Elegant Rabies will rock you in heaven
Che's Lounge seems a little crowded for a Wednesday night in summer as your humble reporter heads in to meet up with the members of the Elegant Rabies. She and the band consider the possibility of changing venues to escape the noise. But then the unmistakable sound of Jimi Hendrix playing "Purple Haze" wafts over the speaker system and Rabies frontman Michael Ely breaks into an enormous, ear-to-ear smile, professing his love for the song and the memories it evokes. Sure enough, Ely makes nods to Hendrix's masterpiece in the lyrics of the band's self titled release, recorded at Midtown Island Studios in Tucson.
This little moment of rock and roll kismet convinces this columnist that Che's is exactly the right setting for this interview, background noise be damned, and so she settles into a corner table with the band (minus an AWOL drummer) to talk about the band's origins. a tale of almost fame, lifelong love and new beginnings.
The story of the Elegant Rabies begins with a much older band, called Red Wedding.
Once upon a time, a pair of clever and talented young men met and fell in love. When Ely met his partner Spider, there wasn't any kind of template for the life they were about to embark upon. It was the early '70s and the promise of the past decade had faded. Hendrix was gone and so were The Beatles. The Summer of Love hadn't made the world a paradise, especially for a young gay couple in the era of Nixon and polyester. Things maybe looked a little bleak. But there were signs of life in the underground, glam and proto-punk bands emerging from the shadows like the Stooges and the Velvets and T. Rex and Bowie. A stellar guitarist, Spider soon found demand in glam and punk inspired bands while Ely's poetry began to morph into song lyrics. It wasn't long before the shy, thoughtful Ely and guitar hero Spider were fixtures in the Southern California punk and post-punk scene, first helming the punk band Hey Taxi before launching their best known project, the ensemble that was Red Wedding.
In Red Wedding, erstwhile shrinking violet Ely truly came into his own as a frontman, becoming renown for onstage antics — leaping and shouting, jumping on tables, once notably appearing onstage dressed in a shower curtain, complete with hooks.
"I'm actually really shy," Ely admits, adding that acting out on stage is a way to both reach out to an audience and keep them at a safe distance. In spite of his gentle, introverted nature, in Red Wedding, Ely played the role of an onstage madman and the band built a loyal following in the Los Angeles area underground, capturing the notice of folks like producer Kim Fowley — the band said "no" to his offer to produce them, choosing a close friend and fan of the band as their manager instead of the legendary Rasputin of L.A. rock.
They also garnered a following among early "Death Rock" fans.
"They called it Death Rock back then, but now they call it Goth," he smiles, recalling the days when his one time band played with groups like Christian Death and Paisley Underground stalwarts like the Bangs (who later became the Bangles.) "When we played with The Bangs, I remember that Susannah Hoffs smiled at me. She had the best smile I've ever seen, such pure joy. I could see how anyone would do just about anything for that smile."
He also relates a story of the band meticulously learning a cover of Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life" track "China Girl," only to be thwarted by the release of David Bowie's version of the song that very week.
Though Red Wedding never graduated to the mainstream or even college rock fame, the band had a solid run. Ultimately, though, every good thing has to end and so did the band. Ely and Spider lost friends to AIDS, including Red Wedding's keyboardist. The old music scene gave way to new faces. The band stopped playing altogether and time marched on. Spider took a job in Arizona with Ely in tow and the pair settled into quiet, suburban domestic bliss, still occasionally writing music together and remembering the weird old days.
When Spider died in 2015, Ely's world was understandably turned upside down. But along with grief and strangeness there was also possibility. Ely began writing again, poetry and lyrics. And he began to make music again, with the help of Ryan Hingorani, a friend of the couple who had played in a cover band with Spider shortly before his death. Soon enough, the two were not only playing music together but playing to audiences. The pair's first gig was an odd little outing in the small "ghost" town of Lobo, Texas. The project was so new that they only knew one song and had to improvise the rest.
Hingorani is bubbly, animated and joyous — a kind of energizer bunny of rock music, spouting obscure music history his relatively young age.
