Sticks & Stones Play Seth Kushner Benefit at Union Hall, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Reunited for the First Time in Seven Years By Jamie L. Rotante

Sep 30, 2014

It is of loneliness and a disease of the bone
too grand for me to comprehend or amend

—“Like Needed” from The Optimist Club, Sticks & Stones

I had the great pleasure of attending the Save Our Schmuck: Benefit for Seth Kushner at Union Hall in Brooklyn, N.Y. on Aug. 26, 2014. Kushner is a noted comix creator (“comix” refers to the small press underground/alternative comics community) and photographer. Kushner was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia not long after successfully funding his comic anthology Schmuck on Kickstarter. His surgery was delayed due to rounds of chemo in an attempt to get his cancer into remission before the transplant could take place. The benefit sought to raise money to help with Kushner's mounting hospital bills. It's challenging to be an artist in a country that places the health of its citizens second after income.

Life moves in waves, with each great triumph followed by tragedy. Fate often deals what seems like the worst possible hand in a game of poker, but sometimes it’s followed by a royal flush. Kushner’s diagnosis and struggles were tragic, but what followed was a gathering of his peers in support of their brother. A bevy of incredibly gifted people packed themselves into the tiny downstairs performance space of Union Hall. I learned about how wonderfully talented Kushner is thanks to all the brilliant artists who have collaborated with him. 

The event, sponsored by HEEB Magazine,was hosted by the magazine’s Comics Editor Jeff Newelt and featured fantastic live comix readings of Kushner’s works—including a charming story from Schmuckthat recounted the main character Adam Kessler’s (a fictitious version of Kushner himself) Bar Mitzvah and his disbelief that it truly made him a man. A later chapter documented Kessler’s visit to a strip club during which he receives a lap dance from a comics enthusiast and almost finds love. Kushner’s work is both self-deprecating and endearing, plunging you into the mindset of his main character/himself. The two selections were read by R. Sikoryak (who is known for his “Carousel” series of multimedia comics slideshows) and Dean Haspiel, along with chapter artist Christa Cassano. 

Haspiel also read a selection from his new graphic novel Fear, My Dear: A Billy Dogma Experience, which perfectly complements the heartbreaking with the hilarious, and the realistic with the surreal in a series of four-panel pages. Artist Josh Neufeld performed the final chapter of Schmuck, featuring his own artwork, in which Adam Kessler finally meets and falls in love with the girl of his dreams. It is based on Kushner’s real life courtship of his wife Terra.

As for the non-comix portion of the night, Dr. Sketchy founder Molly Crabapple, who has been a subject of Kushner’s photography, told her humorous-yet-disturbing account of meeting Donald Trump in Dubai, and asking him an “inappropriate” question about his opinion on how massively underpaid the workers are who build his villas in the richest city in the world. Two subjects of Kushner’s photocomix series CulturePOP rounded out the performances: the delightful Plucky Charms performed a fun, innuendo-laced song on her ukulele and Akim the Funk Buddha performed a hip-hop/dance depiction of an American at a Japanese Tea Ceremony.

The main string that tied these performers together was their collaborations with Kushner. But another theme emerged as the night wore on: rooting for the underdog. From Kessler’s awkward teen years and forays into love, to the servants of Dubai, it is the idea of championing the ones beaten down by events beyond their control and creating a voice for those who might not have one as a means of attempting to overcome potentially unbeatable odds—whether it’s through comix, shocking questions, dance, or music.

The audience was then treated to a special surprise: A video from Mr. Kushner himself, announcing his cancer had gone into remission and he was tentatively scheduled for a transplant. There could not have been a more perfect conclusion to the night than that announcement: the truest notion that sometimes the underdogs can come out on top.

It was also an excellent introduction for the “underdogs” of the New Jersey punk scene. Sticks & Stones was a punk band in the late '80s to mid-'90s from New Brunswick, N.J. And, to put it as the band members themselves have, they were “cursed” from the get-go and for each triumph in their career, a disaster of near-epic and unbeatable proportions often followed. 

When their LP Theme Song for Nothingcame out in 1993, the band booked a tour that included the West Coast. It was an ambitious venture they decided was worthy of documenting in its entirety. They experienced a few “highs” in great turnouts and well-received shows. However, near the end of the tour they encountered an unthinkable low: the immolation of their trailer in the middle of Big Horn National Forest in Wyoming (as heard onThe Optimist Club track “Home”)—where all of their gear and worldly possessions were lost and painfully documented on video.

After that point, their final record (the aforementioned Optimist Club) was released exclusively in Germany—oddly enough the one place where they managed to get more than footnote recognition. They subsequently played a few really great shows until bringing their “cursed,” seven-year existence to a merciful, “euthanasia”-like end still in relative obscurity.

Fast forward a decade to 2004. Lead vocalist Peter Ventantonio found a new home in the circus-punk-cabaret outfit World/Inferno Friendship Society (where he is better known as Jack Terricloth). Lead guitarist Johnny X., (Mike Cavallaro), had a short and sweet stint in Johnny X & The Conspiracy and later made a name for himself as a comic artist, creating the fantastic series 66 Thousand Miles Per Hourin addition to his work with the webcomics collective ACT-I-VATE, started by Dean Haspiel. Drummer Chris Calello became a family man, and bassist Osamu Kawahara traveled the globe.

In that same year Chunksaah Records released the anthology The Strife and Times, giving a whole new generation of punk rockers not only a taste, but a compendium of the band’s output during their short but storied existence. It culminated in a full reunion set during World/Inferno’s Hallowmas October celebration at the Hook (RIP) in Brooklyn, followed by a few sporadic reunion shows over the following eighteen months. But even in the glory of reformation and long-overdue recognition, thanks especially to positive reviews of The Strife and Times and a number of shows with fellow East Coast bands like The Bouncing Souls and Weston, Sticks & Stones still could not revel. They realized that they worked better as friends—and decided never to play together again as a band.

But “fate” would, as she often does, have another card up her sleeve.

On Aug. 26, 2014, seven years after those sporadic reunion shows, and twenty years after the band’s breakup, Sticks & Stones got back together—one night only—for an acoustic mini-set. Their set was short and memorable, whiskey-laced and full of anecdotes and laughter—something needed most during trying times. Sticks & Stones is a band that’s often considered “criminally underappreciated,” not just because they were one of the few who held true to their punk ideals with aggressive guitars, reckless abandon, and an unending anger toward an unforgiving society, but because their lyrics and music perfectly encapsulate the human condition. 

The opportunity to see Sticks & Stones is rare, but I was grateful for the chance to see them. Here’s to hopefully more reunions in the future—but we’ll see what fate brings.

Seth Kushner is currently in recovery from a bone marrow transplant. For those who are interested in helping out with his continued medical costs, here is the link to contribute.

Jamie L. Rotante is a writer, proofreader, and all-around weirdo from New York. She only kind of seeks your approval and friendship. Drop her a line on Twitter