April 25-May 1, 2002
Along Came a Spider
Mourning the loss of Philly’s African-American punk pioneer.
Legendary local guitarist Mike Tyler called to tell me Michael Sanders, a.k.a. Spider, had passed away due to complications of pancreatic cancer.
Then a dozen phone calls from Philly oldheads came flooding to praise punk's first (and truest) African-American rocker. I was surprised and pleased -- so many kids in any scene too often devalue their predecessors. Risk that in this case and it'll mean your peril.
Vernon Reid: no. Bad Brains: no. Spider's band, Philly's own Pure Hell, was the first all-black punk band. They played here. They played the CBGB's scene before it was a scene. They played London before there was a Sex Pistols.
Rifling through old newspapers in my collection, I found Matt Damsker's Bulletin story on Philly punk.
Friday, June 15, 1979. And there is Spider, all rooster-haired and skinny with stove-pipe jeans and a beat-bad leather jacket with his gang, Pure Hell. Yep. They made one fucking record, in 1978; a 7-inch "These Boots Are Made For Walking" backed with "No Rules" on Golden Sphinx Records. Managed by Richard Wolff (now with TLA films) then Bobby Startup and David Carroll, Pure Hell's mess of music -- a sloppy, pile driving, snotty-ass sound -- was unmanageable. But fabulous.
"That's what he was: fabulous," says Carroll, now owner of Bar Noir. "He was the vanguard of the New York scene and the Philly scene because he was the most charismatic presence. Never heard a bad word about him."
Me neither. Not only was he still hanging around, trying to play in order to keep up the spirit of Pure Hell until his untimely death, but Spider was one of the nicest, most genuine guys -- freewheelingly conversant and easily friendly with his tales of nineteen-seventy-blah-blah madness; hanging with The New York Dolls' inner circle, addled heroin sorts Keith and Iggy, recording with Motörhead. (I've got the tapes, mothafucka.) It all seemed propulsively exaggerated. Until you spied them hanging with Spider.
"Spider was my drum roadie when I was playing with Alan Mann's band," says Clutch Cargo's George Manney, who gigged with Pure Hell at the London Victory Club in 1977. "They were the only all-black punk band I knew of. I remember at Max's Kansas City, Alan Mann and I were playing. I'm backstage, waiting to go on. In walks Spider, hair like a black James Dean, dressed all in black -- with David Johansen and Johnny Thunders. We wound up partying together all night."
Sometime later Spider brought Johnny Thunders to Manney's Last Minute Jam at J.C. Dobbs to play. "For those who never saw Pure Hell or Thunders, well -- you missed it baby! No pussyfooting. They were the shit; pure and black and punk."
Ex-Bonehead/painter Tim Bowen, like Sic Kidz' Michael Fergusson (who talked with Spider about a collaboration as late as January 2002), knew him now and knew him then, spending time with Spider during his downtimes.
Bowen remembers seeing Pure Hell at Grandma Minnie's, a rock watering hole at Third and Chestnut. "They were scary, man. I remember being an art student and putzing around with making something until we saw him. Then we knew what real rock at the edge could be." A lot of kids who had never heard of Thunders, let alone Pure Hell, often rolled their eyes when hearing Spider. Buncha assholes. The terrifying edge that Bowen speaks of makes Spider's passing that much more sad. His musical edge was as real as his generosity of spirit and ebullient friendliness.
You'll miss him like I do, whether you knew him, know it or not.
There will be a benefit concert for Spider’s family with Pure Hell, The Blessed Muthas, Cobalt Blues Band and more, Fri., May 31, 8 p.m., 21+, $8 min. donation, The Balcony at the Trocadero, 10th and Arch sts., 215-922-LIVE.