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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Jello Biafra

 [unsent letter, 1980, apparently transcribed and annotated in the 90’s ]

Since that last phone call was a killer costwise, I’ll be sure simply to write this time. Especially since this friend of mine gave me this allegedly “mild” speed to cope with today, and I ate a whole tab, and am now buzzing along [at work in a staid old office in Beverly Hills] and maintaining a sober is-it-really-Monday already disguise only with difficulty.

Actually why I was to have trouble coping with today is because I did not get home until purt near 5:30 am last night—or this morning, rather—since I was out carousing—or creating, if you may be so generous—without mind about getting up at 6:00 am to catch the bus to get me to work by 8:00 (and then traffic court by 8:30). I might as well tell you what happened last night, with the dual object of a) boring you to tears with the trivialities of my day to day existence and b) try to work off some of this dexedrine rush coursing through my veins.

Well, seems me and Fyl were still in bed finishing up a final round in a bout with Old Mr. Sandman when the phone should ring and our good mad friend Christian Lunch, presently in attendance at the much vaunted Pasadena Art Center, makes himself audible on the other end, informing us that we’ve been invited to a party featuring the Dead Kennedys—premier and most notorious punk band (of “California Über Alles” fame), way the hell over in Malibu, right on Pacific Coast Highway. Unfortunately, Christian had a) no gas and b) no cash, and as we had c) no car to get there ourselves, some sort of arrangement had to be made. So we arranged to have me hop a bus out to Pasadena, put gas in his car, and then both of us would go on back to H-weird [Hollywood] and retrieve Fyl (and incidentally, some dinner)—which, after a few minor but time-wasting mishaps on my part, I did, taking a bus from Hollywood, over the hills past Griffith Park, out through Glendale, back through Eagle Rock and finally, an hour plus later, into downtown Pasadena, a few blocks from Christian’s Art-Trasho designed pad. Don’t ever let me hear you  complain about BART. I mean, L.A.’s a wonderful place and I love it—but having a car here is as important as overcoming one’s fear of queers is to living in San Francisco. The rapid transit system is still in the pre-Cambrian stages in this city.

Speaking of which, I am reminded of an incident that occurred Saturday night—Fyl and I were going to downtown Hollywood to meet some friends of ours’ at the record swap meet [the legendary Capitol Records Parking Lot swap meet], and carless yet, we were compelled to hop a bus, which, as if to rub salt into the wound of being reliant on public transportation, was twenty minutes late. While we were waiting, feet tapping exasperatedly, this couple sits down next to us, and the guy asks me if I know if this bus will take him down to the nightclub action. He wanted to show his wife (or whoever the quite attractive Asian woman he was escorting happened to be—”old lady” will serve) the “action”, the “hot spots” in town. He was middle aged and obviously, by accent, from Boston or thereabouts; a pleasant enough fellow as Bostonians go, in that coarse, Irish cop manner all Bostonians seem to have. Anyway, I told him just to follow this bus down Sunset and get off at “the Strip”—a name he obviously enjoyed, for I heard him say it at least a dozen times afterward, using it in an “in the know” elbow-nudging way; and he thanked me, and we talked a bit. Then the bus finally comes up and as we board, this guy has the gall to tell me that this is the “fun of Los Angeles—taking buses.” Like he’s a tourist visiting a semi-civilized land and taking pleasure in the quaint, backward ways of the natives. “Yeah” he goes on, “all over back East the cities got subways and El’s and trains and they’re a lot faster but not as much fun as these” and pats the gnarled aluminum side of the bus. I wanted to punch his face in, of course.

It’s also depressing when you’re punked out—I was wearing a ragged, biker-looking sleeveless camouflage jacket with “MC5” painted on the back; and Fyl had a Harley Davidson jacket and a chain for a belt—trying to be coolly repugnant on a Saturday night, and I’m the one, of all the people n the bench, that the guy asks directions of. It happened again later. I guess despite my bulk, I’m pretty tame looking (sigh)….

So—where were we before that little excursion there—oh yes…. So we drive all the way out to Malibu and can’t find the party. We look up and down the street, wondering if it really was 20202 PCH, or actually 20222, or 22202, checking them all out, convincing ourselves that maybe it didn’t even begin with a 2, when lo and behold there are some odd types, looking bewildered out in front of 20202 PCH. We stop—sure enough, they’re looking for the party—in fact they have come all the way out from fucking Covina for it. And they’ve also got 20202, and had gotten it from main man Jello Biafra (singer of the Kennedys) himself. Then someone comes out and asks us if we’re looking for the Dead Kennedys party and we say yes, and he leads us a few doors down, apologizing that the Dead Kennedys had left rather quickly as soon as they’d arrived. Too bad we said, and then, upon entrance to the party, we soon understood. The ominous reek of marijuana that greeted our noses as we entered gave us a good clue about the kind of party we’d been snared into—not that the smell of pot itself necessarily portends a bad party—but when not accompanied by other, sharper odors (like that of amyl nitrate) or grating, excessively loud music from the stereo means this is a mellow party. Sure enough—upon entering the darkened room, a dozen or so pair of glazed eyes stared blankly out at us through the wafting haze, uncomprehending; each pair of which was encased in a creamy tanned body clad scantily in de rigueur beach shorts and/or summer dresses, straw hats and thongs. The immediate reaction was almost a physical sense of alienation and feelings of being hopelessly out of place—that we weren’t wanted here, and somehow we’d been invited to the wrong party. The eight of us fled to the back of the room, threading gingerly through the almost comatose sprawled or sitting Indian style on great floor cushions—not that they all were reduced to a THC-induced, but those that were not acted as if they were. It was that kind of party.

Not since Santa Barbara had I been witness to such a stagnant pool of wasted youth, and I was not used to it. Once the initial shock wore off, and I realized the soft forms scattered across the floor were not threatening, I began to get aggressive, wanted to spill beer, talk loud, throw things off the balcony onto the beach below—but nobody I was with wanted to do—not even Fyl, who in any such situations likes to get insulting. Frustrated and a little bewildered, I shuffled about uncomfortably on the balcony, commenting in low tones to Christian that we should make an exit to anywhere, just out of here.

The question running through our heads was where had Jello and the Kennedys run off to. I’m sure upon arrival they had been just as taken aback at the planned nature of the evening’s entertainment as were we, and fled like rabbits from a burning forest—probably back into Hollywood. I mean this wasn’t even one of those thin-tied new wave parties—I mean I’m used to those (from the Isla Vista “scene”) and can adapt quickly and enjoyably into an ominous looking hulk of a punk drummer: drinking and spilling prodigious amounts of beer and liquor (straight or in bizarre and repulsive “mixed drinks”); talking loud, throwing things off the balcony, ripping the Elvis Costello off the turntable and putting on the loudest, rawest punk (or most alienating, dissonant weird stuff) I can find. Anything to cow the [left blank, but fuckers would be appropriate] in their mod get-ups, and scare them into thinking that this is what will become of them if they keep listening to Elvis Costello or the Ramones. [By this time I considered the Ramones wimpy. This was before the great Ramones Revival of the mid-’80’s.] Just for the sheer obnoxious hell of it you understand.

But this party didn’t invite this kind of behavior. These people were a whole other species, acting like assholes to them would either leave them thinking we were acting out our favorite scenes from the last Cheech and Chong movie, or else they’d call the LAPD who’d knock us senseless with some new stun gun and drag us off to jail on some strange charge, beating us all the way. We had to get out.

After a few moments some of us remembered we had some phone numbers, one of which might tell us where Jello had retreated to. While they were out at the phone booth out front, we stayed inside, out of the light. The music, which had been some brain-gelling Kenny Loggins/John Klemmer mellow fusion refuse, now became a heavy, syrupy classical piece; meant to show, I suppose, the sophistication of the host. Looking at the decor in the room, I noticed it consisted mainly, besides the pillows and low tables, of driftwood and seashell knick knacks and ornaments, little potted plants placed carefully about, and on the walls were strung fish nets and a giant, grotesque replica (at least I think it was a replica) of a sailfish. I remarked earlier about the affair’s resemblance to Santa Barbara parties—but in Santa Barbara there is a stale hippie pyramid power/holistic healing feel to everything; but this was straight Santa Monica beach party/seafood restaurant. These people were [figuratively speaking] the models used in those Pepsi and Sunkist orange soda ads with the tanned kids playing volleyball and football on the beach, drinking soda, to the funked up version of “Good Vibrations”.

