Whether I had idols and heroes as a kid is hard to say. Finding flaws and faults was easy even at a young age: that everyone has lacks was apparent.
I remember a high school English assignment where I was to write about three people I idolized. I remember staring at the paper wondering if I should chance the answers I felt were closest to what the assignment would regard as truth: Carl Sagan, Mister Spock, and…nobody. I think I wrote about Martin Luther King like everybody else, except everybody else wrote about parents, grandparents or their pastor/preacher. Even working to avoid it I took a risk.
Music was something I warmed up to slowly. Most of my experience was with classical, as this was what my mother listened to and what I believed was suitable for someone on the accelerated college-bound track. My father’s adoption of country, along with a set of boots and open containers from that uniquely Texan institution of the drive-through liquor store, horrified me. I remember a drive in our 1973 Gran Torino station wagon, the black vinyl seats radiating heat even with the A/C blowing full out, the window down, my father slapping his thigh to Mel Tillis’ I Got the Hoss:
Well, Ah gawt the hoss an’ yew gawt the saddle
We like to ride side by side
Well, Ah gawt the hoss an’ she gawt the saddle
Together we’re gonna ride ride ride
I couldn’t have been more than ten, but the song repulsed me. Not at all for the sexual innuendo–all over my head–but for Tillis’ yowly caterwauling which encapsulated every beer-swilling boot-wearing kun-tree lummox sauntering through the countryside, his hubcap beltbuckle cinching his sprawling spare tire, ya’ll-ing to others like a jackdaw, speaking in vowels paradoxically smoothed round while abrasive enough to strip paint. This stuff poured out of every AM radio and every store PA, wafted out of every pickup truck. There were a lot of pickup trucks. After school and summers I would listen to the Funk and Wagnalls Classical Collection records my mom had bought each week from the grocery store, listening to Chopin etudes and Brahms symphonies from a motivation I can’t really describe now: not “because I was supposed to”, or it was educational, or I thought I was impressing anybody–more some sense that this was the best our species could do, and I ought to know about it. If aliens came, I wanted to show them these records and not Mel Tillis.
As an A/V dork kid I knew other A/V dork kids, none of whom had any taste or interest in music beyond the technical minutiae of its reproduction. One guy liked Ferrante & Teicher, a pianist pair that rendered Liberace’s soft noveau-classical content but not his act. This guy provided cassettes and open reel-to-reel tapes of their soaring plink-plink-plink that always reminded me of those post-war Cinemascope water musical extravaganzas that had dryad women leaping into fountains timed to the score. Another guy was crazy about Tomita, the Japanese electronica pioneer whose interpretations of The Planets and Firebird I will admit to repeatedly listening to late at night, a pillow around the headphones as the weird analog voices panned hard left, hard right.
This was middle school. It was impossible to not be aware of the role music was playing in others’ lives, and it seemed of critical importance to the girl species: allegiance to band or somebody on a poster was of critical importance in determining in-group status, and liking the wrong things resulted in public ostracism. It took another year or so but boys followed, dividing into two groups: ropers with allegiance to country, and metalheads devoted to the white Kaepa tennis shoe, Levi blue jeans, and logoed band t-shirt, this last being most important and revolving around Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Motley Crue, and less so Blue Oyster Cult. The roper uniform had uniformity without strictness–as long as jeans, belt-buckle, boots and a pearl-button shirt were worn, no emphasis was placed on make or quality.
I found the displays of both sexes baffling and more than a little frightening. Going to school was like walking into a National Geographic special of warring tribes spearing each other because of some incomprehensible affront. Adults circled like ineffective white blood cells, directing the ropers to take their hats off, rhetorically asking the metalheads if they wanted to grow up to be losers–never in so many words, but everyone knew. Adults assumed the metalheads were pumped up with drugs but seemed less interested in precocious roper alcoholism. I hated going to lunch and expected Mel Gibson and Tina Turner to burst from the ceiling, throwing chains and flame.
