Chapter Twelve, “Rat House”

THE HAND OF MAN, THE VOICE OF GOD

We were loud, louder than the end of time, as loud as the voice of God. A local music paper, Backlash, commenting on one of our shows, said our music was “Eschatological”. They probably meant Scatological, 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.

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 Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or a Bob Dylan? Eugene would say force of personality, a certain animal magnetism, or some astrological conjunction among the band members and when and where they formed. Eugene’s obsession with the stars and planets was interesting, but ludicrous. As a whole, we needed something that a hunchbacked lead singer and a crazy off-time drummer couldn’t provide.

I wanted 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, short of dosing everyone in the audience with LSD-25. It didn’t cross my mind that I hadn’t achieved my own Zen, just that I was closest to nirvana when listening to music. The perfection of sound, and the space between sounds, was the sound of One Hand Clapping.

Eugene often said he was in the band to be famous or infamous. For me it was a creative outlet. And beer. Being the voice of God is frightening, one needs to be intoxicated to do it. Also, intoxication helped ease the pain of being ignored while you’re performing. No matter how loud you are you always run the risk of not connecting with your audience, a risk we ran more often than not. Worst of all was when there were only a few patrons and they weren’t there to see you, but to drink and play pool. We didn’t get paid and we had the privilege of being ignored and hauling equipment.

The more we gigged the better I thought we became. Other bands asked us to open for them and we headlined on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, bringing in the faithful if they didn’t have to work the next day. We could bring in around fifteen people on a Friday or Saturday night, but only five or six on a weeknight. Still, our recording fund was gradually growing, twenty dollars here, thirty dollars there, it all added up. Get a professionally recorded demo and shop it to the local record labels, Sub-Pop or Black Label or C/Z. If all else fails, put out the record on our own.  Ride the state of grace as far as it will take you, because at some point the ride ends and you’re back to shoveling shit.

Paula was great getting people to come to our shows. She admitted liking groups like Can, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Gang of Four, the Pixies, and Big Black so our local brand of noise avant-garde wasn’t unknown to her. She would bring her co-workers who weren’t aging hippies and they were our core group. They were young and didn’t mind staying up to two in the morning on a workday.

 

 

How many people struggle each day against fate and destiny? Why do they feel that the universe, in that instance, is conspiring against them? It’s much like a gambler who knows the game is in the house’s favor, but persists in playing hoping luck will turn his fortunes around. You can’t beat fortune’s wheel, it turns incessantly, and only living in a state of grace can its effects be countered.

I was lucky, I had a girlfriend, I had a band, I had enough to feed myself when I was hungry and a safe place to sleep when I was tired. I was neither cold nor hot, my mind was without troubles. With my hand I was the voice of God. I was the master of causation, I could make the earth tremble with the sounds I produced. I accepted this responsibility somberly, but with joy.

We had enough money to record in a professional studio. I made arrangements with an engineer who was moving and wanted to test his equipment in the new location. He offered us a deal, ten hours of studio time to record and mix for $300. That left us another $300 for anything else the band needed.

It was a rainy autumn day when we arrived at his studio with our equipment. We set up behind baffles so our instruments wouldn’t bleed into each other’s channels. Howard was in his own room with the drums. He had eight microphones set up around his drum set. It took an hour to mic his kit and set his levels. Clark ran his bass directly into the board, bypassing the need to mic his bass speakers. We all wore headphones. It was a real professional setup.

We played our first song, but the engineer, Bud, stopped us halfway through.

“I’m sorry, can the drummer hear you playing? He seems to be off-time.” Bud said from the mixing room through an intercom.

“That’s how he plays,” Eugene said into an available microphone, “He’s fluid.”

“Really? Oh, okay, let’s do it again and let me get better levels. You guys are really loud.”

We played the song again, all the way through, and Bud seemed satisfied with the levels.

That day we recorded five songs. We overdubbed guitar and keyboard parts, we recorded several different vocal tracks, and we still had four hours left of our ten hours so we agreed to come back the next day to mix the songs.

Mixing turned into a contentious nightmare of egos. Everyone wanted their instrument to be in the forefront of the mix, despite what would be best for the song. Eugene, again, had to referee. I argued that the guitar, being loud and noisy, should be the focus of the songs, Clark argued for the bass, since it anchored the rhythm, Howard, of course, wanted the drums up front. Eugene, stuck in the position of arbiter and, now, producer kicked us all out of the mixing room and sat with the engineer himself. When he finally let us back in the room to listen to the mixes we all had to agree that Eugene did a great job. Everything was at the level in the mix that gave it a cohesive whole and it sounded great.

I made copies of the demo, using band funds, at a professional dubbing studio, one where they took your two-track ¼” master and dubbed them to 24 cassette tapes. These were distributed to friends, record labels, and clubs.

I sent the demo tape to every label I could think of like Estrus, Sub-Pop, C/Z, Black Label, Touch & Go, Amphetamine Reptile, SST, and so on. None of them thought much of our tape, and it took weeks of patiently waiting for the rejections to come. I went to Eugene and we discussed putting out our own record. After dubbing we had $250 in the band fund, if each of us added $50 we’d have $500 and that would be enough to press a vinyl disc.

