When he was a senior at Boston’s Emerson College in 1982, Chris Epting was enticed by members of Lords of the New Church (Stiv Bators, Brian James, Dave Tregunna, Nick Turner) to tag along on a short band tour with a video camera. They wanted their own version of Gimme Shelter. The fresh-faced collegian leaped at the chance to hang with the punk supergroup (and, in New York, Johnny Thunders). The following is his account of that wild ride.
“You’ve got the video camera; why don’t you bloody shoot us for a few days?”
“Right but I’m in school and I—“
“Fuck school. Get out and live a little bit.”
Brian James, the swashbuckling former lead guitarist for the Damned was knocking back yet another green bottle of Heineken as he sprawled across a black leather couch inside the empty Boston night club, a cigarette permanently dangling from his snarling smile. Outside it was a beautiful, crisp fall day right next door to Fenway Park, but inside on this early afternoon it was dark and shadowy as a gang of reptilian, black leather-clad Brits along with Youngstown, Ohio’s own Stiv Bators slowly, sleepily started getting ready for a sound check.
“Do it!’ he prodded with a mischievously crooked smile. “Why the fuck not?”
We would follow them around for a few days and make our own little version of Gimme Shelter.
It was September, 1982. I was a senior at Emerson College. I had started shooting and editing an artsy little cable TV show both up in Boston and back home in New York on Manhattan Cable TV where I lived. This was the dawning of the video age when cameras were becoming more and more accessible and there was all of a sudden a need for programming to fill largely vacant chunks of “Public Access” time. I had begun using equipment from my school to shoot interviews with bands to create little segments and getting them aired wherever I could. Hustling hard, I had managed to get myself on the list of many record company publicists and so opportunities were constantly flowing.
But little was as cool as getting a call to see if I might want to shoot an interview with the Lords of the New Church. The goth/pop punk super group had just embarked on their first American tour. I had seen Stiv with the Dead Boys at CBGB several years earlier. Then there was guitarist Brian James from the Damned, bassist Dave Tregunna from Sham 69 and drummer Nick Turner from The Barracudas.
We (“we” being my cohorts Janice; amazing photographer and rock & roll sage, and Eric, a local tech wizard who could deal any and all gear issues) met the band at a small club called Spit in Boston where they would be playing that night. The plan was to do some interviews when they rolled in for sound check. I was nervous about meeting Stiv. My mind drifted back to watching him wildly jackknife his Wonder Bread-white, twig-like body on stage at CBGB with the Dead Boys, a wide-eyed weasel ripping and roaring through “Sonic Reducer.” For me, he was America’s answer to Johnny Rotten. But what would he be like in conversation?
When the band had arrived, hours later than the appointed time, things automatically seemed a bit chaotic, albeit lazily so. Their road manager, a laid-back southern California dude, seemed to have his hands full and he frustratingly tried to get them moving and doing something. He seemed annoyed that they were running so late, but it didn’t seem like the first time. When they first approached us, I could hear Chris lecturing Stiv, “I can’t give you another hotel room key, do you understand? You can’t keep losing these things or they’re going to start charging us for them.”
This was back before you got a plastic card. It was an actual metal key. Stiv was not at all threatening the way I imagined he might be. In fact, he seemed rather quiet and even meek. When I met Chris, he pulled me aside and shared privately, “You’re going to love interviewing Stiv. He’s really funny and very dry. We call him ‘the Bob Newhart of rock ‘n’ roll.’”
