Chapter Fourteen: “Rat House”

CLARK

Clark’s favorite musician was Frank Zappa. You would think that it would be a bass player like John Entwhistle or Jaco Pastorius, but you would be wrong. Zappa made the top of Clark’s list and he had all his albums, even the numerous “greatest hits” and outtake packages Frank put out like Strictly Commercial and Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar. He liked the lyrics more than anything, and the music was weird enough that a stoner like Clark could get into it deeply.

Clark started playing guitar in grade school and picked up the bass in high school. He had a rock band then, The Carbon Rings, and they played school dances and such, playing covers of the Doobie Brothers and Bad Company. Clark said he joined the band hoping he’d meet girls, but he never did. He blamed his eyeglasses. His parents wouldn’t let him get a pair of aviator glasses, preferring the Buddy Holly type eyewear that Clark called “birth control glasses” because they were so ugly you couldn’t get laid if you wore them. I doubted it was just the glasses.

His mother was also a Baptist, so his band activities were hidden from her. Clark’s father could give a damn what Clark did, but his mom was strict. He kept his bass and amp at a friend’s house and would practice after school for an hour, while telling her he was at school studying.

Clark was very smart in school, but the lack of cool clothes and hip eyewear made him an outsider so he decided to be popular through music. Picking up the bass in school helped him gain popularity, until his mom found out and forbade him from playing in the band again. It was after a high school dance and one of the parents who chaperoned congratulated his mom on the band’s success. That was the end of that. Clark was the first member of his family to go to college, let alone go for an advanced degree. His father was a forest service employee and his mom was a waitress at the local breakfast restaurant. They weren’t poor, but they weren’t middle class either.

Clark was tall, around six foot one, with long hair that he tied back in a pony tail. When we played he let his hair hang loose. He favored t-shirts and sweat shirts to flannel shirts and sneakers to combat boots. He did own a pair of hiking boots, for when he occasionally went camping with his English department colleagues.

Clark had spent two years in the Army in South. He seldom talked about it and only did it so he could have money to go to school. He finished college on the G.I. Bill and had such an aptitude for literature he went to graduate school in English hoping to become a professor. However, the less structured environment of grad school brought out Clark’s desire for consciousness expansion and he fell into a routine with Rob and Donnie of near constant pot smoking. This was not a liability, however, because the more outrageous your thesis was the more likely it would pass committee and look good at the Modern Language Association (MLA) academic job fair. Somehow, pot smoking brought out the best in Clark and he created a very popular thesis topic among his committee. I thought it was a ton of bullshit, how did TV sitcoms have anything to do with Catch-22 and political disappearances? Clark would have to prove it and he was halfway through his dissertation so it must have made sense in some way.

“How can you make the connection? I can see Catch-22 connecting with political disappearances, but where do the sitcoms come in?”

“You know how Dick Sargent replaced Dick York on Bewitched and how they got a different kid to play the drums in the Partridge Family? Jeremy Gelbwaks was the first kid. They replaced him with a completely different looking Brian Forster. In my thesis I call them ‘replacements’, characters who are supposed to be the same, but are not. This opposed to characters that appear integral to the show who suddenly drop out of sight. Not just killed off, but literally ‘disappeared’.”

“Like Petticoat Junction? Didn’t she die?”

“I’ve got many pages devoted to Petticoat Junction. They had disappearances, replacements, and so many crossovers that the show is as complicated as Finnegan’s Wake.”

“How so?” I asked.

“Think of Sam Drucker, the grocer and postmaster on Green Acres and Petticoat Junction. He also appeared as a guest on The Beverly Hillbillies. It’s as if the characters in all of these sitcoms orbit Sam Drucker, they are moons to his planet, planets to his sun,” Clark proclaimed.

“Wow! You sure can sling the shit.”

“That’s why I’m a graduate student in English.”

Once he was out of the army Clark decided to buy another bass and practice to records. He played along to the Zappa albums, trying different bass lines and improvisations, until he was a damn good player. Although he was good enough to play in a band, he chose to stay in school. It was only through our friendship that I could convince him to do both. Luckily, he was far enough along with his doctorate that he had some free time.

Bass players are peculiar creatures, anchored partly in the rhythm and yet outside it, partly lyrical, depending on the style of music that’s being performed. For One Hand Clapping Clark created a mostly driving beat with the bass, to make up for Howard’s short-comings, but also switching off with the guitar to take some melodic or lyrical turns. So, Clark and I would trade off on lead, then Eugene and I would trade off on lead, and finally Clark and Eugene would trade off on lead. We didn’t do that for all the songs, just some of the longer improvisations and some of the songs Clark wrote specifically to have a bass lead. Eugene’s songs always had a keyboard lead. My songs would have any combination of leads, I was egalitarian. If I felt Howard could pull off a drum solo I would have given him one.

It wasn’t just the way Clark played, it was also the settings he had on his amplifier, a low bass mixed with a high, twangy treble. It was a hellacious sound, like the bowels of the earth had opened up and this was noise that was emitted. It went along perfectly with the overall screech and squawk of One Hand Clapping. Yet, Clark could also play perfectly ordinary bass, nice tone and gentle as a country song’s bass line. It was good to stretch the limits of sound with noise.

Clark liked to smoke pot. Lots of pot. That’s why he was friends with Rob and Donnie, because they had lots of pot to smoke. He felt it liberated his mind, opened him up to possibilities, and showed him his potential. It was a mental tonic better than brain salts that were hawked to an unsuspecting public in the late part of the 19th century. It allowed him to think tangentially that was necessary for the thesis to his dissertation, large parts of which were written under the influence of the dreaded weed, marijuana. I’m certain ninety percent of dissertations in English, Comparative Literature, and Film Studies during the latter part of the 20th century were written under the influence of pot, and the only way to read them was to be stoned as well.

Pot and musicians have a long, happy history together. Although I’d smoke now and then, it wasn’t the amount Clark or Rob or Donnie smoked. Theirs would be an ounce to every gram I smoked. However, I drank more. It would be gallons to their pints. So it all evened out. Clark liked psychedelics as well, and preferred to be high than not, though he relished those seemingly fleeting moments of clarity sobriety brought. He claimed that they were more vivid and intense after a drug binge than the drug binge itself. So, sober or high, Clark was productive.

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