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Giving It Up for Mr. May!

[It was 1988 — pretty much the middle of the New York Yankees’ longest drought between World Series wins (1979–1995), and seven years since they’d even made it to the Fall Classic. All the more reason to sit in the cheapest seats, drink too much beer, and unleash invective upon visiting players and fans. As correspondent Ivan Solotaroff wrote in the September 20, 1988, issue of the Voice, “Baseball-watching invites strange behavior and, two weeks into this Yankee homestand, I’ve actually begun to fear the Voodoo Man’s Evil Eye, and to respect his power.” Solotaroff was referring to one of the bleacher regulars, called “Bleacher Creatures,” in this case a man with a pencil mustache who would train his “magnetizing gaze” on opposing ballplayers.

The Voice reporter succinctly summed up these lean times for the Bronx Bombers: “The Yankees, 2-8 in their last 10, are coming into the fifth inning down by a familiar four-run count. [Bleacher Creatures] Frank and Bob are already ingesting their remedy for slumps like this: many Jumbo beers, a confirmed one-way ticket back to second grade.”

Solotaroff then consults with Cousin Brewski, the beer vendor. “‘How are you? How are you? How are you?’” he asks from ten rows away. “‘The Voice? Sure, I’ll tell you everything you wanna know. The Regulars? Best fans out here. Class. They know everything. Teena’s got the batting averages, Bob, the Captain, knows every word of the “Gang Bang Song,” the “Get the Fuck Out Song,” “Syphilis,” all the songs. Melle Mel’s a singer too. Big rap star. Famous, famous, famous. Sees everything — the others tend to drift a little.’”

Sports give us a tribal outlet that might otherwise turn into uglier fanaticism, and the bleachers have never been a place for the fainthearted. But, as always, the crowd in ’88 was a disparate mix, the fans glad to have anything to cheer about. Melle Mel — “taking time from cutting a new album to attend every Yankee home game” — commands his compatriots’ attention when he bellows, “Let me hear it, one time, for my man Mr. Da-a-ave Winfield.” Solotaroff drily notes that the huge crowd screamed, “Dave, Dave, Dave” as Winfield looked at a third strike.

Winfield had signed with the Yanks in 1980, for the highest-paying contract in baseball at the time. And in his first year he delivered — at least during the regular season. But he was flat in the 1981 World Series, which the Yanks lost to the Dodgers, and that was the last trip he made to the playoffs in a decade of wearing pinstripes. “I let Mr. October get away,” said Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, in 1985, referring to clutch hitter Reggie Jackson, “and I got Mr. May, Dave Winfield. He gets his numbers when it doesn’t count.”

Still, Winfield’s long-striding grace in the outfield and powerful strokes at the plate (he hit 465 career homers) made him a favorite with many fans, especially the Bleacher Creatures, who would yell encouragement at the right fielder from directly over his head. “Yeah, we know him,” bleacher denizen Bob told the Voice reporter. “Well, we don’t know him personally, but, he sees us on the street, he knows, yeah, the bleachers. We gave him a plaque last year, congratulating him for his sixth consecutive year hitting 100 RBIs. He didn’t do it, he ended up with 97, but we gave him the plaque anyway.”

This was back in the day when all that most of us could count on was that fabled fifteen minutes (or hours or seconds) of fame — that epoch before the social chum of Facebook and the careening notoriety of Twitter. Being a tried-and-true Bleacher Creature offered proximity to greatness. As one cheap seat regular said to another, referring to the Voice scribe: “Talk to the man, Frank. Get famous.” —R.C. Baker ]


Liquid Liquid Haven’t Lost Their Edge

When Liquid Liquid take the stage at Madison Square Garden April 2 as the opening act for LCD Soundsystem’s last show, they will, at some point in their set, launch into a tune featuring the Most Famous Two-Note Bassline Ever. Whereupon some percentage of the crowd will bob their heads and think it’s really cool that these older guys are covering Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines.”

Which will be ironic, because not only is “White Lines” not Grandmaster Flash’s song (it’s Melle Mel’s), but it won’t be “White Lines” at all, but rather Liquid Liquid’s own “Cavern.” The story of how “Cavern” became “White Lines” (resulting in the demise of two seminal New York labels, Sugar Hill Records and 99 Records) is one of the more fascinating tales in NYC musical history. But it’s only part of Liquid Liquid’s remarkable and still-evolving tale, with the long-dormant art-rock-punk-funk pioneers only recently emerging from hibernation to enjoy even more critical acclaim than the first time around.

Liquid Liquid’s first act virtually defined the early-’80s sound of downtown New York—that heroic era in nightlife history when you didn’t have to choose between going dancing and going to a rock show, because they were the same thing. Using a distinctive lineup of bass, marimba/percussion, drums, and vocals, the band’s sound mixed minimalist percussion, dubbed-out vocals, and punk-edged funk riffs. It reflected the cultural collision of the downtown scene, where the same crowd went to punk shows at CBGB’s, danced at discos like Paradise Garage, and stopped by the gallery openings of young graffiti artists. “There was a lot of crossover,” remembers vocalist Sal Principato. “Especially ’79, early ’80s, there was this sense of exploration and cross-pollination and experimentation, and you’re just getting all these influences from all these different directions.”

