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It's time for early-Eighties nostalgia, thanks to a record store's anniversary celebration of Miami's rip-roaring rock
originally published in Miami New Times, October 20, 1993
At the tunnel-light end of the Seventies, Ted Gottfried was working as a water-meter reader for Dade County. Leslie Wimmer was employed at a bookstore near her home in Deerfield Beach. Along with a close friendship, Gottfried and Wimmer shared a passionate curiosity about the revolution in rock. Disco was doing its death dance, weird noises had been heard out of London, New York, even Cleveland. Sex Pistols. Ramones. Dead Boys. Wimmer and Gottfried were listening, and they wanted to hear more.
The two scoured local record stores such as the Magic Minstrel, Twin Sounds, and Happy Note for imported punk releases and underground American slabs. They heard about a catalogue put out by JEM Records. "I called for it," Wimmer remembers, "but they said they didn't deal with individuals, only companies. So Ted calls them right back and says he's with the 'Miami Record Co-Op.'"
Once the catalogue arrived, Gottfried began collecting money from friends and placing orders. "UPS would pull right up to Ted's door," Wimmer says. "Then we figured it wouldn't be that much harder to get a building, set up racks, get some stock. This is how businesses start: stupidity." Out of such naive faith emerged one hub of a vibrant local-music scene, one that would change all their lives.
Stocking the proposed store would be easy, Gottfried figured. Over the years both he and Wimmer had acquired extensive record libraries. "Ted was ready to put his entire collection on the market," Wimmer says. "At first I was too, but as I went through it, I balked at giving up my Joni Mitchell and Traffic albums." In October of 1979 Open Books and Records set up shop in Deerfield Beach A plenty of fine selections, even if they were a bit short on Joni Mitchell releases. The operation moved to new locations a couple of times, settled in North Miami nine years ago, and commemorates its fourteenth year this week with a celebration of those glory days and, especially, The Land That Time Forgot - an album that embodies a musical epoch. As many of the leading pioneers as could be found have been invited to reunite this weekend at Open's anniversary. The group F, whose "I Saw Your Vision" is one of the hardest cuts on The Land That Time Forgot, will be there, as will rockabilly-star-turned-computer operator Larry Joe Miller ("Young and Wild" is on the album). The Essentials can't make it, but they have, with help from Bill Ashton, sent a video.
Before Open opened in the Seventies, Gottfried had worked at Potpourri on Bird Road in southwest Dade to learn more about music retailing. Soon he met Bill Ashton, who had just taken a job at the Miami Herald, where his duties included writing about pop music. (Ashton was also the first customer of Open's predecessor, the Miami Record Co-Op.) It was always fun to see Gottfried strolling through the newsroom toward Ashton's desk dressed head to toe in all black, fedora and shades included.
What those outside the loop didn't know: One of the all-time great original-rock scenes was beginning to take shape. Like your favorite song, it didn't last long enough (in this case, maybe six or seven years). And like a sunburst or shooting star, it was something to behold.
"And no one remembers," Wimmer says now. "People have short memories. And with change, people moved on, new people came in. They weren't there for it, so how could they possibly remember? There's no history book you can turn to."
That history comes alive this weekend, a reminder of what the city's rock community once had. Plenty of enormously talented and defiantly original bands. Clubs galore willing to stage them. Record labels. A radio program. Press. Retail outlets catering to the cool. All of it wide open to local music. A scene that was a scene. A legacy. In the land that time forgot.
A heavy equipment operator by day, Pickett, a guitarist and singer, was something else by night. Eventually one local critic, Jon Marlowe of the Miami News, would anoint Pickett's the "best bar band in America." Rightfully.
Wimmer, Gottfried, and Ashton were among the relatively few locals who appreciated and understood -- but most of all enjoyed -- what Pickett was up to in the early days, before the accolades and the albums. Pickett was about shaking some action in a place culturally deadened by the superficiality and self-absorption (not to mention self-abuse) of the Seventies. Ted Gottfried and Leslie Wimmer knew just what to do -- create a record label. All that was required was putting out a record. They launched the label with a single by Charlie Pickett in 1981: "Feelin'" and "White Light White Heat." The sleeve featured a picture of Pickett -- wearing a black tuxedo with bow tie.
