By far, the most frustrating thing about my 7 1/2-year exile in central California — well, aside from the 2 1/2 years without a job; that’s another monster — has been the feeling of being cut off culturally. Even though there’s definitely culture here, the Northeast and the Central Valley are two totally different planets, speaking two different forms of language. And, save for some stray moments, I’ve especially felt disassociated from the thing that’s been most near and dear to me in my life, music.
I feel — no, I know — I’ve missed out on a lot of good music back home. God knows how many times I’ve cursed missing two of my favorite bands — The Fleshtones and The Reducers — playing together at my favorite New Haven bar, Cafe Nine. Or how I’ve been silently screaming that I’ll be missing Norton Records’ four-night 25th-anniversary blowout next month in Brooklyn: The Sonics, The Real Kids, Deke Dickerson with both The Randy Fuller Four and The Untamed Youth, ? and the Mysterians, Andre Williams, Geno Washington, The Alarm Clocks, of course The A-Bones and then some …
And now, one more for the pile: Gary Vollono, a former New Haven Register colleague, celebrates the 13th anniversary of his mighty, home-based indie label, IndepenDisc, Saturday night (Oct. 8 ) at the Nine. And the show will feature, for the first time since, well, a lot of things, a set by a band I championed back in the Register in the ’90s: The Mill Valley Taters.
I think it was Johnny Flattop who turned me on to the Taters one day over beers in his backyard in the early-to-mid-’90s. He told me about this group with this odd name that did surf instrumentals. And sure enough, not long after that, I started getting cassettes in the mail at work from them. And I would pop them into the tape deck of my ’87 GMC Sierra, the passenger floor of which was littered to near-beer-can height with tapes.
They weren’t from Mill Valley, let alone Marin County, let alone California. They were three guys from Stratford, Ct., gateway to Bridgeport: Chris Neal and Steve Sullivan on guitar, Tom Andrukevich on bass, a drum machine and occasionally a theremin. (Tom was in the very early Connecticut punk scene, as a teen in the late ’70s with The Survivors, later The Stratford Survivors; these days, he’s playing with rock’n’roll’s world-renowned ambassadors to hockey, The Zambonis.)
They took their name from a chapter of one of those indulgent, over-written rock’n’roll books of the late ’60s. And they had an avant-surf instrumental sound, to be sure, but it was clever stuff. They would go on forays where they would throw in riffs when you least expected them. And since their tapes, with one or two or three tracks, would run about 15 minutes, they would repeat on the other side, and I was totally Taterized by the time I left the truck. (The small samples on the IndepenDisc page don’t nearly do them justice.)
And in 2002, they put together a compilation of all their cassette tracks on a two-CD set at long last — thankfully, since I abused and destroyed and misplaced a lot of them over years of misuse. And the cherry on top: I was asked to write the liner notes for “The History of The Mill Valley Taters.” The first and last time my blatherings have graced the inside of an album.
Anyway, here’s how the old me described them. And I still stand behind it:
They arrived quietly and, years later, departed the same way.
They were the guys hanging out in the corner at the party who you didn’t give a second notice to. Only when they walked to the corner of the room, set up their gear and played the bejeezus out of their instruments did you look up and raise an eyebrow.
I was talking figuratively, but it might as well have been literally. The Mill Valley Taters, three unassuming, square-living guys from Fairfield County, Connecticut, with a funny name and a funny way of going about things, materialized from nowhere, made a big impression on a few, didn’t get too impressed about themselves, went about their business and, when they were done, just faded out the door – and again, no one noticed.
The reps of Messrs. Andrukevich, Sullivan, and Neal – Tom, Steve and Chris, respectively – grew in centimeters over the years, by word of mouth and by the tapes they would pass out to friends, fans and small surf zines around the world. Living in a land where the waves don’t get over 3 inches, their idea of surf music bounced off walls at funny angles. Their instrumentation was two guitars, a bass, a drum machine (glad Sandy Nelson didn’t hear this) and, if you were good boys and girls, a theremin (and hey, even Brian Wilson didn’t use one of those on his surf tunes). And while you could occasionally pick out Dick Dale and The Ventures, there was also room for Link Wray, rockabilly, The Mystics, film noir, even Television (the band, fool, as in “Marquee Moon”).
And that last name-drop is more than appropriate, because their music, really, was made for nocturnal driving more than daytime hanging ten. Taters tunes are right up there with Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner” for all-time late-night cranking while driving fast down some black, barren highway, emptying your skull – especially when playing one of their 15-minute-long tapes that repeated on the other side. Believe me – I’ve logged more miles and lost more Taters tapes than I can count over three vehicles in the last decade. These guys were road warriors and didn’t even realize it.
Which is why this new double CD is such a treat. Not only do I get to hear all these great instrumental tracks again in pristine form, I just get to have them all again, period, in one place for the first time. And many of you will finally get to just plain hear them for the first time. And since some of you now have CD decks in your Ray Bradbury scarab-beetles, you too, will know the sensation of white-stripe surfing by the light of the silvery moon at high decibels some July night. And you will dig every minute of it. Just obey posted speed limits, or something like that.
– Fran Fried 2002
Well, hope you have fun Saturday night. Again, sigh.
The Mill Valley Taters, Closely Watched Trains and Deena play the IndepenDisc 13th birthday show Saturday night, Oct. 8, at Cafe Nine, 250 State St. (at Crown), New Haven (203-789-8281, cafenine.com). The show starts at 9:30. Cover is $5.