The first problem, I was still learning my instrument, although I practiced every day I wasn’t a trained musician. I saw the chords as geometric patterns so I visualized the inherent mathematics of music. I learned about music from Wayne, everything I used like I-IV-V chords to things I didn’t use, like diminished ninths. I listened to lots of records, not just rock, but blues and reggae and ska and country. Older stuff and the old stuff I’d thrown out were starting to be useful, because I learned a few tricks from Boston and Kansas and Styx as well as the Velvet Underground, Devo, and the Clash. I didn’t listen to heavy metal, which definitely hindered our progress as a band in the grunge capital Seattle.
My secret as a songwriter and band member was to lay down the basic rhythm and key for the song, the structure, and then let the more talented musicians lay in lead guitar and keyboard. I’d also let the drums do whatever they wanted, but Howard was so incompetent that I was happy if he could keep time, let alone do a roll or a fill. Wayne wasn’t happy either because on most of the songs he just played quarter-notes to keep the time Howard was incapable of keeping. Overall, our deficiencies made for an interesting sound, however strange. It was like Sonic Youth, only more melodic since we had a keyboard.
The Hand of Man, the Voice of God
We were loud, louder than the end of time, as loud as the voice of God. The local music paper, the Rocket, commenting on one of our shows, said our volume was “Eschatological”. They probably meant Apocalyptic, but music writers can’t write just like musicians can’t read. They also said that “the rhythm section was ‘fluid’” meaning our drummer kept slipping in and out of time. Howard, the anti-drummer; maybe he was the Anti-Christ since we were Eschatological in our loudness.
On stage, as commanding as we tried to be, the crowds never came. Our audience consisted of friends and maybe two or three victims, by which I mean bar patrons. Squid Row was our favorite place to play. It was intimate and we knew all the bartenders so most of our drinking was free. We’d played the Central, the Eastlake Zoo, and the Ballard Firehouse, but nothing big happened. We drove down to Portland and played a Tuesday night at the Satyricon and George loved us, but only five people showed up and none of them came near the stage, preferring the safer, and presumably quieter, confines of the bar that was in the outer room.
Meanwhile, I had plenty of time to contemplate what music meant to me, and to an audience. If it wasn’t just fluid rhythms and loud chords accompanied by shrieking feedback and driving vocals, then what was it? What was the magical “something” that made a band great? There were plenty of mediocre bands that made records and had followings, but what was it that made the Rolling Stones, or a Bob Dylan? Matt would say force of personality, a certain magnetism that we, as a group, may not possess. Certainly, I was dynamic, my personality and intelligence driven by my quirks and insanity. Wayne’s drug consumption was worrisome, but like Sherlock Holmes it made him a better musician, Matt’s obsession with the stars and planets was interesting. As a whole, we needed something that a crippled lead singer and a crazy off-time drummer couldn’t provide.
What am I getting at? Something Matt would call charisma, but it was more than force of personality, individual or group. What I wanted was for the world to end when we played, the sound driving out all human emotions until the audience reached Zen. To tell this to the others would be madness, because it was madness. Devo wanted to produce a sound that made people crap in their pants and I wanted to make a group of people reach enlightenment all at the same time. If a shrieking “A” chord resonate with feedback and overdrive couldn’t do it I couldn’t figure out what would. It didn’t cross my mind that I hadn’t achieved my own Zen, just that I was closest when listening to music. The perfection of sound, and the space between sounds, was the sound of One Hand Clapping.
Howard, meanwhile, was becoming more and more unhinged in his proclamations, exclamations, mutterings and murmurings, and forecasts from the constellations and predictions of worlds ending. He was becoming more and more incoherent. By that I mean Matt understood him, but no one else did. All I could gather was he hated me and the music for him was some type of prophesy communicated. He attempted to write songs. The lyrics were lunatic; verses about romping in the goose shit meadows and choruses about stomping hoofs. Incredible and almost indescribable in their melody he would try to pass these songs off to the band. Matt was diplomatic, saying we would get to them while even Ritchie looked at him strangely. Wayne snorted in derision and would play little curlicues of bass lines.
Why did we put up with this? Matt would leave the band if Howard was dismissed and Matt was the most talented among us. He watched over Howard like a mother hen.