Tuesday, January 5, 2010

I Walked With A Zombie (Harrisburg Reduxe /Roky Erickson)

Is THIS a Susquenhanna hat?! -again

Rob & John at the bar, Bricco

The Fleshtones' New Year's Eve was rescued by John Traynor, who egged on and abetted by friends Rob Woodworth and Stacey Jo Withers, arranged a last minute booking at The Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center (http://harrisburgarts.com). John was there to welcome us back as we 'loaded in', looking quite natural in his colorful Gucci flower-print wet -suit top. In this weather quite practical actually. Once again Mike from Parallax Project was kind enough to lend us a 'back line' and after a mercifully efficient sound-check thanks to soundman Dave (in which we brushed off a couple of our Christmas songs and even learned a new one -'I Like Nog' for the occasion) we all met up with Rob and Stacey Jo at Bricco, their personal favorite of Harrisburg's restaurants.

Chef Jason and crew man the kitchen, Bricco, Harrisburg, PA

A lot larger than Harrisburg's previously visited 'Mangia Qui', Bricco (www.briccopa.com) features several softly-lit rambling dining areas done up in somewhat early sixties high-design of dark, rich earthy tones, centering on a shiny open kitchen. 'Inspired, cuisine' is their catch phrase, with the inspiration being largely supplied by Italy, as well as regional produce, especially Pennsylvania beers, spirits and wines. Gently lethal martinis mixed with local vodkas are a speciality. After oysters we moved on to 'primi plati' like pumpkin ravioli and garlicky jumbo grilled shrimp, then main dishes of osso bucco, braised short rib, aged strip steak (my unimaginative but superb choice -I figure I can always eat off everyone else's plate) and arctic char -now quite available but a delicacy I only could read about in 'Field & Stream' as a child. Executive chef Jason Viscount swung by the table to wish all a happy New Year as the evening of not only great food but conversation raced by. As table talk veered off into discussions of Jamaica and Joe Besser it was time to head over to The Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center for the show. At the door they were doling out pork and cabbage, a 'local New Year's Eve treat' for the party-goers, who naturally enough were fewer than when we played just two weeks previously. "I didn't do any advertising!" John calmly stated. How could he? We had only booked the show three days before. For their efforts, I hope everyone had a great time. We certainly must have enjoyed ourselves -we played for over two hours.

Susquehanna River, New Year's Morning, 2010

From the Sublime to the Inedible...
I didn't have time to remember to chant 'rabbit, rabbit, rabbit', as we made an early exit from Harrisburg on New Year's morning. Making great time on the deserted roads, we stopped for a bite outside of Allentown. Naturally everyplace with any decency was closed, so not quite desperate enough for convenience mart hot-dogs or cello-wrapped industrial pastry, we pulled into a 'Wendy's'. I ordered the $1.29 'Jr. Bacon Cheese Burger' from the bargain menu. Bacon -cheese -burger -that all seemed harmless enough. When unwrapped, I realized the tiny burger had been pre-slathered not only with mayonnaise but mustard as well, reminding me how little i really needed to eat this thing after all. When I got home to Greenpoint I tossed it into the garbage.

