- July - August 1997, Black Keys member Patrick Carney in Christopher Whispers at Europe Gyro.
I first encountered the photos that accompany this piece one recent morning when an acquaintance of mine, Gabe Schray, posted them to his Facebook page.
From my point of view I was blown away to see future Black Keys member Patrick Carney playing at Europe Gyro here in Kent way back in 1997. I do remember the really cool scene at the Gyro back in those days that involved everyone I knew who was making music. The gigs were easy to book and they had live music on Sunday and Tuesday nights. Sometimes I would be down there with all of my friends seeing bands comprised of people we all knew, and then on some other nights I would end up there to find some whole other scene with multiple bands that came down from who knows where. There was definitely a buzz about the place at the time and at one point in late 1996, on a night when my band Amazing Larry was playing that room, the Daily Kent Stater sent a reporter and a couple of photographers down to do a story on the music scene that was apparently emerging at the Gyro.
For a lot of reasons Kent's music scene in the mid-to-late 1990s is difficult to describe. It was certainly vibrant, but it wasn't so centralized and the music definitely varied. My recollection is that there were lots of little pockets and crews of young musicians and artists around that did their own things and had their own followings. From 1996 to 1997 there were actually a lot of different places to play in town — if you were interested in playing out. There was Brady's Cafe, the Mantis, the Robin Hood, the Avenue, the Garage, Europe Gyro and a healthy house show scene. From that list of places only the Europe Gyro remains, but in their place has sprung some of the best venues Kent has ever seen, including Ohio Music, The Kent Stage, Water Street Tavern, Zephyr Pub, Mugs, Checkers -N- Trophies, Bar-145, Stone Tavern and lots of other options. Also to put this in perspective, 1997 was long after the North Water Street heydays of The Kove, JB's and The Water Street Saloon. In my mind the mid to late 1990s represents this dark other period for live music in Kent and it really involved some different kinds of artists.
So for me to see these photos of future Black Keys member Patrick Carney as a 17-year-old playing with his high school band at Europe Gyro back in 1997 really validated what my feelings have been about Kent being such a long running magnet and breeding ground for some really great art and artists. But to the kids who actually took part in the two shows that are documented in these pictures, these photos mean something a lot different that is much more personal and guarded. The stories behind these photos are fascinating and they give an account of these Akron kids playing in bands and coming to Kent, but in a larger part this dips into the story of one predominant little corner-subculture of music involving the young local artists and musicians from this period.
Filmmaker Philip Swift is the photographer who took these pictures back in 1997. His award winning 2010 film Sincerely P.V. Reese is a documentary about a lot of the kids who were in attendance on these nights at the Gyro and can be seen here. His current film, The Bubble premiered in Akron recently and is in submission for various national and international film festivals. Philip currently lives with his wife Katie in New York City and teaches filmmaking throughout the NYC public school system. On the nights that these shows took place in Kent, Philip was just about to enter his senior year at Firestone High School in Akron, Ohio. This is what he told me about these 5 photos he took featuring a future rock star and his best friends at Kent's Europe Gyro 15 years ago:
"These photos were snapshots taken in the moment ... probably taken with some sort of disposable camera or an actual SLR camera. It was originally assumed that these photos were all taken on the same night but upon further analysis these are definitely from two different nights. The one that I am looking at right now is Gabe on the left, Jermaine in the middle and Pat on the right. Gabe is wearing a nondescript orange shirt in this one and in the next one he's got on a Jawbox t-shirt. Also in this one photo Steve has on a Spiritualized t-shirt and in the other one he is wearing a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds shirt with what possibly looks like a polo underneath. The two black and whites would be from one night and the three color photos from a different night. It may have been that I had color film on the one night and I had black and white film for the other since I worked with both mediums at the time.
"I think the reason these five photos initially got lumped into one night is that when I was in High School probably around senior year or maybe even after, I had already started getting nostalgic for times that had already passed and I went through this big shoe box of photos that we all used to have before everything went digital and I took the time to organize them in a chronological method so that I would have what I assumed was the chronology of the events. I bet what happened with these photos is that I had looked at them and thought they were from one show and then all these years later they were still presumed to be from a single night.
"As far as trying to remember specific details from these nights ... it's not that I can't remember, it's that I remember many nights at Europe Gyro, at the Mantis and at all these other different little venues from that period. I can't even think of them all right now. Later on when everyone got a little older the bands would play at the Lime Spider or bigger venues like that. I couldn't even tell you the exact dates on these shows but since Pat Carney is in there it would have to have been high school probably 1997. It's so funny to even begin to think about these dates because we had this issue in high school with Pat where he was tired of (the scene).
