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Meet the Joe Shlabotniks

Updated on September 12, 2012

The Fall And Rise Of The Joe Shlabotniks, Pt. 1

Editor's note: The following is from Bobby Stikowski's unpublished manuscript for the book, "The Famous, the Not So Famous and the Infamous: Rockers in New York 1980-1993." The book was supposed to be a collection of his columns appearing in the Village Voice, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker. With the sole exception of this column, written as a favor to his neice and appearing in the P.S. 186 "Rickets," all of his columns disappeared in a bizarre and suspicious chain of hackings, small fires and late-night, drunken computer vandalisms. Although we couldn't reach him for comment, Jan Wenner is said to be highly relieved.

People ask me, you know, like, a lot about who the most famous rocker I've ever covered would be. Who knows? They're all famous, at least in their own heads. And to make it as a rocker, you gotta think you're the greatest, even if you're not. Hey, come on! This is New York City we're talking about, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. If you tank here, you're in good company. The majority of them have devoted followers, some more than others. And some of them were big influences on later music but couldn't get arrested for playing guitar in their day. Who's the most interesting? Throw a rock, they're all quirky individualists. Who's the most unforgettable? Now that's a different quesion, and in spite of several cases of scotch, the one act I can't forget is the Joe Shlabotniks. And I write that with no apologies to Gretta's uptight journalism teacher, Mrs. Horowitz.

They didn't start out as the Joe Shlabotniks, you know. They originally started out as a power-pop outfit called The Garage (pronounced the British way, with the accent on the first syllable.) This was in 1987, before "pop-punk" and "garage band music" bands like Green Day and The Hives made names for themselves by ripping off The Ramones. The Garage did it first, taking the fast, chunky, percussive and chord-heavy formula of The Ramones and brightening it, lightening it, and stripping out all introspection and urban decay. They were also unusually snappy dressers, with an artistic streak in their clothing. The rumor is that Howlin' Pelle Almqvist and Nicholaus Arson have both their albums and can play them note-perfect on demand. Nicholaus says that Randy Fitzsimmons has them. Randy can't be reached for comment.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The founder of "The GAR-age" was Jimmy Westfelter, a guy who seemed to show up as if fully formed on the New York music scene back in 1983. Sort of like Athena extruding from Zeus' cranium, he was just there. He played in a few bands, and they played in a few bars, but mainly he played on a lot of street corners, busking for spare change. He played all the same songs the other buskers played, but better than most. He carved out a spot in Washington Square Park where he was well-known for cutting loose with Ramones covers (NOT a buskers staple) after midnight. Certainly his talent was undeniable, but he also had a real flair for showmanship. Often, when he was getting ready to call it a night, he would strike up an extended version of "Teenage Lobotomy" and wind up leading all the late-nighters hanging around the park in a kind of conga line. Boy, how I wish there was video of that.

Nobody knows too much about Jimmy. He was always real tight-lipped, and in the days before the Internet you couldn't simply jump on the computer and look people up. His accent suggested somewhere west of NYC, but it could have been Pennsylvania or Iowa for all anybody knew. During some of the Garage shows, an older woman would sometimes show up and during those shows Jimmy would invariably get on the microphone and announce that one of the songs was "for my Mom." But like Jimmy, the woman never talked to anybody and so nobody knows. He was so antisocial that no one even knew if he drank beer. Looking back on it, it's amazing he ever got a contract.

In the early days he favored the same kind of faded jeans and t-shirts worn by any number of working class Jersey boys or Queens boys in metal bands. Torn knees and band logos were his de rigeur uniform. But he didn't play metal. One day he seemed to have an epiphany and started wearing thrift-store suits. It was all he could afford at the time, but it showed where he wanted to go. He wore them with style and carried himself like he owned the building (whatever building he was in.) That was when he started being not so much a popular busker and more someone thought of as a "real musician."

Then came the ad in the Village Voice. The Voice ran free, short ads for aspiring musicians, and he placed one. It simply said, "Next big thing needs you" and a telephone number. Whether he fielded 50 calls or 500 is anybody's guess, but he assembled a four-piece band in short order. It consisted of Jimmy on lead guitar, Paul Ferguson on vocals and rhythm guitar, Ian Snodgrass on bass and Terry Richardson on drums. Jimmy and Ian sang harmony. It surprised everyone that Jimmy, a competent singer, would let someone else take the vocals, but as Terry (the only member of the band to ever talk to anybody else) said, "Jimmy saw that Paul was both a better guitar player and a better singer. He was willing to give up one or the other but not both, so he opted to have Paul sing. It didn't really matter, since the songs didn't call for big solos." He also related, "Jimmy could sure carry a tune, but Paul, you know, Paul had a sound. It's sort of like when John Lennon let George Harrison into the band. He could have been the top dog, but he wanted the band to be big!"

Jimmy was good looking, sure, with a square face and brown eyes. He stood about five foot nine. Paul, on the other hand, was tall and chiselled, looking like he just walked out of a magazine. His hair was just that right shade of brown to set off his blue eyes. It was considered a sign that Jimmy was pretty secure in himself to let Paul stroll in and take the front. But Jimmy wrote the songs and ran the band. Jimmy was the only member of the band not from the New York City area. Paul was from Brooklyn, Ian was from Hoboken and Terry from Yonkers.

