Sunday, September 28, 2008
Sunday, June 29, 2008
When someone asks me where I grew up, my answer is usually something like “Suburbia USA.” I was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan (where I now live) but throughout my childhood, my family relocated every single year so that up until high school, I started each school year in a different town, often a different state, than the one I finished in the previous spring.
The story behind that isn't really important here. My point is that I don't have much of a regional locus to pin my childhood memories on – what sticks with me isn't “place” as much as culture. TV was my constant, along with pop music, Mad magazine, Marvel comics, Hollywood movies and all that stuff that in the 60's and 70's was already well underway in homogenizing the USA into one massive consumerist society. I grew up on junk food basically – even though I didn't really know what it was I was missing, I got to a point where I realized that what I was being fed wasn't really what humans tend to thrive on.
I liked listening to my parents' records when I was a kid. My mom had some cool old Elvis 45s and other stuff from her teenage years and in the late 60s exposed me to bands like the Doors, the Ohio Express, the Fifth Dimension and the soundtrack to the musical “Hair.” An eclectic mix already. My dad was heavily into Janis Joplin. And a lot of AM radio pop music got stuck in my head in those years. But it wasn't until 1975 that I started buying my own records. I was a 14 year old freshman in high school and I remember hearing an older guy talk about Kiss “Alive,” this awesome double-album record he was eager to get. I wanted to be cool so one day when my mom took me shopping I showed her the album – four freaky looking guys wielding instruments, grimacing for the camera and strutting their stuff on a smoke-filled stage. Looked pretty attractive to me, enough to push me past my mom's tentative objections and get her to let me buy it.
So I brought it home, tore off the shrink wrap and immediately got drawn into the rock and roll scene on a personal level. The innuendos were still a bit beyond me, but not too much, and the music provided a swift education on what a blast it is being a kick-ass rock star living the high life and doing whatever you feel like. It wasn't too much longer before I had picked up the Kiss back catalog and expanded my collection to include pivotal discs from bands like Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Ted Nugent, Thin Lizzy and Foghat. And that was just for starters.
Since I liked discovering new sounds but didn't have the funds to buy everything that looked interesting, I needed help finding out who was good. And that led me to start checking out the rock magazines that were kept on a rack at my favorite local hangout, Flaming Rat Records. The guys who worked there were pretty cool – they'd put on albums at my request if they had an open copy. But it wasn't too long before the stuff that sounded most interesting to me exceeded the contents of their demo bin. Creem magazine hit the spot for me better than Rolling Stone (too smug), Circus (too dumb) or Crawdaddy (too mellow.) Creem introduced me to a lot of bands that the other magazines ignored or were just didn't know about. Iggy and The Stooges took on a legendary status in my mind well over a year or two before I'd even heard any of their music (this was back when their albums were out of print and impossible to find) simply from how Iggy Pop's antics and persona were described. He seemed to be the perfect embodiment of the wild manic rejection of social norms that I was feeling at the time – and if his music rocked as hard as the Creem writers made it seem, all the better.
But Creem's endorsement went beyond their hometown favorites like the MC5 or Nugent. They also introduced me to the Ramones, a new band coming up out of New York City who played hard fast riffs with simple but stupidly funny lyrics – and their record wasn't out of print yet. Over the years I have bought a lot of records, tapes and CDs but I don't know of many other purchases as fateful as the day that I bought the Ramones first album – along with Led Zeppelin's “Houses of the Holy.” How big a deal was it? Well, within the next two years, my collection of punk rock grew immensely, while that Zeppelin album, along with the rest of their catalog that I owned, was given away by me before I graduated high school because I simply had no more use for arena rock bands anymore.
The Ramones, and later punk bands like the Dead Boys, the Damned and the Sex Pistols, provided the evidence and the inspiration I needed to convince myself that I too could be in a band. I knew I couldn't compete with Kiss when it came to spectacle or Led Zeppelin when it came to musicianship. But I could definitely see myself taking to the stage and doing my own version of young, loud and snotty. It was about the time that punk rock was coalescing in New York and London that I moved out to live with my dad in Alameda, just across the bay from San Francisco. I turned 16 in 1977 when “Never Mind the Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols” came out, and I had the band's UK singles in my collection before the import version of the LP was released. I think that's the perfect age to be for hearing that album for the first time. I graduated from high school in 1979, one of maybe three or four kids there who even knew what punk rock was, and the only one who dared to wear shirts and jeans held together with safety pins in class.
Living as close as I did to the city, I was able to go to a few shows at the Mabuhay Gardens, and I also got to see the last Sex Pistols show at Winterland in January 1978 – even though the band failed to live up to my expectations, it was still a major event. By that time, I had bought a guitar and taught myself a few techniques of rhythmic pounding and bending of strings. Not really chords in any traditional musical sense of the word, but they enabled me to play along with some of my records and gave me the sense that I was making progress toward being in a band. Problem for me was that I was still socially isolated and not very clear on who I would join up with when it came time to really form that band.
After graduation, my dad moved out to Contra Costa County, further into the depths of the East Bay. The move was fine to me – I didn't have many close friends in Alameda and the new house was nice. I enrolled in Diablo Valley Community College, completely unfocused and unclear about what I was trying to accomplish with further education. I only lasted one semester basically (though I did stay in one creative writing class for the second term) but it was there that I met my future bandmates Tim and Bruce, and through them, Eric. The four of us went on to become the Church Police, an obscure and short-lived combo that nevertheless went on to become a significant part of my life story.
I could go into story-telling mode here and lay out any number of little anecdotes about the band, but what I really want to say here is that it's pretty easy to undervalue an experience like that when you're in the middle of it. Our group was not all that proficient in terms of musical talent, a coherent message or even purpose for existing, but we had fun and I think in significant ways we connected with a small group of people who saw something in our bumbling madness and gleeful chaos that one doesn't always find when watching bands strive to become popular entertainers. We had somehow found a way to sidestep the customary need to be “good” on our instruments or to develop a concise musical package that would fit tidily onto the bill of an evening's schedule of performances. And in an industry where image and style and trendiness wield enormous clout in determining who even makes it to the stage, the Church Police, along with many other groups who muddled their way through the first “post-punk” era of the early 1980s, found a way to strike a unique pose by being ourselves, not thinking too much about what we looked like or more crucially perhaps, who liked us. We just took our spot on the bill, walked on stage, made our noise, and let the roof crash down upon us, until either the audience erupted in weary impatience for us to get off the damn stage, or the house management decided we'd gone on too long and simply shut off the power.
To me, the Church Police epitomize not just the goofy youthful fun that I try to describe above, but also a potential for creative expression that wasn't adequately fulfilled. I'm not going to lay out a long list of regrets here, but let me just say that if you, the reader, are involved in any kind of a creative endeavor at this time or in the future, give it your fullest effort and attention – especially if it involves other people. It is too easy to get caught in traps of self-doubt or distraction or discouragement – that you're not good enough, or that you're bored of the scene, or that it's just not going anywhere. Maybe that's what the final verdict will render – certainly all things must come to an end – but don't get there until you're sure you've explored the full potential. I think the Church Police underachieved, but for what we did, I'm pleased with how much life has grown out of it.
Given that I can't go and change the past, I make do with the knowledge that my life after the band turned out pretty good, so far anyway. I was able to take some of the hard times that I experienced during those years (the loneliness, the confusion, the poverty, the depression, the drug abuse...) and get a new perspective on what I went through, what it all meant. For nearly 20 years now I've worked with teenage victims of abuse and neglect as a mental health care provider. It's not always easy work and many of the youth I've gotten to know really don't like the circumstances they're in – including the treatment that my colleagues and I seek to provide. I think I understand the reasons for their struggles and resistance. Learning the things that life has to teach us is not usually very fun, convenient or easy. Often, a lot of pain and bitterness accompany those “lessons” - and the words of an adult who's trying to be all nice and empathetic and “I've been there too” are not nearly enough to remove the crappy aftertaste of what we've been dealt.
