The story of the Hazmats, 1994 - 1997

A flawed stab at greatness that was ultimately doomed to failure, The Hazmats were at once typical and unique. On one hand, what can be more cliche than a punk band from New York City, playing the same fast, loud three chord rock'n'roll and proclaiming the same old punks-not-dead attitude fifteen years after it went out of style? On the other hand, in those post-Nirvana years of the mid 1990's, where else were you going to hear a band that knew its roots and could wipe the snot off any three so-called punk bands with a single Buzzcocks or MC5 cover? Among all the cookie-cutter grunge flannel wannabe's, we were practically the only band on the scene that kept the faith of the class of '77 on the covers, while still writing original material that indeed sounded original. As a power trio, we were quite an unlikely bunch. Imagine a tall black dude wailing on a Stratocaster like a crazed young Jimmy Hendrix, a fat Russian guy pounding the backbeat while running in circles around the drum set, and a quiet, serious Long Island Jewboy with hair down to his butt, holding it all together with a steady wall of bass. When we played, we put on a show. We switched instruments in the middle of a solo, we could move from Television to Judas Priest and straight into a Russian folk song without missing a beat, and we never played the same set twice. We were a sight, man. And it was fun while it lasted.

The Hazmats were born in early 1994, at first as my idea and eventually as a fully realized concept. At the time, I was feeling totally alienated from the whole grunge thing. In the early 1990's, it seemed like every band playing in New York clubs had the exact same look and sound, most of it awful. And they were all so bloody serious about it, as if their poseur affectations were the real deal, as if doing something outside their chosen formula was strictly tabu. Nobody seemed to be playing any music that had any kind of fun, rebellious energy anymore, it was all depressing and depressingly predictable. I thought that Nirvana was great, finally breaking punk into the mainstream, but I hated all the imitators they inspired. Every other group that jumped on that bandwagon seemed to have totally missed the point and it ruined the whole thing for me. I was caught somewhere in between, too young to hang out at CBGB in the days of Blondie and the Talking Heads the first time around, but too old to fall under the spell of that self-pitying, drugged-out, slowed-down, sub-Black Sabbath sludge from Seattle that passed for punk at the time. It was kinda hard to relate to these pretentious middle class stoners trying to make believe their life was so damned hard that their tortured souls were crushed by all that pain. Once it became clear that Nirvana spearheaded a whole new movement called grunge that had little to do with the indie punk that I loved, I realized that this simply wasn't my generation anymore. At the same time, I did not want to merely go back to old-school punk that I grew up with. I was writing my own songs, which came from a variety of different influences, from jump blues of the 1940's to acoustic Russian bards. Being a longtime record collector and musicologist, I could not limit myself to any one style or formula even if I wanted to. I had many musical ideas that I wanted to try out. So I took out a bunch of ads in the Village Voice, the Island Ear and some other papers, stuck little notes on bulletin boards in music stores and studios. "Guitar and bass wanted for a creative, original punk band ready to explode!"

Many of the people who answered my ad in the Village Voice simply had no clue. I auditioned my share of stoner Beavis & Butthead types, eager young kids who still had too much to learn, jaded veterans completely set in their way like old men, guitarists who knew every Led Zeppelin riff but couldn't play one tune all the way through, drummers who owned 15-piece sets and couldn't keep a simple beat, show-offs, primadonnas, mercenaries, poseurs, flakes and losers. Many wanted to play only one type of music within strict self-imposed limits, repeating the same exact set of influences like a mantra. If I mentioned any artist outside their little world, they stared at me blankly. Jimmy Reed? Richard Hell? Never heard of them. I met plenty of 80's leftovers, still playing their fluorescent pink Kramers and feeling totally lost and confused now that hair metal was passe. I met pierced and tattoed neo-punks who couldn't name a single song by the Ramones. Some wanted the band to rent a house, all move in together, build a studio in the basement, quit their day jobs and party seven days a week. The idea that being in a successful band is actually serious work and not just groupies and beer had never occurred to them. Others wanted to join a streamlined, efficient operation that was working hard towards getting signed and "making it", to the point where they no longer even remembered why they ever started to play music in the first place. It was style over substance, image over music, cut-throat, back-stabbing, get-ahead-at-any-cost opportunism over just about everything else."Dedication" was the buzzword, but it was actually ruthless ambition that had less to do with any kind of dedication and more to do with being a selfish asshole. But what I wanted primarily was to simply make music with creative, open-minded people that I could relate to, to bring the energy and fun and the element of unpredictability back into it.

