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Protopunk: How New York changed music — again

Peter Rossi in hat.

Peter Rossi today.

Peter Rossi is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker — but in the ‘70s, under the name Peter Ashley, he played guitar in Street Punk, one of the forgotten stalwarts of the New York music scene that rose alongside the New York Dolls and presaged the Ramones.

Now Rossi is combining his professional passions with a film project aimed at documenting and celebrating the bands, street artists and poets of New York’s protopunk scene. (The working title is Protopunk.) Rossi describes the style — which is in pre-production through his company Tantamount Productions — as “cinéma vérité meets ‘The Last Waltz,’ and he’s networking with Hollywood and investors to raise the money to bring the project to a screen near you. (As actor and veteran New York musician Fenton Lawless remarked in a Facebook discussion, the project is “what Vinyl promised but failed sooo miserably. … It needed a Peter Rossi.”)

"PROTOPUNK" – The Movement that rocked the world and the artists that inspired Punk Rock! from Sean Stanek on Vimeo.

The Rogues on stage

Peter Rossi with The Rogues at Copperfield’s, Greenwich Village.

While many bands that powered the scene have expressed excitement about gathering for a live event, Rossi emphasizes that he’s not looking to document a reunion that simply retreads the participants’ back catalogs. “This is about catching up with the artists who still have the fire in their souls,” he says.

Rossi is rallying some of the top acts of the era to top the bill again and demonstrate the chemistry that made New York a catalyst for a new generation of music.

In addition the chart-toppers, the event will provide an opportunity to hear other, worthy bands that played Coventry, Mercer Arts Center and Max’s Kansas City, including the Magic Tramps, the Harlots of 42nd Street and Teenage Lust (all of whom we’ve profiled here).

And the rich history of the scene extends beyond Patti Smith, the Dolls, KISS and other New York legends to include a wealth of bands that influenced them:

1. Street Punk. Early adopters of the “punk” sobriquet, Street Punk — which included Rossi, vocalist Jon Montgomery, guitarist Nicky Martin, pianist Bobby Blaine, bassist Donny Nossov and drummer Charlie Davidman — were regulars at all the coolest joints in town. “We were street kids,” Rossi says, “but we were better musicians than the next generation. We still had that street grit, but we could play — we studied music.” They were favorites of KISS, with whom they gigged and who bought rights to Street Punk’s “Master of Flash.” (According to Rossi, Street Punk’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Appetite” was the basis for KISS’ “Rock and Roll All Nite.”) After Street Punk, Rossi would go on to play in the Rogues with Street Punk colleague Nicky Martin.

2. The Miamis. “The Miamis may have been the first punk band in the sense of what the package of what punk was,” Rossi says. “They were doing two-minute songs before the Ramones.” Led by brothers Tom and James Wynbrandt, the Miamis were staples on New York stages throughout the mid-’70s, sharing bills with Blondie, Talking Heads, the Ramones, Television and the New York Dolls. (Check out the Miamis’ retrospective 2016 CD: “We Deliver: The Lost Band of the CBGB Era (1974-1979).”)

3. The Planets. Speaking of CBGB pioneers, Binky Philips‘ band was among the first bands to play at that legendary club. In his book My Life in the Ghost of Planets: The Story of a CBGB Almost-WasBinky recalls the Planets’ first encounter with CBGB: “So, now, it was early December, 1974. The Planets had been thrown out of Coventry, the only club that would book us (one of the bouncers took offense when I tried to clock him with a mic stand in front of the whole audience). We basically had nowhere to perform. Now what? … Then, one day, it suddenly occurred to me that CBGB was the joint where those two bands, advertising with those postage-stamp-sized ads in the Clubs section of the Village Voice, were performing regularly: Television. The Ramones. CBGB. Oh, right!”

4. The Werewolves. “The Werewolves came out of Texas,” Rossi recalls. “They weren’t that big on the scene, but they were really good. When they landed, they came right in at the top of the pack.” The band featured vocalist/guitarist Seab Meador (an underground legend in Texas) and bassist Jimmie Randall, both veterans of Dallas band the Gentlemen. Another historical note: The Werewolves were managed by Andrew Loog Oldham of Rolling Stones fame.