"I love playing in this band," he says, "If it were up to me I'd play two, three gigs a week."
The two began composing together and the songs began to evolve, with Ely pairing whimsically observant and impressionistic lyrics to the psych rock dreamscapes created first as a duo and then with the addition of more band members. An example of this magical symbiosis is the song"How Heaven Feels" which began as an improvised guitar riff played by Hingorani. Ely declared that the riff sounded like what heeaven would sound like if it were a song. The track became the framework for a gorgeous half-spoken, half-sung elegy to the late Spider.
"Spider and I were atheists," Ely says. "I didn't believe there was, or is, anything after this body and this life, but it was so hard for me believe that I would never find him again. I didn't believe in a heaven. So in this song, I built Spider a heaven."
In fact, many of the songs by the Elegant Rabies are seemingly written to or about Spider. Ely was always the frontman in past bands but never the bandleader and composer. In this group, he stands strong as the band's center but in doing so, he also invokes the memory and spirit of his lifelong partner, through songs whose textured lyrics and pure, sincere vocals sound most like abstract love letters full of observations both sacred and mundane.
Eventually it became clear that this project had both substance and purpose and deserved to be fleshed out and so the Elegant Rabies began to evolve into a proper band.The band's name is an intentional juxtaposition, a more raw, post-punk version of the prototypical psych band names of '60s bands like the Strawberry Alarm Clock and its ilk. Their music is likewise an amalgam of Ely's glam and punk influences through a window of dreamy psychedelia and garage pop.
Bassist Kevin Conklin (of local band the Rifle) joined in on bass and the group worked their way through a few different drummers, the most consistent of which has been Cool Funeral's Justin Tornberg. Conklin's steady, soft spoken nature and driving, subliminal bass playing is a natural match for the Rabies. Compared to his work in the Rifle, his parts in this band have a touch more Motown swagger and retro soul but still mine the lower basement of melodic Entwhistledom for inspiration.
While the band lineup is very symbiotic and intuitive, it is, for the most part, made up of players from multiple bands, not to mention day jobs, significant others and the like. Finding time to practice has been a challenge. The upside of this is that though Ely often feels the band is under-rehearsed for certain gigs, there is a certain freshness and spontaneity in simply "winging it" that has in some cases led to the band's best performances. Keeping a drummer has also been a particular challenge. Percussionists came and went due to scheduling conflicts and the "incestuous" nature of the Tucson music scene in which drummers are particularly scarce and likely to be in three or more bands at any given time. Eventually Tornberg, who had previously played with (and briefly left) the band, returned to complete the current lineup.
With Conklin and Tornberg came not just a sold rhythm section but also an extended band family, including Conklin's fiancee and Rifle bandmate Nelene DeGuzman and Cool Funeral's Angeline Fahey as well as Weekend Lovers frontwoman Marta De Leon, who is a friend of both bands. On many a night in Downtown Tucson, Ely can be found in the company of one or more of "his girls" sporting his signature hat and soft smile.
"I love my girls," says Ely. "I've always really admired strong women, especially musicians. I feel like the struggles they go through are similar to what I faced as a gay musician in the punk scene. It can be hard and they don't often get the respect or recognition they deserve."
The trio and other music scene friends, such as Conklin, clearly adore Ely too and while he may not have his long time musical and romantic companion at his side, Ely does not lack for folks who have his back and love the things he's writing and creating.
De Guzman provided keyboards and harmonies on the Elegant Rabies' self titled debut, recorded at Midtown Island Studios, and the two quickly became very close, sharing a similarly introverted nature and deep lyrical intelligence. The pair recently got matching "friendship" tattoos to commemorate an onstage duet of Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe" — despite his punk pedigree, this was Ely's first tattoo at the tender age of 65.
With the album in the proverbial can and a year's worth of live gigs under his belt, Michael Ely feels awed at his accomplishments at this stage in his life. But he feels that it can't last forever. "I'd love to just travel and write," he says, evoking the spirit of one of his musical inspirations, punk poet Patti Smith, who does exactly that these days.
