Mink De Ville: Slick Fur Fury
In 1977 I wrote a story about Mink DeVille for Creem. It isn't easy to access online so I figured I'd post it here at DWT... no special reason, except so that more people should be able to acquaint themselves with this largely unknown American band. Enjoy:
"MINK PIE, how's that!" challenged Willie, whose darkly silent, sinewy presence dominated the dimly-lit cold-water flat in Oakland. The band had been up speeding for four days; it was 5 a.m. and they wanted a change.
Why not start with a new name? The San Francisco Bay Area hadn't treated them all that well-- not as the Lazy Aces and not as Billy de Sade and the Marquis. Willie, a New Yorker born and bred, had wound up in San Francisco in 1973, looking for a band.
"Everybody was an asshole in New York. Nuthin' was happening at all, so I figured the same type of thing was happening out on the Coast, except maybe there might be more musicians out there 'cause California's a bigger state. Right?"
Makes sense. And via the Musicians' Switchboard, a garage in Daly City, and a patio in Marin County, Willie found what he was looking for. Now he wanted to convince an audience it was what they were looking for too.
"We were playin' the leather bars down on Folsom Street," recalls Willie impassively, referring to San Francisco's infamous warehouse district where mild-mannered accountants and ribbon clerks get dressed up in macho drag at night to grope each other in dark corners and pee on that special man. "We were Billy de Sade and the Marquis then. We played The Barracks. After a while they would take their clothes off. This one guy-- Jesus Satin he called himself-- he'd dance on the pool table. It was nuts! Crazy!! I could just tell that place wasn't gonna be in the scene. You know where it is-- it's on the wrong side of the tracks."
It also wasn't paying the rent and the band looked like it might have been going nowhere, in reverse. So maybe another name change would help-- God knows the music was great. Mink Pie... hmmmm. "No, it's gotta be something slick-- something sorta French, somethin' sorta black... poetry. Mink... MINK DE VILLE!" blurted out Toots, Willie's omnipresent, black-bouffanted old lady, whose quiet intensity is not unlike his own.
But the new name didn't seem to be what the Marin County organics were looking for. At their first gig at the Garden of Earthly Delights, Mink's white, urban blues were too raw, too... unrefined rock for the disciples of Werner Erhard, Guru Nanek, Crunchy Granola and Jerry Garcia. All ya gotta do is look at that leering, anemic face and you just know he's not singing about cleaning pot in the California sun.
"So it was just like the logical time to say, 'We gotta split now,'" recalls Willie, still basking in the correctness of that decision. "I kept reading in the Voice-- and I saw there were all these bands. And our landlord was about to evict us. We were forced into a decision."
So it was into the truck and bye-bye Frisco, hello New York. But not for long: no sooner had they picked up their "missing piece"-- guitarist Louie Erlanger, another San Francisco emigre-- than they were off to Stamford, Connecticut.
"We got a house there. You know-- to get enough money off the suburbs to get a loft in the City. It was really terrible, really boring, but they had lots of bars and we got lots of money. We were playing all blues. I knew that would sell. Like if we came out and we played disco, we'd be like every other bar band, so I knew we had to start with a reputation as being weirdos. Nobody was playin' blues there so we played Chicago South Side style and I knew any bar room-- I don't care where it is-- you play good Chicago blues, swing stuff, the bar people are gonna go ape shit. We played a lot of Junior Wells stuff."
But the band hadn't come East to be the hottest mothers in western Connecticut. Willie ran into another transplanted Californian, Terry Ork, who was doing the booking at CBGB's. "He loved the name," laughs Willie, "but he said something like, 'I don't find anything interesting in a white blues band.' He couldn't see that because he probably didn't know that the Rolling Stones were a blues band; he didn't know that Eric Burden and the Animals were a blues band; and he didn't know that Van Morrison and Them were a blues band."
But good ole Hilly Kristal, CBGB's owner, has a soft heart for anyone as sincere and earnest as Willie and he granted them another audition. "Look," Willie told him, "all I need is a break. I can take this town over." Mink de Ville opened for a now-defunct City Lights on a Wednesday evening. The response earned them a return engagement, opening for CBGB-kingpins, The Ramones.
"Immediately we got into a confrontation with them. 'Hey, mothafuckas, take yer drums off!' What their guy was saying was actually very logical-- 'like since we're the headliner and you're going on first, you guys should do your soundcheck last.' But it was the tone in his voice that we objected to. So me and Manfred just looked at him and... (makes motion with hand indicating impending doom) that lead singer don't look like he's gonna do a damn thing, about it. Like immediately Mink de Ville was known as a hostile band, antagonistic. What a buncha fuckin' pussies, man. You know-- punk rockers, and we're antagonistic! We're just lookin' for our fair share. We don't want no lip from these..." (snorts contemptuously.)
