I awoke to horrible shrieking squeals of pain and agony outside my window in the front yard of the Rat House. I staggered to the open window to see what was happening. I was disgusted at the sight of Bill beating Ellie, his chocolate Labrador retriever, with a belt. It reminded me of my father beating me, though my father was far less vicious and a tad more merciful.
“Bill, what the hell are you doing?” I shouted.
“I’m teaching her not to kill chickens.”
I was the only one there besides Bill and the dog and presumably a dead chicken or two. I wondered how long I’d have to endure the wailing from Ellie.
As I waited I started thinking. Bill had reasoned the only way to teach the dog not to kill was to beat it senseless. I didn’t understand it and neither did the dog. Ellie couldn’t reason out cause and effect, just as I couldn’t puzzle out karma. To the dog, killing chickens was unrelated to a beating. Where was the justice? Justice being the thing that makes us aware we did wrong and were being punished for our actions. Karma was a perverse type of justice, taking an event in a previous life and tying it to some future event in another life. Where’s the causality?
To the dog, with her dog nature, killing chickens was justified. She might have seen getting beaten was an unjust event, one where her master was a complete bastard for no good reason. She was a convenient excuse for violence. Bill was judge, punisher, and teacher, but he failed at all three, because it was a dog he judged, punished, and taught.
Maybe Bill thought the dog knew right from wrong. Pet owners often give human attributes like guilt and shame to their animals. Those traits don’t exist in their true natures. The “guilty” look a dog has when it “knows” it did something bad is just a look, that’s all. Nothing in that look is knowledge it did anything wrong that will affect it later in life, whether it’s a disapproving word from its master or a beating in the morning. That “hang-dog” look has nothing to do with guilt or innocence, justice, hope, peace, or free will.
Eventually Ellie stopped whining and slunk off to hide under Howard’s trailer. I got dressed and faced the day with an awkward feeling, empathy for Ellie. I felt badly. She only had a dog’s nature and she would never know a Buddha’s Zen. I, at least, had a chance.
We were living in a house full of fleas. Ellie brought them in. Bill did not beat her for this. I was convinced we would all die from plague if we stayed in South Seattle. The fleas bit the rats that lived in the open sewage trench that ran in back of the house and emptied into the Duwamish River. Then they bit us. Our legs were covered in red welts from the bites. I waited for the black boils of plague to well up then I would desperately rush myself to the hospital.
However, the rent was only eighty-five dollars a month for each of us. Since none of us worked full-time this was a God-send, even with the rats running all over the place.
The house was a patchwork of repairs, all done in half-ass fashion by our half-ass landlord. It leaned toward the Duwamish like a magnet next to an iron ingot; the river seemingly pulled the house toward it. The floors were splintered wood and the walls were moldy. I named it the Rat House. I had to have it be the Rat House because it bugged the shit out of Howard, our clueless-to-rhythm drummer, whenever I said it, reminding him that I was a rat and he was a horse and in the Chinese Zodiac the horse doesn’t get along with the rat. Howard firmly believed in pseudo-sciences, probably because he couldn’t comprehend real science. I won by sheer persistence, saying it over and over until everyone, even Howard, was saying Rat House. Sam started saying the Rat House after I bought a twelve-pack of Rainiers and we drank it together while we played pinball.
Bill had asked us to store his 1953 Gottlieb Grand Slam pinball machine when Howard moved his trailer to the Rat House. It was probably the only valuable thing he owned. It was completely functional and we could play it whenever we wanted. The rule was we couldn’t smoke or drink near it: no cigarettes resting on it, no beer bottles on the glass. I often won the tournaments we had to determine who the Grand Slam king was.
