Cover Story: Long Gone and Back Again

After a 27-year hiatus, the area's best 'worst' band reunites

May 28, 2008 at 2:06 pm
The way it was: The Customs in their heyday at the Jockey Club.

It's been 30 years since Mole's Records owner Jess Hirbe and producer Daryl "Doc" Kalmus unleashed the primal Garageabilly sounds of The Customs on an unsuspecting Cincinnati populace through their newly fashioned local label, Shake It Records. With that 7-inch single in 1979, Hirbe and Kalmus simultaneously launched a band whose work still resonates to this day on a label that became a major force in independent music and inspired the creation of one of the area's best and most eclectic music stores.

In 1997, Shake It's new proprietor Darren Blase fulfilled a longtime dream of resurrecting The Customs by releasing Real Long Gone, a full-length collection of the band's two Shake It singles and a wealth of unreleased material and live recordings. On the 30th anniversary of Shake It's birth, Blase is again in a commemorating mood, reissuing the full-length CD as Really Long Gone, with a handful of additional unearthed tracks.

More importantly, Really Long Gone's imminent release has inspired The Customs, inactive since their 1981 breakup, to reunite for one concert Saturday at the Southgate House. Blase tried to arrange a show in '97 after Real Long Gone's release, but band members were disinclined toward a reunion then.

The planets are more favorably aligned now, and one iteration of The Customs' fluid lineup (vocalist Thom Heil, guitarist Peter Greenberg, guitarist/keyboardist Jim Cole, bassist Forrest Bivens, drummer Billy Rosenthal) is reassembling to celebrate the label's 1978 debut. The first Shake It release, the Ed Davis Band's 7-inch of "Keith Richards' Dead"/"Asshole," was followed by The Customs' singles. The Customs' first gig was a loft party opening for Davis.

"I was a huge James Brown and King Records fan and I thought, 'Why not try to record some things on a low budget?'," says Hirbe from his Arizona home.

"I was playing basketball with Thom and Billy and they had their music thing going, and then Greenberg came in, and what a force he is. The Customs came along, and I liked the concept of the neo-Rockabilly thing. There was something going on there."

After a 7-inch from New Jersey girl group Candy Apple, Hirbe and Kalmus shuttered the label to concentrate on their respective businesses. Hirbe headed west after selling Mole's, and Blase approached him about reviving the label.

"He said, 'I'll trade you for a copy of Champion Jack Dupree's Blues From the Gutter and the label's assets are yours,' which was an envelope of pictures and a couple of negatives," Blase says. "When The Mortals wanted to cover 'Long Gone,' I thought, 'I should just do this as a Shake It thing.' You know, keep the joke alive."

After local Garage Rock masters The Mortals' single came a string of 7-inches (Tigerlilies, Man or Astroman, The Nomads, among others), then the label's first full-length CDs, including The Customs in 1997. Shake It has since released more than 50 titles.

"I never thought it would last," Blase says. "I only put out a second record to get paid for the first. Nobody would pay you if you didn't have another record coming, so I was like, 'Shit, I'll put out another one.' Then it started spiraling and built a little name for itself."

Within three years of starting to release CDs, Blase and his brother Jim fulfilled another longstanding dream of running an independent record store to stock their own label's records. Shake It Records launched as a retail entity in September 2001.

Just as the store evolved, so too has the label. After the success of a CD by Glue (Shake It's biggest seller to date) and Funeral Dress, the debut Wussy album (which is closing in on Glue's sales numbers), Blase has explored other business avenues, including publishing (a coffee table book on graffiti artists and a children's book written by his wife Dean).

Upcoming Shake It releases include an album from Cody Black, the new Wussy Rigor Mortis EP and a vinyl version of the new Sub Pop CD from acclaimed local singer/songwriter Daniel Martin Moore.

One of the many bands Blase championed was The Long Gones, a teenaged group inspired by their love of The Customs' sound, their name an homage to their heroes' second single. Vocalist Brian Dilsizian reminded him of the 30th anniversary and mentioned the reunion idea two years ago; Blase's response was, "You set it up and we'll do it."

With Blase's plan to revisit Real Long Gone, Dilsizian decided to contact The Customs to gauge their interest.

"I'd been wanting to book them for a long time and I thought I could use the 30th anniversary to theme the show," Dilsizian says. "I was really adamant about it. If I hadn't been, it probably wouldn't have happened. I mentioned it to Jim (Cole) one night, and he kind of laughed it off. But I ran into him and he said, 'I talked to Peter Greenberg about the anniversary show and he seemed into it.' Somehow it's happening."

To complete the reunion circle, The Long Gones will also reunite Saturday (minus original guitarist Tom Koehne, who sadly succumbed to leukemia five years ago; Pearlene drummer Andy Jody replaces relocated Drew Decker) and celebrate the CD debut of their 1998 album Prepare to Burn, which will be available at the show. The ever-entertaining Tigerlilies are the third powerhouse on the bill.

Certainly no one is more surprised at this recent turn of events than The Customs themselves. The brainchild of ex-DMZ guitarist Greenberg, a Boston native who got his high school and college degrees here, the band debuted in 1978; their only recorded output during their active period was the two Shake It singles.

Largely reviled by the media at the time as unlistenable noise, the band was adored by fans as they combined Punk's unrepentant energy, Rockabilly's fevered passion and Garage Rock's loudly naive charm. The Customs eventually cracked the club scene, then opened a number of big shows, increasing their fan base and inspiring memorable experiences.

"When we started playing, no one knew who we were and no club wanted to hire us," Heil says. "The first club that hired us on a regular basis was Fibber McGee's, and it was a real dump, but there would be people lined up their steps and down the street. We opened for Iggy Pop one night and Billy and I had an apartment then, and he came back with us and we partied all night. We were juggling raw eggs and singing Frank Sinatra duets. It was very surreal."

"We've gotten a huge response from the MySpace page," Bivins says. "People in Europe think we're still around. The Customs were like the '60s — if you remember it, you weren't there. But one night stands out: We played a prom for Summit Country Day and I don't know how we got that gig. We got in that gymnasium and these kids were screaming at us like we were The Beatles in Japan."

Dilsizian initially approached Cole , who contacted the others to get their thoughts on a reunion. Greenberg's lessening work schedule made his involvement possible, while Rosenthal, a full-time professional drummer in Florida, had to arrange his agenda to accommodate the gig. With Heil (who runs the Rustic Comforts furniture store in Loveland and hasn't sung onstage in 25 years) and Bivins (a U.S. Treasury employee who moonlights as a solo acoustic act) on board, The Customs reunion/Shake It 30th anniversary celebration shimmered into reality.

"Brian brought it up and it felt like the right time," Cole says. "Peter's quit a job and is looking for another and the timing is perfect for him, and we ran it by Billy and Thom and Forrest and for some reason everybody said, 'Yeah, let's do it!' We tried 10 years ago, but not very hard ... this time it's going to happen."

The band is clearly stoked about the potential for the show, and interest is running high: Blase has fielded e-mails from Japan, Australia, Spain, Norway and throughout Europe inquiring about the show. Such is the enduring power of The Customs, whose last local appearance was 27 years ago.

"If we have a legacy, if there is such a thing, it's that we opened some doors for other people," Heil says. "We got into some clubs and other bands were able to get in. Back then, there were maybe 15 to 20 bands that played anything different, now there's thousands. That's what I'm happiest about."

And what if the Customs reunion is a huge success?

"I could be at the airport — packed, ready, Travelers Checks, passport, the whole thing — and meet you there in 45 minutes if you've got something in mind," Cole says with a laugh. "If it went well and everybody was of a like mind, I could be talked into goddamned near anything."

THE CUSTOMS play the Southgate House Saturday with The Long Gones and the Tigerlilies.