Interview with Tom Finn of The Left Banke
Posted on May 16, 2011 - by Julian Woolsey
When The Left Banke broke up in 1969 with only two albums under their belt, few would have guessed how lasting their legacy would become. They all but invented the genre of baroque pop, which their hit song "Walk Away Renée" is probably the best-known example of. In the years since, countless artists have praised The Left Banke and spoken of their influence. Characterized by gorgeous vocal harmonies, intricate orchestral arrangements and a healthy dose of adolescent energy, The Left Banke's music sounds as fresh today as it did in 1967.
After not having played on stage together for over 40 years, original Left Banke members Tom Finn and George Cameron recently reformed The Left Banke for two landmark performances at Joe's Pub in New York City. Rock Edition caught up with Tom Finn and got the scoop on Renee, the band's troubled history, and their plans for the future.
It seems like the shows at Joe's Pub were very well received.
Did you go?
I went on Saturday and it was excellent!
My girlfriend and I were pretty much beside ourselves about the fact that this was even possible. I never imagined that I would see The Left Banke.
Yeah, me too! [laughs]
[laughs] Also, it was pretty cool that Mary Weiss [from The Shangri-La's] was there.
Yeah, I invited her. We’re old friends.
Cool. So how did The Left Banke get started?
I met George [Cameron, drummer & vocalist] in '64. Then I met Steve [Martin, lead vocalist]. I was singing with Steve, teaching him Beatles songs and stuff like that. I felt sorry for Steve -- he didn't have any friends in New York, and his father had just died. So, I brought him down to Greenwich Village and introduced him to some people at this place called Downstairs Figaro's, which was a place where young kids hung out. Upstairs Figaro's is a very famous coffee house, but Downstairs Figaro's was for kids. We were 16. I introduced Steve to George, they hit it off, and then they started singing together.
At that time, I was in a group called The Magic Plants with a drummer named Warren. We joined The Magic Plants because I met this guy named Mick Wexler, who was playing guitar on MacDougal Street. He was great. He sang really well, and he played really well. The only guitar player at that time who was better than him was Jimi Hendrix. He asked us to join up with him, and we said, "Cool." So he took us up to this studio where the producer was Harry Lookofsky, father of Michael Brown [pianist & songwriter]. This is where it started to mix in. We went on a small tour with Mick, to Baltimore and Philadelphia. But Mick was basically an impostor. He pretended he was British. He wore big sunglasses, and he was actually telling people that he was Mick Jagger. In those days, a lot of young kids didn't even really know what Mick Jagger looked like. They sorta knew, but this guy with his big lips and big sunglasses, he would convince people that he was Mick Jagger.
I got so embarrassed by this whole thing. We realized it was bullshit and we said, "Let's start our own group." I knew that Harry was holding auditions for talent, because that's how Mick had gotten his gig. Harry produced The Magic Plants. So I invited Steve and George, who were singing together, to come up with me and Warren to audition for Harry. George had a name for the group at that point: The Morticians. That was the name we were thinking we were going to use. I brought Tom Feher [songwriter] and Warren over to this studio meeting that we set up with Michael. We went over there and auditioned for Harry. Michael was there -- I set it up through Michael. Harry liked us, but he didn't make any motions to sign us. "Very nice, boys, very nice, keep coming back." Basically, we failed the audition. But, Mike wanted to hang out with people like us. Mike was a little nerdy, and not really into the whole longhaired scene at all. Here I was with a beautiful blonde named Renee...
Renee Fladen, of course.
Yeah. So he saw the girl, he saw me, he saw the long hair, the way we sang, and he just took the keys right out of his pocket and told us we could come there late at night and play there. So we showed up there a lot. Late at night at World United Studios, after his father and everyone else was gone, we'd show up there at 9 or 10 at night, and we would just play all night long. Sleep on the floor, whatever.
We were doing everything but recording, because none of us knew how to be a recording engineer. But that's how it all came together. I don't even know if Warren is still alive. I heard a rumor that he killed his grandfather. I don't really know, but I know Warren would be capable of something like that. I saw him kick a dog once, and I know that anyone who could do that could murder somebody. I'm not saying he killed his grandfather, but he probably did. There are pictures of Warren in the Sundazed reissues that are coming out. I made George open up his scrapbook which he has kept tightly locked all these years. I got him to open it and send all the negatives and prints to Sundazed.
Now, they've got about 50 unpublished photos of The Left Banke to work with on this new album, going back to before Renee.
At that point, were you already playing some of the songs that would be on the first Left Banke record?
Yeah. That's also how Michael got into the group. Steve and George were already working together down in the Village, singing on the street and in coffee houses, passing the hat. They had written a couple of tunes. One was "I've Got Something on my Mind," another one was "I Haven't Got the Nerve," and another one was "Let Go of You, Girl." George would play the guitar and Steve would sing. They had these songs worked out, but they didn't have bridges. Mike Brown -- actually, Mike Lookofsky then. Steve named him Brown. The reason Steve named him Brown is because Michael's father, Harry, had a musician nickname called "Hash Brown."
Yeah, that was the name that he recorded under.
Lookofsky also doesn't sound like a very good name for marketing purposes.
