Why I do cry, or all good things do have to end (Chip Damiani, 1945-2014)

The Remains in their first prime. From left: Bill Briggs, Chip Damiani, Barry Tashian and Vern Miller.

The Remains in their first prime. From left: Bill Briggs, Chip Damiani, Barry Tashian and Vern Miller.

How I got through the last three hours of work this past evening and remained something resembling productive while being emotionally numb is beyond me.

I’ve written tributes to deceased musicians many times, both for newspapers and here on this blog. But until now, I had never been written one about a friend.

As in any instance when a friend dies suddenly, totally unexpectedly, it’s awfully hard to articulate. It’s hard to even say it.

Okay, I’ll just get the hard part out and let the rest flow. After jamming through a whole bunch of work, I stopped around 9 p.m. to have a bite and check out my Facebook messages. A writer from Westport named Dan Woog posted a link to his blog on my page: Chip Damiani, the drummer for one of the best rock’n’roll bands America ever produced, The Remains — and, what is really important to me, a good friend and former neighbor-of-sorts — died yesterday afternoon of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He was 68 going on 35.

Go figure — trim, in a fighting shape forged from all those years as a roofer, in the best physical shape by far of everyone in the band, their backbone and fiery, no-bullshit, you-knew-where-you-stood presence. And he’s the one who went first.

And it was Chip who provided me with one of my favorite stories in two-plus decades as a music writer. And introduced me to the band that provided me with two of my favorite moments as a music fan.

*****

But first, some background. After all, many of you have no clue who The Remains were, even in this age of fingertip-ready information overload.

In short, they were America’s answer to The Beatles — just not as cute and without the funny accents. They were razor-sharp, they wrote great hooks, were consummate pros at young ages, and they took the stage with almost an arrogance that comes with knowing how good you actually are.

Young and loud and good and they knew it.

Young and loud and good and they knew it.

They were a Boston band, technically, even though three of the guys were from Connecticut and the other was from Jersey. Chip (actual first name Rudolph) grew up in Wolcott, two towns north of me by way of Route 69, the son of a surgeon at Waterbury Hospital. Barry Tashian, the guitarist/singer, and Bill Briggs, the keyboardist, grew up in Westport, deep in Fairfield County, sons of New York advertising executives. Vern Miller, the bass player and son of a classical music teacher, grew up in Orange, N.J.

They met as dormmates in Myles Standish Hall at Boston University in the fall of 1963 and, like thousands of other teens and young adults captivated by Beatlemania, formed their own band. Unlike many of the other bands who eventually fell under the umbrella of “garage,” The Remains (the name was suggested by a pre-med student they knew; her previous suggestions, The Cadavers and The Neo-Sapiens, were shot down) and had serious chops. Barry knew how to write a song. By the winter of their sophomore year, the lines were around the block and all the way up Brookline Avenue to Fenway Park to see them play at the legendary Kenmore Square dive, The Rathskeller, on Mass. Ave.

They decided, after convincing their parents, that they would take a year off from school in the fall of 1965, head to New York to make their name, and agreed to go back to BU if they didn’t become famous in a year. They landed a residency that fall at Trude Heller’s, a club on Sixth Avenue and Ninth Street in the Village. Six 45-minute sets a night, several nights a week — try that one, kids. Talk about honing your craft …

A video still of The Remains on The Ed Sullivan Show.

A video still of The Remains on The Ed Sullivan Show.

They signed with Epic Records, which was a CBS label for decades, and released their first single, the very Beatlesque “Why Do I Cry.” And one of CBS-TV’s biggest names, Ed Sullivan, always looking out for the next Beatles after snaring the ultimate jackpot, caught wind of them at Heller’s and had them play on his Christmas show. Not long after, they also appeared on NBC’s dance-rock show, Hullabaloo. Three other singles followed: “I Can’t Get Away From You,” “Diddy Wah Diddy” and “Don’t Look Back.” And they were working on a self-titled album. (And, unhappy with Epic, they quietly auditioned for Capitol; the demo was released by Sundazed Records in 1996 as A Session With The Remains.) And the crowning jewel: the first opening slot on The Beatles’ 1966 summer tour. (The other openers on the tour: The Ronettes, The Cyrkle and Bobby Hebb.)

