The Next Chapter in Thalia Zedek’s Indie Saga
by Holly George-Warren
Option magazine No. 48, January/February 1993
Thalia Zedek is celebrating her 31st birthday with several cups of strong coffee, half-a-dozen Italian-made Chinese almond cookies and a succession of Camel Lights. She’s sitting at a large wooden table in a dusty, dimly lit loft on the Bowery, only a stone’s throw from CBGB.
Zedek knows New York’s Lower East Side well. She first performed here in 1981 with Dangerous Birds, one of Boston’s original all-gal bands. She returned in the middle part of the decade with avant-goth pioneers Uzi, and she spent the latter part of the decade living in New York and singing with Live Skull. She also suffered through one of the lowest periods of her life on the Lower East Side after developing a nasty heroin addiction. But times have changed — and so has Thalia Zedek.
The night before, her new Boston-based band, Come, played a gig across the river in Hoboken. It was a stormy evening and today, though it’s already three in the afternoon, the sun still hasn’t come out. The gig had been a bit stormy, too. During sound check, Zedek’s Ampeg tube amp began emitting a heavy cloud of black smoke, so she had to borrow an unfamiliar Marshall from the opening band to use during Come’s show. To make matters worse, Come was several songs into its set before Zedek realized the treble knob on the Marshall had been set at 0 and the bass at 10. When I tell her the audience loved the show — that her vocals and guitar sounded fine — Zedek just looks skeptical, the gray skies outside the window perfectly matched to her mood.
“Things sounded so weird last night,” she insists. “I thought I was going deaf; everything seemed grossly distorted and out of tune.”
Though she appears particularly uncomfortable accepting compliments or talking about herself, once Zedek begins discussing the members of her eighteen-month-old band, her spirits lift considerably. She animatedly sings the praises of lead guitarist Chris Brokaw, on leave from his gig as drummer for New York’s Codeine. Her dark-circled eyes light up as she describes drummer Arthur Johnson, whom she first met when he was a member of the Athens, Georgia-based Bar-B-Q Killers. And she can’t say enough about ex-Kilkenny Cat Sean O’Brien’s bass playing. Come is now gearing up for tours of America and Europe to promote its first album, 11:11, on Matador. Things look good — probably the best yet for Zedek since she first picked up a guitar at age 15 in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C.
In the mid-’70s, it wasn’t easy being an aspiring female singer and guitarist if you had no desire to sound like Linda Ronstadt or Stevie Nicks, which were the styles most of Zedek’s peers were going for. She had started messing around with a friend’s guitar around that time, and though the friend was an admirer of Linda and Stevie, it didn’t prevent her and Zedek from writing songs together.
Still, she felt solitary in her musical endeavors. Every time Zedek turned on the radio, there was nothing going on at all. Then one day in 1976, she heard the song that would change her life. “It was on a regular radio station,” Zedek recalls, “and Patti Smith was singing ‘Gloria.’ It was like, Wooowwwwww — what’s this?! She was singing in her natural voice; she didn’t sound pretty like Joni Mitchell or Linda Ronstadt. I never wanted to sound pretty, either. It was a real exciting thing to hear Patti Smith doing it. She was totally cool.”
There was something else about Smith that struck a chord in Zedek — her androgynous persona. “I remember when I was about 12, when all your friends go boy crazy; I never went through that stage,” she says. “I felt different and I thought it was kinda weird, but I never put two and two together until later. I didn’t know any gay people when I was in high school, and I just never thought about it that much. It didn’t click until I was 18.” There was Patti Smith, who presented herself more as a Keith Richards than a torch singer. She blurred the lines between male and female, and became a role model for the 16-year-old Zedek, who began frequently traveling to New York, where her brother lived, to see Smith play live.
After high school, Zedek moved north and attended Boston University for a semester before dropping out. “It was 1979 and punk was happening a little bit in Boston,” she remembers. “You could easily spot people who were into that kind of music because not that many people were and if you were, other people usually threw stuff at you on the street. It was a pretty small scene, and I started playing bass with people, just messing around.”
Zedek’s first full-fledged working combo was White Women. “It was a very bizarre band. We were the weirdest people — a tone-deaf bass player, Judy Jetson, who was lovers with the organ player, Dolores Paradise, an ex-music school teacher who was really into rhinestones and Lou Christie. We did a lot of Lee Hazelwood covers and never got a weekend gig. Dolores was the ex-wife of Lou Miami, whose group the Kozmetix was a strange, great band who did homoerotic versions of songs like ‘To Sir With Love.’ We opened for them a lot.” In addition to a musical meeting of the minds, Zedek made another discovery while playing with White Women. “Judy and Dolores were the first lesbians I had ever known,” she says. “Suddenly, it was like, ‘Wow, this is what I am!’ “
After a couple of years playing Boston clubs such as the Underground and Cantone’s, White Women fell apart. But Zedek soon formed Dangerous Birds. Still playing guitar, she shared vocals with Lori Green, doing mostly original material. She obviously drew inspiration from her idol Patti Smith, but also threw in a bit of Richard Hell for good measure. For two years, the Birds gigged around the Northeast, recorded a single, and helped start the Propeller Records co-op, one of the area’s first indie labels.
Dangerous Birds’ songs were catchy with rousing vocals and prickly guitar riffing. Zedek’s two songs recorded by the group, “Emergency” and “Smile On Your Face,” were chock-full of melodic hooks, albeit mostly in minor keys. Her lyrics offered an ominous take on the world. “Everything I do is wrong,” she crooned in “Smile.” Green’s compositions were bouncier, much more in the pop vein of the Modettes and other all-gal bands of the day. “Lori and my songs were pretty different,” Zedek points out. “It was unusual, in that it was two distinct styles; it was cool, but it might have been why we broke up.”
By the time Dangerous Birds flew the coop, Zedek had been exposed to a whole new genre of music: “We played with the Birthday Party, and I started getting into more discordant, noisy stuff. It was one of the reasons Dangerous Birds broke up. It was too poppy, not violent enough. So I started playing with men.”
Though Zedek claims that Uzi, her next band, sounded nothing like the Birthday Party, the music on the group’s only EP Sleep Asylum (Homestead) certainly recalls the slash-and-burn style of Australia’s preeminent goth-thrash band. “I’d never played out in a band with men before,” she says. “It wasn’t that different, except for personality things. When it comes to music, when you’re playing, you’re not a man or woman anymore. There definitely is sexuality in music, but there’s not that gender thing.”
The Patti Smith references remained an important part of her oeuvre, but Zedek was also beginning to develop her own sound. “Radio Ethiopia was an inspiration for Uzi,” she says. “I wanted to have a band that sounded like that album — total transcendence.” While her singing had taken on a melodic subtlety, it also became markedly more aggressive; though she let out the occasional scream as a Dangerous Bird, in Uzi her cries, wails and shrieks sometimes sounded as if she were in unbearable pain.
Uzi introduced a whole new angst/goth/punk/art sound to the Boston scene, particularly with its use of tape loops of bizarre sounds, such as gunshots and dripping water, voices and even Gregorian chants. The band’s loud, upfront drums assaulted the ears and moved the body, while its moody, distorted guitars supplied atmospheric sound effects more often than melody.
Jerry DiRienzo, singer and guitarist of Cell (whose debut album, Slo-Blo, is due on DGC) vividly remembers Uzi’s early shows. He had just moved to Boston when he saw them for the first time, and recalls that they began the performance with tape-loops: “Then the music started and it really hit the senses on all levels. There seemed to be this swirl coming off Thalia; she seemed a bit possessed, and the band was caught up in it. She was so magnetic; everyone was in awe of her.”
Unfortunately, all that intensity was too much. “We fought like cats and dogs over everything,” says Zedek. “There were personality things; we were a pretty abrasive group.” In particular, she butted heads with drummer Danny Lee. “We started out being best friends, inseparable, doing everything together,” she says. “But we ended up having a huge personality conflict. He was a very good drummer, and it always bugged him that I wasn’t technically as good on my instrument as he was. It used to drive him crazy: ‘Why don’t you sing instead of scream!’ He was really into the technique of it, and I was into the feel.”
In the meantime, Zedek had been going out to see New York’s pioneering guitar-o-philes Live Skull when they played in the Boston area. She liked the group so much that, after Uzi’s demise, Zedek told a friend that she dreamed of playing with them. To Live Skull guitarist and vocalist Mark C., it was a mutual admiration society. “On tour we had this one tape of Uzi that we kept playing,” he says. “We all really loved Thalia’s voice, but we’d never seen the band.” One particular weekend, Zedek went to three Live Skull shows in a row: Boston, Cambridge and Providence. At the last gig, she shyly struck up a conversation with Mark C. “I asked her, ‘You know a lot about music. Are you in a band?’ She said she had been in one I’d probably never heard of — Uzi. I said, ‘You’re Thalia Zedek!’ She was so humble — total Thalia — she’d have never told me who she was; she would have just gone on talking about Live Skull.”