But one mistake that I wish I had avoided was my tendency to get stuck in dumb habits that I did over and over again. Whether it was smoking pot as a routine, choosing my likes and dislikes based on what I saw others around me saying, or just buying into self-defeating, “I'll never make it” attitudes... those were behaviors that did me in, when it wouldn't have been that hard to reframe my situation in a different (not even a “better”) way. Look at life from as many different angles as you can imagine. Don't get too stuck on any one way of seeing the world – think of yourself as awesomely great at what you do and who you are – and then remind yourself of what a screw-up you have been too. Build for yourself a mind that can handle big and complex ideas, and still stay sane. Press your limits, but strive for the best health you can achieve. Being a teenager or a person in your early 20s is a pretty unique and incredible time of life. Don't let fear or discouragement hold you back and rob you of the joy in life, both now and in decades to come.
Sunday, May 4, 2008
By popular demand, here are some more scans (of just me) from the legendary Church Police photo session from spring 1982, on my dad's copy machine. Other band member shots may be posted here... eventually.
Issue #300 of Maximum RockNRoll Magazine recently hit the newsstands... some newstands anyway. I haven't seen it at my local Barnes & Noble but the publishers were kind enough to send me a complementary issue, since Tim (the CP singer) and I were interviewed for this edition. The Church Police were also featured in Issue #1. My unedited interview transcript is already posted further down on the blog. I will post the edited text (with Tim's comments included) later on, after the next issue comes out. If you want to read the article now - go buy your own copy!
Sunday, March 9, 2008
1. First off, could you give a bit of history about the band- How and when did you form?
Tim and Eric got together one day and wrote a bunch of lyrics. I guess they get ultimate credit for starting the band. They chose the name "Church Police" which came from a Monty Python skit. Either that same day or the next, they came over to my dad's house in Walnut Creek where The Maroons would hang out and practice in the cellar, this dank little underground cavern which provided decent sound insulation. This was 1980 when there was no punk scene even imaginable in Contra Costa County suburbia. The sounds we were making were very alien to that environment at the time.
Tim and Eric showed me their lyrics so we went down into the cellar and I banged out some very elemental riffs on my guitar. Eric played the drums and Tim sang. Our first bass player was also named Dave, he was Eric's friend. I think the songs we created that day account for about 75% of the material that the Church Police ever performed. Songs like "The Oven Is My Friend," "Life Is Fun," "Robots," "Gourmet Cooking," "Rock and Roll Bank Account," "Holidays" and "Church Attack" were all pretty much the work of a fall afternoon. We added a few other songs later, but it was mostly one burst of creativity that set us in motion. Originally Bruce had nothing to do with the band - in fact, Eric really didn't want Bruce in the band at all but had to accept it because his friend Dave couldn't play as well and Bruce had a bass amp so that sealed the deal. The "other" Dave stuck with the band for awhile playing harmonica and toy saxophone but once we got loud, he couldn't be heard in all the noise and felt dumb being up there on stage so he became our #1 roadie and fan. Bruce and Eric ignored their personal incompatibility enough to eventually forge a decent rhythm section which made my string mangling hackery on guitar at least tolerable, if not acceptable.
Why were no records released?
What happened to the band?
Basically, the whole thing was just too unstable and chaotic. I think the actual break-up happened one evening when Bruce told us that he was no longer willing to drive our equipment around to shows. That was pretty much the deal-breaker right there - it just didn't seem like any of us were willing or able to keep it going. We were having a hell of a time finding a rehearsal space - I remember looking at some abandoned beer vats where a bunch of punk kids were living and hanging out but nothing came of that. Bruce's decision messed things up because it was our most reliable way to get our amps and drums from the suburbs to the city. I also think he was tired of the screw-ups that the rest of us had become and his musical tastes were moving in other directions too.
What recordings were made?
