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Suppose you're Jeff Lemlich, the senior news writer at WFOR-TV (Channel 4), a station where you started working seventeen years ago as a graphics operator and where you've won three Florida Emmys as a producer. Your 40th birthday falls on May 11, a Saturday and your day off. Family and friends have made elaborate plans to mark the milestone -- including club seats at a Florida Marlins game that evening, a game that will eventually be recorded as the first no-hitter in that team's history. But then tragedy strikes on the afternoon of your birthday: ValuJet Flight 592 goes down in the Everglades within minutes of its takeoff from Miami International Airport; all 109 people aboard are killed.
Do you (a) accept the responsibilities of your job and report to work or (b) quit your job and help form a band that will play only mid-Sixties garage punk, despite the fact that the last time you tried it you were ten years old and were thrown out of the band (by your sister, no less) because, by your own admission, you were "not that good."
Well, both. Sort of.
"This is not like some midlife crisis where you all of a sudden say, 'I'm going to buy myself a Harley, I'm going to get myself a trophy wife,'" explains Lemlich, who tendered his Channel 4 resignation five days after the crash. He is now the lead singer of the neo-garage outfit the Hivebuzzers, which will make its debut this weekend at Churchill's Hideaway as part of the Beast & Baker's second annual Miami Rock Festival. "It's not that type of thing at all," Lemlich adds.
What it is, actually, is a heartfelt reverence for rock and roll -- particularly for what's commonly referred to as garage punk, a short-lived genre that blossomed in the mid-Sixties when, in the wake of the British Invasion, American teens took to their family carports with fuzz guitars and cheesy organs and attempted, with varying degrees of success, to duplicate the recycled R&B sounds of bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and the Yardbirds. "It's rock and roll at its rawest," Lemlich says. "The British bands were raw and wonderful and they inspired everybody, but then the American kids took it a step further. They would do better raveups than the Yardbirds, and longer raveups, and you were getting six-minute-long wild feedback. Scary music. Great scary music."
In 1966, when he turned ten, Lemlich bought his first records -- as many 66-cent singles as his five-dollar birthday booty would allow. That his collection now totals more than 20,000 records is testament to Lemlich's lifelong dedication to the music of his youth. His 1992 book Savage Lost -- Florida's Garage Bands: The '60s and Beyond, cements Lemlich's standing as a leading authority on Florida-grown music over the past three decades.
The seeds for Lemlich's transformation from news writer to garage-band frontman were planted in March, when he went to Austin, Texas, to attend the city's annual South by Southwest Music Conference, a prestigious showcase that draws bands and fans from all over the country. He chanced upon a set by the Dropouts, a San Antonio band that he caught playing a song by the Chocolate Watch Band, an obscure Sixties punk group from San Francisco. "I walk into this club, I'm looking at this band and this crazy lead singer and the way he was playing this wild harmonica and his snarl on the song was just like Dave Aguiar of the Chocolate Watch Band, and [I thought], 'When was the last time I had this feeling?' Not just that I'm listening to a great rendition of a 1966 song, but for that moment I was in 1966."
After some random inquiries, Lemlich discovered that bands such as the Dropouts are all over Texas, especially in San Antonio and Austin. Indeed, a resurgence of interest in garage music has taken place over the past few years, led by the Mono Men, the Mummies, Southern Culture on the Skids, and the Swinging Neckbreakers, among many, many others in the U.S. and beyond. The revival has touched just about everywhere except -- to Lemlich's considerable chagrin -- South Florida. "I talked to [Auburn surf band] Man ... or Astro-Man? in Austin, and they told me they'd love to play Miami, just like [Orlando's] the Hate Bombs have told me they'd like to play down here, but they never play down here. Why? There's no scene for it. If we could have 100 people showing up for our local bands doing Sixties garage, we could tell these groups we've got a scene."
The Austin seeds began to take root a couple of weeks later at Churchill's, during a conversation between Lemlich and fellow Sixties-punk aficionados William Trev and Dan Hosker from the Holy Terrors. The idea languished for a few weeks, in part because of Lemlich's long hours at Channel 4, where he worked weekdays from three in the afternoon until after midnight. The final push came on May 11, his birthday and the day of the ValuJet crash. Lemlich, who was already growing disenchanted with TV news' increasing emphasis on celebrities like O.J. Simpson, Madonna, and the British royal family ("Who cares?" stories, he calls them), says that entire weekend was a wake-up call.
Two weeks after the crash, Lemlich, Trev, and Hosker finally sat down and made the Hivebuzzers a reality. (The name plays off a line in bluesman Slim Harpo's song "I'm a King Bee," which was covered by the Rolling Stones on their first album.) To complete the band, the three were able to borrow the people they'd discussed at Churchill's: bassist Chuck Carvajal of Drive Choir, Kreamy 'Lectric Santa's drummer Tim Vaughn, and Derek Lehman, who plays guitar in the Pop Skulls but brings his vintage Vox Continental organ to the combo.
For now, the band's playlist includes a set of eight covers pulled from 1966. "That was the best year for garage-band music. That was the year that Americans took control of the wonderful gift the British gave them," Lemlich explains. Songs include the Animals' "Blue Blue Feeling" (they'll be doing a version of the song recorded by South Florida garage band Dr. T and the Undertakers) and "You Can't Make Me" by the Montells, a Southwest High School-based band that Lemlich idolized when he was a kid. To complete the night's Sixties theme, Lemlich has put together a videotape of trash-culture clips, B-movie trailers, and performances by bands such as the Standells, the Castaways, the Seeds, the 13th Floor Elevators, the Yardbirds, and the Animals.
In preparation for the gig, Lemlich called on another of his childhood idols, John Doyle, who was lead singer of the Southwest High band Evil, for advice on how to scream. "He said, 'I was sixteen then. I don't think I could scream like that now,'" Lemlich relates.
Of course, if the beauty of garage music lies in the primal rage and frustration that only teenage hormones can summon, how will a band of adults fare? "To answer that question, I don't see anybody that's sixteen or seventeen picking up the ball and running with it," Lemlich replies. "I would love that. That's what I want most of all, for this music to be played in high schools. In my book, I talk about the next generation. It's their turn to rebel. It's their turn to rehearse. But I don't see them taking the ball and running with it. Nobody's doing this here. And if nobody's going to do it, I gotta do it."
The Hivebuzzers perform Friday, August 30, at Churchill's Hideaway, 5501 NE 2nd Ave, 757-1807, with Drug Czars, Fay Wray, Pop Skulls, and the Karloffs. Showtime is 9:00. Admission is $3.