But Chip wasn’t around for the last single, or for the tour; a hired gun from Chicago, N.D. Smart, took over. Chip quit, much to everyone’s surprise. He said many times publicly it was because he was tired of the grind. Off the record, it did go a little deeper than that, but he insisted all along that he doesn’t regret having missed the tour. (Sorry, I meant “didn’t” — gonna take a while to get used to this past-tense thing, y’know?)

And by the time The Beatles played their final notes ever in concert, at Candlestick Park in Sam Francisco that Aug. 29 — the week before I started kindergarten — the rest of The Remains decided enough was enough, too. Barry (who wrote a book about the tour, Ticket to Ride) explained that they knew they would never be as big as The Beatles. So their album was released after they had disbanded. (And it would be another 40 years, in August 2006, before the band received its first meager royalty check from Sony for the album, which has twice been re-released on CD.)

Barry and Briggs became part of the original lineup of The Flying Burrito Brothers. Barry stayed in the biz, played on Gram Parsons’ first solo album, GP, eventually became a longtime guitarist for Emmylou Harris, has long duetted in a country/bluegrass act with his wife, Holly, and has long been a fixture in Nashville. Briggs gave up music and became a successful high-end car dealer. Vern, like his father, became a music teacher, teaching middle-school music for more than 30 years back in Jersey.

And Chip went back to school, got his degree at what was then Quinnipiac College, and eventually started his own roofing business, Airtite Home Improvement in Bridgeport, and, save for a one-off reunion with the rest of the band for a show in Westport in 1976, he let the drums sit in his garage. He got married, and his two sons never knew that their old man had been the drummer for this legendary band that was so good that they could’ve been, if not as big as The Beatles, pretty fucking huge.

As Boston music journalist Jon Landau — who would, years later, tell the world “I have seen rock’n’roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen,” and guide Bruce’s career from the mid-’70s on — put it back in the day, “They were how you told a stranger about rock’n’roll.”

And that brings us back to the story.

*****

Thanks to Lenny Kaye and his legendary two-LP Nuggets compilation in 1972, The Remains (whose “Don’t Look Back” was included) and other mid-’60s bands that had been washed over by the ensuing wave of psychedelia and other hippie stuff, were being appreciated by new generations of musicians, music fans and record collectors alike. Garage had become an after-the-fact genre as well as a future-retro one, and Nuggets was the Alpha-Omega and Rosetta Stone of the whole sound going backward and forward.

The first I knew of garage — and the first I had heard of The Remains — was in the winter of 1981, reading Lester Bangs’ essay “Protopunk — The Garage Bands,” in the second edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock&Roll, which I had just received for Christmas. The photos of The Barbarians with their drummer, Moulty, and the hook where his right hand once was; and the Count Five in their Dracula capes, and band names such as The Remains and songs such as “Diddy Wah Diddy,” captivated my interest.

And by February of 1983, my senior year of college — the night I went to see The Raybeats at the Peppermint Lounge and instead saw the opening act, The Vipers — I was first hooked on garage.

Fast-forward to August 1998. By that time, Nuggets was the only album in Rolling Stone’s top 500 that had never been released on CD. And that was about to be rectified, and in a huge way. Rhino Records was doing four-CD box-set version, with the original 28 songs comprising the first disc. “Why Do I Cry” would be among the songs added to the enhanced edition. The release date would be Tuesday, Sept. 13.

As the entertainment editor/music writer at the New Haven Register, you bet your ass I was planning a story on it; it would run in the Arts section two days before. But I had to juggle a 2 1/2-jobs-in-one workload and get the story done three weeks ahead of time, as I was heading to Seattle for two weeks of vacation and would return Sept. 11.

