WHAT: Girlpope's last show
WHEN: 10 p.m. today
WHERE: Mohawk Place, 47 E. Mohawk St.
We live in a culture that worships success and measures that success materially.
In Buffalo, where succes stories are harder to come by, this is doubly so. Who wants to hear about all of our problems? Why not focus on the things we've managed to do well, weather notwithstanding?
In the music industry, we flock toward the successful, hoping a bit of that glory will reflect on us. And we value fame as an end in itself. How else to explain "American Idol"?
But there's another side to the story, naturally. For every actor who makes it big and settles into a lifetime of supermodel spouses and million-dollar paydays, there's a few hundred thespians slogging it out in the trenches of community theater for nary a penny, waiting for Guffman, Godot or anyone else who might happen to come along.
And in the world of Buffalo rock 'n' roll, for every Goo Goo Dolls, Ani DiFranco or Rick James, there's a band financing its own efforts, clinging to the belief that hard work will eventually help them break on through to the other side. Even an idealist would have to call such thinking delusional.
Why? For the music. Once you start, it's pretty close to impossible to stop.
Tonight, a band many of us pegged as Most Likely to Succeed among the Buffalo rock 'n' roll class will play its final gig after a decade together. They never made it. In the world of Simon Cowell and Clive Davis, they'd be considered a failure.
But for Mark Norris, Rich Campagna, Brandon Delmont and Tommy "the Kid" Stanford -- collectively, Girlpope, whose sound is a supremely catchy blend of British invasion rock, '70s glam, American power pop and punk -- it was all worth it.
"Yeah, I'd say it was worth it," says Girlpope guitarist-vocalist Mark Norris. "I think we all gave up certain important real-life things to keep the band going, but the trade-off was that we got to work with some really great, creative and funny people.
"I'm pretty proud of the band, too. I mean we weren't always great, but we were always a good time. And in the end, I think that's more important."
Norris raises an issue longtime fans of the band have always scratched their heads over. You'd see Girlpope tear the roof off a club with a sweaty, jubilant and occasionally drunken set and consider yourself having witnessed the real deal. Then the band members would come off stage, you'd tell them how great you thought they were, only to be met with much headshaking and gnashing of teeth. "We were awful," the cornered Girlpope member would assert.
But they weren't. A cursory listen to the band's two full-length discs -- "Cheeses of Nazareth" (1996) and "The Whole Scene Going" (1999), both on P22/Atom Smash records -- reveals that Girlpope had the goods. Nearly every song leaps out of the speakers and announces itself as a friend for life. Some suggest the sort of mellifluous cacophony captured by the Kinks on early singles like "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night." Girlpope didn't seem capable of writing a tune that didn't stick in your memory from the first time you heard it.
So why call it a day now?
"We've been in a sort of creative slump for a couple of years," says drummer Delmont. "We used to all be into the same bands and records, because we were always hanging out together and turning each other on to new -- and mostly old -- stuff. Mark is basically an encyclopedia of rock 'n' roll, and he was always getting us to go to record shows and making us buy certain albums. I remember him making me buy Love's 'Forever Changes' album when he was working at New World Record many years ago.
"But now everyone is older, some are married, some have kids, and the 'hanging out' is infrequent."
The band members offer slightly conflicting views of their history, which is not surprising given the subjective nature of experience. One thing they agree on, however, is the fact that "making it" in a band takes time, infinite sacrifice and a stubborn persistance of vision. It also helps if you don't have a girlfriend, a spouse, a day job, children, plans for a college education or a mortgage.
"We were always in the wrong place at the wrong time," reflects Delmont. "We just didn't work hard enough at touring. We played Toronto, Pittsburgh, New York, etc. But we didn't hit those places frequently enough. Everyone in the band always had a work or school commitment that limited our capabilities to tour."
Bassist Campagna concurs.
"I could easily blame not making it on Buffalo or bad luck or any number of things, but the truth actually is that it's our own fault," he says. "Self-promotion was never our strongest aspect. We tended to take very few things seriously. We always needed the manager we never had, who could take control of booking and promotion and all that, since none of us really had the knack for it."
