I remember the moment you changed my life forever. You may have wrecked my life or maybe you saved it; could be both. You were repairing the plumbing of a large pipe organ in a dark gothic style church in Powelton Village. I was maybe four, probably not long before we were whisked away to California. I have no idea how you came to be hired to fix a pipe organ, you weren’t specifically qualified, but I remember you saying “plumbing is plumbing.” a trade you taught yourself from reading the Time-Life books on home repair and improvement. The fact that this event occurred in a church is vastly ironic considering my feelings about religion. You were on your back, half submerged in a crawl space, I was handing you the tools that you asked for, and retrieving the ones you didn’t need. At some point I anticipated the tool you were going to need and had it ready before you even asked. You were impressed with this and said: “Wow Josh, you’re a really good helper!” I was elated! It was as if the “Powelton Village Gothic Church Angels” (good name for a band) were blasting trumpets in heaven in celebration of my astonishing feat! I, Josh Wright, had just demonstrated a usefulness in this world at the age four, and it was witnessed and acknowledged by my father! This was the birthdate of my greatest asset and my greatest curse, my work ethic. My goal in life from that moment forward was to show the whole world what a good helper I was. I’m not sure if giving birth to a work ethic in a church is blasphemy, but I’m pretty sure it was a Protestant church, so it should be ok.
I’m pretty sure this was the church, and I think it sits on the corner of 36th and Baring St. Pearl St is right behind the church, were I apprenticed with the junk art sculptor Leo Sewell. He’s still at it to this day.
I don’t know what the church is called but I call it “The Holy Church of the Self-Esteemer.”
3321 Spring Garden St
We would go to dad’s on weekends and have a blast. We’d play music, go on walks to the art museum, around the parks, nothing but freedom and fun. We revelled in the lack of rules. When I ran away from mom I went straight to dads, imagining that life from then on would be great. He was ill prepared for a thirteen year old to show up out of the blue and say: “Hi, you need to be my dad now”. Even after all those years of forced separation when he wanted nothing more than to have me and Ben full time. I think he had given up on that dream and moved on. I finally had enough of mom and her abuse, I couldn’t take any more. So, dreaming of the unending freedom and happiness I’d tasted on those weekend visits, I hopped on the train and went to dad’s. He got me into a school, set me up in a room on the second floor (called: “second floor middle”), and my new life began. It wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for. It sucked balls.
I had to learn the commute to a new school where I was one of two white kids, and involved more walking than I cared for; my dad ate nothing but stir-fry-tofu-veggie-hippie- grain-crap that tasted like sawdust soaked in soy sauce; my room was cold and dark, and I had no friends. It was far from what I expected. Real life replaced my colorful fantasy with a cold, grey, mildewy harshness. Eventually things started to improve. I managed to find lights for my room, got used to being called “cracker” and “white bread” at school, and convinced dad that teenagers required junk food to properly develop.
Teachers, administrators, parents, education policymakers, idealists...none of them can dictate or control, even with the best of intentions, what a child experiences in school. When you throw a large group of children together in a building and control what they do, when they eat, when they come and go, the vast majority of what they’re subjected to is each other.
“An institution is any structure or mechanism of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given community — may it be human or a specific animal one. Institutions are identified with a social purpose, transcending individuals and intentions by mediating the rules that govern cooperative living behavior.”(from Wikipedia)
Music; making weird the new normal
My father used to practice saxophone for at least eight hours a day. I’m not exaggerating. He’d start warming up with long tones at eight in the morning. By nine-thirty he’d be doing scales; major, minor, dorian, mixolydian, harmonic, etc...
