The song “North of Wasteland” from the Eleventh Dream Day record Lived to Tell, was based on a true story that took place in South Central Florida in 1980 shortly after my college graduation. I have realized years later that the song tells just a fraction of the story and fortunately, I have lived to tell the rest.
North of Wasteland
There was a tree that grew outside my window
Amid the fields of cane and unanswered questions
It held a fruit of fatal mystery
And it soothed me to think that it grew so close to me
In the morning
There’s never any warning
Except the neighbor’s rooster
And the church bells ring
From north of the wasteland
I think back to the time
I lived in a trailer
Amid the fields of cane
And unanswered questions
It still seems so absurd
One night outside my door
A wild boar that seemed so lost
We both knew we were caught
In a wasteland
There was no time or place where we belonged
I was wrong
And I knew it from that night on
There’s that moment when waking up in a strange bed where you have absolutely no idea where you are; where your world is a late night test pattern of confusion. The crowing of a nearby rooster offered no clues. It was still dark and I couldn’t see a thing. But in the dank heavy air, I knew the space was small. A darting tickle on my leg startled me into full consciousness, and I saw the tiny cockroach scurry away as I lifted the sheet.
“Oh yeah,” I thought, and as quick as a dart thrown at a map, I realized where I was.
The drive in from the West Palm Beach airport the night before with Sherri in her old Karman Ghia was the start of a new life, a post-collegiate adult life, and now with the girl of my dreams.
As we dieseled past lit highways into the black pitch of a sticky Florida night, I looked at Sherri’s profile and couldn’t quite believe I was sitting next to her. With her green-tinted almond eyes and the start of a deep tan, she had the kind of exotic look that I thought was out of my league. And she had been well out of my league for some time now; hard-to-get couldn’t describe the last year and a half of my frustration at trying to win her over. I still wasn’t used to this new haircut though, a Hamillish bob, the result of a stormy spring when she took scissors to the hair that had never been cut. But the feeling in this verdant place where vines draped the trees was that love and hair would grow and keep growing.
The curtains began to color with the pastels of morning and I took stock of what brought me here. I thought back to the phone call that urged me to quit my job in Chicago, the voice on the other end as seductive as waves lapping gently on a tropical beach. But now I was on my back in an R.V. trailer, the kind that hitched to the back of a pick-up. From where I lay I could see the tiny kitchen sink, and beyond that a toilet visible behind a half-open accordion door. Sherri was close, though not with me; she was in the double wide trailer that sat on concrete blocks just twenty yards away. After whispered good nights following our late arrival we had kissed one last time, and she had shown me to my lodging—“The Rogue” decaled on its aluminum side.
I wondered when it would be appropriate to rise and make my way to the door of the big trailer, Sherri’s parent’s retirement abode. I noticed from the corner of my eye a couple more cockroaches scurrying on the faucet then into the cabinet. Their night shift was over, and I closed my eyes . Church bells tolled from some place unfamiliar, and I fell back asleep.
Two knocks and then too much light poured through the door as Sherri entered The Rogue with a steaming cup of Nescafe.
“Were you going to sleep all day?” she asked. “My parents will think you’re lazy! C’mon. Get dressed and say hi.”
I was slightly nervous as I clumsily navigated the too steep metal steps out of the trailer, but as I stepped into this novel space, the sun had an instantly welcoming embrace.
“Mister Rick Rizzo!”
A fifty something stocky athletic man with his hand extended emerged from the double wide with a greeting that was at the same time welcoming yet impersonal. His handshake pushed my knuckles together.
“How’d The Rogue treat you last night?” he half grinned.
“Just glad to be here sir,” I replied, partly a reflection on my well- mannered upbringing, but even more seeming like a private reporting to duty. Sherri’s dad was a retired army sergeant, my preconceptions of which were informed somewhere between Combat!and Gomer Pyle.
“C’mon in, let me show you around.”
As I stepped into this much larger trailer, I noticed it was tethered in four corners by steel cables, an attempt to keep it from flying away in the occasional hurricane winds that swept through these parts.
“Check it out,” he beamed; gesturing at what I had to admit was more space than I could have imagined. It was certainly bigger than any apartment I’d lived in—two bedrooms down the hall from a spacious kitchen, dining room and family room complete with working fireplace.
