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The Shirts Short/Long Story 2006

The Shirts play CBGB November 2004

The Shirts play CBGB November 2004

photo: Robert Tuozzo

A Social Survival Story

by Molesworth

When the Shirts were really coming into their own, hitting their long stride with hits from their first album in 1978, it was easy to cast them as just one of several CBGB bands breaking through after paying their dues to that extraordinary downtown scene. Television, Blondie, Mink DeVille, the Ramones, the Talking Heads….the Shirts. All these breakthrough bands were different. But the Shirts were different again.

The Shirts were, and are, about Brooklyn, just as the Ramones were about Queens. They are about neighborhood, street-level family. Unlike the Ramones, they liked each other then and still do, and that social glue continues to be reflected in the quality of their music. It has sustained them through the crazy storms that come with making pop music and having success. Thanks to the family of blood and the family of the neighborhood, they never lost their bearings. Most of them are related: of the five men, three are cousins. Like the borough itself, they go way back.

Back in 1972, the two elder statesmen (Robert Racioppo and Artie Lamonica) were concerned to ‘carve out our own culture’ in Sunset Park, and were the Shirts’ acorn. Bob had bought a bass from EJ Korvette’s, ‘because it seemed easy to play’ and was teaching Artie chords in the latter’s studio apartment (containing little more than a bed, a coffee table and a skull ashtray). Artie had drawn his first week’s paycheck from his job at the Central Criminal Court pulling files on the ‘still wanted’. The ashtray and Steve Miller’s Children Of The Futurecelebrated being $30 richer.

Two years before, Artie had played drums (his first time) with Bob in a free outdoor concert in Sunset Park organized by an earnest, idealistic teen: Ronnie Ardito. Also that summer, Ronnie stopped traffic at 39th Street and Fifth Avenue by sitting in the middle of the road with his 12-string guitar singing Where Have All The Flowers Gone.

The social convergence started in 1972, a rented storefront at 53rd Street and Seventh housing ten people at $10 a month each. One scene of creative bedlam was interrupted by a little old lady coming in the front door and asking, ‘did they fix teeth.’ Ronnie joined the band July 18: ‘in what seemed to me a religious ceremony, I was inducted into the group in the back alley of the storefront.’

Many of the groups who would define that particular CBGB era were at the beginning of art school. Not the Shirts. Ronnie again: ‘As I remember, there was no other choice than to be a musician. The only options were the army, a city job, or to be in a band. Most of us guys missed being drafted by a pubic hair. (Ask Bob, He didn’t show up for his physical.) Of course, there were gangs and drugs and cheap wine. Being in a band was a gang without the violence. Somehow, then, a guitar was a better weapon than a bat. If you could play a few chords, it meant something. A certain respect was achieved.’

Next up was Annie Golden, through a mutual friend who, 30 years later, would introduce Kathy McCloskey to the 21st Century Shirts. She bumped into Artie at a down-home bar (conflicting memories recall it as either Banana Fish Park or The Gallery) that had music downstairs and a jukebox half-way between. At that time, the band played cover tunes, particularly those of the Stones, and Artie remembers her singing Rip This Joint and then accepting his invitation to join. On the phone to Bob, excitedly: ‘we’ve got a chick singer now!’ The arrangement was sealed by Ronnie’s mum making dinner for the band.

The band hadn’t taken long to be named. It was a matter of urgency. After Robert and Artie’s Lackeys And Schemers band had called it quits, the after-work party closing down an appropriately late bar, the two of them drifted off to wind up at a friend’s apartment as dawn was breaking. Robert: ‘I just said to Artie, fuck it, we gotta start another band…call it anything…shirts…pants…shoes…THE SHIRTS!’

Johnny ‘Zeeek’ Criscione was playing in a different band (having met on the subway), a large affair featuring horns managed by a dodgy hustler who would ‘guide’ the Shirts for a short while. Proposed management strategy of working up to playing half-time at the Superbowl seemed like an excellent idea. The bands joined, and the Shirts’ life as a big band started: nine players, including two drummers. It took a while to get comfortable together. Zeeek: ‘I arrived at the storefront to find Bob sitting on the floor just staring at a painting, not moving a muscle. I was a little out of my element.’

All of this action was not yet producing the ambitious songs that they are known for, and which would be wide European hits just four years later. As did everyone else at the time, they played covers (with difficulty). Management by a retired New York cop ended abruptly when he proposed they cover Sweets For My Sweet, then a hit for the Drifters. After struggling with the chords, Bob smashed the 45 against the wall. The Shirts had their identity.

Shortly before meeting Zeeek, this band of gypsies had moved to live near Park Slope in a loft, a full floor of an ex-clock factory at 13th and Seventh ($250 per month, which meant 25 tenants). Aside from providing a far bigger canvas for Robert’s painting on the wall than had the storefront (he is now a successful artist under the pseudonym Robert Box), the new space paid big musical dividends in 1974. The Shirts simply spent obsessive time writing songs and rehearsing, although without being too sure of where it would all lead. They inducted Johnny ‘Doom’ Piccolo, who had been roadying for them while in an assortment of other bands. One night, they went out to an old railwayman’s bar on the Bowery. Patti Smith sang Piss Factory.

‘Scary: holy shit, we’ve found it. It’s like a den of vampires.’ ‘We knew we would only do originals, and now we knew that we could. We had tried to carve out our own culture in Brooklyn, and there it was.’ The CBGB scene was underway. Lots more practice, and a friend phoning masquerading as their manager yielded an audition in early 1975. The club didn’t have a sound system then: bring your own. Fortunately, the band had a big one, the property of the eventual soundmeister of CBGB, Norman Dunn. They maneuvered it past owner Hilly Kristal in the doorway.

‘If you play too loud, I’m pulling the plug. I’ll shut the electricity off and walk out.’ This sounded good to the group. ‘Wow, he’s going to walk out of his own bar and leave us to it?’ Nevertheless, they played with their guitar amps facing the back wall. Hilly loved them, and their first gig was with the Planets. Their next was supporting Television. After a few more, they were top of the bill, with the Talking Heads opening for them. Hilly, who had been drawn in to be an enormously enthusiastic supporter, at this stage was more adviser than manager. By way of thanks, the band threw a barbecue for him on the roof of the old clock factory. Naturally, the band also performed, along with the Talking Heads. (There are private tapes of those seminal performances.)

The clock factory floor was energetically developed, even as they played, worked and wrote. Norman recommended cinder block as stopping sound most efficiently, so a wall was enthusiastically built across the wooden floor to separate studio from control room. An architect father relative looked, shrieked and ran. Whatever, the floor (clearly built to Brooklyn Bridge tolerances) held and recordings commenced. But after one holdup: no-one had thought about the door between studio and mission control. Whatever. One night crashing around, the band had to take a detour thanks to road works. There it was: leaning up against a wall was a massive steel door. Hard to lift, but Brooklyn perseverance triumphed.

Creative action increased enormously with the move to the ‘Shithouse Shirt house’ on Ninth Street just below Seventh Avenue. The typical week would mean five days of writing and rehearsal, eight hours or more after which it was off to CBGB until closedown. Up at noon with the larks the next day to start all over.

The Shirts played all over as well as CBGB: Max’s Kansas City, Trude Heller’s Club 82 and on. Hilly brought record company people down to the club to see them, but they weren’t buying, even as they furiously signed up anything else that moved in narrow pants. The Shirts didn’t fit. Seymour Stein, Sire Records (Blondie, Talking Heads, Ramones): ‘They’re too big a band.’ Artie: ‘We weren’t cool. We were just trying to make the best music and have a good time. Meanwhile, the club wasn’t so much a scene any more, just becoming a place to get a deal.’ A double album of many of the groups (including the Shirts) released by Hilly had become an instant classic.