At the time of Pickett's first release, his band included musicians who would later play critical roles in other local bands, such as the Cichlids and the Eat. A second single was issued, "If This Is Love, Can I Get My Money Back?" and "Slow Death." Both records sold out their 1500-unit pressings.
Later Pickett formed the Eggs, a remarkable outfit that maybe had too much talent for its own good. After personality clashes splintered the Eggs, Pickett, working with others, gained a little of the national critical attention he long deserved.
The Eat -- with Eddie's brother Michael on guitar, Glenn Newland and later Ken Lindahl on bass, and Chris Cottie on drums -- were at once emotionally powerful and hilariously funny. Cottie, holding his sticks backward and pounding with the fat ends, was as big as his drum kit. But nothing was as big as his backbeat. Somehow the O'Briens and company were consistently able to match him measure for measure.
"When you saw them live," Wimmer says, "you knew you were seeing a group as good as anything in the world. I remember when Eddie would dress as a priest. He had short, thick hair, and an even thicker New York accent. He'd do these running commentaries between songs about sports and the Mets and it was so funny. I was on the floor in hysterics sometimes." The Eat's 1980 five-song EP and a later cassette release, Scattered Wahoo Action -- a title meaningful only to serious fishermen -- ultimately would be prized by collectors; there's constant talk of new compilations of their vast repertoire.
The bands in South Florida were equal opportunity rebels, years before "foxcore" and "riot grrrls" became fashionable terms. Smegma, for instance, featured two women who borrowed an Eat member -- whoever was available -- to play drums. Some female fans, such as Leslie Wimmer, were a bit put off once they learned the definition of the band's name. Nonetheless, she and Gottfried would clear the floor of their record store so Smegma, the Eat, and a number of other local bands could play live there. At that time the groups were full of hope and a cocky idealism, as if nothing could prevent them from becoming underground heroes.
One of those aspirants was a group called the Cichlids, featuring vocalist Debbie Mascaro. Under the aggressive management of Robert Mascaro (no relation to Debbie), the band in 1980 released an album, Be True to Your School, on Henry Stone's legendary "TK" imprint, where KC and the Sunshine Band had found fame a few years before. With their glamorous clothing, elegant looks, and funny-smart songs, the Cichlids were new wave progenitors and the closest thing to rock stars on the scene. After releasing records and drawing a sizable local following, the members went their separate ways.
Galway -- an extraordinary drummer -- hooked up with guitarist-singer Walter Czachowski to form the backbone of the Essentials. After Galway left to join other bands, Czachowski enlisted a replacement drummer and turned the Essentials into a punk power trio (with Steve Sincere on bass and Pete Moss on drums) that shot to the fore of the local scene. Through their records, and especially their live shows, the Essentials became so popular they felt it was time to move to L.A., which they did. They seemed to have everything it took to become punk stars.
In the beginning, the opportunities still seemed unlimited. Just after Wimmer and Gottfried moved Open Books and Records to Fort Lauderdale, they decided to move up to making albums. On two nights in January 1982 they recorded Charlie Pickett and the Eggs Live at the Button on Fort Lauderdale Beach. Hal Spector was the stage manager of those two hot shows, and knows first-hand that the Miami rock life isn't an easy one. He says, "I was like roadie/stage manager/therapist/nursemaid. That came in handy the time Charlie was supposed to play a show just after he went to the dentist's. He had to cancel because he was spitting too much blood. I think the stitches came loose or something."
About the time the Pickett album was cut, Open compiled an album featuring fifteen bands from Florida, including the Eat, the Bobs, the Essentials, Spanish Dogs, the Front, Larry Joe Miller, and Charlie Pickett and the Eggs. The result was a remarkable piece of vinyl that stands up to this day. It didn't sell diddley. "To be honest," Wimmer says with a smile, "that's another reason to have this anniversary party. I have boxes of this thing for sale. We thought back then that it would go national, but it never did."
