Sweat by Joe Bonomo

[17 February 2008]

By Kim Simpson

I’ve got a cameo in Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, the new book about the Fleshtones.  It’s in a quote author Joe Bonomo takes from a September ‘84 Salt Lake City concert review: “They did the entire show in front of a closed curtain and were not afraid to interact with the paying customers in the front row.”  I was one of those front row customers, you see, and I’d gone to the show—a mismatched Fleshtones/Billy Bragg/Echo and the Bunnymen triple bill—only for the Fleshtones, who I was seeing live for the first time.

But I was already a diehard.  I was 15 and I’d just had the last carefree summer I can remember, full of suburban mischief, like-minded friends, and Hexbreaker, Roman Gods and Up-Front in constant rotation.  These friends and I had been growing our bangs long like singer Peter Zaremba and guitarist Keith Streng and when they showed up at summer’s end we were front and center, waving our fists and reaching up to prop up Peter whenever he’d teeter off the edge of the stage.  No offense to Bragg and Echo, but I can’t remember their sets.

Aside from bragging, my other point with this little reminiscence is to show that it’s possible to become a Fleshtones convert through their records.  The common understanding about the group is that after 30-plus years, in the face of a million-plus tough breaks, they’ve kept themselves going mainly through their reputation as an unmissable live act.  True, no one can work a live audience into a frenzy like they can, leaping offstage all night as they do with their wireless guitars, dancing with audience members, climbing up on counters and even dashing out into the street.  But it’s their high-octane music that seals the deal. 

They refer to it as “Super Rock”, and it merges together all of the great elements of vintage sixties garage rock and R&B—shouted choruses, handclaps, harmonica, Farfisa organ, the works. And although you can (and should) make it a religion to catch them whenever they’re in your town, you can also have a very rewarding relationship with them in the comfort of your own home.

A dedicated Fleshtones record consumer myself, I’ve grown accustomed to reading about the guys only in the form of generic, hair-toussling capsule reviews (“road warriors … true rock ‘n’ roll spirit … retro revivalism … virtually impossible to capture on record … generally successful results…”), so I’m still rubbing my eyes in disbelief over the fact that I’ve just read a book that takes a prolonged look at the group, including those records I love so much.  One of Bonomo’s more forceful points is that contrary to what you might think, the band has been using the recording process to openly tell their own story all along.  The terrific More Than Skin Deep (1997), for example, is the Fleshtones’ own danceable John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, merging honest, confessional lyrics with especially edgy, close-to-the-bone music.  This knowledge, I promise, will make it sound even better than it already does.

Three other things make Sweat special:  First, Bonomo is introducing the flesh-and-blood Fleshtones to a world that’s gotten used to shuffling them off into categories that border on “novelty”.  And he’s not doing this in the sense that he’s revealing the “men behind the mask”.  The group, after all, doesn’t play where it does, dress the way it does, and write songs about Bazooka Joe because of a perceived image they feel obligated to maintain.  They do all that because it’s who they are.  (“I’m more obsessed with Bazooka Joe now than I was as a child,” says a middle-aged Zaremba, writer of more than one tribute to the character.) 

Their constant effort to present their true selves on record, notwithstanding their reputation as live wild men, is one of the group’s more propulsive struggles.  It also marks them as honest, which is a rare quality in rock ‘n’ roll these days.  (Thanks go to Bonomo, by the way, for articulating what it is about Weezer’s sarcastic “Buddy Holly” that’s always made me bristle.)

Second and equally praiseworthy about Sweat is Bonomo’s writing.  An English professor at Northern Illinois University, he’s stepped forward to provide the band a virtual gilded stage with a velvet curtain.  He translates his own zine-worthy enthusiasm into lyrical, vivid prose, and if you’re skeptical about how those qualities might work together in a rock ‘n’ roll book, you’re not alone. 

Early on, when I read how Keith, Marek and Peter stepped outside of their practice space in North Queens, “blinked in the sunlight, and sniffed the air toward the west,” discovering that “what their senses tasted on the breeze was something enormously exciting,” I had my doubts and reservations.  This was the floweriest narrative I could have possibly imagined ever reading about the rowdy, rocking Fleshtones.  Later, though, by the time the “bardic” Walt Whitman is evoked for his ability to recognize that “what makes us complex and interesting as individuals are our contradictions”—another unlikely passage—I’d already become a committed passenger, grateful for both the interesting ride and the well-informed tour guide. 

Contradictions, after all, are a key part of this book, and that leads to its third virtue, which is that Bonomo’s loving treatment of the group doesn’t preclude any of the elements of their story that might persuade one to judge them harshly.  All the drugs are here, and so is the booze (which is saying a mouthful, my friends).  So too are the bad business decisions, the attitudes, hard feelings, and the jingoistic politics that prompted one itinerant band member to bail.  And there’s tragedy, particularly in the case of the late Gordon Spaeth, their demon-riddled sax player.  But the bottom line in Sweat, thankfully, is that the flesh-and-blood Fleshtones are constantly able to make the best out of the worst situations, and their legions of devoted fans will always love them for that.  I know I do.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/sweat-by-joe-bonomo/