Reading about the recent passing of Michael Fonfara made me revisit the records Lou Reed made with Fonfara and with Reed’s backing band from 1974-1980. This became a transitional period for Reed, and he found musical support with a group of talented musicians who came from outside the rock and roll galaxy.
by Marshall Bowden
How I became familiar with keyboard player Michael Fonfara is through his association with Lou Reed from 1974 through 1980, a period when Reed produced both excellent and mediocre work largely due to his addiction to amphetamines and alcohol. Fonfara’s career existed before he worked with Reed and it continued afterward, but a lot of his most visible work was done during his years with Reed’s band.
Michael Fonfara was first hired by Reed to work on the sessions for his 1974 album Sally Can’t Dance, the follow-up to the live album Rock & Roll Animal. Reed initially pitched the album as an R&B album, putting himself in the role of a sarcastic, white James Brown. Fonfara, already Reed’s de facto musical director, understood what Reed wanted, and he was able to deliver it largely because he and the other musicians in the band (along with bassist Prakash John, drummer Pentti Glan, and guitarist Danny Weis) were previously in the group Blackstone together. Blackstone (originally The Black Stone Rangers) was a pretty straightforward blues-influenced rock outfit that fell apart after a year and one album.
“It was up to us to more or less take these lyrics and put them with songs that were more like R & B than the rock-and-roll style he had been doing,” Fonfara told Reed biographer Anthony DeCurtis. When Fonfara brought in a horn section of crack studio aces and background singers, he remembers that “Lou was pretty gung ho about it. We were doing the job that he wanted us to do.” (DeCurtis, Anthony. Lou Reed (p. 200). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.)
Fonfara doesn’t appear on the original eight tracks that comprise Coney Island Baby, but drummer Michael Suchorsky and bassist Bruce Yaw, who would become part of Reed’s touring band following the album’s release made their first appearances. Fonfara played on sessions for some of the albums that appear on Coney Island Baby in January of 1975, playing on the song “Downtown Dirt,” which didn’t appear on the album, and different versions of three album tracks: “Crazy Feeling,” “She’s My Best Friend,” and “Coney Island Baby.” These tracks were released as bonus tracks on the album’s 30th anniversary deluxe edition.
The band remained intact for Reed’s first album on the Arista label, Rock & Roll Heart, with Fonfara, Suchorsky, and Yaw being joined by saxophonist Marty Fogel. This band also supported Reed on the tour for Rock & Roll Heart and played on Reed’s production project for Nelson Slater, who was a friend of Reed’s from his Syracuse days. Victor Bockis mentions the record in his Reed biography, Transformer:
After finishing [Rock and Roll Heart], however, Lou managed to muster the energy to produce an album, called Wild Angel, for a friend of Lou’s at Syracuse, Nelson Slater. “That was one of the best things I’ve ever done,” Reed commented. “RCA released it to about three people, I think. So no one very much noticed it. I think we sold six copies.”
But the rock press did notice the freer, jazzier vibe of Reed’s latest band, and went out of their way to pan it. Speaking of a John Rockwell review of a show from the Rock & Roll Heart tour, Anthony DeCurtis writes:
While Rockwell complimented the band’s technical skills (“as fluent an ensemble as Mr. Reed has had”), he took issue with the music as a “rather faceless, jazzish idiom” that lacked “a true rock aura.” It’s telling that as punk was beginning to strip rock down to its absolute basics, Reed began to reexplore his youthful fascination with jazz and toured with the most elaborate staging of his career. (DeCurtis, Anthony. Lou Reed (p. 250). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.)
In 1977 Reed recorded Street Hassle, a rough-edged album that combined live concert tape with studio recordings, all processed through binaural recording. In binaural recording, two microphones are placed in the studio or venue in an attempt to mimic the stereophonic sound of hearing the performance live. The album also made use of live performances recorded in Germany from which the audience is completely removed from the mix (except brief flashes at the end of some songs, left on purpose) and these tracks were further enhanced in the studio.
The same band, with the addition of bassist Ellard ‘Moose’ Boles, worked together on the series of Bottom Line performances that became Lou Reed Live: Take No Prisoners and on the album The Bells. Reed dropped the live album in Michael Fonfara’s lap, leaving the musical director the task of selecting and splicing together the performances to be used. When Reed returned from his vacation, he reportedly didn’t like what Fonfara had done and made him redo the album.