The Land That Time Forgot is a history primer as much as it is a classic record. For the cover, Czachowski drew the state of Florida in orange on a blue background. The drawing highlights points of interest - a space shuttle blasts out of Cape Canaveral, smoke plumes rise out of Liberty City, a small plane drops bales into the ocean west of Naples. Fort Lauderdale is annotated as "Where the Boys Are," Key West as "Where More Boys Are."
Bill Ashton's liner notes, with a couple of minor changes, could be used for any of the South Florida compilation CDs being issued in 1993. He criticized radio's resistance to homegrown product and complained that Led Zeppelin was getting too much airplay. Praising the featured bands on the album for their vision and originality, he concluded: "In a couple of years, everybody will know how cool these songs are."
He was right. The songs are still absorbing, and they serve as the best reminder of just how rich and varied the musical ferment really was. On a recent morning, while opening boxes of the newly arrived Nirvana album at Open, Wimmer searched her memory and rattled off a list of the 30 or so clubs that dotted the land that time (but not Wimmer and her friends) forgot, including: Flynn's, Big Daddy's in Hollywood, Blue Waters (where a Reactions show once was halted because someone in the audience whipped out a gun), Premier AOR, PB's, the Beat Club (where Nuclear Valdez started), 27 Birds, and the Banal. Local shows were also staged at the Fireman's Hall and a few other spots. Out of all that activity there emerged a few stars who later won national fame and big-label record contracts, including Raul Malo, who is now with the Mavericks, future movie star Johnny Depp (the Kids was his group), and Bob Rupe, who became part of two major bands, the Silos and Gutterball.
The bands, clearly, had their champions. On several fronts, from radio shows to press coverage to club promotion, there were scenesters eager to spread the word about the exciting new music that aimed to turn upside down the safe world of Florida rock.
"It wasn't an alternative scene," Wimmer says. "It was an underground scene." The Essentials captured the Zeitgeist with a song called "Turn Off Your Radio," sometimes introducing it with a plug for a radio show the Essentials wanted everyone to hear: Eric Moss's Radio Free Living Room. Moss acquired a Monday late-night time slot on the nonprofit WLRN-FM and went on the air on August 5, 1980. "It was just a way to get what I thought was important music out to the public," Moss says now. "There was a renaissance of rock at that time, and very little of it was getting on the airwaves. I did it with a notion to publicize the local bands that weren't getting airplay, as well as English and California and New York bands that were part of a scene that was just breaking through."
The comrades-in-arms of this early Miami rock scene were an often odd set of zealots. Wimmer recalls the time a friend invited her to meet fanzine publisher Dave Parsons and his wife, Sam. (Sam later turned up as the bass player for Smegma.) Wimmer feared that he might turn out to be an Amway salesman -- and she was right. At his apartment, though, she recalls, "I was looking through his records -- Blondie, Television, Ramones, Pistols, Buzzcocks...he had all the stuff." Parsons started and published a fanzine called "Mouth of the Rat" ( the English translation for his town, Boca Raton) devoted to the blossoming local scene. "He handwrote the whole thing," Wimmer recalls with a touch of reverence. "Like with any beginning, the policy was just do it."
One of the top draws in the early Eighties at the Birds was, of course, Charlie Pickett, who, after having worked with a couple of different lineups, formed the Eggs. On stage, stomping his boots, he happily stole licks from the Velvet Underground (whose work he would later cover on-stage with R.E.M., who often invited him to sit in for encores) and whole songs from Flamin Groovies and others. His voice cracked when he sang. His guitarist, Johnny Salton, was a hunchbacked junkie and his bass player was also a junkie, but with better posture. Together they rocked so hard it made your bones hurt. After Live at the Button, Open released a five-song Eggs EP in 1984 called Cowboy Junkie Au Go Go, which included the heroin anthem "Overtown" (written, of course, by the two addicts).
Through the haze one thing shone through: Salton's brilliance. Hendrix, Beck, Clapton, Salton. That's what shoulda been. Salton went on to release solo albums that achieved critical success in Europe and continues to perform annually with Pickett - and is developing more of his own projects.
