The Shirts' original hey days were in the late seventies. As an integral part of the raucous and classic CBGB scene, they experimented from their own distinctive musical starting point. During their brush with big-time showbiz, they were managed by Hilly Kristal, who is still the club's owner in 2006 as it prepares to celebrate its 33rd birthday and retire from its Bowery space.
Robert Racioppo and Artie Lamonica, elder statesmen of the Shirts (from Brooklyn) were interviewed in New York on Monday April 21 2003 at 5pm. They spoke fast, since the rehearsal followed with the new, expanded seven-piece line-up shortly after, getting ready for performance at CBGB on Saturday May 31 2003.
Streaming audio of Artie's and Robert's answers can be heard by clicking on the player after each question. For help in playing music, see our Playing Audio page in the Big Help Desk.
To the audio clips only of Artie's and Robert's answers.
Mike Thorne: Did you feel part of some classic scene in the mid-seventies? What did it feel like to be part of an era and a movement that many people revere?
Artie Lamonica: That’s a funny question because we always felt that we were kind of in the scene but kind of outside the scene. Also in being a local band as opposed to bands that came here--migrated to CBGB’s and there was the CBGB/Max’s Kansas City thing. We were definitely there. We were in the first wave. It’s just that we were later in the first wave. Yeah, I talk to people now and they’re just amazed I was there to witness this incredible scene and, at the time, it didn’t seem that way-- it didn’t seem as if it was going to be historic.
Robert Racioppo: You didn’t know it was going to be ' this scene'; it was just life. When David Byrne walked in--I was at David Byrne’s first sound check--with the first four words out of his mouth the entire place fell on the ground laughing. Right. Everyone. It was, like, what the fuck is this!
He went uh, uh, uh. That’s how he checked the vocal mic.
And then--it was hilarious. Remember Nicky Buzz from this band, Sun. This guy was like a heavy metal band saw David Byrne. They had, I think, the Talking Heads, and they were playing like an incredible mix—Right --It was just, really--
So, if you came from a conventional background musically, kind of a Wayne’s World type mentality you went to CBGB’s and it was, like, what is this? Yeah, yeah. What is it? There was always that kind of level of musician who thought they were really good musicians but seemed amateurish. At CB’s there was music but there was also the fashion and the drugs and other aspects. It wasn’t just a music scene; it was a hang. I remember when I went down there the first time with Steve Novik to see Patti Smith, I felt like I walked into like some kind of Andy Warhol nightmare. It was the first time I saw a woman who looked like Patti Smith but like a vampire with a black bra on. I thought, oh my God this is incredible. This is so weird.
Because we were from the provinces. Even though home was just two miles away it was like a hundred. A long way away, coming over from Brooklyn
So, it was kind of bizarre, but the key thing was CBGB’s allowed you to play original music. Right. That was a key factor.
In Brooklyn where we were, you couldn’t play originals. We couldn’t get gigs. It was like—we tried to play covers, but we couldn’t really and they wouldn’t accept the—they would yell at us— 'what the fuck is this music.' We wrote it. 'Get the fuck out of here.' Stuff like that. It was amazing. So that’s why, even though we weren’t part of the clique, we fit in because we were staunchly into—we started writing our own rock operas—
We didn’t fit into Brooklyn either.
Yeah, we didn’t fit into Brooklyn. We didn’t fit in with the real CBGB’s crowd, but—
We found a niche
We found a little niche.
How did you all come together. It sounds as if you suddenly arrived fully formed from Mars?
The thing that with me was amazing was that I was playing a little bit, but I asked you to teach me my keys. Yeah, right. I said, Bob, you gotta teach me my keys. I really looked up to him because he was in bands, and I was just learning, and he came to my apartment and said, okay, I’m going to teach you the keys. He goes--ready--'do re mi fah soh la ti do. That’s your keys'. But, the odd thing was that he was in this band called Tangerine that they played around. They were a high school band. We played high school dances. They did a reunion gig in Sunset Park. That was it. And I played drums. I never played drums in my life. So, imagine it’s 200 people in the audience, which is huge for us then. I never played drums in my life and they say 'we need a drummer,' so I volunteered to play drums. That’s what I guess is to be that driven. I was not afraid to play music, and to get up and do something, even though I didn’t know how to play. I mean there were plenty of drummers around. Why isn’t anybody saying 'don’t do it?' I just said, 'I’ll do it.'
