Paul Collins, acclaimed drummer for power-pop icons The Nerves (best known for “Hanging on the Telephone”), The Breakaways, and The Beat reflects on the early days in this excerpt from his memoir-in-progress
I pushed open the door with the big gold script “When You’re Ready” emblazoned on it and I was hit with the unmistakable sound of musicians, trying out gear all at the same time. It was like a symphony of discombobulated sound. It was like Colonel Dak! I waded through the hippies in their flowered shirts and bell bottom pants with big brass belt buckles. And there it was. Finally! Now I was standing in front of the bulletin board. I scanned it as fast as I could, because I knew everyone in the place had to think, “Who is this jerk? He doesn’t even have a band!” But I found it. I couldn’t believe it; right there in front of me as big as a billboard in Times Square. The 3 x 5 index card that would change my life forever.
WANTED DRUMMER FOR ALL ORIGINAL BAND
ALA THE BEATLES AND STONES…
I ripped it down, stuck it in my back pocket, no one else was going to see this one. This one was all mine. I ran across the street to the pay phone and I called Jack up immediately.
Jack told me to come on over…now….I liked that, when you want to be a rock star you don’t have a moment to waste!
I knocked on the grey dingy door. It opens, and I am face to face with a set of pale blues eyes that seem to look right through me.
“Come on in.”
As soon as I walked inside, I knew this was as far from Tiffany, Colonel Dak, and the stoner bands from New York as I could possibly imagine. I look around the disheveled room. There’s stuff piled up everywhere. Jack sits down on his unmade bed, there is a cherry red sunburst guitar lying next to him. It looks as if he has been there all morning.
“I made a record.”
Until that moment, I had never met anyone who had made a record before and I am getting goosebumps as Jack pulls a shiny black record out of a plain white paper sleeve. He lays it carefully down on the turntable.
“I’m in the phone booth, it’s the one across the hall!”
Gone! My head is reeling. I can’t believe it. This was exactly what I had been looking for! It was the same thing that had happened to me when I heard “Big Girls Don’t Cry” for the first time on the radio in Saigon. It was the thrill of the music and it was an adrenaline rush like nothing else. Back then I was hot and steamy from my wet clothes and the 100-plus degree weather outside. Now, it was because my heart was racing. I look at Jack, who seems like a god to me. He made this? He has done what I had only dreamed of doing.
“There’s more where that came from,” he said.
I had brought my drumsticks with me. They had been in my back pocket, but now I whipped them out, and as Jack picked up his cherry red Rickenbacker guitar, I grabbed the phone book that was lying there. Jack started to play and I started to play right in time as if I knew everything that was going to happen, as if I had played these songs a million times before. Jack opened his eyes and he knew it too. He smiled and stopped.
“Where’s the rest of the band?”
“Oh them? Forget about them. We are going to start a new band!”
Jack told me he knew of this guy, Peter Case, who was a street musician. He and Jack had made several unsuccessful attempts at starting a band. Jack said if we played our cards right, maybe this time we could get him. He said Peter could really sing, and he was writing good songs too. That was enough for me.
In New York, it had been impossible to find anyone doing this kind of stuff, pop songs with cool harmonies and good hooks had gone completely out of style. Jack told me it wasn’t going to be easy to get Peter.
“Getting Peter is going to be like trying to fuck a grizzly, have you ever tried to fuck a grizzly?”
“You have to do it very carefully and you have to come from the side.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I went along with him anyway.
Peter did come around and, when he did, it was pure magic. We would spend hours and days on end as Jack taught us the songs he had written. The three of us sat there in Jack’s rundown room, me playing drums on a phone book, Jack on his bed with his cherry red Rickenbacker guitar and Peter sitting in the window sill, playing his light brown Hofner bass. We played those songs over and over until we had them memorized. They sounded so wonderful stripped down like that. “Stand Back and Take A Good Look,” “Give Me Some Time,” “Are You Famous,” “Letter To G,” “Come Back and Stay” and, of course, “Hanging on The Telephone.” And that was only the beginning.
