Category Archives: 1980s music

#198 – Funky But Chic

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#198 – Funky But Chic by David Johansen

 – Loud, brash, chaotic, unpredictable and gritty. And I’m not just talking about this song, but also the images it brings back of New York City at night during the late 1970’s. Funky But Chic is more than a rock song. It’s a soundtrack.

I might have forgotten to mention that to David Johansen… uh, Buster Poindexter while hanging out during the 1980’s. But more about that later…

When Funky But Chic was released in the spring of 1978, I was closing out my first year living in Manhattan. Moving from a small town in Ohio without knowing anyone in the city could be called a ballsy move. Looking back, I guess it was. But after college I wanted to avoid the boredom of a normal life and headed east looking for excitement.

By this time I had scored a job at a company that ran concessions for Broadway theaters. I had started out at the candy counter, but within a couple months I was a manager. This was actually a very cool job. I would check on the bars at various theaters each night to make sure everything was running smoothly and then grab an empty seat to watch the show. I could see every popular (and not so popular) Broadway show countless times. I usually finished close to midnight and for anyone that knows New York City and is even slightly involved in the entertainment industry, that’s the prime time to hit the nightlife.

Weekends were always too crowded at the popular (and no one wanted to hit the not so popular) hangouts. As New York Yankee star Yogi Berra once said: “Nobody goes there, it’s too crowded.” So on Fridays and Saturdays we usually gravitated to our local neighborhood Cheers style bar where everybody knows your name.

But Sunday nights were different. I worked afternoon matinees, so the evenings were free to explore. One of the clubs was the legendary Max’s Kansas City, located on Park Avenue South and only a few blocks from where I lived in Gramercy Park.

“Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Since Sunday was considered an “off night” at Max’s after a weekend packed with rockers and punks, we never found it over crowded. We could find a seat at the bar, have a few beers and carry on a conversation without shouting. One night my closest rocker pal Tim, who is still rockin’, pointed to a guy sitting a couple stools away and said it was Ace Frehley from KISS without his makeup.

I mention this because right up there with Funky But Chic as late 70’s Manhattan soundtrack songs would be New York Groove from Frehley’s solo LP the same year. Both were high frequency selections on jukeboxes at whatever local hangouts we were exploring. And BTW, we didn’t bother Ace at Max’s because that’s not what you do in New York. We left him alone to get his own New York Groove on.

Though I never thought it was as cool as Max’s, I also hit the equally legendary Studio 54 twice during this time – as an invited guest. That means we didn’t have to deal with the velvet rope and doorman to get in.

Another hot spot was the Mudd Club down in Tribeca, mentioned in the song Life During Wartime by the Talking Heads. Somehow we met someone who could sneak us in the back entrance and also avoid the long lines outside. My biggest memory has most of the crowd trying to look like Keith Richards. Since I’d already had a year to ditch the Midwest look (whatever that was) for a more chic NYC style… Okay, I honestly wouldn’t describe it that way because I never looked like Keef. But we all still looked cooler in the late 70’s than what happened fashion-wise in the 80’s.

Let’s just say I didn’t exactly fit in with the wannabe Keefs, but didn’t feel out of place either.

Once the excitement of being new to New York had worn off and any urge to fit in with the wannabe’s had completely disappeared (wasn’t difficult) we found the local bars in our neighborhood to be a lot more friendly and fun. And just like the TV show mentioned above, eventually everybody knew your name.

And that’s where I eventually met David Johansen. Or was it Buster Poindexter… Either way I knew his name, but that was still more than a few years removed from 1978.

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Career-wise I went from Broadway shows to music clubs, bars & restaurants and eventually comedy clubs. My jobs included everything from managing and bartending, to performing music and telling jokes. As a fan of the nightlife it worked for me since I usually started after the sun went down. And again, if you know anything about New York, you know it’s a different city at night than it is during the day.

It’s very funky, but – depending where you are – also very chic.

This classic David Johansen song woke me up with a reminder of nighttime Manhattan on May 15th. I’ve never owned a copy due to my 1978 NYC budget where (high) apartment rent, food and hanging out took precedence, and I also can’t remember the last time I’d heard it. So funk this one up into the subliminal neighborhood of Dream Songs.

College pin ups?

One of my all-time closest friends from college who went by the Midwestern rock star name of Smiley viewed the New York Dolls as only about a half step behind The Rolling Stones in legend status. I didn’t share his enthusiasm, but would hang around his room in our frat listening to their only two albums from around 1973.

We also watched them on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert late night TV show (I’ve always done the best things at night) and couldn’t help noticing lead singer David Johansen had a resemblance to Mick Jagger.

And with their dolled-up, drag queen wardrobe and makeup, they were pin-ups for both the glam and punk rock scenes. I immediately liked them more than the flannel shirt-wearing, acoustic guitar-playing troubadours that were still trendy on our campus, but always bored me to no end.

Now let’s fast forward about a decade…

In the mid 1980’s I had scored a job managing and bartending at our local Cheers style hangout on the corner of 20th Street and Third Avenue in Gramercy Park. It was called The Honey Tree and yeah, I was a wannabe Sam Malone. I had also learned enough about the New York Dolls to recognize David Johansen when he walked through the door.