In the more immediate future, though, the Elegant Rabies plans an an eventual return to the place where it all began for Ely.
"The band has an L.A. show lined up later this year," says Ely, and you can see just a bit of wistfulness and triumph in the corner of his eye at the thought of his current reality colliding with his illustrious past.
Ely has another very important gig coming up this fall as well: officiating Conklin and De Guzman's upcoming wedding. "Kevin and Nelene asked me to do it and I was so honored," he says.
In the meantime, he and his bandmates are playing and writing and having a blast while still bearing their hearts on their sleeves a little bit. Even the band's covers are telling. Ely agrees that a cover song is a way for audiences to connect with a band and get to know who they are. In the case of Elegant Rabies' spot-on cover of Iggy and Bowie's "Nightclubbing," Ely says he imagines the song as he watches folks move along 4th Avenue to their after-hours destinations. "Nightclubbing, we're nightclubbing, we're what's happening..."
Before signing off onto the Avenue herself, your trusty columnist asks the one questions that's been lingering in the back of her head the whole time. Michael Ely and Spider Taylor could have been "kind of a big deal." A well-placed record producer here, a tweak in sound and a boost of confidence there and they could have had the kind of success of bands around them, like 45 Grave or Christian Death. Instead, they chose integrity and sanity and faded softly into retirement. In other words, they took the road less traveled. Was it worth it? Would Ely choose the same path if he could do it all again?
Ely's eyes light up as he breaks into a Cheshire Cat grin.
The Elegant Rabies opens for the Shivas at Cans Deli on Monday at 8 p.m., along with Dirt Friends and Feverfew.
Kevin help us
Kevin Conklin has been a busy man this summer. In addition to his duties holding up the low end in the Elegant Rabies, Conklin just finished a month-long tour of California and the West Coast playing bass in both the Exbats and the Rifle, then took the stage again last week for an encore appearance with the 'Bats. Is he tired? One imagines so, yet he's right back at it this week, first with a performance at Cans Deli this Saturday with the Rifle before Monday night's Elegant Rabies gig, soon to be followed by another stint with the Rifle on Thursday, August 9. Somebody should definitely buy this man a drink!
In all seriousness, though, this is exactly what's great about the Tucson music scene. Not only does it seem like everyone in town is in a band, but some of the best of those folks are in multiple bands, playing multiple gigs per week without faltering and without much fanfare. Stay tuned in the next couple of weeks for this column's annual salute to the hardest-working folks in Tucson music.
Welcome back Weezy!
Speaking of Saturday night's Rifle show, it also marks the occasion of the Cans debut of Louise Le Hir. While Le Hir has kept up a steady schedule of low key solo sets at venues like La Cocina, she's been missed in the active Downtown music scene and we're excited to have her back. With a new album nearly in the can at Midtown Island studios, Tucson audiences are due for a dose of French kissed Cosmic American pop from one of our fave local songwriter/perfomers.
Louise Le Hir plays Cans Deli with Brittany Dawn, Crystal Radio and The Rifle on Saturday at 8 p.m.
Summer loving happens so fast...
It's summer in Tucson and it's hotter than the seventh level of Dante's Inferno but that doesn't mean we can't all have a little grown up style summer vacation fun. That's the idea between a couple of nostalgia soaked celebrations taking place in Downtown Tucson in the next few days.
On Friday night at La Cocina, it's time to summon your inner Christopher Cross and rock out to Hall and Oates, The Doobie Brothers and other forbidden guilty pleasures from the '70s and '80s while dressing up in your Dynasty yacht party finest. It's time for this year's edition of Yacht Rock! The annual summer party hosted by Jared "Kitty Kat" McKinley and "Magic" Kenny Bang Bang features DJ Butta Fly playing your favorite cheesy yacht rock hits, while local rock and roll photographer Isabella Laos takes beach worthy pics to memorialize your trip on the famed Yacht Rock Boat.
Meanwhile the Wet Hot Summer Party at Club Congress features a slip and slide, two dance floors with live DJs and a host of "Camp Congress" activities for those who want to celebrate the last month of summer in style.