I asked around and got the name of pressing plant in California that would take your master tape and turn it into a record with two weeks turnaround. Knowing that Eugene was the leader of the band I asked him to inform the rest of the band. He agreed and at our next practice he proposed the idea of a do-it-yourself record.

It was cheapest to press a seven inch 45 rpm single, two songs, one on each side. We would all pick our top three songs that we’d recorded and tally up the most popular two and those would be on the record. It was agreed that Eugene would create the artwork for the record sleeve and the record label. Clark and I would come up with the record label’s name. There was surprisingly little argument with any of these proposals. I think recording had brought us closer together and made our goals seem attainable.

The advantage to putting out our own record was any income from the sale of the single went directly back to the band fund. No percentages, just 100% profit once the costs of production were recouped. We agreed that costs were for pressing the record and printing the sleeve. The band fund needed to be replenished if we were to do the tour of the Northwest. The band fund would also be used to mail copies of the single to magazines and radio stations.

Over a joint and some beer Clark and I brainstormed names for the record label. We wanted it to convey not just the band, but the attitude behind the band. I brought up “Vinyl Noise” but that seemed too inclusive of just records. What if it expanded to tapes and CDs?

“How about ‘Voice of God’?” I asked.

“Too religious. People might mistake us for a Christian rock band,” Clark replied.

“That may not be a bad thing. We could get more sales. How about Box Kite Records in honor of Howard?”

Clark chuckled and then suggested “Straight Razor Records”. It was an interesting image, a picture of a straight razor. I took a swig of beer and announced I was satisfied with the name search.

Eugene started with the label design, getting the razor just right. Meanwhile, the voting was taking place. I chose “No Dyslexics” as number one, “Megaphone of Death” as number two, and our cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Keep On Chooglin’” as number three. I felt the cover tune showed our ability to interpret a song. The improvisation on “Keep On Chooglin’” was razor sharp, just like our label’s name suggested, and we weren’t being sarcastic or ironic in covering it. We took Paula’s suggestion to heart and decided to showcase our version of a sixties song.

When the votes came in I was surprised that “Keep On Chooglin’” made it to B-side slot with “Megaphone of Death” as the A-side. I had no idea the others liked “Megaphone” so much. “No Dyslexics” made it to third place.

Now that the songs were decided Eugene ramped up the artwork and made a great collage of megaphones and coffins with all the lettering stenciled like the Sex Pistols. The label was a straight razor half-opened with the words “Straight Razor Records” along the blade and handle. It looked terrific.

We went to Kinko’s and photocopied the sleeve in black and white and sent the label artwork with the two-song reel to the record plant in California. They would ship back 250 7” singles with the label on them. All we had to do was stuff plastic sleeves with the record and the artwork and sell them at gigs or in record stores around town. This was called consignment, the record store provided the space and took a small percentage of sale as a fee.

When the records arrived two weeks later, I couldn’t believe how incredible they looked, all black and shiny with the straight razor on the label, and my name under the song title. It was truly amazing and I was proud.

I had a list of magazines and radio stations to send the record. First was KCMU-FM on the University of Washington campus. They had a radio show that featured nothing but local music called “Audioasis” and I was certain we’d get played on it. Then there was Maximum Rocknroll magazine. They reviewed any record that they received so we would have a clipping for our press kit. Some of the other bands I’d spoken with recommended a station in Moscow, Idaho called KUOI-FM on the University of Idaho campus. Most of our radio play would be on college stations, if not all of it. I didn’t see commercial stations buying and playing our single. Backlash and The Rocket also received copies for review, but the tepid response One Hand Clapping had gotten in the past didn’t bode well for a review. I thought about buying ads in both, hoping that would be an incentive for them to review, but the pricing was prohibitive.

Paula was our first sale. She bought the single at full price from me and I put the money back into the band fund. I visited the record stores every five days to see if we were selling any records. Around twenty had been sold the first week and that money went into the band fund. I was impressed at the progress we were making. We sold fifteen records at our show at Squid Row and another twelve at the Central. Mail orders started coming in after our review in Maximum Rocknroll had come out. They said the record was interesting, but not something you need to buy unless the band makes it big. Complementary in an off-hand way. Melody Maker in England reviewed it and said, “’Megaphone of Death’ has a certain raw quality that is very appealing on first listen, but pales in comparison to the latest TAD release that arrived at the same time.”  Again, backhanded complements.

 

 

I loved sound, what some would call noise, but it involved more than just distortion or dirt, it also was intonation, the interplay of instruments. For instance, the guitar in the Damned’s “New Rose” had the perfect tone, the interplay of guitars in the Buzzcocks’ “Why Can’t I Touch It?”, the sheer cacophony of the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray”, the waves of echoes on “Sweatloaf” by the Butthole Surfers, and the elegant fuzz bass of the Beatles’ “Think For Yourself”. All of these and more educated me on what popular music could and should be. Our own attempts were the Sound of One Hand Clapping and it was captured for posterity on vinyl and tape.

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One response to “Chapter Twelve, “Rat House”

  1. I like the first section. I just stopped by quickly to see what you were up to, and don’t have time to read the rest, but the first section opens with a natural sound; I can hear your “voice”.

    I like the challenge of bringing the audience to Zen and “crap in their pants”. I like the narrator’s realization that bringing the audience to nirvana might be impeded by his not having reached his own Zen. Great fun!

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