Chapter Four of “Rat House”

“PROBLEMS”

The first problem was we didn’t have a demo tape. You can’t get gigs without a demo tape. The second problem was we didn’t have a tape deck to record a demo tape. The third problem was our practice sessions had become tumultuous at best because of the partisanship and rivalries. Sometimes we wouldn’t even speak, just start playing a song and everybody joining in at the appropriate times. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but out of this chaotic hatred came some great music, raw, visceral, and nasty. How best to capture that sound on tape?

Ritchie came to the rescue, securing us a Tascam four-track cassette tape recorder through some wheeling and dealing with a band that had just broken up. He also got a couple of microphones in the deal. I went to Radio Shack and bought the cheapest mic stands they had in stock.

One microphone was placed in front of Howard’s drum kit and the other microphone in front of the keyboard and guitar amps. The bass amp was connected directly into the recorder. We did the same for Ritchie’s microphone.

A case of Animal Beer was opened and we started the tape rolling, playing our set list and improvising a couple of songs, just jamming to see what happened. Those were the most interesting moments on the tape because you’d hear everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, but ultimately the most worthless because they never led to songs. Overall, the sound was questionable, but the tape showed we had songs and we could play them.

Animal Beer was the lubricant for many a song, sliding the notes into the right places. Without it we would have been at each other’s throats even more than usual. Ritchie was capacious when it came to beer drinking, as were Clark and I, and then Bill and Buzz came by to help set up gear and monitor the recording, but they never seemed to leave the pinball machine and the case of beer. When they came I ran out and got another case because the beer would be gone within the hour.

In the end we took the five best songs and put them together for a demo tape, four songs “No Dyslexics”, “Megaphone of Death”, “Tremolo Migraine”, and a cover of the Kinks’ “’Til the End of the Day” plus one improvised number that we titled in our inimitable way, “Jam #5”. We dubbed off ten of these and we were ready to take them to the various clubs in town.

 

 

The animosity Howard felt for me spilled over into the group. People took sides. Ritchie was Howard’s supporter, yet he treated me with nothing but respect. I despised him for it. Clark, being an old friend of mine, sided with me. He found Ritchie to be sleazy, a con artist of sorts, and felt that our group would be better if neither Howard nor Ritchie were in the band. I wasn’t that extreme; despite Howard’s inability to find a beat, he did find a groove and that’s important. He tried awfully hard to drum and that counted for something as well. Ritchie was a great performer and I felt he was a valuable member of the group. So Clark and I would have discussions, often leading to raised voices, about the merits of Howard and Ritchie. I sometimes took his side as well, thinking it might be better to rid myself of those two and start fresh, but we were gaining momentum as a band and I dreaded interfering with that.

Eugene, as always, was neutral, neither for nor against any person or side. He was the umpire in our baseball game. He’d referee overt arguments, and there were a few, and try to assuage any hard feelings. He never shirked this responsibility, although I would have understood if he had. There’s no glory in adjudicating petty bickering, just a constant headache, but he took it all in stride and smoothed things over between the rival sides.

Bill and Buzz, although friends of Howard’s, never took sides. Why should they? They got free beer from me, free cigarettes from Howard, and got to hang out at the Rat House, which was bigger than their apartment.

There was a problem I experienced with Howard outside the province of the band. One day my car wouldn’t start and an acrid smoke emanated from under the hood. It had been a rainy night and there was a ton of water all over the car. I asked Howard to look at my car and he refused. He said he didn’t work on cars for free. I countered that he was going to fix Ritchie’s Galaxie for free, if and when Ritchie purchased an engine for it. Howard looked away from me and didn’t say another word. So I went to Buzz and asked him to look at my car. He popped the hood and immediately told me I’d burned out my wiring harness, probably from a short circuit caused by all the water on the battery and in the engine compartment. He said he’d take me to the junk yard to get a replacement harness.

I don’t like motorcycles, especially in the rain, but I couldn’t refuse Buzz taking me to the wrecking yard. I hung on for dear life and prayed to whatever god I felt would protect me from the road that was mere inches away from me. After purchasing the harness we rode back to the Rat House and installed it without looking in the Chilton’s guide and we shorted out the replacement as well. It smoked and caught fire. So, it was back to the junk yard and another harness, then reading the Chilton’s, disconnecting the battery first as per instructions and installing the wiring harness. This worked like a charm and Buzz and I celebrated the end of a long day with many Rainiers.

I refused to talk to Howard for a week after that, I found it intolerable he wouldn’t help a band mate. At least look at the car, I hadn’t asked him to repair it. I bitched about it to Eugene and he said it was probably for the best, since Howard sometimes misdiagnosed car problems. This was hard to believe. Eugene said he could repair anything once someone told him what was wrong. Shit, I should’ve used Buzz for the diagnostics and Howard for the repairs.

 

 

I’m not a trained musician. I see guitar chords as geometric patterns so I’m visualizing the inherent mathematics of music. I learned some new chords from Eugene and Clark, things like sevenths and suspended fourths. I listened to lots of records, not just rock, but blues and ska and country. Older stuff like Chuck Berry and Willie Dixon, stuff I’d listened to in high school was 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 did know how to make noise, and noise was music if done correctly.

My songwriting consisted of listening to songs I liked and then ripping off their basic structure, simplifying it and then adding that One Hand Clapping sound. Simple. That was the way we did things. Complicated was left to the competent bands, we flourished in our incompetence, nurturing our strengths and hiding what we couldn’t accomplish. Diminished ninths, fuck that!

What was that One Hand Clapping sound? Slippery rhythms, loud volume, feedback drenched power chords, and the simplest bass lines in the world (simpler than a country & western bass line). It wasn’t grunge, it wasn’t punk, it was a mix of post-punk and something indescribable. We’d flourished in four short weeks of practicing everyday and writing songs and hating each other. We excelled at condensing what most bands take years of doing into a month, we had a set list of 10 songs, five of which were improvisations, we had gone from innocent to jaded, and we all had egos the size of a Boeing 747. How could we not succeed?

I took our demo tape to every place in town I could think of, in Pioneer Square there was the Central, on Capitol Hill there was Squid Row and the Comet, in Lake Union there was the Eastlake Zoo, the Vogue in Belltown, and in Ballard there was the Firehouse. I was on the phone every day bothering the bookers, asking if they’d listened to our tape, pestering them for gigs. After two weeks of these calls my persistence paid-off. The Eastlake Zoo agreed to let us play the next Sunday afternoon. There was no pay and it was a test of sorts. If we brought in people there would be other paying gigs in the future.

I told the guys at practice that we had our first public performance booked and they seemed excited. They weren’t as excited when I told them it was a non-paying gig. However, Eugene rallied the troops and told them it was a good opportunity. Once you play one venue the others will start booking the band. After practice Eugene made posters and hand bills for the show and then we went to Kinko’s to photocopy them. That night we stapled posters all over the U District and Capitol Hill. We also dropped hand bills off at various record stores and clothing shops on Broadway, as well as at Squid Row and the Eastlake Zoo. All that work made me thirsty so we had a beer at the Zoo and discussed our strategy for the show.

“We play the show just like we play our practices,” Eugene stated, “Our best songs first, then some improv, then some covers. It’ll fill the set and get the audience interested in the band.”

“That sounds fine, let’s draw up a set list when we get back to the Rat House,” I said, then took a drink of my Ballard Bitter. I enjoyed Red Hook ales, despite being the most common microbrew you can find in Seattle. I was relishing the fact that we had a gig. It was an amazing feeling to see all that practice come to fruition.

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