The Nerves were born. This was to be the only real band that I would ever be in. We did it all. Nothing has happened to me since that didn’t happen in that band. It seemed like it would only be a matter of time before we would be huge rock stars. How could we miss? The songs were so good! And when Peter and Jack harmonized, it was even better. I was mesmerized by them, and the music we played together. Soon it was Peter, too, who seemed like a God to me. He wore those Buddy Holly-style glasses and a beat up varsity jacket, he looked like the shit.
The world, and San Francisco in particular, was not ready for The Nerves. We were thrown out of every place we ever played. The more we were thrown out, the more we were convinced that we were gonna be great. The main thing now was to get the band off the ground.
We knew we had to get some gigs. In those heady days, in the barren landscape of San Francisco, we lived in a complete vacuum. We saw no one and we knew no one. We became completely immersed in our own fantasy world. It would be safe to say that we lost touch with reality. We were so desperate to play that one day we loaded our gear into Danny’s Buick Super 8 with the back seat ripped out, and drove over to The Omni Night Club on Haight Street in the Haight Ashbury.
We loaded our gear in the club without asking anyone’s permission. Our plan was to set up and play unannounced to anyone who happened to be there. We were convinced that once people heard us, we would be forgiven and we would get a real gig out of it. But it didn’t play out that way. We let it rip with “Are You Famous.” Three of the six barflies ran out the door and the bartender, horrified, screamed.
“What the fuck are you guys doing? Who the fuck said you could play here?”
I think it was Peter who said, “Hi, we’re the afternoon entertainment!”
Danny is pissed off too. “If you had told me you were doing this, I would never have driven you over!”
It was Peter who told him, “That’s why we didn’t tell you.”
I was heartbroken. We didn’t get to play even one song all the way through. We were a great band, but we weren’t getting anywhere.
Finally, we got a break, a residency at The Frisco Disco. It had been a classy club in its day, but now it was just another dive. You could see the remnants of its glory days in its marble entrance with Frisco Disco written out in copper inlay. It had a long bar, a big stage and high ceilings. It was downtown off Market Street and the patrons consisted of drunks, sailors, lowlifes and a few out of work Indians.
The barkeep was the spitting image of Sonny Bono, complete with white pants and white patent leather shoes. He fancied himself a drummer and on some nights he would sit in for me while I would tend bar. I thought I would give the bums a break and pour them double and triple shots, but I was surprised when they wouldn’t touch my drinks, they wanted it just the way they always got it, nothing more, nothing less.
The owner of The Frisco Disco was an Arab man. Every night he would sit at one end of the bar while his cheap blonde floozy of a girlfriend would sit at the other end. Invariably some poor misguided soul would come and try to chat her up and buy her a drink. That’s when the fireworks would begin. The owner would jump down from his perch at the bar, draw out the pistol he always carried with him, and fire off a couple of shots into the ceiling as he would threaten to kill both the guy and his girlfriend. Everyone would run for cover except the floozy. She would just sit at the bar sipping on her drink, while she looked at herself in the mirror above the bar. The place was so bad that we could not even get the bums on Market Street to come with free drink tickets!
Then we got the gig at The Downbeat. It was out in the flats on Kansas Street which was a rough neighborhood. Jimmy the Greek owned it and ran it like it was his own little kingdom. He liked us and he liked me, probably because I had lived in Greece. He would always tell me stuff like, “Paul, your soundman is like the fourth member of your band, you don’t have a good soundman you’re gonna sound like shit!”
Or this one which is actually pretty true, “Just make sure you have tight beginnings and tight endings and people will love you, no one gives a shit about what happens in the middle of the song!”
