As Brooklyn Burns



Queen of the Neighborhood - Flame  (RCA)

Flame, one of those briefly beguiling bands born out of a punk-garage sensibility but whose roots reached well beyond the limitations suggested by that particular tag, seemed destined for stadium rewards.

Flame was fronted by the divinely lipped Marge Graham, who, on account of being a real woman, had the natural attributes that Steve Tyler, Mick Jagger, and a truckload of less gifted pouters and poseurs have been trying to appropriate for as long as rock has rolled. She looked like trouble, and sang like she was. Her band blazed intensely but briefly.

Thirty years on, their embers still retain that glorious heat. The neighborhood in question was Brooklyn, the title track being a strangely bass-driven rant, snarled together with momentous guitar dynamics, that has elements of Talking Heads and Patti Smith locked in some Pied Piper loop, with Graham leading the depressed and deprived 'round the block: "Rock and Roll N****r" rendered by Blue Oyster Cult in a rock dive, but with their grandeur intact. An intense introduction to a smoldering collision of talent.

The sound they generated owed more to an older, more traditional blues ethos. Harnessing elements of garage and pure rock, they created a blistering debut that still hints at the high-decibel, energy-induced experience they must have delivered live. If Patti Smith had joined forces with the E Street Band as the next step beyond "Because the Night," this could have been her postcard from New Jersey.

Queen of the Neighborhood, from 1977, is an album to stir anyone who ever had the urge to be a rock and roll star. Raw, sophisticated, and at time strikingly tender, it blends ambition and attitude. Graham's voice rasps and growls over the efforts of an astonishingly accomplished and cohesive band, with guitarist Jimmy Crespo, who would later join Aerosmith, driving her to greater feats of vocal combat, especially on the extraordinary "Long Time Gone," which perfectly echoes the bluesy inferno created by Sylvester and the Hot Band before he became a disco deviant. A raging street survivor bares her anguish, without shame or apology. Tenderly raw and affecting.

Produced by Jimmy Iovine, the album overlaps his production work on Patti Smith's Easter. Featuring horn arrangements from Steve Van Zandt, it provides the listener with a superlative experience. Refined but dissolute, there are obvious elements of their sound in Smith's, and vice versa, while the more recent Bellrays evoke a similar level of explosive energy.

It is Flame's sheer passion, and the vivacity of their performance, that render this a lost gem worthy of a second chance. Tracks such as "Everybody Loves a Winner" and "Beg Me," their first single, rise from the speakers like they've just played a blinding gig in a studio setting. It isn't just a white-knuckle ride.

There are moments of subtle refinement. "You Sit in the Darkness" is an enormous, piano-churned epic that invites a swaying mass of humanity,with lighters aloft, and reveals Graham as a vocalist of immense control. She exudes the same earthy finesse on "All My Love to You" as the late Lorraine Ellison at her divine best. Flame made one other album entitled Too Many Cooks, with Iovine once again at the helm, but wider rewards failed to fall their way. They belong to the ranks of the Jim Carroll Band, Polyrock, and The Shirts, who despite critical appreciation never garnered the equivalent in the units they'd shift.

Marge Graham, in a finer, more fair world ,would have become a solo artist who'd give others a standard to bear. That she didn't is another of the mysteries of having talent to burn. All too fleetingly it did, and deservedly she reigned, the Queen of the Neighborhood.