"They're sayin' the punk image is a cross between Marlon Brando and James Dean. Now what would Marlon Brando do if you called him a punk? You'd be stomped. James Dean? You'd get your ass knocked if you called him a punk. Another word for punk is lame. Punk was always the kid who used to get chased home from school, wasn't he? The kid who wouldn't fight-- just run home. The word for punk in jail is someone who's constantly gettin' corn-holed. The thing is, it's a good word for the media 'cause it's so shocking that it gets out to the suburbs and the parents aren't gonna like it and it's always been a good source of music-- if the parents don't like it, it's gonna sell."
So Mink became a "CBGB's band," although all everyone ever said about them was, "Yeah, they're great, but they're not punk, are they?" Bet your ass, they're not punk, punk! "I knew the kinda material we'd have to do would have to be so shocking to these cats, 'cause they're all frustrated Rolling Stones. And if you did the Rolling Stones, you usually did r'n'b 'cause that's the Rolling Stones' roots. So we rehearsed a lot of Otis Redding stuff. We went in there and we played a really polished set. We played an old James Brown routine where the cat falls on the floor and they cover him with a cape. We pulled it in the middle of 'I've Been Lovin' You Too Long' and I dropped to my knees and everybody went fuckin' ape-shit... bananas."
Everybody loved that first show, but Willie knew even then that they'd have to make it on their original material. "When we started to get a good followin' a lot of people were sorta saying that we were copping black riffs and it's not really fair. I was waitin' for 'em to start calling me a racist. So I knew I hadda write a buncha new material. So I did and we started playing original stuff. And," he told us last year, "it's just as good as anything anybody else is playing on three chords."
But that was last year, and they're not doing the three chord stuff any more, and besides, Mink's rise to fame in New York wasn't really based on their material anyway. The trendies dug Willie's flashed-out stage presence-- their r'n'b wasn't fuddy-duddy; it was Genuine American Flash, a la Eddie Cochran. "People compare me to Lou Reed and Mick Jagger and Nils Lofgren," snickered Willie (neglecting to mention Peter Wolf, Ben E. King, Bruce Springsteen, Graham Parker, Van Morrison, John Hammond and Tom Rush), "but nobody compares me to Eddie Cochran. I never even hearda Nils Lofgren in my whole life!"
And then there was the four-sided Live At CBGB's LP. Mink de Ville's three tracks-- far rawer and more rockin' than their solo album-- won everyone's vote as the best of the lot, even if it was by default. (None of the other heavy bands played on it. The Ramones, Blondie, Television and Patti Smith were signed or about to be signed and the Dictators were banned from the club because Handsome Dick had bad grades for "works and plays well with homos.") So Mink took it away lock, stock and barrel. And a contract-– a good un, from Capitol Records. Ex-CREEM Editor, Ben Edmunds, might be an A&R man now, but he still recognizes a good thing when he sees it. He signed Willie up to the label, hooked the band up with Phil Spector's ex-arranger, Jack Nitzsche, and let Capitol know that the company had a winner on its hands.
Four years after the cold water flat in Oakland incident, the Barracks had burned down. Mink's album has been number 1 on KSAN for three weeks. A full quarter of the albums sold have been bought in the Bay Area! And the boys-- along with two saxophone players and a three-man Jamaican-born vocal group, the Immortals-- are on the road. Word of the band's triumphal week at L.A.'s Whisky filter up to San Francisco, where two clubs have booked them, a spacious, plushly carpeted adult club (the Old Waldorf, tres chic), for Mink's maturer followers (as well as parents and family), and the Mabuhay Gardens, the West Coast's Punk Rock Capitol. The first two nights-- predictable early sell-outs-- were sleek. The well-dressed audience was relieved it wasn't punk rock. "This is GOOD new wave," one bloated, besotted provincial promo hack told me. That's right, baby. Then, Friday night the safety pin and razor blade crowd spilled out into Broadway as the line snaked past tit shows and massage parlors. And Willie knew who he was playing for. The Mabuhay is Dictators/ Ramones territory and Mink threw 'em the raw meat they were looking for. "This is GOOD new wave," one garbage-bag clad, green-haired young lady told me. That's right, baby.
Live at Montreux, 1982: