Editor's note: Longtime Capital Region musician Greg Haymes died Wednesday night at Albany Medical Center. A Gazette music writer shares his thoughts in this column.
The first time I saw Greg Haymes, he literally rose up through the floor.
He and the rest of the Star Spangled Washboard Band rode an elevator into view at the SUNY Albany Performing Arts Center to start a wonderfully whack musical comedy about alternating versus direct current.
In dozens of shows, I saw him sing and play in many bands, in costume at Halloween, in videos on MTV; in bars, in parks, in gigs lucrative, low rent or even free, as benefits. As Sergeant Blotto, or Wild Bill, he made music for real but with fun around the edges. Billy Idol would sing like Sarge, if he could.
When Blotto was on hiatus in the mid-80s, Greg was free to accept Carlo Wolff’s invitation to see Judas Priest at the Glens Falls Civic Center. Carlo wanted company on the long drive and someone to consult as he reviewed the show for The Gazette. I suggested Greg, in part because Blotto’s song “Metal Head” was still ringing in my ears, a satirical masterpiece powered by Greg/Sarge’s vocal. Also, I knew Greg to be observant, culturally sharp and generously helpful.
I knew he knew music at least as well as I did.
Carlo later reported Greg said the Judas Priest guitarists had “great arch.” I hope Carlo used that in his Gazette review.
Soon Greg started writing about music at Metroland, as Sarge Blotto in a column called Rockin’ Roll Call.
When Carlo left The Gazette, bringing Greg in as our second reviewer made perfect sense.
We’d meet over lunch near my downtown Albany day-job office and divide up the concert calendar, month by month.
I hated his departure for the Times Union, a full-time job rather than a freelance reviewer gig. As the TU’s first full-time popular music writer, he was under the microscope. He told me Harry Rosenfeld, the TU’s elder statesman and current editor-at-large, came by one day to question the word “mosh” in one of his stories, thinking Greg must have typo’ed “mash.” Here I must point out that I almost never knew Greg to typo ANYTHING. Maybe never. Un-intimidated, secure in his knowledge, politely diplomatic, Greg patiently explained the term. Satisfied, Rosenfeld nodded and retreated. I doubt anybody questioned him again.
We’d meet up on assignments over time, always on friendly terms and willing to help; though I relied on his knowledge much more than he ever needed mine.
I once complimented him on a marvelous device he brought to the jazz festival at SPAC: a pastel plastic seat/cooler with shoulder straps. You could wear it on your back, tote your cold ones into the show, then sit comfortably on it. At my next birthday, he presented me one, which I still have and use. He’d searched for it in garage sales for weeks.
In the last show of one SPAC season, we sat across a table in the backstage pressroom writing our reviews and took turns sending them by modem to our newspapers. Then he tugged out a flask and we toasted the end of the season, with the good stuff, and the good feeling we always shared, at dozens, decades, of shows.
Scavenging and supplying each other worked both ways.
When he began assembling sculptures from salvaged rusted metal, with award-winning results, I searched the roadsides, scavenging art parts for him. When an old hobby-horse turned up in the attic of my in-laws’ Herkimer County farmhouse, I grabbed it for Greg. He added it to the herd hung high on cables and springs high in a stand of birch trees behind the Schodack house he shared with wife Sara and their dogs. When wind waved the trees, the horses seemed to gallop.
Greg never seemed to hurry; but, man, he covered lots of ground.
I doubt anyone ever covered more shows, or made more art — or friends — than Greg.
For years of summer weekends, he and Sara opened their Schodack property — go past the buffalo ranch, turn right at the empty silo — to every artist around in the free-for-all they called “Wild in the Woods.” My whole family participated, and I loved introducing my young daughter, now a filmmaker, to such creative people, living by doing art, in a community of artists. We hung hanging paintings from the trees, marveled at the works along every path, every hollow, showed my slide shows in their chicken coop, swam in the pool below their waterfall. Yeah, and they played and sang Abba songs.
When I served on the Unitarian Society’s summer program committee, I was delighted at the chance to hire Greg and Sara. They performed a super-engaging duo show; two lives linked in love and music.
