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Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
October 12, 2007
DeKalb, Ill.—Joe Bonomo, an English instructor at Northern Illinois University, has a fresh spin on the story of rock ’n’ roll road warriors. His new book, seven years in the making, delivers an in-depth look at “the best rock band you’ve never heard of.”
“Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band” (Continuum Books) is the authorized biography of the legendary New York City cult band known for its raucous live performances. The book is being praised by the likes of the New York Post and Chicago Sun-Times pop music critic Jim DeRogatis, who calls Bonomo’s work “compelling, well-researched and thoroughly riveting.”
The Fleshtones shared a label with R.E.M. in the 1980s and have been produced by the likes of R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Steve Albini, who also produced Nirvana. The band boasts connections to some of the biggest names in rock ’n’ roll. But the Fleshtones never cracked the Top 100 on the Billboard charts and never achieved commercial success.
Still, the Fleshtones haven’t had a single inactive year since its 1976 debut at CBGB, the New York club known as a launch pad for some of punk rock’s most influential bands, including the Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads.
Like others who have seen the band perform live, Bonomo was captivated when he first took in a gig in 1983 at a Washington, D.C. nightclub. The Fleshtones’ party-band reputation proved to be a double-edged sword, however. While fans reveled in the high-energy performances, many critics didn’t take the band seriously.
“In the late 1990s, it struck me that the Fleshtones are a great story of perseverance,” Bonomo says. “The band has been scorned and laughed at as much as it has been celebrated and accepted. The music industry essentially told band members to give up, but they never did. That in itself is inspiring.”
Bonomo says the band’s journey redefines the notion of success.
“This is not just the story of a cult rock ’n’ roll band but of men reminding themselves of what matters most to them. They followed their passions,” Bonomo says. “At the same time, the book provides a narrative history of the era and the indie-punk scene in the East Village of New York City.”
From 2000 to 2004, Bonomo traveled each summer to New York, where he interviewed band members and their associates. In 2001 he climbed aboard a rented van and traveled with the band on a five-day tour of Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and Columbus. It was the Fleshtones’ 25th anniversary.
“That was an eye-opening experience,” says Bonomo, recalling that band members slept on promoters’ floors and in cheap motels. “They were still playing to good-sized audiences, but it was a reminder of the compromises they had to make at this point in their careers.”
In writing the book, Bonomo sought to take the reader along for the ride as well—through 30 years of hard work and hard partying, and through the triumphs and tragedies. Saxophone player Gordon Spaeth, who battled drug addiction and depression, took his own life in 2005.
“I tracked down Gordon in 2001 after he had left the band,” Bonomo says, “and he spoke with candor about his past.”
Bonomo still loves the Fleshtones’ music.
“They had a good shot at conventional success in the 1980s, but for whatever reasons, they didn’t make it,” Bonomo says. “I would argue that after listening to their best albums, people would recognize the Fleshtones as a great American rock band.”
Since completing the book, Bonomo has entered into a contract to write another, this one on rock icon Jerry Lee Lewis. Additionally, he has a book of prose sketches, titled “Installations,” that will be published by Penguin Books next year.
"I write among three areas of nonfiction—the autobiographical essay, lyric prose and biography—so it’s very gratifying to be actively publishing in these areas,” Bonomo says.
Bonomo came to NIU in 1995, along with his wife, Amy Newman, a professor in the Department of English. He teaches writing creative nonfiction and courses in literary nonfiction and modern and contemporary literature. In 2006 he became the first-ever recipient of NIU’s Excellence in Undergraduate Instruction Award.
Links for "Sweat"