In 1978 The Bay Area Recorder announced an upcoming gig at San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens. It read; ‘Seattle, the city that brought you The Kingsmen of ‘Louie, Louie’ fame, and Jimi Hendrix, exports their premiere new wave team —Chinas Comidas”
Later that year L.A.s Slash magazine called Chinas Comidas “Seattle’s most important band”.
Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth would say ‘Chinas Comidas were the real deal. Exciting, intriguing and intoxicating”.
Yet, in 1980 Marvin Goodman declared in Gary ‘Pig’ Gold’s Pig Papers the second single by Chinas Comidas, ‘Snaps (Portrait of a Fan)’ was “Boring. A copy of Talking Heads copying Blondie. Two chords is rotten-you need at least three. Turn it off. It stinks! ‘Dulll as Ditchwater’ as Jack Good (the creator of Shindig!) would say”.
Here we have proof of a couple of elemental things. Platitudes are easy to come by, but musicians must work really hard to engender the kind of dismissive, smarmy and calculated attitude that Goodman shows in his review. Humans do not like change…music critics are especially resistant to it. If a band receives comments like Marvin Goodman’s it probably because they are taking listeners out of their comfort zone. Experimenting. Challenging what is popular. Travelling their own artistic road.
Listening to ‘Snaps’ in 2018 might cause a person to wonder what song Goodman was listening to and how he mistook it for Chinas Comidas. But Goodman had made no mistake at all. He was listening to Chinas Comidas… something new to him’ something outside his comfort zone. He did not like that.
Goodman would not be the only critic or listener that seemed to show visceral distaste for the band during their career. It was unfair and pedestrian, but as we know, sometimes artists are totally vindicated by time and ongoing artistic and social evolution.
(N.B. Another elemental thing a music writer might do is to discover which band, from which city brought the world which particular song. Knowing who wrote and recorded the song first is helpful-but only if the right band is named).
Chinas Comidas is really a tale of two cultures colliding-that of the erudite New York poetry scene and the somewhat more relaxed beginnings of punk and experimental music in Seattle. A third location could be added-Los Angeles, California. But where the northwest and the northeast had birthed Chinas Comidas, it would be southern California that would break it apart.
The Seattle tale starts with two boys, one from the city’s View Ridge neighborhood and the other from nearby Laurelhurst. They were assigned adjoining desks in their crafts class at Nathan Eckstein Jr. High School in 1962. The boys, Rich Riggins and Gary Minkler became friends right away Soon after meeting they started playing and listening to music together
“Little did we know” says Riggins, “it would turn into something a bit bigger than what we expected. We were just searching for ideas and being crazy artists guys”.
By the time they’d reached high school the two became even more serious about music. They began working with other musicians and started their own band. “We started getting really serious into music” says Riggins “We became inspired by all the other music we were hearing on the radio. Then we came across Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart and stuff like that”.
Meanwhile, across the country in New York City a budding poet was finding her voice. Cynthia Genser had already had a couple of her poems included in the Paris Review (issue number 57, Spring 1974) and had started doing what was then called “spoken art’ around venues in New York City. Early on she wrote;
“I’m attempting to position myself in the universe so as to read the books, which, as William Burroughs says, are out there. I like to hang out in bars and grocery stores and listen. I’m trying to be a writer, a woman, a human being in a world where those are all considered ‘criminal activities’ “.
While Genser was ‘attempting to position herself in the universe’ Minkler and Riggins began to combine complicated music and absurdist humor within a group of interchanging artists and musicians. Musicians were free to come and go in a free-flowing fashion. The musicians included Pete Pendras, Jerry Anderson, Steven Hoke and John Olufs among others. These were the early days of what would become the band Red Dress.
“Initially Red Dress was more experimental and full of theater and costume” Rich admits. ‘We would have more theatrical performances with props. We’d have little skits and crazy stuff. It was kind of off the wall. Kind of Dada-esque, inspired by the surrealism of Frank Zappa, and corny. goofy things trying to startle people a little bit and be a bit more creative than the norm. We wanted to challenge people with syncopated rhythms and more complex musical ideas; It was almost a circus-y thing in the beginning. Then, from there, Red Dress formed and Gary got more into having the band he took on. He started recording and performing with the band that became so popular’.
‘We met Cynthia Genser a couple of years after Gary and I got started” says Riggins. “She was vagabonding around the country, writing poems. She had attended Columbia University in New York City. She was a poet who had a collection of her work published by Wesleyan University Press called ‘Taking On The Local Color’.
“She had this prestige about her.” Riggins says.
Although she already had been published the collection of poems was from several years earlier. She says her work had become influenced by The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron and Jayne Cortez. “Spoken art was very big in New York at the time and I actually performed at Doctor Generosity’s” Cynthia says. Doctor Generosity’s was one of the most important poetry hang-outs in the city, at 73rd and Second on New York’s Upper East Side.“One night there was a group on the bill called The Experimental Jazz Quartet. I don’t know who they were butI played with The Experimental Jazz Quartet. I want to thank them whoever they are”. The performance came out on BLACK BOX, an early spoken word ‘magazine’. It consisted of poetry performances on cassette tape, sometimes with musical accompaniment. The issues were released in an actual box. “Very cool.” adds Cynthia”
“Audre Lorde is on it and Allen Ginsberg and Leon Damas are on it. Really good people… and me. I was on it too! Little old me. I was asked back to Doctor Generosity’s by popular demand. I did two performances. That was the scene I was used to”.
In fact, Cynthia’s performences were included on two issues of BLACK BOX (Black Box, Number 9 in 1976, and Black Box, Number 12 in 1977). Both were published by The Watershed Foundation that was formed in 1970 in Washington D.C. The cassette magazine BLACK BOX published 15 issues between 1973 and 1978 although The Watershed Foundation would last until the mid-1990s. Over a more than thirty-year period, The Watershed Foundation released approximately 130 Watershed Tapes, and two series of poetry programs broadcast on 250 public radio stations. In the mid-1990’s, when a major portion of the archives was destroyed in a flood, The Watershed Foundation folded. BLACK BOX was available by mail-order during it’s run but it also had sales representatives concentrating on college and university libraries, book stores and other institutions. Their masters along with the entire Watershed tape collection are now in the archives of the Special Collections division of Gelman Library at George Washington University in D.C.
Meanwhile in Seattle, Gary Minkler remembers “In 1976, I was living (drinking beer, filling up notebooks, and sleeping) in a bag on a sheet of plywood placed on a couple of sawhorses) in a garage behind Gary and Marguerite Margason’s house in Wallingford”
Earlier, in 1962 Gary and Marguerite Margason had been instrumental in establishing KRAB, a volunteer-run, eclectic, listener-supported radio station. It became part of Seattle counter-culture. Gary Margazan was the long-time Program Director and a trustee of ‘The Jack Straw Memorial Foundation’ that had been set up to oversee the station. Realizing how tenuous their programing could be with FCC standards, KRAB did a good job flying below the radar for the first couple of years. Later the scrappy little station would find itself embroiled in all sorts of attempts to shut them down, but the station lived on for 21 years.
In 1983 The Jack Straw Memorial Foundation sold KRAB to Sunbelt Broadcasting, Inc. based in Colorado. The sales price was said to be between $3.5 and $4 million. After paying off their debts, the now renamed ‘The Jack Straw Foundation’ opened a multi-media, creative public resource with a recording studio, and dedicated it to supporting of artist and authors of all genres. Seattle had always begged for innovation in the arts. For decades this made for a landscape of Seattle artists and musicians ready to experiment, but very few public places to present their art. Many took it upon themselves to create their own venues-the streets. It is from here that the seminal drag street theater troupe called ‘Ze Whiz Kidz’. who in turn helped inspire early Seattle punk. The streets were also the starting place for Seattle-born performance artist Johanna Went.
Cynthia continues her story by telling me “It was the mid-70 and I was living in New York . I was studying with a poet named Fanny Howe…she’s still around and she’s a wonderful poet. I told her I was thinking of going out west and she said ‘DON”T FLY! Don’t be one of ‘THOSE’ people!!! Go across the country and really see it” So I thought ‘Yeah, OK’. I picked up a ride with a person I didn’t know. His name was Miles which I thought was fictitious. He turned out to be a big bore. We parted ways in Pennsylvania then I started to just get rides off of ride boards and occasionally I’d hitch solo…..Even in the ‘70s it was a little dicey going alone. But it turned out OK….It turned out wonderfully!”
“I met a lot of really interesting people. When I got to the Mississippi River…for me, being from New York that was mythic!” Cynthia continues. “I said ‘I have to get out of this car! I have to put my boots in the Mississippi mud!’. To me this was like ‘America for real‘. I ended up going out west three times. Once by these pick-up rides. Once by Canadian Rail, which was a lot of fun because at that time if you went by a cheaper line you could get on and off as often as you wanted. I had adventures out Canada where I’d never been… out in those huge Mid-western, mid-Canadian spaces. I saw all those mythic things and wildly empty, fantastic places for me.
“You know, I came from a congested city and to see so much space, in itself, was crazy. The third time I went west was by hippie bus, The Grey Rabbit. You’d travel around sitting and smoking weed while they drove.” Cynthia says. “On my travels to the west I went from New York to Berkeley and then up to Issaquah Washington where I had a friend. That was my first trip to Seattle. I went back to New York City pretty rapidly. I stayed a longer time in San Francisco and Berkeley than Seattle. It was sort of a progression. When I was in Berkeley I worked as a journalist for the underground, counter-culture journal The Berkeley Barb. That’s when I started to use ‘Chinas Comidas’ as a ‘nom de plume’. I was an at-large cultural critic. I did movie reviews, I did gatherings and places. Then I covered the trial of the ‘San Quentin Six’ which were the guys who were blamed for killing George Jackson, even though it was obvious that it the cops who killed Jackson. They were set-up, although there was plenty of violence. I went with a cartoonist named ‘Spain’. I just heard that he’d gone. I didn’t realize he had died; He was a wonderful guy. He was a lovely, lovely man”
Free The San Quentin Six Poster by ‘Spain’
It was a little confusing” says Cynthia, “because one of the defendants on trial was also called ‘Spain’ (Johnny Larry Spain). The ‘Spain’ Cynthia attended the trial with was Manuel ‘Spain’ Rodriguez. He was a well-known cartoonist who would make an indelible mark on underground comics and illustrated novels. Rodriguez used only his childhood nickname ‘Spain’ for his work. When Genser attended the trial with him he was already a counter-cultural icon who had co-founded (with Robert Crumb) the United Cartoon Workers of America. Between the early ’60s to the early 2000s ‘Spain’ contributed to numerous underground comics including Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, Zap Comix, Young Lust, Arcade, Weirdo, and dozens of others. His unabashedly radical leftist views resulted in covering not only the San Quentin Six trial, but also the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago as a reporter/illustrator for the East Village Other. He died at home in San Francisco November 28, 2012 in after a six year battle with cancer. He was 72 at the time of his death.
