On the tRail of Winston's Dog
BY JOHN "ROTTEN" RUSSO
"Who the hell is Winston's Dog?"
It was what I heard every time I brought the band up to a music editor. This time it I was on the phone with the editor at Magnet -- the magazine that "gives attention to musicians largely ignored by mainstream publications." I had been out of the game for a while and needed to make a comeback.
"Who is Winston's Dog?" he yelled into the phone again.
The problem was I didn't really know the answer to the question.
"Listen, I like undiscovered bands, but get back to me with a real story, Russo," the editor barked. He hung up.
But I had a real story. Winston's Dog just might be the greatest unknown indie band ever. I wanted to tell the world.
It was the summer of 2003. I was on assignment for Origivation - an expose on the seedy underside of the Philly suburban music scene. I was sure I'd be able to go into the field and write a wonderful saga of the bad metal and the crystal meth. If I got lucky, I might be able to become part of Bam Margera's crew.
But I didn't find anything nearly that interesting. There was plenty of bad music, but I also found cheap booze and even cheaper women. The combination was a good time, but not the best story.
Until one night at a bar in Lansdale, the name of which I can't recall. I was buying whiskey shots and Miller Lite's for a group of eager ladies who were completely in awe of my tales of journalistic intrigue. How I had cornered Yo La Tengo in a the 30th Street station bathroom after they had skipped a scheduled interview. Or when Built to Spill's Doug Martsch tried to strangle me with a Monster Cable backstage at the Troc when I told him I thought Perfect From Now On was shit just to get his reaction.
I was just about to uncork my "fruit salad on Pavement's tour bus" story when this band took the stage. I forgot about the women and myself completely.
I hadn't heard anything like it before. There were glorious squalls of guitar and a tight rhythm section. It was a band with an ear for pop and a fondness for Sonic Youth's dissonance and fuzz. Best of all was the band's beguiling front man. His voice was incomparable and he managed to hold the crowd like Jim Morrison without any drug-fueled theatrics.
"Who is this?" I shouted to one of the regulars. His head bobbed maniacally.
"I don't know," he said. "I think it's Winston's Dog. Pretty cool stuff."
I knew then that I had to interview the band.
But I woke up on a bench in the Lansdale train station the next morning, an empty bottle of Jim Beam under my head for a pillow. I wasn't sure of anything that had happened the night before except for the fact that I had missed my chance with Winston's Dog.
I had spent a considerable amount of time after that trying to live down those suburban-bar-crawling, bad-music days. My failure to file a story with Origivation had blacklisted me with the city's music press. But memories and staff jobs are short. It was the right time to stage a comeback.
I hopped the R5 train, the same I had taken so many times to Lansdale and Doylestown. But this time I was headed to the sleepy burgh of North Wales, a borough of just over 3,000 people and most famous as the hometown of musical luminary John Oates.
I hummed the chorus to "Private Eyes" as I reviewed my research. The main members of Winston's Dog had gone to high school here in the early nineties. They still lived here. I had one tip that they frequented a local bar called McKeever's, a quick walk from North Wales station. I was headed there to wait for the band. I'd get my exclusive interview. I knew it.
McKeever's was a cozy Irish bar and restaurant. It was thoroughly utilitarian but without any of the ironically shabby appointments of the usual the indie band hangouts. PBR was not on tap. There was no scheduled drag queen performance for the weekend. Not one of the dozen or so people around the bar wore skinny jeans. There were no shabby sweaters. No gratuitous growths of facial hair. I wondered if any of them owned a foreign car.
I sidled next to a group of very middle-American-looking folks, most of them in red and gray Phillies attire (the local nine was still hunting a World Series appearance). The talk was about the faltering economy and sports. I tried to change the subject to indie rock.
I got nothing but furrowed brows until I mentioned Winston's Dog. Expressions brightened.
"Yeah I know those guys" said a big dude in the corner. "Good guys. Haven't seen the band, but good guys."
I picked up these tidbits from the regulars:
A woman tipsy from Jack and Cokes: "Bill Schwartz (a guitarist) is a nice guy. Always wears black… I know he owns dogs."
A guy who played Irish ballads at the bar every Wednesday: "I know J Murray (the other guitarist). Seems like a regular dude, but he lives in a house without finished rooms or furniture, I think."
A female bartender without a hint of modesty: "Jon Robins (the singer). Oh he's pretty cute."
Said another guy clutching a Miller High Life. "We don't know the other guys, the bass player (Pete Mazzaccaro) and drummer (Paul Ramsey). One looks like a high school English teacher, the other --I don't know".
I wasn't getting anything from these people so I ordered another Sierra Nevada, retreated to a side table and stared at Sports Center on one of the flat screens. And I waited for the band.
Winston's Dog never showed. A young bar owner tossed me out at closing time and hinted that someone had tipped them off. They knew I was on their tail and steered clear. I wasn't sure why they wouldn't want the exposure. I was sure I could get them in The City Paper or Magnet. I could blow them up if only they'd give me the chance.
I took the train back to Philly and wondered if John Oates would be up for an interview. The music editors at Magnet would know him. And I needed to think fast. I was going to miss my deadline and my shot at a comeback.
Winston's Dog just might be the biggest secret in indie rock. But for now, I'd be the only one who knew it.
John "Rotten" Russo is an accomplished music journalist who has covered the Philly music scene for The South Philly Review, Origivation and The City Paper. He has almost been published in Magnet, AP, Spin and once received a rejection letter from Rolling Stone. He's currently working on a career retrospective that will collect his works with a working title Babes, Bands and Booze, which he will self publish as soon as he can get enough cash.