Those early days are now just unbelievable. For some reason, in Brooklyn you could rent a storefront for $100 You could rent a 25 x 80 foot storefront with a backyard for a hundred bucks! So, we rented this storefront—actually, I was thinking of the song, I Want To Be a Rocker. It says the whole thing: we didn’t want to work these jobs. We were like lower middle class. Well, you could work in the gas company. Some of my friends worked for Con Ed [the power company].That was the dream. Leave school. Then if you didn’t want to go to college, you get a City job. Right. That was like a good benefit—Con Ed. But, like John Lennon ruined my life cause I wrote a song when I was in Flower Dice called John, You Ruined My Life. Because I dropped out of college—I went to one year of college, then my parents got me a job (through really good connections) in a photo studio. I was an apprentice in a photo studio, and all I had to do was work my way up. It was a good job, and it was hard to get me in. But, the thing is, when you are 19 and you’re an apprentice, you get yelled at endlessly. So, I put up with it for months because I said, well, I have no choice. They would photograph everything—garbage—whatever. But one day they photographed a tape player, and they brought in these tapes. So, here are all these tapes. On my lunch hour I’m in this little cubicle and I’m thinking 'let’s see what tapes they go here,' and they have Sergeant Pepper. I put it in. I’m eating my lunch, and I’m listening to A Day in The Life. So, the old guy walks in: 'hey, lunch’s over !' The guy’s yelling at me. He says, 'go get that hammer.' I’m walking towards the hammer, and something in me says 'I’m just gonna keep going.' Somehow. I didn’t plan it, I just kept walking and the guy’s screaming at me, 'where the fuck are you going?' I just kept walking. I ran down the stairs, and that was it. Freedom. I don’t know; that was it. We started the Shirts.
We started the bands. We started the Shirts.
It sounds like a bunch of The Bash Street Kids starting out. When did it jell into something serious? You must have thought at some point, 'well this has a future.'
I think you have to make the decision that you’re gonna throw your life away.
Like me—I was living in Long Island--I would go to sleep—I had these two speakers-- like EJ Korvette speakers—I would keep them on each side of my bed and I would listen to the last three songs of Sticky Fingers. I was listening to Moonlight Mile and I said, 'That’s it. I gotta get outta here.' I was: finally you make that decision. You say you’re gonna do it. You’re gonna give it a real shot, and you're not fooling around. That’s the difference; you can’t do it casually; you have to make a life decision.
We had a guy in the band who was gonna go to med school and stuff and it was like you gotta leave the band and go, and he went. He’s a doctor now. He’s doing well. Yeah. It weeds out; it’s a distillation process of who’s left and it was somehow eventually the six Shirts. Then we rented a loft. In the storefront it was like a club; it was $10 a month to belong and some people lived there. I was living there, and my rent was $10 a month. I used to work two days a month, and I would take showers in the sink. I would stand in the sink with a can of water. We had a great friend who has passed away who was also living there, but he worked on Wall Street. He was like a guardian angel.
Yeah, he’d talk about being conflicted. He was conflicted. Yeah, because he wasn’t a musician, but he couldn’t-- He had the soul of an artist, he was a kind of Neil Cassidy. He had the soul of an artist, but he didn’t have any art, and he always got these white-collar jobs. He didn’t have an outlet, and he ended up dying from a drug overdose because he was such an intense person that..... He was working for the gas company, right? I think eventually he ended up there. But that’s the decision: that you’re kind of, okay, we’re not going to get the white picket fence or this or that, and you go for it. But, at least you’re not alone, there’s other people involved. So, you’re like a little gang or something.
And, you know, when you start something like that, like-minded people start—all these mutant people—start coming around and you attract and you build like an energy field. So, after the storefront, we rented a loft in Park Slope which was $250, and we said listen we’re leaving the storefront. People couldn’t believe it because I remember certain people were so angry because we were moving out of this and it was going to be $25 a month to be part of it, but people couldn’t do that; they could do the ten. But we went to this loft, and that’s when we got serious, and all the hanging out people out sort of just left.
Right. The next stages you went each stage, people dropped off. Remember there was a dance troop—Ariel Dance Troop. Very cool, a very cool kind of scene, and, you know, Park Slope then -- now it’s noted for its artists and things but then it was like we were right there. This was 12th Street. This is the Ansonia Clock Factory.
You couldn’t live there. It’s now a big loft complex.
A big condo.
Then it was still sewing machines and stuff.
We were next door to a sewing machine factory.
And we built a studio; we built a studio with cinder blocks on the 4th floor of a wooden loft. I don’t know why or how, but we built these huge cinder block walls.
Yeah and then we started, in fact, at that studio, when we had this guy, Norman Dunn. He was our engineer guy. Then JR [Rost] came around and he started putzing around with stuff and chipping in for equipment and he recorded all our stuff. JR also recorded the Talking Heads there. He’s got a great Talking Heads album.
Yeah, if we wanted
to bootleg it.
Everybody was so casual then, but it’s remarkable what a success rate came out of that mix of people.
It seems, looking back on it, you could exist on thin air in those days and pursue your dreams. When you look around at people in your position today, what do you think are the differences?
I think the energy you have at that age.....it’s just so much fun. It doesn’t matter if there’s 18 people in one room. Doesn’t matter.
How much are you paying for rehearsal time now?
$20 an hour or so.
Yeah, $20 an hour, basically. Actually, they give you three hours. So, it’s really—you can get it for $20 between $20-$25
It’s still an interesting comparison.
We rehearsed five nights a week, and it created problems for a lot of people if they had a girlfriend or something—that type of deal—remember.
We were really disciplined and totally involved in the music, and we were able to make it happen. We were able to move to the next step. I can’t imagine how bands do it now, the hours they put in in a rented loft.
How do you get noticed now? It’s like advertising is so everywhere. You know what I’m saying. It all becomes one blanket like a Jackson Pollock; you don’t notice anything. Advertising constantly picks up these schemes like these non-ads and they go back and forth whatever, but with a band--.
The energy of being at CBGB made it where things were happening; that’s where people were coming through the front door. The most promotion we ever would do was to posterize, and we hardly did that. Sometimes we put posters on lampposts and that was the extent of it. We didn’t have to advertise at all. It was just a growing, organic thing. Now, I guess, I mean I get emailed constantly from people who are playing here, playing there and I don’t even know who they are. They’re just through somebody else. So, I guess they do email and whatever. It’s the communication era so everything’s—it’s easier to reach out. It’s just a matter of are the people there willing to go see you or hear you. There’s a glut of bands. There’s a glut of everything. So.
Was there always a glut of bands? It’s as if the scene has become very dissipated. I remember from the mid- to late seventies, you would go to CB’s and see whoever you were going to see and then you would go off to Max’s, and you would know everything that was going on in an evening.
It’s like the Gold Rush. You know. First there are a few miners there then, once the word gets out, it gets covered with so many miners. How many of them can strike gold? People like the suppliers, like the guys who own the studios who just make money—you know that's where there’s money to be made. These rehearsal studio guys do great; there’s tons of money in it, but how many people you know strike that original gold?
Do you think it’s possible to exist outside of the Gold Rush mentality?
You were on the verge of, to use a loaded word, 'stardom', and it all seemed to be in place, everybody seemed to be contributing. The musical machines seemed to be working very well. Then, the bottom fell out of it. How do you see that in retrospect? Do you feel bitter about it? Do you just feel this is the way of the world? How do you see what went wrong from a mature generation later?
To mention the Gold Rush again. The Gold Rush seemed to pass a lot of American record companies by. They were still very, very conservative even right at the end of the seventies.
They’re behind and then they catch up and then overtake, and that’s how it is. The visionary people do something and then they pick up on it, and they spend the bread to take it over, and that ruins it. That was always the case. It’s like neighborhoods. Go into Williamsburg and then all of a sudden it’s like—it used to be you’d go to Bedford Avenue and get an apartment cheap. Now you’ve got to go five stops further on the subway. People catch on and realize that’s how it is. Eventually, we had no real relation with Capitol at all. We played the Bottom Line and we’d get bouquets of flowers and chocolate kisses, and that was it.
