In 1999, I was all of 19 years old and working as a cashier at Sam Ash Guitars in Westminster, California. I was tight on bills and moonlighting as a waitress at a 24 hour diner in Sunset Beach called the Harbour House. I thought the proper British spelling made it cool, as well as the crowd of musicians and partiers that stumbled in for cheese fries at 3 a.m.
Jimmy Agnello was the General Manager of Sam Ash, he had just transferred from NYC. He was tall, wore skinny black jeans with pointy toe creepers, and spoke in a heavy Brooklyn accent. Being a young girl who had been immersed in the Southern California punk scene, I was very curious of what had gone on over on the East Coast. Jimmy was my first teacher, he had drummed for Blondie, gotten the musical approval of Lou Reed, and even had to stop Stiv Bators from hitting on his girlfriend. We were kindred spirits and even though he was twice my age, we were instant pals, bonded by our love of rock & roll. I decided to ask him a few questions about life as a musician in the late 70’s NYC scene.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Brooklyn in an area called Marine Park. There was kind of a shortage of musicians with similar taste. Jim Sclavunos from the Bad Seeds was my age and grew up about a half mile from me, although we never met until I was in my 20’s.
What age were you when you started playing music?
I started playing in bands when I was 15, around 1972, the same time I went to my first concerts.
At James Madison High School I met Eugene Geary, a fellow Stones fan who looked like a rocker and, most importantly, sang and wrote his own songs.
Eugene’s brother Michael was a few years older, a true anglophile, and hung out at places like Max’s and The Coventry. He was also the rhythm guitar player in Wayne County and The Backstreet Boys, managed by Bowie’s MainMan. The Gearys had an amazing record collection and it was there I was turned on to Bowie, Lou Reed, Silverhead, The Dolls, T-Rex and many others. Eugene and I put a band together called The Spitfire Boys, and played Eugene’s songs along with a mix of Stones, Slade, and Chuck Berry.
After a couple of small gigs, Eugene left to play bass with Wayne County. I saw them at an overcrowded 82 Club gig, with Marc Bell (Voidoids, Marky Ramone) on drums, Jeff Salen (Tuff Darts) on guitar and the band was killer. I was determined to find a band, and answered an ad in the Village Voice looking for a Stones influenced guitarist. I showed up at a big cattle call and the other guitar player was future Heartbreaker, Walter Lure. We did a Chuck Berry song and I was offered the gig. They had a practice room in The Music Building which was a building in the Garment District where you could rehearse after six every night. They were older and seemed more serious about working at it, so I was in heaven. After one rehearsal Walter announced he was leaving to join a band called the Demons, and soon after he was in The Heartbreakers. We tried for a few months in vain to get it together but nothing ever materialized. We had a great drummer who lived in the heart of the Village on Astor Place named Jed Dennis who went on to play with Lance Loud and The Mumps. Blondie had their room down the hall from us.
Tell me about when you played with Blondie.
I met Chris and Debbie waiting for the elevator and they were both real nice. Chris had long hair, like Alice Cooper, and he told me he grew up on Ave J in Brooklyn. Debbie, of course, was stunning and nice. After a few weeks Fred Smith, their bass player, left to join Television, and not long after that their drummer quit. One night they were auditioning drummers and Chris came by and asked if I’d play guitar with them for a song. We did “Fun Fun Fun,” by the Beach Boys.
Later I reunited with Eugene in a band called For Shake Sake and played CBGBs, opening up for lots of great bands like Blondie and John Cale. Blondie had enlisted Gary Valentine and Clem Burke and sounded great.
How did you get along with the members of Blondie?
I only really spoke with Chris and we talked mainly about guitars or Brooklyn.
Later on when I started working at a music store in Brooklyn, Jimmy Destri used to come in all the time with his family and he was real nice and down to earth.
What did you love about NYC in the ’70s?
It was dangerous and crazy and everything seemed new, not contrived. I went to concerts at The Academy of Music on 14th St. every couple of weeks and The Bottom Line every couple of months.