We didn’t have any real furnishings. Howard had the most stuff since he lived in his trailer all the time, whenever he moved it all went with him. It was an Airstream, easily hauled around by pickup truck. Howard ran an extension cord from the house to his trailer and a single electric light bulb would blaze through the dark like the beacon on a lighthouse. Late into the night Howard would write his cryptic and hysterically inappropriate lunacy on paper. Mostly these were his dreams for the future, of being rich, of finding money on one of his long walks around Seattle. These ramblings were esoteric on one level, involving flights of fantasy seldom shown on his usually dim demeanor. He wanted money, but wasn’t motivated enough to earn it. Meanwhile, my life was less restrictive than his. I didn’t have a job and my only responsibility was to my roommates and the band.
It was a good life, leisurely, loaded with potential, yet not overwhelming in complexity. I was 24. I had no boss and no problems except how to stretch my meager unemployment compensation to last the week.
Matt was Bill, Buzz, and Chuck’s brother. He was unaffected by Ellie’s unfortunate punishment. He saw it for what it was–Bill’s sadistic side showing itself to the world. Matt was close to his family and understood their psychology. He knew all their horoscopes and advised them on money issues using astrology. That was one of many reasons they were always hanging around.
Matt, Bill, and Buzz previously lived in a two bedroom house across town. The landlord didn’t know about the dog and disliked their laziness. For instance, they let the grass grow. Unmowed lawns annoyed the landlord who stormed over early one morning and demanded they mow it. Buzz tackled the lawn immediately, but there was dew was all over the grass and the hand mower couldn’t get through. When Buzz gave up and went back to bed, leaving three-quarters of the lawn uncut, the landlord gave them 30 days notice.
Their brother, Chuck, moved into the house and took over the lease, which pleased the landlord. Chuck had two young daughters, so it was perfect for his family. His wife was nice, but we seldom saw her. Rather, Chuck would come over to the Rat House and hang out and drink a beer or two, but he was really a hard-working family man and I respected him for it. He also brought his own beer.
One Hand Clapping was loud, louder than the end of time, as loud as the voice of God. A local music paper commented that our sound was “Eschatological”. They also said that the rhythm section was “fluid” meaning our drummer kept slipping in and out of time and the bass guitar player thought he was the rhythm guitarist. Other than that, any press is good press when you’re starting out.
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. 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? Matt would say a mix of charm, intelligence, and the astrological conjunctions among the band members. Matt’s obsession with the stars and planets was interesting, but ludicrous.
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 then I was flummoxed. Short of dosing everyone in the audience with LSD-25, how else can they achieve enlightenment? 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 way we played. It was the sound of One Hand Clapping.
Paula, my girlfriend, was great at getting people to come to our shows. She would bring her co-workers from the juice co-operative who weren’t aging hippies to our shows and they became our core group of fans. They were young and didn’t mind staying up to two in the morning on a weeknight.
I considered myself lucky, living in a state of grace where I had a girlfriend, a band, food and shelter, such as it was. 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.
It was a dark, dreary day, one filled with rain and black clouds. Because of the weather Seattle is known for its indoor pursuits. With rain falling nine months out of the year people congregate inside: drinking beer and playing pool, brewing strong coffee, or sitting in comfortable chairs reading books. It’s also a place where music thrives for the same reasons drinking or shooting darts are popular, listening to, or playing in, a band is something done in a bar.
Sam decided we needed a change of scenery and suggested a road trip to Enumclaw. It didn’t matter where we went; all we would do is drive to the nearest pub and drink until it got late then return to the Rat House. I was game; I hadn’t been out of town for a while.
The essence of a good road trip is music. At the beginning of the trip we listened to KJET, the AM radio station that played punk and new wave. As we listened to the Clash we discussed the future of the band.
“I’m just tired of his awkwardness. Granted, he’s gotten better on the drums, but he still isn’t up to par. Matt is necessary; he’s the perfect keyboard player for our sound. Do you think he’d leave the band if Howard got kicked out?” Sam asked.
“I know Matt pretty well and he’ll resent us for pushing Howard out,” I said. “He might get angry and they might leave the band and move out.”
“What Do I Get?” by the Buzzcocks came on the radio. We paused to listen then started in again.