An Evening With The Evil One

Roky Erickson, Southpaw New Year's Day 2010

Later that afternoon, The Fleshtones arrived at Southpaw to find Roky Erickson's backing band in the middle of soundcheck. One thing I've learned from years of sometimes disappointing fan-dom (and especially as MC of most of the 'Cavestomp' shows) is that bringing back the artists that cut the records that we've built our lives around can be a tricky thing. If the artists themselves have any idea of what long-time fans found so inspired about their music in the first place, it's totally lost by recruiting back-up bands of irredeemably clueless musicians. Roky's band knew exactly why they were there. They rehearsed versions of Erickson's marvelously inexplicable 'Two-Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer) and little Richard's 'Oooh My Soul' -a song Roky had unexpectedly launched into at the Janis Joplin Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction concert a few weeks before. "I'm in charge of the set list (which varies nightly), so we'll be playing lots of 70's devil music tonight" bassist Matt Harris gleefully explained before heading off to a Williamsburg apartment for New Year's Dinner with the band. It was shaping up to be a very promising night. We walked the few blocks to Norton Records (www.nortonrec.com) World Headquarters and home of Billy Miller and Miriam Linna -New York's royal couple of Rock & Roll. Always a stalwart of true rock and roll culture, it was Mirian who had first played me the 'Two-Headed Dog' 45 when she was still drumming for The Cramps back in the 70's. At the party I contributed of some of my 'cho cho pie' to the vast 'pot-luck' spread. I ate little, having an early set time with The Fleshtones. I couldn't, however, keep away from Miriam's nut-crusted chicken with cherry sauce dip -no doubt a product of her Finnish culinary heritage, or perhaps her early days in Sudbury, Ont (see: Big Nickle). Lucky Billy. Then it was back down the hill to the already-packed Southpaw.
Accompanied by his wife Dena, Roky Erickson was already in the dressing room. The return of 'The Evil One' has been a family affair. After many difficult years younger brother Sumner Erickson did a lot to help Roky get back on his feet and performing again. Along with the reassuring presence of Dena, road manager/son Jegar deals with a lot of the pressures of touring. New York fans had waited until 2007 for their first Roky Erickson show, so his return to Southpaw was highly
anticipated. In fact, he 'sold out' The Southpaw on New Year's Day, the deadest of dead nights for clubs. The influence of Roky's music can hardly be overstated. Releasing 'The Psychedelic Sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators' in 1966, he was a pioneer of the genre, and not the drippy San Francisco variety, but it's hard driving Texas progenitor. The life of a pioneer is tough enough, but being a visionary can exact a heavy toll, leading to electro-shock therapy in Texas's none-to-solicitous State Hospitals as it did for Roky in the late 60's/early seventies. He emerged as the self-proclaimed 'Evil One', pursued by, and occasionally being, an Alien (not the Mexican kind) and recording excellent material. His difficulties however, continued. Please forgive me if you already know all this.
The Rub kicked off the evening's proceedings in rocking form. Unlike many transplants from the Far East, they're not a one-joke operation (you know, cute Japanese girls who can't really speak English or play, on stage trying to sing in English and play). We look forward to playing with The Rub again. Then The Fleshtones delivered an appropriately abbreviated (but high-entertainment value) set. Was any more needed?
Meanwhile, Jegar was everywhere, helping out while Roky and Dena bided time in the crowded, shared dressing room. "My Dad's first choice was to name me 'Alien' then 'R2D2' because 'Star Wars' had come out, but luckily I just got my 'everyday name' Jegar explained, shedding a little light on his childhood years. In the claustrophobic dressing room The Evil One seemed quiet and composed -perhaps a bit fragile. Did I say that his band were great guys? Matt even brought back some tasty New Year's hoppin' john from his dinner for me to enjoy after the show. Matt also generously suggested that I join the band on stage to play harmonica on 'You're Gonna Miss Me'. Jegar readily agreed and put the idea to his Dad. I could see concern spreading across Roky's face. "I don't know" he replied "I'd have to rehearse the songs and re-learn how to play the harmonica..." Jegar explained that it would actually be me playing the harp and not him. The last thing I wanted to be was the source of stress for Erickson, but the matter was worked out. It was time for Roky's set.

Ian Moore & Roky, Southpaw New Year's Day 2010

He opened with a solid rendition of 'Cold Night' and quickly finding his groove moved on to 'Creature'. Soon he genuinely seemed to be enjoying himself on stage. The notoriously cool New York audience was singing along well before he launched into his strangely moving anthem 'I Walked With A Zombie' (which seems to go beyond being merely inspired by the title of the Val Luton film). The set flowed along, all memorable stuff until he delivered a version of 'Starry Eyes', touching a vein that runs through his music that, more than his personas as Alien or Evil One, reveals a heart akin to that of fellow Texan Buddy Holly. I got to do my bit of harmonica playing and backing vocals during' You're Gonna Miss Me' (thanks again). 'Two -Headed Dog' followed, then 'Don't Slander Me' and it was over. There were no encores or bows. The audience was happy to have been there, with many ready to see Roky again the next night in Hoboken. It has been a long, sometimes painful journey, but he who was once The Evil One walks among us once more.

-Peter Zaremba

photos: P. Zaremba 2010