Within a couple weeks of regular visits, he was part of our local hangout crowd.

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We all contributed a lot of laughs, loud conversations, insults, stupidity, and the general chaos and craziness that accompanies late nights in NYC. I don’t remember talking about The Dolls except one night when he spotted one of the former drummers, Tony Machine, walking along the other side of Third Avenue with a hero sandwich. David opened the door and yelled something to him (he had no problem being heard over the traffic), but that’s the end of the memory.

And just to add a “note of interest” – Tony Machine played percussion on Funky But Chic. Wondering if he brought sandwiches for the entire band…

David also had another talent for making sure we didn’t shut down the fun just because of the 4 am legal closing time. When I’d give “last call” David would shove ten or twenty bucks in the jukebox and start punching in songs. Since it only cost a quarter per, everyone knew we’d be there for awhile. Making a managerial decision, I’d shut off the outside lights, lock the door and pull the curtains closed over the front windows and keep the party going.

But what really made this experience cool was witnessing the creation of his alter-ego, Buster Poindexter. And if you don’t know Buster, then you’ve never been Hot Hot Hot.

Steve Holley from Wings with The Classic Rocker

Another club we used to frequent was Tramps on East 15th Street (it moved to SoHo in 1988). Monday nights were the favorite with non-weekend crowds and jam sessions by great musicians. The house band was called The Bullies with a rotating door of players. One night we were watching another closest friend and NYC acting coach Ted Bardy playing piano with the band, until he took a break and Ian Hunter sat down at the keys. I also met Steve Holley, drummer for the final version of Paul McCartney & Wings, who recognized me more than 25 years later when I was signing books at the Beatles fest, Abbey Road on the River in Louisville, Kentucky.

He told me he never forgot a face and proved it that day. Amazing…

David started inviting us to Tramps on Mondays to watch him try out his Buster Poindexter character. He’d sit on a barstool wearing a tuxedo, (what looked like) black women’s stockings as socks, slicked back hair and a cocktail in his hand. It started out small, maybe with just a backup piano and guitar player at first, but he gradually added more players. Instead of rock, he’d croon standards and calypso style songs.

Cheers Buster!

After a few months of watching him morph into the very cool music personality alter ego, we were invited to a happening New Year’s Eve party at Tramps. I can’t be sure, but I’m guessing  it was to ring in the year 1987. It was a full-out and packed Buster Poindexter celebration and for a night that usually doesn’t live up to everyone’s high expectations, this NY’s Eve was a blast. I distinctly remember Buster… uh, David asking for a swig of my beer as a cure for his dry throat before running back on stage for an encore.

Not long after we all seemed to gravitate onto our next career moves and neighborhoods. I ended up running the most popular comedy club in New York City and Buster… uh, David was back on the radio and television with Hot Hot Hot. Believe me when I say it all turned out to be much more than a boring normal life.

It was a long way from when I was a wannabe be New Yorker in the late 1970’s. And even though a calypso beat can still bring back memories of late nights in Manhattan, Funky But Chic was the soundtrack for when it all started.

Here’s a 1993 clip of David singing Funky But Chic on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Loud, brash, chaotic, unpredictable and gritty – just as it should be.

To purchase David Johansen’s self-titled and first solo CD with Funky But Chic check out Amazon.com.

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Dave Schwensen is The Classic Rocker and author of The Beatles At Shea Stadium and The Beatles In Cleveland. Visit Dave’s author page on Amazon.com.

Copyright 2017 – North Shore Publishing

Beatles Program

 

#203 – Billie Jean

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#203 – Billie Jean by Michael Jackson

Michael 1One of the best things about living in New York City (and there are many) is never knowing whom you might meet next. Sometime between the months of March and May 1983 I met a very interesting guy in my Gramercy Park neighborhood. Now don’t get excited and think I’m going to drop Michael Jackson’s name, because I can’t. I never met him.

But I was forewarned that his performance of Billie Jean on the television special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever was going to be earth shattering.

The guy that told me this knew what he was talking about because he had been at the taping. In fact, he played a big role not only behind the scenes but also on camera.

I hung with a tight group of friends in Gramercy Park. I’ve always compared living in NYC to living in a small town. It’s a BIG place made up of small neighborhoods. We’d go Uptown, Downtown, Midtown and to The Boroughs for concerts, dinners, ballgames – whatever. But when it was time to go “home” we’d end up back in our neighborhood. And the main hangout was our own Cheers style bar restaurant, The Honey Tree, on the corner of 3rd Avenue and East 20th Street.

It was the type of place where everybody knew your name. And when someone new walked in and got involved in one of our conversations, arguments or just plain stupidity (“How’s it goin’ Norm?!“) it made the evenings into late nights a lot more interesting. Some of the names that dropped in were Robin Williams, Peter O’Toole, Ed O’Neill and the entire band Journey.

But those are stories I’ve already told or saving for later.

