Stephen wrote the liner notes below at Aly’s request, in 2001. (Picture courtesy of Karen Cattan.) It reminded me that I used a line from a Leisure Unit’s song in one of my books. Only the lonely live for the cinema.
I want to know what you’re doing on a night like this
Want to know if you know what you mean to me
You know the story of the bird in the hand
And that’s why I want you back by the turn of the century
I’ve wanted the Leisure Units back for years, ever since they disappeared the first time. Maybe that moment has arrived.
I was the unofficial president of their largely imaginary fan club. I had been friends with Mike McClintock and Aly Sujo in college (Wesleyan, in Connecticut, a fine place to indulge oneself during the psychedelic revolution). We reconnected when we all moved to New York in the early 70s. I saw Mike perform a few times then, admired his casually absurd lyrics and his I’ll-do-anything-to-get-you-to-watch-me performances.
When he went off to Holland (love, adventure) he would periodically send me scrawled notes on thin blue paper. Some of these notes were actually peculiar requests: PLEASE RESCUE MY SUITCASE FROM THE BASEMENT OF MY OLD APARTMENT ON WEST 82nd STREET. PLEASE SEND ME A COPY OF THE 1100 PAGE MSS. I LEFT WITH YOU ABOUT MY FATHER. PLEASE SEND ME SOME MESCALINE. but they always made me laugh.
So, when I came back to New York from 6 months in New Mexico in December 1977, and almost immediately bumped into Mike on my otherwise quiet block of West 87th St. I was amused and excited to hear he had moved in across the street and was starting a band with Aly and Aly’s school chum David Young, using the money Mike had recently inherited from his father (about whom he always spoke with an odd mixture of reverence, rage, and irony).
Mister memory to you/You know his face from the paper
I started showing up at that apartment almost every day. OK, I had a lot of free time then. I was eking out a truly meager existence constructing lame articles for women’s magazines, and writing Off-off-Broadway plays. Mike’s apartment was an oasis for me. It was a long, thin, dark little first floor apartment with a tiny backyard, and at whatever time I rang the bell, Mike, Aly, David and various others would be there playing, brainstorming, goofing around, making phone calls, writing songs.
Somewhere in that year Robin Eaton showed up, also a Wesleyan friend, and joined the band. I spent part of the summer of 1978 in Montauk, at a cheerful dump run by Edward Albee for hopeful playwrights. Every few days, I would call Mike up and he would play their new tapes for me. Now and then, the Units would actually warble into the phone. I remember first hearing Telegram this way; it was strangely thrilling to feel you were on the inside of something.
There was a lot of craziness. Once, we drove to some Colombian neighborhood in Queens because someone wanted to find a drummer who knew cumbia rhythms for a song they were working on (probably Sue). Aly denies all memory of this, but I recall vividly screeching across town in Mike’s orange Volvo station wagon. We ambled into an ominous bar which someone had claimed was a hang out for Colombian musicians. As soon as the door closed behind us, there was a ghastly silence and black looks from the patronswere we INS officials? DEA? I was fairly sure we were going to be killed but Mike was an expansive fellow, a gifted bullshitter in more than one language; soon, they were buying us drinks.
I’m not sure any esoteric rhythms were obtained that night but it always struck me as a typical Mike adventurepreposterous, a little dangerous, entertaining, possibly pointless.
I loved the songs. I still do. I have a 20 year old tape I drag out from time to time, despite the dismal sound quality. The first song they recorded, Champagne and Money to Burn, starts out a bit uncertainly but picks up nicely after the first verse; the second half of Mystery Music, starting with the little electric violin solo, seems brilliant to me. Listen to the opening riff of Suesweet and lovely all these years later. Caroline sounds like a song you’d turn up really loud on the car radio while speeding down the highway. And after recently listening to Rebecca again, I found myself singing on the subway: I been to Paris/And I been to France/Daddy what a fool I been/You know the secret of a long long life/Is to be soft in the middle/And round at the rim
Come on, that still rocks.
Somewhere in the autumn of 1978, they began to play in the many clubs that mushroomed in NYC during the punk and new wave explosion. I saw almost every performance. The Leisure Units often seemed painfully nervous to me before they went on but some nights they really could rock your socks to Hades.
There were some not so wonderful gigs, too. Once, during the transit strike of 1980 I walked, I don’t know, 75 blocks, to hear them in some dispiriting dive (like I said, I had a lot of free time back then) where the band and I outnumbered the audience. But I remember at least 4 performances–one at the long-vanished Hurrahs, two at CBGBs, and one at Irving Plaza–when I realized with distinct pleasure that it wasn’t just me who enjoyed their music, that sullen youths were looking up from their watery beers muttering Who are these guys?
I felt like their brother, the guy who cheers you on when you’re not sure you’re doing the right thing; I believed in their music and I enjoyed their dissolute company. After a while, Mike moved down to a loft in Tribeca, and I felt bereft but I still showed up a lot, hoping for a party (and often found one).
They were quarreling more, though. The various demos had elicited tantalizing possibilities but no recording contract had appeared. They were getting discouraged and a little bitter. This isn’t croquet! Mike was running out of money, there were who-is-the-lead-singer issues, the kind of disputes all bands go through I guess: who’s in charge here? I tried not to notice.
Somewhere in 1981, Mike called excitedly to tell me they were opening for Squeeze at the Bottom Line. Then I heard that they had signed some kind of management deal with Michael Lang, the Woodstock guy; then that he had fired Robin; then that Lang didn’t want them to do the Bottom Line gig (he didn’t think they were ready), then that they weren’t speaking to each other.
I felt almost as depressed as if it had been my own band that fell apart. Mike and I remained close friends; I saw less of the others. I cheered Mike on in his various post-Leisure Units performance modes but he seemed more and more trapped in the far-from-satisfying life he had improvised for himself. And so many other things happenedthe years moving faster than banjo on ice. And then, Mike was dead.
That’s almost 10 years ago now. But it still hits me hard. I loved him, idiot though he sometimes was; I thought him one of the most gifted and self-thwarting people I ever knew.
But the music is still there. In its original beauty. The songs don’t seem dated to me, with their Beach Boys-on-belladonna harmonies and throw-away surrealism. They should have been heard by a lot more people back then. Maybe a few more will hear them now, and appreciate the burst of excitement and joy they brought into some of our lives.
Mike, in whatever annex of the afterlife you are currently lounging, I’m sure you’re cackling wildly at the thought of this.
Sue, turn out that light.
New York City