In late 1976 they cut two demos with Genya Ravan. For years, she had been a star in her own right (starting as Goldie in the first-ever self-governed female group Goldie and the Gingerbreads) and was a club fixture who produced several of the acts (notably the Dead Boys) and contributed her own brand of social mayhem. Despite being recorded in Electric Lady (engineered by Harvey Goldberg who coincidentally would record their second album), there were no takers. Still, you only need one break. It happened in late summer 1977. EMI London was in town.

Nick Mobbs, head of A&R, had come to see Deaf School but had heard about one of the supporting bands, as yet unsigned. He came, listened, chatted pleasantly with Hilly (by now the de facto manager of the Shirts), and left.

A couple of weeks later, the band were staying in Boston with friends Orchestra Luna (also on the CBGB album), playing the Ratskeller. Bob remembers there were two phone calls that day. ‘The first was from Jim at the house. [Jim Mokarry, 29 years on, would be the layout artist for their fourth album.] The electricity had been cut off. The second was from Hilly. Nick Mobbs had called and said that he must sign the Shirts.’ Nick did so in October. Thanks to politics, it was officially a joint signing with Capitol Records, EMI’s elephantine US subsidiary, despite Capitol’s having passed on the band.

After some thought, Nick asked Mike Thorne if he would be interested in producing the first Shirts album. After a varied career to date, Thorne had landed in Nick’s A&R department and produced five albums in 1977, some of them groundbreaking classics. The demos didn’t impress him, but he admitted there was something special in there. He flew in from Los Angeles, breaking a vacation in late December. The band played a set way better than any demo, and the social side clicked immediately. Thorne returned early the next year to stay and rehearse at the house, enthusiastically joining their obsessive work/play routines. And then it couldn’t get much better than going to London to record and being embraced by a genuinely enthusiastic record company.

The Shirts’ first album came out to wide critical acclaim across Europe, the classic single Tell Me Your Plans making the top five in the Netherlands and notable chart presences in many other countries. They toured successfully, notably supporting Peter Gabriel at his request, even converting cool London club audiences to wild enthusiasm through performances ending with handshakes from the stage.

In the US, similar strong grass roots reaction was the norm. But Capitol Records’ nose was still out of joint. Thorne recalls reading his Billboard trade magazine and noticing the album on a very short list of ‘National Radio Breakouts’. He remarked on this accolade to the local record company A&R man. ‘Oh, that doesn’t mean anything.’ Thorne: ‘thinks, “welcome to self-destruct record biz politics”.’ He said later that he didn’t imagine how twisted it could get.

Such politics steered the second album, Streetlight Shine, to Mediasound in New York. This legendary studio was selected after a military-style campaign by Mike Thorne to find the best and most congenial New York studio. Capitol had exhibited a nominal interest, so London thought a home recording location would be better for the group and its visibility to the crew who could make it happen in the home country.

The pattern of recording followed that of the first album, except this time the band could take the subway to sessions while Thorne relocated to New York for two months. Harvey Goldberg returned to the Shirts’ ambit as a now-distinguished engineer, helping the new, even more ambitious album to achieve a sound and a color that make it sound as if recorded yesterday. Likewise, the songs are timeless. And the sounds draw on all the experience of the production participants to step away from the downtown/rock+roll/progressive art amalgam to support the Shirts’ classic music. It combined the earthy social consciousness of their early, crazy, formative years with their exposure to the new sonic possibilities discovered in their introduction to recording in the big league.

Streetlight Shine produced hits and plaudits all around Europe. Spain, Germany and Italy, in particular joined the fan club. In the Netherlands, Laugh And Walk Away, the passionate, almost-nihilistic anthem from the man who as a boy stopped the traffic aged 15 with his anti-war gesture at that major Brooklyn traffic intersection, duly hit the high charts. And the US? Nice reviews. But nothing to help pay the rent.

