The Phantom Five at CBGBs 1986
(L-R) Chris Grogan, Don Buchanan, Bill Luther, (out of frame… me)
The night Woody quit the band.
(Picture by Andy Peters)
Listen – You’re Gonna Miss Me – MP3
I hope everyone had a great weekend.
I’m going to start the week off with something a little serious (in all senses of the word).
A little over a month ago, my younger brother Chris turned 40, and at his party we had a reunion of the band we (along with our brother Vince, and our buddy Bill) started over 20 years ago.
The Phantom Five was together for a little under four years. Starting out of jam sessions in our parent’s garage (no more appropriate place for a garage band) we ended up recording – in that same garage – and releasing a four-song EP in 1986, and then recording (but not releasing for a variety of reasons) another EP the following year. We broke up in 1988, having had enough of the kinds of arguments and artistic clashes that can only happen in a band containing three brothers.
Over those four years – aside from the three Grogan boys – there were three other members of the band.
There was our original rhythm guitar player (and co-founder) Bill Luther, who would go on to join the Tea Club (a band that included in it’s ranks two future members of the Insomniacs), and in the later half of the bands “career” (after we played for a time as a trio) there was guitarist John ‘Bluesman’ Rahmer, who stayed with us until the bitter end, and was there with us when we reunited.
During the first year of our existence, a time when we would play our first gigs, there was for a brief time another member of the band, bassist Don Buchanan.
During an episode so shameful that thinking of it still gives me pause, we pushed my 15 year old brother (our original bassist) out of the band so that we might bring someone into the ranks “old enough” to play bars/clubs and the like (conveniently ignoring the fact that my brother Chris wasn’t old enough to do so either). Aside from the fact that this was a supremely uncool thing for one brother to do to another, in the long run the replacement we brought in didn’t work out (in either party), and Vincent came back into the fold.
That replacement, Don (known to most everyone by his nickname ‘Woody’) was a long time (since childhood) friend of Bill’s and at first glance (and second, and third) a real rock and roller. His tastes ran more to the (70s) punk side of things, but for a while we made the best of the fact that we were all –in other ways – kindred spirits, and the fact that we had a lot of fun hanging out together. As Woody’s tenure in the band didn’t last all that long, it was in that capacity – as a ‘running buddy’ of a kind – that we really got to know him (my brother Vince going on to be good friends with him).
That was in 1985.
Last week I got a message from Bill, that Woody had taken his own life a few days before.
I remember the first time I ever met Woody – months before he joined the band – when he shared a ride with us into the city to go see some band or other at the Dive on 23rd St. We were all much younger then (I was the oldest of our group at 23, Woody and Bill were both 19 and Chris was 17) and most of our free time, not spent playing, or as Bill, his pal Rudi* and myself did putting together fanzines, was devoted to piling into an available car, going to see bands and hanging out. That we did so frequently almost goes without saying.
Though I can’t say with complete certainty – it seems likely that I was at the wheel that night, piloting my 1972 Plymouth Satellite station wagon – aka the ‘Boss Hoss’ – with no fewer than five, and maybe as many as eight passengers.
My first impression of Woody, was that he was a lot of fun; as up for a party as any of us and with a smart, biting sense of humor. This first impression was borne out over the next few years.
As I mentioned before, Woody’s time in the band was fairly brief, but thanks to the web of friendship, we spent a lot of years hanging out, going to the same parties, and sometimes going to see the same bands (as well as going to see Woody play when he did a stint with one of the best bands in New Jersey, the Mad Daddys).
However, as these things go – more than 20 years having gone by since we first met – lives having undergone serious change, I hadn’t seen much of Woody recently. If memory serves the last time we saw each other was probably close to five years ago, after I was married but before either of my sons came along. Woody had met a new girl – who he eventually married – and seemed, after the same species of prolonged adolescence (aka the rock’n’roll life) that we had all lived to varying degrees, to have gotten his life onto a somewhat more stable track.
Predictably, Woody’s whereabouts was part of the conversation at the aforementioned party, and though none of us had been in close touch, the word was that he was still happily married. When I opened the message from Bill – who had remained close with Woody – and read the bad news, I was shaken. There was the initial shock in finding out that someone relatively young (in his very early 40’s) had taken his own life, in which for a brief moment I felt a pang related to my own mortality, followed immediately by the realization that I had to pass this unfortunate information on to my brother Vince, who as I said before had been closer to Don than either Chris or myself. Once that was accomplished, I spent the remaining hours of the work day with memories of the good times we had all had lo those many years ago.
I was reprocessing stories that had gone through my mind at the party/reunion, but this time with a bittersweet edge. Though I knew Don we were never really close. I certainly never knew him like Bill or Vince, but we spent enough time around each other,and around the same people that memories of him were definitely woven firmly into the fabric of my life.
Oddly enough, I had digi-ma-tized the 13th Floor Elevators 45 you’re downloading today months ago, long before any of this came to pass. I was holding it aside because I was waiting until I could approach it with the profundity I felt it deserved.
The short story is that since those days in the mid-80’s, when my friends and I were consuming the sounds of the 60’s so voraciously, the Elevators, like the Velvet Underground became the musical equivalent of those amino acids that make up the building blocks of life. They were part of a foundation on which all other sounds were reflected/connected and on which we built our larger musical tastes.
Our musical world views were composed of a series of tangents where we might bounce from garage fuzz, to soul, to psychedelia to orchestral pop, to blues and back again, moving from vibe to vibe and finding the connective tissue between these sounds with every new record.
‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ was so much more than just another 45. It was the very essence of rock music taken to the edge, filled with manic energy and delivered with the fervor of a fundamentalist preacher. It was the kind of sound that you could wrap yourselves in and really feel. I remember going to party after seeing a gig at Maxwells in Hoboken, in a basement apartment a few blocks away. There, my brothers, and Bob Strete (the bassist from Mod Fun) huddled around the refrigerator, surreptitiously filling our overcoat pockets with purloined beers, and, spurred on by someone using a half empty bottle like the Elevators jug, sang, at the top of our lungs, a capella, a ragged but right version of ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’.
Though the song was never a firm part of the Phantom Five set list, we had – on occasion – worked it into freewheeling medleys, and when we gathered last month, all 20+ years older than when we first played together we again – on the spur of the moment – surrounded by our wives and children, ripped into ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ like the maniacs we were (or aspired to be) back in the day.
It makes me sad that we never got the opportunity to have a “full” band reunion – especially now that Woody is gone – but we weren’t the Band, and my brothers 40th birthday party wasn’t the Last Waltz. I can’t imagine that there are too many people – that weren’t there in person – that had much interest in seeing the Phantom Five reunite.
After we played, I have to admit that I (very) briefly allowed fever dreams of playing the drums again to dance through my head. Then I remembered that no matter how much fun I had just had, it had been more than 15 years since I played the drums on a regular basis, and that these days, I prefer to spend my time banging on a laptop keyboard. The things I produce that way are much more satisfying to me, and at least somewhat more coherent and of lasting value to others.
That said, these two events have been a real study in stark contrast, reliving the past sweetly, and month later being forced to do so again in a sad way.
It’s no mistake that one of the greatest works of surrealism was entitled ‘The Persistence of Memory’.
*Who sadly was lost in a similar way back in 1986