The Garage King

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:22

    In every corner of the sold-out Westbeth Theater Nov. 5 and 7 fans were testifying to esthetic epiphanies that would not have been out of place had Hendrix returned from Hades. But the sad fact was that at best the Monks sounded like their hype?a band who hadn't played a show in 32 years?and at their tightest often sounded like a bad polka band.

    Never mind. There's an unwritten rule that you always give major props to the pioneers who missed out on the gravy train. And anyway, the real hero of the evening was Jon Weiss.

    The producer of Cavestomp! '99, the three-day garage rock spectacular that along with the Monks featured antiquities like the Chocolate Watchband and the Standells, Weiss is a man who can't seem to leave well enough alone. He is opposed to the more obvious view that 60s garage rock was so particular to its time and place that watching men pushing their 60s trying to recreate the fervor of a bygone age is close to apostasy. "Most of these guys," he claims, "know that there is an unfinished chapter in their stories." And even if that weren't the case, you get the sense that Weiss would be dragging these guys out of retirement simply because he can't get enough of this shit. Talking about the enthusiasm of the fans, he might as well be speaking of himself when he says that "they're picking up on the timeless cool of the music." That cool didn't come all that cheaply?$25 a ticket?but Weiss stood to lose a lot more than the price of a mediocre meal: by his own estimate the weekend cost 25 grand to stage. "That's an amount of money when you're working without a safety net that is pretty frightening."

    So he must have had some pretty disquieting moments when Gary Burger, the Monks' howler, lost his voice at the last minute due to the rigors of practicing for the show. Fortunately, a ringer was located. Mike Fornatale manages a Radio Shack in Clearwater, NJ, when he isn't making Monks' parody tapes. He spent most of the first show giving an almost perfect rendition of a man overdosing on some arcane psychedelic (a condition Weiss attributes to "stage fright"), but nobody seemed to mind much.

    Weiss is not only a true believer, he backs up his passions with cash, which makes him an anomaly in the garage rock world, where the notion of paying royalties sometimes eludes the small labels cranking out multivolume compilations of one-hit wonders. Starting with the first Cavestomp! in '97, Weiss did right by ? & the Mysterians and the Shadows of Night, and did the same the following year with Barry and the Remains, Mark Lindsey and The Pretty Things. By this year he was ready to tackle the Monks, the band he says "pretty much leads the garage rock realm." Asked how he managed to get guys onstage together who hadn't even been in a room together for three decades, he says, "I create a scenario for them that makes it worthwhile for them to do it. I go to extremes to pay them what they want and need to do a show like this. It is very expensive."

    Cavestomp! is no mere mission of mercy. Though Weiss is clearly being honest when he says, "I want to document these guys and give them some long overdue recognition," there is also a viable back end. Weiss' Cavestomp Records released ? & the Mysterians' More Action last June. It will never make the top 10, but it's sold a respectable 6000 copies. Sales of classic garage rock records can always be counted on, percolating along independent of promotional timelines and hype.

    This coming spring, Weiss intends to release enhanced CDs of the Monks, Standells and Chocolate Watchband live shows as well. He predicts goods sales because of the rabid loyalty of the genre's fans (confirmed by their response to the shows).

    "Cavestomp! is getting legs," Weiss says. "It's actually a business, and I'm actually able to survive on it. What a concept."

    He hopes to book a reformed Sonics for next year's event. For now, the king of garage basks in the notion that the Monks reunion "was pretty transcendental," even if he does admit that in that ecstatic audience "a lot of people were filling in the blanks. They know the Monks through Black Monk Time, the album, and they were hearing things that aren't there because they've listened to this record so many times."

    Oh Motorbaby Last year, when the large-scale massacre at Universal was in full effect, baby bands who saw their careers drawing to untimely ends sought comfort in the supposedly "level playing field" of the Internet. Who needed the majors, they comforted themselves, when we were now heading into an online DIY paradise? A year later the Internet doesn't look so promising. Yesterday's contenders, who were going to find their niche audiences online, are laboring away at day jobs and begging for bookings at Mercury Lounge. It's pretty obvious that the utopian fantasies that attached themselves to the Net, as they do to all new major technologies, were just that. Despite a few sleepless nights at the major labels, the rules of capitalism clearly extend into cyberspace. As hapless musicians are fast discovering, with tens of thousands of new music sites going up every week it's going to be a hell of a lot more expensive to market yourself into the mainstream on the Net than anyone ever dreamed.

    But, as always, there will be winners in this new game, and a new species of industry animal is beginning to evolve. Love it or hate it, the musician as savvy cyberentrepreneur is with us to stay. Among them, none is more carnivorous than Sharon Middendorf, the front woman for Motorbaby.

    The drop-dead beautiful singer, who has modeled since she was 13 (for Helmut Newton, et al.), can identify with an ugly little beast at no cost to her self-esteem. To hear Middendorf tell it, getting dropped by Mercury Records was the best thing that ever happened to her. In the last dark days of the label, it was clear that her band ("pop rock with an alternative edge") was going to get lost in a sea of similar product. But she says that will never happen again. She has learned her lesson. "Rock 'n' roll is a marketing deal. It's not really about the music anymore. In the 60s it was about the music, but things have changed.

    "We are all entrepreneurs," she preaches. "When you're an artist going to an A&R guy, that guy is working for somebody and you're selling yourself... Any good artist is a great businessperson. Look at Prince. Look at Sheryl Crow. Kid Rock is an amazing marketer. Every song he's got, he puts his name in it."

    Middendorf's strategy for greatness isn't particularly startling. "The Internet is breaking the walls down so rapidly that old-school hierarchical dinosaurs are not going to last. The playing ground is finally going to be leveled. I can make my own albums, and who needs distribution? I can cut a deal and get put on every search engine around."

    When it comes to money for touring, she holds the big labels in still greater disdain, seemingly secure in the notion that some edgy clothing company will see the advantages of a sponsorship. She also entertains the possibility of licensing to some larger entity, or even going public. Now all she needs is a little venture capital to get over that initial marketing hurdle and maybe do a little tv advertising. She figures something on the order of a million dollars will level the field nicely.

    Chances are she'll get it.