75 hours in Baltimore…. celebrating the Monkey Power Trio’s 23rd day as a band

The weekend of October 21st marked the 23rd meeting of my one-day-a-year pseudo-band, the Monkey Power Trio. For those of you who might not be familiar with our origin story, it all began back in 1995 with a promise between old friends one hot, summer afternoon in Brooklyn. On the spur of the moment, we’d decided to make a record. We gathered whatever instruments we could find, and we made our way into an unlocked basement storage room in a Carrol Gardens apartment building [131 Union Street], where we proceeded to scream and beat on things while an old cassette recorder whirred away, suspended in front of us from a string tied to a sewage pipe. The result was a 7″ record, which we decided to call The First Hour, acknowledging the fact that we’d agreed, shortly after finishing, to meet up and do the same exact thing every year until the point when only one of us was left alive, creating extemporaneous noise over beers with no practice, forethought, or concern as to what people outside the band might like. And, against all odds, we’ve stayed true to our word for 23 years now, despite the fact that, every year, it becomes exponentially more difficult for the five of us to both get away from our real-world obligations, put up with each other’s idiosyncrasies, which have grown more extreme over time, and express ourselves creatively… This year, we elected to meet in the city of Baltimore “We’re A Lot More Than Just Murder” Maryland.

WHY BALTIMORE… Generally speaking, we like to do things as inexpensively as possible, which usually means that we go where we can stay for free, whether it be at the vacation home of a family friend in Lake Tahoe, or the basement of a bandmate who lives in the soulless exurbs of Atlanta. Occasionally, though, we all chip in and rent a house for a few days, like we did the year before last in a Cleveland suburb, where we thought we might find some inspiration at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or a few years ago in Jackson Hole, where we knew someone with a truck who promised that, if we came his way, he’d not only set us up with an inexpensive place to stay and record, but drive us around in search of large, wild animals. Well, this year, when it became clear that we’d exhausted our network of free vacation homes and the like, we started looking at cities we’d like to visit, where we could find a relatively soundproof, inexpensive place to rent that was within walking distance to restaurants, bars, museums, and other things of interest. And Charm City soon bubbled up to the top of the list. [We also considered recording on Hippy Hollow Road, in Potosi, Wisconsin, which, according to the Geographic Midpoint Calculator, is the exact midpoint between our five locations, but no one really liked the idea of recording in a trailer parked at 42.699323 latitude,-90.671756 longitude. And, the folks at MASS MoCA didn’t seem overly enthusiastic when we approached them about the possibility of recording in one of their galleries, behind a wall of kraft paper.]

We all had our different motivations for voting in favor of Baltimore. For me, it came down to a few specific things. First, as it had been almost 20 years since Linette and I had seriously contemplated living there, I wanted to go back and see how things had changed. I wanted to check out the view from Federal Hill, visit a few bars in Fells Point, and spend some time at the American Visionary Arts Museum, which was only about a year or two old when Linette and I were last making the rounds. And, more importantly, and I wanted to have a beer or two over some local crab cakes with my old friend Scott Huffines, the founder of America’s best underground bookstore, Atomic Books, where, back in the day, they not only carried the zine Linette and I published, Crimewave USA, but actually seemed to care about it… And, as I pretty much got to do all of those things, I’d say the trip was a success, at least for me… although, to be honest, I think we’ve recorded more interesting songs.

Here, for those of you who might be interested, are a few photos from the trip, along with my abbreviated notes. I know it’s unlikely that anyone reading this will care, but, with my memory starting to fade, I think it’s important to document these things… just in case the Monkey Power Trio ever gets popular and I’m asked to either write a travel book based on our annual weekend adventures, or make a witty speech during a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

