Prisoners of Rock and Roll

Cell 63 free themselves from the retro morass

A pretty big record company A eastwest records america A has just released an album by, and begun a hype blitz for, a band called Deep Jimi and the Zep Creams. They are from Iceland and, as their name suggests, they have a fondness for a musical style twenty-some years gone by. This sort of retro thing happens regularly; sometimes it works, sometimes it comes across hokey, sometimes it's downright sacrilegious. I mean, do the Black Crowes have anything to offer American culture other than a shadowy revisitation of the glorious early days of the Rolling Stones?

So it's with a caveat that Miami's Cell 63 can be described as a band that might've burst from the early Eighties Minneapolis scene, blazed a productive path and put out a few albums, then disappeared into their own egos. And we don't mean Paisley Park. Prince is still around (unfortunately), but the Replacements died long ago. Cell 63's just getting started, so call them retro if you must, but don't lock yourself into a one-dimensional examination. "Yeah, like Minneapolis," says front-man Rob Coe. "See, they both start with M A i-a-m-i."

Actually the music of Cell 63 A splendidly captured on their new eponymous CD A shares plenty with the battered beauty of the early 'Mats, as well as Soul Asylum and others of that school. Simple chording exaggerated. Throat lacerating vocal catharsis. A multi-colored-bricks wall of sound cut through by pierces and slashes. Lyrics that fools consider quirky and the thoughtful find satisfying, challenging even. Sample: "My baby's a mule in the mine/My baby's a hell of a time." That's a love song? And how.

It's an anthem, really, the song "Cell 63," a collection of ideas rammed together that could be construed to mean absolutely anything. "Everything connects/Then it's over" sings Coe elegantly, hookfully. The meaning of life. The story of a rock group. The secret of rock and roll. A quick blowjob. Not that the Cell can't be deadly direct as well. The fireball called "Bloody 27" is a fairly straightforward ode to the brutal dangers of a certain often-fatal highway. It ends with sirens wailing, like so many things end.

Coe points out that while his band nods to and borrows from the prime underground sound of a decade ago, that approach was being as expertly mined here as anywhere A he says Psycho Daisies and Charlie Pickett are as significant to him as the Replacements or Hsker D. But don't mistake another Cell 63 track, "Overtown Brown," for a cover. "Overtown" was the Pickett band/Daisies' raving tribute to the fine heroin found in that neighborhood, called Overtown Brown. "I was talking to someone about Johnny Salton [the legendary Daisies guitarist] and the phrase came up," Coe recalls. "I immediately thought, That's got to be a song. I wasn't even familiar with their song." What developed from that title is a kiss-off tale in which the narrator says, "If she's leavin'/Tell that train I said goodbye."

Biographically, the Cell holds unlikely candidates to capture such rich and creamy music on their first album. Coe came from the raucously bewitching noisemakers Naughty Puritans. Drummer George Graquitena banged for Jobbernowl and the F-Boyz. Recently recruited bassist Kevin Sacks will only say that while playing with some band at Churchill's Hideaway he ended up losing money, because he'd have to pay admission for any and all friends willing to come out. Guitarist David O. simply refuses to provide his resume. Mr. Coe, as he now calls himself, and Graquitena have been friends for years, and he was the first person Coe called when he came up with the idea for a new band. They found David O. through a "Classified" ad in New Times. Then they mentioned on the WVUM-FM local show that they needed a bassist. "I was driving along," says Sacks, "and when I heard that, I pulled over and popped a quarter into the nearest pay phone."

Since this past summer Cell 63 has received all sorts of accolades, from citation by South Florida magazine as top locals to acceptance for this year's Miami Rocks, Too! showcase to inclusion on local CD compilations. And with a new CD of their own, the sky's the limit. Sort of. "Releasing a CD is like a lottery ticket," says David O. "You don't sweat it, anything can happen. But I have no dreams or any of that nonsense. Okay, illusions, maybe." Coe interrupts to say, in a petulant tone, like a scolded child, "Uh, I have dreams." It's up to Graquitena to clarify matters: "It's not a goal, but a dream." Coe does in fact have a goal, or dream A to outgrow his urge to write and rehearse and record and perform, and to give up his day job, teaching school. What option would that leave him? "I could go home and get some sleep."

It wouldn't be rock and roll without sacrifice, without obstacles to overcome. Coe notes that the band's sound A from early demos to the new album A changed thanks to a hurricane named Andrew. The outfit's warehouse near Tamiami Airport was looted after the storm. "You're not a real musician," notes David O., "until you've been ripped off at least once." And bassist Sacks was the victim of an R.O. as well, noting that he's now working with a cheapo replacement bass. "The new strings for it cost more than the damn instrument," he laughs. The silver lining is that Andrew didn't hurt the boys' day jobs: Graquitena moved from retail work in a record store to South Dade construction, Sacks works cable installation, David O. is a freelance architectural draftsman.

And a band called Cell 63 has to have at least one run-in with law enforcement. "They hassled Rob after one gig," reveals Graquitena, "for making a three-point turn." Coe explains that a Miami Beach cop got in his face for the vehicular indiscretion. "I realized I was dealing with a person without much education who's now backed into a corner," Coe says. "I didn't make a fuss, I let it go. The cop stops me, and I tell him it's the only way to get my car out, we just played a show. He says, 'Oh, you're a musician. Like Luke?' There wasn't much I could do with that." David O. says that's not true. "What we do is write a song about it."

The Cell also boasts a long-running battle with a Melbourne band called Scoobee Doos. "A while back this guy says there's a band in Melbourne covering one of your songs, 'I Think You've Seen.' It's questionable. But I think they play it like it was one of their originals. They don't announce they're doing a tune by this Miami band. Hell, I wouldn't. So when I first heard other people were playing one of my songs, I said I had to get a new band together."

The resulting group's arresting way with rough hooks, mixed melodies and unusual harmony structures, sound effects, and a surging undercurrent of raw power could entice anyone to borrow from them. But they don't make much of the petty things. "We're on the lowest level of rock," David O. says, "the local scene. How can you be into cliques and ego when you're also on that level?"

Cell 63 seems confident enough to escape that trap, too. But they can't get away from their consuming Miami-ness. "Traditionally punk bands write about what's around them," says David O., noting "Bloody 27" in particular. "We do try to establish a sense of place," adds Mr. Coe. "We try to understand our surroundings. Which reminds me A why does Miami fall short, always coming up second? The Dolphins, the 'Canes, Mickey Rourke, you name it. Anything associated with Miami is always almost, always second, just short."

Maybe that's why big labels find their new stars in Iceland. Not that Cell 63 could care. And the rugged terrain explored on their debut CD isn't going to attract that other career opportunity, commercial radio airplay. Coe, who grew up in the Bahamas, recalls his youthful stupefaction over the radio signals picked up from Miami, the rock of WGBS and WQAM. "When I was a kid," he says, "I thought the musicians got in a room and played the song [live]. I always wondered how they did that, made it sound the same every time. It really jaded me, that and finding out about sex."

Yeah, says David O. "It always mystified me how those people were able to play inside the radio." Radio is still mystifying. So is the rest of the business. Fortunately Cell 63 will not be prisoner to the conspiracy.

Cell 63 celebrate the release of their new CD at 10:00 p.m. Friday at Washington Square, 645 Washington Ave, Miami Beach, 534-1403. They also perform acoustically at Yesterday & Today Records, 5753 SW 40th St, on Sunday. Call 665-3305.

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