The words to follow are an account of some of my experiences in the Flint-area punk band The Guilty Bystanders. To the best of my recollection, they are accurate. Others who were there might remember things differently and/or have a different interpretation of events. That’s perfectly fine and for all I know their version might, in fact, be closer to the truth. But this is what happened from my perspective. Should anyone think I’m full of crap, they’re free to write their own version.
WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?
The Story of the Guilty Bystanders 1983-2008
By John S. Vamossy (a.k.a. John O’Cyde)
In writing the story of the Guilty Bystanders, I find myself facing an unexpected problem: I don’t know where to begin. I mean, sure, the band in one sense had a very definite beginning in a second-story bedroom at 307 E. Shiawassee Avenue in Fenton, MI in March 1983, but many things had to happen before that could take place.
How far back should I go?
To the week before when a school friend, Teresa Bigelow, kindly loaned me her bass so I could experiment a bit with it?
To my first “hall show” in November 1982 when I saw an amazing band called “Dead Burnt Bodies” (later to be known as Dissonance) blaze through half a set at a local Teamsters Hall before the person who drove me there had to return home? (That half a set was life-changing to me. It was like the scene in the movie “The Ten Commandments” where Charlton Heston returns from the top of Mount Sinai with gray hair and a dazed look in his eyes. I felt like that for about a week afterward.)
To a chance encounter with a flyer earlier that same year telling of some shows on Flint Public Radio station WFBE that actually played punk rock?
To 1980, when I heard my first Sex Pistols record? (To this day, the vision of my stereo’s analog VU meters pegging all the way to the right as the needle hit the grooves of “God Save the Queen” remains burned in my mind.)
To 1969, when I stood in my backyard next to the bedroom window of my hippy neighbor (later immortalized in the song “Just Like Dennis”) straining to hear him playing cool psychedelic records on his stereo?
Hell, should I go back to 1966 when, as a four-year-old learning to use a record player, I used that newly-acquired skill to immerse my tiny ears in my mom’s cool collection of 1950’s rock 45’s?
I don’t know.
Perhaps, in one sense, such incidents seem trivial and irrelevant to the subject at hand. I am convinced, however, that had even a single of these events not occurred there would have been no Guilty Bystanders. Suffice to say that the aforementioned events did, in fact, take place and The Guilty Bystanders were born as a semi-acoustic (!) duo yelping into an inexpensive Yorx cassette deck.
It just happened, okay? I mean, sure, like I said a bunch of stuff had to happen before then but I’m really too damned lazy to explore that in any detail. And so, for that reason alone, I shall begin the Guilty Bystanders saga in a blue shag-carpeted room overlooking the melting ice of the Fenton Millpond in March 1983…
CHAPTER ONE: In the Beginning – 1983
The Fenton in which I was raised was much different than today’s yuppie-condo-saturated version. What now are considered “classic Victorian homes” were then just “old houses”. It combined the middle-class pretensions of Grand Blanc with the redneck reality of Burton. It was little more than a micromismanaged wannabe police state: ugly in a bizarrely sweet way. It was white, nominally Christian, suburban and conformist.
Although on a map this antiseptic suburb was a mere twenty miles from Flint and its emerging underground music scene, for those growing up there it may as well have been a hundred times that distance. Anyone with a desire to seek out music which departed from the banal “Xerock” force-fed us by the local 1980’s commercial radio stations had to do so in isolation. There was no Fenton “scene” and no way for the Fenton alternative music lovers to find each other aside from mere chance. For that reason, it’s not surprising that the only other person I knew at the time with anything resembling a cool taste in music was my own brother Steve.
We already had a beat-up Sears acoustic guitar on which we learned to bash out a few basic chords. Although we didn’t know it at the time, we were a band already waiting to happen. All we needed was a bass and an excuse to write a few songs. As I mentioned earlier, the bass was supplied by Teresa Bigelow, a friend I knew from my days at Fenton High School. I still recall that the large red off-brand bass didn’t have a case, so I wore it over my shoulder on the two mile trek back to my house. I felt like a rock god.
As soon as I got home, I sat in front of my brother’s Yorx cassette deck and got ready to record a few experimental bits with bass & guitar overdubbed. Although the audio quality of that deck was substandard, its dual-deck design was such that overdubbing was ridiculously simple: all one needed to do was to plug things into the microphone inputs while dubbing the original tape onto the second tape. Voila! Instant overdub!
When deciding which song I should attempt recording first, the choice was a simple one: a rendition of “Should I Stay or Should I Go” from The Clash’s “Combat Rock” album. This particular choice was not simply because the song was popular at the time, but also (and mostly) because it had a basic guitar and bass line simple enough even for my very limited talents. After some fiddling, I managed to produce a passable – if uninspiring – version of that song. That was nice, I thought, but I wanted to do more. Before proceeding, I played the results of my work to Steve. He listened politely, but didn’t seem too impressed.
