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  • Writer's pictureMichael Lenzi

(Re)Collection: The Velvet Monkeys

Jay's gift to me on my 18th birthday.

Jay Spiegel was the drummer for the D.C. band the Velvet Monkeys. When I met him at the ripe old age of 17, I had no idea how influential he would be. We were co-workers for a couple of summers in a file room at the World Bank.

I showed up at work for my summer job between high school and college in June of 1984 with a fresh crew cut and a questionable work ethic. I wasn't lazy, but I was neither a focused nor detail-oriented kid. I am still that way to this day. I think he might have wondered why they hired me.

To his credit, he grasped that I was not your average knucklehead. I am not sure why or how he came to that conclusion. Maybe it was my interest in music. When I found out he was a drummer in an actual band that played actual shows, I peppered him with questions. Did he know Ian Mackaye? Did he like hardcore? What Dischord bands had he played shows with? What did he think about all those English post-punk and new wave bands that were so popular in the underground at that time?

He tolerated me. Maybe he even enjoyed sharing his music knowledge and punk rock record collection with me. Every day he brought in music by bands like Flipper, Black Flag, The Urinals, Angry Somoans, Government Issue and the Meat Puppets. I know that he thought a lot of the Discord music was kids stuff. I didn't care. I asked lots of a questions anyway.

The World Bank, as you might have guessed, was not a place where you were likely to hear harsh punk rock wafting out of an office. I probably encouraged him to play the music louder than he normally would have. He was an adult and had better sense than a teenager. But I was a little brother who needed to be educated, so he bent the rules.

I do not know what the World Bank bureaucrats must have thought of us when they came in to request files. I am sure they were surprised. One particular encounter sticks out in my mind. Jay had put on a Flipper live recording then went out to run some errands. I was in the back corner of the office shelving a huge pile of returned files. I think I might have even turned the music up a bit after he left.

Side A played out, and I thought it had automatically stopped. I finished up the files and was about to make my way back up to the counter and flip it over. I started to hear muffled conversation and loud moaning coming from the counter area. I froze. What the hell was going on? Then I realized it must be coming from the cassette player, and I ran up to the counter. Standing there was a prim woman in a suit patiently waiting to be helped. I fumbled around and turned off the cassette player.

She looked at me with no expression. I was mortified. Then Jay walked back in unaware of the situation and asked the lady if she needed a file. Everything was back to normal.

Apparently, Jay's roommate liked to tape his sexual exploits for posterity. Jay, being thrifty, would take his cassettes and record music over them. He thought it was hilarious. I was kind of shocked. I didn't realize guys did such things.

One of my first D.C. shows was the Velvet Monkeys opening up for the Slickee Boys. I didn't have a lot of context for live music, but I thought it was great. It was hardly the punk rock show I had imagined, but it was still a cool, new experience. The Slickees were a great party band and were showy in their garagey, psychedelic kind of way. The Velvet Monkeys were much more brooding and heavy, but I liked their gloomy, goth style. It reminded me of Factory Records bands from England. (My freshman roommate in college was not a big fan though. I'd play their record, and he would get scared. He called it voodoo music. I guess he kind of had a point.)

Jay and I worked together again in the file room the summer and fall of 1988 after I graduated college. At that point, there was another drummer friend of his working there, too. Richie had played in the Crippled Pilgrims and with Half Japanese. He shared a lot of music with me as well. He loved the Fall.

I can't say that either of them encouraged me to play music. They might have half-heartedly offered to give me a drum lesson. I don't think they believed I would ever be in a band. Even though I loved punk rock, in their eyes I was still kind of a square. They were my cool older brothers. They were aware of how little I really knew. I deferred to them.

However, just being around them planted the seed in my mind that I could one day be in a band. Jay's name would periodically show up on records in the next few years after I moved to Chicago. I was shocked to find his name on the back of a Dinosaur Jr 7 inch. I loved Dinosaur Jr! He played on the band's Sub Pop single version of the Wagon.

We eventually crossed paths again in D.C. at the Black Cat when my group Number One Cup was touring with a band called Edsel. It was the last time I saw him. It was a disappointing evening. He came to the show and hung out a little beforehand because he was recording at a studio next door. I felt honored that he was going to see me play. It was one of those movie moments.

When our show was over, I went out looking for him and he was gone. He didn't stay to talk or say goodbye or whatever. I was a little crushed. I assumed at the time that he thought we sucked and wanted to avoid having to talk to me afterwards. I don't know what the truth was. Maybe he was just tired and went home. Maybe he had to go back to the studio and finish up. Maybe our music wasn't his thing. Many explanations come to mind. However, nothing can diminish the importance he had in my life. Thanks brother!

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