In 1994 Seattle’s Fantagraphic Books published ‘Spain’s biography ‘My True Story’. ‘Spain’s’ real-life story involved his love of motorcycles (and motorcycle gangs), his radical politics, and his heroic illustrated novels about Ernesto “Che” Guevara. ‘Spain’ was also responsible for creating ‘Trashman’, a superhero of the working classes and the radical left. Trashman’s adventures are set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian America run by a fascist police state and a patchwork of self-governing areas akin to territories ruled by warlords. In 1997 Fantagraphic Books also published ‘Trashman Lives!’, a collection of comics and illustrated novels that chronicel ‘Spain’s’ fictional defender. Fantagraphics Books is closely associated with Larry Reid, who was an early champion of the music of Chinas Comidas and the poetry of Cynthia Genser. In fact, aside from playing Reid’s own late 70s gallery Roscoe Louie, Larry Reid has hosted re-unions of the Chinas Comidas at least twice over the past few years.
The San Quentin Six Genser covered were inmates Luis Talamantez, Hugo Pinell, Johnny Larry Spain, David Johnson, Willie Tate and Fleeta Drumgo. They were accused of taking part in a prison riot at the facility’s euphemistically named ‘Adjustment Center’ on an August 21, 1971. The riot left six people dead, including George Jackson, a former Black Panther who had co-founded the Black Guerilla Family (BGF). The BGF initially was inspired by Marcus Garvey and held the ideology of creating a revolutionary African American/Marxist-Leninist organization comprised of prisoners who would focus on eradicating racism within the prison system and offering dignity to prisoners. Another of their primary goals was the overthrow of the United States government
The prosecution claimed that George Jackson was given a .32 caliber pistol by his attorney, Stephen Bingham, and it was Jackson’s attempted escape that caused the rioting. The accused inmates’ defense was that prison guards had smuggled the pistol into San Quentin, hoping it would result in George Jackson’s death. In fact, Jackson did die in the riot, as well as three corrections officers (Frank DeLeon, Jere P.Graham and Paul E. Krasenes). Two inmates were also killed (John Lynn, and Ronald L. Kane). Another two corrections officers (Charles Breckenridge and Urbano Rubiaco, Jr) were attacked but did not die.
The trial cost the state $2 million and lasted 16-months. At the time it was the longest trial in California history. The final verdicts were that Johnny Larry Spain was guilty in the shooting deaths of prison guards Graham and DeLeon. Pinell was found guilty of cutting the throats of the two guards who survived, and Johnson was convicted of assaulting one of the corrections officers, Charles Breckenridge. There were no convictions for the killings of Krasenes, Lynn, or Kane. Defendants Drumgo, Talamantaz, and Tate were found Not Guilty of all charges, which had included counts of murder, conspiracy, and assault. To this day the trial and convictions remain controversial and many still feel the blame should have been laid at the feet of the prison guards responsible for giving the pistol to George Jackson. In the aftermath of the riots, Jackson’s lawyer, Stephen Bingham fled the country. He returned to the US in 1984 and was acquitted on charges of having supplied Jackson’s pistol and for any other part in the riot that led to the deaths and
‘They didn’t let cameras into the courtroom’ Cynthia says, “so ‘Spain’was the illustrator and I was the journalist. We went a few times. That was where Chinas Comidas was born as a name” This experience had to have a lasting impression on Cynthia. a writer, an activist, a poet and a feminist.
The Last Bath, 1975 Film by Karl Krogstad
At about the same time Genser (now Chinas) was reporting on the San Quentin Six, Rich Riggins continued to perform with Gary Minkler. Riggins had also been commissioned by Seattle filmmaker Karl Krogstad to create a soundtrack for his film The Last Bath. In the ’60s Seattle’s ‘King of Porn’ Roger Forbes, decided to expand his hold on the city’s porn palaces and produce porn films himself. Forbes hired Seattle filmmaker Karl Krogstad to direct The Last Bath, an underground, sexploitation, artsy piece of pornography. The film makes ample use of psychedelic, underground imagery, confusing dream sequences and acid-inspired optics. IMdb notes ‘the film starts off impressively with an abstract chase sequence involving a Jaguar XK-E’ . It seems the film devolves from there. Two unnamed girls are played by Thalia Lemar and Debi Duchamps. They and the ‘big-dicked hero’ named David have a series of bizarre, convoluted sexual encounters. The film is clearly not meant to be linear, but it’s hard to decipher which is past, present or future.
Late in the film David requests a bath after dinner. One reviewer remarked ‘The cast seems stoned (for real) during this lengthy troilism in the tub scene, with tarot cards another suggestive (but unresolved) motif’. Everything ends in a montage of violence and flashbacks of suicide. The hero is dead while the film ends with the two women in the bath having sex with each other…sans David.
The Last Bath includes both graphic and soft-focus sex with Krogstad using ‘motor only shots’ (MOS) without sound capture. Riggins’ musique concrète soundtrack was apparently set over the action in post production concurrent with the shooting. Riggins says “The thing that drove me crazy is that they gave me these shots and I had to view them for days on end. It was driving me insane, viewing these scenes over and over again”.
Although the film is quite muddled, Krogstad was setting out on his career in experimental film. The film has rarely been seen on screen since its release in 1975. Occasionally it shows up in underground art houses and among Karl Krogstad retrospectives. It’s far too ‘artsy’ for the porn crowd, and far too pornographic for the ‘artsy’ crowd. Perhaps the most notable part of the film is Rich Riggin’s soundtrack.
The character of David was played Templeton Blaine, a member of one of Seattle’s wealthiest founding families. It’s said he was disowned by his family for appearing in the film and moved to Los Angeles to continue his career in the porn industry. Whether his disownment is true or not, he continued to use his real name throughout his career….unusual for a porn actor.
When Cynthia finally arrived in Seattle she became familiar with Rich Riggins and Gary Minkler who were part of the alternative art and music scene then developing in Seattle. “We all weren’t involved in Red Dress” says Cynthia. “but we hung out so much that we were all together. I knew Gary Minkler first. I met Gary early. So definitely we go back. He’s a big person in my mythology…and my reality. He’s a sweetheart and he’s a great musician, songwriter and performer”.
Gary Minkler recalls “One evening I came over to find a group of friends socializing in the living-room. I was immediately transfixed by a dark eyed, thin-limbed Jewish girl sitting with them”. Gary found out she was a poet from New York and was even more intrigued. Having earlier seen the red hourglass marking on a black-widow’s abdomen became Gary’s inspiration for the name Red Dress. He says it had a direct link to Cynthia.
“I was moved to offer to put together some musicians to back her when she told me she wanted to do some performances” Gary says. “I had the idea she might be talented, but more likely the offer was a ruse to get closer. Anyway, very instinctual”.
Rich Riggins remembers hearing about Cynthia’s arrival in Seattle.“We were all excited to meet her. She was from New York. She was vagabonding around the county writing poems and she had graduated from Columbia University. The Wesleyan University Press had published her first book Taking On The Local Color.
“She had this prestige about her” says Rich Riggins.
Cynthia points out that Taking On The Local Color was a collection of poems from years before the book was published and that she had not graduated from Columbia University. She had spent one year at Columbia but found the atmosphere stifling for her as a feminist and as a woman.
She directs me to the story of Carolyn Gold Heilbrun. Heilbrun was the first tenured woman in Columbia’s English Department, held an endowed chair, was past president of the Modern Language Association, a leading feminist literary scholar and the elusive writer known as Amanda Cross. Under that pseudonym she was responsible for a series of mysteries who’s protagonist was named Kate Fansler. From 1985 until her retirement in 1992, Heilbrun was Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia. Her academic books include the feminist study Writing a Woman’s Life, written in 1988. In 1983, she co-founded the Columbia University Press’s Gender and Culture Series with literary scholar Nancy K. Miller. Heilbrun’s specialty was British modern literature, with a deep interest in the Bloomsbury Group who’s most famous members included Virginia Wolfe, E. M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, and Lytton Strachey. Heilbrun was the subject of a 1992 profile in the New York Times Magazine. She looked back on her academic career and told The New York Times;
“When I spoke up for women’s issues, I was made to feel unwelcome in my own department, kept off crucial committees, ridiculed, ignored,” says Heilbrun a month or so later, perched on a sofa in her large, light Central Park West apartment, an elderly Maine coon cat in her lap. “Ironically, my name in the catalogue gave Columbia a reputation for encouraging feminist studies in modernism. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
The remark was challenged by her male colleagues, but there was no doubt many women teaching or studying at Columbia University during Heilbrun’s academic career agreed. It seems that Cynthia was one of them.
She was hanging out at the Hasty Tasty, a greasy spoon that was open 24 hours a day in the University District. We’d hang out there to have coffee and be poets. There was me, Gary Minkler, Eric Apoe, John Olufs and Bill White. We all started forming some crazy little music ideas and piecing together little groups within our group”.
Gary put together a group of musicians to back Cynthia as he’d offered. He hired an upright bass player named Jerry Anderson (later the bass player for Red Dress). Cynthia found a classical guitarist and Gary played sax” Riggins says. “We might ve had a conga player. We got together for rehearsal and it worked! Cynthia recited her poetry over instrumentation. It was all very unplugged and ‘beat’ “Gary tells the story of the first ‘Red Dress/Chinas Comidas’ gig in the basement of the College Inn that used to stand at the corner of University Way and 40th Street NE. “We all told our friends, and showed up descending into the view of the bartender with our instruments and a little crowd. The bartender asked ‘what’s going on?’ I said ‘we’re performing here tonight’. He said ‘Nobody told me about a performances here tonight!’ I said ‘well, it was booked last week, where do we set up?’ We found a spot, did our three our four numbers then split. Meanwhile the bartender had gotten ‘hold of the owner or manager and realized there was no booking ever made. We were done and walking out before he could express his protest. This was Cynthia’s first Seattle performance”.
Chinas Comidas with Al Sharp. Alternative version of
Snake In The Sun. 1977
Jerry Anderson was the upright bass player Gary had dragged along would become more musically involved with Cynthia as Chinas. “I had met Gary Minkler at a jazz jam in a bar on University Avenue in Seattle, in about 1976 or 1977′. Jerry tells me. “I was playing upright bass. He was playing some really scrappy outside sax and he had asked me if I wanted to play bass ‘with a poet’. “I had said ‘OK’ to meeting her, and gave him my number”.
“The poet turned out to be Cynthia, who had arrived in Seattle relatively recently.” Jerry tells me. “She had been hanging out with Gary and Rich Riggins, and was looking for outlets for her poetry which she wrote under the pen name Chinas Comidas. This was before the name was attached to the band. Cynthia and I tried arrangements of several of her poems to music, often just bass and recited poetry. Gary would sometimes play sax, and I recall an early version of ‘Johnny Guitar’ with Rich and Cynthia as a duo. Now and then different musicians were around as Red Dress and Chinas Comidas bands began to gradually take shape.
Rich and Gary were initially working on the earliest Red Dress tunes with me and other musicians Gary had recruited. This was before Rich split off to concentrate on Cynthia’s music.”
