Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Moldy Dogs Story • By Jack Partain

It may be hard to believe, but in the early and mid 1970s a small, independent punk rock scene was developing in St Louis, MO. In fact, the city was setup to become a regional hub of underground music. There were two universities in the city, Washington University and Webster College, both of which funneled artists and weirdos into record stores like Akashic Records, where the Stooges were worshipped. And from that group bands like the Dizeazoes, the Back Alley Boys, the Welders, and the Moldy Dogs would form, noisily incubating themselves in garages, dorm rooms, and basements throughout the city, pounding out and working through the Stooges-inspired blurt that would come to be known as punk rock. In addition there was a friendly weekly radio show, Rock It!, hosted by Dave "The Rave" Thomas, who blasted punk rock and new wave music every Friday night from KWUR studios at Washington University. In short, everything was there—kids with funny haircuts and guitars and places to hang out—everything except places to play.

And those places simply didn't exist. At least not in the traditional sense. Though bands like the Dizeazoes, a freaky cover band that specialized in wild versions of songs by the Troggs, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Balloon Farm, were able to scrape together a few modest appearances at house parties, the early St Louis punk bands were, for the most part, too weird to fit in with the Top 40 style bands that dominated the rock clubs, and too electric to hang with the folk crowd.

One band that was able to overcome these difficulties was the Moldy Dogs, a proto-punk duo made up of Wolf Roxon and Paul Major, who had formed in 1972. The Moldies were one of the only bands able to get regular gigs at local bars and restaurants in St Louis, a feat accomplished "with a great deal of difficulty," laughs Roxon, who worked tirelessly trying to find places for the band to play. Eventually, because of a mixture of hard work, luck, and good old fashioned persistence, the band was lucky enough to find two homes, local spots the Pastrami Joynt and The Grove.
The Acadian Grove ('The Grove') was a sandwich shop located in the Webster Groves area of St Louis, across the street from Akashic Records. Roxon had approached the owners of The Grove about the possibility of his band playing there during his regular rounds.
"I was always the band member who scored the gigs in the early period," says Roxon. "This was primarily because I had the desire and gumption to walk into any bar or eatery and inquire if they were interested in booking live music. I had approached the owners of The Grove about letting us play and they agreed without an audition. This was very rare but, as the restaurant was relatively new, they may have never considered live music and figured there was nothing to lose. Boy, were they brave."

At the time the Moldy Dogs were performing as a full band but that didn't last long. After getting the job at The Grove, which Roxon had wisely set to debut a month later, band members who were "lackadaisical" about rehearsal gradually disappeared, "in typical Moldy Dogs fashion", laughs Roxon. Eventually only Roxon and Major were left and, after rehearsing six nights a week for a month, they developed four sets worth of material and debuted at The Grove as a duo. But, again, this incarnation was short lived. Very quickly the band would attract fans, some of whom would go on to join the band on stage.

"We were not always a duo at The Grove," says Roxon. "Jimmy, a fellow student from Webster College, would sit in on harmonica. He played one hell of a blues harp. We also met a student named Willie who filled in on bass. Willie originally played with a female folk singer who performed during our breaks. But he seemed to enjoy our songs more, so we considered ourselves fortunate that he would join us. Willie was such an amazing musician that we never had to show him a chord progression of a song or even tell him the key in which we were playing. He seemed to have a sixth-sense when it came to music and knew where the song was going without any coaching."

Major also remembers Willie and Jimmy. He recalls that Willie had jammed with the duo "like we'd been doing it together for years". And Jimmy? Well, that's another story.

"[I] recall Jimmy having that deep down feeling too," says Major. "One of those dudes with a biker vibe. He had sold us some impotent magic mushrooms and we were bummed so a few days later he laid a new batch on us and they were amazing. We took them later that night and as we were in a frenzied, peaking situation he appeared saying 'Get the full trip this time?' like a voice from another dimension."

Roxon was not present at this event.

"Sorry I wasn't there," says Roxon nowadays. "Paul had all the fun."

