I get Jack Shit their first NYC gig and I can’t even get in.
My bad. Banjo Jim’s is such a tiny corner bar at 9th Street and Ave. (capacity is 74) that by the time I got down there, around 9:30, the guys were half into their first set and the joint was jammed. I tried to stand just inside the door but it was too tight for the girl working it. She did point the way for me to squeeze past the band (they were crammed into the corner just to the left of the door) and get to the back bar, but I’d had three big scotches at a small party right before, and being vegetarian, did not partake of the roast suckling pig. I felt steady enough and probably could have made that short walk without knocking over any mic stands and maybe taking out a guitarist, let alone toppling to the right and crashing into the crowd—but the odds weren’t that good.
Luckily it wasn’t too cold outside and I could hear OK leaning against the traffic light. If I had stayed on the steps I could see Pete on his drum stool through the window; I could still see Davey and Val in between the posters announcing upcoming Banjo Jim’s gigs taped on the window from where I stood against the lightpost.
That’s Pete Thomas, drums, Davey Faragher, bass, and Val McCallum, guitar. Jack Shit. The one and only Jack Shit. Jack Shit the Great.
Pete and Davey are Elvis Costello’s Imposters rhythm section, of course. Val has played in Jackson Browne’s band and for numerous other notables like Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow and Joan Osborne. (I must throw in that I got to meet his father, the 1960s teen idol David McCallum of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Illya Kuryakin fame at a Jack Shit gig in L.A., where they’re based. Great guy.) Together they do a tongue-in-cheek but terrific country shtick act. Great players, great songs.
Wasn’t the first time I couldn’t get in to see Pete, actually. Elvis did a record store promo gig years ago at the dearly departed Tower in the Village. I think I might have hung on to the window sill outside to catch a glimpse. Then many years ago I was supposed to be on the list when Elvis played Forest Hills, but I wasn’t. So I sat on the grass outside the stadium and heard the whole thing.
Some people came out for air in between sets, and I was able to fit myself behind a pillar near the bar. I’m glad I got to see them do “Ugly and Slouchy.”
“Ugly and slouchy, that’s the way I like ‘em/They’ll never be no fear of them wolves hangin’ around/Ugly and slouchy, that’s the way I like ‘em/They’ll never be no fear of her lovin’ someone else.”
I know the pre-rockabilly tune from the Maddox Brothers, who with sister Rose Maddox–the Maddox Brothers and Rose—were known as “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band” from the 1930s to the ‘50s. They were indeed that.
But Jack Shit’s “Ugly and Slouchy” was a take-off point for a medley of arguably some of the worst pop songs from the ‘60s/’70s—except that I actually like most of them. And first song, Hendrix’s “Fire” (sung by Davey in a slow country drawl) doesn’t really count. But “Green-eyed Lady,” by Sugarloaf, does. (I saw Sugarloaf vocalist/keyboardist Jerry Corbetta do it live once in the late ‘70s, when he was in Frankie Valli’s band. Nice guy.)
Then came Blood, Sweat & Tears “Spinning Wheel,” another horror. (BS&T lead singer David Clayton-Thomas married a lovely girl I went to high school with in Madison, Wisconsin. Nice guy.) Then “Jesus is Just Alright,” a hit for the Byrds and then the Doobie Brothers—but I remember it as the follow-up to the big cover hit of the Beatles “Birthday” by Underground Sunshine, a rock band from Montello, Wisconsin. I liked it much better than “Birthday,” but I couldn’t understand it conceptually: It’s saying, what? That the fact that Jesus is just alright is under dispute?
Next came the undeniably god-awful “Hocus Pocus.” You know, that simply dreadful yodeling rock song by Dutch band Focus that went to No. 9 in 1973. Maybe the exact song that made me forever quit listening to “progressive rock” and go to country radio for good. But they followed it with “And When I Die,” another BS&T hit, but written by Laura Nyro.
