Bert and Earnest: A Punk Pioneer Tells All

Never has anyone smashed garbage cans and powered NYC post-punk quite like Bob Bert, who tells the whole tale in his new book, I’m Just the Drummer.

I’m Just The Drummer by Bob Bert on HoZac Books

Bob Bert can’t be stopped. I just went to his birthday party recently where he was telling me about the 108 shows the latest combo he drums for, Jon Spencer & the HITmakers, have done since last fall.

And mind you, Bob isn’t just brushing out some lounge numbers, he is bashing away at an array of drums, garbage cans and various pieces of junkyard detritus to get that “Bob sound.” Bert has been around long enough to see rock ‘n’ roll morph into drab stadium rock, get re-energized by punk rock’s late-70s detonation, and finally, by the mid-80s, took up the cause himself, as a constant drum pounder around the post-punk underworld of the Lower East Side.

After zipping around the late-70s/early-80s Lower East Side scene, Bert finally fell into his first band, Drunk Driving, in 1981. But he soon became the “2nd and 4th” drummer in the explosive founding days of Sonic Youth, then took his can-trashing talents to the legendary Pussy Galore –  helping turn the nascent lineups into two of the gnarliest and most influential bands the Big Apple has puked out since the original punk explosion.

 

 

Between leaving stages broken on Pussy Galore tours, he held down the fort at Pier Platters record store in New Jersey, at its height, one of the best record stores on the east coast. He ran his own great ‘90s music mag, BB Gun, and continued to clang mondo with the Chrome Cranks, fronted his own band, Bewitched, and, and… well the lineup of trash action major domos Bert has propped up is long, not to mention the array of bohemian alley denizens he’s hung out with along the way. You can read about it all in his first book, characteristically humbly titled, I’m Just the Drummer, on HoZac Books

Mostly an eye-popping collection of amazing scene photos Bob has snapped along the way, the tales he tells in between shuffle out simply and honestly. And portions of cool old BB Gun articles are included, a welcome sight since it ain’t exactly easy finding those old zines. In general, the collection benefits greatly from covering mostly a 1990s to 2000s underground rock era that has not yet been over-saturated with music history tomes.   

With Bob Bert’s contributions to so many strains of the grimiest, unruliest, NYC noise, you might think he’d be a ubiquitously grumpy old rocker by now, griping about record deals gone bad, ex-bandmates, or how “It was so much cooler back then, man.” Instead, Bob Bert bounds into a club as if enmeshed with the hazy neon lights right behind him, offering up warm beams of stories and open-eared wonder about a new band he heard. And again, he just can’t stop hitting pieces of metal. Jon Spencer & the Hitmakers have more European shows coming up this summer; and there’s Wolfmanhattan Project, Bert’s latest supergroup featuring Kid Congo Powers (Cramps, Gun Club, Pink Monkey Birds) and Mick Collins (Gories, Dirtbombs), whose excellent debut LP is out now on In the Red Records.

I was able to snare (cough, cough) Bert for a few quick thoughts about his drumming his way through the underbelly of the alternative rock nation, circa end of the century.  

 

 

You’re one of the nicest people, and yet here you are, perpetually playing with scowling roughnecks. So do you feel that’s part of your job — to be the calming ballast in a group of sometimes angry punks?

No, I don’t feel that’s part of my job, but of course I’ve had to deal with some crazy personalities and frictions between other band members. I just in general have had an easy-going attitude, and never was one to blow my cool and usually try to keep things calm and drama-free. The current and last few band situations I’ve been in have been pretty professional and lots of fun. I feel blessed to still be rocking and touring the world as an elderly person.

 

I notice in the book, you jump from 1955 to 1969 in one page — anything from those 14 years you want to tell us?

Well the page entitled “1969” pretty much tells the story of my adolescence. I lived a pretty normal family life 10 minutes out or NYC, in suburbia. I turned 14 in 1969, and that’s when I first took acid and started smoking pot, which I still do 40 years later. Not acid – was done with that a real long time ago. 

