By Steven S. Drachman.
Way back there in the early 1980s, I was a student at Columbia College in New York City, feeling kind of proud of that — not proud of being at Columbia so much, which I thought was stupid and sucky and filled with assholes and bad teachers and bad dining hall food, and which I had applied to only because I was sure I wouldn’t get in, and I didn’t want to go to college — but I was proud to be living in New York. A friend of mine came to visit me from the Bethesda suburbs, I pulled out my fresh copy of the very hip Village Voice newspaper, and after a quick perusal of its pages, we decided to head down to CBGBs.
You know, I’m really not sure how good the bands at CBGBs were back then, a little past its prime, but one band stood out that night, a band that I was sure would become famous one day: the Raunch Hands, an amazingly energetic and talented group led by a charismatic and hilarious frontman named Mike Chandler. Their music was a loud and harmonious mix of country-western and punk (before everyone started doing that), and the songs were a mix of the sublime and the hilariously appalling. (Their most popular tune was either Whap A Dang or Spit it on the Floor.) A great singer and songwriter; but Chandler’s songs were matched by his between-the-songs patter. He was also a great and personable comedian. He controlled the crowd, effortlessly.
I was amazed, flabbergasted, charmed, shocked. My world whirled. This is why I had come to New York.
I started following them around a little bit, and they only got better and better. I pitched them to Columbia, and to promote the show (they played at the ‘Plex, in FBH), I interviewed them for the school paper, the Spectator, backstage at the Peppermint Lounge, the night that they opened for Robyn Hitchcock, I believe.
The Columbia show wasn’t their best; Chandler didn’t seem to want to be there; it was an off-night. Andy told me that they sucked (that guy, Andy, he could be a jerk sometimes) and that everyone thought I was stupid for writing an article saying they were great. But that beautiful girl from that class I took that I don’t remember, she thought they were great though. She hung around chatting up the band, flirting with Chandler. You know the one, the girl who had sunglasses on the top of her head, and who was friends with that other girl, who played the cello.
Rolling Stone raved about them, calling them something like potentially important.
I bumped into him once after that, at Danceteria, I think. He seemed to remember me. He was a nice fellow, in addition to potentially important.
I bought their records whenever a new one came out; they had some reunions, some more tours. They were mostly good.
Well, the founder of CBGBs died, as you know, and CBGBs closed down; the Village Voice, where I later wrote movie reviews and interviews, just laid everyone off on Friday; the ‘Plex at Columbia closed down, and the building that once housed the ‘Plex, Ferris Booth Hall, saw the bad end of a wrecking ball and is no more; and I just learned that the irrepressible Chandler has finally been repressed. It sounds like a bad death, from cancer. The descriptions are hard to read. It happened this past April, and the world didn’t really mourn as it should have, if there were any justice (and so I didn’t hear about it till now), but a lot of people remembered him, and a lot of people mourned. There was a musical tribute in New York City, and no funeral, and the tribute looks like it was fun. And he really did have a lot of great shows and a lot of fans, back then, and not everyone has that, nights where you rule the audience, nights where you are king. I hope that means he would say he had a good life.
Anyway, below is a reprint (by permission!) of my interview with the Raunch Hands before their appearance at Columbia. It’s pretty pompous and stupid. I refer to myself as a “music critic” even though I was just an idiot writing for his school paper. Back then, I insisted that my middle initial should not have a dot after it, which is pretentious. But maybe it’s a good recollection of what the Raunch Hands were like back then and what we thought of them, when we were all 18 years old.
A Big Hand for the Raunch Hands
By Steven S Drachman
All music critics have a tendency to overrate their favorite lesser-known bands. But after seeing a concert by New York’s Raunch Hands, who are playing this Thursday at Columbia’s desperately needed new “Entertainment Complex”, you really do feel like piling on superlatives like “one of this town’s top rock-n-roll bands and destined to conquer the world” (The Courier), “Without a doubt, one of the finest bands you can see in New York these days” (Earwig), “One of the greatest rock ‘h’ roll bands in the world, sez me” (East Village Eye), and, best of all, “The Greatest band in the world” (Sounds Magazine).
The Village Voice called them “Grade A Dirt,” and meant it as a rave.
When lead singer Mike Chandler stepped on stage at the Peppermint Lounge two Saturdays ago, he was dressed in an old pair of jeans and an oversized New England sweater. His ungroomed hair fell raggedly over his face as he chided the audience, “Hey guys! You didn’t have to get all dressed up for this!” Later, after tossing the audience a free six-pack of Bud, he griped about the “Pep” itself. “I hope someone from the club is listening,” he shouted. “It’s a little expensive in here!”
