Sunday, February 18, 2024

Dexter Romweber (RIP) and The Flat Duo Jets

Like a lot of folks right about now, I've been thinking about the recently deceased Dexter Romweber and his old band, The Flat Duo Jets. The news of Dex's passing is, to me, truly shocking and sad. I'd just gotten home from seeing an incredibly great show by Big Sandy along with the Dave and Deke Combo, was tired, old guy no longer used to staying out so late, and I checked the social media monster on my phone and learned the news. Man, how I loved The Flat Duo Jets at one time. I nearly wore the grooves out on my copy of their first LP. Their versions of Benny Joy's "Wild, Wild Lover," The Frantic Four's "Down by the Old Millstream," Bobby Brown and Curios' "Please, Please Baby," Glen Bland's "When My Baby Passes By," and others all seemed to blaze forth both from the shadowy past of American music as well as from outer space. Like the music rode some lost radio signal that had broken loose from the 1950's and traveled out past Pluto before it boomeranged back toward Earth even more damaged, warped, loud and furious. Or something like that. Later I would discover the original versions of all of those songs, first on various rockabilly compilations, then sometimes even on 45 records. But The Flat Duo Jets definitely acted as one of my gateway drugs.

Speaking of drugs... I was trying to recall at what point and just how I first discovered The Flat Duo Jets and narrowed it down to the year 1990. Then I had recently returned from New York City to Pittsburgh, PA, where I had family, in order to get clean. It's hard to collect records when you have a dope habit, and, as I skidded into the early 90's, I owned only a couple of Cramps records, maybe a Little Walter LP, and it got worse from there. At that time I had to rebuild everything, the record collection, my brain, and my whole life. By necessity I took a menial job with the Three Rivers Arts Festival that summer, working on the set-up crew. This mostly involved constructing miles of scaffolding --for artist booths, stages, etc.,-- and ripping back and forth to the festival's warehouse in a beat 70's Chevy pickup that really hauled ass. At this job I met a guy, Chris Franko, who'd been hired to work security around the festival office. For him that mostly meant sitting around and reading books all day, and, whenever the crew blew back to the office, shooting the shit with us. We discussed the usual, music, film, books, politics and all of that, and he was pretty hep. Much more so than me! Back then I was pretty much just a mess. Anyway, Franko was the one who turned me on to The Gories, The Scientists from Australia, and... The Flat Duo Jets, among others. All of those bands put some dents in my life, one way or another. For example, hearing The Gories made me take up playing the guitar, thinking "Shee-it... I could do that! " (I learned my lesson there--sure, it was easy to play their one or two chords. But could ya do it with the same mojo? What the hell, after kicking the dope, I needed a new pass time.) And The Flat Duo Jets would just sort of haunt me all of the time.

I wanted badly to catch The Flat Duo Jets live, but I'd have to wait years, until the late 90's, before they played the 'burgh. Sure, old Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh of Mad Mike Metrovic, et. al., is legendary. But the rocker kids there at the time mostly tended to go for the sort of jockly, testosterone-fueled indie rock found on the Touch'n'Go and Amphetamine Reptile record labels. For example, the hot ticket at the time were local boys who made the indie rock big time, Don Caballero, who played a sort of muscle bound power prog rock. And the guy that promoted most of the underground shows was into art damage and experimental music. Yes, I've seen The Ex, and the Dog Faced Hermans. We did have The Cynics and The Mount McKinleys to scratch the garage rock itch. But, for the most part, during the 90's, Pittsburgh got passed over by most of the bands that played my kind of music. However, sometimes when ya gotta wait for something, it's all the better when it finally hits. Eventually, probably around 1997 or thereabouts, Dex and Crow brought the act to town and I made sure not to miss it. They did not disappoint. In fact, I don't think their records fully prepared me for the intensity of their live show, and especially for the state that Dex worked himself into when he played. When he rocked he was truly possessed by something not altogether benevolent. And man could he and Crow play. Of course, between every song, there was all the tuning he had to do on that crappy Silvertone guitar. Yeah, yeah, everyone loves the tone of those Danelectro-made lipstick pickups, and rightfully so. But the headstocks are fucked, forcing the strings to angle off the nut too severely up to the tuning pegs to remain in tune very long, rendering the guitars a total pain in the ass to play a show with. But Dex made it look easy, as if he'd been born with a Silvertone as an extra appendage. Needless to say, after their show, I went out directly and bought the first one of those I could find. And back then they still fetched only about $100. 

I still have all of my Flat Duo Jets records, but for some reason haven't played em much in recent years, I'll admit. And they cut several great ones after their first, LPs like "Safari", "Introducing the Flat Duo Jets" (songs all recorded in one take at Brooklyn's Coyote Studios), "Wild Blue Yonder", "White Trees", "Red Tango" and more. And while I eventually got to catch him live quite a bit, I haven't seen Dex play since the Norton Records 25th anniversary party in Brooklyn already more than a decade ago. And somehow I doubt I'll dust off those records and play them now, even in tribute, at least for a little while, since I'm sure to do so would just be too impossibly sad. What a loss. Characters like Dexter Romweber don't come around too often. Truly rest in peace, Flat Duo Jet, god bless you, and thanks for all that you gave us.