We decided to work on a project together. By that time, I was thoroughly bored with the Clash number so something new was in order… but what? Well, at the time PiL’s “Metal Box” was (and still is!) one of my favorite albums, with its heavy repetitious bass, sparse drums and… well… “weird” guitar. Thus influenced, I came up with a suitable plodding and repetitious bass line. Handing the bass over to Steve, he repeated it over and over while I dinked around on the guitar. I had originally attempted some avant-garde guitar noise, but the hopelessly cheap acoustic guitar combined with my musical incompetence convinced me to abandon that course in favor of good old slammed-out chords.
So far, so good. But just repeating that over and over was kinda boring. Hmmm… how ‘bout a change we thought at the same time. After coming up with something based on the few chords I knew, we had the skeleton of a workable song. But something was wrong. What was intended to be a radical PiL-influenced tune had, by our absolute musical ineptitude, ended up sounding like a goddamned country song! Inspired by nothing as much as impatience to record an actual original song, I resigned myself to fate and scribbled some quick lyrics describing my impression of followers of that particular musical genre. Within several minutes, the song “Shithead” was born. I rolled the tape. The date was March 20, 1983. At that moment, The Guilty Bystanders sputtered into existence.
When we played the tape back, we felt as though we’d really accomplished something. True, it wasn’t the first song I’d written. I’d penned a few acoustic tunes for a short-lived group called the Country Losers a couple years earlier, but somehow this seemed different. The thrill of creating a song where none had existed before was addicting. We wanted more. And so, for the next few days, we wrote and recorded six more songs, including “Goin’ South”, yet another tribute to our Southern brethren, and “Apathy Song”, recorded around midnight after one of the strings on the acoustic guitar broke. (We had no replacement. Considering our level of musicianship at the time, however, this was not a setback.)
So there we were. Seven songs were recorded. Now what? Again, the answer was simple. There was a weekly radio show called “Take No Prisoners” on WFBE hosted by Ben Hamper and Jim McDonald. They played all sorts of noisy and strange stuff. On any given program, one was as likely to hear the Dead Kennedys as Annette Funicello. Best of all, they had been known to play local music from time to time. This was our chance! But what would we call ourselves? I suggested “John O’Cyde and the Guilty Bystanders” I would be John O’Cyde. Steve objected. He didn’t want me getting top billing. Very well, then. How ‘bout just the Guilty Bystanders? Agreed.
Funny thing, though. Even though the first suggested band name was withdrawn immediately upon Steve’s veto, he has complained about it ever since. Over a quarter-century of griping over a name that was seriously considered for about a quarter of a minute. Little brothers can be so annoying.
Anyhow, Steve then adopted the moniker “Captain Crunch”, we dubbed the seven songs onto a cassette, enclosed a letter and on April 12, 1983 we sent the tape to WFBE. Then the waiting began.
I have often thought back on that time and am convinced that had Ben and Jim hated that tape the Guilty Bystanders would have ended then and there. Luckily – or unfortunately – depending on your opinion of our musical endeavors, they seemed to like it. Ben’s reaction to that first cassette was recorded in a local fanzine (I was about to write “short-lived” local fanzine, but that’s redundant) called the “Scam”. He described the experience as follows:
“I rushed the cassette home to examine over many tall cans of Budweiser. The tape was obviously a low budget creation, hissing & groaning & crackling through the speakers like some outtake of ‘Paul Revere and the Raiders Play the Urinals at Candlestick Park’. The bass guitar lurched around the room like drunken thunder. The guitar was acoustic (!!!) & sounded hopelessly buried behind walls of drone. The percussion seemed to be two curtain rods snapping on top of Styrofoam coolers. The angry vocals rumbled right on over this chaos alternating between a teenage drawl and a phlegm-coated screech.
The more beer I drank, the better this mean chunk of spaz-wail sounded. Indeed, what we had here was truly a snarly rumpus that stood alone, owing nothing to no one, a gurgling swampwater garage wrath spat forth from the restless souls of two unassuming high school punks who wallowed in their own incompetence & celebrated their own miserable shortcomings… I wouldn’t trade this tape for the whole Columbia Records catalogue.”
Graced with such a favorable reaction, we got our first bit of airplay (“Apathy Song”) on April 15th, 1983. Steve and I were overjoyed. Hearing ourselves on the radio was cool as hell and we wanted more of it. What followed was perhaps the most insanely productive month in the history of the band.
Spurred on by that single instance of airplay, Steve and I pooled our meager resources and bought a $90 bass at a Flint pawn shop. In addition to procuring our own bass, we also managed to expand our line-up, adding a guitar player. I had first been told about Steve Newlin by Al Staydt, a mutual friend. Al knew my musical taste and when he told me about some guy who actually owned Flipper’s “Generic” album and Black Flag’s “Damaged” disc, well, I figured he just had to be cool.
