Guitarist & Songwriter Chris Butler Dishes on the Band’s Origins, Heyday, Downfall and Legacy
Though they only truly existed a few brief years, recording two albums, an EP and a scattering of singles before disintegrating, I’ve always considered the Waitresses one of the great bands of the early new wave era. They had style, attitude and a great sense of humor, not to mention a tremendous wealth of skill and talent. Those latter traits were not generally associated with many acts of those burgeoning MTV years, when fashions, hairstyles and DayGlo outrageousness more often netted attention, but a quick glance at the resumes of Waitresses alumni uncovers no slouches. Drummer Billy Ficca hailed from Television, and still currently plays with that legendary group as well as with Gary Lucas and others. Saxophonist Mars Williams went on to join the Psychedelic Furs, toured with the Power Station, involved himself in respected modern jazz outfits such as NRG Ensemble and the Peter Brotzmann Tentet and continues to be active in Chicago’s underground jazz scene. Bassist Tracey Wormworth has been a touring and recording aspect of the B-52’s for over 20 years, and has worked with Sting and Wayne Shorter. And guitarist Chris Butler – who conceived of the Waitresses as a jokey recording outlet for songs that didn’t fit his then-band, Akron, Ohio’s Tin Huey, in the late ‘70s – continues to record his own music, produce other musicians such as Freedy Johnston, back up folks like Richard Lloyd and occasionally release music through his indie label, Future Fossil.
Unbeknownst to many, it was Butler who penned all those instantly recognizable Waitresses tunes, including their enduring signature songs, “I Know What Boys Like” and the unavoidable-at-Xmas “Christmas Wrapping.” But of course it was Patty Donahue who animated the songs so memorably, giving them their nonchalant confidence with that voice that veered between frazzled and cynical. She made for one of the most likeably exaggerated characters in pop music during that or any time period, something akin to a blue collar, East Coast counterpoint to Moon Unit Zappa’s Valley Girl – smart, sassy, streetwise and sarcastic. Rarely seen onstage or in promotional photographs without a cigarette, sadly Donahue died of lung cancer in December, 1996. She was only 40 years old.
By now, the Waitresses have had far more posthumous compilations, live albums and odds/ends collections released than they had actual records during their lifespan. The latest, Just Desserts: The Complete Waitresses (Omnivore Recordings), isn’t technically a complete collection but it does gather the group’s recordings for PolyGram Records at the height of their existence – basically, all the songs you already know and a lot that you probably don’t but should. Butler, who currently lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, took time during a recent Wednesday afternoon to talk about that ancient band of his that never seems to go away…
You’ve obviously played in all sorts of groups in your life, but it’s the Waitresses that have had the most staying power. Which is funny, because it wasn’t even intended to be a real band in the beginning, correct?
“Absolutely right. The whole idea was just to play some punk songs that didn’t fit anything else I was doing. And it all came about because of “I Know What Boys Like,” which was one of those songs I was writing – that’s the one that industry people said, ‘Hey, that’s a hit!’ So I thought maybe I should try and follow this up and see what I can do with this. Yeah it started out as a fake band just because the enterprises that I was involved with left no time to have yet another ‘real’ band. And Patty wasn’t a full-timer. She would come and go from the city of Kent (Ohio), dropping in and out of school, you know, spare a couple months where we could do something and then she’d dash off to wherever, Galveston, Texas, or going to school for a quarter or whatever. So it was a loose side project. And yet, here we are. That’s the one that stuck, much to my surprise. The Numbers Band (aka 15-60-75) or Tin Huey are, frankly, more my aesthetic. But obviously there was that pop element (in Waitresses songs) that weren’t in those other enterprises that I think were even more musically sophisticated. But, you know, hooray!”
Some of the early Waitresses songs were originally Tin Huey songs?
“Yes, in fact, songs like ‘Wise Up’ and ‘Heat Night’ I have demos of Tin Huey doing. We would do them in our live shows, and never really got a chance to record them. We didn’t last to a second record. I’m reasonably prolific, but you never have enough, and so I didn’t have enough to, you know, be casual about any extra songs. Any song that I had, I had to do something with it, so let’s do it with Waitresses. If they fit the character or scenario or whatever, if they fit the concept we might have had, in it went!”
