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Hangin' On In Harlem

2 nights with Guided By Voices and the Strokes at the Apollo Theater
By Ed Kinsella

As we climb to the 2nd floor of the Apollo Theatre, I spot a thin young Italian with a thick mop of curly black hair.  His red t-shirt with “1988” on it looked like that was about the age of it and the jeans and Chuck Taylor high top shoes completed the look I recognized from MTV.  This was the drummer from that Strokes video.  The one that is so simple and yet so brilliant – sticking out like a beacon in the night for all the rock fans in  this Backstreet Boys/Nsync era.   Just the band on an abandoned soundstage from a 70’s game show playing live to no one in particular and yet to everyone at the same time.  He’s the guy knocking off his cymbals and destroying his kit as the song ends.  His name is actually “Fab.” 

And how fab he and his bandmates are these days.  In addition to be the musical guest on Saturday Night Live on January 19th, they are currently leading the league in “Album of the Year” titles – last week alone they garnered New York Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and Time Magazine.  Have I mentioned the UK yet?  Oh, yeah over there they are the new Beatles – album of the year, DJ’s re-mixing songs with Christina Aguilera hits to make dance club sensations, music magazine NME named lead singer Julian Casablancas the “Sexiest Male Performer.,”  and 2 singles made their annual top ten list.

“Hey Bob!” Fab yells.  “Can you do me a favor?”    Before Bob can answer, Fab continues with the enthusiasm of a teenager  -- “Can you sign this for me?  We’re gonna put it up in our new office!”

“New office?”  Bob replies.  “You guys got a new office?”  “Well… we HAVE an office now,” he sheepishly replies.  He seems almost to be embarrassed  by their incredible meteoric rise.

“Cool.  Do you have a pen?” says Bob.  That’s Bob as in Bob Pollard, the leader of Guided By Voices – Dayton, Ohio’s GBV.  And the hottest band in the country want Bob’s autograph for their wall.  I guess that makes sense.  GBV is “technically” the headliner of the show --- their name is at the top of the poster that Fab wants signed.  They play last and longer --about twice as long, to be exact.

But why in the world do 5 twentysomething (youngest Stroke is 21, the oldest is 23) “buzz band” rock stars want to hang around with some old guys from Dayton (Bob  is 44 and the rest of the band’s average age is around 35)?  I mean these guys have big celebrities stalking their shows – Courtney Love has already written a song about the lead singer “But Julian, I’m Older than You” and Oasis’ Noel Gallagher proclaimed them the saviours of rock.   Because without Guided by Voices “we wouldn’t be doing any of this”  they later tell the crowd.  

In the fall of 2000, GBV guitarist and longtime rock veteran Doug Gillard picked up a tape that 5 young guys threw onstage during a show in New York.  As they have done many times, the band put the tape in the van during the next road trip and surprisingly they liked it.  So much so that they put a call in to their manager to get “these kids” to open for them on the short tour they were doing to promote the release of their most recent  album “Isolation Drills.”  For a little over a week and a half the young kids and the old men went to New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, DC and played together, drank together and hung out together.  The Strokes got to play one of their first tours with their idols.  And a little over a year since that first meeting, here they are – the Apollo Theater, opening again for the old guys – Dayton’s Guided by Voices. 

Up in GBV’s rock room,  the band and guests are all having a few beers talking about the show that GBV played the night before in Philly.  A writer from the Washington Post was able to pull a “George Plimpton” and convinced Bob to let him do 2 songs on stage with the band.  Guitarist Nate Farley (he’s the one with the tattoos) -  was explaining that the “plimpton” originally wanted to use his guitar, but that Nate wasn’t going for that idea --- so I guess the writer brought his own guitar.  It was about then that Fab came back into the room.  “Hey Jon, can we go over that song?”

