Tell It Like It Is: Ray Dafrico Remembers a Special Time in the Atlanta Music Scene and a Band Named the Nightporters

Posted on: Jun 11th, 2013 By:

In late April, when THE NIGHTPORTERS: TELL IT LIKE IT IS premiered at The Plaza Theatre, it wasn’t your typical movie screening but a reunion. The crowd was mostly in their 40s and 50s. Many of these folks had families and didn’t stay out late any more. But that didn’t mean they never did and some still had the leather jackets to show for it. When they come out in Atlanta, you know you’re in for a special evening.

If you are old enough to have been part of the early ’80s nascent punk/new wave scene that revolved around the now-legendary 688 Club, you remember a handful of local bands that stood out. You never missed any of their shows, and they played all the time. Perhaps the coolest and most memorable of these bands was The Nightporters. That’s not to say they never had any crappy drunken gigs. They had plenty, but when they were at their best, they were as good as any band that topped the college alternative charts and many that made it big when real punk had faded into a careless memory.

Guitarist/singer/songwriter Ray Dafrico started with some raw found footage of the Nightporters performing, mostly at the Blue Rat Gallery, a notorious art space in the now-demolished Pershing Point Apartments which was ground zero for housing starving punk rockers back in the day. To that, he added interviews with band members and other key members of the scene such as Peter Buck (R.E.M.) and Rick Richards (Georgia Satellites). The end result is a time capsule not just of a band but of the clubs and people that made that period in Atlanta rock history so unique and a frozen moment in time when it seemed like music not just mattered but meant…well…everything.

With the movie now available on DVD, ATLRetro recently sat down with Ray to find out more about the genesis of this home-grown rockumentary, as well as what was so special, as the subtitle states, about “a time, a place and a band.”

ATLRetro: How did the idea of a Nightporters documentary get started?

Ray Dafrico: I got hold of some early footage a couple of years ago by a guy named James Farmer, who was one of the Blue Rat’s artists. There was footage of us that I had never seen. I thought it was really amazing and somebody should make a film and add some interviews. I didn’t know anyone else that would do it so I took it upon myself to start making it.

There really seemed to be a special quality about the early ‘80s music scene in Atlanta. What do you think made that time so special?

I just think it was creative and kind of more innocent in a way. Maybe it was because we were so young that it all seemed new and fresh. Punk rock was fairly new. I was into music, but it seemed inaccessible. With punk rock, you could prove you could do stuff yourself. Once we started doing that, we had a small circle of people that just started growing. Atlanta was really small at the time. There were maybe 10 bands and everyone knew each other. Everybody pulled for each other for the most part and would come to each other’s shows. There was some competition between bands that played in midtown and bands that mostly played like in Buckhead, but eventually we got friendly with most of the bands in town. Nowadays it seems so competitive. There are so many bands. It seems like everybody’s out for themselves.

The Nightporters definitely had that punk rock spirit, but you had other influences, too. 

We were influenced by punk rock, and we kind of sounded like punk rock, but the Sex Pistols just proved that you could go against the system and the corporate  music of the 1970s. But the thing that brought the Nightporters together was more the ‘60s punk bands. Originally the Rolling Stones, but we really liked the more obscure bands that had one-hit wonders like The Count Five. So you’re right, we weren’t directly the late ‘70s kind of punk rock. We were sort influenced by it, but it was an enabling thing than anything else. Our sound was sort of garage mod rock with elements of glam, folk, country, ska and reggae.

How important was 688?

Very important at the time. They just booked some amazing bands. At first, we were underage and we couldn’t get in. It was the same with the Agora Ballroom. It was like we would go down there every weekend and try to get in. There was this long-haired guy at the door. He would call us “weekend anarchists” and kick us out. We tried to see the Plasmatics and all these bands. Finally he let us in to see the Ramones. We had borrowed fake IDs from Marines that didn’t look anything like us. By coming down and trying to get in there for six months, we earned our way in. But yeah, there were [a few] other clubs to go to, like The Bistro, Moonshadow, Metroplex and Rumors, but 688 had the great bands, $1.50 beer  and a lot of cool diverse people would go there. We used to go to this place every Sunday called Margaritaville on Spring and 14th St. We were there so much we talked them into letting us play and turned it into our own club. It soon turned into its own little scene.

Part of it was the clubs, like 688, were more into promoting local music. They were as creative as the bands and at least more willing to experiment. I know [clubs] are about making money because they took a lot of ours, but it just seemed more laidback. They were having fun just like the bands were. It seemed that way anyway.

When did the Nightporters first get together and perform?

