April 5th is a way cool birthday—Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, Melvyn Douglas, Gregory Peck, Walter Huston, Lord Buckley, Frank Gorshin, Roger Corman, a bunch of other people, and me. It’s a way cool death day too—Douglas MacArthur, Chiang Kai-shek, Howard Hughes, Brian Donlevy, Alan Ginsberg, Charlton Heston, Kurt Cobain, Saul Bellow, a bunch of other people and not me. Yet, anyway.
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..
Just saw that it’s been 20 years since Nirvana’s Nevermind came out. Great record. Too bad it wrecked everything.
Ya see, there was this underground scene before that, hopelessly uncommercial, a global thing of all these crazy little bands struggling along from gig to gig, record to record, party to party, and it was a blast and innocent and all our own and no one paid attention to us. That was the 80’s scene…amazing shows every weekend, almost every night, all these brilliant bands. It was all about creativity and attitude. It was glorious.
Then Nirvana broke big, bigger than big. They broke huge, enormous, they turned our entire world upside down and suddenly there was money everywhere and it was so fucked. The music got duller and duller and safer and safer, all the clubs and labels and tours got taken over by business. Things just got safer and safer. Predictable. Boring. All that underground music (the labels called it “alternative” and now “indie”) just disappeared.
I lost interest. Started buying jazz records. Now look at me. I’ve become distinguished, despite myself.
Nevermind was a good record, that’s for sure. But Kurt knew what he had done. Hence the shotgun. On my birthday, no less.
That was my 37th. My 40th was a total manic blow out at Al’s Bar. Absolute craziness. Like the last gasp of my punk rock life. It went out in style, though:
Fearless Leader had spent an hour putting on make-up and diapers full of chili and creamed corn and chocolate pudding and when they hit the stage the packed house was in a frenzy but they had what seemed like the worst drummer in LA and were so incredibly awful it was hysterical, Sarge’s amp all fucked up going on and off and on and off irregularly, the drummer beating away ametrically in the background, insults flying. As the band started the second song Sarge was in a fury packing up, a guy in a diaper and clown make-up, in the middle of the stage putting his guitar away in its case. Finally I sat in on drums and things tightened up somewhat but this only seemed to work up the audience even more and the food starting flying thick and fast and within seconds a large slice of birthday cake slammed into my arm and slid off slowly and grotesquely. (Bob Lee later took credit for that—”It was your birthday” he explained…) Then came more cake, beer, cups—meanwhile the contents of the various diapers came loose and poured all over the stage and the three clowns before me were sliding and falling about, Sarge—guitarless now—screamed into two mikes and began to slither across the stage like an evil serpent and bit the others on the leg. Basically it was punk as fuck—raunchy and rockin’ and fierce and funny and stoopid and scary with maximum audience participation. Finally—I looked up, trying to concentrate on these songs I had not played in a decade (if at all) and there was Alien Rock butt naked (well not completely—I’m told that he was wearing a rubber) and I started laughing so hard I couldn’t play and just sat there being pelted as they ranted and slid and danced and screamed and oozed and then I got back under control and launched into the toon again (it was their drawn out classic “Sunshine Superstar” with the classic chant “Peace / Love / War / Hate” and the chorus “it’s the way you are (x4) you’re a super star (x2) you’re a sunshine superstar, Baby”) and it ended in a huge finale when suddenly Alien Rock, nude and covered with slime and crud threw his skinny nekkid body into the drums and the kit flew apart all over me and the stage.
That was my send off to the pre-Nevermind era, I guess. Though I didn’t realize it at the time. That was the end of anarchy for me. It’s such an orderly world now. I hate it.
Fuck you, Kurt Cobain the dead guy. I liked you way better as a live guy. No hagiography. Just a fucked up punk wondering what the hell happened. Well, it’s your fault. You wrote the goddamn song. That goddamn great song. Smells Like Teen Spirit. Did anyone even get that? No. They just got that killer riff. A whole industry was built on that riff. People started selling out in droves. Kurt Cobain the live guy sure noticed. I’ve seen you on your hands and knees, unable to walk. It was awful and sad and so punk rock. The real punk rock. I saw that fight too, in the movie. You braining some security asshole with your guitar, then that big stage melee. I loved that. Anarchy. But now you’re dead, and all business. 100% business. How many Neverminds shifted at Christmas? A zillion? You don’t know? Maybe they aren’t keeping Kurt Cobain the dead guy in the loop on these things. Oh well. It’s all business now. You can’t even be a millionaire punk rock junkie anymore. No time for heroin in today’s rock’n’roll. Not anymore. It’s business all the time. Career 24/7. Work work work. No recess, dead guy. No recess.