Drummer Jon McCann obliges and follows Fab out into the hall to rehearse the drum part of GBV’s classic from 1995’s Alien Lanes album – “My Valuable Hunting Knife.”  It’s the song that’s going to close the show on both nights.  Because of the unique nature of the show, both drum kits will be side by side on stage.  The posted itinerary says that the Strokes will play after stand-up comedian David Cross goes on for a 45 minute routine.  They will go for 20 minutes followed by GBV for 30 minutes, then the Strokes for 20 minutes and GBV continues for about 60-70 minutes before both bands hit the stage for the finale. 

David pops his head into our room and kids Bob about his accommodations – “Man, you guys have a great room – I think that jacuzzi in mine just takes up way too much space!”  he cracks.  It’s getting close to starting time for David and he’s just warming up.  We all follow him down to the side of the stage and the evening begins. 

When I said “all” , I truly meant all as  the members of the Strokes join us in the now crowded section.  As we watch David, I happen to look down at lead singer Julian Casablancas shoes --- they are a shiny red fabric and look like Chuck Taylors. – He pulls his pant leg up to reveal that they are indeed “Chucks” and  says the fabric is “pleather, you know -- a mix of plastic and leather!”  His deadpan delivery with the scratchy Lou Reed  voice revealed much of the charm that a 20 something rock star can get away with – was he being serious --  “Plastic AND leather?”  Obviously, the son of Elite Modeling Agency founder John Casablancas  knows a thing or two about fashion (and street “cred”) as he enhanced his rock star look with a sport jacket that looked to be one that Bob Pollard wore on an old album cover from the late 80’s. 

As David Cross continued his routine of irreverent “Jesus jokes” as Bob would later whisper to me,  I run into a couple of Strokes --- Nick the tall guitar player -- and Albert – the Eric Bogosian look-alike guitarist.  “Break a leg” I say.  They both seem like they don’t get the old show biz saying – or they are just too nervous to respond.  Breaking the uneasy silence, and helping calm their nerves, Bob walks up and says to the pair – “Yeah, guys --- SPRAIN AN ANKLE!”  This seemed to lighten them up and they finally exhale and laugh out loud.

While David finished his show with a cowboy hat and a satirical look at Lee Greenwood and all the “patriotic” flag waving and of course a few more “Jesus jokes,” we walked under the stage to go out to our seats.  As we proceeded down the aisle, the Strokes had just kicked off the show with “When It Started” .  The crowd was definitely receptive and the place exploded when Julian lept off the stage running into the aisle right towards me.  He quickly turned and headed back toward the crowd leading them like a pied piper back toward the front of the stage.  “This may be a theater, but this a rock show!” he yelled to the crowd and suddenly the awkward scene of standing in front of your seat was replaced by mobs of people jamming into the 6 or 7 rows directly in front of the stage creating a pseudo “pit.”

As the show continues, it’s evident that Julian has studied at  Bob Pollard’s school of rock singing.  He’s got Bob’s on-stage swagger – part cocky, part exaggerated drunken meandering movements.  It is evident that the nerves have worn off and the beers haven’t yet quite kicked in.  He’s in a chatty mode in between songs and mentions how happy they all are to play with “our idols, GBV!”  About the 4th song in, they unleash the “hit” – “Last Nite”  and the place goes bonkers.  People are pogoing up and down and dancing in the aisles. 

After  wishing GBV good luck and to “sprain an ankle” , we rushed back to our seats to hear David Cross introduce the “Mighty Guided By Voices” to the tremendous roar of the ultra-hip crowd.  As we are hurrying down the aisle, I recognize a guy with a jean jacket and greasy hair.  “Are you Ryan?” I asked.  “Yes” he says very quietly looking away and diverting his eyes.  “Great album.  Enjoy the show!” I say and we all take our seats.  “That’s Ryan Adams,” I whisper to my wife.   “He looks exactly the same as in the Grammy-nominated “New York” video – even the jacket and his shirt is the same.