I was really glad when Al (guitar) and Matt (bass) finally appeared, within a week of each other. At last, here were two blokes who could play, knew their roots, and had the right attitude. When Al came to my door with his blue Stratocaster, I recognized him as a former classmate from my old high school. He used to hang out in the halls with a guitar, just like me. We jammed a little on some old XTC and Pixies stuff and I was like, "OK, you’re in". Together we auditioned a couple of bass players and found the right man for the job. I called Matt back after the audition, and he accepted. The Hazmats were born. Originally, I was going to be guitarist and frontman, this, after all, being my band. But I soon gave up trying to find a drummer and simply swiched to drums myself. Instead of a quartet that I intended to put together, we became a trio. The three of us clicked immediately, we were ready to go, and there was no need for anyone else.

The Hazmats. Left to right: Al, Matt, Ed ("Big Beat").

We rehearsed in Al's basement for a few weeks and worked out a set. I brought in mixed tapes of old and obscure punk tunes, and if the guys got into them, we would cover them. Our set lists included songs such as "She's A Mover" (Nikki & The Corvettes"), "The Hurt" (Any Trouble), "Cecilia Ann" (The Pixies), "Ever Fallen In Love" (The Buzzcocks), "I Dig You" (The Tubes), "Post Card" (Shocking Blue), "Quit This Town" (Eddie & The Hot Rods) and "American Ruse" (MC5), which should give a good idea of what kind of music we aimed at. We only covered those songs that we ourselves loved listening to.

My philosophy concerning covers was this: never cover a song that the mainstream audience would recognoze. Not only are there hundreds of other bands doing the same exact tunes, but a cover is always compared to the original recording and inevitably loses in comparison. So why try to be like someone else, only not as good? The majority of our cover choices went over everybody's heads. Most people probably thought that all the songs we played were our own. But if one single guy came up after the gig and said "Wow! Eddie & The Hot Rods! I can't believe you guys played that!", then I knew this person was on our wavelength, that we connected, that we probably made his day. And reaching that one person made up for all the other clueless zombie poseurs in the audience, and I knew then that we were on the right track.

But I also came up with a different gimmick. This, too, separated us from every other band that took themselves too seriously. For every gig we played, we would do one cheesy cover that nobody expected a punk band to play. It was usually a pop hit from the 80's that everybody knew, but had long since forgotten about. And we would never do the same one twice for the same audience. Our regular followers loved this idea and eventually came to expect this from us. The "Cheesy 80's Cover" became the most popular part of our set. Some of the songs we did were "She Bop" (Cyndi Lauper), "Goodbye To You" (Scandal), "Breakin' The Law" (Judas Priest) and so on. Great songs all, incidentally, but definitely not your typical punk band fare.

In addition, Al and myself both wrote original songs. While we did play a lot of obscure covers, they never formed more than about a third of our total repertoire. Al and I worked out a routine where we would switch instruments, since we were both guitarists who dabbled on drums. Al would do part of the set singing his songs, and I'd back him up on drums, and then we would switch and I would sing my songs. Al was a very talented songwriter with a great sense of melody, something too often lacking in rock music nowadays. And he really knew how to handle that blue Stratocaster. Each one of his songs had a killer riff or a hook, though he often dialed in such cheesy over-processed distortion that his Marshall sounded like a dinky Gorilla amp and the innate tunefulness of the songs got a bit lost amid all the noise. I always thought that we would have sounded much better if he simply left all his stompboxes at home. Me, when I came out from behind my Ludwigs, I plugged my Gibson SG straight into the amp and just let it rip. But hey, we were a punk band after all, not Peter and Gordon.