“You must be Rick,” Sherri’s mom entered cheerfully.
A retired high school English teacher, she reminded me of my own mother with her bright smile and short brown hair.
Nice to meet you. Formalities. I wanted to make a good impression. I realized that I had a weak reason for being there. A recent college graduate, but no ambition other than being with their daughter.
As the small talk began to sound even more forced, and Sherri’s parents moved on to their daily routines, I noticed the morning paper on the breakfast table. The West Palm local paper was typically thin, but I knew what I needed and went straight to the classifieds. The clock was ticking on my dead beat status and I needed to see what was out there.
My bachelor’s degree was in business administration with a focus on marketing. A number of my college friends already had found jobs, mostly through family connections, but this was 1980, a year of double digit unemployment, hostages, and high inflation. The meager list of job opportunities was worse than I anticipated. Drive a truck. Telemarketing. The best I could do was to call an employment agency and they setup an appointment for me the following morning. It was a start.
Walking out of the air-conditioned double wide into the stifling mid-morning heat, I surveyed the flat horizon of trailers and palm trees. A wasteland. A few miles to the west, the sugar cane factory let loose the by-product of its enterprise—a sickeningly beyond ripe rotting and somewhat burnt smell that quickly coated my nostrils.
That night after an all-you-can-eat pizza dinner at a franchise Sherri’s father had an investing interest in, I had trouble falling asleep knowing how the micro-fauna would soon be bustling around my restless torso. I must have dozed off at some point into the Floridian night
Minutes or hours later I was aware of the presence of a much larger creature and bolted upright. No matter how much I wanted it to not be true there was no denying that something was snorting and making guttural grunts just outside the thin aluminum of my walls. A choice—either lie on my back petrified and wait for death or face it and get it over with.
I slowly opened the screen door.
Somewhat darker than the shadows stood a beast. The tusks that stuck wildly from the sides of what looked like a head with legs told me this was some sort of wild pig or boar.
It looked at me and snorted.
I said nothing. It would have been weird.
What I thought though, and what the boar seemed to be thinking as well was clear. One of us doesn’t belong here.
What was invisible that first night driving in was now unveiled in the orange glow of morning as I drove to my first interview in Del Ray Beach. Route 441 was a single lane highway connecting Belle Glade to my future. Driving Sherrie’s VW, I passed horses in pastures, county fairgrounds, migrant workers stooped over baskets, and a turn off for Lion Country Safari. Pick-up trucks with gun racks and dogs with tongues lolling in their flat beds kicked up dust pulling onto the road. It all smelled green. When I hit the interstate though, time seemed to reset as I joined the rush of the morning commute of BMWs and Audis. As I pulled into Porter Paints on A1A, I checked my tie in the mirror poised to join the working world.
The interview went well enough, I got the job. I was now the assistant manager of a business I had no experience in, but I was willing if not able. The money was crap, but I knew the prospects were slim, and the feeling of going back to Sherri’s parents with a job was worth it. Work was work, and this was work in Florida! The beach was across the street; the Atlantic Ocean visible, a literal sea of possibility. I crossed the road, dress shoes sinking into the sand, unknotted my tie, and squinted into the morning sun.
That evening I enjoyed a cold beer with Sherri’s dad as we both watched the sun set over the trailer park. I sensed he was sizing me up, and I did my best to survey the landscape with authority.
“That’s an interesting apple tree,” I pointed toward a spiny looking tree with ripening fruit.
“That’s no apple tree, that’s a manctineel–the Spanish call it manzinilla de la muerta—little apple of death.”
He explained how Columbus had noticed that just a few drops from a leaf onto the skin would instantly blister.
“You know if you took a bite of one of those “apples’ you would drop dead within ten minutes. The interesting thing is that an autopsy wouldn’t turn up a thing.”
I fell asleep that night wondering why he added that last tidbit.
The next morning in Del Ray Beach at the paint store I was primed to start a new career. A clean cut preppy looking kid not much older than me would be training me before moving on to manage the Boca Raton store.
I got trained how to mix paint using a variety of pigments squirted into a can of white base. It was easy, and I enjoyed it. I knew I could do this job:
Keep the books. Check.
Receipts, register, check, check.