The Hands, which also include Vince Bernicevic on drums, George Sulley on bass, Mike Tchang on guitar, and Michael Mariconda on lead guitar, eschew fashion. They have not hopped on the Boy George bandwagon, and none of them—not one—has seen Gremlins.
They view rock ‘n roll as a mishmash of styles, none entirely independent, as their single Stomp It (“an old sea-faring song”) and their contagiouly exciting live sets show so well. Chandler has been compared to a young Johnny Cash and a young Mick Jagger. They have a distinct R&B and punk sound with a country beat — the Troggs go to Nashville.
The preceding description would probably only make the band laugh, though. Suffice it to say that they rely on instinct rather than formula. And thus their honest, natural superiority to most of today’s music.
“People are boring,” Chandler complained before the show. “They watch too much television and shit and just have everything given to them and therefore the bands don’t put out.”
“A lot of the music today is thought about a little too much,” said Mariconda. “There’s no real spontaneity or emotion in it. A lot of it leaves me cold. Some people might call us a revival band, but all we’re reviving is going on stage and having fun and not really worrying about what we’re competing against as far as Top 40.”
“That’s not music,” Sulley added. “It’s all fashion; it’s got nothing to do with music.”
“I’m not into fashion,” said Tchang. “I’m not into the way they look. I hope that people won’t turn us into a fashion.”
If that ever happens, it will be a strange sight. The hippest clothes in New York will be “Sears Automotive Department” shirts (like Mariconda wears in performance) with matching George Sulley Texaco cap. And everyone’s shoes will be covered with cow dung from romping about in manure piles (as the Hands are pictured doing so gleefully on the cover of their single).
Their wide range of influences has made them difficult for the critics to classify. Chandler grew up in Maine listening to hardcore punk rock, and now “could pretty much throw it all away except for the Last Roundup and our band…and Mel Tillis. M-M-M-M-M-Mel .” Mariconda enjoys Creedence, Bo Diddley, Iggy Pop, the Troggs, Chuck Berry and “anything that doesn’t take itself to seriously.” So music magazines bend over backwards giving the Hands musical identities, like “dirty country surf punk,” “Raunch Rock,” or, as the Peppermint Lounge called them, “Cowpunks.” A Columbia student once described them to me as “Hardcore country.”
“You can’t believe everything you read, man,” Chandler snarled. “We’re rock ‘n roll.”
The Raunch Hands began as the duo of “Tchang and Chandler,” after both founding members had dropped out of college. Tchang simply said, “College wasn’t for me,” but Chandler was, typically, less kind.
“I went to Boredom University for a year,” he said. “I didn’t want people telling me what to learn, you know. I’m a reasonably smart guy, I can pick that shit up on my own. If I wanna read Milton, I can do that on my own.”
Tchang worked as a draftsman, and Chandler … well, “I don’t work for a bookie,” he insisted, “but that’s what everyone thinks, so let ’em eat cake.” The band gradually grew, until, on February 4th of last year, they stepped on the stage of No Se No as the Raunch Hands for the very first time. Mariconda was the last to join the group. No Se No, a small dark underground club with, according to Mariconda “a stage the size of a kitchen table,” was their home base for a time, while they fine-tuned their live act and developed their stage presence. But the band’s energy, and significantly, Chandler’s irrepressible showmanship, couldn’t be held back, and they’ve since played all over New York, as well as New Jersey, Boston, and Maine, gaining a larger and larger following wherever they went. At CBGB’s in January, the audience rushed to the stage during the Hands’ set, then quietly returned to their seats when the next band came on.
They’re the life of the party on stage, but somewhat cynical and world-weary in person. Despite what all the critics say about them, they’re reluctant to set their sights too high. When Tchang said the band is going “probably nowhere,” a young woman who was hanging around their dressing room (and somehow knew all about the band’s intimate apparel), disagreed adamantly. In a year, she said, they’ll be headlining Madison Square Garden, and in two years, “they’ll be on the front cover of Creem Magazine.” And she added, “they all wear purple underwear.”
Well, they were great that night at the Peppermint Lounge, and if there’s any justice in the musical world (though frequently there isn’t), they’ll sell a million records and get on the cover of every magazine in the country. But until then you should get over to FBH and catch an excellent live band at their best—so just trust me on this one, okay? They’re the Raunch Hands—tell all your friends.
Photograph: Mike Chandler at Jazzhaus Freiburg, Germany, Aug 4 1989 by Michaela Warren. Steven S. Drachman is the author of The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is published by Chickadee Prince Books.