At short last, here is the second wordy, cloying, indulgent installment of a not-so brief history of Panic. Questions up-top; responses below. Pack a sandwich…
Tell me about the very early days of Panic. What influenced you to get in touch with other guys and form a band? What can you say about your first demo from 1988? Was it any good? Would you play it to your children nowadays?
I won’t bother you with questions about each demo but can you say a few words about that demo-era of Panic in general? Was it flooded with live gigs, new friends, business contacts, parties and whatever or was it pretty steady?
Why did Rondo Middleton quit the band and how did you get to know Jack Coy? Am I right thinking that Jack is older than others in Panic and already had some experience of playing in a band?
How did you get a deal with Metal Blade Records? Was this label your main goal? Did you send your demos to other companies? Do you remember your feeling when you got positive answer from Metal Blade? Was it like a dream came true or were you confident and ready to conquer the world?
And now the time machine brought us in San Francisco, 1991. You’re in Alpha Omega Studio with Gary Holt and Rick Hunolt, Steve “Zetro” Souza is scheduled to record back vocals for you, Marc Senasac is the guy who will mix the album. How cool was that?! I bet you were like children in a candy store! How did you like famous San Francisco and Bay Area? Was it still a kind of thrash metal Mecca by the time of 1991? Did you get a chance to meet other bands and musicians like Paul Baloff, Kirk Hammett etc.?
How do you view the album “Epidemic” nowadays? Do you still listen to it once in a while? How substantial was contribution of Gary Holt and Rick Hunolt to this record?
Can you comment on the lyrics on this album? They sound a little bit strange to a non-native speaker like me. What kind of message you tried to express on this album?
What can you say about the response on the “Epidemic” album? Were you satisfied with the level of promotion of your debut effort? Was it possible to see your video for “Blackfeather Shake” on MTV?
Early personnel changes
Rondo had quit college by the autumn of 1985, and one day he & George drove to Bellingham to tell me they wanted to fire Gary and get Marty in the band. I told them they were crazy. Gary Allard was a great guy and a solid player. He had a car and a job. He came from a supportive family and was really cute and totally reliable. Marty was a dirtbag dropout who barely even had a guitar, let alone a car. I was outvoted, and the change was swiftly made. It turned out to be the right choice, of course. Marty is a gifted musician—the best guitarist I’ve ever known let alone played with. He’s also a great songwriter with a wide range of musical interests and one of my closest friends for more than 30 years. You can see him now alongside another Seattle legend, Eddie Spaghetti in the Supersuckers.
It wasn’t too long afterward that George & Marty drove to Bellingham to say they wanted to fire Rondo and get Jack. After Marty’s departure, Strychnine had shuffled some personnel and reformed as Myra Mainz. As with Gary, I was reluctant to change members. I was friends with Rondo– he’d introduced me to the band. But it was also true that he was a single-bass drummer in a double-bass genre. And though he was certainly no tapper, he also wasn’t an animal like Jack Coy. The change was made. Rondo briefly joined Myra Mainz, but largely out of spite, I think. Panic was again a stronger band for the switch.
Kent, Washington was a small town. We knew those Myra guys and would see them at parties. Bad blood was costly, but George was ambitious. I’ve never known a more pure guy in my life than George Hernandez. Dedicated craftsman, disciplined student of the genre. Driven, and fiercely loyal—unless he needed to dismiss you from the band to get someone better, in which case you were a stone goner. Nothing personal, just business. He’s now a fully-vested member of Sanctuary always touring Europe.
I am about a week older than Jack. I didn’t know him very well before he joined Panic, but we became pretty fast friends once he did. Jack really liked alcohol, and he & I really pushed each other in those early days. George & Marty weren’t 21 yet, so Jack & I would spend some time drinking in the bars. Jack is the happiest cat I’ve ever known—always a nice word and he thinks everything is a goddamned laugh riot, which is true if you want it to be. Jack was a foreman on a concrete crew in those days. Still is. He always had a killer tan on his huge tattooed arms, but if you ever saw him in shorts his legs were pale because he had to wear long pants at work even in the summer.
With the line-up in place, we turned all our attention to the band. We all worked day jobs, but every spare minute and every spare dollar was spent on building the Panic brand. With Jeff Gilbert’s help, we started to get better gigs. We were just breaking into the bar scene, which at the time did not yet feature the anchors of the OffRamp and RockCandy– the two places where the metal/heavy grunge scene really thrived later. The Crocodile was just getting started and though we were welcome at Pioneer Square bars like the Colourbox and Central Tavern, the central city bars like the Vogue, Squid Row and Ditto were not as interested in us.
We recorded another demo in about 1989, called Morbid Curiosities. The song later featured on Epidemic made its first appearance here. We continued sending these tapes out to labels and media, but we were still having trouble attracting attention from outside Seattle.
About this time, we connected with local promoter Soozy Bridges who started booking us. Soozy had spent time working with Susan Silver who managed Soundgarden & Alice in Chains. We still weren’t in that cool kids’ club, but we were getting closer. Soozy helped us get even better gigs and pretty soon we were playing weekends at the better clubs as RockCandy and the OffRamp opened up and moved into instant prominence.