"I come from a very close knit group of friends that is also a very large group of friends. So it was like me, Steve Caynon, Gabe Schray, Pat Carney, Nick Milkovich, Dan Van Auken, Greg Madonia, Ted Pitts, Ted Mallison, Dave Rich, Dave Whited, Steve Clements, Mark Brncik, Eric Pollock, Ben Tausig, Tom Feltner, Kevin Cooper, Steve Bishop and even more than that and throughout high school there were these little times where we all had got fed up individually with each other and so we wouldn't be around as much. Since Pat Carney is in these photos I would have to say this is 1997. By senior year of high school he had kind of given up on all of us and moved on. I think he was doing post secondary stuff from Firestone to Akron University.
"Everybody in those photos ... Gabe Schray, Pat Carney, Steve Caynon and I, we all went to elementary school together. Me, Steve and Gabe went to Kindergarten together. I think Pat was in our same Kindergarten class too and we all lived fairly close to each other. Gabe lived on Harcourt Drive, I lived on Melbourne Avenue and Pat lived on Kenilworth Drive which are like these three kind of parallel blocks in Akron and Steve lived over off of a street called Cliffside Drive which was north of Firestone High School. But we all went to the same elementary school, the same middle school, the same high school, and we were like a big group of friends forever. And Gabe obviously I still have a big connection with and Pat, as busy as he is, he still took the time to text me on Christmas.
"So we were all friends and like I said in that long list of rambling names a bunch of those people were musicians and they all practiced music on some level. Steve had older siblings that were into music, Gabe's Dad was really into music production and Pat's uncle is obviously Ralph Carney who had played on all of those Tom Waits albums and has done work with countless others of that caliber. So all of these people had music connections to begin with.
"I never personally ever had any musical bone in my body. I could never carry any rhythm or play any instruments or anything and so I was the guy that was there with the camera who would photograph stuff. I also made weird music videos with these guys. One time we made a video using 16mm film for a band called The Deprogrammers which was the only band that I was ever actually a part of. The Deprogrammers was me, Pat, Gabe and Steve and it was supposed to be this sort of like bizarre weird jazz idea with a whole back story of the band built into it. We were these deprogrammers who would come in and deprogram people from listening to the mainstream drivel that we were hearing on the radio. I played the clarinet although I didn’t really play the clarinet I just blew on it and I think Pat played drums, Steve played guitar and Gabe played keyboards or something and we made this 16mm film that we shot around Akron though I never got the film developed so somewhere in a box I have this rare weird 16mm film.
"At the time of these Gyro shows we all worked at the Mustard Seed Market. I worked in the deli and some of us worked as dishwashers or bus boys in the restaurant and because of this we knew people that were a little bit older and who were involved in the Kent scene so that may have been how these shows got booked. Also Steve’s dad, Dr. Caynon was a professor of Library Science at Kent State so there may have been a connection there. To be honest that was another thing that intrigued me about my friends playing music is that I didn’t understand how that behind-the-scenes thing worked as far as getting a show or booking a show and whatnot. I was just happy to show up and hear some great music and take photos.
"As far as distinct memories I have from the nights these photos were taken I remember on one of the nights I drove to the show with some people and I definitely remember knowing about a show coming up at Europe Gyro. Any of the nights ... it’s almost like ... you don’t know which night it was because every night was kind of the same. Basically you would show up and you’d be really excited because you felt on the inside because your nerdy rock and roll friends were playing a show at the Europe Gyro and you’d get to be part of the entourage/posse. We as friends of the band would always show up way too early and make a lot of fuss outside the venue ya know, (fooling) around and getting in trouble and then when the show started we were down front just flipping out and loving every note those guys played. Whether it was really good or not we were always there ready to have a great time. There are actually more photos from this evening I would just have to dig deep to find them.
"In those days for me as far as photography was concerned I was always more about capturing the moment as it happened rather than thinking about framing and composition and such. If you look at the other black and white photo you can see Gabe and Steve looking right at the camera and they are kind of like smiling. It's a weird photo because everyone seems very happy but you can't tell if it's because they wrapped up a good show or because they are about to play a good one.
"You can see Jermaine was in the band there, he was a little bit older than everybody and when we were like 17 or 18 years old he was probably in his early 20s and he lived off of Crosby Street in Akron. I never really knew him well, I talked to him a few times and he seemed cool. I don't know his origins and I don't know where he came from.
"I can't even remember exactly what Christopher Whispers sounded like. There were so many different bands with those people and I can still dig through them all in my mind. Around that time Gabe and his then girlfriend Juice were in a band called Genetically Yours which was this kind of like reggae/ska/trippy...she played saxophone and he played keyboards. And then there was Intelligent Knives which was Gabe, Steve, Greg Madonia and a couple other people which was sort of like this spacey dub reggae. And Christopher Whispers was more of like a classic...what I like to think of as mid-90s indie-rock like Pavement or the Frank Black solo stuff. Things like that. It had lyrics and it had more of a melody to it.