As Bob leads the boys through the first set, complete with several new songs for an upcoming album, I peruse the crowd a little more.   Over to my left I notice I guy that looks like one of the Ramones – leather jacket, thick straight jet black hair, old worn blue jeans.  He looks real familiar.  I ask the TVT Records representative sitting next to me who he is – “That’s David Fricke – the longtime music editor of Rolling Stone,” he yells in my ear.  He’s the guy that was on MTV for like 20 hours when Kurt Cobain died and every once in a while when major news breaks.  He writes a lot of reviews and has a great piece on Lennon’s Imagine in this month’s issue.  And he’s digging GBV – big time.

I watch him scribble notes as GBV rips through a smoking rendition of “Tight Globes” off of the particular appropriate “Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Dept.” record that is a collaboration between Bob and guitarist Doug Gillard.  He justs bops along smiling and writing after every song.  He seems to appreciate the ebb and flow of the set list – reacting to the melancholy “Twilight Campfighter” off Isolation Drills and the big rock of “The Enemy” (also Isolation Drills) with enthusiasm.  He appears to be looking Bob right in the eye and nodding approval like “hey, man – I get it.” 

Just shortly thereafter, we wonder backstage and catch part of the show on the side of the stage.  The Strokes have gathered around and Bob is bantering about what good kids they are.  “Did you notice they all wear Converse,” he tells the crowd.  “I taught them that! Now I wear these “old guy shoes” pointing at his New Balance running shoes.  With that Julian runs out and grabs Bob in a big bear hug.  “This is my mentor!” the young “Sexiest Male Performer” tells the crowd.  “And this is my protégé!” Bob laughingly says extending the love fest between the 2 bands.

After GBV finishes, we head back out to watch the 2nd set for the Strokes.  Now they and the crowd are really smoking – highlights include “The Modern Age” – it was a hit in England , “Barely Legal” and the set closer “Take it or Leave It.”  They certainly have the Velvet Underground sound, but with the energy of the Ramones – both great influences to have in New York these days. 

As GBV rocks out it’s final set, David Fricke is still there smiling and writing.  The Strokes gather side stage and the big moment comes.  They all run out on stage as Bob introduces “My Valuable Hunting Knife”.  Watching Fab of the Strokes and Jon of GBV side by side pounding out the beat was a thrill.  The 2 bands played with such heart and genuine love for what they were doing that it hardly mattered that Julian didn’t sing all the words – he was too busy smiling, hugging Bob and his band members and taking in the moment!


Reaching the top floor we spot HIM again.  Yes, it’s Fab.  Yes, he’s in the SAME red 1988 shirt and jeans.  “Wow. You guys look cool.  I just left this old thing on!” he says tugging at his lucky shirt.  The rest of the Strokes have taken to the spirit of the occasion and have on their coolest and hippest of the hip duds looking resplendent in vintage jackets and loosely worn ties.  Julian has even broke out the “pink party” tie.  

Once inside Bob immediately notices the 6 bottles of champagne on ice.  “Man, I’m gonna hit one of those right now!”  Before Nate can perform one of his many talents – opening the bottle without the cork flying off, not using a towel to catch it – Albert from the Strokes pops in.  Albert Hammond, Jr. that is.  Albert senior I’m later informed is a songwriter who rose to fame in the 70’s with several hits including “It Never Rains in Southern California”.  That makes him a good kid in Bob’s book.  “Remind me to get one of his dad’s albums, I’d bet it’s pretty good.”

A few beers and a couple swigs of Pollard’s champagne bottle later, guitar sounds can be heard in the Strokes room.  They have rounded up GBV drummer Jon McCann, looking very “Stroke-like” with a black skinny leather tie around his neck, and are running through “The Modern Age” song with him.  Slapping his legs along with the beat Fab is providing on his jeans, Jon catches on quick.  Hearing the commotion in the next room, Doug Gillard must have slipped down to the stage and shows up with his guitar.  Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi is eager to show Doug the lead parts.  “Man, that took me about 6 months to learn and you just picked it up in about 6 minutes!” Nick says in mock disgust.  Gillard tries to deflect the criticism, but Albert the other guitar player chimes in, “He has the best ear!” 