We were still in high school, I think, in 1981-82. I was going to say this in the movie, but it was a big deal for us to get from the suburbs to downtown Atlanta. We thought playing Tuesday nights at the Bistro was success. We had started at high school parties playing our punk rock/’60s songs. We would play to rednecks and jocks, and they were always trying to beat us up. Tim [Neilson] and Andy [Browne] and I were all transplanted Yankees, and there was still a lot of hostility towards outsiders in Atlanta especially in the suburbs.We got really tough because we were always having to mentally and physically fight with these people. We thought by the time we got to the cool new wave/punk clubs that we had made it. Anything beyond that was easy for us. I think that kind of shows because we were a really rough band. We earned that.

Can you talk a little about the Blue Rat?

Well, we all lived in the Pershing Point Apartments at 17th and Peachtree Street, that are all torn down now. Andy and I had an apartment there. We didn’t know anybody initially. It was across from the art school I was going to. I dropped out of art school like every good rock guitarist and pursue the Nightporters full time. We were so poor we lived off of hefty bags of popcorn because we knew someone that worked at a movie theatre. It was that and egg rolls from the Chinese grocery on the corner. We rehearsed in our kitchen which we didn’t dare eat in as there were giant cockroaches everywhere! It wasn’t a matter of time before we met two guys named Clark Brown and Chick Lockerman. They were the artists who set up the Blue Rat Gallery in their apartment. They asked us to play one of their openings. A huge crowd came out to see us of really crazy and eclectic people. Like Andy said in the movie, it was like Andy Warhol’s Factory. There were tons of drugs and everyone was just crazy and doing whatever they wanted.

So we became kind of the house band at the Blue Rat. We would rather play there than a club because it was more fun. We didn’t even charge any money.

How well, or should we say “shitty,” were you paid back in those days?

Once we got better known, we started playing colleges. That’s where the money was. We actually had contracts, not that that means a whole lot. Sometimes people would stiff us even with a contract, but we could get $1000 to play a college frat or something. Even when we were fairly well known, there was one incident in south Georgia where the club owner pulled a gun on us and refused to pay us. I had driven straight back from California to play that show! It showed my dedication, but maybe my stupidity, too. We never made any significant money, partly because we never got a record deal.

But the Nightporters toured a lot, including a lot of gigs in New York.

Yeah, we toured a lot. We went to the northeast a lot and played New York all the time and Boston. We opened for all kinds of people, like Bo Diddley.

Do you have a favorite performer or band you opened for?

We had some good times with Cheetah Chrome and the Dead Boys. Jason and the Scorchers were always fun. We played with The Replacements a lot, but there was a lot of tension there because we were so similar that it was like a competition. They were fun to watch, but they had their good nights and their drunken nights similar to us. Opening for The Clash was fun, even if Mick [Jones], my favorite in the band, wasn’t in the band at the time.

Was that the time when the Clash played the Fox Theatre and there was a riot on Peachtree?

That was actually the time before that the Clash played Atlanta. But I was in the riot. We were in the front row. When we came out, there was literally a riot starting. Chris Wood of The Restraints was in the front with an American flag protesting their communist views or some crap. Somehow a fight started and police cars came from every direction. Everyone was so amped up from the Clash show that they were literally fighting with the cops. It was a blast. It was kind of scary, but it didn’t last long.

We played with them a year or two after that. I had gone to Nashville and met Joe Strummer and got us the show. I just gave them a demo tape because I knew they got local bands to open. We got the show a day or two later.

How close did the Nightporters come to cutting a full LP and getting a recording contract with a record label?

We did make a few records, but we never made a whole album. We did two singles on our own and an EP on Safety Net Records called OUTSIDE, LOOKING IN [1986]. We had a lot of material, but we didn’t have a vehicle to release stuff. Andy and I would go up to record company offices in Manhattan, and they would just look at our clothes like “you’re not Scritti Politti or Duran Duran or whatever was selling then.” They didn’t know what to make of us. We were just way too real for a big label to consider investing in us. That’s my theory anyway.

How hard was it to assemble everyone whom you interviewed in the movie?

The hardest person was our drummer, who I never did get in the movie. It was easier to get Peter Buck from R.E.M. than our drummer. Other than that, I just told people to come down to The Majestic [Diner]. I asked a series of five questions and listened to whatever anyone had to say. The idea for the movie was to try and make it a cross between a Jim Jarmusch-type film like CIGARETTES AND COFFEE or something and a little bit of Spinal Tap and The Rutles. I was trying to keep it real, but light-hearted and funny because that was the way the Nightporters were. On one hand, we really took things very seriously. On the other hand, we didn’t take it serious at all. It wasn’t too hard. The most difficult part for me was editing the four hours of footage.

