by Bruno Westover (originally posted on Left Off The Dial)
The Waxing Poetics made Norfolk, VA proud, and they managed to put the city on the map in the blossoming 80s mid-Atlantic punk and underground music scene. Bruno Westover recalls his experiences playing with Sean (David) Middleton in bands that would later morph into the Poetics. Catherine Nicholas recounts last month’s reunion show at The Boathouse, celebrating the venue’s 20th anniversary.
It was during English class together, at Norfolk Catholic High Schoolearly 80s. From the start, our class knew he was the musician type.
There was one of those early days in every English course when the teacher gets the students fired up by asking what gave them passion. With Sean Middleton (he was Sean then, not yet David) it was writing music. He sat near the front of the class. I, sitting near the back, remember seeing more than a few exchanged glances at that response. He was no David Lee Roth, so the smirks and familiar high school exclusionary eye roll were the prevalent response.
Somehow, months later, there we were: Nick on bass, Julie on keyboards, Sean on lead and vocals, and Jeff on rhythm guitar. I was on the drums. Band names were thrown aroundcan we call ourselves the News? No. Sean knew of some brand new band at that time without their first hit with a guy named Huey Lewis. They had already nabbed it. Were we so naive and excited to think copyright infringement would actually be an issue?
Choosing a band name was entertaining to a point, but everyone had his or her own opinion, and high school kids know little about diplomacy. Having a band in the 80s meant making buttons was tops on the “to do” list. Not the real plastic buttons that most made with a kit, mind you, but fucked up white cardboard things we had handwritten with the band’s name in a funky New Wave font, glued to a baby pin. Hey, it was genius then, and you needed to pin something to that mandatory tie in Catholic school to add some edge to the dress requirement.
Thankfully, Catholic relaxed the dress code soon after, perhaps out of futility. We set up camp in my mom’s house in West Ghent and hammered away. The Clash, the Cars, Dire Straits, Elvis Costello, and the like flew out the attic window. And hard.
Sean wrote some originals as well. “If You Knew Sushi” was one, and by now it has earned some well-deserved recognition as one of The Waxing Poetics first songs (even garnering some airplay on MTV’s “120 Minutes”).
When we played, we were loud enough to piss off Judge Lydia Taylor from down the street (we’re talking almost a block away) so much, she stormed into my mom’s foyer, uninvited, to stop the madness. That might’ve stopped us for the day, but mom knew how to keep kids off the streetspissed off neighbors or not. I never really knew what mom did when we played, but I’m sure it required more than just closing the bedroom door.
We improved, and Sean continued to defy the high school order of things. Nobody ever figured, for example, that Sean would do more pull-ups in gym class than the school’s resident asshole/meathead that particular year (they come and go, you know), but he did, and did it quietly. We loved it.
You’ve got to understand the music scene then. Norfolk’s finest in the New Wave collective released a compilation album No Room to Dance featuring local greats like the X-Raves, Tango Storm, the Naros, and others who would play at Kings Head Inn and The Taj Mahal, Norfolk’s New Wave haunts of the time.
I still treat this important channel to my past as a vinyl holy relicscratch free after 20 years. No Room was a pretty hot local release at the time, and it helped inspire us to kick things into gear and at least try playing at a few parties.
At that time, Norfolk bands were plentiful and on the move, and we wanted to play somewhere too, even though we were way too young to join the circle. The most memorable show for me: we played a Catholic High School keg party (no oxymoron intended) at LeAnne’s house, and LeAnne insisted her mom was cool with it. She was, and we set up on a concrete dock next to the lake, a lake that was flat and long enough to let the sound carry like hell.
We were highlighting a high school kegger of mythic proportions, using premium rented equipment and a mixing board to supplement our meager instruments. Well, ours were meager. I think I remember Sean having a beautiful black Gibson. On top of that, Chris Hite from the Naros worked the board for us as we played.
Up until that time, I’d never seen anyone rehearse as diligently as Sean did for the guitar solo during our “epic” rendition of Dire Straits “Sultans of Swing.” It was all so unforgettable for me, that is. It was the end of my road with the band that would later go on to regional and even some national acclaim as The Waxing Poetics.
