State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence: two roads diverged in a wood….
Not to get all Starman about it, but when the former David Jones passed away last week in a final, deathless fury of message and gesture, we were reminded how bold and nearly crazy was his devotion to his art, his post-mortem video and music releases amounting to a loud, harrowing fare-thee-well not quite of this Earth. “This way or no way, you know I’ll be free,” he sings in the transfixing and horrific “Lazarus” video. “Just like that bluebird. Now ain’t that just like me?” He’d changed his name to Bowie early on to avoid confusion with the diminutive tambourine-banging jockey in The Monkees, took off like a possessed archangel, and effectively died painting.
For my money the takeaway from his life of nearly boundless expressionism is both simpler and more powerful than the number of personae he artfully inhabited. The real story is this, and it’s one we can all use: a little kid named David Jones, a kid who loved to draw, found an early plumb line of artistic destination and followed it so unwaveringly he walked through walls to see it through. The year his buddy George Underwood popped him in the eye over a girl, David Jones had already started a band, and a year after that he got a manager and was on his way, the funny eye his buddy gave him (and for which Bowie actually thanked him later) the uncannily perfect finishing touch. Bowie’s restless exploring was so freaking unhindered, it might just about make up for the millions of people who – every minute of every hour of every day – reach the end of the line without having found what they Are.
Merlin and the Art of (being) Chicken
While we yet had the luxury to do so, my friends and I likewise chose art, with the result that one evening in the bar-spangled early 1980s I found myself in the restroom of a chicken sandwich joint, dressed in a bright orange jumpsuit with the collar turned up, and helplessly retching over the single sink. Ah, I remember it well, as Maurice Chevalier might say. The young men and women with whom I’d academically consorted just a couple short years before had circulated out into the Larger World, and were now carrying things like valises to work and clicking with heel-to-toe determination down long, tiled Establishment hallways buffed to a maddeningly reflective sheen. These former compatriots had long since begun stuffing their factory-distressed roll top desks with the byzantine documentation of the damned. Yeah, they’d made it. What had I made? I’d barely made it to the sink. Given my Flock of Pigeons haircut and faux-futuristic attire, anyone walking in would have assumed I was a nauseated time-traveler, not an enviable bohemian living The Artist’s Way. “Ack! Ack! Ack! Aaaacckkhh!!!” And so on.
We’d all filed into the restaurant’s privies to change into our stage stuff and draw lines around our eyes. The band was Eddie, me, Leslee, Cary, Tony and Bob. Our unflappable guru/soundman Danny rounded out the Puccini gang, and would do the gig, as always, in hoodie and jeans. Once alone with my “thoughts”, the blanching commenced, a helpless gagging that was not the result of a recalcitrant chicken sandwich, but of garden-variety terror. In less than half an hour my band would take the legendary Merlin’s stage a few doors down and Represent. Merlin’s was the destination, the grail, the happening hot spot; a room so unspeakably and indefinably stamped with New Cool that even the slack-faced, nihilist gloom-wave bands in their raccoon mascara betrayed themselves with moving eyebrows at the thought of gigging there. The year was 1983, and the city doesn’t matter. Phoenix. My band of misfits, after years of rehearsing and writing and writing and rehearsing in a succession of repurposed rented living rooms and egg-carton-deadened garages for just this moment, were about to take the stage and become the willing center of the noted club’s bug-eyed nocturnal attentions. The very idea had me fastened to a public sink in a chicken sandwich establishment, dressed to the nines (or eights. sevens?), hair moussed up to here, uncomfortable statement-making ear danglers a-swaying. Oh, and dry-heaving with the hunched, peristaltic fervor of someone preparing to speak in tongues.
Mascara. Clove. Mousse. Art.
Phoenix was and is a sprawling, overbuilt desert accident that euphemistically calls itself The Valley of the Sun; sort of like rebranding the South Pole as “Lil’ Icicle Town”. In the summer (and most of the months surrounding summer) the environs truly become uninhabitable, a place as deadly to the unprotected human being as the sunny side of Mercury, and as nurturing of the cooler underground.
