Saturday, August 23, 2014

TOM CARTWRIGHT, MICHAEL INSETTA AND JOHN PLACKO TALK ABOUT STUART'S HAMMER

Yeah I know---yer all SICK AND TIRED of me blabbin' on about just how great of an album the LIVE AT CBGB's double platter was 'n all,. But gosh darn it if I don't still (after thirty-five-plus years) think that set was one  swell slice o' MID AMERIGAN ROCK that featured eight acts who, given the right time 'n opportunity, coulda created a sonic masterpiece of instant cutout $1.99 pleasure to rival the Flamin' Groovies, Hackamore Brick or even the Stooges themselves. Sure the few fanablas who did get signed perhaps on the basis of this album usually ended up making platters that didn't always gel in the rock out department, but the promise, energy and talent were there. And, after all's said and done, why should I blame 'em just because they got a duff producer and got signed to a label that didn't quite know what to do with these types of acts in the first place?

I get the humongously strong feeling that Stuart's Hammer woulda put out a particularly potent set of rockers had they gotten the Big Label treatment, but they didn't and all we have to judge 'em by right now is their sole offering via the CBGB set, the marvelously decadent for its time "Everybody's Depraved". Kinda reminding me of none other'n classic Wayne County, this 'un's got not only the in-tune for the smart set sickoid lyrics ("Everybody's depraved, the whole world over/So take morality and throw it over your shoulder") but a driving mid-seventies punk rock sound that evoked the Velvets, Groovies around the time of FLAMINGO and maybe even some Dictators (!) in a way that represented the heart and soul of mid-Amerigan teenage slob living more'n the top 40 or FM band of the day ever could. It's too bad that Stuart's Hammer didn't get that chance because hey, I sure would have loved to have been combing through the cheap bins of 1978 finding that little gem of an album for a mere $1.99!

Needless to say, the Stuart's Hammer saga needs to be preserved for future generations (and for seventies underground rock obsessives like myself) just like the recordings, sagas and travails of all of our other old time rock faves both noted and otherwise most certainly need to have their tales told. So when I discovered the presence of a Stuart's Hammer (btw the name of the band is a ref. to the E. B. White [of CHARLOTTE'S WEB fame] novel STUART LITTLE!) website more'n a few alarms popped off inside my head to the point where I was contacting just about everyone that group...got in touch with Michael Insetta (bass guitar) who was a tremendous help setting up a few things while group leader and guitarist Jordan Chassan even sent a brief bio. But Tom Cartwright, group guitar and mandolin player, consented to an email interview which follows below. Big heap thanks to not only Cartwright for sharing his memories but Insetta for his help...if it weren't for them you'd probably be reading yet another review of the LIVE AT CBGB's album this week!


You can find photos like this and others (much better reproductions---didn't wanna swipe alla the good stuff even though I did have permission) on Stuart's Hammer's own website where you can also catch up on what's going on in the Stuart's Hammer sphere these days (and there is much!). Believe-you-me, your time will be well-spent perusing the snaps and clippings that are available for your edification.
BLOG TO COMM-Any interesting early musical endeavors of yours we should know about???


TOM CARTWRIGHT-Well, let's see......

In 1964, I begged for a drum set after seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Many years of garage bands later, I became the drum captain of my high school marching band. Into college, I picked up guitar and mandolin did the usual gigs. Right out of college, I met Mike Insetta over  at Montclair State University and briefly joined up with his band, White Lightning. We both quit upon meeting Jordan Chassan and immediately formed Stuart's Hammer with a chap named Steven Evers. That's my back story!

BTC-White Lightning....was that the same group (sort of Aerosmith/Led Zeppelin inspired) that plated the CBGB Summer Festival in 1975?
TC-I seriously doubt that's the same White Lightning Band - but, hey......some recollections are a little fuzzy these days, eh?

BTC-As for Stuart's Hammer, around when was the band formed?

TC-We first formed in early 1975 - Jordan, Mike, Steve and me. Four piece outfit playing all original music written by Jordan. He had some terrific songs for a young guy! Plus, he was the best non-pro guitarist I had ever met at that point. We rehearsed at Jordan's father's house in Montclair, NJ for years - I remember a lot of complaints from the local police. We got a respectable number of gigs at local bars and college parties. However, the all-original nature of our repertoire was not a strong selling point with the clubs that were transitioning to disco in those days.  In 1976, we realized we needed to expand the talent, so we hired John Placko, a college friend, as our lead singer. That way Jordan could focus more on his song writing. Soon after, we decided that I would switch from drums to guitar and mandolin, and so we brought in Steve Pellegrino on drums. Steve had spent some time out in Colorado playing in a Genesis-type band, but was back in NJ to help out in his father's Pizzeria. Oh, and John Placko worked with Steve as well. They made some wonderful Italian food for us during the days when we were low on dough, believe me. One gig lead to another, and soon we were doing showcases in NYC.     What was the question?

