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Kongress / Blog

The Chronic Ill-Logical His Story of Kongress by Otto von Ruggins

I saw a picture someone took of Geof flipping the water basin. It captured the water in the shape of the vessel while it was in mid-air – a very magical instant on film. I actually saw Geoffrey pummel the crucifix on the microphone stand into pieces on stage, but I missed his putting his fingers down his throat and the ensuing regurgitation. I remember one of the flares, which were in holders standing upright, falling to the stage and facing the audience. Hilly came up to the side of the stage and grabbed it, nervously holding it over his head like Lady Liberty (more like the Statue of Tyranny), not knowing what to do with it. One of the roadies took it from him and wrapped it up in a wet towel and went relay fashion racing out the back door. It must have been about then that the flashpots were detonated, because the story I heard was that Hilly was sent barrelling back from the force of the explosions. Another report alleged that cables were burned on stage and the next group couldn’t go on for over an hour. The club was full of smoke and, while it wasn’t a sellout, there were crowds of people both moving up front to see the spectacle and retreating from the battle stations by the stage. When most of the damage was done, I saw Hilly waving his arms at me indicating ‘ENOUGH!’, so I abandoned the stage, but not before I turned up my amp and switched on my echoplex which continued to air my keyboard sounds. I was not in control of the rest of the stage, but eventually, they all stopped playing and left the stage.

The Chronic Ill-Logical His Story of Kongress by Otto von Ruggins

As I watched the whole scene unfold, I thought to myself, “That’s the last time Renate is going to come down here to play.” Amazingly, she and Geof hit it off. She added an air of discipline to the chaos and eventually made it onto stage with us at CBGB’s on December 26, 1976. That was a night Hilly would long remember. He was particularly fond of Renate, but for what took place on his stage that night, Kongress was barred from playing at CBGB’s for 13 months, and by then both Von Lmo and Geoffrey had passed through the band and moved on.

So much took place that night that I was unaware of, I can only recount some events in a legendary fashion. The evening began with Geof drinking cognac backstage while the road crew prepared the stage for the ceremony. The electric chair was brought along for the event and the first row of tables was cordoned off with chairs placed on them to discourage front row seats, in view of the fact that the perimeter of the stage was rigged with flashpots. I remember seeing a crucifix attached to a microphone stand, the usual cauldron of hot coals, a water basin, some flares and a huge spear that later whizzed by Von and stuck in the back wall of the stage Lmo (Von was back playing drums with a leg cast). After we hit the stage, things happened so fast, it’s hard to sequence the events, but all of the following is related to have taken place.

The Chronic Ill-Logical His Story of Kongress by Otto von Ruggins

By November, Von Lmo was wearing a short leg cast and he began coming down to Geoffrey’s storefront to play with Robert Crash on guitar and Frank Stokes on bass. The music picked up where our first studio session with Geoffrey had left off. We would go on for hours, non-stop, but subtle mood changes and dynamic intensity swings were orchestrated around Geoffrey’s improvised vocals. Sometimes he recited set pieces he had written, but each time it was different. Thankfully, I made about a half dozen cassettes from this period, some of which is found on various websites. These tapes genuinely surpass anything we ever did live.

Throughout this period, Robert Crash’s uncertainty about the direction was made known. One night, a week before a December date at Max’s, after the most guitar dominated tape was recorded, Crash announced he was ‘cutting himself out of the project’ with a symbolic slice in the air. It was a hard blow and left us without a guitar, but the show went on, even if it wasn’t what it could have been. In fact, that missing Robert Crash guitar ingredient from all of the live Kongress shows with Geoffrey is responsible for the fact that the studio tapes sounded better than anything we did live.