I actually knew Laura Nyro. Not many did. She died April 8, 1997, at 49, same age, same disease as her mother. Ovarian cancer. I was with David Helfgott, the insane Australian classical pianist so brilliantly rendered by the Oscar-winning Geoffrey Rush in “Shine.” We were looking at pianos somewhere. He was really wonderful—exactly like Rush’s portrayal. I called my machine and got a message Billboard wanted me to write her obit. I knew she was very sick. And now I still cry when I hear her, when I think of her. If you don’t know her, do yourself a favor and get a copy of the two-disc anthology “Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro” (I made sure they found a copy of the single version of “Save the Country”) and “Gonna Take a Miracle,” the r&b cover album she did with LaBelle, that is maybe the most beautiful vocal recording ever.
And then it all came back to “Ugly and Slouchy” and my mind drifted way back…to The Vers.
Lots of bands will start with one song and throw in one or two or more in the middle or just transition one into another in a theme-driven medley. Elvis, for instance, likes to start with “Alison” and shift into Smokey Robinson’s “The Tears of a Clown” or “The Tracks of My Tears.” But the one I always think of is The Vers at Headliners, “Holiday in the Sun” seguing into “Little Honda” and back into “Holiday in the Sun”—Sex Pistols into the Hondells. Sheer genius.
The absolute worst thing about what I do is seeing something you know is great and they don’t make it. Any number of bad things get in the way, or the good ones required to make it happen just don’t occur. The worst instances naturally go back to the beginning, back to Madison: I managed to make it out, but others didn’t, for whatever reason.
Most of the Madison area bands back in the mid-‘70s—when my career began—were basic bar bands doing mainly covers. Most of them I didn’t like, most of them I don’t remember. But there were three that stood out, that played original songs.
Spooner didn’t make it—as Spooner. It was as good a Tom Petty/New Wave-ish pop band as there was, thanks to a Farfisa keyboardist (if I remember right, they let him in the band because he had two Farfisas) and a great songwriter in lead guitarist/vocalist Doug Erikson. They had a couple albums (I was thanked on the first—my first album credit). Then somehow Doug became Duke: He and Spooner drummer Butch Vig, who would soon find fame as Nirvana’s producer, formed another Madison band, Firetown, which made it to Atlantic Records, very briefly, before disbanding. Then Duke and Butch found Shirley Manson and became Garbage.
Yipes! made it a little further than Spooner. They were real good. They were led by Pat McCurdy, another brilliant songwriter/performer, and they had a brief deal with RCA’s Millenium label, which was owned by producer Jimmy Ienner and is where I first met his brother, future Sony Music chief Donny Ienner. Then they broke up. But Pat’s been at it ever since. I checked his web site and am happy to see that his April schedule has only two nights off, the rest filled with gigs in Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan (he worked 351 shows last year). Every Tuesday he’s at some place in Madison called the Regent Street Retreat (“$3 Leinie Bottles/$2 Coors Lights”). And he’s as funny as ever: A $10 subscription to the monthly Pat! Newsletter (“sent right to your door!”) includes the monthly schedule “as well as contests and words of wit and wisdom” and is a lifetime subscription, “which means you’ll keep getting it until either you or Pat dies.”
And then there was The Vers. Drummer Jim Stein, bassist Gabe Berrafato, keyboardist Charlie Calendar, guitarist Zoid Asteroid Machine, vocalist Mondo Vers, 1978-1983. They coulda been huge.
Visually there was nothing like them. Even the logo stood out. “THE…VERS” below a barcode sign. They evolved out of a band out of nearby Monroe, Wisconsin, named Yancy Derringer before Mondo (real name J.C. Hall, Jr., “Mondo” being short for “Mondale”) came aboard, that was quite popular in the area. I must have seen them at one time or other but don’t remember them at all. Hall, a prolific singer-songwriter from Oconomowoc (halfway between Madison and Milwaukee) joined during the third and final incarnation of Yancy Derringer, “on vocals and general crazyness,” according to a remarkable history of the band penned by Boyd Williamson (Zoid) for his z9design.com site (he’s also a graphic designer).
