I first heard of author Joe Bonomo on USA Today's Pop Candy. I picked up his book, Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones and was blown away with it. It was one of the best band biographies I had ever read.
I went to see a Fleshtones show in Cleveland and the band proudly told me that Joe was actually at The Beachland show. I met Joe and had a great time talking about his book and his upcoming work.
I had a chance to catch up with Joe and ask a few questions which he gave some great answers to.
1. Your book, Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, was my introduction to The Fleshtones. Since then I've become a huge fan of the band. Do you get that response from many people? How did you get involved with writing that book?
I’m glad to hear that the book turned you on to the band. Yeah, that’s happened often since the book has come out, I’m happy to say. Lots of people have come up to the band at shows and told them that a friend laid Sweat on them or they picked it up themselves out of curiosity, read it, and decided that they had to go out and see the Fleshtones play.
About a month or so after the book was published, my niece, who lives in Baltimore and who’d never heard of the band, finished reading the book, went online to find out when the band was in town next, found out that they were playing in Baltimore that very night, went to see them and loved them. That’s a typical Sweat/Fleshtonesesque kind of story. Just a couple of days ago I heard from someone who told me that he’d always known about the Fleshtones but didn’t have their albums and had never seen them live.
Now, he’s interested in them because of reading the book. He told me that Sweat is kind of an alternate history of the 1980s, a history that a profiling of R.E.M. or the Go-Go’s or even the Replacements wouldn’t have provided.
That’s one of the reasons why I wrote the book, to dramatize a secret history of the NYC rock & roll scene from 1970s Punk onward, and to show how the Fleshtones—who are the only band that debuted at CBGB in 1976 that’s still around without an inactive year—have always been unjustly ignored.
I got involved with writing Sweat simply by deciding to do it. I’d been a fan of the band since the early-80s, and was always blown away by their shows, and I loved their songs and their humor and their attitude. In the late-90s it hit me what a great story they are and what an interesting, and even necessary, book it might make. I caught them at the Union Bar in Athens, Ohio one night in ’98 or ’99 and pitched the book idea to them. They were very supportive and thankful, thought it was a cool idea—and said “Good luck publishing it!”
They were fully cooperative, and I eventually went on a brief Midwest tour with them in June of 2001, at their invitation. I stayed in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn for five month-long visits from the summers of 2000 to 2004, interviewing, researching, soaking up the Downtown and East Village histories. Then I’d come home to Illinois and write.
It was a very long process, but a lot of fun. I had to take a page from the Fleshtones’ book of perseverance against long odds, that’s for sure. Eventually I found a great editor and publisher.
2. I enjoyed your poetry book, “Installations”. It brought back many powerful moments that I've expierienced in modern art galleries. When you see an exhibit what type of art moves you the most?
Thanks a lot for reading the book. Installations is a series of prose poems about what happens to a spectator who visits a group of art installations during a single, very strange afternoon. Very odd and surreal things begin happening—in the art, and to the spectator—that by the end of the afternoon couldn’t possibly be happening in “real life.” I’ve always been interested in visual art that dislodges me from everyday living, wherein something magical happens.
It doesn’t have to be a surreal or nonrepresentational painting or sculpture to affect this.
The poet Wallace Stevens said that “Reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor,” and to me that’s at the heart of any great work of literary or visual art. That re-presentation of the world to us in a memorable, fresh, dramatic way that briefly removes us from our daily-ness, and returns us to the world a little changed, sometimes subtly, sometimes hugely. I always find myself moved by abstraction, because I think that it’s in abstraction that we can see the world new again.
I love landscapes, but especially a landscape that’s somehow infiltrated by the manmade, the urban, and that in some way reckons with that fact of our new century. I also love art that evokes the past in a memorable way. Some of my favorite painters are Franz Kline, Eric Fischl, Joan Mitchell, Anselm Kiefer, and David Salle.
Stevens also said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that an ordinary object slightly turned becomes a metaphor of that object. He was onto the power of the visual and plastic arts there.
3. We have talked before about your upcoming Jerry Lee Lewis book. How is that coming along? What did you learn about him by writing this book?
The book comes out in August of 2009 with Continuum. It’s part of a new series that looks at the founding artists of rock & roll. Rather than provide career-long overviews, the series presents books that examine a smaller but significant chunk of an artist’s career. I’ve always wanted to write about Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Live” At The Star-Club, one of the most amazing rock & roll records ever cut. He recorded it with the Nashville Teens in April of 1964.
Beatlemania was on the rise, and in America he was a tarred-and-feathered has-been having wed his cousin; his records weren’t selling, he was busting his butt in clubs large and small just make a living. And in the midst of this career and personal downturn he made one of the great rock & roll albums of all time.
Lewis wouldn’t speak to me for the book—no surprise there—so I tracked down members of the Nashville Teens, the producer of the album, folks who were at the Star-Club show, and lots of music and industry people to talk about Lewis and his music. I learned that the stories of Lewis’ tremendous, nearly limitless ego aren’t exaggerated, but also that that very ego was the fuel that he needed and burned during those lean years.
He had to believe in himself and in the currency of the kind of music that he was making, even if that self-confidence bordered on the maniacal. I bookend my discussion of “Live” At The Star-Club with smaller chapters on how he got to that album, and what he had to prove afterward—specifically with his giant career in country music.
Jerry Lee Lewis is a true original, and to be born with such a huge talent and an ego to match was both a blessing and a curse for him. He’s a wonder, and a genuine American legend. As I write in the book, “The Killer is as big as Mount Rushmore, and he’s also as American, as revered, as clichéd, as misunderstood, as corny, and as taken for granted as that monument.”
Jon Langford, of the Waco Brothers, painted a portrait of Jerry Lee for the cover. I’m really excited about that. It’s very cool, and apt.
Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band