Our big break came in the summer of 1990. Soozy had helped us get a showcase at a fledgling music conference in Seattle called the Northwest Area Music Association (NAMA). NAMA fancied itself the NW version of SXSW, and although it never took off completely, it did have a couple of good years. We played a daytime showcase at the conference and we just sucked. Sandy Pearlman was there and he told us we’d played too loud. It wasn’t what a proud young metal band was particularly anxious to hear, but he couldn’t have been more correct. It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon at a sterile convention center that was not very metal-friendly to begin with. Luckily, we also had a club date scheduled for Sunday night, the last night of the conference. Gary Holt and his manager Toni Isabella were in Seattle for a panel at NAMA. We didn’t realize it at the time, but Gary & Toni had come to Seattle very specifically to identify a baby metal band that Gary could produce. Mustaine had done the Sanctuary record and it had worked out very well for both mentor and protégé. Gary knew Seattle was popping and he sought to attach himself to something hip but still heavy coming out of this hotbed. I think he could have looked at a thousand bands and still chosen us, but the fact was that we were one of the few really viable options he would be exposed to that weekend. We were heavy & hungry, but still more contemporary than what was happening in the Bay Area at the time. And we had that all-important label, MADE IN SEATTLE.
Gary approached us backstage after we played a totally killer set and said “I love your guys’ band and I want to produce your record.” I don’t even remember knowing he was in the crowd. It was a very powerful moment. We’d worked hard for 5 years, and now here was this established rock star guy saying he wanted to take us under his wing. We were stoked.
Toni was awesome to work with. She was used to herding cats dealing with Exo, and she put her skills to work managing Panic. She had a deep network of connections, and she got us in-front of a lot of major labels, but we were too heavy metal for all of them. It was the end of 1990 by now, and the grunge cat was well out of the bag. The labels were swarming Seattle looking for the next grunge heroes but none of them wanted a metal band. Forced Entry and Bitter End lacked the management we had lucked into, and they couldn’t get a major deal either. In the end, all three bands settled for minor league deals. Ours was with Metal Blade.
In the end Metal Blade didn’t turn out to be a very good fit for us, but I don’t think any of us second-guess the choice. The minor leagues all looked about the same, and we liked the idea of working with Brian Slagel. In the end, he didn’t turn out to be the advocate we’d hoped he would be. He was more interested in putting out re-issues of Thin Lizzy albums than cultivating the current, relevant talent on his roster. He, like everyone, liked the idea of humping the Seattle Dream. But he was more-inclined to say Alice in Chains was his favorite Seattle band than he was a band on his own fucking label.
Toni Isabella worked for Bill Graham Presents, and she squared us up with some perks & delights we had not necessarily earned yet. We went to San Francisco to demo some songs with Marc Senesac at Different Fir Studios in the Mission District in the spring of 1991. We flew to Los Angeles for the Concrete Convention later that year. We certainly weren’t encouraged to ‘quit our dayjobs’ (never did) but we did get some nice meals and a lot of cocktails. Whether we were paying for them all along via advances, I don’t think we ever understood for sure. But we were having a pretty good time thinking we were just an album away from the motherfucking Grammys. Sometimes pretty girls would stop to chat.
As we moved toward the June release date, there was some hype gathering. I had a friend at Rolling Stone who had committed to doing a “New Faces” column on us. Rip magazine was prepared with a “Fresh Metal” piece. Toni thought she could get Rikki Rachtman to play the video on Headbanger’s Ball. We played a big outdoor show in the shadow of Seattle’s iconic Space Needle on a sunny Friday in June, the week the record was released. Shortly thereafter we drove to Phoenix, Arizona to start a 2-week West Coast tour with David Wayne’s new band Reverend. We were stoked to be on a real tour with a real record to promote. We’d always been fans of David’s, and we had a great time getting to know him and his band, celebrating a homecoming in Seattle at the end of the run.
We finally got into the studio to start working on Epidemic in January 1991. We packed all our gear into a rented van and drove down the west coast to San Francisco, a trip of 800 miles that we’d already made a few times by then. I was born and raised in San Francisco, and had been proud to show off The City to my mates during previous trips. By now, it belonged to all of us equally—our home away from home. We were booked into Sandy’s studio Alpha & Omega, which was in a very bad part of San Francisco known as the Tenderloin. It’s worse these days, but back then it was home to lots of skidrow alcoholics and prostitutes. We loved it! Toni set us up at the very (in)famous Phoenix Hotel, at the corner of Larkin & Eddy, just twoblocks from the studio. The Phoenix was where the cool touring bands would stay when in San Francisco, and the management had a generally loose standard in terms of behavior. The rooms were arranged in a large 2-story horseshoe surrounding a pleasant courtyard and swimming pool. The Phoenix had a Caribbean theme, right down to Miss Pearl’s Jam House restaurant and bar. During the day, they piped the sounds of tropical birds into the courtyard; at night, the soundtrack changed to crickets.
I really don’t remember a lot about the 3-week recording process. I don’t generally care for recording—I much prefer the live performance aspect of being in a band. I remember I had a little trouble getting going and was pretty frustrated a couple of nights in terms of how my voice was responding to the pressure of being in a bigtime recording situation. Everyone else nailed their parts fast like they always did. We were prepared, there was no doubt about that. We’d been playing some of these songs for years by this time and even the newer ones were well-rehearsed. Panic was very well-rehearsed. We were tight.