We did that one session at Bay Sound Studios, produced and engineered by Kevin Army. I like that recording because it is all just one take of us playing live going right onto the tape, no overdubs, just Kevin tweaking knobs, dropping instruments in and out right on the fly, which I think made the recording more interesting than if it had just been played straight. We did each song only once. It was practically like having a live show recorded because we only had like one hour or so of studio time. It was like, rush in, set up, plug in, play, then get the hell out of there before the meter flipped over to charge us an extra dollar. I had to use a really cheap crappy pawn shop guitar because my good one had been stolen when I lived upstairs from Big Al's strip club on Broadway. (One of several sad stories I could relate from the time I spent living in The City while trying to make it in the music biz.) Which explains the horrendous feedback and gnarly texture of my guitar sound. Plus I recall being more drunk than I should have been. But that's what it is!
We also did an early demo at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill where our instruments were plugged directly into the mixing board - no amps. Only the drums were mic'ed. It made for a weird and unrepresentative sound but that resulted in the tape that made its way to Bruce Loose and led to us having our short moment in the spotlight in the SF punk scene circa 1981-82.
2. Most people know the name Church Police from "The Oven is My Friend", which is one of the standouts on the heavily stacked Not So Quiet on the Western Front compilation. How did that come about? What kind of response did you receive from that- I assume it was the most widespread distribution the band received.
We were asked either by Tim Yohanon or one of his representatives to contribute a song for this double album comp that they had in mind to put out, and we were pretty happy to be a part of it. I think TOIMF is the song that they had in mind but I didn't necessarily think of that song as our "anthem" or "first single" or "best thing we ever did." It's really the most ridiculously simple song in the world to play. I basically hit the two bottom strings on my guitar, sliding my finger up one fret every four strums, until I get to where the neck meets the body, then I freak out and generate noise and feedback for half a minute, then I do this monster stomp thing, one-two-three-four over and over and that's about it on the guitar, but it turned into a pretty decent little slam dance tune I guess. Tim's lyrics were demented... you'll have to ask him about the inspiration for that. But yeah, I think as a "signature tune" goes, I'm good with it. I thought from the first time I heard "Not So Quiet" that our track stood out just because it was different from most everything else on the comp - loose, sloppy, funny without necessarily trying to be. A perfect capture of the mutations taking place at the time out in shopping mall territory.
Have you heard the Sebadoh cover of the song?
I have. A guy from Israel (I think he was a teenager at the time) tracked me down on the internet several years ago and sent me an mp3 along with a link to some French fanzine that did a photo essay on TOIMF. I've really enjoyed the occasional random connection that I have with Church Police fans from places far away from the SF Bay Area. But I think Sebadoh kind of messed up their version. It struck me as too histrionic - like the guy overdid the screaming part or something. I wouldn't mind getting a piece of that royalty check, now that you mention it.
3. I noticed you had put a copy of the interview from MRR #1 online. How does it feel to read an interview with yourself from 25 or so years ago?
It's pretty cool. I have a lot of old journals and crap that I wrote from that time so that part of my life is pretty well documented for my own recollections. But it's a different kind of memory trigger when your words are in print in an old magazine.
I recently came into contact with Eric Bradner, the guy who interviewed us, through MySpace. Eric and I are both listed as "friends" of Flipper on the band's page. For such a short-lived band, I think it's great that we made issue #1 of Maximum Rock and Roll. And there was a fan letter written about us in issue #2. And of course we were in issue #0, the one that came with the album...
How did your plans to be a bum work out?
Well I did actually hitchhike from LA to Houston in the aftermath of my failed sailing trip in early 1983, so I can cross that ambition off my list. But after a couple months of that, I settled down and went straight. I'm a father of four, a social worker by profession, married for over 23 years, got a house and two cats and a respectable standing in society. But I still nurture my inner bum when others aren't looking.
Are you surprised that MRR is still published?
