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Issue Nov/Dec 1987

By Scott Becker

The Variety Arts Center in downtown Los Angeles must have been some snazzy joint.

A repository for the tattered and faded memory of (broadcast) Hollywood from a time when radio was King, the Variety Arts center building is a vaguely Moorish labyrinth of venues, of spent elegance and musty show-biz ghosts. Between the comedy lounge in the basement and the scaled-down ocean liner on the roof, there're a couple of floors the uniformed elevator operators — no kidding — never stop at. They automatically take moderne club-going clientele straight to number four, no questions asked.

Prior to sound check in the fourth-floor ballroom, there’s an incongruous scene in progress. Some of those ghosts from the forties are still clinging to this world. In the cavernous darkness you have to let your eyes adjust to, there’s a kitschy jazz combo playing dinner music. A few decrepit waiters with soup stains on their cumberbunds are scurrying around, serving a handful of overdressed couples who are, let’s say, in their declining years. Both the help and the customers appear to have been playing their roles here since FDR was giving his Fireside Chats. It seems as if someone could turn down the volume pot and their images would just fade away.

Bill & Glenn playing liveBy the time the Feelies hit the stage, a sort of reverse process has happened. Fade in: a younger, hipper set has emerged from the shadows, and the formerly creaky ballroom takes on a cool, campy image, a well-juxtaposed backdrop for opening act Hugo Largo and the Feelies’ riveting, jacked-up rhythms. The Feelies begin their set almost imperceptibly, filtering onto the stage, Glenn Mercer and Bill Million picking tentatively at their guitars, gentle vocals joining in, the tempo emerging quietly and then vigorously, finally the full onslaught of percussion, bass and drums erupts orgasmically and the Feelies are hitting their stride. Almost makes the joint seem kinda snazzy again.

Guitarists Mercer and Million of the New Jersey-based Feelies had played together in various combos in high school; current percussionist Dave Weckerman had also played with Mercer at times. They formed the Feelies in 1976, at a time when there was a fair amount of musical ferment in New York; but being in the suburbs, the new band was expending a lot of energy on cover tunes in gigs at leather bars and high schools. Still, their own sound was poking through— Glenn recalls a high school dance which had the student bodies less than limber. "People didn’t like it. I remember the teacher involved came running up to the stage and said, ‘Play something they know, you’re losing ‘em!’ and I said, ‘We just played a Beatles song!’"

Fortunately, the New York club scene was more open to new ideas at the time. The group played at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City; a soundman at Max’s urged Terry Ork, who had released the first Television single, to come down and see the Feelies at their second New York show. Ork liked what he heard and offered to put out a Feelies record. After the band heard what an outside producer had done to their sound, they scrapped the project in favor of self-production. Mercer and Million continued to develop their songwriting, focusing on interlocking rhythm guitars, often droning or layered in repeating, single-chord motifs. If the tempos occasionally seemed askew, they furthered the off-kilter illusion by adding Anton Fier’s thumping drums and little percussive figures, minimizing predictable snare beats. The results sounded fairly frantic, and the effect was heightened by the agitated, Velvets-inspired electric guitar leads Mercer and Million scribbled into the spaces between their sparse, detached lyrics.

At the end of the seventies the band signed to Stiff Records in England and recorded their self-produced debut, Crazy Rhythms. The album was eventually released in the US and generated critical praise but little else for the band. Looking back, Mercer doesn’t seem that thrilled with having been on what was considered just about the sharpest label of the day. "They promoted the label more than they promoted their artists. They came off like some hip new independent label when in actuality they were a lot stricter than a major label. They actually called us into the office and had a lecture about how to come up with a hit song." Having less enthusiasm for hit singles or lengthy tours than Stiff seemed to have, the Feelies’ initial splash dissipated like so many ripples on a pond.

In spite of their energetic appeal as a performing band, the Feelies simply stopped playing live after a time. New York was where the action had been, and as the club scene there became undone, the whole process of gigging lost what little interest it had aroused in the band members. As percussionist Dave Weckerman sadly describes the demise of live, underground rock in New York, "The club scene basically just rotted away: the rent, fire code, you have to have a license to run a club... You have to be a billionaire or a philanthropist to own a club." Asked how it is that good bands are still able to emerge from the city, he remarks, "Bands don’t really come out of New York. Bands move to New York and start playing."

At this, Mercer puts in his two cents: "Well, they did, but not any more. It’s the assholes that do it. They could go to Austin or Athens and it’d be a hell of a lot healthier than moving to New York. Even New Jersey, they get noticed better there. They’d never get noticed in New York."

The FeeliesIn the meantime, with no new recording project and no gigs in sight, Anton Fier left the band while the remaining Feelies grew restless and started several offshoot bands. One such project was the Willies, solely an instrumental group whose jams sometimes formed the basis for later Feelies material. There was also the Trypes, an expanded line-up (but minus Weckerman) including a vocalist, keyboards and a woodwind player, which played some local shows and released an EP of their own. Additionally, Weckerman formed Yung Wu, which is basically the Feelies in a pop guise, performing songs by Weckerman which are less percussive than the Feelies usually sound but rather more guitar-and-vocal oriented. (Yung Wu should have an album of its own out, in the US and Britain, by the time you read of it here.)

