Merging Buses Ahead

(2014)

The sexiest of all signs is Merging Buses Ahead. There was such a sign, too, on the Hollywood Freeway. I noticed the sign one night a zillion years ago when my bass player, stoned out of his mind, was driving us to a gig. Looking for a shortcut he suddenly pulled into the bus lane. We whizzed past the mystified people waiting at the bus stop and gunned our way back into the slow lane, saving maybe three seconds. As he was holding at least a quarter ounce, was ripped, had an expired driver’s license and an unpaid traffic ticket or two I thought his act showed unusual verve. Had I known the car was unregistered I would have awarded him even more verve. He always was a lucky bastard, though, and those three seconds seemed important. His luck later ran out when be blew a tire while tripping on acid at the Grand Canyon. Without a spare, he stood staring into the vast and infinite beauty of the canyon. Dusk was falling and the sandstones glowed a brilliant red and the whole universe seemed full of color. A park ranger stopped to help, discovered his DMV rap sheet and cuffed him. A drag, of course, though with all that blotter it seemed at the time rather groovy. Like I said, he was a bass player. Anyway, as we zipped past the people waiting for the bus and muscled our way back onto the freeway I noticed the sign on the left. Merging Buses Ahead. It seemed tremendously funny at the time. It became my sign. Some hippie or lady at work would ask me my sign. I’d say Merging Buses Ahead. It had just the right mixture of randomness and disdain. Made a lot of sense in the punk rock eighties. I’d never explain. They’d usually walk away, or change the subject. I was big and mean looking, wore huge steel toed army boots and had developed quite a glower I’d use when annoyed. If asked my sign and I said Merging Buses Ahead and my wife was there she’d explain.  He thinks that’s funny, she’d say, he’s an Aries. Oh you’re an Aries…no wonder you said Merging Buses Ahead. I don’t know my wife’s sign–after 34 years I still can’t remember but it’s either Gemini, Scorpio, Aquarius or maybe another–but she knew mine. She doesn’t believe in astrology of course, not a whit (she’s into astronomy and the two can’t mix…she doesn’t believe in UFO’s either) but at least she knows the signs. But then I’m an Aries. You can always tell an Aries because we don’t believe in astrology. We’re arrogant and stubborn and skeptical and confrontational. Lively, though. Fun.

Somewhere in middle age telling people I’m a Merging Buses Ahead lost its zing. It doesn’t seem to come up much anyway. Recently, though, someone asked me my birthday. I told her. Then I told her all the cool people that have been born on my birthday. A whole bunch: Spencer Tracy and Gregory Peck and Bette Davis and Lord Buckley and on and on. Her eyes lit up. Then I told her it was a cool death day too and ran off Howard Hughes and Chiang Kai-shek and Douglas MacArthur and Kurt Cobain and Allen Ginsberg and Saul Bellow and Charlton Heston…. She looked appalled. You know who died on your birthday? Well, yeah, famous people die on your birthday and it’s in the news and it’s easy. She gave me a look–it’s the people who are born on your birthday that matter. The dead, well that’s just sick. She walked away. Wow. I’d just been dissed by an astrology freak. I didn’t even think that was possible.

I suppose it was too late to say Merging Buses Ahead..

"Merging Buses Ahead" is funnier.

Merging Buses Ahead is funnier.

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My music career

Just listening to some ancient cassettes of an old band of mine, thirty years ago. I was in a lot of bands for a couple crazy decades there–no one you’d ever heard of–but this band was my favorite. It was the apex of it all. I hadn’t listened to us in years, though. Not in forever. I didn’t realize I played so very fast back then. Wow. No high hat, either–I remember picking it up and throwing it in the corner when the linkage broke, kept playing and didn’t bother buying another. I was free baby, all over the place. The music was crazy hard, loose, wild, funny, loud and out of control. What a ball we were having. I think we might have been a wee bit high. And no, you will never hear it.