But all of the fun wasn't had outside of The Grove. In fact there were a few interesting incidents which occurred inside. Roxon remembers a gig in which he and Major performed songs by the Velvet Undergound and the Rolling Stones for a crowd of "little old ladies with tinted blue hair and pant suits" which resulted in the owner of the venue, instead of firing the band, insisting that the band add "Venus in Furs" to their repertoire. And, of course, there was the inevitable appearance of friends, like the time Jon Ashline and Bruce Cole, who made up the legendary noise-garage duo The Screaming Mee-Mee's, paid a visit.

"Jon and Bruce came by one night and became very drunk," says Roxon. "[They were] singing along with us and freaking out the other patrons. They were yelling slurs at us and we gave it right back. The waitress accused us of insulting the customers and really caused a commotion. Then we got in a fight with the waitress. Surprisingly, the owners backed us up, but, very wisely, refused to serve any more alcohol.

And then there was the incident with the little girl.

"In those days, I wore wraparound sunglasses," says Roxon. "During one performance, a little girl walked up to the stage between songs and asked for my autograph. All the patrons at the restaurant thought it was so cute and there was a hushed silence as everyone watched and listened. When I gave her back the signed paper she immediately read what I had written and looked very puzzled. She said 'What's your name?' I told her. 'Oh,' she said sadly, 'I thought you were Jose Feliciano.' Of course, I couldn't hold a candle to Jose and everybody screamed with laughter.

"By far, our most memorable performance was at the Mayfest," Roxon continues. "The streets were crowded and the owners requested we play outside to attract customers. We gladly did and they rewarded us with pitchers of beer. This was one of the hottest days in May on record and the sun beat on our heads and guitars so intensely that I thought the glue on my acoustic was going to soften enough to pop it apart. We were soon joined by Willie and Jimmy. We probably gave our best performance ever, up to that point of our lives. I just remember that sun roasting my brain, the beer slurring my speech like a true blues scrapper, Jimmy wailing, and the notes burning on Paul's fretboard."

But, as impromptu as this version of the Moldy Dogs had formed, it dissolved. Both Jimmy and Willie simply disappeared. Roxon says that the two were never actual members of the band, just musicians who "enjoyed the improvisation and jamming" on which the Moldies thrived at the time.

While at The Grove, the Moldies continued to scour St Louis for places to play. They auditioned at large clubs and family style restaurants with names like "The Ground Round, Lums, and Sirloin this and that", according to Roxon, with very little success.

"Truthfully, we failed a lot more than we succeeded," says Roxon. "In the early days, when we had a full band, we were 100% unsuccessful. For example, we auditioned for Marcos Imbibery, a new bar in University City. I knew Marco from Webster College. The bar catered to a country and bluegrass crowd. We looked a bit glam, our singer appeared to be a lounge performer (he eventually became a Barbara Streisand imitator) and our bassist had a homemade amp housed on a metal tv tray that we carried with great caution. It was a waste of time. We were finished before we even started. The club manager obviously told Marco that we couldn't be more wrong for this bar."

The band even had a gig at Duff's, which was at the time, one of the premier clubs in St Louis.

"Duff's was located in the Euclid Ave scene which offered a variety of music," says Roxon. "The manager let us play early on a weeknight. There was just a scattering of customers this early in the evening, but we had a favorable response. The manager understood our musical slant, and indicated we were capable of playing at his club, but he seemed to be recommending a little 'musical tweaking' of our sound. Had we auditioned with Willie and Jimmy, and played our blues repertoire, we probably would have landed the gig."

But there were things working against the band other than their lack of "tweaking" when it came to acquiring gigs.

"As a full group, it was harder to find jobs, primarily because the addition of a drummer meant the smaller restaurants and bars were off limits due to excessive volume," Roxon continues. "At the same time, the larger bars and clubs would never consider a band that played our repertoire. Of course, it was a waste of time trying to join the Musician's Union, which was a necessity for playing at some venues. Booking agents tended to steer clear of bands that were not union members. For us, it was easier getting booked as a duo because we were relatively quiet and willing to accept the gigs that no one else wanted."