What they did have a knack for was writing and performing simmering rock 'n' roll tunes and blending highly catchy song forms with a searing, often self-deprecating wit.
Goo Goo Dolls bassist Robby Takac, a Girlpope fan who asked the band to play the maiden voyage of his "Music Is Art" festival and appear on the accompanying CD/DVD set, posits the Girlpope magic in Norris' songwriting.
"Mark Norris' wit and editorial nature, although sometimes buried beneath a wall of chaotic rock, are the seeds of Girlpope's creativity," Takac says. "The band's true punk roots, their air of disrespect for the rock 'n' roll system, their intelligent lyrical observations and perseverance made them a downtown Buffalo staple."
All true. Few indie scene regulars will forget some of the band's hottest shows over the years, from opening slots for heavies like Cheap Trick, Guided by Voices, the Knack and Arthur Lee's Love, to various Halloween gigs, when Girlpope would impersonate a favorite act for the show's duration, be it Paul McCartney and Wings, T. Rex, the Kinks, or most recently, British glam rockers Slade.
As any independent band knows all too well, the carrot forever dangling just out of reach is the promise of record label interest. Girlpope had some; in fact, last year, its "The Whole Scene Going" album was picked up by an Australian label. Of course, a self-financed tour of Australia to cash in on the interest wasn't exactly an option for this band, all of whom hold full-time jobs.
Scott Bergman, now director of sales for Atlantic Records in Manhattan, worked with Girlpope from the beginning.
"I was working at WBNY, and Mark Norris worked at the Goodwill store near Record Theatre," he recalls. "He gave me a demo, and I fell in love with Girlpope's power-pop right away. I helped them do some recording at Select Sound, and then my plan was to shop the recordings to record labels. I always believed they had what it took to make it big."
Bergman urged the band to relocate to Washington, D.C., or Philadelphia, where they'd be able "to get a foot in the door, maybe do a residency at a club, build up a following and actually get to play for record company people. That's just not going to happen in Buffalo."
Bergman moved to Washington without the band in 1996. "It was too hard for them to do it; everyone had day jobs, bills to pay, commitments."
Bergman helped solidify some serious interest in Girlpope at Elektra records. But then the major-label merger shakeup began and Girlpope, like so many promising bands across the country, got lost in the shuffle. Suddenly, no label was interested in taking a chance on anything less than a proven, sure thing.
Though he's been with Atlantic for several years now, Bergman remains a Girlpope fan. He says he'll be at the band's farewell gig tonight.
"How could I not be a fan? I mean, it's like Cheap Trick, Big Star, the Kinks, great harmonies from Richie Campagna and powerful guitar from Tommy Stanford, all mixed together. Hearing them is remembering everything you liked about rock 'n' roll in the first place."
What's next for the band members? Delmont is a member of Odiorne, with former Mercury Rev drummer-turned-songwriter/guitarist Jimy Chambers. Campagna has formed a new band with former Grand National frontman Brian Woods, called 50 Amp Fuse. Stanford, who also recently disbanded his Dai Atlas project, is involved in a few different gigs presently. Norris plans to keep on keeping on.
"I don't think that I'll ever stop playing music, even if it's just around the house or in someone's basement," says the man who once told Campagna that "the only way out of Girlpope is in a pine box."
"But I think I'd like to learn how to be a better player and rethink the way that I write songs," Norris says. "I've done the same sort of style for a long time, and I think it's time that I branched off into something else."
Was it worth it? Is playing music that you love and believe in its own reward?
"Yes, absolutely," says Delmont. "I think if we would have played by someone else's rules, we would have quit a long time ago."
It's Campagna, though, who answers this question with the trademark Girlpope irreverence.
"If you received the 24-cent royalty check I do every month, you wouldn't need to ask that question," laughs the bassist. "I wouldn't change it for anything. We were a great band and I gained some great friends from it.
"Think of it this way: Buying a guitar -- $350. Renting a rehearsal space -- $200. Playing countless show with virtually every band that has waltzed through Buffalo -- about $100 a gig. Having immeasurable inside jokes, memories to last a lunchtime and three incredible hetro-lifemates -- priceless!"