COLUMN: Rocket To Greenwich – My Time With Furious George
There we were frantically rushing equipment from a yellow taxi, through the front door of the venue and onto the side of the stage of Brooklyn’s legendary The Grand Victory. When we first entered the place we were greeted by Sean, the venue’s bookie and general manager who directed us to the backstage/green-room area that doubled as a storage and bathroom. We threw our instruments into the wooden cubbies that were all scribbled with graffiti from all the bands that had been through there before and hung up our jackets. We had arrived and the time was at hand: Lucyfernandez was about to play the Grand Victory opening for Furious George for whom I’d also be covering bass duties that evening. It was gonna be a big night for old John.
But let me back up a little bit.
It was the summer of 1996, my melancholy teenage heart longed only for girls, over-inflated delusions of love and punk rock (in that order). Lyric sheets and mail order were my gospel, Ben Weasel my spiritual leader, and Billie Joe the Pope. The greater part of my days were spent listening to records, holed up between the flyer and poster-adorned walls of my Miami suburban home. The paradoxically liberal and at many times outlandish (yet relatable) content found in the pages of fanzines, specifically MRR’s column section, served as binary vehicle to help escape from my very suburban life. Stories about underground music, drugs, sex, personal liberation and politics enshrouded beneath a commanding punk rock discourse quickly became a very alluring, and ultimately implemented as part of my own “morality”. I was hooked.
One fateful day, as I flipped through the pages of MRR I came across the name Furious George for the first time. I thought it was a clever name but didn’t make much of it. I recall thinking to myself that if I ever had a hardcore band I’d call it “Furious John,” which didn’t make much for a pun but it had a nice ring to it. I turned the page and forgot about it.
Some time later, browsing through another fanzine, I ran into that name again. This time printed above a record review for a 7” called “Goes Ape!”. Upon closer inspection, I noticed the record was new, and recently put out by Lookout! Records.
The cover of the EP featured a very good cartoon parody of Curious George in a leather jacket and shades, wreaking havoc on New York City from atop what looked like the Empire State building. I immediately wondered how they got away with using the famous monkey in such a way. My interest had definitely been piqued, if Lookout! had a hand in it there was a definite possibility that I wanted to know more about it. I made a mental note to keep an eye out for this the next time I’d go visit Y&T Records.
Some months later at my friend Lance’s house that I finally heard what this band sounded like. Flipping through his record collection I discovered a copy of “Goes Ape!”, the artwork was even more awesome up close. As I held the jacket in my hand, Lance looked over and said “yeah that’s this really funny band, Dee Dee Ramone sings backups on one of the songs”.
Wait, what? Dee Dee Ramone, my hero that existed at this time in relative cultural obscurity was singing on a record put out by one of my favorite record labels and I did not have it already? (at the time, the Ramones where still regarded as not that relevant and generally appreciated by somewhat of a niche demographic of music listeners i.e. “Ramones Fans”) I internally chastised myself as a feeling of mild shame passed through me. I can remember holding the record in my hand as I examined the jacket, turned it over and scanned the credits for Dee Dee’s name, and surely enough there it was below a song called “Betty Crocker Punk Rocker”, the first song on the record.
We threw the 7” on Lance’s not-so-great-sounding briefcase turntable that from what I can recall had been inherited from an aunt, dropped the needle and let ‘er rip. I can remember the anticipation building as I endured the first couple of “pops” and “cracks” the moment the needle caught the grooves of the record. Suddenly, as if abruptly piercing through the small briefcase speaker, came the sound of a buzzing guitar backed by a mid-tempo drum beat, rallied by the cry of what sounded like a really evil sounding Dee Dee Ramone, only it wasn’t him, it was George Tabb, the band’s lead singer. Before I could take my eyes off of the 7” cover, side A was over. I never really heard Dee Dee, but I didn’t really care anymore. The music kicked ass, the artwork looked great, Dee Dee or no Dee Dee, I was sold. Like biting into a warm piece of chocolate cake or punching someone you hate in the face, the whole thing was pretty satisfying.
A couple of days later I sent a stamped envelope addressed to Lookout! Records with a check for $4 attached to an order form. ($3 for the 7”, $1 or shipping. I liked it better when vinyl was seen as cheap and inconvenient) Three and a half weeks later via USPS I received my very own copy of “Goes Ape” that I could dissect and play as many times necessary to become one with the band.
Sitting in my room, a few weeks after the 7” arrived, as I flipped through MRR’s column section (for some reason I can remember that Gauze was on the cover) I noticed the picture of a guy wearing a leather jacket with big ears, a crew cut and a crazy look in his eye collaged next to text that read “Take My Life Please”. For a second I thought it was Ben Weasel but quickly realized it wasn’t. Regardless he looked pretty cool, he looked like… a Ramone of some sort. It was then that I also noticed that this guy looked a lot like the guy on the back of the Furious George record I had heard couple of days ago at Lance’s. Then it dawned on me, this is the guy on the back of that record! Wanting to get to know the man behind the screech, I proceeded to read on; what I discovered was an introduction to someone that later would become one of my favorite contemporary writers. That night I went over to my closet and pulled out all the issues of MRR I had put away in search for more of his column.
After the first couple of reads I was quickly sucked into his lighthearted literary take on the world of punk rock, which contrasted dorkdom, fandom, The Ramones and Judaism. All of which were my areas of expertise, except for the latter. The self deprecating and autobiographic nature of his stories also suggestively painted a picture of George as the poster boy for the underdog, something that really resonated within me. It was almost immediately after my discovery of George’s literary facet, the music became that much more interesting.
For many years I attempted to follow the band and George’s literary work. As time took me into the 2000’s and Furious George went into a prolonged silent period, I began to see George more as a writer than a performer. I would sporadically read his stuff in the New York Press, Maximum Rock n’ Roll, and other publications on the internet. During this period of “silence” he released two books,“Playing Right Field: A Jew Grows up in Greenwich” and “Surfing Armageddon”, both books composed of stories about life experiences, which are also two of my favorite books by a contemporary author.
Over time I lost track of George’s pen work. It wasn’t until the mid-2000’s, while living in New York, that I decided to do a Google search and see what old Georgie was up to. What my spontaneous meddling turned up was hardly good news. I learned via some videos posted by him on his Myspace page that as a product of the volunteer work George had done at Ground Zero days following 9/11, he had developed a very serious health condition. I was surprised by the news and decided that it might be a good idea to send George a short message, just to say hi.
A few days after reaching out, I received I reply from George. I opened the message. The text was written in typical George Tabb style, friendly, animated and optimistic. He was happy to hear from a fan. It was this initial message that sparked a sporadic e-mail back and forth between me and George that would last several years, that would carry onto the age Facebook once myspace became relegated to the annals of ancient internet history. In a weird way, even if we’d never met, I felt like I kind of knew George already, mainly from his books.
Which brings us to the recent past.
In 2014, living in the republic of Panama, Lucyfernandez (my band) was invited to participate as part of a live showcase for the Latin Alternative Music Conference in New York City. Having been in bands for almost 20 years, and never really being considered for any type of “music industry showcase” we decided to pursue this and make the trip.
In order to maximize our time away from home and cover any expenses that may have been generated outside the LAMC invitation we decided to book a tour of different bars in New York City. As I booked and assembled the short tour, an idea popped into my head. Why don’t we invite George to do some Furious George songs for one of the dates? The worst thing would be if he said “no”, so I shot him an e-mail.
A couple of days later I got a reply from George, to my surprise he was interested but first he’d have to check with Michael the drummer, Evan the bassist, and Marc the guitarist. After a couple of days, George wrote back, Furious George was in, he only had one request… for the show to be billed as the band’s 20th anniversary reunion. Seconds later I was jumping around my apartment doing David Lee Roth style air kicks.
As our travel date neared, I attempted to ignore a minor-yet-constant underlying fear that this was almost too good to be true. This had all come together too easily, and well you know the saying- easy come easy go. One day while having lunch at a restaurant near my practice space, I got a message from George:
“Hi John! Our bass player is scheduled to play out of town the night of the show.”
I felt my stomach drop, I feared that this was the first sign of an impending cancelation. Seconds later the message was followed by another that read:
“John, how would you feel about playing bass for a Furious George set?”.
I re-read the message to make sure I had properly understood what he was asking. I made a pause, looked up from my phone and around the restaurant, re-read the message one more time, and checked the room again. Nudged by a feeling of almost disbelief, I promptly wrote back and accepted the proposal. As I sat in a noisy restaurant during lunchtime, overwrought by dreamlike proposal, I took a deep breath, rubbed the palms of my hands together vigorously, closed eyes, and asked myself “holy shit John, did that just happen?”, I’m pretty sure the people sitting around me thought I was staving off some type of mental breakdown.
