Thursday, September 12, 2013

Riding to Thunder Bay With Mr. Potato Head

This is a trip down memory lane for me. When I was in my late teens to early 20's, I lived in Merritt Island, FL. (Its near Cocoa Beach) There was an amazing local music scene all over Central Florida from Cocoa Beach to Orlando to the speed metal scene in Tampa. This was a great time to be alive.

There were many bands that I loved seeing, from AWOL to Modern Man to Hard Knox. Most of the bands also got to open for touring national acts because of the huge crowds that the local bands drew on their own. On occasion, the national act would get booed off the stage in favor of the local opening act. I was in several bands back in the day, and I even got to open for several national acts.

However, there were 2 bands who set the standard of what was expected from a local act, and all other bands aspired to achieve their success on a local level on the way to getting signed themselves. They were Dead Serios of Melbourne FL and Stranger of Tampa.

It didn't matter where these bands played, or who they played with. The place was always packed with enthusiastic fans. Personally, I saw Dead Serios over 50 times, and Stranger at least 15 times. Seeing them never got old because it was always a blast, and every time you saw them seemed like the first time. Their shows were the biggest party in town. These bands were experts at ruling a crowd and the music was always great too. I don't remember seeing a bad performance from either of them.

We'll start with Dead Serios because I was and still am friends with the guys. The band was a punk metal comedy act. The band consisted of Dead Lee Serios (Christopher Long) on lead vocals and lawnmower, Doug Gibson on lead guiar, Phil Billingsley on rhythm guitar, Joe Del Corvo on bass, and Bill Irwin on drums and vocals.

Doug Gibson

You never saw a better show than this. High intensity rock, with the greatest frontman ever to walk the earth. Songs like 'No More Pipe For Potato Head' featured a 3 foot tall Mr. Potato Head that shot pyrotechnics out of the pipe. The band always delivered, and they always seemed at the top of their game. There was a time when it seemed like a given that this band would be signed, and huge. I don't know a single person who ever saw them in concert and didn't love them for life. Unfortunately, the record deal never came, but grunge did, and that's when all the good music went by the wayside. But the good news is that the band does reunion shows from time to time! The live links I posted are from a reunion show a couple years ago. 'Lawn Care Studs' that featured Dead Lee leading a mosh pit circle swinging a toy lawnmower, then smashing it onstage like Pete Townsend with a Fender Telecaster. I remember one show where one of the fans snuck out the back door during that song, grabbed the club's REAL lawnmower, fired it up, and got in line before Dead Lee with the real mower going full blast. Fun times indeed. Their set lists would always consist of crowd favorites like these, and other songs like 'Rosemary's Baby was Framed, Who's on Oprah, Psycho Dyke, Buster's Got A Booger, Butterbean Queen, and Peanuts are Evil. The ending of their shows was every bit as electric as the show itself, and lasted as long as a song. They would introduce the band, along with sound words of wisdom like "Brush after every meal! Smell the cheese before you eat it!" Dead Lee would then call for quiet, and tell the crowd that no matter where they went on the highways and biways of life, they should always remember....."MOTORHEAD RULES!" They would then finish off with their trademarked staple close "And Remember....WE'RE NOT JOKING!! WE'RE! DEAD! SERIOS!"

Dead Lee Serios and a
sacrificial lawnmower

Next up is Stranger! Pure bred "Florida Rock N Roll!" This band had the unmistakable vocals of Greg Billings, and the unique and powerful guitar sound of Ronnie Garvin, joined with a thunderous rhythm section consisting of Tom (King) Cardenas on bass and John Price on drums. Randy Holt was on keyboards.

The energy of a Stranger show was unmatched. You just wanted to grab a beer, raise it (when you weren't chugging it) and sing along with their unforgettable chouses in songs like Okeechobee Whiskey, Play Something Good (Something I can Dance To), and probably their most recognized chorus, 3D. And, their amazing guitar grooves in songs like Swamp Woman, Hit N Run, and the heartfelt ballads they offered like Clear Blue Morning, and many more.

When you left a Stranger show, you felt good. Seeing them was like a being at a football game where your team is just taking apart their opponent. It makes you feel like you're on top of the world. They would always interact with the audience, encouraging crowd participation, and the fans were more than happy to give it. And, like Dead Serios, it was not possible to see a Stranger show for the first time, and not leave a fan. They would open with the anthem, Bad Day, which instantly got you in the mood to forget about your day, and get the night started. Their shows were always 'a night to remember, after a 'day to forget.' From the first song on, you belonged to the band. All the way to their grand finale, Thunder Bay.

Ronnie Garvin

At a Stranger show, you couldn't help but notice Ronnie Garvin's old, beat up and ugly Fender Strat. It looked like it was held together with duct tape. So ugly, yet at the same time, the most beautiful guitar on the planet. He also had a unique style and sound like I mentioned before. Nobody could play like him, and nobody could play like Stranger.

The end of the road for them came on October 10, 1996 when the news came out that guitarist, Ronnie Garvin had been found dead of a self inflicted gunshot wound. This tragic event came to be known as 'The shot that broke Florida's heart.' That was it. It was over. And, many Floridians can tell you exactly what they were doing when they heard the news. Me, I was on the way to the hospital in Melbourne to deliver my oldest daughter, and heard the news on the radio. That's how I am able to remember the exact date.

Greg Billings has a band that plays in the Tampa area called The Greg Billings Band, along with bassist Tom Cardenas. They play regularly across West Florida, and their set list includes Stranger songs.

These two bands were polar opposites in their styles, sound, and stage shows, and I don't remember them ever playing together. If they had, it would have been one of the most amazing shows of all time. Both bands dominated Florida during the same time, and they both loved to play, and loved their fans. Both bands put 120% into every show they played, and as a result, they were both adored by the fans.

But this isn't just one blogger's opinion. The proof is in the print. Jam Magazine, which was/is? a publication that everyone back then read. They had the 'Jammy Awards' where bands and musicians were nominated by the fans, and awards were handed out to the best. In 1991, Stranger won their highest honor as Entertainer of the Year. In 1992, Dead Serios won it, and Stranger presented the award to Dead Serios. I couldn't find a photo of that. If you have it, send it to me on my Facebook page, and I will add it to this post.

So, if you were fortunate enough to see these bands live, post some of your memories in the comments or on my FB page. Haven't heard of them? Click the links throughout this post and enjoy. I haven't seen a local music scene as good as Central Florida's in the late 80's to early 90's since, and I doubt I ever will.

You want to see another local music scene like that? Support Local Music! We didn't know how good we had it back then.

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