Friday, June 12, 2009

Trakin It To the Streets with Red Star



Trakin It To the Streets with Red Star
By Roy Trakin
Suicide's Alan Vega and Marty Rev

It was the spring of 1978, and revolution was in the air.

I was just two years removed from having graduated Columbia University with an MFA in Film Criticism (studying with the great auteur critic Andrew Sarris), where I originally met soon-to-become No Wave entrepreneur and Lust/Unlust label czar Charles Ball, who turned me on to the world of downtown punk at CBGBs and Max's I had only read about in Creem and Rock Scene magazines back when I was a Colgate student.

At the time, when the Chairman--the inimitable Marty Thau--hired me at his then-fledgling Red Star Records, I was living rent-free in a cold-water tenement loft on 27th St. and Seventh Ave. with Terry Ork and Television guitarist Richard Lloyd (who was constantly being chased around the place by the gay Ork), in exchange for working at his Ork Records.

Just as the landlord threatened to throw us out in the street, Thau swooped down and hired me as his Minister of Information--a fancy term for publicist--where I worked alongside Miriam Linna, the fanatical, good-hearted rock fan and one-time drummer for The Cramps. The two of us would sit up in his 57th St. office, just across the hall from the parent company, Prelude Records, a disco label kicking the tires on this whole "new wave/punk thing," smoke a lot of pot and plot how we were going to change the world with our two acts at the time, Suicide and the Real Kids.

We'd often slip downstairs during the day to the Chinese restaurant on the ground floor, where we'd drink Mai Tais and exchange bon mots with the--and please excuse the racist implication--inscrutable cocktail waitress we came to know as Su Mei. That was where Marty and I, with input from Miriam, concocted our guerilla warfare against the established rock media, a plan we optimistically dubbed, "Take It to the Streets," and set in motion our "Spring Offensive."

It revolved around our perhaps naïve notion that the mainstream rock media was pigeonholing the burgeoning punk movement, using its more sensationalistic, negative aspects to bury its creativity and promise. We issued a polemic that carved out our position.

"The big debate about new wave music is at its crux--media has pushed the subject to a breaking point and there is no longer any type of definition for the new music. A title which was once employed to embrace a whole family of energetic new sounds has now become meaningless--not to those who understand, but to those who put up the label to begin with...

"When one does not understand, one tends to ridicule. Lump-categorization is the result of such ridicule, thus leading to more misunderstanding and the weakening of the original structure. New wave music has always existed; there has always been a new wave coming in the arts. This particular eruption in the rock & roll world has been coming for about 10 years now. Kids who spent their adolescent years bored out of their minds during the ‘70s, kids who remember how great the music of the past decade was, and kids who are teens right now and have no lively teen music to grow with, are getting their guitars or drums or whatever out from under their beds in an attempt to combat the present state of the airwaves.

"Some of the stuff is weak, some more offensive than enjoyable, but some of the stuff is GREAT--songs and bands which will last the present onslaught of labeling by the media, who will not calm down or de-energize just because a label is now labeled ‘dead.' It is out of this violent birth of many new types of energetic music that will grow a great new family of rock music.

"When Red Star Records planned the Spring Offensive, the goal in mind was not to drag boring DJs out of their booths to a bonfire on Seventh Ave., nor to insult certain members of the media, but to state exactly one particular: fair exposure. New wave music has been the topic of debate, ridicule, retaliation, and now has been deemed ‘dead' by the media. Our televisions have flashed moments of ‘punkoidal' chains and screaming and have blared out-of-context lyrics at us with little sympathy. As always, youth is being misunderstood, and as always, when the kids get a little rowdy about misrepresentation, the media will show them getting violent, and before you know it, everything is out of hand, and what started as a great thing has become another crazy creation of those terrible teenagers.

"It's true. Today's airwaves are designed to placate the listeners, to make them dance to some emotionless beat, and the world that surrounds the music of today's radio is that of affluent adulthood--you can see the kids dressing in suits and driving off to discos--placated into oblivion; the total non-teens. Teenagers are built to be energetic, to be different and BETTER than the generation before-and when media stifles that creative attempt, when it scoffs and discards and mislabels and decides for the public what will come to pass, it is then that action must begin.

"That's exactly why a bunch of media-related sympathizers and other loves of creative rock & roll got together and spent the afternoon cruising around Manhattan in a van delivering messages to select media personages and causing a bit of a stir. Certainly no radio stations changed their policies that afternoon, but the mission was definitely accomplished: they KNOW we know what's going on and maybe they'll take the time to listen and understand."

Sounds like it could have been written yesterday, right? But it was penned 31 years ago, back when I was an impressionable music fan of 26, and it pretty much reflects the philosophy and music business career of Marty Thau to this day: the kids are alright.

So, we set the wheels in motion on Friday, April 7, renting a mini-van into which we loaded a motley crew of journalists, musicians and assorted hangers-on which included, aside from Marty, Miriam and I, Walter Steding, the one-man-band violinist, Blondie pal and frequent performer on Glen O'Brien's cable show TV Party; Suicide's Martin Rev; Mumps' Kristian Hoffman; dB's member and Alex Chilton sideman Chris Stamey; the late Teenage Jesus and the Jerks drummer Bradley Field; Charles Ball, and the legendary Legs McNeil, who was covering for High Times. Among the other fourth-estate reps on hand were Creem's Toby Goldstein, the French Feelings Magazine editor J.D. Martignon, Aquarian's "Every Night" Charley Crespo, the New York Rocker's Andy Schwartz and London's Confidential Magazine editor Huy Davis.