For the next couple of minutes I processed George’s proposal, which was nothing short of pretty awesome. There was one problem though, I had forgotten one minor detail, I was not a bass player. At the moment, I think George thought I was the guitar player in my band, not the drummer, and I wasn’t about to say a thing about it. Bottom line was, I had to bone up on my bass skills or lack thereof, ASAP.
Two weeks before we flew out to NYC I basically taught myself how to correctly hold and play the bass. I can get by on the guitar so it wasn’t an entirely foreign endeavor to me but I quickly learned that those big strings and long neck where nothing to shake a stick at.
In order not to fall short and let the band down the day of the show, I created rehearsal routine that I worked on repeatedly until we flew out. Every night, once I was done helping my wife put our kids to bed, I would stand in our living room, bass in hand with headphones connected to a laptop, and would run through the 20 minute set 5 times. For over 20 years as a drummer, I’ve always enjoyed the ritual and repetition of rehearsal; many nights I would submerge myself so deeply in preparation that I would end up drenched in the remainder of whatever sweat had not created a small kid-size puddle on my living room floor. My wife’s ability to often tolerate these types of late night shenanigans has always left me awestruck and very appreciative. Thank you baby.
After the first few hours of practice my finger tips where nice and raw, by the end of the week they were covered in painful, red, watery callouses, at least the ones that hadn’t been ripped open by the strings. My neanderthal-like hands were good for drumming but not so much for “bassing”, but I kept at it.
Upon our arrival in NYC, we were picked up at the airport by our friend Brittany. A dear friend of ours and also a very talented tattoo artist, she looked out for us during our entire stay. She put us up in the living area of her Brooklyn apartment, Tito on the couch, Remus (our bassist) and me on the futon. Once we got settled, I promptly started contacting everyone we were working with in NY to make sure there were no lose ends. Moments later, I put in a call to George’s phone, but there was no answer. As I picked up my laptop to send him a message, the phone rang and the screen displayed George’s number.
We spoke shortly, our conversation was friendly and fluent, and we arranged to meet at his place the following day at 5PM. It was all set, the circle would soon be completed.
The next day, Tito and I took a cab out to George’s. A short ride later we exited the cab into a breezy mid-summer afternoon, you could hear the trees rustling up and down the streets in front of George’s building, almost as if to increase the climactic event. We walked over to the intercom, rang, and shortly after got buzzed in. A few steps up a short flight of stairs we were finally in front of the official residence of George Tabb, and right then and there I noticed that I was just a little bit nervous.
Before we even had a chance to knock, the door opened and instantly like two streaks of lightning shooting out from the apartment came Scooter and Jett, George’s yorkies, barking, sniffing and jumping excitedly around us, they checked us out almost as if inspecting us for clearance before entry.
Elena, George’s wife, welcomed us into their home with a friendly smile. We said hello and she showed us through the door and into the living room, where I finally saw a figure standing next to the TV. It was George, at last.
My first reaction was to throw my hands up, as if gesturing to an old friend, I walked over to him, we shook hands. We sat down and began talking about everything. For the duration of our visit, I can recall a very nice and calm atmosphere, he was very much like the guy in his stories. George was friendly, a great host, and a character. From The Sopranos to his short-lived career as a roadie for The Ramones, we talked about everything except the upcoming show that I had been preparing for so much. It was a treat to listen to his stories firsthand. At the end of our soirée, he handed me some fresh copies of his books and almost the entire Furious George discography. All of which he refused to sign since he himself didn’t consider that his signature would improve on any of the items he had given me. He also gave us some beautiful hand crafted guitar straps from Elena and his designer leather company called “Volume & Tone”. Once the gifting portion of the visit was all over, he showed us to the door and invited us over for dinner the night before we flew back home.
As Tito and I walked away from George’s home, I was overtaken by a feeling of great satisfaction that carried us from Greenwich Village across to the St. Mark’s Place in only a matter of minutes. The trajectory as far as I can recall was a blur, it was only 7:30PM the night was only beginning. We decided to replenish our nutrients to properly service the upcoming night hours and went searching for a “slice and a coke”. We walked into a pizza joint called “2 Bros Pizza” put in our orders, took a table and savored our good fortune.