Yeah, exactly. Steve was very sarcastic, so he started saying to Mike, "Hey, Brown! You're Mike Brown, son of Hash!" So it stuck. Anyway, they had these three or four songs worked out -- I wasn't around when those [particular] songs were written -- and Michael stepped in and wrote the bridge to "I've Got Something on my Mind" and "Let Go of You, Girl." He got one third of the writing for [those]. He didn't write the bridge to "I Haven't Got the Nerve," he just played harpsichord on it. But he started to earn his keep in the group because of the bridges that he wrote.
Now, we couldn't really play. I mean, I was so new to the bass at that time; I think I had been playing it for maybe a month or two. So, we were trying to play, but you just can't play when you can't play! George could play a sort of rhythm guitar, and the only one who could really play was Mike Brown. The only problem was he was like a classical type of pianist. So what we used to do was stand around the piano screaming at him, "No, no, stop! Don't do that! Do this! Do it this way! Da da dadadumdum da!" It was really a kind of head banging collaboration going on. In other words, it wasn't Michael Brown, this genius, all-seeing guy up on high, masterminding all these things. It was everybody knocking their heads together.
Right, I see.
"Walk Away Renée" was more of a group collaboration with everybody, including Tony Sansone, Mike's writing partner. The way Michael wrote was, he would always have his cassette recorder rolling, and then we would all get around the piano and just pour our guts out. Strangely enough, at the next rehearsal, all of a sudden he would have all these melodies. Whatever. We were all kids. Sansone swears that [Mike] came up with the title and that he wrote 90% of the lyrics, and I believe him. I'm not here to knock Mike Brown at all, I think he's great. I’m his biggest fan.
He did write "Pretty Ballerina" on his own, except I think that Steve Martin should have gotten some of the writing credit on that. When Mike first introduced that song, it didn't really have the melody yet. I think that Steve should have gotten some credit for coming up with part of that melody for that song. But he didn't. And, after the success of "Walk Away Renée," Michael wanted to prove that he was [the reason].
Do you think that went to his head a little bit?
A little bit?! That's why the group broke up!
So the break-up didn't really have anything to do with him having been infatuated with Renee, who was your girlfriend?
That had nothing to do with it. Renee had nothing to do with it. In fact, the whole thing about Renee is bullshit, if you want to know the truth. It's a big myth. Renee was my girlfriend, yeah. But it wasn't a big deal. She was my first real girlfriend, but it was the '60s and we were young.
So, the real problems had more to do with Michael, and also with the management and labels?
Well, not really. I mean, the management, yes. The real problem was that when the record became a hit, Michael started to go on the road with us, and we sounded like shit! We couldn't play! We got a guitar player, Jeff Winfield, who was pretty good, but he wasn't THAT good. We would go onstage with groups that would open for us, like The Vagrants, who would blow the stage apart! These local acts who would open up at these places, they wanted nothing more than to beat the hell out of the headliner. We were a recording vocal group! We were not a stage band. We didn't even play our songs -- we played four originals and a bunch of top hits of the day, just to keep [people's] interest. People didn't want to hear "Barterers and Their Wives" and "I've Got Something on my Mind" back in those days!
And yet, in those days there wasn't multi-tracking, so didn't you guys play a lot of that stuff in one take for the recordings?
But it sounds perfect!
Well, we played a lot. But there are also studio musicians involved in a lot of those recordings. "Desiree," for instance -- Bobby Gregg played drums on that. Warren played drums on the early stuff. Around the time of "Renée," we started to get pretty good. But you still had to play it in one or two takes. So then we started using a different drummer. And then, we needed a better guitar player, so we started using a guy named Hugh McCracken. He's a studio player; he played with McCartney and everybody else. But we gave him his first job in New York. He was a young guy like us, but he was really good. Incredible on guitar. We had a hit so fast, we had to do something. So, the reason the group broke up was -- Harry sent us out on the road again. He was our manager, our producer, and our publisher. He would send us out on these long, grueling road tours so he could make that money. He didn't give any of it to us. Michael Brown couldn't handle it.
I heard that Mike stopped going on the road, and you got a different piano player for touring.
That's right, he couldn't take it. But they still sent us out. None of us liked it, but Steve in particular got really pissed off at Michael for not going out on the road with us. So, one day it came to blows! Steve beat him up -- not badly, but he still beat him up. And that was basically the end of the group.
You see, the group was already finished before "Walk Away Renée" was even released! Warren and Michael left the group and went to California before "Renée" was even finished. In other words, we did "Renée," Warren and Michael decided the group was never going to make it, and they went to California to try their luck out there. Harry Lookofsky got wind of this, and he called and got them detained by the police, and said that Michael had stolen a coin collection from him to finance the trip. So they had to return to New York.
But while they were gone, Harry made us put the vocals on "Walk Away Renée." We had done the track, and he wanted to finish it, even though the group was in splinters. God bless him for that. When you listen to the way we sing it, and you hear Steve, you can barely understand the words! Steve didn't want to sing it. He hated that song. Harry had to stop the session three or four times to tell Steve to stop mumbling. Steve was angry, but he sang it. We all did it live together, because that was the only way. The vocals were the only overdub we could do, because we had 3-track. There was no multitrack.