“At the beginning Cynthia was still working mostly in the pure poetry vein. We were not so much working them into songs, but adding musical backgrounds. I have a copy of her poetry collection from that period, ‘Cowboys’ that she self-published in 1978. It contains some of the poems we performed as spoken voice and upright bass duets. We performed pretty much in a beat style. The poems worked pretty nicely with moody upright bass backups.”
“We did half a dozen poems in several performances at the UW Ethnic Cultural Theatre,” Jerry continues “and a few other small gatherings in galleries or on the University of Washington campus. I recall playing with Cynthia, Rich and drummer (maybe Stuart Laughlin) opening for The Ramones. This must have been in 1977, before Rich and Cynthia spun off Chinas Comidas into a distinct band from Red Dress. The same year a similar formation played The Bumbershoot Festival. After that I spent most of my efforts on Red Dress, though I saw a lot of Rich and Cynthia for a while. I liked what they were doing and Cynthia always had something interesting going on”.
Gary Minkler Photo: Ernie Sapiro
“We eventually separated from Red Dress” says Riggins. “Cynthia and I developed a romantic relationship.” He adds. “The name Chinas Comidas comes from Puerto Rican restaurants in New York, The term means Chinese Food in Spanish. Signs hang outside practically every Hispanic/Chinese restaurant in New York City. Cynthia copped that name from the local cultural color of New York. In fact for a few years Cynthia WAS Chinas Comidas and would often be referred to as ‘Chinas’. Then she reverted to Cynthia because people actually felt the band’s name was Chinas Comidas”. “It was flexible” says Cynthia. “We never assigned any title”.
“I designed the Chinas Comidas logo” Cynthia tells me. ” I just painted it. Carl Smool put the little star on the ‘i’ then he took the whole thing with my face, and that became our trademark. Carl also made a poster that was so great we had to use it over and over again. Carl has been a great friend and a great supporter. He’s another great Seattle guy and a magical person. A talented person. He was definately part of the ménage that we travelled around with at the time”.
“Because Cynthia and I had this romantic relationship” says Riggins. “we were burning that off and writing lots of songs. I was approaching things from a little different angle. We all were loving the punk idea…Cynthia too. We wanted to rebel and we saw a wonderful platform for art to mesh with words. Interesting words that meant more than ‘I saw my girl walking down the street today’. We wanted something somewhat political and a little bit Dylan-ish. Of course Cynthia, being the creative literature person that she is, could piece together these wonderful, simple, artful, lyrical ideas that weren’t the norm but still fit into a great pop style. In my musical writing I was trying to maintain certain kinds of pop ideas but then twisting them around a little bit. Doing syncopation or a stop and a start that usually wouldn’t have been there; a break or complex rhythm change; a little twist and turn that to make it a little more interesting. If you were to take all that stuff off the top we were just cranking out the basic pop structure”
After the delineation, between Red Dress and Chinas Comidas. Gary started moving toward a completely different direction than his arty first incarnation. By the end of the decade Red Dress had become the most popular white R&B band in the Northwest. The charismatic Gary Minkler stepped out front singing songs that were influenced by the great blues great masters as much the absurdity of Captain Beefheart. In 1980 the band released Bob Was A Robot b/w Pterodactyl Teenagers, one of the truly great records in Northwest music history”.
Mark Wheaton of Chinas Comidas and long-time sound designer for Johanna Went
Around this time Rich connected with Mark Wheaton through the band Uncle Cookie. Conrad Uno was a member of Uncle Cookie and would later make his name as the producer of The Young Fresh Fellows, The Posies, The Presidents of the United States of America, The Fastbacks, Mudhoney, The Squirrels, Roy Loney and Red Dress among others. Uno eventually acquired a total of at least 166 production credits to his name.
Mark Wheaton says “The first time I ever met Rich and Cynthia was when they were rehearsing in the basement of a friend of mine’s house. His name was Dave Hancock. He was someone I met when I was the sound guy for Uncle Cookie. At the time Dave was interning at a recording studio on Capitol Hill called The Music Farm. It was a good, full-on 24 track recording studio. Dave would get Uncle Cookie in the studio during ‘off-times’ with him doing the engineering. At some point my relationship with Uncle Cookie stopped but I was still hanging out with Dave Hancock. I’d go over to his house a lot. Dave had one of these houses on the hill above Green Lake, north of the University of Washington that had an enormous basement, like a lot of houses in Seattle. He would let people rehearse in the basement. One of his friends was Steven Hoke. His little brother was Eldon Hoke ‘(‘El Duce’ of The Mentors). Eldon would practice in Dave’s basement with The Mentors. I’d be over visiting Dave and they’d be downstairs practicing. Then they would come upstairs and sit around and listen to the cassette tapes of their rehearsal”.
ROCK IN CONCERT IN SEATTLE Seattle May 5, 1977
“Eldon was playing with a lot of bands in his early days” Mark continues. “At one point before he was drumming for The Tupperwares, who would later become The Screamers. Both Chinas Comidas and The Mentors were using Dave Hancock’s basement for rehearsals at the same time. Eldon was drumming for both bands. Ed Shepard, a local promoter, was going to put on a big show at the I.O.O.F. Hall on Capitol Hill. A poster had been created and The Mentors were the featured band. Chinas Comidas were also on the bill. Eldon decided he couldn’t be in both bands. He felt he needed to focus on The Mentors, so he quit Chinas Comidas. It was an amicable departure, and China Comidas would find itself with The Mentors on many future gigs. However Eldon quit Chinas Comidas about a week before Ed Shepard’s big show.
According to Mark “I was upstairs and they (Rich and Cynthia) came upstairs, all panicked saying ‘We don’t have a drummer. What are we going to do?’ “So I said ‘My brother Brock is a drummer. I could talk to him. You could see if he might be a good fit’.”
“Brock had been playing drums since the early ’60s and he began playing around Burien in 1969. His first band was called The Sound Barriers. Brock was mainly in the south end of Seattle, drumming with neighborhood hard-rock bands that were more like early metal bands” says Mark. “After he graduated from High School he joined a Bremerton-based band called Razzmatazz. He was a very serious student of a drum teacher in Burien and he’d even attended workshops with Dave Brubeck’s drummer, Joe Morello, who was a friend of Brock’s drum teacher. He was also involved with several people in the band Mondo Bando. He was really invested in the hard rock and metal scene that was happening at the time”.
“I had taken him to see The Ramones show at The Olympic Hotel’s Georgian Ballroom. The high-end hotel had unknowing allowed promoters Neil Hubbard, then 19, and Robert Bennett, then 20, to book The Ramones in what the young promoters thought was the last all-ages room left in Seattle the night The Ramones were scheduled to play in Seattle. The Olympic Hotel’s patrons looked on with both bemusement and horror when they saw throngs of young punks descending on the hotel.
“That was the first time Brock heard The Ramones and he was totally blown away.” says his brother Mark. “He was like, ‘Wow! This is another way of looking at things’. So he agreed to come and rehearse with Rich and Cynthia. They hit it off pretty well. I think there were some on-again, off-again moments there for awhile where Rich, Cynthia and Brock played together and then it didn’t happen for a while. At that point Rich and Cynthia were still associated with Red Dress. They would do shows basically with Red Dress as the backing band, and there were times Cynthia would just do poetry with a stand-up bass player, Al Sharp (Jerry Anderson). Cynthia would also appear with guitarist Annie Rose DeArmas, who would later head up her own long running revue, Annie Rose and The Thrillers”.
So with Brock on board, he and Rich started writing more rock songs to accompany Cynthia’s pieces. “That was kind of where the beginning of Chinas Comidas as a band happened” says Mark.
“At that point Shawna Holt began playing keyboards”. Mark says “Shawna’s boyfriend at the time was Lyn Paulson, who became the bass player for Chinas Comidas. Brock knew them from his Mondo Bando days. Brock wasn’t in Mondo Bando but he was friends with all those people who were playing in this dark metal, sludge-rock kind of thing that was happening in Seattle the same time as punk rock”. Chinas Comidas was finding a loyal audience in Seattle and managed to play on a fairly regular basis. After establishing themselves among the early Seattle punk vanguard, Chinas Comidas ventured south to San Francisco to play The Mabuhay Gardens, one of the west coast’s most important venues. They played on August 5 and 6, 1978. The Kids from L.A. and San Jose’s hard-core metal band, Seizure, opened for at least one of these shows. The gigs seem to have been good shows for Chinas Comidas. They were written up in San Francisco’s Search and Destroy magazine, although existing copies are near impossible to find except on the collectors market. Shortly before the band returned to Seattle they were set to record their first single. Then there was a break with Shawna and Lyn and the rest of the band. Both of them left Chinas Comidas.
Chinas Comidas Ethnic Cultural Theater 1976
“Finally after a year” Mark says, “I took the leap and became the keyboardist for Chinas Comidas”. Mark had been the bands’ soundman for almost a year before becoming the band’s keyboard player. “One day after Shawna and Lyn left,” Mark tell me, “Rich came up to me and said ‘You should be the new keyboard player.’ I said ‘Well, I’ve never played keyboards before’ (Mark laughs). “He just said ‘get yourself a synthesizer and I’ll show you the parts and we’ll do it‘. ‘So I did. I got a loan and bought a Wurlitzer electric piano and a Steiner Parker synthesiser. I began learning the parts from Rich. I really never learned how to play keyboards, I only knew the parts to the songs Rich had taught me”.
Mark points out that he didn’t play keyboards on the first Chinas Comidas single ‘Peasant/Slave’ and ‘Love Love’ although his photo is on the sleeve. “It was a transitional period” he says. “I was still occasionally doing sound for the band in local clubs. says Mark. “Rich would come over to my apartment and show me the parts to the songs and that’s basically how I learned how to play in the band. I didn’t know a thing about playing keyboards. I wasn’t a keyboard player at that point but I became a keyboard player.”
The band recorded their first single at The Music Farm, the studio that Dave Hancock worked at. The flipside included Al Sharp (a.k.a. Jerry Anderson) accompanying Cynthia on the spoken word poetry that had been recorded at the UW Ethnic Cultural Theater. For the two studio recordings Rich played the bass parts since Lyn Paulson had left the band. Chinas Comidas turned to Gordon Raphael for the keyboards. Gordon is now well-known for his production work with The Strokes, The Libertines, Regina Spektor, Damon Albarn and dozens of others. Although he’s based in Berlin Gordon globe-hops from one place to another doing production jobs, or guesting as a DJ. Finally after decades of making other artists household names Gordon released his own solo album in February 2018 called ‘Sleep On the Radio’.
Producer Gordon Raphael
“He was just a little kid then” Rich says of Gordon. “I remember having to drive out to the north end of Seattle-almost to Edmonds-where he and Ben Ireland lived. That’s the first time I met Ben Ireland, (later of The Fags and Sky Cries Mary, a band that also featured Gordon). I drove out there and taught him the song and then took him to the studio one night and he pulled the whole thing off…and he was on acid! He was on LSD and I changed the key on him (Rich laughs). I didn’t know he was on acid-he didn’t tell me. Then years later he said ‘You fucking changed the key on me!’ (more laughter) So he had to go through an acid moment while I was piecing together the key structure and changing it around…but anyway he pulled it off!”
