by A.J. Wachtel
On the huge stage of talented New England artists Rick stands out. In the large universe of local stars Berlin is one of the brightest. Four decades into his career, Rick Berlin still tantalizes audiences with his creativity and artistry, and to this day his music is as trend setting and trend breaking as ever.
Noise: You’re a Yale graduate. Does this carry the same weight in the entertainment world as it does in the academic one?
Rick Berlin: Doubtful. Though I believe They Might Be Giants and Arcade Fire are Yale grads, as were Charles Ives and Cole Porter. As was Billy Conway, the drummer for Morphine, I was a drunken Whiffenproof as a senior, and was in the glee club and choir for one year. I ‘taught’ myself to improvise on a piano in a Yale tower tripping on acid hallucinating my tits off. Far as any help with my career goes… nil.
Noise: You have long been characterized as performing art rock or a theatrical form of rock ’n’ roll. What does this mean in plain English?
Rick: Dates back to Orchestra Luna. Because the girls in the first version were new to performing, I thought I would be helpful to have some of our stuff choreographed. My friend, Barry Keating, who worked with Jim Steinman (Meatloaf) when they were at Amhearst, and who was part of my wild unfinished film trip to Granada, West Indies, I figured he’d be perfect. The look of the band proceeded from there. We were not super pros, more innocent than that. We would make up an idea and ask ourselves why not? Babes in the wood. Total improvisational. Joi de Vivre. Later on we brought that back with Rick Berlin–The Movie and Carter Timmins choreographed. We were certainly not alone in this. Though at CBGB we kinda stood out. Prime example: https://vimeo.com/139125497.
Noise: Major label Epic records released your Orchestra Luna debut in 1974. It captured many of the dramatic eccentricities that made the band’s renowned live act. What were some of these dramatic eccentricities and what was special about your live act?
Rick: First off, the girls. My sister Lisa and my friend Liz Gallagher. We built the band that way. The three of us learned about 20 songs, just us working the vocals. Then we added Scott Chambers (bass). He sang and learned the tunes. Then Randy Roos. His band was playing up the street from us at Zircon. Lisa was a waitress there. We auditioned a ton of drummers until we found Don Mulvaney (who recently died-tragic circumstances). Lastly, it was Peter Barrett my friend and poet from New Haven. He moved up to Boston. His spoken word material, his fierce on- stage character and ideas took the whole thing over the top. But it was the cumulative effect that seemed to hit the heart of our audiences. We were truly loved. Not in some hipster sense. But because we were so innocent. Not overly polished. Lastly, I’d say the music ran the gamut from jazz to classical (Beethoven’s 7th Symphony) to country to weird rock and solo story (gay) piano songs. We were an odd hybrid without a clue (in a good way).
Noise: Orchestra Luna covered “You Gotta Have Heart” from the play Damn Yankees. Is this the strangest cover you’ve ever done?
Rick: That was my sister Lisa’s idea. Peter’s rap made it a rare bird cover. I believe ‘BCN played it on opening day for ten years straight. It was a peculiar choice but for losers everywhere, it hit home.
Noise: Orchestra Luna opened for Roxy Music. Care to share a cool story about that band and the gig?
Rick: Brian Eno did the sound and played a translucent electric violin from the house board. We were lucky to get that gig. Later on, one of my bands covered “Love Is The Drug.” We met none of them, however.
Noise: Epic dropped the band after low record sales but the promotional tour made money right?
Rick: We never toured and didn’t make a dime.
Noise: What was the real reason you parted ways?
Rick: The guy who signed us was fired from Epic as the record came out. His replacement didn’t get it. Strangely, later on, that same guy Steve Popovitch (Meatloaf again) tried to sign Luna but we’d stupidly signed our recording rights over to this snake here in town. And that asshole wanted an impossible amount of cash from Cleveland International to release us. Popovitch, as expected, declined.
Noise: And now that major label support isn’t crucial for a band’s success would this have played out differently today?
Rick: Who knows? Far as those bygone years go, ours is an ever-repeated cliche fucked-by-the business story.
Noise: What are your observations on this change of power from the label to the artist and how does this fact impact you and other artists today?
Rick: Plus side: with less cash and more ownership of their art, musicians can record as they wish, build as they can, take no absurd oversight from a label exec. On the negative, being on a supportive label back then got your music heard on a freer commercial format (ie. ‘BCN). They owned you. Took a higher percentage, but if you were lucky, got your stuff out there. To some extent, many bands who DIY their music today had early label support prior, had a built-in following to follow them as they took over the driver’s seat. A major leg up.
Noise: In Orchestra Luna you were known as Rick Kinscherf. Why the change and how did you decide on Berlin?