So that was the last of it, I tipped the driver, shut the door of the cab and stopped for a moment to catch my breath. We were late, but not too late. I picked up my cymbal case which was the last of the equipment and entered the Grand Victory. The opening band had already gone on, I sized up the venue, and the small crowd in assistance. There was about 50 people in the audience. I quickly confirmed that no one from Furious George was there, I did have my doubts about one guy, but wasn’t entirely sure. Just as I started walking towards the back of the club, I was approached by Sean the club manager, he showed us to the dressing rooms. As I put all my stuff down, a gold sequin jacket hanging in one of the cubbies in the wall in front of me caught my eye. The jacket belonged to Marc, Furious George’s guitarist, and I had recognized it from the videos George send me to help me practice. Just as I made the connection, Marc walked into the dressing room and without missing a beat introduced myself as soon as I saw him go over to the cubby near the jacket. Marc was also nice, he had come to the show accompanied by his mother who he also introduced me to. It was shaping up to be a great night.
Moments later I saw George come through the door of the venue with Elena.
Our eyes met and he walked over to me and Marc, and with somewhat of a serious tone asked “So John, did you learn the songs?”, to which I replied “Yeah, I went over ‘em a few times”, just to set the bar low enough just in case I screwed up.
George took us out to the dressing area, he knew the way, put his stuff down and struck up a pre-show meeting.
“Ok John, so here’s the set list”, he said as he handed me a piece of paper. George was basically walking me through the pacing of a furious George show. “Do you have a jacket or something?”, he asked, “yeah, I do, its hanging right in that cubby right there”. “Ok, good, put it on. We always take our jackets off after the third song”, George instructed. I figured I had enough time to do that when Lucyfernandez finished the set.
We checked the first notes of every song to be sure I had my bases covered. When we finished I turned to get my drumsticks to run through my warm-ups and George said “Hey John you should start getting ready.”
“Ready for what?” I asked. As far as I knew I had to go play drums with Lucyfernandez.
To which George replied “We’re gonna check all the instruments, walk off and then a few minutes later walk back on and deliver the show”.
“So what, you’re opening?” I asked in total confusion.
“Uh, yeah” said George in tone that suggested the obviousness of his statement.
“Why would you go on before us”, I asked.
“You guys came from very far away, you should be the last to go on, you’re the headliners!” exclaimed George in a genuinely excited tone.
I didn’t argue, I went with it. I was a very nice gesture on his part, and pretty telling of the types of people George, Marc and Michael are.
I picked up Remus’ bass and hauled it onstage. I plugged it into an old Peavey head hooked up to an ancient looking VST cabinet, and messed with the knobs. Remus who was standing offstage quickly picked up on how lost I was and rushed onstage to help me properly work the amp. George, Marc and myself went back into the dressing room, and Michael stayed behind setting up the drums. Moments later I was walking onstage with the band, I could feel the blood rushing to my head in excitement.
The set opened with an instrumental rendition of “Betty Crocker Punk Rocker”, at this point I was beginning to realize where I was standing and what I was doing. Next up, “Sorry Ass Sucker”, and just at that song ended we launched into “Monkey in a Man Suit”. The rest of the show was mainly a blur. Many times I caught myself living through that moment musicians fantasize about as kids. To stand side by side on stage with one of their heroes. It was pretty surreal to put it mildly.
I learned and sang all the backup vocals as I pounded mercilessly on the borrowed bass. As the set drew to a close, I tried as hard as I could to absorb as much of the experience into my permanent memory. For the greater part, I can remember fragments. What stayed with me was how the band treated me.
After the set Mike, Elena, and George stuck around for our set. Marc had to travel after the show so he had to cut out early. Most of the audience was gone but I’m sure it was a fun show for those who stayed. I can tell you we had a blast. When the show was over we said our good-nights and George reminded us about the dinner invitation.
A few nights later, Tito, Brittany and myself went over to George’s. We had some delicious pasta made by Elena and Red Velvet cake for desert. After the meal we listened to some of George’s rock n’ roll tales, as he showed us his extensive book collection. A memorable meal with good company, to say the least.
After a pleasant dinner that served as a perfect bookend to a very memorable journey, we said our goodbyes, thank-yous and walked out the door.
As I sat in Brittany’s car on the way back to her apartment, I looked back in my mind and thought about how for some reason I always knew that at some point in time I was going to come into contact with George, somehow, someway, someday. I’d like to think that none of this was left to chance, but I’m not one to put very much stock in good or bad luck. Regardless how it all happened, I walked away with some mileage, not a lot, but a small and very valuable amount. At least, enough to make me reflect and attempt to write a meaningful story about it.
George’s health has been on the ropes as of late, something that without having to dig too deep I can imagine generates expensive hospital and doctor bills. Check out one of his books, pick up a strap from Volume & Tone, I’m sure him and Elena will appreciate the support.
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- COLUMN: Rocket To Greenwich – My Time With Furious George - January 17, 2017