The calm understated arrogance. A twist on love, twisted love, never enough of that love to go around. Romeo Void songs were always about someone who was gone, someone who should leave. Romeo Void re personalized music; after a long stretch of the political and surrealistic inundation of punk, it felt good to think about ourselves and our failing love lives. Debora Iyall’s lyrics seemed to be about us, and they often were. Inside the intoxicating brew of pop melodies and dark broodings, Romeo Void songs were about friends and relatives, dreams and relationships that ended last night.
Romeo Voids initial forays were off the beaten track. The first official Romeo Void show was at the Mission Rock resort, a dockyard hangout for artists which featured a jukebox that included Frank Sinatra’s “Witchcraft” and Lou Reeds “Vicious”. At that time the scene was shifting from the Fab Mab (the Mabuhay Gardens on the stripper bar infested Broadway) to the Deaf Club and Club Foot, which was a former grocery in the no-man’s land of artists’ warehouses and derelict docks, a tiny, dark space with a stage the size of a countertop. It seemed the goal of Romeo Void was to have an experience, not to create a sensation.
The origins of the band aren’t too auspicious; the back room at the San Francisco Art Institute where they relegated performance art, a tongue-in-cheek sixties cover band and the same collection of authority smashing punk 45’s that everyone else owned. Debora Iyall was doing a piece and needed some musical accompaniment. Frank Zincavage was a sculpture student who happened to have a bass guitar and a drum machine. He claims to have been in the Bill Wyman school of bass players, stolid and barely noticeable, until punk came around. Fueled by the musical invention of Gang of Four, the Cure and Joy Division, he wanted to experiment. he worked with Peter Woods to write songs in which either the guitar or bass could carry the melody, leaving room for atmospheric guitar slashings. Peter and Frank quickly became the musical backbone of the group. Jay Derrah was the first in a revolving door of drummers; though he played the bulk of early gigs, he departed before the first album, which was recorded with Pearl Harbor’s John “Stench” Haines.
The name Romeo Void came about in Debora’s kitchen, with a tacit decision not to have a “The” name. Armed with two lists of random words, an Anais Nin book and a copy of some San Francisco magazine with the lurid buy-me headline “Why Single Women Can’t Get Laid in SF”, the choice of Romeo Void seemed obvious, natural and strangely prophetic.
The San Francisco Art Institute was already the progenitor of several other noteworthy punk bands: the Mutants were perhaps the quintessential party band, while the political slant of the Avengers provided another dialect - Romeo Void fit squarely in the middle. They weren’t too stiff to party, but a palpable rage came from matters more personal, more personal even than the oft-quoted “small p” political bands.
From the start, Romeo Void as a pop band was an absurdist’s afterthought. With songs about lost love dwelling in the language of dreams, and a musical landscape conjured up and guessed at, the fact that they were fun and danceable was double plus good. Benjamin Bossi was the only musically trained member; appropriately, he was recruited by an aroused Debora from behind the counter of a popular deli once she discovered he played saxophone. His startling talent became Romeo Void’s most recognizable signature.
Women were more on the scene than at any time in memory. Patti Smith was the goddess, the ultimate role model - sexual, aloof, headstrong. a leader of her own band. Debora joined a small group of women doing the same: Poly Styrene, Pauline Murray, Barbara Gogan in England, Penelope Houston and a handful of others in America. Debora’s opinionated, poetic frame of reference was wonderfully new.
The San Francisco scene had never had a viable alternative/independent label; The Avengers and the Dils had to go to Los Angeles to record for Dangerhouse. Howie Klein and record store owner Chris Knabb had started a new label, 415, a play on both the San Francisco area code and the police code for disturbance of the peace, and wanted a single from the band. “White Sweater”, combined with the instrumental “Apache”, used by the band during warm-ups, was the result. But producer David Kahne worked out a deal with the studio and recorded a full album. It was a mixed blessing; the muted quality was distinctly at odds with their live performances, though most observers, the band included, now consider It’s A Condition a masterful piece.
“Charred Remains” is a case in point where the production distractions can’t eclipse final outcome. In the hushed intro, Debora practically stumbles over words, trying to get them out just right. Frank and Peter together etch a line, then Frank takes off on a bass run that is the erratic heartbeat of the song. “What’s the fuss, I’m restless” has all the power of a petulant child, but it seemed a call to arms. “Myself To Myself” is the prototypical RV song of this era - “I can’t keep myself to myself” expresses the need to be out, to be vocal, to be having experiences of life and love. “I Mean It” was the closer on their debut album. Benjamin’s sax solo. piercing, emotive and long reaching, is one of his most memorable, a haunting end to something as vivid and raw as had gone before.