Do you consider the cut you showed at The Plaza the final cut, or will you still be editing some more?

I wanted to tell the whole story. That’s why it’s two hours long, but some people said it could have been shorter. It’s hard for me because it’s so personal. I think I had to include certain parts, and I guess if I’m going to get it distributed, I am going to have to cut it to half the time. I’m kind of dreading that because by now I’ve seen it so many times.

Are there any outtakes or a blooper reel that could be extras for a commercial DVD?

Yes, there is enough for a blooper reel, which is way funnier than the movie.  I kept interrupting everyone during the interviews saying things like, “I remember that”! It took a long time to cut all that out of the film. So I learned to just keep my mouth shut. It’s my first movie, and I had a lot of fun just doing it. That’s the best part – trying to shoot things 10 times because you’re laughing so hard.

Do you have any regrets that the band didn’t go further on a national scale?

Yes, I definitely regret us not staying together longer. I think we could have been huge, seeing what happened with the Black Crowes after us. Our songs are a lot more original and catchier. They have a lot more hooks. Like I said, we were a real kind of band that fought a lot, and we had a lot of problems. It was extremely difficult to get through even the three or four years together that we were.

Any chance of another Nightporters reunion?

Oh, yeah. Maybe. Definitely maybe. But I don’t really know. That’s not up to me—one person out of the four—to say. Andy and I have talked about it. We both have our own lives now and live in different cities, which makes it all the more difficult. We had enough trouble agreeing on things when we lived in the same apartment. We’re working on it, but sometimes I think we have two different visions of what the band could be.

Plus we all have KIDS! Mine is 18 now so I have a bit of free time, but Andy has two little ones.

What else are you up to? 

I still write tons of songs. I don’t always do a lot with them, but I’m always writing them. I have been playing under my own name with different musicians—whoever is available. That’s the thing now. I’m 49. It’s not like I’m 20 anymore so it’s hard to pull people together for any reason, much less to do a show. All those years of rocking out have really done a number on us as well; we’re now paying the price. We survived but are not by any means very healthy!  I’ve been working on this movie for the past year. Actually I’d like to make more films. I like editing. It puts all the things I like such as art and photography—I do photography—all in one form. I’m trying to juggle all those things really and start playing out again soon.

DVD Copies of THE NIGHTPORTERS: TELL IT LIKE IT IS are available for purchase for $15, payable directly to Ray Dafrico’s PayPal account at Rockandrollray@yahoo.com and eventually also will be available through Ray’s ReverbNation store link.

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Kool Kat of the Week: Watch out, Shirley Jones! Spooky Partridge’s Katy Graves Is a Real Mother?!

Posted on: May 9th, 2012 By:

Katy Graves and son Nick in Spooky Partridge. Photo courtesy of Katy Graves.

By James Kelly
Contributing Music Editor

With Mother’s Day approaching, ATLRetro wanted to find someone special who represents both the Atlanta music scene and makes motherhood look easy. Local musician Katy Graves is one of the most energetic, friendly and interesting people in town. She has been part of the rock & roll community for many years in such bands as Doll Squad and Catfight, and while she is currently working on her teaching degree, she is also in an amazing and entertaining band called Spooky Partridge, with HER 10-YEAR-OLD SON, Nick Christian!!! Those credentials and the fact that Spooky Partridge are rocking Shorty’s Pizza in Tucker this Saturday May 12 at 8 p.m. are more than sufficient for ATLRetro to make Katy Kool Kat of the Week just in time for Mother’s Day!

ATLRetro: How did you initially get involved with performing music in Atlanta? What was your first band experience?

Katy: I sang in a couple bands in high school starting in about the 9th grade, and by the 11th grade, our band, The Doughboys, was playing out at the infamous Margaritaville as well as The Dugout in Emory Village. We did mostly covers by bands like The Police, Squeeze, The Jam, Ramones, Echo and the Bunnymen and loads of REM. Our guitar player loved REM! Can you imagine me singing REM covers? We had some originals, but mostly covers. I played cello and and piano as a kid. Susanne Gibboney (who plays with Tiger! Tiger!, Lust and Catfight), and I started Doll Squad while I was in college. We both worked at Junkman’s Daughter at the time. We all loved The Runaways and ’60s girl groups, but also L7 and the Lunachicks so we wanted to be in an all-girl band. Doll Squad opened for Shonen Knife at the Masquerade, that was so fun! 

