This week, join me as I go into a time machine back to 1980s central Connecticut to hang out with the coolest people ever: my brother and his friends Dave Lipscomb and Darin Lipscomb who introduced punk rock to my world when I was in middle school. This will be the first part in a series of pieces titled, “Friendtors” (mentor-friends).
What are the conditions that lead to friendship? For most people it would be proximity, similar age group, common interests, sense of humor, being in a difficult situation together, and/or shared hatred of things. In some cases though, friendship might evolve out of something much deeper: the desire to pick up a new skill or acquire a trait that you admire in another person and wanting it to rub off on you. As a result, your life is propelled in a different direction that otherwise would not have been possible if it were not for that friend. I call these mentor-friends, or “Friendtors” if you will, a term coined by a Fisher Price colleague / copy editor Paul Castiglia. I like the term because it sounds like a He Man character. This is the first in a series of blog entries dedicated to such Friendtors. Without these people I would not have accomplished what I did with Tri-State Conspiracy or other aspects of my life. And to that I salute them!
For my first Friendtor blog piece, join me as I go into a time machine back to 1980s Central Connecticut to hang out with the coolest people ever: my brother and his friends Dave and Darin Lipscomb who introduced punk rock to my world when I was in middle school.
Life is sort of a crapshoot in terms of how cool you’re going to turn out and what type of music you’re going to listen to. So much of the nature vs. nurture argument applies to this topic for sure. Let’s face it, from birth to adolescence our only understanding of what is cool comes from our parents. For that reason we have such a strong connection to the music that our parents listened to growing up and is the reason why I love oldies and soul music from the ‘60s and ‘70s so much. But our parents can only be so cool, right? They’re working full time jobs and raising us, so they don’t have the bandwidth or energy to keep up with the latest trends. This is where older siblings come into play, that that is if you are lucky enough to have one. They’re the ones who are more connected to the cool kids and are going out and exploring the world, especially when they first get their driver’s license. They lend you cool music and movies and sometimes let you hang out with their older friends, even if it means that you have to take a verbal beating from them.
When I was in middle school in the 1980s, my older brother was in high school and entering his punk / alternative phase. I told him recently that I have fond memories of the music that I heard playing out of his room during this time: The Talking Heads, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Cure, Public Enemy, and Fishbone. It was all very upbeat music: intelligent and forward thinking. It sounded kind of like the soundtrack to a John Hughes movie and seemed to match his hopeful energy of being a college-bound student. This wasn’t exactly mainstream music at the time, so the amateur musicologist in me was fascinated to interview my brother and his friends to find out how they discovered their music in the dark ages before the internet.
First, let me set the stage a little bit on our geographical upbringing. We grew up in Central Connecticut which isn’t exactly a metropolitan hub. When I tell people that I’m from CT, they immediately think of Martha Stewart, David Letterman, Gilmore Girls, and rich people in Fairfield county who commute into New York, but our neck of the woods was far removed from that and more of a middle class dead zone smack dab in between NYC and Boston. No metro train stations nearby and professional sports team affiliations were fairly split between the aforementioned major cities. Up until the ‘70s and the ‘80s our town and surrounding areas had a lot more farmland which gave it a more rustic feel to it (or “redneck” as my mom would call it). It was more comparable to upstate NY back then, at least before they built I91 right through our hometown, after which it slowly became a bedroom community to Hartford: insurance capital of the world. In that respect my hometown developed more of a New Jersey / Office Space type vibe with every imaginable chain restaurant you can think of, especially when Aetna opened a corporate office on the outskirts of our town. It was all progress and no culture. So where did my brother and his friends discover good music during all of this?
In the early to mid ‘80s, MTV was pretty much the go-to resource for what was cool if you lived in the suburbs, but unfortunately for many of us, our parents didn’t have cable so we were shit-out-of-luck in that department. As a result, my brother and his friends sought alternate resources for their music consumption which I believe may have inadvertently led them to discover music that was even more cutting edge. First and foremost, the best resource was to trade music with other cool friends whose taste and style you respected, and I still think this holds true even to this day. This led to the crafting of mix tapes, the ultimate token of friendship. Nothing creates a more solid bond than receiving a Maxwell 90-minute blank tape from a friend with hand written liner notes and a thoughtfully arranged Rob Gordon style flow of tracks to help tune you into the same cool frequency as that friend.