Despite these hardships, the band was lucky enough to land a regular gig at the Pastrami Joynt, where they would enjoy some of their greatest success, shortly after the gigs at The Grove dried up.

The Joynt, as it was known by the band and their followers, was a family restaurant located in the University City area of St Louis. The band acquired a regular weekend gig despite the fact that they didn't fit in with the Top 40 theme of the restaurant.

"Like all family style eateries in the Midwest, the entertainment was wholesome," says Roxon. "Top 40 hits were performed by clean cut performers who were very predictable. Songs sounded very much like the original recordings. To arrange your own version of a tune was pretty much unheard of in this scene."

But the Moldies were able to land the gig through a strange combination of persistance, luck, and an uncanny ability to understand their audience. Much like the incident at The Grove where the duo inexplicably impressed a crowd of little old ladies, the Moldies once won over a crowd of hostile truckers.

"There were some trucker types sitting at a table right in front of the stage," says Roxon. "They looked annoyed and began to mumble to each other under their breath while we set up our gear. So Paul and I quickly broke into 'Spider and the Fly', a Rolling Stones classic with humorous verses to which every man can relate. They really got into the lyrics and Paul launched into one of his gutsy blues leads that turned everyone's heads and caught their attention. The last verse, which we repeated, was full of accents: "She was common / Flirty /She looked/ About thirty " with the chord accents falling hard on the words that drove the song home. You could see their eyes open wider and their head bob to the rhythm. When we finished and went about packing our gear, the Truckers huddled around us and asked about the song—who recorded it, when, and so forth. This impressed the restaurant manger."

At the time Roxon and Major were still experimenting with their sound, which Major describes as "an electric fuzz and acoustic guitar". During performances they played both originals and covers, but shied away from Top-40 hits of the day, opting instead to play lost tracks from the 1950s and '60s. In addition the duo experimented with their stage show. Their wardrobe consisted of "Hawaiian shirts, Salvation Army uniforms, Boy Scout shirts, straight-legged black jeans, leopard skin or leather", all of which were considered bizarre by mid-70s St Louis standards. Roxon even created a costume consisting of an old pair of pajamas decorated with scrapped light switches and electrical sockets salvaged from an electricians visit to his apartment.

"It actually backfired on stage since it scratched up my guitar," he laughs. "So they were gradually removed."

In addition, the duo were strongly influenced by comedy and the parody music of the 1960s and 70s. Prior to forming the Moldy Dogs, Roxon had formed a basement freakout band with Jon Ashline called Wolfgang & the Noble Oval, and both members cite Dickie Goodman as a major influence. Later, both Roxon and Major found inspiration in the work of PDQ Bach, who became famous for interjecting classical music with modern pop music.

"We played some instrumentals," says Roxon. "One being 'Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen' by the Andrews Sisters. Though the song was in minor, we switched back in forth with major or Paul would inject the 'Paint It Black' riff in part of the verse. It served as a 'musical goose' which would leave the senior listeners baffled. I also bought a portable xylophone and we worked out an arrangement of 'Springtime for Hitler'—instrumentally, of course. We always did our heartbreaking version of the Gilligan's Island theme or connect songs in a medley that didn't match. It usually worked on a number of levels, but mostly as musical kitsch for those listening."

Roxon and Major both remember this time as a high point for the band.

"The creativity level was high in the band [at this time]," says Major. "Wolf and I were writing a deluge of songs then... folk, punk, psychedelic, all kinds of moves."

"We never compromised our vision," continues Roxon. "Our main goal was to write and sound differently than any other band, yet remain within the musical language of the rock and roll genre. Our live act and venues may sound tame when compared to later punk acts and clubs, but, by the standards of the time and the environment in which we performed, we were very musically subversive and, somehow, got away with murder."

