the Shirts at CBGB
The Shirts: Empty Ever After (from their first album, 1978)
This bunch of continuing close friends facilitated my absorption by the New York music scene, and I can never thank them enough for their Brooklyn family introductions, not to mention their habit of hauling me off to the club for the night when we broke after rehearsals. My EMI boss, Nick Mobbs, had signed them to a joint deal with Capitol Records when the latter wouldn’t commit positively. Later, the split responsibility and connected corporate rivalry would be the undoing of the band and their recording deal. But these people to me were special, and continue to be. Thanks to their being managed by Hilly, they were enmeshed in the club, and were the only band to have a bar tab, but even with half-price drinks it eventually grew too large. I don’t recall how big it became, but do remember their being cut off at some point.
When rehearsing in their space, me staying at their ‘Shithouse Shirthouse’ on the not-yet-gentrified Park Slope in Brooklyn, they took me to heart and I became truly embedded in the club, which we seemed to close down most nights (as I almost remember). The Italian local family color was a more comfortable and enlightening slide for this Brit into the City than the typical Manhattan music biz glitz facilitation with guest passes and star quality. (On the door at CBGB and Max’s was just fine.) I so enjoyed the family parties to which I was invited, attendance at which was typically curtailed just as I might be getting in deep with Uncle Vinnie (yes, they really had one), some member of a culture way distant from mine, by them saying, ‘Mike, we gotta get outta here, the walls are closing in.’ I was fascinated, but they would be too close to home and needed yet another escape to the club.
Another cultural experience was accompanying their tour (and mental) manager, Barbara Dimartis, when she paid the monthly house rent to the owners of the furniture store on Fourth Avenue (Brooklyn, of course). I’ve never seen such a gaudy and tacky collection and, for that matter, I never saw anyone buy anything. I got to wander around entranced for a quarter hour or so while Barbara spun the latest yarn about why the rent was late, should be reduced, and so on and so on.
This track is the Shirts at maximum energy on the first album, and Annie Golden at highest frequency. The band habitually sped up as a song progressed. It wasn’t always helpful, but for this song it worked beautifully. At the end, everyone is absolutely at full stretch, and when you listen you’re with them.
Empty Ever After
The Shirts: Out On The Ropes (from Streetlight Shine, 1979)
We recorded the Shirts’ second album in New York, partly to be closer to the record company (Capitol) and so encourage connection and support. Nice idea, but corporate politics and the resentment of the LA head office towards the upstart Brits who had signed the group on which they had initially passed still wouldn’t go away. This album sounds as if recorded yesterday, but was to be our last together until Only The Dead Know Brooklynin 2006. The cover photograph, by JR Rost and among his best efforts, reflected good fortune on a rare foggy night by Prospect Park, Brooklyn. It’s not often hazy in New York City.
This song, by Ronnie Ardito, a passionate and articulate man who died from cancer in January 2008, imagines a couple of tightrope artists singing to each other, before going on the wire to take risks in parallel with their personal high-flying interaction. It’s not clear in the song, but the sentiment is poetically obvious. Ronnie once disparaged song writing as ‘you just sit in front of the TV and something comes on that you can write about’. Easy for him to say…with Annie Golden, he wrote Tell Me Your Plans, the first single from their first album which made a serious impact in several European countries, especially the Netherlands where it reached #8. Streetlight Shine also featured prominently in several countries, but not the USA. Showbiz politics had, we realized later, sunk it. It stil hasn’t been rereleased as a commercial CD.