"It's interesting to think about what these photos meant back then and what they mean now. Back then obviously it was just that I was proud and happy to be with my friends and see them play this live music. It was always a big event for us whether it was in the tiniest little basement in someone’s house in Akron or the Europe Gyro or the Mantis...now the Mantis...that had to have been the most disgusting venue anyone could ever play but every time I went to see my friends play there I was always so excited. And I certainly lived vicariously through all of them getting on stage and performing. So that's how I've always thought about myself, as this introverted filmmaker that captured images and told stories through film which is a different art form/presentation than music is. So I was always excited to be there to take pictures or shoot some video of my friends playing.
"For those nights at the Europe Gyro I don't even think I was thinking about the true documentation purpose of being there with the camera. I just wanted to have photos to show these guys when they were done because music can be this sort of ephemeral thing in which you play the live show and then it's done. If you don't have a recording of it or anything then that evening is lost forever. And even then at age 17 or 18 I wasn't thinking I needed to be there to document this 'important' event. I was always taking photos with my friends trying to capture the moment. Now in retrospect it's easy for me to say that yeah I was there to capture these moments for posterity's sake but at the time I was just there to snap those photos to be able to show them right after and say 'hey guys, this is what you looked like while you were playing' or 'look at you guys smiling at the camera, you guys look like a bunch of goofs.'
"And now obviously (and it comes across in my film Sincerely P.V. Reese) having Steve in these photos...Gabe Schray is an amazing man and is the most prolific musician I know. He is constantly putting out music and he is a ridiculous individual and a ridiculous human being. He is always up for bizarre/weird fun adventures. He is a total goofball but I love him and he's great. And Pat Carney obviously now is a multimillion dollar rock icon almost.
"A quick side note is that this past September they had this big concert here in Manhattan in Central Park and it was Foo Fighters, Neil Young and The Black Keys and my wife Katie and I were walking around near that area and we were reminded of it going on because you could hear the music from outside the park. So since we were already up there we decided we were gonna sneak in and maybe catch Neil Young and Crazy Horse who we assumed was the headliner but as we started heading towards the park we saw this onslaught of humanity, like tons of people pouring out of the park and we stopped somebody and asked 'hey did Neil Young play yet?' and the guy said 'No the Black Keys are done so we're out of here!'
"It's interesting to look at Gabe and Pat as these two opposite ends of the spectrum of what the Northeast Ohio/Akron music scene can be. Pat as a huge rock star who goes on Saturday Night Live and plays with The Rolling Stones and making a lot of money and Gabe producing an album every year of whatever he wants to put out. One album will be an electronic reggae album and the next album can just be ambient tones. I've always loved Gabe’s stuff and he always inspires me when I am making my movies more so than, and no offense to Pat, but more so than anything Pat's ever done.
"So Pat and Gabe are in these photos and it's so interesting to see how in the past 15 years they have gone these different roads. The third person in these photos is Steve Caynon who again is...Steve was literally my best friend. We were in Kindergarten together, we had the same babysitter who we would go to for those hours after Kindergarten and we knew each other really well. He's definitely the closest thing to a brother I ever had until I married Katie. And Steve died in 2004 and all we have are these photos and these films we made and it's really important. Every photo I see of Steve is so important to me because every photo is different. Every photo is a different second in time.
"When I teach, I talk a lot about how photography is about capturing not only a second but it's about capturing less than a second. The things you can do with photography is you can capture these moments that last for shorter than a second and I do a great lesson about past, present and future of a photo. I'll show a photo of say Tiananmen Square and I'll say 'what's going on in this photo? what happens before? what happens after?' and we can look at these photos of these nights from Europe Gyro and we can ask 'what happened before these photos? And what happened after?' and I think before is a little blurry but the after is pretty obvious. And the present is just these guys enjoying the art form that they always enjoyed which is just rockin' out for their friends."
Musician and artist Gabe Schray is the drummer in these pictures and he is the person who is solely responsible for putting these images on my radar. He was a huge part of that old Akron crew and he continues to play live shows and produce music including producing and composing the soundtracks to both of Phillip Swift's film's The Bubble and Sincerely P.V. Reese (which he also appears in.) On the nights of these shows at Europe Gyro in Kent, Gabe was just 17 years old. When I asked him to talk to me about the photos and those nights, this is what he told me:
"Christopher Whispers started because we were all in high school and I think just before we put the group together we were all playing louder punk rock than straight rock but by this time we wanted to do something that was a bit more,what’s the word,we had gotten really into bands like Galaxie 500, which was just a lighter, spacier kind of thing that had some actual songwriting. We must have been 16 or 17 years old when we put the band together and that would have been the summer before our senior year which would have been 1997 and the band would have broken up by early 1998.