Gordon has a similar but slightly different version. He says:
“I played My arp odyssey on Lover Lover, a fast and difficult riff that Rich wrote. That was fine,
but then a week later he called me out of the blue, as I was just starting a Peyote trip (I was walking around Green Lake with a friend) and picked me up, took me to the studio, and showd me this old Moog Sonic 6 synthesizer. The keyboard was rickety, plus I’d never used one before. He asked me to learn and record the riff in a new key. It was really hard to concentrate on in the
shape I was in… but somehow, we did it!”
Soon after recording their first single, and without an official bassist the band began auditions for a replacement. Mark says “I was working at one of Wes Eastman’s used record stores in the University District. One night I was going to take the bus home and I was standing at the bus stop next to a guy with blonde punk-rock hair. I started talking to him and he told me his name was Dag Midtskog and he played bass. I said ‘we’re looking for a bass player are you interested?’ So he came and tried out and became our bass player.
Before bringing Dag into the band they also allowed a familiar face on the Seattle music scene to audition. Her name was Sheli Story.
“It’s funny because I had actually met Brock Wheaton at a party” Sheli says.
The party was at the notorious Mad House in Seattle’s University District. It was one of the wildest, most boisterous party houses of the 70s and early 80s. Though it was in the University District it was clearly and definitely NOT a fraternity party house It’s denizens were mostly punks, weirdos, artists, working kids without trust funds, early video geeks and people working and living on the fringes of punk rock. Sheli remembers her and Brock’s first meeting as ‘sitting back to back on this ottoman chair’. “We ended up fucking in his van” she says.
As for her audition:
“I was 16 or 17 and just got my first bass. I played classical music and jazz because my parents are classical musicians. I had a black Precision Fender bass…. heavy as fuck, and here I am trying to play it, auditioning for Rich and Brock because I had been fucking Brock. I knew nothing about ‘jamming’ or how to ‘rock ‘n roll” . Gawd. It was so funny because those guys were so sweet and forgiving. It ended up that they chose Dag Mitskog to play bass. All the girls in town were saying ‘Oh my God, Dag is so cute!’ and then I ended up with Dag and marry him.
Dag says his first band was called ‘Violent World’. “I was invited into the band by a guy named Electra Bue who was the soundman for The Lewd. . Naturally I was very interested. Mike Davidson was in the very first iteration of The Lewd along with Dave Drewry’. ‘We’d hang out at Davidson’s house”
The Lewd and Chinas Comidas July 17,1978 Seattle
The Lewd, fronted by J. Satz Baret (another alum of the glam troupe Ze Whiz Kidz) had catapulted onto the west coast punk scene as one of the most entertaining and forceful outfits during Seattle’s early punk days. They would move to San Francisco leaving Davidson and Drewry in Seattle. In 1979 The Lewd released a great three-song EP on Scratched Records in 1979. (‘Kill Yourself’ ‘Trash Can Baby’ and ‘Pay Or Die). The Lewd’s guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof (a.k.a Blobbo) left to create his own very successful band, Metal Church. After some musical chairs were re-arranged Olga de Volga who’d been in The Offs and VS. became part of The Lewd. In 1982 The Lewd released their only full length album, the classic American Wino. One side was recorded at Mystic Sound in Hollywood and the other side live at Target Video in San Francisco Shortly after its release The Lewd dissolved.
“I was kind of like a hippie kid, and going to shows” Dag continues. “I took photographs, press photos and band photos. I know some of the photos I took are still used on CD’s which are uncredited. So, I met this guy, Electra Blue through The Lewd and we started a band with Brad Rammels and a guy named John on drums…I can’t remember his last name. After the original guitarist for The Lewd left the band, J. Satz Baret, the founder of The Lewd stole our guitarist Brad Rammels”. Rammels would go on to play with R.P.A. and The Wolfpack, an early ’90s band featuring punk legend, the late Mike Refuzor. “I started playing guitar in Violent World” says Dag. “That meant Electra Blue started playing bass, and my younger brother Tor Midtskog was on drums for a short bit”.
“Electra Blue had also been in Mondo Bando with Shawna Holt and Lyn Paulson who were stolen by Chinas Comidas which was just Rich and Cynthia originally. “Rich and Cynthia had seen me around, or maybe at a Violent World show when they asked me to play bass in Chinas Comidas.” Dag says so I said ‘Sure, OK’. “I left poor Electra behind. All of these other bands were stealing his fellow band mates”.
“I was in another band with Mark Smith called The Beakers” says Dag. “ I was the bass player before Frankie Sundsten came along”. The Beakers would become one of the most innovative and influential band to come out of the Seattle/Olympia vortex in the ’80s. Their impact is still felt today.
“My time with The Beakers was concurrent with Chinas Comidas”Dag tells me. “Rich and Cynthia were very much the taskmasters. You know, we practiced a lot! I was pretty much a beginning player in my first real bands. I was a very shy kid and was very anxious about playing live; but when you’re really well-rehearsed and you concentrate on the music you forget about the anxiety, and just put your mind into what you have to play”.
Dag Midstkog of Chinas Comidas 1979
“It was a challenge for me, but I got better and better equipment which made the sound change quite a lot” Dag says. “Mark Smith of The Beakers was competent enough-he’s never called himself a musician- but he was good enough to play his parts. The Beakers played some pretty wacky songs with wacky progressions and complicated rhythms. We did the same thing in Chinas Comidas mostly thanks to Rich and Brock. They were very inventive. I know that Rich was really into Captain Beefheart who was also pretty obscure, wacky and unusual at the time. As time went on we got better and better shows. We opened for The Ramones. We opened for The Dils, Black Flag, D.O.A. The Dead Kennedys, Fear, The Germs The Bags, Zippers, The Plugz, The Crowd and a lot of other well-known bands. There was also that famous Seattle gig at the Oddfellows Hall with The Mentors, Violent World, The Lewd, The Feelings, Roland Rock and Jim Basnight”. (the show put together by Ed Shepard).
Many musicians have bemoaned the Seattle music scene at the time as a wasteland, but there were early punk bands working, and underground promoters (mostly band members or their friends) putting on shows with local bands. On May 1, 1976 the seminal TMT show was held at the Oddfellows Hall on Capitol Hill. The TMT Show was ostensibly a benefit for the fictitious Telepathic Foundation. Some believe it was the first real punk event put together by punks in Seattle. The TMT stood for The Telepaths, The Meyce and The Tupperwares who made up the bill of the show.
The Telepaths would later become The Blackouts and have a major influence on Seattle music. After The Blackouts breaking up Bill Rieflin and Paul Barker went on to form Ministry with Al Jourgensen. Rieflin stayed on until around the time Filth Pig was released before leaving Ministry. His job was then replace Bill Berry of R.E.M. Rieflin also worked with KMFDM, Pigface, Revolting Cocks, Nine Inch Nails and dozens o f others bands. He is currently a member of the reformed King Crimson.
Barker, who was essential to the sound associated with Ministry lasted 18 years before leaving, it’s said, because of regular disputes with Jourgensen.
The Meyce was led by Jim Basnight. His later band The Moberlys has been cited by many critics (past and present) of being one of the greatest American power-pop bands in history. The Meyce included Jenny Skirvin, Lee Lumsden and Pam Lillig (later of The Girls).
TMT Show Oddfellows Hall, Seattle, May 1.1976
The Tupperwares was a punk trio headed by the founder of an early 70s drag performance troupe called Ze Whiz Kidz. The founder’s name was David Xavier Harrigan (a.k.a.Tomata du Plenty). The Tupperwares had formed in 1975 and included ‘Tommy Gear’, ‘Tomata du Plenty’, and Rio de Janeiro. On occasion they were backed by Pam Lillig and Ben Witz of The Girls, as well as the aforementioned Bill Rieflin and the teenaged Eldon Hoke (‘El Duce’).
The Tupperwares would eventually rename the band to The Screamers (after threats from the Tupperware Corporation) and move the core trio to Los Angeles. Despite a few personel changes they became one of the most popular draws during the heady days of California punk, and were often cited as influential to bands like The Germs and The Dead Kennedys. Tomata himself would go on to be an actor, a painter and a performance artist until his death in 2000. In an ironic but touching twist, Tomata du Plenty died in San Francisco where his old Ze Whiz Kidz and punk compatriot J. Satz Baret (formerly of The Lewd) took care of him during his final months. Tomata du Plenty died of complications from AIDS on August 21, 2000.
Down the hill from The Oddfellows Hall in downtown Seattle The Enemy started their own all-ages club, The Bird, in 1978. It didn’t last long, but it helped get things rolling. Also playing around town was Clone whose members included Gordon Raphael, Jeff Gossard (cousin of Stone) Mike Davidson and Dave Drewry (the former members of The Lewd that Dag Mitskog had met). Clone was led by the infamous Upchuck (Chuck Gerra) who would later go on to become the lead singer of another very influential Seattle band, The Fags. The Fags also had hardcore guitarist Paul Solger as a member. Paul’s guitar travelled back and forth and concurrently with his hardcore and more melodic styles.The Fags left for New York City in the mid-80s and promptly broke up despite some success there. Gerra stayed in New York City and was on the verge of “making it” with his partner Shlomo Sonnenfeld in the NYC duo Such before his death from AIDS on May 28th, 1990/May 28, 1990.
There was The Meyce ,The Pudz, The Feelings, The Cheaters, The Refuzors, The Fartz, The Moberlys and dozens of other short-lived bands that would rotate members, coming and going all the time. In some ways Seattle was a wasteland, but it wasn’t for lack of talent. There simply were not enough venues for alternative and punk bands to play. Only a few clubs could be convinced to cater to Seattle’s small but very tight punk crowd…but as we know that scene would continue to grow and grow until it exploded onto the national scene in the late 1980s.
Chinas Comidas at The Bahamas Undergroud Club. Seattle
Cynthia remembers “There was no infrastructure. No real spaces for practicing and recording. There was very little management. It was totally DIY, for us at least. We rented halls, made our own bookings, and created our own posters…the whole 9 yards. However there seemed to be a moment; a convergence of ideas and energy. When we started doing our music along with some other punk and experimental bands, in some immediate way we were the scene. Everybody came. We got reviewed in major papers. That was the greatest thing about it. It was new. It felt like everybody was waiting for something to happen”.
Rich Riggins also remembers “The punk-bar thing didn’t really open up before WREX and The Gorilla Room in 1979″. Earlier the gay bar TUGS Belltown was playing a sort of punk-oriented music some nights of the week, but no live bands. By that time Chinas Comidas had already left Seattle. “Another all-ages place was Danceland ” Rich says. “It was a dance studio during the day but also let punk bands book it at night. We also played at The Edmonds Theater a couple of times. Cult music films and new bands were being paired for shows put together by promoter Norman Caldwell….he managed us for a short time. I think The Cowboys, The Girls, The Heats, Red Dress and The Moberlys played there too”.
