Chapter Three of Rat House
State of grace
ow did a bunch of guys in their late 20’s and early 30’s get by without jobs? We lived in a State of Grace; everything went our way when nothing suggested we should be so lucky. It’s like rolling a seven in craps fourteen times in a row. Your winnings keep increasing, but you have done nothing except get lucky. That was our experience.
It’s also about irresponsibility, giving everything over to a dream, a vision, a desire, a passion. It’s about receiving something for nothing and going full tilt with it, riding the wave to the very last.
Lastly, it’s a belief in forces outside yourself guiding you to your goal. These forces are recognized by your soul, so you have to believe in a soul as well.
We had the Rat House with the dirt cheap rent. Sure it was a dump, but it kept the rain out and was warm and dry. It provided us a headquarters and a band practice area. Even Howard was able to live there, in close proximity, for next to nothing. I was able to get food stamps and unemployment so that helped me survive. We had instruments, albeit used and grungy ones, and amps, even though they were the cheapest available. The next step was writing and practicing songs. We’d found a drummer and a singer, we had a bass and a guitar and a keyboard.
Eugene had his jobs, none of which seemed to require much effort for him. Clark had his university stipend as long as he taught. Howard had money from God knows where. Ritchie was always on the con so he probably grifted his money off old ladies and door-to-door salesmen. Bill and Buzz were on unemployment, whatever their employment had been. I think they had worked at Boeing, but I never saw them there. And there was me, sucking on the government tit, making sure my tax dollars were at work providing me with the bare essentials.
We practiced in the Rat House. It had a large living room almost devoid of furniture so it was easy to leave our gear there. My amp was small enough that I could bring it into my room if I wanted to practice alone and not disturb anybody, but mostly I used the Harmony guitar unplugged. Since it was semi-hollow it acted like an acoustic guitar in some ways. It had some great properties, like sustained feedback due to the f-holes, a cut in the top of an instrument that helps to amplify the sound, it looks like the letter “f” in cursive writing. Violins and cellos and big ass Gretch guitars that rockabilly artists play all have f-holes.
Our first practice session was a mess, a hodge-podge of false starts, out of tune harmonics, instrument volumes not level and our Peavey P.A. kept feeding back (vocal feedback is not good, guitar feedback is).
This is where we learned that Howard was an off-time drummer. At first I thought it was my fault, since I wasn’t playing straight rhythm on the guitar, but playing lots of counter rhythms against the bass. Clark tried to do some runs, but seemed to be hurt by Howard’s time keeping.
“What are you doing?” I asked Howard. He didn’t even seem embarrassed, instead he was agitated.
“I’m drumming,” he said arrogantly.
“Could you give us a beat, in 4/4 time?” I asked just as arrogantly. His eyes narrowed and he snorted at me.
“Howard, just hit the snare drum one time every beat,” Eugene said. Howard calmed a bit and we all decided it was time for a cigarette.
Back from break, Howard gave us a good approximation of 4/4 time. It’s almost as if he couldn’t stay there, he always drifted off. Clark gave up and started playing the beat with the bass, thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk, a quarter note for every beat. We let Howard wander around the song and it was starting to work. I started carrying the upbeat on the guitar in-between squeals of feedback. I was playing the Harmony and it always acted up with loud volumes, and we were loud. The fucking Voice of God in the State of Grace.
The second song went better, we found a bit of a groove and could even improvise a little. I pulled off a decent lead guitar section and Clark was able to trade off with me on the rhythm so he could do a few runs on the bass. Eugene played mostly leads on the keys and he was good.
Ritchie was the most surprising one, he expanded on the lyrics without being ridiculous. He was in an ecstatic state, in communion with the higher powers of the universe, full creativity, he was Sister Aimee Semple, Lord Buckley, and Johnny Rotten combined into one. Words just tumbled out, all in perfect synchronicity with the music. If he had a muse, it was there, and it pushed all of us to try harder in learning the songs. The little fucker was good.
We played for about two hours then packed it up for the day. I sat down for a couple of Animal Beers. We called Schmidt’s Animal Beer because of the wild life motif on the cans. I guess they sold it to hunters for their long waits in duck blinds and deer covers waiting to kill the animals so proudly portrayed on the cans. I liked it because it was $3.99 a twelve-pack.
