A LITTLE BIT HARDER,
A LITTLE BIT COOLER:
The H. Dwight Thompson interview
H. Dwight Thompson was one of the original wave of New York African-American punk rockers, having lent his guitar skills to the distinguished likes of the Heat & performance artist Klaus Nomi. Asked what is it about New York that seemingly encouraged musical freedom with black musicians, Thompson says that the city attracted talent like a magnet does steel. “When you start peeling the layers off, you'll find that not only black artists, but all types gravitated to New York. But sometimes because of the fact that you were black, it just enhanced some things. You felt you had to be a little bit harder, a little bit cooler, a little sharper on your instrument - you had to have it going on."
Thompson came of age right when the rock scenes at CBGB's and Max's were starting to kick in. And even though Max's already had a rep as a respected music showcase, it really gained its identity during the glitter and punk eras. Thompson's rock & roll road took some interesting turns (including a stint as a roadie with a band that included Wayne Kramer and Johnny Thunders). While he did rub shoulders with some of the other brothers on the punk scene then (including Neon Leon and visiting Philly neighbors Pure Hell), one of his first major musical affiliations was with Tally Talliaferro, who told his story in an earlier issue of Roctober. He was just leaving the Planets to form the Heat, and on guitar was H. Dwight, previously a huge Planets fan.
And here's the rest of the story...
HDT: Originally I was born & bred in North Carolina, but I went to high school in Jersey. As I was coming up in high school, my interest in music actually started (there). I was on the football team until one day I got away with a play and made a varsity player look bad. The coach punished him and made him run the play over and the guy hit me in the stomach. That afternoon, I made up my mind - I was talking to my best friend. I said, "I think I'm gonna start hanging out with the musicians because they get girls and they don't get tortured!" And it was just a fleeting thought at the time, but it was something I was seriously considering. In time, I bought myself a bass guitar and started hanging out with some of the musicians around school. In the high school I went to there was a lot of bands, there was a lot of band activity going on then too. This was late sixties/early seventies. It was a black high school in Jersey. Most of the musicians that I knew early on were playing in Jersey. Most of them were playing rock & roll, jazz-type stuff, original stuff. At that time, most bands that played in Jersey were cover bands, the bands that were playing in New York were playing all original music. I started going to Max's Kansas City, CBGB's...things that weren't happening in Jersey at the time. There was a very unique music scene that I kinda stumbled on with a friend of mine. We had seen each other around Jersey, on the bus and different places. Back then, you could count cool people and musicians on your hands. You knew 'em when you saw 'em. Especially in Jersey, you'd see somebody that was on a particular scene, and you could tell by the way they were dressed, you would wind up seeing them at some club or something like that. Once I got over here to New York, I saw such a person. Me and this person had been seeing each other in New Jersey, but never introduced ourselves. Eventually, we started putting music together.
What was your friend's name?