Harry went out and sold that record. He was turned down by ten major labels, and finally Charlie Fasch at Mercury bought it for about $1200. He said it had a "monster hook" and he liked it. Those days are gone, when you had record men like that. And so obviously, the record started to get a lot of action, and within several months it became a monster breakout [hit]. So we got back together, bought some clothes, took some pictures, and went back out on the road. But we still couldn't play. So Michael tried to fire the rest of the group.
I also read that he went and did some sessions on his own.
Yeah, that he went and recorded some songs without you guys. Did that not happen?
No, [not at that point]. What happened was this: he said to Steve, "Look, Steve, we've got to get rid of Tom, George and Jeff, because we suck on stage, and I want to hold auditions and get a real great band together." For some reason, Steve bought that, and so they fired me, George and Jeff. Jeff was replaced with a guy named Rick Brand. It broke Jeff's heart. They couldn't throw me and George out of the group, though, because Steve couldn't sing without us. Steve missed [us]; we used to work everything out together. Steve didn't like singing solo without harmony.
They tried other guys and it didn't sound good, so they asked me and George to come back. What are we gonna say, "no"? We have a #1 record at this point! So we came back, but the trust was gone. The resentment was very high. Now Michael was like some fucking Nazi in the catbird seat. He was an egomaniac, believe me. Steve started to hate his guts again. So then [Mike] said, "Okay, now I'm going to fire Tom, George AND Steve." So he talks to his father and they decide to get rid of all of us. They got a different lead singer in to sing a song called "Ivy Ivy," another one called "And Suddenly," and another one called "Men are Building Sand."
Yeah, those were the sessions I was thinking of.
Yeah, those were recorded, and they released them as The Left Banke. The record company went along with it. So George, Steve and I went and got legal representation from the firm called Marshall & Vigoda, who were the top attorneys in the music business. They took our case immediately. Vigoda gets on the phone with Irving Green, the president of Mercury, and goes, "Irving, you're fucking out of your fucking mind! We'll sue you for every fucking dime you have, you fucking idiot! These guys have a contract, you fucking moron!" I heard the whole thing. These guys didn't fool around. He got scared shitless, because we did indeed have a contract, and we were indeed going to sue them! So, he threw his hands up and said, "I can't do this." We slapped him with a court injunction and stopped that record. That record is not The Left Banke. So it was pulled, and telegrams were sent to a lot of the major radio stations saying, "This is not The Left Banke. This record is in litigation. Do not play this record, or you may be found liable." That was the end of that record!
Mercury didn't want to fight, and Harry didn't want a lawsuit, so it went to union arbitration as to the ownership of the name. Don't ask me why, but it did. Vigoda argued the case before the union, and the union decided that Harry Lookofsky was indeed fraudulent, and that he was a union scab. The sessions were not union sessions; there were many complaints against him by other session people. So they voted and determined that The Left Banke were Tom Finn, George Cameron, and Steve Martin. Then we proceeded on with 'The Left Banke Too.'
Is Michael not on that record at all?
He contributed one song to it. Just before we recorded 'The Left Banke Too,' Michael threw in the towel and broke with his father. He blamed his father for all these problems, and he wanted one more chance with The Left Banke. Our managers at the time said they thought it would be a good idea, so we tried it. The song was "Desiree."
Yeah. So "Desiree" was released. But all these radio stations around the country are holding these telegrams in their hand from the last release, saying that The Left Banke is not Michael Brown and this and that and whatever. So I think they just threw the record in the garbage can rather than be bothered by it.
They were thinking it was best not to risk it.
Yeah, I bet at least 30-40% of them might have thought that way. I'm not saying they all thought that way. The record cracked the Hot 100, but then it just stopped.
So it was just too hard to keep going with no more hits and no more support?
Well, 'The Left Banke Too' was done with different producers, and they were trying to get us a hit, but they couldn't. We played on everything on that record. The only studio musicians on that album were on the songs "My Friend Today" and "Dark is the Bark." If you listen, they're like jazz orchestras.
Yeah. Beautiful arrangements.
That's Artie Schroeck. Artie Schroeck had just come off arranging Frankie Valli's gigantic hit, "Can't Take My Eyes Off You." He was big time. He had also just done Aretha Franklin's "A Natural Woman." Of course, those things were more soul than The Left Banke. They had nothing to do with classical music. So [our management] got rid of him after those two songs, and went with a more poppy producer, Paul Leka. He was hot off the heels of "Green Tambourine," which was a big #1 record [by The Lemon Pipers]. But, if you'll excuse my saying so, "Green Tambourine" is kind of a joke compared to The Left Banke. There's nothing serious about that [record] at all.
At this time, we're 18, going on 19 -- what do you want from [kids like us]? We weren't like The Beatles, who were together for six, seven, eight years playing in clubs, and had George Martin in their corner. We didn't have that background. So, yeah, it just got worse and worse and worse, and finally we broke up. We threw in the towel around late '68. There might have been some remnants, a few shows in '69, but it was over.
