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|Interview with US-magazine "Spoiler" about The Nothing 02/2015|
How did the Nothing form? I believe you had only just moved to NYC when the band started. How did you meet the members? Had anyone been in (punk) bands before?
What area of NYC was the band from? Were you part of any particular "club scene" (CBs, Max's, etc) or more into playing loft parties etc?
What can you tell me about the "Uniformz / Scream 'n' Cry" single? Why were so few copies pressed, and how do you feel about it being a rare and expensive collectors item now?
I noticed significant changes in sound between that single and a live video I saw, where keyboards and female backup singers were added to the line-up. Had the band intended to change the sound towards something more experimental? Was there a "No Wave" influence?
The band was pretty short-lived, do you remember why it fell apart? You've continued playing music worldwide to this day, did you stay in touch with the other members? I know Trixie Sly (RIP) appeared a few films, any other notable work from him or other members?
I joined The Nothing as bass player towards the end of 1979. I’d arrived in New York in May 79, having been living in London and Manchester immediately prior to this. My original intention was to stay in NYC for a couple of weeks then drive out to California. Instead I met a striptease dancer, moved in with her and ended up staying in New York for five years. We formed a band called the DC10s – named after the aeroplane famous at the time for falling out of the sky for no apparent reason. I’d come over from London on one of these planes, so we thought it was a cool name for a punk band. She was on vocals and I was on guitar. We did one gig at Max’s Kansas City opening for the Neon Leon Band then self-destructed. We were firm believers in the punk ethic of “No Future” and we didn’t want to sell out. One gig and finito! Apart from that, our drummer Spider OD’d and died soon after the gig. This probably contributed to the end of the band as much as our ideological stance.
Those were pretty wild times in New York – much more extreme than anything I’d experienced on the London and Manchester punk scenes. Nobody ever seemed to sleep, due to a combination of various drugs, creative excitement, sex and adrenalin. All the musicians had girlfriends who were striptease dancers, or did porno movies, or turned tricks. The girls supported the musicians from the quick money they made in the sex business, and the guys had all the time in the world to sit around practising guitar and writing songs. A nice division of labour. But some of the girls weren’t content with this background role and used the money they made dancing to finance their own bands – Wendy O’Williams of The Plasmatics springs to mind.
It was around this time that I first met Trixie Sly. He may have been at the Max’s gig, but he was certainly an acquaintance of my girlfriend Debbie. If I didn’t meet him at Max’s, then I must have met him soon afterwards. Yeah, I remember now! It was at a party on the upper east side, at Webster Smith’s apartment (or rather his parents’ apartment. They were rich and had this huge duplex somewhere in the East 70s). Webster was the brother of Rex Smith, a big pop star at the time, who was starring in a Broadway musical, “The Pirates Of Penzance”. Webster actually ended up playing keyboards in The Nothing (he’s on the video you mention of The Nothing live at The Showplace, New Jersey in early 1980). So yes, it was at Webster’s place that I first met Trixie.
This was in the late summer of 1979. Debbie and I had just got kicked out of our flat on East 12th Street (the building where Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Richard Hell used to live – in fact I think Hell still lives there). We were crashing at Webster’s place and he had a party, and so that’s where I ran into Trixie. He had peroxide blond spiky hair and a white leather biker jacket, and he really looked the part. He has exactly the same look on the picture sleeve of The Nothing 7 inch single, “Uniformz” b/w “Scream an’ Cry”.
My first impression of him was of a typically mouthy London punk. I’d been a part of the Soho punk scene in London in 1977-78 and knew a lot of mouthy, full-of-themselves punk singers and musicians. They all came across like they were number one, and fuck everybody else. Trixie was a bit different. I thought he probably came from a higher social class and was laying on the working class cockney accent for effect. This wouldn’t have been so strange – quite a few of the original London punks, such as Joe Strummer and Shane McGowan, came from middle class backgrounds. To some extent they exaggerated the London working class accent for “street cred”. Later I found out that Trixie’s family name was Torquel-Smith, which is VERY middle class, not a working class name at all. Anyway, as fellow UK exiles living in New York we kind of hit it off – we were both trying to put bands together, we both had striptease dancing girlfriends, and we were both one step away from getting deported by the immigration police (my visa had expired after three months and I’d just stayed on in New York without one).
As DC10s had already broken up, Trixie invited me to join The Nothing on bass. He already had a guitar player Angel Elektra (Dave Hames) and a drummer Micky Crash (Mick Oakleaf), both of whom had played on the aforementioned single. Angel and Micky were both American – I think Trixie had met them a few months before he met me, probably in late 1978 or early 79. This must have been soon after he arrived in New York from London.
