At 9:42 p.m. on Saturday, June 5, most folks inside the Black Cat are paying attention to the band onstage, Monsters From the Surf. It’s hard not to: The singer is wearing a wacky-print shirt and a blue bandana on his head, wailing into the mike, and attempting a drum-kit leap. Then Bandana gets down onto his back and gators across the stage.
Necks crane in unison to get a good look at the spectacle, but a tank-topped man standing near the tables in the back of the room is oblivious. He plucks and slaps the strings of his unplugged bass, deep in concentration. His band, Dark Side, is up next. And this is a serious show: Little Steven’s Underground Garage Battle of the Bands, brought to D.C. by E Street Band guitarist, DJ, and Sopranos wiseguy Steven Van Zandt; WARW 94.7 FM; and Dunkin’ Donuts. The best of the 10 local groups performing tonight will go on to compete against finalists from eight other cities.
Though Tank Top—or, as he’s known onstage, Gyro—seems serious about his warm-up, exactness isn’t a guiding principle of Dark Side, says founder, singer, and guitarist Jay Graboski: “I mean, that’s what garage rock is all about, right? Keeping it together in the chaos.”
Graboski, a 54-year-old disabilities specialist from Baltimore, refers to Dark Side as the “alter ego” of his main project, long-running “progressive acid-folk” outfit Oho. “I’m not really even a huge fan of garage rock,” he admits.
Perhaps he shouldn’t worry: There doesn’t even seem to be a consensus on what exactly constitutes “garage.” The battle’s promotional site defines it as “No cheesy 80s synthesizers…drum machines…dance moves…just pure, unadulterated rock-n-roll!”
But battle judge and former Bad Brains bassist Darryl Jenifer apparently had a slightly different definition. “[Garage-battle employee Mike Sornatale] said he picked the bands based on a 1966 vision of garage, which I thought was kind of weird,” he says later. “I mean, what is garage?…I always thought of it as a bunch of suburban kids with their Christmas-gift instruments, and they’re just out there doin’ it….They just wanna rock.”
The audience appears to contain fans of both modes, and others: A quick scan of heads reveals several Harley-Davidson-motif kerchiefs as well as a healthy number of thick-rimmed eyeglasses. “We come here a lot to check out what’s going on,” says Arlington resident Tom Jaworski, 25. A fan of “New York indie pop,” he thinks the battlers have been “hit and miss. But I’m enjoying myself….A lot of [the bands] definitely have a classic-rock tinge.”
“It’s cool to see such a wide range of ages up there,” adds Ariana Young, 24, also of Arlington.
The same can’t be said of the decidedly young go-go dancers who take the stage during brief intermissions. Apparently, the “dance moves” rule doesn’t apply to between-set entertainment: As the women wriggle around in pink fringe, white boots, and wigs, several people move closer to the stage.
“Yeah, I’d decry it,” says Dark Side keyboardist Johnny “Yeah, that’s my real fuckin’ name” Cochran, 38, of the dancers, “but rock ’n’ roll is just another form of pornography. Thrusting yourself on the audience0 and holding them captive….It’s all pornography.”
Tank Top is too busy catching winks in the corner to weigh in, and Graboski has a different concern: “Even at my age, do you think I rocked out?”
After being assured of his rockitude, he seems more than a little grateful. “Eh, that’s not what my daughter thinks,” he says. “She’s pretty much disgusted by everything I do these days.”
It’s well after midnight when the winner is announced: Kinks-ian outfit the Nuclears, from Springfield, Va. “I really liked the idea of them,” says Jenifer. “They reminded me of old-school D.C….youthful and fresh.” —Anne Marson