“I hate to be the one to defend Howard, but he tries really hard and he did learn the songs to the best of his abilities. His awkwardness behind the drums is kind of our trademark. It makes our sound what it is,” I said.
“He’s mentally diminished. He acts like he’s stoned all day, but I know he doesn’t smoke.”
“He works in auto body repair. He’s been exposed to lots of chemicals. He should be wearing a mask all the time.”
As we drove south toward Enumclaw the radio station started to fade so Sam fiddled around with the cassette tapes I kept in the car and decided to play Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan, one of my favorite road tapes. Listening to “Temporarily Like Achilles” I wondered out loud if Dylan had problems with women.
“We all have problems with women,” Sam responded.
“I have no problems with Paula,” I said.
“You’re one of the lucky ones then,” he said.
We drove on, not talking, listening to Dylan play his version of the blues. Approaching Enumclaw we started scouting pubs and found one on the main drag. A pub is different than a bar, it served beer and wine and wasn’t required to have a restaurant attached, like most bars did. It started to rain as I parked the car and we entered the pub.
Sam and I lit up our smokes, poured out the beers, and started drinking. After a pint I checked out the jukebox. There was only country music so I punched in some Patsy Cline and Hank Williams and drank another pint. The regulars seemed to appreciate my playing some good tunes and were less suspicious of us, the newcomers.
The secret to a long day of drinking is pacing. Have plenty of cigarettes on hand, I always brought a fresh pack.
After a couple of hours and several pitchers we were well on our way to getting completely hammered. We kept plugging quarters into the jukebox and playing hit after hit of country music while we sang with the barflies. Soon our money ran out. That ended our fun. We drove back to the Rat House in a storm and the rain pounded the roof of my Mustang. The slap of the windshield wipers cleared most of the water away so I could see enough to drive, but it was an unpleasant ride back. No Dylan, no radio, just the glow of our cigarettes and the dashboard lights as the rain tapped out a rhythm on the roof and the windshield wipers kept the time.
One Hand Clapping played Paula’s party and made $300. We didn’t have enough songs so we played our set twice as well as jamming on several extended improvisations to fill the time and expose us to the party late-comers.
We were in the garage between sets and I heard someone say through the open door that led into the kitchen, “I hear them everywhere. They’re louder than the stereo.” I almost laughed out loud, I didn’t care. We had a core of about five people, including Paula, watching us and that was an accomplishment. Plus, there was a keg so we drank for free.
Afterward, as we were packed, I mentioned the comment I had heard from the kitchen to Paula. She said that some her co-workers from the juice co-operative were unhappy with our music.
“You know how they are! They’re still stuck in the sixties. Maybe if you played some Creedence Clearwater Revival they would have come out to the garage.” Paula liked the music that I did, like punk and post-punk noise, so I wasn’t sure if she was joking or not. Her suggestion, however, did resonate. CCR did lots of blues and rock-based jams and were noted for their extended versions of “Suzie Q” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” We needed more songs, and doing a cover song that was long and involved jamming could be good.
“You may be right. Something recognizable, but given a whole new treatment. You’re a genius, Paula, I swear,” I gave her a quick kiss and dragged my amp and speakers out to the truck. Bill and Buzz were nowhere to be seen so I loaded my gear then Matt came out with the keys. He was going to drive the gear back, unload, then drive back to pick up Bill and Buzz, who had drank too much beer and weren’t sober enough to drive. We laughed and climbed into the truck to ride to the Rat House.
On the way back I suggested we stop at Jules Maes Saloon and drop off a demo tape. Jules Maes was an old Seattle bar located by the Boeing airfield in Georgetown that hosted live music. Aside from that it was nothing special, it was just like every bar anywhere in Washington State. There was Rainier on tap along with Olympia and Budweiser, the room was dark, Frank Sinatra on the jukebox, occasionally replaced by Willie Nelson. The same clients starting at opening and working their drinks on the way to closing. When we arrived with our tape it was nine at night and the bar itself was packed with patrons while a few of the tables had occupants. I could see the stage in the other room to the left of the bar as you entered the saloon.