You go through your bitter moments. I remember at one point I was driving a cab after we got dropped. I had the cassette radio on and the Talking Heads came on. I was sitting in a traffic jam on the West Side Highway, and I started punching. I destroyed the thing. No one was in the cab. I was just stuck in this traffic jam. But, you know, that’s just—
But, while we were doing it, everything felt great.
No one felt happier than the Shirts. JR took a photo session of us when we did a tour, we did a tour upstate New York. We played a few clubs. We used to make maybe a thousand a night or something, and he has these pictures of us where we’re like, the smiles—I mean, we weren’t making a lot. We were, like you said, just getting up and doing what you want to do. There are pictures of us in a bowling alley. We are so freaking happy, but it’s like—that level—it’s like they don’t allow that somehow. You have to--it’s the feast or famine thing. They only want one or two pop stars that they can, you know, maximize their profits and just have it controlled. I saw the new Madonna thing when I got off the subway. She’s trying to look like a low-tech thing, trying to look almost like—the big poster looks as if it was done on a copy machine. She must have researched and said what can I do now? What’s happening? You know what I’m saying she’s trying to create as if she’s hanging out in the loft in Williamsburg or something. So, that’s it—the way of the world.
Well, she can do that. Think of all the energy that gets put into her image. Well, we didn’t put any energy into image. Bands then had either a natural tendency to take care of their image—like the Ramones—and it wasn’t as perverse as it is now. Now every pop star has a hair stylist and a choreographer—macrobiotic chef!
What really soured me was when I saw that dance choreography was greater then the music.
That whole Michael Jackson thing kind of made it more show bizzy more--Las Vegas or something.
I saw Credence Clearwater at the Fillmore way back when. Three guys in flannel shirts just standing there, and it was so great. They were the ultimate minimalist band. That was just great.
That was one of the turning points of the seventies. In the early part of the seventies pop music experts evolved who could play just about anything. They’d stand there in grubby t-shirts and jeans and say the music’s the thing, man. Somehow it just didn’t work.. But when the Punks arrived, then suddenly it did work. That’s a very different mechanism, isn’t it?
Mike, you told the story of the Sex Pistols being dropped by EMI where you said this can’t go on even though the company could have made a ton of money on it, right, because it was an actual political force. It could have really been trouble for the upper class. It could have really started problems, right? Even though we’re gonna make money, boom, they killed it. They diluted it so you have Johnny Rotten does his thing—Johnny Lydon in like, you know—But they were manufactured, too. So the joke was..... Who, the Sex Pistols?
Yeah, they were manufactured and they became this kind of spokes band for the downtrodden punks, but, yet, they were like totally manufactured. So, it’s interesting. But in New York it was just a bunch of bands, and it was really a fashion thing.
I disagree with the “manufacturing.” I think they were co-opted by Malcolm McLaren, but they were certainly not manufactured.
But, weren’t they just hanging out in a clothes shop?
People have to hang out somewhere. Is that what it looked like from here? Now, why? New York’s the home of punk. Why did the Sex Pistols look manufactured from your perspective?
There was. That’s true. It’s funny you mention again the youth icon. Do you think that rock n roll is just a phase you passed through in your youth, or do you think it is something you are born with and continue with in different phases?
Are there any people around who you would take as a good example?
Is it possible to sing about the same things now or do you find different subjects coming to the fore now when you write songs?
To get back to just the question, 'can you still rock (or whatever) at certain ages?' We started Shirts, this new Shirts or whatever it’s going to be, we started rehearsing about six weeks ago. Rehearsing every Monday. And we started doing Teenage Crush. It took five weeks of playing the song until in the last rehearsal last Monday we got it up to the right tempo. We would say, let’s try to do it. It didn’t matter. We had to wait until the six weeks to get back to that old speed. The last rehearsal gave me chills when we did it because we had that same—we hit it again. Zeeek [drums] was right there, and we have some new singles and stuff and it felt good. It felt really good because when it happens, it’s just like—that’s what I live for. My greatest Shirt moment was.... we used to do They Say The Sun Shines, and in the extended live version we used to ride this B chord, and I was going (sound), but somehow (I was totally straight. I didn’t take any drugs after the early days,) but we hit this groove. Me and Zeeek and the band, it was like a total nirvana, and it was just a B chord. I can still remember it. I can remember this exact moment. In a way that’s like my little personal masterpiece, just that lasted right there. That’s the great thing about music. It’s different from art. It’s different from the Mona Lisa, which you can just stand and look at. It exists. It dissipates, whatever, but it’s still there. It’s still in you. That’s what just playing this music once a week in rehearsal, it’s great again., And I’m old now. I’m 51 now. We start Teenage Crush and go (sound), and it comes in and it’s great. You know, we actually have a hit coming up. I hope we make it that far. Because it’s fragile also.
