We Got The Beat
Catching Up With Some of Baltimore's Sonic Successes
An awkward silence greets my caller. I'd been waiting (and hoping) for this call for more than a week, and my interview crib sheet had gotten lost amid the desktop clutter. But then, my tongue-tied pause had other causes: I mean, jeez--Gina Schock! The drummer for the Go-Go's, the wildly popular all-girl '0s outfit that recently reunited. I had just seen them on The Tonight Show chatting it up with Jay Leno (Schock sported pink hair for the occasion). More importantly, back in my high school days my pal Bill and I spent many an hour spinning the Go-Go's ' debut album Beauty and the Beat while ogling the cover photos and debating which Go-Go was the cutest. Bill usually championed guitarist Charlotte Caffey, falling for her vulnerable, girl-next-door looks (and because she wrote the band's best songs). I was tempted by bassist Kathy Valentine's dark, sassy visage, but ultimately I chose Gina, whose jaunty pageboy hair and lip-puckered poses spoke to me of boundless pluck and effortless cool. (Neither of us favored beauty-marked lead singer Belinda Carlisle--too easy, too obvious.)
So now, years later, my teen crush is calling me from her home in Los Angeles. But you wanna know something? Rock star Regina Schock is from Dundalk, hon. She might have beat the skins on megaselling records, she might pal around with Jodie Foster ("I've known her for many years," she says), but the Schockster is a homegirl. She's Bawlmer, right down to the accent.
That's why I'd been trying to reach her in the first place. In honor of yet another Best of Baltimore issue, I was on a quest to root out the city's best musical success stories--to dispel the notion that Mobtown is a musical black hole from which no performer escapes. Of course, "success" is a slippery term. If playing music makes you happy and fulfilled, then performing for six drunks at an open-mic night is success. Of course, playing music can also make you rich and famous, and that's the kind of success I was looking for as I embarked on a Baltimore-centric journalistic equivalent of VH's Behind the Music.
Where to begin? How about 9? Remember a perky little pop ditty called "Jeopardy"? ("Our love's in jeopardy, bay-bee . . .") It was all over MTV and reached number two on the charts. It was the work of the Greg Kihn Band, whose leader is alive and well and living on the air in San Jose, Calif., where he's the morning man on a classic-rock radio station, KFOX.
"I was born and raised in Baltimore and it's a great town to grow up in," Kihn says when I reach him at the station. "For a baby boomer it was a magical time and place. It was sort of like Happy Days."
Kihn is something of a poster boy of expatriate Baltimoreans. A Californian for 25 years, he still raves about his mom's crab cakes, receives regular care packages of Old Bay, and follows the Orioles religiously (even this season).
Born in 952, Kihn grew up in Guilford--a posh place to call home. But more important to the youngster was being "about four blocks from Memorial Stadium," where he caught many Colts and O's games. He attended Poly (back when it was on North Avenue) and grew up watching Buddy Deane's dance show on TV and listening to legendary DJs Fat Daddy, Johnny Dark, and Hot Rod Hulbert spinning hits on Baltimore's AM dial.
"My first break came when I was about ," Kihn says. "Unbeknownst to me, my mother entered a tape of me singing in the bathroom with my guitar into a talent contest at WCAO, which at the time was Baltimore's big top-40 station. I'd written the song and I don't even remember what it was now, but I won. And I won three things that would affect my life forever: an electric guitar, a typewriter, and a stack of records."
He began his performing career playing solo acoustic folk music in area coffee houses and a slew of long-defunct local clubs: Patches 5 Below, the Blue Dog, the Foghorn Folk Center, the Crack of Doom. (Do I even have to mention that we're talking about the '60s here?) Sensing that "there was a limit to how far you could go in Baltimore," Kihn legged it for Berkeley in the early '70s. There he plugged in his guitar and formed the Greg Kihn Band. He also played and sang backup on a number of Jonathan Richman's early tracks, including "Roadrunner." (Richman was Kihn's labelmate on Beserkley Records.)