By ten o'clock he’d be mixing in arpeggios; I liked hearing those...up to a point. Then he’d play a single note, strain and warp it until he was squeezing out the harmonics; this could become harsh and grating. People in the neighborhood were subjected to this cacophony on a daily basis. I would get embarrassed when he played weird or harsh sounds, worried that neighbors and people walking by wouldn’t understand that he was a musical genius exploring his instrument, pushing the envelope of his musical confines. Unconventional and unselfconscious, he pioneered and proliferated a musical form that is still considered below “underground.” Now he tours the world playing for crowds that sometimes exceed twenty, when back in philly in the eighties he was lucky to get five friends to show up, and even luckier if half of them- stayed after they heard the grunts, snorts, screams, and amelodic rants that spewed out of the bell of his sax. I was at once ashamed and proud. Ashamed by the derision and criticism from the mainstream, “that’s not music!” Proud when I heard people say, “he’s a genius, nobody can play like him!” That dichotomy is still with me.
Inevitably I started playing music. Or rather I was pressured into it. By pressured I mean to say that whenever I showed any musical inclination I was praised and encouraged. I remember a time living in the suburbs I was on the schoolbus and there was a kid sitting in front of me with a pair of drumsticks practicing rudiments on the back of the seat in front of him. I was impressed with how intricate and coordinated it was. So I started playing the drums. Music for me at the time was more a display of athletic prowess than a form of artistic expression. Later I learned that girls liked musicians. This became the overarching inspiration to practice longer and work harder to be the best drummer in Philly. I started practicing diligently four hours minimum a day sorry dad, I had school. The more I practiced, the better I got, the more other musicians wanted to play with me, and best of all: I was the focus of an increasing number of beautiful young girls. It became my “football,” complete with fans and cheerleaders, and I was working hard to become the star quarterback.
Philly Punk scene, mid-eighties
Abe’s was a cheesesteak joint during the day, and weekend nights was a punk club. Not really much of a club, just a room in the back of the store, a cleaned out storeroom. There was a small stage in the back which could barely fit four people let alone a full band. There was a tiny outside yard/alley which was crucial when you needed to come up for air. We’d cram fifty people in that musty dark room, if enough people were stage diving we could shoehorn in a few more. It was standing room only, no room for slamdancing, so it was pogo or no-go. It was like a tightly packed can of upright sardines with a similar smell, plus a touch of sweaty leather, beer, cigarettes, and Aqua-net (gotta keep those mohawks structurally sound.) If the crowd was jumping up and down, you were forced to do the same. If you fell or were pushed down it could mean death (no joke), but fortunately there was an unspoken rule that if anyone went down everyone around would yank them up immediately. It was a combination of carnage and release, anger and friendship, and a collective shared consciousness; the knowledge that the world was bullshit and lies, surrounded by superficial materialism. We all were groping for something real.
The first show I ever went to was at Abe’s. I remember I was fourteen or fifteen and awkward. Nervous as hell, I had to walk a gauntlet of leather and spikes, all looking at me the skinny square kid in jeans and a stupid T-shirt. Wide-eyed and self conscious, I made my way to the back. As I approached the back room the music grew to a deafening roar. Terrified, I wanted to go back, get out of there, this wasn’t for me, but there was a press of people behind, all pushing forward, toward the din. Soon I squeezed into the back room which was packed. I could barely see the band over the crowd which was jumping up and down in loose chorus. Before I had a chance to worm my way over to the safety of a wall I got a face full of combat boot, tumbled to the floor with the owner of the boot, then I was immediately yanked to my feet and ignored while my nose and lip dripped blood. My fear was replaced by exhilaration, as I was squeezed in with no choice but to bob up and down with the crowd, arms in the air to catch the next stage dive (not with my face this time). Eventually the music died, mohawks withered and sagged with sweat and beer, sticky punks searched leather jackets for any cigarettes that may have survived the onslaught, then piled outside into the cold, and spoke of second wind parties. “Hey kid, you got blood on your face. Wanna come to a party?”
I was hooked. I felt at home with them, they were honest and irreverent, my people.
In this crowd, a nerd could also be a badass, value in a person wasn't tied to a front, no masks. Nobody trying to be who they were not, only trying to figure out who they were. The greatest insult was if you were labeled a "poser," dressing and acting punk to be cool.
Sometimes loud unfettered music and a combat boot in the face were just what the doctor ordered.