The publicist at Rhino set up interviews for me with Barry and Lenny Kaye. In the midst of talking to Barry, he said, “You know, our drummer lives in your backyard.” I had no clue he lived in New Haven. He told me Chip owned a contracting business in Bridgeport and gave me his cell number.

Naturally, I called him. Crickets.

Called him again. More crickets.

Now I was getting antsy. I had a week to finish the story before heading off west, and I really needed to talk to him; after all, he was one of ours in New Haven.

And inspiration struck me.

At the time, I was the host of a long-running overnight show on WPKN in Bridgeport called The Sleep Deprivation Experiment. The show ran from 2-6, at the desperately exhausted end of my 55-hour-plus work week.

It hit me: He’s a contractor, he’s up early, I’ll still be awake, barely, at quarter after 6 — fuck it; I’m calling him.

“Hello?”

“Chip?”

“Yeah …” He had a loud voice and he had never lost his nasal Waterbury accent.

“Hi, Chip. I’m Fran Fried. I’m the music writer at the New Haven Register, and I’m doing a story on the Nuggets box set that’s coming out, and Barry gave me your number and told me to talk to you for the story, and I was wondering if I could talk to you for a few minutes for the story.”

I wasn’t expecting this:

“I don’t know why you need to talk to me for your story!” he snapped.

Okay, I was pissed. I just finished 55 more fucking hours at the sweatshop, I just finished doing my radio show, I was hanging by my fingernails and so exhausted that I was gonna go sleep in one of the spare rooms in the University of Bridgeport student center and not chance driving home. And he’s giving me a hard time? Fuck this!

No, I didn’t say any of that. But you know I was thinking that. I took a deep breath, and with as much of a calm, measured tone as I could muster while showing a hint of annoyance around the edges, I replied, “Because you were part of this legendary band, you’re on this historical musical document, and you’re in my city, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk to you!”

Well, I must have said something right.

“Okay, let’s talk.”

We spoke for about 10 minutes, and I got what I needed and then some. And Chip led my story when it came out.

And then things happened. The lightbulb went off in Brother Damiani’s head. He read the story. His family read the story. So did his friends. People who had never known now knew they had a rock star in their presence.

And less than two weeks later, the band was off to Spain, to play a show at the University of Leon, their first time playing on stage since that one-off in 1976.

And in November, they would have the headlining slot Saturday night, the second night of the three-night Cavestomp garage festival in New York — held, as was the inaugural fest the previous year, at Coney Island High, on St. Mark’s.

And Chip called me to talk ahead of time for my weekly music column that Friday, this time much more enthusiastic. He was finally starting to understand the attention. (And I found out that Barry was more right than he knew — Chip was in my backyard. Almost. Turned out we lived five blocks apart in Westville.)

And by the time they were ready to take the stage that night — following my favorite band, The Fleshtones, whose singer, Peter Zaremba, was the festival emcee — it was a frenzy. Back in the Village for the first time since early 1966. Chip’s family and several of their friends came down from New Haven — the first time they had ever seen him play.

They were about my current age — 52, 53 — and not too old to kick it out. Barry played with a slight sneer on his face. Briggs and Vern went about their business.. Chip had that Ringo look on his face — kinda of wide-eyed bewilderment and trying to keep up the beat. And remember that he left the band before they recorded “Don’t Look Back,” so this was the first time he had ever played it with them in public. Didn’t miss a beat.

An hour and a half of heat and sweat and steam and a packed room and raucous screaming and cheering, and they were finally done. I was right at the front of the stage, stage right, and taking the whole thing in. And after it was over, I went up to see him as he was breaking down his kit.

“Chip!” I shouted.

“Yeah,” he shouted.

“Fran.”

“Frannnn! How are you!” Big Italian hug like I was a long-lost relative, sweaty messes the both of us.

Now he finally knew why I needed to talk to him for my story. He got it.

