John Armstrong and the (New) Modernettes: Of sloth, tenacity, celebrity, and a special syringe
There are a few people in this city who have heard new studio recordings by the Modernettes, or the New Modernettes, or perhaps, as John Armstrong once wanted to call them, Pachuco. Journalists, record-store owners, friends of the band: they’re insiders who hold forth about whether “Sal Mineo” or “Delivery Boy” is the superior song, who marvel at the New York Dolls homage “Doll Hospital”, and who chuckle wryly when you ask if you’ve heard this stuff, because, well, it’s been around for a while. The songs are old enough that Nick Jones (of the Pointed Sticks, who share a bill with the Modernettes this Friday) puts quotation marks around “new” when we chat online about them, referring back to recordings done in 2008. (“I arranged all the backing vocals,” Jones writes, “and Tony [Bardach, Pointed Sticks bassist] sang, along with Ron Reyes, Tom Anselmi, and a few others…”)
Of course, 2008 is still relatively recent history. Dig a bit deeper and you can find online an article in the dearly departed Nerve Magazine about an upcoming Modernettes album, written by nowadays-Bif Naked-bassist Ferdy Belland. It originally ran opposite a feature on the first Pointed Sticks tour of Japan, when the Sticks had just gotten back together: it’s from 2006, prior to the Modernettes' own tour of Japan, and Armstrong, once better-known hereabouts as Buck Cherry, talks in it about 16 songs he recorded “last winter” (like, 2005?), with Hayz Fisher, Adam Sabla, and New Pornographers drummer Kurt Dahle. (Official Modernettes drummer Ryan Betts was “out of the country or something,” Armstrong quips, later, when I ask about the sessions, but Betts, Sabla, and Fisher are a stable backing band, having played with Armstrong for something like 15 years.)
But ask Armstrong about the apparent teenaged status of some of his unreleased songs, and he has news for you. “Oh god, it’s worse than that,” he responds to the Straight’s query. "In 1999, I took a year off from the Sun to write Guilty of Everything”—his best-known book, a memoir of his early days on the Vancouver punk scene—“and at the same time [Pointed Sticks keyboardist] Gordon Nicholl and I began doing some demos. The home Pro Tools rig had just come out and we both bought one. We used Gord’s warehouse space to do demos and learn how to use this new gear, recording to a hard drive, which seemed very ‘science fiction’ to us both: ‘No tape? Where’s the music?’ That was where the first versions of the songs on what’s currently called Adventures in Happyland originated—‘Sunday’, ‘Party Girl’, a couple of others. So it’s actually taken 20 years, which is clearly insane.”
Well, eccentric at least. But bear in mind that the project has undergone many starts and stops, while Armstrong busied himself with, among other things, moving into the Fraser Valley, writing two other books since Guilty of Everything (Wages and A Series of Dogs), and several books that are yet to be given their final form, like his alternative-history crime/SF opus Mob Rule—of which there are traces serialized online; his aliens-shame-the-world opus Schadenfreude Inc., or his occultist SF adventure The Circle of St. George, which popped up online, got a review or two, then disappeared again.
There were other distractions, too. There were discussions of a film adaptation of Guilty of Everything, starring Jay Baruchel as Buck Cherry, and directed by Reg “Monkey Warfare” Harkema. That’s “dead in the water,” Armstrong reports. “Jay Baruchel announced it, then had commitments before he could start it so it had to wait for his availability. His girlfriend was set to play Mary Jo, but they broke up in the interim and he lost interest in doing it. I’m lucky in that I was older when it seemed likely to happen, and I’d been in and around the movie business, so I knew the chances were always slim, as they are with 65 percent of movie projects. When it died I could shrug it off and say, ‘Oh well, that’s show biz.’ If I was 25 it would have been heartbreaking. It is a shame because I thought the guys doing it were going to do something really interesting and good.”
At least he got some option money out of it—speaking of which, the business of making a living was also one of the things that got in the way of the new record. “First, Gord and I turned that demo session and space into a proper recording studio and then for the next 10 or 11 years, we ran Paramount Recorders,” so-called because “the warehouse had an ancient, peeling Paramount sign painted on the bricks of one side.”
