Thursday, May 11, 2006

REQUIEM FOR THE BLISSTERS

During the Eighties there was no more ferocious rock and roll in the Lehigh Valley than that performed by the Blissters. Every 'burg the size of Allentown has a dive band that's similar. Capable of packing them into firepits four nights a week, aggressive onstage to the point that second and third tier major label acts following them at theatre gigs were upstaged. Unglamorous, always with the wrong hair and clothes, never able to capitalize on lucky breaks or call in favors that might let them escape the region.


I've searched over the web for years and there is no record of The Blissters, not even in the websites of the Lehigh Valley. What follows is a retrospective I did on them for the Morning Call newspaper.


Mr. Rock & Mr. Roll

Life is a feed bag overflowing with oats -- one that you never take off! -- Mr. Ed

(August 1991) If there was ever a rock and roll band the epitomized the zany philosophy of Mr. Ed, it was Allentown's Blissters.

At their final gig at the A-town Italian Club, The Blissters -- primal guitarist Dougie Smash Roth and vocalist Scotty Fehnel (aka Johnny Freedom) closed the books on a ten year history that was nothing if not the overflowing feed bag of the rock and roll high life.

The show was not particularly special in the heirarchy of infamous Blissters gigs. Althought it was a happy occasion attended by several hundred of the bands followers, the Blissters never rose to the volcanic fury that marked their best appearances at Chubby's Bar & Grill on Airport Road during the mid-80's.

By the end of the night, too many drunken louts were oompahing up to the stage for a turn at the mike. The result was what seemed like an hour-long version of "Louie Louie."

Roth and Fehnel formed the Blissters as a garage act with drummer Duane Martis in the late-70's. The trio later added bass player Tony Mancino and organist Louie Kovesces.

It would be this line-up that established their reputation as the Valley's most fearsome rock band -- one forged by Roth's guitar demoltitions and Fehnel's avuncular charm.

Capable of packing the defunct Castle Gardens and drawing mobs of truly astonishing size at the occasional Summer Sunday afternoon on the Parkway, the Blissters routinely greased other Valley mainstays.

Of those days, Fehnel says, "The best show for me was at Penn State. It was crazy. The girls were drinking my sweat. They were wiping their hands on my face and licking them!"

During the period, the Blissters recorded their one lone record, "Meltdown." It was -- by any standard -- a perfect lesson on how not to make one.

Roth was not present for the recordings, having left for a job as a sideman in another local act. Album art was nonexistent. "Meltdown" was mastered at the wrong speed, carrying a mere three songs on two sides of a 33-rpm LP.

Perhaps in spite of the Blissters, one number -- a sort of rock 'n' roll tarantella called "Arabian Mistress," stood out.

Roth rejoined for "Meltdown's" release but the damage had been done. Martis and Kovesces eventually left, but the most crippling loss came when Mancino, tiring of friction between himself and Roth, decamped too.

A savvy musician possessed of a sturdy rock 'n' roll groove and enough urbanity to offset the Blissters' unwashed brutality, Mancino was never properly replaced. Which is not to say the Blissters still weren't on top of the competition.

The end of the decade saw the band pared back to a trio again. A new drummer -- a diminutive spike by the name of Gary Pavlik seemed just right. While the old Chubby's crowd had aged out of going out to rupture the liver on Saturday night, the Blissters built up a new following, one crazy enough to regularly follow them into the one or two rock and roll clubs that existed in a dire slum in the south side of Bethlehem.

That model of the Blissters was best defined by a concert that resulted in the closure of Wally's, an old dance hall, one treacherous, ice-locked New Year's Eve.

As the Blissters came onstage, freezing rain poured through gaping holes in the ceiling. Smoking kerosene heaters labored fruitlessly in the noisome, poorly-lit ballroom making it seem like some nightmare out of a Bosch painting.

"I just bought this dump for a quarter," cracked Fehnel.

Despite the cold, the band played an hour-and-a-half-set which climaxed when fans started beating each other with folding chairs during the band's ZZ Top medley. Shortly thereafter, Wally's was condemned. The Blissters had again brought the house down.

The last two years saw Roth and Fehnel renting the occasional limousine for wild rides to resort gigs and opening for Steppenwolf at the Airport Music Hall. The amps adorned with a case load of empty Budweiser tall boys -- a gesture which seemed to please the tough-as-masonry nails audience.

However, two months ago Pavlik left the Blissters. According to Roth, perhaps the pressures associated with "being a Blisster" had lost their novelty.

Throughout the last decade, the duo of Roth and Fehnel proved it was the very definition of big-time rock and roll that never made it to the big time. They never made it to the stadiums or recorded for a major or even minor record company. But they did it their way whatever the cost. And they walked it like they talked it.



2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the Blissters have been reborn. The line-up includes Dougie Roth, Tony Mancino and Gary Pavlick. Scott Fehnel is not able to join his cohorts, but everyone who knows this band knows that Scott is a part of the soul of the Blissters. He is always there in spirit.

The band is still unconventional and unpredictable playing music that ranges from the Sex Pistols to Motorhead to Beck to Johnny Cash. The originals are potent and as varied in style as the cover material. All is proper.

The band's website can be found at www.theblisstersrock.com and is worth checking out. No frills and no rambling biographies, just the facts.

12:15 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

Truly great seriously appreciate the passion of the article, your one of the few people that got it it right from the get go......

6:02 PM  

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