Since forming in 1982, Live Skull had toyed with the idea of finding someone else to sing so the instrumentalists could concentrate on their playing; up to that point, Mark C. and bassist Marnie Greenholz had been doing most of the vocals. So Mark C. asked Zedek if she might be interested in the job. She agreed, and began traveling between Boston, where she still played with her newest band Via, and New York, to work with Live Skull on its fifth album, Dusted. “We got along with her right away,” Mark C. remembers. “Our aesthetics were so close, yet they were different in a complementary way. It kinda shook up Live Skull a little bit, and it also provoked Thalia to sing in a different, harder way.”
The biggest change for Zedek was singing without playing an instrument. “It was weird,” she says. “I’d always just played and sung over it. It was a crutch. Without a guitar, it was scary.” She also felt uncomfortable singing the older Live Skull songs. “She would say, ‘I feel really stupid singing because I love the way Marnie sings it,’ Mark C. recalls. “She was embarrassed about it. We had to convince her it was a group decision.”
Live Skull would mail cassettes of their songs to Boston so Zedek could write the lyrics, and she wound up singing all but two tracks on Dusted. “Her vocals were a great mixture of talking, shouting and melody all at the same time,” says Mark C. “It’s an odd sense of melody, and it’s very subtle. Live Skull was about that; our melody lines were not super hooky or hummable, but were strong anyway. And Thalia’s vocals seemed a lot like that. She never fell into an obvious, melodic singing style; she started from somewhere else, somewhere more expressionistic.”
Zedek continued with Live Skull, appearing next on the Snuffer EP and touring Europe with the band. She adapted to her new role onstage as a live-wire front-person with a cataclysmic band behind her. “Thalia was so loose onstage,” says Mark C. “We never knew where she was going to be or if she was even going to be onstage. She was wherever she wanted to be.” Now freed from the bondage of a guitar, she started adopting traces of her old hero Nick Cave. At times, she looked like a frenzied revival meeting preacher, testifying to the audience, bending at the waist, her dark hair flying, her bruised eyes tightly shut, her 5-foot-4-inch frame in constant motion.
Zedek began spending more time in New York and finally joined Live Skull full time. “I met this girl in New York who I was going out with,” she says, “and I was sick of Boston. It wasn’t stimulating for me; I wanted something new.” She still believed in her Boston group Via, and when she decided to relocate to New York, she convinced the band to do the same.
Jerry DiRienzo, who was also in Via, feels Zedek was torn between the two bands. “We were starting something from the ground up that had so much promise,” he says, “but Thalia didn’t want to go through all the pain and bullshit that goes along with starting a new band. Live Skull, on the other hand, was established already. But inside I didn’t feel that Thalia would be artistically satisfied singing with Live Skull. They were basically hiring her. She wasn’t writing the songs, only the lyrics. She was struggling between what she felt she had to do for her career and what her nature was.”
Mark C. agrees. “I began to realize more and more that Thalia was a little frustrated by not being able to play guitar and by the fact that we still had songs Tom, Marnie, or I had written but hadn’t done yet. Underneath it all, Thalia wanted to be in a band where she was more integral. She was totally an equal member, though, always suggesting a lot of musical ideas and writing all the lyrics. We definitely wanted her input.”
Live Skull entered the studio to record what would be its last album, Positraction (Caroline). Greenholz had quit and was replaced by bassist Sonda Andersson; soon a new drummer came on board as well. Lushly arranged, with intricately sparring guitars, the album’s song structures and tempos varied greatly; it was probably Live Skull’s most accessible album. A sense of doom pervaded throughout, and the lyrics were very much of a piece. Thematically, Positraction resonated with feelings of loss, emptiness and heartache. In “Safe From Me,” Zedek wails, “I didn’t want to be flushed out like a poison.”
Having just arrived from Boston, she wrote the lyrics of all ten songs one after the other. According to Mark C., “That whole album is basically one song. We didn’t make it obvious, we didn’t have the song titles relate, but Thalia wrote the lyrics when she was going through a particular episode. They’re very heavy and heartfelt. Live Skull was a cathartic thing — and that was exactly what the band was for Thalia at that time. In ten songs she said everything she wanted to say — a lot of things that you can’t just go out and tell people.”
During that time, Zedek, who lived in the midst of the Lower East Side’s heroin marketplace, began relying on smack to get her through the emotional repercussions of a turbulent relationship. Though reluctant to discuss her dance with Mr. D., she describes a gradual flirtation that developed into a habit. “I’d been offered [heroin] a lot of times before I’d ever done it,” she says. “Then one time, for some reason, I just did it. The thing about heroin is, you’re taught that it’s this evil drug and that it’s a really heavy-duty thing. Then you try it, and it’s actually mellow. You don’t lose control of your body or your mind; it’s not a severe thing, like doing angel dust or speed. You think, ‘I can handle this.’ “
Live Skull hit the road after Positraction came out, playing larger halls than ever before, including several sold-out dates with Jane’s Addiction. After returning to New York in the summer of ’89, things began to disintegrate. Touring for weeks in a bus had resulted in band frictions that had grown out of control. Via had fallen apart in Zedek’s absence, she had been fired from her restaurant job, and she lost her apartment. The only thing she had left were her means to escape. “I think everyone naturally craves oblivion,” she says. “At the time, I wasn’t getting along with different people in the band. It seemed like things had run their course.”
