Saturday, June 25, 2011

Those were the days....

"We used to say
That come the day
We'd all be making songs
Or finding better words
These ideas never lasted long...."
-- Richard Thompson for Fairport Convention, "Meet on the Ledge"

Apart from the music, we in The Zoo used to have great ARGUMENTS -- staying up all night drinking coffee in any coffee shop that would let us lock up a booth or two for hours on end, facing off against each other, starting off with The Purpose Of Music And Art and then seeing where our discussions would take us, everybody talking at once, talking over the top of each other, trying to force a word in edgewise that would make everybody else laugh or maybe shut us all up for a second.
Good luck getting ANY of us to shut up. We were young and energetic and full of ourselves, and had that confidence young people have when they think they know everything that's necessary, even though they haven't really been through all that much.
I always used to believe back in those days that music at its very best was a powerful and mystical force that should be allowed to do whatever it wants. Don, Thom and Allison tended to agree -- they all felt that music was Art first, and who cared if it was "popular" as long as it was Good. Allison and Thom were busy crashing up against the tough works of avant-garde classical composers in the university's orchestra, and their listening tended to follow that direction. Don tended to go as far out as he could when listening to music for pleasure -- the weirder it was, the more he liked it.
As for me, while I agreed with experimentation for our group and for music in general, actually LISTENING to experimental work I often found disappointing. I was dismayed to learn that I needed a melody I could hum or whistle along with and clever lyrics I could sing along with and think about. Comedy was always a plus. All such stuff appealed to me unless I was really angry or REALLY depressed -- then whatever loud, obnoxious noise was handy would usually Do The Job. It took me YEARS to figure all this stuff out, though....
There were others in the band who felt our music had to at least TRY to be popular, appeal to the widest possible audience, otherwise who'd care what we were doing and we'd all end up starving to death really quick. Melissa, Jim, Richard, Miles, Lee and Robyn all pushed for keeping communication as direct and open as possible.
Those positions are where most of us stayed, musically. Don and Thom would often play Devil's Advocate, switching from side to side to keep the argument going, Thom making fun of the whole thing by throwing in some off-the-wall lyric routine from Frank Zappa that none of the rest of us had ever heard, cleverly making his point while the rest of us fell on the floor laughing.
I found over the years that the best music for me is the kind that juggles a strong melody, lyrics I can sing along with and think over, strong group vocals and instrumentation, and occasional musical freakouts -- all at the same time. The artists I followed closest and seemed to get the most from were all like this: Caravan, Camel, Providence, Nick Drake, Euphoria, the Moody Blues, Renaissance (when they weren't being too prissy and stuck-up), King Crimson, early Yes, Gentle Giant, Boston, early Journey, Kansas, middle-period Genesis, later Fleetwood Mac.
The Zoo's music perhaps ended up a combination of all of these, since Don, Melissa and myself wrote the vast majority of our pieces. We went from Melissa's singer-songwriterish confessions at the piano to Don's multi-keyboard freakouts to my insistence on snappy tunes with catchy choruses, to Jim's molten guitar-feedback cascades (as on "Errr...." and "Afraid" on our LIVE album), to Miles's fondness for using every kind of oddball percussion instrument known to man, from woodblocks and cowbells to aluminum siding....
Not to mention Allison and Thom's battling violins and violas, Allison and Bob's massed-chorale backing-vocals.... And Jeff was always somewhere nearby, just in case we needed even MORE heavy guitar....
But back in the early days, all these late nights out were just strategizing, trying to figure out how much of the music we heard in our heads we could fit into one reasonable-lengthed song, or one album. We were all ambitious and energetic back then -- we all burned with what we wanted to do.
Half the guys in the band were in love with Melissa, though only Thom had been her lover at that point. Jim wouldn't fall for her until a few months down the road, and the two of them would break Don's heart in the process.
It was tough not to at least ADMIRE Melissa -- she could paint, draw, play piano and guitar, write poetry, design jewelry, keep multi-media writing/drawing/painting journals that made me and Don's eyes bug out. Melissa and Allison were best friends at that point, though there was some jealousy there too -- Al could play guitar, piano, flute, violin and viola, plus draw, paint and act. But she looked down her nose at most people and heaped contempt on Melissa when M would treat Thom or Don badly.
Don pretty openly lusted after Melissa, though he met Robyn shortly after the band formed and would marry her a couple of years later. In the group's earliest days I was slowly getting over Allison, my highschool sweetheart who'd broken my heart just before Christmas to take up with Richard -- but I had yet to meet Don's old girlfriend Tina, and was four years away from meeting Cyndi, who I'd later marry and spend 17 years with. Tina would later marry Miles.
Thom would leave the band after his bitter breakup with Melissa, and Allison would leave in 1982, after breaking up with Richard. The rest of us hung in there and added more members, complicating the picture even more.
All these romantic entanglements became subtext for songs on our albums. If you want to know what we were all doing and thinking between late 1977 and 1982, the music explains it all.
But I can still clearly see us the way we were back then, back when all the guys still had hair: Thom with his long, precise violinist's fingers and his long, flowing brown hair, looking like a young Niccolo Paganini and having some of the same demons inside him, no doubt.
Miles with his long, curly black hair and his always-grimy glasses, always worried about something, always having to smoke a bowl to decompress -- why he married Tina to double or triple his anxieties I'll never be able to figure out.
During those long nights out, sooner or later Miles would slip into his monologue about "Leveling" -- his theory that modern American society was structured to make sure everybody who experienced public education graduated from high school or college as "basically the same," with the same narrow range of experiences and interests.
This monologue meshed amazingly well with Jeff's hour-long routine about "The Machine" -- how modern American society was structured to grind everyone down into unthinking gray oblivion....
For comedy relief, at this point Thom would slip into reciting something from Frank Zappa -- "Billy the Mountain," or maybe a chorus of "Cheap Thrills" or "Montana" or "Dinah Moe Humm"....
There were also, as always, various sexual intrigues going on. Most of these centered around bearded, mysterious Richard, who it sometimes seemed had slept with every woman on the planet. Allison and Tina both fell for his dark good looks and deep voice, but Melissa thought he was a fraud and a dork -- which made Don and I CHEER! Melissa used to have HUGE arguments with Richard over the offhand way he'd sing the lyrics she used to slave over.
Then there was lecherous Lee, who used to pant over any woman who had a pulse, who wanted Tina badly, but never got her -- unless nobody ever got around to telling me about it....
Tina -- cheery and composed and always happy on the surface, but underneath a dangerously impulsive psychotic. Always with a hidden agenda.
Allison -- bitchy and pushy and overbearing and stuck-up on the surface, but underneath a scared child, dying to be liked and pushing away almost everyone before they decided they didn't like her.
Don -- who tried to stay aloof from all these entanglements when they got their ugliest, but who would just laugh ruefully about it the rest of the time -- nothing The Zoo could do could ever surprise him. He was my best friend, but he didn't hold back: When I once suggested that maybe Tina and I should get married, he looked right at me and said "You're FUCKED!"
...As for me, I'm a little too close to be able to decribe me the way I was back then. I'm pretty sure I was hell to put up with. Don said once that I ALWAYS thought things were worse than they really were, and I'm sure that hasn't changed much.
So maybe things weren't as strained and chaotic as I remember. Our hottest, most creative period together totaled about five years, and it all flew by in a messy, complicated blur.
One thing's for sure: Whether in a coffee shop, in a studio or on stage, the seven to 10 or a dozen members of The Zoo (depending on who showed up) were magic together. There was nobody else I wanted to spend my time with more. And that's what I remember most.

No comments: