The Wake: Window On A Teenage Stew
It all started with The Wake.
For it was in this setting that the temptation to pursue fame and wealth emerged at cross-purposes with the desire to express the Universal Self with untainted vision.
The year was 1978.
The Wake was a band that never really jelled musically yet gave birth (in the life-mind of each member) to an aesthetic, an ethos, a commitment to the seriousness of artistic integrity and strict obedience to the Muse. In some ways the Muse was the city herself, Los Angeles, our playground, our mystic mother, our keeper of secrets, our perfect January, our elusive striptease, our reminder of graveyards, our wet pavement, our bookstore perfume, our celibate laboratory, our afternoon cabaret. In other ways the Muse was usually just some girl, the one you see when you sing.
We didn’t believe in the myth of America.
We believed in Art.
Especially this precept:
Everything must be meaningful . . .
There were five of us: Me, Ron, Stew, Viken, and Eldad.
I don’t think we ever fully enjoyed playing music together. But we intensely appreciated the discovery and stimulation of one another’s company, always an expansion of consciousness, always. The music was less important than the conversation.
We could have been doing anything, sitting on the beach at night, driving the length of Sunset Boulevard, going out for coffee at the Los Angeles International Airport, seeing X or Fear or Marvin Etzioni’s band The Model or whoever else play at Hong Kong Cafe in Chinatown or Madame Wong’s or Blackie’s on La Brea near Pink’s or later the Anti-Club, downing endless cups of wretched dishwater coffee at Norms on La Cienega or at Ben Frank’s up on Sunset,
or combing the used LP bins at Aron’s on Melrose, whatever, it didn’t really matter, we were in perpetual high gear. The band simply gave us a cool context for voracious discourse.
We got high and read James Joyce to each other and listened to Kraftwerk’s The Man Machine and Brian Eno’s Before And After Science and Patti Smith’s Horses and Rodney Bingenheimer and watched Saturday Night Live waiting for the maybe one funny sketch in any given episode and argued punk vs. prog (all of us liking aspects of both) and spent numerous hours hanging out in my parents’ kitchen and in Ron’s living room whispering waterfalls of art-talk until dawn and went to see foreign films and classics at the New Beverly Cinema, the very rocking revival house in our neighborhood. Once a venue for gay porn called Eros whose marquee would announce such titles as Jailhouse Cock or The Sergeant & His Privates, film freak Sherman Torgan turned it into the dingiest, most uncomfortable piece of heaven imaginable. It became our intellectual Mecca. Many of my favorite films were first seen in that theatre: Annie Hall, La Dolce Vita, Taxi Driver, Death In Venice. One time Stew gave a standing ovation to the Taxi Driver trailer. Another time Ron fainted at the end of Death In Venice, overwhelmed by the power of myth. My friend Lisa worked there that summer and was able to get me in for free. Summer of 1978. A sublime pocket of time. I had committed myself to devout asexuality and avoidance of love. It was a delectable freedom. Although I had a boring job working in the stock room at Standard Shoes, my evenings were devoted to movies, reading, and music music music. Eldad also worked at Standard Shoes that summer.
The Wake did make SOME music.
I sang and sometimes played piano and occasionally played guitar but mostly sang and wrote a lot of the tunes.
Ron sang and played piano and wrote the rest of the tunes.
Stew was a superstar guitarist, like Robert Fripp-meets-Duane Allman, who would later become best known for his singing and songwriting in a band called The Negro Problem.
Viken played the bass.
And our drummer was Eldad, who later become best known for his mad jazz skillz on the vibes.
Originally this group of musicians had been assembled to play on a demo I was making to showcase the new songs I’d been working on, pieces which were huge leaps up from my earlier compositions. “Manifest Destiny And Beyond” was the first of that batch, with a chorus that went:
Manifest Destiny and beyond
A coast to coast voyage home
The plane I search
The void I roam
I had that grand pretentiousness of which 17-year-old artistes are so often possessed.
You know: Everything must be meaningful.
We all went to Fairfax High together but didn’t all know each other. I knew Eldad. And Ron had been my best friend in elementary school, then we fell out of touch by going to different junior highs — he to Bancroft, I to John Burroughs. We ended up at Fairfax again together and spoke now and then, but the friendship wasn’t really powerfully rekindled until the 11th Grade, in
Mr. Battaglia’s English Lit class, where we bonded over the intellectual goldmine a-happening in that room. It was my playing the new songs for Ron one day that summer which prompted his suggestion that I record a demo. Ron in fact produced it.
Eldad brought Viken into the picture. Viken was a warm, witty Armenian cat from Lebanon with monster bass chops and a love of prog.
Stew, of course, became a pivotal being in my consciousness almost immediately. There was the spark of genius in that lad, still too coy to step forward, but slowly getting there, slowly learning to proclaim his artistry out loud. Today he rules the universe.