“I remember Live Skull’s last show at CBGB,” DiRienzo sighs. “They knew they were breaking up, and things were really bad with Thalia — she was a shell. I remember talking to her on the corner of Bowery and Second Street, crying and saying, ‘What are you doing? Can’t you see?’ I was so distraught. [Via’s break-up] had been really devastating to me, because I had wanted to play with her for so long, and we were just starting to write some good songs. I had never played with anyone I was so in tune with. In fact, my band’s name Cell comes from a Via song that she had named.”
Downplaying the drama in her life, Zedek recalls those tumultuous times without emotion. “I wasn’t getting along with a lot of people, and my girlfriend, Julie, had moved back to Atlanta. I was sleeping on people’s couches, borrowing guitars. I was very scattered, my belongings were everywhere. I couldn’t do music anymore, I was burned out, I couldn’t think very well. I couldn’t get a job or get my shit together. I knew I had to stop [doing drugs] to be able to write or play.”
It was time to go back to Boston, where over the next two years Zedek slowly got her life back together with the help of supportive friends — and her own desire to change. “It was a gradual, painful coming back,” she says. One day, she got a phone call from Chris Brokaw, whom she’d been talking to off and on for two years about forming a band. When not in New York drumming with Codeine, Brokaw had started playing in Boston with a singer, a violinist, and Arthur Johnson and Sean O’Brien, two Georgia boys who had recently moved to Beantown. After the group’s first gig, Brokaw, Johnson and O’Brien defected and got in contact with Zedek. “We jammed together and started collaborating on songs,” she says. “And that’s Come — that’s how it started. Improvisation is where you get the good ideas, and that’s how we do it.”
After about a year of jamming together, Come started getting raves in the press, played to wildly enthusiastic crowds in London and Amsterdam, and recorded a 45 called “Car” for Sub Pop’s “Single of the Month Club.” A deal with Matador followed, and the group recorded and mixed 11:11 in a mere seven-and-a-half days. They decided on the title after glancing at a digital clock on several occasions and finding it was 11:11 each time. “It was a recurring phenomena,” says Brokaw. “It became a sort of superstitious mantra.”
The songs on 11:11 hint at a bluesy, but loose rock’n’roll sound, like Sticky Fingers-era Stones, but they’re accented with enough dissonance to make things just a tad off-kilter. Moving tracks such as “Brand New Vein,” “Submerge,” and “Molly’s Dead” contain catchy melodic hooks backed by forceful riffing and unflagging rhythm. The lyrics indicate that Zedek is still most interested in the darker side of human experience.
Zedek’s old colleagues have nothing but praise for Come. DiRienzo saw their NYC debut, and his band played on a bill with Come at CBGB. “Thalia’s [musical] marriage with Chris has taken her to another level,” he points out. “Come is more rock-rooted, and I think that’s right where she should be. Their writing is great; their music bridges the masculine and feminine. They’re my favorite band.”
Mark C., whose new band is called Fuse, has attended all of Come’s New York shows. “The second time I saw them, I walked in during sound check. They started this song, and about 45 seconds into it everybody in the room became quiet, looking at the stage. Within the space of this one song, they’d managed to captivate everybody in the place — and it was only sound check.”
Come has been writing a lot of new material, says Brokaw, “so when we tour we won’t go insane playing the same ten songs every night.” In fact, the evening before at Maxwell’s, Come had started the set with one they had written two days before. “That song doesn’t even have a name yet!” Zedek explains. “The first time we’d played the whole song in rehearsal was the day before. These guys were going ‘Let’s play it!’ It’s like christening it or something. It helps make it a song.”
Zedek is still sitting at the table in the loft, but she’s been joined by Brokaw, Johnson and O’Brien. Now that the attention has shifted away from her — with a lot of chatter about new songs and old gigs — Zedek appears more at ease. Outside the window, the clouds have begun to disperse, and the smoky room is growing lighter by the minute. Julie, Zedek’s longtime girlfriend, walks in with a huge birthday bouquet of colorful flowers. It looks like it’s going to be a busy 32nd year.
Contributing Editor Holly George-Warren wrote about drugs, drinking and musicians