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I was an old man of 18 before I finally got my driver’s license. Before that I relied on Putnam County’s extremely shoddy PART bus system and my even more unreliable mom to get from place to place. I couldn’t get her to take me to shows, which seemed shockingly abundant in nearby Danbury, CT, but it didn’t take much to get a ride to Trash American Style, the sole source of cool for me and anyone else growing up in the area. The Danbury Fair Mall was two miles away, so she’d drop us off, head over, and forget about us. (I am speaking more literally than figuratively, as there were more than a few times when she’d return home after shopping and wonder “Where are the boys?” before figuring it out and returning to pick us up). I spent a lot of time in that store rifling through the bins looking for records that looked interesting—or at least had cool band names—making mental notes about bands to ask the omniscient (or so they seemed at the time) employees, who probably saw me as a gnat-like annoyance buzzing around the store (“Whattaya know about the Didjits?” “There’s a lot of Antietam records over here; are they any good?” “What’s the best Husker Du record?”).
On one of the trips, I was determined to get some New Bomb Turks records. I’d seen the name gushed about in Maximumrocknroll, spotted a sticker on a cool dude’s turntable, and even picked up the “Dragstrip Riot” single from Underground Medicine, but I knew there was more NBT out there for me to eat up. I think Fudd was working that day. A dozen years earlier, he’d played bass in No Milk On Tuesday who, along with Violent Children*, were pioneers of the Hat City underground. (Incidentally, for my money, No Milk’s EP is a minor classic and totally great record, and I ain’t just saying that because their mums bought Cheerios from the same grocer as mine). Playing the role of “record store guy” to a T, he told me that the Turks were OK, but they weren’t even the best band from Columbus! A brief lecture later and I was on my way, not with '!!Destroy-Oh-Boy!!' as I’d hoped, but Monster Truck Five’s “Ain’t Never Been” single and Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments’ 'Bait and Switch' album. I probably had an Operation Ivy single, too, but we’ll chalk that one up to the follies of youth.
At home I eagerly put my new scores on the turntable and got ready to bounce around the room. Better than the New Bomb Turks! I don’t think it’ll come as a shock that my 16 year old ears did not second the notion. MT5 was, like, just noise and maybe TJSA were better but the singer had a funny voice. These were not the sort of songs that went down smoothly. I suppose I wanted my riffs to be a bit more...obvious, a real instant slap in the face, not something that you had to mull over before realizing what was going on. So those records got filed away.
Baby steps: I found myself listening less to the Misfits and more to Mission of Burma; my Pagans cassette (thank you Resonance Records!) didn’t leave the tape deck in my car for a year (I did get my license eventually); I carefully read interviews and paid attention to what bands were name-dropped and who was label-mates with who; I grew up a little over the next few years. It all conspired on the day when I pulled out 'Bait and Switch' for a second listen. This time I got it.
I spent a lot of time with that record. The aspects that initially put me off turned out to be some of its most appealing qualities. Ron House’s vocals, high pitched and delivered awkwardly, unlike any I’d heard, were rich and deep with witty one-liners and insight. Bob Petric’s guitar plucking had more to offer than the same two chords played the same two ways as they were on all my other records (mind you, I’m a big fan of those two chords). His songs were slowed down, deliberate, and increased listening revealed subtleties that made the songs more interesting to me. They didn’t stick to a single mood, so you’ve got the sluggish “Fire in the Swimming Hole,” which builds up some tension that isn’t released until the self-deprecating “Can’t Kill Stupid” on the next track. And then you get Angry Ron spewing his vitriol at the oddest of targets, “RNR Hall of Fame” (how can you even take it seriously enough to project such anger?).
I started to pick up anything I could find by the band, from the early, out of print rarities to the dollar-bin staples on Bag of Hammers and Siltbreeze (even now, I can’t help but seek out the minutiae of TJSA pressings: I have copies of 'Can’t Kill Stupid' screen-printed with different colors of ink, of “Punk Rock Secret” with sleeves printed on different colors of paper, etc). I worked back further, confronted my fear of Homestead Records, and started to pick up albums by Ron’s earlier band Great Plains. More accessible, with a prominent Farfisa and upbeat melodies, Great Plains never really made the impact on the “college rock” scene that many of their label-mates did. Here Ron’s lyrics tended toward the silly. They were self-referential and post-modern, such as in “Letter to a Fanzine”: “He likes everything that comes out on 4AD / She likes everything that comes out on SST / You like almost everything that comes out on Homestead / I like everything I get in the mail for free” (or, even inane, “Isn’t my haircut really intense / Isn’t Nick Cave a genius in a sense”).