I asked for the manager and she came out and took our tape. She said she’d hand it off to her booker. This was standard operating procedure. I was pretty sure they never listened to the tape; just having one was enough to get the gig. We decided to have one more beer for the road before heading back to the Rat House.
Several days later I received a call from Jules Maes offering us a Friday gig as long as we could bring more than 20 people. They had another band headlining, Swizzle Stick. They were our age and were in a similar situation. They too needed more fans. This show could be mutually beneficial.
We put up posters all over Georgetown, Capitol Hill, and Pioneer Square hoping people would show up. Come that Friday we packed Bill’s truck, covered it with a tarp, and in the rain drove the short distance to Georgetown. Bill and Buzz were actually helpful and unpacked our gear from the truck.
Paula came and brought some of her co-workers and Swizzle Stick had twenty friends show up so we had over forty people who came to hear all of us play. However, there were thirty other people who didn’t want us there. That was the general vibe from the regulars at the bar, we annoyed them. I could hear them asking for the jukebox to be turned back on. I felt like Bob Dylan on the Royal Albert Hall bootleg recording where he says, “Play it fucking loud!” I wanted to make the locals’ ears bleed.
“If someone offers you drugs, what do you say?” I said into the microphone, my voice booming forth.
“NO!” someone shouted from the audience.
“NO? You say, ‘Thank you!’” Thus began our set. We screeched and wheezed and bled sound out of our amplifiers that could have raised the dead. I’d never had so much fun in my life.
Drugs were essential in altering my perceptions of the universe and my place in it. Drug-induced trips usually led to various types of enlightenment and, in some cases, “Instant Karma”, that condition when I realize my mistakes as they’re unfolding and immediately apply corrective action. I believed that changing one’s consciousness was universal to the human experience and was at the heart of Zen.
My drug of choice was alcohol. I’d drink almost anything from a dry martini to Green Death, which is Rainier Ale sold in quart bottles of green glass. We, of the Rat House, debated whether they added formaldehyde to give it more kick.
My day would begin with a pot of coffee and three or four cigarettes. I called it “The Breakfast of Champions.” Then it was three or four hours of guitar practice, song writing, and learning cover songs. After that, lunch, and then I would read a book. I went to the library every week and picked up six or seven books to read. Around four Sam would come home from the university, take a bong hit or two, and we’d start drinking. Beer was preferred, but we would drink just about anything: gin, vodka, tequila in the black bottle, rye whiskey, or jugs of Romanian Red Wine, which we called “gelatinous wine” since it had a grape jelly-like taste. We’d get high and drink until six when we’d have dinner. By that time Matt and Howard were back at the house and we’d start band practice at seven, playing until nine or ten, drinking and smoking the whole time. Then it was time for late night television and bong hits.
I was on mescaline when I found God. It was a cold, clear winter’s night and we’d dropped at eight o’clock. Around midnight we were driving around in the woods and stopped to urinate. As I pissed, steam rose up from my stream and I followed it with my eyes until I saw the millions of stars in the sky. Then the stars disappeared and a huge black void opened up revealing God to me, a vast, empty, unfeeling presence that neither cared if I lived or died or peed. I was reminded of a painting by Kasimir Malevich, “Black Square”. When displayed it was placed where the main icon in a Russian Orthodox home would be. To me, he was saying, “This is God.” With this new information about the universe I did what any astral traveler would do, I zipped up my pants and ran back to the car because it was freezing outside.
As I grew older my understanding of the universe changed. When you venture down the path you learn as you go. The universe isn’t as vast, empty or unfeeling as it was that night. Since I’m in it, and Paula was in it, and everyone else, it was a place filled with mystery and wonder. Perhaps God’s hand guides things, this was unknown to me, but I knew forces existed on earth that were mysterious and powerful and affected us in unimaginable ways.
