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Just Spell My Name Right! (Is All Press Really Good Press?)

Posted by Skafish on

I remember the late great James Brown proclaiming back in the 1970’s, “Just make sure to spell my name right!”  What the Godfather of soul was asking for was that his name would be spelled correctly in the media in reference to an utterly idiotic rumor that was being spread at the time that he had a sex change.  I know it’s hard to believe now, as he was not even questionably bi chic a la Mick Jagger or David Bowie, but nonetheless, this rumor was quite big for a while.  His comment about spelling his name right was based on the age old belief that all press – even that a heterosexual male having his penis inverted and manipulated to be a vagina and had all of his body hair removed…was still good press. 

In the early to mid 1970’s, bisexuality in rock music was quite the rage, and two artists, both admitting their bisexuality, saw very different results from such admissions in their immediate careers at that time.   In 1972, in an interview with Britain’s Melody Maker, David Bowie announced that he was bisexual, and is considered to be the first musical artist to ever do so, while in 1976, Elton John nervously admitted his bisexuality in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine.

At that time, Bowie’s admission helped to catapult him to stardom.  Why?  Because he was selling himself as a new, innovative artist though his Ziggy Stardust otherworldly persona, space age music, shocking appearance, and being bisexual.  This was his brand – a brand which he created:  fresh, daring, and innovative.  And David’s core audience celebrated all of these things, and for a time, wore their allegiance to him like a badge of honor.

Elton, on the other hand, had a very mainstream pop audience.  He may have dressed a little flashy and weird, but hey, it was thought of as just a rock stage act.  Elton appealed to jocks, ordinary folks, and a huge section of people who were homo phobic.  When Elton announced that he was bi, it sent shock waves throughout the world.  I remember hearing kids around me referring to him as a fag, and not wanting to buy his records anymore.  His audience, who saw him as kin to regular beer drinking guys (remember the song “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”), felt betrayed – like, “I liked this guy who might be…. a homo?!?!?” Since a large part of his core audience did not embrace bisexuality, Elton’s career, especially in America (which is generally more homophobic that England and Europe), took a hit for a while.  Of course Elton’s career revived, where now he’s perceived as the acceptable gay guy.  David’s bisexuality has become yesterday’s news as he doesn’t dress weird anymore and is married to a woman.  Both artists are now musical and cultural legends.

The concept of “Is all press good press” was tested once again during the Michael Jackson child molestation trial in 2005.  At that time, he probably got more press than even the late Princess Diana did.  I thought to myself back then, that all of this media attention wasn’t going to help him at all on a business level as an artist – and it didn’t.  His record sales tanked, as he became embroiled in a media circus and perceived as a surreal sideshow. 

Here’s in part why it hurt him so much.  There are simply things that society as a whole just won’t accept, and those things will always get you in trouble on a business level as an artist.  The kind of press that associates you with being a child molester (especially of the same gender), is not something that any segment of society accepts, yet alone, considers cool.  And at that point, it’s not about whether his music is good or not; it’s about the association with the personality of the artist.  Meaning, the brand name has become contaminated.  This whole debacle showcased just how bad press can really bury an entertainer.  Since then, his career has not recovered at all.

But often, on the other hand, bad press does work.  However, the “cool” factor is essential for it to work if you’re a pop culture musician.  Bad press that’s cool can actually bolster sales: Violence, arrests, prison time, and drugs (an old mainstay).  However, even felony convicts in prison aren’t down with child molesters, yet alone “normal” society.  So the bad press has to conform to what society accepts, or what your core audience considers cool, or at least can deal with.  And as society changes, those parameters also alter and modify.  For example:  Jazz drum great Gene Krupa’s career took a heavy hit when in 1943, he was arrested for possession of marijuana and was given a 3 month jail sentence.  Now, that allegation would hardly harm him; in fact, it might actually be beneficial, or at the very least, irrelevant.

The cool factor in bad press being necessary for a positive impact on a celebrity is easily verifiable.  Consider that as a rapper, being arrested and shot earns you stripes, enhances your popularity, mystique, and record sales, while adding to your street credibility (pardon me – it’s street cred, lol).  With certain segments of the hip hop audience, you must be arrested to even be considered credible as a rapper.

How press (good or bad) affects your career is a complicated formula, but there are certain criteria that makes perfect sense:  Look at the core audience of the celebrity and define what their parameters of acceptance are.  If the bad press goes against the values (whether good or bad) of the celebrity’s main following, that person’s career will take a hit.  However, if the media exposure plays into what is acceptable to that core audience in question, it may help the artist.

Here’s a quick little for instance: R.Kelly was indicted on 21 felony counts on June 6, 2002 of child pornography stemming from a videotape that allegedly shows him having sex with an underage girl.  In the video, besides sexual activity, both parties urinate, while hip-hop music plays in the background.  The tape runs between 26-27 minutes. Let’s ask the question:  Is this press good or bad for R. Kelly?

Answer:  Good press.

Why?  Because with his core audience: hop-hop, urban, ghetto, and thug, this type of activity is culturally acceptable — perhaps celebrated.  It can even be considered the notch on the belt thing – you know, the older guy with the hot young girl.

Proof:  Since his sexual crimes indictment (of which he was acquitted on June 13, 2008 six years after he was indicted), his record sales have still been extremely strong, and multi platinum.  Many people believe his career has actually done better since he was indicted some 6 years ago.  This is an example of someone who benefits from this type of bad press, because the people (his audience), who are his bread and butter accept this type of sensibility.  It certain circles, it clearly adds to R. Kelly’s street cred.

Let’s compare how both R. Kelly’s and Michael Jackson’s careers were affected by their “negative” press.  First, they could both be labeled as accused child molesters, and both were criminally acquitted.  So why did Jackson take such a devastating hit, while Kelly’s career was bolstered.

1) – Jackson was accused of molesting a boy, while Kelly was accused of doing the same to a girl.  Immediately, the fact that Jackson was accused of a crime that implicated him as being gay, while Kelly’s indictment was heterosexual in nature is a huge difference.  Society will more severely condemn the person perceived as gay, versus the man looked at as being straight.

2) – Jackson’s alleged victim had cancer, and looked like a boy – not a fully developed young man.  Both factors make this alleged victim appear more innocent, vulnerable, and childlike, which makes the supposed crime appear far more egregious.  Kelly’s alleged victim appears to be a fully developed young woman, possibly older than the prosecution asserted.  On the videotape, she seemed completely “down” with the sexual acts and quite sexually experienced, according to those who commented on the tape.  This makes her look less like a victim, and more of a participant.  Also, this scenario plays into a stereotypic male fantasy; an older man being sexually active with a young girl, which much of society accepts.

3) – Jackson’s core audience is a mainstream pop audience, which is going to be more “G” rated in their values.  “Dirty” controversy is less likely to work with that type of audience.  On the other hand, Kelly’s audience is a more hard-edged, urban hip-hop group that would view such an act as passe or commonplace.  That audience is far more tolerant; perhaps even celebratory of the older macho guy having sex with the younger, yet sassy, tough and sexually experienced streetwise underage girl.

4) – This was not the first issue regarding Jackson appearing to be weird, creepy, or strange.  Besides multiple alleged plastic surgeries and skin lightening, Michael Jackson paid a boy who accused him of molestation in 1993 more than $15 million, according to documents discovered by Court TV. That case was settled out of court and charges were never brought against Jackson.  He has been receiving “bad” press since as early as 1983-84, so the “creepy” factor has been drummed into our collective consciousnesses regarding him, which hurts Michael.  With Kelly, he has been perceived one dimensionally as a successful urban hip hop artist.  He doesn’t have the stigmatization of the “creepy” factor, as does Jackson.

5) – As an artist, Kelly is current and relevant, where Michael Jackson is not.  Kelly’s audience had been buying his new records in large numbers consistently since his indictment six years ago, which keeps the energy of his success more likely to continue through the controversy.  Jackson would have to rebuild his commercial momentum, which is so hard to do, not only because of his tarnished image, but because trends change so quickly in pop music, which is Michael’s main market.

It is apparent that the way society and/or an artist’s audience reacts to the same potential legal crime varies in so many ways, with lots of subtleties and subtexts to the plot.  Jackson takes a huge potentially career-debilitating hit, while Kelly may now appear invincible and untouchable after his acquittal.

Now, what if it was Barry Manilow who was accused of the exact same crimes as R. Kelly?  His career would take an oh so fatal hit.  Why?  Because his core audience: middle and upper middle class males and females (most likely parents), would have a very difficult time with this type of allegation – maybe even burn his records (they might have demon semen in them, lol).