So, what about these songs that came out under Steve Martin's name, "Love Songs in the Night" and "Two by Two"?
That was after all of that. That was 1972, I think.
How did that come about?
Michael Brown had gotten himself a manager, named Dominic Sicilia. Where do these names come from? Betcha he knows where a couple of bodies are buried. He was American, but he was very Milanese. Very classy. He had strong connections at Buddah Records and Kama Sutra Records. They put out a Mike Brown instrumental single, but it didn't become a hit. Mike wanted a hit, so he said he wanted to work with The Left Banke. Dominic said, "No! That name is poison. [Besides], their last big hit was in 1967, and this is 1972. It's not going to work. Use the name Steve Martin and we'll put out a solo record on Kama Sutra with Steve Martin." Mike went for that. We all got the call to come in and do it, but nobody said anything about it being a Steve Martin solo record, it was all of us! I played bass and acoustic guitar, George played drums, Steve sang it, and we brought in Hugh McCracken to do guitar overdubs. By now, they had 8-tracks or even 16-tracks.
Strangely enough, though, we did it in one or two takes. We did it at this studio on W. 54th St called Eventide Studios, and then we went into another studio called The Hit Factory to do the guitar overdubs and maybe some additional vocals. And that was it! There were no studio musicians, just the four of us and a guitar player.
So you were surprised when it came out as Steve Martin?
Well, I don't know if it was even ever really released. I've never seen the single. But Dominic was producing this porno film called Ultraviolet Hot Parts. Remember, these were the days of Plato's Retreat and swinger clubs, and everyone was feeling sexually liberated. So Dominic wanted to produce this sort of porno thing -- not really hardcore, but a little bit hardcore -- but do it as a documentary about porno films, with a narrator and the whole thing. This film opened up at the Circus Cinema on Broadway and 49th Street, and it showed there for a week or two. [For the longest time], I thought this movie didn't even exist! [But it did], and it had a soundtrack with those two songs on it. And the rest of the soundtrack was other up-and-coming artists that were in Dominic Sicilia's stable. One was Bert Sommer [who sang on "Ivy Ivy" and "And Suddenly"].
You played both of those songs at Joe's Pub, didn't you?
Yeah, we played both of them.
I hadn't heard "Love Songs in the Night" before that.
What'd you think?
It's great, I've been listening to it online since then.
The original version?
Yeah, the original version. It's great.
Another tune I wasn't expecting to hear live was "Lorraine," from the third album. What happened with that album, anyway?
I wrote "Lorraine" in the summer of '75 or '76. Just by chance, I ended up in the office of a music publisher. I had invited one of the people that worked there to see Lou Rawls perform. I was the stage manager for this nightclub, and so I invited this guy and his wife down to see Lou Rawls, and I bought them dinner, gave them a good table, [and all that]. So he invited me for lunch, and after lunch he invited me back up to his office, where he worked for this music publisher. I'm sitting around there, and he says, "Tom, have you been writing anything lately?" And I say, "Oh, I wrote this song the other day," and I go over to the piano and play "Lorraine." He nearly fell off his chair. He ran into the other office, got his boss, and said, "Play that again." So I played it, and the boss, Victor Benedetto, he nearly died. He said, "That is the greatest song I've heard all year. What do you want to do? Talk to me! You want to be a songwriter?"
Yeah, so I signed a publishing deal right there. He sent me to work with Eric Carmen, who had a big hit called "All by Myself." That was a #1 record in 1976. It was very Left Banke-y. It was like classical music, which he took from Rachmaninoff's Concerto in C Sharp Minor. I flew out and [worked with him], but it didn't work out. So I came back and [Victor] said, "How about you bring back Steve Martin, who's living in Spain, and he sings your beautiful songs?" So I said okay. I brought in George and we re-formed The Left Banke. Mike was supposed to be in it, but it didn't work out.
So it's the three of you?
Yeah, the three of us did it. [Benedetto] paid for a house upstate and we were all living up there, working. One of these creative retreat type of [things]. Then we went into the studio with that same guy I had invited to dinner being our babysitter. He took us in and started to record at some inexpensive recording studio in Long Island called Kingdom Sound, and we started to lay down tracks. I was playing piano and guitar. We sort of organized a band of friends of ours, that were in and around different groups that played with us or played with Mike. We put a little band together and recorded about 12 songs. They were all demos. We knew that we were going to record masters, but we thought it was going to be like, record a single and do a big-budget thing, but right now we were just developing this material for this publisher. So, after we did the masters for "And One Day" -- [they] brought in Michael Kamen to produce that, who worked with Roger Waters and Pink Floyd on 'The Wall.' He was also one of the biggest Hollywood film score writers, and he was also a big Left Banke fan.
Yeah, I've heard of him.
Yeah, he worked with Metallica, Aerosmith, you name it. He died a couple of years ago. So anyway, they brought Kamen in. I wanted Alan Parsons, but they went with Michael Kamen. So we did a few songs with him, but those were the only ones that were done at a reasonable recording studio with a good budget, and strings and everything. Everything else was just the boys taking the trip out to Long Island with their bag lunches! He ended up releasing the thing as an album. And the reason he did that was because in his contract with us, it said that he had to get us a record deal. He couldn't get us a deal! Finally he signed us to Relics, which was a Grateful Dead reissue label. He just did it so that his contract would be binding. The thing was just shelved and bombed. It didn't get any promotion. A lot of people hated it. But, if you really listen to that album, there are [some] great things on there.