About that time, I convinced long time associate Renate (female German lead guitarist extraordinaire) to come down to Geof’s rehearsal space and play with us. In the strange environment and because of her rigid playing background, she was a bit stiff and tentative in her playing. During the final piece for the night, Geoffrey grabbed her guitar from behind and started rocking her body to build the intensity and as she resisted, they fell to the floor rolling together. The rest of us began dropping out until there was just the feedback of the guitar, at which point Geoffrey jumped up and exited through his beaded doorway. Renate was still in shock, not knowing what had just happened or what to make of it when Geof slid back into the room and announced, “That’s the greatest thing that ever happened in rock ‘n ‘roll. Don’t look at me like a fuckin’ freak! It happened!” With that, they embraced, albeit she was still visibly shaken by it all. A recording of this event exists and will, hopefully, be released at a later date.

The Chronic Ill-Logical His Story of Kongress by Otto von Ruggins

The next stop was Halloween at Max’s and we were headlining with The Dead Boys opening for us. I still remember the crowd crying for ‘Kongress’ during The Daed Boys set. This would be the last performance with the Stokes brothers and Burns lineup for quite some time, with Von Lmo on the mend. The gig was marred by some excessive smoke from the cauldron which included Geofrey’s sacrifice of a putrified dove. The stench was awful and I wondered why I had to stay on stage, as the crowd retreated. Someone from Max’s opened the door to let some air in during the performance and without missing a beat to the music, Geofrey snarled, “Close that door! You’re ruining my ceremony!” A videotape was made that night by Bob Gruen and a week later at his apartment, we watched distorted lines grace the TV screen (video was still at its infancy, unfortunately).

A few years ago, I contacted Bob Gruen and he unveiled a Kongress Tape 2 from that Halloween performance. He transferred the old reel to reel video recording onto a DV tape. Then I was able to load it into my Mac through a firewire interface and view the black and white remnants of the episode etched in my memory, but elusive to being documented heretofore. All I can say is I can't wait till the DVD is made available and an unsuspecting world is able to see the only existing tape of Kongress with Geoffrey and myself on stage together. JI pressed Bob again to look for the Kongress Tape 1 of Halloween, 1976 with the hope that maybe there is more to consider releasing on the DVD before I begin the critical task of putting this exceptional performance and documentation of a Master at his best on stage. I can only promise that it will be the epitome of what you expect from a Halloween performance.

The Chronic Ill-Logical His Story of Kongress by Otto von Ruggins

The following weeks, I rehearsed with Geoffrey and his band of local youth, the Stokes brothers – Frank on bass and Chris on drums – and Bobby Burns on guitar. Later, they would become Geoff’s Shanghai Side Show group, after a few gigs as Kongress, before Von Lmo came back on drums.

We had a few dates at Max’s lined up and the next time we played, the audience went wild. It was unbelievable how the visual antics of the magical ceremony, driven by a less than distinctive musical edge, resulted in such a strong and positive reaction. Again, Peter Crowley, commentator on the scene, offered his observation – “Nobody, not even Alice Cooper could have followed that act.” As for the audience’s approval, he described it as being, “…better than the N.Y. Dolls.” Those were heavy accolades, which unfortunately were not written about at that point in time, or lived up to live in the future.

The next Max’s date was on September 21st, the Equinox. I played my synthesizer at a Parks Department event during the day with Geoffrey in attendance until he wandered off. That night’s show at Max’s lacked the spirit of the day and failed to bring the crowd to the same excited state.

Being musically unsatisfied with the sounds of the Stokes brothers and Bobby Burns, I had been bringing down other musicians to jam with. Among a mostly forgettable stream of musicians not fit for Kongress, some standout names were John Greaves, former bass player with Henry Cow, and Marc Bell, soon to be Ramones drummer. They actually played together with Robert Crash one afternoon and it was a disaster.

