By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit April 21, 2009)
They were one of the greatest and most truly legendary of all bands to come crawling out of the tidal pools of the Jersey Shore in the 1980s.
Anchored in a European artrock sensibility, awash in waves of radio-telescope psychedelic effects, The Secret Syde made a grand and glorious noise for a brief blip in time — and left a legacy that went far beyond their neighborhood roots, inspiring obsessive cult followings in some far-flung outposts of our decaying civilization. Even now they’re whispered of as dark gods in places like the Netherlands. Even now, copies of their sole album release trade hands for state-secret sums.
The band that would become the local scene’s best kept Secret began life as The Jonnos, named for their intense young frontguy Jon Davies. While coverband dinosaurs lumbered across the 80s clubscape, Davies and his bandmates (guitarist Steve DeVito, bassist Dave De Santis and drummer Lou Mazza, soon to replaced by Rob Angelo) found themselves born into one of the last of the genuine underground scenes to be nurtured here in Jersey. It was a scene defined at one end by the hardcore rough and tumble of the evolving blue-collar dive known as the Brighton Bar, and at the other end by the radical art/music/word happenings organized by Kevin LaMastra and his Shadow Mouth collective over at Monmouth College. And Secret Syde, more than any other band, was uniquely positioned to navigate in both worlds.
Rechristening themselves with a nod toward burned-out Pink Floyd founder (and Davies obsession) Syd Barrett, the Syde hooked up with fabled punk impresario Mark “Da Mutha” Chesley and his Mutha Records imprint for Hidden Secrets, a hastily recorded but endlessly fascinating LP that stands as their only vinyl to see the light of day in their lifetime. Together just a matter of months at that point, the band would crystallize their sound in and around Long Branch and (occasionally) the city, with some wholly inappropriate appearances at such long-gone outposts as Mrs. Jay’s and Garp’s.
A buzz gathered about this band, fronted by the strangely charismatic Davies (correctly triangulated as an amalgam of Syd, John Lennon and Johnny Rotten) and driven by the guitar explorations of DeVito, whose afro ‘do and silk dinner jackets were as far from prevailing punk fashion as possible. Anglophile DeSantis maintained a stoic Entwistle presence even as he dealt out some brilliant bass lines, and Angelo brought a controlled fury to the wonderwall of noise that the old hippie-era drummers would never have conjured. And somewhere along the line, they picked up The Go Go Sluts, a pair of friends and fans whose spontaneous slinky dance moves eventually morphed into a faux-lesbian floorshow that often pushed the limits of municipal ordinance and audience endurance.
Alas, like a lot of the best and brightest, this lineup was destined to flare brilliantly and die in short order — a victim of what we in the biz like to call nervous exhaustion, seasoned to taste with a bit of artistic differences. A second, superior album called Erebus was finished but never released, while Davies (and Angelo) split for a short-lived combo called The Straight Satans and a brief tenure in another fondly recalled West End psych band, Wayne Larson’s Laughing Soupdish. DeVito, Mazza and DeSantis (who would wind up in the X-Men) attempted to keep the Secret Syde name going as a three-piece for a short time, but the volatile mix of personalities just wasn’t there to fuel the passion.
Stop in at the post office in the New Monmouth section of Middletown and you’ll find Steve DeVito at the counter; an affable and well-adjusted guy with a good job and a family, and an ongoing music career that’s carried him into a long-term collaboration with Josh Zuckerman. This Saturday, April 25, DeVito reunites with (now facially tattooed) Davies and the other guys in the classic lineup of The Secret Syde, appearing at the Brighton Bar for the first time in some 26 years. Red Bank oRBit dropped in to pick up some stamps, as well as the story of how this breathlessly awaited adventure got to happening. Read on.
Boys on the Syde: The original lineup of ‘Jonno’ Davies, DeVito, De Santis and drummer Lou Mazza.
RED BANK ORBIT: Alright, the obvious first question, how’d it happen? How did you get to this point, where you’re picking up this Saturday like the last 25 years never happened?
