As a kid growing up in the '80s, the Fleshtones were one of many great bands whose energy and verve caught our attention. They, like I.R.S. label-mates R.E.M. and Wall of Voodoo, seemed to have arrived on the music scene fully-formed, with a confidence and aura that belied their newcomer status. While those bands both went on to varying degrees of mainstream commercial success, the Fleshtones' tenure at I.R.S. (for which they are most remembered) comprises but a fraction of a career that spans five decades. Imagine our joyous surprise when we stumbled upon Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band in a local bookstore and not only fell in love with the band all over again, but also with the writing of author Joe Bonomo, who was gracious enough to say yes to our interview request.
Q: Since first discovering Sweat, we've have been voraciously consuming as much of your previous work as possible. How did you come to write a book about the Fleshtones?
Thanks, I’m grateful. I’d been seeing Fleshtones shows since 1983, and sometime in the late 1990s it dawned on me what a great rock and roll story they are. They’re the only band that debuted at CBGB's in the mid-1970s without a single inactive year, and they’ve maintained incredible live shows and have released albums for decades without burning out. I thought that it was such a cool, and unique, story about perseverance against enormous odds, about living as an invisible cult band for decades, and about having to redefine what “success” means. In 1998 or ’99, I caught the band in Athens, Ohio and pitched the book idea to them. They said, “Sure, yeah, great, good luck, you’ll need it!”— or words to that effect. I just hit the ground running, not really knowing what I was doing.
Q: How long did it take to write the book, including the interviews?
I started writing in 2000, the year that I took the first of four trips to New York City to live for month-long stretches. I hung out with the guys, all of whom were living in Brooklyn at the time, did lots of interviews with them and with ex-members, associates, and industry folk, researched and soaked up Lower East Side rock and roll history, and climbed in a van for a five-city tour with the band in 2001. I finished the book in 2006. I worked mostly in the summers, being an academic, but nibbled at it all year, every year, really. If I had known how big and sprawling the book was going to get — and how many dozens of rejections I was going to have to stomach from editors and agents — I might have had major reservations when I started. Luckily I didn’t, and just dug in, though it was lonely and tough and expensive at times. I should have known that writing a book about a cult rock and roll band that’s been around since the Carter administration was gonna be a long haul.
Q: Did your opinion of the band and/or their music change at all over the course of researching and writing the book?
When you hang out with anyone over a long period of time he’ll reveal himself as a round character — to borrow from novelist E.M. Forster — that is, as a complex individual with plenty of contradictions, some unpleasant. A lot of what I learned about the guys I was prepared for, some I wasn’t. My respect for them as rock and rollers only grew as I observed and wrote about them in the context of pop history, a history from which they were continually threatened to be erased. These guys are rock and roll heroes to me, for fighting the fight against great odds, for believing in the value of fun as a kind of tonic. I also grew to better understand and appreciate their songs, especially their material from the last fifteen or so years when they started grappling as men with life’s sometimes diminishing returns. They’re not simply a “party band.”
Q: What's your favorite Fleshtones story?
Oh, there are too many to name just one: The time they ended a show on the coast of Italy by swimming away. Another time, they ended a gig by climbing into a cab out front of the bar — and once a bus — and driving away into the night, still playing their wireless gear. In Sweat I mention a time in the 1990's when they showed up to a club and only the owner and his wife were there. The band proceeded to play for three hours.
Q: You also recently wrote the latest addition to the 33 1/3 book series on AC/DC's Highway To Hell. How did you approach writing a 33 1/3 book and how did it differ from your previous projects?
It was a very different process because in the 33 1/3 book I focused on one album, obviously. With Sweat I was writing about three decades and dozens of records. My book on Jerry Lee Lewis (Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found) began as a rejected 33 1/3 pitch about Lewis’s Live! At The Star-Club album. David Barker, the series editor, asked me if I was interested in expanding the pitch into a larger book that looked at the Killer’s career while focusing on the circumstances of the Star-Club recording. So, with that book, and with Highway to Hell, I wrote bookend chapters but kept the focus on a specific album in each case.
The other main difference is that I had no access to Lewis or to the guys in AC/DC, and I didn’t expect any. They’re so big and iconic, they don’t need to talk. While writing Sweat I’d been crashing with the Fleshtones on floors in houses and motels and drinking with them in bars and their homes. So the level of intimacy with my subjects was much different. But that was OK for both the Lewis and 33 1/3 books. I was listening to the music and trying to make sense of it personally and in a the larger context of culture and history.