Yeah, there are some really nice tunes.
"Heartbreaker," I liked. Excellent song. The way Steve sings that is just incredible. If we'd had the time, and we did that right, I'm sure we could have gotten something together. But at that time, the music business was in a really big flux. Either you were a punk rocker, or you were disco. You were not anything else. You were either with The Bee Gees, doing disco, or you were with Blondie or The Talking Heads. There was really nothing else. So what were we? Like a Beatles throwback? Forget about it! We didn't even stand a chance. It wasn't so much that we weren't good, or the songs weren't good; we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. We were ten years out of time. That will never happen again, I assure you. Since then, I have gotten a tremendous musical education. The people that I've worked for and the things that I've done are just amazing. Aside from my DJ career, I've just done so much. Now I know. My ears have gotten so much better, and I'm so much more aware of what sells, and what the business is like. Back then, I didn't know too much.
What about these 2002 sessions in Tampa? I heard an amazing song called "Airborne."
Yeah, you heard that, and you heard another song called "High Flyer."
Ah, but I didnt hear "High Flyer"; I didn't find it.
Go to LeftBanke.nu and download it! It's in the downloads section.
All the Tampa sessions are there?
Yeah! Listen to "High Flyer," because that's the one that I'm interested in. We might do "Airborne" [live]. You know, I play bass on all that stuff. George and I were brought in to do harmony, and that didn't work out because Mike was still playing control freak. But I have a meeting with Mike Brown [in a couple of weeks], and I think he's ready to capitulate. Finally, after all these years. I'm basically offering him a seat in The Left Banke, to play piano with the group. I know he can't do it on a permanent basis because he's physically not able to do it. But I would like for him to do cameo performances and make special appearances. I think he'll do [it]. Also, I'd like for him to open up his library, so we can record some of his material. I happen to know that he's got hundreds of songs that have never seen the light of day. I was there for many of the demo recordings.
A lot of them are really good, and a lot of them need to be finished. I've got all the people standing in the wings, ready to do this. I've got the classical conductor and arranger, Ralph Affoumado, who produced the Coke commerial and all the other spots that we did in the 60's.
He's the choirmaster at the Tisch School of the Arts. This guy is a serious, serious classical guy, and he's on board all the way. I'm doing another song by Damien Youth, a singer/songwriter from New Orleans. He wrote a wonderful song called "Melody Witchcraft," which is right up The Left Banke's alley. It is so Left Banke, it's not even funny. wait until you hear it; it's just amazing. I [also] wrote a song called "City Lights," which is sort of like if The Left Banke had continued through the '70s and '80s. It's The Left Banke, for sure, but with more of a rock thing going on.
Yeah, which is what Steve always wanted to do anyway. And this [song] is really good -- wait until you hear this one! It's like a combination between The Left Banke and The Who!
So, yeah, I have about four or five songs that we're ready to go on. Everybody's on board.
To have Michael there will be pretty cool, as long as everything stays copacetic.
Yeah, it will. At this point, we'd all have to be out of our minds [for it not to]. Nobody's getting any hit records at 62 years old. As a matter of fact, I think we're going to do just fine, and I think we'll sell some albums to our type of audience. People are going to hear our next album and be like, "Holy shit, man, this new Left Banke is better than Simon & Garfunkel, better than Sting, and better than all this other stuff that's out there!" I think we're going to have a crowd of people that like our style of music.
So it sounds like there will definitely be more shows.
We just got the news that we'll be playing at The Bearsville Theater in Woodstock on August 20. And our next big thing will be the release of our reissues on Sundazed Records. We're going to do something with an independent promoter, who just recently promoted a big George Harrison thing, with Roberta Flack. They did very well with it. These guys have a lot of money and they want to promote '60s stuff. So, they'll be behind us, and we'd [also] like to get our own promotion going. With the booking agents we've talked to so far, they're all afraid of their shadows. "We don't know if The Left Banke will draw, we don't know..." [whiny crying sounds]
You've already demonstrated that you can draw.
They don't know. I'm telling you, they're scared of their shadows. You'd have to be able to guarantee filling a 1000-seater before they'd think about hiring you! They're so afraid. Rather than use these people, we're going to self-promote our own shows. And we'll do them for good reason. And the next good reason is the re-release of our first two albums on Sundazed Records.
Which is a very good reason!
Yeah! Sundazed is also on board to help promote this. Then we have the independent promoter who will take it a notch higher. And then we have our classical guy, in case we just decide to add a symphony orchestra. We'll see. Obviously, if we do that, it'll have to be a thing where the players are students, but really good players, who would do it for free.
Will you continue to mainly play in New York, or do you think you'll make it out to other places?
Well, I just contacted Andrew Sandoval, who produced our CD release 'There's Gonna Be A Storm' back in 1992. I asked him if he'd be interested in getting involved and he said, "Absolutely." I told him that we're looking for a great double-bill. Left Banke/Zombies or Left Banke/Hollies or something like that.