We music writers were and are colleagues more than rivals; we’d help and compliment each other. Greg’s kindness was never clearer than when he’d gently correct an error of mine, and he always said yes when I offered him a story for Nippertown.
To read Nippertown is to marvel at the quantity and quality of what he and Sara posted on the web every day for the past 10 years.
Last Tuesday, Greg, who was in his mid-60s, sent an email to Nippertown contributors, the writers and photographers who make it the liveliest music-and-arts website around. He asked for someone to take it over, citing a dire diagnosis of metastatic cancer that accelerated the departure he and Sara had previously planned for next month.
Around midday Wednesday, Michael Eck, Greg’s mate in multiple bands, emailed that Greg was in Albany Med.
When I went to see him, the lounge/waiting area was full of the folks we all saw for years at the Chateau, QE2, and J.B. Scotts.
Sara sat beside the bed, holding Greg’s hand and forearm. He was quiet, breathing steadily and slowly, eyes closed.
Sara said Greg had been weak but pretty OK until that morning when he weakened further and they went to Albany Med. There, docs gave him antibiotics against an infection and started a morphine drip.
Musicians, writers, artists and fans came by in a hushed parade, including Peter Lesser, who offered The Egg for a memorial gathering. I told Sara it wouldn’t be big enough. Writer Tim Cahill chimed in: “The TU Center?” So I answered, “I’m thinking SPAC.”
Sara said visitors had told music scene stories all day, including a heated argument, you know the kind: “Beatles versus Stones.’ Talk around the bedside was warm, relaxed and funny.
Sara said at one point, “He’d just love this! — all these friends talking music, arguing.”
Bill Polchinski (Broadway Blotto) came into the room a bit later. We hugged in the doorway and he thanked me “for all those years when you wrote about us so we all felt like big shots.”
Sara had mentioned that Bowtie Blotto (Paul Jossman) was around, but I hadn’t seen him on my way past the group in the lounge. I asked Bill/Broadway if Bowtie was still around, and he joked, “Yeah, that’s why I’m down here!” and gave a big laugh.
When I said my goodbyes to Sara and others in the room, I went to the lounge and found Bowtie there. He said, “He’s my brother. He’s my brother.”
Yeah, Bowtie — mine, too.
Greg Haymes' music career
Born in Buffalo, Haymes started making music in bands there, grafting rock and roll bravado onto traditional “old-timey” tunes. Arriving in Albany, he became the washboard player and main singer of the Star Spangled Washboard Band, which made some recordings, toured the U.S. and made national TV appearances including the “Mike Douglas Show.”
Blotto grew from the Washboard Band when, as drummer F. Lee Harvey Blotto (Paul Rapp) put it, they added a “younger and better looking rhythm section” to turn in a more mainstream rock and roll direction.
By the early 1980s, Blotto was the biggest Albany band since the mid-1960s Knickerbockers.
They played everywhere, going national with “I Wanna Be a Lifeguard” in 1981; MTV broadcast their video of the single on its first day on the air. They played the “Joe Franklin show,” the “Uncle Floyd Show” and others. They toured regionally, then nationally with Blue Oyster Cult on the “Blot & Blue Tour,” later reporting they could instantly tell from the crowd’s reaction whether songs from their EPs and albums were playing on radio in those markets.
Haymes was the muscular voice and telegenic face of Blotto, the over-the-top wildman of “Metal Head,” the smarmy lounge-lizard frontman of “We Are the Nowtones,” the sad cautionary-tale-teller of “My Baby’s the Star of a Driver’s Ed Movie.”
After Blotto disbanded in 1984, Haymes began writing about music, first in Metroland, then in The Gazette followed by a long stint writing full time for the Times Union. Meanwhile, Blotto periodically reunited, Haymes always at the front. Blotto released 10 albums, singles or compilations including a video collection.
Leaving the TU, Haymes and musician/webmaster wife Sara Ayers launched Nippertown in 2009, quickly becoming the leading online source on music and popular culture in the Albany area.
Haymes meanwhile continued performing, singing and playing washboard and harmonica in the Ramblin Jug Stompers, a rollicking jug band; and in Tin Can Alley, a 1960s folk-revival style all-star revue.