Joe Bonomo’s wonderful biography of the Fleshtones in in stores now. It’s an endlessly entertaining tour of 30 years (and counting…) in the life of a band that’s been up and down – mostly down, but a band that I sincerely hope never calls it a day. Here’s an extract from the mid-90s, to keep the Quebec theme going over the weekend…
The evening that ended up inspiring and reviving Peter [Zaremba] came in inauspicious circumstances. The Fleshtones had driven up from New York to play a weekend in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, both decent performances in front of encouraging crowds. The next day, in a fiercely driving rain, they departed Monkton, New Brunswick for Quebec City. “The rain turned into ice,” Peter remembers. “Ice, ice, ice. And little by little that became snow. By the time we were heading across into Quebec, we were in the first really bad blizzard of the year. Somehow, we pushed through.” Quebec City was a good, reliable place for the Fleshtones to play, a region where they had fans who dependably turned out for shows. The venue where they were playing was one of their favorites, a building dating to the eighteenth century that rubbed up against the old walls and cannons of the city.
But the snow accumulation was so heavy that everyone assumed the snow would be canceled. “We showed up and played the show to, maybe, seven people. We had to. It was semi-heartbreaking. We had really battled through to get there, at times literally plowing through snow on the road, maniacs driving through this storm on roads that were solid ice. We made it to the show, and only a few friends showed up.” Some kids informed the guys that the Fleshtones were playing at the wrong venue (“They always say that,” laments Peter) and invited them to soothe their spirits at a friend’s video club down the block. “We hung out there and the guy gave us whatever we wanted to drink. People were smoking hash oil, and normally I would not do that, but that night I felt, What the hell. So I’m smoking and drinking and watching video clips.”
In the looped and blurry shenanigans of a night marked by sinking valor and rising sorrows, somebody at some point slid Elvis Presley’s 1968 television “Comeback Special” into the VCR. “I hadn’t watched that since the seventies,” Peter says. With increasing attention, Peter and the small crowd watched the show, and by the end were glued to the set. “What struck me that night was a real revelation: Elvis was constantly able to transmit the rhythm of whatever song he was singing to the viewer. Always! He was a conduit. He was genius! He could do it. You didn’t have to struggle to understand where the beat was because you were watching it and he was giving it to you, and he just wouldn’t stop! It was amazing. He was really transmitting the 2 and the 4 to an audience which has trouble finding the 2 and the 4. It was infectious and wonderful.”
Watching thirty-two-year-old Elvis find and translate the beat – watching Elvis find himself again after the calcified years in Hollywood singing appalling soundtrack songs – was nothing short of inspirational to Peter. Like so many before him, Peter had somehow forgotten about Elvis, had taken him and his mythic status for granted. Peter watched Elvis bathed in the red, mock-heroic E-L-V-I-S lights swing into a gospel number that built and built and built, Elvis trying to top himself with each sweaty measure, reaching an ecstatic point and then leaping on top of it, offering his hand to the crowd and leaping back into the thrill of performing. “Sometimes I find and transmit the beat, sometimes I don’t, but watching Elvis made me feel so much better,” Peter says passionately. “I had an epiphany that night. It gave me a renewed desire to sing and to be onstage. I’ve gotta do more, I’ve gotta help people, I’ve gotta be onstage. That night I’d been asking myself, Why do this? It’s so disappointing and I’m making a fool of myself. It’s hard not making any money and going home broke.
“During the drive back the next day, everyone was really down. I was very upbeat. Guys, I said, We watched Elvis!
“I was reenergized.”
Peter had needed a visceral reminder of Why and How, and he got it, cutting through his own blues on a frigid night hundreds of miles away from home. The evening was buried deep in a glum era that was fated to end.
The simple but profound sight of Elvis Presley rediscovering the joy that had made music a spiritual and sexual force not only invigorated and fortified Peter, it helped to smooth out the contradictions that had been building inside of him. “Let contradictions prevail!” sang Walt Whitman. “Let one thing contradict another!” The bardic Whitman recognized that what makes us complex and interesting as individuals are our contradictions, the mess of humanity worth singing about.
Self-centered and self-effacing. Controlling and reckless. Silly and smart. Bigheaded and humble. Difficult and generous. Intolerant and curious. Peter Michael Zaremba had amassed a hoard of tensions that motivated him as a man, a songwriter, and a performer. As the Fleshtones approached their twentieth anniversary, those tensions would continue to pull Peter and the band in interesting, sometimes maddening, directions. The Fleshtones were embarking on an era wherein they would make music that thrilled them, satisfied them, and energized them, but that threatened to make their already obscure status vanish entirely.