3. Queen Elizabeth/Wayne County and the Backstreet Boys. Jayne County is a rock-‘n’-roll legend and transgender pioneer. As Wayne County, she played in a variety of New York bands — starting with Queen Elizabeth, which featured future Miamis Tom and James Wynbrandt. No audio or video of Queen Elizabeth is available online (yet). While we wait for it to drop, check out this single from Jayne’s next band, Wayne County and the Backstreet Boys, which also featured drummer Marc Bell (soon to be known as Marky Ramone). The lyrics of “Max’s Kansas City” comprise a who’s who of New York bands of the era … And suggest some more of the acts Peter Rossi hopes to bring to the big screen.

“It was a bunch of people having a lot of fun,” Rossi says. “A lot of fun being created. It was also about what was going on around it — a very desolate, gray, dark period in New York, from blackouts to Berkowitz.”

Rothenberg vs. Rothenberg!

Why did another Rothenberg family have to name their son “Matthew,” and why, oh why did this younger, slimmer model have to grow up to to become a social-media specialist?

I’m no slacker on the Web, and (I’m afraid) I do have a few years on my counterpart — but he’s undeniably doing a better job of cultivating his personal online findability.

In fact, this blog is my accidental beachhead when it comes to keeping the mid-’60s model of “Matthew Rothenberg” near the top of Google … While I’m putting a lot more care and feeding into my day job at TheLadders, my Facebook profile and the Che Underground blog, this little online homing beacon just keeps glowing despite my benign neglect.

So until I can induce the other Matthew Rothenberg to change his name to “Martin” or get a job building furniture or herding caribou somewhere remote and offline, here’s a good spot to find me!

Empty nesting

As I mentioned before, I’m too old and too busy to maintain a proper blog. Instead, I figure these little postings are the electronic equivalent of those family newsletters folks used to send around in the envelope-and-stamp days. “Hey! We’re all alive and well out here, and doing things that you’re only marginally interested in!”

In that spirit, everybody had a nice couple of weeks when the kids decamped (haw, haw!) to Camp Eagle Island up in the Adironacks. They swam and sang and cleaned latrines, while Nancy and I caught up on some New York tourism, the first week in the company of Nancy’s lovely sister Sue. We saw “Avenue Q,” Nancy and Sue visited art galleries in Chelsea and Brooklyn, and we caught up on a variety of museums and restaurants.

Now we’re systematically checking off the remaining items on Lily’s summer to-do list. Yesterday, we milled around Rockefeller Center and Times Square (Nintendo Center, Toys ‘R’ Us, Red Lobster, Macy’s); today, we got some dim sum. If we can fit in a water park in the next couple weeks, we’re cooking with gas!

Wolverines Are Go

In Ann Arbor Monday and Tuesday, visiting the fine folks at Car and Driver. executive editor Mike Dushane guided my itinerary with the panache he showed when guiding our recent business trip to Paris; his recommendation of the Bell Tower put me right beside the charming U of M campus in a hotel with all the amenities of a particularly agreeable visit to grandma’s. The weather’s great, the people are delightful, and I’m grooving on our upcoming vacation out this way in July!

Vote for Nancy!

My talented spouse Nancy Tobin has many exciting events lined up in the next month or two, including a spot in the finals of Modern Postcard’s Spotlight Awards. (Vote early and often!)

Here are some other highlights:

Launch Party for Viz Magazine
Features Collaboration with Poet Jerome Rothenberg
June 2, 6:00 p.m.
Bowery Poetry Club
308 Bowery, north of Houston
Launch party and readings for Viz magazine featuring collaboration with poet Jerome Rothenberg.

South Orange/Maplewood Studio Tours
June 3, 2007 11AM-5PM
16 Euclid Avenue
Maplewood, NJ
Nancy’s studio!

“What’s New?” Studio Montclair’s Summer Salon
June 1-30
Montclair Public Library
Reception June 7, 6-9PM
Stop by the Montclair Public Library to see work by local artists, including two pieces by Nancy.

A Celebration of Spring
May 26-August 3
Seton Hall Law School Gallery
One Newark Center
Newark, NJ 07102
Visit the beautiful gallery at Seton Hall Law School, where Nancy has five paintings on display.

Nancy’s mailing list here!

Small world!

Last week we pulled the kids out of school and headed south for four days at Disney World and three on the Disney cruise ship, with stops at Nassau, Bahamas, and Disney’s own Castaway Cay.

Lucky for our kids, Nancy and I are both heavily invested in the Disney Gestalt: Nancy is convinced that much of her adult aesthetic was forged in the “Small World” crucible, and I always come back from a Disney vacation with new energy for whatever organizational challenges I need to tame. From the plane to Orlando until the return to Newark, we enjoyed a weeklong trust fall … although landing back in workday Manhattan was a bit rocky. Whistle while you work!