BTC-I get the impression judging from the use of a mandolin that there was a country influence?

TC-Country influence? Oh, yes indeed. The early 70's were packed with "countryish" acts - major acts, like The Eagles, Poco, The Band, The Grateful Dead, etc . We all sort of cut our chops on that  LA Country feeling. I know Jordan was huge admirer of Clarence White and Gram Parsons and all the post-Byrds line-ups. Mike was a great banjo player in addition to bass, and I had dabbled on the mandolin in college doing jug-band stuff ala The Holy Modal Rounders.  We approached the early Stuart's Hammer music more like Electric Hot Tuna meets The Kinks than anything else. It just felt comfortable and was totally unique in the Jersey Club Scene of the day. People either loved us or didn't. Which, I guess, is the first indication that you may be on to something solid. The name CBGB embodies the country, blue grass, blues idea. Hilly was a big fan of any type of urban/folk music - as long as it was totally original. Which we were.  Hilly seemed to recognize our sincerity and was very supportive of our style. In fact, Hilly's daughter Lisa recently mentioned that the appearance  of the electric mandolin was a part of why he invited Stuart's Hammer back after our audition. I remember  a couple reviews of Stuart's Hammer in the local underground press that referred to us a "Country Punk".  I guess we were.

BTC-Speaking of CBGB, when did Stuart's Hammer audition?

TC-When did we audition? Hard to recall......I suppose Mike or Jordan arranged to set us up for a Monday or Tuesday night with a couple other bands. The only thing I recall is that we brought our own PA system, which was huge and heavy. Lucky we had a truck. That plus our discovery that CBGB was the filthiest room we had ever played - or would ever play. OMG, the facilities in the early days were astoundingly awful! The CBGB movie only touches the surface of that issue. Anyway, the beer was plenty and free. I guess we played a good set that night, cause Hilly booked us for a follow-up. There really wasn't "scene" yet at that point. But soon......

BTC-And not too soon after you guys ended up on the LIVE AT CBGB'S album. How did that come about?

TC-I'm not really sure how Stuart's Hammer wound up on the Live at CBGB album. I do recall that one day, I got a call from Jordan, and he said Hilly wanted to have a live recording session and include us as one of the stronger/regular bands. We didn't understand the scope of the project at the time, so we simply did a lot of rehearsing to prepare. I thought we had a good solid set - maybe 8 songs. Anyway, the recording dates were announced, and the bands were divided up between 3 or 4 days when the mobile recording unit could be on site. We did our best and that was that. Later, we heard that a number of the groups that recorded were pulled because major labels wanted to start outside projects with them. At the end, Hilly and his advisers agreed to allow one Stuart's Hammer song on the final recording. Since we had limited resources, lets say, we didn't really have any chance to take advantage of any  post-production or overdubs. "Everybody's Depraved" went down like it was: lean and real. Hilly hooked us up with his lawyer to set up our publishing. Then, the whole project was snapped up by Atlantic, and they did what they wanted.

BTC-Did Stuart's Hammer get any label interest after the CBGB album came out?

TC-No. Nothing. There were a few individuals who showed interest in managing us, but we never got any further. I don't believe we were ever really accepted on the NY scene as it was. We did a lot of shows in and around New York and New Jersey, and a few small tours with some of the CBGB bands that were on the album. Colleges seemed to like our act and we made a little money on that circuit. Believe me, we tried hard to capitalize on the Atlantic Records connection - but the combination of the unstoppable disco surge and the huge British new wave was a lot to contend with. Stuart's Hammer was a great band. We grabbed some good opportunities and I'm sure we missed some, too.

BTC-Speaking of the CBGB LP tours, where did you play

TC-I recall we did a handful of shows with The Laughing Dogs, Mink DeVille, The Shirts and Nicki Buzz and Sun. This was 1976, so there were some outdoors concerts for the Bicentennial that we played. We did a show in Boston, something out on Long Island, and a huge number of colleges. Max's Kansas City, The Other End, The Dirt Club, Kenny's Castaways, Folk City...I don't know....we played a lot of places and made nothing to speak of. That was the New York scene.

BTC-What was the CBGB package tour like? The CBGB book made it out to be a disaster!