Sean Middleton (as David) would see much bigger things as we all went our separate ways. The band name we had finally chosen by that final gig on the lake was the Generics, which later became the Probe when Sean (who became David at this point) met Bill Shearin in 1983.
Then David’s new band, the Waxing Poetics, played Dominic’s and Cogan’s, ultimately recorded with the help of Mitch Easter and Mike Mills from the R.E.M. camp, and toured the Atlantic coast with the help of Carol Taylor as their manager a lady who left an indelible mark on the Norfolk music scene. She will always be missed.
Later, while in college, I saw the Poetics play my fraternity house after we had all graduated from Catholic. Imagine my excitement when they played “If You Knew Sushi.” Last month, roughly twenty years later, I had a quick but welcome opportunity at Cogan’s to say “great show” to David after the Poetics Boathouse reunion gig. It had been awhile, so I doubt he realized I was talking about the show at Leanne’s keg party, too.
What the Waxing Poetics left can surely be called a legacy at least in the eyes of anyone who grew up in or around Norfolk, VA. What other explanation can there be for the bands ability to fill Norfolk’s Boathouse over twelve years after their dissolution in 1991?
And what other reason can there be for fans of my age, quite young at the time of the bands breakup, to appear in large numbers at this reunion show in 2003? The Waxing Poetics made Norfolk proud and managed to put the city on the map in the blossoming 80s mid-Atlantic punk and underground music scene that Richmond and DC always seemed to dominate.
Thus, it was quite appropriate that the Poetics were the band selected to play a show celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Boathouse, Norfolks dearest mid-sized venue for alternative music. The Poetics first show at the Boathouse was in October of 1984, opening for the Ramones. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend that show, seeing as how I was four years old at the time. But lucky for me, I did catch the reunion show last month, and judging from their performance I think its safe to say that the bands music has earned the mark of timelessness.
We arrived at the Boathouse early in hopes of hearing from a few of the old-school local fans about their memories of the Waxing Poetics. They were eager to tell us about hanging out at the various venues where they used to watch the Poetics before they got big, including Cogans, The Jewish Mother, and other places around town.
Some fans told us that when they heard news of this reunion show, they called up their friends and siblings to say, Guess what? Im going to see the Waxing Poetics! (I can relate. I called my older brother to do the same thing hes the one who got me into the Poetics music after all.)
We heard from a lady who was a big fan throughout the 80s; she had brought her younger niece to the show, who she had recently given an old Poetics tape to, making the niece a fan for life. We heard from people who had seen shows throughout Virginia and had traveled several miles to see the Poetics play. We heard from a guy who remembered playing Poetics songs on his college radio show at Virginia Tech. All were excited about the chance to see the band play again that night.
And the band didnt leave any fan disappointed. Taking the stage after a warm introduction, the band went right into Frankensteins Daughter. It was apparent from the start that the band hadnt lost much in the years since its breakup. This was particularly noticeable in David Middletons voice, which rang clear and perfect after all these years. Too many lead singers lose their ability to hit those high notes, but for Middleton, it was pie.
They played all of the old favorites, including “Sugardaddy”, “Walking on Thin Legs”, and “If You Knew Sushi”. The crowd was also treated to rocking versions of two of my favorites: “Jet Black Plastic Pistol” with its killer percussion and “Blue Eyed Soul”, which featured one of the most impressive guitar solos I have ever witnessed in a live setting, courtesy of Mr. Paul Tiers.
On the encore, we got to hear a solo version of Manakin Moon from David, and then the band joined to rock out to “Baby Jane”, which is the song that has managed to survive best on Norfolk radio stations, even after all these years.
If you think that these guys are has-beens on the music scene, you can think again. The band ended the night by playing a song that guitarist Paul Tiers had written with his new band, Master Plan. From the sounds of the song, it was easy to tell that Tiers has been living in New York City for some time now.
In the song, you could hear the NYC of the 70s (Ramones-style) and present-day New York (Strokes-style) morphing into something that was intriguing and innovative. In fact, I can’t wait to hear more.
The talent of the Waxing Poetics lives on.