This started out as a CD review of the Album “Villanelle – The Songs of Maura Kennedy and BD Love ” but I bounced all over the place in my notes. My ragged attempt at memoir does not do ANY of this justice. In fits and starts I have tried to grind this out and it was time to poop or get out of the litter box on this. I hope I honor the subject with my words and admittedly fuzzy memory. I’m sure Ill do more on-line editing than the entire Syracuse Media Group combined.
Some insanely talented people collaborated in a unique and wonderful way. Their collaboration , to me was more than just a CD, a collection of songs, and they are truly amazing songs, but like all art, the history is what gives art life.
You have never heard and album quite like this, but lets begin at the beginning.
I was sure that at ANY moment, Rolling Stone magazine was going to send its best writer to Syracuse to see what I was seeing. I was sure of it. One of those guys like Dave Marsh or Kurt Loder was going to bust into the place with a photographer and capture what I and so many others was seeing and feeling. Syracuse had an honest to goodness music scene. We called it a punk rock scene, but truth be told I would call it more of a punk flavored, power pop scene. You won’t find many articles about it, other than the articles written by the official scribe of that scene, the great Carl Caferelli. There were no books about it. Rolling Stone never got here. But I knew it happened, because I saw it. I got there in the middle of it. It had to be 79 or 80, or maybe 81, I’m just not good with dates, but I was “underage in this funky bar”, near Syracuse University, just off Westcott St called Squires East.
It was snowing. The kind of snow that isn’t quite a storm, but way more than a flurry. The kind of snow that we north-easterners and Syracuseians especially complain about, but in reality, the pouring down of snow against the blue and red glow of beer signs in the windows of various bars and restaurants creates a visual impression that is, to me, beautiful as it instills a feeling of warmth to cut the cold of the wind. The feeling that while its cold out here, it’s warm in there, and there are people in there who like the same things you do, there is a city going on.
I always thought the cover of Ryan Adams single Lucky Now reminded me of that feeling. The way the lights of the neighborhood cuts the snow and cold.
Squire’s East was underneath a Chinese restaurant as best I can remember it, it was kind of hard to find. Once you got there you had to go down a flight of stairs. Just like the Cavern Club!
To give you a sense of how being there made me feel, do you remember the Bee Girl? That girl from the video for Blind Mellon’s song “No Rain”? Remember how she would bop off to various places and do her bee dance and nobody was having it. She was dejected and sad until she happened upon a group of other “bees” all doing the bee dance in a beautiful field. I was the bee girl when I walked into that crowded bar on that snowy night. This was my tribe. (Full disclosure, I hated that song, ok, not hate, I don’t hate anything. In this world of so much hate how can anyone hate a song? Right? Someone singing a song and doing a dance, that’s a good thing in ALL circumstances. This particular song just didn’t resonate with me. Thanks.)
Labatt’s 50 ales, in those classically Canadian squatty bottles cost 50 cents and the bartender didn’t proof me. A band called the U-Turns was on stage (I cant say for sure if it was a stage, or a corner) playing the Batman theme and I think it may have gone on for 20 minutes. (footnote, for some reason almost every Syracuse band, played the Batman theme or some variation of it) A music freak, I was in utter heaven, drinking beer, seeing fun rock & roll being played so close to me to a room full of other punk rock obsessives.
The crowd was attentive. You don’t see that often these days, you really don’t. When the band came on, people stopped, listened, sang along and danced. When the band was done, people talked about the band they just saw, and how they were looking forward to seeing the next one, Dress Code, shortly. Everyone knew one another, at least by face if not by name, or they got to know each other. Everyone was joining bands, or knowing someone who was in bands. I ducked out at the intermission to “smoke myself a J” with this cool older woman in a long coat, when we got to her car, she told me she played sax and wanted to start a funky jazz band. Everyone was into it. It has been said that not many people saw the Velvet Underground, but those who did, started bands. It was the same thing here. Everyone was either in a band, starting a band, thinking of starting a band or knew some one who was starting a band. Creativity breeds creativity.
Dress Code was awesome, I instantly fell in love with their Beatlesque brand of power pop. They took the stage wearing scarves that would make the Bay City Rollers jealous. The little bar rocked so hard even the walls started to sweat. I can’t tell you if the performance was technically good or bad. I didn’t care then and I care even less now. All I know is that night changed my life. From that night on it was my mission to see as much local music as I could before the whole scene got so big I couldn’t get in anymore. I just knew this city was going to be a mecca.
There was a showcase night once a week called Bright Lights that was alternately hosted by Screen Test or 1.4.5. the bands that resulted from the end of the Flashcubes, the ground breaking godfathers of this scene, a band that The Trend’s Paul Doherty correctly said at a decades later reunion and re-firing of the Bight Lights era,” They paved the road we all drive on”
Rolling Stone never showed up and you know what? Too bad for them because they missed it. Like the streak of a meteor, dare I say a Bright Light, there was a dynamic and exciting music scene in this town. Tom Kenny, he of Spongebob and countless other voice roles, who was the singer of local legends The Tearjerkers, said. “I’ll put this town’s music scene up with any city” . The man knows from whence he speaks.
