Nightcrawler: Going Gentle Into That Good Night

David Butler Photography
David Butler Photography

After more than two decades delivering the music news in print, Nightcrawler moves online

Editor’s Note: Scene stalwart Gary Carra’s Nightcrawler column has long been a fixture at the Valley Advocate — a history that goes back, as he explains here, to the bygone era of Advocate branches in Springfield and New Haven. This week, his column transitions into a semi-regular blog on our refreshed and expanding website. Enjoy some farewell thoughts from a man long dedicated to following local and national music, wherever the road may take him. — Hunter Styles

My parents would probably like to think it was the tens of thousands of dollars they spent on my journalism degree. I would chalk it up to my rapier wit, dizzying intellect, and always maintaining a humble demeanor.

But the truth is, I owe my real start at the Advocate to my colleagues’ collective beef with — well, beef…

“Is there anyone here who is not a vegetarian?” editor Josh Mamis bellowed across the New Haven Advocate newsroom. The year was 1995. I raised my hand, followed by my head, just high enough to crest the wall of my cubicle. “Mr. Carra,” Mamis said, “Come here for a minute, would you?”

The news was good — in fact, it was a bonafide Advocate gig. During my soon-to-expire internship stint, I had done unglamorous grunt work, like typing up press releases and uploading the week’s movie times. I still remember the titles… Welcome to the Dollhouse at 7:30 and 9:15… Sense and Sensibility at 7 and 9:30…

Once completed, however, the process of actually uploading the page to the printer was quite novel. As Kid Rock croons in “All Summer Long,” we didn’t have no Internet, don’t forget. What we did have was a fledgling form that was super-tedious by today’s standards — painful even for the dial-up age, in fact. But pushing a button and have the files on your computer appearing at the printer? How cool.

As was this new assignment, it turned out.

“I need you to work with the ad reps and highlight items of interest at the area bars and restaurants,” Mamis explained. “You know, new menus, new chefs, specials…”

He even named it for me: Scoop Du Jour. So off I went, into the streets of New Haven, scarfing down pizzas at Bar and throwing my peanuts on the floor at J.P. Dempsey’s. I tagged along with the locally legendary barfly “Bob” on the happy hour circuit. During weeks like that, my friendship with the new Advocate music writer Chris Arnott was particularly fortuitous. Arnott was brilliant, and he offered to take me under his literary wing, assigning me music blurbs and giving advice — plus access to his precious cabinets and bookshelves (back then, files with PR photos and band bios, and rock encyclopedias were priceless).

Years later, on a public access talk show, I was asked what I thought about technology and writing. I said I believe it to be an asset. Oftentimes, writers have these metaphorical sugarplums dancing in their heads — “Man, this bass line reminds me of some bass line by Kansas… What song was that, and who was the bassist?” — but the answers resided only in some folder or reference book, if you could find them. With the advent of the internet scribes could crystalize those sugarplums into the phrases they fancied with a few mouse clicks.

Anyway: Arnott lived at 366 &1/2 Elm St. in New Haven. This would become “Scoop’s” regular crashpad on Tuesday nights after a long evening of “column research.” Though I stayed there several times, I always arrived late at night, and while my memories of the space are fond, it was really a glorified hallway. I don’t recall much actual furniture, and what was there was buried in the piles of books and records Arnott had amassed over the years.

I would sleep on these piles of books and records, doing what I could to form a sort multi-media rock nest for myself. Then I would arrange my leather jacket to double as a makeshift pillow and throw blanket while Arnott’s multiple cats took turns scampering across my back through the night (at least, I hope those were cats).

Paul Bass, Kathleen Cei, Beverly Gage — it was a great team in New Haven. And I wrote a story there that, to this day, has enjoyed the widest circulation of anything I’ve written. I was playing Santa at the Chapel Square Mall. But the company, apparently, was hiring elves off the street. These homeless elves were shooting up heroin in costume, stealing from each other, and getting into fistfights. It was unbelievable.