Bob Bert and his MGB / photo courtesy of Bob Bert

There’s a great photo in the book (p. 13) of your teen self leaning on a cool ‘60s car. You said you had a story about that car, right?

The orange MGB that I’m sitting on was my second or third car. It was a convertible British sports car with two seats. When it was running, it was a blast. 4 on the floor, wire spoke wheels. It was constantly getting repaired and eating up what little money I had. I remember one night, either 1975 or ‘76, me and a friend were driving back to Jersey from seeing the Ramones at CBGB. It was like 3 a.m. and we’d just finished a joint. Coming out of the Lincoln tunnel, I got a flat tire. We went off the first exit and tried to change it, but it was on so tight we couldn’t get it to budge. So I called AAA for help. An hour or so later, a few thugs in a tow truck pull up, and as they are changing the tire they’re calling us fags and making fun of the car. I don’t think I had it as long as a year.

 

Got a quick memory or story from these bands mentioned briefly in your book: Speedies, Erasers, STP?

I loved all three of those bands. The Speedies were a blast of pure teenage jumping around pop with the singer throwing cereal around. They put out great singles, the second one produced by Clem Burke (Blondie). I remember seeing them once at Bonds, that gigantic place in Times Square where the Clash played multiple nights. It was a weeknight and no one was there, so they invited the few of us that were there on stage when they played.

The Erasers I loved. They never really caught on and were such a good girl band, with Walter Lure’s brother Richie on guitar. I saw them a lot. Susan Springfield, who dated Richard Hell back then, just recently passed away after just becoming a judge.

 

 

STP were good friends and a great band with Julie Cafritz, straight out of Pussy Galore. Bewitched and STP played our first show together at Maxwell’s. There’s a flyer for it in my book. Thurston and Kim were there and asked both bands to come on their Goo tour. Bewitched did the east coast and then got bounced off the tour for some band called Nirvana who had Dale Crover drumming for them at the time. It sucks that none of those three bands ever recorded a full album. 

 

 

I’m wondering if you have any memories seeing the Coachmen, Thurston Moore’s pre-Sonic Youth band?

No, never saw the Coachmen, didn’t even know of their existence until joining Sonic Youth. Everyone that saw them said that the front line consisted of very tall dudes, like a basketball team. 

 

 

Can you give me a good story from that Savage Blunder Tour with Sonic Youth in 1983?

It was the first tour for both bands, each with a freshly released EP. Ten people in a van with no back seats, all over each other, everyone smoking cigarettes non-stop except me. There was a U-Haul attached with the equipment. I was just starting out as a drummer and was using Jonathan Kane’s enormous kit. Lots of shows to like five people. I remember one with some cowboys yelling “Free Bird” after every song. Michael Gira fighting with various band members and jumping into the crowd at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, GA, and pummeling some guy for pogoing. Did I mention that both bands were loud as fuck at the time?

 

 

You mention how Neil Hagerty wore shorts for a whole Pussy Galore tour — yet I think the pix in your book are the only ones I’ve ever seen of him in shorts. Pussy Galore must’ve had some good photo editors!

That was the very last tour that we did, It was me, Jon, Neil, and Kurt – no pussy! I was the only one who brought a camera on these tours, that’s why my book is so rad, ha ha. 

 

Regarding BB Gun – any printing horror stories, like a batch came with blotched pages, or upside down, or anything like that?

Not really. The only weird story was with the Vincent Gallo issue, #6. He insisted on being on the cover, so he asks if he can use his own photographer. I suggest Richard Kern, whom he approves. Kern was always awesome with BB Gun and offered to do it for free. So we do the photos, and I say to Gallo, “I’ll show you the contact sheet and you can pick a photo you like.” He says that’s cool I trust you guys. Vincent Gallo and Richard Hell are the only two interviews I did that I let them read and edit before going to press. Anyway, we pick a cover shot and get it printed. I send 25 copies to Vincent and never get a response. I email him to ask if he received them. He wrote back “DID YOU HAVE TO PICK THE WORST PHOTO OF ME EVER TAKEN?” Turned out to be the best-selling issue, our distribution really picked up. So we ran a second edition with a photo he approved on the cover. That’s why there are two different covers of that issue in the book. 