Howard looked at me with animosity. He was still upset that I would call him out for his “creative” drumming. Only Eugene, his spiritual adviser, could talk to him that way was my guess. Who was this rat that dared to question a horse that was galloping free?
Later Eugene and Howard retired to Howard’s trailer for whatever metaphysical analysis they did. Ritchie left and Clark and I finished off the twelve-pack.
“What is wrong with Howard?” Clark asked.
I shrugged and lit a cigarette. What was wrong with Howard? Did he have mental illness, was he potentially violent, would he get better as a drummer? I was beginning to think that we should get a new drummer, but I was afraid that Ritchie and Eugene would leave the group if we dumped Howard, and we needed Ritchie and Eugene.
When Eugene returned to the house from Howard’s trailer I asked him about Howard.
“Well, he seems a little slow because of all the paint fumes he’s inhaled working in auto body shops. He does it all, you know, pulling dents, filling dings, and painting all kinds of scratches and parts. Those masks don’t keep all the fumes out.”
I didn’t know auto body repair was such a dangerous profession. I worked in a closed office environment since graduating from college, I’d never gotten my hands dirty nor had grime under my fingernails. Perhaps it was the paint fumes that made Howard angry, aggressive, and slow. It would also explain his inability to stay in time, why he’d drift around the beat. Occam’s Razor, the simplest answer is probably the best answer, but I still had my doubts about him.
Our next practice went even better. It turned out Howard would drift off beat around thirty seconds into the song, that’s when Clark and I would take over driving the rhythm and we’d let Howard do whatever he wanted on the drums: off-beat rolls, counter-rhythms, cymbal crashes, and so forth.
Ritchie was a trouper. He learned the lyrics to all the songs and his improvisations were spot-on. I couldn’t be happier with him, if only he wasn’t such a vile person otherwise. We met him when Howard had a 1966 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible for sale and Ritchie came by and made a deal for it. Ritchie drove off and the next day came back, on foot, and complained that the engine seized up. Turns out he ran over something and put a hole in the oil pan and all the oil leaked out causing the engine damage. Howard promised he’d replace the engine at cost so Ritchie, seeing a mark, became good friends with Howard.
Eugene did some amazing keyboard jams on the songs, trying to find the right piece to fit the tune. His jams were tasty, even with the wheezing Farfisa running through the Silvertone amp. Silvertone was Sears’ house brand of musical instruments. They were cheap, but effective.
My Harmony guitar was similar to a Silvertone guitar. Harmony was as cheaply made as the Silvertone and was designed as a first electric guitar for players. They seldom stayed in tune, had the worst tuning pegs in the world, and had a steel rod shoved down the neck to prevent warping. However, if you were running a great deal of effects pedals and distortion none of that mattered. The guitar controlled the sounds produced by the pedals. It was similar to a midi controller, a way of controlling sound, and it could be a tuba or a keyboard or a xylophone. Robert Fripp comes to mind as a musician that used a guitar to control sounds to make the guitar not sound like a guitar. Adrian Belew also comes to mind.
I had a chorus effects pedal, a digital delay, a tube screamer, a wah-wah/volume pedal, an envelope filter, a phase shifter, a compressor/limiter, a tremolo pedal, and a Super Fuzz distortion pedal when I played. I was experimenting during these practice sessions, deciding what sounds were best for what songs. I wrote out a list for each pedal with the song name and the settings for each knob on the effect. The list grew longer with each practice session.
Part of our practice session was devoted to learning a cover song. We wouldn’t necessarily play this song as part of our set, but learning it served a dual purpose. One, it gave us a song to pull out for encores or for longer sets, and two, it taught us song structure and helped with our own songwriting. We had the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat”, Zager and Evans’ “In the Year 2525” and Brian Eno’s “Black Frank” in our repertoire. Eugene kept pushing for more Kinks songs, but Clark and I, more than a little peeved with Howard, chose songs that required precision drumming, or had intricate drum patterns. We agreed on two Beatle songs to start, “Ticket to Ride” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”. After hours of Howard the Anti-Drummer trying to get the drum parts right, Clark and I would go outside and howl with laughter at the havoc we had wrought. As much as I disliked Howard, I have to give him credit, he tried to learn those parts and did achieve an anti-drummer version of those songs.
Several weeks went by and Eugene drew up an astrological chart based on the band’s “birthday” and it was decided that June was a good month to start gigging. However, there was a problem. We didn’t have a demo tape.