Published stories from George Miller, a journalist, photographer, educator, carpenter, world traveler, dog-lover and home owner. You can reach him at

Friday, August 26, 2005

From funk to punk -- The Philly mega-fest sprang from a broken love affair

Another Daily News story. This one ran on 8.9.05:

THE BIGGEST punk-rock festival on the East Coast - with tons of moshing, crowd-surfing, loud and aggressive music, tattooed fans and bands from around the world - started because one man's heart was broken.

In 2001, Tony Croasdale, aka Tony Pointless, broke up with his girlfriend.

To take his mind off the pain of being dumped, he hopped in a van with friends from a Montreal punk band and toured Canada for a few weeks. While on the road, Croasdale, 28, invited some bands to Philadelphia to play at a birthday concert he was planning.

Word spread quickly, and other bands began calling to see if they could come play as well.

An annual punk-rock extravaganza/birthday bash was born.

Starting Thursday, the 4th Pointless Fest, with 26 of the most popular independent punk bands in the world, will kick off at the First Unitarian Church at 22nd and Chestnut streets. For four days, the facility that is a day-care center on weekdays will rock with the savage sounds of youthful angst.

"People from Japan, Europe, Australia and all over the U.S. come just to see the Fest," Croasdale said. "They get to see 90 percent of the U.S. bands they like in a few shows."

Croasdale and his anarchist, hard-core punk band R.A.M.B.O. (Croasdale on vocals, Andy Wheeler and Mick Brochau on guitar, Bull Gervasi on bass and Dave Rosenstrauss on drums) will jam at the Fest along with several other Philadelphia groups and bands from Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Texas, Georgia, California, Montreal, Sweden and Australia.

"It's a celebration that the D.I.Y. [do it yourself] network is still strong and alive in 2005, and now more popular than ever," said Sean Agnew of R5 Productions, the promoter of the festival.

In the "do it yourself" tradition, which dates back to the origins of punk music in the early 1970s, many punk bands book their own gigs, drive their own buses, pay for their own travel arrangements and carry their own gear.

The bands do not use major concert promoters like Clear Channel (the epitome of an evil corporation, according to the liner notes on R.A.M.B.O.'s new album), they use independent record labels, and they charge little for their concerts, most of which are all-ages shows.

"There's the idea that if you make any money off the show, it's wrong," Croasdale said.
R.A.M.B.O., whose members are all vegan and straight-edge - meaning they don't smoke, drink or do drugs - recently spent seven weeks touring the United States in a vegetable-oil-fueled bus with just the five bandmates, Wheeler's brother, Mickey, and a dog named Ketchup.

Croasdale, the lyricist and lead singer, booked all the shows himself. The band often spent nights in the homes of friends, concert promoters or fans.

"It's just assumed that the promoter will give you a place to stay," Croasdale said. "When I book a show in Philly, you can stay here."

After the American tour, the band played shows in Europe for five weeks. The tour was the band's second in Europe. It also previously toured Australia and Southeast Asia.

"In Asia, they would play in villages, mostly for free, and sell cassette copies of their record," said Agnew. "These were towns and areas where no tourist would ever go, let alone an American punk band."

During a show in Kuala Lampur, the crowd was full of screaming, dancing Malaysians who all seemed to know the words to R.A.M.B.O.'s songs. They jumped on the stage, hugged Croasdale and dove back into the crowd.

Afterward, locals invited the band to their homes, fed them and showed them around.

"Tony autographed an actual baby because they thought he was a big, famous American rock star," said Agnew.
Similar things have happened in Berlin, Melbourne and Hong Kong.

But most people in Philadelphia probably have never heard of R.A.M.B.O. or Tony Croasdale.

Croasdale is a lifelong Philadelphian, raised in Wissinoming before moving to Mayfair. His father, a drummer and ukulele player, has been a Philadelphia firefighter for 36 years.

The Croasdale family, according to Tony Croasdale, arrived in Philadelphia with William Penn.

While in high school, Croasdale, an avid bird-watcher and all-around nature lover, learned that some government policies were detrimental to the environment. That discovery led him to political activism, which led him to the punk lifestyle. (R.A.M.B.O. is an acronym for Resisting American Business Operations.)

Croasdale said he was the only punk at Lincoln High School while he was there, a fact that led to many fights. One time, a group of five kids jumped him on the street and one kid hit Croasdale on the head with a two-by-four.