I’d even forgotten some of the titles. Things like Baby Baby you blow my mind! (“Oh baby, you blow my everloving mind!”). Or I love you oh baby oh yeah! yeah! yeah! (“I love you, oh baby, oh yeah yeah yeah/Will I leave you, oh baby, oh no, no, no”). The classic  “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, No, No, No” (“every time I wanna say yeah/everybody else wants to say no”). And a version of Mrs. Robinson we did because you could say “yeah” eighteen times in a row. That was important. The singer/guitar leader thought all rock songs should say yeah and baby. All of them. Indeed, that is all they had to say. I remember on one song I couldn’t make out the lyrics between the baby baby chorus, but it was because there weren’t any, the singer was making rock star noises. You don’t need words in rock’n’roll, he said, you just have to make rock star noises. Apparently he’d been listening to Exile on Main Street on acid, and on “Happy” Keith Richards made rock star noises. Those aren’t really words, he said. He had a point, and I wasn’t even tripping. I never did. But he did a lot of tripping. As did the bass player. I was ground control, I guess. We seemed to do a lot of tunes about acid. My favorite was My Balls Feel Fine where a guy goes to a love in and is afraid he got the clap, “but I look them over/ and I feel them over/ but they feel fine/ and I’m feeling fine/ Because my balls feel fine/ I said my balls feel fine/ I took LSD/ but did I also get VD….”. Can’t remember the rest–I lost the notebook with all his lyrics. This would be about the time in the set when I’d look at the crowd and they were sitting there, jaws dropped, bewildered and uncomfortable. Even the ones who hated us. The ones who thought we were the greatest thing ever were singing along. It did have a catchy chorus.

There were a lot of stoner tunes, too. “Let’s Get Naked and Smoke” (“I wanna use your boobs for a roach clip baby!”) was a crowd pleaser, even danceable, not to mention on our very rare button. No one made buttons then, they were so thin tie new wave hokey, so of course we did. There were two, but all I can remember is Let’s Get Naked and Smoke. We also did a million covers, none of which sounded like the originals….we filled them with yeahs and babys and people probably couldn’t recognize half of them. Somebody once told me that our song that goes we’re caught in a trap, we can’t get out really hit him hard, because he was caught in a trap and couldn’t get out either. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was an Elvis song. Thing was he really was caught in a trap, but that’s another story.

I remember playing the Cathay de Grande here in Hollywood and the hardcore kids hated us, one of them–he looked exactly like Ian McKaye–marched back and forth in front of the stage screaming you suck and flipping us off through every song. He was wearing a “make noise not music” tee shirt. Apparently we were too musical. Some proto-grunge long hairs were going nuts like we were the saviors of rock’n’roll. Everyone else just stared, bewildered. That made us feel good. Played again and the same reaction. Pretty much the response we wanted. If 90% of the crowd hates you then you must be doing something right. Every gig, though, we picked up more fanatical fans. This was just before the eighties underground explosion, when hardcore punk rockers rediscovered rock’n’roll and weirdness. We were on the cutting edge, I suppose, though we had no idea. We were just in this crazy band. We were original class of ’77 punk rockers, and had that edge. We didn’t care about politics or causes or ideology, we just wanted to act crazy and bug people and fuck shit up. There were a lot of bizarre onstage antics, anarchy, surrealism, Marx Brothers moments and unbelievably stoned weirdness. We were a power trio. We were incredibly loud. The guitar player–dubbing himself Charles Joseph Renfield III–came off like a cross between Jimi Hendrix and Wayne County and that really weird guy in your high school gym class. Totally demented look, and this was 1984, when everyone looked like Ian McKaye and Henry Rollins. The bassist looked like a redneck–he was, actually, from Kentucky–talked and sang in a thick stage drawl and went by the name of Keltic Runes. I looked like a truck driver, a big giant strong as an ox working man–which I was–beating a tiny little jazz kit. I never stopped playing no matter how catastrophic it got on stage. One memorable night the other guys got tangled in each other’s chords during the long instrumental stretch in Let’s Get Naked and Smoke–I think they were copping the Mick Ronson-Trevor Boulder dance routine from Ziggy Stardust–and the bass became unplugged and the guitar amp toppled over with an enormous reverbed bang that echoed over and over. My brother jumped up on stage to helped untangle the mess–it looked like a Gordian knot of cables–and get everyone plugged back in, I’m still playing, the bass player joins in, the guitar player starts tuning up over the groove and finally comes back in like nothing had happened. People applauded with relief, I think they were sure we were just going to end it there, tangled and unplugged and sad. Afterward someone came up and asked if we’d planned all that. I said we had. He said he figured as much.