Rick: No one could spell, pronounce or remember Kinscherf. Plus I had the exact same name as my dad and grandfather. Enough already. I was reading Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories (completely sober) and I swear the word Berlin telescoped in front of my eyes like a 3D CGI moment. That was it. I went to ‘BCN (back then in the Pru Tower). Oedipus was interviewing Bob Geldof. I asked Oedi what he thought? He was down. Got his imprimatur. Friends started calling my mom Mrs. Berlin. Irving Berlin was fake as well.
Noise: Orchestra Luna was part of the CBGB scene and you played there with Talking Heads and The Ramones. Care to share cool stories about both of the groups?
Rick: We were somewhat closer to the Heads. They turned us on to their lawyer when we were there. Went to the same parties. In Orchestra Luna 2, Steven and I stayed with Danny Fields who was managing The Ramones. We were in his apartment during that historic Manhattan black out. I was friends with Lance Loud who’s band The Mumps was playing at CBGB when Patti Smith sat back in the dark to watch them. That’s when she stole (all is fair in love and war and rock ‘n’ roll) drummer J.D. Doherty. Lou Reed gave me a big hug backstage after I sang this super gay solo song ‘Blue Truck’. He told me he wished he had my guts. Other way round of course.
Noise: What was the difference between the NYC and Boston scenes back then and how are these scenes different today?
Rick: Brother/sister clubs. The Rat/CBGB. Bands would stay in our place here when they played The Rat. Vice Versa. Of course being the big city when ya played CBGB you got noticed. Written up. Signed. Here it was more back yard. I also think some of the CBGB bands were more pop (Blondie, Heads) than many of the more punk bands playing here.
Noise: In 1976 Sire Records offered you a deal that you turned down and never found a better offer. Why did you turn this down and have you ever had any regrets?
Rick: The deal was for $100,000. No tour support. The guy Seymour Stein wanted to produce us. The guy who’d done “Starry Starry Night” for Don McLean seemed like the wrong choice. We were approached by Warner Brothers who paid for a demo but passed. But yeah, wish we’d taken the bait. Seymour was a visionary. We might have had a shot. I might have had an opportunity to build on that relationship. We would at least have a record of the tunes we were playing then with Karla DeVito (Meatloaf), Steven Paul Perry, Chet Cahill, Liz Gallagher, et al. Such were the breaks.
Noise: In 1982 you were in Berlin Airlift and opened for The J. Geils Band. They had also taken another unsigned act Jon Butcher Axis out on the road with them. Do you think The J. Geils Band should be in the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame?
Rick: OF COURSE!
Noise: Could a huge national act help a smaller local band in the same way today?
Rick: Totally. It’s tough to take an unknown band on a full tour when for less trouble and less money you can have a band local to the town the big guys are playing hop on as an opener.
Noise: From 1985-89 your band was Rick Berlin–The Movie and in 1987 you won Songwriter of the Year from the Boston Music Award for your song “Rock and Roll Romance.” Did winning a BMA have any effect on your career?
Rick: Not really. But it was awesome to win. Still love that song.
Noise: In 1999, you were in The Shelley Winters Project and in 2003 the band opened for The B-52’s. Care to share another story?
Rick: It’s rare to hang with the band you open for unless it’s a long term tour thing. I wore exposed/fake tits and embarrassed my nephew Sammy (who was about 10 at the time and is now Nickel & Dime’s trombone player).
Noise: What did Shelley Winters think of your band’s name?
Rick: Shelley actually called me at Doyles. Picked up in the kitchen. Her voice was shaky. She’d had a stroke and she was yelling at someone in the background to fix her CD player so she could hear our songs. Then she said, “Hello, this is Shelley Winters. I was wondering why you named your theater group after me?” So I answered, “Well Shelley, we aren’t really a theater group – we’re a band. Since so many of our songs are about women and people who’ve been done wrong and so many of the roles you’ve played onscreen are about women who’ve been done wrong it made sense to us. And of course, we love you. She said, “That’s the nicest thing I’ve heard in years.”
Noise: Your Me & Van Gogh album was released in 2006 followed by Paper Airplane in 2010. What is the difference between playing in a band or performing as a solo artist in your music?
Rick: I write differently for solo, more personal. More weird-o I guess overall. I have whichever band I’m playing with in my head when I write. All my shit demos are up on Bandcamp. Some have wound up in bands, others not. Some never ever played out. I like the simplicity of solo as the song has to really either live or die on it’s merits. I love the full-assed sound of a large charging band with a fierce rhythm section. More than anything, I love how different musicians take my songs to unexpected places. Free range. Lately, our guy Rob Manochio doing up his versions of my demos and they sound awesome. https://rickberlin.bandcamp.com/album/rob-manochio-alchemizes-berlin-songs.