The Chronic Ill-Logical His Story of Kongress by Otto von Ruggins

Meeting Geoffrey for the first time in New York City must have been anti-climactic for both of us. After seeing him in the pictures in full costume, at the poster shop where he worked, he seemed relatively harmless and I was in an executive suit on my way home to Brooklyn, looking like a Congressman more than a musician. He indicated he had been out of performing for about a year, that I was the best offer he had had and he shouldn’t let me slip away. I arranged for him to come down that night to a studio in Brooklyn with Von Lmo, Robert Crash and a bass player who wound up writing an article about the experience for the Aquarian, Steve Mecca. I still have a cassette of that magical initiation (‘We Arrive’ and ‘Presence Known’ are on CD two). It was the first of many incredible improvisational moments we shared. I remember Von Lmo singing my words to ‘Berlin Merlins’ and hearing Geoffrey comment, “There’s only one Merlin in here!” Poor Robert Crash – he didn’t know what he was not getting into. He had never played such free spirited music and, while I had no complaints about his playing, he kept haunting me about the rhythm section not defining the bottom.

The next day was my birthday, which I spent quietly with my family, but Von Lmo went into a rage and attempted to drop kick one of the local inhabitants of his neighborhood from on top of a car and when his leg was grabbed in mid-air, it broke and I visited him in Coney Island Hospital. With Von out of action and the Max’s date days away, I quickly began rehearsing with Robert Crash, the bass player from the studio session, Steve Mecca, and a replacement drummer, Joe Alexander (who was actually the drummer from my first group ‘From Down Under’). Geoffrey indicated he wasn’t quite ready for the stage with us, but we managed to put on a decent show, all things considered. Peter Crowley of Max’s was especially impressed at how my keyboards kept playing when I left the band on stage and walked through the audience to the upstairs dressing room (it was the ancient rite of the antique echoplex). At the end of the night, as we packed our gear, I discovered my new magical friend, Mr. Crozier, sprawled on the floor by the front tables. Apparently, he’d been working too hard!

The Chronic Ill-Logical His Story of Kongress by Otto von Ruggins

It was the bicentennial and I had plans for thee bicentennial birthday event – my wife on stage giving birth inside a see through sterilized plastic bubble to the strains of Kongress on stage (I even thought of having Charlotte Moorman violin bow the umbilical cord). I tried to contact then legendary promoter Bill Sargent. He had talked about bringing the Beatles back together again and having a man in a cage with a shark. He wasn’t talking anymore, as his phone was disconnected and my wife, Celia, would only go through with this for $10,000, so it became another one of those unrealized concepts. A similar event would have been the first Kongress performance at an Artist’s Day celebration the previous fall at the band shell in Central Park. I wanted to perform on stage while having my blood transfused to another person as theirs was filtering into mine. The concept was to have government nurture art and have art provide culture for people, completing the blood loop. I called the Board of Health to find out the requirements. They started freaking out, telling me I would have to have matching blood types and have an emergency crew on hand in case people in the audience started fainting from the sight. I offered the alternative of taking blood from one of my arms and transfusing it to the other. Again, the doctor cautioned that this would be dangerous for my blood pressure. In the end, it rained that day and the event was cancelled!

It was June, 1976 and we got our first gig at Max’s Kansas City. It was also Schnug’s last appearance. For a first time, the booking power, one Peter Crowley, seemed sufficiently impressed to give us a return engagement the last week of July. In fact, Peter showed Von Lmo and I some pictures he had received from a magician named Geoffrey Crozier. Instantly, my reaction was that I’d love to make soundtracks to his visuals. I got an address where he worked and in mid-July I made my first contact with the man from Down Under. Coincidentally, From Down Under was the name of my first performing band. The name had nothing to do with Oz, as I was referring to the Underground (which didn't even exist back in 1964). My vision was music coming up 'from down under,' trying to be heard, hence I became the 'Master of the Unheard Øf!

