Chapter Eight: “Rat House”

GOOSE SHIT MEADOWS

Good feelings came from a walk along the Quad at the University. Even if the Canadian geese shit up a storm on the grassy placements and paved walkways, the view was spectacular. A direct line of sight with Mount Rainier visible only on clear days or around sunset during the winter when the clouds would hang over the mountain and the sun and the golden rays would illuminate the mountain with vibrancy. The view was called, appropriately enough, The Vista.

We had a gig at the Husky Union Building, otherwise known as the HUB, on the University of Washington campus. They put on lots of interesting shows, bands like Nirvana, Mudhoney, Tad, Screaming Trees as well as bigger acts that were touring the nation, but couldn’t draw thousands to their shows. We were booked with Sunbats and Coltrane Wreck. None of us had a large following, but together we could scrape together around thirty people, and whatever students showed up. Plus, the room was larger than the Eastlake Zoo. Who knew, maybe a hundred people would show up.

Setting up the equipment was a drag, as always. I spent most of my time connecting the effects pedals I had. I used three inch cords between each pedal and then made sure they were in the correct order. Some pedals didn’t like being behind other pedals, it had a deleterious effect on the sound. So I had taped a number on each pedal to determine its placement in the chain. Then it was setting all the knobs in the proper places for the effects to sound right.

Howard took the most time to set up, clanging his crappy cymbals and banging his tom toms around. We’d all be tuned up and ready to rock and he’d still be adjusting his snare drum for intonation. Once he settled down we did our sound check, playing “Alma Mater Stigmata” in honor of the University of Washington, where most of us went to school. The sound guy couldn’t get our levels right, he seemed confused by the feedback I created onstage, perhaps thinking it was coming from the P.A.. We had to play the song three times before he was satisfied. Then it was haul all our equipment off stage so Sunbats could set up and do their check. After that it was time for a smoke break.

Sunbats’ sound check went flawlessly and I was jealous and bitter that the sound man couldn’t adjust our sound properly. We met the band for the first time and they seemed like a cool group. The song they played for their sound check was a kind of swirling psychedelia with heavy metal overtones. Their drummer had a high-end Tama kit that put Howard’s set to shame. All of their equipment was nice, no Peavey, all Mesa Boogies and Marshall stacks, and the bass player had an Ampeg speaker that had wheels! Clark was drooling over that, having to lug his fifty pounds of gear everywhere wasn’t much fun.

Coltrane Wreck were an “artier” band, the lead guitarist had a Danelectro guitar, which is a step above a Harmony guitar. Danelectro built the Silvertone amplifiers and guitars for Sears in the ‘50s so we were on a similar footing equipment-wise. They also had a saxophone player. Their sound was pop-jazz fusion, lots of sevenths and augmented chords set against a delirious hybrid Latin rhythm. All in all it would be an exciting, diverse, no-grunge show.

I want to mention rebellion and rock and roll. If One Hand Clapping was rebelling against anything it was working for a living. We were apathetic about everything except the music itself, and loud obnoxious noises are rebellious. So, the sound was rebellious even if the intention wasn’t. The intention was to slack off, try to get the most by doing the least, and that hard work at something you love could equal success.

We were the opening band and no one we knew came to see us play. There were about fifteen people in the audience when we began playing our set, most of those the other bands’ members. We started fierce, I sensed anger in all of us at playing to such a small crowd in such a large room when we had anticipated a larger audience. Starting with “Alma Mater Stigmata” Ritchie howling out, “Welcome to my school!” sending a chill down my spine. I looked out at the audience and it seemed that they, too, felt that chill. The heavy minor key and the down-tuned E string made for a maddening cacophony, that and layers upon layers of reverb from my digital delay unit. I could see the members of Coltrane Wreck nodding their heads in appreciation.

Our next song, “Tremolo Migraine”, took its name from the vibrating tremolo effect on most guitar amps. Since my amp was cheap it didn’t have the tremolo, so I used an effects pedal to achieve the same result. The song was simple, an A chord with an undulating waves of sound, and Eugene playing the shit out of his keyboards, doing all kinds of scales. Ritchie would just improvise lyrics about headaches, migraines, hemorrhoids, peptic ulcers, or whatever else came to mind. Howard really shined on these types of songs because they were essentially improvisations and he could do all the bizarre things he did on drums. Clark would hold it all together with a constant bass line that anchored the rhythm.