Or even a new group. What's the name of that great new group, Sebastian somebody?
Belle and Sebastian?
Yeah. They supposedly idolize The Left Banke, so maybe we can get on a show with them.
That would be a great fit. It makes a lot of sense.
There's another guy who really loves us from Oasis. Noel, I think. He's come out and said that he thinks The Left Banke is the greatest band ever, and that he would like to do some of our songs. So, we'll see. Maybe we can do something with them. Another guy behind us is Aerosmith's tour manager, Henry Smith. Henry the Horse is on board and he's going to do everything he can to help us.
So, it sounds like you definitely do want to get out of town and play other places. Maybe not full tours, but special dates at various places?
Exactly, special dates, at least until we have made enough of a buzz that we can do something significant. Sooner or later, you get lucky, but you have to keep doing things that are special. You've got to keep the buzz going. Who knows, I wouldn't say that we could play with Aerosmith, but maybe Steven Tyler might like to join us on stage for a performance.
That might be a fun nostalgic thing for him, having been a backing vocalist in the group back in the '60s.
Another good example of what you're talking about -- keeping the buzz going -- was your recent appearance at the Red Cross Benefit at Bowery Electric, where you and George sang "Renée" with Alan Merrill.
Yeah, stuff like that! That was fun. We just walked in right off the street and did that. Man, that was nice. I mean, I called Merrill and suggested that we do that. It's not about us; it's about the people in Japan.
Which is great, but it's also good for you as well.
Yeah. And Merrill would like to bring us to Japan! But Japan is having some problems right now.
Yes, but they're being very stoic. What I've heard is that they are really trying to keep life going, and not stop everything.
Right. Well, Merrill goes there at least twice a year. He's pretty famous over there. In any case, with The Left Banke, you never know what we're going to do. But it'll be something like that: The Left Banke goes to Japan, The Left Banke are playing with a symphony orchestra, The Left Banke are doing a double-bill with the Hollies... whatever it is, it's got to be something like that. It can't be just playing in clubs. We have nine or ten people, strings... it's ridiculous.
So why did it take until now for you guys to start playing again?
It's because I opened up the [Official Left Banke] Facebook [page]. I was on Facebook, and I started to get 15 or 20 [friend] requests a week from people. And I was against that. I'm a private person. I don't want to be friends with people I don't know. What the hell am I going to talk about -- The Left Banke, I suppose.
Well, and that is what they wanted to talk about, most likely. So, it made sense to make a Left Banke page instead.
Yeah, so after about a year of this, I figured to myself -- see, I'm basically a nice person, so I said, "You know what? Let me get together with Charlemange Fezza and open a [Facebook page]." She's the one who does all those animated videos of Left Banke songs, and she also does leftbanke.nu.
I asked her for her help in opening a Left Banke Facebook page. There was one on there already, and I've been thinking of shutting them down [on grounds of] infringement. But I haven't done it yet, because I don't like putting out bad vibes. The thing is, they have more people than we do. And I think people are just dumb -- they see that they have around 2,000, and we have around 1,500, so they think that they must be better or something. A lot of people, all they know is that they love "Pretty Ballerina" and they love "Walk Away Renee." So, I guess that's why they have more people, but it's a dormant site and they don't have any information. Every once in a while, I send an e-mail over to people who are on that site who sound intelligent to me, and I tell them, "What are you doing over there, posting stuff like that? Nobody's going to listen to you. Come over here!" And they do, and they're so glad.
So, anyway, I opened this [Facebook page], and I was telling George Cameron about this, and about Noel Gallagher, and all these fans writing in. I'm getting all these requests, and so [I decide to] just open a page and that way I can answer everybody at the same time. George gets wind of this, and then he gets inspired. He says, "Oh, I'm going to put together a group of guys who are going to play Left Banke [songs], and we'll call it Left Banke 2010. And so he invited me down to a rehearsal. But I didn't want anything to do with it, because George was making it hard rock! And I'm going, "George, what are you doing here?" I went down there one day, and I had to hand it to George, because he was doing the best he could, but I had to tell him he was making some big mistakes. You can't change The Left Banke sound. Yeah, "Pretty Ballerina" sounds good, but not like Led Zeppelin doing "Pretty Ballerina"! That was his idea of how to make it more modern. He was practically begging me to get involved, so I came down and started to chop heads off down there. I had to get one guy out of the group. There were a bunch of fights and arguments. Finally, everybody started to see that I was doing the right thing. Then I brought in Mike Fornatale.
That was an inspired choice!
Yeah, well, he was one of the fans on The Left Banke site.
But you knew already that he had the right set of pipes for it?
