By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor
It’s a complicated series of events through which a Pittsburgh-based band called Tiny Little Help found itself living in an Albuquerque strip mall on Route 66 in the early ’90s. But it mostly boils down to the fact that the members – which then included guitarists Alan Lewandowski and Ernie Bullard, bassist Mike Bonello and drummer Sheryl Johnston—needed a temporary change of scenery.
It was a romantic era, in an unsettled, punk-rock sort of way. After first living in a one-room efficiency with two futons which they folded up during the day, Bonello describes the relative privacy of the storefront space, which doubled as a practice space. “At that point we each had our own bed with rows of boxes between the beds so that when you were laying down on your futon you couldn’t actually see anybody else.” Lewandowski and Johnston were married at the time but luckily, Bonello adds with a chuckle, “there were a couple of motels in the strip mall where you could rent by the hour.”
Those couple years served as a kind of extended Southwest tour for the band. And it was there that Bonello and Bullard started Rickety Records, a label/collective/general umbrella under which all their future bands would (more-or-less) gather.
Now, nearly three decades later, Tiny Little Help reconvenes for a show at the Brillobox, along with fellow Rickety bands the Dirty Faces and the Bumps. It’s a family reunion of sorts, or “a party masquerading as a show,” Bonello says. The event is in honor of Bullard who’ll be visiting from his home in Maine and wanted to play some music while he was in town.
Like most Rickety-adjacent acts, all three bands have jumbled histories with lots of little dramas and blow-ups and personnel changes. But Friday’s show represents two different eras of Tiny Little Help: Pittsburgh, 1991-92, with drummer Joelle Levitt Killebrew; and Albuquerque, 1993-95 with Sheryl Johnston. The Dirty Faces—a band with enough past members to start a football team — will appear as its 1998-2001 configuration (a.k.a. the Millennium Edition), which includes Terry “T-Glitter” Carroll, Bullard, Bonello and drummer Sam Pace.
Bonello and Bullard will both do triple duty with the Bumps, perhaps the most rickety band of all Rickety bands, along with drummer Leah McManigle (also a former Dirty Faces member) and Sam Matthews on guitar.
“Terry will do some singing, there may be more [people],” Bonello explains later. “If Sheryl ends up playing with the Bumps, Joelle will be the only person playing on Friday who hasn’t. Heck, we should just see if she wants to play maracas to rectify that.”
Tiny Little Help fell apart as a band when they returned to Pittsburgh around 1995. But the members all joined or started other projects (the Working Poor, Dead at 24, Anita Fix, and the Johnsons, to name just a few) and began hosting Rickety nights, a long-running series of weekly shows that featured dollar admission and dollar tequila. (And when they eventually raised admission to two dollars, Bonello says, some regulars were not happy).
It was, at that point, a thriving sub-scene, with several associated members living and practicing in the Rickety House, on Melwood Ave. There was even a newsletter, the Rickety Record. “There was a lot of stuff going on. I had just started working at filmmakers so there was this whole visual element to things,” Bonello says. “Which really, the people involved in it didn’t stop. We’ve kind of all been doing the same stuff since then.”
The Rickety bands all landed at different spots on the loose, weird lo-fi rock spectrum, from the prolific Guided By Voices-style college-radio rock of Tiny Little Help to the Dirty Faces, a band that ripped plenty from Wu-Tang and Biggie, and which Bonello says was formed around Carroll and Bullard’s idea of what a punk band should sound like in 1997. “Which,” he adds, “people who identified as punk rockers in 1997 probably wouldn’t agree with.”
But intentionally or not, the over-arching philosophy of the collective is right there in the name. “Alan wrote this thing for our first record about rickety roller coasters, old wood rollercoasters like the Thunderbolt, where they feel like they’re going to fall apart at any moment,” Bonello says. “There’s this kind of thrilling terror involved and this thrilling anxiety where it feels like it’s going to fly apart at any second, but somehow you get through it.”
That sense of impending collapse is in the music itself, but it was also present in the way the bands themselves operated. The older we get, the more stressful or chaotic that can be. But it also feels like liberation, a tantalizing suggestion that you can do whatever you want, stay up as late as you want, live wherever you want, play whatever you what, with whoever you want. Rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to remind us of those possibilities.
“The whole thing about Rickety … is that we’ve always been so self-sabotaging. We just do it because we love to do it and we just go for it,” Bonello says. “There’s this kind of reckless-abandon feel because it’s not like any of us were ever trying or able to take it beyond what we were doing in terms of popularity and airplay and being professional.
“That’s the thing,” he adds. “You do what you do and you put your heart into it and it’s going to be cool. And that’s kind of the overarching ethos of it.”