The first paint contractor came in. Bloodshot eyes. Painters are notorious alcoholics I would come to know, with gruff hung-over demeanors. I was intimidated which I’m sure was the intended outcome. The shift ended. I would survive to work another day.
My third day on the job, things weren’t quite so good. A rich lady with a brand new Lincoln Continental had me load a five gallon container of primer into the trunk. The trunk was deep though, and the container was heavy and awkward, and it tipped out of my grip. Five gallons of milk white paint burst out and coated the fuzzy black interior of her luxury car. I hadn’t put the lid on tightly enough in the store.
She was as nice as could be considering the mess, and didn’t get upset, although she asked me to stop trying to clean it up since I was only making it worse.
The days passed. It was a job. I was working poor, but now I had an apartment in Del Ray Beach and my girlfriend would soon be moving in with me.
Sherri moved in. Her parents didn’t know, so if the phone rang only she could answer it. The apartment was basically a studio converted from a coach house broken into two units. The owner was a widow who turned a blind eye to our sinful cohabitation and the immigration status of the two young Cuban fellows who lived behind us. There was a relief that the tiny cockroaches were out of my life, but here, gigantic Palmetto bugs, cockroaches on steroids, apparently thought the space was theirs.
Life was peaceful though and a routine developed. Work at the store, home for lunch, a downpour of rain at 12:30 which evaporated by 12:45, back home for dinner with Sherri, and an occasional walk to the beach past the Intercoastal waterway with its funky houseboats. The neighbors across the alley (not the friendly Cubans) blasted Eric Clapton’s Cocainelive version at regular intervals punctuating the day. Some nights we took a late night dip in the ocean which might have been romantic save for my crippling fear of man-o-war stings and shark attacks. It was worth the buoyant embraces and salt water kisses though and life seemed good. But then came the day Sherri announced she wanted to be an actress.
Yes, Sherri wanted to be an actress. This in itself should have been great news. I should have been happy for her. The thing is, in the last few months she also had wanted to be a nurse, a teacher, and a merchant marine. This last one was particularly troubling. Sherri’s ex-boyfriend was a merchant marine. I had noticed one day on her dresser a letter from this guy, Richard. I asked her about it. They had been high school sweethearts and she swore she was long over him, but there were little things I couldn’t let go. For one, Sherri’s favorite record was Joni Mitchell’s Blue. There’s a song The Last Time I Saw Richard on that record. Her eyes seemed to go somewhere when it came on.
The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ‘68
And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday
My name Rick seemed so unsophisticated. Richard was a merchant marine. Traveling to distant ports. Tattooing girls ‘names on his biceps. A salty spray of ocean as he stood on the deck of a ship.
I was assistant manager at a paint store.
All good dreamers pass this way some day
That night I had a dream. I was back in The Rogue. Hurricane winds started to rattle it back and forth. Cockroaches streamed upward from the sink and toilet. The trailer walls ripped away and I was exposed to the storm. A wild pig ran out from behind the big trailer as the steel cables groaned. Cane snakes slithered beneath what was left of my trailer. The giant smoke stacks of the sugar factory crumbled. I closed my eyes and screamed silently into the gale.
When all had calmed, the sun was burning through the clouds. The boar asked me why I was still there. Sherri’s dad stood with a rake in his hands. Gathering the tiny apples of death.
The small theater culture of South Florida was vibrant in the early 80s, no doubt fueled by the presence of Burt Reynolds in Jupiter Beach and a bevy of retirees to fill the seats. The Florida Atlantic University Theater posted a notice for open auditions for a production of Moliere’s The Miser and Sherri figured it was a good place to start.
Auditions were held on a small campus stage in Boca Raton, and each hopeful was instructed to improvise a scene (unrelated to The Miser) based on a suggestion from the director. I’m not sure if that was standard procedure to try out for a play, but I was nervous for Sherri. I thought she nailed it though, and I was impressed.
After the mostly female group of hopefuls finished, Sherri and I were headed for the back of the theater, when I heard the director’s voice.
“What about you young man? Aren’t you trying out?”
I turned, not knowing it was me he was talking to, but I did seem to fit the bill.
I saw that he was addressing me.
“I’m just here for moral support for my girlfriend,” I replied somewhat sheepishly.
