SHARPEN UP FOR DUTY Seminal Pittsburgh punk band Carsickness reunites for the first time since the ’80s

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Maybe we were no experts on punk around here, but Carsickness certainly seemed to fit whatever vague definition of punk you wanted to apply, mostly because they didn’t sound like Pittsburgh.

Carsickness was what might have happened if The Clash and The Attractions had met Yes in a phone booth. It was delightfully weird and so far ahead of its time you had to think they were a little, well, crazy.

It holds up magically on “Carsickness: 1979-1982,” a new CD/vinyl/digital compilation on Get Hip Records that captures one of Pittsburgh’s most seminal bands at its peak. It will be celebrated with Carsickness’ long-awaited reunion (aka Non-Union) Friday at the Non-Punk multimedia exhibit at SPACE Gallery.

The story begins in 1976 with a 21-year-old Karl Mullen crossing the pond from his native Ireland to Philadelphia and landing in Pittsburgh, via a friend of a friend, a week later.

“It was a challenging time in Ireland,” he recalls. “Everyone thought there was a civil war looming. A whole generation left. America has always been the safety valve, to some extent, for Irish kids.”

His roots were acoustic Irish folk with a dash of progressive rock and Captain Beefheart avant-garde. When he went home to visit in the summer of ’77, he saw the Sex Pistols and the Clash bursting out of London.

Back in Pittsburgh, he was washing dishes at the Original Hot Dog Shop and the Cornucopia and forming The Targets with drummer Dennis Childers and guitarist Mike Sallows. It lasted only a couple gigs before he went on to The Cuts – so named because Kinko’s wouldn’t print it with an “n” – with Bob Price, Dawn Spears and Dick Vitale.

When The Cuts faded, he was jamming at a Bouquet Street house where Mr. Childers had his drums. On Feb. 13, 1979, they were right up against the stage at The Clash’s first U.S. show at the Agora in Cleveland. Multi-instrumentalist Steve Sciulli was there, too.

“I took a bus by myself to Cleveland,” he says. “After The Clash show I had enough money to either buy another ticket back to Pittsburgh or head to a bar. The smart money was on heading to the nearest bar. That is where I heard Karl’s Irish accent holding court at the bar. So I bought a round of drinks. After a while they said they had a bit of a drive and needed to leave. To my surprise they were heading to Pittsburgh. So we kind of put together the concept in that van ride back. I was at their house the next day. Bouquet Street. With a synthesizer and bagpipes. To my surprise they were all still sleeping mid afternoon. I think my mom packed a lunch to give to everybody.”

Add a pair of CMU students in Chris Koenigsberg on bass and Archie “Hans” Werner on farfisa/organ and you had Carsickness, the name stemming from the lines at the pumps that year and a disdain for a certain New York New Wave band.

“When I listen back to that Carsickness stuff, it wasn’t a punk band, was it?” Mullen says.

“YOU were the punk,” I tell him.

Really, it was all of them.

The Dublin native was at the core with a stabbing, thrashing guitar and raw, scratchy, yippy vocals to rival Rotten and Strummer. The rest surrounded it with their own bits of chaos, spazz-outs and tricky time signatures.

“Dennis played like some crazed-out Ornette Coleman saxophone on the drums. All those runs all over the place,” Mullen says.

Some songs were 20-second bursts; some were mini pieces of experimental prog punk; a few fell in between, like the Psychedelic Furs-like “For You.”

“Karl was very aware of the prog movement as well,” Sciulli says. “We used to listen to Van der Graaf Generator while on tour. I always felt as if it was my duty within the band to keep the prog flag flying as can be heard by my use of mellotron and analog synths. The element of musical surprise was vital to us.”

“Some people called us the Grateful Dead of Pittsburgh,” Koenigsberg says. “The comparison being that sometimes a three-minute song could turn into an hourlong jam.”

Most of the first gigs were at house parties, one of which drew a noise complaint that ended with the frontman in police custody.

“They put me in a paddy wagon and they drove around picking up other people,” he says. “And then they put me in a cell, and the next morning, I was like, ‘Where’s my cup of tea, guys?’ They were like ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘I was arrested a couple times in Ireland and England (which I hadn’t been, I lied) and they gave me a cup of tea?’ They were laughing like, ‘Oh, this is an Irish guy! He thinks he gets a cup a tea!’ “

If they had bothered to look, they would have found that he didn’t have proper papers to be in this country, which was why he was known in Carsickness as Joe Soap.

Early on, Carsickness was a mismatch for the main rock clubs in town, so they broke down doors, playing galleries, basements, parks, and then, in March of 1980, Mullen and Reid Paley (later of The Five) approached Johnny Zarra, owner of failing disco club the Electric Banana. He gave them a night, it was packed, and within weeks, the Banana transformed into a punk club, one of the nation’s most notorious.

If Carsickness had a signature song, it was the spastic “Bill Wilkinson,” with its shout-along chorus of “Whattaya say to the KKK? F— you,” written after seeing the Imperial Wizard on late-night TV.

“The KKK got a lot of attention back then,” Mullen says. “I remember driving down to street, and you would see Confederate flags and KKK posters.”

The song was among the highlights of Carsickness’ 1980 debut EP and the 18-song vinyl debut “Shooting Above the Garbage,” followed by 1982’s more polished “Sharpen Up for Duty.” Carsickness songs railed against racism, authority (“Police Dog”), Reagan’s militarism (“Sharpen Up for Duty”) and the drab, conventional life laid out for young people (“Bleeding,” “Faster”).

They were always experimenting and pushing against the notion of making conventional radio punk.

“Carsickness played songs that were rhythmically complicated, sonically adventurous and instrumentally distinctive…,” author Michael Chabon writes in the liner notes for the compilation.

“We drove the engineers mad,” Mullen says. “It was ‘Let’s put the microphones in the bathroom and flush the toilet and add reverb backwards,’ and they were like, ‘What?!’ “

With time, Carsickness became more of a Pittsburgh institution, playing the Decade and Graffiti, and opening for acts like Tom Verlaine and U2, which they thought were somewhat of a joke. In the wrong setting, Carsickness could clear a room in minutes.

“I think, famously, in Buffalo, in a more mainstream venue, two or three hundred people left,” the singer says.

On not becoming America’s answer to The Clash or pushing the burgeoning Pittsburgh scene more into the national spotlight, he has no regrets.

“I think the way it was was perfect,” Mullen says. “I think our band and other bands in Pittsburgh would have changed if there had been a Malcolm McLaren or somebody there, saying ‘Oh, do this. Let’s be more commercial or dress in a certain way or dye your hair blond or whatever.’ That would have changed the nature of those bands. They would have lost their uniqueness. As it was, everybody went off to lead all kinds of interesting lives and do other interesting creative things.”

In the ’90s, Carsickness evolved seamlessly into the Celtic-tinged Ploughman’s Lunch and eventually went off into different directions. Mullen, who has the creative manager at Club Cafe, left Pittsburgh in 2004 to work for the World Cafe in Philadelphia. He now teaches art in Massachusetts and plays in the folk duo Long Journey. Childers teaches art at Pittsburgh CAPA and plays in Standing Wave with Sciulli, who spent years playing ambient/New Age music in Life in Balance and is releasing a solo album this week.

“Archie is sailing the open ocean,” Sciulli says, so he’ll play the keyboard parts himself, and Paul Michael Ferraro, who remastered the album, will fill in on bass for Koenigsberg, who left Pittsburgh in 1991 and is a software developer in Glendale, Calif.

Until now, Mullen, no fan of punk nostalgia, had been reluctant to do a Carsickness reunion.

“It was just a couple years of my life,” he says. “It wasn’t the epicenter of my life. I didn’t want the nostalgia thing. It came, it went. It was what it was. It was of the moment. I don’t think it needs to be elevated to some sticker you put on your car like ‘I was there,’ like the school you went to. Some people like that. I don’t like that.”

But, he says, “Time passed. I don’t know why I had a change of heart.”

He arrives Thursday and has one day to rehearse the songs and see if he still sings in those keys.

Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com; 412-263-2576.

CARSICKNESS

Where and When: 8 p.m. Friday at SPACE Gallery, 812 Liberty Ave., Downtown (during the Gallery Crawl) with The Nox Boys (6 p.m.) and The Full Counts (7 p.m.). Free. And 10 p.m. Saturday at Gooski’s in Polish Hill (same lineup). $5; More info on the Non-Punk Pittsburgh Facebook page.

SOURCEPittsburgh Post-Gazette
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