I supplanted interviews with Lewis and the Young brothers with interviews with, in the case of the former, musicians and fans who were at the Star-Club show, Siggi Loch, the producer of the album, musicians who worked with Lewis, and music critics and contemporary musicians, and in the case of the latter, with critics and musicians and a handful of kids with whom I graduated from school as a young teenager when Highway to Hell came out. I asked them why that album mattered to them then and if it matters to them now.
I had a lot of fun writing both of those books. Any chance you have to blast “Mean Woman Blues” or “Girls Got Rhythm” all day and write about it is pretty great.
Q: So, is it safe to presume that you prefer the Bon Scott-era AC/DC to the Brian Johnson-era?
Oh yeah, without a doubt. Johnson is — was — a great rock and roll singer, but he lacks Bon’s humor and weirdness, at least on the albums. Johnson’s lyrics are pretty generic next to Bon’s, who when he tried wrote incisive portraits of men and women and sex, and self-portraits of a "juvie" with a grin and joie de vivre. Brian Johnson seems more like a hard rock singer out of central casting, whereas after Bon the mold was shattered. These are general observations, as I’ve never met Johnson. He may well have as large and quirky and off-the-wall funny a personality as Bon did, but it doesn’t come through as manically on the albums. Bon was special. Of course, he’s also frozen in time. Who knows what kind of performer and man he would’ve turned out to be had he lived. Maybe he would’ve shrunk as a series of clichés over time.
Q: What are your top 5 favorite AC/DC tunes?
“Girls Got Rhythm.” “Sin City.” “Highway to Hell.” “Jailbreak.” “If You Want Blood.” (On Brian Johnson days, “Back in Black” and “Shoot to Thrill” get in.)
Q: So, what awesome new book are you working on now and when can we get our grubby hands on it?
I edited Conversations With Greil Marcus, which just came out with the University Press of Mississippi. And my book of essays, This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began, is coming out with Orphan Press next spring. There’s also my blog No Such Thing As Was, where I write about rock 'n' roll and memory and autobiography and essays and art and photos and whatever else is getting to me.
Q: When are you gonna finally drop that dead-end day gig (Bonomo teaches creative nonfiction and literature at Northern Illinois University) and write about music full time?
Ha, if only. Actually, I’m grateful for my job. I teach creative nonfiction and autobiography as well as contemporary American literature, and I’m really lucky to be able to continually discuss art and writing with smart students and colleagues. There are a lot of intersections between what I write and what I teach.
Q: If you could write a book on any band/artist/etc., who would it be and why?
I think that I have a book in me about Martin Scorsese, my favorite film director, though I’m not sure what form it will take yet. I’d like to write at length about Bo Diddley’s career. That hasn’t been done very well, I don’t think. I’d like to try and get at that Beat, its timelessness, the rigors and ups-and-downs he endured over the decades, tethered stubbornly to that primal kind of music arrangement, and the influence he had. I’d like to write about the fiction writer Andre Dubus and the painter Eric Fischl, and my appellative doppelganger Joe Bonomo. I’d also love to write something about abandoned buildings, which have haunted me since I was a kid.
Q: So, if I may ask, how DID you cope with the rejection in trying to find a publisher for the book?
Well, I coped by not coping, then by brutally compartmentalizing. I can’t count the number of devastating conversations I had with my wife, who’s also a writer, about the difficulties of getting the book published. She was a fantastic source of support. At one point I had to convince myself that if Sweat ended up as a manuscript that I copied for the band and for a few friends, then I had to be OK with that.
That was tough to swallow, but after countless rejections from agents and editors — and after having agents try hard to sell the book but failing — and after hearing “No”’s from magazine editors who I tried to talk into serializing the book late in the game, I had to say, “OK, it was really fun to work on and to write, I had some great experiences and met some great people, many of whom are now good friends, and if it’s never coming out, so be it, I’ll spread it around to friends, and move on.”
That way I emphasized the work and the process, not the endgame of publication, over which ultimately a young writer has very little to no control. I also had to regularly remind myself that it wasn’t the quality of writing that publishers were rejecting, but the subject and its low commercial value. I borrowed a page from the Fleshtones career. So many times they were told by labels, We love you guys! We’d love to sign you! But you won’t sell any records, so we can’t! Luckily for me, David Barker at Continuum stepped in, and said, We’ll give it a shot, we believe in it.
Q: Despite the staggering amount of detail you managed to fit into Sweat, what didn't make the cut?