That was the same night that the guitar player, quite out of his mind–he wound up in a mental hospital soon afterward–tried to get in a fist fight with the Cathay’s doorman, Lawrence Fishburne, who’d have none of it. He just spun him around and I nearly got clocked instead. His fist stopped an inch from my face. He would have knocked me out cold, I’m sure, he was so high on whatever, vibrating, tweeked, quite mad. But he dropped his fist. Sorry Brick, he said. Then he started raving at the kids, trying to start a riot. They just stared. I managed to get him down into the bowels of the club and onto the stage. He’d used about two cans of hair spray and in profile had this incredible alpine pompadour that from the front was maybe two inches wide. Not a hair out of place, though. The rest of his get up included beat up jeans, demented high heeled boots with doll heads attached and a girl’s blouse. A scarf, too. He was a PCP hallucination of Jimi Hendrix. His stage banter was half Elvis, half Hendrix, half cartoons. I know that’s three halves, but then so was he. If you’re gonna be weird, be weird. I remember him once telling somebody we were the greatest band on the planet. They scoffed–on the whole planet? Yeah, he said, just not this planet. It became our slogan.

We never did record. We were supposed to do a session for Mystic Records but I had to cancel it because Charles Joseph Renfield III had been out all night plumbing the depths of downtown L.A. on dust and was a mess. I didn’t even know people were still doing dust. But the end, clearly, was nigh. He’d actually become his stage persona, Charles Joseph Renfield III. Weird thing to watch. We later talked about just recording one of the gigs and calling it Liver Than Living Fuck. But it was too late. He was way out there by that point–it got very strange, strange and disturbing–and I had to break up the band. Shades of Ziggy, I know. We all went our own ways. He got strung out, stayed that way for years, was in and out of mental hospitals and eventually died a sad, messy death. The bass player moved to Nashville to sell used Cadillacs. I wound up a jazz critic. Years later I’m at some club looking sophisticated and some geezer comes up to me and said he saw us at the Cathay and we’d changed his life. I thanked him and edged away….

A couple years after all this we were reviewed somewhere–Flipside?–which surprised the hell out of me. It came out of nowhere, a previous life. The reviewer said we “were either the world’s laziest musicians or light years ahead of everybody else or both”. I was very proud of that quote…. True on both counts. The only other review I ever remember getting was for my first band and Flipside said of us that “they could hold their own with Fear and Black Flag in a hardcore guts contest.” I’m still proud of that one, too. I even had my picture in the ‘zine. That was so long ago, 1979 I believe, and I don’t think I even have a copy of that. Of either. I just remember the quotes. But those two quotes were enough for my music career.

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Flashback

Kim Kardashian you’d expect but nude photos of Vladimir Putin on the web? Wrestling a Siberian alligator no less? For real? Does it matter? I miss the Weekly World News. TMZ is so unimaginative, naked movie stars and tacky selfies. Aliens meeting presidents and reptile man Elvis and naked Putin wrestling an alligator, now that is news. Waiting in line at Ralphs was exciting then. Now a supermarket check out line is the inevitable fifteen things that drive men wild and those pictures of Princess Di. It’s just not the same. You’d think the Koch brothers would bring it back, the Weekly World News. Fill it with lies and conspiracy theories and recipes from other galaxies. How do we slip them some mind fuck acid? Grace Slick just missed dosing Richard Nixon. His mind was nearly psychedelicized. In some alternative universe it happened that way. Time really did come today. Nixon in the White House, grokking with the protest kids. Freaking to Country Joe and the Fish. Give me an F, he says. Spiro does, and a U and a C and a K as well. What’s that spell? What’s that spell? What’s that spell?

But no, we got Watergate. And nattering nabobs of negativism. And the Koch Brothers. TMZ. Kim Kardashian’s naked ass. Sometimes I think we’re in the wrong universe.

Richard Nixon on brown acid at Woodstock.

Richard Nixon out of his mind high at a Grateful Dead show. Don’t eat the brown acid, they said. But Nixon went to China, and he ate the brown acid. Chou En-Lai wasn’t so sure, but Mao dug it. Feed your head, Nixon told him, feed your head. Mao did, and went for another swim.

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