John D Morton’s hair is much larger than yours. Or was. As is his legacy. Standing behind a guitar, chainsaw or a broken mic stand in the early 1970s, Morton formed the electric eels, a nasty crew of northeast Ohio art-deconstructors who many in the skuzz-rock know now consider the first American punk rock band. They released two posthumous 7-inches and hence also set the template for obsessives’ unending search for that eleusive “lost” proto-punk band.
But quicker than his enigmatic rep would suggest, Morton quickly proto-formed a band, Johnny & the Dicks, who focused on band photos and simultaneously got X__X together, releasing two 7-inches of incredible, squealing, garbage can punk-dada, circa 1978, and then, well, he can tell you, below. After numerous legit and ill-legit comps of electric eels material throughout the ’90s, X__X’s obscurity magnet has become more powerful than the eels’. But now Ektro Records from Finland has somehow corralled Morton out of his ever-scheming existence in upstate New York to collect any and all usable X__X material into the most fab found-punk noise record in ages, X Sticky Fingers X, a migraine-daring mash of demo and live stuff. If not the holy grail of punk collector scum, it’s an excellent “Shroud of Cleveland.”
We recently received some written feedback from a man most skilled in the sonic kind. Plus, he even drew us an image of his memory of Cleveland in 1978.
So, despite Electric Eels quasi-legit comps slipping out of the ether every few years, you’ve been a bit of an enigma. Now HoZac is starting up with the Electric Eels reissues, now this X__X release. So what gives? Did you get over your allergy to the sun?
FYFI, electric eels is always in lowercase always. This whole enigma query you pose presents a bit of a mystery to me… I’ve been here, I think it is more likely that people are bothering to look for me now. And I HAVE NOT…been huffing ether either! (I have to sit down now as that last excursion was very tiring.) I will say that my allergy to the sun was drugs and alcohol. It lasted in earnest from about 1981 to ‘94. I would sit on a stool in whatever local Bucket of Blood and spout on and on (and on) about starting another band. I never did. However, when I did finally get clean and sober, I started Amoeba (raft boy) before the first year was out. I’m not making a plug for sobriety but…PS: (I ♥ . . . ellipses)
How did this X__X comp come about, and how much work was it from your end as far as finding the original tapes, getting someone to master them, digging through closets, etc.
I was broached by Ektro Records through a contact form on one of my websites. I had had about five prior nibbles regarding an X__X re-release, but Ektro, a not-for-profit record label from Finland, appealed to me. I had been trying for years to get a hold of the master recordings of the two Drome singles. Johnny Dromette (aka John Thompson) kept saying, “I’ll look for them in my garage!” “Maybe they’re in my attic!” “Might be in that box in the basement!” Frank at Smog Veil proffered two virgin copies [of the original two singles], and an engineer in rural New York state (where I now live and work…well “live”) transcribed them to digital files with a little filtering to diminish the “pop” artifice.
All the other material came from Jim Ellis’s mono cassette recordings of live gigs and practice sessions. A Panasonic 1970’s era player/recorder. Jim somehow located the Panasonic to actually pick up the vocals and the instruments intact—lucky us (and more importantly, lucky you, the propitious music fans that can now derive hours of sonic pleasure). It was more hours on the cover and liner notes (by Jon Savage). The actual money spent on preproduction was around $150. All the sound files went to Finland on the internet, as well as the album covers and insert. All fucking 0s and 1s! Ektro scion, Jussi Lehtisalo, did the (way-excellent) mastering of the WAV files I sent him. I think the bulk of the pre-production time was spent polemicizing grammar with Ektro’s Reissue Coordinator, Jordan N. Mamone, who is in fact a fact checker: “Did you realize that in one sentence there are three underscores in ‘X___X’ yet in the following paragraph there are five underscores?”
Just to clarify, X__X is a pictogram. Whatever name we wanted to be was put between the Xs. X The Kinks X, X Charles Manson & the Family X, X Berliner Philharmoniker X… Thus for X STICKY FINGERS X, we arrive at X The Rolling Stones X, but how do you designate the band alphabetically then? X__X or X Blank X, X-X, or Ex Blank Ex? I thought it would be a good marketing strategy to make us impossible to find anywhere in record stores or iTunes.
Okay, a basic history of X__X: when/where began, first show, how many shows, etc.