"At the time this was our exclusive band and we were all about it although back then and still now we would switch around a lot of the same musicians within the different bands. It's always been a bit incestuous with the larger group of musicians we all surrounded ourselves with but for this time period this was our exclusive band and we were all in. As I recall, right at the beginning of our senior year of high school we decided to take this band real seriously. I think there was a possibility of us opening up for Luna at the Grog Shop and at that time that was big-time — though that show never materialized.
"We actually did some four-track recordings and I still have the cassette tapes in my possession but I need to find a four-track that plays them at the correct speed. They have never been digitized. I have them along with hundreds of other cassette tapes in a giant briefcase. I think there were two recording sessions and those were held in Pat's basement. He had the nicer four-track and he had the drum set and those recordings would have been done in the fall of 1997.
"Christopher Whispers probably only played three actual shows and two of them were at Europe Gyro in Kent and the only other one was for a house show in Akron in Jermaine's basement, which I believe was over on Crosby. I am pretty sure those were the only shows we played with the only real public performances for that band being those two shows at Europe Gyro. That might have been it and those photos that Philip took would reflect both of those public shows. Thinking back I can’t really separate the two different nights in my mind though I see one in black and white and I see one in color because the two sets of photographs are in black and white and color.
"I do remember a few things from those Gyro nights. I know that for one of those nights there was a big bar fight where somebody threw a bar stool while we were playing and while that didn't have anything to do with us, it was very exciting for us teenagers to be in the midst of a barroom brawl. That was the first and only band I played drums in and I kind of remember screwing off a couple times during one of those shows and being self-conscious about it. I remember Jermaine’s guitar was real noisy and I'm not sure he ever played the same thing twice. We were probably pretty noisy for those nights. I can actually remember that feeling of playing a show at a bar and we were all 17 years old and feeling like adults for the first time — playing a real show in a real public place in front of strangers in another town. I remember thinking and feeling really adult and really cool.
"There wouldn’t have been anyone else on the bill for those nights but us. At that time we didn't know how something like that worked and no friends of our friends were in bands anyway so we wouldn't have even known another band to add to the bill. I think we just thought a show meant that just one band plays and we didn't really understand that usually for these kinds of shows multiple bands should be booked.
"Really though the show that sticks out to me more was with the band we were in previously called the Example Figure Three which was Greg Adonia, Pat Carney, Steve Caynon and me. And I remember that band played in Kent at the Mantis and this must have been 1996. Pat would have booked that one and I am not really sure how he would have known about the Mantis but somehow the band ended up playing a show there and I wanted to tag along so I just ended up playing percussion with them. That was the first real public show that any of us had actually played.
"I remember getting there before the show and one of the guys who was putting on the show started smoking a joint or something and I remember Pat’s dad had to drive us to the show and Pat was just terrified that his dad was going to see this guy smoking pot. Of course his dad wouldn’t have cared but I remember we got there and saw this dude smoking pot and Pat all of a sudden started saying that we had to leave the place right now and he was getting really paranoid about it. We all had to calm him down and tell him that we should stick around and that everything will be fine. We ended up playing the show and it was a lot of fun. To me that show at the Mantis was a more exciting performance. Not that the Gyro wasn’t exciting because back then every performance was a super exciting new experience. I do remember liking Christopher Whispers though. I think that was my favorite band that I was in — certainly up until that point.
"Pat must have booked those two Gyro shows. He would have done all of that. Even back then he was good at talking/networking. Although maybe Jermaine had something to do with it since he was a little bit older than us and he might have been friends with the guys in the band Old Hearts Club, which maybe Al from the band Six Parts Seven was in. I’m also thinking we may have gotten that show through this guy we knew who worked at Quonset Hut in Akron. I think there was a contact there who would have known about the Gyro but my best bet is that Pat booked these nights.
"Pat was always precocious and ambitious for as long as I knew him. He was the first one of us to have a job on his own which was at the Mustard Seed Market when he was like 15. That was how I got a job there and even before that he was mowing yards when he was 10 and 11 and he had his own lawn mowing company...and then he had a paper route too. He was the one saving up to buy the equipment that I still can't afford and he was always the real go getter and wanting to do things on his own. So then later he was the one going out and getting the shows.
"At the time of these Gyro shows I was not really aware of the Kent scene at all. It was only a few months later that it started to kind of seep into our consciousness which was when I kind of realized that there was this whole other group of people in Kent who were our peers and doing the same kinds of things with music and bands, though they were a little older, maybe a few years older but when you are that age it seems like a huge gap. The Kent kids were like the cool older kids.
"The real breakthrough for us into that scene was that we went to high school with a guy Jeff France and he was in that Kent band Pankration and they had put out a 7-inch and they started playing shows. Because of that I totally started becoming aware of the Kent scene and then I became obsessed with the Kent band The Party of Helicopters for a few years. That following year I went to college at Kent State and everyone was hanging out at the Mantis a lot and that was how I became aware of a lot of the Kent punk scene, but at the time of those Gyro shows with Christopher Whispers we were in our own little weird world.