Catfight was an incredibly popular band for several years. what do you think was the source of the appeal, and what was going on in Atlanta at that time to make the scene so open to the band? How was David T. Lindsay involved?

Ann Beaman and I had been in Doll Squad for a while, and that had kind of run its course. We ran an ad for a guitar player so we could start a new band, and Jennifer Leavey answered. She was the only person who answered that wasn’t nuts! Jennifer is just an incredible songwriter, and Catfight really took off. I think the reason we managed to do well was that we had songs with elements of a several kinds of genres and we could fit in on a lot of shows, appeal to a lot of people. We were a little garage, a little punk; we liked rockabilly; we did some girl group type songs; we also covered Van Halen, though!

David Lindsay put out a Doll Squad 7″, and he and I were friends. He had had a disagreement with someone in Doll Squad and wasn’t keen to put out any more of our records. I didn’t know if I would want to work with Catfight, but I brought a tape over of us and gave it to him. I told him I just wanted him to give me some feedback. He called me like an hour after I gave him the tape and told me he had to put out our stuff! David put out two singles and two CDs on his label, Worry Bird Records.

How did working in the music business affect your perception of playing music as a profession? Any good sleazy Green Room stories?

I remember when I got a job working for a record company, this boyfriend (a musician) said, “You are working for the enemy now!!!” I had a great run working in the music business for 15 years, but sometimes I was conflicted. It’s hard when you have to sell art like it is shoes or office supplies or something. Also, I figured out quite early on that I did not care about meeting a lot of famous people, which I thought initially would be really fun. Yawn! That being said two of the nicest people I met while working at a record company were Brittany Spears and Notorious B.I.G. Seriously! There were a few who were complete jerks – if you see me out sometime I’ll tell you who!! I can’t think of any super sleazy stories, but I do remember we took this guy from a New York band to the Clermont Lounge after his show one night. He has irritated all of us with this superior attitude, like he had seen it all/done it all in NYC. We introduced him to Blondie, she personalized a beer can for him as she does, and he just about lost it. He was completely freaked out by the whole Clermont scene! We couldn’t believe it – he was playing Mr. Badass rock guy but he got all nervous at the Clermont! Come on!

What must one do to reconcile motherhood with a rock & roll lifestyle?

Well, I began my rock’ & roll mom lifestyle when Nick was in utero – I kept playing shows with Catfight until I was more than eight months pregnant! I would have played up until I went into labor, but Jennifer but the kibosh on that. Probably the girls were sick of loading all the equipment without me at that point. Anyway, you have to rock & roll at home a lot more when you are a mom, because as you might guess it becomes difficult to be out at shows until 2 a.m. on a regular basis. The child watched THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT from an early age, which is a questionable decision when you think about how The Who treat equipment, but we escaped any serious damage around the house somehow. When I still worked for a record company I brought Nick to every daytime in-store appearance by a band that I was working. One year I took him to Ozzfest. I always tried to take him to any daytime shows I could find – he went to Warped Tour a few times. And yes – we made him wear earplugs to every show, of course! Finally I ended up being in a band WITH my son so I could still play but also keep kid-friendly hours!

Spooky Partridge's Nick poses with a pair of drumsticks.

Tell us about Nick. Do you think he will become a professional musician? Or a baseball player? He seems equally great at both…

Nick turned 10 in February. He has been in Montessori school since he was 3. He plays drums and guitar; he can play bass and fools around on piano as well. He is dyslexic, which I believe is why he is so good at music and art; I think that the things in his brain that often make reading hard make music easy. He loves to draw. And yes, he does love baseball and soccer. I am the only mom in Americawho actually asks her child to please use the Wii or the Nintendo DSI, because we have these expensive games and the kid never uses them! He loves Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Who and The Cartoon Network. Nick cooks a lot – he puts red pepper flakes and/or Siracha in almost everything, however, so if you don’t like spicy food, you have to watch out. At different times he has told me that when he wants to grow up he wants to be a musician, a baseball player, a soccer player or a pathologist. Yes, a pathologist! Recently he has gotten way interested in bird-watching, of all things! He can identify lots of birds, and he draws them all the time.

Where did the idea for “Spooky Partridge” come from, and what was the formation of the band like for everyone?