Early 1986, and winter in Manhattan is biting cold. The wind whips through the concrete canyon, and it feels like it's trying to actually bite your face off. It's cold in Manhattan, but not where the Garage play. They literally burst on the scene. Showing up in bars down in the Village, looking different from all the other bands. New Wave had already passed, and with it the suits. New York did not have a New Romantic scene, with dressed up posers showing off how much they spent on clothes. Jimmy must have been aware of the British scene, though. Most bands were dressing down. Not the Garage. They wore suits alright, but not matching suits the way most "suit" bands did. No, they wore suits in complimentary color schemes, so Jimmy would wear a green suit, Paul would wear blue, Ian would wear purple. Terry always wore brighter clothes on stage since he was in the back, behind the drums. "It was Jimmy's idea," Terry once told me. "He wanted the band to be identified as a unit, and he wanted us all to be known. That was actually pretty cool." They also had matching proto-Bieber haircuts and matching sunglasses. The invevitable comparisons to the Beatles seemed to roll off Jimmy, though. "I'm not sure he was trying to emulate them, so much," Terry once said. "He would just tell people to come check out his band."

No gig was treated lightly, no matter how short the set or how small the audience. They took the stage and played full throttle from the first chord. They obviously rehearsed themselves to death, because unlike most bands they never counted off, you know where the drummer sits in the back and smacks his sticks together for four beats or where the singer counts "1,2,3,4!" You could almost set your watch by how long it took them to set up, walk onstage and then start playing. And the energy they played with could move the most stone-faced Village bar-rat. "We were ferocious," Terry said. "Jimmy insisted that, like a great sports team, we 'leave it all on the floor.' We didn't have no slow songs, so longer gigs could be like an endurance run for the band."

Terry Richardson is a quiet guy, actually. The tallest member of the band, his skinny good looks and soft-spoken manner helped him when sitting in on meetings. Like all the other members, he'd been in a few bands before the Garage, and played in different places. But nothing prepared him for the Garage. "It was like being in the army," Terry, who had been in the army, recounted. "He would have us redo and redo this one maneuver, until he could just say 'Do it!' and we would perform perfectly. And the set list was written in stone, because we rehearsed it so we could move from one song to the next without no pauses so it had to be just the same." Terry is about 6 feet tall, and even though he doesn't always recount pleasant experiences with the band, his eyes start to get shiny when he talks about them. "Sometimes, you are just part of something that, whether it breaks big or not, it's great. You know that there's never been nothing like it before. But in some ways that Jimmy was worse than my DI."

It payed off though, because the Garage got noticed quickly. "The first few gigs were in dives that would take almost anybody once," Terry once told a jounalist. "But there were always one or two people who saw and recognized what Jimmy was pushing for. It was only, like, seven months before we were moving into bigger halls, which is an overnight success in this business."

Along the way they picked up a key piece of equipment, a manager. Tim Voorhees had been a low-level guy, pretty much a wannabe. He'd fancied himself a manager, but usually the bands he attached to were going nowhere fast. Somewhat overweight, with a large nose and hair that he wore long but shouldn't have, he was sometimes likened to a troll sitting in the audience of small-time acts. But he saw the potential in the Garage and for some reason he knew what to do with them. Within a few months he was able to take them from the kind of dives where the owner makes the band pay to places where the manager sends them on to bigger gigs. By late '86 they had a contract, by early '87 they had a record on the shelves. It only went to #102 in Billboard, but it was considered the incubator, the shape of things to come. It was generally thought that they were just waiting to explode onto the scene.

In early 1987, the band was approached by three different record companies, which started a small bidding war. That was the good news. The bad news was that they were all small potatoes companies with small budgets. They could get a record made, and get it into the stores. But the band was on their own for PR, and they had to kick it into high gear. If they could.

Their first album, cleverly titled The Garage, had ten songs, five per side. Again, Terry: "Jimmy was always trying to find ways to set the band apart, make the band stand out. Most bands put three or four songs on each side, except of course the Ramones, who had, like, fifty songs on each side. Jimmy wanted the sides to be even, but he also wanted them to be even in length. He wrestled those songs into form so that each side was exactly twenty-three minutes." Why twenty-three? "I don't know! If you ever find him, ask!"

Getting the sides exactly the same length was not just an artsy-fartsy thing, though. "Walkman tape-players had started coming with this switch so you could flip the tape without having to take it out of the player," according to Tim Voorhees. In a rare interview, he said, "Jimmy had this idea that if you got to the end of song ten and flipped that switch and it was exactly at the beginning of song one, that would be really cool and set the band apart." Did it work? "Well, it got mentioned in all the reviews," Tim said. "Whether it ever sold any units, who knows? But it was cool."

The cover of the album was also calculated to catch the eye. All four members of the band, posing in the same stance with their instruments in front of them, dressed in their colored suits with different colored backgrounds. "I wanted it to pop!" Jimmy was remembered as saying. "I wanted the eye to be caught by it and not be able to get away!"

The band even made a video for the song Let It. At about $2,500 it was pretty cheaply made, but they pulled out all the stops they could. Again, Terry: "We all tapped our parents, even Tim. We begged from our uncles, our aunts, our cousins, our dogs, anybody we could beg, borrow or steal some bread from. Man, it was rough. But Jimmy's habit of running us like an army unit sure paid off that time." They used an empty warehouse that Ian's uncle owned in New Jersey. They ran through the song five times, once for shots of the band and once for shots of each member. Even taking into account bathroom breaks, the shoot took less than three hours. Moms, aunts, girlfriends, grandmothers all showed up with food and to help with stuff. Dads and uncles and brothers came out to help with getting stuff set up and torn down. This allowed the band to pay for a decent camera and some effects that helped the band to look really good. MTV played it about once every four hours. Jimmy was pretty pleased.

Although the album just missed the Hot 100, Jimmy was satisfied. He saw bigger things coming.

But he didn't see the problems.

That's all for this installment. Next up, Shlabotniks Rising!

1986, were you cool?

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