"The breakup of the band was in early 1998 and the first thing that happened was Jermaine disappeared and we couldn't get ahold of him anymore. Then I think we got into a fight with Pat...ya know just high school (arguments) but he got angry at us and stopped talking to us for a few months. So Steve and I kept going as the Lavenders and the Lavenders played a few of the Christopher Whispers songs and then we wrote a few new ones. So the Lavenders was me, Steve Caynon and then our friend Tom Feltner played bass on that. The only show that band ever played was at the Highland Square Theater.
"I do remember that we got into this sort of high school argument with Pat and he wasn't really talking with us and I remember Steve and I being really worried that we wouldn't have the master tapes of the Christopher Whispers recordings. And I think what happened was I talked Pat's dad into letting us go down into the basement to get something and when we went down there we stole the master tapes and Pat was really upset about that. I actually still have the tapes which is good because I don't think they would still exist had I not done that. He was very (upset) about that. I guess I don't blame him.
"That actually isn't the only time that we had to sneak into his basement studio. I remember probably around the time of the Black Keys second album our band Intelligent Knives was recording in his basement and we recorded like six songs and then he went out on tour with The Black Keys for a while and we really wanted these mixes and once again, we talked the people he was living with into letting us go down into the basement to mix the record. There is sort of a long tradition of breaking and entering into Pat's basement.
"Steve and I were in another band later that we based out of Kent called Intangible Ghost and that was around the time right before the Lime Spider opened but right after we got out of high school and we did shows with Party of Helicopters and Pankration. That band also played at the Gyro a few times in the days when the stage was in the back. We also played some regional gigs in PA and Columbus. That was when Steve and I became obsessed with the kind of Kent sound — that kind of weirder, loud mathy rock thing.
"I’m not sure why Kent has this creative magnetism to it. I draw a lot of parallels between my crew in Akron with that Kent crew even though they were like a few years older than us. People like Jamie Stillman, Joe Dennis, Ryan Brannon and Jon Finley, that crew, those guys were in Party of Helicopters and they had this whole big group of friends that sort of stretched out from that band. We all have similar senses of humor and the way we interact with each other is pretty funny. Like once you start to actually get to know them, they were just the same breed of weirdo. I find there is a lot of similarity.
"Party of Helicopters was one of like the top five most important bands to me. It was because of them that I had this realization that there's this entire crew of people who we don't know who are making cool stuff. And they were further ahead of me and my crew. Party Of Helicopters were putting out records and 7-inch (records) plus Jamie Stillman had his record label so they just really inspired me. Especially those first Party of Helicopters releases were just pretty mind-blowing.
"I've always wondered if people who weren't around then understand those records as much as I do. I remember being really passionate about them and seeing them at the Mantis was like probably in my top favorite shows of all time. I remember being totally swept away by them live but in my mind it just doesn't seem like something an outsider would ever get. In Akron they seem to still have a ton of young fans now. When they did those few reunion shows in recent years there was a huge crew of these 21 year old kids that were just freaking out and loving it.
"Not everybody in my Akron crew got caught up with the Kent crew but Steve and I did for sure. While we were at Kent State we were just obsessed with that scene. Pat got into that Kent crew too and that's actually how we kind of started talking again after Christopher Whispers broke up. When Steve and I went off to college in the fall of 1998 there was still this sort of animosity with Pat but for whatever reason this was kind of slowly being stripped away and we were hanging out at shows together as he kind of became more friends with a lot of those guys. I think Pat was as obsessed with Party of Helicopters as Steve and I were and then later Jamie Stillman who was the driving force behind Party of Helicopters became the Black Keys tour manager.
"At that time in the late 1990s there was a pretty healthy house show thing going on. It was more in the basements of people's houses and in these other odd spaces in Kent and Akron. I mean I don't give a shit about the Numbers Band or hardly any Kent or Akron bands from before that period but to me and to a lot of people I feel like the whole ... that scene in the late 1990s meant a lot more to or as much as that scene that the Numbers Band or Tin Huey meant to those people in the 70s and early 80s. It gets weird because there are people from my parents’ generation that were in the same kind of bands…the local, do-it-yourself kind of bands and I almost feel like they were shoving that. I don't know about shoving it but, I guess what I am trying to say is not one is more important than the other.
"I guess I should say it would be hard to dismiss Tin Huey and the likes. I mean Ralph Carney was in Tin Huey so those records were always lying around. But it was always like some weird thing that I didn't really totally understand. People liked to talk Tin Huey up, but to me it was just like, huh? I don't really get this. I like it now and I can appreciate it now but back in the mid to late 1990s it was just kind of like this music didn't belong to me. It was just kind of this baby boomer thing like them telling us what's important. It just didn’t mean anything to me. Later on Tin Huey kind of embraced my band Houseguest and they were all super cool with us. We actually even opened shows for them and it was this sort of bridging of generations through music.
