December 30, 1997
By Steve Knopper
Jonny Polonsky's goal was simple: He wanted a guitarist, bassist and drummer to play rock 'n' roll with him around the country next year. So the Chicago singer-songwriter placed a classified ad -- "NEEDS TOURING BAND" -- and hoped, at least, for a few capable journeymen.
He got something very different.
One bassist sent an audition tape -- queued up, oddly, in the middle. Polonsky rewound it to the beginning, listened for a few minutes, then realized it was all guitar and drum machines. No bass at all. Polonsky called the applicant, who said, "No! You have to play it from the middle." The singer gamely fast-forwarded to the middle, where the music devolved into incomprehensible, fuzzy, bizarre boom-box experiments.
"It's really funny," says Polonsky, who released his solo debut in 1996 on American Records. "It's really been a cross-section of humanity, with the psychotic depravity people commit to tape. You'd think people were answering an ad for the midway in the carnival. It's unbelievable how many freaks you get."
Finding musical soulmates through the classified ads is one of the great romantic subplots of rock 'n' roll history. Elton John met songwriter Bernie Taupin after each responded to the same record company classified in the early '70s; they've been working together successfully for almost three decades. The members of influential rock bands Kiss, the Pixies and the Bangles, to name just a few, met each other that way.
Musicians constantly try to meet through the personals. The "bandmates wanted" advertisements in the Chicago Reader, the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Recycler and elsewhere are written with a mixture of enthusiasm and desperation. Recent three-liners have announced: "Female punk bass, where are you?"; "In search of dependable drummer for world domination"; and "We have practice space and good songs.
"But today -- maybe because it's harder to meet people, maybe because there are so many different types of pop music, maybe because people really are freaks -- placing such an ad is frequently a ticket for irritation and inconvenience.
"I don't know where these clowns come from," Polonsky says. "This one guy called on the machine and said, `I'd like to send a tape, but I don't want to bore you with my playing. I'd rather just have you over and I'll play for you live and we'll just talk. Because the way I see it, it's a compatability issue, and the playing's just easy.'
"Ideally, I'd like to just find a great band and fire their singer."
Like Polonsky, most advertisers wind up answering respondents' queries with patience and bemusement. Joe Principe, bassist for the Chicago punk band Nice Guys Finish Last, was surprised at the number of drunks and no-talents who tried to score a bass-player audition. "We get a lot of people who call who don't really realize what we're looking for," he says. "It's frustrating." But like all people who use the classifieds -- both advertisers and respondents -- Principe hopes for the perfect connection.
It still happens. Lucia Cifarelli, singer for the metal-punk New York City quintet Drill, has joined two bands simply by calling phone numbers listed in the Village Voice classifieds. She got her start that way several years ago with a band called Mercy Sky.
"I joined just so I could get some experience in front of an audience," Cifarelli says. "Once I made it into the band, it was still not a democracy at all. They had certain members who were running the ruse -- this one guy decided I couldn't be in the band anymore. He said, `You can't sing . . ., we were desperate, see ya.'"
Eventually, Cifarelli responded to another ad and hooked up with guitarist Dan Harnett and the two formed Drill. (They now make CDs for A&M Records.) But here's the punchline: Mercy Sky broke up and, years later, its desperate bandleader responded by chance to a Village Voice classified Drill had placed to find a new bassist. Needless to say, he didn't get the job.
Cifarelli says respondents also encounter their share of clowns. "But I think arrogance is more what you run into," she says. "A lot of people who put ads in the paper, whether they have their (expletive) together or not, they like to come off like they're the next big thing."
Northwestern University student Lisa Ackerman doesn't act arrogant at all -- exasperated, perhaps, but not arrogant. She has been placing Reader ads for months to round out the lineups of her two bands, Sub Polar Islands and Sugar Glider, and coming up almost totally empty. Though she's patient and enjoys some of the interviews, it's much more complex than the situations Cifarelli recalled. Because she's female, Ackerman says, she insists on having long talks with respondents over the phone, then meeting them in a safe public place.
Frequently, she says, men will react with surprise that she's a woman. During phone calls, she can hear them whispering to friends in the background -- things like, "Hey, it's a girl!" In the past, after word spread of her gender, non-musicians have called asking for dates. "It almost becomes a personal ad," Ackerman says.
In 1981, singer Susanna Hoffs was fortunate enough to find a band on her first whirl through the Los Angeles Recycler classifieds. Upon reading a "bandmates wanted" classified for a singer who liked The Beatles, Byrds and a couple of early-'80s punk-rock bands, she called immediately. The woman who had placed the ad wasn't home, but Hoffs wound up talking for three hours to her roommate, guitarist Vicki Peterson. They became the core of the Bangles, one of Los Angeles' most respected pop-punk groups before breaking nationally with hits like "Hero Takes a Fall" and "Walk Like an Egyptian."
"We were sort of bonding over the phone," Hoffs recalls. "I guess I waited about three weeks, and I saved that copy of the paper and I called back and said, `You know what? We should hook up.' So we went into the garage, we played together that night and that was it. We all knew.
"It's pretty remarkable," she adds. "But I always say, I met my husband on a blind date."
Hoffs, however, says she wouldn't respond if the same ad were to run today. Of course, she's 40, not 24, and she no longer leads the impetuous young rocker's life. "I don't think it's safe," she says. "I wouldn't want young girls doing that because the Bangles did it. I would not recommend it." Then she excuses herself to drive her son to school.
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