There were so many bands. And in this town, their names were spoken right along side the groups that were huge nationally and beyond. Some I really fell for. There was The Unsound, who were so much fun with a drummer named Sheena. Their cassette referred to her as “The girl with the 4/4 pulse” and she was keeping time not as the “girl drummer” but just “the drummer” kicking ass and more than holding her own with the boys. I don’t have a daughter, but if I did, I would be telling tales about the “girl with the 4/4 pulse” if someone told my little girl not to do something because “Its for boys”. Sheena is badass.
There was The Trend, who may have been my favorite of all bands of that era. I bought two copies of their LP, that’s right, LP, bands recorded stuff, original music and got it out there, one copy was on my wall, one on my turn table. You can read my love letter to them elsewhere on this site. They were then and as it turned out, are now, the real deal.
There was this other band though. This one was a little different. There was a definite chunky guitar funkiness mixed with mid period Roxy Music swagger and more than a little humor in the lyrics. This band was something else entirely. They had a guy behind the boards who was as much a conductor as technician. This was My Sin. I was hooked immediately. The band delivered a set of songs that used words like no other local band that I knew about . There was some wit, some bravado ,and a bit of romantic maturity at least to my young ears. I loved My Sin.
The singer, was a sharp witted urbane fellow named Buddy Love. Buddy was too hip for the room, it was Buddy’s party and EVERYONE is invited. Between song banter was clever, cutting. The songs were funky, jazzy and clever. Upon further investigation, Buddy Love was indeed a nutty professor and the alter ego of one Mark Roberts an English professor at Syracuse University at the time. I had missed his stint in various other bands including a prior incarnation of the aforementioned Tearjerkers but My Sin was different. Even the gig flyers were cool and modern looking to me.
Buddy was open, and totally approachable, after one gig, he came up to me, after I am sure seeing me dance my skinny (at the time) ass all over the place to their songs.
“Hi, I’m Frank Lloyd Wright”
“Good to meet you, I have all your buildings” ( I am STILL impressed by how clever I was)
Songs like Romance Under Fire , A Man Needs A Uniform, A Writer Writes, and others struck my just getting used to adulthood mind as so literate and urbane. The highlight of every show was what was maybe their best song, although I loved all of them, “Manifest Destiny”. A ska inflected post modern love song that is as catchy and fun as any other song of that new wave era. With the chorus “I believe in love but still I manifest destiny” followed by spelling out the title M- A-N-I-F-E-S-T D-E-S-T-I-N-Y Like I said, in those days, we all sang along. We all did the dance. Like Dress Code said, “You’re never too cool to dance”
My Sin released cassettes on their own Rhythm Dog label, I had two of them, “Take Us To The Bridge” and “Slowly I Turned” I cherished those things, but as life went on, I either lost them or broke them or whatever. I was sure I would never hear those again but thanks to Ron Remschel, the architect of the My Sin sound, the band’s Toscanini conducting from the sound board, and the archivist of its legacy, most of those tracks are available here. http://www.remschel.com/mysin/
Also on that site is something pretty special to me, a soundboard recording Ron took of what was the final My Sin performance. It was at the Jabberwocky on my 19th birthday . This was my favorite band and now I would have to face adulthood without them? If you listen, you can hear me calling out for their cover of the Roxy Music song, “Editions Of You” and Buddy laughing, because the drummer(drum machine) forgot it. It was a great, fun night. I felt smarter, cooler just being there. I know I wasn’t but you have to remember, 1984 was a modern rock era, and My Sin had the modern rock sound. Talking Heads comes more to mind to me than does Roxy Music when I think of My Sin, but more witty.
I never saw My Sin again. I managed to get older without them. You know, when you get older, it sometimes seem that what fired you up in your youth, loses a bit of it’s incendiary properties. That never happened for me for this scene. I loved that vibe in this town, there was an honest to goodness active, productive music scene in Syracuse and by the time I was 21 it, my scene, was all but gone. Sure there was a hardcore scene that started up, but that was never my thing, not really, and we all get older.
I had heard that Buddy had moved to California to teach and was writing as B.D. Love. Dress Code was long gone. The Trend was over, until they snatched triumph from the jaws of tragedy anyway. The Jab closed. There were bands, some really good ones, like The Unholy Wives a band Elliot Mattice from Dress Code was in. There was Masters of Reality who were huge locally before they became niche internationally albeit in a severely altered form, that’s for another essay, and I suspect I’ll never write that one.
I remember telling people all over the place over the years about that musical era in Syracuse and they either didn’t believe it, or just chose to dismiss it as quaint nostalgia for the city of my birth. You won’t find much written about it, there are no books about it, unless Carl decides to write one. Like I said, Rolling Stone never got here. Whatever, I knew it happened and lots of other people do too. Maybe it is better this way, more poetic. Like the bright light of a comet streaking above the cloudy skies of Syracuse. Gone in a flash, but burning brightly.
