Rockafellas and Me, Part 3: The Locals
Rockafellas played host to many national acts, but its most important function in the Columbia music scene was as the home base for a host of local musicians. The club was a magnet for them, and on nights they weren’t playing somewhere else you could count on seeing at least a dozen or more members of other bands in the crowd, especially if it was another local act on stage. Here’s a few random remembrances about several local bands that played Rockafellas frequently.
One of my earliest memories of seeing Danielle Howle was with the Blue Laws at Rockafellas. An acoustic group that played a recurring Sunday night gig there for a while, I only saw them once or twice. “Sitting On A Big Front Porch,” still one of my favorite songs of hers, dates back to repertoire of this band (and even earlier than that, really, as she’s referred to it as the first song she ever wrote), and her first recorded output is a version of it that appears on a 1987 compilation of local bands, Another Pesky Compilation Album. That particular take is just her singing and David Conway of the Blue Laws on guitar, recorded in his living room, but it’s still a powerful listen even now.
If you ever find a copy of this album, by the way, you might notice that my name is in the “thank you” section on the back cover. I’ll admit here, for the record, that it wasn’t from anything special that I did for the three WUSC DJs that put the comp together—it was because they held a fundraiser show at Rockafellas to pay for the pressing of the albums, and they took cash donations at the door, in addition to the cover charge that night, for “benefactors” of the project. The four or five names that are listed there are all people who gave five dollars or more to the cause that night, including me.
After Danielle hooked up with Phil and Dan Cook in Lay Quiet Awhile, they played Rockafellas numerous times. The most memorable may have been the 1994 album release show for their Delicate Wire CD on Daemon Records, where they were selling vinyl copies with individually hand-painted covers, and hand stenciled T-shirts (I still have my shirt, but no album). For some reason, the most vivid scene I can recall from a LQA show is the band ripping into, “Trees,” the one song of theirs written by guitarist Phil Cook. For a while, he and Danielle were an item, and watching them sing this one together—Phil took a big chunk of the vocals, an unusual thing for them—was sweet and inspiring at the same time.
The scariest local band I can remember playing Rockafellas was the Grease Guns, especially in the days when the Rev. Billy Ray Snakehandler was still introducing the shows. Ray Jicha, as the right reverend, was not a band member but an imposing, over-the-top emcee. He did his gothic preacher bit at the beginning of the band’s set, then they lit into their Stooges/Chuck Berry garage punk like they were late for a fix and needed to play to keep from getting the shakes from withdrawal. The two legacies of the Greaseguns came from Jicha, who went on to form the equally raunchy Glam Dogs, then the New Jack Rubies, and from Gregory Dean Smalley, the Greaseguns guitarist who moved to Atlanta and started the Redneck Underground. Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers wrote the classic, “Living Bubba,” about Smalley’s contracting AIDS from a combination of unclean drug use and unprotected sex, but still playing over a hundred shows the year before he passed away, fighting until the end. It’s a great song—look it up. Very few of the stories about Smalley even mention his Columbia roots, however, or the Greaseguns.
As for Jicha’s later bands, the Glam Dogs were especially entertaining. One night they were playing and a guy in the front who had obviously wandered in unaware of what he was getting into started making loud cracks about Jicha, who was wearing his usual makeup–eyeliner, lipstick, etc.–on stage. After one too many “Hey, are you a fag?” catcalls, Jicha came off the stage and hit the guy in the head with the microphone, before dropping the mike and going after him for real. I think the band actually got banned from the club for a while for that incident, too.
Bachelors Of Art were another band that practically lived at Rockafellas, and played so many shows they all kind of run together for me. The band was at its best around 88-89, before they started becoming too heavy and lost some of the gothic-dance vibe that made them so cool in the first place. Tom Alewine was the first guitarist I remember seeing in person using a delay pedal, like the Edge from U2, and his foot rarely left that pedal for the majority of BOA’s songs. Somebody once commented to me that Tom didn’t play a guitar, he played an effects pedal that just happened to be hooked up to a guitar.
The Vectors are one of those local bands kind of lost in the shuffle for most people. They played Rockafellas numerous times, but I don’t remember them ever having an official album out despite some pretty cool original tunes. They played a bunch of cover tunes between their own songs, with a heavy emphasis on classic rock from the Stones, the Dead, and others. The first time I heard a band cover, “Dead Flowers,” it was the Vectors.
Isabelle’s Gift were just getting started the fall I finished up at USC, but I remember seeing one of their first few shows, with Chris Sutton dressed up in a nun’s habit singing this freaky, swaggering hard rock. By the time I moved back to town in 1993, the band was a monster live act, a level they have somehow managed to maintain to this day.
More To Come…