Friday, April 8, 2016

Destroy All Monsters – "Nobody Knows" (1979)


Where I come from, nobody knows
Where I’m going, everybody goes

“Nobody Knows” is the 1000th song to be featured on 2 or 3 lines in the six-plus years of its existence.  (Sort of.)

If you know anything about me, you know that I take milestones like that very seriously indeed.  

For example, the 100th song featured on 2 or 3 lines was “House of the Rising Sun,” which I first heard 50-plus years ago, and which still gives me chills when it comes on the radio.  

The 500th song I wrote about on my wildly popular little blog was another of my all-time favorites, “Shake Some Action,” by the Flamin’ Groovies.

I first heard both “Shake Some Action” and “Nobody Knows” on Steve Lorber’s “Mystic Eyes” radio program, which aired Saturday nights on the legendary Washington, DC station, WHFS-FM.  

WHFS bumper sticker
WHFS played a lot of records that no other radio station in the area played, and Lorber played a lot of records that no other WHFS disc jockey played.  

In the summer of 1980, I recorded a couple of dozen “Mystic Eyes” shows.  A few years ago, I found another WHFS fan who agreed to convert my “Mystic Eyes” cassette tapes to MP3 files and burn those files on to CDs for me.  

I vividly remembered some of those songs on those CDs (despite the fact that I hadn’t heard most of them in 30 years) – for example, The Last’s “She Don’t Know Why I’m Here,” which was the song I chose to feature in the very first 2 or 3 lines post I wrote.

But many of the songs on those CDs were utterly unfamiliar to me – including “Nobody Knows,” which Lorber played only once on all the shows that I recorded.

This post is special not only because it features a fabulous song, but because it includes an interview with the singer of that song – Niagara.

Niagara
Kim Gordon, Courtney Love, Cherie Currie, Wendy O. Williams, Ari Up . . . none of those bitches can outdo Niagara when it comes to being a punk femme fatale.  Besides being the ne plus ultra of rock frontwomen, she’s an artist whose works have been exhibited in Japan, the UK, and Australia as well as in New York, Los Angeles, and her hometown – Detroit, Michigan.

Here’s how journalist Brett Callwood described Niagara in a 2009 Detroit Metro Times article:

Niagara is beautiful and striking in person, ageless even – comfortably sitting somewhere between Audrey Hepburn and Patti Smith.  Indeed, alongside Debby Harry, Niagara was the punk poster girl of choice for any hormone-riddled boy who happened upon a Destroy All Monsters record cover or a picture in an old CREEM magazine.  She oozes a kind of '50s-esque, perfect-skinned glamour, but there's this rough edge, as if beneath a seemingly unruffled exterior there's both an innocent little girl and a worldly woman who just skated on this side of total rock 'n' roll tragedy. . . . The mixture of innocence and worldliness gives her demeanor and her art a mildly intimidating quality.


I’m very pleased that Niagara agreed to be interviewed for this very special 2 or 3 lines:   

2or3lines:  Destroy All Monsters included former members of two legendary Detroit groups, the MC5 and the Stooges.  Who are some of your other favorite musicians? 

Niagara:  Alice Cooper, Nico and the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, the Bonzo Dog Band . . . and Gilbert and Sullivan.

2or3lines:  Gilbert and Sullivan?  Really?

Niagara:  I liked many Gilbert and Sullivan operas.  I liked "Mikado" best.   "Iolanthe," too.  I hated "The Pirates of Penzance."

2or3lines:  There are a couple of different stories going around concerning where you got the name “Niagara.”  One is that it was given to you by an older sister because you would cry like a waterfall when she shut you in a dark closet.  

Niagara:  My sister didn't lock me in a closet like you envisioned, but she and our cousin – who were were ten years older – used to torture me in quasi-personal-peril-type threatening behavior.  If I cried, they called me "Niagara.”


2or3lines:  You and several other University of Michigan art students formed Destroy All Monsters in 1974.  Tell us about how the group got started.  

Niagara:  My boyfriend Cary Loren and I wanted to start a band and were considering our options.  On the evening of December 29, 1974, we were about to do a photo shoot (as usual) and go to a party (ditto).  [Fellow art students] Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw came over and we were going to take them with us.  Mike suddenly asked me, "Do you sing?"  They had been thinking the same band thing.  We hadn't really considered them because neither played an instrument.  That became beside the point and we practiced the next night so we could show up a day later at this New Year's Eve party at a comic book convention . . . only two days after we formed the band.  

2or3lines: So the plan was that you would perform at that party – just two days after you got the idea of forming a band?