Stiv and I met and sat down as Eric set the camera up for our interview, and I was disarmed. For one thing I could barely hear him; he was speaking just that softly. He was thoughtful and very deliberate with how he chose his words. “Hey man, this really means a lot to us so thank you for being here,” he said. Before we started, I asked if we could have a photo together and he said, “Yeah, I have a cool idea. What if we do one of those things where I put my hand on yours and you put your hand on mine and we kind of like stack our hands up? Did you ever see that in the movies or in cartoons?” I knew what he was talking about and it seemed like a fine idea, so we struck the pose and Janice captured it. (see featured image at top)
I did a short interview with him to talk about the new record and then I asked him about the New York Dolls. I loved the Dolls and never missed a chance to weave them into a conversation. “Did they influence you?” I asked him. He said, “Well, not so much the music, but Johnny, when Johnny plays, that attitude, that’s what influences me.” Then he added, “You know I really want to see Johnny in a couple of days when we go to New York. And I know where to find him. Down at 5th and D.” I wasn’t quite sure what he was getting at and Stiv seemed to sense that. “Alphabet City,” he said. “5th and Avenue D. That’s where he cops his heroin. If you want to find Johnny in New York, that’s where you go to find him.”
I was a pretty straight-laced, suburban kid who grew up in Westchester County, New York in the late ‘70s. I drank a little. And that was it. I didn’t know from heroin or 5th and D. My face must have given me away, must have hinted that I needed a few more miles on me, because that’s when Brian James made his suggestion.
“You’ve got the video camera; why don’t you bloody shoot us for a few days?”
Two things stood out to me. First, they had a great work ethic. Second, they were smart. Their comments, their asides, their banter showed them to be educated, funny and very much in control of what they were doing
Stiv jumped on it. “Yeah, yeah follow us with the camera. Like the Stones movie, Gimme Shelter. Hanging out in hotels and stuff. Wanna?”
Could I really just do this? I started to make my excuse, “Right but I’m in school and I-“ before James intoned the aforementioned, “Fuck school. Get out and live a little bit.” A pause. “Come on, James egged on. “Get out and learn something.”
He was right. It was time to loosen up a bit. I was sold. We would follow them around for a few days and make our own little version of Gimme Shelter. Ever practical, I figured I could get some course credit in my production class and it wouldn’t be that tough to disappear for a few days.
This was also before the days when you had to get permission to do everything. Their road manager thought it was fine we had our own car and so what the hell? MTV had recently launched and the idea of throwing a video camera on anything made a certain amount of sense. We would do this.
Interviews completed, the Lords got up on the small stage and ran through part of their set. This was getting exciting. By that time, I had already interviewed a fair number of well-known musicians for someone my age. But I had never had the chance to really hang out and so this was going to be different. With time to kill before the show that night, we all went over to their modest hotel in Kenmore Square, an old Howard Johnson’s. The guys were basically drinking beer and smoking cigarettes every step of every way. We walked to the hotel, which was a few blocks away and the guys completely stood out; black leather, white skin and dark sunglasses. We kept the cameras rolling as we entered the hotel lobby as Stiv turned to road manager Chris and said, “Hey man, I lost my key.”
“Damn, Stiv, you can’t keep doing this.” He was talking to him like he was a child. “Now I have to go back for another.” I was wondering, how do you lose a key just a few minutes after having it handed to you back at the club? Stiv just stared dejectedly at the floor as Chris begrudgingly headed over for one last key. “It’s okay, Stiv,” I offered. “Don’t beat yourself up.”
I was consoling Stiv Bators.
Then we got to the rooms; two adjoining, modest spaces with open suitcases overflowing everywhere, lots of empty beer bottles strewn about and a stack of pizza boxes in the corner. Not exactly the rock & roll excess I had pictured, more college-dorm-room than Gimme Shelter, but hey, the access we had was amazing.
Everyone stretched out in various parts of the room, more cigarettes were lit, more beer opened, with some Tom & Jerry cartoons on the TV. Stiv called his folks on the orange rotary phone by the bed. “What happens now?” I asked Brian. “What happens?” he asked, “Nothing. We wait for the gig.” A minute later, he was snoring on the bed.
I got to live the boredom of the downtime and the exhilaration of the show. The whole experience was so polarizing. You were either doing nothing or everything.
Nicky and Dave also crashed but Stiv, after ending his call, felt like chatting. And so we kept him company. He talked a little bit about the Dead Boys and how those violent stage shows had badly beaten his body up. “I have to see a doctor,” he said. “Sometimes my ankle starts swelling for no reason. I get these weird pains in my shoulders and neck.” Soon we stopped rolling tape, watched TV for a while, and then one by one the other guys woke up, stretching, yawning; “hatching” like black-leather birds.