Bass howled with laughter when I told him how it went. He guided me through the draft, interrupted only by intermittent giggles and guffaws. “Heroin Elf, Meet St. Nick” was picked up by every Advocate and affiliate, from the Valley to Fairfield and Westchester weeklies — some 250,000 strong, I was told.

Of all those eyeballs on it, though, it was the pair owned by Dan Caccavaro that would impact my life next.

“Mr. Carra,” the voice on the other end of my office line said, “it’s Dan Caccavaro up here with the Springfield and Valley Advocate. I’ve been following your stuff, and I heard you actually live up this way, so I was wondering: why are you writing down there?”

“I can answer that rather simply, Mr. Caccavaro,” I countered. “I sent you my resume the same as here. You just never called me.”

It was a situation he was quick to remedy, and within days, Scoop Du Jour had surfaced in the Springfield and Valley Advocates. I enjoyed doing it, and I was always happy that my successor in New Haven kept the name, referring to himself as “Scoop” for years to follow. I greatly missed eating cheese dogs and generic sodas purchased from the food trucks along Long Wharf in New Haven, sitting on the hood of my Taurus station wagon (not the coolest, but it was a handy gear hauler for musicians) and watching the boats during lunch break. But I wouldn’t miss the hour-long commute between Somers and New Haven.

The Valley Advocate office was in Hadley at the time, a beautiful farmhouse with hardwood floors with a working waterwheel. In that office, circa 1997, I pitched my dream to Caccavaro.

“Look Dan, Scoop is fun and all, but my passion is music,” I explained. “We don’t really have a column here that covers locals and nationals alike. I’d like to try my hand at it.” I had taken the liberty of writing a few columns on spec, so that he could get a clearer picture of what I was talking about. “It’s called ‘Nightcrawler,’” I said. “Hope you like it.”

He did, as did the musicians, the masses, and even Advocate founder Geoffrey Robinson.

“Do you know him?” Caccavaro asked excitedly one day.

“Yeah, I ran into him in New Haven a few times,” I answered. “Nice guy. What’s his deal?”

“His deal? He started the Advocate! He’s legendary! We just had a staff meeting and read your column to everyone — start to finish — and he said that this is the reason he started the Advocate. To entertain and inform.”

I wasn’t there of course, but assuming that’s true… very cool.

Caccavaro ordered more. I doubled as a working musician on the circuit, so his order was easy to fill. I was playing at the Bay State with Aloha Steamtrain, at Geraldine’s with Orange Crush, and at The Solution with Believer. I played Fat Cat, Theodore’s, and The Infinity. I recorded at Slaughterhouse with Mark Alan Miller. I got to know Joe Bartone, Ray Mason, Scott Lee and his metalfests, Terry Ward, the open mic nights at Tic Toc Lounge, and Hypnotic Kick at the Iron Horse.

Then there was Roger Salloom, Shadows Fall, Killswitch Engage — putting the metal scene on the map — AAA Entertainment and its roster of tribute acts, Fear Nuttin’ Band, Knucklehead at Cabot Street, The Waterfront, Katina’s, Julie Rader pushing Red Henry, Pajama Slave Dancers, Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, The Fawns, The Figments, The Sighs, Pallet, and those pretty lil’ Winterpills.

Amy Fairchild, The Lonesome Brothers — is there a band JJ O’Connell isn’t playing drums in? — Zing Studios, DJ Kissy, The Ostrich Farm, Drunk Stuntmen, Long Green Hair, Itchy Fish. And does anyone remember Primitive Ink at Mikaras? What those guys could do with a peace pipe and some war paint…

And of course, there was Staind. I still remember the call from guitarist Mike Mushok, after his return from Florida with Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst, to talk about the signing. I followed Aaron Lewis’ road to Nashville. I covered Stone Coyotes and Elmore Leonard, Jamawokee’s Eric Holden scoring Shakira and Josh Groban gigs, Bittersweet Thirty Stones tales of Keith Hopkinson passing, Andrew Freeman going to Vegas and singing for Last in Line — and, later, a one-off with Def Leppard. Watermelon Wednesdays, Jo Sallins, Ed Vadas and Art Steele (rest in peace to you both), John Juliano with news from the Big E. Eric Suher restoring The Calvin. Mike Barrasso re-doing the Paramount. Split Shift. John Joyce. Lurok Entertainment.

