NEW YORK CITY, 1981 – So, there was Spit. It was the name of a nightclub in Boston that was used to book shows for Ruth Polsky’s (Gurl Nineteen) British imports after the collapse of the Underground.
Nick Cave’s first combo, The Birthday Party, were the first of bands originally booked to play in our dingy incubator but ended-up at this insane party club that was literally on the same street as the fabled Fenway Park.
Another of the visionary hustlers that went through this slap-dash venue transitioning procedure was Frank Tovey, who performed under the moniker Fad Gadget.
The band’s appearance at Spit was the first date of a nearly month-long tour of the U.S. It was the first time that they would be doing more than a handful of shows in the New York area in support of their groundbreaking electronic approach to music.
Your humble narrator (YHN), along with Depeche Mode and so many others, had been hugely influenced by his sonic experimentation. Being able to do sound for the band, which meant being able to interact with them not as a fan, but as a part of the performance was exhilarating.
We really hit it off. Frank, the three other members of the band and a road manager introduced to me as Barbara. Doing an artist friendly, watching from the audience, road manager approved mix for the front of the house and for being an excitable, pop culturally dense and geographically savvy “yank,” an offer to go on the rest of the tour as the sound person was offered and accepted.
It was on the third night of the tour, where over the 72 hours previous; Barbara had exhibited the fierce attributes of a grizzly protecting her cubs, a casual indifference coupled with a pithy acceptance of Frank’s extreme sensibilities and a parsimonious approach to money that would have done JD Rockefeller proud, that YHN found out the truth.
Robert Gotobed from the band Wire, who was performing percussion duties while his band was on hiatus, casually mentioned the fact that Gurl Twenty Four, Barbara Tovey, was, for the longest time, Frank’s wife and cohort.
Like the feeling you get when you’ve been staring at a cryto-quote for what seems like hours and then, the puzzle falls into place and you feel dumb and smart at the exact same time. It was like that.
The relationship that Barbara and Frank had was a Sasquatchian ideal, a sort of mythical being or, mystical state that everyone has heard about but few have seen.
If you are lucky/cursed enough to have glimpsed it in it’s natural state, you rub your eyes and spend the rest of your life wondering if it is real. They were perfect for each other. The yin to the yang, the hammer to the anvil, the knife to the sheath the George to the Gracie.
As luck would have it, there was a three-day break in the tour for the first three days in June before a show in DC on Thursday that we would spend in New York City.
We had been ensconced at the fabled rock rest stop the Iroquois Hotel on 44th St. since Sunday’s show in Hoboken. It was packed with friends old and new because the Clash were in town doing their legendary stand at Bond’s Casino.
At breakfast on Tuesday Barbara off-handedly dropped the fact that we were all VIP listed for the show that night. It just happened that the opening band that night was an explosive combo from DC called The Bad Brains.
Knowing them from earlier shows in Boston, YHN got down to the venue early to say hello. They had always admired the dub-wise (See Gurl Twenty One) soundboard efforts done live for them previously and asked if they could be done that evening. A quick “fuck yeah,” was uttered and provisions were made.
It went smooth as silk. So much so that Keith Levene -who after being squeezed out of The Clash, had formed P.I.L., was still friendly with them- came into the sound booth and said to hang out for the next set because he was mixing the next band and thought we’d have fun. It was for a band called the Slits, it was beyond fun.
Rushing backstage to party, crow and preen among comrades, the first person to come into view was Barbara. Nodding with alternate smiles and lifted eyebrow she waited until the torrent of words being spewed at her trailed fitfully into silence.
“Ruth got us a gig tomorrow in Rah-lay(?) so we have to leave now. Sounds like you had a lovely time.”
Isn’t that the crushing reality of pursuing a dream? That the pursuit of anything that does not ring hollow within you requires tremendous sacrifice. It’s so easy to just try things. To do things, to craft an existence and make a way either good, evil, artsy or even goth requires one thing. A good and true partner.
Gurl Twenty Four and Frank lived a life together that YHN had never seen outside of odd French movies filled with sultry, sexually spurting smoky cigarette plumes filled in innuendo and incomprehensible adultness.
Their life together, forged from their earliest art days in Leeds to the heights of artistic recognition and world-wide acclaim is foundational to all subsequent searches by YHN.
Tragically, Frank passed away in 2002. He left us an incredible body of work, two astounding children and the partnership he had with Gurl Twenty Four.
No photos of Gurl 24 were snapped the writing of this article.
YHN, Richard Papen, is a character from “The Secret History” who came from the rough and tumble of the west into a world of aesthetics and literary exhortations somewhere in New England.
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