This era was also the birth of VHS duplication culture which sort of predated YouTube. Since my brother’s friends were just as much into film as they were into music, they chipped in for a video cassette player at the time so that they could copy rented movies, or other random weird third generation videos copied to them by other friends. And oh what wonderful films I was exposed to as a wee lad! Evil Dead 2, Marathon Man, Boys from Brazil, Commando, Animal House, Heavy Metal the Movie, Taxi Driver, Blue Velvet. I remember watching A Clockwork Orange in the 8th grade, being very impressed by both the visual direction and the unusual ’70s electronic symphonic score and ended up buying the soundtrack by Wendy Carlos. Yes, I was in the 8th grade when I saw A Clockwork Orange. I can’t imagine any parent nowadays allowing their kid to see that movie. I also can’t imagine a 13 year old kid today purchasing a Wendy Carlos album with his own money.
On the subject of film, I distinctly remember an episode of Siskel and Ebert which focused specifically on cult movies such as Brazil, Koyonnisquatsi, Sid and Nancy, Repo Man, and Talking Heads Stop Making Sense. I remember my brother writing down all of these films and making the effort to rent every one of them. Many of them featured punk and new wave on the soundtrack which was considered very avant garde at the time. Sid and Nancy was probably my introduction to punk rock, which was a bit more palatable since it’s essentially like watching a Broadway musical. That movie was also the first time I ever heard the word “rude boy” being used and always wondered what it meant, not knowing I’d sort of become one later on in life. I remember the excitement amongst my brother’s friends when they pooled their money together to purchase a rare import VHS copy of The Great Rock and Roll Swindle which featured actual music by The Sex Pistols. Repo Man also had a very solid and highly influential punk rock soundtrack: Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, Circle Jerks, and Iggy Pop. This era was so influential that I briefly considered studying film when I was in high school before majoring in engineering.
The next resource for cool music was WESU Wesleyan University college radio, an extremely left-leaning liberal arts college very close to us, and often the thorn in the side of the more conservative and older residents of our hometown. You could just hear the disdain in their voice as the townies referred to “those Wesleyan students”, what with their piercings, dyed hair, and freaky, hippie, socialist, punk rock aesthetic and whatnot. This of course drew my brother and his friends in even more. Sometimes my brother would let me hang out with him as we would explore the graffiti decorated tunnels that ran under the campus. It was so grungy and cool and I remember feeling like I was in a music video as I rode my skateboard down the hallways. WESU played nothing but the best of what we now call “college rock”: punk, new wave, industrial, rap, metal, and indy rock. This was a blessing in disguise as MTV was becoming increasingly more corporate and mainstream in the late ‘80s with bands like Bon Jovi appealing to the Reagan era popped collar yuppies that were gaining strength in Central CT at the time.
If we had some money to spend on our music, which ultimately was a requirement if you were bored of your tape or CD collection, I would often join my brother on excursions to record stores all over the state of Connecticut to hunt down those hard-to-find import records and VHS tapes. Not the mainstream record stores, but the cool ones like Record Express in Middletown, Cutler or Rhymes Records in New Haven, Record Breaker in Manchester, and Mystic Disk. Of course, the ultimate mecca was Newbury Street in Boston, usually visited once a year with my parents on weekend trips, in which my brother and I could visit the holy trinity of Newbury Comics, Tower Records, and Urban Outfitters.
The other major resource were magazines. Rolling Stone and it’s cooler, hipper little brother SPIN were the most accessible ones sold at most newsstands and pharmacies. Then there were the more underground ‘zines like Alternative Press and Maxiumum Rock and Roll which were found at more off-the-grid places like underground music shops and comic stores. To you youngins, a ‘zine was the precursor to blogging: a small pulp publication printed on cheaper newsprint that someone ran out of their garage to help promote shows and up-and-coming bands. In return, that person received recognition and a secure place within their scene. They probably didn’t receive as many likes and comments as bloggers do today, but it probably felt a lot better receiving them in person.