Eventually I got in a groove vocally and the second half of the sessions was more fun, doing the overdubs, backing vocals and various sweetening. Gary & Rick were around, and we had a lot of laughs. I don’t really recall what their specific input was—there wasn’t any room in the arrangements for interpretation. Every note was already
accounted for, and we didn’t change a thing in the studio. I suspect they were consulted extensively in getting guitar tones, but otherwise I just remember them smoking a lot of pot. We had a riot doing the background vocals. One session in particular recording the background shouts on “Morbid Curiosities” was hilarious. Rick and Marty can be heard stumbling on the trainwreck! line in an outtake at the end of side one of the record. Zetro didn’t hang around too much, but did come in to help with backing vocals on “I Stole Your Love” which are pretty signature Zet. Gary & Rick did guitar solos on that song as well, of course. Aside from it being a cover song, it sounds different than the rest of the stuff on the record, which I like.
Marc Senasac is a great guy, very patient. We had already done some demos with him by that time, so we were used to working together and Exo liked him, too. Sandy wasn’t there a lot, but Marty and I would get some real quality Sandy Pearlman time when mixing the next record. Toni was at the studio every day, keeping us honest. It was an incredible experience. We’d get up in the late morning every day, grab some coffee & doughnuts and wander down to the studio. We’d work through the afternoon and take a burrito break in the evening. We’d work as late as Marc could stand it, then we’d go back and drink in our hotel room at the Phoenix and watch TV. I don’t remember going out much. One night Toni took us to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but otherwise we just lurched between the studio and the hotel. Sometimes we’d play poker. One night we ran out of beer during a card game, so we went back to the studio in the middle of the night to raid the soda machine which we knew was stocked with Budweiser.
On the night the record was finished, we all jumped in the pool in the middle of the night, naked. We ran back to our room giggling, like a bunch of little girls. We were always laughing about something. Those were very free times. We didn’t have the goddamned internet in our pockets all the time, and we weren’t afraid of anything. We were convinced that what we were doing was right, and we didn’t give a shit about fuck.
We went back to Seattle to wait. We hadn’t done this before, and we had no idea what was supposed to happen next. We had some vague notions about touring, and I suppose we had an outline of what the promotional process would look like. We knew we had a killer product, though. Epidemic is a very good record—I liked it then and I think it has really held up well. We didn’t want to make a record that sounded like Testament or Death Angel or Exodus or Metallica. We liked a lot of what those bands were doing, but we had different ideas about tones and beats. We’d resisted the urge to add a second guitar player, something which separated us from the prevailing sound coming out of the Bay Area. All those bands were two-guitar bands. The fact that we just had one put us in a slightly different category and made us way more unique, more balanced. On record is one thing, since there’s always a ton of guitar tracks. But live we were really able to reproduce what we were doing on-record, and the clarity that resulted from not having that wall of guitars was a valuable attribute. It wouldn’t work for just anyone. You had to have a very strong guitar player to be able to hold that up, and you had to have an equally strong bass player to understand the dynamic and play to it. We had those guys in Marty & George.
Both those guys are very talented songwriters. I know they both look back fondly on the time they spent together crafting those songs. It was a pretty even collaboration in my recollection. George would have a riff and he’d teach it to Marty and maybe Marty would have another piece for a turnaround and they’d sit knee-to-knee for hours building these insane songs. Really complicated riffs some of them, but ultimately very digestible. Toni used to say that some of our songs were like three songs all in one, and eventually she tried to get us to simplify things a bit. But I think those nine original songs on Epidemic are timeless—smart, catchy and super heavy.
For my part, I definitely sought to avoid the Bay Area vocal trap. Listening back to those records now, I wasn’t entirely successful—particularly on the second album. But my favorite metal singers were not the growlers. I preferred John Bush and Bobby Blitz to Hetfield and Baloff, or Zetro for that matter. I fancied myself more of a rock singer than a metal singer and I definitely thought of myself as more of an intellectual than most other metal lyricists. I did write songs about drugs (“Pile of Bones”, “Spider Desire”) religion (“Devil’s Night Out”) mental illness (“911”, “Hypochondriac”) and politics (“Hellfire Club”) like everyone else. But my approach to them was more abstract and indirect than most others. I’m sure to a non-native English speaker a lot of those songs don’t make any sense whatsoever! The truth is that some of those songs probably don’t make much sense to kids who grew up speaking English. But I took a lot of pride in my lyrics. I studied literature in school and have always been fascinated by words. They’re too important to waste…
With the record in the can, we turned our attention to packaging. Toni got San Francisco artist Sean Wyatt to do the artwork, including the eyeball compass logo which we all got tattoos of. (Our roadie Pinky is the only other person with the tattoo). Seattle photographer Karen Mason took the photos. George & I flew to LA to do a couple of days of telephone and lunch interviews. Jim Sorrenson from Seattle designed some new shirts. And we hired Bellingham filmmaker Tom Ensign to make a real live music video.
Making the video was a wild experience. We rented a helicopter for Tom to shoot us from, hovering over the roof of Seattle’s historic Paramount Theater where we had set up. On the second day of that shoot, the theater management burst onto the roof and yelled at us because people were running out of the matinee performance of the ballet being staged downstairs because the sound of the chopper was scaring them! Again, in our post-9/11 security culture, you could never hover around downtown Seattle in a helicopter!
Surprisingly, the most-expensive thing about the video was not the helicopter, but instead the trained crow. “Blackfeather Shake” is a metaphorical song about crows, and we hired a bird charmer who brought her trained crow. The crow can be seen in various clips of the video, perched on my shoulder or on the headstock of George’s bass.