No, I didn't, actually. I had posted that The Left Banke were in the preliminary stages of rehearsals, and he sent me a message saying, "I usually don't do this, but I would like to offer my services to this project, if there's any room." At that time, I had every intention that it was going to be Steve Martin, not him. But then I looked at this page, and he seemed to have the perfect thing I was looking for, which was a guy that can imitate very well. He's a tribute artist. Mike Fornatale has done 50+ different tribute shows at Loser's Lounge. Loser's Lounge is a group that has 50 members that rotate, and each show that they do is a tribute to Queen, or The Beatles, or whoever. And the leader of Loser's Lounge is Joe McGinty, who played piano for us that night [at Joe's Pub]. So, it seemed like Mike Fornatale was the perfect guy. He sang with The Monks, who raved about him, and he sang with Moby Grape and did an unbelievable job. So I asked him if he could sing like Steve Martin and he was like, "Yes!" So he came down, and I listened to him, and I said, "Well, he's not Steve Martin, but he's got a good voice, and he's powerful, and he can scream."
I was also surprised to see that you were playing guitar; I thought you were going to be playing bass, and that George would be on guitar.
George's original idea was to set it up so that he, Steve and I would not have to play. In other words, we would be more like The Bee Gees, standing there as a vocal group.
That was his dream. Plus, Charlie Cazalet was playing the bass from the beginning. Charlie Cazalet has known us since 1965 -- he played on our third album, so he's practically a member of the group. I might eventually switch to playing bass on a few numbers. And with a drummer like Rick Reil... Rick Reil is great. He knows The Left Banke inside and out. He's a hard-working guy. He's 10 or 15 years younger than us, and it's really a pleasure working with him.
So how much new material do you have written? Will there be an all-new full-length at some point?
Yeah! No question about it. We're talking about Michael Brown songs, we're talking about the song by Damien Youth, we're talking about the song I wrote, "City Life", and possibly a remake of "Lorraine," which has never really had justice done it. So, we have five or six songs at this point. I'm going to go meet Michael Brown next week, and I know for a fact that he has four or five songs that I'd like to do.
I'm pretty curious about your DJ career. I was looking at your website and saw you had done some pretty prestigious gigs -- playing at the White House, for example.
Yeah, I was the first DJ who ever played at the White House. It was Bill and Hillary Clinton's Millennium party at the White House, in the Rose Garden -- tented, because it was in wintertime. Actually, it was split between the East Room and the Rose Garden, but the dance party I did was in the tented Rose Garden. That was really great. I couldn't believe that I was actually there doing that. I wouldn't do it for Bush, and I wouldn't do for other politicians, but I enjoyed the experience. It led to other things: for instance, I did Chelsea [Clinton]'s 21st birthday. Mainly because I was a kid raised in Brooklyn without a family, and I never had anything given to me in any way, and so just to be headlining the White House, even if it was just as a DJ, made me feel really great. I was really proud of myself -- I just wish my mother and father were alive to see it. I actually called my sister from the Oval Office!
That's fantastic. When did you start DJing?
I started in the summer of 1982. It was totally unexpected. When The Left Banke broke up the last time, after 'Strangers on a Train,' I got really pissed off about it, [saying things like] "Why did this particular group of people have to be such wimps? Why couldn't they be stronger individuals in personality? Why did this have to happen?" I don't know, it was just really a terrible ending.
I felt [that record] was our last chance. I worked really hard for it, and a lot of the material ended up being a little disappointing, but, then again, it was really a demo album. Only two of the songs were recorded the right way: "And One Day" and "You Say." All of the other songs were just done as demos. It showed a lot of promise, but I felt like Steve [Martin, vocalist] and George [Cameron, drums] didn't really work hard on that project. When that all broke up, I was feeling like, "What did I miss? What's wrong with this picture?"
I was invited to a party for a musician named Rob Stoner -- he was the musical director and bass player for Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue -- and some of Elvis' musicians were there. These guys jammed at the party, and I was shocked. I said to myself, "There's the answer!" These guys were rugged individualists. They all had their own projects going, and yet they all came together and played for whatever artist needed them. I said, "That's it. That's what The Beatles knew. That's what The Stones knew." They knew their roots. They knew their '50s music, and their '40s music, and so on. The Left Banke basically just knew what was on the radio in the '60s, and The Beatles.
Is that right?
Yeah. We were kids, first of all.
I guess a lot of people might hear the intricacy of the arrangements and assume there was a strong classical and jazz influence going on -- requiring a certain frame of reference.
Mm-hmm. Well, the classical part of it was Mike Brown and his father. But, you see, Mike Brown wasn't supposed to be in the group originally. We never felt like he was a guy for the group. I don't want to put him down; he just didn't seem like the type of guy who would be in the type of group we were starting.