The Chronic Ill-Logical His Story of Kongress by Otto von Ruggins

Our next appearance at CBGB in February revealed myself on synthesizer and Farfisa with Von Lmo on drums – no guitar or bass. Hilly’s reaction was that we should find another place to rehearse. Then along came E. Paul Schnug, with his XES guitar synthesizer and a 15 year old roadie named Joe. We played CBGB on Mother’s Night that May and, conveniently, Hilly was in the hospital recovering from our last appearance. It was more than a rehearsal, but it was only a warmup for the following week at Zeppz, another venue with a short life for renegade bands, this one on 14th Street. We opened for the Dictators and the place was packed. This was right after Handsome Dick had been involved in an altercation with the soon to be altered Wayne to Jayne County. Apparently, no other group would play the date because it would mean being blacklisted as the Dictators were. Such risky business meant nothing to us back then, because no one was booking us anyway.

We played our first set, which ended in an exchange of profanity between Von Lmo with his rented drums and some members of the audience. As we left the stage, the hippest looking dude in the place came up to me declaring how great we were. I knew that my father’s Sam Ash amp was distorting the Farfisa/synth combination and Schnug’s guitar was out of tune with my synth, but I was pleased at the rave review nevertheless. Then the Dictators took the stage and the audience was theirs. After they finished a set (which did nothing for me) and abandoned the stage, the crowd stomped for an encore. This went on for some five minutes without their reappearance and, as the noise died down, I singlehandedly picked up my Farfisa and placed it back on the stage, anxious to begin our second set in tune. One of their crew, Steve Shrank, came running up to the stage shouting at us to get off and Von Lmo roared right back. Eventually, my organ was removed without physical violence and they came back for another forgetful performance. This time, after they left the stage, we were told they didn’t want us to do a second set. The next week in the Voice, James Wolcott described the scene, “A rowdy bottle smashing night…earlier in the evening there had been an altercation with a satanic occult band named Kongress that played music that sounded like a Concorde drone with Aleister Crowley lyrics. They abandoned the stage only after threats of violence were unfurled like vampirish cape flourishes.”

At this point in time, I made a deal with my wife with child. I could no longer agonize over the distorted sounds of my father’s antique amplifier, so I got to purchase a SunnConcert amp with a Cerwin Vega speaker cabinet and she got to name our third daughter as well – Dana (I managed the middle name – Sidonia, and five years later, Dana Sidonia’s vocals appeared on my collaboration with Robert Crash – an EP titled ‘Movie Viewers’, but back to the birth).

The Chronic Ill-Logical His Story of Kongress by Otto von Ruggins

The first Kongress event took place appropriately at the Brooklyn War Memorial on Friday, November 6, 1975 (I believe that predates even the first Sex Pistols performance). My father’s VW open back truck transported my Hammond organ and Leslie Speaker cabinet along with Von Lmo’s drums and an amplifier for Grok’s guitar. In the echo laden open interior space, we were told to lower the volume successively after each song and so continued the recurring tradition of Otto von Ruggins, Master of the Unheard Øf.

That Christmas Eve, our club debut at CBGB’s was reviewed by Variety. Kirby quipped, “Kongress is a defiant rock combo who expect a lot of auditors.” Well, a dozen years later in August, 1987, I received an invitation by the IRS to fulfill the prophecy, but back to that snowing Christmas Eve. That night, we got to meet CBGB owner Hilly Kristal for the first time and I must say I was impressed by his Christmas spirit as he chased a bum out the front door and pushed him on the ground off the curb, defining the demarcation line not to be crossed.

Next stop was up the block on Bleecker Street, a short lived basement firetrap excuse for a club boldly called Brave New World. It was the first week of January, 1976 and the last Kongress gig for Grok. Ironically, that night Robert Crash made his first appearance in my life, but since I did not foresee our later collaborations, it wasn’t until he put an ad in the Village Voice advertising ‘guitarist with 150 years experience…’ that I took him seriously and established contact.

During this period, I met Gaea Hawkins, a keyboardist extraordinaire, who with her modified B-3 was able to follow me down to some spectacular depths of sound. In improv sessions, we continued exchanging riffs long after the guitar, bass and drums had given up the ghost. Unfortunately, a few months later, she left on a short tour of the east coast, never to return (where are you Gaea?)!

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