*****

I saw them again the following March at the Paradise — their first gig in Boston since they went to BU.

And Chip started playing more on his own. For a very brief while in 2000, he was jamming with Hilton Valentine, the original guitarist for The Animals, who lives 15, 20 minutes away in Wallingford; the band they were planning never happened, though. He found kindred souls who liked ’60s and ’70s rock and would play either in the garage or at a bar or restaurant. It was a good release for him. And in the late 2000s, his son Chris, also a drummer, released a CD, and the proud dad passed it on to me to play on one of my fill-in shows on WPKN.

In 2003, The Remains recorded what would be their last album, Movin’ On. Well, it wasn’t as strong as their heyday, but at least they tried.

What struck me was how, despite (or maybe because of) all four having gone their own paths, the bond was still there. This was a brotherhood every bit as much as it was a band. The Hollywood ending would have been that one tremendous night at Cavestomp and that would be the freeze-frame end of the story. Not so. They found time to get together and rehearse and play live sporadically over the next 15 years.

Setting up a shot at The Mint, 8/10/06.

Setting up a shot at The Mint, 8/10/06.

I had moved from New Haven to Fresno in March 2004. In 2006, a good-hearted Westporter and music fan named Fred Cantor rounded up the money to produce and write a documentary about the band to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Beatle tour. That July, I got an email from him, asking me if I wanted to be interviewed for the film; apparently, Chip had dropped my name and told him I was living in California. Fred didn’t know how far Fresno was from L.A., but the band was coming out to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of the Beatle tour.

So, late morning Aug. 10, I got into my ’93 Celica with the busted air conditioning, rolled down the window and, in the heat of mid-August, drove the four hours down Highway 99 and I-5 to the 405 to the 170 to the 101 to Hollywood. I checked in at the motel on Vine, just north of Santa Monica Boulevard, and then got back in the car and made my way to The Mint, a legendary club on West Pico, where they were rehearsing for two performances and being shot for the film.

The temperature was in the mid-90s outside and had to be at least 10 degrees hotter than that inside. The floor was a jumble of dolly tracks as the band set to rehearsing for the two performances to come.

One thing that that struck me, aside from the fraternity, was that they were trying new things. At least a couple of times, I saw Chip and Briggs talking about maybe playing this song or that song with a little different intro or outro. It was as if they had never stopped playing, and they didn’t approach The Remains as a mere oldies act.

The Remains at The Mint with a talking head who was just entering kindergarten when they broke up.

The Remains at The Mint with a talking head who was just entering kindergarten when they broke up.

At a certain point, the director, Michael Stich, called me over to the bar, and there, I recalled the story I told above, only in a little less detail. (I was still Frannie 1.0 at that point, a year and a half from my little gender epiphany and less than a year from confronting the sleep apnea that nearly killed me. I was a fat, bloated mess, and I can’t believe how low-pitched and weary my voice sounded.)

They left straight from there without changing to play four songs at an in-store appearance at Amoeba Records on Hollywood Boulevard that evening and it went great. And the line snaked through the aisles for an hour and a half waiting for their turn at the meet-and-greet, artifacts in hand; I caught up for a little bit with my pal Deke Dickerson, who brought along his beat-up copy of their 1966 album for them to sign. A legend in his own right waiting his turn to get autographs — after all, before he was a guitar great, he was a fan.

The next day, they traveled around Los Angeles in a rented pink ’59 Caddy convertible, stopping at various locations, including Dodger Stadium, to be interviewed.

And they wrapped their mini-road trip with a show that night at Safari Sam’s, a great but short-lived club on Sunset; their set was filmed for the documentary, and was stellar. They were the bomb and they knew it. For me, it was not only a thrill, but a pleasant surprise; a New Haven-area pal, Mike Markesich — garage and soul record collector extraordinaire and onetime lead guitarist for one of Connecticut’s best bands, The Double Naught Spys — flew in for the show.