Noted music critic Ira Robbins, writing in his book The Trouser Press Record Guide, described the Eggs as "the new wave bar band," called the group's sound "fiery stuff," and compared Pickett's singing to Neil Young's. "It's hard to believe," Robbins wrote, "this band isn't as big a global legend as it deserves to be." That, too, is what shoulda been, and you can't say Pickett didn't give it a shot. In 1986 he went to Minneapolis to record the Route 33 LP for Twin/Tone, the label where nationally celebrated bands such as the Replacements and Soul Asylum got their start. Pickett -- working at that time with guest musicians such as Gun Club's Jim Duckworth and Velvet Underground's drummer, Maureen Tucker -- didn't fare so well. His next album, The Wilderness, was released on the Safety Net/Fundamental label. Unfortunately, Pickett's music was too smart, tough, and honest for mass consumption. Only smart people got it, and there aren't very many of them in the world.
Herald critic and unofficial Essentials manager Bill Ashton had started Safety Net with a tax refund. He did so for one reason: he liked the Essentials and felt they should have a record out. So he did it himself. Ultimately, these labels helped win some respect and attention for their bands, including write-ups in Billboard, a video on MTV, airplay on college radio, even some small-scale national tours.
Safety Net, like so many entities of the early Eighties scene, was a co-op project that put music first and money fourth or fifth. In fact, back then, there was little of the enmity and competition so common in today's rock scenes, including Miami's. Wimmer and Ashton each had record labels, yet the two often worked together. If Open didn't have the resources to put out a record everyone knew deserved release, Safety Net would. And vice versa. For instance, when Open couldn't release an EP by the Bobs, Safety Net simply slapped on its own label. (The Bobs, with their evocatively clever lyrics and funky arrangements, were a far cry from the better-known soft-rock a cappella group with the same name). Later the Bobs's Bob Rupe would produce a number of local records and get signed by national labels as a member of two cutting-edge bands.
Even the retail side saw a friendly tolerance bordering on altruism. Rich Ulloa, who had managed a promising group called the Coins, opened his first Yesterday and Today Records store in June of 1981. These stores, along with Open Books and Records, were critical to the local scene's growth. Separated by geography, the stores shared (and still share) similar inventories and business approaches. And yet Ulloa and Wimmer, who are friends, have nothing but good things to say about one another. Studios, too, were shaped by a similar sense of teamwork: Frank Falestra's co-op studio, Sync, currently located on Lincoln Road Mall, became one of the leading studios that recorded South Florida's early Eighties bands -- a place where the bands traded everything from equipment to licks.
Falestra, in fact, used his friendship with Hal Spector, the owner of a home studio, to expand his recording activity and launch a club. They had first met at a gig where they both laughed at the sight of exploding stage equipment. By late 1985, the two had found a location across from Barry University and opened their own club, Banal. They had no liquor license, so could only offer a portion of the meager door take to the groups. The bands came anyway. "Most of them just played and didn't even ask for the money," Spector says.
The BYOB club thrived for about ten seconds. "The apartment complex right in front of the place was where the Barry University nuns lived," Spector recalls. But he didn't realize the connection until one of the women at the complex, dressed in civilian clothes, visited the club. "A few minutes later all these cop cars pulled up. 'Lock the door and close it down.'" So, after barely two months of unpermitted fun, Banal was forced to move to another spot, in North Miami. After some time and many a rewarding live show, Falestra and Spector gave up the project. "Frank and I were afraid we were going to get arrested. I mean, we never carded anyone. Eventually they would have come and got us."
Before Banal shut down, about halfway into the Eighties, the South Florida rock scene had hit full stride. The Bobs were recording and mesmerizing live audiences on a regular basis, releasing two twelve-inch EPs marked by startling originality and striking hooks. The Front, one of the Land That Time Forgot bands, had several songs ("Sewer Babies," "Aluminum Room," and "Immigration Report") on the air at the University of Miami's WVUM-FM, all of which sounded as if they should be national hits -- Billboard even said so. A band called the Z-Toyz discovered that a video they shot here was being aired on MTV. The Spanish Dogs were cranking out product that explored a variety of genres without losing the rock edge. Pickett headlined a national tour.
