BERKELEY NIGHTSPOT La Val's Subterranean hosted one of The Klezmorim's more demented gigs — an evening of surf, blues, rock&roll, bossa nova, and James Bond movie tunes. We performed as The Klingons in honor of Brian Wishnefsky's favorite joke. (Q: Why is toilet paper like the starship Enterprise? A: Because it orbits Uranus looking for Klingons).
David Gray on electric guitar... a small crowd of hardcore fans... a cherished memory. According to the tattered playlist, The Klingons' repertoire included: "Poison Ivy" by The Coasters · "Walk, Don't Run" by The Ventures · "Don't Worry About the Government" by Talking Heads · Soundtrack themes from The Godfather and You Only Live Twice · Naftuli Brandwine's "Fun Tashlikh" in an Erik Satie/lounge arrangement · Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli's sublime "Minor Swing" · A medley of "Der Führer's Face" and "It's a Small World After All" · The scabrous swing ditty "Barnacle Bill the Sailor."
A rough-and-ready gig, yet I felt that with a bit of rehearsal The Klingons could have rocked the house as the warm-up band at our regular concert appearances. (What a riot to get booed off the stage at our own gigs... then re-emerge as The Klezmorim... and see how long it took the audience to figure out we were the same guys! I'm laughing out loud just thinking about it.) Despite the rubber chickens, we took ourselves way too seriously. To have prefaced every Klezmorim show with The Klingons' eclectic, airheaded pop-vulturism — hell, it woulda been exactly the self-balloon-pop we needed.
Another standout gig took place at Smith College in Massachusetts. Actually, I don't remember the concert... but some administrative genius bivouacked us randy cats in a womens' dorm for three days; arts immersion ensued. We had a further Elvis moment at an outdoor show in Denver, where teenaged girls ripped off their shirts and stormed the stage, nearly overturning our dressing-room trailer. Scary, but exhilarating — and a clear indication that our 1920s street-band music had a future with rock audiences and college students.
Finally the klezmer revival was taking hold nationwide. When we appeared at Passim's in Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Klezmer Conservatory Band welcomed us to their turf with a mutual jam; I later joined the KCB for a street gig in Harvard Square. Bandleader Hankus Netsky's impressive crew of future klezmer stars — Don Byron, Mimi Rabson, Merryl Goldberg, Abby Rabinowitz, Charlie Berg, David Harris, Frank London — shared our passion for the music, and made us feel at home.
We found common ground with other players as well. Quentin Badoux of the San Francisco-based Andean folk ensemble Sukay introduced us to Central America's brass band traditions; we performed with Sukay several times as a poncho-wearing pentatonic Peruvian horn section.
When the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, prepping a production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, discovered that the 19th-century playwright had originally specified a klezmer band for the party scene, we got the gig, recorded a Russian/Yiddish dance tune score with soundman Jim LeBrecht, and infected the legitimate stage with the klezmer virus. (Years later, the Berkeley Rep commissioned me to compose an original quasi-Russian score for Ostrovsky's Diary of a Scoundrel.)
Frustrated with Arhoolie's tepid promotion of our first two albums, we invited musical mentor Stu Brotman up to San Francisco to produce Metropolis, our debut album for Bruce Kaplan's Flying Fish label. 1981 was a year of experimentation as we disengaged from the moribund folk music scene to demonstrate our genre's appeal to rock, jazz, and symphonic audiences. The inside story continues in 1982... >>