“We really have a shortage of males for this play, and I think you should give it a try,” he peered over his glasses.
Thankfully, he didn’t make me improvise. I simply had to read a short scene from a paperback copy of the play. I sensed he was lowering the bar. I did my thing, he said thanks to both of us, and we headed back to Del Ray.
The phone rang. It was late afternoon, Sherri was out shopping. I picked it up forgetting as I often did that I shouldn’t; I might have some ‘splaining to do to the Sergeant.
I was formulating an excuse for why I was there and Sherri wasn’t as I said hello.
“Hi, this is Joe Conaway, I led the auditions last week for The Miser.”
“Oh, hi” I replied. “Sherri is out right now, can I take a message?”
“No, that’s okay. I want to talk to you about being in the play.”
“But wait, what about Sherri?”
Nothing was registering for me, but he would quickly give me the necessary pieces of the puzzle.
“We thought she was really good, but we really have so few female parts for the play, and there were some more experienced actresses I wanted to cast.”
“I’d like to offer you a role though. I can actually see you as Cleante, Harpagon’s son.”
I don’t remember what I said, but it wasn’t no.
After we hung up, I realized that I had made a huge mistake. There was no way I could relay this news when Sherri got home. I don’t remember what I said, but my reply didn’t have the words, I’ll call him back, no, or sorry.
The Miser ran through the end of July. The rehearsals were a blast, and the rest of the cast was so fun to be around. I didn’t get the hefty role of Harpagon’s son, but I did get a line as one of the lackeys.
“I seem to have torn me breeches” delivered in a ripe Cockney got howls of laughter every night as Harpagon chased me off the stage with his cane.
By the time the play closed I knew I was leaving for Chicago. I wanted to find a band to join. Sherri had applied to Nursing School at the community college. We weren’t talking to each other much. We had one tearful night when I told her I was going home. I think she was relieved.
Sherri and her father drove me to the West Palm airport. There was a beautiful Florida sunset that night. Sherri’s hair had grown much longer now and she brushed long strands from her eyes. She kissed me on the cheek.
“Good luck, Rizzo. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” Sherri’s father gave me one last strong handshake.
“Yes sir.” I returned it in kind and started for the plane heading north of the wasteland.
Michael Cergizan and Rick Rizzo/ German rest stop 1990
I’d had the itch on the back of my head for three days when I noticed that it wasn’t in the same spot anymore. If my ears were Los Angeles and New York respectively, I had been digging somewhere around Albuquerque at what I thought was a pimple. But now I noticed I was pawing mindlessly somewhere around Tulsa, smack in the middle of the underbrush of my scalp. I was concerned.
I had been itching since that rest stop amid the fields of yellow when I laid my head on the green grass gazing at the German sky.
Janet foraged through my hair for a few seconds then screamed. Considering the situation, a scream seemed a little much and my concern grew in degrees. What was going on back there, Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Was there a portal?
“You’ve got a tick!” the accusation was delivered with disgust.
We were on our first European tour after the release of Beet in 1989. It was exciting to be in Europe for the second time, and this time with a musical career ascending quickly, a tour manager and a $20 per diem. Coming off a successful East Coast tour with the Meat Puppets and a great trip out west, we were as tight and powerful as we’d ever been and looking to build on our success in Europe. The first show in London was enthusiastically received even though we played way too fast on the adrenaline express.
Our traveling party on the last ferry allowed out on the choppy Chanel consisted of:
Jan—Dutch tour manager/sound engineer/ Drum (the tobacco) roller, multilingualist
Michael—super road-eye, fellow Rainbo bartender, all-around moody sweetheart of a man, naked sleepwalker
Janet—the drummer, hall-of-fame thrift shopper
Rick—the guitarist/singer, another moody mope of a man-child
Doug—bass player, raconteur, fashion plate
Baird—lead guitarist, strong man, Chicago Bears fan
Amy—Baird’s newlywed wife, debutante
It took a while after that first trip that left us green in the gills to settle in, but after a few shows in the Netherlands, we were in love. I don’t know a single band that tours Holland that doesn’t say they want to move there. The audiences, the cities, the landscape, the fries… they had me at fries. Every show was great and memorable except maybe Amsterdam where we opened for The Sundays at Melk Weg and I discovered that coffee shops and remembering chord progressions aren’t a good mix for me.