Jimmy had one rule: When a fight breaks out, the band has to keep playing. There were a lot of fights at The Downbeat and we played through all of them. Our last night there was one of the worst. A guy came in around last call and decided to have a drink and nurse it, even though the bartender was telling him it was time to go. He says, “I paid for this drink and now I’m gonna drink it!”
That’s all the encouragement Jimmy needs and before you know it the guy is chained to a post and Jimmy and two of his goons are beating this guy within an inch of his life. His face is covered in blood and Jimmy and his boys just keep hitting him, I thought they were going to kill him. Jimmy is screaming at us to play, but we had already packed our shit up. We left and we never came back.
Then we heard The Ramones. One night we were rehearsing in the basement and somehow we found out that there was this band from New York playing at the Last Day Saloon in North Beach. We called the club and the doorman answered, “Yeah, The Ramones are here tonight. They’re doing their last song now.”
“Please, please, will you hold up the phone so we can hear them? Please!”
We crowd around the phone and hear The Ramones for the very first time. Jack and Peter are freaking out.
“They’re playing eighth notes! They’re staying on the D; they’re staying on the fucking D chord. I don’t believe it!”
We had never heard anyone play like that before, and we were blown away. With their long hair, leather jackets, T-shirts, torn jeans, and sneakers, they defined cool. It wasn’t what we were going for, but their look was theirs, and we wanted one. We wanted something clean and classic, like the sound we were going after.
One day Jack turned to us and said, “You know what we got to do dontcha?”
“We got to make a record, that’s what we got to do!”
It was Jack who came up with the idea for the three-piece suits. It wasn’t enough to have a great sound; we needed to have a great look, too. As everyone in show business knows, image is everything.
One day as we were sitting around in the basement, making tacos on a hot plate, Jack laid it on us. We needed suits, and not just any suits, no way, we needed three-piece, custom-tailored YSL suits.
“Where the fuck are we going to get three-piece suits?” I asked.
“Don’t worry,” Jack said. “I got it all figured out.”
This was Jack’s standard reply to everything, which meant we would argue about it for three days and then come up with a plan. Peter’s response was a flat out no. There was no fucking way he was gonna wear a three-piece suit, absolutely no way.
Well, he did eventually, we all did, and the look shocked the shit out of people. Unfortunately, it did not make people warm up to us, but it did create a lot of controversy. The most common response was “Where the fuck did you get those suits?” It did conform to the age-old adage in show business—“Get the people talking about you.”
I would scour The Pink Section in the weekend edition of the San Francisco Chronicle trying to find a gig. We would go and look through the bins at Tower Records on Columbus. We would sell whatever records we found in the Goodwill box to the owner at Aquarius Records in North Beach, he was the guy who told us about Greg Shaw and Bomp Records in Los Angeles. There weren’t any record companies in San Francisco; all the business was in Los Angeles. We started to think about going south. The suits weren’t what we had hoped they would be. No one was biting. We couldn’t get any real gigs and we were broke, but we were not going to give up.
The Nerves were never going to make it, but I didn’t know that at the time. Jack Lee, Peter Case and I would do just about everything you could imagine, it just wasn’t meant to be.
The music was really good, though. The proof of that is some of Jack’s songs became worldwide hits. It made Jack Lee a very rich man, but I never saw a dime from it. I don’t resent him for it, and I would do it all again, every bit of it, except maybe next time I would ask for a percentage of the action.
One time when I was back in New York, I told my drum teacher, Sam Ulano, about The Nerves. He asked if I had a contract with my bandmates. I told him it wasn’t that kind of band. He told me I was stupid and that you always had to have a contract. I know it’s a defect, but I have never looked at life like that. I figure you’re gonna get what you’re gonna get, with or without a contract.
Our days in San Francisco were numbered just as the days of your life are numbered. Eventually we had been thrown out of every place and there was nowhere left that we could play. This did not faze us in the least. Jack knew that we had to do something, and he knew it had to big. The scene at Jack’s basement was getting too nasty, between the landlord’s wife and our junky neighbors it was becoming impossible to work there. We moved our operation over to Folsom Street. We found a building with six apartments and a large basement, where we could rehearse, for the extravagant sum of six hundred dollars a month.