He claimed to know quite a few “name” musicians from his time on the London scene – people like Keith Levene and Tony James, for example. He told me that he’d played for a while with the London SS, but this isn’t documented anywhere that I can find. It could be that he was exaggerating, maybe he just jammed with them a few times.
Trixie was very much a showman and could present himself in a very mysterious and intriguing light. He’d name-drop all these famous people, like Don Kirschner for example, and make out he knew them, that they were gonna help The Nothing in one way or another. In fact at first I thought he was a prime bullshit artist – especially when he told me that he’d acted in the cult film “Driller Killer” by Abel Ferrara. Later I found out he did know Don Kirschner, and that he had also acted in “Driller Killer” - quite a substantial role, in fact, as the manager the “No Wave” band that is featured in the film. So maybe it was true that he had played in the London SS too.
Anyway, The Nothing’s now rare and expensive 7 inch single was recorded before I joined the band. I used to own a couple of copies, but unfortunately they got stolen, along with most of my record collection when I returned to London in 1984. I left all my vinyls with someone in New York for safe keeping, and when I came back to get them several months later my collection had been decimated. I wish I still had a copy of the single, or rather several copies. If I did, I’d be rich now! It’s become a collectors’ item and goes on EBay for anything up to 2,000 dollars. These fanatical Japanese record collectors keep tracking me down through the net, and they won’t believe or accept that I don’t have a copy to sell. Some of them are really desperate, like it’s some kind of holy grail. I’m sure Trixie would have been happy to know that The Nothing have attained this cult status. Unfortunately he isn’t around to enjoy the benefits. He died of liver failure in Florida in 2008.
As for why so few copies were pressed, I have no idea. As I said, I wasn’t in the band when they recorded it. But it was pretty standard in those days to press up a first run of 500 or 1000. Even that amount could be pretty hard to shift, and “Uniformz” didn’t immediately become a best-seller, or even a critics’ fave. I don’t know when or why it started to attain this legendary status. I just know that about ten years ago these Japanese and German collectors started to get in touch with me, begging me to sell them a copy, saying that I could name my own price. Man, I wish I could help them out, ha ha! It is a damn good punk record, though. Classic, in fact, in a similar vein to The Damned’s “New Rose”.
The Nothing wasn’t located in any particular part of New York. It wasn’t a neighbourhood band, like The Dictators or The Ramones. Everyone came from outside – Trixie and I came from the UK, Mick from Connecticut, and Dave, I think, was originally from Arizona. I know he was living there up until his sad and untimely death in 2011. I’d need to check with Mick about Dave’s geographical origins, but I haven’t managed to get hold of him for several months. As he lives in New York and I live in Prague, it’s not like I can go round and drop in on him. And he’s not so conscientious about returning phone calls and emails.
But anyway, Mick has a lot more detailed info on the origins of The Nothing. He’s a bit of a boffin, very talented in the technical field, and the last I heard he was working at Sony studios in New York. He was also playing drums with Brett Smiley (“The Prettiest Star”) a while back, but Brett was pretty sick so I don’t know if that’s still happening. Last time I was in New York, in 2013, Mick played me some demos he had done with Brett. They were really good. He is also playing drums (and producing, I think) with a band called Valediction. What I heard from them was really cool too.
As for live gigging, the version of The Nothing that I played in wasn’t very active. We played a couple of loft parties, and I remember a gig at some club in Hartford, Connecticut. Then there was the concert at The Showplace, New Jersey, which was video-taped, and which you allude to in your questions. By this time Angel Elektra had left the band – I think he fell out with Trixie over something or other. He was replaced on lead guitar by a guy called Eddie Spit. Eddie was from New York, but I don’t remember which borough.
The falling out with Angel really got to Trixie. They were very much a team when I first joined the band, like one of those classic Jagger-Richards rock partnerships. I think Trixie was really wounded by the break-up and found it hard to regain momentum. Eddie was supposed to be the “new blood” of The Nothing, but in my opinion he lacked Angel’s class and image. A good guitarist, but without Angel’s charisma and verve.
As you say, the version of the band featured on The Showplace video was quite different from the earlier incarnation of the band. It had grown to include Webster Smith on keyboards and two female backing singers – one of whom, “Lollipop”, was the mother of Trixie’s kid. I can’t remember the other girl’s name. Trixie had this kind of mini harem of girls that believed in his genius and who would support him through thick and thin. Give him a roof over his head, pay for his drugs, pay for the band practice room. One of them probably paid for the recording and pressing of the single too. I never knew him to have a regular job. If he did he kept it well hidden – it wouldn’t have fit in with his rock and roll image.
