- Real Estate
- Under Cover
- Special Editorial
- In Pictures
BY COLIN MIXSON
A Battery Park City resident is reuniting with his Grammy-nominated musical act, The Washington Squares, for a one-night-only performance featuring Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame at City Winery on Jan. 10, and he’s inviting locals to join him in reliving the folk sensation that swept Greenwich Village back in the day.
“The music is really good. It really is!” said Tom Goodkind. “I think you’re really going to feel better at the end of the show than when you came in.”
The Squares’ original lineup featured Goodkind, Bruce Paskow, and Lauren Agnelli, and the act was born out of the new wave music scene that swept the city in the late 1970s, when frizz met leather, and punk rock met synth pop in legendary venues like CBGB and The Electric Circus before New York got Disneyfied.
Goodkind was best known at the time as a nightclub manager, running venues such as Irving Plaza, the Peppermint Lounge, and the Roseland Ballroom — although he also had his own pop act, US APE. Meanwhile, Goodkind’s best friend and inveterate prankster, Paskow, had played in a punk band called The Invaders, and Agnelli wrote a music column for The Village Voice and played in the synth-pop act Nervus Rex.
The Washington Squares project was partly inspired by 1982’s “The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time!” — a documentary about the iconic Greenwich Village-based folk quartet blacklisted amid the Red Scare after members Pete Seeger and Lee Hay were identified as Communist Party members.
But while The Weavers documentary served as an inspiration, the real urge to go folk was born from the desire to stand out. In the early 1980s, cookie-cutter pop-punk acts were a dime and dozen, and the scene’s unharmonious vibes often blended into a deafening white noise, Goodkind said.
“I remember going back to my apartment with Bruce, and I said, ‘we’re never going to cut it, because there’s four billion of these bands, we have to come up with something really weird,” Goodkind recalled. “That’s when we said, ‘Let’s try folk music!’”
Agnelli, meanwhile, was white hot in the music scene. She was the punk rock beauty queen whose voice, keyboard talent, and music cred — once interviewing Lou Reed under the pseudonym Trixie A Balm for the Voice — made her the heartthrob of would-be punk suitors the Village over, according to Goodkind.
“We all went to see her play keyboard in the back of Nervus Rex,” he said. “We just went to look at her, and then talk to her, and she would tell us to fuck off.”
But Paskow and Goodkind weren’t the only ones looking for a change. Agnelli was growing tired of the blaring high-tempo harmonics that often characterized the scene, and began looking towards the past for a sound that was a little more square.
“I think first of all we’re pretty rebellious, but our ears got too used to a certain sound,” Agnelli said. “Punk rock came out of a reaction to that music that was just too homogenized and clean. We came out of a scene that was too loud and not tuneful.”
The boys ultimately recruited Agnelli — much to their surprise — with the melodious, crooning promise of three-part harmony — an appeal that harkened back to her younger, church-going years.
“They found me and said, ‘Hey, let’s do a harmony folk-type band,’” Agnelli recalled. “I love harmony. That’s what I heard growing up going to church. I’m a good harmony singer.”
To bone up on the genre, Goodkind booked a ticket to Washington, DC, headed over to the Library of Congress, and there — much to the librarians’ surprise — inquired where to find the folk catalogue.
“They hadn’t had a visitor in years,” Goodkind said.
The Squares would practice for months before stepping on a stage, mastering old folks songs like “Samson,” “He was a friend of Mine,” and “Which Side Are You On,” while working up originals including “You Can’t Kill Me,” and “Be on the Lookout for the New Generation.” It was the band’s polish that in many ways helped the trio stand out, Agnelli said.
“We put together a good repertoire and practiced a lot,” she said. “The hard work was the important thing.”
The fact that the group appeared on stage wearing beatnik-inspired getups, including striped shirts, berets, goatees and sunglasses didn’t hurt either.
After a packed open-mic performance at a one-time McDougal Street folk club called Speak Easy — at which Goodkind bribed an organizer with $10 to go first before a long-line of aspiring folk stars — the Squares took off in popularity, and soon they were playing to packed houses throughout the Village and beyond.
The band would eventually go on tour with comedian Billy Crystal, and sellout major concert venues including Carnegie Hall and Ford Theater playing with acts including the Beach Boys, Peter, Paul and Mary, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Richie Havens, and Joan Jett.
“People went nuts,” said Goodkind. “They said ‘these guys are dressed as beatniks with bongos and they’re playing real folks songs.’ It was this goofy idea.”
The band’s Grammy nod came with their eponymous first album release, “The Washington Squares,” in 1987 which they followed up with “Fair and Square” in 1989.
The group split ways after Paskow died in 1994. Agnelli eventually fled the city after 9/11 for Connecticut, where she works in recreational therapy for seniors, and still plays with a jug band called Washboard Slim and the Bluelights.
For Goodkind, however, the death of his friend was like the day the music died, and the goof-ball bandleader of The Washington Squares decided to cut his hair and commit the most unspeakable of crimes — going normal.
“It’s the worst thing if you’re a beatnik and you go normal, it’s like turning coat,” he said.
But Goodkind, now an accountant, still looks back and marvels at the success of his almost nonsensical idea, and wonders at his achievement in the folk scene of the 80s.
“Everybody has goofy ideas, but 99-percent of them fail,” said Goodkind. “But this one worked. And I was like beside myself thrilled. I was like, ‘holy shit, you can have an idea and it can actually work.”
The Washington Squares 25th Anniversary Show, with Special Guests Richard Barone, Michelle Shocked, Anne Waldman & more. City Winery, 155 Varick St. Jan. 10, doors open at 6 pm. Tickets $25–$35. http://www.citywinery.com/newyork/tickets/the-washington-squares-1-10.html