To be honest, I haven't read many issues since those few that we were featured in. I respect their perseverance and what they've accomplished. I think the punk community has grown into an institution and the magazine meets the needs and interests of a vibrant community. I think I still retain a fair amount of the punk mindset even though my presentation is a lot more conventional and middle-class.
3. Your sound definitely shows the influence of Flipper, and I know you played with them quite a bit. Was the comparatively slug like pace of both bands warmly received amidst your faster contemporaries?
No, we encountered a lot of hostility and resentment. On the one hand, our musicianship, mine especially, was an obvious and deserving target of criticism. I never took any lessons and really never learned to more than a few proper chords. Sometimes I would even forget the simple sequences I'd worked out. Really anyone as limited as I was musically had little business getting up on stage but that didn't stop me at the time. We challenged what were already becoming the conventionalities of hardcore thrash and skinhead music. I know Eric wanted to do more in that direction but I was never able to pull it off. And I never really felt the need to emulate that sound. The Ramones, Black Flag and Circle Jerks were all doing that hard fast stuff better than I ever would and why bother sounding like a lame imitation of that?
I honestly think that we should not be seen as being derivative of Flipper's sound - we had our sound before we'd ever seen them perform. In fact, the first night that Bruce Loose came out and danced around and made a big scene at one of our early Sound of Music shows, I didn't even know who he was, but I just noticed some dude in the audience was really getting into our music. It wasn't until after the show that Tim told me who that dude was. I think that Flipper and us had similar influences, and I think they were better at what they did than we were. We both liked Public Image Ltd. and seeing Flipper open for them at some south-of-Market warehouse was my first Flipper show, though I wasn't particularly impressed by them at the time and I think that was even before I was in a band.
I liked PiL's percussive style of guitar playing and the heavy bass and drums. I liked the early Gang of Four sound (Entertainment!) Wire's Pink Flag was in that mix of influences too. Don't get me wrong, I loved Flipper once I got more into the S.F. club scene and really enjoyed their shows and the massiveness of their sound, but I don't think it was really a copycat thing on my part at all. At least, I could never approximate what Ted did on the guitar, in my opinion.
Did you go over better with more a open-minded audience, say at the Throbbing Gristle gig you played?
I don't think the Throbbing Gristle audience got us much better than the standard Mab or On Broadway crowd. It's kind of hard to answer this question - outside of a few friends and the occasional stranger who'd rush up to express his appreciation of our gig, I don't really know what kind of effect we had on the audience. The people who I know liked us enjoyed the defiance and arrogance of our shows, I think. Our concerts were as much about anarchic performance statements - like occupying the stage refusing to get off until they would shut down the power on us, or dragging junk in from the alleys like spring mattresses or dehydrated milk and turning them into stage props. Even in a self-consciously rebellious and unconventional punk scene, I think we broke rules and transgressed expectations in ways that a few enjoyed and a few found truly offensive. But we were never sick or pretentious. No animals were harmed in our performance and we always did our best to have honest fun... because Life Is Fun, you know?
I know we pissed off a lot of the weekend warrior, "let's party in the City" trendy types. Which is what I considered most of the crowds to consist of when we played the clubs on Broadway. It's hard to get your girlfriend drunk and in the mood when a bunch of suburban teenage misfits are blasting your eardrums with atonal feedback chaos and sonic explosions from a dislodged reverb coil! The SoM crowds and kids at the other assorted odd gigs we played were just art weirdos like us who probably took the whole thing for granted.
Were you familiar with the Subterranean Records scene at the time?
No I was never really that close to the record-making business side of things. Wish I was.
What other bands did you consider like-minded contemporaries?
Animal Things were the first local Bay Area band that I got to know and love, and they helped connect us to Flipper. Peter Accident and Gaga Din were other Contra Costa bands that we hung out with. Pariah, Ray Lujan's band. They had nice equipment that their parents bought them. There was a guy named Dave Jones who stood by us and helped us a lot. He had a short-lived band called the Wild Boys but I don't think they ever did anything. I wonder whatever happened to him... A band from New York named Arsenal, we got along pretty well with them for awhile. And I have to mention my friends Joe Nitzberg and Julie and Joyce Jackson. They were suburbanite kids who formed a goofy little band called Yawn Moan Sigh. A fun and funny bunch. I'd love to reconnect with them.