So, back in 1982 he took me over to his house so we could finally get together. I’ll never forget that first meeting. It was on a night in late August. I was hanging out at Al’s place which was about a mile and a half from Steve’s. The evening air was quite chilly despite the warm afternoon so I had nothing warm to wear. All we could do was improvise. And so we managed to find a dorky-looking baby-blue plaid polyester leisure suit jacket – about five sizes too large – stuffed in the back of a closet. I looked like a fool, but at least it kept me warm.
We set out walking down the dirt roads south of Fenton to meet Steve. We soon arrived, knocked on his back sliding glass doors and were greeted by a wavy-haired tall and somewhat pudgy figure wearing a khaki green T-shirt on which “The Clash” was hand-painted in red. True to form, he was playing some punker-type stuff on his turntable and was very familiar with the current happenings in the world of cool music. I left quite impressed. Given my attire, however, I’m not sure the feeling was mutual. We stayed in touch over the next few months, however, during which time he began playing with a couple people he knew (Rick Anderson – who in later years would be a member of the legendary Flint-area band The Need – played bass and Andy Wheat was on drums) in a band first known as Black Vomit, then Tom, Dick & Harry and the Kamikazes, then Shades of Black and finally, The Roakers.
As soon as Apathy Song got airplay, we asked Steve if he’d like to join us on guitar. He answered in the affirmative, adopting the name Jonathan Decay, which was in turn soon changed to Major Disappointment. Whatever Steve lacked in musical ability was more than compensated by ambition and enthusiasm. Actually, at that point, I was a better guitar player than he was… a situation which would quickly and dramatically change.
In order to fill up the lineup, we talked Al Staydt into providing some percussion – “drumming” would be an inaccurate word, not only because we weren’t using real drums at the time – instead getting by with toy versions with paper heads - but also because Al (going under the assumed name “Socialist 4”) was musically inept – even by our abysmal standards. But in spite of (or perhaps because of) our incompetence, we plowed ahead, writing and recording tunes at a furious pace. In a few weeks the four of us had put together in the back room of 307 an eight-song effort which we entitled “Desperate Comeback Attempt” which we sent to Take No Prisoners on May 11, 1983.
The audio quality on this second tape was still abysmal but it featured some actual electric guitars and attempts at some faster songs. Some of them, such as “A Penny for Your Thoughtlessness” were utterly forgettable. Others, such as the Steve Newlin-penned anti-Reagan, anti-war, anti-everything tune “Sleep” earned a hallowed place in Bystanderdom… although Newlin himself can’t stand it. Another love/hate musical relationship was spawned by “Puppy Chow”, in which I dusted off my accordion (yes, I was an accordion geek in my younger days) for a song about microwaving and munching on Fido after he becomes roadkill. My brother hated it. Naturally, it got TNP airplay.
Finally, that tape featured an infamous song – inspired by an overenthusiastic video game player in the lobby of Showcase Cinemas in Burton. His entire body was involved in the game: jerks, head bobs and… uh… rather “suggestive” pelvic thrusts. THIS was song fodder! “I Wanna Fuck Ms. Pac-Man” was born. We were pleased when “Puppy Chow” and “Sleep” received some airplay. More incentive to continue.
After our second tape was completed, Al took off for a more promising career in the Air Force. We continued as a three-piece, with Steve Newlin taking over sole guitar (ir)responsibilities and me banging on a battered pawn shop snare drum. We moved our base of operations from our house to Steve Newlin’s basement. We spent much of that spring and summer practicing our music, ordering pizza, feeding Doritos to Steve’s dog Clumper and watching bad Kung-Fu movies on late-night TV. Ah! I remember those as some great times! Like they say, you shoulda been there!
Things were a bit more casual music-wise as well, since it took the three of us just over two months to complete our third opus, the seven-song “Slightly Original Garbage”, which we sent to WFBE on July 13, 1983. As with the previous tape there were some unremarkable tunes (“Tirade”, “MTV”) and some that a few people seemed to like (“PiL Ripoff #2”, “White House Zombie”, “Let’s Beat Up on Gandhi”) but the one song from that tape which had the most impact in Bystanderland featured no instruments save for some tapped-out percussion, a squeaky chair and my brother Steve on comb & paper. That song was “Presidential Aids”. I don’t suppose it was the first song written about the AIDS crisis, but I do recall having to explain what the disease was to several people when we first played it for them. Presidential Aids has been misunderstood by some. The intent was to ridicule the stereotypes surrounding the disease by exaggerating them to absurd proportions. I’ll be the first to admit the “humor” employed was rather sick, but that’s just my personality, I guess. Some loved the song; some hated it. My feelings on this subject are perhaps summed up best by Franklin Schaffner, a pioneer director of television dramas. When told one of his productions might be offensive, Schaffner replied “To offend no one is to stimulate no one.” Amen. At any rate Take No Prisoners played “Presidential Aids” and “Let’s Beat Up on Gandhi”. More airplay, more reason to continue.