And all these bands, and plenty more, could be seen on any given night playing live at local clubs, from the Banal to 27 Birds to Flynn's in Miami Beach. "There were a lot of venues," Wimmer notes, "but it was the gigs themselves that were the centering experience."
And then the gigs began to dry up by 1986. Clubs closed, became T-shirt shops and restaurants. The bands began to disintegrate. Ted Gottfried moved to New York City to open See Hear, a store that sold nothing but music-related reading materials. Dave Parsons also left for New York, ending Mouth of the Rat's fanzine reign. Radio Free Living Room, on WLRN-FM (91.3), the local band's best broadcast friend, became Off the Beaten Path, which spotlights national underground bands. Something was about to be lost.
Key players left and new goals arose in their lives. Leslie Wimmer: "I think it just sort of transformed. People grew up, changed their focus. The Eat's 'I Led Two Lives' really sums it up, the lyrics about 'Woke up this morning went to work/The night before I was acting like a jerk.' The nonmusical world took preference for that group of people."
For a music scene to succeed, Ted Gottfried notes, "You need a bunch of things at once. Newspapers have to think it's important. But the scene was so marginal that no one could afford advertising. There was a guy at the Fort Lauderdale News [Cameron Cohick] who championed the Eat and other local bands. So you knew about shows and records. Then he left." And no one really took up the slack. The scene's evangelists had other things to do.
Many of those who are still in town will mingle and play at this weekend's anniversary party for Open Books and Records. Though everyone who could be reached has been invited, Wimmer won't know until it's over who showed up. Whoever goes there, it will surely be one hell of a party.
The album that brought them all together for one shining moment in 1982 will be playing that day, but the people who made it possible have all changed in important ways since then.
Charlie Pickett went off to law school after seeing an old friend work as a public defender and deciding that that was what he wanted to do, too. The Eggs had broken up back in 1985. Some of the members of Pickett's various groups continued to do strong work in short-lived local bands. Over the following years, bassist Marco Pettit and Johnny Salton would continue to reunite with Pickett for homecoming gigs while Pickett was on break from classes in Michigan. This past summer, Frank Falestra recorded a live CD at Churchill's Hideaway featuring both the Chant and Pickett's latest group.
Eggs drummer Galway is reportedly employed in some nonmusician capacity by Liza Minnelli.
Ted Gottfried's See Hear store is thriving. "We sell fanzines, magazines, and books," he says from New York. "Everything, mostly music, but there's variety. Call it pop culture. We also sell through mail order and wholesale. Yeah, I'd call it successful."
Manager Robert Mascaro lives in Massachusetts. Dave Parsons, the fanzine publisher, moved to Paris where he busked with a Charlie Chaplin routine that gained significant popularity and led to a job with the Chaplin estate in Switzerland, according to his friend Gottfried.
Eric Moss maintains the same job he had then: a scout and manager of motion picture locations. He gave up his radio show in 1982. He had taped the program, but when it became a live program, the late hours interfered with his job, so he abandoned it.
As for the Eat, "We never did break up," says Chris Cottie. "We just never see each other any more." While rumors of Eat compilation albums abound and the group occasionally reunites (Wimmer has been attempting to arrange an Eat appearance at the fourteenth anniversary affair), the communist, as it were, seems to have gone out of their radio. Eddie O'Brien works for Southern Bell, as does Glenn Newland. Michael O'Brien works for a book distributor. Ken Lindahl is a draftsman. And Cottie himself is a teacher in the Dade County school system.
Hal Spector, who still works at Sync with Frank Falestra, recalls an occasion when the Eat performed at Open in the early Eighties. "Then we were at this Mexican restaurant, talking about old times, about how we were getting older," Spector remembers. "Eddie O'Brien says, 'I used to take LSD and smoke joints, now I take LSU and the points.' They wrote a song about that." O'Brien's line is more than a sports-gambling quip. It's a metaphor for the land that time forgot.
Open Books and Records, 44 NW 167th St, North Miami, celebrates its fourteenth anniversary Sunday at 3:00 p.m. Admission is free. Call 940-8750 for more information.
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