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MaximumRocknRoll Column about Bobby Joe

topic posted Mon, April 10, 2006 - 11:41 AM by  Professor
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This is John Geek's latest column, "NO", for MRR. Check it out...


Maximum Rock n' Roll magazine is infamous for having a goodly clutch of columnists who frequently write about their own bands. I don't see a problem with this, as much of the magazine is dedicated to giving hoary old punks a place to sound off, many of whom were in great hoary old punk bands who enjoyed (*ahem*) somewhat limited distribution of their often-seminal works. Widespread, multi-generational dissemination of culture (including punk culture) in our society requires making it into a product, which takes money and infrastructure, yet many amazing pieces of art have been made by people with minimal budgets and no organizational/social skills. Assuring the longevity and availability of some damn good/radical music and ideas often necessitates a version of punk history written from the perspective of its immediate participants, and this first-person method of storytelling is as much a part of punk as the music itself - after all, the whole crux of 'Do It Yourself' is that you don't need some top-down (economic) validation from long-established scenester tastemakers in order to loudly say what you have to say. MRR is one organ of this tastemaking apparatus, and while it is tenacious (some would say downright viral) in its attempts to represent a wide swath of often-obscure punk music and culture, it has been (and is) necessarily limited by the particular tastes and ethics of its all-volunteer staff.

I have been lucky, in the past six years, to have been in a band (Fleshies) that has enjoyed a goodly amount of support and validation from "punk tastemakers" ranging from MRR to Alternative Tentacles recordings to, on the more corporate side, Green Day's Adeline Records (who we are no longer affiliated with in the wake of the label's absorption into the Warner Music Group). The fact that Fleshies sell approximately 6 records a year doesn't seem to change this support, which has been relatively unconditional and much appreciated. We don't get paid a dime, but our records do come out (on vinyl as well as CD) and seem as though they will remain available for the forseeable future. On top of all this, I get the bronze opportunity to be one of these hoary old punks sounding off every month in an MRR column.

A major reason for this state of affairs, however, actually stems from my involvement in an older scenester-ignored and/or reviled (for 90% of its existence) anomaly of a band with the ridiculous name of Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children MacNuggits (1994-2000), in which I sang high-pitched backup vocals and talked a lot of shit. Bobby Joe Ebola was so deliberately caustic, so confrontational and assaultive, that Fleshies (which has been described using those same adjectives) is quickly revealed, in comparison, as the punk rock traditionalist comfort music it started out to be. Bobby Joe Ebola was a reaction to growing up in oil refinery-ringed suburbs degraded into multiethnic ghettos, rife with desperation and ridiculous madness both calculated and unhinged, and the end result was often pretty damned scary while remaining hilarious. The laughter was unavoidable, uncomfortable, and often cut deep in both the audience and the band itself.

We would escape to Gilman Street every weekend, watch decent local bands such as Rancid degenerate into Clash tributes, and roll our eyes back into our heads before retreating to the kitchen of our cheap rented house in Pinole to watch Dan and Corbett write a song about it all. Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children MacNuggits was by far the most punk rock band I have ever, or will ever, play in. This is only compounded by the fact that we would sing songs that, for instance, might sound like Michael Jackson, Bing Crosby, and Celene Dion doing a collaboration with the lyrics "You don't have to die alone/Take someone with you when you go/For there are billions of people/Who don't know what to do/So when you die a violent death/Take them with you". This was the era of the initial punk/pop/rock mainstream explosion, the genesis of boy bands such as AFI and the Murder City Devils, and the ballooning wee 'punk scene' MTV people had no idea what to do with our bizarre rubbish. We were smart, caustic, deeply unfashionable, homely little shits from the trashy suburbs, and we refused to romance 'the kids' into thinking we were anything but.

In fall 1996, a year and a half before MRR founder Tim Yohannon died, the not-for-profit Smarmy Post-Angst Musicians (S.P.A.M.) record label and Geekfest collective were contacting various zines to advertise our first compilation CD 'If You Can't Laugh At Yourself, We'll Do It For You' (no, we didn't have the $ to put out vinyl). S.P.A.M. and Geekfest had started earlier that year, around El Sobrante/Pinole bands such as Bobby Joe Ebola, the Bob Weirdos, Yellow, Pork and the Spork, and my own early Frank Zappa-ripoff high school band Annulus. We were not allowed to play Gilman (we didn't sound "punk" enough for the bookers at that time), so we set up our own free, all ages shows in illegal public spaces (that was what was available in Contra Costa County) with a bunch of regional bands who were, to varying degrees, outsiders to the now internationally-fashionable East Bay area punk scene. This included weirdos such as Your Mother, the Hope Bombs, Dory Tourette and the Skirtheads (then called 976, until a hardcore band also called 976 beat them up), Los Rabbis, Uberkunst, Slackbone, Erik Core, the Human Beans, Faroke, Schlong, Cope, and a few others. Several of these bands were on the compilation, and we wanted to advertise both that CD and the Bobby Joe Ebola 'Two Cats Running' CD that we had released a couple of months previous. MRR, as any aspiring salesperson of 'punk product' knows, is pretty damned important to advertise in (and get reviewed in) if you want people to know what the hell it is you are doing. As the first head coordinator of S.P.A.M./Geekfest, I spent about 20 minutes on the phone with Tim, who I had seen around at shows but never met, and was told (nicely) that what we were doing was simply not punk, as MRR defined it at the time, and thus not eligible for either review or (paid) advertising. It boiled down to sonics over spirit: regardless to whether what we were doing was 'punk' in concept and execution or not, it simply did not sound enough like what was recognized as 'punk music' to merit inclusion in MRR.

