Hopelessly Devoted: Cult Bands

I cult coverwas drawn to cult acts long before I was in one, so I’m pretty sure my fascination with the phenomenon has less to do with trying to figure out my own personal place in the musical cosmos than it does with trying to figure out why so few people seem to like the same music as my friends and I (or why no one seems to like music as much as my friends and I do).

The great thing about writing for Tommy Tompkins at the Bay Guardian in the ’90s was that he was always willing to hear me out whenever I felt as though I’d had some kind of epiphany at a show that was worth turning into a piece. This one from ’97 came after I was underwhelmed by a Jazz Butcher gig at Great American Music Hall an old college buddy had convinced me I’d love.

Definitions of cult bands vary, but here’s a fairly reliable test: if you ever encounter an inexplicably long line for a band you’ve never heard of, just say something like, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of this group. Aren’t they some kind of a cult band?” The angrier the crowd becomes, the more heated their denials that their beloved band is anything like obscure, the more inventive the epithets they hurl at you as you run away, the more likely that you were right after all.

That test works in reverse, too, as I found out when I dragged a friend to see the Mekons. I mean, I never thought of the Mekons as anything other than the best band in the world. Who else could introduce a number by saying, “Here’s a song off our last book,” and mean it? Only the wonderful Mekons. This was in September, in New York, and I had the good fortune to be in town the same night the Mekons were passing through. I was one of many happy drunks in the audience, admiring my luck, loving the band, and I turned to share my shit-eating grin with the old friend I’d convinced to join me.

And I saw something impossible: she was bored. Continue reading

Artistic Control, Etcetera, Etcetera, Blah, Blah, Blah

This darcycoverwas the cover story for Raygun #42 in December, ’96. The magazine got a cover shot that would help sell issues, while James and D’arcy got a chance to promote the label they’d recently formed with Mercury. My cynicism about the venture’s odds of success turned out to be justified, though it brings me no satisfaction to say so. The Fulflej LP D’arcy and James were so excited about didn’t excite the kids quite the way James had anticipated. The band’s Wikipedia page sums up what happened after that thusly: “Their song, ‘Shift Into Turbo’ was featured in Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie, which came out the following year. Fulflej also recorded another album, ‘To Keep A Long Story Long’ in 1998, though it was only released through MP3.com. The band called it quits in 2000.”

Early in 1980, when the Clash came to New York City to play the Palladium, my friend and I joined the majority of the crowd in booing opening act Joe Ely. I did this mostly because I was a fifteen-year-old dunderhead, and hating the opening acts at rock concerts was as much a part of the ritual back then as holding up lighters when our beloved headliners left the stage. Ely’s songs were all pretty slow, and his voice was pretty low, so the crowd eventually got louder than the guy performing. It was painful and embarrassing enough that the members of the Clash felt compelled to come out on stage and dance around in trench coats while Ely sang, just so the crowd would start clapping, which, like good little robots, we did.

Eight years later, someone gave me a Joe Ely tape: Lord of the Highway. My friend and I were touring with our own band now, and knew what it was like to play for a roomful of people who just wanted us to hurry up and finish so whatever group they actually paid to see could take the stage. Experience and maturity had refined our tastes, so we were ready to listen to the tape with open ears.

We decided he still sucked, and tossed the cassette out the window of our van, figuring, if he was the Lord of the Highway, he’d be pleased. Continue reading

Brown Reason To Live

This surfers title1996 interview with the Butthole Surfers was one of the more enjoyable I can remember, mostly because all three members are equal parts smart and hilarious. Though they clearly enjoyed toying with the journalist, they just as clearly couldn’t help keeping their brains engaged with whatever the hell was going on around them. The bit where Gibby Haynes read the Park Police dude’s jacket backwards was when I realized I was having a good time. “Crap essilop” — I still say it to myself, sometimes.

We might as well start with the question Gibby Haynes asks at the beginning of “Birds,” the first song on the Butthole Surfers’ new album, Electric Larryland: “All right. What are we doing here?”

What Gibby, guitarist Paul Leary and drummer King Coffey are doing here, over lunch in an Austin restaurant, is alternately tolerating and annoying the interviewer. But what are they doing here, in 1996, with their second major-label release (and their who-the-hell-can-keep-count-anymore release, career-wise)? Why are they still recording? Why are we still listening? More importantly, why aren’t they dead? Continue reading

No Desert Jokes!

I meat puppets cover cropgot an EMI-funded trip across country to interview one of my favorite bands ever for this article. I also got hours of Cris being hilarious on tape, including some details of the arguments he and Curt had about which and how many of Cris’ songs would make the album. Details which, when I asked Curt about them, led Curt to say all kinds of uncharitable things about his brother’s songs. I returned home to an anxious message on my answering machine from the publicist who’d arranged the junket, telling me all those comments were off the record and I couldn’t use any. I’d already written a draft on the plane that didn’t include them, but I am immature enough that I briefly considered sticking them in just so no publicist would mistakenly assume she had any ability to dictate what I wrote. Also, Curt smoked joint after joint while I interviewed him, and never offered me any, which I thought was rather rude.

A small swarm of Polygram sales executives filters into the ballroom at the Dana Point Ritz Carlton. Anonymous flunkies have done their best to make this place look something like a music venue, but it still reeks of pre-fabricated class. Black drapes cover every wall, neon palm trees hang here and there. Every standard-issue banquet chair has been covered with a goofy floral slip cover and pointed toward the small stage. The DJ fades down “Baby I Love Your Way” as everybody’s boss tests a microphone. He tells a couple of golfing jokes, and then inexplicably tells the crowd to “get ready to rock” just before introducing Jude Cole.  The whole scene is frighteningly respectable.