Niagara:  Later, no one in the band remembered how crazy that time-frame was . . . including me . . . but I have diaries (which I read with much amusement, years later).  So . . . we invaded the New Year's Eve party . . . insisted on opening for some band.  They agreed and asked our band's name.  I still have the list of names that we had conjured up but we didn’t like any of them.  We looked at each other blankly until Jim Shaw answered, “DESTROY ALL MONSTERS.”  And it was good.   

2or3lines:  There’s a 1968 Japanese Godzilla-Mothra monster movie titled "Destroy All Monsters."  Is that where Jim Shaw got the name?

Niagara:  Jim had many comic books in his room, and I saw one titled “Destroy All Monsters” there when we first met.  I didn't know about the Japanese horror movie at that time. 


2or3lines:  Let’s go back to the group’s first performance at that New Year’s Eve party just two days after you decided to form a band.  I’m almost afraid to ask this . . . but how did it go that night?

Niagara:  Almost everyone there hated us . . . which I figured meant we were off to a good start.  I remember that we played "Iron Man" for a noisy while.  Our drum was a coffee can, which we beat with a bone until they kicked us off the stage.

2or3lines:  Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw left Ann Arbor in 1976 to attend the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, and both went on to have considerable success in the art world – a couple of months ago, I happened to read a New Yorker review of a Jim Shaw exhibit at the New Museum in New York City.  What happened to DAM when Kelley and Shaw headed west?

Ron Asheton
Niagara:  The legitimate Destroy All Monsters began in earnest in 1977 when Ron Asheton (lead guitarist for the Stooges) and Mike Davis (bass player for MC5) joined the band.    

[Note:  Michael Davis became the bassist for the MC5 in 1964, and played on Kick Out the Jams and the band's other two original albums.  After the band broke up, Davis was convicted on a narcotics charge and did time in a Kentucky federal prison, where MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer  was also an inmate.  When Davis was released from prison, Ron Asheton invited him to join Destroy All Monsters.  After DAM broke up, Davis – who had been an art student At Wayne State University in Detroit before dropping out to join MC5 – played with a couple of other groups and became a painter.  He died in 2012 when he was 68.]


2or3lines:  I first heard "Nobody Knows" on a Washington, DC radio show in 1980 – the year after it was recorded – but I only rediscovered it a few years ago.  "Nobody Knows" is credited to you and the late Michael Davis, the former MC5 bass player who ended up in DAM.  Tell me how "Nobody Knows" was written.  What did each of you contribute to it?

Niagara:  Ron Asheton and I were sharing an apartment with Mike at the time.  It was high up in a huge attic.  I came home from somewhere and Mike wanted me to write lyrics for his new song.  He played it for me on his guitar and I picked out the chorus from scratchings in my song book.  Then I wrote the rest of the song right then.  It usually doesn't happen automatically . . . but sometimes it does. 

2or3lines:  What do you think are the best songs DAM ever recorded?

Niagara:  “Bored” and “You're Gonna Die.”  Many people are dedicated to "November 22nd, 1963,” which other bands have covered.


2or3lines:  You and some art students who didn’t know how to play an instrument started DAM on a whim – but you ended up fronting an edgy and very influential band that included guys from a couple of the greatest punk/rock groups ever.    

Niagara:  I thought DAM would last a couple years.  Being able to be in a band with Ron Asheton – my favorite guitarist – was the best luck.  And after DAM broke up, we both ended up with Dark Carnival.  So I ended up being in bands with Ron Asheton for about 20 years. 

[Note: Dark Carnival was an aggregation of Detroit musicians that was put together in the mid-1980s by a local promoter who went by the moniker of “Colonel Galaxy.”  The next 2 or 3 lines will feature a Dark Carnival song and more of Niagara’s fabulous art.]

Deniz Tek with Niagara
I asked Deniz Tek, the singer/guitarist/songwriter who brought Detroit-style punk rock to Australia in the 1970s, what he thought of Destroy All Monsters generally and “Nobody Knows” in particular:

I was best friends with Ron [Asheton], and after he started up with Destroy All Monsters, I closely followed their musical path. . . . When they came out with “November 22, 1963” and “Nobody Knows,” everything sort of came together in a perfect storm of DAM greatness. . . . ”Nobody Knows" was a well-crafted tune.  [DAM’s bass player] Michael Davis wrote the music, I think – he used that fabulous F# over D chord (which I later stole).  Niagara's vocals hit a new evocative peak of originality, stretching into new areas – growls, cat meows, everything.  (Loved it when she spat out "You go!").  Mike and Rob [King, DAM’s drummer] had the engine room running at full power.  And Ron's guitar playing was probably his best since [the Stooges’] Fun House album.  I found the whole thing inspiring, as I was just starting my own solo career that same year.  It was great to know that my pals were on the right track and hitting new highs.

Here’s “Nobody Knows”:



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