Al's songs such as "What I Will" and "I Don't Wanna Be Your Friend" became instant favorites, and I must say they were more technically advanced than most of the stuff I wrote at the time. But our biggest hit was my own "Catalina". At the time I drove a '69 Pontiac Catalina, a big green rustbucket that I bought from a little old lady for $100 and intended to restore or possibly hot-rod as soon as I made some money. Unfortunately, one day the frame under the big 350 engine rotted all the way through, the engine landed on the ground under the car, and the thing had to be junked. This turn of events inspired a song, originally written as a slow blues mourning the death of a car, but eventually re-written into a more cynical ditty and speeded up to hyper-Ramones velocity. "Catalina" quickly became our blockbuster show-stopper, and to this day, it is the only Hazmats tune some of our old fans remember by name.

Throughout all this switching and clowning around, Matt would just keep a steady rhythm on his big white Washburn bass and keep it all together. His greatest contribution was naming the band, after seeing the "no hazmats" signs on the Jersey turnpike. I didn't like the name "The Hazmats" at first, because I associated it with all the chemicals in too many other punk and hardcore band names - Biohazard, Napalm Death, Agent Orange and so on. But I had to admit it was a great name for a band, and it was adopted unanimously within ten minutes of being suggested. I did a lot of research and determined that there were no other bands with the same name. We were the first and the original Hazmats. Several years later, after we had broken up, a band from New Jersey took our name. I only found out about it after someone saw their flyer and called me, asking whether we had gotten back together.

Matt wrote songs as well, but refused to bring any original material into the band, saving it for a side project that never did come about. At some point he even went into the studio with Martin Rev, working on that stuff, though nothing came of it. If we had gone in as a band, with Martin Rev producing, who knows what might have happened. But unfortunately, we missed that chance. To be honest, we were still polishing our act at the time and not quite ready to record. I still had a lot to learn as a drummer in the beginning, though I acquired the necessary skill fairly quickly. Al still needed to get used to working within the confines of a band, The Hazmats being his first. Within a year, after we had played at practically every club in the Village and appeared at the Spiral often enough to be mistaken for the house band, we were ready to kick some serious butt, but unfortunately we never made it to the studio.

We had a pretty busy gigging schedule. The Spiral. Lion's Den. College parties on Long Island… Those places and many others became quite familiar to us. Club promoters began to recognize my voice on the phone when I called to book a show. We built up a following. We could pack a club and make the people move. My greatest moment came unexpectedly, when I mentioned to some briefly introduced Manhattan scenester kid that I was in a band called The Hazmats and he said "Hey, I've heard of you guys". It was then that I realized that we had actually begun to make a name for ourselves.

Speaking of the Spiral, I really missed that place after it closed. Spiral used to be on Houston Street and it was pretty cool as far as clubs go. Thom Jack was one of the better promoters, having been a musician himself once, and he was always fair to us. The Hazmats played at the Spiral all the time and almost always had a great turnout. It wasn't the money, which barely paid for the gas even when we packed the house, but the atmosphere was always fun and friendly. The Lion's Den was cool too.

The worst club we ever dealt with was Kenny's Castaways. We had booked a gig for Friday night and promoted the show heavily. But Kenny's called us and asked us to help out on a Tuesday instead. Apparently, some band cancelled on them and they needed someone to cover that slot right away. No problem, I said, we'll help. I figured if we get on the good side of the club promoters, maybe they'll work with us next time, if we need something. I thought in terms of establishing a regular business relationship, coming back to play there again soon and so on. Silly me. Between the changed date and the heavy rain storm that Tuesday night, most of our fans missed the show. We played to an audience of ten. After which, Kenny's wouldn't return my phone calls when I tried to book with them again. Never mind that we helped them out, we still didn't bring in the minimum amount of people through the door, and we didn't exist after that as far as those jerks were concerned.