Music was still an abstraction for me personally. I had found my parents’ collection of Dave Brubeck and would rock out to “Take Five” when certain I was unobserved. I listened to Gershwin’s “Grand Canyon Suite” repeatedly, as I did Holst’s Planets. A big label produced a series of classical LPs with brown covers and printing in large, black sans-serif typeface, and I still remember the Planets album liner notes describing Holst escaping English damp to ride his bike through Egypt. I spent far too much time dithering over what brand of cassette to dub the LP onto, so I could trade it with the other A/V dorks. I sensed worrying about a few db was missing the point, but not quite brave enough to say anything.
Ninth grade was high school, a relief after a traumatic eighth grade where I missed the first month to mono and felt assaulted on all sides, not least so by time. I remember an August morning on the high school parking lot, out in the near-heat for marching band practice as the air coiled in anticipation of its daily boiling, walking into the cool, fungal band hall and thinking: it will be better. Being band the test of music was as intense as middle school, but a little more sophisticated: camps revolved around fusion jazz, show tunes, poppy-jazzy-rocky stuff like Barry Manilow. A guy I’d been friends with since the fifth grade cemented his conversion to eighth grade asshole by thrusting his Chicago cassettes in my face and demanding my allegiance to it. Seniors towered above like lumberjacks and I wondered if four years of this was worth the trade of getting out of PE.
The Blues Brothers came to me on a VHS my mom’s friend recorded from HBO. I love that movie still. Even if my attention was focused on how to use a second-hand cop car to trash a mall or chase neo-Nazis into the drink, it made me realize there was music with words that had something to it. Sam and Dave, James Brown, Cab Calloway and Aretha had a solid, electric power–as well as a sort of alluring illegitimacy–I had never experienced before. The updating of Laurel and Hardy by Belushi and Aykroyd reversed the rip-off the Stones and others had perpetrated on black music. Their black suits and ties, and the sunglasses, projected cool, as well as obscurity. Two white guys bugging out to black music completed some social calculus that somehow righted things. No, ma’am. We’re musicians.
I was still the kid that bought Star Trek movie soundtracks on LP–and whose first LP ever purchased will always be the soundtrack to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos–but I was hearing more. In high school you meet different people, hear and see different things. By 1984, punk and new wave had made it even to suburban Texas.
I was bulled, but not quite as much, though mostly by one person in particular. (That we shared the same first name wasn’t so much ironic as something that invigorated him.) I don’t remember much more than shoving, but my mood was always shaky, and I was already afraid of everything. When I was rescued by a display from the black-and-camouflage, Doc Marten boot-wearing group of intellectual prankster misfits that was convincing enough to permanently scare off the current and any future bullies, I was grateful, but suspicious. The group of them informed me of their favor, done gratis as a public service for a fellow weirdo, hulking over and around me with the inscrutable teen expression of distant nonchalance. They looked like character studies for grotesque versions of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids: thin reedy guys with hands the size of basketballs, little wiry guys like Chinese gymnasts, lumpy solid guys like pigs with Coke-bottle glasses, guys with bad teeth, guys with bowl haircuts. I was the kinda-tall kid with tinted aviator glasses and wore the high school version of Garanimals. The last group I fit in with would be the anti-cool.
As judgmental as they were in their adherence to non-judging, they included me, which is to say they gave me the opening through which I could include myself. If and when I chose. Whenever. They had divorced or distant or uninvolved parents, and they had the secret fearless energy I sensed all around but could not dare to imagine as my own. They had cars, and they listened to music in them. My introduction to punk was swift and untutored: Dead Kennedys, Sex Pistols, Misfits, Suicidal Tendencies, Circle Jerks, Husker Du. Half the group leaned backward to the previous generation’s counterculture, and weekends would have Doors, Rolling Stones and Alice Cooper thundering from the big Eighties component stereo at the divorced dad’s house, out in the woods where furniture could be burned out back unquestioned. Music was raw and subject to the adolescent’s withering critical ear which had a jeweler’s sense of noise. From my vantage point in back seats I couldn’t understand the shouted lyrics, and the shouted lyrics were so loud I couldn’t understand the current conversation. It seemed all right, somehow.