Unfortunately most of us were too young to actually experience live punk music in the ‘80s since we were so far removed from the big cities and all ages venues weren’t really a thing until the ‘90s. The best place to catch a punk show back then if you were not of drinking age was at the student union at Wesleyan or UConn, or at rented halls like the VFW in Cromwell which Tri-State Conspiracy once opened for The Toasters two decades later. Before the internet though you could only find out about these shows through word of mouth which required you to know someone cool, usually through the skater scene. At the time the top venues for underground music were Toad’s Place in New Haven, The El N Gee in New London, Anthrax in Norwalk, and a quirky little art gallery/gig space in Willimantic called Populous Pudding. Roller rinks were losing popularity around this time too and were transitioning into music venues like Enfield Roller World and New Britain Sports Palace. Since most of these places were 18+ or 21+ we didn’t really get to appreciate them until our college years so for the time being punk music was something that was enjoyed mostly on cassette tape and VHS by my brother and his friends.
As an impressionable middle school child I was eating up everything that my brother played on his stereo and consider myself highly fortunate to have been way ahead of the curve in terms of the music and film I was ingesting. It also seemed to suggest a different path from the establishment. This past week I’ve been listening to my Pandora playlist of ‘80s college rock while working in the garage on my first invention for my company and thinking of my bro. I sort of feel like Eric Stoltz in Some Kind of Wonderful working in his studio which was one of my brother’s favorite movies back in high school.
DAVE AND DARIN LIPSCOMB
I asked my brother recently, “Who introduced punk rock to your group of friends” and he immediately responded, “Dave Lipscomb. He’s the one who introduced us to Iggy and The Stooges, The Misfits, The Clash, and The Sex Pistols”. Dave and his two brothers Darin and Derek, who were also very close with my brother’s circle of friends and mine, moved to Cromwell in 1986 from Marlborough, CT which was an even more rural town than Cromwell. So rural, in fact, that they shared a high school with two neighboring towns Hebron and Andover, a.k.a. “RHAM”. "It was the worst 4 years of my life” said Dave recently. I asked him why and he hinted at the racism he had to deal with in our neck of the woods which wasn’t exactly the most tolerant place in the 1970s and ‘80s. “Worst 4 years with the exception of 1984 which had great music: Genesis, Yes, Judas Priest, Rush, Accept, Roger Glover, Ratt, Frank Zappa, The Jacksons, David Gilmour, and Prince. Of course King Crimson needs to be mentioned here, too, as they had a new album out that year, and took over as my favorite band (stealing the title from Pink Floyd by a few hairs)”.
I would describe Dave as being the Matt Pinfield of my brother’s group. By far the most knowledgeable when it came to music, almost to an encyclopedic level. He was an old soul with the most hilariously deadpan delivery of jokes and a strong footing in 70s era fusion jazz, acid rock, and prog rock. He later fell down a punk rock rabbit hole his junior year of high school which he initially thought was music for the criminally insane but by his college years he was wearing combat boots and throwing down in the pit at shows with the rest of ‘em. Dave’s musical appreciation was so respected that my brother often begged Dave to make him mix tapes. This happened so frequently that Dave ended up running out of music to give him, so he recorded the exact same songs at high speed and passed them off as new punk bands. My brother was none the wiser. This expanded my brother’s musical horizons beyond Billy Joel and other mainstream music that he was listening to at the time which consequently influenced what I was listening to.