The problem with the New York City club scene is that there are always plenty of young kids who would gladly even pay the club to play there, just to be able to say they played CBGB or whatever. So most club owners and promoters are jaded and expect musicians to kiss their ass. Their treatment of you depends solely on how many people you bring through the door. It may be hard for a starry-eyed kid to accept, but the music doesn't matter at all, it's all about how much beer they sell during your set. You can be the next Sex Pistols, or you can stand on stage staring at your shoes for half an hour, picking your nose and getting booed. If they sell enough beer, they'll want you back. If not, you've just played your last gig. I wasn't a starry-eyed kid, I was old enough to know that the music business was indeed a business. But when I first started booking The Hazmats, I naively expected honest, equitable, adult business dealings allowing both sides to make a buck. Ha! Didn't take me long to learn what a crazy circus it really is. My experience with The Hazmats stood me in good stead years later, when I started doing some work as a promoter and producer myself. Eventually, one learns to appreciate the few good guys in the business and to avoid the rest of the bullshit.

Of course, there were some funny moments, too. For our second gig, Matt showed up on stage wearing a lab coat and goggles. He was working in a chemical lab at the time and decided to fool around a bit, pursuing the word association between the Hazmats name and real hazardous waste. I don't know what he was thinking, because those lab coats are non-porous, they don't allow anything through. Including air. Which is fine for an air conditioned lab, but not so good working up a sweat under bright stage lights. Matt strutted the stage like a mad scientist, but ten minutes into the gig, he looked like he was about to collapse from suffocation. He was struggling with the long sleeves which fell over his hands and got in the way of playing, and sweating as in a sauna. To his credit, he managed to heroically finish the song before tearing off the lab coat and goggles and catching his breath. We almost lost him then and there. After that, he insisted on wearing the same "lucky" cutoff T-shirt every time. That ugly thing looked like he just pulled it out of his butt, but at least it was more functional than the lab coat. I always thought he should at least tear it up a bit to make it even partially respectable in a poseur punk kinda way, but man, that shirt was beyond any kind of punk.

One of my favorite stage antics was to do a short drum break while running once around the set, hitting the drums and cymbals as I ran. I usually did this for the last song of the set as a kind of little encore. The trick was to get right back behind the drums and go into the ending of the song without missing a beat. One time I tripped on the hi-hat stand as I was jumping up, and hurt my toes pretty badly. So instead of hitting the drums, I just jumped up and down on one foot, cursing, while the hi-hat went flying off the back of the stage. Then I limped back behind the set and crashed the song to a halt. Thankfully, the guys caught on and we managed to at least end it together. The audience thought it was all part of the show.

One time we were hired to do a college party at SUNY-Farmingdale. They had us set up in the gym... in the middle of a basketball game. We were literally dodging basketballs all night while the kids were running around us and completely ignoring us. My drums got hit with a ball twice and Matt nearly picked a fight because one guy ran into his amp while dribbling the ball. To top it off, we were a NYC punk band, and these kids were all very clean-cut Ken and Barbie types. Sheer preppie hell. I don't think a single person actually heard anything we played that night, but in the end their organizer said they loved us and paid us quite nicely.

Hazmats demo cassettes.

For four years, we rocked this town, but all things come to an end. The Hazmats fell apart not with a bang, but with a whimper. We never actually broke up the band formally, but after six months went by since the last rehearsal, it was a fait accompli. The reasons were typical: we got tired of beating against the wall of indifference, tired of going nowhere, tired of playing for free, tired of not being able to agree on a course of action. We had the tunes, we had the energy, and eventually we had the buzz. It was time to record, time to concentrate on getting somewhere… but unfortunately, it just didn't happen. In the beginning, we were ready to explode. Four years later, like countless other bands before us, we imploded instead. We had our dreams, we had potential, but this particular vision was destined to remain unrealized.

Part of the problem was the widening gap between me and Al. Al wanted badly to be a star, to work hard and break through. Unfortunately, he had also turned into a bit of a prima donna. He hated backing me on drums when I stepped up front with a guitar, and would have been perfectly happy to replace me with a full-time drummer. Which is natural for a lead guitarist, I suppose, but this was, after all, my band.

