Modern Primitives

In 1984, Joe Lee had a problem: persistent weirdoes. As the booker for the now-defunct Psychedelly in Bethesda, he was forced to deal with a legion of crackpots bothering him for stage time.

“We were getting all these lunatics along with the actual talent,” Lee says. Then his friend, critic and musicologist Joe Sasfy, had an idea. “He said, ‘Joe Lee, put ’em all together and call it Primitive Night.’” An absent-minded misspelling on the concert posters made April 13, 1984, “Primative Night” at the Psychedelly, and the rest, as Lee and a few motley others say, is history.

Now, 20 years after the infamous original, Lee’s preparing for an encore. On July 13, several of the original participants will take the stage at the American Film Institute’s Silver Theatre and Cultural Center for an hourlong reunion set.

On a lazy Saturday at a Rockville barbecue joint, a few strip-mall storefronts down from his record shop, Joe’s Record Paradise, Lee holds court. A handful of folks from the first Primative Night have gathered. Dick Bangham’s there—he did art for a couple of Butch Willis albums. There’s Mike Miller, who played guitar for three of the acts that night. Al Breon sits across from Lee; he lent the event his “throat guitar,” a surprisingly grating vibrato generated by rapidly striking his outstretched hand below his Adam’s apple.

Over brisket on rye, Lee expounds on how the show’s deranged ramblings were a raw, authentic alternative to the inane contrivance of the mid-’80s rock scene. “These guys are interesting and entertaining, and they love the attention,” he continues, lauding the Primatives.

Breon interrupts Lee’s oration. “Dude, get over it,” he says. “It was a freak show.”

After Lee screened a video copy a few months ago of Off the Charts, a documentary about Nashville- and Hollywood-based song-production companies that take often-demented poetry and turn it into ready-made songs, he suggested that the AFI screen it, with Primative Night II as a warm-up. So began the trying task of rounding up the performers. “With this kind of group, it’s kind of like seeds in the wind,” Lee says. “The only person that definitely won’t be there is Mr. Ott.”

Mr. Ott was the nom de rock of James Kowalski, a middle-aged Prince George’s County salesman who sang in a punk band with his son Glenn. White Boy, as the band was dubbed, appeared on the Primative Night bill. In 1993, Kowalski was charged with possession of child pornography and molestation, which landed him in a Maryland prison for 14-and-a-half years and disqualified White Boy from an encore appearance.

David Johns (aka the Dootz), however, will be there. Reached at his Charles Town, W.Va., home, Dootz, the brother of D.C. guitar legend Evan Johns, recalls the chaos of the first Primative Night between sips of Keystone Light. “There was no organization of the show at all,” he says. A friend will drive him to Silver Spring for the show, where he hopes to re-create his menacing cover of “These Boots are Made for Walkin’.” He says he has not rehearsed for the performance.

But the king of them all is Butch Willis, the dean of the area’s mentally unhinged rock scene. A schizophrenic who doesn’t do well off of his anti-psychotic medications, Willis recorded several albums on various labels, gaining a sizable legend and local following dating from his first live performance at Primative Night. His brother Mike will be bringing him on a day pass from a Baltimore assisted-living facility.

Bangham says that, in the wake of “outsider musician” William Hung’s recent fame, the Primatives’ day has finally come. “Hung does cover material; [they do] original stuff,” he says. “Plus, Butch and Dootz had mullets before they were hip.” —Mike DeBonis

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