Dave Van Patten
Only the Futures in my Way
Let’s call this what it is: a splendid comeback from one of this town’s best talents. Let’s not let him slip through our fingers the second time around.
In our fickle scene, it’s not discussed much today, but there was a time around the end of the 20th Century when Greg Gomberg, née “Max Gomberg,” was one of the shining stars in our local music scene—or rather, he was part of a smoldering, sinister red dwarf, a strange and meandering band called the Centimeters that pulled half a dozen wonderful musicians, along with quite a few artists, scenesters, and drugged-out freaks into its orbit. Greg and Nora Keyes, now “No-Ra” of Fancy Space People, were not just the co-singers of that band; they were a power couple, and young kids like me who wanted desperately to scream into the dark places of L.A.’s psychedelic nightmare-scape were enamored of them. Girls from Australia literally moved here to be closer to them; big-name goth bands brought them on tour, horrifying their own fans in the process. I can still remember seeing the Centimeters covered in face paint, jerking back and forth on stage opening up the Knitting Factory for Suicide. Like a virus, they touched on everything cool at the time.
To look at images of Greg and Nora in those days is to look at a young John Doe and Exene Cervenka of X, a band that in some ways the Centimeters were an homage to, though it was hard to tell whether Nora’s trilling operatic voice or Greg’s untrained somber brooding really filled the Exene slot. After Gomberg and Keyes’ inevitable breakup as a couple, the band plugged on doing bit parts and tours, but some kind of necessary friction was now grinding rather than sparking: their second, very promising album Lifetime Achievement Awards was followed by ever-decreasing gigs, then radio silence for somewhere around a decade. Greg followed up with some interesting new projects, including some of the best minimal synth work of the aughts (represented a bit on this album by the opener, “Hi Tom”). But it’s his new sound that brings back a whiff of those grinning empty eye-socket atmospheres that drove us to a delicious madness. This album, and the band he’s assembling to play its songs around town, might just break people’s heads and hearts apart! Maybe, just maybe, this town will pay attention once again to the glimmering madness brewing at 577 N. Kenmore Ave.
Now, Nora Keyes is not in Greg’s new band, nor are most of the other disparate talents from the Centimeters, who all went on to other pretty awesome things. Not to knock their skills in making the Centimeters great (Nora’s trajectory towards Fancy Space People has been equally fraught with great but unappreciated solo work, and I am a major fan of her most difficult work), but there is something in Only the Futures in My Way that reminds me of Dumbo finally flying without his feather. Greg can go it alone, and always could have. Ex-Centimeters guitarist Ray Day did contribute to at least one track, “Pieces (Retire),” and James Hazley of Boy Scouts of Annihilation appears solo on an entire reprise. But for the most part, Gomberg is credited with playing virtually everything on here.
Of course, I’d be remiss in not mentioning this album’s big celebrity appearance, that star champion of warped-tape arena rock, Ariel Pink, who also appears on that same song with Ray Day. It’s very interesting to compare Pink’s appearance here with his work on this year’s new Beachwood Sparks album, which was certainly as good as this album (and was almost was my essay piece for this issue). It’s a tough call, but I feel like this song is a more interesting use of Pink, as it pits his snorkeling sunglasses-at-night reverberated vocals against clean, evenly-spaced Jah Wobble bass lines stripped right out of an early Public Image Limited record.
But for my money, the real ingenious celebrity guest spot here has to be Gomberg’s use of Karen Centerfold, L.A.’s least beloved aging 70s porn star turned loud, annoying party hag, on the oddly literal “Republicans Are the Worst People I Know.” Here is the old-school charm that was always present in Gomberg’s early work, similar in spirit, and often time signature/chord structure, to Syd Barrett—his ability to render something close to comedy without being either silly or campy. Well, maybe a little campy, but not “quirky”: he coaxes an actual duet out of Karen on a song seemingly taken from her own id, and she never gets off track, until he unleashes her at the end: “Those Republican bigots! Those hypocrisy people! Those conservative bigots! MY GOD!”
It feels like something Professor Cantaloupe would do, or Don Bolles, or one of this town’s many other space cadet ne’er-do-wells, most of whom are Greg Gomberg’s biggest boosters. And I’m one of them. It’s so good to hear Greg doing a real rock record, his synths and drum machines and clever collaborations meeting all our expectations, and then exceeding them. If you’re an old fan, you’ll be very pleased. But this album deserves so much more than that, and hints at great shows and more great recordings to come. Here’s to the new fans in Greg’s futures.
-D. M. Collins