To stoke the sonic fires, I would occasionally hold court at local watering holes for impromptu — or, at least, extremely informal — meet and greets. The Advocate ran an ad that featured a picture of me jamming a handful of gummy worms into my mouth, with the words: “Feed The Nightcrawler information about your band this Friday at 4 p.m. at The Red Door in Springfield.” I would bring a banker’s box and grab a beer, and the bands would come by the dozens. They brought discs and bios, and we talked shop. I would leave with enough subject material for months.

One day, over drinks with Caccavaro, I explained something we had done in New Haven: the Grand Band Slam. “We’d have a big, townwide celebration of all of our Reader’s Poll winners, and it’s a real good time for all.” So we did it in Northampton, and in downtown Springfield, in multiple clubs, indoors and out. It was amazing.

One year, in front of thousands congregated at Grand Band Slam Springfield, I screamed onstage in my best Brian Johnson voice — “The best tribute band, as voted by you, here to rock for you … ladies and gentlemen… BACK.. IN…BLACK!” — as the AC/DC tribute band vamped on the intro of “For Those About To Rock.”

For every local notable — and I apologize in advance for the many I undoubtedly forgot to mention — I got to know nationals. I remember shooting pool with Slash while swilling his customized “Slash’s Edition” Jack Daniels. An interview-turned-luncheon with Dan Aykroyd. Squiring an up-and-coming Days of The New around town, then losing them all in Thornes Marketplace before a sold-out Calvin show. Joan Jett ushering my then five-year-old daughter Emily on stage to “Cherry Bomb.” Beers with John Paul Jones the night Wilt Chamberlain passed.

A cigar-chomping David Lee Roth talked with me about original songs versus covers — “that’s the difference between art and commerce, my boy” — from the driver’s seat of his tour bus after a show at The Sting. I remember stories on Cinderella, Winger, The Who, Elvira, Tiny Tim, Weird Al, Duff McKagan, Living Colour, Stone Temple Pilots, Slaughter, Kevin Bacon, Iron Maiden, Scotty Ian, Zakk Wylde, Disturbed, Dave Matthews Band, and Sublime.

Then there were my “radio daze.” I would appear weekly as The Nightcrawler on Lazer 99.3 FM with Quinn & Cantara early on, and what a wild ride that was. One day I brought “Dr. Dot,” masseuse of the stars, to the studio. Within minutes, Quinn had his shirt off and was getting massaged. He toyed with subjecting himself to Dot’s newest technique — back-biting — but eventually demurred.

Another time, rival rock radio station WCCC in Hartford urged its listeners to sign a petition so that Ozzfest would play Hartford’s Meadows as opposed to an out-of-state venue. I had it on good authority that it was a done deal. “Sign their petition if you want,” I concluded on-air to Quinn & Cantara, “but it’s coming to Hartford regardless.”

I left for LA for a week, then returned to a flooded answering machine.

[BEEP] “Um, Gary, this is Tom at the Advocate. We’re getting phone calls.”

[BEEP] “Dude.. you gotta turn on CCC. They are using you hard. It’s me, Murph. Call me.”

[BEEP] “Hey, this is your cousin Joe. I was just wondering if Gary’s head was out of his ass yet — ha ha!”

I tuned the stereo to 106.9 FM, and it took all of three minutes for the pieces to fall into place:

“Hey Mike! Gary Carra from the Valley Advocate says your petition is a sham, and Ozzfest is coming here for sure,” said a pre-recorded call-in to the station. That was followed swiftly by WCCC’s famed “big voice” effect: “WELL, GARY CARRA HAS HIS HEAD UP HIS ASS.”

Are you kidding me? I dialed WCCC and got afternoon jock Mike Karolyi directly. He explained that “this guy called in and said you said this, so we have to respond …He was actually quite complimentary about you, and said you were friends and had done some business.”

Karoyli concluded that they would stop playing the spot, although it continued for a while. The petition promo was dropped, and Ozzfest came to Hartford, exactly when I said it would.