By August, we were getting tired of recording on our beat up old “ghetto blaster” and cheap cassette decks. We decided it was time to mosey our butts into a real recording studio. Steve Newlin found one in Pontiac via a classified ad in a Detroit newspaper, There was nothing to recommend it save for a “666” prefix on their telephone number, but heck, for us that was good enough. We made arrangements with the studio guy who told us about the ½” Ampex Grand Master tape we’d need to buy, etc. I saved my money and on the appointed day we went to purchase the tapes. They were so expensive, unfortunately, that we only had enough cash left over for about two hours of recording time. B.R.O. Studios was run by a couple of long-haired “heavy metal” types in a Pontiac garage. Their audio setup was quite impressive and they seemed nice enough, so we were ready to lay down some heavy tracks. After all, we’d been on the RADIO. We were on the brink of major FAME, right?
For the first time, Steve and Steve got to play through real amps. (Up to that point, we’d just been plugging things into stereo systems or whatever we could rig-up to make noise.) Then the time came for me to adjust the drum sound. One of the metal guys directed me to a booth containing the “drum set from hell”. To me, used to merely banging-out percussion on a snare drum, it looked like there were 4,000 different drums, cymbals and percussion doo-dads.
“Do you need to change the set-up of the kit?” asked the metal guy.
“No. This’ll be fine”, I replied.
The metal guy told me to put on a pair of headphones and closed the door to the drum booth behind him as he went to the control room.
“Okay, give me your snare sound”, came a voice through the headphones.
“Okay, roll through your rack toms”, he requested.
I looked at the huge drumkit, absolutely clueless as to what the hell he was talking about.
“Which are the rack toms?” I asked sheepishly into one of the dozen microphones in the booth.
“Uh… the middle ones”, replied the Voice in the Headphones.
“Oh”, I said. “I won’t be using those.”
The headphones were silent for a few seconds.
“Not at ALL?” the Voice finally asked.
“Well… okay. Whatever. Give me your kick drum sound.”
“Uh… I won’t be using that, either,” I replied, suddenly feeling a bit self-conscious.
“Oh”, said the Voice. “Um… so what else WILL you be using?”
“This one on the floor. I think it’s called a floor tom.”
“Okay. Give me a level.”
And I did.
“Will you be using any cymbals?” asked The Voice.
“Uh… sure. How ‘bout this middle one?”
And so it continued until we’d managed to get all the levels set.
“Okay. I think we’re ready to roll tape,” one of the Heavy Metal guys finally said. “What’s the first song you’ll be doing?”
“Dancing Barefoot on Razor Blades”, came our reply.
The two Metal guys stared at each other. “Uh… okay.”
Anyways, at the end of a couple hours, we’d managed to record and get rough mixes of two songs: the aforementioned one and one my brother Steve penned entitled “Acid Rain”. At the end of the session we drove back to Fenton with our confidence and our wallets considerably drained. The two recordings were heard by no more than a handful of people. The 8-channel master was later recorded over. To my knowledge, the only existing copy of that day’s proceedings is a low-quality third-generation cassette copy. This is no great loss, trust me. [NOTE: since originally writing that, I found the first generation cassette copy that was dubbed at the studio. This is no great find, trust me.]
Among the many lessons learned that August day were that we needed a real drummer if we really wanted to improve our sound. I simply wasn’t good enough. As if on cue, Dave Bosak entered the scene. To describe Dave accurately is hardly possible, but I suppose an attempt should be made. He was a friendly long-haired casual type. He was one of those people who was extremely cool without trying to be. He was Tao incarnate. My brother and I were once with him when a summer cloudburst struck. Steve and I ran for shelter. Dave ran out into the pouring rain dancing, laughing and expressing pure joy. Though he seemed to prefer VanHalen to the Dead Kennedys, this was compensated for by the fact that he could, in Ben Hamper’s words, “drum like his ass was on fire”.
The first time we practiced with him drumming, we were amazed at the difference it made in our sound. Our existing songs were given more drive and the way we would approach writing new ones would also change, taking into account the new possibilities opened up by having a real drummer. The lyrical matter for this new material was as influenced by world events as the musical style was influenced by Dave’s presence.
In the latter half of 1983, the news was dominated by the US invasion of Grenada, an increasingly vociferous anti-nuclear arms movement and the bombing deaths of hundreds of US Marines in a Lebanon “peace keeping” mission nobody really seemed to understand. Consequently, our new batch of songs were the most politically-charged in our short history. Songs like “I Don’t Wanna be 18 No More”, “USA/USSR”, “Déjà Vu” and “Beirut Was a Blast” were angry, loud and uncompromising. Unfortunately, they were also so content-specific they are now badly dated and irrelevant (save to some incredibly bored social-historian types, I s’pose).