At fifteen I started playing in bands. The first was “Mega-Faction,” a punk-metal comedy of errors. We played maybe two gigs, one at a party and the other at Abe’s Steaks. That show was a disaster. We were terrible. I remember my bass drum kept sliding away from me and I had to stop playing frequently to pull it back. We cut our set short and got off that stage a fast as we could. Defeated and dejected, we never- played again, which was a relief for me because I didn’t like the music.
I played in many bands during these years. Honestly I don’t remember them all
clearly. Also some are not worth writing about. The music was never what I wanted to play, not until I played with my brother.
The next band was a slightly better fit: “Ghosts Before Breakfast,” the name was an homage to a Fellini short by the same name. They played an odd sort of psychedelic art-rock. We played a bunch of shows and parties. One show I remember fondly was at St Mary’s church on the University of Pennsylvania campus. A guy named Tim Dunn ran a soup kitchen out of the church, and funded the kitchen with shows. They were promoted as “Rock Against Hunger”. Many of the punk shows around West Philly were these benefits. I think the organization was Tim and a guy named Michael McGettigen. There were many shows at St Mary’s, and I always liked seeing a catholic parish hall filled with punks, it made me feel like there was hope for the world.
I don’t clearly recall the timeline of the bands I played with, but some time later I got into a band called “Uh-Oh,” which was a highly percussive art-funk-new-wave-no-genre- -tag-describes-what the hell we were doing. At the core of the music was the percussives of Dan Melamed and the keyboards and bass of Valerie Opaleski. This was new to me. This music was intricate, difficult, required lots of practice. I was used to playing music that almost played itself, just follow the formula. Dan became my drummer hero, he was the first person I took formal lessons from. He and Val played together since they were kids, and they worked together like they were the same person. They would simultaneously come up with parts, like they were of one mind. It was hard to keep up. It was the first time I was truly challenged.
Thirteen Dead Girls From the Yellow Skirted River
While I was developing as a drummer my brother was learning the bass. We started jamming together, and as we both got better, we kept trying to challenge each other. We’d go to shows on the weekends, take in all the great music happening all around us, and jam whenever we had the chance. We found a guitar player named Kennedy and as a trio, were able to actually develop a few finished songs. Although this was enthralling to actually have our own band (I had only played other people’s music until then). Our music was disjointed, frenzied, in odd time signatures, and unlike any other music out there. Three people with three completely different sets of influences, with we stitched together like the body parts of our very own Frankenstein. Each song became a disparate collage of unlikely pieces slammed together without regard for how they fit. Like a child with one of those toys where he or she tries to fit the proper shapes into the right holes, only we gave the child a really big hammer. We became adept at jerking through transitions as if we were randomly splicing tape. We’d start with a 6/8 blues groove, then suddenly change to a 2/4 punk-metal, and just as suddenly go into a 9/8 funk extravaganza; kind of like being run over by several trains at once.
We became a creative powerhouse. New ideas, sounds, and songs flowed out of the three of us like the gush from a fire hydrant. When we wrote music it was like we were a three-headed six-armed sound monster. It seemed so easy, like it would never end. As the three of us practiced and improved, the urge to play out grew stronger. Our first singer was a friend named Jack Rabbit. He brought a vocal poetry to our Frankenstein, gave him a voice. Jack Rabbit’s lyrics were like punk rock fairy tales on LSD:
Goats in heat
Sheep are meat
Halloween kids say, “trick or treat.”
Bah bah gnu gnu, sheep are fucking you...
We needed a band name. Kennedy suggested “Drunk Women in High Heels.” I think we played at a party under that name, but I don’t clearly remember. Jack Rabbit liked “Dead Girls in Tight Skirts.” We stuck with that. It had an irreverent sarcasm that was so lacking in the world. People really like to get offended so we thought we’d help them out.