Here are some quick hypothetical examples of good and bad press: The headline reads: “Motley Crue drinks milk backstage.  It does a body good!”  That would be horrible press, because it portrays the band as wimps, which is the exact opposite of their brand.  Their audience would feel that they are not credible as out of control, indulgent, and dangerous rock stars, and in a sense, feel gypped.

How about this headline?  “Motley Crue does heroin and OD’s on a regular basis, and they’re shooting up right now!”  Now that is beneficial press.  Why?  Because their core audience embraces the wild, bad-assed rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle where strippers, parties, arrests, and ODs are as traditional as mom’s apple pie, and actually validate that the Crue rocks!

Remember this headline?  “Ozzy Osbourne bites off bat’s head.”  This was dangerous, yet good press for him and his relationship to his core following when it happened in January 1982.  Why?  Because for his hard-core metal audience, it added to his over the edge, out of control renegade image, which scores huge points for Ozzy. 

On the reality TV show, “The Osbournes,” the media attention had the exact opposite effect.  Ozzy was shown having difficulty operating the television remote control while tripping over his own words.  Rather than coming off as a rock music God, he came across a man who is barely able to function.  This greatly hurt him with his main audience – and that’s the audience that counts.  I remember a friend of mine saying, “We go from the prince of darkness biting off a bat’s head and rocking a stadium, to the prince of darkness confused at home, vacuuming.” 

During his reality TV days, he released the album, “Down To Earth,” on October 16, 2001.  Even with all of the unbelievable exposure he was getting — my God, President Bush mentioned his name at a dinner, this album barely went gold.  All of Ozzy’s prior albums had gone platinum and multi platinum.  Thus, as I have always believed, even as far back as the 1970’s, all press is not good press.

For me, it has cut both ways.  There has been press that has helped me, while at other times, has hurt.  What’s different for me, is that I haven’t cared either way, as my main priority has been to be true to myself.

Here’s an example of bad press that hurt me: I did it to myself — I knew it would hurt me, but did it anyway.  When Glinda Harrison was putting together skafish.com, I wanted her to mention when I started working full time as a psychic and spirit medium in the Timeline section of 1993.  I have been able to see things clairvoyantly from the time I was 14, and have since been able to talk with the dead most of my life (No, don’t think Satan or Marilyn Manson, lol!)  In fact, here’s another factoid that could hurt me: I am not Satanic at all, lol! 

People around me knew I would be laughed at…like, “Look what this nut case is doing now.  Now he’s having (ooooooooh…) visions?!”  And many people reacted exactly that way and made fun of me.  Of course punk and psychic haven’t traditionally ever gone together.  In fact, it’s obvious that the bulk of the punk, new wave, indie, and alternative audience would consider psychic ability somewhat of a joke, as it conjures up images of hokey gypsy fortunetellers in turbans.  I knew that, but did it anyway, as I have always been true to myself, and ahead of where society has been at.

In 1990, I was featured in a story in England’s New Musical Express.  It was about the most looney and insane rock stars of all time – sort of a where are the crazies now?  I was featured along with Keith Richards, Iggy Pop and other legendary rockers. 

Even though this could be considered negative press for some artists (where I’m portrayed as a fringe lunatic who is unable to function in proper society), it was good for me.  This is for the obvious reasons of being included with such great legendary icons, as well as the fact that it’s easy for people to digest and pigeonhole me as a lunatic.  So it makes sense to everyone’s limited perception of me, therefore, it’s OK:  “He’s the oddball nutcase with the nose bigger than Zappa’s and Townshend’s.  Is he really from another planet, and does he really have f****** tits?”  

Even though negative press sometimes doesn’t hurt an artist, again and again, bad press often does a lot of serious damage.  Often, these negative media debacles even come from the artist themselves.  The most recent example of this involved R&B singer Ashanti, in June of 2008.  To me, it’s hard to believe that her handlers and she actually came up with the strategy.  This “viral” marketing campaign was called a “Gotcha Gram,” designed to promote her new album, “The Declaration.”

There is a questionnaire on her website where one can fill in a person’s name to be sent an email with the following message: “Do you know the person pictured in the following video?  If so, please contact me immediately. Your life might be in danger.” The sender claimed to be a Detective James Nicholas, Director of Crime Prevention for the Universal Crime Network.   The email also indicated that you, (let’s say that your name is Cindy) could be the next victim, and that at the crime scene, the following message was scrolled in blood on a wall: “Cindy will die.”  

When you click on the link, what pops up is a false video news report about a series of supposed copycat murders that had been inspired by the R&B singer Ashanti’s music video “The Way That I Love You,” which is a song about a woman who discovers her boyfriend has been cheating.  In that video, Ashanti is clutching a butcher knife and dressed in a beaded gown.  She cries and sings about betrayal, with the boyfriend ending up dead in the bathtub.

Jealous lovers, according to the bogus report, were on a wild rampage — and the next victim, it implied, would be you (the recipient of the email). 

Predictably, there were protests regarding the “Gotcha Gram,” and it was taken down from Ashanti’s website not long after on June 12, 2008.  So how did this all shake out for Ashanti and her new album?  Sales for the first week for “the Declaration” were so-so for a major label artist: 80,000 units, but a far cry from the 400,000 units her debut album sold in its first week of sales six years ago.  Here, this press stunt may have brought attention to her, but certainly not the type of exposure that translates into success.  In fact, it may make her be perceived as desperate, disingenuous, and grasping for straws, which makes people shy away from her, as she is not perceived as “happening.”  It reminds me of that old 70’s song: “When you’re hot you’re hot, when you’re not you’re not.”

Most people somehow think that the more press you get, the more success you’ll get.  That simply is not true.  Where success is something we should all aspire to, however we individually define it, more and more press, especially negative press can create a dangerous, slippery slope that is largely uncontrollable. It can blow up right in one’s face!  We see, over and over, how press, especially sensationalistic and bad press, does an artist more harm than good in their careers; especially in the big picture and in the long run.  What does it matter if everybody knows your name and incessantly talks about you, but you’re not able to make a living from your work?

Back In The Day/Musings

Hindsight isn’t 20-20 – it might need bifocals…

Posted by Skafish on

Author’s Note: Club Foot is now closed.

On Friday, April 18 2008, Glinda Harrison, was emailing the Chicago Sun Times back and forth all afternoon.  Weeks ago, the paper had offered to do a feature story on me and my new CD:  “What’s This? 1976-1979,” which was released April 1, 2008.  I had an extensive and very pleasant interview with the writer, Jeff Johnson and the feature story first appeared on line Thursday, April 17, 2008 and in their print newspaper the next day on Friday.

As I was reading the story, I started noticing wrong dates and misstated facts (oh, no, not again – I was hoping I was hallucinating) — How I wish people would just get the facts right.  Especially in Chicago today, many people seem to not really have their facts correct regarding the birth of the Chicago punk scene:  correct dates, being historically accurate and stating what physically happened back in the day.

Chuck Uchida, who owns Club Foot, a club in Chicago that is dedicated to keeping it real and telling it like it was and is, told me that he refuses to speak with anyone anymore who claims to be doing a documentary or story about Chicago punk.  He recently shared with me how every single interview he has ever given about the scene was never quoted accurately or anywhere near correctly.  So he gave up.

There isn’t enough room in this writing to list the inaccurate stories that are told and sold today as factual, accurate and worst of all, historical regarding the beginning of Chicago punk.  The word ”history” is supposed to be synonymous with being factual, so there is a strong implication of accuracy that is always associated with that magic pill word “history.”   However, that just isn’t true in today’s climate of Chicago revisionist history where people just say whatever.

Let me say, that I completely differentiate between fact and opinion.  People can debate, argue, pontificate all millennium long till they’re dead on arrival blue in the face about who’s great and who sucks, etc.  That is their opinion!  But, to state wrong dates, leave out actual events that happened and attempt to rewrite history sold as fact, is completely another matter.

Here are the differences between the actual facts and what The Sun Times reported:

Sun Times story: Indicated more than one time that Skafish first appeared on the musical scene in 1979.
Fact: I debuted in Chicago in February 1976 and had already toured the United States, received international press coverage and was releasing my first record by 1979.

Sun Times story: I was the second US artist ever to be signed to IRS Records.
Fact: I was the first US artist ever to be signed to IRS Records and the second artist worldwide to ever be signed to the record label.

Sun Times story: My new CD features three late 70’s sessions.
Fact: My new CD features three sessions from the mid to late 70’s: August 1976, October 1977 and July/August 1978.

So after the continual stream of emails between the paper and us on Friday afternoon, April 18, 2008, the paper did change these inaccuracies and corrected them in their online version of the story, and I deeply thank them for that.  Their professionalism is something rarely scene in today’s Chicago climate.  However, they weren’t willing to issue a correction in their print version, as they didn’t feel that their errors were substantive enough to require one.  This is how false information often gets out there.  It is posted or printed somewhere, therefore, it is assumed as fact by everyone reading or hearing it.  It then seeps into the collective consciousness and people absorb it and parrot it.