Incidentally, when the building was demolished a few years later, “they set off the charge, the building collapsed, and about 10,000 very freaked-out rats came screaming up out of the smoke and rubble to impressive screaming and fleeing by the crowd that was there to watch the implosion,” he recalls wistfully. “Ah, good times.”
Armstrong and Nicholl quickly discovered that their plan to record this new album in their new studio had a substantial flaw. “Having a working studio—a commercial enterprise—meant paying customers go first, because the bank likes to get their mortgage on time. Consequently, our own projects were regularly bounced off the sked, and time wore on. We did do a bunch of sessions in 2005 with Kurt on drums, and our regular band of me, Hayz Fisher, and Adam Sabla.
“But after that, momentum flagged as we kept postponing or cancelling sessions because we had paying work in the place. Inertia set in and a few years passed. I hate things hanging around partially completed, though, and I recruited Nick Jones to oversee the remaining work that needed doing and just generally ramrod the project, which he did, bless him. And the finish line was in sight, until I fell in love with a woman who lived far out in the valley, and moved away to be with her. And so it sat, in the can, again.”
Ten years went by. “One day I couldn’t take it any longer. I called up John Collins and asked if he’d mix the thing and do some fixes on it. We’d sold the studio by then, so we had to do the last bits guerrilla-style, when and where we could, but after 19 years we could finally say 'Yeah, it’s done.' Now it just needs mixing and that should be done shortly. After 20 years. Sloth and tenacity are a fucking weird combination.”
WITH THE END finally in sight, Armstrong has been doing a bit of fundraising—which Friday’s Rickshaw gig and the recent sale of a vintage guitar on eBay are a part of. One may wonder why he hasn’t just crowdsourced it. After all, the campaign to donate to Armstrong’s friend, mentor, and former bandmate Art Bergmann’s Late Stage Empire Dementia is still online and has raised over $7,000 as of this writing.
But the idea of starting his own GoFundMe just never occurred to Armstrong. “Plus, I was working and I figured I’d just front the money and maybe get it back, or some of it anyway. I think it’s a wonderful thing, people being able to support the creation of art this way, but it just wasn’t necessary for us, this time. I had the luxury of selling some vintage gear that I never used anymore”—no, not the guitar that Johnny Thunders tried to steal— “and that should finance the remaining budget, and be enough to do some proper promotion of my books, without which all such things sink without a trace into the bottomless ocean of indifference.”
Speaking of Thunders, “Doll Hospital” seems like it would have been the easiest, most straightforward song to write on the upcoming album. The fact that other bands like the Lords of the New Church or John Ford have also done pretty damn good tributes to (or pastiches of?) the New York Dolls makes me think it’s probably not that hard to do.
Armstrong seems to agree. “I wrote that on the bus coming home from working at the Sun, when I went back for a few months after my writing sabbatical. I had the chords and words in my head and just scrawled them down. Those guys meant so much to me and I still think they’re about as perfect a rock 'n' roll band as ever existed. Smart, sexy, witty, cool as fuck. The thought that only a few years after sneaking into the Commodore with a fake ID to see them, that I’d be sharing a stage with two of them, David and Johnny—how does that even happen? It seemed magical to me. Even if one of them tried to steal my guitar…”
The full story is recounted in Guilty of Everything. There’s also an article Armstrong wrote about Thunders, which includes the detail about Armstrong finding and saving a syringe Thunders used before a show. The dented needle ended up as part of a donation made to SFU a while back. “It was taped to a poster from the show and it went to SFU with all the other stuff I’d hauled around for year in a big steamer trunk.” It’s kind of nice to note that one of Johnny Thunders’s used spikes is in the SFU Special Collections (unless some librarian immediately threw it in the nearest sharps bin, not realizing what it was).
As with “Doll Hospital”, good songs always come out fairly quickly, Armstrong says. “It seems like the harder you work to make a song good, the less likely it is. Not that you don’t have to work, tightening, rewriting, all that, but the best songs come fast and just about perfect. You feel like a stenographer, just taking it down.”