The club was so small it didn’t even have a dressing room so the band sat in front of the Howard Johnson’s bathroom mirrors, put on some eyeliner, then grabbed their leather jackets and we all went downstairs and grabbed a pair of taxicabs. They didn’t want to walk over because it would be crowded around the club. Thankfully, I was in the front seat of one, four band members squeezed tightly into the back seat. Sitting at a red light, the Chicago song, “If You Leave Me Now” came on the radio. It played for about a minute and there wasn’t another sound in the car. As the toothless mellow classic droned on in the car, you could tell that the guys were suppressing laughter. It seemed there was just something about the preposterously lameness of the song and finally Brian James erupted, followed by the rest of them. Tears were rolling down their faces. Our Middle-Eastern driver looked at me and said, “What so funny? I like this song.”
Arriving at the club, everyone hustled out and entered through the side door, Hard Day’s Night-style as Eric captured the moment of several fans reacting to the shock of seeing the Lords just pull up in a yellow cab and hop out. Within 10 minutes, they were on stage. The place was packed and the band played hard. There was something working class about the performance. It was solid, sturdy and as we handed them clean white towels when they left the stage, they suddenly seemed businesslike. Despite affecting a sluggish, who-gives-a-fuck demeanor, these guys were pros. I liked that.
Lord of the New Church, live in Boston, September 1982:
After the show, we went back to the hotel with the guys and their two roadies and sat up drinking beer while they wound down. Stiv was on the phone trying to call Johnny Thunders’ sister. “Fuck, nobody knows where he is,” Stiv muttered to himself. I soon left to grab some stuff at my apartment in nearby Brookline, and then the next day I met them at the hotel with my car. It was an incredible feeling when I saw the band and they treated us like old friends. “Don’t forget man, make this like Gimme Shelter,” Stiv squawked. “But don’t fucking kill anybody like in the movie, hahahaha. And if you need me to do anything crazy for the camera just let me know.”
The Lords were going to play in Providence, Rhode Island at a tiny club called the Living Room. They packed their van, I put some guitars in my car to free up some space for them, and we filmed their exit from the hotel. “Where is your key, Stiv?” Chris was asking him. “We have to turn them in or we get charged.” “I don’t know man; I swear I don’t know,” Stiv stammered. Chris just shook his head; muttering.
And then we were off on the short, one-hour drive to Providence. Pulling away, Stiv mooned out the van’s window for our camera while the rest of the guys flipped us off.
“Don’t forget man, make this like Gimme Shelter,” Stiv squawked. “But don’t fucking kill anybody like in the movie, hahahaha. And if you need me to do anything crazy for the camera just let me know.”
Another budget hotel, another room key for Stiv to soon lose, and then it was over to the club for sound check just like the day before. Back at the hotel, we once again had a few hours to kill and Stiv said to us, “OK, I know what I’ll do. I have a scene idea. When I come out of the shower, I’m gonna drop my towel and you guys shoot that. They didn’t even do that in Gimme Shelter.” True to his word, a few minutes later he emerged, appearing to be perhaps 40 pounds while wet, and said “Ready?” Eric started to roll and off came the towel before a giggling Stiv ran back in the bathroom and slammed the door.
While his roguish bandmates laughed and rolled their eyes, we just waited. Lots more beer and cigarettes to kill the time (if there was anything stronger going around, I didn’t see it) and we just settled in. This night they were not going on until after midnight and so at a certain point I suggested we put on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to watch his monologue. Carson came out and the guys were in stitches. “Fucking brilliant, that’s better than John Cleese,” chuckled Brian James.
