Ninja won, but only after one of the judges tried to throw the whole Rumble by voting exclusivly for one band and giving everyone else zeros. After his tampering was excluded, Ninjas came out the winner. I won't mention Dan Archer by name... oops.
But the controversy soured the process, extinguished it. I used to really enjoy the Rumble. It was competitive, but had seemed to me to be all in good fun. Bands began to sour on the competitions as time went on, to the point where they just disappeared as major bands around Burlington refused to join in.
During that summer of 1990, I did manage to get a lot of local bands to join in on a compilation I was putting together. I had been playing around with the idea of doing a compilation tape of Burlington bands doing songs for the holiday season. WBCN had done it with the bands around Boston and I liked the idea. It helped the bands get some exposure and the proceeds would go to charity.
It was only a vague idea until I began talking to people about it. Joe Egan thought it might be a good way to get people to know about his studio, so he got into it. I began to think it could be done. Then I talked to Mark Ransom of the Fortune Tellers about it during a set break at Nectar's. Not only did Mark's enthusiasm make me think it could be done, but he also had three songs he could bring to the project: a Fortune Tellers tune, a song he and his wife recorded (they did it for friends and family each year, Mark told me) and a track the N-Zones had done, "Winter Wonderland."
The project came together with bands stopping into Joe's studio, Jet Sound, in the middle of the summer to record songs about winter. Joe, along with his partner Barry, put an insane amount of time in recording bands (I've always felt a little guilty about the project because I had a great idea-and Joe seemed to end up doing the lion's share of the work.)
Phish did an instrumental track "Abominable Snowman/Buried Alive"-not really a holiday song, but they did put jingle bells on it. I'd like to include that track on a Best of Burlington CD. We got some wonderful performances on the cassette, in no small part thanks to Joe's perfectionism in the studio.
Zero Gravity turned their tune "Socrates" to "Santa Claus," a cool, jazzy Christmas thang. The Jalepeno Brothers recorded their tune "Amsterdam" with a blend of holiday mix to it. The Dog Catchers did "We Three Kings" and the Limit, Tom and Terry and Plan B turned in original tunes for the season.
We sold the cassette ourselves with proceeds going to Burlington's Transitional Housing Program. The end of 1990 found Joe and myself and others selling the tapes out in the cold of the Church Street Marketplace. It was a great learning experience-mostly, we learned we didn't want to go through that again-and I'm still proud to have helped create a small part of scene history.
I've always been disappointed Ninja Custodian didn't do a song for the tape. I'd bugged Ninja Mike about it all summer-even got him to write it down in his little note pad he always carried. But they never followed through. Funny though, months later the tape came up in a conversation I was having with Ninja's bass player Hamdi. He apologized for being negative, but said he had to tell me he was disappointed I hadn't asked Ninja to be on the tape.
Communication break down, indeed. I still wish it had worked out. I would have loved to see what they would have done with a holiday song.
Ninja did manage to get their own tape out. Finally, I get to talk about Dancing With the Big Guy!!!
Ninja's originals were always cool. How could you not like a band with songs like "Opium Spy Theatre" or "Rock and Roll is My Weapon"? "Opium..." didn't make this tape, but "Rock" leads it off. It's great collection of tunes which still stands up today. Ninja were ahead of their time-so now their stuff still sounds contemporary.
Ninja Custodian managed to blend psychedelia with punk, melody and surprising time changes, even rock and rap-way before it became cool. Someone should release Dancing With the Big Guy on CD. I'd buy it! (Okay, I'd try to get a free promo copy...but then I would buy it.) For now, I'm happy with my new cassette I picked up at Pure Pop.
My favorite song on the cassette is one I managed to convince WIZN to play at the time, "Miranda" (we also played "Ladybug," but "Miranda" was on rotation). It wasn't the band's favorite tune and Ninja Mike told me "...ah...it's about a fifteen year old girl..." and he seemed kind of sheepish about it.
It wasn't always easy to get a local band's song on the air. It was even harder to get them into rotation! I was still the overnight disc jockey and a kind of assistant to the Music Director, so I was beginning to have a small influence. WIZN had played the Cuts, the Decentz, Pinhead and others. Through 1989 and 1990 they played Peg Tassey, The Sold Americans (a one shot anti-mall project), The Jalepeno Bros, and I was able to get a few songs from Homes for the Holidays on the air...but not Phish.
My biggest frustration back then was not getting Phish on the radio (well... my biggest musical frustration anyway...ahem.) In 1990, they released their first official CD Lawn Boy on Absolute a Go Go Records, distributed by Rough Trade. The label and distributor managed to collapse soon after the CD was released-a big frustration for the band. I was again able to get Phish some unofficial airplay, but to the powers that ran WIZN, Phish was still "too weird". Too bad. That said, now I have their jobs. Hmmmmm.
But I am getting ahead of myself again. I'll save that story for next time. For this time, let me pick a few more tunes for our hypothetical compilation.
Phish gets a second cut-"Abominable Snowman/ Buried Alive," and by now you know Ninja Custodian's "Miranda" would have to be on it. I'd have to have a Peg Tassey tune-probably "Sex is Good"-I always loved that song. Plan B had an original called "Gentleman" I always loved live - it came out on a CD a couple of years later.
I may be biased, but I'd also include a couple of songs from Homes for the Holidays, in addition to Phish's. The Jalapeno Brothers' "Amsterdam" wasn't really a Christmas song but I'd always liked the recording on our compilation (it also came out on their own cassette, Ride the Blinds...but not until 1991). Zero Gravity's "Santa Claus" was on of the first recordings done for the project and I always loved that tune. With wider release I'm sure it would've became a holiday classic.
Finally, I want to include a tune we were playing at WIZN in 1990, The Dog Catchers' "Look Down the Road." The Dog Catchers were basically two guys, Bob Weisburg on the Knopfler-esque guitar and Phil Peery on keyboards and later programming and everything else. They later became a full band and still play out in the present.
So that's it this time. So much went on through 1989 and 1990 I feel I've only scratched the surface-so it goes. Next time we'll do 1991 and 1992, as Phish signs a major label deal, and Ninja takes off for the west coast...and I get a promotion! Thanks for joining me on the journey thus far. And again, what would you put on a Best of Burlington compilation?
Mike Luoma is assistant program director at WIZN-FM (106.7 fm) and an all-around nice guy.
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