STRICTLY BALLROOM: KEITH ROTH MARKS AN ELECTRIC ANNIVERSARY

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, December 20 2018

“The thing about those years before the internet, is that it was so much more fun seeking out the info instead of finding it online,” observes Keith Roth of the crucial interlude that straddled the heyday of the arena-rock goliaths, and the rise of the scrappy punk bands who dared to topple the big guys to earth.

“You would read CREEM Magazine, you would see what your classmates and your older brother had in their collection…and every Friday, you went to the local Korvettes store, where they had a punk rock wall in their record department!”

“I grew up in the Bronx…I mean, the first album I bought with my own money was The Dictators Go Girl Crazy,” says the 52-year old resident of Tinton Falls, in reference to the 1975 masterpiece of cheerfully offensive outer-boroughs wrestle-punk slobrock. “And when I moved to New Jersey, I kind of assumed that everybody knew who the MC5 was!”

As it turned out, not everyone in the suburban Jersey milieu could automatically name the band who did “Kick Out the Jams” on demand. And so, the aspiring rock star and record mogul Keith Roth became a man on a self-appointed mission; a calling to elucidate, illuminate and educate his new neighbors as to the rich legacy of rock and roll music’s most frantically fertile period — that beyond-the-Beatles/ way-after-Woodstock moment when classic tour-gods traversed the skies in custom jets and landed luxury automobiles in hotel pools; when the glittering stars of “glam” gleefully pushed at every pop-culture boundary of gender roles and sexual identity; when the music’s gigantic tent simultaneously housed symphonically inclined artistes, meat-and-potatoes traditionalists, and those lords and ladies of mischief who wanted nothing more than to see that big top come crashing down.

The vehicle for Roth’s supercharged passions was The Electric Ballroom, a weekly blast of words and wax that marked its twentieth year on the air (Sunday nights on 95.9 WRAT-FM out of Lake Como) this past October — and that celebrates the milestone with a special Anniversary Party next Sunday, December 30; a ringing out of the fast-fading year that finds its brick-and-mortar Ballroom inside the all-purpose auditorium of downtown Asbury’s House of Independents.

Scheduled to get underway at 7 pm, the multi-band blast is a presentation of Pat Schiavino’s Asbury Underground brand, one that represents an expansion of the twice yearly free festival of storefront music and art (returning in January with an edition keyed to Light of Day 2019, about which more to come in this space) into the realm of special concert events. As such, it’s a showcase for Roth, his own band Frankenstein 3000, and some of his favorite regional or international acts — a chance to take stock, before sprinting ahead to the next waltz on the dance card.

“This event is going to be run pretty tightly and quickly,” observes Roth of the live show; contrasting the onstage action with the Sunday-sauce studio affair that, after all these years, “follows no format…we could have (legendary Dolemite star) Rudy Ray Moore one week, and one of the Sex Pistols the next. It’s whatever’s cool; we don’t bother with playlists…so the format is that there is no format!”

All in a night’s work for an endeavor that represented “a baptism of fire” for its host back in the late 1990s; a project in which “we did everything wrong the first night…and for our first guest, we had a vampire. An actual vampire.”

That guest-star ante would very quickly be upped in the weeks to follow, as Episode Two of The Electric Ballroom welcomed a radio-ready rocker with connoisseur’s cred and a Monmouth County connection — Don “Buck Dharma” Roeser, who took the Blue Öyster Cult into the hitmaking stratosphere with “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Burning For You.” The one and only Joey Ramone joined Roth as on-air interviewee a couple of weeks after that — following which The Little Show That Could scored a quantum-leap coup when John Entwistle, charter member of The Who, stepped out of the rarefied realm of rock history to trade stories (and promote a solo record) with the savvy but still-starstruck host.

Many more iconic figures — including Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, Queen’s Brian May, and the late great Clash frontman Joe Strummer — would call in or take a seat at the WRAT studio in (what was then) South Belmar, as word circulated that this guy Roth (working with co-host Aimee Kristi) maintained a little corner of the radioverse in a way that combined the white-hot passion of a true fan, with a seasoned musician’s deep-dish knowledge (Roth’s previous band Bad Biscuit would tour with Bon Jovi in the mid-90s) and the bedside manner of a skilled interviewer who brought out the best in his subjects.