I knew even then that I did not like the music per se, but I liked the idea of it. It turned its lack of sophistication and polish into an asset, creating its noise with marginal competence on garage sale instruments recorded on Radio Shack tape. It was loud and fast, full of sick profanity and crude images. It knew something was wrong with the plastic college-bound aerobic supply-side Cold War air conditioning and tried its best to say so. It did not hide, and that it was not more widely seen was not its doing, and it reveled in this. It gave meaning to wearing black and looking like a deadbeat. It embraced the paradox of being happy to upset its grandmother, while only wanting her to know its furious love, a love that it could only reject for itself. It was not produced and was not a product. Its amateur incompetence was genuine.
But I was a poseur. The black-and-camo group had no test of purity but it was clear I was not up to their standard. They were one of the dozen or so competing music ideologies, all extensions of the primitive middle school country-metal division. I didn’t commit to any one, mostly out of being too cheap to spend much. I was eclectic and non-judgmental, and attracted to free dubs. At gatherings and whoever’s house I nodded along with whatever the music religion was and was careful to evade questions. Nobody asked me anywhere country would be played so swallowing bile was not required. I began to realize Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson weren’t the same as the kun-tree leaking from the radio and I listened to my father’s handful of old late 70s albums, but I kept this very quiet, even to my conscious mind.
This is the cassette that brought it all together.
I first saw it in the last weeks of 1986*, in English class. Heady with the approaching holidays, kids impinged on each others’ desks, talking, screwing around. I have a clear memory of working on my pre-algebra homework, and a flash at the edge of vision. D was showing something to W. Both were caught in the constricted spasm of the adolescent boy driven to rapture by something forbidden but hilarious and struggling to keep quiet. I could see D had a cassette case in his hands, and W had a Walkman’s headphones on–using the most verboten of objects in plain sight, W bending over the desk, biting his hand to not laugh. They had some business speaking quietly, rapidly, taking off headphones and replacing a black cassette in the case. W brought it over to me and, in a voice strangled to clownish wheezes from trying not to laugh, said: oh, man, you have got to hear this.
Zoogz Rift was the antithesis of not only the produced, market-researched music products that were paraded on MTV and the radio with all but orders for kids to like, but was also the antithesis for the bad music parents and church types hated–mostly heavy metal, but any rock with some fuzz on the guitars. He was music like Alan Ginsberg was poetry: talented, rhythmic, full of the profane but smarter than porn. He was degraded and degrading, enraged at all the waste and idiocy and Leave It to Beaver and oh-my-goodness Reagan faces everyone wore while shitting on their own children with Cold Warmongering and wars on drugs. He is not political per se, working at a more base, close-to-the-metal level with the adolescent’s pure innocent rage. He confirmed that it really was all stupid.
Water was a revelation, an explosion, an escape-velocity ejection from being just a weird kid to a kid whose eyes had been opened when the bottom fell out. The music was loud and driving but not like punk: it had a rich guitar heart with an electronic skeleton, and lots of drums. The melodies were far more complex than the simple beats of punk or mainstream rock, most songs with distinct thematic sections that changed radically but fit together, more or less. At the time I had only the briefest exposure to Frank Zappa, and none to Captain Beefheart, but he unquestionably draws from both. To hear that kind of complexity underlying those lyrics was a contrast that blew my mind.
And what lyrics! Stories about the ghoul inbreds in the heart of America’s deserts, going to hell and finding Jimmy Falwell there, an elaborate surreal recounting of Daddy’s horrors with the Secret Marines. Zoogz used every bit of foul language I had ever heard and introduced me to the wonders of scat-bop profanity made up on the spot. It didn’t always work but it mostly did. It didn’t pretend to greatness or virtuosity, but it was very good, unfiltered, unrepentant. Like a cadaver opened up, it was horribly beautiful.
Water’s second-to-last track is “Mongoloid Middle America”. It is one of the few songs whose lyrics I have solidly memorized. Imagine it is 1986, you are sixteen years old in one of the more conservative parts of the Bible Belt, isolated, angry. Then you hear this:
[The dull, muffled drone of an engine. ]
[Then, the sounds of echoed splashing, as if black water sloshed in a deep, concrete cavern.]
[A distant calliope.]
[A man, with the smarmy, proud voice of a second-rate airline steward, speaks as through a tinny PA.]