First show? It was in the decade of the ’70s… that’s all I know. I knew that my wife at the time, Mrs. John D Morton #1. (aka the artist, Michele Zalopany) and I were moving to NYC in the fall of ’78. It was at my 27th (or 26th or 25th?) birthday party with Andrew Klimeyk and Jim Ellis in attendance when I said, “Hey, we can form a band that only lasts for six months!” My cake was chocolate. I cut pieces with the side of my hand instead of using a knife. I would ask (frosting and cake crumbs ensconced on my digits), “You know why I’m doing this?” Trusty sidekick, Andrew would respond, “No! Why, John, are you cutting the cake with your hand?” And my answer (several times) was, “Because it is punk!”
So I (we) did form a band. Michael J. Weldon (ex-Mirrors drummer and ex-Johnny & the Dicks non-drummer) did a couple practices with the eels’ Dave E. McManus on vocals. That quickly didn’t last, so Anton Fier (or Tony as he was known then) did percussion and I took over on vocals. I think we did about five shows (equaling the bar set by the electric eels). I remember The Real World in Lakewood, Ohio; and we played some diner/nightclub after 7 p.m. when they stopped serving hash browns and apple pie. In this case, the restaurateur’s daughter was a music fan and talked daddy into letting her soiree go past biz hours. We actually stood on the seats of a booth with the mike stand resting on the formica table… Johnny Dromette was releasing a lot of Cle music [at the time] (Pagans, Tulsa Jacks, Lepers), so he took us into the studio (SUMA recording) and we cut four sides. That was it.
At the same time I was doing my band, Johnny & the Dicks, a punk band that didn’t play any music. We did “songs” where we would pose for “cooool” punk/rock stances on stage with a professional photographer (Charles Gilchrist) that traveled with us and was part of the band. We released a 12-inch album with no record in it. FYFI, Dicks were Michele Zalopany, Laura Kennedy, Cynthia Sley, Michael J. Weldon, Andrew Klimeyk, Karen K. Karen Karen (aka Karen Klimek), Charles Gilchrist and Paul Paternoster.
Please explain living in Cleveland at the time. And did you feel there were bands in town that you related to? Or at least were there bands you liked? And who can you remember was the worst Cleveland band at the time? Favorite bar?
At this time (1974-78), Cleveland was a fecal hell hole for me. I was in a cultural vacuum. I still can feel the existential angst roiling off of me when I think of living in Cle at that time. I found NO mitigating circumstances that would justify the existence of Cle for not being bombed off the fucking face of the fucking earth. As long as I wasn’t there at the time, I certainly wouldn’t give a fuck. A bunch of pretentious artistic boors. Rocket from the Tombs, Mirrors, the Pagans, those weren’t other bands to be liked or disliked, they were our peers. Worst band? Glass Harp. (Luckily I left town before the advent of Michael Stanley.) Favorite bars? There wasn’t enough alcohol in the world that would have made it in the least tolerable. (Though I did spend my callow youth in The Harbor Inn and Maria’s Rose Carnation Tavern!) I really felt I would die if I stayed in Cleveland. That answer your question?
Weren’t you living in Columbus for a bit too, during electric eels time? Where did you hang out at in Columbus?
The “Blue Doob” (the Blue Danube—still there). We eels hung out with ourselves and our various sundry mates. We’d hang at The Doob with members of the band, Hard Sauce. I remember trying (and being successful) in inveigling this Hard Sauce guy’s spouse to scoring paregoric for me (she had kids and you could still get it over the counter if you soft-conned the pharmacist that you had… like kids with a tummy ache.) She did it, but she always gave me the eye after that. Jamie Lyons (the Music Explosion – Little Bit O’Soul) was Hard Sauce’s singer. He was the first fellow I knew that had a real set of pipes! Jamie was a bona fide sweetheart and helped the eels out. Our first gig, we opened for them. Then after our first gig, he bailed Dave E. out of jail. (I was out because I pled “not guilty.” Dave, I assume because of being the Catholic, pled guilty and went to County.)
When Homestead Records, Scat Records, and Overground Records got in touch with you for legit electric eels comps in the late-’80s/early-’90s, were you surprised that someone wanted to release that stuff, like 15+ years later?