He’s somewhat wry about his songwriting process. ”It’s simple—I just sit there and tell myself, 'That’s it, you’ll never write another song.' It always feels that way, deep, dark depression, except for those few moments when you’ve just finished one and you sit there admiring yourself and your creation. And then five seconds later the little voice says, ‘Yeah, not bad… but you’ll probably never write anything again.’ Mostly what I do is either have a line or a title in my head, and just banging around seeing what might fit under it, musically—or I have a guitar riff or a chord progression and I just start singing, nonsense, anything at all, and somehow the brain dredges things up and you go, 'Where the fuck did that come from?’ And also, ‘Thank you,’ most sincerely, because it’s a gift and you’d better remember to be grateful. The muse be fickle, and easily offended. Real easy to piss her off.”
So let’s talk “Delivery Boy”, then—which is layered with clever inversions of clichés (“they hate the sinner/but they love the sin”) and imagery steeped in small-town Americana, with a griping, weary narrator who seems equal parts a Jim Thompson antihero, an everyday shmoe getting a job done, and maybe the Angel of Death himself. How does something that rich just leap out, fully formed?
“How it came was just—I call myself a recovering Catholic, because just like dope it’s dangerous to say, ‘I’m cured! Yippee.’ It gets its hooks in you so deep I don’t think you ever recover, fully. Not to who you’d be if you’d never had that crap inculcated in you in the first place. I’m a fairly up-front militant atheist, but having been raised in it, I can’t escape Christian imagery, the Bible itself, and as has been noted all of that recurs as a theme in my songs—‘Red Nails’ is another. I just thought, being the Angel of Death has to be the shittiest job in the universe. Imagine schlepping around collecting people—young parents, or their infant children. Jesus wept… It’s me looking at the whole ‘God’s plan’ lie. I’ve heard every tragedy near and far tossed off with ‘Well, it’s his plan. We can’t understand it.’ There’s nothing to understand. The universe is a vast and utterly indifferent place, and the concept of ‘fair’ doesn’t enter into it. That’s just how the game is played. And it’s the only game there is.”
There are truly inspired details throughout, like his protagonist stopping “for coffee at the Chicken Shack”. It figures there’s a specific reference point in mind, there. Armstrong explains that “there’s a place in New Orleans called Willie’s. Best chicken in the world. In my mind I saw this poor angel, living in a rented room, trudging out to start the workday with coffee in a styrofoam cup at some lunch counter. William Macy, with slightly soiled, bedraggled wings…”
Another trick in Armstrong’s kit bag is starting with a punch. “I was up before the dawn/This kind of work is never done” is the opening couplet of “Delivery Boy”, though it’s got nothing on the first line of “Sal Mineo”, which—I shit you not—is “He was sucking a cock/in a parking lot.”
“I always believe in strong first lines,” Armstrong says, citing James M. Cain’s "They threw me off the hay truck about noon” as an example, from The Postman Always Rings Twice, a classic of American crime literature. “How can you read that and put the book down? Impossible.”
Armstrong is also comfortable with taking poetic license. Sal Mineo—whose acting career peaked early, with a supporting role in the 1955 classic Rebel Without a Cause—probably was not sucking a cock when he was fatally stabbed in a parking lot in 1976. The speculative nature of Armstrong’s lyrics is made clear right in the song; the next line is “Or maybe not/the story isn’t clear.”
“While there’s absolutely no evidence or reason to believe Sal was involved in any kind of sex act there in the parking lot—I’m sure he was just getting his car—the fact that he was an up-front, in-your-face gay man in an era of socially condoned hate crimes makes his sexuality a big part of the murder, or so we’ve been led to believe,” he says. “I thought that justified the line, and it kind of gets people’s attention. I’m not above playing to the back of the house. I mean, I’m in show business, right?”