Despite the frustration of finding venues and audiences Rich Riggins says “We did a lot of different things, and that was beautiful in the beginning; the experimentation. It was a great time but of course we weren’t successful with the majority of people. By and large most people wanted to hear pretty much what they listened to on the radio at the time but we got things going really well and connected with a lot of people in Seattle at that period of time-about 1976. Things were just kind of opening up for us, but disco was going on and nobody was making any money in Seattle. It was really dead as far as original music”. Bands like The Screamers, The Lewd, The Mentors and Penelope Houston who co-founded The Avengers had to leave Seattle to get heard.
“Seattle clubs were contemplating getting DJ’s because bands were too expensive and too noisy” Rich tells me. “This transition of “what the fuck?” was a period in Seattle where you saw the signs that Seattle was dead or the famous billboard ‘Will The Last Person Leaving Seattle Turn Off The Lights?’. There was just nothing going on, and punk was that ‘let’s spur it on!‘ thing. With the fiery force of a lot of people, people started piecing together little scenes. What we and most of the other bands like The Enemy and The Mentors had to do was go to clubs and bars and convince them to let us do a show. We’d tell them we’d bring in enough people to get the place packed and get them to drink so the bar would make the money. We would play and do all the advertising, all the promotion and design and put up all the posters. Everybody in the bands did everything. So did their friends. It was a real grassroots organization, and that’s what became the scene that Seattle eventually developed into; Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Green River, Mother Love Bone. Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and all the others. What we developed was fragmented, but it still had this growth of strength that developed into something in the later 80s. The records we put out back then are still holding their own. It’s great to see in the digital realm people are listening to our stuff and going ‘Wow! That’s pretty cool, man!’
Cynthia Genser The “Chinas” of Chinas Comidas
“The first few Chinas Comidas gigs were at lofts and parties” says Riggins. “Then we rented out the Ethnic Cultural Center Theater in the University District. It was Red Dress and Chinas Comidas. Then certain bars opened up like The Rainbow on N.E, 45th in the University District. That became an easy venue for everybody. There would be Kidd Afrika and those kind of ’70s bands, and later that’s where you’d find Green River in the early days and where you’d find the Soundgarden guys hanging out around the time they formed.
“I was still alternately called Chinas or Chinas Comidas” Cynthia tells me. “Then it was my real name Cynthia because people actually felt the band was Chinas Comidas. We didn’t have a logo so I just painted one. I think Carl Smool put the little star on the ‘i’. Then he took the whole thing with my face and that became the whole trademark. We’ll have to let it go someday, but for now it’ very recognizable. Carl also made that poster that was so great we had to use it over and over again. Carl has been a great friend and a great supporter; another great guy and a magical person. A talented person. He was definitely part of the ménage that we travelled around with.”
Combining poetry with free-form music wasn’t exactly what Seattle rock audiences were looking for in the late 1970s Even so, a small but dedicated following was growing up around Chinas Comidas, as it was around the new punk rock scene in general. In 1979 Cynthia told the influential underground, punk magazine Slash about the struggles the band faced trying to create their own art in Seattle
“If you knew what kind of shit I’ve gotten in the past in the last 2 ½ years, I don’t think anybody’s ever been treated like that in every way. That’s why I’m a bit scared on stage. Once in some club some guy came up and blew the contents of a whole ashtray in my face. Right down my throat; I got a plate of food smashed on my head, now I get scared”.
The interviewer from Slash asked her why she thought people would do that?
“I think it was men reacting to me as a woman, upset by me being there”
Mark Wheaton offered his own perspective, saying “It was seeing a woman standing there, aggressively singing…I think people felt personally confronted by what she said. When she got that plate of shrimp she was doing a poem about relationships. It was very direct and this guy must have taken offense to it”.
There’s no doubt that Cynthia’s lyrics and poetry could sometimes be caustic, and it’s clear she wrote from a feminist punk perspective. It’s not surprising that many men-even young, supposedly punk men, would take this attitude in the late ‘70s. Despite believing social norms were changing, the fact is that misogyny was rampant in the ’70s…and still is.
Cynthia and the rest of the band found a fellow traveler back in Seattle in the form of Steven “Jesse” Bernstein. The band and Cynthia considered him a good friend and a poet worthy of listening intently to.
Steven ‘Jesse’ Bernstein Dec.4 1950-Oct.22 1991
In the same 1979 interview with Slash Cynthia said: “We have a friend, Jesse Bernstein, who is kind of a big loud-mouthed drunken poet…He’s wonderful. He opened for Red Dress in Seattle and there was this other band, a boogie band, that was playing all these boring songs about their baby leaving them and drinking vodka or whatever; the down and out life thing. All fraudulent. Then Jessie, got up there and got really hard core, and told them about life and the way it was and they HATED IT! They were yelling and heckling and making fun of him, saying ‘Have a nice day’ and ‘Lighten up! “
Cynthia recalls “Jesse yelled at me too, but I have a letter of deep apology for how he had acted the night he’d done it. He was very sweet. He saw me leave and left a note for me that said;
Dear Chinas Comidas,
I read one of your books standing up. That is some goddamn good poetry. I am the one who gets loud and obnoxious and wrecks things at poetry readings. Most poetry makes my skin crawl, Even the word “poetry” implies a kind of cloistered delicacy which I think is insulting to the human spirit. But sometimes a poet will slip up and say something really grabbing. I’m always thankful when someone says something strong enough to shut me up for awhile. Thank you.
“So we hung out and were pals” Cynthia tells me. “But I did not see him in the period where he was sick or he was hanging out with addicts or all that. He was heavier into drugs after I had left Seattle. It was sad. I was shocked because I actually had not seen the documentary about his life and death. I hadn’t heard about anything. When I came back to Seattle two years ago Rich had a show with a lot of Chinas Comidas ephemera at the Majestic Arts Gallery on Greenwood Avenue. They told me the whole horrible story of Jesse’s death. He certainly was the most well-known poet from Seattle, and in some ways the most characteristic. Although he was born in California, he was a son of Seattle, for sure. He was a charming person in many ways. He wanted to be many things that he couldn’t always bring himself to be. He wanted to be existing in a world with other people. He was really social but his temperament was pretty wild”
In 1991 the British paper The Independent had called Bernstein “The ‘Godfather of Grunge’ He hated it; The description pales in the face of the lyrical and personal integrity as a writer that intertwined with the failure and misery he’d written about since the late 1960s. It pigeon-holed him into a fad rather than being taken serious as a poet in his own right.
Sadly, Bernstein struggled with mental illness and addiction most of his life. He killed himself during a trip to the Olympic Peninsula on October 22, 1991. The 2010 documentary of his life, ‘Secretly I Am An Important Man’ is part love letter, part horror story and part deconstruction of an unsettled mind; but it’s also true to Jesse’s ability to be outgoing, loving and very, very funny. Despite their different approaches to style and substance Cynthia and Jesse’s recognition of each others’ talents was inevitable.
Club 82, 1979 Design: Payton Wilkinson
September 19, 1952- June 18, 1989
Cynthia mentions another good friend of the band’s “The guy who did the cover for my book of poetry Club 82, was the cartoonist Payton Wilkinson, who died really young. He had AIDS. He thought that he had been poisoned, though…long before he got AIDS. Years before. When we first met him he had crazily joined the Army at some point. His father made him, and of course he bunked out of Viet Nam pretty fast. When they brought him back stateside they debriefed him and put him in an institutional kind of building. He didn’t even know where he was. Something happened. I don’t know if they gave him LSD, or they did other things, but they did something weird. Then they also pushed him out because suddenly there were a lot of guys coming back from Viet Nam who needed treatment.
Payton got pushed out and he felt that he was never quite well after that. Rich knew that story too. It was a strange thing because he got sick awfully quick and suddenly. It was bad. He was such a talented guy and a lot of fun to hang out with. As I said he did the cover for Club 82, the book that I did when I was in Seattle. I have lovely photos of him that my husband took when Payton came to New York. It’s funny we were in New York together, and he did some studio shots that are really nice.”
In the spring of 1979 the band began making plans for opening dates on the east coast with The Dead Kennedys. It’s often misstated that this was a ‘tour’ with the Dead Kennedys, but in fact the band was only scheduled to play a handful of dates with the DK’s. Their first gig was to be at Hurrah, a huge venue at 36 West 62nd street that was New York City’s first punk disco. The club also booked national and international punk, post-punk and new wave bands from from 1976 until 1980. Bands from the era that played Hurrah included Mission of Burma, Ultravox, The Cure, Klaus Nomi, Suicide, The Slits, Tuxedomoon, The Specials and 8-Eyed Spy-the band Lydia Lunch fronted after the break up of her pioneering no-wave band, Teenage Jesus and The Jerks. Dozens more important artists played the club, including New Order in their first American appearance. Their previously planned tour of the US had been scrapped when lead singer and frontman of the band-then Joy Division-commited suicide the night before they were to leave the UK and fly to New York.
From 1978 to 1980 Hurrah was managed by well-known promoter and gay activist Jim Fouratt. His assistant Ruth Polsky took care of booking bands. Later Fouratt would move on to Danceteria at it’s most well-known four-floor location at 30 West 21st Street in Manhattan. Jim is still involved in gay activism, music and New York City politics.
Rich Riggins of Chinas Comidas flying to NYC, 1979
When Chinas Comidas went to New York City, Mark remembers they sent their gear ahead of them on a train and the band flew there. They rented a van in New York City, and stayed on the floors of friends’ apartments. They had a few gigs lined up, including Hurrah. Chinas Comidas’s manager at the time was Robert Hanrahan who also managed the Dead Kennedys and The Offs. The Hurrah gig with The Dead Kennedys had been set up by Chinas Comidas, but Hanrahan had promised to put them in more opening slots for the Dead Kennedys. “Then something happened at the last moment before the Hurrah gig’ Riggins says. ‘Hanrahan dropped the ball on everything and left Chinas Comidas stranded with no gig and suddenly stopped managing us”.
Mark recalls “Hanrahan went to Jim Fouratt at Hurrah and told him ‘Well, they (Chinas Comidas) really aren’t that good, and you shouldn’t put them on the bill’. So Hanrahan undermined the show and Jim Fouratt took us off that bill. By that time we had arrived in New York with our gear, ready to go, but we had lost the Hurrah gig. “We never heard from Hanrahan again” says Riggins. “So Cynthia went down to the club and talked to Fouratt and got it all patched up. They set up a date for us and we got to play”. Cynthia says she doesn’t remember this, though admits it’s very likely she did go to Fouratt, to complain and get the band a new date.
“I think a band called The Reds were on the bill” says Riggins. “They were a pop band from Philadelphia. We kind of over-blew the crowd. We just weren’t steady enough for them and our tempo-we kind of jerked it around-was a little bit too much for them. There were about 1500 people out there and at the beginning of the show. They were right up front. Four songs in and they were kind of backing off. What do you do? How do you pull them back?”