Yancy Derrringer had plied the bars, festivals, and college campuses around the Midwest, and built a substantial fan base from followers of band members’ previous band affiliations. They played some originals along with novel covers of Mott the Hoople, the Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival, and did a Led Zeppelin medley. But Yancy Derringer 3, writes Williamson, “proved to be a free-for-all circus that had no real direction.” New songs came out of Hall “like bunnies in mixed-up-cages, and they were all very, very good.”
Hall’s songs thoroughly transformed the band into a New Wave-inspired unit. “This was a band who now appreciated the message, energy, efficiency, and humor of ‘punk,’ but unlike ‘real’ punks, they were musicians who could actually play!” continues Williamson. “And they were fronted now by the incomparable, larger-than-life J.C. Hall, Jr. on vocals, songwriting, energy, humor, and inspiration.”
They got the bandname in 1978 on the way back from a gig up in Medford, Wisconsin, passing through Colby on Highway 13. They spotted some three-feet high black letters on the side of an old garage spelling out “VERS,” which Hall took as a sign from above. No one, to this day, knows what it meant: “Bands before had shown that you could name a band anything, and this one was now proving that the name didn’t even have to be anything!”
Now Mondo Vers, the charismatic Hall stood six-feet, eight inches, often wearing a long olive drab trenchcoat dotted with as many as 200 various buttons and pins. He’d also don a baseball cap with devil horns or floppy Bullwinkle antlers, and “Groucho” glasses with a penis nose.
“He drew you in, made you laugh, and then made you cry, giving the best vocal performance of his life every time you saw him,” notes Williamson, self-described as “the cryptic, marooned 400 year-old alien guitarist [Zoid Asteroid Machine] from the planet Vulva, with orange hair and ‘Spocked’ eyebrows [who] wore red Superman briefs over black tights, spinning, jumping off of amps, stages, anything he could climb up on….”
I also remember how the impishly demonic Machine used to constantly make weird faces while soloing on various guitars. He once told me he was making “guitar noises”—something like what a guitar would say if it could speak. He really did fit the space alien part—so much so that I was blown away by the extraordinary level of his writing on the site. Maybe I never spoke with him at any length.
Charlie Calendar did this great shtick of bringing out a 50-pound MiniMoog synthesizer held together with duct tape and twirling it around in the air while playing it opposite Mondo. Gabe and Jimmy were the dynamite rhythm section and comparatively straight, even using their real names.
I would see them regularly at Headliners, the top rock club in Madison. The owner managed them and in 1980 they set the record for paid admissions, 1,200 plus.
One night they opened for Yipes! I was upstairs in the balcony with some of the Yipes! guys. They’d been signed to Millenium by now–and watched The Vers in disbelief. “I don’t know what it is about these guys,” one of them said. “But there’s something….”
Yes, there was something. They were great players, put on a great show, and had a great songwriter-frontman in Mondo Vers—whose charisma really knew no bounds. To this day I’ve never seen anything like it: Every show would bring out a group of maybe a dozen or so clearly moderate-to-severely retarded young fans (with chaperones). They would always go to the front of the stage and dance joyously at Mondo’s feet. Kinda like Howard Stern’s Wack Pack, I guess. They latched on to him on some entirely different psychic if not visceral level. Then again, in Mondo’s case, at least, he was as wack as anyone—no wonder they related to him as one of them.
I do urge anyone who reads this to check out Williamson’s incredibly insightful (and wonderfully illustrated) site, which covers the true tragedy of The Vers. For as I wrote in a cover story of the Madcity Music Sheet in the early 1980s–a story that was designed to give The Vers the big media push they needed but sadly turned into a veritable epitaph—Mondo had developed extreme throat problems.