In spite of this ongoing activity, the Feelies proper went through a period of dormancy during the early ‘80s. At some point, the timing was right, and the band began to play live again, mostly in the New York area but occasionally venturing farther afield. Mercer notes that the band had been discovered by new fans during the interim, but the band’s reputation was intact and their old fans remembered them, too. Steve Fallon was a long-time fan who had befriended the band in booking them at Maxwell’s, his semi-legendary Hoboken nitery. Fallon also runs Coyote Records, and suggested that the Feelies do a new record when they were ready. The terms of the deal, loosely structured as it was, suited Mercer. "It’s almost based on a friendship."

The Good Earth, the second LP by the Feelies, was the result of that friendship. Co-produced by Peter Buck and including Brenda Sauter on bass and Stan Demeski on drums, the album displayed a more refined, more subtle and yet very recognizable version of the Feelies. Given the gap of six years between LPs, the return of the band was a welcome one, and one that heralded a new level of visibility for the band. In an ironic return to their roots, albeit on celluloid, the Feelies made a cameo appearance

in Jonathan Demme’s film Something Wild, playing a local rock group performing a Beatles song for a high school reunion.

Demme, who directed the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, caught an early performance of the band at the Whisky A Go-Go and was so taken with the Feelies that he had originally wanted to do a feature-length film on them. The money was never raised, but Demme kept in touch with the band and finally found a use for the extreme ordinariness of their appearance in Something Wild. Discussing the improvised nature of the Feelies’ performance in the film, Dave Weckerman points out that they are only there as another element in a visually complex movie. "There’s this underlying current of thirdworldism, of primitivism, throughout the whole movie. Like, towels in the bathroom would have some voodoo icon drawn on them. You gotta see it like about four or five times to pick out all this weird stuff going on in the background. That’s the kind of director he is; he puts in a lot of little objects and things, that people may not see the first time. We were definitely background, we were not like your average type band, but something strange playing at this high school reunion. We were basically like guys who came out of the factory that day and had to play at this reunion playing ‘Me and My Monkey.’"

The way things work in conjunction with their context is something Weckerman seems to have given some thought to. Before coming out to the west coast, where the Variety Arts Center show was the opening bookend to a week-long tour ending back in downtown L.A. at the inarguably unsnazzy Al’s Bar, Weckerman picked out some tapes for the van. "We were listening to a lot of Doors out here. The Beach Boys sounded good while we were driving along the coastal highway. It’s good to have a sound that blends in with the environment."

Rap music, which evokes urban pavement as surely as the Beach Boys conjure up the sun and the surf, also creates an instant context for Weckerman: "You know, I hear people driving by with rap blasting from their car, and it sounds great for like a moment. It’s all sound, it’s just sound, you can’t really call it songs, but it has its place. It sounds good blasting out of cars in the summer of 1987, but I think it’s a temporary, non-sustaining entity. Then again, people said that about Elvis Presley. If music does get to be like that, it’d be great, it’d be real easy to write songs!"

Noting how difficult it is to reach a wide audience while playing a style of rock as distinct and personal as the Feelies’, Weckerman continues. "We were talking about how 20 years ago, rock’n’roll the sub-culture became the mass culture. Like now there’s just tons of subcultures. That’s why Run D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys are kind of neat, they did bring two subcultures together, sort of stitched them together... and created a new subculture. Everybody’s so fragmented—there’s nothing like the Beatles, or a president or a politician that people can gravitate towards. Heavy metal, a lot of people are into that, there’s rap, college radio is into R.E.M. and bands like that, but there’s no big mass thing that everybody can focus on.

"Like the Sex Pistols said, rock is basically dead. A form of rock music, like rockabilly, will never die, there will always be rockabilly bands. We’re basically pumping out stuff that’s like the Velvets, the Stooges, that stuff is eternal too. As far as anything new and totally awe-inspiring, I think everybody’s heard everything up to this point. Things have gotten really atonal, gotten back to being real normal... I think we’ve run the gamut, exhausted the spectrum of sound, unless mutants are born with some new kind of hearing, and they'll create their own music. But that’s for the next generation. There'll definitely have to be some sort of physical mutation for new music to come about."

Until then, Weckerman will be happy with the wide variety of music already available. After wrapping up their trip with an impromptu gig in the storefront space of Santa Monica’s Texas Records, he and Mercer mention some of their influences and favorites (Jefferson Airplane, the Who, Santana and "Bo Diddley—he used maracas a lot," says maracas player Dave), tossing in a plug for their friends Yo La Tengo. "Some days I listen to real grandiose classical music," Weckerman says pensively, "then I get sick of that. Some days I just drink beer and listen to Humble Pie."


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