Which means it’s as good a place as any to see the stupendous Meat Puppets, who have always been frightening, but just recently became respectable. Continue reading

Guilty Pleasures

Another guilty titleask-a-dozen-artists-the-same-question piece, but this one had some of my favorite responses, ever. I still think about Robyn Hitchcock’s answer any time I have some white wine or, well, any of the other things he listed. And Dean Ween hints at a genuinely profound truth when he analyzes how things you’d never do in a car don’t seem wrong at all when you do them in a boat.

We are all so goddamned cool. Yes, you too, dear readers. Just by opening this very magazine, you’ve gained admittance to an exclusive club. Consider the wacky fonts you can only read upside down in a mirror our version of a granite-faced doorman, making sure the unworthy remain on the wrong side of that velvet rope. The headache you get for actually deciphering every word is the cover charge. But you made it; you’re inside. There are some famous musicians by the bar. Well, maybe not famous. But cool. Just like you.


Except you’re not really cool, are you? Deep down, you know it. Maybe you have a secret fondness for books about courageous elves. Perhaps you’ve eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch every day of your life for the last twenty years. It’s just possible you can’t stop humming Ace of Base’s “The Sign.” You could be like me, and have all these problems. Continue reading

Opening Frights

I fear titleusually loved when Too Much Joy were the opening act, as the challenge of winning over a hostile crowd forced you to play your best, and the applause (when you managed to get it) always felt earned, which wasn’t necessarily the case with die-hard fans. But opening could also mean a steady series of lessons in humility, or of biting our collective tongue when headliners acted like entitled pricks. We always tried to be nice to openers once we were headlining, offering to let them use our drum kit if they didn’t want to set theirs up in front of it, and so on. But I’m sure we were resented, too. This Raygun piece from 1995 combined our own stories with those collected from a variety of other bands (three of whom, as it happens, TMJ had opened for at some point).

Imagine you are in a fairly young rock and roll band. An indie label has just put out your first record. You suddenly have a lot of new friends in the press and at college radio stations confirming what you were already pretty sure about: your band is great. Your manager or booking agent has called in a favor to get you a coveted opening spot on a bigger act’s national tour. You are on stage right now. In fact, you have just finished your first song. It was, you have to admit, incredible. This is pretty exciting. You wait for the applause.

For some reason, nobody is clapping. Someone in the back is yelling something, though. Now someone in front has joined in. Soon the whole crowd is chanting: MOJO! MOJO!

This is very good news if your name is Mojo. This is absolutely horrifying if you’re me. Continue reading

Fear John

Raygun feaR john titlehad an annual “On The Road” issue, so in 1994 I pitched them a piece about the horrors touring bands encounter from coast to coast dealing with nightclub bathrooms. They suggested I survey a dozen or more different musicians to get their perspectives, which was fun. After this, I kept a running list of “round up” pieces I planned on pitching, and made a point of getting anyone I happened to be interviewing to weigh in on those topics. The fruits of some of those labors are sprinkled throughout the site.

Most nightclubs are grim spectacles during the day. It’s pretty easy for exposed pipes and concrete walls with a little neon paint to appear exciting in the dark, in a crowd. But when you turn on the lights and take away the people, nightclubs can only be pathetic. They are meant to be dark, and if you doubt that just watch how they swallow the sunlight when you open the stage doors to load in your equipment. They smell like the stale beer that sticks to the bottom of your sneakers as you walk across the floor. From around three p.m. to eight o’clock, the five hours when nothing gets done commonly known as sound check, nightclubs are among the most depressing places on the planet.

The nightclub bathroom, however, is another matter entirely. Continue reading

How To Be Human

I monkshad been looking for an excuse to spend some time at a monastery for a while, so was very glad when Raygun accepted my pitch to write an article about the experience in 1994. Not sure why I wasn’t willing to go just for the sake of going. But monks who bred and trained puppies to support themselves seemed like people I just had to meet.

In 1970, high atop a rocky hill in upstate New York, three miles east of the small town of Cambridge, a group of monks built a small wooden church topped with gold, onion-shaped cupolas. It looks a little bit like the Kremlin might if the Kremlin were much tinier and made out of Lincoln Logs. This is New Skete. The monks still live and worship on this hilltop today.

What am I doing here? This is a question I have been asking myself since before I even arrived. Continue reading

Toyz In The Hood

toyz in the hood

Nina Malkin from RAYGUN invited me to write for them after profiling Too Much Joy for an early issue. The interview somehow concluded with the band watching the Oscars with her, which would have involved a lot of drunken sarcastic yelling any year, but THIS was the year Rob Lowe danced with Snow White, so the screaming and snark were particularly intense. I guess I qualified myself as a pop culture critic that evening. This was the first (and, in retrospect, possibly the worst) of a number of pieces they published in the ’90s and only sometimes sent checks for. Half the fun of RAYGUN was that you couldn’t always actually read the text, so I’m scanning sample pages from the magazine but relying on my old WordPerfect drafts for the copy, so the two might not always match. 

I went to the Kiddie City on Union Square in Manhattan to buy a squirt gun. Two songs on Too Much Joy’s new album, Mutiny, are about murder, and I can always use a stage prop. Besides, the chance I might electrocute one of the assholes with guitars makes our live show that much more exciting.

The good news is that great strides have been made in water pistol engineering since I was in grade school.  These things can now shoot a continuous stream of water up to thirty feet. The bad news is that they don’t look remotely like guns. Charlton Heston tells me the government makes it too tough to buy firearms. At least the ones he can buy aren’t painted fluorescent green and orange.

Continue reading