Congratulations! You have just shown the rare courage to take this bizarre trip through Mongoloid Middle America. Before we begin our strange journey, please remember that there are some very sick and dangerous people out there. So please: keep your arms and legs inside the boat at all times, and keep your hands on the safety rail in front of you. Under no circumstances should you leave the boat for any reason during the excursion.
[The man’s voice drops in tone and gains an edge.]
And now: try to psychologically and emotionally prepare yourself for an odyssey from which you may never quite fully recover–your grand tour through Mongoloid Middle America.
[Silly, bouncing Hanna-Barberra cartoon sounds. The sounds of a screaming man being strangled. A voice repeats: Hubba Bubba!]
[Something gross must have hit him. Then: the motor dies.]
Uh oh! It seems that our tour boat has broken down. Tough shitskees, daddy-o. It’s gonna take big money to get us out of this one, I’m afraid. You’d better check your wallet to see how much you have left. None of us may ever leave this place–alive!
[His demonic laughter folds into the silly flinging sounds of drowning and the calliope. ]
[Cut to a driving, inverted march of a baseline. Zoogz speaks.]
It’s a little creepy driving through these small towns
Sometimes one gets the feeling that there’s no one around
But every now and then I’ll see a filly or two
Working as a waitress at the Hullaballoo
Come on, all you people, and gather around
We’ve got a rock band here…that’s wants to play in your town
We don’t ask for much ’cause we know you won’t pay
Besides you didn’t ask us to come here anyway
You may think they look alike, but they’re all the same guy
You ask him out his sister and she spits in your eye
She’s everybody’s brother–and that ain’t no lie
She’s a cute little dish–want to get in her pants
Reach down deep inside. Daddy’s dick in your hands!
[The song’s hallmark: a weird, twanged series of guitar notes. An aural Uh oh!]
Lookit that damn Yankee! as I went to take a leak
They think they’re all Frank Capra but they’re just a bunch of geeks
Monday night is football and Tuesday night is bridge
Let’s all go do the laundry and check what’s in the fridge!
Christmas, Easter, Halloween–it’s enough to drive ya nuts
Some retard in a cop car is pulling on his putz
While some jerkoff in a taxi tells us that he’s lost
Man, I gotta get outta here, no matter what the cost!
You’ll be back, Pappillon, I heard my woman say [You’ll be back Pappillon]
As they carried me away to Pittsburgh yesterday
And try as I may to make my crime pay
I could not escape, and I started to cry.
I felt so betrayed, Daddy’s dick in my eye!
[The twanged notes, then a shift to uptempo, garbled Leonard Bernstein]
What I can be in America
Mongoloid Middle America!
[Return to the up-down-up-down march. Zoogz speaks.]
Take the old country roads to the place where I belong
‘Cause any place is better than bein’ here
Take me to the riv-er!
Drop me in the wa-ter!
Bend me, shake me, any way you want me
I sense the end is near
I’m-a finished with the jokin’
My car is a-chokin’
Time to make the get-go while the gettin’ is good!
Made my way outta Mars and into Barkieville
Little Barkie the Dog! Gonna check my motor mounts
He be a smart leetle pup! That son of a bitch
Looks okayda me! Mechanic’s a cinch
What a price to pay for freedom! But at least I got my wish
[The twang, and then a descent into flash-handed garbage guitar]
Whoa nellie! Liddle Joe! Ha ha ha!
[The guitar drops out for the normal bass and drums: up-down-up-down. Zoogz sings.]
Put it all together and what have you got?
A truckload of shit and a shitload of snot!
No matter how you slice it you don’t end up with a lot
One thing I know is I’ll never go back
I don’t think I’m needed–Daddy’s dick up my crack!
[The twang. The music thrusts into guitar blasts underlaid with random electric piano spasms. It is strangely beautiful. There is the long fade to silence where you are sure the music is still going, even still.]
First hearing this, my despair and anger evaporated. I felt giddy with doing something naughty. I was glad to have followed advice to wear headphones.
I didn’t think Zoogz was a fellow soul, or idolize him. He was not a hero or an anti-hero. He was, I suppose, the inverse of the image we are programmed to want to be, and which I still did. But there was a comfort–a release–to know there were people out there who flipped off that image. He was angry at the stupidity and banality and not afraid to let you know.
