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Keeping Time: 20 Years in Buffalo's Music Community

The Viceroys (photo by Mar Penner Griswold)

Some random thoughts about two decades in Buffalo's original music community

A book is needed to do justice to this topic.

In June 1990, if you were a fan of Buffalo original music, you could go to the Continental several nights a week to hear lots of bands, and buy some of that music, in cassette and vinyl form, at Home of the Hits or New World Record on Elmwood Avenue. Now that it’s June 2010, you can’t do any of that. You could listen to people argue whether or not the Goo Goo Dolls’ new release, Hold Me Up, was a great record showing the band’s diversity or a sellout of its punky past. Now, the argument is dated and irrelevant. (Yes, I joined in on that one.)

In June 1990, we watched and listened to the creativity of musicians, artists, and writers such as Mark Freeland, Bart Mitchell, Tim Switala, and Joe Orlowski (Joe Oh!). Sadly, these fine musicians all have died, as have too many others, leaving us both richer by their existence and poorer by their deaths.

Much of the Buffalo original music scene started and lived at the Continental, formerly at 212 Franklin Street, under longtime proprietor Bud Burke (“you have REACHED the Continental”); it took over as Buffalo’s original music headquarters, took lots of business from McVan’s at Hertel and Niagara in the early 1980s, and remained strong through the 1990s and into the 2000s before the decline in attendance and, some would say, musical talent and/or variety, as well as other factors, caused it to close in 2005. Demolition of the site for a boutique hotel began in 2009. (While I was of age, none of my friends wanted to go to McVan’s when it was open, and I hadn’t entered my going-to-concerts-on-my-own stage, so I missed out on a world of amazement. Even my late father Ed regaled me with stories of McVan’s when it hosted jazz musicians.)

Pine Dogs (photo by Val Dunne)

The Continental hosted thousands of Buffalo original bands as well as national bands, and is also remembered for its cool radio commercials. It was basically the face, in many ways overstated and misunderstood, of Buffalo’s punk and new wave community to most of Western New York, with visions of scary punkers and goths all dressed up in black leather and spikes, spitting on people and slam dancing. Actually, most of the physical contact at the Continental was fighting for a drink at the bar (despite Marty’s best efforts), sex in the bathrooms and other dark corners (egad, no—I never took part), and passing joints on the back porch (no comment).

The memories of great Continental shows are too many to recall—see Elmer Ploetz’s fine new documentary film Bflo Pnk 1.0 to help—but David Kane’s Decay of Western Civilization performed a residency of sorts one weekend which to this day is still talked about in hushed tones by those attending. I was among those present at both shows and am still amazed by it all. (My wife, former Artvoice photographer Val Dunne, obtained a recording of one of the shows, which is shockingly good.) The blend of technology, coldness, emotion, acoustic and electronic instruments by a fantastic keyboardist and composer, accompanied by some great musicians (including Greg Gizzi, Bill Moore, and Jack Przybylski) who formed the core of David Kane’s Them Jazzbeards, was an epochal, well attended musical event and deserves to be heard by more people.

Few people also forget the classic show by Johnny Thunders in which he put down a drunken, obnoxious female between songs with better-than-Las-Vegas lines, and I cannot count how many times I caught the Fems’ classic live show there.

Before the Chippewa Strip changed the area, the Continental was the only live music venue there as well as almost the only non-strip bar or sex-related business for years. Eventually the Third Room began occasional band bookings. (I caught Scott Carpenter and the Real McCoys playing 100 songs in one night there.) Also, the opening and shorter-than-deserved existence of the Cabaret, at 255 Franklin Street, just a block down and across the street from the Continental (disclosure: I was a member of the club’s artistic board), run by Erica Wahl, was a temporary boon for local bands. The Cabaret hosted many bands—the Goo Goo Dolls, Ramrods, Scott Carpenter and the Real McCoys, Elk, and the Pinheads to Nullstadt (who filmed their “A Similar Crisis” video at the club), David Kane’s Them Jazzbeards, David Kane solo piano and duets with Terry Sullivan, and other, more experimental fare. Kane’s spectacular “Buddy Diamond” lounge show remains fondly remembered, as do theatrical productions of Talk Radio and Threepenny Opera.