Dave was instrumental in encouraging his younger brother Darin to play guitar who later became the most musically inclined of the three Lipscomb brothers. At a young age he would lend him Jimi Hendrix, Van Halen, and Beastie Boys records. Then one day Dave excitedly brought him over to a friend Shawn’s house to learn how to play guitar, “Darin you have to hear this guy play. He’s really good and I want you to take lessons with him”. This is the sign of a true Friendtor, someone who not only encourages you but actually pushes you. Shawn and Dave were fellow misfits whose friendship blossomed out of a shared hatred of RHAM high school and pre-Beavis & Butthead style dirty jokes. They were “your basic teenage sex-obsessed knuckleheads laughing and snickering about creepy, over the top shit which was [their] way of dealing with everyday incarceration at shithole RHAM”. Shawn took up guitar during Dave’s senior year and got pretty good at it pretty fast, playing the usual Van Halen fare of the time. Shawn had a 2 track tape recorder in his attic bedroom where he would record their sessions which inspired Darin to start his own musical projects. Not long after that Darin bought his first guitar, a Kramer Aerostar, at a music shop in Wethersfield, the name of which eludes the both of us at the moment. Once Darin started playing, the group would congregate in their mom's garage while she was out. “We started making an unholy racket with Shawn and Darin on guitar, me banging on a trash can, and myself and Shawn yelling out the most obscene shit imaginable”.
Dave continued to perform music after receiving his first bass for Christmas and joined his first band the Suburban Guerillas with another friend Sean. He had a good ear and was able to play what someone sang/hummed to him in less than a minute. “We were just an American meat and potatoes punk band. We liked to think of ourselves as hardcore, but we certainly weren't thrash (we couldn't play that fast most of the time). I was told before I joined that they were aiming for a sound that was a combination of REM, Motorhead, and The Jesus & Mary Chain. But if you really wanted to know what we sounded like on our good days, refer to The MC5's The Pledge Song.
As for actual musical influences, our two main reference points were the NY & Boston hardcore bands (everything from Agnostic Front to The Freeze) and the DC/Dischord Records bands. My personal influences were the art-damaged noisy bands like the Buttholes and Flipper, but it was apparent that there was little room for that kind of thing, unfortunately. Later on we experimented with funk elements, and we had at least one tune that veered into Velvet Underground/Joy Division territory.
Part of the pull of 80s hardcore for me was the unexpected anti-racist sentiments (I initially noticed those types of lyrics via Dead Kennedys and MDC songs). It was pretty much part and parcel of most of the scene back then. In retrospect, though, I would guess that some of it was actually genuine. Other than that, it was most likely employed merely to score some rebel street cred for its own sake ("let's piss off our conservative Reagan-supporting parents, then we'll be cool! SMASH THE SYSTEM!!"). Nevertheless, it was a welcome breath of fresh air, living in a place like CT in the 80s. Another pleasant surprise was the revelation that there had been other racial minorities participating in the scene for years, so I didn't feel like the only black outcast who was into this stuff. I mean, shit, we had the motherfuckin' Bad Brains, after all”.
Dave’s biggest passion aside from music was art and illustration. He later studied illustration at Paer College in New Haven and most admired the students in his class who had the most kickass sketchbook. His drawing skills were a major influence on his younger brother Derek who later went on to study graphic arts and become a comic artist.
This fountain of musical appreciation continued to trickle downstream from Dave to my brother’s friend group. Darin and my brother were the same age and would meet their friends at the library every morning before class to talk shop about music and movies with a heavily opinionated air of authority. “We were really into industrial, punk, and hip hop at the time. After the initial novelty of rap wore off from the Def Jam era, rap and hip hop was very difficult to access at the time outside of specialized stations at Wesleyan and Hartford. No one thought that rap would ever become mainstream again... that is until Yo! MTV Raps started. A major Godsend!”.
I asked Dave to elaborate more on how he discovered punk rock and his favorite places to discover music in Central Connecticut in the 1980s:
“…’84 was also musically significant for the fact that I'd heard "Institutionalized" by Suicidal Tendencies for the first time, and that's the song that crossed me over to the punk rock/hardcore camp. That was the shit. I was no longer occasionally listening to this stuff ironically or out of morbid curiosity. It was like "Okay, I get it now. This is my shit." I was all in. Fortunately, the following year a friend of mine acted as my punk/hardcore "friendtor", so that helped. '84 was the first time I heard the first Ramones stuff that I actually liked (via the TOO TOUGH TO DIE album)".