STEVE DE VITO: It’s because of The Chronic Sick! You know they reunited at the Brighton a few weeks ago — Rob, Jon and Dave all wound up attending the show, and they decided that it would be a good idea to try and get back together. The Tuesday after the show, Rob called me about it. Jon wanted to play, so we couldn’t pass it up — I’m not gonna be the guy who said no!
So how weird is it just plugging in and picking it up with those guys? Is it so weird that it’s not weird at all?
Oh, we’re definitely looking good these days. The energy is definitely still there, with the four of us. It lifts you off the ground when we get going. And it’s an opportunity to be onstage together again — to be like a family again. We’ve had a lot of time to think about the legacy of this band, and I understand now how people want to protect their music, to treat their music like their own children. It’s a part of your heart, really — a lot of sweat equity went into what we did back in the 80s. And after a couple of rehearsals, you just kind of fall back into it; anticipate where the other guys are going.
Do you stand by what you did back then, or is there a big desire to do it differently, based on what you’ve learned and experienced in the intervening years?
Well, many years ago I had a chance to remix Erebus and Hidden Secrets for Hosehead Records — I always wanted to take those tapes back into the studio; one of our plans is to brighten up the mix of Erebus, and actually if you go to the show we’ll be selling CDs with both albums on one disc. This week is actually 25 years since the first album was released; April 29, 1984.
But one regret would be that some of our greatest songs were never recorded! I always enjoyed playing those songs. We were able to cross all those different boundaries, between punk rock and what they called freak-outs back in the 1960s — or ‘jams’ in the 70s. When we played live, it was like we were chemists, throwing all this stuff into a beaker, and then — bang!
But when you’re 18, 19, 20 years old and trying to make a Big Statement, if one piston isn’t firing right it all falls apart.
Would you say it’s better to use all that life experience, that hard-earned maturity, toward the human-relations part of the band, and maybe not try to correct the youthful mistakes you might have made in the old songs?
As you get older, you learn to deal with different personalities. When you go to school, it’s like they teach you math, they teach you science, they teach you how to make that bird house in wood shop — but nobody ever teaches you how to work on relating to your fellow human beings. Dave and I always played well together, and now we appreciate how each other plays. We appreciate the things that the other guy brings to the collaboration.
And how do you get on working with Jon these days?
We’re having a great time. I always loved how Jon wrote, and we were always able to work out songs together. It’s just that at one point 25 years ago, it just didn’t feel right. But two years ago, Jon saw Josh and me at the Wonder Bar and we talked; he told me he was writing again, for a band.
It’s probably a jarring thing for you to slip back into the Secret Syde thing after playing with Josh and with Beth Arentsen.
Josh is alternative, country rock/pop — and Beth is an extremely talented singer, with a cellist in the band. It’s a totally different style of playing. I played as part of an acoustic act called Bud and Steve for ten years, all over the place. I had to learn songs by James Taylor, The Beatles, Pink Floyd. Some country — that sort of a job means you’ve gotta be on your toes. So, my playing has evolved over the years, and now the Secret Syde is challenging me to play what I played 25 years ago.
So, in a way would you say you’re doing a ‘cover version’ of your 1983 self?
Wow. That’s a great question — let me think of a great answer. We remember those songs in a certain way, and now we’re bringing 25 years of emotions, of personal struggles, to these songs. We’ve always had some unfinished business between us, and this is a chance to take the things that we did to a different place. It gives us the ability to put new things into these songs; they take on a different meaning.
A great answer to a great question. One more: will we be seeing the return of the middle-aged Go Go Sluts as well?
(Laughs) You mean like Return to Gilligan’s Island; all the old cast members reuniting? I don’t know; I liked it when they danced at either end of the stage. When they started going crazy with each other, I always felt it became a little too much.
Admission to the April 25 show with The Secret Syde, CaPiTa, The Sydeways andA Diary of Need is $10; doors open 8pm. There’s also a wealth of YouTube footage to be found on the band, including an entire set recorded at Monmouth College in 1983 (this clip features the Go Go Sluts in top form); a 1985 cable-access clip of Jon and Wayne Larson acoustic; a fresh-faced Jon in ‘83 interviewing local musicians for a college project; rare footage of Jon with 90s band Target 7; and a look in at a photo shoot for an upcoming Aquarian article.