By now, all 5 of the Strokes are sitting on whatever they can find -- boxes, chairs, crates to enjoy the “show” when Bob rumbles in from across the hall.  “Julian, you trying to steal my band?” Bob yells and takes a swig out of the champagne bottle.  “You drinking champagne already?” Julian replies.  Bob is definitely in a good mood and ready to share his years of wisdom with the young wonder kids.  “So, you guys getting any?” 

“Uh, I gotta girlfriend,” Julian finally mumbles as the band members look at each other kind of confused and embarrassed.  “You making any money?”  You gotta be making a little bit of money, right?” Bob continues.  “Yeah, a little bit” says Albert.  Now that he has there attention, the former 4th grade school teacher commandeers the room.

“Look how young these guys look, Doug.  Being young helps in this business --- that, and having good hair!” he says, a good-natured jab since the British press have obsessed over their “Beatles” mop tops gone punk.  “They’re so young, I could be there, uh….. uncle!  Yeah, you can call me ‘Uncle Bob!” he yells and the room erupts in laughter. 

“Hey, Bob, er… Uncle Bob,” Fab says.  ‘”What was it like working with Ric Ocasek?  That’s was for “Do the Collapse” wasn’t it?” 

It was cool he tells the “class”.  He recounts the story of how Ric had left a message on his machine before they first started working together.  “Hi, Bob – this is Ric…and then he kind of laughed  -- O-cass-ik” Bob says sounding out the correct way to say the Cars founder’s last name.  “That’s how I learned we were saying it wrong all these years.  I thought for sure, though that wasn’t him on the machine.  Had to be one of my buddies screwing around” Bob says.

“Isn’t he married to some hot chick?” inquires one of the Strokes.  Some hot chick?  How young are these guys?  The “hot chick” is former Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Cover model Paulina Porizakova.  How can they not know that?  Then again some of these guys were born about the time she was on the cover. 

“One of the first times I saw her, I saw her boob!” Bob jokes.  He continues that she had come into the studio and was breast feeding.  “It wasn’t nearly as exciting as I had hoped.” 

“What about the time she wanted you to dress up like a girl?” I ask knowing the rest of the story.  Paulina had went out with her girlfriends – “each as hot or hotter than her” Bob says and they had some sort of 50’s theme night.  She comes in after a night of fun complete with hoop skirt and says, “Bobby, next time we’ll have to dress you up as a girl and you can go out with us!” 

“And I actually thought about it… for a minute!” he says cracking up the room again.   Continuing his “lecture” Uncle Bob asks the kids about life on the road, the different towns they play, the venues, etc.  “What about the Fillmore?”  (San Francisco’s famous venue) Yeah, they all nod.    “7 kinds of mustard!” Bob says about the top of the line backstage accompaniments.

The crowd is even hipper than last night, the curtains are pulled on-stage, security is even tighter.   Also in the crowd tonight is another Rolling Stone editor – Assistant Managing Editor, Joe Levy.  He’s even higher up on the chart than David Fricke and is also a staple on MTV and E! reporting the trends and stories of the year.  “Point/counterpoint!” Bob would joke to Nate later on when informed of Levy’s presence.  He is referring to a rather infamous storyline in the Dayton Daily News that had 2 reporters give reviews of a hometown show – one that loved it and one that hated it.  “Rolling Stone is gonna do a ‘Point/Counterpoint’ on us!” he laughs.

After David finishes his satirical song, he introduces the Strokes and the curtain is pulled.  Tonight the crowd doesn’t need Julian’s prodding and they race to the front of the stage forming their “pit” again.  The highlight of this set was the hit “Last Nite”.  New York’s powerful radio station KROQ is broadcasting that song live and Julian manages to fall down and say the “f-word” a couple times.  “It’s good to f*** up on the radio, that’s what I do!” he says closing out the song.