They may not have been huge hits at the time, but both “I Know What Boys Like” and “Christmas Wrapping” are songs that, to this day, most people know immediately and often sing along with. “Christmas Wrapping,” in particular, has become a modern day holiday classic. That has to be pretty gratifying to you, as the writer.
“Yeah, it’s astounding to me. I mean, I’m a one-hit wonder, ‘cause I have two half-hits!”
But in the long-term, those are true hits, because they have lasted, more so than some of the actual chart hits of that time period. They became embedded in the mainstream pop culture.
“You know, I’m flabbergasted. It’s a gift. Who knew? Both songs had quirky origins. “Boys Like” was just kind of a joke. ‘Christmas Wrapping’ was done under opposition and duress (laughs). You know, the more calculated things that I thought, ‘OK, now this is really well crafted and this is gonna be a successful song,’ nope, didn’t happen. So, it’s not scientific. They are true miracles, they are totally surprises to me, and I’m just grateful. There’s no other way to react emotionally to it. I’m far enough away from (‘Christmas Wrapping’) to have no sense of it being my song. [If] it comes through in a shoe store, or on the radio, I’m sorta boppin’ along goin’, ‘This sounds pretty good!’ (laughs)”
Those songs, and some of your others, just seem to sort of reflect the era in a really clever, accurate way.
“I’d like to think so. That seems to be proven out by ‘Boys Like,’ whenever you’re doing an ’80s segment in a film, or ’80s scenario in a commercial, not every time of course but a lot of times recently, that’s kind of like the go-to song for instant period recognition. Frankly, I think it’s fun to say ‘It pales against my other work,’ but those are the ones that stuck. What can I say?”
I think a lot of the appeal of those songs is that they are funny! They’re pretty hilarious.
“They’re funny, and credit where credit is due: Patty was a great actress. Obviously she didn’t have great roaring pipes, but she could deliver a line in a wry, funny way, gently sarcastic. If I wrote the script, she acted the part.”
Those early new wave years were a really fun, colorful time in popular music, and I honestly consider Patty to be one of the greatest personalities of that period.
How much of it was her own personality, and how much was acting?
“Fuzzy line betwixt the two. She had a great sense of humor. She had had kind of a rough life, and there was kind of a bitter edge to her jokes, in her everyday conversation. You know, I see her – and it’s funny, because it’s kind of the ideal I had – I see her as an ‘80s version of a tough-talking babe from those ‘30s movies. I’ve mentioned this before, but, you know, Veronica Lake, and the wives from Preston Sturges movies. In my fantasy, we were William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man series. We were characters in an old, cool movie. Tallulah Bankhead is another great storyteller and, you know, tough-talking, been-there/done-that babe. Bette Davis. That’s kind of how Patty was, roughed up a bit. Still humble, but jaded. So that aspect, she brought to it. That was for real. So I kind of wrote the script for that, and she presented the lines. She had a big personality, and a lot to draw on. I just thought she was real good at this. And, if I came up with anything, it was an alternative icon for pop music. Patty’s character was a working girl, a girl Friday kind of thing. I know I keep alluding to old movies, but that does seem to be the whole point of comparison.”
And she was actually working waiting tables, or at least had been at various times. Was that how the band got its name?
“No, other way around. I’d come up with the name of the band before she came along. So, the fact that she was waiting tables just fit really nicely. And then there’s the whole psychology of somebody who is waiting tables, especially in New York, because they’re only doing it for the money. They really want to be an actor or actress, or they’re going to graduate school, and they’re just doing this as a gig. And that gives you a special attitude, as well, towards your work. There’s involvement, and commitment – you’ve gotta show up for it – but there’s also a detachment, so you can kind of look around, in a writerly kind of way, and make comments on your situation. And also the fact that you’re in a kind of semi-subservient role, to whoever your client is, whether it’s your boss at the office, or the person you’re waiting on in a restaurant.”
Patty had never sung in any other bands, nor had any aspirations to be a singer, correct?
“Yeah, that’s true. I found out later from her sister that her one professional experience before Waitresses was winning a talent contest in high school with two other girls doing a Supremes song.”