David Kane & Mark Freeland (photo by Mar Penner Griswold)

There were and are other clubs serving the original music community, from Nietzsche’s, which still does a fine job of it, as well as the late Club Utica, Pipe Dragon, Mister Groucho’s, and, regularly for a while, upstairs at Mr. Goodbar. The Loft collective on Main Street hosted some great local and national bands, with a show by Polvo and milf still among my favorites. Mohawk Place, at 47 East Mohawk Street, and the Sportsmen’s Tavern, at 326 Amherst Street, have been hosting great national and local bands for years and are the two places I now go the most for live music. Certainly, outdoor, festival, and indoor shows, especially at the University at Buffalo and Buffalo State College, often highlighted Buffalo bands as well as some good national acts. I witnessed some great bands at dance marathons and similar events, including Electroman, the Restless, Pauline and the Perils, and the Stains, as well as international acts such as the Psychedelic Furs, Echo and the Bunnymen, Gang of Four (whose very early 1980s show at Uncle Sam’s on Walden Avenue helped to change my life), REM opening for the English Beat, Rita Marley and the Wailers, and Black Flag. But a Lou Reed outdoor show at UB, where he had a saxophonist play all of the guitar leads and solos, remains a low point.

Along with the aforementioned Gang of Four show, Uncle Sam’s, which later became the Inferno, brought in some good national bands, including the Pretenders (which 97 Rock broadcast live), the Plasmatics, and the Ramones several times, as well as local bands. One club I probably patronized more than I wished was Harvey and Corky’s Stage One on Main Street in Clarence, since I worked less than a mile away from it. Besides catching local bands like the Toys/New Toys and the Viceroys there, I was subjected too often to Cock Robin and Talas. But catching the Blasters there in 1981 or 1982, the Romantics on a sweaty, hard-rocking night, the Bus Boys, and other bands made up for the discomfort. Of course, little could make up for the men’s room, with the facilities basically a concrete trough that leaked.

Buffalo was lucky at times for some interesting radio stations that helped widen people’s musical horizons. WBUF-FM, WZIR-FM (Wizard Radio) and WUWU-FM played some great music during the late 1970s and early 1980s. If you missed Gary Storm’s “Oil of Dog” program, which made overnight jobs, studying, and life bearable, you missed some great radio. Starting in 1983, WBNY 91.3 FM at Buffalo State College began playing alternative music, with heavy doses of local music, and remains a strong tool and player in the local music community. I was fortunate to have been a DJ at WBNY from 1984 to 1985, and learned an amazing amount about the Buffalo music community, met much of it, featured an hour of local music on my four-hour air shift, and even got to be the guest host of the local show during Christmas/winter and Easter/spring breaks. Rich Wall eventually took the local show to amazing heights as its host for years, but people should remember that John Hudson was the show’s talented first host.

It is almost impossible to underestimate the effect that stores such as Home of the Hits and New World Record had on Buffalo’s music; they were not just places you could hear and buy music you couldn’t hear elsewhere, they were pretty much schools of higher education for music, bands, fans, writers, appreciators, and networking entities before there were the Internet and social networking sites, and the posters and announcement boards remain memorable. As a writer for possibly too many years, both establishments and their ownerships and staff were more than helpful in providing me with and suggesting music to listen to and review, bands to catch live, and hooking me up with bands for possible coverage, both local and national. (Yes, I was one of those music geeks who had bags with suggested music put aside at Home of the Hits.) I was certainly not the only writer to be afforded these courtesies and professional assistance, and the former staffers are still helpful in many ways and contribute to the local music scene. People such as Jennifer Flynn Preston, Govindan Kartha, Marty Boratin, Jim Krawczyk, and Eric Van Rysdam, among others, showed me, a former Cavages Records employee, how to run a record/CD/music shop and treat your customers fairly, professionally, and with intelligence and fun.

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