After our article on the Degrads and an article in the Trapezoid, (below) I reconnected with the band’s lead singer and songwriter, Jonathan Caws-Elwitt — thirty plus years later.
We reminisced about the Degrads and Brighton High School’s literary magazine, Galaxy. And, to my surprise, Jonathan had saved an essay on him and the Degrads I had written in 1983 for a Brown University journalism class (at end). One, alas, marked by overblown prose and a certain creative use of the facts.
Taking out a copy of the 1979 – 80 Galaxy, I asked Jonathan– who has been devoted to his writing since childhood — if we could publish one of his poems.
I explained that a few months ago we had a top notch submission from a high school student, “November,” by Olivia Spenard of SOTA’S Creative Writing Program. Hoping Jonathan’s poem will spur other students to contribute.
Talking with Jonathan about the Galaxy of yesteryear reminded me very much of the Coffeehouse Readings at SOTA where students and teachers gather as readers and writers to inspire and gently critique. As Jonathan felt Galaxy played a foundational role in his trajectory as a writer, he sensed similarities between Galaxy and Coffeehouse. And offered his advice to young writers:
I was indulging myself in creative-writing projects of various kinds long before I got to high school–little stories and plays, tape-recorder skits, comic books, even a brief attempt at a neighborhood children’s newspaper–but writing for the Brighton High newspaper (Trapezoid) and literary magazine (Galaxy) introduced me to the structure, discipline, and compromises of writing the way professionals do. There were deadlines. There was editing. There were rejections alongside the acceptances. It was so important to me to learn how a writer’s creative impulses and talents constitute only part of the equation, if one is writing for an audience via some publishing entity overseen by others.
In the decades since high school, I’ve had the privilege of writing professionally for publication at certain times (though I should stress that I have never earned what could be called a “living” through writing). Whether it was comedies to be performed onstage, humor essays for a language journal, fiction for a lit mag, or zany articles for a record-company newsletter, I was always writing both for myself and for the editors and readers I wanted to please. And it was Galaxy and Trapezoid that inaugurated me into that professional-style writing culture. Writing for those school publications was a very important part of my life in those years–and great fun.
Nicely put. Thanks, Jonathan!
As for that journalism class essay, no need to dwell. The rest is at the end for anyone so inclined. You will note several pages missing as they are marred by tasteless juvenilia. Trust me, you aren’t missing much. Also, Jonathan sent me some handwritten answers to my questions, but they are not quite legible.
There is a decent passage about Galaxy that Jonathan actually put on its facebook page:
By means of microcosm, perhaps their sensibility can be traced to the Galaxy office…. The Degrads and Degrad-types spent free mods (standing for modular scheduling, not the name Who followers call themselves) amongst the old couches and reclaimed English books. Behind those closed doors — the administration was always suspicious, thinking something funny was going on; they were right, sometimes it was one one-liner after another — the Degrads inherited their sense of the absurd, a little detached disgust, some open disgust and a few tinges of ennui, and a starting point.
Also, there is an interesting passage outlining Jonathan’s philosophy:
He [Jonathan] goes to Harvard now. He describes himself as a socialist, a humanitarian, an iconoclast, a pacifist, a feminist, an atheist, an existentialist, and a pessimist. Not even the Beatles claimed that much.
I admire Jonathan’s intellectual bravura. Last week, David Brooks lamented that today — unlike in 1983 when he (and Jonathan) were coming of age — people shy away from assertive intellectual labels. Gone are the days of:
Paleoconservatives and neoconservatives. There were modernists and postmodernists; liberals, realists, and neoliberals; communitarians and liberation theologians; Jungians and Freudians; Straussians and deconstructionists; feminists and post-feminists; Marxists and democratic socialists. Maybe there were even some transcendentalists, existentialists, pragmatists, agrarians and Gnostics floating around.
Well, if Jonathan’s list from 1983 is indicative — hmm, maybe George Orwell fits Jonathan’s bill — maybe David is onto something.
And Stephen Shapiro (see below in Degrad story) can not go unscathed. This, an early work, also appeared in the magazine. Stephen’s reference to a 17th and 18th century Pennsylvanian — William Penn (1644 – 1718) — is perhaps foreshadow. For Stephen would later write his dissertation on America’s first novelist Charles Brockden Brown (1771 – 1810), a Pennsylvanian who also wrote about Indians.
original story on the Degrads
Recently, the Brighton High School newspaper, The Trapezoid, did a nice retrospective on the Degrads, an art Punk band from the early to mid 1980s formed by then Brighton High students and recent alums. The solid and well written piece fits well within Trapezoid ‘s long and award winning tradition.
In the article (below), Adita Tangirala interviews brothers Sam Elwitt and Jonathon Caws-Elwitt — both have since pursued successful music and writing careers — and takes us back to the pre-digital era when Brighton students made and performed their own homegrown music. And — not incidentally — an era when the drinking age was 18. (The NY drinking age became 19 in December 1983, then 21 in December 1985.)
To learn some more about the De Grads, I turned to my friend Stephen Shapiro, BHS ’82, who now teaches English in England.
While not in the band, Stephen was a regular in the Rochester music scene. Visiting Rochester when he can, these days Stephen especially likes Dinosaur, Lux and Abilene’s.
Describing the De Grads as “retro punk,” Stephen looks back at a mini-Golden Age for downtown Rochester live music, one that can be a model as the inside Inner Loop is revitalized.
A Black soul/Rhythm & Blues club, Ruth and Irv’s Astrological Fish & Steak (88 North street, catty corner from Jim’s in the Liberty Pole area), was short lived, but known for its fixed drink price ($1.50). Ruth and Irv’s was one of the cluster of Rochester clubs that booked New Wave/retro-punk bands.
The very early 80s, in retrospect, were a mini-Golden Age for downtown Rochester live music, with several clubs (Scorgie’s being the lead). A mainstay was the Calabash Lounge (265 N. Clinton St, which closed in 1987), a destination club to hear reggae in the 1980s.
A new band like the De Grads had several places to gig, and Rochester had on for a time a few contenders for indy break outs, like New Math and The Chesterfield Kings , a “paisley underground”group (who the De Grads opened for).
In recent discussions of how to revitalise downtown, it is worth looking back at this period to ask a model for a hive of activity running from Andrews Street (Scorgies) to the Liberty Pole area at a time when the city centre was said to be in decline. Several of these had mixed-race clientele, rare for Rochester, as white New Wavers were interspersed with Black disco fans.
ON ROCHESTER MUSIC FROM THE 70s and 80s