“Yeah, I’m from Pawling Avenue,” said Bill Milhizer. “I’m in a band, you probably never heard of. We’ve been at it a long time.”
Milhizer’s affable persona is complimented by a patterned shirt one often sees on a tourist while on vacation, and an ever-present grin on a clean-shaven face, a trick he learned from Dick Clark before he and his band appeared on “American Bandstand.”
At 68, Milhizer is still walking through life at the beat of his own drum. Happy-go-lucky has not been applied to a more apt subject than he. The unassuming musician has led a charmed life, taking the opportunities presented to him, and surrounding himself with the most iconic names of the music and pop culture world of the 20th century. You may not have heard of The Fleshtones. But, they’ve played a part in resurrecting rock and roll from the clutches of disco.
Milhizer learned to play drums as a youngster in Troy, but it wasn’t something he intended on calling a career. He initially went on to college, earning a degree at Purdue University in social psychology. After taking time to observe life in Chicago, he returned back to Troy before running into his friend, Gary Burke, with a proposal that he move down to New York City.
“That’s where Gary Burke had this little off-Broadway theater,” said Milhizer. “They needed basically someone to work the box office, clean the floors and everything like that.” With $600 in his pocket, Milhizer went down to New York City with the intent of staying only a few months. “I was really good at cleaning the floors. I don’t know about the box office…. Slowly, but surely, I discovered CBGBs.”
It was 1976 and Milhizer was moving down to a city primed to celebrate the country’s bicentennial while the city itself was teetering on bankruptcy, and perhaps worse, enveloped in the electronic sound of disco. Even Paul McCartney’s dipped his toe into the genre with his new band, Wings. He topped the Billboard Top 100, along with Elton John and Kiki Dee, Johnnie Taylor, and the Four Seasons. Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band had men and women, wearing leisure suits and glitter, dancing to “A Fifth of Beethoven.”
The revolt against that scene emerged through the sound of garage rock and punk. A stripped down sound defined by short tracks, an up-tempo beat, and loud, biting lyrics. It was a return to the basics of rock and roll. CBGBs in New York’s Bowery was one of a triumvirate of Gotham clubs, including Max’s Kansas City and The Mudd Club, that provided a haven to this burgeoning new subgenre of rock. The Mudd Club, perhaps the antithesis of disco’s Studio 54, was a short lived venue in downtown Manhattan. Its penchant for hosting underground music, and relative proximity to the famed dance club drew celebrities who were tired of disco. The Mudd Club soon developed an equally elitist status. The Village Voice called it an “amazing antidote to the uptown glitz of Studio 54 in the ‘70s.”
“It was just very exciting,” said Milhizer, speaking of CBGBs. “Things were just happening there every night. And, I remember the first time I saw The Ramones, I just went there on an off-night. Not too many people were there. I was at the bar. They were doing a photo session. And, there they were, just sitting there. … You knew something was going on,” said Mihizer. “Bands were getting signed and taking that next step of recording a record to see what happens with it. So, it was really great.”
Milhizer continued to work at the theater his friend Gary Burke introduced him to. But, circumstances were to soon change for Burke.
“He was playing all over the place,” said Milhizer. Gary Burke was the pit drummer in Radio City Music Hall. “That’s how good he was. He was making money playing cabaret clubs down there. And, he wanted to get out of that. He met up with the Rolling Thunder Revue [with] Bob Dylan and [the] Rubin “Hurricane” Carter [benefit show at Houston in 1976]. So, he left town. And, he said, ‘Do you want me to mention you to these other acts that I played for?’ And, I said, sure.”
Milhizer stepped in for Gary Burke, playing in New York’s cabaret bars. It helped pay the bills, and introduced him into the local music scene, playing alongside one of Andy Warhol’s superstars, Holly Woodlawn. (The transgendered Woodlawn was immortalized in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.) It was another link in a chain of “good things” in Milhizer’s life. The next link led him to a delicatessen in the East Village.
Milhizer witnessed a group of guys huddled around at a table inside the deli. In the buzz of their conversation, Milhizer eavesdropped and heard the name of drummer Clem Burke. “We could ask Clem, but he’s now playing with Blonde,” one said. Milhizer assumed they were looking for a drummer and introduced himself.
The group was The Fleshtones, the same band he was reading about in the New York Rocker, and they were looking for a drummer. Milhizer auditioned for them shortly after they left the deli, and within a few days, he played his first gig with the band at Irving Plaza. (“Which, really, was just a Polish function club,” said Milhizer. “Now, it’s one of the biggest rock clubs.)
Milhizer isn’t the only member of The Fleshtones touched by chance. It’s how the band got started in the first place, when Keith Streng and Jan Marek Pakulski came across some discarded instruments in the basement of the house they both rented in Whitestone, N.Y. Streng picked up the guitar, Pakulski grabbed the bass. And, before long, Peter Zaremba and Lenny Calderon filled out the rest on vocals and drums, respectively. It was 1976, and the four of them debuted as The Fleshtones at CBGBs that same year.
The band developed a healthy following. Milhizer recalled reading about the band in the New York Rocker, a punk rock magazine of which now-Wyoming state legislator Andy Schwartz was editor. By 1980, Milhizer replaced Calderon on drums, and the band started a successful run of releases through a newly signed record deal with I.R.S. Records.
“We were kind of an eighth note thing,” said Milhizer. “We’ve [since] expanded to the swing thing and the occasional ballad.” But, back near the start, Milhizer said the band was influenced by the “obvious,” The Kinks and The Rolling Stones. Covering the less popular, unappreciated tracks from the giants, and paying homage to the little garage bands from around the country that people didn’t necessarily know of like Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs.
The Fleshtones signed to the same record company as The Go-Go’s, who launched into popularity with the growing success of MTV and the demand for music videos. The garage band sound had also exploded in relative popularity, drawing a demand in Europe for New York City bands. It was the early 80s, and The Fleshtones would find itself sharing time with Brian Setzer’s Stray Cats and Shane MacGowan’s The Pougues. It was at around this time when the band appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, and in the British punk concert film “Urgh! A Music War.” In 1984, “American Beat” was featured on the soundtrack the Tom Hank’s comedy “Bachelor Party.”
The Fleshtones may be the band you never heard of, but it’s been at it for a long time. It’s the first act to open Irving Plaza, it was the last rock band to play Windows on the World in 2001. The band’s collective, campy attitude could be encapsulated by a two-minute segment off of Warhol’s MTV show, “Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes,” where the band played background music to actor Ian McKellan reciting William Shakespeare. Streng, Zaremba, Milhizer and Ken Fox (who joined in 1990) has played together for more than 25 years. This year, Streng and Zaremba celebrate the band’s 40th anniversary. Outlasting the legendary CBGBs itself.
“I don’t know if anyone really knew that CBs was going to be legendary, looking into the future,” said Milhizer, reflecting on the time that has passed. “A lot of bands that were playing there would not be accepted any place else. It was in the early days of punk. Which, we weren’t. We really weren’t a punk band, but that was the only place to go. CBs, The Mudd Club, Max’s Kansas City — that was the only circle, and I don’t think anyone thought of it as anything [significant] in the future.”
Often on the fringe of the tapestry that captured multiple generations of music and pop culture, The Fleshtones helped establish a music scene without reaping the hyper commercial success of acts that surrounded it. But, who’s to say that’s not the reason behind Milhizer’s ever-present smile?
“I make enough money to easily take the bus,” said Milhizer. “And, I do…. To that extent, we’ve been a success… We’ve met a lot of people in little places around the world.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.