The film You Weren’t There, claims to be a history of Chicago punk from 1977-1984.  Here was an opportunity for filmmaker Joe Losurdo to tell the world the actual truth and showcase what really happened back in the day in Chicago accurately.  I haven’t seen the film, but I can certainly share with you the facts as they pertain to me and what actually occurred.

The first rule of history is that you attempt to contact the people who were actually there at the time the historical events occurred if they’re still alive.  Since it is a simple fact that Skafish was performing in Chicago before any punk acts were on the scene at all, dating back to February 1976, it would be common sense for the filmmaker to contact me first.

In fact, there were no other Chicago punk acts on the scene till around the spring of 1977, which was over a year after I first debuted in Chicago.  By that time, Skafish had already:

  • Debuted in Chicago in February 1976
  • Performed in Northwest Indiana in the Summer of 1976
  • Recorded what are considered to be the first Chicago punk recordings ever, done in August 1976 (Now featured on my new CD “What’s This? 1976-1979”).
  • Performed a two month Chicago area club tour in the fall on 1976.
  • Caused a riot of 6,000 people opening for Sha Na Na at Chicago’s Arie Crown Theater on February 4, 1977, which received national press coverage.
  • Performed at CBGB’s in New York on April 12 and 13, 1977, which received national press coverage.

Since I wasn’t ever drunk or high, and didn’t let me band drink or get high ever, my band and I have crystal (not meth) clear memories of everything that happened then, LOL!  I could have offered the filmmaker a point of view as to how the Chicago scene came into being that no one else could – as no other performers were yet on the scene.

However, for whatever his reasons were, the Filmmaker did not make any attempt to contact me whatsoever until after he was 7 years into the project and almost ready to begin editing.  (And I am quite easy to contact.  Just Google my name and my website comes up first.  Go to the website’s contact form and send an email).  He first contacted me in the spring of 2007, where he only wanted to interview me regarding one single subject – the dance club La Mere Vipere.   I was actually surprised that he wasn’t interested in asking me about my early punk performances and the history of what truly happened back then.  And on such short notice, I wasn’t able to rearrange my schedule, as I was working on the “What’s This? 1976-1979” project myself.  Next, in September of 2007, he contacted me again, wanting to potentially use my song Disgracing The Family Name in the film.  My vice president Glinda Harrison told him that we would absolutely consider letting him use the song for free, but we needed to see the segments on Skafish in the film to verify the information for historical accuracy.  He promised to rush out a DVD to us, which he never sent.

Then, his film debuted in November 2007, where Skafish is only briefly mentioned:  not musically, not historically, but only in reference of all things – to the dance club La Mere Vipere, which I had nothing to do with creating.  Plus, La Mere Vipere was a very popular club and there are countless people out there who could talk about that.  According to a review of the film in the Chicago Reader, the film credits Tu Tu and The Pirates as the first Chicago punk band.  Funny, they used to open shows for me…like the changing of the seasons, see how history just keeps changing, lol.

The filmmaker also acknowledged to Glinda that he didn’t know how much had gone on in the early days.  So why not attempt to find out the truth?  I completely respect anyone’s right to say anything – but once you put the title of “history” on it, then there becomes a different threshold: one that needs objective, dispassionate and complete reporting.

There is an online punk Wiki called The Chicago Punk Database, where the Skafish entries are filled with inaccuracies.  Interestingly, earlier Skafish entries on this database were more accurate. Before, it stated that I did start the Chicago punk movement, and that I was the longest running Chicago punk artist – both of which are true.  Then, in the fall of 2007, out of the blue, I noticed that the accurate information had been replaced by completely inaccurate postings.  It is stated on the site to just edit as much as you want – so anyone can literally say anything?!?!?  So as revisionist history becomes perceived as objective fact, this data base changes however it fits people’s fancy.  Here, I would like to clarify the misconceptions about me, which once again are posted as fact:

Chicago Punk Database (as of this writing): Skafish first played CBGB’s in 1978.
Fact: Skafish first played CBGB’s in April 1977, then again in December 1977.

Chicago Punk Database (as of this writing): Skafish performed from 1976 to 1985.
Fact: Skafish performed consistently in Chicago and internationally, from February 1976 through October 1, 1994. These performances involved four separate bands, and the controversial Skafish solo show.

Chicago Punk Database (as of this writing): Skafish was not “Sonically” punk.
Fact: Skafish was “Sonically” punk, which is easily provable. If my work wasn’t “Sonically” punk, I would have never toured and / or performed with such first generation punk icons as Iggy Pop, The Ramones and The Stranglers, appeared in one of the most legendary punk / new wave concert films of all time, Urgh! A Music War, and also performed twice at CBGB’s in New York in 1977. Sid Vicious came to specifically see me perform in New York, which was his last public event. I wouldn’t have been there if I was just some weirdo fringe performance artist lunatic – I was there because I belonged there…Oops, maybe it was just for my good looks, lol!

Does the person or persons who posted these Chicago punk database Wiki entries know more about musical analysis than Cheap Trick, and music industry legend Miles Copeland who have both acknowledged that I started the Chicago punk movement?  Is he, she, or they a musicologist?  What does this person(s) know about the “sonic” aspects of punk? Who are they and what are their credentials?

So as the false information spreads, I hear “history” stated that doesn’t even take into account anything that happened in Chicago in 1976.  Why?  Because these people may have not been there.  So let’s disregard that time period, because so many people want to pretend that it is their scene.  If they were there in 1977, it all began in 1977.  I actually read different bands claiming to be among the first Chicago punk acts ever as late as 1980.  1980?  The scene had already morphed several times by then!  It’s also funny how I’ve been reduced to being a quirky little eccentric performance artist by some…I have devoted every day of my life since I was 6 years old to being the best musician, songwriter and singer that I could be.  Who I am on stage is just me being me; no theatrical training at all – in fact, I learned to dance avoiding things being thrown at me by audiences, LOL!

So you might ask why is so much inaccurate information out there in Chicago?  There are several reasons:
1) – Things get inaccurately stated in many forums: Print media, documentaries, online, etc and people just absorb it as fact and pass it on, without thinking about it or questioning the historical accuracy of the information.  And it may not be done with any negative intent toward anyone at all.

2) – Many are ignorant of the facts and it takes actual work and a dispassionate approach to really do the research correctly, so it’s easier to just say what you want and present inaccurate information, versus factual truth.

3) – People want to portray the truth as it suits them emotionally.  If they like an artist, well then that artist can be acknowledged.  Many people back then as well as still today within the Chicago punk scene were too put off by Skafish.  I call it “Conforming to non-conformity.”  There’s acceptable punk with all of its clichés and predictabilities, and then there’s Skafish.

So if you don’t happen to like someone who is too “out there” like me, just write them off, marginalize them in a little corner and simply dismiss them.  Recently, writer Jake Austen offered an interesting perspective in a story he wrote about my new CD in the magazine Time Out Chicago on April 3, 2008.  The title, “Jim Skafish was too punk for Chicago,” suggests that what I did back then went too far aesthetically for what the Chicago punk scene could handle.

5) – According to rock legends Cheap Trick who were at my shows from the beginning, the problem was that other bands in Chicago were too envious of Skafish, because I set the musical bar so high that no one else in Chicago could top it.  I have no idea it that is true or not – I was busy fearing for my safety and my life at the time, LOL!  Plus, I don’t feel completive with other artists – I support them and try to help them achieve their dreams.

So in the spirit of truth, let’s here from just a few people who WERE there and what they have to say about all of this:

* Cheap Trick, one of the most famous rock bands in Chicago history, wrote the liner notes for my new CD, “What’s This? 1976-1979.”  They said in April 2007: “Unpredictable, over the top, with life or death conviction and reckless abandon, Skafish created Punk, New Wave and Alternative Rock in Chicago.”

* Miles Copeland is one of the most significant international figures to the birth of punk, new wave, alternative and indie rock of all time.  Beside booking the Sex Pistols on their first ever European tour, being the first to bring such artists as Blondie, Wayne County, Patti Smith, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, John Cale and Television to the UK, Copeland founded one of the most important record companies regarding punk, new wave, alternative and indie rock of all time, the now legendary IRS Records. Miles has worked with such legends as Sting and The Police, REM and the Go-Go’s to name a few.

In January 2008, Miles said: “Jim Skafish was one of the geniuses I thought I could give to the world, but the world wasn’t ready!  As a pioneer, innovator and someone who was just too hard to classify, I realize now that all he did way back then was what the musical world would eventually become.  He helped put Chicago on the map as the pioneer of Punk and New Wave there and on the international stage, gave audiences a really insane ride.”