But musically, we were kind of in our own little world. Of course it remains a great pleasure to this day to say that I used to hang out with Flipper back in 81, 82, and had casual run-ins with Biafra and Black Flag here and there, stuff like that. But we were always a bit detached from the social aspects of the scene it seems to me.
4. I've been to Walnut Creek and some of the surrounding areas, and it certainly feels removed from San Francisco and even Berkeley and Oakland. Do you feel this isolation from the city was essential to the sound and ideas behind Church Police?
Yeah, I think our overt suburbanness made us distinctive from other bands, especially at that time. We never really tried to fit into any of the stylistic templates of the era - no "uniforms" or punk haircuts or anything like that. Our look was kind of a proto-grunge I suppose... flannel shirts and jeans, tennis shoes. Tim would wear khakis more than jeans though. What came through our music and live shows was a fair amount of anger lashing itself out at the world - we liked having crazy fun and breaking the boundaries of what entertainment was supposed to be about at our gigs, but it's hard to deny that we were directing a lot of hostility toward our audience, sometimes toward the other bands on the bill (just about any band who seemed too serious about trying to "make it") and especially the club managers who exploited the bands but were vital to giving us our creative outlet.
5. Lyrically the Church Police material I have heard seems to veer from abstract to the mundane. The MRR #1 interview and your journal bits hint at your (Dave and Tim) literary aspirations (both producing and consuming). Where were you coming from at the time? You seem to have sidestepped blatant political posturing of many hardcore bands from the same era- was this a conscious decision?
I didn't write too many lyrics except for a couple of our later songs which never got recorded. Tim and I were both interested in literary counter-culture - Kerouac, Burroughs, surrealism, Joyce, the Song of Maldoror, Philip K. Dick, Robert Anton Wilson, Timothy Leary, stuff like that. In some ways we were probably too clever for our own good... we bit off more than we could chew in a sense. Eric wrote some pro-anarchy songs and was probably the most sincere about that kind of stuff of any of us. I think we avoided the standard anti-Reagan "don't send me to El Salvador" stuff because it was obviously already being done. And whether its fair criticism or not, bands like The Crass seemed kind of humorless and too self-important to hold my interest at the time. I liked more humor, satire, goofiness I guess. I didn't feel like I had the grand political statement to give or the right to give it in any case.
6. Looking back on the band and the do-it-yourself scene that you were a part of, how has it affected where you are in 2008? Are you still playing music or writing at all?
No, I don't do music, mainly due to lack of talent. There are other things I do much better. I keep a blog and maintain an email list that discusses religion, politics and cultural stuff. I get involved in some local political and social activism. I'm part of a group that produces a local public access TV show each month. I work with kids who've been abused and neglected, trying to help them stay out of trouble, work through their problems and get back on track again. That's something I feel good about doing with my life.
A few years ago two of my sons had some interest in starting a band but didn't stick much with it. I fiddled around with their guitar, but I don't feel the same fire to want to make music that I did in my teens. Back then it offered a hope and a direction to focus myself... sort of. Now I have plenty of other stuff to do that keeps me busy and I'm OK with that. I wish we could have kept the band together a bit longer, or at least that we would have made better use of the time when we were together. But it's not like I'm gnawing at the emptiness within because I got out of the music game before I could make it really pay off for me. It's a satisfying part of my personal story and history, and with the recent release of some of our old recordings, and prospects of maybe some more on the way in the near future, I don't feel like it's completely done and over with either. I would even be open to reuniting the band for some kind of show or recording or just the experience of it if we could work out the logistics. But it might just be a daydream. I'm okay with it either way.
Friday, January 4, 2008
Maybe the Church Police should re-unite so we can open for them on their tour...