Rides don't get much wilder and crazier than this
When Can I Fly? The Sleepers, Tuxedomoon & Beyond
By Michael Belfer
Foreword by Jon Savage
I'm not that into art rock or prog rock, or Devo or the Residents, or any shit like that, right? I'm a Dead Boys guy, not a Pere Ubu guy, you know what I mean? Man oh man, though, once you get about 20 pages into this book by San Francisco punk scene pioneer Michael Belfer (guitarist with The Sleepers and Tuxedomoon) it reads like a crazy fuckin' movie. What a wild freakin' life this dude had! WHOA!
If you read my columns and rants on a semi regular basis, you are probably already hip to my ongoing theory that there ain't many good bands no more in part because controlled media consolidation pummels us all day with time-waster buy shit/puppet celebrity fakes we never asked for, and partly, because there is such a shortage of affordable real estate spaces available to rehearse in, since the banking scum jacked up all the rents everywhere under Obama and Holder who actually even went to work for 'em after failing to prosecute anybody for the mass mortgage scams, and the landlords who used to rent working class homes to working class people flipped all their rentals into Airbnb’s and act like they're doing you some big fuckin' favor for painting their front porch steps purple, adding a hot tub and a Buddha statue to the yard and charging you $300 a night. These old punk bands paid like $300 a month, ya know?
That's how rock ‘n’ roll scenes happened. Rent was affordable.Man, I think Belfer says he only paid $40 a month for his apartment in Brussels. He had to move around all the time because he kept getting in trouble with drugs and thugs. Relapsing and then periods of sobriety and straight jobs as an executive chef or building floors. This is seriously one of the wildest tales of debauchery and sordid excess that I've ever read and you know that's sorta my department. Every time you think, "Holy Shit!", two pages later and it's gotten way crazier!
Michael Belfer was from a time when bands were not put together and funded by rich jackasses from small pools of big city models from showbiz dynasties. He actually formed these far out, experimental art bands with people he knew and liked. His charismatic vocalist, Ricky Williams from the Sleepers, was originally a drummer, much like Steven Tyler and Joey Ramone, but he had the star quality It Factor so lacking on stages nowadays, since it's all been hijacked by billionaire propaganda media. Ricky is said to have been tragically afflicted with some emotional problems and an addictive personality and a hedonistic impulse, and was a fringe dwelling extremist.
Belfer is one of the only guitarists I ever heard of who kinda got it, admitting that not everybody has the personality to command a room full of jaded drunkass motherfuckers and sing their guts out, and says that rock ‘n’ roll frontmen are like "rare birds". It was probably a smart move to thrust Ricky Williams to the front, he had an aura not unlike Tom Verlaine, or Frankie Venom, even. Good looking in his own way, but weird, offbeat, unusual, he looked like a New Wave Idol. You don't see that no more. Now, it's all these models that look like they were cast by Aaron Spelling and Darren Starr for night-time soap opera capitalist programming, kinda like a lotta modern politicians! Even in black and white pictures from the mid-‘70ss, the shots of Ricky Williams just scream off the page with weirdo presence and starpower, he had all the natural makings of a Richard Hell or Richard Butler punk pin-up. Except he gobbled pills like crazy and would jump outta moving vehicles to chase drug dealers down the street.
If Ricky was around nowadays, the paid dickheads who write about fake muzak for Spin and Rolling Stone would say he can't sing, but punk was about uniqueness, self-expression and originality and the Sleepers had real heart and talent. Belfer had a white bright aura of his own and to have survived even half the shit he did, he obviously had a guardian angel frequently intervening on his behalf. Their nocturnal, Super 8 film, dreamlike sonic impressionism was frequently compared to Brian Eno and Joy Division, and unearthing their old sounds on YouTube one can easily imagine that had things gone differently, they mighta become mainstream successful back in the late eighties college rock era when bands like Public Image Ltd and Siouxsie & The Banshees and Sonic Youth and all those dream pop bands could get record deals, regular airplay and sell out fairly large venues.
Belfer said Ricky hated rich people and would verbally abuse anyone he met that smelled like the establishment. Belfer wanted to be professional, and self-saboteur Ricky would always fuck shit up. Belfer did more than his share of fucking up, too, though. Lotsa interesting factoids like how Will Shatter got his band name from them and turned Belfer and company on to Kevin Ayers and the Soft Machine (who collaborated with Nico!) and also, Leonard Cohen.