* Bob Kurson, formerly a feature writer for The Chicago Sun-Times, whose stories have appeared in Rolling Stone and The New York Times Magazine, and is now a contributing editor to Esquire, wrote in the Sunday, August 11th, 1996 issue of The Chicago Sun-Times, in an article entitled, Spirit Lives on for Chicago Punk Pioneers:

“Jimmy Skafish broke punk in Chicago in 1976 during an audition night at the now-defunct B’Ginnings nightclub in Schaumburg.  Wearing an old ladies one-piece bathing suit and a purple page boy haircut, Skafish sprinkled the crowd with holy water while spewing bilious, fury-driven songs that terrified the entirely unsuspecting crowd.  It was the first of countless performances at which the audience would literally desire to kill the outrageous singer, but it was also the birth of punk in Chicago….”

If  I was worried about popularity, I would have never been able to do what I did and am still doing.  (People use to tell me to get a nose job and boobs reduction – no kidding!!!!)  I take great pride in knowing that even portions of the Chicago punk community couldn’t handle what I did back then and now — not just the mullet shag haircut dudes and dudettes who were diggin’ Frampton, but the supposed hipsters who were just as myopic then as they are now in their lack of acceptance of challenging art.

I don’t care about how people perceive me, but I have always cared about the facts and that they now need to be stated correctly.  Even if I am one of the only people willing to do so, I will make sure to get historically accurate information out there through writing, film, video, interviews, radio, television and commentary to anyone and everyone who cares about knowing the truth.  Chicago is a great city, and deserves better than what it has already been spoon-fed regarding stories and documentaries that don’t portray the past accurately or correctly at all.   Like John Lennon said, “All I want is a little truth!”

Back In The Day/Musings

Jimmy, did you really push Joan down the stairs?

Posted by Skafish on

When most composers write songs, they rarely write lyrics that are stated as literal prose.  Imagine if the following were the words to a new hit single: “I was walking down the street and happened to meet up with John who I had a conversation with.  John said, “Hello fella, long time no see, should we go out to lunch some time?  I work till five o’clock every day except this Saturday”—STOP!!!  Could you imagine a lyric like that, yet alone trying to sing it?  It would be so dreadfully boring that it wouldn’t even be funny as a HA HA HA Parody. (LOL)

Lyrics, like poetry, provide an often-different less pragmatic mode of verbal communication from conventional linear writing.  With lyrics, the lines, parameters and structures are less literal, more open-ended and far blurrier.  (For example: I remember hearing David Bowie talking about cutting up lyric lines and words and sort of arranging them all together). When interviewed, Mick Jagger said that when he’s writing a song, he first writes down the words strictly as prose.  Then he adapts the words and works with them to becoming a lyric.

Lyrics are often metaphorical on purpose.  I’ve heard many artists say that they would like to have the listener take whatever they feel (in a sense whatever they want) from a lyric – not shove the lyric down someone’s throat as a verbatim statement.  Kurt Cobain had commented that literal lyrics were one-dimensional and boring and that he tried to keep his lyrics blurry.  With that blur, there are many potential interpretative possibilities. It’s sort of the difference between looking at a clear simple picture, versus an image with multiple dimension, shades, hues, textures, layers and even effects.

Some lyrics are stream of consciousness as in Walk This Way by Aerosmith or Come Together by John Lennon while he was still a member of the Beatles.  These lyrics can take the listener on a sort of surreal journey, as these words often filter up from the subconscious of the writer.

Most people don’t have any problem with the above-mentioned styles of lyrics.  They can be interesting, open to interpretation and thought provoking.  What people usually do have a problem with though are the types of lyrics that dramatize a situation, often violently.  A lot of people, especially non-music fans take these lyrics as being the gospel truth of the writer – as if the lyricist meant every word completely graphically.  Especially if it’s violent, it would be presumably stated strongly, therefore, it incites reactions in people who don’t understand the art form as a medium or the real meaning behind the song.

Of course, Rapper Ice T didn’t really mean that he was plotting to go out and kill policeman in his song Cop Killer.  The song came out originally on Body Count in 1992, an album by the rap & heavy metal band of the same name which Ice-T had been fronting.  Said Ice-T, “I’m singing in the first person as a character who is fed up with police brutality.”  Ice T considered Cop Killer to be a protest song.

However, the song wasn’t perceived simply as a protest song by a portion of society that was loud and vocal regarding their disdain for the song.  In addition to the actual lyrics, the fact that he is a rapper and that the music itself sounded intense, are all contributing factors to people’s supposed outrage.  Ice T received intense protests, pressure and death threats from the police, government and conservative social groups and shortly afterwards, the offending song was removed from the record.  In the next year, Warner Brothers dropped both the band and Ice-T as a solo artist from their label roster.

Ice T ran into his problem regarding Cop Killer with the general public (the police and the good law abiding citizen thing) but certainly not his fan base.  His fan base loved the song and identified with it largely from the vantage point of an “internal revenge fantasy” based on getting even with the police, who may have oppressed them or treated them unjustly, especially in the inner city.

I ran into a problem too, for my song Joan Fan Club which was released on my first LP in 1980, but for me, it was the complete opposite problem that Ice T dealt with in Cop Killer.

In the song Joan Fan Club, I put myself in the role of the ringleader, summoning the troops (in this instance the cheerleaders, jocks and normal popular kids in high school) to attack Joan (who was fat and ugly.)  I wanted to make the song as vile, disgusting and intense as I could!  Yes, I meant every word of it!  I was going to recreate the drama and make people live through it!  That would make my point – Live through this and see how it feels!

Here is an example of the lyrics:
Joan is the girl she waddles in class
I’m gonna stick some thumbtacks in her back
Gonna push her down gonna spray her with mace
Gonna touch her little pizza face

Joan is the girl we make her cry
She shivers and shakes on Friday night
Gonna egg her house throw some trophies too
Joan we’ve made this fan club just for you!

Can I have your autograph?
Hey fat pig we’re gonna push you down the stairs
That’s right we’re gonna touch your little pizza face
FAT! Hey fatty, you’re a real fox
You know the whole school wants to go out with you
Written in 1977 – © 1979 Skafish

Skafish performs with cheerleadersSomething I didn’t expect though, was that many people took these lyrics as literal.  You might ask, “Why shouldn’t they?  You sang them and wrote them, didn’t you?”  I erroneously assumed that EVERYBODY would know that I didn’t really mean that I was intending on acting out these lyrics or advocating for anyone to do so for that matter.  How could they?  That me of all people: someone with a nose the size of an adult man’s small penis, boobs, huge feet, dressing strangely and wearing make up was going to attack someone in school — like I would even have the nerve to think of doing so for one minute!  I was busy fearing for my physical safety every day — not attacking “fat and ugly” girls.  Remember kiddies, Jimmy wasn’t the prom king! (LOL)

The problem started with the fact that my fan base really liked it – they loved Joan Fan Club!  They perceived me as mean spirited, clever and oh so cynical!  The song mirrored their own viciousness vicariously lived out through the song and me and their post teenage angst holographic illusion they created of me.  On top of that, they damn well expected me to live up to it – I better call them, or at least someone remotely fat and ugly names if they were in my presence, especially if others were near.

It really kicked into gear when Glinda Harrison and I first launched skafish.com in October 2000.  We started getting emails from the vast world of cyberspace where fans were initially cordial and I responded back to them.  Then suddenly, they viciously turned on me!  I committed a horrible sin!  One worthy of a lifetime of eternal damnation…I was (I can barely get it out – I’m choking up right now – please be delicate with me) nice to them.  OK—I finally said it!  I WAS NICE TO THEM!  (Please don’t tell anybody) –I was actually friendly!  Don’t hate me, please…

“Jimmy, did you really push Joan down the stairs?  And if you didn’t you are a complete Official Joan Fan Club underwearfake and sellout” was the gist of some of these emails received via skafish.com.  These kinds of “fans” (term used loosely) tried to pigeonhole me.  Now that’s funny!  Anyone who knows me or has listened to any of my work should know that I can’t and won’t be reduced to one-dimensional shtick – disingenuously living up to the fans expectations, keeping the gravy train rolling.  If I was ever going to do that, I would have played it safe from the beginning – and playing it safe in the music business is very simple.  As an artist, you attempt to live up to the expectations of your fan base.  It is just like being a politician and playing up to your constituency.  Whether in music or politics, it really means that you better be pretty darn one-dimensional: not complex, contradictory or multi faceted.  I remember hearing Nikki Sixx of Motley Cure laughingly saying that his group would lose their audience if that audience thought The Crue drank milk.