How could a shy, smart dork kid not like a guy who had albums with titles like Island of Living Puke and Idiots on the Miniature Golf Course? With songs titled “Dinkle Dance”, “Restrooms of Erotic Fantasies”, “Santa’s on a Diet”, “You Fucked Up”, “Ironic Woodwind Interlude”, “The Secret Marines Sex Kitten Beach Party”, and “Shut the Fuck Up”? Even now, twenty five years later, it’s hard to type this I’m laughing so hard. Yes, it was shocking and naughty, but the songs were about something. They were not shock jock antics, but smart. They had no illusions about being popular or appealing to anyone but Zoogz and His Amazing Shitheads. They were the truest anti-rock-stars I have yet found.
Zoogz became a not-quite-open secret for me. It wasn’t anything I could share but for the three or four other people at school who already knew him, and who would understand. Parents could never be told–it would be therapy or church for sure. That girls would have nothing to do with it was a conclusion so obvious it never needed to be tested. Cassettes were copied and listened to. When enough money had been saved up for the luxury of an in-car cassette player, the car was the safest, most obvious place to meld with Zoogz. How better to see idiots in their repulsive suburban habitat than by driving through, pointing and laughing behind glass, in perfect safety?
Zoogz was the other end of the knowledge I understood would free me, the dark, disgusting side to the high art I liked and was forcing myself to cultivate. He was a low-down, louder Vonnegut, striving to be plain to reach people. He was someone I was sure I’d be afraid of if I met in person, but was someone who, like one of his album titles, was at a safe distance. He was my proxy for the anger I could not articulate.
Each new album made no noise in the world, but I got them as I learned of them. I ordered a half-dozen of them from SST in California and could barely contain myself when I picked them up from my Bible-thumping neighbor, who had accepted the box from UPS. If only you knew what you held, you two-faced judgmental shit. The box included “Water II”, which is tied with the original “Water” as a favorite. A few years later I had the good fortune to be in a Tower Records and find almost every extant Zoogz album. I have them all still:
For all my cassette-era illegal copying, I consider myself absolved.
The college years brought his best work yet. 1990’s Nutritionally Sound featured the brilliant juxtaposition of hackneyed keyboard sounds layered and layered in the days before digital editing but still retaining some classic low-fi sound. His first CD release, I listened on the stereo at home before class to the creepy but dazzling “Skeleton Protopunk Quagmire 10” and peed my pants at “Crazed Be the Lord”. War Zone the same year was more difficult and less even. I sensed the world turning.
He was something I shared with my closest friend at the time, laughing like our bladders would fall out in his first apartment, turning it up because everybody else had theirs turned up. He was living the dream of anger and saying no to the stupid, and we both said no together with Zoogz. We wrote to Zoogz, a letter that would most likely be embarrassing now if I found it squirreled away in my parents’ attic, using our crazy Monty Python language and trying to beat his imagery in the same sad way editorial writers did when Dr. Seuss died. Zoogz wrote back. He said something about getting letters from dumb pinhead morons like us and why didn’t we grow up. We thought it was hilarious, a treasure. We were touched by the greatness that would never be great.
Zoogz faded when I left college. I was worried about grad school, my feelings of being a fraud as a college graduate, the slow living death of getting a job. I kept him in the corner of my consciousness in the way one did in pre-Internet days: getting catalogs in the mail, sending in postcards.
Zoogz was moving on and changing too. His music became even more experimental, and the last albums were instrumental jazz fusion sorts of work. His last angry album was Zoogz to his utmost. Five Billion Pinheads Can’t Be Wrong didn’t live up to the previous rapture I’d experienced in high school, but in retrospect it’s not realistic to expect that at the age of twenty-six. Only now, fifteen years later, do I even realize that between this last album (1996) and my first hearing of Zoogz (1986) was a whole decade. I smiled listening to “I Work on the Retard Farm” and “Triumph of the Won’t”, and even sent the extra twenty bucks for the Criminally Insane Kit: a t-shirt, a little squirt gun, bumper stickers, and a diploma to mark my graduation from the School of the Criminally Insane. But the magic was thin, like a movie I had seen too many times. I wanted something else, maybe even more desperately than I knew.