Meanwhile, the evening’s entertainment came on—an old silent movie about the evils of marijuana and cocaine. The audience laughed wastedly, interjecting comments in the likes of the name of their favorite drug (either “Yeah pot!” or “Yeah coke!”) or simply let loose a “Smoke it!”. Things were getting desperate.

Then—rescued. Someone came back and said he found Jello’s number and we all filed out as quickly as possible, to the confusion, I imagine, of the people sitting on the floor. Party Hearty! we said, leaving a string of exploding firecrackers on their front porch as a calling card, and took off for where Jello had told us he’d relocated the party.

We went in separate cars and after a round about trip through Santa Monica to drop off the guy who had to be at work at 4:00 AM (and who wants me to drum for him for some upcoming gig in a throw-together band) we made it into Hollywood; on Highland at the foot of the Hills, where the incredibly loud punk music blasting forth from the open windows of a room in a motel around which punks were staggering out of the door or hanging from the balcony above gave us a clue that it might be the place.

It was, and up the stairs we went, into a rather large room almost devoid of furniture save a few folding chairs and the cushions of a couch. The punks—and it was an almost completely punk party—had been rather restrained: the walls were not written on or punched in, and except for the mounds of paper plates, styrofoam cups and beer cans about the floor, it was in fairly good shape. We were late and there was only some red and white wine left—a half bottle of each. The barbecued chicken was gone, but somebody sliced up a watermelon and it was real cold and good—although it had a slight trace of a chemical taste to it—which was nothing after all but for a moment I suspected it had been dosed with LSD [I had been dosed with PCP or something like it in Santa Barbara not long before]; I waited half-hoping for the tell-tale rush sensations at the base of the brain but nothing happened. It was just a peculiar watermelon, that’s all. None-the-less, I managed to scare some people telling them it might have been dosed, and though I told them I was jokingly they laughed uncertainly. You can never tell….

The party was OK, but we got there too late—the people there were obviously enjoying themselves, as the myriad of empty liquor bottles and the guy traipsing around the living room floor with a saw horse over his shoulders trying to save everyone from hellfire and damnation, would attest. Also, I didn’t know too many people there—in fact, aside from the people we’d just run into outside the party in Malibu and Jello, I only knew these two guys (Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski) from one of my favorite bands, Black Flag, with whom my band Keene White had played in Santa Barbara a few months back. And then there was the gorgeous little Asian lady with wild hair, wearing a body fitting shiny black spandex outfit with shiny boots who kept staring at me and who I would just love to—well, fidelity and all that, you know. Love has its price…

Anyway, Jello collected the seven of us who had been out at Malibu plus his girlfriend all together, and after we told him what a hot party he’d missed out there in Malibu, he wanted to go somewhere else. So we all went outside, and after an abortive attempt to run into a supermarket, grab all the frozen pizzas and fling them into the air and then run out (there were only three pizzas in the freezer); we decided to go to a punk rock eatery downtown called the Atomic Cafe; first splitting into two parties (there being two cars): one of which, including myself, was to travel directly to the Atomic, the other would mark its way hurling strings of firecrackers at targets the likes of which I never found out.

On the way, we discovered that—and isn’t it a small world?—the people we met, members and friends of a band called Silver Chalice, were old acquaintances of the guitarist in Keene White (Ron. E. Fast) when they had lived in Santa Maria, and had been in the San Luis Obispo-Pismo Beach-Santa Maria scene in its early days. So we had a lot to talk about—as you can imagine, having all kinds of mutual friends, etc. [It ends here, which is a shame as I don’t think we ever went to sleep at all but hung out all night at Christian Lunch’s pad in Pasadena making a weird recording with Jello Biafra. But since I didn’t write about it, I can’t remember any details.]

Jello Biafra and friends

Jello Biafra and friends

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