I’ve lost fans many times throughout my career by not living up to their expectations and by following my own singular artistic evolution.  Honestly, that’s quite fine with me and I don’t mean that in a quasi defensive way.  I’m happiest being me and yes, I am a very complex and hard to define individual.  I could never make performing and creating similar to a predictable office job…Why do it then?

Just a few weeks ago I actually ran in the same problem with being pigeonholed once again.  This time, the vicious attack was based on me doing something oh so bad – eternally sinful…oh my God, I’m going to be hated by everyone forever now — What would the punk and punkettes think of this?

I created a Christmas Jazz album?!?!  Yes, the same person who spewed sacrilegious lyrics, sprinkled authentically blessed Catholic Water on audiences throughout the world, made a Christmas Jazz record, with no shocking lyrics – or any lyrics at all!?!?

But this person who posted the nasty review was so uninformed that he actually thought that I (Joan Fan Club Skafish) wasn’t me (Christmas Jazz album Skafish.)  Believe it or not, he actually thought that I was a different Skafish and there were two Skafishes.  He couldn’t even begin to perceive that someone who did Joan Fan Club could have POSSIBLY did the Christmas Jazz record “Tidings Of Comfort And Joy: A Jazz Piano Trio Christmas.” Here is the one star review he wrote which was posted on iTunes:

Not THAT Skafish
Looking for “Joan Fan Club” or the quaint Christmas fave “Disgracing the Family Name?” Then go on, New Wave Seekers, because this is not that Skafish.

A common musically-gifted name. Like “Partridge”? XTC vs the lovely group with David Cassidy, methinks.

This pigeonholing process I’ve been through also reminds me of a story Andy Prieboy told me in the late 1980’s.  Andy and I went to high school together and played in a couple of bands back then – him as a singer and me as a keyboardist.  One of the bands, a group I formed called Sway, played at our prison camp high school auditorium, Bishop Noll Institute in 1973 and because the road crew was smoking pot backstage, we were banned from ever playing there again.  For those of you who don’t already know, Andy replaced Stan Ridgeway as the singer of Wall Of Voodoo and had international success in the 1980’s.

When Andy came back home to East Chicago Indiana to visit in the late 1980’s we reconnected.  Months later, he was back in Los Angeles, and when I flew there to perform for the IRS Records 10 year Anniversary in September 1989, I saw Andy again and played keyboards on some of his tracks in the studio.

Andy was talking about the international press core that he experienced traveling with Wall Of Voodoo and made the comment that the press wanted, expected, even demanded that he be a complete A**Hole.  After all, what else is a rock star?  And if you’re a real rock star, you must: do heroin, be rude, violent, not show up for gigs, puke in public, be tortured and act out and treat the press like shit.  Obligatorily, you must be arrested at least once!  Here, the press tried to pigeonhole him.

My typecasting problem with Joan Fan Club was different from Andy’s as it wasn’t from the press — and it wasn’t with overweight support groups protesting the song and calling me an insensitive person to people of plus size – like “I’m fat and I still love myself.  Let’s ban this terrible song Joan Fan Club.”

It was the simple fact that some of my fan base didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t the snotty monster my song so virally portrayed.  The song was supposed to emulate something quite ugly, even diabolically despicable about how horrible high school life can be for those who aren’t popular.  Joan Fan Club was about real life experience – my life experience – and I was going to damn well tell it my way – the way it actually happened.  I just put myself in the role of the attacker to make it as real as I possibly could and have the maximum impact I could hurl out to the world from my inner rage!  (Journalists knew the song was autobiographical by proxy, so I assumed everyone else would too.)

YES, I WAS JOAN!!!!!   As with most of my songs, Joan fan Club was about intense and confrontational social commentary – it wasn’t pretty what I went through – so the song wasn’t going to be pretty!  I was the one who was pushed down the stairs, attacked everyday – and threatened always.  My home was attacked – there was no place of safety  – the monster of abuse created the rage and that rage created the art which I am proud of for the guts it took to do it!

In reflecting upon what Ice T, Andy Prieboy, myself or any artist has been through regarding how the world as a whole reacts to what we create, perhaps it is always most important to remember to simply be who you are – just be you!  That has always been my philosophy.  Keep it simple!  Keep it real!  Keep it true!  It doesn’t matter at all what anyone thinks!

For the compromises one incurs to “make it,” the price tag is just not worth it: loss of self-respect, cynicism, losing your fire to create what only you can create and worst of all, boredom.  For Ice T, he was expressing his rage from the inner city – for Andy, why should he try to live up to a farcical “A**hole boy” stereotypic image of what the press core demands?  For me, I would never make fun of someone or be mean spirited to impress my supposed fans!  I wrote Joan Fan Club as a vehicle of social commentary, awareness, confrontation, purging and ultimately healing, even though some people didn’t really ever “get it.”

Let me know what you think!

Jim (not Joan) Skafish


Musings

Bleeped Again

Posted by Skafish on

When Glinda Harrison, the vice president for my new record company, 829 Records, was making a one sheet for radio, (a one page description that goes out to radio stations detailing a new release) for my new CD What’s This? 1976-1979, she ran into a little problem. In going over the 11 studio recordings included on the CD, she realized something. The lyrics for many of the songs, 4 in fact, might not pass FCC clean regulations. It has been over thirty years since I wrote and recorded most of these songs and I had completely forgotten how challenging the lyrics are – even still by today’s standards.

It may not be what you think, though. When you think of “dirty” lyrics, you think of the F word, swearing like a sailor and repeatedly referring to genitals in pornographic action. I would never resort to such things like using the F word, or pointlessly swearing in a recording. That’s the easy way to express something – and it means virtually nothing, especially after you’ve heard F*** F*** F*** a few times. For me, I always wanted to make my point through content and I would never say anything merely for shock value – it has always been about social commentary and heartfelt message for me. Besides, that, what’s shocking about the F word anymore? I hear 7th graders walking home from school passing in front of my house using it loudly every day.

The problem is that much of what I’ve always written about are issues that society just likes to sweep under the rug; hot buttons for most people psychologically and emotionally; things you just don’t write songs about. Whether from blatantly sacrilegious themes before anyone had done so to pedophilia just to name a few, my songs have always gotten me in trouble. It was startling for me to realize that I might have to face the same issues today, over thirty years later.

So Glinda asked me what do we do. As my new label, 829 Records, which I founded in late 2006, was specifically designed to give me the vehicle to release my music absolutely uncensored, as I have been victimized by censorship many times before throughout my entire career, there was really no question at all. “We’ll just put it out there as it is,” I responded. I would never in a million years think of bleeping out lyrics. (a common technique today, which gives the illusion of danger, while still ultimately playing it quite safe, because MTV, VHI and radio can still play it then). If your work is really dangerous or cutting edge, you don’t bleep out the lyrics for anyone or anything and make it; of all things, toned down dangerous – what an absolute oxy moron that is! In addition to that, you certainly don’t do clean versions for Wal Mart. What’s interesting about all of this though, is how it has become acceptable. Does anyone really complain that artists do clean radio / video versions all the time nowadays? Like with anything, if enough people do it, it sort of becomes culturally the norm – therefore, it’s A-OK.

To me, it is completely hypocritical and so utterly disingenuous to see a video on MTV where every twenty words or so, someone’s mouth is moving but the lyrics just are missing in action. Wait? Did the sound go out? Is there something wrong with my TV? But…I still hear the drums – not just the lyrics… OOHH! I get it! Bad words. To me, that is the ultimate sellout! If you really have something to say, your art has meaning to you and you feel it, then don’t bleep it! There is no such thing as acceptably dangerous – any more that a woman can claim that she is partially pregnant, or someone declare that they have a touch of cancer. If people don’t play it or even if they decide to attack the work and boycott it, so be it. That’s how I have always looked at it and exactly how I will always deal with it. I have to answer to myself, as we all do and the only person you can never escape from is you. I don’t want to be in conflict with myself – I need to be able to respect my choices.

