Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Music Box: The Waitresses

More like Waiters and Waitresses, but who's keeping a tab?

Although Blondie and the Pretenders had already secured their places in my heart by then, no band better symbolized the changing of the musical guard for me from pop-rock (ONJ, Hall and Oates) to New Wave than the Waitresses. (The Go-Go's and Missing Persons were right in the same window.) The year was 1982 and my brother was home for the weekend from the University of Arizona when he pulled out this album that looked like a tablecloth in an Italian restaurant with a black-and-white graduation photo on the center. Scribbled in the upper-left corner were the words, "Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful?" The second he put it on my stereo and she started singing (OK, half-talking, half-snipping) "Needed new posters, so I bought 'em. I know the cost of stamps now ...," I was hooked. The she was Patty Donahue, who along with guitarist/songwriter Chris Butler (and an assortment of musicians) had recorded this insanely original album that sounded like Gloria Steinem had stepped in for Kate and Cindy in the B-52's. "I Know What Boys Like" would later become one of their best-known songs, but in many ways it really was one of the weakest on the album, because while it had the sass of the others, it lacked the cerebral touch that made Butler's lyrics so much more than throwaway '80s novelty fare. Killer Pussy records were a hoot too, but you weren't going to hear Lucy LaMode croon:

Shocked? Dismayed?
Or maybe just a little upset
Well, no this isn't pretty
And yes, my hair was longer then
It's what happens when your choices
Are narrowed to fashion or violence
Adjustments, you make adjustments


Get tough, don't be so patient
Get smart, head up, shoulders straight
Since when is it a disaster?
If the "S" on your cape is a little frayed?
What's a girl to do?
Born to shop? No! Pretty victories
What's a girl to do?
Scream &. screw? No! Pretty victories

The way I remember it, a demo tape Butler had recorded with some friends was well-received by a label in New York in '80 or '81, so Chris lied and said his band was back in Ohio, then suddenly had to get Patty to the city and then get an actual band together to start playing live.

Patty Donahue, vocals and sarcasm

Within months, the Peppermint Lounge became the Waitresses 2.0's domain and "Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful?" was released in 1982, quickly becoming a "college hit." ("No Guilt," "Wise Up," "Quit," and "Pussy Strut" are all New Wave classics.) A stopgap EP was issued later that year. "I Could Rule the World if I Could Only Get the Parts" contained five new songs, including the band's cute theme to the short-lived but much-loved television series "Square Pegs" (on which they guest starred and had their album cover prominently featured in the booth at Johnny Slash's school radio station) and what would become Butler's ultimate cash cow, the perennial holiday favorite, "Christmas Wrapping."

"No Guilt": Perhaps the most insulting post-breakup song ever, with its utter blasé attitude!

"Quit": Failure has never been more indecisive.

"Wise Up:" Only stupid people fail to see that it's a bad thing maybe in the '80s (but I doubt it)

By the time 1982 came to a finish, the band was seemingly on top of the world having been on a whirlwind ride of success and new-found fame. In '83 "Bruiseology," the much-anticipated (by me, at least) sophomore album, came out but before promotion got started in earnest, the band was pretty much done. First Patty quit. Then Holly Beth Vincent was slated to step in. Then Patty returned. Then the whole thing was over. (The album, by the way, plays like a uncompleted coulda-been gem: "A Girl's Gotta Do" and "Everything's Wrong if My Hair's Wrong" pick up nicely where the original left off, but "Make the Weather" reveals a sweet, Brian Wilson side of Butler that hadn't been seen before. The other standout tracks, "Luxury" and "Open City," show Patty's character has matured (or wised up). But then "Spin" had to be sung by bassist Tracy Wormworth when Patty went M.I.A., during exhaustive recording sessions in England (Tracy had also recorded the title track, which some people actually prefer, but then Patty did her own take and that was used.) "Pleasure" is an unnecessary instrumental (were vocals dropped when Patty vanished?) and "They're All Out of Liquor, Let's Find Another Party" is a great title, but the song is as humorless as it is tuneless, which is everything the Waitresses were not.

