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Take the Bait 

Our correspondent hooks a whopper in the Atlantic Northeast

Wednesday, Mar 19 1997
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The cliffs rise bleak and black in thick fog and the Atlantic roars in from the Arctic and smashes skyward in periodic explosions of foam. It's a twilit 3 in the afternoon on the outskirts of St. John's, Newfoundland, and the negative 12 wind chill slices through my jeans like I'm wearing fishnets. I'm out on these battered rocks of my own volition (though SF Weekly was kind enough to spot me airfare) and, I might mention, the first music journalist to make such a journey (beating the others by a scant two hours). I'm talking with Ray Pollack, a lanky, tattooed guy in thermals with an aquamarine flattop. At age 29, and seemingly impervious to the cold, he's the frontman of the Wellingtons, and, without a doubt, one of the founding fathers of "Newficore."

"We all fished once. So they tell us." He grins a mouth of busted scrimshaw and passes me the quart of beer. His knuckles are thrashed from riffs, not nets. Ice crystals have formed inside the bottle. "We all used to get up at 4 in the morning and head out to sea, whether it was snowing or not. Now we're bored as shit. And on the dole. Now we don't get up till noon." He laughs a geyser of steam as we turn back toward his station wagon, a rusted-through '79 Chevy with a faux-wood dash covered in punk rock stickers. I blow into my hands as we roar down the gravel toward town. Pollack lowers his window in a sudden freezer-blast, then plunks in a Flipper cassette. "There ain't no more fish anyway thanks to the corporate pricks down in Halifax." Not to mention the corporate pricks in my own country. As we pull into the cracked-shell lot of the Weary Mariner Hotel, I see the two shiny rental Fords next to mine. The only three cars in the lot. In the lobby I learn that Eric from Spin and Robert from the Voice are here, and that Olivia from Geffen and big Dave from Rolling Stone will be here in time for the show that kicks off the North American "Codhead" Tour. Newficore -- the angry wail of a bleak and battered Northeast -- has been netted and hauled over the transom of Corporate Rock's fishing boat. The message, in case you haven't already figured it out, is straight out of Moby Dick: Thar she blows! And by the time you read this, this whale of a show will have breached, no doubt thrashing and pissed, in our Bay Area waters.

Newficore -- a coinage attributed to Pollack's "asshole" cousin Bob in Ottawa -- can be traced back to three proto-seminal bands in the mid-'80s: the In-Seines, Scrod, and Ryp Ryder.

Pollack headed the In-Seines, an X-Ray Specs-influenced, power-ska post-pop-punk outfit, along with his former lover Tuna Blue on vocals and pipes (as in bag-). An overweight vegan radical alcoholic -- one of very few in these parts -- Blue died mysteriously by choking on a goosefish bone after a particularly rowdy gig over in Corner Brook; her legacy, and some say her pipes, can still be heard all the way up in Battle Harbor, Labrador. The stocky Gil triplets -- Lefty, Andy, and Randy -- comprised Scrod, a proto-grunge sludgefest power-trio. Either Andy or Randy (there is some vociferous dispute among the locals) is currently doing a 10-year stint down in Glace Bay for allegedly deep-sixing close to 25 vessels in the winter storms of '92 as part of an insurance scam. Ryp Ryder, a New York Dolls-styled glam outfit headed up by Crag MacDonald and Grand Johnny Banks, wrote the undersea single that started the whole scene, "I Ain't Gonna Fuck Mrs. Paul." All three bands recorded in Johnny's (deaf) grandmother's cellar in nearby Mount Pearl on a "borrowed" reel-to-reel, living off pickled turnips and herring, pissing icicles between takes in a hole in the dirt behind a tree. All put out their singles on Crag's legendary Lobster Pot records, which he still runs when he's not in the hospital. From these three bands, along with the influx of friends and younger siblings, and the howling winter winds of a fishing town's recession, Newficore was born, and over the years, in what might seem a stifling isolation, the sound has matured into a rigorous and angry genre as austere and durable as the chartreuse lichen that thrives on these barren, ocean-bound rocks.