As years went on I followed his websites, all free hosted affairs where he posted his art and sometimes stories of his foray into the world of pro wrestling. I was appalled at first but then got the twisted irony: he was faking in another thing wholly fake, that everyone knew was fake, everybody laughing at the poor subclass sucker fans. But wresting was too dumb for me to follow, and I’ve never liked soap operas. Zoogz released a few more albums but I didn’t think to get them.
Through all the change of the past several years, I have not listened to him, not once. Even my twenty year high school reunion did not ignite his memory, send me digging through my LP box. On irregular cleaning purges I would see the that box, or find those old dubbed cassettes, and smile. I think I threw the cassettes away. I was glad to have known him and to know he was still there, but in my later thirties I understood the distance. The kid who listened to him in 1986 was as disappeared as he had been in 2008, at that reunion. Like all those other people I met over those few burning August days, that angry, self-hating kid had turned into something else.
It didn’t seem like Zoogz had. He had marriages that ended, and exited wrestling. My website visits made me wonder what a grown man older than me was doing making Photoshop collages of magazine pictures and posting old favorable reviews. One of the friends who had followed him with me said it aloud: sometimes I just wonder why the guy doesn’t just grow up and get a job. But I liked that he didn’t have one that I could tell. He had not sold out.
I hadn’t thought about Zoogz until March, when for some reason I looked online. I saw a news story. I found the Facebook group. Scrolling back in time I had the inversion of reading the postings of pictures found, gratefulness for sending along memorabilia, the thank-yous for all those that showed at the memorial, the announcement of his death over a year ago.
It was quiet to read, a complete thing. I knew what was coming–I did not feel sad. Nothing wrenched away. It made quiet sense. There was no surprise, just a sort of: oh.
Some time before I discovered Zoogz, my mother’s childhood friend died. I remember it happening in spring, my mother leaving for a few days. Her friend, a typical East Coast brusque loudmouth that I liked, had been diabetic; complications ultimately claimed her. Some months after this, I clearly remember opening my mouth to ask Mom how her friend was doing, and then remembered: oh, she’s dead. I caught myself and floated in a clear, held place with glass walls and the reverb quiet that comes when the wind stops.
Zoogz had diabetes. He was always heavy. I found a YouTube video of him being interviewed by two post-high-school wrestling knuckleheads, the pair not quite sure whether they were being insulted by the master. It was a strange thing to watch. Three of them on a very suburban California-looking patio on plastic chairs, cars and hoses and empty planters and all the suburban detritus scattered around, the kids trying to joke and be cool, Zoogz replying with a mix of serious reflection on his wrestling accomplishments and simple jabs the kids didn’t know what to do with. He sat in the chair as if poured in a bag he was leaking out of, hiding behind sunglasses. He laughed but did not seem all that happy, like a grandfather visiting grandchildren he doesn’t like.
When I took Zoogz’s albums out of the box and photographed them, I did not run my hands over them, take them carefully from their sleeves, regard them with a quiet broad smile. I have laughed at listening to them–they are still funny, unadulterated. I think a little about how unhappy I was when they were fresh, and how now it is safe to remember that time. They are not just albums, but they are closer to that now than twenty years ago. They fought something I was fighting. They are still fighting, trapped within themselves. I am not. Zoogz isn’t either, now. There is no need to fight your way out when no one else is fighting.
Water ends with “Water”, the eleventh track. Instrumental: guitars, bass, 8-bit electronic sounds of 1980s samplers and keyboards. I see the electric, phosphor green dragonflies buzz in their square blocks or symbolized by an & or an %. Primary blue water, orange triangle flowers, yellow square sun. Layers of Atari and oscillators and Radio Shack beeps fade up and down, repeat, fade again. At the end, there are the rich peals of blue bells.
* While my memory places my inaugural experience with Zoogz Rift and “Water” as late 1986, the album is © 1987. I am certain of being in Mrs. Lewis’s high school English class when I saw the cassette, and also that this occurred later than fall of 1986, when I missed a large chunk of school. By the fall of 1987 I was in college, so it’s possible the events recounted here took place in later winter or spring 1987. Memory isn’t what we think it is.