Always pushing the envelope, Quinn & Cantara were soon unceremoniously sacked for some shenanigans. But Cantara returned to the Valley on 100.9 FM WRNX, and we reunited for his weekly “Rumble & Grind” program. For a few months last year, I also resurfaced on Lazer 99.3 FM with Leslie in the Morning.

I also frequently appeared on the radio as a recording artist. Like so many locals, Lazer’s Mike “Haze” Dejesus graciously gave me and my bandmates some interview time and spins. There is just nothing like hearing a song you wrote and performed over the airwaves. I remember, one time, Haze was spinning my “Smiling @ Spotlights” tune when I was a minute from home. I pulled over and listened to it in the Somers Volunteer Fire Department parking lot. It was a steamy, summer night, but I was rubbing goosebumps down.

Another time, Haze had my longtime Springfield Republican counterpart Donnie Moorhouse co-hosting. At one point during the discussion, Moorhouse pointed out that “Gary is also the Valley Advocate ‘Nightcrawler,’ so he writes about music, and plays music. I guess what I am saying is that, if local music had a shape, it would be Gary.”

I apologized for not being a more flattering vessel, but always remembered that quip, as I considered it both quite clever and a very high compliment.

These were the reasons why I didn’t mind spending more on gas to drive my floppy discs up to Northampton every week then I was getting paid to write. Especially if I went out for drinks with Caccavaro, as I often did. One night, during a snowstorm, I drove up to his place in Northampton only to have the disc come up with the dreaded “unformatted disc/cannot read” error. So I drove back to Somers, Connecticut in the storm, saved the story again, and came back.

When I could get to the Springfield office — before it closed for good and merged into the Valley Advocate — they could “intranet” it up for me. During my ten-year stint as editor of The Airport News at Bradley International, I also made friends with the Hartford Advocate’s music man, Michael Marciano, who could email stories up for me from the office. But he greatly preferred — and I happily obliged — to meet at Hartford’s Russian Lady bar to make the exchange. I remember so many lunch breaks in which I’d slip him my disc as he held court in the barber’s chair they practically reserved for him. When the Russian Lady recently reopened, after closing years ago, I was glad to see that barber chair still there, refurbished as one of several original “artifacts.”

The Advocate changed hands, but I didn’t care who owned it — or where it was. I was doing what I loved. My original Valley team — which included Stephanie Kraft and Maureen Turner along with Caccavaro, Tom Vannah, and James Heflin — was a publishing powerhouse of its own.

It’s always fun to bang a left down Memory Lane.

So, what gives Carra? Are you sucking us into a farewell column, then not going away?

Kind of. The cessation of the printed Nightcrawler column is certainly the end of an era. But with the blogging format, I can disseminate news in a more timely manner, when I need to. I also won’t have to worry about word counts. While I certainly pride myself for never missing a deadline or skipping a column in my 20-year-plus run, I can also work around my schedule a bit more. I started my own monthly direct-mail paper, The North Central News, in 2002, and that will be the home to my newest creation: the “Random Raven” column, where I expand my musical scope to include other interests including food and wine festivals, comedians, magicians, lesser-known day trips, and the like.

I’ve also gotten into acting (the production “Three Doors To Death” comes to the Holiday Inn in Enfield on March 31) and I’ve been threatening to write a book for years now. I’ve finally started work on the latter, and I’m sure this piece will come in handy when I reach the chapter on the Advocate years.

I also want to make more music — live and recorded. And if all that isn’t enough, there’s always those four children of mine to keep me busy.

Besides, us old rockers get a pass on phony farewells, don’t we? How many times has KISS come around since their first ‘Farewell Tour’ in 2000?

Unlike the kabuki make-up-wearing band and other farewell tour offenders, however, my decision to carry on in the blog format is far from a last-ditch cash grab. I’m doing it for a song.

Or, more precisely, my love of songs, and you beautiful people who write, perform, record, and listen to them.

Contact Gary Carra at garycarra@aol.com.

Gary Carra

Author: Gary Carra

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