The EP which followed It’s A Condition was anything but a letdown. A fortuitous airing of the debut album on the tour bus of The Cars by a roadie resulted in Ric Ocasek expressing interest in Romeo Void and bang! - the band is in Boston. Nvr Say Nvr was released on 415 and was instrumental in getting a licensing deal set up with Columbia, which released the EP. Great songs. Passion. Inspired playing. “In The Dark”, is as compelling as the title track, Benjamin’s sax is a clarion before the band comes in tight, closely compacted, each making their contribution to the melody, the sum greatly outweighing any individual effort. Frank remembers the interactive, but not improvisational, style they had, always allowing for change and chance within the structure. Debora’s voice is finally captured in it’s element: she snarls and drips with lament and anger, her self-serving dispassion keeping her only from murder or boredom.
And then there’s the song; and for many, “Never Say Never” is the pinnacle. While it didn’t scale the pop charts like “A Girl In Trouble”, it sent dance floors into ecstatic commotion, radios turned up fro that few minutes of reverie. From Peter’s twenty clipped shards of notes, to Larry Carter’s drum roll before the bass comes in insistent and declamatory, Romeo Void ushered in a new high-powered dance aesthetic. Peter wanders edgily around, charting a caustic environment on guitar, Debora sketches an unfamiliar landscape using an uncommonly familiar set of strokes. The oft-quoted line “I might like you better if we slept together” is delivered with more venom than memory or mimicry usually serves. The dangerous level of possession inherent in Debora’s double tracked tone easily bridges the gap between Lolita and Carrie.
The second album, and the debut for Columbia, was Benefactor. The sparseness of Condition, already jettisoned by the EP, was now eclipsed by an avalanche of studio trickery. At one point the band had to sneak into the studio at night to record a song as they wanted to hear it. The energetic “Wrap It Up” was a way of saying thank you to Louie Beeson, the band’s longtime sound mixer and friend. “Flashflood” recalls the tension and loneliness that permeated the first album, but Frank , Peter and Benjamin found space for a luscious trio among instruments in the break. “Undercover Kept” is a surprise inclusion on the band’s part; it is less successfully “immediate” in pop terms, but it has a mysterious quality that continues to enchant.
“Chinatown” is the most frantic, punk flavored and paced song of RV’s career, even though Frank’s bass is at his most audibly Joy Division influenced. It has a hellish pace, a ride on a driverless bus, Debora resorting to panic only momentarily. The subtext of the song - essentially a document of the area which bordered our bohemian/punk renaissance: keep your head and run faster than they do unfortunately paralleled the recording experience.
Romeo Void regrouped for their third album, Instincts, with David Kahne, this time with a powerhouse of a drummer, Aaron Smith. An incredible pro player, who nonetheless did not seem like a hired hand, Smith galvanized the band and the sound. Unfortunately, the fractiousness that comes with the territory of working in a group which initially just wanted to play for fun took its toll. The desperation that fueled the early songs began to transform into repressed anger as simmering tensions became insurmountable. “Just Too Easy” is remarkable for Debora’s spoken, almost rap-like performance. She rattles off one-liners with disquieting ease, yet the exasperation is painfully obvious; the out-of-breath delivery of “you’re always falling apart” is unerringly pointed. Peter’s guitar seems more brittle than ever, ready to crack with one more twist of the knife.
“A Girl In Trouble” was a response to a popular song of the day in which a man denies responsibility for a son he may have fathered. While the thrust of the song often eluded listeners, it connected on other levels, affording the band a trip to “American Bandstand”. The following year, touring Europe for the first time, the band imploded in Germany, and never played another live show in America. “One Thousand Shadows” is an epitaph, a song recorded after the Instincts sessions for a film soundtrack that that never materialized. Debora describes it as a song about survival, about dreams out growing circumstances. Recorded on a four track, it is a quiet end, a retreat to more familiar ground.
WARD Music Monthly Magazine
Liner Notes from Compilation CD
Monoprint - Debora Iyall
8/24/1980 - Pre Benjamin Bossi, no saxophone,