Years go by, decades go by and Paul Armstrong(The Flashcubes, 1.4.5) has an idea, no, a command. He tasked Dana Bonn and Carl Caferelli, true keepers of the flame with their long running and totally essential radio show This is Rock N Roll radio. Put the bands back together for a one night only Bright Lights showcase. A bunch of bands played, bands I thought I would never see again played that night, the emotional center being the regeneration of The Trend. (covered elsewhere on this site) To honor bands that couldn’t be there, but who should be represented, was an all star band Maura Kennedy, she of the amazing duo The Kennedys, put together along with her virtuoso husband Pete, Arty Lennin, ,Gary Frenay and Kathy LaManna. They would play a short list of songs to kick off the festivities.
Right out of the box, two Dress Code songs! RIGHT OUT OF THE BOX!!! It was Squire’s East all over again. I said to my brother who was with me, “I can’t believe I am hearing these songs played live again.” To hear these songs again was exhilarating!
A few minutes later the unmistakable intro to Manifest Destiny. Just jaw dropping how much I loved hearing it.
It really was a great night, I left the club that night thinking it was too bad that was a one night only reunion. That it was over and we were all supposed to go back to our lives in the “modern world”. Many of these people, both performing and dancing, had moved away. Walking back to my car I had to say was a bittersweet feeling, having to walk away from that scene for a second time.
Maybe the best story ABOUT that night, didn’t happen ON that night.
The video above, Manifest Destiny, the My Sin song, got to the attention of Buddy Love, who was so impressed he reached out to Maura. A collaboration was born which resulted in one of the best albums, in my opinion, ever. I’m not even kidding.
Buddy and Maura agreed that she would take poetry, text that Buddy would provide and write songs around them without changing the basic form. This was to be an art project in the truest sense.
It was called Villanelle.
When the CD came out midway through 2015, I listened to it, liked it, and I have to admit it bounced right off of me. It just didn’t sink in. I listened to it, but I guess I never heard it. I don’t think I gave it another spin. Until the next time……(That’s my feeble attempt at foreshadowing)
The next year, another Bright Lights reunion was scheduled, big part of it coming together was to honor the life of Norm Mattice, of Dress Code (and 1.4.5/The Richards) who tragically died that winter Dress Code the first (well second) local band I ever saw on that snowy night so many years ago.
In preparation for the 2016 version of the reunion, I got out my copy of Villanelle again and fired it up.
I was listening at work, as each twist of a phrase would sink into my head, or with every angelic utterance sung, I was absolutely flabbergasted.
“Holy shit! How did I miss this the first time? I ran around my office yelling about this music to anyone who would listen. I don’t think I stopped listening to this thing for 6 weeks.
In my first listen, the one that didn’t sink in, I mistakenly thought this was just a nice pop album to listen to. I was wrong, THIS was literature in song form. As much as a musical anthology of styles as a collection of prose. There are some songs that literally make me well up. And to this date, after hundreds of listening, make me well up still.
“Bicycles with Broken Spokes”, with its story of lost love and lost youth, typically has that effect on me. Unfairly, so does the very next track, “Darling Cutter” a song of empathy for a young person who cuts herself out of self loathing. Those songs alone will rip your heart right out of you.
Every song, Buddy’s exquisite words, given life by Maura’s exquisite voice, tells a different story. It’s a breathtaking work of art.
The album has barely left my ears since then. I’m embarrassed I didn’t “get it” on first listen. I’m an asshole.
It occurs to me that the first days of seeing bands, underage in funky bars, those wonderful days, didn’t end after all did they? This album represents a full circle, but one with no end. Like the orbit of a comet, like a celestial Bright Light. It never ended after all.
Because of what I know of this album above and beyond what is recorded, I think of that old music scene differently now. Ive made new friends from that time that I missed out on meeting back then. I’ve hung out at reunion shows with the guys I used to hang out with then.
If you weren’t there, come along the next time and let me regale you with stories.
I hope if there is another reunion that Buddy can get out here.
I’m not one for high school reunions, but whenever this glorious group of musicians plays in any configuration, I am going and I look forward to seeing some of that glorious group of people again. There are a few I haven’t met yet but I will, believe it or not I can be pretty shy, especially when I am in awe. You Bright Lights people, bands and fans alike I am in awe of you all.
I am the bee girl.
This is my tribe.
We are still out in that field, dancing.
Huge thanks to Ron Remschel for letting me pelt him with question and use his graphics and for keeping the archive of all this stuff.
Villanelle can be gotten from Amazon, you should go get a copy. https://www.amazon.com/Villanelle-Songs-Maura-Kennedy-B-D/dp/B00WRPPELQ/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1482358476&sr=8-3&keywords=villanelle
BD Love also has a book of poems inspired by Dogs he’s rescued. “Hounds of Wonder – A Life in Rescue Dogs” Get that too.
RIP to all those who didn’t get this far, namely J Marc, Dave, and especially Norm. You, your cousins and friends were the lynchpin for me.