"Last Friday, April 7, RED STAR RECORDS made good on their promise to ‘take it to the streets' in a multi-pronged effort to protest the lack of radio airplay for new music, raise the awareness of the general public to the vitality of this music in their very midst and protest the distortion of ‘yellow journalism,' which has used the new wave movement to sell papers at the same time as it decries the more sensationalistic side of the scene. All who participated agreed it was a mission accomplished."

The "Poo Poo Mao Mao" Affair, as we called it in tribute to Red Star's Communist Chinese roots, began at the downtown Manic Panic boutique, where the mobile unit was outfitted with a stereo system and RED STAR armbands for all. The vehicle, now equipped for action, returned to the Washington Square Arch to pick up its "notable" crew. Then it was off to the Village Voice, "so-called arbiter of hip taste... to protest the pseudo-intellectual pretensions and condescension with which the paper covers the rock scene." And still does, as far as I can see.

When the van pulled up to the venerable counterculture weekly, the mini-van PA blasted the Dolls' "There's Gonna Be a Showdown," while mad violinist Walter Steding donned a battery-operated rhythm machine around his waist, a pair of flashing sunglasses and proceeded to serenade the curious Voice staffers with a brief set that concluded with a "stirring rendition" of "You Light Up My Life."

From there, we zipped up to midtown, where the tiny band of activists confronted WNEW's Vin Scelsa as he emerged from his Friday afternoon program in a demonstration of solidarity with his (and fellow DJ Meg Griffin's) support of the new music.

"Take It to the Streets" then stopped traffic on Sixth Avenue, with its promised series of "kamikaze-like" raids on TV and radio stations, delivering hand-written missives of protest to the PDs at WABC and WPLJ to protest their "strait jacket approach of demographics-oriented radio with its slavish devotion to ratings." As much as things change, right? A message was delivered to soon-to-be network WNBC-TV network head Freddy Silverman wishing him good luck and expressing hope for some more of the "rock & roll"-influenced programming he had attempted in the past. WNBC radio's Bob Pittman, who had yet to take the reigns at a nascent video channel called MTV, came in for criticism because of his "oh-so-hip pose as well as his oh-so-lip service to the New Wave." Columbia Records received a red star for its support of Elvis Costello, even if he was the "acceptable face of punk." A letter to the Chairman of the Board at Time-Life lambasted the rush of the media to proclaim the death of alternative lifestyles, especially "the death of the hippie" or the "death of punk," so we proclaimed the death of media, albeit 31 years too early.

Steding climbed atop the ABC sign and was immediately surrounded by throngs of curious bystanders and supporters, the lunchtime crowd showering him with coins as Legs McNeil, quickly acting as Walter's manager, pocketed the change as fast as he could. During a brief sojourn at Sam Goody's, free albums were handed out from inside the mini-van, resulting in a sea of grasping hands, proving the public's interest in receiving free music at least two decades before Napster confirmed that fact.

The trip came to a close at the Winter Garden, where Steding dedicated a cover of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" to the death of the show playing there back then, Beatlemania. A personal note was delivered to the box office panning this "exercise in necrophilia." And remember, all of the original Fab Four members were still alive at that point. A series of "We Want Waves" leaflets were passed out, and after a glimpse of the giant RED STAR adorning Macy's Herald Square, "the entire band of bedraggled revolutionaries" repaired to Nathan's Famous in Times Square, where one and all wolfed down on "frankies," in tribute to the Suicide song "Frankie Teardrop."

"This is only the start of the type of media events RED STAR hopes to stage throughout the summer months," I wrote in my role as Minister of Information after the event.

"The question of exploitation and sensationalism was not only raised by our jaunt through Manhattan, but also co-opted. If this trip proved anything, it was that there is a community of people out there who love and live rock & roll music, and who are not being reached satisfactorily by the conventional means. If only for a brief afternoon, representatives from this community came together and vented some of their pent-up frustrations. It will not be the last time, you can be sure of that. Promised RED STAR targets for future offensives include CBGBs, Max's Kansas City, Trax, Studio 54, you name it..."

Roy Trakin
April 14, 1978

As we always did, Marty and I repaired to our favorite haunt to discuss what we had done and what it meant in the bigger picture.

"The sumptuous Chinese hostess brought us another round of cold hors d'oeuvres as the dialogue continued:

‘Then, why did you do it?' the perplexed interviewer wanted to know.

The Chairman shifted uneasily in his seat and began to answer several times before the reason suddenly came to him. He spoke and the words flooded out...

‘...maybe because we live in New York City in 1978 and hang out in this incredible circle that eats, sleeps and breathes rock & roll, and there's this non-stop talk about why we don't hear the rock on the radio anymore and then we turn on the tube and it's more of the same and then we read this unbelievable shit in the papers about punk kids and safety pins and everywhere we turn we see a total mis-reading of the younger generation, once again, like it's always been, except this time there's this exclusion of rock n' roll... so, being in the rock & roll business, we figured it's our obligation to speak out... I mean, what do we have to lose?'

Sui Mei returned to our table, bearing a Remy, a bloody mary and a cryptic smile."

Marty Thau
April 20, 1978

Those words ring truer today than ever. Thanks, Marty.
— 06/11/2009

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