Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Alison East

Self-indulgence alert: This is a piece I've wanted to write for a long time (and tried to on a couple of earlier occasions, without success). So I hope you can ignore the fact that this is a really awful lead-in to what will be, I hope, a heartfelt tribute to somebody I never actually met, in the saying "hello!" to sense, but who I found absolutely unforgettable nonetheless.

Okay, the short version: Sometime in late 1979 or early 1980, a friend took me to see a band called The Swinging Madisons at some dive or another in NYC. Said band was fronted by a very talented and interesting guy named Kristian Hoffman; he's had a long and estimable career since then (you can read more about it over at his website) but at the time I knew about him only from his tenure in the pioneering power pop outfit The Mumps, with Lance Loud (of PBS-TV An American Family fame).

Anyway, the Madisons turned out to be absolutely terrific. Hoffman affected a sort of drolly ironic Vegas lounge act look, like a sort of party animal Bryan Ferry, but the music was something else -- first-rate hard-rock verging on pop, with a nice mixture of witty original songs (a psychedelic pastiche called "My Mediocre Dreams" that lived up to its title and the hilarious post-feminist anthem "Put Your Bra Back On") plus some wonderful re-imagined covers, including an echo-drenched and hiccup-ed rockabilly version of Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" that worked simultaneously as send-up and homage.

But the icing on the cake was the Madisons' guitarist. Her name was Alison East and -- barely out of high school -- she remains the greatest rock and roll stage foil (or second banana, if you will) I ever saw, and I mean The Greatest. An utterly improbable cross between Lucille Ball and Joan Jett, which is to say an adorable comedienne with killer comic timing and gunslinger guitar skills, she managed to be compulsively watchable without taking anything away from the band's more traditional visual focal point, although as much as I loved the Madisons' whole act that night, it was East -- mugging shamelessly throughout their too short set -- that just reduced me to mush. In any case, when the show was over, my friend asked if I wanted to go backstage and get introduced, but I was in serious I'm-not-worthy mode and so I declined the offer, a decision I have regretted ever since.

You're going to have to take most of the above on faith, I'm afraid. No video document of the Madisons stage act seems to have survived, and until the photos below (from a gig around the same time as the one I saw) surfaced a few weeks ago (courtesy of ace shutterbug Steve Lombardi, who kindly shared them) I'd never seen as much as a snapshot of Alison. These don't do her justice, necessarily, but I think they do catch at least some of the antic spirit I saw on that cramped stage on the night in question.

And here's a sample of her guitar prowess -- an unreleased demo of another one of the Madisons' priceless covers, in this case a metallic and surprisingly heartfelt take on Janis Ian's "Society's Child". (I'm sorry that it fades out at mid-song, but Kristian has plans to release this and the rest of the Madisons' early stuff at some point, so I thought I should respect his wishes. The bottom line is you can still get a pretty good idea of both the group and Alison's considerable Jeff Beck/Mick Ronson chops from it.)

The postscript to the story, and again, the short version: As I suspected they might, the Madisons soon got signed to a hip indie label, and in 1981 they released a well-received EP (now alas out of print, although if you dig you probably can find a downloadable copy on the net). Said EP, however, was done without Alison, who bailed just prior to the record deal.

And then I heard...well, I'll let Kristian tell it (from his band history over at the website):
I met her [Alison] at CBGB's at a Cramps concert, liked the way she looked, and asked her to be in my planned 'joke' band, but the joke was on me! This chestnut haired, shag-headed, white tux be-clad bon vivant was a glam-metal genius on guitar. So much better than I deserved! She single-handedly lifted my 'joke' into the realms of 'rawk'. She was so good, she turned The Runaways down! (Didn't want to relocate.) My band got popular so quick she started to get leery; it was just supposed to be a goof, a side project. She was already about to quit...when she was stricken with cancer, and died at age 19! What a tragedy! We were so young, it was so unexpected; we all went into shock -- not like a few years later when AIDS rendered the death of a youthful cohort routine, if no less painful.
Like I said, I never actually met Alison East, in the saying "hello!" to sense. But thirty odd years later, it seems to me that she changed my life a little anyway. And so it's nice to finally share this sort of goodbye.