I could see a few more students coming into the ballroom to see the bands and I watched as both Sunbats and Coltrane Wreck got into our music.

The rest of the set ran smoothly, all seven songs going over well with the musicians there, but getting almost no response from the other observers. They would come in, stay for a minute or two, then leave. When our set was over they all came back, so they either hated our music or they came to see the other bands.
Later, as we were packing up our gear I asked Clark if he was counting heads at the show.

“I saw people walking out, you couldn’t help but notice, there weren’t that many to begin with,” he said. Howard overheard us and snorted derisively.

“We played a good set,” Eugene added as he coiled a cable around his arm.

“Fuck yeah, we rocked,” said Ritchie. Inexplicably, he was holding a tambourine. We didn’t have a tambourine, but Coltrane Wreck did, or used to before Ritchie got to it.

As we were leaving the HUB, Seattle’s rain fell on us, completing a very disappointing day.

I stewed over the HUB gig for a week, turning it in my mind over and over until I knew every note by heart. We had played a good show, our music just wasn’t understood by an audience that came for jazz or heavy metal. If we’d only been matched with bands that played similar music, maybe if we could open for Sonic Youth, it would end with a better result.

I read the local music magazines, The Rocket and Backlash, and there were reviews of the show we played. I read through them twice before I comprehended that neither one mentioned us, only Sunbats and Coltrane Wreck. Either we sucked so much they didn’t think it worthwhile to write about us or the reporter came after we’d finished our set: more failure, more bullshit, more angst.

Surprisingly, the Ballard Firehouse booked us for a pay to play gig. I got the call on Wednesday for a music showcase of three bands on the following Tuesday. We had to sell twenty tickets by then or we forfeited any money earned at the door. It was a classic scam, make the band responsible for the door while the house raked in the cash from the bar. It was also a scam we had to go along with because it could be great exposure for One Hand Clapping. You hoped the other bands sold more tickets so you got access to their fans. The tickets were only three dollars each, but you still had to have a fan base that would go to your gig on a Tuesday night.

I wrote letters to The Rocket and Backlash admonishing them for not mentioning us in their reviews of the show and inviting them to the Firehouse for our Tuesday gig. I enclosed two tickets in each letter and hoped they’d bite. That was twelve dollars I’d never see again.

On the day of the Firehouse show Bill and Buzz actually showed up to help us move equipment. I think they came because we each would get two drink tickets for free beer at the venue. They loaded our gear into Bill’s truck and off we went to Ballard. Once there we unloaded the gear and started setting up for the sound check. We were on the bill with Meat Cigars and The Art Farts.

This time our sound check went well, thanks to Bill and Buzz’s over-the-shoulder promptings to the sound man. Despite their general uselessness, they’d spent enough time at our practices to know how we were supposed to sound. Maybe all of the beer I had bought that they drank came to good use.

Meat Cigars were a pop-punk band that played all over the musical genre map, one song would be country-western and the next straight-up punk, then a blues song. It was very confusing for the audience. They were fun, in a pop-punk way, they had a bouncy rhythm section. I was sure we’d connect more readily with the crowd than they would. The Art Farts were another punk band, but with an artier edge to it, more punk via the Velvet Underground/Modern Lovers path. This was a slightly better fit than the HUB show, since we had VU and punk leanings as well.

We were the second billed. Meat Cigars opened, then us, then the Art Farts. Clark and I hung out at the bar while Meat Cigars played. We used our drink tickets to buy beer.

“Do you like this band?” I asked. I had to shout to be heard above the din the band was making.

“They’re fun, but they’re all over the place. They’d do better to be consistent in their sound,” Clark shouted back.

After their set, it was our turn. Bill and Buzz were at the bar. There were around twenty people in the place besides band members. We hadn’t sold any tickets.

