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Home > Columns & Feature Profiles > Columns > Talkin' Bout My Generation > The Fleshtones' documentary review
“Pardon Us for Living but the Graveyard Is Full”
a documentary by Geoffray Barbier
Published: January 7, 2011

The less-than-famous band that I love most is undoubtedly The Fleshtones. Founded in 1976, they were
part of the now-legendary punk scene centered around C.B.G.B.’s, yet have been ignored by many punk
historians. Enduring over 30 years of near-brushes with fame, financial hardships, personal problems, and
relative obscurity, The Fleshtones remain together and no less passionate about their brand of “Super
Rock” as they were in the late ‘seventies. Any artist with this level of dedication deserves some kind of
recognition, and that is exactly what filmmaker Geoffray Barbier has done with his loving documentary,
“Pardon Us for Living but the Graveyard Is Full.”

Clocking in at a little over an hour, “Pardon Us for Living but the Graveyard Is Full” is very ambitious in its
scope of trying to tell a 35-year story. The film succeeds by maintaining a very tight focus upon The
Fleshtones, hitting upon the major events without wallowing in too much minutiae. Even for rock snobs
who revel in such arcane knowledge, this is a good thing. The story unfolds itself in a very clear and
concise manner, the hallmarks of an excellent documentary.

Filmed mostly in 2009, “Pardon Us for Living but the Graveyard Is Full” includes interviews with all surviving
band members, complimented by recollections of such alternative rock figures as Peter Buck, Handsome
Dick Manitoba, and Andy Shernoff. All come across as very candid and human middle-aged men who
have weathered too many years of bad gigs yet somehow retain their love of rock ‘n’ roll. With the possible
exception of Buck, none are truly “rock stars,” and they know it, which makes each individual all that more
endearing. It is a quite touching view of the seemy underside of the music business, which is not exactly
known for teary sentimentality.

Of course, the documentary throws in considerable archival material. Fleshtones’ recordings from all eras
permeate the soundtrack. There are plenty of vintage photographs, music videos, concert films, and rare
television appearances, including scenes from singer Peter Zaremba’s mid-‘eighties stint as the host of
MTV’s “I.R.S. Records Presents The Cutting Edge.” All of it is invaluable in presenting The Fleshtones as
one of America’s greatest unappreciated rock bands. Even in advanced middle age, few can match them
for sheer stage energy and campy showmanship.

“Pardon Us for Living” also contains some key revelations about the band. Peter Zaremba and founding
bassist Jan-Marek Pakulski admit that their inspiration for the campy showmanship came from hanging out
in discos like Studio 54, of all places! While both admit to the disposability of disco music, they loved the
over-the-top nature of late ‘seventies discotheques and wanted to incorporate it into a more traditional rock
‘n’ roll setting. At this, they have succeeded brilliantly, which makes The Fleshtones’ lack of fame all the
more puzzling.

Among these revelations are some of The Fleshtones’ darkest secrets. Guitarist Keith Streng is very open
about his past heroin addiction and how becoming a father helped him kick several potentially lethal habits.
The band also honors long-time saxophonist Gordon Spaeth, who took his own life in 2005. As Zaremba
explained, Spaeth was a man “kicked in the teeth” by life, which led to substance abuse and mental health
issues. Somehow these very demons where what made him such a brilliant musician and a “bug-eyed
crazy” showman.

Amid the sadness, rays of hope beckon from bassist Ken Fox. A replacement member who took over after
Jan-Marek Pakulski quit in the late ‘eighties, Fox and his wide-eyed optimism inspired Zaremba, Streng,
and drummer Bill Milhizer to hold it together as the band hit rock bottom. This was a time when The
Fleshtones had no record contract and all but vanished from the American alternative rock scene. They
were virtually exiled to Europe, the only place where they could find paying gigs and impassioned fans.
Some 20 years later, Fox remains the band’s heart, conscience, and business mind, helping the group
stay financially afloat through shrewd merchandising. Peter Zaremba admits that The Fleshtones probably
would have broken up had they not met Ken Fox. That would have been tragic.

What makes “Pardon Us for Living” so moving is the honest portrait it paints of The Fleshtones. These are
men who have remained dedicated to their art after 30-some years of struggle not for fame, but for sheer
love of music. That is all the more reason that Peter Zaremba, Keith Streng, Bill Milhizer, and Ken Fox
deserve the recognition given by this fine presentation.
henever I take mental inventory of my favorite bands of the post-punk era, very few of them
are what one would consider “stars.” Sure, some of my faves like The Clash, Elvis Costello,
R.E.M., and U2 eventually went on to become household names, but they seem like exceptions
rather than the rule. If I mention others, such as The Long Ryders, The Jags, or The Inmates
I am usually greeted by blank stares. That is fine, because I fall in love with bands for their music and not
for their fame.
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