National commercial success arrived in ' when Kihn's "The Break Up Song (They Don't Write 'Em)" cracked the top 20. Success of another sort came when his follow-up hit "Jeopardy" was parodied by Weird Al Yankovic, who turned it into a ditty about the famous game show. ("I was flattered," Kihn says of Yankovic's effort.)
In addition to writing music, Kihn also writes novels, with three published titles to date. (His book Horror Show was nominated for a Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Award in '96). His fourth novel, Mojo Hand, is due out soon.
"My father was always quoting Poe, and H.L. Mencken was big in our house," Kihn says. "I grew up steeped in Baltimore's literary heritage."
The Greg Kihn Band still gigs on weekends, and now includes Kihn's son Ry, a conservatory-trained jazz guitarist. And five years ago Kihn returned to his roots--physically and musically--recording two solo acoustic albums (Horror Show and Mutiny) at Baltimore's Clean Cuts studio. "I think it's my best stuff ever," he remarks.
If Kihn's folk/rock/literary creative efforts make him hard to categorize, he's got nothing on Philip Glass. Here's an internationally known composer of contemporary art music and some 5 operas who's worked with pop luminaries such as Linda Ronstadt, Suzanne Vega, and David Byrne and had a cameo on South Park. Indeed, Glass is listed in both The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll and the scholarly New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. The latter reference, incidentally, lists Chicago as Glass's hometown, which simply isn't true.
"I'm a Baltimoron--or do they still use that term?" Glass jokes when I reach him in Nova Scotia, where he was vacationing.
Glass was born here in 97 and grew up in Reservoir Hill and Forest Park. Until his parents passed away in the mid-70s, he visited Baltimore fairly regularly. A few years ago, however, Glass found out that you really can't go home again.
"My [first] house is not there anymore," he says. "I went back there to show my kids were I was born and grew up. They wanted to see the Baltimore rowhouse with the white steps, which is the kind we had. But even the street was gone."
Also gone is the radio/record shop Glass' father ran on South Howard Street in the city's erstwhile shopping district. The family's record collection was largely compiled from the records that gathered dust at the shop.
"We had all the unpopular classics--Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Bart24k," Glass recalls. "You have to remember, this was the '40s, when this was considered very modern music." Baltimore's provincial tastes inadvertently raised young Glass' exposure to the more avant-garde classical repertoire, perhaps sparking his own interest in pushing the musical envelope. But he also calls Baltimore "a great music town" and gives props to the Peabody Conservatory (where he studied flute) and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for broadening his horizons.
Glass attended City College, were his mother worked as a librarian. At the ripe age of 4, he enrolled in the University of Chicago. But until he headed off to New York's Juilliard School of Music at age 9, he continued to spend his summers in Baltimore, working a number of decidedly nonmusical jobs.
"I worked at Beth Steel in 957, just before going to Juilliard," Glass says. "I earned enough money for a year of schooling."
Now a New Yorker, Glass still hasn't gotten out from under the "minimalist composer" label pinned on him back in the '70s. He calls himself a "theater composer," creating music to accompany the visual arts--ballet, film, opera. His epic four-hour opera Einstein on the Beach is widely considered a landmark of 20th-century music, and his scores for films such as The Thin Blue Line, Mishima, and Kundun have also drawn praise. (His work on the latter was nominated for an Academy Award.) Glass' latest work is a score for the 9 Bela Lugosi classic Dracula, which never had a musical soundtrack. The composer is now touring the world performing his score live in conjunction with screenings of the film. (A video version of the project is also available.)
For all his highbrow doings, Glass gets lampooned and cartooned with regularity, with his name popping up in everything from The Simpsons to knock-knock jokes. He eagerly cites the appearance of his animated likeness in a Christmas episode of South Park (he's seen pounding out a one-note song at a Christmas pageant).
"It's funny that for some reason I've become part of popular culture," Glass says. "People may know the jokes and they may not even know the music. I love it."
Glass' rise to prominence was based on assiduous musical study and training. Gina Schock's--yes, I finally got my wits together to interview her--was a purely DIY affair. She took up drums at age , after dabbling with bass and guitar. "It was the easiest instrument for me to play," she says. She soon graduated from neighborhood bands to gigging with the outfit Scratch 'n' Sniff at the Marble Bar, Baltimore's punk Mecca in the basement of the Congress Hotel. She later joined Edith Massey's band, Edie and her Eggs. (Yes that Edith Massey--the "egg lady" who marshaled her John Waters film fame into a novelty musical act my friend Bill had her single, "Punks, Get Off the Grass.") Schock toured the West Coast with the Massey band, and in '7 decided that's where she wanted to live.