OUR NIGHT WITH SCOTT HUFFINES… While I just interviewed Scott not too long ago about the founding of Atomic Books, I still had questions I wanted to ask him about how he went from managing a Maryland Friendly’s to opening what was arguably the best underground book store in the United States at the time. And, as I mentioned above, I thought that he might be able to steer me toward a decent crab cake, seeing as how he’s always presented himself as something of an authority on the subject. Well, as it turned out, at least according to Scott, there are no longer any decent crab cakes to be had in the city of Baltimore, as giant lump crab meat from Venezuela is so easy to come by. Fortunately, though, there were drinks. And Scott suggested that we go to a place called 1919 on Fleet Street, which, according to him, was one of the only truly interesting, old-school places still around. Owned by an older woman with two dogs, who, according to what I hear, may have once dated Danny Mills, the actor best known for portraying Crackers, the chicken-fucker in John Waters’ 1972 film Pink Flamingos, the place was every bit as magical as he said it would be. [Some of the characters we met that night made their way into a song we wrote the next day, during the session, called Charm City Holiday, which may possibly make its way onto our next record.] While I talked briefly with the bar’s owner about her dogs, most of my time not spent peppering Scott with questions about the weirdos of Baltimore, was spent talking with the bartender, who, among other things, had a great story about Glenn Danzig having a temper tantrum in a local record store a few decades ago when they refused to take Misfits bootlegs off their shelves. [As I recall, she said they’d marked the spot of Danzing’s meltdown on their floor with yellow tape.]

Here’s Scott, an hour or so into our evening together, regaling us with stories of old Baltimore. As I’m told, this is was a rare honor, as Scott seldom leaves his home these days. In fact, sightings of Scott are so rare, people have taken to calling him the Chesapeake Yeti. [I tried, by the way, to convince him to start a Baltimore oral history podcast, but he didn’t seem interested.]

THE AMERICAN VISIONARY ART MUSEUM… My bandmate Dave tells me that I’d like Meow Wolf in Sante Fe better, as it’s equally inspired, but more interactive. Until I experience it for myself, though, the American Visionary Arts Museum is going to continue to be my favorite art museum of its size in the United States. I do wish, however, they’d change their signage in the “OCD” gallery, which, either purposefully, or just due to the passage of time, is extremely OCD-unfriendly. [I know you might not understand, but just trust me on this, OK? This is the only thing in the world that I’m truly a subject area expert on.]

There are a lot of great photos I could share from the museum, which has now grown to encompass two large buildings with a small sculpture park in between, but here are my three favorites. The first is of me, taken by my bandmate Dave, in front of a piece by Ted Gordon. [Dave, thought the similarity was hilarious.] The second is the prosthetic lion’s leg artist Paul Laffoley had created to replace his own after an accident in his studio. [The phrase “on legs of lions,” as I recall, made it’s way into a song the following day, when we recorded.] The third is detail from a piece by Reverend Albert Wagner, who, like quite a few untrained, visionary artists, seems to have found sacred art only after having lived a full and interesting life in the secular world. And the fourth is detail from an electrical wire sculpture by Stanley Wright called First Dance.

THE WEIRDNESS FACTOR… There’s always something strange that happens on these annual trips of ours, and, this year, that strangeness came in the form of a man who called himself Nugent, who, one night, began calling to us from over the brick wall separating the house we were staying in from the shit-filled alley behind it. If memory serves, Dan was playing an acoustic guitar at the time, as Matt and I were trying to come up with lyrics, when the voice from the alley started identifying the chords that were being played. And, after a little back and forth, the man on the other side of the wall scurried up, and hopped into our world, telling us about his life as a chef, and asking if we’d like to come and see the giant pot plant at his place, which, according to him, was really close by. [Only one of us went off with Nugent that night. Our most adventurous member. The same one, who, the next day, would head off to a bar by himself, and apparently strike up a conversation with a fellow from Alaska, which, over time, would become increasingly uncomfortable, to the point where said bandmate thought he might have been followed back to the house.] Here’s a photo of Nugent coming over the wall for the first time, telling us about his life, and hinting around that, if we wanted him to, he could join us for a few numbers. We were nice about it, but declined to take the bait. In retrospect, I think we should have asked him to join us for a song or two. [That’s Matt sitting at the table, awaiting the entry of Nugent into our world.]