In 1990, Chris Butler explained in the liner notes to the band's best-of package that "it's very easy to become a victim of too much fun. but it's so embarrassing! how could a bunch of stubborn people who refused to be cliches stumble smack into a typical show biz crash and burn. maybe it's because 'that which ye be the most afraid of is guaranteed to happen' ... so you can work through it and come out the other side and not be afraid anymore. all i know is that i was trying to write three-minute Preston Sturges movies, but as it turned out, we were all really living 'All About Eve.'"

While the record industry continues to amaze me from time to time with its reissues ("Despite Straight Lines," anyone?) to date, shamefully none of the Waitresses' original releases have been released on CD. ("Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful?" did, however, make it to iTunes last year and a best-of disc is available HERE.) Years ago Chris Butler, who shared a rehearsal space with a guy I work with, told me that a box set of the band's catalogue was imminent. But five years on and having already produced my own Waitresses CDs, I'm not holding my breath. What still haunts me, though, is that I never got to see them perform live. In 1982 they even came through Phoenix and my brother Bill was fortunate enough to catch them. But alas the show was at a bar and I was far too young, and then they broke up before I ever got another chance. (Even sadder, in 1996, Patty died tragically of lung cancer at 40, ending forever any hope of a reunion.)

So imagine my shock and delight when Cherry Red -- the very people who reissued the Marilyn album on CD last year -- recently released a live Waitresses concert DVD, "The Waitresses: Live at Hurrah,"which I have just added to my NetFlix queue!!! (I swore I'd never join but I wouldn't dare buy a DVD after you-know-what.) I miss ya, Patty, and I can hardly wait for it to get here. The show is just 54 minutes, but I'll call it even just to have it last that long ...

A flawless recreation of the perfect '80s New Wave album, above

The EP and album No. 2 never looked so good together, above

(Artwork by Greg Jelinek)

  • Read all Music Box posts HERE.
  • A great Waitresses Web site is HERE.

  • UPDATE: From a friend.

    He writes:
    I got "The Akron Sound" book for Christmas -- finally tells what really happened with the Waitresses. I think when Patty died Chris Butler didn't want to trash her but enough time has gone by ... 

    Holly Beth Vincent was hired as a replacement... did a few gigs and then just didn't show up to one. That was the end of that. They imploded recording "Bruiseology" -- too much partying. Patty got pissed when Chris Butler started recording vocals with Tracey Wormworth. The band split but the record company offered Patty $$ to come back and do a video at least. Then she tried to continue the band without Chris -- and the other members were offered salaries. She recorded demos with new songwriters for a third album and the record company passed. 

    Chris Butler says: "She went Hollywood on me -- bad advice from bad people." 

    They did reconcile before she died. 😇

    If ANYONE has access to those Patty demos, I will do anything to get my ears on them!

    UPDATE: Christmas 2021. Lyndsey Parker of Yahoo Music did a great interview with Chris Butler about the enduring appeal of "Christmas Wrapping" that has some great Patty info that I wanted to include here:

    Butler had a fraught relationship with Donahue, who later died of lung cancer at age 40, right around Christmastime 25 years ago, on Dec. 9, 1996. While Patty sang about a meet-cute holiday romance in “Christmas Wrapping,” her own love life was decidedly less Lifetime-holiday-movie-esque.

    “I have some good [memories], some not,” Butler says of Donahue, who retired from performing in the mid-‘80s to work behind the scenes in A&R. “She's substantially responsible for having our band break apart. But on the other hand, this was a smart, very funny woman, a trooper who took a lot of chances, in that she had never really done anything like this. She was a very good actress who could take a role and run with it. She has a lot of instincts that made her appealing. I think she could have done more potentially an actress. There were some opportunities that she turned down. I’ve got to be careful what I'm saying here, but I know a lot of women who are talented and perhaps don't have enough of a sense of how talented they are, due to self-esteem issues. And I think Patty was not aware of how much chops she had. She had a lot of chops. I just wish that her choice of boyfriends had been more supportive and encouraging of her, because I believe she really was a natural. It's too bad. I think she fell in with, um, bad companions, shall we say? And that had a negative effect on both her self-image and what she could have done with this attention she was getting from people. I don't think she was comfortable with [the attention], or knew how to parlay it into a more of a creative career.