"I never thought once that I wasn't going to be successful," Schock says, recalling when she was a 2-year-old Dundalk girl bound for L.A. with a drum kit and a dream. "It wasn't very realistic, but that's what I thought."
She never set out to join an all-girl group. The Go-Go's were still their infancy when Schock met some of the members at a party. She later demonstrated her chops for them and was invited to join the band. Some three years later, after spending time in England and becoming fixtures on the L.A. punk scene, the quintet hit the top of the charts with "We Got the Beat."
The band put out three albums and racked up five top-40 hits before folding in 94. Schock released a solo album, House of Schock, four years later, and has played in an assortment of other bands and written music for MCA Publishing. The Go-Go's reunited briefly in '90 to promote a best-of album before hooking up for this year's summer's tour. A live Go-Go's album may be in the offing, as well as another tour. Schock is also working with her new band, K5, which she hopes will begin gigging soon.
"I couldn't be happier with the way things are going now," she says. "Everything is going along nicely."
While Schock's rags-to-riches story is impressive, if you're counting up hit songs Baltimore's biggest gift to music has to be Ric Ocasek, the lanky, jug-eared vocalist/guitarist for the Cars. The new-wavey outfit scored top-40 hits between '7 and '7. While Ocasek's solo career has been largely a wash, he's become a respected producer of other bands, including Weezer, Bad Brains, Black 47, and, most recently, Guided by Voices. (Ocasek did suffer one career setback this summer: Rolling Stone reported that he was "relieved of his duties" while producing the latest Hanson album.)
What does Slick Ric have to say about his Baltimore roots? Unfortunately, I never found out. Faxes and phone calls to his management company resulted in the terse statement that "Ric was out of the country." (Hey, Glass was out of the country too, but his people were happy to help me reach him.) Anyway, I was able to find out that Richard Otcasek (don't know what happened to the "t") was born here in 949. A '57 Baltimore City Directory lists one Otcasek family, in Towson. Bios posted on fan-run Cars Web pages describe a rebellious young Ric getting booted out of parochial school after upsetting the nuns. Apparently, however, he didn't take up music until after his family split for Cleveland, when Ocasek was in his teens.
My research turned up a bonus of sorts: Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes is also from the area. He attended Atholton High School in Howard County and was in the school band. We've even heard rumors that the Cars played an Atholton dance in the late '70s, not long before achieving fame and fortune. (Any Atholton grads out there care to confirm this for us?)
I also found a small write-up in an ' City Paper describing how an exasperated 74-year-old Brooklyn man (that's the Brooklyn in South Baltimore) named James Ocasek was getting barraged with calls from folks looking for Ric. "I can't figure it out," he told CP. "I don't know if he's a relative or not."
Ric Ocasek has been back to Baltimore since stardom came his way, playing a beatnik in John Water's Hairspray. And Mrs. Ocasek--supermodel and erstwhile Sports Illustrated swimsuit tease Paulina Porizkova--starred in the locally shot film Her Alibi.
So what's the moral of this musical journey? I should hope it's obvious: Being from Baltimore--or Dundalk, for that matter--doesn't preclude you from grabbing the musical brass ring. Of course, it would be nice if a few Baltimore musicians could make it while livng in Baltimore. But then, save for a select few towns the industry anoints as musical hot spots--Athens, Minneapolis, Seattle, Nashville--most everybody from anywhere has to go to New York or California to launch a career. This reality dates back to Baltimore ragtimer Eubie Blake's day.
But Kihn--who's so gushy about Charm City I almost wish he'd move back and run for mayor--offers these inspirational parting words:
"I've put out records in 20 years. My fourth novel is coming out in the fall and I'm halfway through my fifth one. Baltimore is a great place to come from, and so, yeah, there is definitely light at the end of the Baltimore tunnel."
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