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October 10, 2007

Book Notes - Joe Bonomo ("Sweat")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Before reading Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band I knew precious little about the band. I was aware of their 30+ years as an active band (a staggering statistic on its own) and have been blown away by their legendary live performances a couple of times, but didn't even own one of their albums. Joe Bonomo chronicles the band's history and its struggles, and portrays a group of musicians doing what they love because they love the music. Bonomo's passionate portrait of the band is well-written and always interesting, and much recommended.

The New York Post said of the book:

"'Sweat' reads like a true labor of love. It’s a highly detailed account of the band that refused to go away until, through determination and stamina, they got the book they deserved."

In his own words, here is Joe Bonomo's Book Notes essay for his book, Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band:

One of the many things that attracted me to The Fleshtones as subject matter is their immense knowledge and love of, and respect for, the history of rock & roll. They’ll goof about their place in the pantheon but one thing is for sure: at their best, in their own songs and in others’, The Fleshtones are amplified shamen, channeling the coarse and vibrant decades of rock & roll. They’ve always called it SUPER ROCK.

While I wrote Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band I began a side-project that has burgeoned wildly and that now seems endless: to collect as many of the songs that the Fleshtones have covered over their thirty-year career, from obscure b-side to obscure album track, to let the tunes groove in the background as I wrote, and to soak in the R&B, soul, New Orleans, disco, garage, frat, and psychedelic ingredients that The Fleshtones make a blast of every night.

Here are ten of the more telling cover songs:

“Cara-Lin,” The Strangeloves (1965)

A lot of people think that “Louie Louie” is the Fleshtone’s sonic cornerstone, but “Cara-Lin” has always sounded to me like the one that The Fleshtones wouldn’t exist without. An irresistible hip-swinging groove, funny yell-along words, and an hilarious back-story involving three Jewish guys from New York pretending to be refugees from the Australian outback. Only in the 60s? The Fleshtones have been playing it since they formed.

“Anarchy In The U.K.,” The Sex Pistols (1977)

Historic: The Fleshtones were the first American band to play this song. They learned it from a mix-tape brought over from the U.K. by a friend, a local NYC rock journalist. The Fleshtones worked up a ragged, speedy cover and debuted it at Max’s Kandas City before Never Mind The Bollocks was released in the U.S.

“Do The Mouse,” Soupy Sales (1965)

Children’s television show host Sales gamely sung this Dance-Of-The-Week number that sounded like something from every other mid-1960s anonymous TV show compilation. The arrangement is lame, the playing is generic, Sales strains within his allotted three notes—but you can picture kids everywhere squealing and doing The Mouse on their linoleum rec-room floors, and so could The Fleshtones, who with sardonic half-grins amped the kiddy appeal for the over-21-and-drunk set.

“Fingertips Pt. 2,” Little Stevie Wonder (1963)

Anyone who caught a Fleshtones show between 1988 and 1998 will recognize this show-ender. Even after ditching their horn section in the mid-1990s the band couldn’t resist this classic, into which they eventually dropped the signature horn-riff from their own “Roman Gods.” Super, indeed.

“I’m Alive,” Johnny Thunder (1968)

This is maybe my favorite cover song that the band’s done. One of the many tunes covered by The Fleshtones as much for the words as for the music, in this case a very cool Tommy James-arranged R&B/Bubblegum stomp. The guys mock their way through the song’s hippy ethos, but take very seriously the fist-in-the-air survival boasts—desperately needed more than once during the band’s long and vexed career.

“I’m Over 25 (But You Can Trust Me),” Sammy Davis, Jr. (1972)

A real riot: their producer thought that The Fleshtones were kidding when they said they wanted to record this solemn appeal to kids to look past the Generation Gap, man. Sammy sings it earnestly and faded flowers drop languidly; the Fleshtones ham it up and burst the bubble at the end with a ribald, tongue-in-cheek invitation to the listener to “Get It On.”

“Outcast,” The Animals (1966)

An obscure b-side, this is another one that appealed to the band lyrically: they’d felt like outcasts of sorts in NYC from the beginning, and haven’t felt that they’ve ever really fit in anywhere since.

“Rockin’ Roll Baby,” The Stylistics (1973)

A cool example of how The Fleshtones like to deconstruct their source music. The epitome of Philly Soul, this Stylistics original is a smooth-oiled, slick, mid-tempo urban groove; The Fleshtones trash it up in a fast and crunchy garage arrangement.

“Soul City,” The Hi-Lifes (1965)

One of the more obscure songs that The Fleshtones have covered, spotted on a gimmicky mid-1960s compilation and co-written by Lou Reed during the faceless, pre-Velvet Underground days he spent providing Brill Building material. Who the hell knows who the Hi-Lifes were, probably a studio concoction—The Fleshtones loved the obscurity of the song and the hopelessly-naive R&B feel. In 1978 they were filmed by M. Henry Jones playing the tune for Jones’ influential video short of the same name. (The Fleshtones liked the song so much they re-recorded it in 1999.)

“Word Up!,” Cameo (1986)

Many a mid-1980s crowd hooted at The Fleshtones’ take on this Top 40 funk classic, another example of their love for Soul source music and for over-the-top stage presentation. I only wish they’d recorded this one.

Joe Bonomo and Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band links:

the book's page at the publisher
the book's MySpace page
excerpt from the book

New York Post review

interview with the author
Go profile of the author
NIU Northern Today profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)