[The following is an essay contributed in 2011 to Children of Mercy: Tales and Teachings from the World of Independent Music (edited by Rob Trembath) ]
There’s a pivotal bit in The Matrix in which Keanu Reeves’s crappy portrayal of Neo first becomes aware that he’s been living in a cybernetic dream world. “This… this isn’t real?” Morpheus, the pied piper of meatspace metaconsciousness, answers with a maddening counter-question: “What is ‘real’? How do you define ‘real’?”
While this has no doubt led to untold hours of bong-hit philosophy, it is a serious question that everyone has to grapple with at some level or another, some sort of firm foundation upon which we ground our beliefs, our fears, and how we judge the world around us.
What are the hallmarks of reality? Is a Facebook friend really a friend? Is it a forest, or a fiber plantation? Can you ever really be alone while talking on a cellphone? And in the art world, is a toilet seat art? Are comics literature? Is Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children MacNuggits a real band?
The last one is a question I’ve had to answer many times. My buddy Corbett Redford and I play in an acoustic duo called Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children MacNuggits. We started in 1995 on a whim, and just kept on writing songs and playing shows, partly because we both needed a creative outlet that didn’t require ammunition, and partly because it was so much fun. But as an acoustic band in a world of amplifiers and horn sections, we ran into plenty of musicians (and fans) who questioned the legitimacy of our form.
At that time in the East Bay, there were really only two places to perform if you were under 21 and in a band; 924 Gilman Street and the Berkeley Square. 924 Gilman was then just getting famous as the womb of seminal East Bay punk bands like Operation Ivy and Blatz. Out of the same amniotic fluids sprang the more listener-friendly pop-punk sound exemplified by Lookout! Records bands, and successfully mass-marketed by Rancid and Green Day. The rest is history, as they say, but at the time, the east bay punk scene was going through a real epistemological crisis. What did it take to be a “real” punk, now that any suburban mallrat could buy spikes at Hot Topic and bands with mohawks and three chords were all over MTV? What happens to outsider culture when all the outrageous anti-fashion signifiers become fashionable? The lines between genres hardened as “real” punks attempted to hold on to their identity. There was an explosion of “-cores” as the once diverse Gilman scene splintered. Once a haven for truly “alternative music”, where uncategorizeable bands like Mr. Bungle, Moe!Kestra and Crash Worship had once played, Gilman now closed its doors to anything that did not wave the punk rock flag. Needless to say, an acoustic band from the suburbs that wrote funny songs about poop and politics was not even in the running.
Berkeley Square was less bound by ideology. Located on University Avenue in Berkeley until its closure around 1996, this bar served served various kinds of “food”, greasy technicalities which allowed them to put on all-ages shows. It was a slightly sleazy dive, where underage girls and cocaine both regularly disappeared backstage and were never heard from again. This was where Corbett and I each saw our first punk bands, and where our friends and their freaky bands would play. Our pal John (later our backup singer, and now known to the world as the vocalist for Fleshies, Triclops! and Street Eaters) had a nerdy psychedelic funk band called Annulus which at one point was drawing in a respectable Friday night crowd, and frequently played with some of the aggressive funk-metal bands that were clogging clubs at that point. Our pal Thom Tucker was in one of these, a cartoonishly violent outfit called Impact, and we first played Berkeley Square when Impact kindly shared their set time with us. We went over pretty well, and were often brought on in between bands to do 5 minute sets. We were known, and we were liked, but that didn’t mean we were respected.
Even when we were finally granted official stage time, the other bands tested microphones and openly tuned their instruments during our set. When confronted, they seemed completely surprised that we would object. “You guys aren’t even a real band,” we were told without irony (or, oddly, malice). We didn’t have amplifiers. And it was just the two of us! And we were funny! Obviously we were not “real” musicians. If this had been a one-time occurrence we would have laughed it off. But it became a pretty common obstacle for us, not just at the Berkeley Square. Bands and audience alike made it clear to us, sometimes in the form of backhanded compliments, that what we were doing, and how we were doing it was not a band but a “novelty act”.
Granted, we bore all the outward signs of a novelty act. Our first CD, the self-released “Two Cats” EP, had (to our giddy delight) been played on Dr. Demento’s syndicated radio program, alongside some of the dorky musical comedy we’d loved as children; the great Tom Lehrer, The Toyes, and “Weird Al” Yankovic. We were clean-cut looking white suburbanites and we weren’t even singing about chicks or beating people up. Some of our early songs were commentary on current political situations like the ’96 presidential election. Songs that had a shelf life. In other words, novelty songs.