We used to rehearse in the Music Building on 8th Avenue and 39th Street. We had our own room, which sometimes one or more of us would live in. Just crashing out on some dirty old mattress if we didn’t have a place to stay. We used to practice there much more often than we ever played live – partying, and hanging out with girls, doing drugs while we wrote and rehearsed new material. Again, it was very much like the scene with the band in the Abel Ferrara movie.
Trixie was a very on-the-edge kind of guy. He had a vision and he wasn’t into compromise. It was kind of everything or nothing with him. At the time, I preferred the more stripped-down early version of the band, which was more in a classic UK punk style. But looking back, the whacked-out version of the band that performed at The Showplace was very much in the vein of the weird band that was featured in “Driller Killer”. Sort of on the way-out edges of the No Wave scene, but not self-consciously “artsy” like Teenage Jesus or DNA. Everything Trixie did had a sense of fun to it, he wasn’t too concerned with being seen as a poet or avant-gardist or whatever.
Trixie definitely had a vision, though. He was a very creative and intense guy, a bit of a mystery, not really into opening up his heart and sharing his innermost thoughts with people. It was all contained in the music, in his onstage persona. But so many other things got in the way that it was hard for him to maintain this vision. After The Showplace gig, which was a kind of make-or-break moment for Trixie, everything kind of fell apart.
And why did it fall apart? Well, as you can probably imagine drugs played a pretty big part in that. Mick actually didn’t do drugs, and Angel mainly sniffed. But Trixie and I, we were big-time junkies. We’d be shooting up ten times a day, using the water out of urinals or whatever if there wasn’t a tap around. I remember once I was cleaning out my syringe in the bathroom of the Kamikaze Club. This was a big rock disco type of place, situated in the meat-packing district of New York, over on the west side. I was working there at the time, cleaning the floors or whatever. Anyway, the needle fell off while I was squirting water through the barrel and it went down the plug hole. No fucking problem! I got a monkey wrench from the tool room, unscrewed the U-bend, found the needle in all the gunk, washed it out, stuck it back on the barrel and used it. It’s hardly surprising that I caught Hep C.
Thankfully I got cured in 2009, because I’m lucky enough to have medical insurance here in Prague. Trixie wasn’t so lucky. As I mentioned earlier, he died of liver disease in 2008. We’d just gotten back in touch with each other as well, after a break of some twenty five years. He even sent me some demos he’d been working on, which were really spaced out punky-dub-reggae style. Something like an extra-terrestrial Basement 5. Really cool stuff, in fact. I think I got two or three emails, and then the emails from his end stopped coming. I found out later from Mick that Trixie had been really sick and had died from lack of medical care.
Apparently he’d been working as an advocate for the homeless in Florida, but was homeless himself. He’d been carrying Hep C for years, but as he didn’t have medical insurance, and couldn’t get it treated, his liver finally packed up. A real tragedy, but not exactly unexpected. As you can tell by the name of the band, there was a certain streak of nihilism running through everything that The Nothing did. It was part of Trixie’s vision. Basically he and I didn’t give a fuck. Personally I didn’t expect to live past thirty five, and was highly surprised when I did.
Angel and Mick weren’t as extreme in this sense, but they also got sick. Mick is healthy now and looks after himself, but Angel didn’t make it. He died in Arizona in 2011 (see attached obituary). I’m glad that when I was in New York in 2008 I managed to speak to him one last time on the phone. He sounded pretty weak but in good spirits and apparently he put up one hell of a fight. I think he had been working on some new music and had continued his activities after leaving The Nothing in 1980. He was a damned good guitarist and should have been a lot more famous than he was. He was kind of on the same level as Steve Stevens or Brian James, but never got the breaks. But that’s life – it isn’t exactly “fair”, if you know what I mean.
As for the other members – I hear Webster Smith is alive and well, but I’m not in touch with him. Eddie Spit, I have no idea about. Same goes for that female backing singer, and for the original bass player of The Nothing, who I never met anyway. As for Lollipop, I hear that she’s living out west somewhere, and that the daughter she had Trixie had together is aware and proud of her father’s cult stardom and legendary status. But the only former member I’m actively in touch with these days is Micky Crash.
Phil Shoenfelt 12/2014