TC-I'm sure there were a few CBGB package tours set up around the release of the album. The hype was instantaneous  and I imagine there were a number of good reasons for the CBGB administration to try to cash in. Stuart's Hammer was included on one tour to Long Island - for the bicentennial, and another to Boston for a long weekend  .Also, there was another held out at My Father's Place in Roslyn, NY.   I remember a lot of confusion, sleeping on couches - or wherever, and bad food. If you remember the CBGB moving van from the movie, THAT was what we toured in.  Kind of romantic in a way, but nevertheless uncomfortable. Again, Stuart's Hammer had little to say in the planning of these events - we were along for the ride. Funny thing was - when we were all away on the tours, other acts were booked at CBGB as substitutes. Acts like Tom Petty and The Police. Wonder how those guys ever made out?

BTC-The groups that were playing the clubs back when Stuart's Hammer were around, did you have any favorites? Were there any other acts playing CBGB that were pretty good but never got the attention they deserved?

TC-A list of my personal favorite groups that were playing CBGB in 1975-76 would have to include - Mink DeVille, The Laughing Dogs,  Television, and The Patti Smith Group.  Mink DeVille was a solid, well conceived act with tons of charisma and street appeal.  I made every attempt to get to see their shows. They had a good run of albums and success after their CBGB start, but never really hit it big in the mainstream. Television , too, was a wonderful act that got an early recording contract and had the critics on their side. Tom Verlaine on stage in a small club was about as good as it got for me.  The Laughing Dogs, I will tell you, were probably the finest musicians and songwriters on that scene. They had a strong sense of humor and managed to carry that through into some excellent pop songs. That combined with a musical delivery reminiscent of The Rascals, made them so exciting for me. Again, they had some great albums, but never really got what they deserved. I only saw The Patti Smith Group once, cause she was a standing room only/sold out performer. Between Patti Smith, Talking Heads and The Ramones, you pretty much got everything you expected from CBGBs. Their recorded live performances endure in every media imaginable.

There were dozens and dozens of other one shot groups I got to see while Hilly was "auditioning" them. Some destined to burn out immediately, others pushed on year-after-year, never getting any further than 215 The Bowery. These are the personalities I most identify with. The heart and soul of  underground rock & roll.

BTC-How about Man-ster? Seems that they had a strange cult all their own.
TC-Man-ster, eh? Now they were what I would call a cult band if there ever was one. I was only able to catch their show a few times, but I must say, they were straaaaange indeed. Excellent musicianship, intriguing stage act. Creepy vocals. I think I related to them in the way we were both, while fully qualified and worthwhile, to be just a little outside the CBGB border. If they did develop a following, as you mentioned, I guess they must have released some product over the years. I'll look into that.  Maybe our paths will cross again someday. I hope.

BTC-And what did you think about the other acts on the album like the Shirts, Sun, Mink DeVille, Tuff Darts...

TC-The Shirts had something good going,  not only musically, but visually - with the wildly animated stage  interplay between Annie Golden and Artie. I've listened to their album work, and can't understand why they didn't meet with more success. I remember that Hilly was their manager at the time, and that they were known as the " house band". I hear they are still performing in one way or another in and around NYC. I need to look into that.  Sun was a four man band that sounded like ten. The energy emerging from Nikki Buzz gave me shivers....these guys were ready for the big stage, but, again....what happened? So much of it is just plain luck and opportunity. True then and true now. Mink DeVille and The Laughing Dogs I talked about prior: both were wonderful acts with so much potential. I was so pleased when they both went on to produce some really good album work after CBGB.  Tuff Darts, eh? Now, there was a fully formed, Hollywood-ready ensemble if there ever was one. The finger-wagging songs, the wardrobe, the gangster poses, combined with an air of social defiance rendered them unapproachable. I never met or spoke with anyone associated with Tuff Darts. Ever.  Finally, I must give a big salute to The Miamis - probably the most fun band you could imagine. These guys kicked out the rock and roll like no one's business - and had a thrilling sense of humor to boot. East to listen to, easy to meet and as sincere as pie. Great people and focused artists, even to this day.  There was just so much talent, enthusiasm, and potential in that one little club in 1975, that I can't believe I had the fortune to be a fly on the wall. No offense to the the other flies!

BTC-Did Stuart's Hammer do any studio recordings?

TC-Stuart's Hammer never had the opportunity to do any further studio recording after "Everybody's Depraved". We toured, did some live shows on WFMU  and gigged constantly for a couple of years, and then broke up. Immediately though, Michael, Jordan and myself reformed as "It's The Hendersons", with the addition of Ed Pastorini on vocals and keyboards (Google him - he's had a vast career). Under this new group we did release a single on Uptown Records (Hoboken) - as I recall it was Baby Happy backed by The Merger. Both good pop songs - and, The Merger had some success in England, I'm told.  Michael eventually went off to other projects, and Jordan, Ed and I carried on with a succession of bass players until somewhere in 1981, when Ed started his 10,000 Crusteaceans project, and Jordan formed The Young Hegelians. I became a chimney sweep.

BTC-So, what's up with Tom Cartwright these days?

TC-Me?  I'm still active in music....just finished my fourth solo album - self-published. Once I can get the entire catalog mastered, it's on to Bandcamp. Mike Insetta and I play together a lot - sometimes electric and sometimes acoustic. I still can hold my own on the mandolin, and Mike is an avid banjoist. In fact, here's the real news: Stuart's Hammer has reunited recently and we are going down to Nashville in early June for a recording date at Jordan Chassan's studio. SoundBarn is the name at it features all-vintage analog tape facilities. Jordan has produced some excellent recordings for a variety of artists, and has an extensive reputation in the industry as man you can trust when you're extra fussy about first rate recording.  Let's see what the old country punks can whip out!
***
Can't wait to hear that 'un, which I suspect and hope will be every bit as good a straight-out rocker as if it were recorded a good thirty-eight years back!

Anyway, here's a bit via group bassist Michael Insetta (whose cousin Paul Insetta was a songwriter, studio guitarist and manager of Jerry Vale!) telling about the time Stuart's Hammer were mulling over letting a certain someone who would become famous in another artistic realm join the act (as well as some other informative tidbits):

I went to Montclair State College when Bruce Willis was there. He knew me as Banjo Mike as I was playing the 5 string banjo back then, that's how I met Jordan and that's when we decided to form a band doing only original work. Anyway Bruce who we all called " L tone" ( for Elton John because he was always wearing these big sunglasses like Elton John; he also always wear bib overalls), anyway he knew Jordan and I and wanted to audition a singer for our band. This was after we had played awhile I think though it was before we did LIVE AT CBGBs but we were playing in the city. Anyway we had him come up on stage one night to sing and play harp on a couple of songs don't remember what songs they were. Needless to say we didn't take him up on it and the rest as they say is history.


Also have a story about the night at CBGBs we showed up to hang out, it was a Tuesday or Wednesday. Anyway we pull up and there's a big white limo in front. We walk in forgetting who was playing and we see this big black dude walking down the aisle towards the door, bald head and gold earring lolled like a black Mr Clean, no disrespect intended. Anyway a few feet behind him comes this little guy with long black curly hair and a Fu Manchu mustache. Guess who.....Frank Zappa checking out the place

How about the night when I met Alex Chilton after I told Hilly that the first song I had ever learned to play on the guitar was "The Letter" which of course Alex sang lead on when he was sixteen. Couldn't believe I was meeting the guy. This occurred after the album came out. Or the fact that I found out that Lisa Kristal and I both grew up in North Bergen and went to the same schools and had a lot of common friends. I was one or two years ahead of her and had no idea. It was only after we started chatting ( she was a real big fan like her dad of us as well as the Laughing Dogs, she took a lot if pictures of us back then) that we found this out and we became really good friends 
Or the fact we were pretty good friends with Fred Smith from Television and Terry Ork rest his soul was a fan of ours and wanted to produce and record "Everybody's Depraved" but we were already committed to Hilly and the album.
And before we go, here are a few just under the wire reminiscences from group singer John Placko!


1. Mike (bass) was sharing an apartment with a bunch of guys. It became a hangout because it was over a bar. I was friends with Tom (Rhythm) who sometime hung out there so I sometimes hung out there too. Steve, who became the drummer, & I worked together in his father's pizzeria. So, Steve & I went over there after work, ~ midnight, and hung out. That's how Steve got into the band. Then later, I somehow got sucked into the band too.

2. Once outside CBGBs I was having a cigarette and just hangin' when this guy comes up to me to bum a butt. He decides to go inside and asks me to watch his bike (chopper). Just before he goes in he turns and shows me this gun stuffed in his belt and says to come get him if anyone fucks with his bike. Needless to say this Jersey kid was scared shitless.

3. One performance at CBGBs I screamed before an instrumental and slide off stage on my knees. As I got up, there was Willy DeVille laughing his ass off and he said to me "man that was great". That might not sound like a big deal but the weird thing was he said it in a normal voice. Why so weird, every other time I heard him talking to people (his fans) he had this high whinny voice.

4. We were booked with some of the other CBGBs regulars at My Father's Place in Long Island. Before our show, the entire place was packed because there was this free concert being put on by the local radio station. After the concert ended they made the entire place empty out and if they wanted to see our show they had to pay to get in. So instead of having, I don't know, maybe 500 people, we had like around 50. Imagine the beer they could have sold.

5. We were booked with some of the other CBGBs regulars at Hot Dog Beach in Long Island. The other bands had management so they had hotels. We had no management so we were allowed to sleep in a barn with the roadies. Ain't fame grand.
Need anything else, oh rabid followers of seventies underground esoterica???

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating read! Not sure why but the thought of that record has simply never appealed but you've finally convinced me to rectify this pronto.