Chapter Six, “Rat House”


Eugene didn’t wear flannel shirts and combat boots. He had Florsheim zip up boots that came up just above the ankles. He wore a crappy green trench coat that had seen better days in the sixties where it must have hung on a hanger at Sears. One of his shirts was old mod style with orange circles instead of The Who’s Union Jack colored bull’s eye. Another was purple paisley long sleeved button-down that would’ve looked hip at a Quicksilver Messenger Service show at the Fillmore. He was not hip and he didn’t follow trends. He was his own man and comfortable in his poverty.

He made money cleaning people’s houses, driving the Salvation Army truck part-time, and doing astrological charts, although the new computer programs were crowding him out of that market. His gear was old and worn out, a Farfisa organ, a crappy Silvertone keyboard with an amplifier/speaker combo, and a Leslie keyboard. He ran them all through a Big Muff distortion pedal so they made a wheezing, shrieking, buzzing feedback-laden sound, like a dog crying in pain.

When he wasn’t conferring with Howard in the trailer or munching on a banana Eugene would pore over astrology books checking sidereal times and cosmic influences that would be laughable if he didn’t believe in them so wholeheartedly.

He wasn’t tall, about five foot eight, and his dark hair always had an extra sheen from the henna rinse he used on it. No matter how often he shaved he had a perpetual five o’clock shadow. Eugene was always trying to create some new art. He tried painting, collage, Xerox agitprop, fake band posters, and astrological readings. He lived on bananas, valerian root and coffee, I never saw him eat a full meal, just bananas, valerian root and coffee.

Eugene’s artworks were curious blend of collage, gesso, palette knife slashes of blue, red, and yellow, and headlines torn out of newspapers and magazines. Sometimes he’d stencil phrases on the pieces with flat black spray paint. They were curious, ranging in size from one foot square to some as large as nine feet across. He tried to solicit interest in these paintings, but he had no takers, not even among his astrological customers who came to him for advice on how to live their lives according to the planetary alignments.

We’d met at the university years earlier when we both took an astronomy class. He’d crack up every time the instructor would state a fact about a planet or star then cover himself by saying, “but we don’t know why.”  That became our catch phrase, “We don’t know why.”  As we became friendly he mentioned that he was a musician and would I be interested in recording some vocals for a class project he had. I sing rather high and he kept trying to get me to sing lower, “like Jim Morrison”. The song was “No Dyslexics”, a song we recorded with One Hand Clapping years later. After college we lost track of each other until I met up with him at a cafe on University Avenue and we decided to create a band. We didn’t know why, it just seemed right.

Eugene said he knew a drummer, this was before I’d met Howard and Eugene’s brothers, before I brought Clark in as bass, and before Howard had befriended Ritchie. Everything fell into place quickly and we were a group, but a dysfunctional one. Almost instantly we chose sides, and poor Eugene was caught in the middle. He was confidant of Howard, reconciler of Howard and me, mediator between Clark and Ritchie, and songwriter. He wasn’t just a band member, he was referee and parent. If there was a leader to the group it was Eugene.

He would counsel Howard with Tarot cards and astrological prognostications that I suspected were just made-up. He was a cheap analyst for Howard. When I asked Eugene what Howard talked about with him Eugene gave me a stoic look and told me, “Money!”  Evidentially, Howard was under the illusion that he was one quick scheme away from a fortune and all the auto body work in the world wasn’t going to get it for him. That’s why he wanted to be in the band. He believed it was a way to get rich quick. The thought crossed my mind too, but being pragmatic I knew I had to work hard at it, it wasn’t just going to drop in my lap, like it seemed for some bands.

Eugene and I would go to the various clubs to see bands or just wander around Broadway on Capitol Hill. We’d discuss the relative merits and faults and tie that to our band. Or we’d create distractions on our Broadway walks. These were almost performance art pieces. We’d create loud arguments and see how many spectators we could find, deface public works barricades, and generally act like assholes.