As soon as we moved in, we cleaned out the basement. This was the kind of shit Jack loved to do. He somehow got hold of a paint sprayer so we could airbrush the entire ceiling and walls crisp white and then we painted the floor with grey rubberized paint; thirty years later, when I went back, you could still see our handiwork!
Once we were done fixing the place up, we continued to rehearse non-stop. Now, instead of having a crazy lady smash plates up against the door, we had an irate neighbor who came down one day and gave me a black eye because all my drumming had ruined the birthday cake his wife was making for his kid. Shit would just not stop!
One day Jack turned to us and said, “You know what we got to do dontcha?”
“We got to make a record, that’s what we got to do!”
Even though we were completely out in left field, and we were, we had enough sense to record a record. Since the real studios in town wouldn’t even let us in the door, we went to a Chinese recording studio. Believe it or not, people still buy that record today and some people have paid a lot of money to own it. Back in San Francisco, nobody wanted it.
It seemed so logical. A record could go places we could never go. We had made enough money with The Dance Machine that we were able to get a bank loan from our bank Yerba Buena for $2,000. That was all we needed to record and press a thousand copies of an EP. It was the same size as a 45 rpm but instead of the customary two songs it has four songs, two on each side. We even had enough money left over to also buy a car, our mothership, a 1969 black Ford LTD station wagon with a 432-cubic-inch engine. One big, gas-guzzling, money-sucking, smoke-belching, tank of a car, but we loved her!
We eventually found a recording studio that wanted our business, Kelly Quan’s, a Chinese recording studio on the outskirts of Chinatown, up on Union Street. For $1,000, we cut The Nerves one and only EP and it was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. We were finally doing it! I loved everything about it—the smell, the padding on the walls, the baffles, the vocal booth. It was a dream come true for me, as I sat in the control room, listening while Peter cut his vocals to “When You Find Out.” The Chinese engineer told Peter in his very thick accent, “Make a love to the mic! When I say we are wolling, we are wolling!”
Jack loved “Working Too Hard,” the first song I wrote for The Nerves. He wanted to start it with a distinctive sound. He came up with it—a ball peen hammer striking the metal base of a microphone stand. It sounded great with a touch of reverb on it, exactly how we wanted it, classic. When we went to mix the record down and we were listening to the final playback, it was gone. We all screamed “What happened? Where is the hammer!” The engineer looked at us, —“Oh, that? I thought it was just for the count off. It’s over there in the garbage can.” So we fished the ¼ inch piece of recording tape out of the garbage and the engineer spliced it back on.
To celebrate, we bought a cheap bag of weed, smoked the whole thing and watched The Exorcist three times in a row. That was San Francisco in the 1970’s, you could smoke cigarettes and pot in movie theatres and for one dollar you could eat all the popcorn you wanted and you could stay all day.
It was Jack’s idea of how we could promote the 45 once it was done.
“Let’s take out an ad in Rolling Stone!”
At this point in time there weren’t many music magazines to speak of and Rolling Stone was definitely the biggest and we were going to get into it. We took out a small one-inch-by-one-inch ad that said “Rock Collectors, Buy The Nerves,” with the cover of the 45 and our address. When we finally got the record back from the pressing plant and had them stuffed into the sleeves they were ready for us to mail.
Surprisingly enough, we got orders from music people all over the country, Alan Betrock from New York Rocker, Gene Sculatti from Warners Brothers Records and even Greg Shaw from Bomp! in L.A. ordered a copy. They were two dollars.
We’d heard about a station in town where the all-night DJ would play your record if you stopped by in the middle of the night so we went and watched him spinning discs in his sound booth. We watched from outside, I had never been in a radio station before. The booth was all lit up and the microphone was on a metal arm that he could move around as he spun records and put pre-recorded cartridge tapes into a player. All the while the big red “On The Air” sign was lit up and glowing; it was so exciting! At the commercial break he came out to say hi and to grab our new 45. I was tingling as he announced our record.