However, there was still the lingering question of what do to with our little radio one sheet. In thinking about it, Glinda came up with a great idea. On the one sheet, we’ll put an asterisk next to the 4 track titles that contain questionable lyrics that says: To determine FCC clean status complete lyrics available at 829records.com. We’ll print all of the complete lyrics on the website, word-by-word, so this way, anyone at radio can see and decide for themselves. I’m not someone who’s going to try and slip one by the radio stations, which takes away their choice; I can face the music. (PTN=Pardon the Pun)

Below are the songs and the lyrics issues in question:

Track 1) Executive Exhibitionist (Recorded 8-76)
And when the kids out of class
Go snatch one quick down with you pants
Exposed!…
Flip flop flip flop your pee pee ‘round
Doodle it doodle it up and down
Gobs of pleasure you receive
Just watching all the children scream
Exposed!…
© 2007 Skafish

Track 2) Knuckle Sandwich (Recorded 8-76)
Your stomach is mush and you walk like a fag…
Wait till the bell rings I’m a kickin’ your ass…
© 2007 Skafish

Track 7) Sign Of The Cross (Recorded 10-77)
Do a genuflection
Maybe you will get a huge erection
Doin’ the Sign of the Cross…
© 1977 Skafish

Track8) No Liberation Here (Recorded 10-77)
Bury my head and face in crappy toilet water in shit…
© 1977 Skafish

 

I remember back on February 4, 1977, I was opening for 1950’s act Sha Na Na at the Arie Crown Theater in Chicago to an audience of 6,000. Mother’s were covering their children’s eyes, people were throwing things at the stage, and the police stopped the show. I certainly resented being censored in that moment, but hey, looking back on it after all, the crowd was engaging in an all out riot. (LOL)

It was even worse when I was censored, not by society, but by my own team. In November of 1982, Miles Copeland, CEO of IRS Records, the label I was signed to at the time was so shocked and offended by the second album I turned in, he refused to release it. Keep in mind, that IRS Records has been considered one of the most progressive and groundbreaking record companies of all time. With graphic descriptions of a sex change operation, (Let’s Play Doctor) methodically depicting murdering an upper class family through home invasion simply because they were normal, (Home Invader) Miles refused to have any part of putting this music out there. It shocked even him!

It happened again, when on Labor Day in 1992, I was hired to play in Park Forest Illinois at a Jaycees festival. When the person there originally booked me, he asked me if I would consider censoring my show. Even though I was flat broke at the time, with not enough money to pay my bills, I flatly told him no. So after he thought about it for a few days, he said that he was OK with the show as it was and for me to just do what I do.

Skafish and ChristyHowever, the rest of the Jaycees committee were not OK with this idea and during my performance, they were watching every move I was making on stage, waiting for one of the moments they were anticipating. One of my songs from that era where I performed my controversial solo show was named Christy, and it was about a girl on a phone sex line. I used a real life blow up doll on stage where I would jam the dolls crotch in audience members faces, hump the doll and roll around with the doll myself. I did the song about mid way through my set, and by that point in the show, the audience was mixed. The kids were really digging it and the elders were getting pretty uncomfortable, so the tension was building. During the first verse of Christy, I took the doll, spread her legs wide open, and positioned the crotch to ram it right into an audience member’s mouth, a woman who seemed to be OK with it. As soon as the doll’s crotch touched the woman’s mouth — BOOM! Instantly — DEAD SILENCE…. No sound – no lights, as if the world stopped dead in its tracks and froze…everything and everyone seemed in suspended animation – freeze framed…The show was over… they were ready and waiting for this moment so they could immediately pull the plug and did so, in a New York second.

In the newspaper story about the incident a few days later, the Jaycees recited the most idiotic reason always given for stopping a show – those lily white, 1950’s Leave It To Beaver, no one has wild sex (or any sex for that matter) community standards. What does that really mean? Are there standards that represent an entire community: different races, religions, sexual orientations, gender, ages and artistic preferences? Does everybody in a community feel the same about anything? Of course not. What “community standards” really means, is that you pander to the loudest, most judgmental (presumably religious) conservatives, who think anyone who believes anything other than them, is destined for eternal fire in hell, with a devil icon overseeing the proceedings. Who ever sets these standards? Is every single person who lives there and pays taxes polled? Does everyone really have a voice?

To reinforce that point, many audience members opposed them stopping the show and stated so in the article, believing that I had the right to free expression. It’s like the one mother who writes a corporation up in arms, threatening this and that, to boycott and stop buying their products, if they don’t placate her. Like the wimps they are, they usually suck up to her and tone it all down – to make it safe, nice and lame. And it’s not done for moral reasons – it is merely done for fear of income loss.

However, the supposed hip rock ‘n’ roll outlets pull the same stunt, but love to claim that they would never do so to protect their “cutting edge” reputation. In 2006, I kept getting emails from people telling me that they were seeing the film I was in, Urgh! A Music War on VH1 but my number, Sign Of The Cross was always left out. Funny… Why would my number, the finale, right before the encore where I join Sting and The Police, with XTC on stage, be cut?

Let me connect the dots for you. In 2005, Viacom, the corporation which owns both the Comedy Central channel and VH1, pulled a South Park episode from the air called Bloody Mary, where the virgin Mary was depicted bleeding from the vagina, which was to be shown on the Comedy Central channel. Of course, the Catholic league, along with others had a total fit about this episode and pressured Viacom to pull the episode. Just think, if Mary’s crotch was bloody, we might all, along with the planet, all animal and plant life, go into extinction forever! (LOL)

So anyway, Viacom caved in and pulled the episode (isn’t it ironic, though – later, they claimed that not airing the episode had absolutely nothing to do with the pressure they had received. (RC=Real Comedy) Well, who also owns VH1? Viacom does. So with Sign Of The Cross, they would potentially face the same problem. With lyrics such as, “Do a genuflection – Maybe you will get a huge erection,” while I’m swinging church incense and sprinkling the audience with authentic blessed (by a priest) holy water (from an authentic religious supply store) on the audience, there could be a real problem. So I got censored again.

Another number they pulled from Urgh! was by the Cramps, a group I performed with at CBGB’s in late 1977. In the number, the singer, Lux Interior, was putting a microphone in his mouth, sucking it, licking it, caressing it like a big erect penis – WAIT! He might be (don’t even say it out loud…) gay! Oh my God! If children see this, every young male in this country will be engaged in a continuing chain of anal sex with each other from coast to coast. (LOL) The Cramps number, in my opinion, was one of the true highlights of the film, powerful and raw.

With censorship, it’s always the things that need to be heard that get suppressed. Whether vulgar, crude, innovative, revolutionary or transformational for the greater good, let it all be heard. And with community standards being the issue, those standards, illusive at best, represent a minority – just a loud, up tight and vocal one. Maybe radio will play the songs on What’s This 1976-1979 or perhaps, some of these lyrics still can’t be aired on the radio even today – but that’s OK with me either way. At least, this work can finally be out there, for the world to decide for themselves: uncensored, truthful, not compromised and totally real, as it should have always been, and now, will always be.

Jim Skafish

© 2008 Skafish

[tiny_coffee]

Back In The Day/Musings

How I ended up in the grocery store with Joey Ramone

Posted by Skafish on

As the first Chicago punk/new wave/alternative artist ever to play the legendary CBGB’s in New York on April 12th and 13th 1977, my band and I were excited to first bring Chicago punk to New York.  At the time, we were all between the ages of 17 and 20 with the only exception being my 23-year-old drummer.  With all of us still living at home, our parents paid for our trip, thankfully, since we weren’t earning enough money as a band to pay for our little excursion.  As we navigated the trip, some of the band and road crew decided to ride in my drummer Larry Mysliwiec’s old green van, while the rest of us flew.  Along with my band came my road crew who were the people who assisted with the practical matters of musical gear, sound and stage set up.  In addition, those wild freaky friends of mine notoriously referred to as the Skafish entourage also joined in for the adventure

Right as we were just beginning our descent from high in the skies to landing at JFK airport in New York, I noticed Skafish entourage member Steve who was sitting right next to me.  He had cupped his hands together and was throwing up because he took too many drugs on the plane flight there.  It added an extra sense of tension to the landing for all of us, but luckily, Steve didn’t OD through the plane touching down.  Unfazed, however, he returned to doing drugs shortly afterwards.  I was adamant that my band and I were to never do drugs or drink and we didn’t, but preventing my entourage was a different matter, of course.  I wasn’t their daddy and mommy!

A while after checking into our hotel, it was time to go down to the club.  Carrying an oversized powder blue suitcase, I remember walking down the street toward CBGB’s along with some of my road crew and entourage, taking in what was around me.  The neighborhood looked dingy, dark, desolate and felt tough, just like the city I was raised in, East Chicago, Indiana.  As this was my first trip to the Big Apple, I was somehow expecting that sense of “the glitz and glamour of New York,” but instead we were in the run down and dismal Bowery, not strolling down Park Avenue.  As I entered the club, I psychically absorbed the feeling of a sense of cool detachment and dinginess, not the feeling of excitement that one would think comes with entering an important rock ‘n’ roll haunt.  No one there really seemed to be thought of or treated like a star.  I immediately met Hilly Krystal, owner of CBGB’s who was quite friendly and nice to me.  My first impression of Hilly was that he was tough, not intimidated by anyone, surprisingly open and non-pretentious. “Welcome. You’re a member of the club” was the feeling I felt emanating from him toward me.

