Frank Kogan • Red Dark Sweet • The Pillowmakers
Two thirteen-year-old boys went out to fight each other in 1967, when I was in eighth grade. I and a friend of mine went along to watch the fight. It turned out that the boys were afraid to really fight, which both relieved and disappointed me. The boys made up rules: no punching, no hitting in the face. So the fight was just a shoving match. After watching the boys push each other for a while, I said to my friend, "This reminds me of that song from last year..." "Yeah," he laughed and finished the sentence for me. "You're pushing too hard."
I started listening to pop radio when I was twelve. I liked songs by the Cyrkle, Kinks, Count Five, Buckinghams, Beatles, Troggs, Human Beinz, Simon and Garfunkel, People, Easybeats, Electric Prunes, Eric Burdon, Bee Gees, Monkees, Neil Diamond, Music Explosion, Outsiders, Grass Roots, Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, etc. The two songs that hooked me on rock and roll were were "Hanky Panky" by Tommy James and the Shondells and "Mother's Little Helper" by the Rolling Stones. I was attracted by the intense sound of this music rather than by the lyrics, though in retrospect I realize that the lyrics reflected my feelings. I couldn't listen to "96 Tears" because it upset me too much. Most of these songs were variations on the Dylan-Stones-Yardbirds transformation of rhythm and blues into hard rock. They took r & b's call-and-response and turned it on its head, so that it felt like separation and alienation. The epitome of this was the Stones' "Get Off Of My Cloud." The best of the '60s stuff still kept a sense of r & b rhythm. I was impressed by singers like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop, who used the voice as a rhythm instrument.
In the late 1970s in New York I thought about joining or putting together a band. My friend Rich Campo told me to listen to James Brown. I did that, and also listened to a lot of '70s disco and funk I'd been too stupid to pay attention to the first time around. I got the idea, stimulated by watching the Contortions, that a new music could be created if I took the emotional edge of a group like the Velvet Underground and give it a firm base in swinging blues and funk. I was excited by Spoonie Gee's "Spoonin' Rap" and "Love Rap," which felt like punk and sounded like disco. I wanted to make music that went beyond the narrow (and narrowing) emotional range of hard rock (a.k.a. punk) without denying its truth. This tape is evidence that I didn't succeed. Rich and I made several attempts to put together a band, but nothing jelled. Finally I met up with Andrew Klimek and Charlotte Pressler, who had little interest in disco-funk but a lot of ideas of their own. We played out together as a trio in September 1981 under the name Red Dark Sweet. Shortly after that we added Charlotte's friend Donna Ratajczak on drums. Donna stayed with the band until early the next year, when she quit and was replaced by Rick Brown.
Charlotte and Andrew had a knowledge of music that ranged from medieval to early country to avant garde, but its core was the same '60s garage-goes-Velvets stuff I'd grown up on — except Andrew and Charlotte had heard interesting possibilities in the music that I hadn't. I explain it like this: freedom, expansiveness, improvisation, and noise experimentation are a logical extension of music like that of the Byrds and Bob Dylan (Bringing It All Back Home is a good example). These qualities already belong to rock and roll; they needn't be brought into the music from some other tradition (such as jazz, art rock, or the serious avant garde). I truly believe that Red Dark Sweet was (and still is) playing the essence of '60s and beyond rock and roll. Red Dark Sweet differs from the current punk revival groups because Red Dark Sweet plays the music for its possibilities rather than its notes. In any event, club owners immediately classified us as an art band, which says more about their fear than our music. It also limited where we could perform, and who would see us. This frustrated me. These frustrations eventually caused me to quit the band. I wanted to take the show on the road, so to speak. I wanted to go out and find an audience, as the Dolls had, as Black Flag had. The other band members thought that this was unrealistic, given our lack of money and connections.
Ironically, Red Dark Sweet is now in Cleveland where they are performing and actively trying to promote an alternative music space. I've spent the last year and a half working on this tape and failing to put a band together.
When I left Red Dark Sweet I got together with Stefano Arata, a guitarist who liked the Troggs, Television, Pere Ubu, the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, and other groups like that. This was what I wanted. I'd decided to abandon the idea of punk-disco fusion (a fraudulent version of which was beginning to dominate radio) and stick with my garage roots. This was a mistake. Without Andrew my music lost its expansiveness and I fell back on sounding like junior-high meanness. I broke out of that towards the end of the Pillowmakers' existence by writing ballads. As did Stefano. That period of the Pillowmakers is not documented on this tape because I don't like the concert tapes of those songs. Stefano and I spent months auditioning drummers, most of whom thought we sounded weird or that we were doing art rock. I thought we sounded limited. Finally we asked Stefano's friend Carol Meinke to drum with us. We worked hard, and eventually were able to put on some tight, intense shows. But I never could convince myself that our music mattered.
Except for "Hero Of Fear," an old Red Dark Sweet song, the solo material on this tape was written in the last fourteen months. I wrote the music to "Baby Doe" on my thirtieth birthday.