No, I wasn’t surprised, I was gratified. We eels didn’t get any acclaim while we existed. After Rough Trade contacted us about releasing the Agitated single, I was surprised, but there has been a slow steady trickle of recognition ever since. The same with X__X: nothing, zero, nil until about five years ago. Then I was starting to be contacted about re-releasing the material.
What did you think of some of the bootlegs that floated around?
On one hand, the eels got a lot of notoriety from bootleg cassettes passed from friend to friend. On the other hand, I didn’t get any money from it. The “artist” always gets the short end of the money stick. Visual art galleries refer to their roster of artists as “the stable.” But where would gallery owners, music and art critics, historians be without the artist? I have been in several books, yet I’ve had to purchase all but one.
Did you even know about all the Killed By Death comps that started happening in the ’90s? I think that at this point, there are more young punks into all that Cleveland ’70s punk and stuff like Crime and Killed By Death than the CBGB, Sex Pistols, et al agreed upon history…
Again, no paycheck. The money I make off music (and art) is negligible, but I do need to eat lunch now and then. My “pay” from Ektro, because they are not-for-profit and for tax purposes, is a percentage of actual LPs. But, no one clarified that I’d actually have to, in fact, put the vinyls in a cardboard shipping container, print and slap a label on them, then tote them to the Post Office! I did have a weird experience, as I was packing up X__X lps for shipping I was reminded of the packing tape dispenser at the Are-Jay Game Company (where we young eels worked). The tape dispenser’s sticker was “Luke Laughner, Packing Tape Supplies and Dispensers.” That was Peter Laughner’s Dad.
What do you think when someone says, “Punk rock started in Cleveland, Ohio, 1972, with the electric eels?”
There are a lot of quantifications about what is punk, proto-punk, rock & roll, etc. And these appellations, as a whole, are applied from the outside, usually after the fact. Proto-punk means “before punk,” so one would have to know there was “punk” in order to be proto-punk. A time machine would be handy.
“Michalangelo, Mike, if I may. Do you consider yourself to be the first Renaissance Artist?”
“What the fuck is the Renaissance?”
We eels tried to sound like we sounded—unproduced. We eels didn’t “name” our music genre. We were just doing “our” music… At least X__X were never “New Wave,” which was a designation by the record industry to soften and thus make it more appealing than the genre “punk.” When people find out I have a band they ask, “What kind of music do you play?” My answer: “The kind of music I play is the kind of music that someone who was labeled punk does 35 years later. To quote The Bard, “What’s in a fucking name?” The term (or genre, or category codification) “Beat” came from Herbert Huncke (at least according to my scholarly research (. . . wikipedia) meaning someone or a class of people that were “beaten down,” as in, “These cats are really beat, man!” Ginsberg and Kerouac and Clellon Holmes transmuted the term to have roots in beatific and beatitude. Columnist Herb Caen, ten years after, added -nik to it after Sputnik. So were Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs proto-beatniks? (Actually now they are just dead-beats.)
I would say that Agitated, written and played in 1972, recorded in 1975, released in 1978 could be touted as the first “punk rock year 0” single. I would be absolutely comfortable with that, however, it isn’t up to me. And if Agitated were so designated, it would probably generate an additional $500-$700 a year in music income (thus doubling the current yearly monies).
Do you ever get back to Cleveland much?
Maybe once every couple years. Mom and Pops have shuffled off. I got some friends and a sister and a brother-in-law and a nephew. I do like the Marblehead Peninsula (across the bay from Sandusky.) My dad was from there. My grandfather was born on a one square mile island (Isle St. George) in Lake Erie, and I think that area is much more my roots than Cleveland. The only reason my dad left Sandusky was someone else got the job as announcer at a radio station he wanted.
Plans to make more music, art?
I am always making more music and art. X__X is reforming to play some dates. I would love to take some more current bands [of mine] (The New Fag MotherFuckers or The Dunking Swine of Chelsea) on tour, but doing a band that started over 35 years ago is somehow more accessible to the public. On my 61st birthday, I spent the a.m. working on X STICKY FINGERS X and the p.m. re-creating a sculpture for an exhibition of an exhibition that took place 35 years ago (The Real Estate Show at James Fuentes Gallery, April, 2014). I’ll be ninety-fucking-five when The Dunking Swine are noticed. (I’m already 93 in drug years!) OK. I’m done…