Along with my large suitcase, I settled monetarily in the dressing room while taking in the surroundings: the club house pooch, a Doberman pincher who pooped virtually everywhere and all of the Ramones who were in attendance for both nights of my shows.  I also noticed Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys who seemed to be working as a waiter in the club at the time.  Various photographers who were there to capture Skafish, local punks and a journalist from Variety magazine (who ended up writing a nasty review about us) filled out the room.   My entourage for this trip included the Twiggy Girls: one 17-year-old girl named Donna and a boy named Michael who was 19, both of whom I went to high school with.  They dressed as identical clones of Twiggy the model: mini skirts, matching wigs, identical outfits, giggling in unison while walking and dancing as one.  As they settled in, the Twiggy girls started mingling around the room and flirted with everyone in sight.  The dressing room, which was shaped and sized like a narrow pantry with no door on it, had tons of graffiti on the walls — repeatedly saying, “Brian Jones is alive!”

I observed Joey Ramone walking from the front part of the club where the audience was all the way past the dressing room where I was to the back of the club which led to the john.  Don’t call it a bathroom – certainly not a restroom!  It had tons of graffiti, smelled horribly and lacked privacy, which made it really tough for girls.  On his second pass by me, I yelled out, “Hey, Joey.”  I remember not being sure if he just didn’t hear me or was ignoring me.  Then, a few minutes later on his third pass, Joey stopped and looked at me and said, “Is this the world famous Jim Skafish?”  I was startled, yet I also felt immediately comfortable in his energies, so we just started talking and got acquainted.  After our conversation, I did my first set.  The audience was into what we were doing, cool, (what does one expect – this was New York?) somewhat taken a back by the strangeness of the performance yet not violent as so many of the Chicago audiences had been toward us since we debuted in February 1976.

I next crossed paths a few months later with Joey and the Ramones in the summer of 1977 when the Skafish band opened for The Ramones at Club B’Ginnings in Schaumburg Illinois.  All of the wonderful free spirited punk and punkette kids from the city hijacked a bus to the show, so this upper end rock club looked like it was invaded from another planet, the planet I come from.  I like to think of it as Planet Skafish, where anyone can look like and absolutely be anything they want to be and the idea is to perpetually not conform.  That is the real spirit of punk!  As a true event to remember, there was such a tremendous aura of excitement for both the Ramones and my band from the audience that night.  Right after I stripped down to an old ladies old-fashioned one-piece bathing suit with babushka, we went into our set finale, “Sign of the Cross.”  I was dousing the audience with authentic blessed Catholic holy water (from a religious supply store) when I noticed Taco Ramone coming on stage in sunglasses defiantly holding a beer mug in his hand.  Taco Ramone wasn’t actually a Ramone, but a really great guy who worked at La Mere Vipere, the club which converted from being a gay bar to Chicago’s first punk dance club in May 1977.  At first I was confused, as I was used to being physically threatened and attacked while on stage, but Taco wasn’t doing anything except standing at one end of the stage, looking tough.  Later that night he told me that he was on stage just in case anyone there got out of hand and tried to rush the stage to harm us.  He was ready to protect us, but there turned out to be no need, luckily.

We played CBGB’s again back to back for two nights in early December of 1977, this time with the Cramps.  There was an obsessed Cramps fan at the front of the stage who literally screamed throughout their entire set at such an ear shattering volume that I could continually hear her above the PA back in the dressing room directly behind the stage.  The Ramones were on tour at this time, so we didn’t get to see each other this trek. At one point during my set, Skafish guitarist / vocalist Karen Winner was singing a portion of the Bobby Darin classic, “Beyond the Sea.”  For this piece, I was sitting down like a toddler on stage playing with a bright rainbow colored beach ball.  Then, I kept giving it to a guy at the front of the stage but he didn’t want it at all… so he gave it back to me – then I gave it back to him more forcefully… then he threw it back at me — I threw it harder at him…this kept going on and on until he turned around and stormed out of the club in disgust — but I did get to keep my beach ball.  Both our April and December 1977 shows at CBGB’s led to our first international feature story in England’s New Musical Express in April 1978.  Written by legendary punk writer Mykel Board and entitled: “New Messiah Scores With Deviants,” the story also featured pictures he had taken of us at CBGB’s.  His story introduced Skafish into international consciousness.

In the summer of 1978, we opened for The Ramones a second time at Club Monopoly in Chicago.  We finished sound check around dinner time, and Joey came up to me and said, “Come on with me.”  When I first met Joey in April of 1977, I felt an immediate connection, kinship and camaraderie with him as we were both social misfits; he didn’t fit in and I obviously didn’t either.  Joey always seemed quite introverted to me and in a way, uncomfortably shy.  He wasn’t stereotypic in any way, didn’t open up to people easily, had a hard time finding a girlfriend, all of which I quite loved about him.  So I thought it would be great to go wherever Joey wanted me to go and we left the club.  As we were walking down the street I was not at all sure of our destination, how long it would take and what we were going to do, but I was fine.  People were gawking at us a lot and I liked that.

Skafish: “Joey, why did you guys get a new drummer?” (Original drummer Tommy Ramone had been recently replaced by Marky Ramone who had previously played with Richard Hell.)

Joey: “Tommy just freaked out.  One day when we were on tour, and he just jumped out of the van and completely freaked out.”  Tommy said, “That’s it!  I’m not going to tour ever again.”

Skafish: Is he OK?  I hope he’s OK.  What about your new album? (They were doing “Road To Ruin,” their fourth LP.)

Joey: “We did some county and western on it!  We did some ballads too.” (The references here presumably are to the tracks “Don’t Come Close” and “Needles and Pins

About ten minutes later we finally arrived at our destination.  No it wasn’t a hip record store or a thrift shop with bizarre tattered vintage clothes – of all places, it was a grocery store filled with suburban housewives and screaming kids.  Why were we there?  What could we possibly be doing at a grocery store?  I walked in alongside Joey, who was a bit taller than me.  I’m about 6’3” maybe 6’4” and I would put Joey at about 6’5” or 6’6.”  Joey looked like he always did: ripped blue jeans, plain canvas tennis shoes, his trademark black leather jacket and sunglasses which I observed to be prescription sunglasses, not just vanity shades.  I had on torn and tattered boys swim trunks, which I had pushed up my rear crack to let my fanny cheeks hang out and a too tight t-shirt on.

Right away, my first instinct was to go into survival mode. OK, who’s gonna attack us?  Where are the exits if we have to make a run for it?  If we have to, we’ll fight back!  So we kept on walking and of course, the “normals” were staring.  To me, it’s hysterical to speculate on what they could have thought: “Did they just get out of a mental institution?”  Better yet, “Did they ESCAPE from a psych ward and should we call somebody right away to take them back where they belong, maybe the fire department or the police?”

There’s a reason why I’m saying “mental institution.”  In April of 2007, I was speaking on the phone with Dave Frey, the manager of the Ramones.  He told me a story that years ago, the Ramones pulled into a 24 hour self service gas station/quick mart late one night in Texas.  All four Ramones and their road manger went into the store while getting gas and bought a couple of items.  When the band went back to the van and their road manger was still in the store at the counter, the cashier, an elderly woman said reverently and sincerely to him, “Sir, it is so kind of you to take them out of the mental institution and watch over them like this.  God bless you.”

Back to the grocery store — Somehow, reflexively, my next mode of thought was to observe Joey and how he was handling all of this.  I started monitoring him as I tuned out the surroundings: bright garish overhead lighting, sales on produce signs, screaming kids etc… Joey remained stoic and unfazed, walking deliberately with a sense of being quite closed off to whatever and whoever was around us.  That was his way of being cool, as if he had already learned survival skills for these types of situations.  In that moment, I remember admiring his detachment, as I was much more sensitive to whatever and whoever was around me.

Then we reached our destination.  No it wasn’t for beer, Coca Cola, or even a little snack before the show – It was… cosmetics!?  I was in disbelief.  Not because I wouldn’t go to cosmetics, but because I would have never thought that Joey Ramone would be shopping in cosmetics.  Why were we in cosmetics amidst a bunch of made up sales women trying to sell Estee Lauder and hypo allergenic foundation to upper middle class housewives?  As we were standing at the cosmetics counter, looking like the oddest freakiest couple on planet earth, it dawned on me that everyone in the grocery store might just be afraid of us – in their minds, we could maybe be criminals…  So I just stood alongside Joey, quietly and observationally.  He bought two items: cover stick and face powder.  I probably looked like a person who had just been punked, or frozen in time – like when you’re mind goes completely blank for a moment…Where am I?  What’s my name again?  What day is today?  I can’t quite recall…

Then all these analytical thoughts started racing through my head:  If Joey is wearing his sunglasses which he always wears on stage, why would he buy cover stick, you know, to put under his eyes to hide bags and dark circles?  Who would ever see under his eyes anyway with his sunglasses on?  Why face powder?  His hair covers most of his face on stage, the glasses cover the rest, so what is it for?  I never did bother to ask him why, but I figured, “Hey, it’s perfect.  Why not?”  We maybe startled some housewives and that’s good enough for me.  In a very nonchalant way, Joey simply took some bunched up crumpled up cash out of his pocket, no wallet but just out of the front pocket of his jeans.  He paid for his items and we were on our way back to the club.