Miscellaneous Notes—In "Mrs. Hanson" I repeat one note for seven minutes. "Di Conti" is narrated by Di Conti's boyfriend, impersonated by Charlotte. "Hero Of Fear" is also known as "Bagel With Schmeer." "Linda Lu" was originally a Red Dark Sweet "song"—really a bass line and words that the band tried to make into something. Stefano's guitar playing on the Pillowmakers' version pulls the song together. The bass line was inspired by "Funky Nassau." Andrew is the only person who has understood the third verse of "Fire Hydrant" without it being explained to him. "Baby Doe" uses the same rhythm as "Sister Ray." FK's lyrics: Early stuff ("Worms," "Hero Of Fear," "Stars Vomit") are about people being addicted to their own oppression. "Transit Cop" is based on a true story. At the Canal Street subway station in Lower Manhattan you can transfer from the BMT line to the IRT line. The BMT goes into middle-class Queens, the IRT goes into the ravaged slums of the South Bronx. The cop didn't want the bum riding into a good area, I presume. After he's kicked off the train, the bum starts babbling. The other songs are all "Hey Joe."
1. Baby Doe
2. Hero Of Fear
3. Grenadine Blood
4. Transit Cop Kicks Bum Off The BMT
5. Fire Hydrant
6. Linda Lu Pissed On Hitler's Kneecap
7. 12 Varieties Of Worms
8. Stars Vomit Coffee Shop
Red Dark Sweet:
9. The Education
10. Di Conti (Part One)
11. Highway 51 (Parts One and Two)
12. Mrs. Hanson/What's That Sound I Hear?
Frank Kogan (with Red Dark Sweet):
13. Stars Vomit Coffee Shop (live)
14. The Laughing Airplanes Of Kamchatka
The Pillowmakers: Frank Kogan vocals, guitar, bass (track 6); Stefano Arata bass, guitar (track 6); Carol Meinke drums.
The Pre-Pillowmakers: Frank Kogan vocals, guitar; Stefano Arata bass; Jack Freud drums.
Red Dark Sweet: Andrew Klimek vocals (tracks 9, 11, 12), guitar; Charlotte Pressler vocals (tracks 10, 12), keyboards; Frank Kogan bass, rhythm guitar, vocals (track 13); Donna Ratajczak drums (track 12); Rick Brown drums (tracks 9, 10, 11); John Spuzzillo drums (track 13).
All tracks recorded in New York City except track 13 in Cleveland. Tracks 1-4 and 14 recorded 1984 by Frank Kogan, 5 and 6 1983 by Stefano Arata, 7 and 8 1982 by Tom Barrett (mixed by Frank Maya), 12 by Andrew Klimek and Charlotte Pressler 1981, 9-11 1982 by whatever cassette recorder happened to by lying on the floor, ditto 13 1984.
"Baby Doe" and "Grenadine Blood" © 1984 by Frank Kogan; "The Laughing Airplanes Of Kamchatka," "Transit Cop Kicks Bum Off The BMT," and "Fire Hydrant" © 1983 by Frank Kogan; "12 Varieties Of Worms," "Linda Lu Pissed On Hitler's Kneecap," and "Stars Vomit Coffee Shop" © 1982 by Frank Kogan; "Hero Of Fear" © 1981 by Frank Kogan; "Di Conti" © 1982 by Charlotte Pressler; "Mrs. Hanson" © 1981 by Charlotte Pressler; "The Education" © 1982 by Andrew Klimek; "Highway 51" and "What's That Sound I Hear?" © 1981 by Andrew Klimek.
Created with financial assistance from Norman Kogan, Meryl Kogan, Nan Booth, and Richard Kogan.
Cover photo of Red Dark Sweet (1982) by Julia Gorton. Dinosaurs by me.
Thanks to Frank Maya, Tom Barrett, Charlotte Pressler, and Andrew Klimek for love and support.
2016: Thanks to Zach Phillips for funding and doing the work on the reissue, to Christina Schneider for the CD layout, and to Nathan Perry for love and care in the duplication and a near infinity of other things.
Jeff Curtis said (over on discogs): "This is seriously one of *the* best cassette-only underground releases of the 1980's.... A true hidden gem." Dusted and Social says, "this is definitely an album that deserves to be heard, as there’s been tremendous songwriting buried under the hiss and decay." And Zach, who got specific permission from me to hyperbolize, calls this "one of the most 'listenable’ & varied documents of the late-'70s/early-'80s NYC-Ohio 'underground’ (scare-quotes used here as a knock-on-wood gesture) axis, in itself a glowing & inscrutable silt facet of 'punk’ music history..."
I would say, yes, these were times and places, not-so-different times but the sound and the look not quite part of history. And if there's anything here that's immortal, it's Andrew Klimeyk's guitar playing, expansive, searching through rainbows for extra colors, crawling under soil to find flames. I think Charlotte, Rick, and I help him get there real well on "Highway 51"; the best full-scale Frank squall and hidden lament is "12 Varieties of Worms"; the popular choice for single is "Baby Doe" (first up on the playlist so I'm not embedding down here).
Frank on guitar and Frank on bass seem to be different people (gtr. stringent, bass ebullient). And leaving the '80s behind, or not at all behind, my lyrics here feel haunted throughout by the recent events in Ferguson, MO, etc., despite the words having been written between 32 and 36 years ago.
*YouTube generated its own playlist of this, but for some reason left off "Mrs. Hanson"/"What's That Sound I Hear," so I made this playlist.
**I doubt this Spotify link is all that user-friendly. If you can create a better one, let me know and I'll insert it. In general, I've never found Spotify's dashboard etc. user-friendly, though maybe that's 'cause I'm fundamentally a novice at it.