THE FIERCE LENNY C.
Photo by Jason Gross
Fiction by Jim Rader
The first drummer to quit my second band was Joey Fortunato, ten days before our first gig at The London Club, located on Third Avenue off East Thirteenth Street. Joey had been threatening to quit ever since we squelched his band name The Realm of Sound. Joey might have played the first gig had co-guitarist Ron not exploded into laughter over the loopy band name. "Joey, 'The Realm of Sound'? That sounds like a tagline for an old stereo company."
"What?" Joey hit his crash cymbal. "Well, it's a helluva lot better than your shitty name. 'The Submediterraneans', what the hell is that supposed to mean?"
Again, Ron haughtily laughed whereas bassist Morris sighed.
"Dig it, Joey," I said, "The correct name is 'The Sub-ter-raneans'. It means, like, underground people, hip people."
"It was also the title of a novel by Jack Kerouac," added Morris.
"A novel by who? Now you're all ganging up on me again, same old shit. Well, maybe I ain't no great intellectual, but the audience ain't gonna get that name."
"Oh, you'd be surprised, Joey," I said. "Listen, you gotta move with the times, dude, it's a different scene out there now."
Several years ago, Joey had played with major label act The Purple Gang, considered by some to be the first punk rock band. Despite much hype and touring the band failed and was subsequently bounced by the label. The Purple Gang's fizzle notwithstanding, Joey still missed his band of Bronx high school buddies, claiming the more successful Ramones had ripped off their look.
All winter, Joey had rehearsed with us in a Times Square studio right across the giant neon FUJI sign, studio owner Hank a morose hippie who constantly reeked of weed. Hank recorded our four- song demo in a smaller, adjoining room, two tracks turning out surprisingly decent.
Although pleased with the demo, Joey nonetheless quit the band by phoning Hank just before rehearsal. I showed ten minutes late, Morris and Ron looking glum, their guitars in their cases.
"That idiot deliberately left us stuck for a drummer before our first gig," seethed Ron. "Now what are we gonna do?"
"Well, we're here," I said, "might as well jam for a while."
Ron said he wasn't "in the mood," Morris' frown silently agreeing.
Several hours later, I ran into old drummer friend Lenny Cusano, professionally known as Lenny C., in the Lower East Side watering hole El Centro. I'd never played with Lenny, his main credits neo-psychedelic band Brave New World and the oddly named Phillip Charnel Quartet, who did not play jazz.
Lenny's face alarmingly pale, his thin lips tightly shut, I approached his small wooden table, its other chair unoccupied. El Centro had the same stench as CBGB's where we'd met four years ago, Lenny three years my junior.
"Why, it's none other than 'the fierce Lenny C.,'" I greeted, quoting a Voice critic.
"Oh, hello, Jim." Lenny slumped in his squeaky wooden chair, his long blue-jeaned legs sticking out from under the table. His look was the same-as-ever, shiny Beatlehair and prescription sunglasses.
"Gee, Lenny, don't sound so enthusiastic, it's only been a year," I jested. But something was eating him. "Hey, are you alright? What's going on, dude?" He downed his beer. "You want another one, Lenny? It's on me."
"Yeah, that would be cool. Sorry I'm so out of it."
El Centro had no waitress. I went to the bar and returned with two steins. "Did you just get back from a tour, Lenny?"
"That isn't the half of it." He downed half the new beer. "The Philip Charnel Quartet is no more."
"What? But the album got mostly good reviews, especially in the English press."
"You need more than good reviews to stay on a big label. They want sales. The record sold in England, but, you know, that's like saying it sold in Ohio. And Mr. Charnel's habits certainly didn't help matters."
"So, he got strung out on smack again. Christ, that is depressing. I ran into Holly when the album came out and she said he was clean." I took a long pull on my beer. "I never did understand him."
"Welcome to the club."
"Yes, who can lay claim to being a professional Charnelologist?"
Lenny smiled, so I made the pitch. "Listen, I got a new band together now, a two- guitar thing called The Subterraneans. Our drummer quit this afternoon and we got a decent gig coming up in, like, ten days."
"Hmm. I'm not sure I can do it. I've been getting a lot of calls. Where's the gig?"
"A new place, The London Club, just a few blocks away. We got a guarantee of a flat hundred bucks. You'll get paid and you won't have to chip in for rehearsal costs."
"Maybe I can do it. But I should tell you out front that I'm auditioning for Jean Paul X's new band. You got a tape?"
"Yeah, right on me." I handed him a cassette. "I think you'll dig our second guitarist Ron, he plays a lot like Charnel. Dig, Lenny, we just want to get started, nobody's gonna bug you about joining. That will be your decision."
"Well, I'll check out the tape and call you, either way. But tell me out front, is Ron messing around with heroin at all?"
"No way, man," I laughed. "Ron is a junior executive at AT&T."
Lenny C.'s prescription shades couldn't hide his puzzled expression. "Jim, are you putting me on? I can never tell when you're being serious or facetious."
"No, no put-on, dude."
"A clean Philip Charnel," he brightened. "Well, hearing is believing. I'll call you tomorrow."
Lenny bought the next round, spilling his guts about touring and recording with Philip Charnel: "As you may already know, a doctor told Philip to quit drinking four years ago because his liver was shot. Philip had no dope connection in the Midwest, so he drank a lot instead, waking me up at four in the morning, groaning about his liver."