“Then we got another show at Tier 3 at West Broadway and White Street in Tribeca” Rich tells me. “It was one of those Tuesday night things and there was nobody there. Nobody shows up on Tuesday night in the city unless something really big is going on.”
The next gig with the Dead Kennedys was meant to be in Boston at The Rat Club. (officially The Rathskeller in Kenmore Square). “I really didn’t want to be in Boston with the Dead Kennedys” says Cynthia. The band blew the gig off. “‘It was a big fuck-up” Cynthia says of the DK show at The Rat. “It was a big brawl in Boston as you might expect. That was one thing that didn’t really appeal to me. I loved Jello Biafra and I thought he was a brilliant guy, so hanging out with him was great. But the tour in itself was rough. Especially when you have no money”
Chinas Comidas & The Dead Kennedys Philadelphia
“We drove to Philadelphia and opened up for the Dead Kennedys at The Hot Club“. All I remember is driving there” Rich says about the Philadelphia gig. “I vaguely remember being in another dark, beer-stink pighole that they called a venue; everything’s painted black, you know that whole deal. The stage is in the corner with some kind of a P.A. set up. That was the last gig Robert Hanrahan had booked for Chinas Comidas. After we did The Hot Club we just bailed on the thing with the Dead Kennedys because they looked at us as roadies or something. They wanted us to carry their gear. We said ‘that’s not what we’re here for, so forget it’.”
The tour wasn’t a complete bust for everyone. In fact, Dag says “Being in New York during the summer of 1979 was pretty much a life-changing experience for me. I’d been a shy, sheltered, suburban white kid from white suburban Bellevue outside Seattle. I was thrust into the New York of the 1970s when it was arguably it’s scummiest and probably it’s most interesting too. I just saw stuff on the streets. We were out on the street all the time, exploring, going places, taking subways, and just seeing all kinds of weird people doing weird things. It was mind-boggling and eye-opening for this sheltered suburban kid. We played some shows that were not especially successful, but it was definitely a great experience for me”
After returning the band knew Seattle wasn’t going to be the place to get to the next level. They had come up to the point of what promoter/label owner Neil Hubbard referred to when he named his Seattle compilation ‘The Seattle Syndrome. His premise was that at there would come time a band would become too big for Seattle. The only way to get more success was to move to a larger city…where they would have to start all over at the bottom of the ladder again. Chinas Comidas had gotten too big for Seattle. They had tried New York and that didn’t turn out very well, so they all thought LETS GO TO LOS ANGELES!
“By that point we had put out our second single. ‘Snaps (Portrait of a Fan) b/w For The Rich’. We had sent both of our singles out to be reviewed by all the punk magazines”. says Mark “We’d sent copies to Slash magazine in L.A. and they loved the singles. They gave them great reviews. A person from Slash contacted us about being on a compilation that was going to be released on Slash Records which was exciting. In New York we had gotten a telegram from Bob Biggs who was the guy in charge of Slash. He said ‘we’re really interested in your band and we’re thinking of doing a recording with you guys. Can you come to L.A.?’ At that point Slash Records was just starting as a label. They had been a magazine, but they were just starting the record thing”.
Hong Kong Café Los Angeles Halloween 1979
Design: Gary Panter
“So we ventured down to L.A. to see what was going on” continues Mark. “We didn’t move there at first. We just went down there. We went into the Slash office and they were in the middle of a big meeting that was basically about The Germs being signed. Paul Panter who was the manager of The Germs was there. Bob Biggs and Claude (‘Kickboy Face’) Bessy, the editor of Slash magazine and all these other people were there. We just happened to walk into the building right when all this was going on. They turned around and said ‘Oh, we have this gig at The Hong Kong on Halloween. Are you guys interested in doing that?‘. We said ‘SURE!’ So we were put on the bill with The Germs and Fear and Claude (‘Kickboy Face’) Bessy’s band, Catholic Discipline. Gary Panter did the poster.
“That was a wild introduction to L.A. punk” says Rich. “That was our first gig in Los Angeles. We hadn’t even actually moved there yet. All I remember is The Germs were there. Darby Crash and Pat Smear, Don Bolles and Lorna Doom…they were just little puppy kids. Really young little things, you know, and drunk. Their success was just LET IT ALL GO!!! They had social destruction songs and were over the top with teen-aged angst. Just flailing around. It was fucking awesome. It had a lot of intensity and power. I remember I left for a drink and came back at the end of the show. None of the band members were onstage. The only people onstage were their friends playing The Germs’ instruments. It was like a high school party. That’s kind of what their whole deal was”.
“We played a lot of little bars. L.A. was really happening and it was doing the bar thing. Seattle wasn’t doing that. Seattle was just trying to get that going. Bands like The Heats were trying to cross over into the ‘80s and asking ‘How do we get more commercial and get business-oriented and make some money?’ “You know a lot of bands are given grief”
Rich tells me “because they try to get commercial success. People did that to me. ‘What are you doing man? Are you trying to get commercial?‘ I have to tell them “I’m trying to make a living. Fuck you! What does that mean? You’re the guy who goes out and buys the new Van Halen record that sounds like corny-pop-metal. Gimme a break! Then you buy Elvis Costello and you don’t like me because…I don’t know..Anyway there were lots of little clubs opening in L.A.” Rich says. “The Viper Room was starting to do stuff. All over L.A. there were these little places that were opening up and certain people were doing stuff, like Slash Records and Brenden Mullen. He was a heavy promoter of punk down there We just kept going and going. We played a lot of great shows and kept busy”.
“We left Seattle for L.A. in 1979” Cynthia says “Rich and I got a place in Silver Lake. It was a cute little bungalow. It was possible to rent because it was very cheap. It was on the wrong side of Silver Lake; it wasn’t the side that looked out at the city. We lived on Hyperion Drive. We were poor but we could afford it then because the area was just not as desirable as it is now. We had an old banger car, and I could walk to the Griffith Observatory and walk around there, sketching and writing. It was pretty there. I was happy in the bungalow. I just wasn’t happy about greater L.A. particularly. The music scene was just insane. It was getting to the point that things were pretty much ‘violence for violence sake’. I was not very comfortable there.”
“One of the bands who were very good to us was The Plugz” Cynthia says. “Maybe they were a little disappointed that I wasn’t actually Hispanic because of the name Chinas Comidas. I didn’t think about it at the time but it was just so polyglot in New York that everybody ends up speaking English in whatever way they could speak; but out west it probably had more meaning, and maybe a more political meaning because of the history of Los Angeles”
Dag remembers coming back to Seattle before making the actual move to Los Angeles.
“In the beginning of 1980 we permanently sold most of my records, sold a lot of my music gear and as much stuff as I could. We packed the rest of it up. By this time Sheli Story had broken it off with Brock and she and I were together. Sheli and I got in a U-Haul van with our cat and Mark Wheaton, then drove to L.A. We had a house lined up in West Hollywood in The Fairfax District. It was a shitty, flea-bitten, dusty, dirty house. I think we were there for about a week, maybe two, when we got raided by the West Hollywood Sheriff because we were squatting…We had paid money to somebody to stay there but they had totally scammed us. We had to get out with an half an hour’s notice. It was pretty traumatic, so we were trying to find places to go and all that. Rich and Cynthia had a friend who let them stay there. I can’t remember what Mark did…I think he and his girlfriend Susan Nininger got an apartment straight away.”
“Sheli and I lived out of Brock’s van for a week or so.”Dag says. “Later it was pretty nutty, staying in these cheap fleabag hotels. We got turned away from one of them. They told us ‘you guys are too sweet. You’ll get killed in this place, so I’m not going to rent you a room‘. We ended up getting a place in Hollywood at the St. Moritz Hotel at Sunset and Bronson. We didn’t have any money. I think I was on unemployment for a little bit. Sheli finally got a job as a seamstress in Beverly Hills. We literally had no food. We were pretty much starving. We had a little black and white TV and see advertisements for ‘Sizzler’ and say ‘Oh my god, that looks so good!’ Sheli finally got her first paycheck and what we did was to run across the street to get food from the Thai restaurant and pigged out.
Chinas Comidas The Whiskey a Go Go Los Angeles 1980
Rich describes the first night they played The Whisky A Go Go. “We were all excited. There was our name on the marquee and of course that’s where bands showcase. That’s what the Whisky has always been. The Doors, The Byrds, Love, Buffalo Springfield and all the great L.A. bands of the ’60s got connected there. Well, we had a wonderful show. We played really fucking incredible. After the show we were at the top of the stairs backstage and a guy from Slash Records comes up to me and he says ‘Fuckin’ Awesome! You guys are really fuckin’ great. I can see exactly what you’re trying to do. I can see you guys as the new Motown of punk’ ”
Then he says. ‘That’s it! It’s that pop feel buried with all this other weird shit on top’ Then he says ‘I’d love to sign you to ‘Slash Records’ but I just signed The Go-Go’s and they’re taking off and we’re putting everything into the Go-Go’s. If it wasn’t for that I would have signed you tonight.’
“Things kind of fell off to the side after that.” Rich says. “Life is an emotional ride…we all know that. If you stay alive long enough it’s and incredible little thing that goes on….or a big deal that goes on. That was one of those ‘well fuuuuuuck!’ things. But you know if you stay together things do continue on and bands like X…they survive and they’re fucking awesome. There’s something really gritty, and it has that westerny survival thing. You know, ‘We came across America‘ The manifest destiny thing. The Germs and Alice Bag and the others-we were right in the mix with all those bands”.
Bags, Johanna Went, Chinas Comidas, Eddie & the Subtitles
Hong Kong Cafe, LA
Cynthia and Rich always had a lot of friction in their relationship and it was getting worse. “At the time Cynthia and my relationship got to be too much and things started dissipating” says Rich.“We didn’t get along so our relationship fell apart, and so that meant there was no Chinas Comidas. Cynthia eventually moved back to New York in 1981 and stayed. We realized there was a pretty giant scene of people from L.A. that were vying for a position on the Slash Records backlog. We probably would continue to be given the news of another band like The Go-Go’s being signed. Chinas Comidas were newcomers to town so they got shoved to the side, because Slash Records were more interested in The Germs and X, so they put us on hold. Cynthia didn’t like that. She said ‘Well, fuck it! If that’s what they’re going to do, and I don’t want to have anything to do with them‘ and shortly after that she decided she didn’t want to do a rock band anymore”.
“She wanted to go back to New York and be a poet” says Mark. “That was basically the end of Chinas Comidas. At the point she said that, we had already gone back up to Seattle and got all our gear and made all our arrangements to move down to L.A. We found places to stay which was hard, then she left”.
Rich says “We had done a lot of shows and we were just on the verge of opening up and getting things going. When Cynthia left, I stayed in L.A. and got a hard-working grease monkey gig like everybody did. Mark got some job and so did Dag. We tried to keep it together but then I thought ‘ I’m down in L.A. and I’m on my own and we’re all on our own’. I started thinking ‘maybe we can keep something together’. So I decided ‘I’m going to keep Brock and I’m going to keep Dag and Mark and maybe we can do something, and I’ll sing’.