So how did you sort of pluck her out of nowhere to be the lead singer for this band?
“Know what? She volunteered. It’s very much a Kent, Ohio story. It was a wonderful era. Art everywhere, music everywhere, great English department, great film department. And a lot of inertia, because life was very comfortable. You could do your art, or whatever, and survive. You could be in a band and earn a living. You could be in an original band, and earn a living. It was maybe similar to what was going on in your neck of the woods, in Athens. There was a scene. It was a crossover college/art/music scene that sustained a lot of people. But it was also very insular, and eventually, you get itchy feet. You wanna get out. And a lot of people have plans and dreams, and frankly, a lot of it was just talk. And Patty was already in it, but also had the spirit of, ‘Well, I’m dropping out this quarter, I’m gonna go live in Galveston, Texas’ or whatever. So she had an adventurous spirit anyway. And I didn’t Svengali her at all – she kind of volunteered for this and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll give it a go.’ And she worked very hard at it. I can’t say she had huge showbiz aspirations, but we’re both lower middle class Midwestern work ethic people, and she brought that – and I believe I brought that – to this project. And that’s very much to her credit. She didn’t have aspirations, but she had a work ethic that made it work. Sort of, ‘I belong here, and I’m gonna show you that I belong here.’”
Did she offer suggestions to you as far as what to write, subject matter or how to phrase things, or was it all you?
“There was communication. I can honestly say she didn’t write anything, but things would come out in conversation, or she’d come up with a catch phrase. There’s one song, I remember her backstage fucking with her hair, and she shot out, ‘Damn! Everything’s wrong if my hair is wrong!’ So that gets written on a notepad for future use. The stuff that I wrote was meant to go along with her verbal acrobatics. And yeah, I would not only poll her, but I would poll all my women friends and say, ‘Hey, if I write a song called ‘Uh Oh, Thinking About Sex Again,’ would you think of it this way? Would you think of it that way? There are lines that were rejected because she didn’t want to say them. She was equal parts party girl and prim Catholic, and sometimes the prim Catholic would come to the fore and censor something that I would write. Sometimes I wanted it to be raunchier, and I think she felt uncomfortable with that.”
I only saw the Waitresses once, at the 688 club in Atlanta in 1983. You played there twice, once in 1982 and once in ’83, and I saw the ’83 show. A friend of mine says that you had left the band by that point, and it was possibly only Patty and Billy from the classic lineup.
“When Patty quit, we tried to get Holly Beth Vincent to replace her, and that [failed] spectacularly. And so I said to hell with it. And [Patty] got together a bunch of other friends, and/or kept some of the other band members who were… how can I say this without being too bitter? ‘Comfortable with betrayal’? (laughs) That’s not really what I mean to say, but those who wanted to keep things going, and so it’s quite possible that was a different lineup. Patty basically took the name and kept going. It was not a friendly time for the two of us. Yeah, I had kinda thrown in the towel.”
I don’t think you could have realistically replaced Patty. She was the voice and centerpiece of the band. It was her personality and way of phrasing the words that made it really work. You couldn’t replace that with just another female singer.
“No. I know. But the situation was, we had a record in the can (1983’s Bruiseology) , and you know, artists gripe about their record companies all the time, but I liked PolyGram – PolyGram was supporting us – and I felt an obligation to try and keep things going for a little while. I thought at least I need to support this [album]. Our A&R guy was great, and I felt an obligation to justify his commitment to us. So that’s why I kept going, until it just wasn’t happening. And then Patty continued it for a while, and she tried to write some songs, and I’ve never heard them, but my A&R person rejected it. So that ended the whole thing. But I agree – she was irreplaceable. But I felt an obligation to try. It ended really badly. For me. It took a long time to dig myself out of the hole. I tried to write myself out of the hole. I thought if people would come to their senses, then there would be some kind of reformation. We would do new material. So I did write an entire third [Waitresses] album. And I’ve been pulling from that pile for my own stuff for years. And if I’d had the nerve at some point, ten years on, twenty years on, maybe I would’ve somehow orchestrated the great lost third album, and get all kinds of different rotating vocalists to record the songs, to kind of close the circle, because it’s an unfinished project for me.”