All I know is that at the time we had real drums and we were beginning to sound like a real band. We recorded these new noisefests in remarkably low-fidelity audio and gave the 8-song cassette (entitled “If You Can’t Do it Right, Do it Wrong”) to Ben on December 7, 1983. In typical Take No Prisoners style, the one song to get airplay was the goofiest one on the tape – our Las Vegas-style reworking of the old Troggs standard “Wild Thing”.
We closed 1983 with one final assault on the WFBE listening audience: a Christmas tune entitled “Have a Merry Christmas or We’ll Beat You Up”. TNP played it on their December 23rd Christmas show. Ben and Jim described the song on the air as the best thing we’d ever written. 1983 had been a fun year for us. We had every reason to expect exciting developments in 1984. We would not be disappointed.
CHAPTER TWO: You’re Nervous, Aren’t You? – 1984
1984. The year made ominous by George Orwell. To those of us in Flint, the closest things to “Big Brother” controlling the media were the local commercial radio programmers. An amazing explosion was taking place in local rock music with bands like Dissonance, Dachau Club and Generic Society producing brilliant original music, but commercial radio nary acknowledged its existence. Those who were around “way back when” have told me of a time back in the 1960’s when commercial radio would actually take a chance on local bands, playing their singles and getting them exposure. Those days were long gone.
If we wanted to reach more people than those die-hard “Take No Prisoners” fans, we would have to start playing live. Fortunately, at that point, there was no reason we couldn’t. We had written enough songs to perform a set. We had a drummer and we had even practiced enough to get through our material without screwing up too much. And so, after much asking around at local hall shows, we finally were given a chance to play live. We couldn’t wait! The date of the big debut was to be Friday, March 2, 1984,
We practiced and recorded two songs for WFBE’s “Alternatives” program, which was helping to promote the show. One was a reworked version of “PiL Ripoff #2” and the other was a new song entitled “We All Lose (When We Fight)”, a call to all the Flint bands to work together to build a successful “scene” rather than to succumb to petty squabbling. Ironically, though, this show was to be a “Battle of the Bands”. So much for cooperation, it seemed.
After what seemed an eternity, the momentous night arrived. We showed up at the Kishma Grotto Hall on Judd Road in Burton. We were ready, save for one thing: Steve and Steve still had no amps to play through. My brother was quickly able to borrow a bass amp from one of the other bands, but Steve Newlin had no luck securing a guitar amp. Our scheduled set time was drawing maddeningly near. At 45 minutes to showtime, we were desperate. We wanted to play live and dammit, nothing was going to stop us. I hopped into my 1974 Mercury Monterey and took off toward Fenton at a speed I shall not reveal on grounds it may incriminate me.
If we couldn’t get a guitar amp, I figured, I’d just pick up my Sanyo stereo, plug Steve’s guitar into a microphone input, hit the pause, record and play buttons on the cassette deck and crank the damned thing up as loud as it would go, hoping to hell it would work. As soon as I arrived home, I jumped out of my car only to see my father standing outside the door. “Steve just called,” he said. “They found a guitar amp. They want you back as soon as possible, because you’re on next.” I rushed back to the Kishma Grotto. Sure enough, we were about to go on. Steve and Steve were working on sound levels and Dave was getting his drums in order. One of the members of another band came up to me.
“Are you the singer?” he asked.
“Well, ‘singer’ might be too kind a word,” I replied, “but yeah, that’s me.”
“Okay, you’ll be using my microphone. Make sure your mouth doesn’t touch it. I have herpes,” he said matter-of-factly. Welcome to the world of rock & roll!
We had asked Ben Hamper to introduce us. At the appointed time, he came to the front of the hall, looked at us and remarked “You’re nervous, aren’t you?” At that point, we certainly were. After Ben’s introductory words, we banged out the first chords of “I Wanna Fuck Ms. Pac Man” and for the next 40 minutes or so we gloried in the dream of every red-blooded American who ever plugged-in a guitar. Better yet, the crowd there seemed to like us. I don’t remember how many were there exactly, but I think it was just over 100 or so. I had a “ghetto blaster” tape recorder rolling during that debut show, but that tape has been lost for many years and no other copies exist. I have, however, heard tales to the effect that somebody videotaped that show. [NOTE: if anyone out there can produce a copy of this mysterious tape, I will make it worth your while… $$$!].
At the end of the night, after all the bands had played, the audience members were to vote for the winning band. Four of Steve Newlin’s relatives left after our set, but handed their voting forms to Steve, instructing him to cast their votes for us. Steve dutifully fulfilled their request. When those counting the ballots encountered four identically-folded ballot forms, each with “Guilty Bystanders” written in purple ink in Steve’s distinctive handwriting, the suspicion was sufficient to have those votes nullified. This adjustment to the final tally put us in second place – by two votes.
