Choice logoTHE FLESHTONES: Leaving The Garage Door Open

By David Zeiler (Published December 1985)

The voice on the other end of the phone could only belong to a man who had recently had a near death experience.

"Hello?" Peter Zaremba groans into the ear. Zaremba, vocalist and one of the main songwriters for that ultimate garage band, the Fleshtones, is supposed to be expecting me for a 3 p.m. interview at the Harrington Hotel in Washington, D.C.

"Where is everybody?" I ask.

"They're not here. I think they're out getting supplies," says Zaremba.

It's already 3:45 p.m., and I'm standing in the Harrington's somewhat seedy lobby, trying to convince Zaremba to go through with the interview.

"Oh, please no," he moans. "Please. I'm asleep. I just went to bed an hour ago. Please I'm begging you. Let's do this later, OK?"

Further pleading (on my part) goes nowhere, and I finally agree to do the interview before the show - at 9:30 p.m. in the nearby 9:30 Club.

That means I have only five-and-a-half-hours to kill.

Luckily, I have an old friend with me just in case of such an emergency. Five hours later, after a walk to Georgetown and back, we arrive at the 9:30 Club to discover only one member of the Fleshtones, saxophonist Gordon Spaeth, has arrived so far.

Spaeth is still sick from the previous evening's partying, and doesn't look much in the mood for talking, I ask him where the rest of the Fleshtones - guitarist Keith Streng, bassist Jan Marek Pakulski, drummer Bill Milhizer and the by-now rejuvenated Zaremba are.

"Who knows?" he replies. "We're five individual psychotics who go in five different directions."

Fleshtones

It looks like I'll just have to wait for Zaremba. Finally, at about 9:45 p.m., Zaremba arrives backstage with Milhizer. There's going to be an interview after all.

They apologize for not being available in the afternoon, and again for being late.

Without provocation, the pair launch into their perceptions of Baltimore.

"Why don't we play Baltimore more often?" Milhizer ask. "Because there's no place to play in Baltimore," he answers himself.

What about Girard's?

"I hate Girard's," Zaremba says, "See that scar there, that small scar?", he says, shoving his former arm wound in my face.

"That's from Girard's."

Inexplicably, Zaremba then begins trying to tell a dirty joke. He can't remember enough of it to make sense.

Milhizer wants to return to the subject of Baltimore.

"We regret the demise of the Marble Bar," he says. "We liked playing there a lot. We regret that we can't do what we used to do all the time - come to Baltimore and then go down and play DC the next night, or vice versa."

Milhizer also recalls a fondness for oysters and crab cakes at Baltimore's Lexington Market, a sentiment echoed by Zaremba and Spaeth, who is now reclining on a sofa with his feet on the wall. He must not be feeling better, though, because he's still grimacing.

Milhizer says the Congress Hotel is going to be made into apartments, which upsets us both. "It was the first worst thing - rental apartments," Milhizer says with disdain.

"What should have been the motto of the Congress Hotel has become the motto of every Fleshtones show," Zaremba interjects, " 'Through these doors walk the friendliest people in the world - our customers.' "

Before I confuse you any further, let me bring up to date on what the Fleshtones have been doing lately. Following I.R.S. Records' profound lack of support for the albums Hall Of Fame and American Beat '85, the 'Tones were asked to go to Paris to record an "instant" live album by a French I.R.S. representative named Henri Padovani.

"At a time when , after five years, I.R.S. still didn't know who the Fleshtones were, one man knew who the Fleshtones were. Henri Padovani wanted us to come over, record a live album, and have it out two or three days later, so that's what we did," Milhizer remembers. "We were still playing the same club (The Gibus Club) when the album came out."

That album, Speed Connection, was originally done for the Fleshtones' French fans. However the band liked the results and decided to record another night for another album, which became the recently released Speed Connection II. While this most recent Fleshtones album was released on I.R.S., the band says they are finished with the label.

"We're without a label right now," Zaremba says, somewhat dejectedly. "We have enough material to make another studio album now, so as soon as we get a label we'll have another album out."

The Fleshtones are one of those bands whose career has endured a curious slide downhill despite consistently turning out good material. When Roman Gods was released in early 1982, the 'Tones seemed on the verge of becoming an important, well-recognized American band along the lines of R.E.M. Having played their full-throttle interpretation of "garage rock" since 1978 to increasing critical (and popular) acclaim, the timing seemed right for a breakthrough.

The release of Hexbreaker! in 1983, instead of delivering the Fleshtones to the top of the pops, instead derailed their plans. Not a bad album by any means, Hexbreaker! somewhat strayed somewhat from the territory the 'Tones had staked out for themselves, and some of their fans didn't like it.