"Some things you kind of have to get away from so that later you can look at it with some perspective. I guess I shouldn't say that that generation didn't influence us kids because we were all DEVO fanatics. That was like the one band from that previous generation that we all loved but it was so much cooler to find people who were your peers doing stuff and I guess that kind of happened as one of the results of going to Kent and eventually discovering these people who were doing stuff.
"I did end up playing with Pat again. I was in that Churchbuilder band briefly that he was a part of just before and right at the beginnings of the formation of the Black Keys. Churchbuilder was a band that was Pat and his now ex-wife and a couple other people. They were like a pop band and they were signed to Shelflife Records which are an indie pop label. I was just an auxiliary live member. I wasn't on any of the recordings but I played trumpet and guitar live so I kind of never refer to it as my band but they were signed to a legitimate record label and they recorded a full length album and an EP which I was always curious about because I think it's out of print now. It seems like with Pat's popularity they would want to reprint it. That band was pretty straight indie pop with synthesizers. Like the Rentals or something. That would have been around 2000-2002. I probably played four or five shows with them at the Lime Spider, the Grog Shop and at the Beachland which is where they opened for Jonathan Richman.
"Thinking about what has happened with Pat now with the success of the Black Keys — at this point it's kind of surreal. I've seen them since the beginning of them being a band and every time they would make some kind of move I would think that this was as far as this band could possibly go. I guess one memory that really sticks out is that I traveled to Australia with them for New Years 2004-2005 and they were playing at this giant festival and I remember sitting backstage and looking out into this sea of people and just thinking, No. 1, ‘this is completely insane.' But No. 2, ‘this can't possibly get any bigger. There is no way. Where can it go from here?’ And I remember sitting back there thinking this was probably it for them. And then every year since then they somehow exponentially get more and more popular. It's pretty fascinating. But yeah I distinctly remember that De La Soul came on after them and I was thinking this is completely insane.
"I guess at this point they are as popular as you can get but we'll see as they manage to continue. I actually got a text or something from Pat recently saying 'Yeah, I am going to be playing with the Rolling Stones.' And my response was 'oh that's weird.' I didn't really know how to respond except to say ‘oh that's really strange.' It doesn't make any sense but that's ok.
"I am not sure why I am the one who has these photos 15 years later. Philip must have given them to me a few years ago. He always had a camera with him. Those were the days before digital photography so it always seemed like he had a 35mm or one of those little crappy disposable cameras. I like these pictures for just the personal history aspect. The reason I originally scanned these and then posted them to Facebook was because they had Steve in them and we all miss Steve so much. Obviously I didn't post them to show off that I was in a band with Pat Carney. I just wanted to share the photos that showed Steve because I knew that all of my friends would appreciate that.
"Looking again at these old photos from the Gyro I just think of how exciting it was to be doing that sort of creative thing on our own at that age. I don’t think there are a lot of kids in High School that seek out doing creative things outside of school activities and the likes. I think people kind of thought we were weird because we had taken it upon ourselves to seek out these other endeavors. We didn’t book ourselves into the school talent shows, we were trying to carve out our own circuit with our own rules. It was definitely the first sense that we can do these sort of things ourselves, on our own and on our own terms. These nights at the Gyro were definitely the start of something that has been a big part of my life since that time. That’s what I think of it. Something seemingly very exciting to realize you can have a creative community outside of something that other people deem appropriate."
Throughout the writing of this story I never really thought about actually talking to Patrick Carney about his thoughts on these photos, but once I had exhausted every lead I thought to myself 'what have I got to lose by making an attempt to get Pat's perspective on these photos showing these long ago nights at the Europe Gyro?' After making a few inquiries, I found myself almost immediately put on the phone with him as he was driving from his home in Nashville to a recording studio where the Black Keys are recording their new album. He talked to me about his experiences in Kent and about these specific midsummer 1997 nights with his band Christopher Whispers playing at Europe Gyro.
Here's what Black Keys member Pat Carney recalls about those nights in Kent:
"I think we started the band Christopher Whispers in maybe late May of 1997. Steve and I were both listening to a lot of the same music and also hanging out with Jermaine quite a bit. I think it was the three of us that started the band, or at least the three of us started talking about putting a band together first and then I think Gabe volunteered to play drums or something like that and that's sort of how it started. We used to rehearse in Jermaine's basement and he was like 22 and we were all 17, so it was cool. It was cool being in a band with an older dude because you could make noise at his house.
"The name Christopher Whispers was actually a joke. It was like a character that I came up with. We used to sit around and draw comics at school and ... we just thought it was kind of a pathetic sounding name. I think that's why we wanted to use it.