When we got back to the club, it was mid evening.  All of us were in this rather small dressing room at Club Monopoly before the show: the Ramones, Skafish band and my road manager Jimy Sohns.  (Jimy Sohns is the singer of the legendary Chicago band “The Shadows Of Knight,” who first hit it big in 1966 with the classic “Gloria.”  That song alone went on to sell 4 million copies worldwide and several hits followed for the band.  As Jimy’s career had gone through those well known ups and downs of a life in rock ‘n’ roll, he recently had become my road manager.)  Jimy Sohns was casually strumming his vintage Rickenbacker guitar and no one was paying much attention till the subject of the guitar came up: “Oh, this is the guitar we used to cut Gloria with,” Jimy stated.

Johnny Ramones’ eyes lit up and seemed to bug out of his head.  “I’ll give you a thousand dollars cash for it right now,” Johnny offered for the guitar.  Jimy, as one would assume, refused to part with his historical axe.  Johnny still persisted for a while as he really wanted it, but Jimy wouldn’t part with this piece of rock music history.  As I was exiting the dressing room, I don’t remember Joey having done any vocal warm ups before his set, but I do recall that later down the road, he did study opera for a while to train his voice which is a great idea, one I highly recommend for any singer.

That evening, we did our performance and the Ramones followed with theirs.  Joey was in good voice and the band played their songs about the same speed on their records; maybe a bit faster.  At tempos similar to their studio recordings, the lyrics and vocal melodies were still quite audible.  I really loved the Ramones clever, well-written songs of this era featuring Joey’s very distinctive voice.  The audience was fantastic – not as wildly dressed as the July 1977 show, but a bit more laid back and hip.

Months later, I was told that The Ramones were looking for me to see if I was lurking around at a show of theirs at The Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, which I couldn’t attend.  Different Ramones were asking where I was hiding as that was something I might have done.  “OK, where is Skafish?  Is he around the corner or something?”  Right after my first LP was released in the May of 1980, I went backstage to a Ramones show at a Chicago college and I gave Dee Dee Ramone my first LP.  I remember him repeatedly saying, “Now which track is the best one?”   I surmised that he would probably recall the first track, as he wouldn’t have to think about it.  So I told him, “The first track is the best one.”  This way, he could put on the record and not have any trouble remembering which track is the one I recommended for him to listen to.

Back in the day, Joey did find a girlfriend who moved in with him and accepted an engagement ring, only later to break up with him. After the break up, she ended up marrying Johnny Ramone and consequently stayed married to Johnny until he passed on.  This disappointment further emphasized Joey’s alienation and for the rest of his life, he never made a serious or long lasting commitment to another woman.  This contributed to Joey and Johnny not speaking for many years, which required an intermediary to be on tour.  Even in the small confines of a tour bus, they didn’t speak to each other, so the intermediary would have to pass messages between the two of them.  The intermediary would speak on John’s behalf, “John says our shows are selling out in Spain, so we should add some more tour dates to make some money.”  Joey would then respond, “Tell John that I am – thinking about it.”  As one their albums was aptly titled, “Too Tough To Die,” the Ramones weren’t going to merely fade off into the sunset, even amidst financial stress and personal issues.  Now that Johnny and Joey are both in spirit, it is my sincere hope that they can resolve whatever barriers came between them.

In 2001, I remember getting the mail and preparing to read the new Rolling Stone, when my eyes caught part of the cover:  “Joey Ramone 1951-2001.”  I was stunned and felt paralyzed.  All of the images: memories, performances, scenes and experiences I shared with Joey and the rest of the band started racing through my mind, like a flash slide show I wasn’t in control of.  I felt resentful and sad that Joey didn’t achieve the success he rightfully deserved and now it was simply too late for him.  He was gone… At first, it didn’t seem real to me, as most of us initially feel when someone we know leaves this dimension.  I started to cry and I was quickly going into emotional overwhelm, when I rushed downstairs into my basement where I keep a little spinet piano just to privately write songs on.  I took all of the pain, sadness and disappointment of that moment and channeled it into an alternative rock / pop song for Joey named “Forever Fetal,” a song I do plan on recording.   I co dedicated the song to my band member Barbie Goodrich who transitioned into spirit, also from cancer, about 6 years prior.

It’s ironic to me that as I’m writing this over thirty years after I first met Joey Ramone, I recently noticed that Joey and I crossed paths again, this time on the Internet in rock ‘n’ roll cyberspace — as both being included on a list entitled: The 16 ugliest men in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.  My, oh my, how flattering!  Wouldn’t my mommy and daddy be proud of me?  (LAM=Laughing at myself!)  Yet to me, Joey Ramone represented everything that is beautiful about rock ‘n’ roll: a home for the disenfranchised, a special singing voice, a unique individual with a one-of-a-kind essence and a timeless icon…

Skafish

 

Musings

And in the beginning…

Posted by Skafish on

Divine greetings to you and welcome to my first ever music blog, where, approximately once a week, in my own words, I will post a new entry.

First, I will share my perspectives and perceptions of the musical world from back in the day till now.  As I have devoted my entire life to my art since I was a child and have been in the music business since the 1970’s, I feel that I have a unique and original perspective to share about music/art, culture and the music business.

I also intend on setting the record straight.  So much of what has been reported as factual and truthful regarding both the Chicago scene as well as my own experiences as a performer has been stated in inaccurate terms.  As a lot of revisionist history has been going on of late, people deserve to know the truth — not the revised “truth” that feels good to the person dispersing the information, but simply what really happened.  Since I didn’t drink or get high back then, (and didn’t allow my band to do so either) they and I really do remember, LOL!

In this blog, you are welcome to get to know the real me as the being that I am, not the distortions of what have been propagated about me.  From my first day in kindergarten till today, it has been a rough and tumble ride as who I am authentically as both a person and an artist has caused many love / hate reactions.  The rejection, violent attempts against me and misrepresentations of who I am have all helped to make me a better person – one of deepened compassion and unconditional love for everyone.  The rejection of all tribes forces me into having no peer group whatsoever — therefore, it is only me who is accountable to me, which allows me to be nothing other than completely free.   I belong nowhere, therefore, I belong everywhere.

Even though I’m unattached as to how I’m perceived by anyone, I am attached to the fact that all people deserve to expect that what they’re reading, seeing or hearing is correct, especially when it is passed off as “history.”  I love Chicago and gave my heart, soul and body to put it on the map as a great world class forward thinking musical city.  Since the Chicago punk scene was not historically documented when it originally happened, much of what is being said now is incomplete and not told factually.

Since it is a historical fact that I was performing in Chicago since February 1976 before there was any Chicago punk scene at all and performed consistently both nationally and internationally from then till October 1, 1994, I can offer the absolutely unique and wonderful perspective of seeing Chicago transform from a very conservative music city before 1976 to becoming of one of the most progressive musical meccas in the world back then, alongside New York, Los Angeles and London!  Since I performed at CBGB’s in New York as early as April 1977, the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles in February 1978 and in London in front of an angry mob of 45,000 in July of 1980, I experienced these cities first hand, not only as a performer, but as someone who was a part of the collective.

In addition, I look forward to sharing behind the scenes stories with you that have never been told before.  It is thrilling for me to be able to hopefully put you there!  I am quite excited to be able to offer special tips to other musicians, on both an artistic and business level.  As so much of my career has been plagued by career altering business decisions outside of my control to life threatening occurrences, it is my sincerest hope to offer suggestions and tips to other artists to make their journey easier and more successful.  Since I began teaching music to children (many of whom have been handicapped) in the inner city of Chicago beginning in late 1983, early 1984, I have devoted virtually every day of my life to serving others and it gives me profound joy to see others grow and succeed!

Since I started classical piano with a brilliant blind piano teacher when I was six, to beginning to play professionally at age 9, to making my Chicago debut in February 1976 when I was 19, it has been a tremendously painful and difficult, yet ultimately transformational and enlightening journey; one of intense psychological healing and spiritual growth for over three decades.  I am now filled with bliss and gratitude for all that has happened and joyously unattached to whatever outcomes may or may not occur.  As this is still a work in progress, hopefully, there will be countless more installments of this story to come.  I wish to share this journey with you – as it actually happened and as it now unfolds.

Jim Skafish
© 2008 Skafish

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