I could also never manage to convince Al that recording was paramount. He thought we should concentrate on constant practice and heavy gigging before we would be ready to record. I would have preferred to concentrate on getting our songs recorded instead. I could understand Al's perfectionism to some extent, but I always thought that energy and spontaneity were more important in our kind of music than technical polish. But towards the end, the energy was sorely lacking. And when we broke up, we still did not have anything recorded.

And Matt wouldn't commit either way. He would be punctual and reliable, he did his part. But he would never contribute or initiate anything unless I made it a point to impose on him. And I have had enough of imposing on people and trying to agitate them into action. After our last gig, which went so badly that Matt ended up walking off the stage, I just didn't have the energy to pull the band all by myself anymore.

I agreed to audition some drummers, figuring that maybe I could permanently move to rhythm guitar, that maybe some new blood would revitalize the band. With a strong full-time drummer and a dual guitar assault, we might have really gone somewhere. But the drummers who showed up simply did not work out. I was back to square one, where I was four years ago, where it was easier to become a drummer myself than to find a good one to work with. And at that point, I realized that I was ready to give up and pull the plug. When neither of the guys made an effort to keep The Hazmats going, I let it go, too. It was time to call it a day.

Where are they now? Al had put his first band on his musical resume and moved on. He eventually went on to join a band called Kilgore Trout. I went to see them once and kicked back a couple of beers with Al. Kilgore Trout were pretty good. They even managed to attain a little bit of that rock-star fame that Al always wanted: they went on a national tour opening up for some big names, got signed to an indie label and recorded an EP. All well and good, but Al's own music somehow got lost along the way. All the songs on the record were those written before Al joined, and I gather that they rarely played his compositions live, preferring to stick to their own material. A real shame, because Al's own songs really do need to be heard. I have lost touch with him shortly afterwards. Once we no longer had our band in common, there didn't seem to be any reason to call or meet, and before I knew it, years had passed since we last spoke to each other. He still owes me twenty bucks for doing some repairs on his Westbury guitar.

I did stay in touch with Matt, and further musical collaboration is not entirely out of the question. He has been working on some interesting musical concepts, though not actively pursuing them. After the Hazmats, we did a couple of impromptu appearances together at the Knitting Factory and some cafes, playing acoustic sets billed as "The Artists Formerly Known As The Hazmats". We often joke that one day, we'll form a Hazmats tribute band and go on a reunion tour as "The Hazbeens". Had the Hazmats gotten anywhere, perhaps each of us would have embarked on a solo career (yeah, right), but obviously that didn't happen either. As it stands, Matt is working on his new material by himself and occasionally playing with bands such as N.F.G. and Onion Boy, while I moved into production, promotion and management instead.

I have concentrated on writing some songs in my native language, Russian, and doing occasional solo acoustic gigs. I recorded a live acoustic album of my Russian language material and played drums in Tihii Uzhas, a Russian rock cover band. These days I spend more energy producing and promoting other bands through the Russian Rock Club Of America, and occasionally sitting in on drums at blues jams. If I'm ever going to get anywhere with my music, it will probably be through songwriting and producing, not by forming another band. So maybe I will never become a famous rock star myself now, but these days, I can help some younger kids to give it a shot. In my thirties, I'm getting a bit too old to be a snot-nosed punk, anyway.

And that, my friends, is the story of the Hazmats. As far as I'm concerned, we were the greatest band in the world!

My late great Catalina. Alex the mechanic is quite amused.


Equipment:
Al: Fender Stratocaster (1986 model in Lake Placid blue), 1979 Westbury Deluxe, Marshall amp, various effects.

Big Beat: Ludwig drums (black 1970's mixed 4 pc. set with 24" bass), 1984 cherry red Ovation Ultra GP, 1976 Gibson SG Standard, 1967 white Hagstrom III, any house amp available.

Matt: Washburn bass (white, unknown 1980's model), vintage 1960's Kustom tuck-and-roll bass amp.

Band Vehicles:
'69 Pontiac Catalina (Big Beat's), '83 Toyota Celica (Matt's).

Quote:
"So when do we get to go on a reunion tour as The Hazbeens?"

 

Click HERE to listen to the unreleased demo version of "Catalina".

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