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The Bongos

By Gary Wien

originally published: 01/26/2012

The Bongos were one of the pioneers of early alternative music.  A favorite of college radio fans, their music was an eclectic blend of pop and punk that stood just outside the mainstream.  The band was originally a trio which included Richard Barone,  Rob Norris and Frank Giannini with James Mastro joining the band a few years later.  The Bongos released three albums that have reached near cult-like status.

Although the band’s home base was clearly Hoboken, they were also an instrumental part of the Green Parrot scene along the Jersey Shore.  They were introduced to the area by WHTG, the local alternative radio station that played them often.  The band’s mix of Beatlesque pop and punk energy with tribal rhythms was clearly ahead of its time. 

The Bongos played many great shows along the Shore at clubs like the Green Parrot and Richard Barone has done many solo shows here as well.  In fact, Barone was the very last artist to play at the legendary Green Parrot club.  I had the chance to talk to him via phone about the Bongos and that last night of the Green Parrot, which sadly ended an era at the Shore.

When did the Bongos first get together?

I guess it was in 1980 and the Bongos continued to perform for most of the eighties.  But I started doing more acoustic music around 1987.  It was just acoustic guitar with cello, vibes and percussion, a different kind of set up.  That was the group I was working with at the end of the Green Parrot period.

You were part of a legendary night on the Jersey Shore, the night the Green Parrot closed.  Was it a Richard Barone solo show or the Bongos that played that last night of the Parrot?

It was definitely me because the last Bongos shows were around 1987-88.  I started performing as a solo artist while the Bongos were still performing.  It was a schizophrenic period for me.

What do you remember about the Green Parrot club?

There was a lot of cool things about it.  For one thing, it was one of my favorite places to play, both with the Bongos and as a solo artist, because the way the stage was set up was sort of really low.  Usually we’d play at places where the stage was very high so you’re separated from the audience.  At the Green Parrot the audience was literally right in your face, which created  an intimacy that doesn’t always happen at a club.  There was a sort of convergence of the audience and the band there because the place would be really packed and the people were pretty much on the stage.  It was exciting.  I loved the way it was set up there.  You could really communicate with the audience.

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It was so sudden when it was done.  I loved that place.  It went quickly, but it was great.  Lots of great people played there. If I recall, the group that I had at that time had a timpani and was quite a big, almost orchestral, pop group.  It was just great to do it where the audience was practically on stage with us.  It was a very cool and unusual atmosphere because of that.  There was a great sort of rowdiness that I liked, especially in combination with my more acoustic music.  Having the wild atmosphere of the Green Parrot contrasted with the kind of music we were doing in a way.

Did you have any idea that your solo show was going to be the last night of the Green Parrot?

No, I think they told us after we finished our set.  As I recall, they told us when we came off stage that it was going to be the last night of the club. Of course we celebrated all night.  I mean, we really made it the last night there.  I think we stayed there... well, the sun was definitely coming up.  We just hung out in the club as long as possible too because we loved it!

Were you living around Hoboken then or in the city?

At that time I might have been already living in Manhattan, but certainly part of the time I was living in Hoboken.  Where I live is almost an extension of Hoboken, in some ways, but across the river.  I can actually see Hoboken from where I live.  So, I’m very connected to it still.

The Bongos were certainly a large part of the Hoboken scene, did the band feel like a part of the Green Parrot scene as well?

Yes we did, very much.  The Bongos were always connected to the Jersey Shore scene.  We felt very connected to that area because of the radio station.  I think that’s what really started it.  We got really connected with the station, which we loved, and ended up playing there a lot.  I mean, we played there almost as much as we played in Hoboken.

Where did you play in Hoboken? Maxwell’s?

When we started out there was a small place that we would occasionally play, but Maxwell’s was the place.  Maxwell’s was where the Bongos would rehearse.  When I first moved to Hoboken with the other guys in the Bongos, Maxwell’s had recently opened as a bar/tavern/restaurant but it didn’t have live music yet.  So, we convinced the owner to let us rehearse in the back room.  Somehow we started inviting friends to the rehearsals and it sort of became a scene from that.

So the Bongos kind of convinced Maxwell’s to offer live music?

Yeah.  For years the sound system was simply our rehearsal PA that we used to use when we practiced.  They kept that, I think, for most of the eighties.  But that’s really how that started.  It was a place where we practiced and eventually we started doing shows there and it was really the beginning of something great.

Wasn’t there a Bongos video that was shot at Maxwells?

Actually, “The Bulrushes” video, which is obscure but very cool, was shot in the basement of Maxwells.  I think that video, which I love, was ahead of its time.  It was produced by a guy from Hoboken named Phil Marino.  He directed it as well.  The back cover of Drums Along The Hudson was also shot in the basement of Maxwells.

Maxwell’s was definitely our home base.  There’s no way around it.

What are your thoughts on the radio station WHTG?

It was an incredibly good radio station.  I just remember it playing everything I loved.  It was a great station to listen to, I only wish I could have picked it up more here away from the Shore area because it was so good.  We couldn’t really pick it up at home, but as soon as we were in the Shore vicinity we’d listen to it.  One great song after another.  They had great taste in what they played.

