How Much Cool Is Too Much Cool?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you never know who you’re going to run into on the street.
By Eugene S. Robinson
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
Ever since I was old enough to know about New York City, I wanted to go there. Luckily, Ohio wasn’t that far away. In 1976, I was a punk and dyed my hair blond and wore safety pins in my jackets. In 1977, I sold my 1960 Studebaker Lark for $600 and moved to New York. I had a friend there who said I could stay with him so that’s how I got to the city.
I had bands in Ohio as a kid. I sang and played the drums in the beginning. We’d play at the city park for dances, Battle of the Bands and shit like that. In 1970, we had a band called Heavens to Murgatroyd. We covered almost the entire MC5 Kick Out the Jams album.
When I shouted, “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” into the mic in the city park, they shut us down. Eventually, I got another kid to play the drums so I could be the frontman. I gradually realized how lame it was to sing and play the drums, plus the frontman usually got the most attention from the girls.
NYC had everything I could have wished for in the late ’70s. I was lucky to head up one of the first rockabilly bands on the scene. Buzz and the Flyers played all the clubs: the Mudd Club, Max’s Kansas City, CBGB, Club 57. The fact that I was a Black man playing and singing rockabilly gave us a special place within the scene.
By April ’83 we were No. 3 in the charts with “Boxerbeat,” our first single. From there, we went progressively south in the charts.
At the time there were other Black guys in bands — Neon Leon comes to mind — but I was the only one doing rockabilly. I can’t say if that era gets the proper attention for shifting culture. Recently it’s come more into focus as being iconic on a larger scale. The Museum of Modern Art’s “Club 57” show and Richard Boch’s book The Mudd Club have addressed the importance of the time musically and stylistically.
I met Bernie Rhodes in 1980. We had opened for the Clash at Bond’s in Times Square. Bernie was their manager. He and Malcolm McLaren were more or less the architects of punk rock in London during the mid-’70s. Bernie offered to manage me but thought I should do something new. By then the Stray Cats had made rockabilly popular and I was ready for a change.
I moved to London within two weeks of Bernie making me a real offer. He had a car pick me up at Heathrow Airport and drive me straight to a rehearsal studio in Camden Town. There, I met the band that was playing for Vic Godard as the Subway Sect. From that day we got along and started writing songs. Vic didn’t want to tour, so they were looking for a frontman that wanted to roam. We spent about a year writing and developing an image before Bernie presented us to record companies. We signed with RCA in late 1982.
By April ’83 we were No. 3 in the charts with “Boxerbeat,” our first single. From there, we went progressively south in the charts. Our second single, “Just Got Lucky,” topped out at No. 7 in England but reached the top 30 in the U.S. We toured the world and released one album, Coming On Like Gangbusters, that charted at No. 18 in Britain. We wrote and recorded three albums, but in a classic “too much, too soon” move, we pissed off the record company and they dropped us and slapped an injunction on us so we couldn’t release any of the material they had paid to record.
We drifted around for a while. Finally I just walked away feeling like I had more to offer than being a flash-in-the-pan pop star. I had a brief solo deal, but my heart wasn’t in it any longer. The business had soured me on the whole idea of chasing a hit record.
I had always wanted to be an actor, so I read up on my favorite actors and discovered Method acting. I enrolled at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in London in 1986. I studied there for three years. Eventually I went out, got an agent and started working as an actor in the U.K. I did a few film roles, some theater and TV work. In 1990, I originated the lead role of Nomax in the musical Five Guys Named Moe.
We had much success and ran in the West End for five years. At the end of the run, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue more acting work. I’ve lived in LA since 1995, working as an actor, and I’ve been blessed with the ability to teach acting, which I do full time at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute.
Writing has been a discipline I’ve practiced since I was a kid. Writing lyrics was where I started. Now I concentrate mainly on flash fiction and poetry. I also spend a lot of time focusing on the micro/macro world of rust and any found art that catches my eye as I live and breathe.
I also recently directed a play for the Hollywood Fringe Festival. But today? Working on scenes and trying to keep my passion for, and investigation of, the human condition alive.