And all of this was done in an atmosphere that was hardly ideal. The Moldies' equipment was "substandard by anyone's definition", says Roxon. Their amps were shoddy and beat up. A pole lamp substituted for a microphone stand, and their PA columns were very old and fragile. And getting to the gigs wasn't exactly easy.

"We moved our decrepit equipment in my VW bug," recalls Roxon. "All the seats were removed and we stacked the guitars, amps, pa columns, props, etc, from the floor to within a foot or so of the inside roof. Paul would climb into this space and lie spread-eagle in order to hold everything in place. I sat on an amp and drove. A sudden stop would have ended our careers. Fortunately, we never had to worry about this... my brakes didn't work."

And once they arrived, the stage itself was another story.

"It barely fit two people and it wobbled at the slightest energy released such as keeping time with your foot or smashing down hard on your guitar strings," says Roxon. "The vibrations from the wobbling stage would shake the mic stand, be picked up on the microphone, and the PA columns would waver and collapse on us, looking like the end of a Steve Reeves' Hercules movie."

But the band was able to attract a small, dedicated, following, acoording to Paul Major.

"We quickly picked up a following of local stoner teens and other people in town who were into the kinda sound we were," says Major. "[But] the place didn't dig the horde of barefoot potted pre-slackers who didn't buy much pizza..."

And, as a result, the band was kept on a tight leash.

"We played for as much as five hours, that's 55 minutes on stage and a five minute break," says Roxon. "We did get free beer, but it was only available during our five minute break. We were not allowed to send a girlfriend over to the counter to retrieve a beer during our set. For all this, and playing 65-80 songs a night, we were paid between $10 and $20—as a group, not each. Most of the time we made under $15—just enough for a weekly change of guitar strings and maybe a hamburger."

Despite all of this the band was able to find a temporary home at the Pastrami Joynt. The owner recognized and appreciated their hard work and even liked them. In addition, the clientele, which over time included both families dining out and college students looking for new music, appreciated the music they played.

"Mixed with the older, familiar material came some edgier songs from the Stooges, Velvet Underground, or our originals," says Roxon. "The patrons tolerated these musical explorations probably because with just one acoustic and one electric guitar and maybe a harmonica, we were still listenable. Eventually a crowd began hanging out who requested these latter songs."

Those that would request the songs by the Velvets and the Stooges were part of a group that would go on to form the nucleus of the early St Louis punk scene. Paul "Dirt" Wheeler, who had co-founded the Dizeazoes, was one of the bands' earliest fans and would go on to join the group as a bassist and be influential in arranging their performance at the Punk Out Party in Dennis Toler's apartment complex. From there the band would meet The Welders, the first all female punk rock band in St Louis, and Joey Schadler, who would record their first demo. The demo would make its way around town and catch the ear of David Thomas, who hosted the Rock It! show on KWUR. Thomas was one of the most influential individuals in the early development of punk rock in St Louis. In addition to his weekly radio show, Roxon recalls that Thomas "had a knack for recognizing which bands would become successful" and remembers one night when he received a call from Thomas about a band playing in downtown St Louis.

"One night Dave called us and said this band from Australia was playing at a club and we might like them because the guitarist's older brother had been in the Easybeats who had recorded one of our favorite songs, 'Friday on My Mind,'" says Roxon. "So we all piled in my VW and went to the show. Only about ten people were there, and our carload made up the bulk of the audience. Of course, the band was AC/DC and they were obviously completely unknown at this point."

From there the whole scene seemed to snowball into a big bang of activity. Several bands formed and the First St Louis Punk Rock Fest occurred in December of 1976. After that the Moldy Dogs would leave town for Los Angeles, later return for a brief time, and then disappear into the miasma of the punk scene crystallizing around New York City in the late 1970s. Roxon and Major would go on to play in The Tears together in New York and Roxon would form the Metros and Walkie Talkie and today lives in Vermont. Paul Major, under the pseudonym Top Dollar currently heads New York's critical darlings Endless Boogie.

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