From there, we drove in a rented 24’ motorhome across the United States to upstate New York where we joined a tour with Coroner and Nuclear Assault. Marty & I were big SOD fans, and we were pretty stoked to be hanging out with Dan Lilker. Danny turned out to be a really cool guy and he seemed relieved to have some young goofballs like us on the tour. We didn’t have much in common with the other bands musically, and they both had followings in every town. But we always put 100% into our set every night as we made our way down the east coast, doubling back through the American Midwest. Danny joined us onstage at the First Avenue in Minneapolis on the last night of the Nuclear leg for a rousing version of “United Forces.” It was November and the snow drifts were four feet high. We were home in Seattle by Christmas, hoarse & sore and not sure what was supposed to happen next.
Next week: Cowboys from Hell, Fact, and Philo’s Phinger
In the autumn of 2016, I got a Facebook message from a headbanger in Moscow (Russia, not Idaho!) asking some questions about Panic. In itself, this was not unusual. Once every few months I hear from someone asking about the band. I figure it’s easiest to track me because I have an uncommon name…
Konstantin Chilikin has an on-line metal magazine called Stay Heavy and wondered if I’d agree to an interview. I said of course, and gave him my email address to send the questions.
What he sent was the most-exhaustive list of prompts I’d ever seen. How this guy from the other side of the world could even know about some of the shit was beyond me. It sounded like he was writing from Burien! For a second, I actually thought it might be someone from within the Circle of Trust playing an internet prank on me– because some of this stuff bordered on inside jokes. And it’s not like this guy has just been sitting in his parents’ basement in Moscow obsessing on Panic since the 1990s. He’s clearly one of these guys who enjoys research, and he has accumulated this level of knowledge about hundreds if not thousands of American metal bands from the last 30 years.
I was pretty overwhelmed at first, and hastily shut down the email– trying to forget about it. Occasionally I’d open it back up and eventually I started pecking away at it. More than a year later, I’d finished what had become an 8,000 word history of the band, using Konstantin’s questions as an outline. It was actually a real gas to write, with lots of trips down memory alley and more than a few fact-checking sidetrips. It’s fun to research yourself– you can find out some stuff you’d forgotten.
Anyway, it’s far from ‘complete’ but it is accurate. Also, it is not for everyone. I’d say for completists only. Some of you will find yourselves in here. A few of you might not find the light in which history has recalled you to be very flattering, in which case maybe you shouldn’t have been such a fuckin’ dick at the time. History aint pretty…
In order to keep as much of your attention as possible, I’ll break this into three movements. I’ll add Konstantin’s prompts at the top of each section for context. Jack, George & Marty have already read this and issued their fondest endorsements. I hope you like it, too, although truthfully I don’t really expect you to read it…
Well, Jeff, let’s imagine we have a time machine and now we are ready to jump in the past. Location: Seattle, Year: 1987. Ronald Reagan is still in the White House, Starbucks still is a local company, Def Leppard has released “Hysteria”, while Guns ‘n Roses have unleashed “Appetite For Destruction”, “Slippery When Wet” is the most selling album in the USA and Nirvana is doing its first steps. And what about you and your band mates? What were you doing in 1987?
What about music scene in Seattle in the late 80’s? For many people this city is the cradle of Grunge but was there any interest in heavy metal? Were you close with guys from Forced Entry, The Accused and Sanctuary? Were you influenced by local heavy metal heroes Culprit? Did you have any troubles with hardcore / indie bands like The Melvins, Beat Happening etc.?
Tell me about the very early days of Panic. What influenced you to get in touch with other guys and form a band? What can you say about your first demo from 1988? Was it any good? Would you play it to your children nowadays?
I won’t bother you with questions about each demo but can you say a few words about that demo-era of Panic in general? Was it flooded with live gigs, new friends, business contacts, parties and whatever or was it pretty steady?
Summer of 1987
First of all, Konsantin, thanks for this very comprehensive questionnaire! Your perception of what it was like to be a PacificNorthWestern American headbanger in this particular era is very keen!
Panic was two years old and transitioning from the name Cold Steele at this point in time. We were experiencing something of an identity crisis, torn between a few competing styles of metal. We were definitely more interested in Appetite for Destruction than Slippery When Wet or Hysteria– the latters of which we heartily despised. What we were listening to most at that time, however, was the best of the contemporary thrash metal of the day. Overkill’s Taking Over was a favorite and of course Among the Living. We were still squeezing the glory out of the previous year’s Master of Puppets, but the release of Garage Days Revisited in August really was a game-changer. Except for Marty, we weren’t much into Slayer—and we mocked Exodus openly which is ironic since they ended up mentoring us years later. We dug Trouble and Loudness and Accept. But the grunge movement hadn’t achieved liftoff yet and Cowboys from Hell was still three years away also…
Terry Date had the hot hand in Seattle at the time, and though we weren’t unanimously nuts about some of the local stuff he’d done (Sanctuary, Soundgarden, Fifth Angel) we admired his tones and sought to attach our name to his. We saved our money and went into Steve Lawson Studios with him that summer and did four songs. It’s a beautiful demo and it was really the first time we’d heard ourselves properly recorded. After the Saturday night sessions, around midnight, we jumped the 8’ chainlink fence that surrounded the festival grounds of Seattle Center, where the famous Space Needle is. It was Labor Day weekend, when the city hosts its Bumbershoot festival. It’s a much bigger deal these days, and in the post-911 security culture of the US we probably would have been arrested if not shot. But this was 1987, and instead security just escorted us off the grounds. We were pretty full of ourselves that particular night…
We worked this demo hard, sending it to radio stations, magazines and record labels. George had designed a killer logo and we took some photos on a stone staircase off Green Lake in Seattle. I pasted up some liner notes with lots of special thanks. The initial run of 100 cassette tapes was financed by a local record store manager named Lance Goodwin. Bubble Records was a great outlet for the latest in heavy metal, and Lance was a fan & friend. After exhausting our budget on studio time, we didn’t have enough money to pay for production!
The demo didn’t get us a record deal, but it did get the attention of Jeff Gilbert who at the time was still hosting his Brain Pain radio show on Sunday nights at the University of Washington’s KCMU radio station (now the commercially-popular KEXP). Jeff was very supportive of Panic and played the tape every week. Jeff Gilbert was definitely the first and most-important Seattle media to get behind Panic, and really helped us graduate from suburban booger pickers to downtown Seattle legitimacy in a very short time.
Late ‘80s Seattle
As you astutely point out, the late 1980s was the pre-grunge era in Seattle. It’s not as if that music hadn’t been invented yet, because Green River was certainly playing and recording as were Crisis Party, Catbutt, Malfunkshun and a bunch of other bands that would wear the grunge label later– after it was identified. The scene back then was more integrated– with the possible exception of metal. Metal is metal is metal—that has always been the case. People who don’t specifically like metal often go out of their way to avoid it; and by the same token metal fans often only consume metal shows and records. That said, Panic was always embraced to an extent by the unmetal community, and we billed up with lots of bands from outside our genre. It wasn’t a Thinking Man’s Metal shtick like BÖC—more like Drinking Man’s Metal…
I’m sorry to say it, but in those days there was quite a bit of self-aware competition between the bands in our class. Sanctuary, Queensryche and Metal Church had already graduated, of course– they had major label deals and tour support. Panic and Forced Entry and Bitter End were left to jockey for position and though there was much comradery (much of which endures to this day) there were also some conflicts. Forced and us in particular were pretty competitive. They hailed from a suburb north of Seattle and we came from the southend. So Panic’s mantra was “Northend Metal Sucks”—a phrase I still use on a regular basis to this day, even if I’m just in the supermarket or riding my bicycle. Northend metal sucks!
Culprit and Overlord and TKO were a half-generation before us, and those guys were gods to us. We were just kids going to metal shows at rollerskating rinks, and they were fuckin’ Culprit, man—the heavy metal sentence! There’s a whole coffee table book on that scene & period coming out by some guys out of Portland going by NW Metalworx. They’re putting out records, too—a real cool movement. I’ll connect you with them. I can definitely say that Culprit and Overlord and Wild Dogs had as much of an influence on my personal development as a performer as any NWoBHM band. Possibly that was because I had such great access to them—any given weekend ‘82-‘85 I could go see one of these kickass local metal bands. Those really were heady days.
I think the Melvins and particularly The Accused hold a special place in NW Heavy history. There’s never been another band like either of them—true crossover genius, both.
Early Days of Panic
Cold Steele had been practicing in the loft of George’s parents’ barn in Auburn, 25 miles south of Seattle. He & Gary (Allard) were juniors in high school and Rondo (Middleton) was a college sophomore like me in Bellingham, 100 miles north. I had done some college radio and some promoting and fanzine writing and thought I was already a rock star even though I’d never been in a band. My ego was developed enough to try singing, though, so I went down to Auburn with Rondo on Saturday, May 18, 1985 and joined the band. George likes to recall that I was drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette at 9am—and I’m not sure that’s true. But we ran through some Iron Maiden and Raven covers and there was no question about it. Instant chemistry!
We were pretty stoked. The guys were committed and they had real gear. It was hard to rehearse, though, because of the distance and because George & Gary worked on weekends. When we were able to get together it was rad– and we practiced hard and started writing some songs, the first of which was called “High Noon.” We played our first gig at a grange hall in the woods and ironically Marty & Jack’s band Strychnine was the headliner but they ended up not getting to play because we blew out the PA. Our second gig was at a kegger in the woods and Strychnine was on that bill, too– but they couldn’t play that time because the party got busted by the Kent Police.
Those were high times. None of us had been in a band before except for Rondo, but we knew we had something special. Rondo & I liked to drink beer and smoke pot in those days, but the music was always first. Lots of bands (including ours to an extent) lose that focus after time, but in those days we were very focused and totally intense on the music. The first demo from ‘87 was with Terry and then we made another one (Sex & Violence, which featured the song “911” which eventually ended up on the first record) in ‘88 with Michael Tortorello at Triad Studios. That tape wasn’t quite as even, but still had some great moments. Jeff Gilbert played the spots off it, too. And– like the first tape– it failed to land us a record deal.
Next week: personnel changes, Metal Blade, the Elton rule
“The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world be
doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war.”
Hunter Thompson, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas– 1971
In a month when Steve Van Liew sang Overlord songs with Palooka and Udo Dirkschneider’s son backed him on drums, Michael Schenker knew he’d have to throw down to even make the winner’s bracket. And on a rainy night at the bejeweled Neptune Theater, Michael did indeed rise up and throw down hard.
This was the most-bizarre spectacle I’ve ever seen set to rock music. Nostalgia is king these days– everyone knows that. Any used up piece of spent jet trash 80s ‘metal’ band can make rent by getting at least a couple of originalish members together and booking a tour. Whether it’s a sad comment on the state of contemporary heavy music that we’d rather go see the remains of Judas Priest again let alone a Mother Love Bone tribute is a secondary issue. Let’s just say there’s always money in the banana stand.
But this was different. It wasn’t just a rock show. This was a high-stepping retrospective musical revue of the strangest order.
I didn’t know what to expect. Word was that all the main-era singers were going to be there, but I couldn’t imagine how it would be presented. The show was to begin at 8pm and there was no opener. Punctuality is very German. The houselights were hardly out when Michael stepped to the mic from the wings of stage left.
“I am Michael Schenker,” he proclaimed in his familiar accent. “Lead guitar! Welcome to Schenkerfest!”
Very direct. So German. He continued.
“On bass Chris Glen!” No Flight of the Bumblebee recorded intro. No scurrying roadies with penlights. No dry ice. He was going to introduce the band under plain white stage lights before ever playing a note. Like a recital.
“On drums Ted McKenna!” he continued, to wild applause from his loyal crowd. “On rhythm guitar and keyboards Steve Mann!”
And then without further posing or wording, he grasped the neck of his great ax.
“Into the Arena!”
And with that he was off and running. If Michael had known when writing this instrumental for his debut solo album in 1980 how powerful a set opener it would make nearly 40 years later, he wasn’t letting on. Instead there he was, grinning from his signature crouch, the wings of his Flying V straddling his right thigh, winding his way to the end of the opener before announcing Gary Barden.
Gary Fuckin’ Barden! One of my favorite pre-metal hard rock singers and by far my favorite of Michael’s solo partners. He strode out from stage right in pointy boots and a gambler pulled down tight over his eyes to the opening strains of the gentle “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie.” My hopes were high, but my expectations realistic.
Very unfortunately, Barden’s voice was totally cindered. Whether it’s permanent or just a bad night is impossible to say from one show, of course– but his performance caused me to grab my own throat and gasp for breath. He muscled through four songs and did his best to appear relevant. But it was fairly painful to watch, and though I wouldn’t have thought it possible, I was actually relieved to see Michael throw his right arm around Barden’s shoulders, pose momentarily for the iphones, and dispatch him back to stage right before Chris Glen introduced “Captain Nemo.”
The instrumental served as a sorbet between singers, Michael alone at center stage effortlessly shredding as a god. And as Nemo reigned in, suddenly there was Graham Bonnet, all 70 years of him, emerging from the same wings into which Barden had disappeared–to the opening refrain of “Desert Song.”
Graham Bonnet is a freak of fucking nature. I thought he was 70 when I saw him and his new sidekick Yngwie from the front row of the Paramount on the first Alcatrazz tour in probably ’83. That was a long time ago, but it appears to have been nothing more than an afternoon for the timeless Bonnet. He still looks like he always has—slicked back hair, dark aviators, leather jacket with the sleeves pushed up. But his voice is so powerful, he just sings so hard he shakes the theater. Fully amazing. His one album’s worth of songs with Michael are not my favorites, but Bonnet turned in a spirited performance and looked as comfortable in the role as any of the singers all night.
And after four songs, Michael threw his right arm around the shoulders of Graham Bonnet, posed for the photos, and dispatched him back into the black void where I pictured Gary Barden moving down one folding chair so Graham could sit down in the proper order.
Michael stepped to the mic.
“It has been 40 years since I recorded Love Drive with the Scorpions,” he explained, rather academically. “I wrote this song for my brother Rudolph and I gave it to him.”
Dig Michael the stage rapper. No how you people doin’ tonight?! No it’s great to be back in See-a-tal! No let me see your cigarette LIGHTERS!! Just the facts from Michael. Straight and to the point. Sleek and lean. He wrote “Coast to Coast” for his older brother, but he was going to play it for us right now.
Absolutely magical. The instrumentals woven into the set served a critical role in the construction of the evening—the engineering was magnificent. But to hear these gilded melodies coming live out of Michael Schenker’s guitar without any singer jockeying for favor was extra special. And I’m not a guitar player! Normally I need singing to be interested in music, but I found myself wishing my way through the verses to get to the solos and in particular enjoying the instrumentals.
And then of course, out pranced Robin McAuley.
The mid-80s McAuley-Schenker period was an uninteresting one for me, and the songs of McAuley’s set re-enforced that. We all know what the mid-80s were about, and that was on-display in all its tinfoil glory with dangling chains and lots of Bedazzler during McAuley’s set. His voice was fine if you like that kind of dreck, but there’s something very untrustworthy about that cat if you ask me. He looks like a Realtor they plucked off the golf course and dressed in pleather and a black wig. A very thick veneer. His tattoos and biker patches don’t fool me– he’s not very heavy metal…
Lucky for me he was only up there for four songs before Michael threw his right arm around his shoulders and paused, smiling, before sending him back to henhouse where Barden & Bonnet both moved down a seat.
From there shit got weird.
To this point, things had seemed very linear: chronological singers performing the songs of their respective eras, broken up by tasty instrumentals between courses. But once McAuley was finished, it turned into a real floorshow. All three came out at once and proceeded to swap verses on some songs from the recently released Resurrection album. The Neptune stage is not huge, and with three singers posting up, things got a little crowded. The three MSG ‘frontmen’ shouldered up together, each doing their own period-appropriate dance moves and winking at the crowd & each other. With their own cordless microphones, they reminded me of the Beastie Boys, taking turns on verses. One would step forward while the other two would fill in behind. Then they’d all come together for an endless chorus before Michael ripped off a double solo and they had to comp even more time, working those dance steps and winking up a lather. As much as I admired the concept, the manifestation of it made me feel kind of funny deep inside. I couldn’t tell if they were more like the 3 Stooges, the Witches of Eastwick or the Golden Girls– each with their own distinct costume, accessories and, presumably– superpower.
And then as if matters couldn’t have been more awkward, out came something called Doogie White, apparently the current ‘lead’ singer. He took his shift on what were presumably songs from the new record, brandishing the Sign of Rock and Roll at the audience, paying his tribute to DIO which included a song for the Master called “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” Doogie’s kicked around this circuit for a while, but I failed to see his value in this setup. His voice was strained and his antics tiresome. If they needed a fourth hand to round out the singer’s cribbage tournament, then alright. But by that time the focus on the stage was getting a little fuzzy and the block of new material fairly monotonous.
But through it all, there was Michael Schenker just doing his thing. Chris Glen was definitely driving the band, and Michael had no responsibilities whatsoever beyond killing every single note and just being Michael. He’s really got that little crouching shuffle perfected, and he inches from one end of his sector to the other, just grinning up a storm– adorbs! Schenker’s personal problems of the 90s have been ponderously documented, but by all accounts he is clean and driven. He looks awesome in his uniform of (really) skinny jeans, patched vest and beanie w/ goggles. But it’s his playing that testifies to his clarity. The overall sound was pretty muddy, including Michael’s rhythm tone. But his solos were like drawn butter, sinfully rich and creamy.
Michael is 63 years old, but he looks like he could do this forever. He played almost three hours without taking a breather. He’s an energy star, that’s for sure– not a wasted word or movement. Economy is the name of the game. No empty audience banter and not a solitary wasted movement. His right hand hardly moves at all while his left is like a tarantula effortlessly wandering the neck of his Flying V.
“Do you want to hear some more?” he asked at the end of the Resurrection set. Naturally, the crowd wanted to hear some more. There was no secret as to what most of us had come to hear…
And Michael didn’t hold back. We’d pumped our fists in the air to some mixed material for more than two hours now, and there was no reason not to reward us with the UFO songs we’d hoped for. I thought maybe he’d do “Doctor Doctor” and bow out, but I’ll be damned if he didn’t offer up five classics including the obligatory extended middle solo section of “Rock Bottom” which was other worldly. The place went nuts as the singers racked up verses, each seemingly vying for Michael’s favor. They really kind of reminded me of a bunch of ex-wives who discovered that they really enjoyed hanging out together.
I don’t know how long they’ll be able to keep that bus on the road, but I’m glad it made it as far as Seattle. It was a really big show…
PHOTOS by ROCKFISH!
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
I had a dream last night that starred my friend Soozy. We were sitting at a round table, outside. Patti & Evan were there, which made sense. Even George’s wife Sue wasn’t completely out-of-place. But the fact that Diana was there was a clear sign from my subconscious that this was indeed a dream and not a half-memory or some pre-sleep notion. Weird how our subconscious minds play those little practical jokes on us…
I don’t remember anything else about the dream except that we were all in real-time (our current ages) except for Soozy who was represented as a younger version of herself—the version I first came to know in the very early 1990s.
We met in Seattle. I was the singer in a heavy metal band and she was freelancing variously in management & booking, freshly graduated from the Art Institute. Soozy is a highly-intuitive person, and has always had a very keen ear for talent—talent that isn’t always apparent to everyone else. As a result, she would often take on projects. Considering the nature of the inventory, many of these projects were tortured & unreliable at best. Deeply talented, sure– there may even have been a bonafide genius or two in the flock. At their worst, however, they were startlingly self-destructive. Some of us made it through. Others didn’t.
Soozy was fifteen years older than us back then. To be clear, she’s still fifteen years older than we are. At the time, though, in our mid-20s, the fifteen years seemed more significant than now. Among Soozy’s favorite roles was that of spiritual mentor. Some of us were more skilled than others at absorbing the less-linear elements of her coaching– but in the end much of what she was doing was herding cats. We actually were quite a bit like kittens or puppies in those days– clumsy & playful: mischievous yet adorable. We often fell down in big piles, rolling around on the floor panting and drooling, unable to get up. Soozy might have wished we weren’t such a complete collective mess all the time, but she loved us anyway and saw in each of us a superpower that in many instances we ourselves had no inkling we possessed. I often said Soozy was like a rock and roll den mother. She liked to party at night, but perhaps her greatest gift was recovery. I’m not talking about longterm recovery; but rather the daily kind.
“Take these,” she’d say, “and drink two beers as fast as you can.” And though a beer might not have been exactly what you’d had in-mind right then, I’ll be damned if by the middle of the second one you weren’t feeling pretty much better and actually considering a third.
I still didn’t know Soozy that well when we found ourselves in California in the summer of 1993 trying to promote Panic’s largely unpromotable second record. We had squandered a better previous record deal and a much more muscular previous management deal, and Soozy was doing what she could to keep the band afloat. But it was getting late and it was clear that the ship was taking on water. I remember getting on a plane the morning after the last show of that shameful California tour– while the rest of the band was still asleep in heaps on the floor at the Phoenix Hotel in the Tenderloin– knowing in my heart that the bitchin’ disaster we’d been humping furiously for most of the previous ten years was winding down.
