“For a couple years, I was a bitter guy with a day job that I didn’t want,” says Peter Aaron by phone from New York.
That was after he’d spent a handful of years booking young bands like Nirvana and Mudhoney at small clubs around Greater Cincinnati, and then leading his own influential Blues Punk outfit The Chrome Cranks to international acclaim from an adopted home base in the Big Apple.
Aaron eventually quit that day job. Now, his latest book — written about and with Punk icon Richie Ramone — can be found in a bookstore near you. I Know Better Now: My Life Before, During, and After the Ramones was published in late November by Backbeat Books.
“The Ramones were one of those bands you never got sick of,” Aaron says. “They were a band that people loved in Cincinnati, just like everywhere else.”
During his years booking bands in the Queen City, Aaron (then going by Pete Wegele) was there for the Ramones’ most notorious local gig.
“It was a big deal when they played at (Newport’s) Jockey Club” Aaron says.
That appearance in 1986 was caught by an over-capacity crowd that included members of Metallica, who happened to be passing through town and heard about the gig at the notorious Punk venue. In I Know Better Now, Richie recalls how singer/guitarist James Hetfield expressed to him, casual beer in hand, a frustration that his own band couldn’t write songs with quite the same punch that Richie was able to.
Aside from his recent writing career, Greater Cincinnati music fans may recall some of the shows that Aaron had a part in bringing to the city during the late ’80s and early ’90s. After moving from New Jersey to Cincinnati with his family in 1982, a teenage Aaron quickly set out to gauge our region’s Punk community.
“The first thing I did was, find out where Punk Rock was,” Aaron says. “I’d go to Mole’s Records, saw flyers for Toxic Reasons and The Repellents and then thought, ‘I’ll be OK out here.’ ”
Between sojourns to Boston for college, Aaron would return to Cincinnati, even strapping on a bass guitar to play Punk shows around town with Sluggo between his freshman and sophomore years. He also started doing the Suburban Muckraker fanzine and a show for local community radio outlet WAIF. Those “industry” inroads put him in contact with labels and bands looking to book shows in the area.
“I figured, ‘I wanna see these bands, so I guess I’m gonna have to do it,’ ” Aaron says of his booking beginnings.
Aaron booked groups like Pussy Galore and The Fluid with partner Dan Reed at Corryville’s CJ’s Down Under. He then ventured out on his own at The Plaza, a Clifton Heights club located on West McMillan, part of a block eventually demolished and replaced by University of Cincinnati dorms.
“(The Plaza) was the first place I booked the Flaming Lips at, and Dinosaur,” Aaron says (yes, that was before Dinosaur added the “Jr.” for legal reasons). “Then I worked with (fellow local booking legend) Bill Leist in the last days of the Jockey Club, which led to working at (Newport’s) Top Hat, where I booked Mudhoney on their first tour and White Zombie.”
He also booked a relatively-unheard-of band named Nirvana a few times in 1989 and 1990. “They were supposed to play Top Hat, but had broken up and canceled that first tour,” Aaron says. He brought the band back later in 1989 for a rescheduled date at Murphy’s Pub in Clifton Heights. The following year, Aaron and Leist were booking at Shorty’s Underground near Bogart’s on Short Vine and they brought Nirvana back for their final Cincinnati show. Aaron has estimated the attendance at the Murphy’s appearance at around 30; the Shorty’s show fared slightly better, drawing, in his estimate, approximately 80 fans.
After about a five-year run of booking at clubs, Aaron says, “I was tapped out. I wanted to concentrate on making my own music.” Aaron’s Chrome Cranks starting taking shape around 1988, although it didn’t initially come out as he heard it in his head. After the band’s co-founder Bill Weber went to recording school in New York, Aaron decided to make a move.
“I eventually couldn’t see any other way to do it,” Aaron says of his relocation to New York City to launch The Chrome Cranks in earnest. “I’d worn deep ruts in terms of making anything happen (in Cincinnati).”
The Chrome Cranks maintained a robust touring schedule and “went hard and heavy for about five years straight after moving to New York, and never really took a break,” Aaron says, adding that the venture ended “like a lot of bands do — we were sick of each other. That was ’98.”
With the band over, Aaron found himself at another crossroads.
“I was left with, ‘Who am I? What am I gonna do now?’ ” he says. “I used to do fanzines and writing had always come naturally to me.”
Aaron picked up some fanzine assignments and took a couple refresher courses at New York University, which led to newspaper and editing work. He says he felt writing books was the next logical step and eventually was contacted by a friend who worked at Backbeat Books. In 2013, he wrote If You Like the Ramones...: Here Are Over 200 Bands, CDs, Films, and Other Oddities That You Will Love and a few years later Backbeat published his overview of The Band. Then Aaron received word that Backbeat had been trying to find someone to help out with Richie Ramone’s autobiography.
“It’s Richie telling the story,” Aaron says of I Know Better Now. “I’d never done a book like this before. It was a long adventure and Richie’s one of those people who plays it close to his chest — he’s not a big talker. I felt like it was a real journey for him, in terms of opening up. Once he started doing that, he really got into it and came out with a lot of great stories.”
Aaron’s not finished reflecting on his time in Cincinnati. Chicago’s HoZac Records, the same label behind several recent Chrome Cranks reissues, has asked him to curate an upcoming compilation of early Cincinnati Punk recordings.
“I’ve got tapes of stuff that was never released, so I’ve been trying to get that transferred (digitally),” Aaron says.
He says the project will likely feature bands like 11,000 Switches, The Customs and Dennis the Menace, plus material from ahead-of-its-time local label Hospital Records and much more.
“The starting point will be 1975, which is when Bitter Blood’s ‘Picnic,’ an almost Proto Punk record, came out,” Aaron says. “That’s an amazing single. They started out in the late ’60s as Bitter Blood Street Theatre, just a way-out band.”
Aaron pauses to consider the scope. “Should I take it to ’83, when things changed up to Hardcore?” he wonders. “Or ’85, with the first Wolverton Brothers? I’ll have to see how it shakes out, time-wise, but now HoZac is interested in splitting it into two volumes, which should make it easier. I’ve wanted to do (something like this) forever. I tried to do a cassette version back in the late ’80s, but I just had too many other projects at the time. Hopefully this is a good time to do it.”
Lately, Aaron has also been enjoying positive reviews for his latest band project, Young Skulls, which includes Chris Turco of Trans Am. Rife with energetic crackle, dense, organ-backed Garage riffs and howling vocals driving meters into the red, the group’s new 7-inch release for Slovenly Recordings recalls the promising, raw energy of a young Murder City Devils or an intensified, harrowing Hentchmen.
The dust cover on I Know Better Now notes, “Richie Ramone ain’t no footnote.” Neither is Peter Aaron. In whatever role he may next appear, making or archiving sounds that have shaped the world as we know it, we’re all better for it.