Our first official gig as Dead Girls was at a place called “The Crypt” which was a large grey stone house on, I think, 46th and Walnut, not sure, but it stood by itself surrounded by empty parking lots. The people who lived in that house paid their rent by hosting punk shows in the basement. We opened for “Pussy Galore” and some other band from NYC. (I think one of those bands stole my high-hat cymbals.) Jack Rabbit was fantastic. We all were fantastic. People were thrashing around, I remember cheers and applause after songs. After a few other gigs Jack Rabbit became uncomfortable with the idea of playing in a working band with a regular practice schedule, gigs, and rigid commitments. He liked when things were more spontaneous. We tried to convince him to stay. I think he felt bad, but in the end he left. Tortured artists fly best solo.
In days of old
when knights were bold
there was a thing that was so bad,
it was the worst thing you’d ever seen...(Jack Rabbit Pollak, The Plague Song)
After Jack Rabbit left, we tried singing ourselves. Mostly we sounded like the backup singers for a poorly rehearsed muppet skit. After a long and disappointing search, we finally found a guy named Jay. Although he could sing, he was no Jack Rabbit. His style was more straightforward, less weirdness, less embellishment, less humor. His lyrics were like a teenage Dungeons & Dragons poem. Nonetheless we settled on Jay, and hoped we could tease out a little more creativity in time. I don’t recall how long he played with us but we- played a bunch of gigs and recorded a demo on eight track reel to reel. It had a black and white xeroxed cover with a drawing by Kennedy on the front. Even though it was essentially a demo, we put it out for sale and it sold out.
I think we made enough selling those tapes to cover the recording costs. Eventually Jay started to flake out on rehearsals, then a gig. We heard from others that he developed a crack habit. We fired him.
Again we searched for another singer. We wanted another Jack Rabbit. What we found was Bernadette Rappold. She was the singer for a band called “Tons of Nuns”, and also played with me in “Uh-Oh”. She had a voice right out of a Broadway rock musical. She was solid, competent, and played guitar which added more fullness to the overall sound. Bernadette was nonplussed with the name “Dead Girls in Tight Skirts” she was after all a lesbian feminist, so we changed it to a phrase picked out of an obscure comic book where a samurai dude said in the heat of battle: “Oh no! Its the thirteen weirdos from the yellow river!” With Bernadette we played all over Philly, I think just about every club, basement, block party, you name it. We were playing at least a show a week for a while.
The weirdos at a block party. Note the footwear. This was probably 1989
We developed a strong following. When we played a club, it would be packed. We had actual fans. Two rehearsals a week and one to two gigs a week plus trying to record, all while Ben and I were holding down full-time jobs and Kennedy and Bernadette were in school began to take its toll. It was work.
We recorded “Woo-Woo” in 1990, where we had the time and freedom to make a-
good album. It took a full day just to get the drum sound right. After we finished recording we continued to play a lot of gigs but my inspiration began to wane. The creative drive sputtered and died. I remember trying to come up with new songs and falling flat. The fire hydrant ran out of water. I felt exhausted, drained, and was desperately trying to rekindle my part of that creative monster but it was gone. We stopped booking gigs, and tried to come up with new material but I lost interest.
All good things...
A year or so later a housing crash in Philly all but erased my construction day job. Then I was mugged, stabbed, and lavished with a fifteen thousand dollar bill from the prestigious Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Then my drum set was stolen. In debt, with little income, plagued by PTSD, and my creative well all dried up, I left Philly. My father had moved to Boulder, CO so I went there to try to patch myself together.
While I’ve played with many great bands, projects, recordings, and performances since I left, I’ve never had any musical experience that compared to those few years playing with the Weirdos/Dead Girls.
I could write an entire book about the Philly punk scene in the eighties. What’s in this memoir covers a microscopic slice of a much larger story. It was a unique time, one of the most prolific underground music scenes from anytime, anywhere. If you google “Philly punk eighties” you’ll get a long list of material devoted to the subject. I was fortunate enough to be right in the middle of it. Not just to be able to see and hear legendary bands playing at legendary venues, but to be an actual participant.
My brother and I recently started playing again. Its good. Maybe we’ll start a band, who knows...