And that leads me to this spring. I’ve listened to both of these bands enough times to sing along—probably incorrectly—to any random song from their collective catalog without realizing I’m doing it. I’d never seen either, and, although I know TJSA has a reputation to play every now and then in Columbus, I never thought I would. So it was a bit of a surprise to come home from work to an email from Justin on a Wednesday to ask if I knew that Great Plains were playing Hoboken on Thursday and Brooklyn on Friday. Nope, and it took me a half hour of searching the internet to convince myself that it wasn’t some other band of the same name. Why would they play again, and why on the east coast? The answer started filling my inbox in the form of Postal Blowfish messages, a Guided by Voices e-mail list whose members get chatty about anything that aired on college radio ‘85-‘94. A pair of other, more successful Homestead acts that I’d never heard, Antietam (Trash employees advised me to pass) and Big Dipper (post-Embarrassment and post-Dumptruck) had invited Great Plains to play a trio of shows in support of the release of the latter’s triple CD retrospective.
Southpaw was barren when we arrived but was beginning to fill out an hour later as Great Plains members, one by one, got on stage to fidget with their gear before retreating. Once they were all on stage, the band readied themselves; Ron fielded some heckles and returned fire—rightbackatya. They looked like they’d escaped from a child’s birthday party: when the clown arrived and stole the attention of their wives and children, the men looked at each other and saw their chance to escape. Remember the band?! Only they forgot to change their clothes. In Brooklyn, that’s a chic look.
They were old, but they still had it. Their set list, about a dozen songs, had a lot of stuff that ended up compiled on Colorized, as well as a few tracks off their debut 12”, 'The Mark, Don, & Mel' EP. Great Plains were animated and energetic while playing, and the downtime was filled with dry, humorous commentary. Mostly, what stood out to me at the end of the night was that they played the songs like they still cared about them. It’d be easy to limply run through “Letter to a Fanzine,” whose ephemeral lyrics were dated before the band called it quits, but the boys gave it —the entire set— a vigorous performance.
It was over too quickly but I shouldn’t have expected an opening slot here to reflect the precedent set on their 'Live at the Electric Banana' C90 tape release — “we can play [for] eternity.” The crowd was polite, not overly enthusiastic, but this was a Big Dipper crowd (indeed, after these three shows there were more emails to the GBV list, and a few took the form of, “I’d never heard Great Plains [or, I’ve only heard Great Plains on this Homestead comp] but they were really good [or, but I heard they were really good! I wish I hadn’t missed them]”).
Let’s flash back a week or so before that gig. Sarah and I have our dinner ready (nopalito tacos), the TV on (Yankees game, as usual, much to her chagrin), and a crossword puzzle open on the laptop (Thursday, I hate Thursday puzzles). Sometime after dinner is gone, the Yankees are getting blown out, and the puzzle turns from fun to frustrating, so we start to debate our next vacation. Running through random places to visit for a long weekend, we decide on Pittsburgh (a town we both love) and Columbus (a town I’d only visited while on tour with bands; enough time to stop into Used Kids, but not long enough to explore beyond that). It turned out that the Yankees were playing in Pittsburgh —first time since 1960— in late June. We requested time off work, bought tickets to the game, and starting sketching out an itinerary. Somewhere in the planning stages, I saw a message board post mentioning that Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments might play something called Comfest. Hmm. The Comfest website offered no information other than the dates, which started the day after my ballgame. It seemed that the stars had aligned in our favor.
Of course, nothing quite goes according to plan in my life. The ballgame was called amidst lightning storms in the third inning. The ushers pulled out their crosses and started to offer last rites after one bolt struck particularly close—hitting the building behind the stadium according to reports from the gal who sat in front of us and was buying her nachos as it struck—and the entire upper deck sat questioning our mortality. Even worse, my team had been winning the game, and all stats would be erased completely due to the rain out (we lost the make-up game). To reinforce our good fortune, our ride from Pittsburgh to Columbus was detoured due to Buckeye Lake’s overflowing, closing part of I-70. We circumnavigated on US-40 where the slow-moving trail of cars was apparently quite a sight to the locals. An elderly couple sat in their mobility scooters watching from their yard; kids stopped riding their bikes to stare. Better than television! The traffic sped up enough for us to get back on the highway and into Columbus just in time to check into our hotel and drive down to Comfest.