The Sleepers were real wild ones, we are talkin' backstage fistfights with The Damned wild! Fist-fulls of pills, routine overdoses. Seems like everybody they knew was either rich and famous or on the verge, or completely cray-zay as fuck running a whole underground drug empire. I've never visited San Francisco - it was already too gentrified for my class of low wage-earning dishwashers and gutter punks by the '90s, when I was footloose and fancy free and known to pinball around from city to city seeking out glam/goth/cowpunk influenced bandmates with next to no success. I never knew that much about the Mabuhay/Crime/Nuns/Mutants punk scene, you know, besides the Avengers, whose pink album everybody owned, and the late great cowboy healer, James Calvin Wilsey, the King Of Slow, who became one of my Top Ten all-time favorite guitar players.
Belfer's written a breathtakingly fast paced, rollicking, dirty story of a wild time when art school dropouts were able to secure cheap lofts in flophouse districts and experiment with echo machines and create unconventional art punk when they weren't too busy fucking up on drugs, overdosing, poisoning their bodies beyond belief, or stupidly getting involved with criminal element predators casually prone to inflicting violence and attempted murder on musicians they decided were disposable to their profit making cause. This book is packed with provocative old punk fliers and color photos of the seventies and ‘80s punk underground. I don't wanna give away the whole plotline, but at some point, Michael had to remove himself from dangerous assholes, so he ended up traveling to Canada, the East Coast Mudd Club scene, and even Belgium, making some really evocative and innovative music along the way. About halfway through the book, I received word that he has died.
This death bullshit is unrelenting now, and it feels like I'm living in a fuckin' Depeche Mode lyric, lately, flies on the windscreen, death, death, death. I mean what the fuck, maybe you've got it sorted, but I have not. This book's a freakin' headfuck, ya know, one moment, this wholesome looking Cheap Trick/Beatles kid is getting beat up by his father for buying a guitar and fucking around with echoing effects boxes and then, seemingly overnight-holy shit-dude's burning through record deals, tours, darlings of the underground press status, hanging round with Negative Trend and Wilsey, speed freaks, stolen cars, Hell's Angels, homophobic queer bashings, sawed off shotguns, drug busts, airplane arrests, near constant death threats, Gomez Adams with loaded .45's in your face, dirty syringes, emergency rooms, "the works", girls with Sleepers tattoos in 77(!!!), moments of real insane drug bravado, driving cross country blacked-out with no brakes, other moments of being scared as a rabbit, crazy psychos all trying to kill him, on and off with Tuxedomoon, emergency Amscray to Canada, his life mighta been even more outlandish and heartbreaking than my own.
He loved Robert Fripp, and was crestfallen when he met him and the dude was a condescending snob, he had better luck with meeting Daniel Lanois. He had some weird luck, when he showed up in NYC almost his first night, he met John Cale, Joey Ramone, Klaus Nomi, Glen O'Brien, and the next thing ya know, he's signed to the Residents’ record labels. I mean, in the words of the Divinyls: "What A Life!"
Michael was crazy, but Ricky Williams was probably crazier. Damaged goods. If you're anything like me, the death plague quarantine kinda kickstarted a renewed love of reading as a way to escape from all the non-stop war propaganda bullshit on the brainwash screens, and this is one of the most entertaining rock books, I've read in a long-ass time. Really fantastic. But sad and made sadder by his recent death. He went through so much of the same shit as me, forming new bands, having false hope, always seeing glints of promising praise and applause and rebuilding these rock groups from scratch then watching it all come crashing down in flames, again and again.
The chapters about his being happy to be in a major label band in the grunge era but getting ripped off by his bandmate is especially painful. He said Echo & The Bunnymen were real dickheads when he opened for them and that sucks cause I love that band!
Belfer was a sentimental kinda cat, always trying to keep in touch with his old teenage punk friends, but like he said, "I'm not a mind reader", all those guys harbored old resentments and never really buried the hatchets, and sadly, they all ended up kinda dying, divided from each other and alone. Ricky died soon after his mom got hit by a car on her way home from the liquor store. It's a real roller coaster ride, reading this book 'cause there were so many laughs, heroic comebacks, narrow escapes, and moments of real elegance and creativity and also tragedy upon tragedy. I remember when I first discovered Bill Hicks, like 20-some years ago and thinking, aww, man, I gotta get ahold of that guy, we got so much in common, but he was dead, already. Same thing happened here, by the time I started thinking me and this dude are a lot alike, man, I wonder if he's looking for a weirdo singer, and taking note that he played with Duane Peters, the Clash freak skateboard legend from U.S. Bombs, in two bands, bam, somebody tells me Belfer has died. Major bummer. Great book! I think I like everything Hozac Records is about.