So to get back to how I came to be a DJ: I realized what was wrong with The Left Banke. I knew I had to educate myself if I wanted to go any further. So I crammed. I basically went out there and bought every record I could find. This was before CDs. I bought everything from the '50s that I could find, and I played guitar for hours in my apartment, trying to learn. If you listen to Jeff Beck and all these people, that's where they got all their stuff from. First of all, they were older than us. All of those guys are about five, six years older than us, so that made a big difference. We were just kids. So I jammed and I learned about the '50s. Then one day a knock comes on my wall, and it's my neighbor, and he says, "Oh, man, my name is Parviz, and I am from Iran. My friends from all over the world love the music you are playing! You are a fucking genius, man!" So I said, "Thanks, man, I really appreciate it. My guitar playing is getting better, I guess." And he said, "No, no, not the guitar! The records you play! The records are fucking great!" And he goes on to tell me how he works at Studio 54 and promotes nightclubs, and he wants me to come down to a new club he's opening and talk to the DJ about the type of music she's playing. He's from Iran, and he doesn't really get that you don't open a disco by playing '50s music. But, that's where the genius came from, because it was the best thing that could have ever happened. I went down and saw this DJ, and I told her all about '50s music. She threw me out, of course, and got really pissed. But eventually, I talked to the owners, and talked them into keeping it just the way it was: it was an old diner, with a swordfish on the walls, and I told them, "Keep it this way, and play '50s music." To make a long story short, the place made millions of dollars. And this was back in 1982, before you would turn on the television and every other commercial was "Time Life brings you the greatest hits of the '50s!" This was before all that. Eventually, I turned out to be a DJ there. But in my head, I was above all that. "A DJ -- forget about it!"
Right -- "I'm a musician!"
Yeah! But, the guy talked me into doing Sunday night and calling it '50s Night. I said, "OK, what I'm going to do is invite all my friends down there." People like Robert Gordon, Brian Setzer... you know. People that dress '50s, look '50s, act '50s, live and breathe '50s. I turned up every week, and filled that club, or half-filled it, with people. Women were wearing crinolines, and the guys were all bopping with their pompadour haircuts, parking their '50s cars in front of the place and everything. And that place turned into one of the hottest clubs in New York City. Those guys were making a fortune down there. That place was packed. And there were celebrities, too. Andy Warhol, Diana Ross, Bono, Keith Richards -- you name it, they were there. Lines of limos 3 blocks long. So that's how I became a DJ!
Then I met Steve Rubell, who owned Studio 54, and he was like, "I want you to come up to Studio 54 and do this." But at that time, Studio 54 was in its death-throes. So he goes, "It's not going to work here. I'm opening a new club called The Palladium, would you like to come try it out there? You can play '50s, '60s, and new stuff combined." So I said sure. And so out of nowhere, I had one of the top DJ gigs in the world. And that led to me going out and doing private parties for Steve Rubell and his friends. And if you know who Steve Rubell is -- well, all of his friends were millionaires and billionaires. I was doing parties in Europe, California, all over the place. I did things like Whitney Houston's wedding, Robert De Niro's wedding, John McEnroe's wedding, things like that. So that's the end of that story, but it all came from me thinking I had to get a '50s education, and me thinking that I was really good on the guitar -- and I was okay, but I never really was a guitar player. It was really my love of the '50s that led to me finally having a career that paid some money. I still do it to this day because it's too hard to walk away from it. It pays my bills.
That's a great way to have gotten into DJing. So at this point do you mainly play '50s and '60s stuff, or do you play everything?
You must have an insane record collection.
I do. I really do. I have it all broken down. I don't fool myself, though. A lot of DJs consider themselves artists. I think that's great if you're a mixologist, travelling the world doing all these raves, or whatever it is that Danny Tenaglia and all these DJs do. But I was never that way; I was always an entertainer, and a pop musician. And I was a little older than all those [big DJs]. I took my own route. A lot of people hate those wealthy people, but I think they're just people. Plus, they're great connections to have, especially for The Left Banke.
I haven't even drawn upon that yet. For instance, I am on speaking terms with the head of Time Warner. I can go into this office any time. If I asked him for a favor, he'd probably do it. But I don't want to start playing my trump cards until I feel that we've got Steve Martin back. The most important thing is to get the original group back in total. Not that there's anything wrong with the current group, it's just that as of now, the emphasis has been on live shows, not recording new material. As we progress it will become evident who will be involved in the new album.
Anything else that I've forgotten to ask about?
Tom Feher and I are writing a book together! We're just about finished. It's 340 pages at the moment.
So it's about The Left Banke?
Well, The Left Banke are the central figures in the story, but it's about life in Greenwich Village and Tin Pan Alley in the '60s. It's all real. It's all of our lives individually before The Left Banke, how it led to The Left Banke, and what our lives were after The Left Banke broke up. Plus all of the people that were around us. All the groups from The Village, and all the people that were around. I've been working with Tom on this for the last year. Almost every night, I write for at least an hour or two, giving Tom stories about what happened at this recording session, who played on this, how it happened, all of this stuff! It's really in-depth. Feher thinks that this is [going to be really big]. He says this is a much better book than many others that have sold well. You know, Tom Feher is great with words, and I'm great with remembering.
When do you think that's going to come out?
We're looking for a publisher now. So far, the response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive. Tom Feher is a great writer. Now, we have to decide who'll be the one. We're looking at which one will give an advance, and more importantly, which one really understands who The Left Banke is, and what we meant to music. It's just a matter of choosing the right publisher now.
Is there a title?
Yeah, but I can't repeat it. It's something that you could probably guess. "Left Banke-rupt." [laughs]
[laughs] I'm really looking forward to it. Tom, I've never done an interview this long.
You want to do the whole thing over again? [laughs]
[laughs] No, and thank you!
'Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina' and 'The Left Banke Too' are being reissued on vinyl and CD in June. Head over to Sundazed Records to pre-order your copies today!