Stew didn’t drive, so someone (usually me) would go pick him up, and it wasn’t uncommon to learn, upon picking him up, that his equipment was actually at three different places, and so then you went around to gather his gear at the three different places, but, without fail, one of the guys at said 3 places wasn’t home, god damn it, but, hey, no, it was cool because Stew always knew another dude who had something he could use instead, and so, of course, then you went THERE. Getting him home was occasionally a longer, more complicated story. Rehearsals happened in between. And he always split our brains open at those.
The demo was fine for its time, though I’d be afraid to listen to it now. The band didn’t really become a band until we added Ron’s songs to the repertoire. Ron was a brilliant composer, an especially inventive melodist with a penchant for symbolist poetry and Bertolt Brecht. He was writing real pop songs while I was laboring over these precious majestic ornations.
Stew’s prodigious guitar work brought essential ingredients to the mix.
Our fist gig out was at The Troubadour in April of 1979. A virgin journey for most of us, at least in a venue of that stature. Unfortunately it felt like a train wreck, my first big taste of going nowhere. We began out of tune and descended exponentially. I try not to think of that night too often, otherwise I revel in its ugliness too much. And yet we continued to play gigs in order to be together.
And from that Troubadour gig came this one freak’s interest in us, a cat who claimed he had a record company. Our meeting with him was distinguished by its disappointed promise and overall weirdness. His name was Freddy Swimps, and he called his company Some World Records. He was rail thin and light-skinned and his voice was like Kermit the Frog doing a Dudley Do-Right impression. The plan was to play a set for him, at Eldad’s house on Stearns Ave. in the Carthay Circle area. We played a good set, actually. I had just introduced a Talking Heads-ish new song called “Art For Sale,” and we were having fun with it. We also did a reggae version of “A Hard Day’s Night.” . . . I had another new tune called “Stained Glass Windows,” a song about shattered illusions, which I did just solo piano and vocal. I wrote that song for a friend of mine who had suffered some emotional difficulties and was temporarily in the mental ward at St. John’s in Santa Monica. I had the bizarre privilege of singing the song to her in the common room of the ward, playing on a funky old upright piano. The mind-tripping thing is that when I sang the chorus, a bunch of the patients sang along, having never heard the tune before, but they were like right there innat shit, I mean in full freak-part harmony. The sound of the schizoid choir made my nipples hard. That rainy night in the St. John’s mental ward was the best performance of that song that there would ever be.
Following our set, we sat down with Mr. Swimps and had some amazing Israeli food that Eldad’s mom had made. Eldad’s mom was a gifted visual artist, a painter of great sadnesses, the saddest being the sadness of transience and mortality.
“I really like the rock sound a lot,” Swimps drawled, “but when you get right down to it, I’d have to say that classical music is really my pet peeve,” by which he meant that he loved classical music most of all, of course, and at which we worked to contain (miraculously) our cannibal laughter. We might have been young and barely educated, but we knew that he had used pet peeve incorrectly, and we were bursting with stifled amusement all of us. Stew’s reaction was to lie on his back under the coffee table and make squawking bird sounds, in each squawk the existential agony of someone who’d rather be anywhere else but in the hellish moment. In the kitchen, Eldad’s father kept banging a bottle on the counter trying to knock the top off, while we were desperately attempting to connect somehow with a clueless dude named Freddy Swimps and maintain straight faces at the same time. Eldad kept running into the kitchen all agitated telling his father to stop banging the god damn fucking bottle already. Eldad would return to the living room with exasperated countenance, and two minutes later the banging would recommence.
This Swimps character went on to explain with grandiloquent posture, “And now that I’m your producer, you can just go ahead and start calling me Freddy Bear, ’cause that’s my official producer’s name,” something we had no intention of ever doing so long as we all should live.
He then outlined his master plan for us: “Here’s my idea. We’re gonna go into the studio, and it’ll take us about four hours to make the whole album,” and other such nonsense like unto projectile vomiting.
Up to that moment, we had latched, at least a little, onto the lure of wealth and fame, the prospects of a “record company” releasing a Wake album. But suddenly, in the instant it took each of us to realize Freddy Bear didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about, the fantasy vanished. Things got testy when we laid this truth out to him, that he, uh, didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about, and he departed in a a really cornball huff like in a sit-com. Our kishkas had been knocked silly.
What a waste of hope.
That night we stayed up really late talking about that slimy feeling of smelling (and liking the smell of) wealth and fame, even though it was all an illusion. Our collective impulse was to err on the side of integrity, even though it had all been a joke, about as unfunny as Archie Comics.
There’s a lot more to say about The Wake, but those visitations are nesting elsewhere in the continuum.
Until then, here’s how we all ended up:
Viken became a dentist in Southern California.
Ron continues to be a bastion of creativity, written, visual, and musical.
Stew stayed in music, too.
So did Eldad.
And, well, you know who I am
Or you think you do.
Everything must be meaningful.