For what it’s worth, my sense was that Nugent, knowing this particular house was a rental, had made it one of his regular stops. He would return the following day, asking for $2 so that he could buy some beer.

MODES OF TRANSPORT… I can’t say for certain, as I have a notoriously bad memory when it comes to such things, but I’m pretty sure this was my first experience using a ride-sharing app, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. [Dave and I used Lyft to and from the airport, as we arrived and departed at pretty much the same times, and once to go to a wax museum on the other side of town. Otherwise, with the exception of a short boat ride, we walked.] I’ve always enjoyed talking with cab drivers, as they tend to have interesting stories, and know a thing or too about good, inexpensive food, but this was better. I really enjoyed talking with our Left drives about this relatively new industry they find themselves working in, and what they’ve learned about themselves, the American economy, and their fellow human beings as a result. [Don’t tell anyone, but I’m thinking that I should start taping interviews with Lyft drivers and make it a podcast series.] Among others, I was driven around Baltimore by a college gymnastics coach who had left the industry when she could no longer bring herself to force injured young women to compete, a guy who ran an industrial kitchen that produced meals for private religious schools until the company was acquired and the new owners found someone to do the work cheaper, and a young pharmacy tech who, after putting herself through school, couldn’t find full-time employment.

Of particular interest to me was the conversation I had with the former gymnastics coach, who provided a glimpse into the sordid world of college athletics. I told her how, not too long ago, at a Florida hotel, I’d seen the mother of a pre-teen gymnast doling out single bites of food to her daughter as reward for having done specific exercises at the side of the pool, and she opened up, telling about the abuse she’d seen, the personal interactions she’d had with Larry Nassar, the Michigan State University gymnastics team doctor now facing 80 sex abuse charges, and how she can tell by the age of two whether or not a kid has what it takes to be a competitive gymnast. [She said that, if a kid shows any apprehension at all about doing things that might get them hurt, they’ll never be truly great at the sport. They can work hard and get good, she said, but they can never be great.]

We also took a boat. There’s a free one that crosses the harbor in Baltimore, which was awesome, and we used it to get across to the American Visionary Art Museum the first morning, after walking down to the water from Fells Point, where we were staying. I can’t remember what happened exactly, but we somehow got separated on the walk over to catch the boat, and I made it to the dock before everyone else. [There was quite a bit of construction along the waterfront and it was a little tricky to navigate, as you’d occasionally find yourself thwarted and have to backtrack a bit.] I tried to hold the boat for a minute or two, in hopes that Dan, Mike, Matt and Dave would catch up, but they didn’t. This, I believe, is a photo I took of myself, hoping to catch them in the background running for the boat. [They’d catch the next boat 15 minutes later.]

CRIME… I just assumed that, like anyplace else, the people of Baltimore would tell us that their city’s reputation for violence was overblown. That wasn’t really the case, though. People… at least the people we talked to… seemed to take it pretty seriously. One bartender in Fells Point even told us to be careful if we were going to be out in the neighborhood after dark. I might have expected that from someone at an expensive Inner Harbor restaurant that caters to tourists, but it seemed odd to me coming from the bartender at a dive bar who we were just making small talk with. But apparently all the crime in the city didn’t just disappear when The Wire wrapped, and people started buying up historic row houses to turn into Air B&B rentals, like the one we were staying at. In fact, the night we were recording our 23rd record, eight people were shot in Baltimore, in eight separate incidents.