Armstrong would find out after the song was written that “Morrissey is somewhat obsessive about Mineo, which makes quite a bit of sense.” But Armstrong has “no great attachment to him as an actor. I just knew him as the guy in The Gene Krupa Story, and then from Rebel when I finally saw it. But I always admired his courage in being an ‘out’ movie star before that phrase was even coined. I’m sure it cost him, personally and careerwise. In those days, only 40 years ago, just being the friend of a gay star could kill a career. And how he died—stabbed in a parking lot, bleeding out on the pavement… I went there when I was in L.A. a long time ago. It’s just a parking lot for an apartment complex. The legend was he’d been involved with someone's brother and they killed him for leading the kid into perversion, but I think some guy in jail confessed years later it was just a robbery.”
More than anything, the song brings to mind the Clash’s “The Right Profile”, but while the Clash tune does a glib, mocking song-and-dance about the decline and death of Montgomery Clift, another gay star of the 1950s, the Modernettes’ tune is compassionate towards Mineo. “I thought it was weird that they came out with that song about Clift because I’d just been reading Patricia Bosworth’s bio of Clift, and I was fascinated. That’s how he ended up in ‘Celebrity Crackup’. What a sad, sad life. It’s very clear that while everyone has dreams of making it, that’s exactly the worst thing in the world for some people…
“Honestly, though, at 63 any wish for being discovered and lauded is pretty much past. Now it’s just about doing the work and leaving something behind that was the best you could do. If some kid is sitting in his bedroom, thrilled because he figured out ‘The Rebel Kind’, that’s good enough. I’ll take it. I’ve had the approval of people I hold in very high regard, and that’s honour enough. I mean, when Alejandro Escovedo covers your song for 25 years in his shows, and bands around the world are doing versions of things you wrote, how could you be unsatisfied by that? Not that I’d say no to fame and riches, but it’s not something that keeps me up at night.”
THE NEW MODERNETTES—with Mary Jo Kopechne and Jughead long gone from the band, it seems fitting to call them by a different name—last played live in this city at Chapel Arts, at a gig you’d be forgiven for having missed. “We were all there to see some show, and I think somebody didn’t show up so we just said, 'Hey, we’ll play.' That was really fun. All these young people had no clue who we were, and why should they? My stuff is as ancient for them as Depression-era stuff would have been for me in the 1970s, when I was writing it.”
There was also Ron Reyes’s 50th birthday bash, at the Rickshaw in 2010, where—alongside departed local heroes like the Little Guitar Army and the Jolts—Armstrong led the band through “three or four” of his new compositions, and a few classics like, of course, “Barbra”. Other than Reyes’s own fearsome pipes—singing Black Flag songs with Greg Ginn on-stage, before any of that ill-fated Black Flag reunion stuff—the high point was the New Modernettes’ set, which left one with the impression of something very West Coast, maybe even Latin-inflected. (Think of the near-forgotten Latino-via-L.A. band the Plugz, and “Blue Sofa”; that’s pretty close to how the new songs sound, actually.) With “Pachuco” having been considered as one of the New Modernettes’ names, it seems worth asking if there are any Spanish influences to speak of.
“There’s no Spanish influence other than how much I fell in love with Hispanic street culture when we began touring down to Southern California back in the day,” Armstrong replies. “The look, the cars, just amazing stuff. I also at the time had black hair, greased back with pomade, and wore tight black pants and pointy toe boots—everyone down there thought I was a homeboy, until I opened my mouth. My Spanish is limited to ‘Two cold beers, please,’ ‘I am very drunk,’ and ‘Please help me, I am not well.’”
“Pachuco”, meanwhile—also the name of Armstrong’s publishing imprint, Pachuco Press—“is taken from the symbol you see in that world of a cross with three short lines radiating out from it. It means, on anything it’s found on, someone’s skin, or a possession, whatever: ‘This is a righteous thing. Don’t fuck with it. Or else.’ That pretty much fit my needs.”
In their heyday, the Modernettes “must have played a hundred shows in California. The most important connections I made personally were with Alejandro Escovedo, who was a very good friend for many years, though we’ve drifted some in our later years, and the Kinman Brothers.” He’s talking about Chip and Tony Kinman, of the bands the Dils and Rank and File. “It was very tough to lose Tony last year. A real hard one.”