"Why are you doing this?" Croasdale asked his attacker.

"Because you have green hair!" the kid replied.

Croasdale became friends with punks from nearby Washington High School, and then met more punks while hanging out on South Street.

The small community of politically active but insecure kids banded together, unified by their differences from mainstream society.

"Punk is one of the most empowering things for young kids," Croasdale said.

R.A.M.B.O. formed in 1999 and began touring shortly after the release of its first record in 2001. Its second CD, with songs like "Wage Slave Mercenaries" and "Atkins America," was recently released.

A heavy-set white guy with long brown dreadlocks and tattoos lining his arms, Croasdale now lives with three other people in a predominantly black West Philadelphia neighborhood. All of the housemates are involved in the Philly music scene, including Greg Daly, one of the co-founders of the Pointless Fest (his birthday is two days before Croasdale's).

Their family-sized rowhouse with fake wood paneling is sparsely furnished with used furniture, concert posters, more bicycles than roommates and a gas mask.

"Punk is an intentional community," Croasdale said. "We're not trying to convert people to punk."

He dreams of opening a music youth center for Philadelphia kids interested in all genres of music. He wants to have lessons, practice space, available instruments, a record library and a performance area.

"There's nothing for kids to do in Philadelphia," Croasdale said. "You have a violent city; kids are going to be violent when they congregate unless you give them something to do."

But his plans may not come to fruition now because a love interest may be taking him from his home.

While on tour last December, Croasdale met a girl who will be starting medical school in Arizona in the fall. He is thinking of moving out there to be with her.

"I don't want to leave Philly," he said, "but things just might work out really good out there."

The band will stay together, he said.

And the Pointless Fest will continue.

The King is still king, even 28 years later

This story was published in the Daily News on 8.17.05:

Christa Formica smiled lovingly at her husband and then offered a simple commentary about his behavior.

"I have one word: odd," she said.

Her husband thinks he's Elvis.

Sam Formica, known in the entertainment business as "Sammy J.," is an Elvis Presley tribute performer.

He regularly dons expensive, gold-studded Italian gabardine jumpsuits with ridiculously low necklines, a thick mass of black faux-hair on his head and oversized aviator glasses.

Then he jumps onto the stage - as he did yesterday at Lucy's Hat Shop Restaurant & Lounge in Old City - he swivels his hips, he kicks the air in martial-arts style and he soulfully belts out the songs of one of the most popular recording artists ever.

"When I'm on stage, I'm Elvis for 45 minutes," said Formica, 41. "It's a pretty incredible experience for me. It's like a drug."

Around the world yesterday, people celebrated the King's life in honor of the 28th anniversary of his death on Aug. 16, 1977.

In Vienna, the Hilton Hotel was temporarily renamed the "Heartbreak Hotel." The Germans ended a six-day festival with concerts and karaoke performances. In Thailand, Asian Elvises thrust their pelvises in appreciation at numerous events.

And in Memphis, Tenn., the King's home and his final resting place, thousands of fans held a candlelight vigil.

"His spirit is floating around tonight," Formica said before his performance yesterday. "I hope it attaches itself to me."

Formica entered his first Elvis competition three years ago at the urging of friends.

"I was always dancing and humming Elvis songs," he said.

During that show, he was booed off stage when his singing didn't match the background music.

Since then, he has studied dozens of Elvis bootleg DVDs, and he honed his voice by listening to more than 500 concert CDs.

"I just love his voice," he said.

Formica, a general manager at Rembrandt's Restaurant in Fairmount, specializes in the 1970's era Elvis with the big belt buckles and velvety baritone.

"If I walk down the street as Elvis, people hang out the windows of cars screaming," he said. "When I'm on stage, people want scarves, teddy bears and leis."

The crowds sing along, people dance and sometimes, the women swoon.

Formica said he does a few appearances per month at events such as car shows, birthday parties, Christmas parties and Elvis competitions. He recently won a contest in New Jersey.

And last October, he officiated his first wedding as Elvis.

Formica is also an artist whose works have been exhibited across the country. One of his recent paintings, "Looking Towards the Future," is on loan to the Franklin Institute.

To promote that piece, Formica dressed alternately as Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Bill Clinton, and handed out fliers to tourists in Independence Park.

He never hawked his artwork while dressed as Elvis.

To Formica, Elvis is sacred.

"I really want to do the man justice," Formica said. "I love the man. I really do."