Although I suppose such an incident would cause some bitterness for some, a small amount of introspection has led me to conclude that although we might squirm out of a charge of ballot box stuffing on technical grounds, filling the hall with biased aunts, uncles and cousins isn’t too much higher on the scale of musical ethics. Well, shit… maybe THAT’S why we were never famous. We’re just not coldly Machiavellian enough. At any rate, at the end of the evening we had live show experience, people had heard us and – most importantly – we had a good time. We were ready for more. We soon got it. Save for an awkward drummerless mini-set as a threesome in someone’s basement on March 17th, our next set was at a place I never thought we’d play: Wild Bill’s.
[I’d like to digress at this point to mention that around this time we attended a live show at 909 Detroit Street in Flint. The headlining act was The Crucifucks. They played in a living room filled with hyper punk rockers. It was by far the greatest rock performance I had ever seen in my life. Although their recordings are great and their later live performances were okay, The Crucifucks in their prime were mind-meltingly incredible. I know saying “it can’t be described, you had to BE there” always sounds like a copout by someone with only a small arsenal of adjectives… but in this case – trust me – it’s the absolute truth. I STILL get excited just thinking about that show! Okay, sorry for the interruption. Back to the story…]
It seems that that Flint establishment had started booking local punk bands as an experiment. Having seen the large crowds that bands like Dissonance were attracting, they started booking more. One of the bands booked was Generic Society. They were scheduled for a gig on April 1, 1984, and they needed an opening band. After some asking around Ben Hamper recommended us to them. They called us and we agreed to open. We were quite excited by the prospect. Not only was Wild Bill’s a “real” place to play, but we were familiar with Generic Society, having seen them a few months earlier at a hall show at the National Guard Armory in Flint. This was gonna be cool! When the 1st arrived, we brought our instruments and gear… including my trusty “ghetto blaster”.
The set-up was rather intimidating. There were real PA speakers, a real stage and a real headlining band with actual talent and live experience. I was a nervous wreck. Luckily, our neighbors to the north helped calm my fears. As we were going through our sound check, the disembodied strains of “O Canada” started bleeding through the sound system.
“What the hell is THAT?”, asked the sound guy.
Wanting to show off my knowledge of international broadcasting (listening to shortwave is one of my hobbies, y’see) I replied “That’s Radio Canada International.”
“But where’s it COMING from?” asked the frustrated sound guy as he twiddled knobs and dials trying to isolate the problem.
“Uh… I think Montreal”, came my smartass reply. That got a laugh out of everyone, which seemed to ease the tension a bit.
At last we got to play. If the sound system at the Kishma Grotto debut show was adequate, the Wild Bill’s system was awesome. And the guy behind the soundboard knew his stuff. There was only one minor problem: we were supposed to play two one-hour sets. Unfortunately, we only had about 35 minutes of useable material. We cheated by repeating some of the songs: playing them once in each set. We also didn’t quite play a full hour. C’est la vie. We started things off with “Have a Happy April Fool’s or we’ll Beat You Up”. (I TOLD you we were trying to stretch out all our available material!). To my surprise, the crowd was very receptive. Like… clapping and CHEERING and stuff! Well, damn! This was REALLY cool! As the set continued, the reaction increasingly improved.
Despite this, I kept apologizing between songs. I did this to the point where, while I took a short trip to grab a quick drink while the rest of the guys played an instrumental (“Surfing on the Flint River”) someone came up to me and yelled “Stop apologizing! You guys are doing great!” So when I went back on stage I handled the situation by apologizing for my apologizing.
Actually, though, there was a reason I took (and sometimes still take) a rather less-than-charitable attitude to our own musical endeavors. That reason: Cognito. Cognito was a band that played around Fenton in the very early 1980’s. They played mostly covers along with a few originals which may as well have been covers. (One example: a song called “Rock and Roll” with an actual line that went something like “I wanna rock! I wanna rock and roll!”) And before anyone accuses me of hypocrisy since I helped pen “Outta Control, Flint Rock & Roll” I should point out that Outta Control was at least intended as a joke. Cognito was unnervingly serious. They thought they were on their way to becoming the greatest band in the universe. And they didn’t mind reminding the audience of that fact. Constantly. (Sample banter: “That song was called ‘Big Time’… and we will be there SOON!”). I found that so nauseating that I never missed a chance to do the complete opposite at our shows. We sucked and we didn’t CARE if we sucked! We were having fun and if other people could have fun as well, that was great! Hey, it’s just rock & roll… it ain’t saving the world.