Nick’s dad is Shawn Christian from X-Impossibles and Rock City Dropouts. Shawn and I met because we were in bands that played shows together all the time, so it was only natural that we wanted our child to be a musician. Nick was almost named Marshall – after the amp, of course! Shawn and I made sure that Santa brought Nick a drum set when he was two years old. By the time he was seven, he was getting pretty good, and since I had a friend teaching at a rock band camp, we sent Nick there that summer. That is when we could see he was really progressing, when we saw him play with a band. So we sent him again two years ago. He wanted to play “No Action” by Elvis Costello, but the kids in the band couldn’t learn it fast enough to perform it, which bummed him out. There were so many songs Nick wanted to play and no one to play them with. I was like “Why am I paying for this rock band camp when we can just have rock band camp at home for free?” Those camps are crazy expensive, and we already had a practice room in our house. What was I thinking?

Shawn and I decided that we would have a family band. Shawn and I have not been a couple since Nick was two, but we get along extremely well, so the band was nothing but fun from the start. We started by learning songs that Nick wanted to do, we started writing originals. Nick has written some on guitar, and he writes words and works with his dad to write songs, like “I Hate Chores.”

Spooky Partridge performs at last year's Tunes From The Tombs.

Any plans to release a Spooky Partridge record anytime?

We have three songs recorded that we are really happy with, and we need to record some more! We recorded the songs with Jimmy Demer from The Accidents, and his two daughters sing back up on our song, “Robots Don’t Poop.” It’s me that is holding this record up, really – around the time we started the band I went back to school to become a Montessori teacher. I work full time, I am in school, I’m a single mom, and I’m in two bands since Catfight has been out playing again this year. I’m hoping after I finish my class at the end of the summer we can really focus on getting out a CD. Vinyl would be cool, too! Right now we have music up on our Facebook/ReverbNation page, so everyone go listen to that!

How do you go about booking a band in Atlanta, with a 10-year-old drummer?

Very carefully! We have been very lucky; Nick doesn’t even know how lucky he is, what great shows he has played! Before he turned 10, he got to play not only [Rock n Roll] Monster Bash and Drive Invasion, but he got to open for CJ Ramone at Masquerade! We started by playing in restaurants owned by friends, we got everyone we knew out to see us, and we were lucky that a lot of folks posted videos of us on youtube. We got a lot of good word of mouth, and that led to more shows. I have played some of the most interesting shows with this band. We have played at Atlanta Rocks rock climbing gym on top of a huge boulder! You have to get creative booking shows when you have a 10-year-old in the band, but really I would say it’s good to do that no matter what kind of band you have.

What’s coming up for the band in the near future?

Well, we are playing at Shorty’s Pizza in Tucker on Saturday, May 12. We have wanted to play Shorty’s because the food is great! This is a special show because it’s also an end-of-season party for Nick’s baseball team. The coach wanted Spooky Partridge for the party, and we were only too glad to oblige. There is one kid on Nick’s team who loves Led Zeppelin as much as Nick, so we are going to do an abbreviated “Moby Dick” for him. We are also playing an art opening at the Defoor Centre on June 10! That should be great.

Catfight is playing Tunes From the Tombs at Oakland Cemetery on Sat. May 19 at 3 p.m. in the Criminal Records tent. Also we are playing at the Plaza Theatre before the [Blast-off Burlesque Taboo-La-La] screening of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS June 2 – my dream show!

Spooky Partridge. Photo credit: Rose Riot.

Any words of wisdom for aspiring female musicians? Mothers?

I have a little anecdote about being a female musician in Atlanta 20 years ago for everyone, and I hope this is something that does not happen to women in bands anymore! Doll Squad was playing at Masquerade one night, and when we finished we got off stage and wandered around, as you do, waiting to see the next band. This guy came over and said, (imagine redneck kind of voice) “Y’all were pretty good. But you’d be better if you played naked.” We just had to laugh – what can you say?? That was not the only incident like that I experienced with Doll Squad or Catfight, but it’s been a long, long time since I heard any nonsense like that. I hope no women in bands have that experience these days, but unfortunately I bet they do . . . Just keep playing ladies! Ignore the crap and get out there and play.

Moms: Expose your child to music as soon as possible – in the womb! Play every kind of music for them. Let them explore what they like. Even if you can’t sing or play anything sing with your child anyway. Get silly, have fun! Nick and I will sing “Ma-na-ma-na” from The Muppets in the car, then we sing “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s all music, it’s all good.

One more word of wisdom for mothers – no matter how much you want to absolutely do not watch THE STOOGES LIVE IN DETROIT DVD with your toddler thinking that he is too young to notice what obscenities Iggy Pop is yelling out. You could find yourself in the middle of Kroger with a child who yells “F****** dirt!” in the middle of the produce department. If this does happen, do what I do – pretend you are horrified and have no idea where the child could have learned this! If you are lucky, as I was, you ask him where he learned that word and he says, “From Daddy!”

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