“A few years of their relentless schedule, and Mondo’s inability to give anything less than 150 percent, eventually took a toll on his voice,” Williamson writes. “It got progressively worse and worse, until it got to be torture to try to listen to the big guy ripping his throat apart trying to hit the notes. Months of denials went by, before everyone finally got him to see a doctor about it. The same specialist who treated Elvis Presley, when the King was passing through Madison, gave the verdict: There were two polyps on Mondo’s vocal cords, like little hot dogs, split open and bleeding. He could have surgery, requiring three months to recover, or simply stop singing and talking entirely, and let it heal for the same amount of time. Logic dictated that he simply keep his mouth shut for three months…but Mondo was anything but logical. Being out of the band while they kept playing was extremely traumatic for him, and he had to tell everyone he saw, how he felt. He just couldn’t shut up.”
Mondo took a fordced hiatus while the other Vers went on with a temporary replacement. But no one could replace Mondo. Sadly, he couldn’t either: He essentially suffered a nervous breakdown, and when he did return to the group both he and they went into a freefall culminating in an inevitable explosion “in flames of fatigue, frustration and bitter disappointment.” And it would only get worse. Years after the breakup, Mondo was diagnosed as being severely bipolar manic-depressive. He and Zoid would perform as theXpairOmentals, a music duo using Zoid’s MIDI backing sequences. They did hundreds of gigs between 1995 and 2000, when their longtime collaboration “finally ended for good in the parking lot of a club after a gig on September 23, 2000, when Jimmy C. Hall, Jr., lost control, and attacked Boyd C. Williamson with a guitar stand, fracturing Zoid’s skull and breaking the middle finger of his left hand.”
Mondo was put on probation for two years for Substantial Battery, ordered to stay on medication and away from Zoid. He was unable to fulfill the latter requirement and was still begging Zoid to get back together again when a massive heart attack felled him for good on August 22, 2001. He was 51.
“Was he a genius, or insane?” wonders Williamson. “Without much debate, the answer is ‘yes.’ But with no argument from anyone, he was a truly great artist.” (His moving eulogy for his friend, a lesson in eloquence, is at http://z9design.com/vers/mondo.html.)
He goes on to explain why The Vers never made it, in what could easily be music business textbook terms—if a bit dated now:
“Record company executives do their work in plush offices on upper floors of expensive buildings in Los Angeles and New York. They are business professionals who market specialized pieces of plastic. Occasionally, they make decisions regarding what specific product they are going to spend a very large sum of money on to produce, manufacture, and sell, and these decisions are not made lightly. Apart from that, they spend a good part of their day trying to figure out ways to AVOID all the hoards of wanna-be’s who are trying to give them CD’s and tapes and enable them to become stars.
“Record execs don’t have the time to listen to a fraction of the stuff that arrives on their doorstep, in fact, they rather resent having to rent the dumpster that gets filled with all these hopes and dreams of unknown people every day, so they decide fairly early in their career that they’re going to be pretty darn callous about it; that it’s just not going to bother them, or they wouldn’t be able to do their job at all. It’s just that simple. And, in case you hadn’t guessed, they don’t travel one or two thousand miles to hear some band in a bar in the Midwest. They just don’t do that. You wouldn’t, either. And they didn’t in this case.”
Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. I don’t know if New York came to Yipes! or vice-versa, same with Firetown. But hell, The Vers were managed by the biggest rock club in one of the biggest college/music towns in the country. If Headliners couldn’t get anyone from New York to fly out and give The Vers a fair hearing, or even listen to a tape….
So where are they now? Gabe is a Home Depot sales manager in Beloit, Wis. Jimmy plays in a group called Boca Bande in Florida. Charlie’s in Florida, too, fronting a Cajun/zydeco trio, the Yard Dogs. Zoid’s in Reedsburg, Wis., playing solo as Zoid Asteroid Machine when not running his graphic design company.
And me? I’m helping Jack Shit carry out their equipment from Banjo Jim’s, happy to be useful for a change–and happy, too, to still be in New York. And happier yet that Jack Shit isn’t Mondo Vers.