I don’t say this to dissuade anyone from visiting Baltimore, which is really an incredibly lovely, vibrant, friendly and interesting historic city. It just surprised me to see as much evidence of drug dealing and crime, when I’d fully expected to see that gentrification had firmly taken root over the span of time that I’d been away. Maybe things would have been different had we come a few weeks later, during the citywide “nobody kill anybody” ceasefire, but there seemed to be just as much criminal activity as the last time I’d visited, a few decades ago… drug dealing in front of the liquor store across the street from where were were staying, store owners in the neighborhood sweeping up broken glass from smashed windows, odd run-ins with folks on the street, etc. [One guy approached my bandmate Mike as we were walking through the neighborhood, saying that he recognized him as a crooked cop who had once arrested him. “You’re not so tough now, without your uniform, are you?,” he asked.] Again, I don’t say this to suggest that Baltimore is a scary place. We never felt unsafe in any way. It just wasn’t what I was expecting. I was expecting that, over the last decade, since the Wire had wrapped, that everything had changed. I went there expecting that I’d be lamenting the loss of “old Baltimore.” But, really, it wasn’t all that different than I remembered. A lot of the old weirdness was still bubbling up to the surface.

THE LITANY OF AILMENTS… The other guys in the band haven’t rallied around the idea yet, but, for the past two years, I’ve been pushing for us to start each session with something called the “litany of ailments,” where we each take a turn, over some kind of musical accompaniment, to say what’s currently wrong with us. Dave, for instance, has a chronic cough, and, this year, I’ve been told that I’m suffering from both receding gums and pre-cataract conditions. I don’t think we’d necessarily have to release these tracks on a record, but I think it’s important for us to start documenting our decline, now that we’re all almost 50. [I also have bursitis in my knee, and, for a month or so this past summer, I lost the ability to speak, due to a granuloma on a vocal chord, which was likely brought about by my chronic coughing due to acid reflux.]

As I’ve said here before, we didn’t think much of it 23 years ago, when we pledged to do this every year until death. Every year, though, as we lose more and more friends, it becomes increasingly apparent that, before too long, one of us will go. And it’s something that we talk about… what it’ll be like that first year without one of us, when we’ll likely be recording either just before or just after the funeral for that first one to pass, and how overwhelmingly sad it will be.

But this, I think, is one of the best things about this little art project of ours. It makes us confront shit like this… Like it or not, we know we’ve got this one big group therapy session every year, where we have to confront the passage of time. Standing there, in front of our microphones, like it or not, we have to confront the fact that our minds aren’t working as fast as they once did, and that our ideas aren’t quite as sharp as they once were. It sucks, but that’s life. And, if nothing else, I think this little project of ours is a reminder that we should enjoy the time we have left with one another… Listening from year to year, in these tiny little audio snapshots, you can literally hear us collectively breaking down like a space capsule upon reentry. And it’s actually kind of beautiful.

GREAT BLACKS IN WAX… On our last day in Baltimore, after Matt had left for the train station, and Mike and Dan had caught a ride to the airport, Dave and I decided to take a quick trip to an amazingly powerful little museum commemorating the history and ongoing struggle of black Americans. Starting in the galley of a slave ship, where, to one side, there are graphic depictions of slaves are being raped and tortured, while, on the other, a high seas slave revolt is underway, The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum grabs a hold and never lets go. With every room containing a different chapter of the black experience in America, from the firsthand accounts of southern slaves, to Obama’s inauguration, the small building is packed full of work that you can just tell was willed into being by someone’s overwhelming passion. And it’s a lot like the work in the American Visionary Arts Museum in that respect. It’s not slick. The signage, in many places, consists of mimeographed sheets of paper thumbtacked to the walls. And quite a few of the earlier figures seem to be made not from wax at all, but cobbled together from bits of wood and styrofoam. But it’s all the better for of it. When you’re inside, it feels like you’ve opened a door in an eccentric old man’s house and stumbled into a magical world that he’s created over half a century of working in secret, after everyone else in his family has gone to bed. A lot of it is challenging, but I’d highly recommend it to anyone who might be passing through… Here’s are a few examples of exhibits. The first is a depiction of authors Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and James Baldwin.

AIR B&B INTERIOR DESIGN… While I like the idea of Air B&B, I really detest the lowest common denominator, faux-spiritual artwork that one finds in them. I understand why the owners of these properties do it, but I’d love to, for once, stay in a place that doesn’t look as though it was constructed to host a perpetual suburban book club discussion of Eat, Pray, Love.