GBV’s set was a classic.  The energy level was high as Bob treated the crowd to many leg kicks and jumps – even for  a 44 year old he’s still got some “hops!”  As soon as the set ended, David Cross and the Strokes quickly assembled onstage for the countdown.  David had about 4 minutes to kill and proceeded to razz the crowd – “OK, show of hands.  How many of you said last year at this time – ‘No matter what happens, next year I’m spending New Year’s in Harlem!!”

The constant stream of balloons and confetti and streamers and top hats and noise makers brought in the new year and everybody hugged and kissed.  Men kissed women, GBV hugged Strokes, Julian kissed Bob and then Tim Tobias kicked in the opening bass line of “A Salty Salute”.    The crowd went nuts with everyone yelling out the words to this longtime GBV song.  As it ended Nick from the Strokes fired up “The Modern Age”.  Jon and Fab banged the drums and Doug and Nick ripped out the smoking lead that took those precious 6 minutes to learn.

As wild as that was, things continued in that direction during the Strokes 2nd set.  Fueled by the anarchy of the midnight celebration  (and a few $7 beers) the crowd began coming on the stage and hugging Julian and the band.  At first reluctant, he was now helping people on stage – about 50-100.  You couldn’t even see the band for a moment before security cleared them off.  The Apollo staff was not real happy from that point on and security got even tighter.

As GBV had begun their final set, we slipped backstage had a drink in the rock room.  As I heard the strain’s of “Run Wild” from Isolation Drills, I mentioned aloud that this song “rocks.”  And I continued, “McCauley Caulkin rocks!” and with that the Home Alone star stuck his head in our room and gave the universal index finger and pinky rock and roll sign and quickly headed down the stairs.  He had been in the Strokes room and I caught him out of the corner of my eye.

Moments later Albert comes into our room, “Come party with us.  You wanna meet Wes Anderson?”  Of the Royal Tennebaums and Rushmore and all that I ask.  “Yeah, he’s cool.”  And the hottest director/writer going today, I think to myself.  Alas, when we go in Fab mentions that we just missed Wes and that the star of many of his films  -- Luke Wilson   -- was in the crowd tonight.

“We only have 3 minutes left!” Bob tells the crowd.  “But we’re gonna do a 5 minute song!” he defiantly announces to the crowd introducing what has become a trademark closer – a cover version of the Who’s “Baba O’Reilly”.  With one more burst of energy, the crowd matches the band’s enthusiasm.  That’s the thing about GBV – the band has fun when they play.  Sheer joy in the faces, they begin the instrumental finish – Tim and Nate are matching each other windmill for windmill  a la Pete Townshend – Bob is leaping and kicking and the crowd jeers wildly as they build to a tremendous peak and a lightning quick drum roll brings down the house.  But it’s not over yet…

It’s time once again for “My Valuable Hunting Knife” and the Strokes run out on stage.  Julian even brings out his mom.  “Hey everybody, this is my mom!” he tells us.  “Julian’s mom is younger than I am!” Bob yells to the crowd  and Fab and Jon start the drum beat.  Tonight goes even smoother, but with plenty of laughter and Julian singing “Days they will turn into nights” as the song fades out and the crowd gives one more long cheer.  It’s past show curfew and the security is clearing the stage, but Julian keeps yelling “Let’s do 1 more!”  Everyone except security would have loved it, but it was not to be. 

It’s now well past 3:00 am, we’re rapping up and Nikolai the shy bass player comes in to say goodbye.  The aftershow party that we were supposed to go to has ended already.  We “didn’t miss much” he tells us, and we all head down the stairs.  As we reach near the bottom, there is the Sexiest Male Perfomer - Julian.  He’s trying to drink out of the wrong side of a cup – he’s got the hiccups!! How perfect is that?  How many 22 year old kids are trying to get rid of hiccups after New Year’s Eve? 

Finally we get all the gear packed in the van, Nick comes banging on the front windshield.  “Come to this bar with us!” he pleads.  He doesn’t want the experience to end .– neither do I, but what better way to do it ---“leave ‘em asking for more!” says Bob as we drive out of Harlem and back to reality.