I guess if it ended that badly, you didn’t really keep up with Patty, then, through the rest of the ‘80s and into the ‘90s.
“No. She apologized profusely for sinking our boat. Which was accepted, begrudgingly, on my part, but life must go on. So there was a détente between us, which is better than rounds of lawsuits and ill feelings. But I didn’t have very much contact. She stayed in New York, worked for ABC [News], and then, as much as she kind of ended up loathing the music business, she wound up working A&R for a [record] company [MCA], going out to see the bands. So it was a very odd circle of closure for her, to be back in the music business, as an executive. I never saw that coming.”
But she never sang in another band, nor did any more performing.
Back to that 688 show I saw, obviously you weren’t there, but I distinctly remember Patty being so sloshed that she practically had to be carried onstage by other band members. It was packed, and in that club the way to the stage from the dressing room was through the crowd, so she was just wasted stumbling through the packed crowd with the band around her trying to keep her upright. But then once the show started, she was pretty coherent from what I remember. Was that a typical scenario?
“Well… this is rough, right now, for me. Because, what do you say about the dead? I can tell you the absolute truth – yeah, she was an alcoholic. And she, unfortunately, had that kind of alcoholism where your personality changed completely, and she became very mean. She’d get to the tipping point, where she was having fun, and then she’d get very mean and very hard, and like I said, she had had a really rough time as a child. I know her father abandoned the family. She then had men issues. I can’t say that there was a [connection] between that and her being sloshed that night. I know that she got progressively more and more substance abusing. One thing about having her in our band, I was extremely protective, because I knew she was a naïf, you know, over predators. And she began to rebel against [that]. Was I a daddy figure? I don’t know. But she pushed against that. I was serious about the job, and the workload. I had ambitions. I don’t think I was dictatorial, but it was a job. And after a while, she rebelled against it. And it’s a shame. She all these bad companions. And they catered to her weaknesses, I believe, and that also hastened our demise. That’s the truth. I think she kind of [straightened] up a bit later on, but she was still a hard partying woman. She deserved better, I think. My reaction [over the band breakup] was I fell into a deep depression, and it took a long time for me to come out of it. She reacted in her way, I reacted in mine. I’m really divided. I could be really snarky and say, ‘Ha ha,’ or, as a human, feel for her. Deeply. I know that I tried very hard to not be that cliché band, but we fell right into the cliché, the whole crash-and-burn format.”
Had she lived longer, and you guys had decided to do a reunion thing, I think a tour or something would have been pretty successful. Assuming you were all into it and all had your shit together. Not a lot of people who know your songs now ever had the chance to see you then. You would have had a new audience of fans nostalgic for something they didn’t experience firsthand. Is that something you would have considered doing?
“Good question. Who knows. Uhh… I, I… I mean, there is a ‘cash in’ factor, but the [main factor] to me is, it’s all unfinished business. Creatively, and musicianship-wise, this was a killer fucking band. These people could play! And I thought we gave a really good show. It was as good as if not better than any other band out there. I was blessed with finding really great musicians. Who knows what we could’ve done. I have no doubt that we would have done tremendous stuff. The short answer to your question is, yeah, I think I might huff and puff and grumble, but probably in the end, jump at it. There was unfinished business, and I still have a lot to say, and just to play with those amazing musicians again would’ve been worth it.”
I know you’re tempted to do something with those unrecorded Waitresses songs with other female vocalists, but I don’t think it would work.
“Not that I haven’t. I did want to do something in Cleveland this year, and it didn’t come together. I wanted to do a charity show. There are a lot of female singers in Cleveland who are Patty-ish. And I actually approached the other musicians in the Waitresses to do a one-off, but there was not a lot of interest. This was not going to be a Waitresses show, but a show for charity – it would be a cancer charity, because that’s what Patty died of – and do these songs, and get a bunch of women who can somehow trace their vocal lineage back to Ms. Donahue, and do two or three songs each, and there would be a band to back them. And it just didn’t come together. But that would’ve been fun, because I’d love to do ‘Christmas Wrapping’ with a vocal act.”