Psycho, a young woman no taller than your shoulder, leans toward the tiny stage at Jasper's, where three perspiring members of Mission of Burma are shouting at their microphones: "That's when I reach for my revolver!"
The setting is sedate New Wave: dean, short hair cuts, collar-less button-down shirts, and some well-tailored leather jackets. Except for Psycho, no one is younger than 20 or so, and most pay for more attention to the watery mixed drinks than to Mission of Burma--one of Boston's better club bands, with a couple of well-received singles and an "extended-play mini-album" so its credit.
The musicians are not at all faxed by the less-than-rollicking atmosphere in this very ordinary Somerville saloon. Down in front of the stage, the people who've just got to move to the beat are failing about, but no one comes close to bumping into anyone else. Guitarist Roger Miller blasts out thick, distorted chords, one piled on top of another for a sound that is at once 1969 techno-pop. Sound man Martin Swope stoops over a mixing board near the back of the dance floor, recording Miller's efforts, scrambling things around, and then feeding the whole mess back through the P.A. so that it sounds as if there's an army of guitarists performing. Very spontaneous.
Backstage between sets, the band members are joking around with Psycho, one of their many loyal fans, but the only full-time groupie. She never misses a show, even when Somerville High School is in session.
"Somerville High--the best education in Somerville," teases drummer Peter Prescott, who, like his mates, displays an indulging patience for Psycho's over-enthusiastic rebelliousness. She traipses around the dingy with magic marker: "THE DAMNED," "FLIPPER," "MISSION OF BURMA"--all he favorite hands. "She's the leader of the troops; I wouldn't know what to do without her," says bassist Clint Conley, tongue firmly embedded in cheek. Psycho smiles and slashes at the wall with her Permo-marker. Back out on the dance floor a thin-lipped woman is distributing pamphlets on a Dada-ist art exhibit
Psycho is the link between Burma's two identities, and that may be part of the reason the band members let her hand around so much. The Saturday before the Jasper's show, Burma was at the Paradise--a far more prominent club on Commonwealth Ave.--and, of course, Somerville High's littlest punk was there, too. The show was a special all-aged performance; no alcohol was served. The ages that showed up were mostly pre-18, like wrecking machines.
Chains and leather on scrawny sub-urban bodies that are hurling themselves into each other, imitating the latest West Coast trend in post-Sex Pistols pop shock. Slam dancing doesn't come off too well, however, when the participants are constantly looking around to make sure they're doing it correctly. Not all of them are. One kid yells, "Stop slam dancing! I know people who broke ribs slamming!" His left ear gleams with a diamond, and he is connected to a girl by a chain that runs from his leather collar to hers.
From the wealthier suburbs, the long-hairs show up as well. This is what is left of the Brookline-breed hippies, but many of them seem to have turned to the New Wave as a supplement to the usual staple of Dead, Doors, and heavy metal. They dress differently: army jackets and head bands, Levis, no leather--much greasier: In addition to Marlboros, some are smoking Djarum clove cigarettes. The know all about slam dancing from reading Boston Rocker, but they dance near the outskirts of the real action, noticeably intimidated by Psycho's crowd.
The Burma men clearly enjoy playing to a friskier audience--even if these fans have to clear out of the club by 5 p.m. There's lot more sneering and growling on stage than at Jasper's--still posing, but with slightly more abandon. "Fame and fortune is a stupid game, I play," Miller bellows at the crowd.
Comparing the teenybopper show to regular sets later that night, Miller says. "It kinda felt like everybody was shy. They'd look at you, and you could look back at them and it was kind of like. 'What are you going to do now?'. The later show, you'd go to the edge of the stage and look at someone, and they'd just look away...like, 'I can't look at you, you know. I've grown up.'"
Don't get Miller wrong; he doesn't pass harsh judgments on audiences. Contrary to reports in the rock and roll journals (including a favorable write-up in Rolling Stone). Burma isn't really on the cutting edge of anything. The music is aimed at WBCN's top-40 list--new electronic twists on old motifs; pretty raunchy live, but so is every other competent bar band.
Burma isn't seeking the true spirit of rock and roll along the lines of the 1976 British punk revolution. The sound is contemporary, but it isn't really different. Martin Swope is no Brian Eno, nor does he pretend to be. His goal at the moment is scraping together enough dough for a new sound system. Redefining the art isn't even on the agenda. Above all else, Burma is flexible, the way New Wave is flexible.
To some, the genre means smooth pop, to others L.A. noise, ask, regae, whatever. Burma hates the New Wave label, but that's what sells in a lot of places today. Burma aspires to solvency, and the band members can adjust equally well to Jasper's and White Russians or to the Paradise and crazy kid punks, though it seems they might prefer a melding of the two: enthusiastic dancing-types who can afford to pay real cover charges. Capitalism doesn't pose problems for Burma, as it does for some hands they play with. At Jasper's the opening group. Proletariat, sings a tune called "Das Kapital" and the musicians wear Solidarity tee-shirts. Proletariat belts out one number with the line. "Religion is the opiate of the masses," and this is New Wave as well.
Says Burma's Conley. "You can call it whatever you want; it doesn't have any bearing on what it is.
"We aim to please ... ourselves," he adds.
Burma has toured a little bit out of the Boston area, getting as far as Largo, Texas, at one point, but Capitol isn't begging for their next effort, an L.P., due out this spring. The musicians discuss making it "big," but they never drop their facetious, safe attitude. "I'm going to be fathering children all over the country, says Miller, who wears a tee-shirt marked. "Not a Member of Mission of Burma." "Conley reads Yeats between sets.
And yet, the band seems to appreciate the admiration they get from their number-one fan, Psycho. Burma's music isn't nearly as threatening as that of The Damned or Flipper or other stalwarts in the New Wave's big noise division. But she loves them all the same, like groupics have always loved bands, regardless of what's the latest on FM radio.
Psycho reports that she's starting a group of her own in Somerville. The outfit will be called Romper Room and if it ever gets off the ground, you can bet Psycho will cover a few of Burma's big hits.