By the time the German Border Patrol rifled through our van as we entered our third country, we were beginning to get a little road weary. Anybody who thinks that touring as a band is an exciting prospect is really dreaming. Don’t get me wrong, I love touring, but it is not romantic in any sense. Typical day on a European tour:
9:00 a.m. Get up after maybe 5 hours sleep. If you don’t get up by the time the breakfast is over you are out of luck. Doug slept through many a breakfast. Breakfast in Europe is included with the hotel. It ranges in quality, but at the very least there will be a soft boiled egg, fresh rolls, granola, yogurt, a variety of sliced meats and cheeses, and coffee.
10:00 a.m. Depart for the next gig. A good booking agent who cares about your sanity will have a sensible tour that has drives of less than 5 hours. Most booking agents don’t care about your sanity.
10:00 a.m. (ish) –5:00 p.m. (ish ) The Drive. The first half hour of the drive consists of recap about the weird things that happened the night before. Soon though comes the catch-up sleep. This is the true joy of touring. When you “wake up” from this sleep you don’t realize you’ve been sleeping at all, but when you mention the dolphins and mermaids as you drove under the sea you realize you were dreaming—it must have been sleep. You also notice that you are 200 miles further down the road. Miss this sleep and you will go insane. When you wake up it is usually because it is time to stop for gas. Rest stops in Europe are hit or miss. Some are amazing. Most of the time though you just want to grab a drink and a Ritter Sport. No matter what, everybody in the band must get a snack at every stop. Don’t get left behind like David Pajo did on a Tortoise tour. If you take a longer lunch break, don’t leave a briefcase behind with $10,000 in it (we had a tour manager do this on a later tour—never Jan!) (it was still there a few hours later under the table where it was left)
As you pull within the city limits everybody gets super-hyper and talkative. The most laughs of the trip happen here. Spirits abound!
5:00 p.m. The Load-in. Size up the club and surroundings.—is it on the outskirts of town or situated in the zentrum? Make a sandwich with the sliced cheeses/ meats, dive into a bag of carbs, eat a Kinder egg, ignore the apples.
5:30 p.m. The soundcheck begins. Jan had the same routine every time before the band even started—his personal cd mix tape blasted through the p.a. followed by ten minutes of “two, two…two two.” We play a song or three to get monitors right. We were not picky so sound check finished pretty quickly after that. If it was good for Jan, we were done.
6:00 p.m.—11:00 p.m. The Wait. After dinner, which often was great (but who has an appetite after snacking all day?) it was time to wait for the show which sometimes started as late as midnight. This is the longest span of the day. Some drink beer and talk, I walked. I cannot sit in a dressing very long. I am a happy conversationalist when I am talking to one person, but struggle mightily when that number expands. At some point after scanning the wall graffiti (one of eleventh dream day’s hard and fast rules is to not draw graffiti in dressing rooms. I personally believe it is a curse.) The worst of philosophy is on these walls—bathroom stalls seem wise compared to dressing room walls. Every possible way to draw a penis has been explored. The only dressing room that ever held my attention was that first trip to Berlin at the Loft. Lenny Kravitz had played there on his way up and had penned at least a dozen self-aggrandizing wall-monopolizing scrawls. The great thing was the replies that followed written by other denizens of the dressing room. I think my early take on the no graffiti policy was that “eleventh dream day” would be followed with someone writing “sucks” after it. Side note on the Loft—the absolute best spread of food I’ve ever seen backstage! (which ended up on stage at our second visit with Yo La Tengo—a story documented elsewhere)
Anyway, I walked. I would take off from the club by myself in what looked like the most promising direction. I would soak in wherever we were. Today I would be taking pictures, but back then it was just keep moving, observe, and think about my surroundings and force all thoughts about the show out of my head.
I only got lost once. In Rotterdam on our El Moodio tour I set off, but eventually got thrown by the lack of consistent street names and the endless curves. I usually use what I think is a pretty good sense of direction, and use of landmarks, no breadcrumbs—but the lack of a Jeffersonian grid is a challenge in many European cities that just seem to sprawl. I did happen to see some extra light in the sky though and I remembered there was a carnival near where I set out. I made it to the club just in time to go on stage.