By the time an over-rehearsed Spin Cycle (Ed Baum, Leslee Williamson, Cary “The Kid” Hitsman, regionally established pop star Alan Bews, soundman and guru Danny Seibert, and me) emerged from our Paradise Valley rental house on the far backside of Camelback Mountain, the Clove-Cigarettes-and-Projectile-Ennui club culture in The Valley of the Sun was in full fever, and Merlin’s became the vortex, the burning center of a subset that considered itself the front line in the New Resurrection of music as a motile Art Statement. For all that (as is usually the case when a ‘place’ becomes the brief, hot repository of a movement) the club was itself not much.
Crouched in the nether shadows of a weirdly large parking lot around which a handful of small business gathered, Merlin’s was your standard pitch-dark noise box, with its long ragged bar and vestigial little tables placed around at random, bolted down like the furniture in a submarine so that when you plowed into them in the thronging, synth-deafened blackness the damage would be all yours. The guest attire ran to blacks and grays and the dance space featured people twitching spasmodically à la Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, or swaying like undersea flora, faces expressionless in the feeble glow of aromatic ciggies held close to the face. These dank New Wave and Punk temples were mercifully murky during mid-day setup and sound check. You would wander in from the sun-blasted out of doors and into an odorous, inkwell opacity, one arm cradling a crate full of cords and the other arm outstretched; a bone yard zombie making for home. Then the guitarist would lurch with his amp through a front door as heavy and sealed against the elements as the entry to an airlock, and in would pour sudden, unwelcome sunshine like a burst of phosphor, the inappropriately cheery blast of light revealing a battered chamber of such scarred and vomit-splashed interior malign you took it all in for more than two seconds at your peril. Lovely!!
Purple Turtles and a Jar
Just summoning the club names of this, our Art Period, brings the sense memory back like a sonofabitch; Merlin’s, Frank and Joe’s Mason Jar, The Profile Room, The Purple Turtle; these “clubs” – a word that accurately suggests membership – dominated my waking and sleeping hours. I loved the unearthly smell of these clubs, ALWAYS the same no matter where we were gigging – cigarettes doused in beer, commingled with atomized sweat, maybe? I could never figure it out, but the scent was exactingly unique to these clubs. I grew to love the pitiable band portraiture that asymmetrically decorated the walls and spilled the long heraldic tale of all the hipster hopefuls who’d poured through the place before us with their haircuts and their decal-mummified guitars and their Chuck Taylors.
I loved the care-worn, smart-ass, defiantly unfashionable bartenders, loved the fast-talking proprietors who would shamelessly try to get away with whatever they could at the band’s expense. A particular favorite was Frank, the diminutive, combed-over Greek owner/manager of The Mason Jar, who would begin yelling the chorus to his favorite Spin Cycle song as soon as we entered with our equipment. “Oh what the hell Rochelle!”, and later would good-naturedly attempt to underpay. Shit, it didn’t matter, that was part of the glory. We were ARTISTS, a band! WE’D CHOSEN THIS. For years this was my life, the high-haired raccoon-mascara crowd my fellow travelers. I would spend my days at work at the Arizona Republic (the stentorian daily newspaper) thinking only about the next gig.
Chicks and Ducks and Geese Better Scurry
Like most great band bios, this one begins with two fiery comets intersecting as if by fate. Eddie and I had met and clicked in much the same way Mick and Keith had; in the orchestra pit of a high school production of Oklahoma. During breaks in rehearsal (we weren’t in the cast, we were tech crew – yes, the rope-yanking Morlocks that even high school Theater Geeks avoid) Ed could be found down in the pit masterfully playing the piano and wowing passerby; me, for one. We hesitantly began to commune around songs we both dug.
