Photos by Jean Lyons Lotus and Art Haase
It all started when I walked into The Edge Gallery in Villa Park, a suburb of Chicago in 1983. I was looking for some place to show my paintings. There was a young man laboring over a very strange painting of his own inside. His name was Bill Harnden. We started talking. He told me he was in a band called the X-Men, a punk rock band of sorts. They were comprised of a drummer and two guitarists who switched off playing bass. They were interested in finding a full-time bass player. Well, it just so happened that I had played bass in a band the year before that broke up when we all graduated from college and went our separate ways, so I said I would play bass in their band.
We practiced once before we played at a Xmas party in the basement of Bill's parent's house. There was a keg and about twelve people standing around. Things were going fine until we played Salami Torpedo, a song we came up with at the Wag's Restaurant just before the party. It went, "Met a girl and I thought she was neat-o, Stole her from a guy named Guido, Took her out to have a burrito, Then I showed her my Salami Torpedo." Everybody left in a hurry.
Our first real gig was opening for The Bonemen of Barumba (you remember them, right?). It was at this bizarre place called Mr. C's Across the Street, on the far west side on Chicago Ave. several blocks east of Austin Ave. It was an out-of business disco with all the trimmings - mirror balls, velvet couches, wading pools. Most impressive was the huge fluorescent blue swordfish on the wall of the "dressing room." There was a rib joint downstairs and we all had ribs and Champale (you remember Champale, right?) for dinner. People kept diving on the stage and into the drum set while we played. This was a bad thing because there was at least a six foot drop to the floor behind the drum riser.
Mark Mosher (the other guitarist) was trying to tune up his guitar and Bill wouldn't cooperate, soon there was a shoving match that became a fist fight. There was something about tuning that always made Bill really angry. I just remember looking over at Dan Thompson, the drummer, and shaking my head. As soon as we finished playing Mark, who was very drunk, sat down and his head immediately fell back - passed out cold. The only thing I remember about the Bonemen of Barumba was their bass player, Marty, who at one point looked disoriented and grabbed the stage curtain and fell off the front of the stage bringing the curtain down with him. The sound of his crashing on the floor with his bass was really cool. When it was time to leave, there were two friends of ours who needed a ride home. The whole back of the El Camino pickup we came in was filled with equipment so we had to fit five people in the front seat. It took a major feat of contortion and we had just pulled the door shut when the law showed up.
I was apprehensive. It was four in the morning, we were all blasted and I was only one who was of legal drinking age, Mark, who was 17, who had only recently regained consciousness, was sitting in the driver's seat with his huge red mohawk, we had a truckload of music equipment and two fifteen year old girls as passengers, and a seating arrangement that looked like a circus act. Plus, Chicago cops automatically assume that if your a white kid in a totally black neighborhood you must be buying drugs. The cops asked, "What are you doing around here?" over their PA speaker. For some reason, I opened the car door, I guess I figured we were all going to jail so we might as well get it over with. When I got the door open the girl on my lap fell out onto the ground. There was much giggling. We told them we'd just played a show. They just said, "OK, get going."
after this, we played this thing called the "Festival of the Arts" at
the University of Chicago. We played out in a little courtyard between
the lecture halls at noon for a bunch of conservative college students
eating their lunch. In order to put on our best show we felt it our
duty to start drinking at 9 AM. The only people who seemed to enjoy
our show were a man and woman who wandered up with acoustic guitars.
They were members of a band called
Fudgetunnel. The tall, goofy-looking guy with long, greasy blond
hair and the broken Buddy Holly glasses held together with scotch tape
was Russ Forster, the father of Underdog Records. The woman was Jean
Lyons, who went on to found the
Barbie Army. We hit it off immediately. The X-Men and Fudgetunnel
started playing a lot of shows together after that. About a year later,
Russ decided to start a record company with money his family had set
aside for him to go to graduate school. He decided on the name Underdog
and I designed [plug] the fabulous and sublime logo that graces every
Underdog product. He asked us and Friends of Betty if we would like
to put out records on his label. We both said yes. Friends of Betty
was a great band that featured Tim Rutili, who now heads up Red Red
Meat and John Rowan, who is now one of those intergalactic rock stud
playboys known collectively as Urge Overkill. At some point prior to
our big record deal, Dan Thompson, our drummer had quit the X-Men and
joined Material Issue (which he also quit a year later and was last
seen working some dismal music store job on the south side, for those
of you at home keeping score). Mark switched from guitar to drums to
fill the vacancy. Bill and I were sharing an apartment at the time and
one day Bill wanted to make a big pot o' chili and invite a few guests
and have a nice little dinner on a Sunday night. About half way through
our first bowl of chili about 30 or 40 crazed maniacs showed up with
12 packs under their arms. Things just got totally out of control -
beer and food and cigarette butts flying everywhere. At one point, I
walked into my bedroom and some drug fiends had pulled the full-length
mirror off the wall and cut out a three foot long line of coke on it.
The next afternoon, Bill and I were sitting around bleary-eyed in a
national disaster area that had previously been our kitchen. Suddenly,
Jim Ellison, that Material Issue guy shows up in our kitchen, looks
in our sink and yells, "Ugh, you got a bad sponge in here!!!" If only
you could have seen the way he jumped back cringing. It was hilarious.
The cover art for the album was a depiction of the chili party aftermath.
The second record, if there had been one was to be entitled, "The Sponge
Remains the Same." We were convinced that this record was going to be
a big smash. The artwork and the lyric sheet alone are [plug] worth
the price of the record. It's chock full of [plug] wonderful melodies:
The teen angst of Marlborrow Man, the social consciousness of Dance
of the Boxheads/Orange Jubilee, Styrofoam People, The Wallmelter Song,
Fish Eye Man, the ripping social commentary of Dead Man's TV, the surreal
voyage that is Underneath a Bad Sponge, the intellectual prowess of
Go! Born to Skank! was supposed to be the teen anthem for an entire
generation of thankful punk rock kids! What went wrong!!! After about
a thousand drunken shows at a dive known as Batteries Not Included,
Bill got fed up and moved to Memphis to learn to play the 'Blues'. He
returned to Chicago about three months later playing his own er, ah,
...unique brand of the 'blues'. He now entertains this town frequently
as Rockin' Billy with his band,
The Wild Coyotes. Mark Mosher and I went on to form
Spongetunnel with the aforementioned Russ Forster.
The Life and Times of Captain Ronzo
Ron's Music History Corner