Living in this darkworld

March 23, 2009 · 6 comments

Someone and the Somebodies was the first local band I saw perform, but the first band I reviewed when I returned to Boston was the Dark, a quirky quintet with a hyperkinetic punky sound and a black (uh, dark) sense of humor.

Even though they were a new band, they played mostly original material. Their two notable covers were a version of “Secret Agent Man” played at breakneck speed and retitled “George Bush” (Bush #41, Reagan’s newly-appointed director of the CIA), and an equally fast version of “Smoke on the Water,” which remained in their set list as an encore.

They were shopping a three-song promo cassette around which contained this gem, “Moral Majority”:

 

The song gives you a good idea of what the band sounded like: herky-jerk rhythms, tight ensemble playing (similar to early XTC), and snarky lyrics half-sung/half-yelped by a vocalist with an impressive range.

You either loved the Dark or hated them; there was no middle ground. The Globe‘s music critic described them as an “artsy annoyance” and a “boring contrivance.” I thought they were a necessary counterpart to most of the guitar-driven music being made in the city, saying as much in this review. (I know it’s unreadable due to poor scanning, but I assure you it was incisive — and it looked cool.)

Guitarist Roger Greenawalt conducted a relentless PR campaign to get the band noticed. He hosted pancake breakfasts every Sunday following a Saturday gig. The band’s crashpad on Mt. Auburn street in Watertown (known from that time forward as “Darkworld Headquarters” regardless of the band actually living there) would fill up with other musicians, writers, and hangers-on who exchanged news about who played where and for how much, who was booking shows,  and where to find cheap rehearsal space.

Later in the year Roger announced that the band had been acquired by an unseen benefactor, Wade Steel, who took on the PR job while the band practiced. They brought in a new bassist and a percussionist (both from the Berklee School of Music) to improve their sound. In the fall of 1981 “Mr. Steel” made good on his promise and released the Dark’s first single, “Judy,” in which Roger confesses his stalker-level infatuation with Judy Grunwald, singer for The Maps:

 

In addition to name-checking the hipster hangouts (the Channel, the BFVF (Boston Film/Video Foundation)), Roger created a bit of a stir with the line “I’m really glad you dumped your boyfriend/He looks like an East German border guard.” Judy hadn’t dumped her boyfriend; he and she didn’t take it very well.

What I noticed about the Dark was that they were musicians who could really play, which was both an asset and a limitation in a scene that valued raw energy over craft. But they kept at it, releasing two more EPs: Darkworld (1983) and Don’t Feed the Fashion Sharks (1984), both receiving only a lukewarm reception from the press. They were tighter, more polished, as you can hear on “What I Need”:

 

Roger thought the Dark needed to make a go of it in New York; his bandmates disagreed, so Roger left for the city alone and the Dark was no more. But this is where it gets interesting.

I tell people if you knew someone in a Boston band, you automatically knew members of other bands — the scene was too small to avoid cross-fertilization. So follow along: singer Jace Wilson was involved with the singer/bassist for the Young Snakes, a newcomer named Aimee Mann. Jace and Aimee broke up, percussionist Mike Hausman left the band after Darkworld, got involved with Aimee and co-founded her new band, ‘Til Tuesday. You may have heard of them, they had a hit with “Voices Carry.”

Judy Grunwald left the Maps (which became ArtYard) and formed Salem 66, recording an EP and two full-length albums.

When Roger left, Jace, drummer Clark Goodpaster, bassist Matt Gruenberg, and keyboardist Bob Familiar found a new guitarist and continued on as Life on Earth. When Jace and Bob packed it in, Clark, Matt, and Reeves found an amazing vocalist — Gabrielle Travis — and regrouped as The Atom Said, still legendary as Boston’s greatest unrecorded band. Reeves became the guitarist in David Bowie’s Tin Machine project.