The mood at The Living Room was dark and angry, far different than the upbeat fans in Boston. The only way to the stage was to fight right through the crowd from the back of the room and as the band marched forward with their instruments, people started spitting on them and throwing beer, but the guys just soldiered through with their heads down, then got up and started playing a killer set. It was hot as hell in there and the band worked hard, sweating grimly through it all. We shot as much video as we could before it got too crazy in front of the small stage where bodies, boots and other projectiles were zooming left and right.
When they were done, Stiv looked especially trashed and the band’s two roadies went to rescue him, literally carrying the nearly-unconscious singer over their heads through the crowd. They kicked open the back door and loaded him right into the van, still prone, as our camera rolled. Back at the hotel, Stiv had once again lost his room key, the guys knocked back some more beers, we sat up for a bit and then everyone crashed. The more time we spent with the Lords, two things stood out to me. First, they had a great work ethic. Second, they were smart. Their comments, their asides, their banter showed them to be educated, funny and very much in control of what they were doing. Lost hotel keys aside, they were, in their own way, responsible and dedicated.
Before everyone crashed, I said to a still-wiped-out Stiv, “While I am here, let me take care of your hotel room keys.” He gave me a little hug and said thanks.
I was getting protective of Stiv.
Backstage with the Lords of the New Church, 1982:
There may have been another show somewhere in Connecticut (I’ve researched and can’t find it though I have a journal notation about it) but that didn’t matter, because next it was on to New York City. When not away at school I still lived at home in Westchester, about an hour north of Manhattan, but the band told me I could crash at the Gramercy Hotel with them, which blew my mind. They trusted me. Even after just a couple of days, there was a real kinship that had seemed to develop. Once we got to the city, the band had a couple of days off and Stiv wanted to track down Johnny Thunders. After a series of phone calls he came in to tell us that we would all be Johnny’s guests that night at the Mudd Club over on White Street, where he was playing. My cameraman, this time a friend from Westchester, and I looked at each other. Was this real?
Over drinks at the bar to pass the afternoon, the bands all shared Thunders tales. Brian James told me how, on the famous 1976 Anarchy Tour with the Sex Pistols, Clash, Damned and The Heartbreakers, that Thunders and his bandmates stole the show every night. “They were the best. They could play the best and that is what I paid attention to, the quality of the playing.” He said that songs were far more important to him than “punk ethos.” “I’m a Sinatra guy, man,” he laughed. “My folks always played him. He had best songs, AND he was the original punk—didn’t take any shit from anyone!”
Pulling away, Stiv mooned out the van’s window for our camera while the rest of the guys flipped us off.
We commandeered a couple of yellow cabs to get over to the Mudd Club and arrived to find an absolute zoo out front. This was an event. There was also a large production truck parked out front because evidently, the Polish director Lech Kowalski was filming that night for a documentary he was working on. All of us went to the front door, straight to the front of the line but they stopped us. Everybody had to sign a release form in case they were captured on film that night. At first, Brian James didn’t want to sign it. He told them to “Go fuck off” but the guy at the door said the same thing right back to him and then everyone signed. I thought my camera guy might have an issue with his bulky gear but evidently they assumed he was part of the crew and simply waved him in (he didn’t even have to sign a waiver like the rest of us).
This was thrilling. We were all given gold VIP stickers and escorted backstage to an empty green room where a guy was on the phone yelling, “I’m Danny from the Ramones! This is Danny from the fucking Ramones!” (This was Danny Fields, I learned later).
We waited and waited, drinking beer and listening to Stiv explain to everyone why Johnny Thunders was important and amazing. Finally, the door opened and in waltzed a very-wired Johnny Thunders, in the flesh. He was two feet from me, shot me a look but I just stared back, frozen in his glare. Johnny Thunders. He and Stiv hugged, the other guys gathered around and Thunders said, “Look at this. What a bunch of fucking wise guys. Okay who’s got the drugs?”
There were some chuckles and Thunders continued, “No I mean it, who’s got the fucking drugs?” He wasn’t kidding. Walter Lure and Jerry Nolan came in soon after to see the Lords and Johnny disappeared into a bathroom. This was surreal. Brian James told us to “Be cool with the camera” when Johnny was in there so we put it away.