He would play and I would sing. Before long I was bringing my crooked poetry to his melodies and we stitched together a songwriting partnership that survives to this day. All the scene needed was a perky Judy Garland type to run in with a clipboard and cue the orchestra. College brought Leslee (acting class, ASU, Grady Gammage Auditorium) with her late 70s baby-bangs, inertial energy, and dulcet singing voice. By 1979, we three had been gathering around a piano singing for a year or so, and Eddie and I had been writing songs for longer. I was a journalism major, Eddie was a Psych major (holy cow), Leslee a bookish English major-type. Or English Major, I guess they call them now.
Come Pearl Harbor Day in ‘79 (December 7, but you knew that), we were taken aside by our collective artistic conscience and persuaded to mark the date. As I (imperfectly) recall, Eddie, Les and I sat on the artlessly stained off-white Pollock couch in my and Ed’s chronically abused apartment (named Brunswick, after its benighted landlord), and decided, to the extent one can “decide” this sort of thing (and one can decide this sort of thing to any extent one wishes) to Follow our Art. We capped the Plan with a sort of Musketeer vow. “Whatever else, let’s go for this. Let’s be artists.” Yeah; less D’Artagnan than Andy Hardy, maybe.
It is a species of that self-identification which, through the generations, has earned many a heartfelt fourth-grader a beating by the swingset at the hands of clenched philistines. But I’m here to tell you it worked. The plan worked like a house on fire. By which I mean it worked very well. From that Day of Infamy (or just “famy”, I guess, since it was a positive day), the story ratchets forward like a Busby Berkeley sequence, but without feather boas or symmetry.
And here I’ll switch to the present tense and compress the action. Eddie and I begin writing in earnest and through a succession of bands the core of Eddie, Leslee, Cary, me, and our omnipresent, laconic and unflappable BoardMan Danny hone our performing, our writing, our sound and lights; our art. Our final incarnation, Spin Cycle, conquers the Phoenix club scene, the ASU Greek Bacchanal Industry, blow out our gigantic Gauss speakers at U of A’s All Greek Festival in a cavernous venue on that campus, and otherwise taste the club and party scene in the region to our satisfaction.
Next thing you know we load up the truck and we move to Santa Barbara. Swimming Pools, Movie Stars, and thou. My future wife Juud arrives from Holland, walks into Rocky Galenti’s where we’re gigging on a beautiful summer Sunday afternoon in 1986, and these 31 years later I have a couple of suspiciously attractive smart-ass kids, at this writing a visiting Dutch mum-in-law, and a second vocabulary that includes words that sound (Circle of Life) like mild gagging.
Aspirins and the Happy Headache
The point of all this? As dumb and dated as those gee-willikers, let’s put on a show! declarations sound, even in the movies, it’s worth noting that we are anyway all putting on a show. The only question is, who’s directing? You’re an artist. Not because you can recognizably draw a horse, but because you feel the weirdness and glory of the everyday and are aware of the need to send up a signal flare. When you feel that nagging little fire in the calcium cage that houses your Life Pump, maybe….um….listen to it?
Take it from me, Eddie, Leslee, Cary, Alan, Danny, Frank, Dave, Tony, Bob, the deaf bass player who in the middle of his audition laughed cryptically and said “horseback”, all the so-so painters and dancers and bit-players and singers, known and unknown; and the once and future doodler with the strange eyes, Mr. Jones. We get one of these soap operas. One. Make sure you’re playing the right role and don’t be dissuaded. Don’t miss your chance to go out on a limb, whatever form your ballsy exploration takes. It won’t be as easy as the Road Most Frequently Taken, which has been lovingly resurfaced and prepped for you by the culture, but as Tony Bennett counsels any young, gifted fledgling who will listen (most recently the spiraling Amy Winehouse), “Don’t sin against your talent.” Or as Sir John Gielgud once memorably said when presented with his requested headache meds by a young, excited Liza Minnelli; “The aspirins are for you, my dear.”