Armstrong can’t pick a best California gig, “but anything at the Mab”—the Mabuhay Gardens—“or the I-Beam or Berkeley Square would be up there. San Francisco and L.A. are just so mythic to me: walking down Broadway and seeing the Hungry Eye, where Lenny Bruce played, or the City Lights bookstore, knowing Ginsberg and Kerouac read there. Or L.A.: the Bradbury Building, from Outer Limits and Blade Runner, or Griffith Observatory in Rebel Without a Cause. All the locations in Raymond Chandler’s books. The Brown Derby, the Trocadero, all those nightclubs—or where they were, most of them; Musso and Frank’s is still there. Barney’s Beanery, where all the guys from the Flying Burrito Brothers and the rest of that scene hung out. The Whiskey—those are sacred places, in my world.
“I was offered a couple of times to move to L.A., or New York, by aspiring managers, and I never accepted. I’m not sure why, but maybe I was smart enough to realize what I know as a certainty now: if I’d gone to either of those places back then, I’d be dead now. Jesus, I came very, very close here in Vancouver. The words ‘No’ and ‘That’s a bad idea’ were simply not in my vocabulary.”
One West Coast band that comes unexpectedly to mind listening to the New Modernettes is the Dream Syndicate. The opening line of the title track off their album The Medicine Show—“I’ve got a page one story buried in my yard”—feels exactly like the sort of opening line that Armstrong might write, steeped in pulp crime and intimations of infamy. Turns out he’s a fan of the Dream Syndicate, and has followed the band’s recent comeback (which has yet to see them come to Vancouver; it’s been decades since they last played here).
“I loved the Dream Syndicate,” Armstrong tells the Straight. “Steve Wynn is one of the best American songwriters there is, and it just shows you how the industry works when he’s not even in the public consciousness. That’s kind of why I quit music for so many years. I looked around at all the supremely gifted people I knew, who were scraping out a bare existence, and said, ‘If they’re not making a decent living from this, it’s a good business to get out of.’ Now, of course, I’m retired and don’t really care about it. I just want to do the work and get it out there. After that, it’s on its own. Root, hog, or die.”
When Guilty of Everything was published, “some reporter asked me how I felt about the Modernettes having all this retroactive praise and yet the band in its time was unsuccessful, I had to laugh. Unsuccessful? In Grade 10, all I wanted was to learn the guitar, write songs, and have a band, play gigs, tour, and make records. Two years later, I was doing all that and I spent the next decade and a half travelling the continent, writing and performing and recording with my friends, getting free drugs and alcohol and having every kind of sex human beings could come up with. Three and four decades later, record companies are still putting out compilations and reissues of the stuff I wrote and recorded. Unsuccessful? For fuck’s sake, what more could I have asked for—breakfast in bed?”
ARMSTRONG RARELY makes the trek to Vancouver these days, whether to play or attend events. “I came in for the Pointed Sticks show last April because Nick and I hadn’t seen each other in almost 10 years, and with Randy, Zippy, and Tony Kinman all dying last year we were conscious of not taking anything for granted. Nick is one of my oldest, closest friends, for over 60 years now. I’m very mindful now of cherishing that. I’m also a lot quicker to tell the people I love just that, that I love them. They have a way of suddenly being gone, lost to eternity, and you can’t tell them then.”
As for the December 6 show, the New Modernettes will be sharing a bill with the Pointed Sticks and others (like Eddy Dutchman’s band Eddy D. and the Sex Bombs, the “all queer, all-female alternative garage-rock band” Strange Breed, and I, Braineater as the evening’s MC). That’s a lot of bang for a $15 ticket!
“We’ve played more shows—I have, anyway—with the Pointed Sticks than any other band. We did our first tour with them and I hope we do our last when that day comes. Great band, I love them all—we went through a war together, you know? That’s a pretty strong bond. You can’t really explain it to anyone who wasn’t there.”
The Facebook event page for the Friday (December 6) show at the Rickshaw—a.k.a. Pointed Sticks Present a Cavalcade of Stars!—is here.