Anyway, despite my apologies, by the end of the night people were coming up to the stage and singing along with the choruses. We ended with “Presidential Aids” and – although we played to only a few dozen people, we felt as though we’d conquered the world. Later, as we listened to the ghetto blaster recording of the Wild Bill’s show, we were surprised at how good it sounded. It wasn’t quite studio quality, perhaps, but it sure sounded better than the stuff we were recording in Steve’s basement. The more we listened to it, the more we began to wonder whether we might be able to do something with it.
We soon were talking to Doug Earp, the ever-mellow head honcho of Wyatt Earp Records. How does one describe Doug Earp? Well… according to Doug himself, he had actually achieved a degree in dentistry from the University of Michigan during the 1960’s, but decided to burn his diploma in one of those 60’s “it sure made sense at the time” protests. Personally, I think it had more to do with the fact that he finally decided looking into people’s mouths for the rest of his life would kinda suck, no matter HOW much the job paid. Selling rock records, on the other hand, would be a hell of a lot more fun. That pretty much sums up Doug. He just kinda decided to follow his own dream and to hell with what anybody else thought. I’m damned glad he decided to barbecue his dental degree. Hell, the world is full of dentists, but there was only one Doug Earp!
Just how important was Doug to the Flint music scene? Well, how important is Jesus to Christianity? How important is decomposition to death metal? How important are recreational drugs to Keith Richards? Well, multiply that by about ten and – in my opinion, at least – you’ll have the answer. Doug was vital to the Flint music scene because he went out of his way to support the music. He let local bands put up flyers and sell their tapes and records without loads of red tape or bureaucratic bullshit. The area chain record stores, on the other hand, wouldn’t even allow us to drop off a few flyers for upcoming hall shows. There are a small number of people without whom the Flint music scene would not have taken off. Doug Earp was one of them. Thanks, Doug!
Anyways, before long we had dubbed a few copies of the “Live at Wild Bill’s” cassette and Doug offered them for sale. Our first batch of ten tapes sold out quickly. Damn!, we thought. Who wants to hear US? Oh, well… we made ten more copies. Those sold out as well. We then made nine more before the original tape snapped and we were unable to make more. These, too, sold out. And so, our first live tape was “out there” in an unplanned limited edition of 29 copies. The strange thing was although they sold, we didn’t know to whom or whether or not they liked it. We would have to wait for more live shows in order to find out. This would prove more difficult than we’d hoped, however, for not all was well in Bystanderland.
Dave had a casual attitude toward everything, it seemed, practices and punctuality included. When he habitually arrived for practices a half-hour late, the remaining three of us cleverly (or so we thought) conspired to give Dave a practice time 30-minutes earlier than actually anticipated. Almost as though he sensed the ruse, he began showing up an hour after the time we had given him. In addition, he seemed unable to attend more of our live shows. At one, a second show at Wild Bill’s, Phil Hines of Dissonance sat in at the last minute, drumming an excellent set.
Finally, after playing a drummerless set at a house party at Phil & Tanya’s (the drummer and bassist of Dissonance, respectively) in May 1984, we decided that although Dave was a terrific drummer, we needed someone a bit more reliable. One of the other bands playing in the basement that night was a young, spirited band known as Bloody Coup. After their set, we got talking with them. We finally pulled their drummer aside and popped the question: would he be willing to drum for us?
“Sure”, was his reply.
And that was about it. The new guy’s name was Dave, too. I’ll just call him New Dave. I won’t reveal his full name for reasons that will become evident as this narrative unfolds. New Dave didn’t say much. I attributed this to initial shyness or something, but as time went on New Dave STILL didn’t say much. I found this rather disconcerting, but I figured if he could drum and show up for practices and shows that was good enough.
Before long, New Dave had learned enough material for us to perform a live set and in the fall of 1984 the new lineup played at Prospect Hall, a VERY small place with dead acoustics. But hey, it was a place to play, so we weren’t complaining. In addition to a new drummer, Steve and Steve were also playing, for the first time, through their own amps, picked up at local pawn shops. It was at that show we learned the importance of having a tape released, for as soon as the first chord was ground out, the audience was fanatically responsive. The crowd was cheering wildly, singing along with choruses and generally seeming to have a good time. It was clear many of them were familiar with the material… and I could only assume the Live at Wild Bill’s tape was responsible. It was also at this show that I learned audience response is not always related to the quality of the performance.
Despite the enthusiastic applause, our playing sucked even by our mediocre standards. Steve Newlin’s amp was acting up, sounding like an army of aluminum yellow jackets. New Dave was having a hard time catching on to the rhythms and I kept forgetting extended lyric bits. Strings broke… it was awful. And the audience kept yelling like we were rock gods. It was a strange experience. Over the next few months, we worked on new material and played a few hall shows. Then, in August, we were asked to record a set at WFBE. Needless to say, we jumped at the chance.