Politics gets wearing in an article, but we’re almost there. We’ll get back to the music, the Shirts, and why they all matter fairly soon. Bear in mind the contrast between the Shirts and their open, honest, family attitude and its collision with the smoke-and mirrors daily grind-down of the American corporate music business. The group tried hard to accommodate, and to serve their own muse at the same time, continuing to churn out songs and music. But the system into which they had been co-opted had subtlely changed the rules.

The Shirts now had to deliver in the high stakes environment that big music biz was becoming. That didn’t sit comfortably for them. They had opted out of the cool image scene at CBGB, not physically but intellectually, and had pursued without compromise their early seventies muse which told them to ‘carve out our own culture’, in Brooklyn, and which had found its anchor comfortably in grungy downtown Manhattan. They had been supported in corporate battles outside their comprehension, mostly by Nick Mobbs. In summer 1979, their champion, who had signed the Sex Pistols to EMI and had made significant impact with his progressive music moves over a decade with two major companies, resigned from EMI to form his own independent label. Enough was enough.

The new head of A&R in London, Brian Shepherd, was a major protagonist for the band and their new album. Unfortunately, despite coming from his post as head of International A&R for Capitol in Los Angeles, he had been presented with a fait accompli. Capitol had seen the band were successful, wanted them for themselves, and would not continue the embarrassing joint deal into which Mobbs had shamed them. The Shirts duly signed exclusively to Capitol. Despite the previous album’s acclaim and his fast-growing stature as a producer, Mike Thorne was eliminated from duty in favor of a caucus of three Los Angeles company people, working out of Capitol Records’ own studios. (Thorne later observed acidly that the combined production advances of these three in-house operators exceeded his for producing albums a couple of years later, after unconventional worldwide hits had promoted him to the major leagues.)

The band’s third album, Inner Sleeve, wasn’t fun for them to record and was plagued by musical mis-steps. It was released late in 1980 with less than 10 000 pressed and sank without trace. So much for Capitol’s enthusiasm to sign them. The Shirts continued for two years, winding down to a four-piece. Then they ‘went dormant’, but might as well have called it a ‘breakup’.

Individually, the band members mostly continued to scratch the musical itch, supporting themselves with a wide variety of day jobs. Sometimes they would play in each others’ projects. The list of names in the late 1990s is testament to continued focused activity: Chemical Wedding, Idle Chatter, Jing, Project X, Yoko Gomez, Five Minute Box, Rome 56. Walter was Robert’s project which brought in Kathy McCloskey (after whose vintage accordion the band was named, and who had grown up half a block from the Shirts’ storefront). They played downtown clubs, often with Artie’s Rome 56 project. Then, in 2001, Robert formed Thin-G, along with Kathy and Caren Messing (who along with Johnny Piccolo were active in the Tsunami Tsingers, an a cappella group). And then, Uncle Lucky died.

Uncle Lucky wasn’t, having consistently lost all his money on the horses. And he was now gone. But he might have appreciated the fortune he bestowed on nephews Robert, Ronnie and Johnny Piccolo. They all turned up at his wake, to pay family respects. It had been a while.

On a parallel world, Zeeek had finally given up. Despite his high-flying success in the construction business, overseeing the building of a hospital here, a school there, he still had his Shirts tattoo on his biceps. (Ronnie, showing due respect: ‘Zeeek’s arms are bigger than my thighs!’) He advertised his drum kit for sale in the Village Voice, mentioning that it had been part of the defunct Shirts sound. One of the first phone calls was from his old friend Vinnie: ‘What do you think you are you doing? The band’s still around.’ He didn’t sell it.

The Shirts had been around, but only sporadically. They had regrouped for a one-off in the mid-nineties, a benefit for CBGB after its always-precarious finances had slipped off the shelf and the IRS had padlocked the front doors for non-payment of tax. In 1999, they played again to celebrate their 25th anniversary, on a bill that was a mix of Shirts past and future: the Tsunami Tsingers, Yoko Gomez, Walter, Lex Gray, the Shirts. All the eventual new Shirts family were onstage that night, albeit at different times.