Dwight. He turned out to be Dwight Dayan (nee Miller), the singer for the Heat. Me and him were the two who got together for rehearsing. We used to sit around and practice. His girlfriend, who lived in Brooklyn at the time, she was a photographer. She took some pictures of us. He and I originally got together and started thinking about putting a band together. Once we bumped into each other, his name is Dwight and my name is Dwight, we kind of clicked. He was our drummer, who became a singer. I was playing guitar, we both write music, so we started sitting in my living room, putting stuff together. While we were putting stuff together and dreaming, I had been going to Max's and seeing this band called the Planets and some of the other bands who were on the scene then - Tuff Darts, New York Dolls, that whole scene was just starting. Television, the Heartbreakers, all of these things that were just starting to happen then. I got Dwight and started going to Max's and CB's. We were running around New York. Then, like I said, you could count the clubs and the people on one hand. Everybody knew everybody. The scene was just that small. The only two clubs at the time were Max's and CB's. Actually it was quite some time before CB's and Max's had the same bands playing. Originally, if you played at CB's you didn't play at Max's and visa-versa. That's just the way it was. Then, once they incorporated, the scene got bigger, bands started playing both venues. Dwight & I, every place I was going, I was taking him. The only other black guy at that time - well, there were a couple of them that were on the scene, but one in particular that I was fond of, and his band because he was the lead singer, was Tally Talliaferro (of the Planets). Eventually, Tally was not satisfied with some things that were going on in the Planets. And he left them. Being that we had been seeing him often, he spoke to us about putting something together. The three of us started working on something, and eventually this became the Heat. We originally had a Japanese drummer named Chinko Nakasawa. We didn't have a bass player. Me on rhythm guitar, Tally on lead, Dwight on vocals, Chinko on drums. Our first gigs were at Max's Kansas City. Then, after things looked like they were gonna be successful and poppin', me, Dwight and Tally were writing songs - all three of us. Tally, being that he had more of the reputation, had gotten us the gigs. He came to me and Dwight and said that he was gonna be doing most of the songwriting, which I wasn't happy with. I had a lot of songs, Dwight had a lot of songs. Dwight more or less felt like, "okay, I'll take what I can get." At the time, I didn't feel I had to settle for that. If I knew then what I know now, I might have waited a while. Anyhow, it turned out pretty good - I left them, then I found Klaus Nomi.
I'd like to back up a minute...the Heat recorded one 45 for Polydor. Were you on that record?
No, I wasn't on that record, but I think that was my song they recorded, on one side. And that was another one of the reasons why I left. I didn't want to say it, but at the time, the songs that were getting most of the good feedback, when we played, was songs that I had written. Then I was being told that I wasn't even going to be contributing a third of the songs to the set. But, more or less, I might be able to share one-fourth of the songs with Dwight. Three-fourth would be Tally's writing. One of my songs was the B-side. They had to change the lyrics. I had a song called "Nazi Dyke." And the song had to be changed to "Not Tonight." Of course, "Nazi Dyke" just wasn't gonna cut it (laughs)! Not on American AM radio (laughs harder). Basically, the lyrics weren't that provocative, it was only just the title. And it was really just the way I happened to see this Asian girl in the neighborhood, Anita Miller, because of the image she projected. So the lyrics weren't that hardcore, but the title was. Anyhow, the truth of the matter is, I was kinda bigheaded about my songwriting at the time, even though I didn't have anything on paper as far as music is concerned, but nobody did. Not that that messed with my writing, but I was a musician like everybody else. I was doing rather nice, if I do say so myself, with some of the songs at the time.
Then I bumped into Klaus Nomi and started something with him. He wasn't doing nothing but baking pies when I met him. He lived across the street from me.
Was he working at a bakery?
He was independently baking pies. He had a couple of restaurants that he had given samplings of whatever. He would make 5-10 pies for different customers. He'd make the pies, take them to them, and sell them. That's how I met him. I was trying to put a band together. One day I saw Klaus coming from work, & I sez, "hey, what are you doing?" He was like, "nothing." "Would you be interested in singing?" I had asked him if he had ever sung before. He was an opera singer. But he had never sung rock & roll. So I went over to his house one evening, sat down and talked with him, then brought my guitar over and started playing some stuff and got him to start singing to it. Then it got to the point where I started arranging my songs around his vocals. We were doing pretty good. I had gotten a nice rhythm section, I was doing all the writing, writing all the songs. We had a really nice thing going, until one of Klaus's girlfriends, from Wisconsin, decided to write an article about the band and we hadn't played out yet! Been together four months, got couple of songs together...
Now where did this article run?
I don't remember. Some magazine out of Wisconsin. It might have been a college paper. I don't know what it was, but I know when she left town, she went back to wherever she was at and wrote an article about us. But she called the band "Klaus Nomi & the Take," instead of "the Take." We had told her the band's name was the Take. But because she was infatuated with Klaus, she called the band Klaus Nomi & the Take. Now, I don't know - Klaus might have said this to her. When I saw it, I mentioned it to him, and the rest of the guys, and I was very upset. I was writing all the songs, so I felt that this was almost a slap in the face. I write all the songs, and we call the band "Klaus Nomi?" At the time, I couldn't see it. Wow, I really wish I would have shut my mouth and at least recorded the songs. If I had recorded my songs, with the arrangements I had, it would be a classic, (even) if it was only one album and that was it. Remember, I just went through this whole writing experience with the Heat! Come over here, put THIS band together, and now I'm getting this other experience. I didn't mind sharing, but at the time, I didn't have the concept of how to be the man in control in the back room. Had I known that, I'd be in a completely different situation right now. Because I didn't know that, I broke up with Klaus, then my bass player and my drummer, who were mine, had sense enough to go with Klaus, because he had the voice & that look. Within a month after breaking up with him, I was out in Jersey with my girlfriend and my kid on a Saturday night. We're in the house, chillin' out, watching Saturday Night Live...(who do we see) carrying David Bowie but Klaus Nomi. Then, I just couldn't believe it. The thing is, the guy had a special look to him.
One of the reasons that I got away from it is because...there was a moment on the scene where things were starting to get a little plastic. You had these people who were coming up, they were doing performance art instead of playing music. I didn't want to be a "performance artist" in that fashion. I came from the school of rock & roll. You learn how to play the instrument, then you put on whatever costume and anything that you do on top of the music as part of the act. But the music comes first! These guys had started getting into theatrics! More theatrics than rock & roll music. Once I left, his whole thing became theatrics, being carried in on stage, and he had quite a following.
Did you keep in touch with him?
Nope. I didn't wanna know him. I didn't wanna know about it. Then, I guess I was more than likely a little hurt & upset with myself because there was no way I was gonna be able to talk him into coming back into the fold now. He was getting that taste of success. He wasn't really interested in music. He was interested in being seen, and that's what he had going on. The whole thing that built up around him had a lot to do with this whole performance art thing...that wasn't my thing. I was looking for a more Hendrix-Zeppelin-like thing. I didn't wanna be dressing up & prancing around & doing all this crazy stuff. Once he started doing that thing, they had this whole group that started moving in the direction of Soho & artists and stuff, where I was venturing back over into hardcore, CBGB's, Max's Kansas City music on the stage. Had I had the foresight and kept Klaus in the fold long enough to record one album, I would have been alright. But then I was 23 years old, a new father, didn't have as much experience as I did have energy. So, energy won out. I thought I'd be young forever. They don't wanna act right, just like I got Klaus, I would get somebody else. I had a couple of things going, but nothing got off the ground. My two strongest things, early on, were the Heat & Klaus Nomi. Now I feel so lucky to have photographed and recorded that, because it was a very creative period in my life.
After Klaus Nomi, what were you up to?
I played with a couple of people, and then I ventured off into other forms of music, spinning records as a DJ - not spinning rock, though. I played club music, disco, dance music. 'Cause I always liked all types of music, except for country & western. Anything else, I've been crazy about. Tried to put a few acts together, but after Klaus Nomi...(pause)...nothing else was really solid, until...(pause)...various small little things, playing bass over the years. I played bass guitar in prison to keep myself occupied.
Pardon for asking, but why were you in prison?
Drugs. The eventual thing that happened to several musicians. The whole drug scene came during the years I was playing music and being a roadie.
What year was this, and how long were you incarcerated?
1988 to 1990.
What was the prison band like? Any interesting talent you were jamming with?
That's what it was all about. Like they say, "beggars can't be choosers" - definitely you had to deal with whatever you got. We didn't have, let's say, the best instruments. In some cases, we didn't have anything. But they were able to come up with bass guitar, keyboards and drums. Got some time in the rec room. We did a couple of songs with some kind of holiday thing that was coming up.
Before going to prison, I started doing some roadie work to stay around music as much as possible. I was roadie-ing for Wayne Kramer and Johnny Thunders, who put a band together called Gang War. Believe it or not, I acquired my drug habit not from Johnny, but from Wayne. This was the early eighties, mid-eighties. Wayne Kramer had done a stint in prison for something that went down in Detroit (selling cocaine to undercover cops). He happened to move on the block that I used to hang out on. I think how we met, somewhere along the line we stopped and talked. He told me he was getting together with Johnny Thunders. He needed a roadie and he needed a van, so I said, "Perfect! I got a van..." I told him about my former experience; I never heard the MC 5, the band that he was part of, but I had heard Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers. I got my van, packed 'em up, we did a gig in Rhode Island, it's like 3:30 in the morning. I drove 'em back down. Now what happened was, Wayne had all this money from the book he had written, coming from England. So him and his girlfriend, they were already into the dope scene. So when they got here, they just needed somebody - being that both of them were white - to go get it. Turned out to be me. And so evvvery day they were calling. I'd come & pick 'em up in the van, take 'em shopping. I was like a valet to them. Wayne didn't know New York, he didn't know how to get around, he could call me. All he had to do was take care of the finances, and every day we got together. They bought dope. Every day.
But, the first time that it happened was on the way to the gig in Rhode Island. Everybody got all the equipment, got the bass player from the hotel up on 28th St., between Broadway and 6th Avenue. So I picked him up, picked the drummer up, Wayne, Johnny, and before we got on the highway to head up to Rhode Island they had me go down to First Avenue and First Street. I'm sitting in the van, I have no idea why we're at First Avenue and First Street. Until about 20 minutes later, they come running back, they get in the back of the van, they cook up dope, and shoot up dope in the back of the van. There was so much dope and needles going around till I actually felt left out. I thought at the time, when in Rome, do as the Romans. Somebody passed me a bag, and I think I sniffed it and asked somebody to help me do it. Anyhow, it was the first time I did dope.
The only time I would nod is when I actually stopped the van somewhere. Otherwise, I drove all the way to Rhode Island. High on heroin. From that point on, every day, when I went to pick up Wayne and them and started doing things around the city, the first thing we always had to do before we went out was go cop. For six months, maybe more.
So the feds caught up with you, and you did your time?
The past caught up with me. I actually needed to calm down, stop and think about what was going on around me. (On another occasion) I had a red nose pit bull (that) bit somebody. The police came, asked what had happened. I told them, they tranquilized my dog, and arrested me. And I wound up getting two years for second-degree assault.
When the dog bit somebody, was this an accident?
It was kind of an accident. We were in the street, and some people that I know stopped me to ask a question. Then they went from the questions to getting a little belligerent. Even though they were friends of mine, the dog wasn't going to tolerate any crazy behavior on somebody else's part doing something to me. And so, the dog went to protect me. That's what the dog was trying to do at the time. He actually nicked him, he didn't really hurt him. But what did take place was enough for the cop to arrest me. I got sentenced from one-and-a-half to four-and-a-half years in prison for second-degree assault. (I had gotten out) on appeal.
So, after the prison stint, this is when you started doing the solo gigs?
One of the guys who remembered me from years ago, me, him and his brother, we were putting together some stuff. We worked on this stuff about two years ago. Then I went out on my own. In 2007, I opened up for a friend of mine whose band was playing in Williamsburg, called Dodger, now known as Echo Jinx. I was playing singer-songwriter type stuff. I'd open up on acoustic. I came to the conclusion, after trying to do stuff with my other friends, one thing I know for sure: if I just rely on myself, I know I'm gonna be there, I know how to put the songs together the way I want to, I don't have to argue with anybody about presentation, style of music and what's gotta be played. (But) at the end of 2007, I'm a student in school (majoring in computer information systems at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York), working full-time, and trying to do the music. And it was too much. I had to continue working, and I had to continue going to school. It hurt me not being able to devot e the time to the music anymore, but I had to make a decision. I got three things I'm trying to do, two because they're costing me money and have to be done. So I stopped doing the music temporarily. The very last gig I did, I was so tired from the schedule I had, the last couple of songs I didn't feel I put my all into. Now I'm still in school, but I've been laid off from my job, so it's very possible I might make the attempt...