"There were definitely two different nights we played at the Gyro and I know that the first of the two shows was the one where you can see I'm wearing the bolo tie in the photo. But yeah there were two separate shows but they both would have been in the same month or six weeks of each other. I think that first show would have probably been in late July and the second show would have been towards the end of August and this was the summer before all our senior years in high school.
"Back then Steve and I had another band at one point called Example Figure Three and Gabe, Steve and I had another band as well and then Gabe and Steve and a few other friends had bands. Yeah, in high school there were about five or six bands existing within a group of like eight people. We all worked at the same place so basically we would start bands based on what jobs we had at the restaurant, because if you had the same job you couldn't be in the same band together because more than likely you'd have to both work alternating days. I'd saved my money up from that job to buy a four-track and we used to sit around and make demos and stuff so all the shows that we ever played in high school were booked from sending a cassette tape to somebody. It could be that Jermaine could have helped book those Gyro shows because that was the first show any of us had ever played at a real bar.
"Though we would have known about the Gyro at that point just from coming to Kent. I think the very first show I ever played in a band ever was in Kent, and that was with Steve and our friend at the Mantis which is over on North Water Street. And that was probably in 1995 because I couldn't drive. One thing I remember about that show is that right when we showed up I was the first one at the door and one of the guys who was putting on the show was standing there smoking a pipe or like a bong or something, and my dad who had driven us to the show was right behind me coming up to the door. I was lucky my dad didn't see it because my dad can't smell. So we were aware of all that *... for sure, like all the different places to play in Kent. I wasn't friends with Jamie Stillman yet, but I knew who Jamie was and I knew about Donut Friends and I knew about Harriet the Spy and Sockeye and all of the stuff going on in Kent.
"Back at that time there was nothing like Kent in Akron at all. Because Kent is a smaller town more geared towards students it's always been a place I think that's kind of inherently cooler than Akron. That's how we viewed it back then. It was a place where you could go see a show downtown on a Friday night at the Europe Gyro or the Mantis or check out some albums at Spin More Records. And at the same time my uncle Ralph was a musician and he was in a band called Tin Huey, and they got signed to Warner Brothers playing at a show at JB’s in like 1977. Back then ya know there was like really cool (stuff) coming through Kent into the mid 1980s.
"The coolest thing about Kent in the mid-late 1990s though was really the Mantis, and we knew that you could get decent shows at other places too. I remember Dave Neeson was booking shows at Susan's Coffee and Tea though JB’s had turned into a frat bar by the time we were old enough to go play shows. There was the Avenue too, but that was more of a sketchy place. And then there was the Robin Hood and I mean there was always kind of cool (stuff) going on in Kent.
"As far as distinct memories I have from those nights we played at Europe Gyro I just know it was the summer before our senior year. You can see in one of the pictures my brother is right there on the floor in the picture taken furthest away and you can see him at the bottom right. I remember we had a lot of friends from high school who came out. Not that many people were actually there. Maybe there were 40 people. I just remember being happy to be playing a show. I felt like Steve and Jermaine and Gabe and I had put an awful lot of time into practicing and getting something cool together.
"The photos are fascinating, but to be honest I don't remember much about Philip taking them or really too much about those shows in general. I remember being there and without ever seeing Philip there I know Philip would be there because he was really good friends with Steve, Gabe and I. It wasn't until maybe a year ago that someone sent me the one shot with all of us from far away. That was really the first time I saw a picture of that band. So it was only really recently that I even became aware of these photos.
"As far as what we would have done after these shows or these kind of shows I can tell you none of us drank in high school or anything, so after these kinds of shows we probably would have gone back to Philip’s house to play video games to be honest, or we would have gone dumpster diving behind Children’s Palace. Back then Children’s Palace was closed and had been turned into Bingo Palace. And it seemed like a hot spot for us our senior year. We used to go to State Road in Cuyahoga Falls and there is this strip of some really depressing *... and we used to like hang out.
"Honestly the summer of 1997, the first half of that summer, was probably the most fun time I ever had in high school and one of the most fun times I've ever had in my life, and it was mainly because of that band Christopher Whispers because Steve and I were always listening to new music and getting into that kind of stuff. When we had time off we would go to the guitar store or record store. We were just all about music. We were listening to Yo La Tango and Galaxie 500, the Feelies, stuff like that, and that was influencing the music we were making. I think that was the first time any of us were in a band that was a little more mellow. I don't even think Steve had a single fuzz peddle or anything.
"Later I actually hung out in Kent a lot. What happened was Steve and Gabe went to Kent State the next fall and I ended up kind of (messing) around going to some art school and then going to Akron University, and at Akron U I started hanging out with this band called the Phelps Hex and I was hanging out with them every single day when I was 19. Phelps Hex were two bass guitars and drums and they were friends with Jamie Stillman, so we would go visit Kent all the time because the Phelps Hex would play shows with Party of Helicopters at the Avenue and that's how I got to know Jamie. Though at that time Steve and Gabe knew Jamie more than me just from living in Kent.