*****

In August 2008, while I was home for three weeks, Chip stopped by my parents’ house one Sunday morning with a little something; I was laid up with food poisoning that morning, so he left it with my folks. It was a screener DVD of the documentary, now titled America’s Lost Band and narrated by another Boston legend, Peter Wolf of The J. Geils Band.

And in my pre-laptop days, I waited until I got back to Fresno and popped the disc in one night after work. I was disappointed at how short it was — it clocked in at 66 minutes; I was on-screen for a minute and was shocked that I got that much face time, percentage-wise. Let’s just say that a lot of stuff — performances, band interview material — was left on what passes for a cutting-room floor in this digital age, and, knowing what I had known and seen up-close, I would’ve done things a lot differently.

As they walked around the warning track at Dodger Stadium, they got to the part where you’d expect Chip to say “Damn! I missed out on all this!” or something to that effect. Nope. He reiterated once again, and definitively on film, that he doesn’t feel he missed out by not playing on the Beatle tour. He quit when he had to, he never regretted it, and he didn’t look back.

That November, the doc made its debut at the Boston Film Festival, to rave reviews. It’s been its only public screening to date. And I no longer have the screener copy — Fred asked me to pass it along to a music executive at a company in L.A. not long afterward; I so wish I had that disc at this moment …

In the summer of 2010, they recorded what would be their final song — “Monbo Time.” It was a nostalgia ride, a tribute to the Red Sox’ pitching ace from their college days, Bill Monbouquette, and half the proceeds went toward his battle against cancer. (It’s a rocking alternative to “Talkin’ Baseball,” and this Yankee fan approves. Heartily.)

*****

Occasionally, on my visits home from California, Chip and I would meet up at House of Chao, a great Chinese restaurant on Whalley Avenue in the heart of Westville Village, a few blocks from his house, and catch up on things. Most of our conversations would be about things other than rock’n’roll, especially as the economy turned. By then, I was out of work and Chip’s business was slowing down sharply, so we had a lot to commiserate about.

And I forget how I came out to him as trans — I had the talk with a lot of friends through 2009, ’10 and ’11 — but the first time we got together as Frannie 2.0 was the Sunday right after Christmas 2010 for an early dinner. He was already in a booth when I got there.

“Frannie, you look fucking great!” he said with a big grin and an even bigger hug. “I gotta tell you — you’re a great-looking woman! I mean, you were a good-looking guy, but you’re a great-looking woman.”

Not one to pull punches, that guy …

*****

I moved home to Prospect in August 2012. A little more than two months later, Hurricane Sandy belted the East Coast; it struck the Connecticut coastline pretty hard, especially in Fairfield County — not as savagely as Jersey, but a few houses on the sound were destroyed and many others were battered pretty badly.

We talked on the phone a couple times, trying to figure out getting dinner again. But with Sandy, his world went from “Frannie, I’m telling ya, this fuckin’ economy is killing me!” to “I’ve got so much work I can’t keep up!” I was happy for him. Three, four years is a long time to struggle.

We never did get back to House of Chao, but I did see him twice last June.

The Remains backstage at The Bell House.

The Remains backstage at The Bell House.

June 7, a rainy Friday night. The Remains played in Brooklyn, at The Bell House, a  huge club in a warehouse space in godforsaken nowhere, near the Gowanus Canal. (And again, as fate would have it, they were preceding a Beatle — Paul McCartney was playing at the Barclays Center the next night.) The brake master cylinder on my Camry went kablooie driving on 95 in Fairfield County, but with the traffic at a Friday crawl, I nursed the car to the Stamford train station and headed in — I wasn’t missing this.

There was a lot of catching up that night in general. Friends I had talked to on Facebook but hadn’t seen since I moved home. Our pals The A-Bones — themselves devastated by Sandy when the flood surge washed out their Norton Records warehouse in Red Hook — opened the show, and I caught up with Miriam Linna about the mad progress she and Billy Miller were making in getting on their feet again.

Barry and Vern.