During our third song, “Megaphone of Death” this maniac started flailing around the dance floor. “Megaphone” isn’t a dance song, it’s sheer noise highlighted by Howard playing somewhere between a 5/4 and 4/4. Basically, it was pure chaotic sound. Here’s this guy dancing around like we’re the Grateful Dead playing “Jack Straw” at twice the normal speed. I wasn’t sure what drugs he was on, but I was sure they were good. He danced for the remainder of the set…our first fan! The last song of our set was Brian Eno’s “Blank Frank” and Howard almost got it right. I was so proud, our first fan and Howard doing a roll and not missing the beat, a momentous occasion. I felt like we were a rock band.

As I was tearing down the gear our fan, the maniac, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, a pretty young Native American woman came up to me.

“You guys really rocked out,” she said. I looked at her from the stage and smiled.

“Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

She introduced herself as Paula. She was having a party and wanted us to play it. I was surprised, we weren’t a dance band despite the maniac. I couldn’t wrap my head around the invitation.

“Can I get you a drink?” she asked. Now I was even more confused. Could it be she was a groupie? We went to the bar and she bought me a beer. The maniac was there talking to Eugene. He seemed to have calmed down since the dance floor. Paula ordered a Tom Collins and we started drinking. The Art Farts were setting up.

“Tell me about this party of yours,” I said to Paula. It would be in a house and it was a semi-annual party for her and her co-workers. She was a manager at a juice co-operative by the Pike Place Market. I thought that was cool, I might get some free juice out of the deal.

“How about I give you a ride home?” she asked. I guessed at this point I was being picked up. This hadn’t happened to me in a long time.

“Okay, let me tell my friend I’m leaving.” By this point Eugene was alone, the maniac had left to watch the Art Farts set up.

I handed Eugene my car keys. “I’m getting a lift home,” I said, motioning with my head over my shoulder toward Paula. Eugene nodded and smiled. “Can you drive my car home?”

“Sure. That guy I was talking to is a writer for Backlash. He says he wants to write us up. I have to give him a demo tape.” This was great news! A write-up could get us a larger audience and more gigs.

“I’ll see you back at the house,” Eugene said.

Paula and I left before the Art Farts started playing and she drove me to the Rat House. We sat in the living room, drank beer, and talked. Then we went into my room. I didn’t see Eugene until the next morning, when Paula left.

Paula had long black hair that was very attractive. Why she liked our band I never asked, afraid of the answer, and why she was with me I considered part of the state of grace, I’m certainly not a handsome man. She said I was cute and I believed her.

After one of our dates we returned to the Rat House to listen to records on the shitty stereo and make out. However, when we entered Donnie the Vegetable Boy was there. He was waiting to sell Clark some weed. Whenever Donnie would come over he’d grab my Harmony guitar and start diddling it. He wasn’t very good, he’d play the same riff over and over. It sounded like “Yehudi Menuhin, Yehudi Menuhin,” sung to Woody Woodpecker’s theme song.

“Don’t you have somewhere to go?” I half-asked, half-demanded.

“Nope,” Donnie replied cheerfully.

He went in the kitchen and took a beer, then started in again, “Yehudi Menuhin, Yehudi Menuhin.” Then a really disconcerting thing began. He would stare at Paula, his scraggly beard twitching. He said, “You have pretty hair, may I touch it.” Repulsed, she smiled grimly and said, “No.” I was getting angry.

A few minutes passed, him picking at the guitar the whole while, and then he asked if he could touch her pretty hair again. Again she said, “No.”

“Look, Donnie, get the fuck out of here, okay. You can see Clark tomorrow.”

Donnie ignored me. He kept playing the guitar, that insidious riff over and over. I had enough.

I tore the guitar out of his hands and in a fury smashed it against the floor. It cracked into pieces as if it were made of balsa wood. There went $70 I’d never see again as the guitar was non-repairable.
Donnie, shocked, got up and left the house.

“What was that about?” Paula asked me calmly. She didn’t seem shaken at all by what had transpired.

“I lost my temper,” I said.

“I could see that. You know, I can take care of myself. He’s just a freak. You didn’t have to wreck your guitar.”

Sheepishly, I agreed. Donnie had gotten on my nerves and I reacted badly. It wasn’t very Zen of me. After he left I didn’t hate him anymore, all the anger had left me. I guess it wasn’t my true nature.

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