How to Reunite a Band 30 Years Later
Michael Tomasky spins a yarn about returning to a venue three decades after his band first played there--and how they finally wrote some damn songs and made a CD.
The drummer, Jimmy, lived in a farmhouse about 12 or so miles outside of Morgantown. He didn’t have a neighbor for miles. What could have been better? We could play as long as we wanted as loud as we wanted and get as drunk as we wanted. As far as I knew, we were just guys getting together every so often to do that.
Then one night Jeff says, “I got us a gig.” I didn’t even know we were an us.
We developed a set list, of a sort, but we had to dump the Clapton, because Al, the one who could really actually play the guitar, took up with a different band, or moved away, or something.
We had to come up with a name. Jeff and I remember this differently. My memory is that he saw Social Demons written on a bathroom wall; he says he wrote it there. Whatever. Let’s give him that one. It might not be what you’d name a band now—it’s not ironic, not in-jokey enough. But I always liked its bizarre oxymoronic quality; in what sense would a demon be social, and why? That worked for me.
Morgantown back then, late ’70s, early ’80s: Lots of aging hippies—people who moved there from much smaller West Virginia and Pennsylvania towns, did a couple of semesters, and never left. You’d see them, for the first couple weeks every September, carrying little spiral notebooks around, pretending. There was a Dead scene. A terrific reggae band. A few punk rockers. Man, did they hate us—because we didn’t play many originals, and because we played Beatles songs (you’re goddamn right we did!), and because the punk we did play was sanitized, your mom’s punk. Elvis Costello, the Clash.
It was the post-’60s. There was still one head shop, but it was the dawn of the age of Reagan, too. It’s funny, all those marketing majors I knew who dealt weed and did whatever else they did are probably mostly solid Republican citizens now. Anyway it was mostly a beer town—$2, all-you-can-drink nights. You’d take a milk gallon jug to the bar with you, and they’d pump it full of Tuborg Gold. This was the time when WVU students first started burning couches. I was there for what I think is the first time it happened, after a basketball win against Minnesota.
So out of the fading mists of all that comes this little record. As I explain in the accompanying Q & A, two years ago, someone got the idea to have a reunion weekend for old bands at a bar. The bar is 123 Pleasant St., which in recent years has developed a reputation as the kind of place where bands play on the college circuit just before they hit it, or even after. The Red Hot Chili Peppers played there. They Might Be Giants, too.
In Dad’s day it was the Golden Nugget, owned by the father of one of my best friends—a place for miners and other working men to go blow part of their paychecks after the shift-whistle blew. In my time, it became a rock’n’roll house, but just for us local nobodies. Marsha, the owner, was a life-loving leftie from Massachusetts who was an old friend of Abbie Hoffman’s (he popped in one night) and who eventually left town under federal witness protection.
She loved her little Demons, even though ideologically she arguably shouldn’t have. This was the Dead bar, mostly.
Memorial Day weekend 2013, we played there for the first time in however long, and then we made this record. It’s kind of surprisingly easy to record these days, with all the gawl-dang technology. But you still have to write the songs first, and I think we wrote pretty good ones. I hear songs on Underground Garage and think, you know, “Little Good John” and “Local Talent” and “Shine” are at least that good. So—come see for yourself.
Today’s unreleased track debut is by none other than our own Michael Tomasky and his rock’n’roll band, The Social Demons, from their new CD Everybody Happy?! It’s a song Tomasky wrote in 2003 called “Warren Zevon’s Gonna Die.” Listen to the song below, plus a Q&A with the Beast’s James Joiner.
James Joiner: So first off, how would you describe your band? How did it get started, and why bring it back now after such a long hiatus?
Michael Tomasky: Well, 30 years ago, we were your typical college-town rock’n’roll cover band (in Morgantown, West Virginia). We did a few originals, but mostly we just played stuff we liked. We did it for four years, so we were pretty tight, but we managed to balance that by being frequently out of tune. People were usually too schnockered to notice.
Two years ago, we played that reunion gig and were kinda surprisingly good, and not long after, Jeff Gianola, the other guitar player, called me up and said “let’s make a CD.” So we wrote some songs, dusted off some others we had sitting around, and boom.
JJ: What drives your songwriting? Do you ever come at it from a political standpoint?
MT: Sometimes I start with a genre: I want to write a torch ballad, I want to write a Stonesy-rocker. Sometimes something just strikes me as being obvious song material. One of mine on the record is called “There’ll Always Be Roses.” It’s set in England during the war, and the idea came to me years ago while watching an old movie, Mrs. Miniver. One of the characters in there was a breeder of roses, and so in the movie, the rose was like this metaphor for hope during a time of privation, and I thought you know, that’s kind of nice, someone should write a song about that, and no one bothered, so I did it.
Not a lot of politics. There's some oblique political or social commentary here or there, but we don't really go in for that kind of direct proselytizing. Billy Bragg ain't my thing.
MT: The influences people will hear on the record are pretty unsurprising for a bunch of white guys (and one gal!) our age. Some Beatles, a touch of Stones, shades of Elvis Costello, a little Band, a dose of Neil Young from that mid-70s grungey period. One friend told me he heard echoes of Mott the Hoople, which is fine by me. And a younger friend mentioned 13th Floor Elevators, whom I'd never heard, but I listened, and, well, yeah, I can hear it.
Oh, and that Zevon fellow.
JJ: What is this song, that we’re premiering, about?
MT: This song, called “Warren Zevon’s Gonna Die,” is one I wrote the day I heard on the radio that Warren Zevon was going to die. Yes, original title. Anyway, I wrote it after his style, so to speak. There are references to a few of his songs in both the music and lyrics, and some lyrical touches are, I think, things he might have done, like mentioning Roy Cohn; that struck me as a very Zevon thing to do. I think he’d have liked it.
JJ: Where can fans, and potential fans, find your music and see you play?
MT: Go to www.socialdemons.com and click on Buy It. It’s on iTunes and Amazon and Spotify and so on. As for live shows, we’re working on that. Maybe some time in the fall in Morgantown or Washington or both.