Oh there’s enough for another volume, at least. Every time I see the guys at a show or in New York there’s some outrageous but true story from the past that comes up that would’ve been great for Sweat. There are far too many stories over thirty-plus years. As a writer I had to take the long view, and winnow and choose those that I felt characterized the band in the fullest and most dramatic way, stories that kind of summarize the band’s position in each of their phases. So a lot of tales that didn’t get in either I couldn’t corroborate fully, or they took away from the story in some way. But a common refrain from the guys when I see them is, “That’s a story for Volume 2!”
Q: The most surprising thing I learned about the Fleshtones was how large a factor alcohol and drugs played. Even by rock & roll standards, their consumption is shocking What were your thoughts (not to mention the band's thoughts) on sharing so much detail about that side of the band?
Well, I had to detail that side, and knew I had to going in. To understate things, alcohol has been a vital presence in the Fleshtones’ career. They are indeed legendary imbibers, and to tell their story without emphasizing their drinking and drugging and the consequences would be foolish, not to mention wildly inaccurate. They throw a lot of parties. They’ve learned over the decades to balance recklessness with professionalism, and how to stay alive and kicking while enjoying drinking. Their drug use has all but disappeared, and as I show in the book they’ve learned to a man how and when to pull back on the beer and the booze.
Their wildly drunken shows, when things would actually fall apart on stage or sometimes before the show, are a thing of the past. Luckily for me, the guys were honest from the start about the drinking and drug use. Some members and ex-members needed some time to warm up to talking to me candidly. Once he got to know me well, Keith Streng talked frankly about his heroin addiction and alcoholism, because he knew that the best book about the Fleshtones would have to cover that aspect honestly, and Marek, the original bass player, was very open about his past. I was grateful to them.
Q: What's your favorite Fleshtones record (and why)?
I think it’s a tie between Hexbreaker! (1983) and Take A Good Look (2008). Hexbreaker! because that was the only album on I.R.S. over which they felt some measure of control, even if their ultimately lost it, that had a real “Super Rock” vision behind it. They’ve cooled on the album in retrospect somewhat, if only because the sessions went over-budget and because the final mixes were pretty clean relative to the early mixes which were wilder, apparently, though I’ve never heard them. And Take A Good Look is not just a great latter-day Fleshtones album, it’s a great rock and roll record, period. It’s get some of their strongest songs, a real cohesive sound, great, organic energy, and a wonderful, crunchy, junky production job by New York legend Ivan Julian. It’s a really well-sung and well-played album. I’d tell newcomers to toss a coin and start with either of those two albums. They can’t lose.
Q: What's your opinion on the current state of rock & roll journalism?
It’s overwhelming, since so much of it has moved online or now begins and lives exclusively online. As in any opinion industry, you have to do a tremendous amount of work to keep up and to discern the good writing from the garbage. It takes a lot of time and energy, and I can’t claim that I have purchase enough on rock & roll journalism to give an expert opinion. What bothers me is the shrinking space devoted to reviews in magazines like Rolling Stone, although MOJO hasn’t limited their reviews much. Isn’t SPIN reviewing most albums on Twitter now? I understand the exodus to the digital domain — it’s the future.
But paradoxically, as there’s more “space” than ever before, we have less and less time to read as our attentions move among so many sources of information. As a result of compromised attention spans, thoughtfulness is becoming compressed, which is a kind of contradiction in terms, in my book. But there is a lot of good, insightful, challenging, passionate stuff out there to wade through, and links and streaming and YouTube and Vimeo clips only make the arguments more interesting and lively. Trust your instincts and your friends to hip you to writers and sites that you’re missing.
Q: Who are some of your favorite rock & roll writers?
I’m always afraid I’ll leave people out when I answer this. Lester Bangs above all. Nick Tosches, Colin Escott (whom I think more people should know and talk about), Jim DeRogatis (his bio of Bangs, Let It Blurt, was an early influence on Sweat), Greg Kot, Greil Marcus, Alex Ross, Sasha Frere-Jones, David Fricke, Peter Guralnick, Ian MacDonald, Jon Pareles, Eric Weisbard. Robert Palmer and Greg Shaw and Ellen Wills were great. I love the work and writing that Billy Miller and Miriam Linna do over at Norton Records. I always liked Fred Mills. Ugly Things, PopMatters, No Depression, The Rumpus, Stereogum and The Big Takeover all have great music writing in one form or another.
Q: To take my last question a step further, perhaps, what writers most influenced you, either in deciding to become a writer yourself or in developing your own style and voice?
I don’t really know how a writer influences me, so I don’t know who they are. I know who I love, and who I return to again and again: Montaigne, William Hazlitt, Roger Ebert, Andre Dubus, Phillip Lopate, Patricia Hampl, Lester Bangs, Anthony Lane, Larry Brown, Flannery O’Connor….
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