BILLIE HOLIDAY AND PAINTED SREENS… As I once lived in D.C., and have spend a little time exploring around Baltimore, I knew a bit about the city’s history already. I learned two new things on this trip, though. First, I learned that Billie Holiday grew up in Fells Point. And, second, I learned that, starting just two years before Billie Holiday was born in 1915, an urban folk art fad took hold in Baltimore which involved people painting images on the window screens of their downtown row houses… And, interestingly, these two things intersected just around the corner from where were were staying, where an alleyway has been repurposed to serve as a memorial to Billie Holiday… Here are two images from the alley of painted screens depicting Holiday at different points in her life.

Speaking of the painted screens of old Baltimore, the Museum of Visionary Art just happened to be screening a documentary about the practice when we were there. And it was in this documentary that I learned that legendary “half man” Johnny Eck, who starred in Todd Browning’s 1932 feature Freaks, and portrayed the Gooney Bird in the 1936 film Tarzan Escapes, made his post-Hollywood living as a screen painter in Baltimore. [A guy I know, by the way, owns the Johnny Eck estate and hopes to one day open a museum. Maybe, one of these days, I’ll convince him to do an interview here.]

THE SETUP… I’m going to try to make it a point every year from now on to get a photo showing how we set up our makeshift studio to record the session, as it’s different every time we do it, depending on the space we have to work with. This is what things looked like this year. That’s Dave sitting at the end of the table, setting stuff up. Matt, who plays wind instruments, is in the kitchen, behind the inflatable mattress, which we used to keep the sounds from his saxophone and crumhorn from bleeding through to our vocal mics.

I could go on, but I’m falling asleep… Baltimore, if it didn’t come through in the above, really is a wonderful, vibrant, and diverse and energetic city, with great food and unique sense of place. If you’ve never been, you should check it out. It seriously has a unique sense of place that few American cities have these days.

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10 Comments

  1. Sylvie
    Posted January 16, 2018 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    What a great write up, of the good and bad, about a city we’ve come to love. Next time, email me, you’ll have a free place to stay. We’re literally 10-15 minutes south of the city.

  2. Jean Henry
    Posted January 16, 2018 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    Baltimore, New Orleans and Detroit are the three great American cities.
    I haven’t been to Memphis for long enough to know if there are 4. Could be.
    A good tale. well told. Glad you have a group of friends who stick with things, like bands and friendships. I call those people ‘stickers’ and they’re good to have in one’s life.

  3. wobblie
    Posted January 16, 2018 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    JH, I would include Chicago in your list above. I’ve never spent anytime in Memphis. I would include Hollywood Fl. as well not because it is a “great city” but because it has never recovered from the 1930’s hurricane and its beach is like going back in time. Go to New Orleans every chance I can. Been to Baltimore once and would move there.

  4. site admin
    Posted January 16, 2018 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Sad said this in another thread and I thought that it belonged here.

    “P.S. The Baltimore piece is excellent. MM is such a good writer. It really made my morning.”

  5. Iron Lung
    Posted January 16, 2018 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    I am happy to see a post about something other than Donald Trump.

    Great to see old friends enjoying their remaining years on this earth together.

  6. Jean Henry
    Posted January 16, 2018 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Wobblie– Chicago in the late 80’s/early 90’s might have qualified. I had some of the best times of my life there back then. Not so much anymore. It’s a fine city, but it’s pretty bland now. Not sure where the there there went. But that has happened to a lot of places.

  7. stupid hick
    Posted January 16, 2018 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Good. More of this, and less about the moron who is ruining our country, please.

  8. Sad
    Posted January 18, 2018 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    I keep wondering, if it’s not too invasive, did you give Nugent the $2 for beer.

  9. Dan
    Posted January 20, 2018 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Yes. We gave The Nuge $2, mostly to get rid of him. He said he’d pay us back that evening, but, shockingly, didn’t.

  10. Nathan DeYonker
    Posted January 22, 2018 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Could probably hook you up with amazingly cheap/good studio time in Memphis if you guys ever came here for the year!

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