Noise: After releasing ‘Paper Airplane’ you teamed up with the already existing eight-piece Nickel & Dime Band. How did this happen and what is similar and compatible between your music and theirs?
Rick: I was playing solo. Not a lot. I met Ricky McLean at the Brendan Behan. Found out he was in the Nickel & Dime live karaoke band. They knew 300 songs. All genres. I figured with that extensive a vocabulary my stuff would be tit to learn. We tried one. Then another. And ultimately they stopped doing the karaoke thing and here we are. Jane Mangini has been on most of my full band albums starting with Berlin Airlift. I suck on piano. Horrible rhythm. Jane has a way of taking my piano parts, making them her own, and taking them, with perfect musical taste, into the best place. When she’s not playing with The Transiberian Orchestra or making her own records, she’s with us. I love her as a person, an artist and as my long, long time friend.
Noise: You are involved in the Jamaica Plain Music Fest. Tell us about this concert and what are the best and worst things about organizing an event like this in Massachusetts?
Rick: Simply put, it’s a corner store mom and pop specifically local to JP festival of 20 plus bands. All of whom have at least one member who lives/works here in the hood. Well over 100 bands apply each year. We work on the thing for nine months raising money. Most of it goes to a high-end production (sound and stage). It costs about 35 G’s to put on. We have tremendous support/sponsorship from local businesses. It’s now in it’s 6th year. One beautiful heartfelt happy day of music. None of us get paid. It’s truly a labor of love that all of us on the committee make happen. We, for the most part, made it up as we went along. There’s a 15 step write up on how to put on a music festival you can check out right here. http://www.jpmusicfestival.com/15-steps.php.
Noise: You’ve worked at Doyle’s in J.P. forever.
Rick: 30 years.
Noise: Who is the most famous person who has ever recognized you there?
Rick: Peter Wolf.
Noise: What is the strangest encounter you’ve ever experienced there in all these years?
Rick: My first night there ever I carried a full tray of Guinness tripped and dumped the whole thing on a lesbian softball player. She was super nice about it. I haven’t used a tray since.
Noise: What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you in the Boston music scene?
Rick: Watching guys shoot rats from Jim Harold’s office on the top floor (The Rat).
Noise: What is the first band you ever saw perform in Boston?
Rick: The Modern Lovers at The Orson Wells.
Noise: Are there any local artists you think should have made it big but didn’t? And why?
Rick: Too many to recall. Sand Machine. Jeff Chasse. The Real Kids. Army of Toys. Babaloo. What TIme Is It, Mr. Fox? Some lesser known than others. Why? Who knows? Lack of time and money and support. Meanwhile they continue. Some/all of them, to do great work.
Noise: Are you a punk or a new wave artist and what do you see as the difference in the two genres in 1978 and again today?
Rick: Guess I’m neither. Though I love and respect the DIY punk ethic and especially fine lyrics. New Wave to me is just another moment on the pop landscape. The Cars being my favorite example. As far as today is concerned for me it’s an amalgam of influences. Punk is still punk but can edge towards pop. New Wave not so much around as far as my ears go.
Noise: How has your vision of life and music changed since the ’70s and why?
Rick: Not to sweat the biz or the scene. I’ve essentially been unsuccessful in terms of making money as an artist. I love what I do. I love my band. I love writing, rehearsing, performing and recording. It is, more than anything else, who I am. Being older, I think, means you give less of a shit what anyone thinks of who you are and what you do. Freedom there. And possibly a more efficient approach to writing.
Noise: You’ve played with two great guitarists Randy Roos in Orchestra Luna and Steven Paul Perry in your later bands. What did each of these guitarists bring to your music and how were they different as artists and guitarists? What was the best thing about each of their playing that you loved?
Rick: Randy’s roots were in jazz. In Orchestra Luna, Zappa jazz. Frank actually rushed the stage when we played at his 10th anniversary. Picked Randy up and hugged him. Steven was all melodic rock solos and great rhythm parts besides having that classic rock voice. Both gave immeasurably to my music as have all the guitar guys I’ve worked with since.
Noise: What achievements in your career are the most important to you and how do you want people to see and think of you today?
Rick: That I’m still at it. That my songs still matter to people. That my art-for-the-day (as Patti Smith puts it) is what keeps me feeling alive. That I now have a good sense on how to make music videos http://berlinrick.com/videos. That the JP Music Festival is surging. Far as how I want people to think of me? Who the fuck knows? No control over that one.
Noise: What are you up to right now?
Rick: Go to The Lizard Lounge release for our new EP Badville on Saturday, March 12th with Willie Loco Alexander and his trio The Fisheye Brothers. Elizabeth and Ben Anderson are opening. Ten bucks. http://www.berlinrick.com/badville/.