Note: this is an expanded version of the story that appear's in this week's print edition.
Its 1977: Nick Nicholis, twentysomething frontman for Akrons Bizarros, is up late one night busily stuffing album mailers. His bands new record, which hes releasing on his newly-established Clone label, is just back from the pressing plant and hes eager to get it into the right hands folks like the Village Voices Robert Christgau, Bomp!s Greg Shaw and others presumed sympathetic to the underground rock cause.
One of Nicholis packages is destined to land in the mailbox of a North Carolina fanzine called Biohazard Informae, a paste-and-photocopy operation that, like the many other budget-and-distribution-challenged rock zines of the day, substitutes vim for finesse and vigor for professionalism. For the Biohazard staffers, a shot of heartland punk like the Bizarros is right up our alley.
2004: Im relating my Biohazard tale to Nicholis, now a 52-year old stockbroker, who clearly gets a kick out of hearing how our paths crossed, however indirectly, in the past. Seems Im not the only one eager to pay my respects these days either; word has been trickling out that the Bizarros are back, and with a new CD, available at the bands official Web site (www.thebizarros.com).
"In fact," says Nicholis, in a tone of voice that clearly betrays the broad grin on the other end of the telephone line, "just last night, after I got home from band practice, there was an e-mail from some guy whod written to me years ago when our  album on Mercury Records came out and Id written him back. He always thought that was so cool, that somebody in a band would actually do that."
Pausing to chuckle, Nicholis adds, "His e-mail made my week! Thats what its all about when you get older. I mean, you cant fool yourself; were not going to make a lot of money on this, but we sure are gonna have a lot of fun."
The Bizarros story, and Akrons too, is somewhat typical of what was happening in pockets all across the country in the mid-70s. Bored kids + Raw materials of infrastructure = A Scene. Akrons proximity to Cleveland, long a breeding ground of clubs and bands, in particular helped with the necessary rock culture transfer. By1976 Akron also had its own CBGBish punk dive, The Crypt. Soon enough there would be a nationally-recognized record label (Nicholis Clone) as well. Meanwhile, bands were sprouting, including art-spazzers Devo, prog-punks Tin Huey, smartass popsters the Waitresses, garage-metalheads King Cobra (who soon became the more punk-sounding Rubber City Rebels) and the Bizarros, whose brainy brand of "hard wave" (Velvets, BOC, Alice Cooper, Pere Ubu) was infused with street-poet lyricism a la The Beats, Lou Reed and Patti Smith.
Four of the five Bizarros vocalist Nicholis, lead guitarist Jerry Parkins and his bassist brother Don, guitar/keyboards/viola player Terry Walker had known each other since junior high and had all cultivated similar musical tastes. Nicholis recalls frequenting a local record store where radio station deejays would dump their unwanted promos and unearthing such treasures as the Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart and British progressive rock bands. One day he and Walker skipped school to go record hunting and they came across the first Velvet Underground LP.
"We were intrigued by this album with the banana on it, but didnt know anything about it. Youve got to remember that a lot of people were only independently discovering this stuff; nobody knew who the Velvets were. Later you began reading about them. It changed our lives forever. I know thats a cliche but its true! Then little bits and pieces of things started happening, like youd go into a store and see the first Ramones album. I remember one time walking in and there was a box sitting on the counter it was 20 copies of the first Pere Ubu single that [Ubu vocalist] David Thomas had dropped off."
Thomas, in fact, along with Ubu guitarist Peter Laughner, would later advise Nicholis, whod met them during his frequent record-shopping trips to Cleveland, when he was getting his Clone label off the ground. Having already broken ground with Ubus own Hearthan label, the pair provided Nicholis with a list of media contacts writers, college radio deejays, even amateur rags like a certain little North Carolina fanzine. Observes Nicholis, "Pere Ubu were contemporaries of ours but they were still six months ahead theyd already been to New York. The good thing was that they were glad to share with you, and they gave us a list of 20-30 people: Write to Greg Shaw, write to Bob Christgau, this is who you send a record to if you want it to be played at a radio station, etc."
Another fortuitous occurrence came when Nicholis, on a trip to visit friends in Boston, got invited to drop in on a local bands rehearsal. After practice was over he and the singer hit it off and gabbed the rest of the night about their favorite group, The Velvet Underground. (Nicholis: "The guy goes, Oh, I can sing like Nico! And he proceeds to do a Nico sound and sounding the entire time just like her!") The band turned out to be the Modern Lovers, and some months later Nicholis recognized a photo of the singer, Jonathan Richman, in a major rock mags review of the Lovers first album. "And he was just a fan like me. Im starting to think, We could do this. I have friends who love the same kind of music as me."
Two weeks after brainstorming the matter at a New Years Eve party, Nicholis, Walker, the Parkins brothers and a drummer they knew (soon to be replaced by Rick Garberson) were rehearsing and writing songs; before 1976 was out theyd have a number of gigs under their belt and their debut single ("Lady Dubonette" b/w "I Bizarro") sitting in boxes atop the counters of Akron record stores. Debut album From Akron (a split LP with the Rubber City Rebels) followed in 1977, earning solid notices along the lines of "deliberate discordances carried forward on surefire junk-rock riffs mastermind Nick Nicholis has the hang of Lou Reeds deadpan songspeech" (the Voices Christgau). It was only a matter of time before eyes and ears turned Akronward.
Outsiders would say it was something in the Akron water. Wiser heads knew it was simply the stench of the Goodyear rubber plant in the air, and even Nicholis now points out that the "scene" was really no more than the same hundred people who attended all the same shows. Regardless, media attention, not to mention the interest of Britains venerable Stiff Records, which would release a high-profile sampler of local bands entitled The Akron Compilation, dictated that Akron became one of Americas scene du jours of the late 70s. The best acts Devo, the Rebels, Tin Huey, the Bizarros quickly scored major label deals. And as Nicholis points out, "We all thought wed make it big. When we got signed around the same time we were all comparing each others record deals!"
Just as quickly, du jour turned into "so yesterday" when word came back that the consuming public had voted with its wallet and tendered a no confidence vote. Only Devo and to a lesser degree, and somewhat later, The Waitresses would go on to enjoy any real success. (A PBS documentary film which aired in selected markets last year, Its Everything, and Then Its Gone, by University Of Akron professor Phil Hoffman, traces the rise and fall of the Akron scene.)
For their part, the Bizarros appeared to be in good hands with Blank Records, Mercury Records new wave imprint that released Pere Ubus first LP, which had been set up along the lines of a custom jazz label whose sales goals were accordingly scaled-back and therefore realistic. They also had an A&R person, one Cliff Bernstein (yes, the same Cliff Bernstein whod go on to become a high-powered manager to the likes of Metallica and Smashing Pumpkins) fully in their camp. Even when Blank unexpectedly crumbled due to a corporate shakeup, Bernstein was able to get the Bizarros already-recorded album, simply titled The Bizarros, released in 1979 on Mercury proper. It received zero promotion, however, and quickly headed to the great cutout bin in the sky.
"They just didnt have their hearts into doing anything with it," says Nicholis, quickly adding that he harbored no bad feelings over the Mercury deal. (In a prescient move, the Bizarros had negotiated a contractual clause that specified a small advance in exchange for the option of leaving the label if the first album didnt do well. The band was subsequently awarded a $6,000 contract buyout fee when Mercury passed on demos for a proposed second Bizarros album.)
"I do recall this funny thing!" Nicholis laughs at the memory. "Since we were on a big label, after we signed they sent us a welcome kit. It had this big book packaged like a record in it with examples of how we could read our royalty statements. Since back then the big ones they had were Rod Stewart and Bachman-Turner Overdrive there they were, and [in meek tone of voice] here we were!"
The Bizarros soldiered on and Nicholis continued to operate Clone as well. In its time the label issued records by a number of regional bands, and for a while Nicholis held out hopes that he could make the label into a moderate success story along the lines of Britains Stiff. But by 1982 it was clear that major record labels would not be calling the Bizarros, and with the ascent of the image-is-everything MTV era, there wasnt much place in the world for Akron or its quirky bands. Nicholis turned in his notice, and while the remaining Bizarros continued on without him for a spell, they eventually hung it up too.
The original lineup minus drummer Garberson, whod passed away a number of years earlier in a tragic incident of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning somehow drifted back together in 1996, however, and after a protracted period of low-key rehearsing and songwriting, reemerged publicly in 2002. A year later they had the material for Cant Fight Your Way Up Town From Here in the can; Nicholis marked the occasion by reviving Clone to do the release honors.
"When youve known someone almost your whole life its a weird chemistry because you dont always get along with someone 100% but you do know everything about that person and you feel comfortable and you trust each other," explains Nicholis, pointing out once again that the guys in the band have been hanging out since junior high days. Hes also quick to give props to new drummer Martyn Flunoy, "who knows more about music than anybody Ive ever met!"
And make no mistake, as with the recently exhumed Rocket From The Tombs, the "old guys" in the Bizarros can mop the floor with any spikey-haired gaggle of Hot Topic punx around. Nicholis in particular remains a charismatic frontman "Lou Reed if he were your favorite high school teacher," quips one correspondent whos seen the band perform live recently and the entire band clearly has a gas onstage.
The album itself has a time capsule quality to it, and I mean that in the good sense of the term. Play it back to back with your battered vinyl copy of the Mercury album: unlike most rock reunion efforts where the passing of time has siphoned off creative juices to the point where polite subs for pizzazz and tepid is the new torrid, on Cant Fight Your Way Up Town From Here youll hear a band that sounds like it just dashed out for a pack of smokes, not one thats been dormant for two decades. Opening cut "67-77" alone is worth the price of admission, a churning, Jim Carroll-ish rocker that, with its namechecks of the MC5, Stooges and others, amounts to a lesson in Rock Underground 101 a proto-punk take on Arthur Conleys "Sweet Soul Music." The visceral, anthemic "Price To Pay" is squarely in the tradition of such Buckeye bummers as Ubus "Final Solution" and the Dead Boys "Down In Flames." And a pair of nicely-wrought tributes the jangly, thrumming "Charlie" is a heartfelt appreciation of writer Charles Bukowski, while the more minimalist, piano-laden "Desert Shore" offers sentimental snapshots of the equally iconic Nico chart two of bands literary and musical influences. This is nothing less than a band fully cognizant of its roots and determined to reclaim its rightful place in the larger picture.
And in a timely validation of both the Bizarros initial efforts and Akrons contributions to the musical landscape, in 2003 the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in Cleveland sponsored a special Akron exhibit to commemorate the citys 100th anniversary. Spotted among the exhibit were several Bizarros records; the band itself was invited to play at the Hall last May along with a number of other Ohio bands.
"I was so proud of that!" says Nicholis. "We got there, got all our gear in, and Id never seen the Hall Of Fame so crowded! Hundreds of people, and all these really good-looking girls all over the place, and Im thinking all this great stuff! [laughs] So then I see some guy with a big white cowboy hat and a guitar standing in the front of a line, and all the women were in that line: it was the leader of Poison there to sign autographs! Damn! Thats what all the commotion was about! They even were giving away an autographed guitar by him. So by the time we get up there to play there were only about a hundred people. [laughs again] But it was still a great experience and they treated us very well!"
Theres a key moment in "Charlie" where the tunes Bukowski-inspired protagonist offers the revealing observation, "When youre 17 and different/ You learn to take the heat/ But when you keep it all inside/ That leads to spiritual defeat." A short moment later, though, hes feeling anything but defeated: "Are you ready to run?/ Get ready to run!" Those lines perfectly crystallize the not-quite-a-man/no-longer-a-boy teenage feeling that perennially sends kids into the arms of rock n roll. Its a feeling you never fully divest yourself of, either, no matter what your career trajectory turns out to be.
"Its more than anyone ever thought it could be right now," admits Nicholis, of the Bizarros improbable resurrection. "Weve gotten more positive reviews in two months than we did in three years way back then, and we plan to keep it going. Everybody feels like, for example, Don sells cars, and if he has a day at work when he feels just beaten up, well he can escape with the rest of us!"
Are you ready to run with the Bizarros? Goddamn. I know I am as ready as I was in 77.
The Bizarros will perform Saturday, March 13, at the Lager House (1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit) with Human Eye and Little Claw. Call 313-961-4668 for info.Fred Mills is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]