It was fun to do the live things there.  We would often perform live on the air.  Like if we were performing at the Green Parrot or in that area we would do a live segment in the afternoon, maybe an acoustic set or something like that.  It was very cramped, a very crowded little station.  The control room would become very crowded suddenly when we went in there because I’d bring my cellist and quite a few musicians.   

Did you play any other places along the Shore?

The Bongos did over 300 shows a year so you’ll have to excuse me if I’m a little vague on where we played.  Those shows were over seven or eight years.  We toured so much and we did play a lot at the Shore.  It was always a big event when we did. 

We did a live recording once... I think it was at the Tradewinds.  It’s never been released.  RCA brought the mobile trucks there.  I recently rediscovered the master tapes for that.  It’s one of the wildest shows.  It especially captures the feeling of the Shore crowd.  It was so wild.  You just feel the audience’s energy on that recording.  I’m looking into seeing if we can release it.  It was recorded in 1985 on Memorial Day weekend, which made it even wilder than it would have been on a normal weekend. 

Was there a particular Bongos show that stands out for you?

All of them.  They just got wilder and wilder.  The Bongos were a force of nature and performing at the Shore was a perfect combination of that energy sort of exploding.  I think that the Shore area was our favorite place to play.

Do you still play any shows with the other guys from the band?

Sure.  The Bongos have done the occasional benefit here and there for the right purpose or cause or for a special event, but they’ve been rare appearances.  One was a  performance at DJ Vin Scelsa’s 50th birthday.

Have you played any shows at the Shore recently?

I haven’t lately.  I’ve been working on a new album with Tony Visconti producing and it’s interesting to me because he is the producer who produced the T-Rex records that the Bongos loved and also the David Bowie records that I’ve always loved.  

For the last year, I’ve been working on an album with Tony producing and while I’m recording I haven’t been doing too many shows out of the New York City area.  I’m just more in a recording mode than performing mode.  I am doing a series of shows at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in New York, but I haven’t played at the Shore too much lately.   I did do a performance at an event called WHTG’s “Cultural Heritage Festival” in 2000.  John Easdale played at that as well.  I went up and did a solo show just with my acoustic guitar.  That was my last visit to the Shore.  I’d love to go back soon and when my album is ready I will be back there.  It’s just been one of those things where I’m enjoying the process so much.  Working with Tony... it’s been a nice experience to work on this album.

What would you say was your favorite Bongos album?

For me, it’s hard to say.  I think my favorite was the first.  Maybe just because it’s the first one.  Drums Along The Hudson, that project, that whole album was so do-it-yourself and it was at a time when that was not the usual thing to do.  We had so much control over that one and did it ourselves.  I think it’s my favorite because of that.  That came out on an independent label (PVC Records) here in the states and then we went to RCA after that.

I would say my favorite Bongos album is Drums Along The Hudson, even though production-wise I love Numbers With Wings and that’s the record that gets played the most.  The tracks from that record have had the most exposure.  They’re used on many compilations of songs from that period.  Plus there’s the video that VH1 Classics still plays in rotation. 

How pleased were you with how your records have come out?

I’m very pleased with them.  My favorite is Clouds Over Eden.  The new one, of course, is where my heart is now.  Primal Dream would have been the tour that the last Green Parrot show was from.  That material was just so great to do live.  In a way, I had a larger group with sort of combined rock elements and the acoustic stuff.  That was especially cool.

How did the live record Between Heaven & Cello come about?

After Clouds Over Eden was released in Europe, I did a major tour over there, with a fairly big band.  But, when the CD came out here in the states a few months later, I decided to tour the states with just the cellist. It was such a stark and intense sound - guitar and cello. But, it turned out to be one of my favorite tours.  I felt so free to improvise, change arrangements on the spot, and generally work without a net or a script.

We started to record all the shows on a portable DAT machine. I collected those recordings and put together Between Heaven & Cello which was released in Europe in the mid-90s. Two of the tracks on that album were recorded at the Shore: “Before You Were Born” was recorded at the Fastlane, and “Barbarella” was recorded at the Stone Pony.

Do you still get a kick from seeing longtime fans of the Bongos?

Yeah, they come to the shows and it’s great! Sometimes it’s in unexpected places.  People seem to know the Bongos in a lot of different places that I travel to, which is nice.  We had a sound that kind of got around in a good way.

It really was an rather eclectic sound.

Yeah, that’s because the guys in the group had such different tastes.  Rob Norris, the bass player, was so into stuff like Ornette Coleman, Captain Beefheart and Sun-Ra.  The drummer, Frank Giannini, was really into ABBA or very melodic pop.  I guess my interest, at the time, was I really loved the Velvet Underground and the Beatles and wanted to combine those opposite ends of pop music.

What are your shows like now? Do you do mostly new material?

Well, each show is different, and I’m doing an interesting mix.  For the show I’m doing at Joe’s Pub, half of the show is my own songs and half is songs by artists that don’t normally get covered.  I’ve found some songs that I love but that don’t get played.  My half is mostly music from the new album and one song from each of the solo albums and maybe one Bongos song.  I don’t dwell too much on the past though.

From the book Beyond The Palace by Gary Wien

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