As The Electric Ballroom danced its way into a weird new millennium, other opportunities would open up for the host, including an affiliation with Sirius XM satellite radio, for whom Roth would serve as DJ for the Punkyard program, eventually moving on to the metal programming of Ozzy’s Boneyard and Hair Nation, despite the fact that “I was never really a metal guy…I kind of learned about that music as I went along.” Roth would also team as producer with another of his 70s/80s heroes, David Johansen of New York Dolls and Buster Poindexter fame, for the program known as Mansion of Fun. It’s a labor of love that prompts Roth to say of the veteran rock belter, blues musicologist and all-around entertainer, “David puts the same level of commitment into everything he does…he’ll give it everything he’s got, whether he’s performing at Madison Square Garden or the Brighton Bar in Long Branch.”

Along with numerous other venues on and around the Jersey Shore, that aforementioned Brighton Bar has served as the setting for numerous themed concerts and showcase events that have found Roth — in his capacity as guitarist and frontman of Frankenstein 3000 — sharing those stages with history-making heroes that have included Dennis Dunaway (of the classic Alice Cooper band), Bebe Buell, Cherie Currie of The Runaways, Richard Barone, the Dolls’ Syl Sylvain, and Annabella Lwin of Bow Wow Wow, in addition to a smorgasbord of likeminded homegrown talents. Many of those events have been keyed to releases on Roth’s own Main Man Records label, an ever-growing catalog of LPs, CDs and singles by acts both homegrown (The Ribeye Brothers, The Easy Outs) and international (Daniel Ash of Love and Rockets, Punky Meadows of Angel).

Keith Roth (center) holds court as Jack, in a scene shot at Tim McLoone’s for the indie feature film LET ME DOWN HARD.

All of this could be seen as method-acting research for Roth’s involvement in the feature film Let Me Down Hard, the 2016 film by William DeVizia in which the musician stars as Jack Ainsley, fallen rock star who returns to his Asbury Park stomping grounds in an attempt to re-assemble the pieces of his life. Filmed in various locations in and around Asbury town, the feature (which screened at The Asbury Hotel’s rooftop Baronet theater, and won accolades at the Asbury Park Music and Film Festival) is available on Blu-Ray/DVD from mainmanrecords.com, and a possible streaming exposure on Netflix is reportedly in the works for 2019.

Among the acts who contributed to the movie’s soundtrack was Monster Magnet, the Red Bank-based psychedelic rock juggernaut whose mastermind Dave Wyndorf has been a repeat guest at the Ballroom (and who shares many a sonic influence in common with Roth). While they’ve focused on their phenomenal overseas following in recent seasons, the band that made its biggest domestic splash with “Space Lord” makes a welcome and too-rare return to the local stage, atop a bill that further features frequent Asbury giggers The Ribeye Brothers, the combo of twisted roots/ “detached garage” specialists that boasts no less than three former Magnet members in Tim Cronin, Jon Kleiman, and Joe Calandra. Frankenstein 3000 welcomes some special-guest friends to their set, while Naughty Clouds — a power twosome featuring guitarist Alexis Moon and Mars Needs Women drummer Ray Kubian — brings their lo-fi mastery to the proceedings. Last but hardly least is Blue Coupe, the supergroup of 70s stalwarts that features the Bouchard brothers of Blue Öyster Cult (that’s the “Blue” part), and the aforementioned Alice Cooper bassist Dennis Dunaway (bringing the Coop, or “Coupe” part).

“It’s a great lineup, in a place that’s got just the perfect mix of the theater and club vibe,” says Roth. “We’re expecting a good mix of people, too…a father-and-son demographic that runs from teens to people in their late 30s and 40s, even 50s and 60s!”

“Anyone who says this music is ancient history should see my neighborhood…it’s like a 70s show,” adds the suburban family guy. “We’ve got kids wearing flannel and Led Zeppelin t-shirts…and they’ll tell you that if it’s not vinyl, it’s not a record!”

“In a million years, I didn’t think I’d still be doing radio at this point,” says the broadcaster who cites Keith Richards as his ultimate dream “get” in the guest chair. “The day that I get Keith, well, I might say that’s it; we’ve done what we need to get done…but until then, I’m still finding things. There are still so many nooks and crannies of the 70s, 80s era to explore!”