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Joe Strain

May 9, 2007
 

 
“Punk rock changed our lives.” – The Minutemen, “History Lesson, Part II

Here is a small, cheaply made cardboard flyer that the punk band Giant Prospects somehow managed to get into a few packs of Topps baseball cards in 1979. (Note characteristic typo—”GIANTS PROSPECTS”—at top.) From what I can deduce, the flyer was an ingenious (though perhaps misplaced) bit of guerilla-punk publicity intended to spread the word about the band’s would-be debut album, 1979, which for a myriad of reasons was never actually released.

That has to be the explanation for this baffling artifact. How else to explain the profound anonymity of the players? How else to explain the unsurpassed graininess of the photographs? How else to explain the eerie look of each of the pairs of eyes, which all seem as if they have been drawn onto the grainy photographs of the faces, or, worse, that the faces themselves are clammy rubber masks with eyeholes? How else, above all, to explain Joe Strain?

No, this is not a trio of baseball players. How could it be? This is a punk rock band. John “Johnny Tomorrow” Tamargo on drums. Greg Johnston on bass. Joe Strain on vocals and guitar.

The following excerpts from Dead on Arrival: The Oral History of Giant Prospects, the Greatest Punk Band No One Ever Heard Of shed some more light on the band, and on the card at the top of this page:

From pages 11–12 :

Tamargo: Yeah, I was working at a Jiffy Lube. I was a little older than the other guys, who knew each other from a community college typing class, I think. I’d played drums a few years before in a band in high school, but we fuckin’ sucked. All we did was play the same three Bachman Turner Overdrive songs over and over again to the girlfriends of the guitar player and lead singer. I ended up getting thrown out of that band for beating the shit out of the lead guy, I forget why. [Pause.] He was a dick. [Pause.] He had this long Robert Plant style hairdo and thought we were holding him back from selling out arenas. He ended up making a lot of money though, but not from music. Huh? Oh, uh, he started a business that rented out port-a-potties. [Long pause.] I actually ended up having to ask him for a job one time. I heard they needed a driver. What? No, nope, he didn’t hire me.

Johnston: Well, I was sick of taking the bus. What choice did I have? I had no car, no money to buy a car, and it was a 9-mile walk from my job at Hardee’s to my mom’s apartment, where I was staying. And it was at night, and a lot of the route was along a highway. Fuckin’ miserable. But I don’t know, I was just sick of the fucking bus, the monotony of it, mostly, pay your money, sit there staring out the window, do it all over again the next day and again and again until you’re dead. So one night I just decided, fuck it, I’m walking. Before I get to the highway I pass this Jiffy Lube that’s empty and all lit up and there’s this music coming out of it. This sound. I mean it was the sound I wanted to fuckin’ be. That’s how I met Johnny.

Tamargo: The funny thing is I mostly cranked AC/DC when it was slow. Maybe some Nugent. But I’d recently bought this new cassette because I liked the cover. I was like Bollocks? What the fuck is bollocks? I think it was “God Save the Queen” that was playing when Greg was walking by in his fuckin’ Arby’s suit. You know [imitating Johnny Rotten]: “No future, no future, no future for you. . . .”

From page 86:

Dave Peretz (friend/fan): Those early shows, in a way, those were the best. I mean, in a way they were the worst, too, because, I mean, objectively, or, like, musically, they sucked. Especially Joe, who could barely play three chords in the beginning. But that was enough. All of those shows ended with Joe injuring himself. That’s how he got his name, because he kept giving himself groin pulls and hamstring tears in the middle of the closer, “Worth Something.” Joe would start thrashing around while screaming the chorus, you know, “Throw me in the dump/wait a thousand years/maybe by then I’ll be worth something!” Over and over until everybody in the place was yelling “worth something” right along with Joe every time it came around, and Tamargo was smashing the shit out of the drums like they killed his mother, and Greg, Greg always had his face shining up at the ceiling during that song, all smiles, eyes closed, like a fucking blissed-out Hare Krishna. All of us jumping up and down, sweating our balls off, yelling “maybe by then I’ll be worth some-thing! Maybe by then I’ll be worth some-thing!” I still hear it in my head, man. Thirty years ago almost. I don’t believe it. [Long pause.] I honestly don’t believe it.

From page 131:

Tamargo: The baseball card thing came about because Joe got to be friends with this burnout who came to our shows, Smitty, that used to work at the card company. Huh? Yeah, Topps, I guess. He got fired because he’d get stoned every day out by a dumpster during his lunch break then go in and just, you know, make a mess of things. The cards would come out all crooked. [Laughs.] But he still knew people who worked there. I think he actually sold shrooms to one of them. So that was our window, I guess. I don’t know, Joe was the driving force on that one, like with most of our, uh, “professional musician” type shit.

Johnston: The baseball uniforms were Joe’s idea. He was reading a bunch of these anarchist pamphlets that this weird older woman kept feeding him. She was tall and bony and had a really pale face which she made even paler with powder or something. She kind of looked like a puppet. Tell you the truth it kind of gives me the creeps to think about her. Anyway, Joe got on this whole kick about uniforms. He was like, “From the moment you take your first step you are in a uniform. If it’s not Cub Scouts it’s little league. It’s fascism!” Me and Johnny laughed at him a little. I mean, we both played little league and it didn’t make us want to go sign up with the Nazis. But he was always going off on some insane tangent or other, not that I didn’t agree with him most of the time, actually. Anyway us being in uniforms helped the first few of the cards slip past quality control or whatever at Topps, I guess.

From pages 247–248 :

Eddie Toth (manager): That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Or one of the two questions, which are each really the same question. My opinion is the answer to one is the answer to the other. Find Joe Strain and you find the tapes from the recording session. They’re in the same place, guaranteed. Dead or alive, who knows, but same place for sure.

Johnston: Yeah, well, Eddie and Joe never really saw eye to eye. Joe always suspected Eddie was, you know, the fuckin’ man or something. “The Oppressor.” I was always like, come on, man, Eddie’s just some fat fuck who owns a bankrupt record store. He’s not the head of the friggin’ world bank. But anyway, yeah, maybe Eddie’s right. I mean, the tapes went missing just a few days before Joe disappeared. [Pause.] So much for Giant Prospects.

Tamargo: Last time I saw Joe for sure was the day before he flaked out. He was acting weird, but he was always acting weird. You know, jittery. Never stopped moving, never really looked you in the eye. But the weirdest thing about that one time was that he did get quiet and still for a second and he did look me in the eye. He said. Heh. You know what he said? He said, “John, you oughta be more careful when you drive. You go too fast.” [Pause.] Hm? Oh, well, you know how things are when you start to be an old man like me. Yeah, I mean there’s been a couple times when I thought I saw him out of the corner of my eye kind of thing. But that’s just probably my messed-up mind. I mean, Joe Strain? Joe Strain was barely possible in this world even way back when. How’s there going to be a Joe Strain now? [Long pause.] But I guess you never know.

 
Postscript: There seems to be no video or audio evidence of the band described above. In lieu of that, below are a few links to footage of some of the bands that helped bring Giant Prospects to life, at least for a short while:

Iggy and the Stooges, 1970

Richard Hell interview 

The Ramones, January 1975 

The Sex Pistols, August 1976

The Clash, late ’70s

20 comments

  1. 1.  Wow. That was a pretty inspired riff of your own, Josh. Nice, uh, research.


  2. 2.  My brother saw these dudes play with the Screamers at the Starwood. Apparently Joe got into organic farming for a while and got screwed in some distribution deal with ConAgra or something and he had declare bankruptcy, sell the farm, etc. He does custom tile work for kitchens and bathrooms in Sacramento now.

    He’ll play open mic nights every once in a while, but it’s usually really crappy Neil Young covers. He does “The Needle and the Damage Done” and he screws up the verse order, then tries to correct himself in midsong. The song ends up being six minutes long and the second verse usually gets sung five times.

    Wasn’t there some guy that played for Adrenalin O.D. on the White Sox for a while? I think I probably have both elements of that recollection wrong.


  3. 3.  In the early days, didn’t Joe Strain, in his signature band intro, always call out, “on the drums, here today, John Tamargo?”, leading to the nickname you mentioned?


  4. 4.  In the early days, didn’t Joe Strain, in his signature band intro, always call out, “on the drums, here today, John Tamargo”, leading to the nickname you mentioned?


  5. 5.  2 Excellent work on the potential whereabouts of Joe Strain, Vockins. I’m not 100% sure of the validity of those reports, however, since for quite a while there have been sightings of a man who turned out to be “English” Joe Strain, keyboardist for an early ’80s New Wave outfit out of Manchester.

    3 That’s one of the theories, yes. Tamargo himself claims that it got pinned on him from his procastinatory habits, as in “Ah, ta hell with it, I’ll do it tomorrow…” There’s also some mention of the nickname on a piece of dog-chewed promotional copy recently unearthed in the attic of Joe Strain’s aunt. Beneath a photo of Tamargo at the drums is the line: “There is no tomorrow but at least there’s Johnny Tomorrow.”


  6. 6.  5 And I always heard that it was an ironic comment on his surly disposition. When he was in a paticularly grouchy mood, the other band members would tick him off even more by walking around singing, “The sun’ll come out…Tamargo…”


  7. 7.  Who wrote the book you’re excerpting? Did I miss the credit?


  8. 8.  Great post. You lead with my favorite Minutemen line and the album that turned me upside down musically is the same one that started them going.


  9. 9.  7 Unfortunately my copy of “Dead on Arrival,” which I found in a pile of newspapers and empty bottles of Colt 45 on the G Train several years ago, has always been too beat-up and water-damaged to reveal its author’s name. It was clearly influenced by two more easily located (and highly recommended) books: Please Kill Me (http://tinyurl.com/26esy9), by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, and Our Band Could Be Your Life (http://tinyurl.com/24hurc), by Michael Azerrad. Also, the remaining fragment of torn dustcover now used as a bookmark for my copy also contains a small part of a photo, which does not show the author’s face but reveals that he or she is wearing a Spinal Tap T-shirt.


  10. 10.  10 It may have been the famous Florinese author, S. Morgenstern.


  11. 11.  As far as the author goes…I believe in between his demeskied Speed the Plough gigs and busting frightened hinges off the bathroom door at Maxwell’s…Jim DeRogatis had a hand in this.

    But then again…DeRogatis had a hand in the Malibu Diner putting a halt on their all-you-can-eat special too.


  12. 12.  I mentioned this at BTF, but Greg Johnston looks like a stoned Fred Lynn.

    You had me fooled for a bit there, Josh. Well done.


  13. 13.  Mr. Tamargo drove our schoolbus in the mid-1980’s. We called him “Mr. Tamargo” because he wanted us to call him “John.”

    Near the end of fifth grade year, he drove us to the middle school for orientation. When the principal/tour guide took us outside to see the football field, I saw him in the alley, smoking with some middle school kids.


  14. 14.  Man that’s funny . . . had me laughing out loud! Great stuff.

    Joe Strain’s eyes are freakin’ me out. They don’t even look real. It does appear like some type of mask over his face and the eyes peer through. Freak show!

    Josh, it appears that you have developed a real following. A postiive sign that you may actually have some talent there, brotha. But, you know what happens to comedians that come into money, and what happens to rappers from the hood, once they move to the plush neighborhoods, the funny-man ain’t funny no mo, and the rapper can’t talk about living the gangsta life no mo. So, to keep that writing comin’ strong, dodge the huge stack of greenbacks as long as you can, to keep it real, and funny as hell.


  15. 15.  14 Thanks for the good word, Catfish326.

    You’re not the first to broach the subject of “selling out”–in a comment on the final Cardboard Gods post at its previous location (on blogspot), a reader (who turned out to be a cantakerous, easily riled friend of mine) railed about the change of address and ranted with a complex mix of sarcasm and sincerity, “Just when something is good they always sell out to the man.” My first reaction was to think that if that’s the case, I must be the dumbest sellout in the world, because I sold out for free!

    But boy, I’ll tell you the god’s honest truth, I sure would like to make money writing. I’ve done it before, a little, writing young adult nonfiction books for what turned out to be a below-minimum wage rate. It was tough to pay rent, and I didn’t have any time to write fiction, so fell back into the nonwriting day jobs.

    But as for selling out, I wonder if it’s even possible for a writer, at least for for the writer I want to be. Even the most successful of the writers I most admire are probably about as rich as the guy who cleans the pool of a mid-level rap star. That’s OK by me though. I’d be happy if I made enough to pay the rent, buy a few pints of beer once in a while, and spend my days writing. But even if I don’t, I ain’t stopping.


  16. 16.  So Josh does a post on the Minutemen, while I’m breaking down bands like Survivor. I definitely am losing the cool school contest this week.

    Never knew about the baseball card minutemen photo. Good stuff.


  17. 17.  Don’t sweat it Scott. I was more likely to listen to arena rock than obscure stuff that the hipsters knew about. For whatever reason, when I listened to punk I gravitated towards the more cartoonish stuff like The Ramones or The Dead Milkmen.


  18. 18.  Joe Strain looks like he’s about to perform in “CATS”

    John Tamargo looks as if the camera man just farted.

    Greg Johnston looks like someone that women, children, and sheep fear for good reason.


  19. 19.  John Tamargo. Joe Strain. Greg Johnston. 3 prime examples of baseball gone wrong during my teen years. As if it wasn’t bad enough playing little league for a purple and yellow logoed Braves team, mediocre at best(we ascended to a .500 team my third year notwithstanding a 5-0 drubbing that year at the hands of the lowly little league Giants- who at least had the correct orange/black logo-while my girlfriend looked on in what must have been 1/2 boredom 1/2 embarrassment due to 1/2 her boyfriend’s performance and 1/2 his bright purple jersey), more often than not, after a demoralizing defeat on the little league field, we would turn on AM 680 on the way home and root hard for our Giants to pull out an unlikely win with the likes of Joe Strain, Dennis Littlejohn, Vic Harris or Hector Cruz somewhere in the lineup hitting .210 or worse.
    Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, this set me up to accept mediocrity in my life as a whole. I guess we can’t all be rock stars so maybe that’s a good thing. Like to take joy in the small things like “hey the Giants lost while scoring only 1 run, but HEY we had 9 hits!” or joy in the small real life things like “hey I have a crappy job with crappy pay, but at least I have my health!”
    Can someone please do a study of what percent of purple jersey wearing little leaguers grew up to be successful?
    In the meantime, thanks to Josh Wilker for this amazingly poignant look into the old Thom Mcann shoeboxes of my past that contained my ’76-’80 Topps baseball cards. It brings back great memories.


  20. 20.  I KNEW I had that book lying around somewhere. I scanned a copy for you.

    http://www.myspace.com/punkrockpaint



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