The Bells was an ambitious album that was the closest Reed came to embracing the NYC jazz loft aesthetic of his backing band. Marty Fogel knew Don Cherry and introduced Reed to the renowned free jazz trumpet player during a chance encounter at an airport while on the 1976 tour. Reed invited Cherry to sit in on a live show, and the trumpet player agreed. As DeCurtis describes it:
In the shows the two men played together, Cherry pushed the jazz element in Reed’s sound to the edge, dramatizing Reed’s fondness for the out jazz Cherry had with Ornette Coleman—the sort of music Reed used to love to play on his radio show in college. The band, too, lifted off with Cherry on board. (DeCurtis, Anthony. Lou Reed (pp. 249-250). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.)
Cherry also contributed to The Bells, an album on which Reed utilized the NYC jazz loft aesthetic of his band to great effect. The opener, “Stupid Man” (one of three tracks Reed co-wrote with Nils Lofgren) features Reed’s agitated vocal over a sound that is highlighted by the combination of Cherry’s trumpet and Fogel’s delicate soprano saxophone. Even the goofy “Disco Mystic” works up some sparks courtesy of Fogel’s honking tenor sax and some synth work by Michael Fonfara. Reed wrote some great songs for The Bells, including “City Lights” and “Families” and the band goes out on the limb with him, supporting his impulses on the nine-minute title track, a glorious meeting of free jazz and poetry. The Bells is one of Lou Reed’s best albums and it marked a creative peak of the. the period during which these musicians had worked with Reed to create something that, while transitional in Reed’s career, was musically very potent. But while critics found some things to like about the record, it had no commercial potential whatsoever, and it spelled the end of Reed’s once-promising relationship with Arista.
But Reed owned the label one more album, and rather than satisfying his contractual obligation viciously, as he had when he handed RCA Metal Machine Music, he and Fonfara sought to record an actual album of new songs. The resulting album, Growing Up In Public, saw Fonfara elevated to the position of co-writer and co-producer with Reed. But the writing was on the wall. Reed married Sylvia Morales right after he finished recording Growing Up In Public and went into rehab, moved to a house in New Jersey, and entered a new phase in his career, and that meant a new band. Reed informed Fonfara that he was disbanding the group pursuant to his period of rehab. When he reconvened for The Blue Mask, Reed had a new, rock-oriented band with a sound that would propel him through the creation of a success that had eluded him.
Michael Fonfara continued to work as a session musician and play with the Canadian blues band Downchild. In 1982 the quartet of Suchorsky, Fogel, and Yaw joined guitarist David Torn and recorded their debut album Everyman Band for ECM records. The record makes clear that the rapport these musicians shared on various Lou Reed projects was part of a deeper musical conversation that took place outside the realm of rock music. Though the Everyman Band albums are sometimes characterized as jazz fusion, they are fusion only in the vaguest sense of the word. Because Torn’s electric guitar playing is outside the normal jazz realm, sounding much more like something you’d expect to hear on a King Crimson record it’s easy to buy the band’s frenetic work on their debut album as more of a progressive rock thing, If you were familiar with the music of Ornette Coleman you might find some kinship between this group and his Prime Time band.
The group’s second and final album Early Warning is perhaps the more accessible album, incorporating more textures than the frenetic first LP, with selections that are by turns ambient, heavy, free, and bluesy. Everyman Band toured Europe and was well received there, but in the U.S. they went unnoticed or received poor reviews. Neither an October 1982 performance at The Bottom Line nor an appearance two years later with Don Cherry at Tramps was reviewed well by Jon Pareles in the New York Times.
Both records are worth hunting down if you have any interest in 1980s NYC jazz that was outside the Young Lions’ attempt, led by Wynton Marsalis, to write free jazz and electric jazz fusion out of the history of the music. In 1989 Marty Fogel released an album titled Many Bobbing Heads, At Last. The album featured David Torn on guitar, with a new rhythm section of Dean Johnson (b) and Michael Shrieve (d) and built on the music of Early Warning, adding in doses of reggae, rock, and Afrobeat with Fogel’s trademark tenor sound that is, at times, reminiscent of the robust playing of Sonny Rollins.