"Hexbreaker! scared off a lot of people," Zaremba admits. "We wanted to make a very intense record, and we did, but the idea of a breakthrough record was a bit too intense."

The "breakthrough" to which Zaremba refers is called "super-rock", which I'll return to in a moment.

Zaremba lamented the absence of a dance mix for Hexbreaker!'s title track, something that helped make Roman Gods the moderate success it was.

"It was a shame because we had a reputation, not just for garage rock, but oddly enough we were doing well in club play and discos," Milhizer adds. "It may seem odd, but we always wanted to have a dance band."

The Fleshtones' subsequent releases received virtually no promotion from I.R.S. "They were released, but I would also say corralled," Milhizer says with a vague sense of bitterness.

"It's like if you released a few wild pigeons, how far would they fly?" says Zaremba.

Apparently the Fleshtones' concept of "super-rock" proved their undoing. They tried so hard to create a new sound that they succeeded in alienating both their fans and their record company. But what is super rock?

"Super rock is merely all of the great elements that make rock'n'roll the great and vital thing that excites people," Zaremba explains. "All those things together and rolled into one without saying, 'This is disco and this is garage rock' or anything - putting it together and rolling it up, as they say, into one big greasy ball. That's super rock."

Zaremba pauses thoughtfully, "although I have to say," he continues, "that lately I think we've transcended super rock."

Now how could you do that?

It gets tricky here, folks, so brace yourselves. "We spoke briefly of the concept of taking super rock into a galvanization process where it becomes bonded so completely ...there will be a bonding of super rock plus new elements that we've all gotten into in the past year," Milhizer explains, not without difficulty.

"And it would be emotional elements. Something you won't find in any Jerry Dammers record," Zaremba tacks on impulsively.

Milhizer laughs at Zaremba's attack on Dammers, who used to play with the two-tone British group the Specials. It turns out Zaremba is miffed at Dammers because he thinks he's "decided American garage rock is the latest thing." Zaremba accuses Dammers of covering ? and the Mysterians' "Can't Get Enough of You Baby" with the group the Colour Field.

What Zaremba does not realize is that Dammers is not a member of the Colour Field, Terry Hall, the Specials' vocalist, is a member of the Colour Field, which does cover "Can't Get Enough of You Baby" on their debut album. Until Zaremba learns this, Jerry Dammers' life is in serious danger.

Anyway, the Fleshtones are mad about other people taking up the garage rock banner just because it seems like a neat thing to do, and then succeed at it.

"Of course it's frustrating to see other people do better with it than we have, but we never set out, when we started our band, to please everybody," says Zaremba.

Zaremba all but admits the band's penchant for experimentalism booby-trapped their records. "We would be saying, 'Oh, wouldn't this be weird? Wouldn't this just blow people's minds? So we do that and then we have to realize what we're doing, and that if we do it, we can't expect to be everybody's darling," Zaremba says.

"We're not eclectic," says Milhizer, groping for an explanation of the group's failure to catch on. "We're not versatile. We're very narrow-minded about our rock'n'roll. Somehow that narrow needle hasn't found radio airplay - commercial radio airplay."

"Consider what's on the radio now," Milhizer continues. "You have Laura Branigan, and then you have Starship doing 'This City Was Built on Rock'n'Roll.' When you have that kind of junk, which is so popular, how can we compete against that kind of garbage? So we don't try to compete against garbage. We try to be above garbage."

On the other side, Milhizer also worries about "that pedantic approach to rock'n'roll that a lot of bands have now. And now there's a show on educational TV called Rockschool. Have you seen that?"

I haven't.

"I just saw it this afternoon," Milhizer says. "It's unbelievable. They teach you how to tune your guitar and it's totally boring. A waste of time. The whole idea of sending somebody to rock school!"

Milhizer is visibly disturbed.

"I was watching this thing for 15 minutes, and I was getting upset, and then I turned the channel, and one channel away was Soul Train," Milhizer laughs. "There's the education, right there - just turning over to Soul Train."

And that's where the Fleshtones draw their inspiration. Not from soul music mind you, but from institutions like Soul Train and what it represents to American music. As Zaremba says, "We gleefully bastardize the music."

The Fleshtones look past labels to the guts of all music, at least all forms of popular music. In their quest for whatever lies beyond super rock, the Fleshtones are in essence searching for the soul of rock music - if such a thing exists.

But they're such humble lads. "We're just five slightly irregular guys who have a love of rock'n'roll and a duty in life to play what they think is the best, fun sort of music," Zaremba declares as our interview/ordeal draws to a close.

"You never know what's going to happen when you come to see us," Zaremba concludes as he rises from his chair. "So enjoy yourselves. That's my message. You guys wanna beer or something?"