On a Sunday afternoon, the four of us arrived at the studios of WFBE and recorded seven songs with radio engineer Kenny Roberts at the dials. Six of the songs were new and two of them “She Only Loves Me When She’s Stoned” and “Fenton Sucks” (a not-so-loving rebuke to the snobbery of our hometown) were destined for the infamous annals of Guilty Bystanders notoriety. In addition to the recording session, my brother and I were interviewed by Ben the following Friday for an episode of “Take No Prisoners”. In that week, we got more exposure than ever before. Not only did our interview and two songs from the recording session air on “Take No Prisoners”, but Barry Aleck played four more of the newly-recorded songs on his “Alternatives” program. This was getting to be cool!
As the weeks went by, we played more shows. At one, a Halloween show in the basement of a closed shoe store in downtown Flint, I dressed as a Republican (the most frightening thing I could think of at the time). As I sang in my three-piece suit and huge election-eve “Re-elect Reagan” campaign button I was pelted with abuse from some of the punkers in the audience for whom the “Halloween costume = joke” concept proved a bit too complex for their feeble intellects.
Another show from around that time took place – or, I should more correctly state SHOULD have taken place at the Rankin Rental hall. A local teenager, Kristen Michaelson, had invested her own time and money to organize a hall show there. Things started out well. Our fellow Fenton band The Roakers played their debut live set that night, followed by Grand Blanc’s Shocking Grasp (later Dark Reality) also making their debut performance. After Shocking Grasp’s set, their guitarist Chris McNichol came up to me, pointing out a hideous gash on the back of his hand.
“Holy shit!” I exclaimed. “What the hell happened?”
“I cut it,” he replied with a strangely unconcerned smile.
“I can see that!” I responded. “But how? Did you catch it on the bridge of your guitar or something?”
“No, I cut it on PURPOSE”, he explained. “That way I’ll have a souvenir of our first show.”
“Ummm…oh.” There wasn’t much more I could say.
But I digress.
The next band up was Prep Militia, a synth-based danceable sorta band. Suddenly, in the middle of their set, a couple Mundy Township cops burst in and started checking around the hall… looking inside people’s purses and personal belongings without so much as asking permission. They grabbed my bag off a nearby table, shining a flashlight into it and then tossing it aside. Though I had nothing to hide – the bag merely contained spare batteries for a ghetto blaster I was using to record the show – I was pretty pissed-off by the cops’ attitude. I’m not a legal expert and I don’t know whether they had any legal justification for doing what they were doing, but dammit, we were just trying to have a good time and they were just being rude jerks.
Throughout the show Kristen had made it plain that no alcohol would be allowed on the premises. During the entire evening, I saw nobody drinking anything stronger than Coca-Cola. And yet – a bit too conveniently, it seemed to me – they produced a single dust-covered bottle of Michelob from a back room… a room that nobody was even using! That was it. The cops were closing down the show. Though some people stereotype synth bands as spineless art-wimps, Prep Militia shattered that illusion.
“We’re not leaving!” the vocalist defiantly announced. The band forcefully kicked into their next song.
The cops countered by announcing if the hall was not cleared in two minutes, they were hauling Kristen off to jail. The bastards had called our bluff. As stupid and unjustified as their actions were, and regardless of our anger, nobody wanted to see an innocent person get dragged off to the slammer. As we hauled our equipment out into the parking lot, the word went around that the show was being moved to Kristen’s house, located a few miles away. As we were the only band which hadn’t played yet, we were invited to set up and perform a set in the basement. We gladly agreed.
That basement set was one of the most memorable we’ve ever done. Although musically we were a bit sloppy, we were glad to be playing despite the best efforts of the Mundy Township cops to stop our fun. About half the basement crowd enthusiastically received our performance while the other half sat at the other end of the basement watching MTV on a giant-screen TV.
“There’s a live band fifteen feet away from you!” one of the people watching exclaimed. “Why the hell are you watching TV? What a bunch of poseurs!”
Two months later, one of those MTV-gazing poseurs sent me a letter. She signed it “Ms. Pac Man”. I later married her.
CHAPTER THREE: Broccoli Rules 1985-1986
In early 1985, I was attending a Political Science class at the University of Michigan-Flint with Gary Mueller, the bass player of Generic Society, a band which had recently broken up. One of that band’s final acts, however, was to put out a wonderful 90-minute tape chronicling their short but prolific career.
That tape had brought me many hours of enjoyment as I worked the night shift cleaning floors at the VG’s Supermarket in Fenton. Although, like most of the Guilty Bystanders recordings, the Generic Society tape was a do-it-yourself project, they had managed to achieve a much higher sound quality than we had. I asked Gary how they’d managed to achieve such good sound quality from home equipment. It turned out they were simply running everything into a 16-channel mixing board and putting its output directly into a 2-channel cassette deck.
To be continued...