    “We were all trying to be in encouraging,” Butler continues wistfully. “But I think that when it came to dealing with men, her own family history — presuppose that — made it so she wouldn't take our word for it when we were our saying, ‘You can really do this. You're really good at this. You should stick with it.’ I think her father left way too early, and a single mother raised her. She also was a party girl, and sometimes her personality would change when she would party just a little too much. She became kind of a different person, and that was hard to handle. She became very combative and I think, like most abused people, they're very, very oversensitive. But then there's the odd inversion of them being attracted to [abusive tendencies] in their mates. … She was in a music environment, and manipulative people could come out of the audience and try to get into her head and whatever. We tried to protect her. There were warnings from us saying, ‘You should watch out for X, because he's not what you think he is. He's a sleazeball.’ But sometimes she resented and rebelled against the protection, and I think she fell into some bad companions. And so these outside forces, these bad influences in her life, is ultimately what led or contributed to the breakup.”

    Butler, who “had a lot of big ideas” for the band, confesses that the Waitresses’ split in 1984 “kind of broke my heart, to be honest. I have a lot of blame that I need to take on myself, because I wasn't aware of the stresses. My preoccupation was trying to be established as a writer and to keep this group of very cranky, very talented musicians together and write things that would not bore them. I had a real hard time when the whole thing blew up. I had four or five years of just trying to reinvent myself and stay somehow active as a writer. It was not a happy time for me. It was a real blow to have the thing blow up. It took a long time for me to hit some kind of normal after that.” The Waitresses never reunited, not even for a one-off occasion, but Butler notes that shortly before Donahue’s death, “There was a bit of a rapport reestablished on the phone, because I knew she was sick and I didn't want to miss the opportunity to at least let her know that I cared about her and I wished her well. We had a few phone calls and even thought about, ‘Hey, let's do a reunion for the American Cancer Society,’ but she didn't make it.”

    However, Butler believes Donahue’s complex personality was a key reason why “Christmas Wrapping” became such a perennial holiday favorite. “I think that's why Patty rings true, because there is a little melancholy in the song,” he says. As for reasons why the song continues to connect with listeners 40 holiday seasons later, he theorizes, “The thing I've grasped on is that people want to know that there's a force for good going on in the background, and that maybe everything will all work out. Maybe with the stress of the holidays, all this kind of Hallmark-card cheerfulness just doesn't ring true in a more cynical age — and it was certainly a more cynical age then. The song kind of captures that, but also takes the cynical and turns it on its head.”

    The endearing, quirky result, driven by Donahue’s deadpan, attitudinal delivery, is sort of the ‘80s equivalent of a Sex and the City carol, with would-be actress Donahue cast as a new wave Carrie Bradshaw. “I do have to bring up the 'silent character’ in the song: the city of New York,” says Butler, who also drew some inspiration from Kurtis Blow’s 1979 single “Christmas Rappin’” and the burgeoning New York hip-hop scene surrounding the ska/jazz/R&B-influenced Waitresses at the time. “I tried to write a female character that was an urban person, and her stresses and strains are very urban. The idea of missed connections is very New York. Sometimes you have no choice but to spend Christmas alone. You're single and you have limited funds — hence the small turkey for one, soup for one. So, our character is an urban person, a kind of everygirl, experiencing this. So, I thought of telling that story with the O. Henry twist at the end. … And if you believe that ending, well then, I've got a bridge to sell you!”


    Anonymous said...

    What a great band! RIP Patty. I have a live cd put out by King Biscuit Flower Hour from 1982 at My Father's Place on Long Island! It's a fun show!

    Anonymous said...

    Thank you very much for this article. I recently went back and added more Waitresses songs on my iphone. I am very fascinated by them for some reason-have been for awhile, but I can't seem to find that much information about them. Thank you for posting their history. I saw some clips on youtube (since taken down) of them performing on some tv show. Too bad they are no longer online... Would like to see the concert footage as well -- just saw the preview on youtube.
    Love reading your blog -- I read it everyday...

    ERIC SXE said...

    I love The Waitresses! After a long time looking, I finally found some nice clean MP3s of the entire Brusieology LP online so now I'm a happy camper. (The idiots at Polydor should have released the CD back in the late 80's!!)Burned my own CD and loaded them into my MP3 player. It's a sorely underrated LP. Great songs and I love almost all of them. Tracy in particular is on fire on bass. 26 years after they recorded this gem, it still sounds fresh!