The band caught the ear of Ed Bahlman, who ran 99 Records out of his record shop at 99 MacDougal Street. Liquid Liquid quickly became something of a flagship act for the label, which also provided a home for ESG, Glenn Branca, and the Bush Tetras. “Now everybody calls us punk funk, and I guess that makes sense,” says Principato. “But I don’t know what we thought of ourselves—we thought of ourselves as a rock band, but making music to make you move by.”

The band recorded three EPs for 99; 1983’s Optimo was the last and the best. From the furious punk-samba of the title track to the snarling “Out,” this music today sounds astonishingly contemporary, a precursor to bands like the Rapture, !!!, and, not coincidentally, LCD Soundsystem themselves.

Optimo also had “Cavern,” which evolved, says bassist Richard McGuire, “like everything, out of a group jam.” Almost unfathomable in our era of corporate-controlled radio playlists and Balkanized nightlife scenes, the track, underpinned by McGuire’s minimalist-funk bassline, made Liquid Liquid favorites on black radio stations like WBLS, and got them regular gigs at discos like Paradise Garage and Danceteria. But within months of Optimo‘s release, WBLS and other stations began playing a new, almost identical track called “White Lines (Don’t Do It),” released by Bronx-based Sugar Hill Records. Credited to Melle Mel + Grandmaster (allegedly a ploy to trick record buyers into thinking it was a new Grandmaster Flash release), the record didn’t technically sample “Cavern,” instead featuring the Sugar Hill house band replaying it note-for-note, adding only Mel’s verses and the “Get higher, baby” bridge (while also turning Principato’s original “slip in and out of phenomena” vocal hook into the now-iconic hip-hop phrase “something like a phenomenon”).

Bahlman sued Sugar Hill as “White Lines,” whose writing credit listed only Melle Mel and Sugar Hill co-owner Sylvia Robinson, became a huge hit. Though he eventually won a lengthy court case and set an early precedent in the still poorly defined realm of sampling law, the results were disastrous for all involved. Sugar Hill declared bankruptcy rather than pay the ordered $600,000 settlement; faced with enormous legal costs and disillusioned with the music business, Bahlman folded 99 Records. McGuire left Liquid Liquid to pursue an art career, and the rest of the group disbanded after recording another 12-inch, Dig We Must, as a trio.

And that’s where the story would have ended, except that Duran Duran’s insipid “White Lines” cover in 1994 prodded Liquid Liquid to reissue their entire oeuvre as a joint Mo Wax/Grand Royal release in 1997. (“That’s when we realized, ‘OK, this shit isn’t going away,’ ” says Principato.) Which led to more interest in the group, triggering an on-again/off-again rebirth that first began in 2003 and has seen them play a handful of international dates, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and now, LCD Soundsystem’s MSG farewell.

It’s been a circuitous but beneficial route, as the guys now say that this extended second act—with set lists that mix reworked classics with new material—is musically their best. “The funny thing is,” says Principato, “that it seems to have taken us 30 years to really come to fully understand our own material, its strengths and vulnerabilities, and to proudly display both when we perform.”

Liquid Liquid will open for LCD Soundsystem March 28 and 29 at Terminal 5 and April 2 at Madison Square Garden


Live: Liquid Liquid at Santos Party House

Last night’s Liquid Liquid show was scheduled to happen twice—”The band and DJs will ebb and flow together whenever LL damn well feels like it, apparently,” was the not-so-reassuring dual set-time explanation. But at the end of the day, bands tend to act like bands, not waterfalls or lava lamps. “We want to get to you so hard we’re just going to do one set and keep on playing,” said mustachioed LL frontman Sal Principato, who looks like he’s on the class of ’79 bowling team. “Is that OK?”

There is not a lot of preference to express when you’re seeing the still-standing resurrection of one of downtown’s most beloved post-punk remnants. “Cavern”—even if Melle Mel isn’t rapping on it—is not going to result in people wishing they were somewhere else. It’s weird to see that riff played by humans.


Gold’s Downtown 81

Downtown 81, a newly released film (though the bulk of the footage was shot 25 years ago), presents a dramatic subset of New York art, fashion, and pop music that retains a darkly lit mysteriousness. The film, which stars the late Brooklyn-born painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, looks like a documentary, but is instead a fictionalized account of what it felt like to create and scheme and party as a charismatic downtown Manhattan scenester as the end of the laid-back ’70s raced into the more frenetic ’80s. Inevitably, the Basquiat character is surrounded by the unpretty sound of experimental bands; he even has a drummy, dubby one of his own, the real-life Gray.

Listening to these sharp, often live recordings—the deceptive, Latinized high jinks of Kid Creole and the Coconuts, the knife-edged funk of James Chance, the bursts of DNA, the scroungy jazz of the Lounge Lizards, even the silken early rap of Melle Mel—is to hear ambitious music-making free of agendas past or present. They’re not only free of the dogmatic guitars of punk; they’re operating without reference to the music industry or subsequent indie-rock etiquette or even history. When they make noise, as DNA do on “Blonde Redhead,” it’s only about the sheer sensation; when they essay blues, as the Lounge Lizards do on “I’m a Doggy,” they highlight the sex, not the form; when they mix candy and haze, as Suicide do on “Cheree,” they’re not shoe-gazing. Drugs and parties and thousands of black-leather jackets all played their parts. But the music—jagged, wrecked, or playful—sounds like it was about the music and little else.