New Heathens

Like A Rolling Clone

Just finished reading a very funny book called "Like A Rolling Stone" in which author Steven Kurutz chronicles the dim glories and rationalized rocking of dudes who play in Rolling Stones tribute bands. Kurutz writes in particular about one mildly dysfunctional, long-running Stones tribute act called Sticky Fingers.

The book probably resonated with me more than the average reader because I know more than a lot of folks about playing Stones covers.

I started singing Stones tunes with bands in high school. Being both mildly ambitious and wildly clueless, as a teen I earnestly surmised a few things I wanted to do in life: see the world, love pretty girls, make stuff that people like, freak some folks out and if I happened to get rich in the process, so be it. Rock Stardom seemed a logical career aspiration and more fun than law, banking, or even being a pro baseball player.

Mick Jagger made for an obvious role model because I was a better singer than I was a guitar player. Like anybody designing their own apprenticeship, I tried to learn as much as I could and then act the part. This meant pouring over Stones biographies like textbooks, memorizing every lyric and, even though they seemed ridiculous at first, learning every one of Mick's moves in the "Let's Spend The Night Together" concert film. I mean every one.

Because of my geographic isolation in Missoula, Montana, I came up with some pretty fanciful notions of how to actually become a rock star that, to date, just haven't panned out. One involved singing as many Stones songs with as many bands as possible.

I sang Stones covers with my high school band, Blue Monday and the Cockroaches, under the logic that the Stones themselves started out as a blues cover band, so I should start out as a Stones cover band. I also sang Stones with a handfull of bar bands in town who I was friendly with and who were gracious enough to invite me onstage. Then I sang Stones with my college band, Moxie. When I moved to New York and started auditioning for bands, I sang Stones because the Stones are a musical language that a lot of players understand and performing their songs was a good way to show off what I could do.

In the fall of 2001 I fell in with a group of college buddies, then in their late 20s, who loved playing the Stones and also and needed a singer. That band turned into The Goods and we gigged hard for years, mostly doing Stones tunes. Some of those gigs, especially the early ones, drew hundreds and hundreds of folks.

I was happy that so many people were there to hear me sing. But I was a little embarrassed that not one lyric that left my mouth was my own. Likewise I was thrilled that there were pretty girls everywhere. But I couldn't understand why none of them wanted anything to do with a lead singer who wore lipstick and tight pants. That was the exact opposite of what happened in those Jagger books.

It was the great cover band paradox, which Steven Kurutz nailed so well, of kinda' being exactly what I wanted, and kinda' not.

The next logical step was to take what I'd learned playing in those cover bands and try making my own original music and start my own band. Singing Stones covers both helped and hurt. It taught me the lay of the New York club scene, but let's face it, any beginning songwriter who compares his or her first attempts to "Gimme Shelter" and "Street Fighting Man" is going to feel discouraged.

Eventually, it all led to the New Heathens. But we struggled with the same things as almost every other baby band. Dragging people to our shows. Being broke. Arguments. Sure it was more satisfying artistically, but it was a lot less convenient than just turning up and belting out "Honky Tonk Women" to scores of party chicks.

Again, Kurutz describes this situation perfectly. I cringed when I read this paragraph on page 5:

"Most tribute performers either dreamed of being rock stars but ended up working more mundane jobs instead or they actually pursued a career in music that didn't work out. Maybe they were talented, but not talented enough. Or maybe they formed a roots-rock band and wrote earnest songs about the heartland and, in search of a record deal, moved to Hollywood in 1985, right around the time record companies were signing flashy hair-metal bands. Playing in a tribute band offers a second chance to experience stardom, however refracted. It is basically wish fulfillment - the rock and roll equivalent of those fantasy baseball camps where grown men suit up and take the field and bat balls around, something I've always found a little melancholy, but sort of endearing, too."

When I moved to the East Village a couple years back I fell in with a great band of guys who did a gig they called "Stones Karaoke." For this gig the guys comprised a backing band, and they invited audience members to come up and sing lead; be a guest Jagger. I became the group's vocalist "wrangler." My job was to warm up the crowd by singing a few songs, then be there to guide the guest vocalists, many of whom were singing with a live band for the first time. I didn't feel too self-conscious about the gig because, hey, my job was to help other people be faux-Jaggers, not be one myself. Plus I really liked the guys in the band, Epic, Doggie, and Pete. We all had done the hard, thankless original band thing and enjoyed being able to just turn up, plug in and rock out some of our favorite tunes

The lynchpin of this outfit was my buddy Gitano, a one-of-a-kind Argentinian character who looked like a tattooed version of Keith Richards circa 1981 (Tattoo You?). Gitano had it all: the moves, the licks, the clothes, even a custom-made guitar with a pearl inlet of a skull.

In short, he was to Keith Richards what I was to Mick Jagger.

The Dimmer Twins: Gitano and me

We did a lot of shows and had a lot of fun. Gitano and I ended up in a music video by one of the Stones' backup singers. And we experienced the weirdness of people coming out to see us, but wishing they were there to see somebody else. There was vague talk of turning Stones Karaoke into a bigger gig but it never happened. I think that's probably a good thing. Especially after reading about those beleaguered souls in "Like A Rolling Stone."

Gitano eventually followed his guitar down to Nashville. We still sometimes do Stones Karaoke up here (Pete's graduated from "Ronnie" to "Keith.") Next gig is Saturday, May 15 at Bar Nine in Hell's Kitchen.

Gitano and I are still buddies. We talked on the phone last week in fact. I asked him how he was doing.

"I'm good, I'm playing with another Stones band now," he said. "They're called Sticky Fingers."

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  1. Nate you are one-of-a-kind and I LOVED watching The Goods play…some of my best nights in NYC starred you on stage channeling M Jagger! Miss you dood. Lemme know when you’re in Balto again. Would love to buy you a beer!

  2. Katie B. Great to hear from you. I think that’s you dancing in one of those goofy videos I linked to. Big fun. Miss you too. You bet I’ll let you know the next time I’m in B-more.

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