"Jamie and I were always super friendly and then at one point the last label that Party of Helicopters was on, Velocette Records, I think Jamie arranged for them to come meet with us and maybe try to sign us (Black Keys) while we signed to Fat Possum. And through that whole deal I ended up hanging out with Jamie a lot more. A year later Dan and I had a really strange tour scheduling thing where we had to start our tour in Seattle. So we asked Jamie if he would drive our van out for us and we would meet him there, and that was the beginning of Jamie becoming the Black Keys tour manager, which didn't actually click in fully for another year, year and a half. And then he was the Black Keys tour manager for the next five years. He was an awesome person to be spending tours with.
"It's hard to even think about Kent without bringing up Jamie Stillman because to me that was like one of the most alluring things about Kent. All this (stuff) was coming out of Kent and you can all kind of trace it back in some way to Jamie."
"I first heard about Jamie Stillman when I was 13 and this is like pre-Internet and you know, Kent is 20 miles away. So for like a 15-year-old or 16-year-old ... for your name to just travel to west Akron is the equivalent to being a punk rock superstar in Akron. We had some friends who were a little bit older than us who'd go to Kent (and) would be like 'Jamie's got an 8-track recorder and a cassette and he's got a label and he's got like two bands.' I think at that time the band he was in was called Velocipede and then Harriet the Spy and all that. It was all very inspiring. They were all coming from a place musically that I wasn't really, but the thing that I always liked about them was that I loved the music that they made. Those guys all listened to such cool (music) and they were always super supportive of every band no matter what the genre or whatever you know. Dave Neeson and Tom and all those guys and Joe especially. And that was basically how Dan and I figured out how to get the Black Keys going was just seeing Party of Helicopters just get in a van and tour like every single summer for six or seven weeks. We just realized that that's what you kind of have to do. It wasn't like something you wait around for. That's how Dan and I kind of looked at it. And any time the Black Keys would have a bad show or something I'd always think about Jamie's stories about being on tour and like playing in some kid's basement and his parents came home and (stuff) like that.
"That was the thing, just watching Jamie and all those kids in Kent. They would be like 'Oh you need to make a T-shirt? Here is how you make a T-shirt.' Or they'd be like 'Oh you want to put out an album? You just call United Press and you do this and you send them this and it costs this much money.' They just knew how to make this stuff happen.
"Reflecting on these photos and thinking about where my career has gone since these nights in 1997 I can tell you that I know that my 17-year-old self would think that my 32 year old self was cool. I don't think I could have ever imagined most of the things that have happened to me in the last couple of years. From the age of 17 until I was probably about 23 (and this includes a couple years of touring and playing in the Black Keys) the only successful band that I ever saw live was Dinasour Jr and they played to like 1,500 people at the Cleveland Agora Theater. So, for me, real success and being in a big band meant to be able to sell out or pack pretty tight a venue like the Grog Shop. Being able to do that is what it meant to me to be successful in a big band. I think all that other stuff ... I mean I never watched the Grammy's or saw a concert at Blossom or the Gund Arena or any of that. So all of that stuff was not even something I was paying attention to.
"These shows at Europe Gyro weren't my first shows or anything because we had played the Mantis a few times before, but it was the first time I ever played at what was more of an actual venue versus a DIY kind of spot. It was the middle of summer right before our senior year of high school. Those photos and those nights at the Gyro literally mark the end of an era. Everybody's (situations) just changed within months of that. That was the time for me that I reflect on when I think about Steve. It's always that or that summer or the summer before that I think about the fondness of those times."
As I was putting this story together over the past few months I went down to the Europe Gyro (or Eurogyro as it's now known) several times to take photographs and order food just to kind of see the place again. And as far as I could tell it was the exact same crowd and vibe that I remember — just different faces. I saw some nights where the place was packed front to back with kids that came from who knows where to see a triple bill of bands, and I saw Hip Hop DJs on another night. Most of the time though I saw that same young rough Gyro crowd trying to eat, drink and converse over an extremely loud jukebox.
What I find so interesting though is that while the Gyro remains that exact same gritty establishment that it was back in the mid-late 1990s, everything around it has been gentrified. That Gyro establishment is the very last vestige from that old dumpy neighborhood on Depeyster Street. I suspect there may be future nights when some dignitaries who are invited to the University stay at that new hotel next door only to be bewildered by all the ratty looking kids hanging outside of the pizza place next door.
In closing I leave you with some rockin' Black Keys....
Big thanks to everyone who helped me out with this piece including Gabe Schray, Philip Swift, Brice Forman, Ryan Brannon, Jon Ridinger, Julie Robbins, Patrick Carney, Robert Petrella and Shane Hrenko.
If you enjoyed this Kent "rock and roll" story don't miss my others here on Kent Patch.