Jerry Only, bassist and co-founder of the Misfits, knows all too well that being an influence doesn't pay the bills.
Founded in 1977, Only's band, which was led by singer Glenn Danzig, inspired a generation of punk and metal musicians during its six years of existence. But the ghoulish group's breakup, on Halloween of 1983, began a long, dry period for Only and his brother, a guitarist who calls himself Doyle Wolfgang Von Frankenstein. The pair struggled for years to win the right to use the Misfits name again, and on January 1, 1995, they finally succeeded. Shortly thereafter, Only and Doyle reincarnated the Misfits with the assistance of drummer Dr. Chud and vocalist Michale Graves and recorded a new album, American Psycho, for Geffen Records. And although the disc hasn't taken the world by storm, Only isn't about to whine. "It's been a long, hard road," he says. "This kind of career is not for weak-stomach people, if you know what I mean."
The Misfits' tale began in Lodi, New Jersey, when Danzig, Only and a drummer named Manny got together to record a seven-inch, "Cough Cool"/"She," for their own Blank Records imprint. Only had his doubts about the wisdom of the project. "I was like, 'I don't know about this,'" he concedes. "I tried to talk Glenn into holding off until we had something more substantial and a little more image behind us. But he said we could get better gigs if we had a record out."
The single did just that, but it also led to a conflict between the Misfits and Mercury Records, which had a Blank Records imprint of its own. Only and company ultimately agreed to relinquish the moniker in exchange for thirty hours of free studio time, which they used to record their debut album, 1978's Static Age. Today the album, issued under the Plan 9 banner, is regarded as a minor classic thanks to Danzig's Jim Morrison-esque vocals, the slashing beat of new drummer Mr. Jim and the chord progressions written by Only and guitarist Franche Coma, which merged early rock and roll and punk. But back then, most record-company executives were puzzled by the disc. "The people who were listening to it wanted to change our band into the Talking Heads," Only claims. "It amazes me, but they would listen to a song like 'Bullet' and want us to change it; instead of a crashing beat, they wanted us to stagger it, make it a little more danceable. And I said, 'Danceable? I can't deal with danceable.'"
Boogie-friendly or not, the Misfits began drawing crowds at Max's Kansas City, the Peppermint Lounge, CBGB's and other New York punk venues then ruled by acts such as Blondie and the Ramones. "We would be the upsetters of the shows," Only allows. "We would be opening up for somebody like Patti Smith, and we would just go out there and really rock the place. In our opinion, we were blowing out the bands we were opening for." At the same time, EPs like 1978's Bullet and 1979's Horror Business helped the Misfits develop a macabre reputation. As Only notes, "It felt natural to us. I mean, we were into monsters as kids--models, dinosaurs and things like that."
This concept remained in place through numerous lineup changes: Doyle came aboard in 1980, while drummers came and went with tremendous frequency (Arthur Googi and ex-Black Flag percussionist Robo were around for the longest spans). As for the music, it got stronger--at least initially. Walk Among Us, issued by Slash Records in 1982 as part of what Only describes as "a pretty shitty deal," is widely regarded as the Misfits' finest long-player. But a lack of financial success eventually ate away at the band's core and caused Danzig to become too self-indulgent. In Only's opinion, 1983's Earth A.D., the act's last platter with the vocalist, was its weakest for that very reason.
"Glenn was doing most of the songwriting at the time, and he got into the thrash thing," he says. "He wanted to be the forerunner of thrash, and I didn't see the logic in it. It just felt like we were catering to a market."
As Only tells it, Danzig's inability to get along with drummers finally sounded the Misfits' death knell. He refused to work with either Robo or Googi--and for what turned out to be the combo's last gig, he recruited a player "based upon the way he looked," Only says with a laugh. He adds, "Drummers cannot be chosen by an image." When Danzig subsequently blew off a planned German tour, Only realized that the group as it had been was finished. "I thought that if he wasn't willing to sacrifice and deal with Googi or Robo, then he really didn't have the same ambitions that we had in the sense of teamwork. I think a strong team is always better than a strong individual."
Danzig went on to greater acclaim with Samhain and the band that bears his name, but he didn't forget the Misfits; when Only tried to revive the group, the singer used every legal means at his command to stop him. Only fought back using the same tactics. "I would have to actually take my paychecks and buy some food and then send the balance to lawyers," he says.
Nine years of litigation later, Only and Danzig finally came to terms, with Only earning permission to use the Misfits appellation and Danzig gaining control of publishing concerns. Only claims to be satisfied with this partial victory: "We got the name, he gets to sell T-shirts. He didn't want to let go of anything that had money attached to it, so the bottom line was, if you really don't care about the money and you care about what you're going to do with your life, then we did okay. Now we just have to go out and make our own money."
After the pact was signed, Only and Doyle began looking for two more Misfits. Finding a new frontman wasn't an easy task, but Only believes that they made a good choice. He says that Graves, who was picked over 200 other hopefuls, "has the spunk and personality behind him to do the job," as well as enough determination to withstand the inevitable Danzig comparisons. "I was trying to find somebody who really wanted to do it," Only asserts. "I didn't want him to think, 'Hey, I'm going to make good money if I play with these guys.' I'd rather fail with somebody who was really into it than succeed with somebody who didn't give a damn about it one way or another."
American Psycho, the new Misfits' bow, doesn't stray too far from the musical styles associated with the Danzig era. The lyrics overflow with vampires, aliens and the like; the production (by Slayer veteran Andy Wallace) represents a technical leap forward; and the background harmonies that made ditties like "Night of the Living Dead" so memorable are present and accounted for. "The lead vocals are great for our tunes, but the real catchy thing is that we do these melody lines on top of the backing vocals," Only points out. "It's basically a Fifties influence, and as time went on, it just became our trademark. If we didn't have the 'whoa whoa whoa' in one of our songs, then it really wasn't us." The Eisenhower years are also recalled by "Day of the Dead," a Doyle-penned quasi-rockabilly track whose ending is sheer Elvis.
It's too early to know if Misfits devotees will accept Graves, who croons in his own voice even as he echoes Danzig's baritone howl. But the album's title cut and "The Haunting," a spooky sing-along, are strong offerings that compare fairly well with the Misfits' legacy. Geffen is apparently pleased with the results, as is director Wes Craven, who recently solicited a Misfits composition for the soundtrack to the upcoming flick Scream II. Only, who's in his late thirties, is not about to let such opportunities pass him by. After all, he's been in the punk-rock game long enough to know how rare they are. "I'm hoping to put out six or seven albums over the next ten years and stay with it," he says. "I work out everyday--and I'm hanging in there pretty good."
The Misfits, with Sick of It All and H20. 8 p.m. Saturday, November 8, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $13, 830-2525 or 1-800-444-
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