“OK, night birds, you are in for a real treat. The Nerves just stopped by to bring yours truly their new record! Hot off the presses! This is the debut performance folks… “Working Too Hard,” by The Nerves!”
I knew this was our moment. We were about to jump into the big time. The Nerves were about to make rock ‘n roll history!
Something was wrong, horribly wrong. This wasn’t our record. It takes a second but when I realize what is happening, it’s too late. The DJ is playing our 45 at 33 RPM and it sounds like a dirge! We wave frantically to him to get his attention, but it’s useless. He is reading a magazine and doesn’t look up. It’s over and done now, and he takes the record off the turntable and slips it out the door to us. And with that, our brush with radio fame, we are gone into the night. There is no consoling me. Just like that, the dream slipped out of my grasp. With The Nerves, it often felt like that. We would be so close, but so far away from what we were after. San Francisco was really starting to kill us.
And it almost did.
We were like brothers, all three of us, we did practically everything together, including the monthly chore of collecting the rent. So one night we stood in front Mr. Wilson’s apartment, my next door neighbor on Folsom Street. A nice old guy, nondescript, always paid his rent on time, never complained. It was about ten o’clock at night and we should have known it was too late to collect the rent, but there we were all three of us knocking on his door. The bulb in the hallway must have been out because it was dark, except for the light from the bulb on the next landing up. Jack is goofing around, making silly faces. He is really good at it, Peter and I are cracking up.
“It’s us Mr. Wilson. Sorry to bother you, but can we get the rent?”
“The rent? I already paid the rent! But if you boys want the rent, well, you’re gonna get it.”
He opens the door and all we can see is a huge kitchen knife as it plunges down deep into Jack’s chest, right up to the wooden handle. Fuck! Blood is spurting everywhere as Jack falls back into my arms, and Mr. Wilson pushes past us and flees down the stairs and into the night. We drag Jack down the stairs and lay him on top of the hood of our station wagon. Peter runs to call an ambulance. I am standing there in shock watching the blood spurt out of Jack’s chest, the knife still in him. I am paralyzed. I don’t know what to do and it looks like he is dying in front of me.
“Hold on, man. Please, dear God. Just hold on, man.”
Out of nowhere a score of undercover cops appear and an ambulance shows up and whisks Jack away to the hospital. I stand there in the middle of the night with Peter; there is still blood all over the hood of our car.
Jack survives, although it was a close call, and when he is fully recovered we pack up and leave Folsom Street and San Francisco, swearing never to return. We decide to move to LA. We rented out all the apartments and took the first and last rent deposits with us, leaving the real owner high and dry. I ran into some of these folks later on at shows, but no seemed to hold a grudge. Back then the rents were only eighty bucks a month, so we really weren’t talking about a lot of money, even though at the time it seemed like a fortune.
They all stood on the sidewalk in front of the house and waved us goodbye as we drove away in our Black Ford LTD station wagon loaded to the gills with everything we owned.
LA was, and still is, the capital of the entertainment world.
“Well whoop ti dew, that ought to blow their skirts up.” Jack had a million sayings like that, for a guy who had been an underprivileged kid, he was really nice. He told me once that his mother had stood on her head all night to make sure that she got pregnant with him. Jack never knew his father, and he had had a tough childhood. Abused and battered, he had been shuffled around in foster homes and had finally wound up in a juvenile delinquent center. He wasn’t bitter, not in the least, he was just gonna make sure nobody ever fucked with him again. I don’t think he had ever met someone like me; it kind of threw him that I was so trusting and that apparently I didn’t want to take anything from him. I think I became like the younger brother he had never had. I looked up and admired him greatly; I think he really enjoyed that.
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