Sometimes, in the late afternoon, after I’d had a couple of beers and he’d come back from riding the Salvation Army truck and had rested, we’d walk along the Duwamish River and talk about people, like Howard, or things, like what was animal magnetism and charisma. Eugene wanted to know what made certain people charismatic and, by extension, what made bands charismatic. He often cited the excellent astrological conjoining of Mick Jagger, a Leo, with Keith Richards, a Sagittarius. I was often complemented by Eugene on being a Sagittarius, born with natural intelligence and charisma. Although flattered, I really had nothing to do with when or where I was born, my parents should be complemented, not me. If astrology wasn’t a pseudo-science it could accurately predict leaders and followers, crucial events in someone’s life instead of vague predictions of fame, fortune, success and love.

Eugene often commented how well Geminis and Sagittarians get along with each other. I never questioned his belief as I valued his friendship, but we didn’t work together like Jagger and Richards…he worked on his own and only asked for help when he got stuck, and that didn’t happen very often.

What strikes me most about these walks is how little I learned about Howard. I would ask questions and get facts and dates, but I learned little of the inner man. Eugene was his closest friend and he revealed little of Howard’s thinking. That Howard was superficial and craved money for no effort I knew, but what were his highest hopes, his biggest dreams. I knew I could never ask him myself, I would be met with resentment. It was just impossible for me to believe that all Howard wanted out of life was money. Money to do what? What could money provide him that he didn’t already have? A bigger trailer? More cigarettes? Fancier pens to write his cryptic and hilarious dreams? None of it made sense.

Eugene, on the other hand, would pour his heart out to me. He craved fame, more than fortune, more than love, more than family. He wanted to be recognized when he walked down the street. Although this was something I didn’t want, I could grasp it. I didn’t understand his lack of desire for love, he claimed that sex energized some people, but for him it left him drained. The idolatry of one person wasn’t sufficient for his ego, he needed thousands, if not millions, to worship his creations and him. As fatuous as it sounds, it at least made sense, unlike Howard’s fixation on money as what? A symbol of power? Power itself? A pack of cigarettes?

Then there were my own desires. Sex was in the mix, but fame and fortune surprisingly weren’t. I wanted Zen, to create a true statement about the world and have people recognize it in themselves. Unfortunately, since it was a desire, it was counter to Zen. I had to concentrate on what I needed and at that point it wasn’t much, living in the state of grace, as I was, I was impervious to the pains of life. I was comfortable, my basic needs taken care of. I had friends. The band was a kind of family. I had time and energy to create. What happens when Zen is achieved? Does an alarm sound and you get everything you wish for? I didn’t know, but I wasn’t about to jinx it by asking for more than I had. The only thing I wanted was more gigs, less disasters, and to find the one sound that would enlighten the world.

Eugene’s quest for fame through music and art made more sense than my quest for the sound of Zen. Rock music was a quick way to fame and fortune. Not that I would turn down a million dollars and the ability to retire at 28. My motivation was different than Eugene’s, but the results would be the same. He’d get his dream of recognition by the many and I would voice my views of the world. Did all great bands start with just a few people showing up at their gigs? Did the Beatles start with three fans and then increase their fan base exponentially? Would that happen for us? Could One Hand Clapping rise above the rest and be a first-rate band? All I had were questions, the answers were in the future, unseen and unknown.

Eugene would listen to Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One whenever he felt on top of the world. He also had a fondness for the Rolling Stones, listening to “Wild Horses” whenever he felt like he wouldn’t succeed, but the Kinks were his favorites. Besides sharing a birthday with Ray Davies, their birthday, June 21, was on an astrological cusp between Gemini and Cancer. People born on this date were said to be inspired, thoughtful and rather profound. I always bit my tongue when Eugene would go on about how “magical” his cusp was and how it indicated how rich and famous he was destined to become. At age 31 he hadn’t accomplished very much, but that didn’t dissuade him from trying. Perhaps One Hand Clapping would be the vehicle for his destiny.

He often said of his twenties, “Who says those are the best years of your life? You’re just starting out, you don’t have any money, everybody bosses you around, and you get the shitty jobs. I think life in my forties and fifties will be better. I’ll have money, I’ll be settled down, and I’ll have made it, you know?”  I didn’t know, I liked my twenties. They may not have been the best years of my life, but they weren’t the worst either. I was healthy, I could drink all night and still get up in the morning, and I could get away with being irresponsible and not wind up in jail. It was a good life.