Is it fragile socially?
Do you think democracy works in a band? Everybody always says.......
It’s funny you mentioned the speed of Teenage Crush because, going back to your first album, I found it a lot faster and a lot more intense than I remembered. When I go back to the Ramones’ old albums, they seem quite tame and slow, and very leisurely.
On other people’s terms _____. But, again, going back to the second album, I think it’s a masterpiece. I think it’s an immaculate expression and so, leave the third album out. Where do you think you’re going with the new resurrection of The Shirts? How do you compare and contrast?
We’re picking up where we left off. I swear to God! The new Shirts started like this. I went to a wake, and I ran into my two cousins. 'Let’s get together!' So, we started this thing called—it was supposed to be Thing. I have a nephew who’s like—he’s a heavy metal maniac guitarist with a huge Celtic Cross tattooed on his chest, and I put him in the band. We got Zeeek. We got four other Shirts. (Artie wasn’t in it.) We evolved into Thin G and then what happened—his parents—my nephew was grounded. He couldn’t make rehearsal so we lost him. So, I called Artie. You started playing with us. Yeah. You wanted me. I don’t why. I don’t know the reason why. The latest--the real thing. You wanted to do The Shirts. You wanted to resurrect The Shirts. I wanted to resurrect The Shirts, but it got passed on. Right. People said no. So, I came on. But people were complaining. How can you have The Shirts without Annie Golden? Taboo. Annie’s got a great career; she’s doing fantastic. So, I feel maybe we can have this little Shirt thing. We can just exist. Play local clubs. Play once a month, and be the Shirts, and we have some very good female singers and then that’s how it started, and people passed on it, but then we continued with Thin G, but this malaise set in. Remember we did a bunch of rehearsals and people were like—I don’t know what happened—we lost the energy. So, then I was working a job in New Jersey in construction. I was cleaning up sheet rock and plywood that was around this house, and it was raining, and I was walking through mud. I would carry the sheet rock and plywood and make a big pile. Imagine there’s three tons of sheet rock and garbage around the house, and you have to pile it up. Imagine, it's raining and I'm walking through the mud. Somehow while I was doing that, I had the vision of the new Shirts of taking Thin G and adding Annie into Thin G what we had and making it The Shirts. I called Hilly [Kristal], and he said he would help us record. I got all the stuff together. But, I don’t know about Annie. I don’t know if Annie is going to be in it right now. I don’t know what is going to happen. [Annie Golden was ultimately not in the extended group for the CBGB’s gig on May 31.] That’s it. And, the music it just feels just like the old days. You know the way Ronnie was?
Democracy’s out; dictatorship’s in, and like a good dictator, he delegates.
It sounds as if the cycle of founding connections and shared obsessions is coming around again, and you’ll never let it go.
I realize, you know, I never left the Shirts. You know how you have your dreamscape? I still dream I'm back in my boyhood in Sunset Park. I’m still in The Shirts in all my dreams. It’s like The Shirts are doing a gig, still. It’s like you possess these things. I said why not try to just let it exist. The smartest thing we did—all we did, the Shirts, was to make it exist. We just existed, and, at one point, we existed at CBGB’s, and we didn’t know Nick Mobbs from EMI was going to come down. Hilly had arranged tryouts for us. 'You know so and so is coming down.' We blew every one of those gigs. Every one. Maybe a good ten gigs. Horrible. He said, well, there was nothing else to do so all we did was exist, and all we could really try to do is exist, and that’s when everything is good when you just exist—don’t plan it—just be it.
The Shirts at the Stereo Society:
to the Shirts' home at the Stereo Society
to the Shirts' 2006 album: Only The Dead Know Brooklyn
to the Shirts' 2006 video: Only The Dead Know Brooklyn
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