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The Fleshtones, a low-budget bang for your buck

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The Fleshtones
The Fleshtones

If the Rochester Music Hall of Fame were to dedicate a wing not to musicians, but to rock and roll moments, at the top of the list would be David Bowie’s arrest for marijuana possession after a 1976 show at the War Memorial. Or maybe the police breaking up a Rolling Stones concert there in 1965.

Right after that, two events at Scorgies, the long-gone rock club on Andrews Street, come to mind: Elvis Costello getting thrown out of the club in 1979 after rudely demanding a cigarette; someone sticking a fork in the arm of Fleshtones lead singer Peter Zaremba during a show.

The Fleshtones, originally hailing from Queens, New York, return to Rochester for a 10 p.m. show on Aug. 19 amid the gothic extremes of Lux Lounge, sporting the appropriate address of 666 South Ave. Admission is a mere $5 — a price that defies inflation. An image of a ticket posted by Lux Lounge on its Facebook page shows that in 1985, you could have seen The Fleshtones at the University of Rochester Palestra for $5 as well. Except that show also featured The Violent Femmes and 10,000 Maniacs.

The Fleshtones were creatures of New York City’s vibrant CBGB scene, explosive live performers from the moment the band first hit the stage in 1976. It’s convenient to connect The Fleshtones with that garage-rock scene. But in truth, The Fleshtones had a bigger appetite than that, correctly marrying the sounds of guitar-reverb rock, psychedelic rock, surf, R&B, soul Farfisa organ and hard-dancing rhythms.

What is the muse for their music? For Zaremba, it is sometimes the lawn at his home in Connecticut. He has a small lawnmower. And it’s a big yard. A two-hour job.

“When I’m mowing the lawn, very often the ideas for songs come together,” he says. “I had parts of the lyrics in my head and I had parts of the music in my head, and it just came together.”

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Yes, domesticity works hand in hand with creativity. Routine begets aberrant thoughts. The band, despite a handful of personnel changes – Zaremba and guitarist Keith Streng are the remaining originals – has remained pretty much a constant. That’s more than four decades of decadence marked by nearly two dozen albums of what The Fleshtones call “super rock.” A band whose self-determination is fueled by album titles such as “Roman Gods,” “Fleshtones Vs. Reality,” “Wheel of Talent” and, perhaps most important, 2016’s “The Band Drinks for Free.”

The Fleshtones have navigated the pop planet without ever managing a hit song. Theirs is a cult following you can dance to. The Fleshtones keep two fingers on the pulse of pop culture. Aging gracefully from the dance floor to flopping on a motel-room bed before the show, watching a game show on television: The band’s latest album, “Face of the Screaming Werewolf,” opens with a tribute to “Jeopardy” and the late Alex Trebek. As Zaremba sings, “Watching Alex will make you smart.”

“Spilling Blood” is another song from “Face of the Screaming Werewolf.” Words that finally fell in the right place, after more than 40 years, while Zaremba was mowing his lawn.

The genesis of “Spilling Blood” is from the days when Zaremba was not yet the rock star he is now. He was working for a New York City promoter who’d booked The Who at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens. It was 1971, The Who had just released “Who’s Next” and Pete Townsend was doing his obligatory guitar-smashing thing. Violence broke out.

“A co-worker was murdered at the show, another one was stabbed, a lot of people were hurt at that,” Zaremba says. “I realized how alienated I was from arena rock, and events like that.”

So The Fleshtones have steered clear of big venues. But the band has moved through the rock world in a big way. A then-unknown band from Georgia, R.E.M., once opened for The Fleshtones. The Fleshtones opened for James Brown. Twice. “He was a really nice guy,” Zaremba says.

It’s startling how the years can add up. Add up to more than 400 pages, which you’ll find in a book that’s been written about the band. “Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band.”

Yes, a music journalist named Joe Bonomo wrote 400 pages about a band that named its latest album after a 1965 low-budget Mexican horror film.

Low budgets inspire The Fleshtones. “It’s always the same junk,” Zaremba says. “Low-budget movies and wrestling.”

He recalls the band’s first cross-country tour, and how the guys would badger their road manager into taking detours to “touristic places.” Like Carlsbad Caverns. Zaremba remembers walking through the network of underground caves, and the band’s sax player at the time, Gordon Spaeth, saying, “You know, watching all those Mexican movies has ruined places like this for me.” Zaremba knew exactly what Spaeth was talking about. The real Carlsbad couldn’t match giant fake spiders lurking behind papier-mâché stalactites.

But it’s not that the world isn’t amazing in its own right. A few years ago, The Fleshtones toured China at the invitation of some fans, a Chinese rock band called Roundeye. “I like to call them ‘The Roundeyes,’” Zaremba says, “it sounds more rock and roll.” The Fleshtones played some festivals, but also Chinese clubs that had all of the shambling, hardcore energy of CGBG. Zaremba says Chinese rock fans would ask him: “You knew Andy Warhol?”

“Yes,” Zaremba would say, “we knew Andy Warhol.”

“You knew Johnny Thunders? What was he like?”

“I hated to tell them, Johnny Thunders was a pain in the ass.”

American culture is alive in the underground Chinese rock scene. And the Fleshtones are creating new music.

“I don’t want us to be moaning about getting old, or everyone we know is dying,” Zaremba says. “We’re alive, and that’s the thing that counts.”

And the music is alive.

“I want it to be less mellow, and more frantic, more energetic, and more hard hitting,” Zaremba says. “I don’t want it to be a case of, ‘Oh well, they’re mellowing out,’ you know? I want it to be the exact opposite.

“If we’re going to go out, I want it to be with a bang.”

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.