My Mom picked me up at the airport in Little Rock and drove me back to her & her husband’s house in Hot Springs where I fell asleep on the couch watching the Allstar Game. In the morning, I got to work picking the weeds out of the cracks in the driveway with a screwdriver. It was 102 degrees and 97% humidity, but this job had to be done because the house was going on the market the following week. I finished the driveway and a few other tasks in-time for my mom to take me back to the airport to catch a short flight to Norfolk where I served as Best Man in a high school friend’s wedding (jumping into the fountain in a rented tuxedo w/ the marriage certificate in back pocket). My only other friend from high school (coincidentally not friends with the newlywed friend) picked me up the next day and we drove to Washington DC where we saw the last song of the Sister Double Happiness set at the Bayou in Georgetown. We didn’t even know they’d be playing—we were just hanging out at the Bayou! We then stole a half-night’s sleep at the Ramada before catching a train into Manhattan where we walked around the Village rationing what little money we had left. We caught a late train back to DC, got in the car, and drove without sleeping to friend’s house in Eastern Tennessee where we did sleep. After a few days, Andy put me on a midnight Greyhound across Tennessee and Arkansas, back to Hot Springs where by this time Mom & Art had moved into their new house. This house had a beautiful, cylindrical copper fireplace in the middle of the living room, like a Lyon’s Restaurant. It also had a smooth, modern driveway. So instead of soul-smashing driveway torture labor, we tooled around Lake Hamilton in their party barge drinking bourbon and pretending to fish for bass. After a few days, Mom took me back to the Little Rock airport. I flew back to Seattle and we broke up the band.
The afternoon before fleeing California, though, was a beautiful summer San Franciscan day. I’d had something else to do that afternoon, and the plan was for me to meet the band at soundcheck. I arrived in a red minivan, rented to the band (probably on Soozy’s credit card). We were playing at the historic I-Beam on Haight Street. It wasn’t called the I-Beam at the time, but it was the same room. I knew immediately upon walking in the door that something was not right. The club wasn’t open yet, and there was no house music playing. The only noise came from the sound crew setting up mic stands and the bar staff filling the ice bins in preparation for the evening. Normally, I’d walk into a setting like this to find the band & crew crowded in a booth laughing and smoking and killing a pitcher. But today, everyone was scattered in different corners of the club. George was slumped in a corner booth, his back to the stage. Jack was upstairs losing a game of pool to himself. Pinky was curled up in the fetal position on a roadcase backstage. And Marty was tucked up onto a high shelf above a coatrack in a service corridor between the kitchen and bar, sound asleep. I found Soozy.
“Um,” I said, tentatively. “What’s going on?”
“Shhhh!” she hissed, looking around as if someone were listening. “They’re on the cookie!
Soozy had been promising this experience the whole time we’d been in California, though it had largely fallen on ringing, deaf ears. Soozy was our mentor; and she in-turn had her own mentor—also the source of the mythical cookie. Sheila Rene was a publicist by trade, but definitely a
Groundhog Day. Shit, I almost forgot about that.
As if every day isn’t already so impossibly like the last. As if pasty whites in ill-fitting clothes and bad hair don’t already have too much to say. As if we need another six weeks of this nonsense, let alone four years.
Groundhog Day. That’s all we need right now…
No one really understands Groundhog Day, and I don’t see any good reason to start now. Yes, of course everyone knows that on February 2, an anointed Groundhog somewhere on the east coast emerges from his or her den and if he/she sees its shadow, then there’s six more weeks of winter. This much we all ‘know’ the same way we ‘learned’ the Gettysburg Address and the Preamble.
But—you know—what does it mean?
First of all, what even is a groundhog? I doubt most people not from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania could tell one apart from a Prarie Dog, Hedgehog or a common rat’sass Gopher. And why Punxsutawney (pronounced Punxsutawney) anyway? How did it come to pass that a stillwater no-doc ‘town’ of 6,000 in the middle of Pennsylvania (read: nowhere) got to be in-charge of the weather? After all, spring is important! There’s a lot of fucking that goes on in spring that’s of genuinely high consequence. Delaying or accelerating its arrival could mess with the natural rhythm of the season and throw us into a chaos we haven’t seen since December 2000. I’m saying now that there’ll be heck to pay come June if there’s no kittens to euthanize or if the clematis doesn’t bloom by Father’s Day. Merely sayin’.
I’ve researched it and still don’t hardly understand it. Near as I can tell, the six-week swing was a compromise between the Germans and the Scots because they favored different equinoxes– the Vernal or the Imbolc. So someone suggested they let a rodent decide. It is no less simpleheaded than a cointoss, but more civilized than a bloody Dark Ages war, when you think about it. Plus we got a good movie out of it, so at least we got that goin’ for us. Gunga la Gunga…
The calendar. The seasons. The Court. What’s any of it matter? March. Put a candle in the window at 7pm. Leave a voicemail for your legislator. The monied Christians are going to do what they’ve always done– what they want. It’s the year 2017. Does that mean the world has only been alive for 2017 years? Of course not! It just means that the Christians set the clock like they set everything else. Everyone plays by this rule, even the majority of the world that doesn’t believe in Jesus. It’s 2017– it’s not worth disputing. Can’t hardly blame folks for picking a battle.
So we’ll see what Punxsutawney Phil says tomorrow. I’m told he’s a hell of a Groundhog. Tremendous Groundhog.