Back at the club I try to drink just enough to relax, but not to where I’m going to blow it on stage. I seem to have a good sense of where that line is crossed.
11:00 p.m. Showtime. Crack a joke. A fake band prayer circle or something. See the faces for the first time. The first chord is always magic. I get to do this! I get to play loud music on a stage! I am never nervous, and there is an inverse relationship to my nerves and size of the crowd. I close my eyes and let it rip. I close my eyes generally because when you actually see somebody and notice them it can make you forget a lyric. Then you’re sunk. If my eyes are open they are unfocused or looking at a fixed object.
The show is what the day is all about. It is the release of all tension. It is pure joy.
Post show: I don’t want anybody to utter a word. I want to stare into the night in the alley behind the club for at least 15 minutes. Then, I want to devour more food, more beer, and pack up the gear. In eleventh dream day, Doug and Janet are at their best post show, laughing, drinking, talking. I usually have to excuse myself and go to bed.
Amy did not like the routine. Notice how I didn’t mention sight-seeing. We were in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Rome, Zagreb, Vienna and did we have time to see the sights? No. When I was walking around before show time, it was not where the sights were. There were amazing, amazing things to see yes, but I appreciate the local flavor—I didn’t need the Colosseum or Big Ben. And if you wanted to see anything besides the insides of a smelly, dark club you had to explore.
[I did wake up really early the morning after the Berlin gig and walked through the Tiergarten to the Wall which was in the process of getting torn down. I chipped off a couple of pieces for myself)
But Amy was not the adventurous type.
The complaints started as whispers in Baird’s ear. Baird would relay the complaint to Jan, who would quickly grow to resent that someone had the gall to bring their girlfriend on the tour.
I managed to block out most of this, but we all noticed when Amy loudly voiced her shock that the waitress at the lunch stop restaurant served her on the wrong side.
Michael’s disdain for Amy slowly began to show as we endured her comments, and his displeasure with her became obvious. His mutterings didn’t need subtitles. “Fckng btch” under the breath doesn’t need the vowels. The feelings became mutual, and a simmering war had begun. It was very uncomfortable for all, and Baird’s uneasiness became evident. Michael asked to ride in the back with the gear where a rear end accident would have killed him. He preferred it that way.
We suggested to Baird in private that Amy might be happy if she had a more solid role in the daily routine. Selling t-shirts would help us all out (We had amazing shirts designed by Joe Sacco as well as one Catherine Irwin did for Beet that parodied the Physical Graffiti cover). At first Amy refused. It was beneath her. Out of sheer frustration and boredom she eventually took it over and I believe was much happier.
The night of the Munich show was Amy’s birthday. We were giddy. It might have been our best show to date as a band and we were sweaty and happy. We had gotten Amy a cake. We were having fun. In the pure joy of the moment Jan playfully nudged the birthday slice into Amy’s face. White frosting covered her button nose. It should have been the ice breaker. It should have been the moment where we all became comrades of shared experience. Why did Jan do it? I sincerely believe he did it in the spirit of the moment. If it was my birthday he would have done it to me. He may have been hazing her, but I think only with the best intentions. It was his way of saying that he welcomed her to the tour.
Amy did not take it that way. Jan was informed that he would pay for the dress.
Janet grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels from the previous night’s dressing room stash, screwed off the cap and plugged it on top of my scalp where the tick was burrowed. Soaking it for twenty seconds or so, she removed the bottle to see the head of the tick now exposed. I’m not sure what the science is here, what made the tick emerge, but in the blink of an eye the zoo director’s daughter had the bugger with her fingernails and yanked it from my head. She held it up with a shout of victory for all to see its bloody bloat, then squished it between her fingers. No tick was hitching a ride on this tour.
Today’s appearance on public radio led to this rant from a listener:
I realize you have to appeal to all listening groups, but today’s guests affirmed why
it spols my day to hear such a racket mislabeled as music: What were they so
From an amateur psychiatric viewpoint, their group affliction seems to be that
they have inner conflict issues they feel they need to expiate on stage. If one is
not a social worker who grooves on helping strangers leave their psychic pain
behind, what enjoyment is that supposed to provide for an audience of normal
From a human nature standpoint, the old adage remains as true as ever: “Laugh and
the world laughs with you; cry, and you cry alone.” Emanating free-floating anger
alienates normal people. The only exception: Other hurting, angry people, who see
in them that they have found kindred spirits with whom to engage in writhing together
as a group. “Misery loves company.”
