The Washington Squares were a deliberate throwback to the days of earnest, politically oriented folk groups like Peter, Paul & Mary, even though they formed 20 years after the peak of the folk boom. The New York City based trio, comprising Lauren Agnelli, Tom Goodkind, and Bruce Paskow, dressed in matching outfits reminiscent of the days of the beat poets, including striped shirts, black berets, and sunglasses, with Goodkind and Paskow affecting goatees. They resurrected old folk songs and wrote new ones in the same vibrant style, harmonizing on stirring anthems of social consciousness. But because they appeared in the Reagan-dominated early '80s, when there was no contemporary political movement within popular music to speak of, because they adopted a retro style, and because they laced their performances with humor, it was sometimes hard to tell how seriously to take them. The answer was that they were serious, albeit in a post-modern, ironic way.
The group was the brainchild of Goodkind, a former New York University student who, in the early '80s, was booking new wave acts in the Peppermint Lounge club in New York City and performing with his own rock group, U.S. Ape. Goodkind brought his friend Paskow, another N.Y.U. alumnus and a former member of the punk rock band the Invaders, into the group as lead guitarist, joining keyboard player Shauna Laurie and drummer Paul Richards. When Laurie quit, Goodkind persuaded Agnelli, a former member of the band Nervus Rex (and a former rock critic under the pseudonym Trixie A. Balm) to join the band, which then took a different stylistic direction and adopted a new name. After brainstorming for hours, Goodkind and Paskow came up with what Goodkind calls "the Beatnik-folk mix." There was only one problem. "We didn't know any folk songs," he admits. So, "I went to the store and picked up some Peter, Paul & Mary, Weavers, and Library of Congress stuff. We pooled our money, and I went down to the Library of Congress for research. Then I started to call everyone." Goodkind called many veteran folksingers and got their advice. As the group evolved, the role of the drummer necessarily diminished and Richards quit, to be followed by a succession of other percussionists until Billy Ficca signed on as the trio's backup bongo player.
The Washington Squares quickly worked their way up the New York club circuit in the mid-'80s, their polished act also earning attention from New York-based television shows and national print media. But from a recording standpoint, "no one knew what to do with us," notes Goodkind. A deal with A&M Records fell through at the last minute, but finally the band was signed to personal manager/record executive Danny Goldberg's startup label, Gold Castle Records, joining a roster dominated by veteran folkies like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary. Even then, finding an approach to making a record necessitated several false starts with producers before Mitch Easter proved compatible with the group. The result was 1987's The Washington Squares, which attracted favorable reviews and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Recording, but failed to reach the national charts (though it placed in some alternative listings). Nevertheless, the Washington Squares were able to begin touring nationally behind the album, opening for the Beach Boys and Joan Jett, among others. Their second album, Fair and Square, produced by Steve Soles, followed in 1989. Their albums reportedly sold in excess of 150,000 copies each.
The Washington Squares toured extensively in the late '80s and early '90s. But Gold Castle shuttered and Paskow fell ill. His death caused the demise of the group. "I never felt the passion to do the band without him," says Goodkind. Appropriately, the Washington Squares played their final show in Greenwich Village, at Bottom Line on July 28, 1994. Since the breakup, Agnelli has been continued to be active musically, singing on several Brave Combo albums and releasing a duo album with Dave Rave, 1999's Heaven & Earth, among other efforts. Goodkind retired from the music business. "I really felt that I had accomplished, via the Squares and the Peppermint Lounge, all that I would ever want in music," he said. In 1997, Razor & Tie released From Greenwich Village, the Complete Washington Squares, which as its name suggests, contains all of the group's recordings. ~ William Ruhlmann