“I tried to do that but it was difficult and hard to maintain. I think I just fired everybody. First Dag and then Mark. Brock and I tried to keep it going, but I didn’t like living in L.A. It was really just another created environment for me. There was too much stress and anxiety so maintaining life down there and dealing with a lot of aggressive Type A neophytes and male aggression. A lot of game playing. You know when you’ve got a jillion people trying to be a star overnight, people are pinching each other and they’re squeezing each other. Although there are beautiful things that pop out of scenes that are legitimate, I decided ‘I can write songs wherever I’m at. I moved back to Seattle at the end of 1981”.
Dag says that when Cynthia told them she was going to back New York, and Chinas Comidas was no more it was kind of a relief because of him being the youngest one in the band. “I was the most intimidated by Cynthia because she was so assertive” Dag continues. “I felt like I had to walk on eggshells around her at times. So I said to myself ‘It’s OK. Now we don’t have a singer but we can still carry on as ‘Exquisite Corpse’ a band that Rich, Brock, Dag and Mark had been doing since the earliest days of Chinas Comidas back in Seattle”.
“Back in the early days Cynthia and Rich were in this little apartment that was above The Comet Tavern in Seattle” says Sheli Story. “This was when they had a rehearsal studio on the main floor which became Blue Room Studios. At one point Richard started a band called Exquisite Corpse who would open for Chinas. Exquisite Corpse would come on and do their songs and then Chinas (Cynthia) would come on.” Sheli also adds that despite Dag feeling intimidated by Cynthia, he was broken-up when she left. Sheli says Dag had become close to Cynthia. As for Sheli, Cynthia says “I really liked and still like Sheli. She gave me my only real hardcore dye job-we went for red and it came out black with a red sheen which was totally bitching for L.A. so to speak. I do remember we had fun although it’s all in the very far past”.
After Cynthia left, Mark, Dag and Sheli ended up moving into another apartment in the Fairfax District on Ogden Street. Dag started working at Canters Restaurant. “It was literally on the same block as Canters, but two streets over” Says Dag. “I didn’t have a car, so we’d take the bus to rehearsal which was straight down Santa Monica Boulevard to Brock’s place. He had kind of an old office space on the second floor. That’s where he lived and that’s where we rehearsed”.
“We practiced for maybe a week or two” says Dag. “I went to rehearsal one day and I got the news from Rich and Brock ‘We’re going to look for some other musicians to replace you and Mark‘….so that was it. I was crushed. I think they said ‘we want to get really serious, we need some better musicians‘. I came home an hour later and Sheli said ‘Wow! why are you home already?‘ I told her ‘I got kicked out of the band’ and she burst into tears. She’d been along with us the whole time and Brock’s lover first and then she and I started hanging out. There was chemistry going on.”
“Eventually Mark moved out” Dag says. “I thought ‘Sheli and I should get married because Mark has all the cookware, so if we get married we’ll get cookware’. So we came up to Seattle and had a big fancy wedding. Then we went back to L.A. I think the guy who would become Sheli’s second husband, Case Armour, had been to England and doing bands and partying and all that. He had met this kooky 17 year old guy from Los Angeles named Danny Glickman. I guess Case and he had a fling together. Danny was an avid record collector and somehow he found out Case knew people who were involved with Chinas Comidas that lived in L.A. He was rabid to meet us, which he did. When he got back to Los Angeles I think he just cold-called us, or maybe Case was visiting and he came along. Danny was very exuberant and loud and very energetic” Dag continues. “He asked if we wanted to do a band with him, so I said ‘yes’. So I played guitar and Sheli played bass and he was a very creative songwriter…singing about really wacky stuff. Suburban teen-aged angst stuff along the line of Modern Lovers meets X-Ray-Spex. Somehow we got a drummer and the four of us just tore up Hollywood for the next couple of years. The name of the band was Jerry’s Kids. We had some label interest, and did some recording…the recordings weren’t all that great.
Sheli Story of Jerry’s Kids Al’s Bar L.A. 1980
- “Danny was a teenager who would go to school, come home and have nothing to do but call clubs and bug people for gigs” Dag tells me. “So we played all the time and we rehearsed all the time. We got to be pretty good. I remember seeing Rich and Brock at the Cathay de Grande, an underground club at Argyle and Selma in Hollywood. The place was packed…they had a lot of bands. I’m sure no one was really there to see us specifically, but Danny was so showy. He would connect two or three microphone cords together and then he’d connect to the house cords. He’d go into the audience and sing in people’s faces while we were onstage playing the songs. That was a night when he was all the way back to the bar where there were a lot of people”.
“Brock and Rich looked bewildered, not knowing what to think” Sheli says. “I loved Brock so much. We all went through a lot together. Moving to L.A. then Chinas Comidas breaking up. Then me and Dag starting a new band. When they came to see us at the Cathay de Grande their faces looked like they were just heartbroken. Dag and I were, in a band that was getting a lot of attention at that time. They were just devastated because they had let Dag go from Chinas Comidas after Cynthia left. Brock was close to Cynthia”
“Jerry’s Kids was a lot of fun” Dag says. “But the demise of the band was when Sheli and I started bickering and arguing a lot. It got too much for Danny and he had kind of a breakdown and said he didn’t want to do it anymore. Then Sheli and I split up and I moved on the other side of the Hollywood Ridge and got involved with other bands. Sheli and I had lived in Beechwood Canyon on a dead end street and I’d been hired away from Canter’s to work in this super-trendy hot spot, a nouveau-Chinese restaurant called ‘China Club‘ Of course you make friends with people you work with, and I met a waiter there and a friend of his-a woman-had a three-bedroom house. They knew Sheli and I were breaking up so they said ‘we’ve got an extra room’. I moved just literally out of Beechwood Canyon to the Cuanga side. It was still in the Hollywood Hills. I ended up staying there for 15 years“
Mark and Brock Wheaton had also chosen to stay in Los Angeles. “When I was dismissed from Chinas Comidas” Mark “I thought ‘that’s fine, I’m gonna do something else’. “That’s when I went into recording engineering school”
“At the same time I ran into Johanna Went. It was at an annual party at Waddles Park in Hollywood” Mark says. “It was Tomata du Plenty’s birthday party. Every year people would get together and hang out in a big gathering. Kind of the L.A. ‘scene’ and I was going to that party. I was walking up toward the park and Johanna was walking along so I said ‘hey!’ We started talking and and she said ‘Oh, I love your brother’s drumming and I love what you’re doing. Are you guys willing to do shows with me?’ That’s when she suggested that I start working with her. It was 1980″
Johanna Went “The Worm” from “The Club Years”
Johanna Went was a performance artist who grew up in Seattle. She’d been part of the underground street theater movement that permeated the city in the early 1970s. Eventually she made her way to Los Angeles where her performance went through a shocking transformation. She began making odd costumes that were more like dream apparitions or psychic monsters made from found or discarded objects. She made liberal use of artificial blood, Jello and any other element that congealed, allowing it to spurt everywhere. She danced and spun into an almost trance like state. All the while she screamed, chanted and wailed in a completely incomprehensible language. Her performance sometimes included religious and irreligious subtext. The message (if one could say there actually was one) lay mostly in the performance itself, not in any formal sense of communication. Soon after her arrival in Los Angeles she became closely associated with the punk rock movement and performed alongside practically every well-known punk band of the era. At the same time her performance art also attracted the higher end of the gallery crowd.
Her work was largely improvised but used a rough outline of what she planned. Each performance was unique and could be categorized as primitive or l’art brut. All of her dream-creations were destroyed in the process. Her work dealt in an almost ritualistic conversation between herself and her audience, yet at the same time she remained a distant figure from them. According to cultural observer Pat Cammack, ‘Critics have frequently characterized Went’s shows as ‘chaotic’, ‘wild’ or ‘shocking’. Her work is often seen in context of other women artists of the 1980s whose performances are regarded as daring and transgressive, such as Karen Finley, Lydia Lunch or Diamanda Galas’.
“I began working with Johanna Went performing freeform syntheziser on stage with her wild messy and visually stunning shows” Mark tells me. “We attracted large crowds to LA area clubs throughout the early and mid 80’s up until 2007 when Johanna and I did our last show. Originally Johanna Went’s band was a loose collection of LA rock musicians performing completely improvised unrehearsed noisescapes years before it was defined into a category. The band included my brother Brock on Drums, Greg Burk on Sax and at various times, Karl Precoda on Bass, Kerry McBride on guitar, Robin Ryan on percussion, Danielle Elliot on Drums, Don Preston and many others. When Johanna began traveling, she and I created a way to improvise sound using multiple tape loops manipulated at the mixing board. We toured to New York, San Diego, Phoenix, San Francisco to Rotterdam and beyond where we performed in an International Performance Festival”.
“Johanna and I have been going through all of her archives lately and trying to get all of the videos that she has transferred to digital” Mark tells me. “There’s a site online that has all the Johanna Went videos we’ve transferred so far. As I said I’m working on her archives. The last show was im 2007, but we’ve done hundreds and hundreds of shows. Most of them in the ’80s and ’90s. Brock was involved in the first round of those shows up until the mid ’80s. By that time he was drumming in several other bands, so sometimes it wasn’t convenient for him to work with Johanna. We worked with other players. When we started doing shows outside of L.A. we started experimenting with using tape loops and eventually computer-generated backing tracks.
Brock and I were on Johanna’s ‘Hyena’ album. I produced that record while I was interning at a recording studio. I would do work for them in exchange for studio time. I invited a bunch of players, including Brock and some of the people he was working with, as well as other L.A. people that we knew. They’d come in the studio in different groupings and just jam in the studio; not with Johanna at all. After we jammed we’d pick out something that we liked and Johanna would write something for it, and then she would come in and do her vocal. It wasn’t really a song as such…it ended up sounding like songs. When you listen to the album they aren’t just free improv”.
Brock no langer had time to work with Johanna, however, if you listen to our live recordings of shows we did, you can hear the raw improvisation side of Brock’s drumming talents. One of Brock’s drumming gigs was with The Ju Ju Hounds (NOT the Izzy Stradlin band of the same name that came long after). Brock also attended The Percussion Institute in L.A. and refined his drum talents further, wanting to join a band that could go all the way.
But with all of the bands he worked with Brock kept running up against the difficulties of breaking out of the underground and having any real success. Finally in the mid ’80s, Brock moved back to Seattle where he pursued his other passions: motorcycles and scuba diving.
“He became a member of the northwest motorcycle club called The Cossacks and became a star as a stunt rider” Mark tells me. “He was also a high end scuba diver and was into deep dives, diving on shipwrecks and cave diving. He got this from our dad who was a pioneering Northwest diver. He had taught us all to dive. Brock decided to get back into it full time.
Brock Wheaton. March 24, 1956 – March 27, 2003
“From this point through the rest of his life, Brock did not regret leaving music behind, but in his final year, while he was dying of cancer, he reconnected with the members of Chinas Comidas” his brother Mark tells me. “This was when we began revisiting all of our recordings and decided to release the compilation CD. Brock was also able to reconnect with Sheli Story.” Sheli says “I loved Brock. We’d gone through so much together. I talked to him about 11 months before he died. Basically he was at home waiting for a kidney transplant but he didn’t make it”.
