bangSheet, Volume 1 Issue 8, October 5, 1998
By Kurt V. Hernon

    Around 1980, somewhere near the death of disco, and on the other side of punk.  Sometime before the "new wave", and preceding "hair" bands, came a sound unlike other sounds.  It was Power in it's pop, and melodic in it's rock.  It was born in the most unlikely area; the post haze rust belt, stretching from Cleveland to Youngstown to Pittsburgh and back.  Unusual in that it was slick, produced, melodic, and straight ahead pop/rock music.  Not the norm for the sweat inducing steel valley.  Unusual in that an ambitious writer/producer/keyboardist from Cleveland would team up with a street-wise, geek-glasses wearing, skinny, big voiced howler from Pittsburgh.  But, most unusual in the sound they created, and still create to this day.

Mark Avsec was a Clevelander and a veteran of the city music scene.  He had toiled in local bands for awhile before joining up with Wild Cherry ("Play That Funky Music") in the mid to late 70's.  Soon after the Wild Cherry experience he worked with ex-Michael Stanley Band sideman Jonah Koslen in the band Breathless.  Avsec had an interest in producing, and had been doing a lot of writing.  It wasn't long before he decided that maybe it was time to move on and create a "vehicle" for his own songs.

"I wanted to do more of a rock'n'roll thing" Avsec said.  "I wanted to write and produce, and I wasn't much of a singer."

Donnie Iris was from Pittsburgh.  He had been around the Pittsburgh music scene since childhood.  His father worked at a tavern, and young Donnie used to do some singing there.  He even won a refrigerator in a talent contest back then.Donnie also was in a group called the Jaggerz.  The Jaggerz were like many British Invasion influenced bands of the time, playing a lot of local gigs, and eventually recording some records.  One of those records was a little song called "The Rapper", which climbed the charts to #1 in February 1970...

Donnie Iris was very much a singer.

"I met Donnie in Wild Cherry and really liked him" adds Avsec. "I wanted to make a record and felt comfortable with him as a vehicle for my songs.  He felt comfortable with me as someone who could help him find his way as a solo artist." Find their way they did. The first album, "Back on the Streets", came out in 1980 on a small local label, Midwest.  On it was an amazing song, "Ah!Leah!", with an amazing sound.  It began getting some notice.  The band played shows, and got noticed some more.

"Donnie just happened to be GREAT live." Avsec recalls. "Donnie had never fronted a band before, and he was great.  The whole screaming thing, and the things that evolved are just something that happened."

Soon the band was signed to Carousel/MCA records.  The sides of the LP were switched to accommodate "Ah! Leah!" and it's placement on the record, and MCA pushed it.

It did well.  It had a unique sound.  Avsec produced the album using a technique called "stacking".  That is, stacking vocals one on top of the other during recording.  Avsec explains,  "The studio we were in was not exactly state of the art. It was good at certain things, and lousy at others.  So, I figured, well, let's just make a different kind of record.  The stacking was a conscious thing.  Imposing a style.  On "Leah" we used, like, sixty tracks of Donnie's voice."

It was an amazing thing to hear.

Soon after the success of "Back on the Streets" the band headed into the studio again.  This time with momentum and an eye on the prize.  The result was "King Cool".  Perhaps the most definitive recording of the Donnie Iris & the Cruisers "sound."  It features a depth of vocals.  Backgrounds become foregrounds.  Layers become deep oceans of sound.  The vocals dance and weave their way around, creating and countering melody after melody.  And it is the melody that make the record roll.  But it is the dynamite playing of the Cruisers that makes it ROCK.  Marty Lee on lead guitar is a virtuoso.  Albritton McClain and Kevin Valentine make up a towering, rock solid backbone on bass and drums.  And Avsec purrs the keyboards at times, and whips them into a frenzy at others.  But, most of all, it is THE VOICE.  Donnie's voice stakes out it's own instrumental territory on the album. It doesn't just convey the lyrics, it jettisons them at you.  Iris' voice is an instrument like no other.  Starting in soft and low.  Working it's way around the songs.  Reaching up off the album into the famed scream.  Not just any scream, but clearly, THE SCREAM to end all screams.

"'King Cool' was pretty cool," recalls Avsec, "Everybody thought so."

MCA released a couple singles from the LP, "My Girl" and "Love is Like A Rock", which fared well.  But "Love is Like.." was pulled just as it was really seeming to start to break things wide open for the band.

"'Love is Like A Rock' was a single which started to make a lot of noise over the holidays.," Avsec remembered, "And all of a sudden MCA pulled it.  Literally pulled it when it was getting added, with a bullet, it was nuts!"  It seemed to be a label politics decision, and it left the album idling.

"It ("King Cool") did okay.  It probably sold as much as the first album, but when you work hard on these things...." said Avsec.

The band went on, but the breaks never seemed to stack in their favor.  After two more solid recordings for Carousel/MCA, the band was dropped.  In 1985 the band released "No Muss...No Fuss" on the HME label.  It was the last record in this chapter of Donnie Iris and the Cruisers.   The album was pure Donnie, and pure Cruisers.  But it was an ending.
Albritton McClain and Kevin Valentine departed.  Avsec became "cynical" and, after dealing with a frivolous lawsuit pertaining to "Ah!Leah!', decided to head to college and become a lawyer.  Donnie Iris got involved in the real estate loan business.

It was also a new beginning.

During the time Avsec was in school and Donnie was establishing SIMCorp, his mortgage loan company, the band released a couple of CD's.   "Out of the Blue" was a greatest hits type CD, with a few new songs.  "Footsoldier in the Moonlight" was a smoky, crooning, less rock effort.  Neither album was quite what fans had come to expect from Donnie Iris and the Cruisers.

Then, in early 1997, the band released an album called "Poletown".  It was a superb return to form and was the logical progression of the Cruiser sound.  It is a mature and brooding piece.  The music, and Donnie, were as strong as ever.   And the original Cruisers were back onboard.

"We got the original guys together, and we pretty much went in there jamming on all the tracks", Avsec reports.  "The record was done right after I finished law school, and right before I started studying for the bar.  I knew I was going  to get real busy.  I had all these tunes.  So, we did the album."

"Poletown" was released independently on Seathru Records, and it features some of Donnie and the Cruisers best music.  The themes are more serious, the music at times haunting.  The lyrics are mature and "more thoughtful", according to Avsec.  It is an album that has clearly earned it's place next to the earlier Donnie Iris albums.

Shortly after the release of "Poletown" the band decided the time was right for their first "live" record.  "LIVE at Nick's Fat City" was recorded in September 1997 at a club on the Southside of Pittsburgh (Nick's Fat City).   It features a career spanning set list, and the band (Avsec, Iris, bassist Paul Goll, drummer Tommy Rich, and lead guitarist Marty Lee)  has never sounded better.

"Tommy Rich has really turned out to be the perfect drummer for us." says Avsec. "I think Tommy and Marty Lee really kicked ass on the live CD."
Avsec adds,"The live record is something I'm very proud of.  I think it's really representative of the band right now. And, if you listen to it, you get a good idea of what Donnie and the band are like."

It's 1998, almost twenty years after a group of  guys, nearly unknown to each other, first created the "Donnie Iris sound", and Donnie Iris and the Cruisers are still at it.  Avsec is currently working on licensing songs from the Carousel/MCA recordings for a "best of" double CD.

"It'll be 16 or 17 older things..5 or 6 brand new things, and a very nice package.  Lot's of pictures, liner notes, just a very nice retrospective." Avsec explains.

In addition, Avsec is busy with the law practice, a publishing company he started, and writing and recording.  In particular, a ChristmasCD, due out by the end of October, titled "Planet Christmas".

"I did it totally myself.", Avsec said about the project. "It's been fun.  It's all instrumental.  Traditional Christmas music, but I've done them in an unusual way.  I used a lot of Eastern instruments, old instruments, so it's different sounding."

Donnie Iris has also kept a busy schedule.  His time these days is often spent traveling on business, golfing, or just being a proud new grandfather.

Mark Avsec and Donnie Iris have come a long way in the past twenty years. They may have changed a little along the way, but they remain true friends and band mates.

"Donnie and I are the best of friends still.", says Avsec. "Obviously, we've each been through a lot of changes over the years, but we are still best friends and we still love working together."

And on about ten nights a year, they are there, on the stage, working.  Avsec heading up the band, and Iris at the stage front.  Sweating, singing, and rocking.  Proving once and for all...he's King Cool, you know.