The Boston Phoenix
April 20 - 27, 2000

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Getting clean

Asa Brebner's new CD;
the return of Mickey & the Mezz

Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano

Asa Brebner If you thought it was weird that the San Francisco band Primus encourage their fans to yell, "You suck!", then you should have seen Asa Brebner at Toad a few weeks back. The triumphant moment of this night's set was one of his funniest numbers, the failed-pick-up anthem "Babes in the Bar," where he got the audience to yell out the song's punch line: "Fuck off, asshole, leave me alone." Brebner has long been one of those widely respected but taken-for-granted local-music figures; now he's finally reached the point where a roomful of fans can tell him to fuck off.

Lyrical disses aside, Brebner's getting some overdue payback this year. He's just released I Walk the Streets, his Accurate label debut and his third album in as many years. The release party at the Lizard Lounge last month was packed. And his weekly residency at Toad has generated a buzz as the place to be on Tuesday nights -- two weeks ago, Peter Wolf gave the seal of approval by showing up and joining in on Merle Haggard and Bo Diddley numbers. Brebner and his cohort (Allen Devine on guitar, Andrew Mazzone on bass, and Scissorfight drummer Kevin Shurtleff) wrap up their residency this week with guest shots by Slide members Shaun Wortis and Suzi Lee and by Brebner's '80s bandmate Robin Lane. Meanwhile Brebner's got two other outfits going. He's playing in the Family Jewels, an old-school R&B band who play Wednesday evenings at the Bayou Café (on First Street in Cambridge). And he's rejoined his first group, Mickey Clean & the Mezz, for one of the longest-brewing debut albums in history (we're talking 25 years), the just-released Unsung Heroes (on his own Asa label).

Having played the Rat with the Mezz in the '70s, then been a member of both Jonathan Richman's Modern Lovers and Robin Lane's Chartbusters, Brebner has been through enough rock-and-roll lifetimes to take his current popularity in stride. "It seems that people are going to notice if you've been around long enough and you're any good at all," he concludes when I visit at the Cambridge house he purchased a few years back. "I'm probably better at putting things across than I was 10 years ago, plus the demographic might be catching up with me. Or maybe I'm just in the right place at the right time."

Brebner's musical style may be easy to peg -- a mix of Stones/Replacements rockers with country/folk-tinged ballads -- but his songwriting personality is hard to pin down. The first album, Prayers of a Snowball in Hell, put his friendlier pop side forward; last year's Ragged Religion let his cynical streak and dark sense of humor come through. ("That was my midlife-crisis album," he now admits.) The best of the three, I Walk the Streets pulls in both directions. He's still got a toothsome sense of humor; it's heard here on "Through with Girls" and "Not Going to Work Today," both titles self-explanatory. But he lets his guard down farther than usual on the thoughtful numbers -- notably "Mr. Hide," about a love/hate relationship with alcohol. "It's about the songwriter's addiction, the creative artist's blessing and curse. Drugs and alcohol are things we have as humans, they're tools. I've been a complete idiot and clown, but I wouldn't have had the songs if I hadn't been." That split personality has always been evident in Brebner's songwriting. He notes that "Shelter of Your Love" -- a tearjerker from the last album -- was written the same day as an unrecorded song he's been playing lately. In the unrecorded one, he confronts a romantic rival and promises he'll maintain his cool, respect the lost girlfriend's wishes, and handle it like an adult. And the chorus? "You stole my woman -- now you're gonna die."

"A lot of people can relate to that one," he says. "I think the songs come to me in a pretty genuine way -- sometimes I'm in a humorous mood and sometimes I'm sad and sensitive. Some of the guys in the band are less than thrilled about playing the funnier songs; they'd rather I stuck with the singer/songwriter thing. Where I'm coming from is that roots-rock thing, playing the Rat and all. But I started getting into music in the '60s, and I'm partial to the Pete Seeger/Joan Baez school of songwriting." And maybe it's a sign of Brebner's success that he just got his first crank mail: a few days after the Toad show described above, he received a long letter from two women objecting to "Babes in the Bar" -- which is ironic because it's the guys in the song that take most of the jabs. "I would truly never want to hurt anybody's feelings, and I'm not trying to favor men over women. Maybe some people just have too much spare time."

The Jonathan Richman tour that Brebner played on was the notorious European swing in 1977 (captured on the Modern Lovers Live album), when punk was exploding and the three-year-old "Roadrunner" was on the UK singles charts. An audience expecting Boston proto-punk instead got a mostly acoustic band and the 10-minute version of "Ice Cream Man." Although he was still using the Modern Lovers name, it was the real beginning of the childlike Jonathan persona that's now familiar. "I think of Jonathan as a great teacher -- he knew what he wanted and he didn't make any bones about it. He did compromise a little and did `Astral Plane' and `Roadrunner,' he knew he couldn't just do `I'm a Little Dinosaur' for two hours. But he had the best grasp of how to enthrall an audience of anyone I've ever seen. And that probably got me thinking I could be a frontman, seeing what he could do with less than mainstream vocal ability."