Of course, people who run such projects are more than entitled to set as strict editorial/booking controls as they like, and we were far from the only volunteer-run D.I.Y. entity to be snubbed by MRR and Gilman in this turbulent period (or any period, for that matter). Yet I was really bugged by this, and a big part of that was because I had spent a goodly part of my late adolescence religiously reading MRR and going to shows/volunteering at Gilman Street. The great 90's punk-into-pop crossover made it painfully obvious how many bands were studiously aping financially successful bands who were their predecessors, minus the vitriol and sense of confrontational purpose the original bands possessed before they started getting rich. 'Punk', sonically and fashion-wise, was well on its way to becoming a cottage industry pumping out highly predictable, sanitized product for an increasingly broad market. Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children MacNuggits, whatever designs it may have had on somehow piercing the mainstream, was gloriously incapable of making ANY of the compromises necessary to do so. We weren't stupid, and we weren't unaware of what you had to do, but it just never seemed really possible or even worth it. Our pride in maladjustment ran too damned deep, and if anyone in our circle started to make tenuous steps towards being 'cool' they were very quickly, and forcibly, reminded of just how dorky they actually were. Funny thing is, no one seemed to mind, because we were all having so much fun hosting free, illegal 100-band weeklong camping trips, putting out some REALLY discomforting records, and blazing our own goddamned self-aware trail through the wilderness of trash culture in the roaring mid-late 90s.

Of course, within a few years we all hit our twenties, got sick of El Sobrante/Pinole, and moved to Oakland to be close to where the non-self-created action is. Geekfest/S.P.A.M. became established enough that it developed its own weird/lame 'cool' cachet and collapsed in on itself right before reaching critical mass, buried under a flurry of broken minds, damaged souls, grinding poverty and bad business decisions - after all, it was never really set up right to succeed as 'a business'. By this point, the 'punk scene' (including post-Tim Yo MRR and Gilman Street) had accepted Geekfest/S.P.A.M. as yet another branch in the gnarly (duuude!) tree of punk rock, and in the process it had lost a lot of its soul - and a lot of that may have been my fault, as my sentimental love for punk rock which developed early on became more of a yearning for its acceptance than I ever realized before. This impossible yearning later extended to Corbett (Bobby Joe Ebola singer), who took over as the last head coordinator at S.P.A.M. and became even more painfully "trapped in a world he never made" (to quote Howard The Duck, a comic about an hilarious, angry, and angst-ridden fowl Corbett and I both obsessed over in our childhood).

Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children MacNuggits, however, never blinked or faltered a single step before loudly self-destructing in 2000, though by this point the group had become popular enough to headline a packed Gilman Street. By this point, I had quit the band to concentrate on Fleshies, but not before singing backup vocals on the Bobby Joe Ebola swan song: 'Carmelita Sings: Visions of a Rock Apocalypse'. That album is so jagged and pointy, so critical of our surroundings, so raw and visceral and clearly enunciated (in three-part harmonies, no less), that it is actually somewhat painful to listen to. It's funny, for sure, but it's also a pure expression of discomfort music, or irritainment as Dan (Bobby Joe Ebola guitarist/singer) liked to call it - he certainly would never have called it punk. In Bobby Joe Ebola's gaze no one was safe from attack, from senior citizens to celebrity riot grrls to college students; from parents to shitty bosses to cops; from innocent children to skin cancer victims to those who destroyed the ozone layer; from lonely couch-fuckers to psychedelic doomed turtles to BART commuters to humanity itself.

The point? Punk rock, to me, has a lot more to do with genuine nonconformity, radical art, confrontation, self-determination, and community than it does with what music sounds like or what clothes one is wearing. I am fully aware what a cliche that is (and a painfully obvious one at that), but the fact remains that it needs to be asserted with regularity in the longstanding public institutions of punk (such as MRR) so that we don't become complacent and simply ferment in punk's stinky 30-year old juices, losing our souls in the process. The story of Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children MacNuggits is a history that needs to be written, it needs to be stated, and the band mattered - not just to me, but to a decent number of other people as well. I didn't write the words or music, but I was there and working alongside it most of the way. Looking at it now, six years since its demise, the band definitely stands as the most punk thing I have ever been a part of, and the best stuff from it stands out to me as some of the most "fuck you" music of all time; right alongside the Butthole Surfers' 'PCPEP', Nina Hagen's 'NunSexMonkRock', Devo's song 'Beautiful World', Tom Lehrer's 'That Was The Year That Was', Sly Stone's 'There's a Riot Goin' On', Negativland's 'Christianity Is Stupid', and Frank Zappa/Mothers of Invention's 'We're Only In It For The Money'. If you haven't heard any of these, please sell your Casualties picture disc and your Against Me! limited 7" single and go pick them up. You'll probably regret it, but no one ever said the truth didn't hurt.
posted by:
Professor
SF Bay Area
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  • Re: MaximumRocknRoll Column about Bobby Joe

    Wed, April 12, 2006 - 9:58 PM
    aaay-fucking-men.

    That was one of the glory things about the SPAM scene: a whole bunch of bands all completely geeky and inaccessible and destined for obscurity, but simultaneously all TOTALLY AWESOME and TOTALLY, COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. Bobby Joe provided a mighty jaunty central theme to it all.

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