Thunders was on fire that night, cocky as hell and playing like it was his last night on earth.
Whether it was because of the production that night I don’t know, but there was a closed-circuit monitor backstage to watch the show which is what the band did. I was torn. It was enthralling watching them react to Thunders on the small, grainy screen once Johnny took the stage (pushed out in a wheelchair, if memory serves). I would occasionally pop out into the venue just to feel the real thing, then catch a song or two backstage with the guys to hear their play by play. “Fucking amazing.” “Untouchable.” “The best.”
Thunders was on fire that night, cocky as hell and playing like it was his last night on earth. I had seen him a number of times before this night and I would continue to see him as the years went on, but this was the best that I remember.
Johnny Thunders at the Mudd Club, Sept. 1982:
There would also be a late show (starting, as I recall at about 2 am). Between sets, Thunders re-emerged backstage, drank a Coke, had a couple of shots of something and then went back in the bathroom. Rumors flew around. David Johansen was there. Steven Tyler was here. Stiv whispered to me that Tyler could also be found over at 5th and D, copping with Thunders.
We got back to the Gramercy around dawn after the late set ended and the guys said goodbye to Johnny backstage. I slept on the floor of one of the rooms. I had been calling my mother about this particular adventure. My mom was very cool and very hip and loved hearing about these adventures. She was going to be in the city the next night on business and Brian had said to me when he heard me on the phone, “Have your mum come over for a drink before we go play. Let us meet the person that raised this intense rock ‘n’ roll fan.” And so she did.
The band could not have been any more charming or funny. I told Brian she had been an original bobby soxer in New York, waiting on line for hours to see her favorite, Frank Sinatra.
“My goodness,” he laughed, I just told your son the other night how much I love Sinatra.” And then he kissed her hand.
I walked my mom to her car after that and she said to me, “You know, they are charming. Really lovely guys. But I hate the tattoos.” (Which she did.) Stiv came running out to the car to get his key from me for his room and said to her, “Bye, Chris’s mom. Thanks for coming down and having drinks with us.” “Call me Sugar,” she told Stiv (that was my mom’s nickname). “Okay, Sugar!”
The next night, the Lords played the Peppermint Lounge where they absolutely kicked ass. A hot New York crowd and lots of old friends made for a special night. We shot some more footage, and then, alas, it was time to pack it all in and say goodbye. I had to go back up to school and they had a few more shows to play. I knew they wouldn’t be up in the morning when I hit the road so after the show, back at the hotel bar, we said our farewells. I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz biding adieu to her newly discovered pals before the hot air balloon was set loose from its moorings. Nicky and Dave said polite goodbyes, Stiv gave me a big hug and took his room key back from me one more time, but it was Brian James who lingered for a moment. “You had fun, yeah?”
“Okay, back to school with you now. Go do something with yourself. And let us know how we all turned out in your little movie, OK?”
Somewhere there is footage that we sat and started to edit before school ended that semester. I thought we had had the makings of a great on-the-road documentary and maybe we did. But some tapes were lost or destroyed. There had been some technical glitches. Life just got busy as graduation approached, and we never finished it. But that’s okay, because the memoires are still vivid. The Lords of the New Church showed me their world, perhaps tamer than I thought it might be, though maybe they kept some things from me. They knew I was kind of a straight arrow and I think they respected that. But I saw firsthand how much work it was to do what they do. I got to live the boredom of the downtime and the exhilaration of the show. The whole experience was so polarizing. You were either doing nothing or everything.
I was heartbroken when Stiv died. And of course, Johnny Thunders. And I’ve always kept an eye out for what the other guys are up to. I would go on in life to meet a lot of other rock stars and write about them, interview them, photograph them, write books with them and all of that. But nothing was ever quite like this; a last fragment of innocence with some of my punk heroes who I got to be friends with, at least for a few days. It was a short rite of passage. But a rite of passage nevertheless.
Chris Epting interviews Stiv Bators, 1982: