Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Alison East

Self-indulgence alert: This is a piece I've wanted to write for a long time (and tried to on a couple of earlier occasions, without success). So I hope you can ignore the fact that this is a really awful lead-in to what will be, I hope, a heartfelt tribute to somebody I never actually met, in the saying "hello!" to sense, but who I found absolutely unforgettable nonetheless.

Okay, the short version: Sometime in late 1979 or early 1980, a friend took me to see a band called The Swinging Madisons at some dive or another in NYC. Said band was fronted by a very talented and interesting guy named Kristian Hoffman; he's had a long and estimable career since then (you can read more about it over at his website) but at the time I knew about him only from his tenure in the pioneering power pop outfit The Mumps, with Lance Loud (of PBS-TV An American Family fame).

Anyway, the Madisons turned out to be absolutely terrific. Hoffman affected a sort of drolly ironic Vegas lounge act look, like a sort of party animal Bryan Ferry, but the music was something else -- first-rate hard-rock verging on pop, with a nice mixture of witty original songs (a psychedelic pastiche called "My Mediocre Dreams" that lived up to its title and the hilarious post-feminist anthem "Put Your Bra Back On") plus some wonderful re-imagined covers, including an echo-drenched and hiccup-ed rockabilly version of Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" that worked simultaneously as send-up and homage.

But the icing on the cake was the Madisons' guitarist. Her name was Alison East and -- barely out of high school -- she remains the greatest rock and roll stage foil (or second banana, if you will) I ever saw, and I mean The Greatest. An utterly improbable cross between Lucille Ball and Joan Jett, which is to say an adorable comedienne with killer comic timing and gunslinger guitar skills, she managed to be compulsively watchable without taking anything away from the band's more traditional visual focal point, although as much as I loved the Madisons' whole act that night, it was East -- mugging shamelessly throughout their too short set -- that just reduced me to mush. In any case, when the show was over, my friend asked if I wanted to go backstage and get introduced, but I was in serious I'm-not-worthy mode and so I declined the offer, a decision I have regretted ever since.

You're going to have to take most of the above on faith, I'm afraid. No video document of the Madisons stage act seems to have survived, and until the photos below (from a gig around the same time as the one I saw) surfaced a few weeks ago (courtesy of ace shutterbug Steve Lombardi, who kindly shared them) I'd never seen as much as a snapshot of Alison. These don't do her justice, necessarily, but I think they do catch at least some of the antic spirit I saw on that cramped stage on the night in question.

And here's a sample of her guitar prowess -- an unreleased demo of another one of the Madisons' priceless covers, in this case a metallic and surprisingly heartfelt take on Janis Ian's "Society's Child". (I'm sorry that it fades out at mid-song, but Kristian has plans to release this and the rest of the Madisons' early stuff at some point, so I thought I should respect his wishes. The bottom line is you can still get a pretty good idea of both the group and Alison's considerable Jeff Beck/Mick Ronson chops from it.)

The postscript to the story, and again, the short version: As I suspected they might, the Madisons soon got signed to a hip indie label, and in 1981 they released a well-received EP (now alas out of print, although if you dig you probably can find a downloadable copy on the net). Said EP, however, was done without Alison, who bailed just prior to the record deal.

And then I heard...well, I'll let Kristian tell it (from his band history over at the website):
I met her [Alison] at CBGB's at a Cramps concert, liked the way she looked, and asked her to be in my planned 'joke' band, but the joke was on me! This chestnut haired, shag-headed, white tux be-clad bon vivant was a glam-metal genius on guitar. So much better than I deserved! She single-handedly lifted my 'joke' into the realms of 'rawk'. She was so good, she turned The Runaways down! (Didn't want to relocate.) My band got popular so quick she started to get leery; it was just supposed to be a goof, a side project. She was already about to quit...when she was stricken with cancer, and died at age 19! What a tragedy! We were so young, it was so unexpected; we all went into shock -- not like a few years later when AIDS rendered the death of a youthful cohort routine, if no less painful.
Like I said, I never actually met Alison East, in the saying "hello!" to sense. But thirty odd years later, it seems to me that she changed my life a little anyway. And so it's nice to finally share this sort of goodbye.


FD13NYC said...

I'm curious to hear more of Alison's chops as well, sounds interesting enough. If you grab any of that stuff with her on it from Kristian, send some over, don't forget. Thanks

FD13NYC said...

Now that I look closely at the pictures and some clouds free my brain, I could swear I saw her around the clubs at that time. What a shame, 19 and gone.

Anonymous said...

Powerful story.


steve simels said...

FD -- if anything, I'm actually underselling her. Seriously -- I've never seen anybody on a stage who so obviously was gonna be a star. She was just bursting with talent and charisma....

Brooklyn Girl said...


Fucking hell.

If this little clip is any indication, she was incredible.

MJConroy said...

She was apparently also in the Spicy Bits and the Dots.

Here's a note from a member of Spicy Bits:
"Another goofy booking we had was in Jersey. New Years Eve. Opening for the chick that sang for Black Oak Arkansas. "Go Jim Dandy" Again not our crowd. Some guy tries to grab Alison by the leg and she clocks him with her SG. Like the London Calling cover except there's a rube's head in the picture."

MBowen said...

A little too early for the video age - MTV would have made her a star.

nbm3 said...

Gone but not forgotten .
We talked for a minute or two at her Max's benefit , never before ,never again ...
A real (!!!) sweet heart.
We need more songs !!
Dot's,Bit's,Madisons !!
There is a short clip of Spicy Bits in the "PUNK ROCK" porno movie, (a fine period piece).
BG say's it the only East footage that he's aware of.
Someone call Paul Schinkle ! Find out if he ever filmed her .
Why is it that only the good die young?
Thank you for posting your thoughts about her,for us.

Anonymous said...

Here's a link from Mark Edmands's Myspace page with more info about Spicy Bits and Alison East.

Adam Brill said...

Thanks, Steve, for resurrecting Alison, and for the great pix and music clip. My recollection is that the cancer was Hodgkin's. Met her through my bass player in Anvil Chorus who was "dating" one of Alison's girlfriends, and at first I thought she was pretty scary. She was a sweetheart! Used to visit her where she worked and hang out, because she was hot, and fun to be around. Never heard her play, but I had no doubt that she was the real deal.

I could be wrong, but I think her given last name was Agarest. Could anyone confirm this? Jesus, was it really thirty years ago?

Anonymous said...

Hi Guys, Alison was even better than you can imagine.We were friends 'til her death in '82. Her last name was Agrest. Her last band was her own "Minors Aloud" named after her favorite Lenny Breau album. She went went to the NY School of Performing Arts and fellow classmate Steve Stevens would skip his own classes to go watch her school recitals. That from his own lips while I was his guitar tech on the first Billy Idol tour in "82. She liked to describe her sound as "Cheap Trick meets the Raspberries" and the Village Voice called her something like "the heir to Mick Ronson"
Favorite axe was a '67 Gibson SG Deluxe with a third pickup added. God, do i miss her flawless technique and the way she laughed.

Mark Edmands said...

I came up with "Minors Aloud" Who the heck is Lenny Breau? And it was leukemia that took my partner at 23.

Anonymous said...

Actually Alison passed in 1983 of Lymphoma......doctors for years had thought she was developing asthma....she passed away in Flushing,NY at her mother's apt which was right down the street from where I lived at the time. She was an amazing guitar player, a great friend and way ahead of her time.....miss eating with her at Wo Hop, listening to all the cool pop bands she turned me onto and most of all mixing her band Minors Aloud.. I always wonder what she would be doing now......but I know somewhere there's an Orange amp cranked to eleven pumping out one pop gem after another...Go EAST !

Anonymous said...

I just found out that Alison Agrest is dead. From what the death records show, Alison died on May 1, 1982. We were at Bleeker J.H. together and she was strange and wonderful, a GREAT guitarist even in the 7th grade. We put a little group together and sang at a school dance. Used to go around school halls singing 'Walk on the Wild Side' when other girls our age were into Donny Osmond (they must have thought we were REALLY weird). We went to different high schools, lost touch and the next time I saw her she was playing at CBGB'S. Then I lost her again - moved back to Greece in 1983.
Today I decided I'd find her (I'd made a small search a few months ago) Still in shock. So, so sad. I'm happy that she reached for her dream and that people appreciated her and she is remembered after so long but I'd rather she were still alive. I will remember her always - the descriptions I read here do her justice. I was not a particularly good singer and I was just this little immigrant girl but she treated me with great generosity and warmth.
I am grateful to all who have written here, giving me a glimpse into her life. I always hoped I'd see articles about her in major music magazines and proudly beam that she used to be my friend. So, so sad.

Anonymous said...

Alison and I were friends from The CBGB's days, Last time we spoke she was in the hospital, I was supposed to come see her play at Irving Plaza- Can't remember which band, but she was opening for the Plimsouls. Her death hit me very hard, so happy to find this page. East- I miss you terribly <3

Horst said...

I went to p.s.21 with Allison. She was probably my first friend in the U.S. coming from Indonesia. But I lost touch with her because we moved to Maine. Sorry to hear of her passing. She will always be in my thoughts. P.S. She was also my neighbor on 26th Ave in Flushing.

Randy Braun said...

I went to the High School of Performing Arts with Allison in the mid-70's. We were both in the music department. She was a tremendous Bowie fan; she dyed her hair orange, wore a really neat blue pinstripe suit at times, and did her makeup just like Bowie. In fact, I'm convinced to this day that Bowie stole HER hairstyle and overall look! Most of all, Allison wss very kind and sweet to me; I was just a little, fat kid back then, but she always had a good word for me, turned me on to glam, and made a lasting impression. When she left school, I felt that I had lost a pal, and I never saw her or heard of her again. I had no idea that she was a monster guitarist, and I'm sorry I didn't get to see her rock or learn the circumstances of her untimely and tragic demise earlier. Allison was a lovely person and, over 30 years later, I continue to remember her with love and affection.