Note to reader: This video brings back memories of my mom becoming genuinely concerned about the way my brother was dressing and the music he was listening to around this time. I think she may have also asked him once if he was on drugs, much like the lyrics of Institutionalized. Of course he wasn't, we were the most clean cut, hardworking kids you could possibly imagine. Definitely a, "I just wanted a Pepsi!" moment though.
"Also... that year would've been the first time I heard Public Image Ltd, via a live bootleg recording of "Low Life", followed by the "Bad Life" single (which I ended up buying the following year). Didn't hear any Sex Pistols until shortly after that. Again, maybe the following year.
ALSO also... I'm pretty sure '84 was the first time I heard the Butthole Surfers. Didn't know who they were, but I heard "Lady Sniff" on a college station, and haven't been the same since. And anyone who really knows me knows my love for that band. In fact, they briefly took over from King Crimson as my all-time favorite band until they eventually watered themselves down by the middle of the 90s. Then King Crimson returned to steal the title back.”.
Note to reader: I remember my brother playing me Lady Sniff and thought it was the most hilarious thing I ever heard. I would do impressions for my friends in middle school. Some of them got it and cracked up, but others thought I was the weirdest kid ever. I also attempted to be Friendtor recently to a former Fisher Price colleague and encouraged him to get back into playing guitar. He sent me a recording of him and his son playing noisy music that actually sounded a lot like the Butthole Surfers.
Being obsessed with my own musical genealogy, I asked Dave to dig really deep and think about how he first discovered punk rock:
“So you wanted to know how I first heard of this thing called punk rock? For that, we have to throw it back to 1978. I used to watch a Don Rickles sitcom called CPO SHARKEY. One episode had something to do with a lady friend's daughter who was running with a punk rock crowd. The most famous scene occurred at a bar where a punk rock band were playing (it turned out to be The Dickies, as I'd learned not too long ago). And there were the punks, pogoing in the middle of the dance floor. Never saw or heard anything like it, to the point where I thought "Is this actually a thing?
The punks' appearance were your basic late 70s deal - funny, dyed haircuts, makeup, shabby clothes, chains, etc. Naturally, being sheltered as fuck, it was pretty shocking to me. They seemed like futuristic dystopian retro-50s style juvenile delinquents. And the music seemed appropriately harsh and belligerent at the time. This weren't no KISS”.
The clip of the Dickies performing on CPO Sharkey can be viewed below at the 4:15 mark:
“I didn't actually hear any more genuine punk rock until a few years later. I'd heard a few New Wave things that I mistook for "punk rock", like Blondie's "One Way Or Another" and The B-52s' "Rock Lobster" (which I thought was the most bizarre thing I'd ever heard when it dropped).
I even mistook Cheap Trick for a punk band at first. They had a lean, mean, straight to the point but slightly eccentric rock & roll sound that sounded a million miles from Styx and Boston. But as I heard more of their stuff, I realized that they were in fact just a goddamned good rock & roll band with a really cool off-kilter edge to them ("The Dream Police" was my shit).
The Clash were a big surprise to me. Judging from "Train In Vain", I figured they were just a really catchy "power pop" kinda deal. Maybe a much cooler replacement for the Bay City Rollers. Then I saw what they looked like when they performed live on a show called FRIDAYS ("Holy shit, these guys are punk rockers!!").
WESU is where I first heard actual punk rock around maybe '81 or '82-ish. I can remember hearing stuff like Fear's "I Don't Care About You", which helped cement my attitude about punk rock being made by and for the criminally insane, until a few years later. My first punk gig was Dag Nasty at The Anthrax in Norwalk (saw a shit ton of shows there back in the day). This would've been in '87”.
Although Dave and Darin were more part of my brother’s crew than mine, I have to credit them for the musical influence they brought to my world. They listened to the real rock ‘n roll: the raw unapologetic kind. They were also the first friends that I can think of who fostered the DIY punk spirit and played in their own rock bands. I truly believe that my life may have taken a different path if it were not for the rock ‘n roll lightning bolt that emitted from the brothers Lipscomb.