What a downer! Thank you for not having them run on longer. That was not “music.”
It was sharing in misfits’ inner pain and struggle. Otherwise, no redeeming social
value whatsoever. I hope they find surcease and relief before they do harm to others
or themselves. That much bottled-up anger bodes ill indeed.
In recent interviews with various band members , the 1995 record Ursa Major has emerged with what seems to be an unofficial “favorite” status. Released on Atavistic records after three records in four years with Atlantic, Ursa Major is a departure from the grungier early days of the band and urgent guitar driven pop of El Moodio. The band, released from the Atlantic contract and with no plans to return to the major label world or big tours, made a record that would see the expanding musical interests of individual members come together to create new sounds.
At the end of the final road trip promoting El Moodio in 1993, there were a lot of reasons to pull back from the incessant touring and promotion that defined the Atlantic years. For one, we hadn’t achieved the commercial success necessary to justify toting a toddler around the world in vans and Dutch bicycle seats. Nobody wanted to end the band—we felt we had made a great string of records, and we continued to draw good crowds and critical support. It was still fun. With touring over indefinitely, I went back to school to get teacher certification, Janet sunk her energy into the next Freakwater record, and Doug was getting Tortoise off the ground. By mid 1994 though, a new batch of songs emerged and we began to record at Idful with Brad Wood. Atavistic records, which had been behind the Making Like a Rug video, was very interested in working with us again. Wink came up from Louisville and we began to create the record in the studio. This was unlike any previous record because there really wasn’t much rehearsal or workshopping of songs—this one was a studio record, and we built the songs as we went along leading to the experimental elements that separate it from previous records.
The record begins with History of Brokeback, a McCombs generated instrumental with changing time signatures that would signal to any listener that eleventh dream day was not looking to join in the Wicker Park frenzy that was swirling around Liz Phair and Urge Overkill. The mood of the song shifts back and forth from ominous to upbeat, and while it may be one of the more complex songs in the edd oevre, it is very hooky in its own way. And the title was a precursor to one of Doug’s future bands.
Occupation, or Not begins with acoustic guitar and brushed snare, another departure from the usual full-on assault of electric guitars charging out of the gates. This is my castle, this is my home. Revolution always looms. The first words of the album perhaps summarizing the fact that things were changing. A shakeup was surely due. The guitar solo is not a solo. A slide scraped across distorted strings. No bombastic ending.
Flutter is a mother’s love letter to her son, a musical one at that. You are the most beautiful angel I have ever seen. Once again, this was a softer kind of pop song, with rhythmic complexity and strings. Atavistic also shot a video for this at Logan Auditorium (and yes, John McEntire on drums!)
Orange Moon closes out side one with a more typical edd sound, although this is one of the first songs with a nonstandard tuning. 3 chords soft louder loud soft loudest. The lyrics for this one might sum up my prevailing mood at the time. As I started working toward a new career in teaching, I wasn’t far removed from the life of a touring rock musician, with the attention and perks that went along with that. At the same time, Wicker Park where we all lived, was blowing up as the hottest scene in the world. The sky is for sale by the chunk. I didn’t have regrets about dropping out, but at the same time I felt betrayed by how Atlantic failed us. But the moon that I held has been foreclosed it’s not for sale. I felt conspicuously absent from the hoopla and somewhat hurt. I’m not sure how the others in the band felt, but they were in the process of creating new genres of music. I seriously had no desire to be back in it—the major label thing was a game that got old. No wish to wish upon that star it seemed too empty it seemed too far. So really, it’s about wanting something, but knowing that you don’t want it ultimately. I was no rock star, not even in my imagination. The moon is fake it floats in space blank witness night it’s made me crazed. The final refrain “They won’t let it go” has a couple of possibilities—it calls out the labels as overlords—the band works for them, and in the long run all the people surrounding the band make their money. The bands are product with a limited shelf life and can be easily replaced by the next big thing. I was more than hurt on this song, I was pissed. And I totally let it go after that song.
