I’ve seen my share of scary Fleshtones shows. In the 1990s, the garage rock band didn’t seem to deal very well with an audience that was getting real jobs having babies, and getting to a point where they were no longer able or willing to drink and dance all night. In the 1980s, they packed Jimmy’s, particularly during Mardi Gras, but one night in 1991 or so – Fred Smith from Television was on bass – there were a hundred or so people at Jimmy’s and singer Peter Zaremba was already in a bad mood. The night before, he clubbed his Farfisa organ to death onstage; that night after three or four songs, he said “Let’s disco down with the Fleshtones” and they did a 15 to 20 minute disco number, a couple of more songs and done. According to Smith, they jumped half the setlist.
Even then, the attitude was there. We’re the Fleshtones and if the world doesn’t get our genius, fuck it. At their last appearance at the Howlin’ Wolf – and I think the last appearance for eight years – it was grimmer. 50 or so people there and most of them were there for the opening band, the Woggles. Zaremba was obviously drunk and the band was listless. It looked like a band on its last legs, and in a way, it was. Garage bands spring up on a five to eight year cycle, so if you wanted high-powered R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, you didn’t have to see the Fleshtones. There was another crop. And the number of clubs in which they could draw a crowd diminished yearly, which has to be scary. After all, they’d spent their skill-acquiring, resume-building years getting loaded, seeing the world and playing crazy rock ‘n’ roll, so the jobs that might take them into their retiring years would be hard to find.
Adding to the sadness in the Fleshtones’ case is that their catalogue is in such sad shape. The material that made their reputation on I.R.S. is out of print – including the excellent best-of, Living Legends Series – and the other albums that show them at their best are hard to get (Fleshtones vs. Reality) or self-made (Fleshtones Favorites). The Yep Roc albums all work just fine, but they have written more distinctive songs. The best disc in print is Powerstance, produced by the Hoodoo Gurus’ Dave Faulkner.
To give this litany of how time and the music business can grind the life out of a band, we get to Sunday night at the Saturn, which holds 300 to 400 fewer people than Jimmy’s (now “the Frat House”) did, and the P.A. was a step better than the usual P.A. on a stick that suffices in many area bars, but the Fleshtones sounded and played like the Fleshtones. Drummer Bill Milhizer looked clearly older, and Zaremba’s graying, now looking a bit like your weird uncle when he dances, but without a stage or lighting to speak of, they played like entertaining the crowd in front of them was the most important thing in their lives that night. They spent much of the night in the middle of the crowd, upstairs in the balcony, or jumping off a chair that was inexplicably left onstage. The songs from the Yep Roc albums sounded stronger, and you could see why they cut them, even if something got lost in translation.
The best thing about the night was that they looked like they’d made peace with their place in the world and were having fun. That “We can still rock, we really can!” vibe is one I don’t usually care for, and old punk bands and retired bands tend to have it. Even when they’re right, there’s something so un-rock about that. It was there with the Fleshtones, and it translates to “We’re not going to mack on your girlfriends because we’re so pleased we can still do this.” The show did, though, have solid Fleshtone charms, and if it wasn’t the show they did when I first saw them in 1985 – seven or eight years late for the party in NYC – it was a better facsimile than you might expect it to be.