I was given a baggie of mushrooms from a local music promoter. I had written a couple of pieces for his newsletter. Everyone in the band ate the mushrooms, even Howard, who mentioned something about hoping to see God. They were potent, with long blue stems and nice browns caps fringed with indigo, so if any God sightings were to occur these were the vessel to deliver them.
The mushrooms were consumed around six p.m. and we were nicely toasted by seven. The band hopped in my 1968 Mustang with the small block V8 and drove off to see Blade Runner at the fifth run theater in the U District. The roads were wet and the lights of the car reflected off them with an unusual vibrancy otherwise unnoticed. The tires swished along in time to the tape that was playing, Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). It was all making sense; my life was falling into place as the psychedelic forced ordinarily imperceptible connections to the world.
I looked at Sam in the passenger seat and he just smiled as we moved along. His eyes looked like saucers as they were dilated from the drug. I giggled. Everything was hilarious.
We arrived at the theater and immediately found parking, a sign from Howard’s God that we were doing good works in his name. As I settled into the movie theater chair the drugs came at me in a giant wave, a huge unexpected rush. I sat back and melted into my chair, and then I felt dry and became a skeleton for a few hours, or minutes, or days, who knew when time was a philosophical concept. The lights dimmed then the movie started.
I was sucked into the futuristic crime drama immediately, but didn’t recognize parts of it either due to the mushrooms or the less than faithful adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel. Throughout it is never clear, like it is in the Dick’s story, that the protagonist has questions about his past and whether he is a Replicant himself. Meanwhile, I had my own existential crisis during the movie, wondering if my own past was manufactured and I was, in fact, a Replicant. How would I know? How could any of us know?
The drive back was visually stimulating. The traffic flowed like blood, brake lights were the red corpuscles and the headlights the white. I knew I was close to understanding everything in the universe, an epiphany, my Zen, my enlightenment. Just as suddenly I was back in my body driving home to the Rat House and the fleas and Howard’s trailer in the front yard. So close, yet failure.
I pulled into the gravel that served as our driveway and we piled out of the Mustang and into the house. As we entered the kitchen Sam was discoursing on Blade Runner and the significance of Replicants in obscuring a person’s own definition of self. I was about to tell my story when I looked at Sam. He had stopped talking and was staring over my shoulder.
“The turkey moved,” Sam said, fear choking his words.
Looking at him, he was pale and possibly in shock. He shook slightly. I laughed.
“The fucking turkey moved! Don’t believe me? Look!”
Everyone turned with trepidation to look at the kitchen counter where we had left the turkey to cool. What if Sam was right? What if he wasn’t just high, we didn’t have just fleas and rats, maybe we had ghosts as well.
There was the turkey carcass. In my condition it looked like a naked baby. A baby with a rattle that shook a rattle, slowly from side to side, left, right, left, right.
“IT MOVED!” Matt shouted. I jumped nearly a foot in the air. The baby transformed back into a moving roasted turkey.
“WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO?” Sam screamed, terrified.
“I DON’T KNOW!” I shrieked. We all trembled at the horror we’d witnessed. Suddenly, Howard grabbed the turkey and out of the hole where the guts were came a small black tail. Another hallucination! Slowly a black and white kitten extracted itself from the turkey carcass, walking backwards. It was Lizard Brain, our new cat. She was covered in turkey and bits of stuffing.
“You little shit,” I said, picking up the kitten. I looked at the cat and she at me.
“Now I have to bathe you, don’t I?” I said to her. I was slowly coming down while I bathed her, so it was an experience filled with odd sensations of water and wet cat. Not an entirely unpleasant chore. With the bath finished I decided I needed a drink.
When I came out of the bathroom I found my band mates had the same idea. Beers were open, the stereo was playing, Dr. Gene Scott was on the television teaching about the pyramids of ancient Egypt, and the cat scratched the hell out of the couch we found on the street. No one gave a rat’s ass what the cat did, unlike Bill with Ellie and the neighbor’s chickens.