Not that Brebner was much concerned with making rock history at the time. "I think I just fell in with the program. I was 20 years old, and the only audience I'd played for was 10 people at the Rat. And I was just dazzled by the prospect that I might sleep with some beautiful Dutch girl." Which he in fact did. "In a way that was the high point of my career, as far as being adulated by strangers goes. I was being a rock star and getting all the perks, I was getting laid. That's hard to recover from when you've been there."

But Brebner's not one of those grizzled musicians who thinks it can never be as good as it was. "I don't even remember how it was. When I made the first album, I was feeling, `I'm only doing one record in my life and this is it.' And now I want to do one every year. It looks like I'm going to be around for a while, so I hope that I mellow with age. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn't want to go back -- I'm always embarrassed by something that I did a year ago. But I had an awful lot of fun in the past, and now I'm just hoping to have more fun."

Mickey Clean It's safe to say that hardly anybody was holding out for a reunion of Mickey Clean & the Mezz. Brebner's first outfit can claim a footnote in local history -- they were the first original band to play at the Rat in the '70s -- but they broke up in 1977, disappearing off the radar before the Boston scene as we know it ever existed. So even if your memory doesn't go back that far, Unsung Heroes does capture a lot of the hedonistic spirit of the times. It shows that the Mezz had a solid mix of roots rock and snotty Iggy-ish vocals; it also proves that they wrote a song called "Waitress in the Sky" before the Replacements did.

As Brebner points out, it's not strictly a reunion album. None of the other members was available (drummer Jeff Wilkinson is no longer alive), so Brebner recruited a crack rhythm section of his own -- bassist Andrew Mazzone and Morphine drummer Billy Conway (other local names, including harmonica player Jim Fitting and pianists Willie Alexander and Brother Cleve, make guest shots). And he says that the original band were never quite this tight. "When I listen to some of our old tapes, it's amazing how bad it was. But I always thought there was something there that could have been polished; so this is taking care of some unfinished business."

Reached at his current home in Miami, Mickey Clean (real name Michael Cleanthes) offers a different take. "The band's always been me and Asa, and I'm amazed that it still sounds the same. My songs are pretty simple; they don't have many changes. Some of them don't have any; they just get fatter and skinnier."

Now working as a substitute art teacher, Cleanthes can claim to have dropped acid with Timothy Leary and hung out at Andy Warhol's Factory. When he formed a punk band in Boston, he was a couple of years ahead of his time. "I'd been in the Museum School at the time, and I put the band together with money I won from a traveling fellowship. We couldn't play anybody else's songs, so we had to do our own. And we got this gig at the Rathskeller, then this whole movement grew up around us."

Brebner's memories are a bit less sentimental. "[Rat owner] Jim Harold only booked us because he thought we were so bad that people would come to laugh at us. I guess we were the presentiment of punk rock, but we had no idea what it was going to be called. We were just amateurs who wanted to be Eric Burdon & the Animals."

Last weekend found the Mezz playing their first gig in two decades -- at Club Bohemia, which is right next door to where Brebner and Cleanthes first met. "There was a health-food store where [upscale Spanish restaurant] Dalí is now," Brebner recalls. "We both used to do a lot of drugs there. In fact, I was in Dalí the other day, and I started getting flashbacks." And though the album sounds tight enough, the packed Club Bohemia show came clean about Mickey: the guy's a maniac. Taking a cue from the Eric Burdon/Iggy Pop school of showmanship, Clean was all over the stage, the rafters, and the railings, hitting his bandmates with just-written songs and nearly hitting Brebner with a twirling mike. The show was rough and raw and, in a year of slicked-up rock, pretty damn refreshing -- exactly what you could have said about it in the '70s.


Sad to report that local musician Michael McDonald, leader of the artful band Jupiter 88, was found dead in his apartment last week. The cause is undetermined at this writing. An accomplished keyboardist and guitarist, McDonald drew from avant-jazz, modern composition, and progressive rock; the band had been working on new material and playing long sets to large audiences at the Zeitgeist Gallery. "We were all shocked by Michael's death," notes his friend and neighbor Kris Thompson of Abunai! "He'd seemed very fulfilled by his music recently; even last week we heard him working on new music." His bandmates Jonathan LaMaster and Rosa Pullman played a show in his honor with Auto 66 at Green Street last Sunday; other tributes will likely be forthcoming.

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