Comfest is a huge event in Columbus. Six stages of music for three days straight; a mall of local merchants (none of which, incidentally, had any decent veggie food); $4-$5 beer (plus $2 for your very own plastic Comfest mug—when I declined I was chastised by the man on line “beside” me who was using me as a crutch because his equilibrium was long gone by the late hour of 4PM: “but it’s a memento of the event, maaannn” ); and while the 64-page Comfest guidebook noted “Yes, We Like Boobs A Lot” I guess I missed the fine print that while it is a hippie event, Comfest is a family hippie event — thus, apparently, all breasts must be painted to conceal the goods. Thankfully, in choosing my most hippie outfit, I went with my tie-dye (it’s a Discharge shirt) over going au natural.
We made it to the event early enough to catch Cheater Slicks and Guinea Worms and wander the park for a bit before the Slave Apartments slot came up. Onstage, decked in a freshly Sharpied Hanes white T-shirt**, Ron played up “Ron” the image. “Yep your right, I’m normal, Yep, Normal Old Ron.” Unhindered by the guitar (as he was with Great Plains), he was free to roam the stage, do his idiot robot dance (and don’t read that the wrong way, it’s a great dance), and escape to the sidelines to greet his family, who were there to cheer on Dad. From where I stood, the sound on the first song —I can’t double check because slaveaptsets.com is down, but I think they opened with “Rump Government”— was all messed up. I suppose the band thought so as well; Petric asked for a few adjustments to the levels and my enjoyment improved immediately. Actually, from that point on, the sound was flawless, and the outdoor tent made for as good a venue as any. Oh, they played the hits, a real satisfying best-of set with all you could hope for and a little bit more. “Bottle Island,” check. “Cheater’s Heaven,” check. “High Street,” yup. “Turn It Up,” you bet. A L L T H E H I T S.
The Slave Apartments were on their home turf and put on their A-game show for the locals. The songs were played impeccably, with high energy, and just enough showboating to satiate the palette (Petric may not have aimed his guitar like a gun but he had his share of rocknroll moves). The crowd did their part to spice up the act as well, with one fella (allegedly our guitar hero’s brother) dancing around on stage in slow-mo before diving into the parting seas of the Comfest crowd. I did not see the paramedics rush in so I have to assume that he was OK after shaking off the rough landing. Heckles rang out—“Take off your shirt, Ron!”—followed by the polite reply, “I can’t, they’re not painted” and one from the band, “I remember when Psychedelic Horseshit…”uh, I forget the punch line***, , but you know it was good. Add in the aforementioned great moves (Ron’s dances, Bob’s showmanship), a broken mic-stand, loudloudloud guitars…I don’t doubt that a Slave Apartments gig at some bar on High Street in ’94 would’ve been more invigorating, but I was too young then and wouldn’t have appreciated it anyway. Catching them at an outdoor hippie-fest of all places, a classic group to my ears, they exceeded my lofty expectations, which is about as high a praise as I can sing.
* A year or so later, Violent Children would later morph into Youth of Today, insignificant enough except for the fact that astute local collectors snatched up every available copy of VC’s EP to ship off to European straight edge collectors and as a result, I still don’t own a copy of the fucking thing.
** SH notes that the design is an original of Ron's daughter.
*** RH sent word that the joke was "I'm old enough to remember that Psychedelic Horseshit sound like The Palace Brothers."
That’s all I’ve got, but you can reach me at: cheaprewards-at-gmail.com or nostages.com, where I have some record trading bullshit, a catalog of all of the Nubees singles known to me (got one? Write me), and some sexy polaroids. This column in particular is dedicated to Sven, who will get it someday. And to Darby. And that guy who played him on TV.
To catch up on past Cheap Rewards go here.
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P-p-p-polaroid pictures provided by Dave Hyde. Great Plains live pic provided by the interweb, if the photographer is reading this and would like a credit, please contact the editor at termibore-at-aol.com.
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