Yacht Rock takes over La Cocina on Friday at 10 p.m. while The Wet Hot Summer Party invades Club Congress on Thursday, August 2 at 10 p.m.
Check your local listings...
Friday, July 27
- Neon Prophet - 7 p.m. Public Brewhouse (Downtown)
- Moon Bass (DJ Set featuring Moralz, GHAST, Seth Myles, Midnight Company) - 8 p.m. Sky Bar (Downtown)
- The Roast of Sui Blue w/ Sui Blue, Yours Truly, Eremsy, Sadgalnina, Her Mana, and Stonehouse - 8 p.m. Cans Deli (Downtown)
- Miss Olivia & The Interlopers / Podunk - 8 p.m. Saint Charles Tavern (S of Downtown)
- Al Foul Trio - 8 p.m. Mercado San Agustin (W of Downtown)
- Naim Amor,Tøger Lund & Kai Felix Jazz Trio - 8 p.m. Exo (Downtown)
- Vamp (Punk, Queer Drag Show) - 9 p.m. Club Congress (Downtown)
- The Feeling. Chase It. (DJ Night) - 10 p.m. Bar Passé (Downtown)
- Yacht Rock - 10 p.m. La Cocina (Downtown)
Saturday, July 28
- Natty & The Sunset - 6 p.m. Mercado San Agustin (W of Downtown)
- Metalachi - 6:30 p.m. Club Congress (Downtown)
- Santa Pachita - 7 p.m. Playground (Downtown)
- Joyce Luna w/ Tammy West - 7 p.m. Congregation Chaverim (East Side)
- Max Mileage at - 7 p.m. Tucson Hop Shop (Central)
- Sacred Groove w/ Mr. Wiley & Taken by Drones - 8 p.m. House of Bards (East Side)
- Louise Le Hir, The Rifle, Brittany Dawn, Crystal Radio - 8 p.m. Cans Deli (Downtown)
- Pedro y Los Liricos - 8 p.m. Exo Roast (Downtown)
- Forest Fallows & Jess Matsen - 9 p.m. Bar Passe (Downtown)
- Loveland w/ Jonica Butcher - 9 p.m. La Cocina (Downtown)
Sunday, July 29
- Sacred Groove w/ Mr. Wiley & Taken by Drones - 8 p.m. House of Bards (East Side)
- Tiny House of Funk - 5 p.m. Public Brewhouse (Downtown)
- Suicide Forest, Shadows of Algol, Swarm of Serpents - 7 p.m. Cans Deli (Downtown)
- Lana, Kevin and Gabe - 7 p.m. Che's Lounge
- Kurt Braunohler - 8 p.m. 191 Toole (Downtown)
- Samba De Roda Samba De Coco - 8 p.m. Exo Bar (Downtown)
Monday, July 30
- Open Mic Night - 7 p.m. House Of Bards (East Side)
- The Shivas, The Elegant Rabies, Dirt Friends, Feverfew - 8 p.m. Cans Deli (Downtown)
Tuesday, July 31
- Relent, The Mindless, Minutes To Midnight, Better On The Inside, Conquest Of The Aphids - 7 p.m. House of Bards (East Side)
- Amped Up! Open Mic Night - 8:30 p.m. Club Congress (Downtown)
Wednesday, August 1
- Kevin Pakulis - 7 p.m. Public Brewhouse (Downtown)
- Dos Santos w/ DJ Dirtyverbs - 8 p.m. Cans Deli (Downtown)
- Street Blues Family - 8 p.m. Club Congress (Downtown)
- Together Pangea with Leguas Largas and Taco Sauce - 8 p.m. 191 Toole (Downtown)
Thursday, Aug 2
- Emby Alexander, Adara Rae & The Homewreckers, Hannah Yeun - 8 p.m. Cans Deli (Downtown)
- Dos Santos DJ Set with Daniel Villarreal - 9 p.m. Bar Passe (Downtown)
- Wet Hot Summer Party - 10 p.m. Club Congress (Downtown)