Back then St. Marks was all record stores and cool clothing shops like Trash, Moonbeam, Natasha, and Manic Panic. Just a subway ride to the Broadway/Lafayette station and it was like I was in other country.
My friend Jed Dennis had been left in care of a Studier 4-track recorder which was a primitive, but high quality, audio recorder. A songwriter offered Jed to leave it at the Warhol Factory, off Union Square, in exchange for being able to use the machine. After we set it up there, we hung out there a couple of times and got to meet people like Taylor Meade and Anton Perich. I’m pretty sure Anton lived at the Factory, he was always there. I had no idea he was a world-class artist. He was always cordial to us. Every time I saw him he looked like a star, all dressed in black and wore cool, leather pants.
Photo: Chuck Berry, Jimmy Agnello, and Eugene Geary.
Tell me about your favorite musical experience.
We were playing CBGB’s around 1977, opening up for a band that was hot at the time called Milk N’ Cookies. Getting ready for the second set, we were told Lou Reed was sitting just a couple tables back so we decided to do “Waiting For My Man,” which we sometimes had in our set. The place was packed and Lou actually clapped when we were done. After the set, his road manager Danny came back and said Lou wanted to buy us drinks, so we filed out to the bar where we exchanged pleasantries. Lou’s manager, Jon Podell, eventually put us in the studio on Lou’s recommendation, so we got a free demo out of the deal.
Another good one was in the early ’80s, I joined a band called The Dots. The singer Jimmie Quidd had produced the first Bad Brains single, “Pay To Cum,” and there was a big buzz about them. We played a show called Rock Against Racism in Central Park, opening up for Bad Brains in front of thousands. Also, doing sessions in Electric Ladyland and Todd Rundgren’s Studio are great memories.
Tell me about Stiv Bators.
I only met Stiv a couple of times. I was recording in Electric Ladyland at the same time as The Dead Boys and my manager was friends with their producer Genya Raven, so we got to go in and listen to their tracks and Stiv was funny and reminded me of my friends from Brooklyn. A year or so later I was backstage at a Todd Rundgren concert in Central Park and Stiv was there with BeBe Beull. He introduced me to his bass player, Frank, from Lords of New Church, and then proceeded to work the room and was pretty much the center of attention. He even put the moves on my girlfriend by asking for her number. It was tragic when he passed, I think he had his eye on the big prize and would’ve had mainstream success.
Any other stories from the past that come to mind?
Before my girlfriend worked for Warner Brothers and MTV, she worked for Earl McGrath at Rolling Stones Records, during the Some Girls tour, so we were always going to parties with wild and interesting people. A funny night was when we were at the first MTV awards at Radio City. Before the show started there were a ton of celebrities of all levels at the lobby bar: a strange mixture of rockers, evening soap actors and record company execs. Robert Plant, Paul Stanley, Lisa Hartman, Michael Des Barres, Duran Duran, Seymour Stein, etc… When I got back from the bar with drinks, we laughed because out of everyone there Paul Shaffer from Letterman came over and started hitting in her.
Another time, I was at the Hippodrome Show when Televison opened for the Dolls, which is supposedly the show which inspired Malcolm McLaren to form The Sex Pistols. It was a big lush place with a big stage but kind of a small crowd of maybe 50 or 60 people, and I remember it was as though Televison was in black and white and the Dolls were in Technicolor. This was 1975 and the scene was small then, mainly the same faces with no real places to play.
I started going to CBGB’s and it was usually kind of empty, until I saw Patti Smith, she still didn’t have a drummer, the place was packed and after that it was always packed on the weekends. Thinking back, I can remember nights when you could look down the bar and see David Johannson, Patti Smith, David Byrne and Joey Ramone all just hanging out.
What are your musical influences?
My early influences were the usuals: Beatles, Stones, Kinks. I was brainwashed early on by Shindig and Hullabaloo. I looked up to Todd Rundgren, Tony Visconti, and Phil Lynott.