Thinking the future would be better is nothing more than a panacea. Instead of improving today, this moment, you put off the best for later, for some future time when you’ll own a house, have a family, have a secure job. Those things are far off and you work toward that goal today, never knowing if those opportunities are really out there. It’s better to enjoy the moment, realize what is happening right now and accept that you may not live to see that tomorrow. That was what I got from Zen Buddhism, but there’s more to it than that. There’s something alien to me about seeking security and safety, they seem like illusions. There’s nothing secure or safe in this world. Nothing lasts and as you grow older you feel more physical aches and pains, you pay more and more for the illusion of safety, that house, the car, the kids’ education. It all seemed worthless in the end, when you’re dead and no longer worried about being comfortable, safe and secure.

Eugene’s vision for his future, though more radical, was still the same thing. Money and fame equals success and nothing less will do. Money and fame brings comfort and security, a sign that you’ve “made it”. I didn’t buy into his vision. I felt trapped when I thought of it. I believed in freedom, that possessions enslaved us, that property was theft. I was a fucking anarchist at heart, and there aren’t any American success stories that start out with an anarchist. They don’t suddenly become Wall Street bankers or oil tycoons. They’re usually living in dumps like the Rat House and accepting government handouts while cursing the system that provides them sustenance. If that was me, at least I owned up to it. I was free within my limited financial resources. But I didn’t limit my experiences to just things money could get me, I tried to expand my world with music, art and literature. How well I was feeling was how I measured my success.

I’d been to Eugene’s parent’s house only once. They had a nice four bedroom in Kent. Eugene’s father had been an engineer at Boeing while Mom had stayed at home and looked after the kids. Now he was on an early retirement, offered to him when Boeing laid off all those thousands of workers. He was doing very well for himself.

The inside of the house was rather saccharinely decorated. Mom’s influence, no doubt. Lots of chintz curtains and duvets on the beds. Not what I was expecting from the home of Eugene, Bill and Buzz. They were jungle boot wearing, car repairing, gear carrying men; I did not expect their beds to have duvets on them.

In the living room was an organ. Not a piano, an organ. When we visited Eugene’s father asked him to play something. Eugene demurred, but Dad was at him, “Come on, we bought that organ for you, play something nice.”  Eugene finally acquiesced and sat down and played some Floyd Cramer, Mom and Dad swaying their heads back and forth, enjoying the sounds. I was amazed that Eugene knew that kind of music, since his sound was the wonderful, awesome noise that helped define One Hand Clapping. The recital went on for about fifteen minutes. Afterward Dad offered us beers. It was really something. You could see how proud they were of Eugene. He’d really accomplished something.

My father and I were not close. My parents separated when I was ten and Dad never came around much after that. I’d see him once or twice a year; he never remembered my birthday. When I got older I stopped wishing he’d come around and faced the fact that he didn’t want me in his life. Since that was the case I didn’t want him in my life either. He had remarried and that was that, nothing more to be said.

After our beer we had dinner and it was a remarkably ordinary American meal, meat loaf, mashed potatoes, string beans, bread and butter, and pie for dessert. All washed down with Rainier Beer. There was little conversation at the table, but when we were about to leave the house Eugene’s father pulled him aside and gave him forty dollars and a pat on the back. I almost cried it was such a sincere expression of a father’s love for his son. On the way back Eugene slouched down in the seat and glowered.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“He thinks I can’t make it on my own.”

“Why? Because he gave you money? Does he give Bill and Buzz money?”

“Yes, it’s not the money so much as the attitude. If I played him what we play in the band he’d have blown his top. He hates rock music. I can’t be myself around him,” Eugene said.

“He seemed like an alright guy to me,” I said, because he did.

“You don’t know him like I do. He’s brutal.”

We drove on in without speaking, listening only to the Kinks tape playing in the deck. Finally Eugene said, “Look, I’m sorry. My father is a nice guy to almost everybody but me. He’s hypercritical of me. He expected me to be some sort of classical musician, but I don’t have that kind of talent. He never expected much of Bill or Buzz so they don’t have the feelings I do toward him. I only played that organ because my mom likes Floyd Cramer.”

Of course, I didn’t see his father being anything but nice to Eugene. Maybe I’m not perceptive enough, or don’t understand father and son relationships. I think Dad giving you money and drinking beer with you and your friends is pretty cool. He didn’t ask about work, he didn’t criticize him for being in a band, he just sat and smiled. I wish I had a dad like that.


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