Ten years ago (actually January 22, 1994 – thanks, Steve Latham!) Roger, who was now a producer, brought one of the bands he signed to Boston. He made a few calls and managed to set up a reunion show featuring the Young Snakes and The Dark. I brought Diane to the show so she could finally hear what I had been raving about for years. Although my perception of the show was altered by nostalgia, both bands played killer sets. The pressure to succeed was long gone; they were a bunch of old friends playing for each other.

Aimee Mann, Mike Evans (photo by Steve Latham)

Aimee Mann, Mike Evans (photo by Steve Latham)

A “greatest hits” set would have been more than enough, but that’s not what Roger had in mind. Before the Dark’s set began, a recording was played over the PA. Although I couldn’t make out all the words, the voice was unmistakable — it was Judy Grunwald, reading something about restraining orders and court-appointed psychiatrists. As the rest of the band took the stage, Roger was wheeled out on a hand cart, strapped in and wearing a straitjacket and face guard a la Hannibal Lecter. He escaped from his confinements, jumped to the stage, launched into “Judy,” and the crowd went wild.

Jace "Hannibal" Wilson (photo by Steve Latham)

Jace “Hannibal” Wilson (photo by Steve Latham)

Jace Wilson, Roger Greenanwalt (photo by Steve Latham)

Jace Wilson, Roger Greenanwalt (photo by Steve Latham)

All of this came back to me while I was converting the old Dark singles and EPs to MP3s for my iTunes library. Not long after, I learned that Brooklyn-based record producer was embarking on a project to record every Beatles song on ukulele. Who was the producer? Roger Greenawalt.

And Judy? She dumped her boyfriend and married David Minehan of Boston legends the Neighborhoods — he found “The Prettiest Girl.”

6 comments

Roger March 24, 2009 at 5:53 pm

All true!

Except it was Jace, not me who was wrapped up as Hannibal Lechter.

I miss Judy every day.
Roger

David March 24, 2009 at 7:07 pm

Jace, really? So much for my memory.

As these coincidences seem to work out, I’m listening to Judy now, ripping tracks from the first Salem 66 EP and LP to fill in the omissions from the Your Soul Is Mine, Fork It Over compilation CD.

Martin March 25, 2009 at 10:02 am

Ah, yes. No one served up morning-after omelets and mimosas like The Dark….

David March 25, 2009 at 10:14 am

Roger was pretty adept with the spatula, even after a long night of performing and hanging out. At one of those brunches I learned that Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” sounded much better played at 45 rpm, the result of an experiment conducted by V’s Gary Gogol.

Steve Latham April 5, 2009 at 11:27 am

I have pictures from The Dark/The Young Snakes reunion show on my website. The show was January 22, 1994. The band that Roger produced was called Eve’s Plum. I have a lot of great memories from this show, but only a few pictures. I fell in love with Eve’s Plum that night, and I went to every show of theirs that I could get to from that point on until their untimely break up. Peter Wolf (who was dating Aimee Mann at the time) was standing right behind me for most of the show. I have both of The Dark ep’s. If anyone has digitized them I would love copies. Also, Roger if you have anything on Eve’s Plum, pictures, unreleased tracks, or stories I would love to get my hands on it. I am putting together an Eve’s Plum website.

David April 6, 2009 at 7:20 pm

Thanks, Steve. I added a few of the photos to my post (with credit to you).

Another entry in the “small world” department: The Young Snakes review referenced in the Wikipedia article (did you write it?) was written by me.

I also have a Peter Wolf story from that evening: I took my wife to the show, which we watched from the balcony because she couldn’t see over people’s heads. Sitting all the way in the right rear corner from us was a skinny guy in sunglasses whom I recognized as Wolf, and a rather large beefy companion.

At one point in the show we moved to our right so we could see around the legendary Paradise central support column. Beefy guy got up, walked over to us, and said “Mr. Wolf would like you to back off.” I don’t know what he thought would happen – would we beg for autographs? – but I was put off by that level of presumption. I looked at the guy, knowing now that he was a bodyguard (!), and said, loud enough for his precious client to hear, “Who’s Mr. Wolf?”

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