Bewitched / photo courtesy of Bob Bert

What was your hardest interview to do for BB Gun?

Moe Tucker (Velvet Underground drummer). it was on the phone and came out okay, but was very awkward. I got off on the wrong foot. I was commending her on the Velvet Underground album, Loaded, that had just been reissued at the time. Of course it slipped my mind that she didn’t play on that album. I had to unfriend her on Facebook a few years ago because she was posting a lot of racist shit. 

 

Got a good Nancy Sinatra story for me? Or J.G. Thirlwell?

Hmm, Nancy was great, I was friends with her daughter who lived in Hoboken at the time. I did the interview on the phone, but I went to see her at the Bottom Line, and her daughter got me backstage before the show. It was this tiny room with a few goons surrounding her. She had her hair in big curlers, and I got my Playboy and a bunch of records signed. Met her a few times after that.

I go back to ‘84 with J.G. Thirlwell, there’re some stories. I was in his first version of a live band, but got fired right before the tour, which probably was a good thing at the time. He’s an amazing talent and a super cool friend. He still goes out practically every night checking out some sort of music or performance. 

 

What was it like working with producer Steve Albini?

It was great, he was just starting out as an engineer, but really knew his shit. We were one of the first bands he worked with, and we Pussy Galore did a bunch of shows with Big Black. Steve worked on Right Now!, Sugarshit Sharp, Dial M For Motherfucker; and he came out to Hoboken to record Bewitched’s Harshing My Mellow. I always thought he was really funny and got along with him fine.

 

 

Dura-Delinquent were a pretty good trash-glam band of the mid-90s. They make a quick appearance in your book. I feel like they’re sort of forgotten at this point. Anything you’d want to say about them?

Well, they were great when Chrome Cranks first came across them in Monterey. They came out to The Funhouse – Jerry Teel’s studio in NYC – and recorded, and we did a tour of Europe with them. A few years later, the Knoxville Girls were playing L.A. and had them open for us. People we knew were like, “Are you sure you want them?” We were like, of course. One of the worst image overhauls I’ve ever seen. They went from sharkskin suits and pumps to bellbottom jeans and mustaches. The drummer had an American Flag draped over the bass drum. They turned into a fourth-rate Doobie Brothers. I still run into a few of them on occasion. Groovy kids. 

 

 

So obviously you played with Jon Spencer in Pussy Galore, but how did the new HITmakers band come together?

The HITmakers happened because Jon recorded Spencer Sings the Hits (In the Red, 2018), his first solo album with M. Sord on drums and Quasi, Heatmiser, Elliott Smith band member, Sam Coomes, on bass keyboard and synths, Jon overdubbed a bunch of metal percussion on it. I got enlisted to play a metal percussion kit with hammers and rods for the live shows. The HITmakers are a hard-working machine, very professional. In the last 10 months since forming, we have played 108 shows in the USA, Europe, and Japan. I had been touring the world with Lydia Lunch Retrovirus for the past six years which was a much wilder experience as far as stories go. That was dwindling down when I got the call from Jon.

Wolfmanhattan Project’s debut album, Blue Gene Stew, was just released by In The Red Records. We will be playing more shows and recording more this year as everyone’s schedule permits.

 

 

 

 

Eric Davidson

Eric Davidson is a freelance writer from Queens; singer of New Bomb Turks; author of We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988–2001, and former Managing Editor of CMJ. Follow him @lanceforth.

3 thoughts on “Bert and Earnest: A Punk Pioneer Tells All

  • July 17, 2019 at 10:55 am
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    What a great interview. And special respect for the Pansy Division t-shirt in the Dee Dee Ramone photo.

    Reply
  • July 20, 2019 at 12:52 am
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    Isn’t that picture near the top of the Muffs (Roy McDonald, Ronnie Barrett, and Kim Shattuck) and Dee Dee Ramone? Why I think that it is.

    Reply

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