Cynthia says “I called Brock the moment I heard he was sick, and every day from New York while he was so terribly ill. I spoke to him the day before he died and he told me he wasn’t ready-it was heartbreaking.”
Brock Wheaton died of kidney cancer at home in Seattle March 27, 2003.
Cynthia Genser returned to New York City. “I came back because I had my family here-my mom and dad” she says. My sister is in Massachusetts and I had friends from over the years, obviously. I continued to write and publish poetry in New York; fiction and academic articles. I had a poetry series downtown at Sybossek’s (a place where punk and poetry connected). It had early readings by Eileen Myles, and prime appearances by June Jordan. Ron Padgett read there, Michael Lally, Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein. I reviewed for and worked with Poetry Flash” (a journal calling itself ‘A Literary Review and Calendar For the West).
Cynthia’s poems have also appeared in Western Humanities Review, Speechless the Magazine, Open City, Antaeus ,The Paris Review, The Southern Review and the anthologies Ordinary Women (Ordinary Women Press) and New York: Poems (Avon). She also authored The Mexican Murals, a work she’s described as ‘sense/memory poems written by adapting some acting exercises of Stanislavsky and combining them with William Burroughs’ walking on colors technique’ Her collection, The Touch, was nominated for the 2011 Poets’ Prize. In 2005 Cynthia wrote liner notes for the release of their first compilation of earlier Chinas Comidas recordings
“Later I got my PhD in England in Medieval Literature at The University of London. I was very happy to do that” Cynthia says.
“I had started at NYU and it was just a terrible system. I had a friend who was doing a degree at The University of London and she said ‘You know, it will be like you go to a Greek island only it will be like Manhattan Island. You can get an advisor and it will just work that way’ So that’s what I did. I taught for many years. I loved it. I started at a small college teaching Chaucer and all that stuff and poetry. I loved my students, and I loved teaching. it was a good thing. It was actually a great choice in the end. I taught mostly black kids from the Bronx, Brooklyn and kids near Westchester and from all over. It was a good experience. It was wonderful. I felt good about doing it. I loved them, they loved me. It was good work I was glad to be doing it. I’m sad now because it’s over. When something stops, especially in the first few years, it’s like it never happened.
In 2005 Exquisite Corpse released of compilation CD Chinas Comidas: 1977-80 Live and Studio Recordings. Bill White did the liner notes in which he wrote:
“Cynthia Genser was a rock and roll poet. A rock lyric needs music to live; a rock poem already has the music in it. She read her poems with the band Chinas Comidas. And as time went on, the poems became rock songs. But first Cynthia Genser was a rock and roll poet. Her arrival in Seattle had an impact on the musicians of the city that was strong and significant. But even with Rich Riggins writing music for Cynthia’s poetry, the verbal attack was too confrontational for audiences that were being lured back to corporate rock…I am reminded of the days that Northwest Rock was something to be proud of. When it was made, not by no-playing suburban twits lusting after stardom, but by argumentative outcasts with fingers twitching for a guitar. Chinas Comidas were never scenesters: They didn’t hide behind somebody else’s attitude. They were the first band to take punk out of the punk clubs and into lumberjack bars where working people danced to country rock. I don’t know how many times Cynthia had to listen to some asshole yell at her to “shut the fuck up”. Now it’s their turn to shut up. Shut the fuck up and listen”.
In 2007 Rich contacted Dag, Mark and Cynthia about a Chinas Comidas reunion. He set-up three shows but at the last minute Cynthia couldn’t make it to Seattle from New York. Dag had flown up from L.A. and Rich had gotten a drummer, because Brock had died. “They were freaking out” Sheli says. I told them “I know all the songs, so I’ll step in. So I did these three shows with them in Seattle as Cynthia! (Sheli laughs) I have video of those shows. We did a show at Bop Street Records, at The Funhouse (before it moved) and at Fantagraphics Books in Georgetown. When I stepped in to do vocals I was sooo fucking scared. I did not want to fuck it up. After performing the song Isadora at Fantagraphics, Carl Smool, longtime original friend and fan of Chinas Comidas, came up to me with tears in his eyes saying ‘You did it!!!’. You channeled it, bitch!!!’ and then laughed”. Sheli says she was honored to do it, and says “A huge piece of my heart is occupied by my love for this band, the people in it and the journey I took with Chinas Comidas“.
Cynthia and Rich also did a performance together at The Majestic Gallery on Greenwood Avenue in Seattle on June 13, 2014 as part of the exhibition ‘1977-When Punk Was Punk’.
“Richard and I are still doing music” says Cynthia. “Maybe we’ll actually get something out, but it’s pretty different from what we did before, and it should be. We’re a lot older, but now I write more of the music. There’s actually a song of mine, so I’m excited about that. ‘Oh! I wrote a new song!!!’ exclaims Cynthia. “That will be fun to get out some day, if we ever do. We’re kind of stuck because Richard’s out there on the west coast and I’m here in New York. It’s really weird so we still have to figure out how to do it, or I just have to get out there to Seattle. He did come to New York and we got some work done, but you know, It’s rough for him to be away from home, and we try to make him comfortable but it’s hard travelling.”
Rich tells me “One day I got a call from the initial set-up person for Take The City Records in Madrid, Spain. Then he messaged me and said ‘Would you be interested in releasing your music on vinyl?‘ Of course I said ‘Yes‘. I met Mario Rodriguez who is behind Take The City Records in Madrid. He has a record store so he’s selling new and used music. He’s been re-discovering punk bands and researching. That’s how he found Chinas Comidas. He thought we were amazing. He said ‘I’m going to put out your music, Do you want to do it?‘ and I said ‘yes’ so we discussed all of the details. Mark Wheaton came in as being a good business associate and brought in information and helped to piece this thing together. Now we have Chinas Comidas on 12″ vinyl. It looks awesome and the work on it is exceptional and professional. The cover and it’s design are really beautiful. We’re happy about it
The pressing of the new album is pretty limited”. Rich says” I think they initially made 500 vinyl copies of them. 400 on black vinyl and another 100 on red vinyl. They’re available at discogs.com. You can also find it at ‘Singles Going Steady at 2219 Second Ave. Seattle, Georgetown Records at 1201 S Vale St, Seattle, and Jive Time Records at 3506 Fremont Ave N, Seattle. Online it’s available through discogs.com for about $18.60 US, and shipping. It’s also available at CD Baby and Amazon.
The 19 song compilation on CD that we put out in 2005 is still available.” Rich says. “Mark and I spent a couple of weeks putting a collection of all of our stuff at his studio in L.A We went through it all, archived and re-mastered it. Mark did a great job. I’ve also put together a kind of mash-up of Chinas Comidas playing at Tier 3 in New York City.”
Cynthia and I have written five more songs. We’re putting together a CD. We’re mixing all of it right now. We are about three quarters of the way there, so we’re going to release another CD and then go to Spain! We’re going to fly there and hopefully work something out with Mario Rodriguez at Take The City Records and perform in his record store as promotion. We also want to get gigs in Europe. We want to branch out and make as many contacts as possible and pick up three players over there, tell them to listen to the songs and we’ll meet you in Spain and then carry on. Perhaps we can make a little bit of extra money and have some fun, keep going on and doing things.”
Things are looking up even after all these years.
Just a few days after finishing this story…or at least assuming I’d finished this story, Cynthia wrote me a short message. She spoke about Chinas Comidas “We had a cheerful outlook on the whole project. It was camraderie. It was romance, too” then added;
“Recently I read ‘Glad Ghosts’…a pretty bizarre story from D.H. Lawrence. I came across a little paragraph I liked; of course it’s in an old-fashioned locution, but it captures the feeling I had about hanging with Rich and working with him in the band. It’s written in the masculine narrator’s voice, so it’s sort of Rich speaking:”
“She and I had a curious understanding in common: an inkling, perhaps, of the unborn body of life hidden within the body of this half-death which we call life; and hence a tacit hostility to the commonplace world, its inert laws. We were rather like two soldiers on a secret mission into enemy country. Life, and people, was an enemy country to us both”…
-Dennis R. White. Sources: Rich Riggins; interview with the author (August 17, 2018). Cynthia Genser; interview with the author (September 3, 2018). Cynthia Genser; notes to the author (September 20th, 2018). Sheli Story; interview with the author (August 18, 2018). Dag Midtskog; interview with the author (August 20, 2018). Mark Wheaton; interview with the author (August 25, 2018). Mark Wheaton; letter to the author (August 30. 2018). Adam Block “Chinas Comidas” (Bay Area Reporter, August 3, 1978). “Chinas Comidas” (Slash Magazine, December 1979). Gary Minkler; letter to the author ( August 23, 2018 ). Mark Wheaton; interview with the author (August 16, 2018). Fantagraphics Books “Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery in Association with Georgetown Records Present Punk Pioneers Chinas Comidas” (Press Release retrieved September 9, 2018). Mark Wheaton “Brock Wheaton” (catasonic sounds.com retrieved September 1, 2018). “Brock Wheaton Obituary” (The Seattle Times, March 31, 2003). “The Last Bath [1975,directed by Karl Krogstad]” (IMdb. com, retrieved September 2, 2018). Jeff Boruszak “Cynthia Kramen: Chinas Comidas Live and Studio Recordings 1977-1980” (Jacket 2, June 7, 2013). Mark Wheaton/Robert Barry Francos “Chinas Comidas: An Inside Look-Rock ‘n Roll in Washington State ” (FFanzeen: Rock’n’Roll Attitude With Integrity, November 15, 2015). Paul Dorpat “Seattle Now & Then: KRAB-Listen-supported Free-form Radio” (DorpatSherrardLamont, retrieved September 2, 2018). Mauri Regnier; “Alive In Underground Seattle” (The University of Washington Daily, March 8, 1977). Tom Bolling “Cynthia Genser / Cynthia Kraman” (https://staff.washington.edu/kendo/genser.html, retrieved September 7, 2018). Gary Groth “The Spain Interview” (The Comics Journal, November 29, 2012). Bruce Weber “Spain Rodriguez, Artist of Underground Comics, Dies at 72” (December 2, 2012, The New York Times). Hotmovies.com; Templeton Blaine (retrieved September 12, 2018). Cynthia Kraman Genser “Chinas Comidas” (oetry Flash September 2018). Patrice Cammack “Review of Interview with Monkey Woman, by Johanna Went”. (High Performance 9, no. 4, 1986). Ray Freed “Remembering Jack Micheline” (Poetrybay, Spring 2001. Retrived September 1, 2018). The Floydian Device “Upchuck: Gone But Not Forgiven” (Punk Globe, March 2018). Kurt B. Reighley “The Gay Cobain: Eighteen Years after His Death, the Music World Honors “Upchuck” the Man Who Set Seattle on Fire” (The Advocate, Retrieved September 18, 2018). Anne Matthews “Rage In A Tenured Position” (The New York Times, November 8, 1992).