Barry and Vern.

The Remains were going through life changes as well. Briggs, who flew in from Arizona with his lovely ladyfriend, lost his right leg below the knee to diabetes a year and a half before, and was getting around pretty well, with nary a limp, on the wooden replacement. And Chip — who had shed the fringes of hair and shaved himself cleanhead — introduced me to his girlfriend; his marriage had ended and he was now living in Seymour, in the lower Naugatuck Valley and closer to his job, which is another reason we never did get together in Westville. She was as blue-collar and youthful for her age and outspoken as Chip, and she took kindly to me.

Briggs and Chip.

Briggs and Chip.

But on stage, it was business as usual. The real world was left on the other side of the figurative velvet rope. The A-Bones were their fun selves — and, after decades of seeing them in small, cramped confines and on barroom floors, this was largest room I ever saw them play, and for the first time, on a real stage. As for The Remains, nothing had changed in 15 years, really — the band was sharp, dead-on, and they sounded as good as ever, playing their tunes without sounding like a nostalgia act.

The Saturday of the following weekend, I didn’t have to travel as far to see Chip play — three full tenths of a mile. He was playing with a  ’70s cover band, the name of which I forget, and they had a gig in the center of Prospect, at Dom’s Brickhouse, a restaurant in a strip mall on Route 69 that was built while I was in exile.

His girlfriend was with him, and he bought us dinner (a burger, nothing fancy) and drinks. “It’s not The Remains,” he told me as kind of a warning. Well, more like a gross understatement. The band was not very good, really; Chip was the best part of the whole band. But he didn’t care. He was having fun, he was playing rock’n’roll, and that was what mattered. (Besides, as I found out later in the night when someone brought in the sheet cake, it was his birthday.)

That was one of Chip’s enduring qualities — he had no pretense about him at all; full of life and almost totally unfiltered, he didn’t care whether you were a legend or not, whether he was a legend or not. He might have come from money, but he was a blue-collar, hard-working guy. And he just loved rock’n’roll and loved playing it, whether with a legendary band or a local bar band.

*****

This was to have been a golden year for The Remains.

Chip at the Fairfield Museum, just over a month ago. Looking badass, looking a lot younger than 68.

Chip at the Fairfield Museum just over a month ago. Looking badass, looking a lot younger than 68.

In January, Chip made his last appearance representing The Remains, at the Fairfield Museum at the opening of a new exhibition about Fairfield County’s contributions to pop music, “Fairfield’s Rockin’ Top 10”; he shared a stage with Chris Frantz & Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club, Nile Rodgers and Jose Feliciano.

They were to have played April 25 at Fairfield Theatre Company’s Stage One, a homecoming show for their 50th-anniversary year.

Sigh.

I’m still sitting here stunned, nearly a day later.

And feeling spoiled. For having Chip as a friend and having gotten to know The Remains, and grateful to them for letting me come along for a tiny part of their incredible ride. It did, and does, and will continue to, mean a lot.

They once sang “All good things don’t have to end.” Well, yeah — they do. It’s what happens when you’re near 70 rather than 20.

But as sad as I feel, I don’t want to end this on a down note, as the sadness lingers but eventually disspiates. So to Chip, I say godspeed, my friend. And to him and the rest of The Remains, I simply say:

Thank you.

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2 Responses to “Why I do cry, or all good things do have to end (Chip Damiani, 1945-2014)”

  1. Fred Cantor Says:

    Fran–a wonderful piece (and I naturally share your shock and sadness. I still find it so hard to believe).

    I didn’t realize you no longer had a copy of the doc. Please email me–canfre@yahoo.com–your home address and I will send you a copy. (Incidentally, the premiere at the Boston Film Fest wasn’t the only public screening; it was in a number of other film festivals. We have turned down further requests for public screenings due to some licenses that need to be secured for certain audio and video footage).

  2. Dan Woog Says:

    Thank you for this beautiful story. It is the sendoff Chip deserves.

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