Taking Leave was written and recorded after Ursa Major was done. Wink had gone back to Louisville. Hey—you write a new song and it’s your favorite. Tomorrow looms oddly again—another lyric that places me in an awkward state of being. I’ve shown that I can take a punch. It has me worried. See—I’m not hurt! But maybe that’s because I’m numb. Oh no, the beginning of emotional withdraw! I love this song—the way Janet and I weave vocals in and out, Doug on a six string bass. We recorded this after Brad left for the day. McEntire and Casey Rice ended up being creative forces in the studio!
Bearish on High was originally called Orange Moon. It has the line, orange moon I pine for you. The typeset instructions got screwed up and instead of wasting album sleeves, we decided to switch titles. No big deal, the themes are pretty similar. I believe there is a feeling of defeat. I resolve to erase that thought. I was definitely grappling with the career change. You can watch the sun set in the west and wonder when it ever left. But I was happy, going to school, working at the Rainbo, and playing lots of tennis. I can’t remember what I found so ironic at the time, but I was confident enough about life that it had me shouting it gives me faith!
Nova Zembla, title provided by Nabokov, who I was newly discovering, was perhaps the only between song noodling that ever made it to an album. Wink provides the clean guitar acrobatics as well as the storm clouds that roll in.
Blindside comes out of the chaos– a slow build up of dark clouds leading to the storm. He knew he should go inside. He knew what was coming down. The only solo on the record, but not really a solo. Maybe an allusion to the gang violence that surrounded us in our neighborhood. Maybe more hedging against emotional investment. Maybe both.
The record closes with Exit Right, pretty apt stage direction for getting off the big stage. On your knees you never beg, you just get used to being closer to the ground. A humbled exit, but pride intact. One of the few songs where Janet sings my words. The chords and melody were hers as I recall.
A right different record by what precedes it.
And the start of a band with very different work habits.
There is a part of the Ursa Major story that has been untold to this point, and it concerns a certain Matthew “Wink” O’Bannon, a “brother” of mine who I resemble in so many insane ( or sane perhaps) ways. He had better hair.
Wink had been a member of edd since he took over for Baird halfway through the Lived to Tell tours. He was a demon on guitar, the kind of player who I imagined had actually made the deal at the crossroads. He was incredibly good on stage and in the van and after the show, an all- round great band and travel mate. Oh, he had his moments (the nickname ‘El Moodio’ was mostly bestowed on Wink because of his horneriness born out of fierce self-hatred– I fell under the blanket of the nickname due to my shared July moon child birthday and own spells of anguish), but Wink had made playing in the band really, really fun.
But what had made Wink so great on tour doing a live show was a bit out of skew with where the rest of us were coming from recording Ursa Major. Without a doubt, and I let him know it emphatically, I think Wink’s playing on the record is great and adds immeasurably to the songs. He was inventive and cunning with his Stratocaster. There were a few instances though, where Wink played fairly straightforward parts, that although technically great, were too “rock” for what we wanted for the songs. He was not in town for the mixes and we made group decisions where parts were cut.
When Wink heard the mixes he was livid. I can only imagine the curses that were uttered. Wink wrote a letter, several pages long that outlined his outrage. He gave us three choices– I only remember 2 of them—the third may have included a horse’s head:
Completely remove his parts from the record. Sever him from band. Die.
Keep his parts, but pay him as a session musician ( since this is how we had treated him).
We decided to keep his parts, which we loved, and paid him the rate he had calculated. It was less than Nashville scale. We parted ways.
We released the record to much interest, and took great pleasure in the shows to follow. Our only band issued 7” came out –Orange Moon/ I Got a Thing (Funkadelic song with Wink out of his maggot brain amazing) City Slang put the record out in Europe.
We enlisted several guitar players over the years to stand in the shoes of Wink O’Bannon. Ira Kaplan was first and came into town for a show at Lounge Ax. Ira also joined the band for a short tour of Europe to promote Ursa Major. As great as all this sounded, we failed to lure him full time.
The vinyl seems to be out of print on Atavistic, but there are many ways to listen to the record in the digital world. We invite you to do so and judge for yourself.