"Jesus, that's terrible. But at least the album came out well. No way could Charnel have played all those great guitar solos while he was fucked-up."
Lenny smirked bitterly. "Most of those great solos aren't him. Charnel was so drunk they had to bring in a session guy. This dude could play like anybody. He didn't have Philip's soul, but that's so hard to capture on tape anyhow. They called the session guy when Charnel showed an hour late, drunk as hell, carrying an almost empty fifth of Remy Martin."
"Remy Martin, huh? Well, at least he has taste."
That got a laugh out of him. For a while, there it was like old times.
We split El Centro after midnight, parting on Second Avenue, our apartments in opposite directions.
Lenny called the next day. "Yeah, you weren't just putting me on, Ron sounds a lot like Philip. And those last two tracks came out pretty good."
I gave him the studio's address and the date/time of the first rehearsal. Then I called Morris and Ron, with Morris pleased by the news, Ron overexcited: "Wow, you got 'the fierce Lenny C.', you pulled it off."
"Yeah, hooray for me, but I doubt he'll join. Jean Paul X is after him. Jean Paul's got more of a name than me and is more connected."
"Oh, c'mon Jim, Jean Paul X is nothing, we'll blow him away. Why must you always play devil's advocate?"
The Subterraneans was Ron's first band. He sounded like me when I had my first band.
"Don't get your hopes up, Ron. Jean Paul and Lenny C. are peers. I never toured like those guys, never got any real press."
"Dude, you're being too modest."
"Oh, really. Well, don't come crying the blues to me if Lenny opts out. The only way I could see him joining is if something clicks at the gig. If it turns out you're right, beers are on me."
Though lesser-known, Lenny C. was as powerful a drummer as Led Zeppelin's John Bonham or Kiss' Peter Criss. Lenny never did quite fit in with Brave New World, its other members salient connoisseurs of hallucinogens. I ran into Lenny on Second Avenue shortly after he quit them, announcing he was taking up with Charnel, who'd magically come by a major label deal.
The Philip Charnel Quartet's first and last album The Mystery of Life was a curious item. Erstwhile sideman Charnel was a fiery blues guitarist like '60s legend Mike Bloomfield, his guitar prowess showcased on only two album songs. Mystery marked his debut as a singer and songwriter. A few songs had catchy riffs, but his voice was worse than mine, his lyrics not much better than the album's title. It got mixed reviews.
The three rehearsals with Lenny C. went well except for two things: (1) Lenny C. was too damn loud for our moderate volume. (2) Ron gushingly fawned over Lenny C., the two casually bonding over the New York Yankees and Ron's "main man" Robert DeNiro.
After the midtown rehearsals Lenny and I would head downtown, Ron to the Upper West Side, Morris to the Upper East Side's Yorkville area. Lenny had never heard of Yorkville. On the long train ride downtown, Lenny and I would talk about obscure defunct bands.
At the first rehearsal, Lenny offered to chip in, but Ron and Morris wouldn't have it. Later Ron phoned me: "I've been playing Lenny C. like a poker player."
"Dude, I don't get your analogy."
"I didn't think you would. Just get ready to cough up for those beers after he joins."
After I helped Lenny load his drums into his car, he said, "I hate to tell you this, but an English Subterraneans just put out a single."
"Oh well, that's the rock biz for you. But please keep that under your hat till after the set."
It was a pleasant evening, the third or fourth day of spring. Ron and Morris were in The London Club when we arrived. The room had no monitors or stage but did have good acoustics. We drew about twenty friends, including Jean Paul X, a quiet guy with dreadlocks. While playing, I often looked at Lenny C. to keep him on cue whereas "poker player" Ron fawningly smiled on him throughout the forty-minute set.
I picked up our cash payment from the owner/bartender, Ron's wife Joanie right behind me: "Give Lenny more money," she whispered. I was alright with that as we'd been paid ten bucks over the guarantee.
I headed over to Lenny. "Here's your cut. Thanks again, great job."
He counted the bills. "Why am I getting more?"
"You're not getting more. For some reason, we got paid more than the guarantee."
Lenny and I dropped my gear off then picked up some beer and went to his place. He played some old records, we had a few laughs as in days of yore, then Lenny C. quit The Submediterraneans: "I gotta admit, I had fun tonight. It's a better band than your first one. But I'm giving my notice now."
"Yeah. Jean Paul got a deal for a single. It's a small label, but an honest one."
"Cool. But when I tell Ron, he's gonna be crushed."
"That's why I told you. I knew you'd understand." He smiled strangely. "I also got a call from Mr. Charnel yesterday. He's got some new material and is clean again."
"Lenny, gimme a break, I warned you to stay away from the guy a year ago."
He looked hurt. I felt like his older brother, a feeling my contemporary Philip Charnel had likely experienced. "Sorry for being so blunt, Lenny. Guess I should split."
Lenny saw me to the door. "Charnel's call came out of the blue," he said. "I guess he caught me off-guard, and you know how charming he can be when he wants something."
"Yeah, I have seen that side of him. No hard feelings, man?"
"No man, no hard feelings."
Ron got so depressed about Lenny C. quitting that the band went on a two-week hiatus. When Ron snapped out of it, he phoned me. "Get this, Mr. Rock Star Lenny Cusano is temping in my company's mailroom."
"Yeah, he told me he'd been temping around. So, what else is new?"
"Well, I thought of a great new band name--- The Visionaries."
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