The epiphany came for Robert in a much less glamorous place than the road to Damascus. He was earning money laboring, ‘with all these Mexicans.’ Not so easy for conversation, but the better to think. He carried yet another sheetrock eight-by-four and put it down as directed. ‘It was raining, gloomy weather. I put it down and thought, it’s time for the Shirts again. Thin-G is over. I turned around and walked right off the construction site. That was over.’

Things were converging fast in 2003. Mike Thorne, now retired from commercial record production (‘a quality of life decision’) and running his own online record label, called and asked if he could interview the ‘elder statesmen’ (Artie and Robert) to publish as an accompaniment to his extensive web pages about producing the Shirts’ first two albums. The talk was fast, since the pair had to run off to rehearsal of the new Shirts that had given Robert the inspiration to walk off his job. Annie Golden was invited, as were Caren and Kathy. Robert’s idea was a return to the big band format that had denied them success and hindered signing to a label nearly 30 years before. Add the two new singers to the lineup with Annie and make a big sound. A band of eight, all of whom could sing. Great idea. You can easily guess what went wrong.

Annie Golden had carved a successful theater and movie career by being the Brooklyn babe: fast-talking and gum-chewing savvy. Playing herself. She had been an unforgettable Philadelphia cabbie in 12 Monkeys and had a steady range of roles on screen and TV, following up her debut in Milos Foreman’s Hair, which had been shot with great transatlantic Concorde-commuting stress for her during the first album in 1978. She arrived at rehearsal, but that proved to be the last connection. Caren and Kathy took over the female vocal division. A real family had come together, a band of seven, all of whom could sing. And the glue was stronger than ever. The frequent personal tensions while Annie was in the band, in retrospect inevitable given different personal agendas, all disappeared. Everyone was now on the same page. Everyone was earning their daily but wanted release. Everyone wanted to do the Shirts. Songs poured out, and the lineup gelled. Zeeek: ‘This is a new band with an old passion that has survived out of pure love for what we do.’

The first gig of the 21st Century reformation was May 31 2003, a memorable Saturday night at CBGB with lots of warm night hanging out on the Bowery sidewalk. Mike Thorne: ‘I was cheering for them, of course, but it was a shock. They were world-class. All seven locked together as if they had been playing for years. The comfort with each other on stage was crystal-clear, and that mutual empathy launched a music that had the old energy and song clarity but living, developed somehow, in a new age.’ None of them gave up their day job, but they kept at the regular Thursday night rehearsal. And this is a band with seven singers yet no ego. Thorne again: ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’

So, now they’re back. Even with two new female voices up front, they perpetuate that unique, indefinable sound which they own, which first showed up on the Bowery over 30 years before. And, somehow, 30 years haven’t dulled the energy. The fourth album is here, after the unplanned hiatus. Not that anything in the history of the Shirts was ever planned or calculated.

In 2004, Johnny Zeeek bought Mike Thorne a nice meal in the West Village. He had a proposal. The two of them talked happily of old times, good times and future times. At length. Thorne offered production resources at his studio, in the same spirit that had been keeping seven people going to Thursday evening rehearsals. Maybe to go somewhere further. Who knows where it might lead? If there became a label with a structure at the Stereo Society, a new CD might even be released on it. Hilly Kristal offered CBGB and its facilities free for recording the rhythm tracks. The new CD, Only The Dead Know Brooklyn (inspired by Thomas Wolfe’s great short story title) converged on a common theme, inevitably like the new family, and is released June 2006.

Everything that rises must converge (Flannery O’Connor’s great short story title).

The family that is the Shirts endures and grows. It’s making music in the same grounded, uncompromisingly Brooklyn way that has been their reference point for over 30 years. There’s a short story in there, somewhere.