The Jacksons

The Jacksons

Since most of us were in our late-20’s and had the ripe old age of 30 directly in our sights, we were pretty set in our musical tastes. The jukebox at The Honey Tree was filled with classic oldies from the 60’s and 70’s. If you wanted to hear disco or punk, there were other neighborhood hangouts, which is another great thing about NYC.

When you’re looking for something else it can always be found.

So even though you’d have to live under a rock not to have heard of Michael Jackson, in 1983 more than a few of us would rather listen to his old songs with The Jackson 5. We really weren’t looking for something else. These were the big Motown hits, I Want You Back, The Love You Save and I’ll Be There. My girlfriend (at the time) and I would be up and dancing whenever one of these songs was placed on the jukebox turntable.

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Of course The Jackson 5 was only one of the many artists that put Motown on the music map forever. Boomers grew up listening to The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and the other amazing artists that made up the Detroit sound. And it was a big deal when it was announced the television special celebrating 25 years of the record label would air on May 16th.

Lester Wilson

Lester Wilson

One night during the months mentioned above, a guy walked in and before too long he was in the middle of one of our conversations. Or it might have been stupidity… But that doesn’t matter. He seemed funny and had a lot of personality, so he fit right in. His name was Lester Wilson and when we asked what he did, he said he was a dancer.

We didn’t know any professional dancers, so we started with the questions. He told us he was also a choreographer, had worked on Broadway and in films, and had just finished working on Motown 25. Since I’m working off memory, I can’t remember why he was in NYC at this time – but after checking out his bio online it had to be something good. I’ll also guess he was staying at The Gramercy Hotel which is why he was a regular part of our Cheers crowd for the next few months.

Lester told us about Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean performance. I can’t remember the adjectives, but mind-blowing would be a good description. He kept saying we’re not going to believe it when we see it. So on May 16th we watched.

jjkrcyOkay, we all know the legend. Michael reunited with his brothers to sing our favorite Jackson 5 hits. When they finished the brothers left the stage and Michael pulled out the sequined glove, the fedora and moonwalked into music history.

But what was especially cool for us was seeing our new pal Lester dancing center stage during the show’s gala opening number. If you want to check it out, below is a link for the entire show. You only need to watch the first four minutes – he’s the guy in the red sweater with the long hair. The group is also billed as The Lester Wilson Dancers.

Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.

Since The Classic Rocker is all about memories I can’t simply focus on Motown 25 or Lester when I hear Billie Jean. Whether you like Michael Jackson or not this was his moment – similar to The Beatles debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. He already had a successful solo career, but this put him in the stratosphere of pop music. Elvis was the 50’s, The Beatles were the 60’s and Michael was the 80’s. The other decades have their own musical personas, for example the 70’s went from hippies to heavy metal to punk to disco. The 90’s were grunge, hip-hop and rap. But those periods never had a single artist that overwhelmingly dominated and influenced our popular culture as these three.

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Billie Jean dominated my Classic Rocker mind on the morning of April 26th. At the time I didn’t own a copy, but that’s changed since and now it’s on my digital playlist joining my Motown and Jackson 5 favorites. But because I hadn’t heard it for a long time until that waking moment, it’s on my subliminal music chart.

Temptations and 4 Tops

The Temptations and 4 Tops

Lester Wilson was a very interesting guy. I can’t remember how long he was part of our neighborhood scene, but that’s another thing about living in NYC. People come and go (including me) and when you’re part of it, life is rarely boring.

Since I’ve always been a huge Motown fan I remember going with my girlfriend (at the time) to see The Temptations and The Four Tops on Broadway. It was at least a year later because the show opened with Levi Stubbs (lead singer for The Tops) singing Marvin Gaye’s hit What’s Going On to open the show. Gaye had been murdered by his father on April 1, 1984 and this was soon after. The curtain was closed and just a single spotlight was aimed at the stage. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Stubbs finished, but within moments everyone was on their feet dancing along to one of the best concerts I was ever fortunate enough to attend.

Afterwards we went to our neighborhood Cheers for a nightcap and Lester was at the bar. We raved about the show and I remember saying he should have warned me Levi Stubbs had grown a beard. I wasn’t used to seeing him that way from photos. Yes, that’s a small detail – but one I remember from our conversation, which also helps put all these years in some type of order.

I did an online search for Lester Wilson and learned he was much bigger than he had let on during this time. Not only did he choreograph Motown 25 and Broadway musicals, but also the movies Saturday Night Fever (coached John Travolta), The Wiz, Funny Lady, Sister Act and others. But I’m sad to learn he passed away only ten years after we met in 1993 at the youthful age of 50.

As I mentioned above, you never know whom you might meet next in NYC. I may not have met Michael Jackson, but I had been warned the music scene was on the verge of changing by a guy who had.

Here’s a video of Michael’s performance of Billie Jean on Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.

To purchase The Essential Michael Jackson with Billie Jean visit Amazon.com

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Dave Schwensen is The Classic Rocker and author of The Beatles At Shea Stadium and The Beatles In Cleveland. Visit Dave’s author page on Amazon.com.

Copyright 2017 – North Shore Publishing