But so what? Are you really going to tell me that because Weird Al writes novelty songs, he isn’t a real musician and songwriter? Have you seen him play? Let’s see you do a smokin’ accordion solo with one leg behind your head. Yes, he parodies pop culture and lampoons one-hit wonders. But he is the master of his craft, a superb musician and vocalist, and in my personal opinion does not get enough credit for his original compositions.
And in any case, lampooning contemporary culture is an ancient art form. In medieval times, troubadours were something like a cross between Weird Al and Fox News. Using recognizeable standard melodies, these musicians (often in the pay of the rich and famous, but just as often itinerant wanderers) would craft new lyrics to comment on wars, plagues, weddings, taxes and the like. They would sing in taverns, where their wit could earn them anything from tips and free wine to a serious ass-kicking. This tradition survived in various forms, from the Star-Spangled Banner (adapted from an old British drinking song) to Punch and Judy routines.
So the fact that we wrote funny songs about, among other things, Bob Dole’s moral crusade against pornography and violence, “Two Cats Running (The Ballad of Bob Dole)”, gave some credence to the novelty act label. What irked us was that this gave people tacit permission to like us, but not respect us, as artists. The fact that we didn’t have a rhythm section meant that, unlike other bands, we could not reach people in the same way. Our appeal was not in sweet-ass solos or beats that frotteurs could grind against strangers to. We were and are more of a cerebral act; we infect people not with grooves but ideas. But you know, Corbett and I had plenty of ideas in high school too. People with less ideas and more style got the respect and the chicks, and that’s the way it goes sometimes.
But you know, we like to laugh. All the time. That’s how we cope. And so yeah, a lot of our songs are funny. That doesn’t mean we don’t mean it. It’s like the old S.P.A.M. Records motto: “Just because we’re funny doesn’t mean we’re joking.” Some of the subject matter of our songs deals with a very dark world, one that isn’t going away with something as easily as revolution or apocalypse. I doubt too many folks would want to go to a show to see me and Corbett cry into our poetry books. And honestly, we would get bored with being sad and angry all the time. Sometimes the truth can be laughed at. Does laughter make the truth any less true, or less real?
While it’s fun to see people standing around laughing and having their heads rebooted, sometimes it was also a little like being a handicapped boy watching the other kids play basketball. We knew we’d never have a moshpit for an acoustic duo. And at times we even wondered to ourselves; are we real? Meanwhile, we released our own albums, ran our own record label, toured extensively, and put on free, illegal generator shows we called Geekfest. All the stuff a real band would do, only it was us. The punk rock community more or less ignored us for reasons of fashion. We took its lessons and applied them. We were never a punk band; I think it requires a little more flag-waving than we were willing to do.
I’d like to think that Corbett and I earned a modicum of respect through sheer tenacity, or even artistic merit, but maybe the times just caught up to us. The world of music has changed sufficiently that if our band had just formed today, we probably wouldn’t have to deal with any novelty act stigma. For one, Dr. Demento is no longer on the radio. Acoustic comedy acts that have come along since we formed, like Tenacious D and Flight of the Conchords, have at least given people a frame of reference, even if it’s a little irksome to be told we’re like a band we predate by several years. But whatever. The recent folk-punk explosion, too, has neutered the “rhythm section want ad” argument, and there are plenty of acoustic soloists and unusual musical configurations that now get legitimate artistic respect that just wasn’t there 15 years ago. I don’t know that we played any role in that; we broke up in 2000 and were encased in carbonite for nearly a decade. But it’s nice to see. And since the world has become so bizzaro-world effed-up that most people can only ingest their news through comedy, people might even start taking us seriously.
That was a joke, folks.
Singer/Guitarist for Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children MacNuggits
Children of Mercy: Tales and Teachings from the World of Independent Music is a collection of stories and essays, written by notable members of the indie music world, that will not only open the eyes of the outside world to the independent music scene but also will raise money to fight Cystic Fibrosis. Within these pages you will find 40 tales and teachings from artists, producers, label runners, promoters, writers, and listeners from the world of independent music. A wide array of topics are addressed, including DIY, effects of the Internet, performing, break-ups, and indie history. This treasure trove of indie music perspectives seeks to show the outside world how tough it is for independent musicians, but highlight why it just might be the only true way to become a real artist in the musical world. This book also gives advice to those currently living the independent music dream and to those who are interested in creating music without the fear of losing their soul to the media monster known as the mainstream. 100% of the profits from this book will go to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in the United States and the Cystic Fibrosis Trust in the United Kingdom.
Click the link to purchase a copy: https://www.amazon.com/Children-Mercy-Tales-Teachings-Independent/dp/0983347611