PITTSFIELD, Mass. Catchy headline, right? We’ll get to politics and death metal in a moment.
But first, meet Andy Poncherello, owner of Rebel Records in Pittsfield.
As a kid, this 40-something punk-rocker lived just outside the city, in Dalton. But Poncherello went to Catholic school in Pittsfield.
“At that time there were two record stores on North Street,” the lifelong music lover recalls.
Back then, if Poncherello wanted to see live music, he had to figure out a way to get to Boston or Hartford — not an easy thing for a teenager.
And so, when Poncherello reached a reasonably independent age, he moved to New York City for the rock clubs. He frequented CBGBs, the Continental Divide and other lower-Manhattan venues. Then Poncherello moved on to LA in search of yet another vibrant music scene.
But Poncherello says he always kept up with the news in Pittsfield because he still subscribed to The Berkshire Eagle. A few years ago he started reading about the artistic rumblings in his former city and decided to get in on the action. He was able to land a lease for a small store on North Street.
“Slowly but surely it’s been coming together,” Poncherello says, showing me around the place. “The only things I bought were these green record racks in Northampton; the other stuff I got from other stores on North Street that they were going to throw out.”
Poncherello sells things he’s collected over the decades: loads of records (yes, records made of vinyl), action figures (including an H.R. Pufnstuf) and a fair number of posters.
But the main attraction is the back room. Rebel Records doubles as an all-ages performance venue for all genres of music. Poncherello estimates that 250 bands played last year, “everything from punk to death metal to grind core,” he says.
Fact is, though, Poncherello is not making any money with his store. He has a day job with the Moscow Ballet, which has a U.S. office in Pittsfield. For that reason, the record store has bizarre hours — mainly evenings and weekends. Poncherello even organizes matinee-style rock shows, which are popular with the under-age kids.
He admits he couldn’t pull this off without the support of his very “flexible” landlord, Laurie Brenner. She’s owned his building for 22 years and raised her own boys in the Pittsfield area.
“I think it is very exciting that Andy is here, that we have a new venue for the youth of Pittsfield, that it is safe and fun,” Brenner says.
Before Rebel Records opened she says there was no place to go that was safe and alcohol-free, “where you can just listen to bands and have a good time and socialize.”
So when Poncherello can’t quite make rent on time, Brenner is forgiving.
“I am happy to support somebody who has a dream that I agree with, and he has a dream to do wonderful things with the young adults of the Pittsfield area, and I am more than willing to try to help him do that,” she says.
But it isn’t easy for Poncherello to keep it up. He can’t afford to hire employees, so he does all the booking and shop-keeping himself. Poncherello admits he almost threw in the towel on more than one occasion, but Brenner, his landlord, convinced him to stay.
One of Poncherello’s favorite gigs was a fund-raiser during last year’s mayoral race. Incumbent Mayor James Ruberto joined forces with 14 bands, all from Pittsfield or with members who live in Pittsfield.
“It was hilarious,” Poncherello recalls with a smile on his face. “The mayor showed up to do his speech after Blessings of Ruin, which is like a grind core death metal band, then my band The Poncherellos, which is a punk band, and then When I Came Back from Death,” he says.
“I mean it was the most ridiculous thing, and his campaign manager and his little son were here. Parents were here. It was nuts, and he’s in here and he had a great time, it was very energetic and powerful and it was broadcast live on the Internet, there was live-blogging. I mean, it was just insane.”
But it isn’t always insane — insane in a good way, according to Poncherello.
“You know, there are some nights that are well-attended, and other nights when the bands are playing to just me,” he says. “And that’s kind of a bummer because there are bands that come here from Austria” — and the United Kingdom, Canada and all over the United States.
Poncherello thinks there should be more, especially considering Pittfield’s proximity to the Mass Pike.
“Every band on tour drives by here,” he says. “They should stop and play.”