I skid my Ford through driving snow down to an abandoned cold storage warehouse out on the wharves known as "The Freezer." A business formerly owned by Pollack's uncles -- a relic of a time when jobs, like the cod, were, if not abundant, at least available -- it is now the all-ages home of Newficore. Inside, the furnace barely works -- there's a prevalent numbness in the air. My breath plumes -- and the place, after years of disuse, still reeks of fish. I'm here to see the Wellingtons along with Slack Haddock, Gill Net, and a new band with a big buzz: Trawler, headed by Crag's 18-year-old sister, Reedy. Aside from me and the other journalists, a camera crew, and a few too many grinning A&R idiots, there are 25 or so bait-and-tackle-pierced, sickly looking teens milling around in the requisite Newficore attire: thermals and bright yellow oilskin coveralls. Many of them live here in the Freezer, in a free-form, anarchic co-op lifestyle that reminds one of schooling fish -- that certain safety is found only in numbers. These kids brew their own vodka, cook their own oatmeal, microwave their own fish sticks, which they offer up with a quaint sneer to jaded city-slickers like myself. I pass on the hors d'oeuvres, but take a mug of the vodka. Ka-boom!

Slack Haddock takes the stage with a thundering Stooges-era nihilistic slop-grind, "Puffin Boy." A mosh pit swirls into existence with the chaotic ferocity of an Arctic-tinged Nor'easter. Soon kids are being vaulted into the air, toward the single bare bulb that lights the entire stage. Like pelagic birds that simply refuse to fly, they fall back into a sea of welcoming hands. I escape to calmer waters, where I sip "dry ice" with Ray Pollack and the legendary Grand Johnny Banks, who I learn has just quit his mill job down in New Brunswick to re-form Ryp Ryder with Crag, who's due back on the docks by the end of the month. "We've already had a few warm-up gigs for the in-patients over at the hospital," he tells me. They're going to join the Codhead tour by mid-March -- just in time to rock San Francisco. I nod, thrilled by this bit of news. I then notice my colleagues circling in -- corporate-rock sharks looking to scavenge. "Curtis," they coo, all smiles. I shut my trap. Cold flesh gets pressed. I allow my brethren to blubber.

Next it's Gill Net with a 45-minute sonic-diesel-droneathon titled "Vinland the Foul," where the elfin lead singer, Vardis Fisher, rushes back and forth across the stage sporting a pair of neon-orange thermal gloves pantomiming what, I later learn, is the entire story of the Viking landing in Newfoundland during the 11th century A.D. The kids sway like strands of kelp, awash in the tide of history. Another mug of "ice," and another howling squall of feedback, and it's Trawler, with sister Reedy in shimmering silver body paint, wailing like a sounding baleen as the band hammers down hard on a locomotif that can only be likened to undersea tectonic plates colliding. By the third song Reedy has somehow leapt into the roof beams above us, a silver minnow teetering dangerously above the mosh pit. After methodically working the crowd into a frenzy, she sings her siren song of frustration and dives into the swirling sea. The crowd catches her -- their sacrificial fish -- and tosses her onstage, where she flops around, croaking, eyes bulging, gasping for life like a cod chucked in the ice well. After a howling storm of approval -- Trawler being a decidedly tough act to follow -- I glance over at Pollack to gauge his reaction. He's grinning; he's hooked. And sure enough the Wellingtons, in their knit caps and trademark rubber boots, hit the stage with a split-kick and Dead Boys bounce. From "I Sunk the Titanic" to "Pickled Ice" to "Another Fish to Fry" to the anthemic "In Cod You Suck," the elders of Newficore whip gale-force through the bleakest of Arctic post-pop-punk.

When the set is over, the crowd, barking like a gaggle of exhausted seals, manages to keep the Wellingtons onstage for an encore. Pollack, after taking a moment to tune, nods over to his old buddy Grand Johnny Banks standing next to me. Banks grins and grabs my arm, and, much to my surprise, up onstage we both go. Pollack hands me a sticky mike and Banks a spare guitar. I look down at where I previously stood, at my colleagues -- "journalists" and industry fools huddled together like aquarium wimps stunned by a glacial current. I realize I'm in the position where they've always dreamed of being. I've been asked to participate in the first encore of a road show that will, without a doubt, be the single most important rock event of the year -- if not the decade. I am, for one glorious moment, a bona fide Newfi. The drum sticks click and the band erupts into the song that started it all, and I give it everything I've got -- for Ray Pollack and Tuna Blue and Grand Johnny Banks, for all those who stayed and played in this economically battered hamlet out at the rocky edge of nowhere, where the bitter wind brings a frozen tear to the eye -- I shout, "I ain't gonna fuck ... I ain't gonna fuck ... I ain't gonna fuck Missus Paul!

About The Author

Curtis Bonney

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