Monday, October 1, 2007

"It's My Party, and I'll Kill If I Want To," Or Remembering a Car Ride

My family was crammed into a white four-door sedan, cruising down the interstate and heading for Paradise Hills, a suburb in San Diego close to the border with Tijuana. Paradise Hills is usually left out of the San Diego maps, which tend to highlight hot spots on the beach like Pacific Beach or La Jolla. I lived near La Jolla, over half an hour away by car. My family, which was really a group of friends, most of whom had troubles with their own family and graciously took on their parallel familial roles, headed for John’s house.

John, the dad and driver, slipped an unlabeled CD into the car’s player. We were about to hear a band he had recorded days ago, called Hide And Go Freak. The first song began with a sample of something like an old radio jingle. “Hey everybody! It’s time for show and tell! It’s time for show and tell!”

I’ve always loved music, often more for ideas or odd sounds than disciplined melodies and rhythms. My love began in earnest in 2001, during my sophomore year of high school, the year I joined the family at dinner parties at John's house in Paradise Hills. I abandoned Jimmy Page’s maverick guitar licks almost overnight and turned to indie rock greats like Sebadoh, who recorded their early work on very cheap 4-track tape recorders. I started hanging out at coffee shops around San Diego’s downtown area, haunting performances of thrash-punk bands or random singer songwriters. I spent hours surfing the All Music Guide online, poring over the bios and discographies of Unwound, Helium and the like. I indiscriminately downloaded thousands of mp3s from Kazaa.

I listened to anything. That’s what made John such an ideal source for sounds—he listened to everything. A few weeks before this night, at his house, he explained how Charles Ives once wrote a symphony to be performed across a huge field, each section coming from North or South, East or West. He put on a record by Hugh Le Caine, who manipulated magnetic tape and built some of the first touch-sensitive synthesizers. The first track was a drop of water on a tape spliced into a series of patterns. John then put on a download of the first Kraftwerk record—which has an orange pylon on the cover, sounds nothing like what Kraftwerk would later become and has been out of print and rejected by the band for years.

But curiosity only goes so far. For all of the music I owned, I only listened to a fraction of it. Alexander, another member of the family, offered an appropriate description for John’s music: most of it, he said, was something intellectuals at a dinner party could wax academic over while drinking wine and eating Brie. Even people with eccentric taste prefer melodies to ideas when they’re driving home from work or school.

So, rolling down the highway during the 18 seconds before the old radio jingle sped up and warped and eventually decayed, I wasn’t expecting much from Hide And Go Freak. I anticipated novelty. The songs would be abrasive, or just bizarre, I thought. They might not have a beat. They might not have anything at all, except for an avalanche of effects over someone playing tricks on a turntable with LPs from a thrift shop. Who knows?

“I’ll show you something new! I’ll tell you what to do! Then you’ll have a chance to show and tell me to…” the last line squirmed away. In came a cymbal crash, a messy tribal beat on some toms, an ominous piano line and a yammering vocalist. It sounded like sludge-covered monsters creeping through a dank alleyway, snapping their fingers, tapping their feet, waiting for something to happen. Then the song hit the chorus—a cascade of keyboard lines from a Casiotone synth, a jumpy bass, the vocalist almost screaming and hopelessly out of tune. I pictured him covered in sweat, shaking around in John’s garage, giving up to the catharsis. Really, John said, he had sung the vocals in his parent's coat closet, coats included, in total darkness. Before the song was over, I knew this was something I had never listened to before in my life. When the song was done, I knew I had discovered a new world of music.

There were only four recordings on the CD. One was live, but John did the rest. The first number was called “It’s My Party, And I’ll Kill If I Want To.” One lyric goes, “Everyone’s having fun but me/and the clown smells like vodka/but I’m the birthday bitch I pull and pull/Instant destruction/Gather around kids to open my presents/Who got me the shotgun?” These lyrics are ridiculous and depraved. I find them hard to take seriously. But then as now, I hear something revolutionary when I listen to “It’s My Party, And I’ll Kill If I Want To.”

Each musician was talented, that was obvious, but it didn’t matter unless they served to destroy the status quo. Picture the B-52s battling the Yakuza assassin in the geodesic domes of William Gibson’s story “Johnny Mnemonic.” Imagine a Halloween celebration amped up with amphetamines and hallucinogens—ugly, reckless, irritating, but romantic. When I hear this song, Roy Baty in Blade Runner comes to mind. Like Roy, Hide And Go Freak was half human, half electronic, and ready to gouge the eyes out of its master.

This is probably how every new wave band started: alienated, destructive, but ready to dance. However, I knew from this song that Hide And Go Freak was not some new wave derivative, some wild garage band. Hide And Go Freak was what all new wave bands should have become.

John’s recording later became a 7” titled “A Strategy for Living in an Unlivable Situation.” It came out in the Spring of 2001, about the same time the keyboardist for the band died of alcohol poisoning. Before Hide And Go Freak officially broke up, they Xeroxed the packaging and distributed their first and only pressing to record stores around the city. John never gave me the CD copy: he wanted me to get the 7”, in all fairness to the artist. I bought one as soon as it hit the stores.

I didn’t own a turntable, so my girlfriend at the time taped this onto a cassette, after DEVO’s 1978 album “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are DEVO!” Driving around in my mom’s Ford Taurus, I usually fast-forwarded through DEVO’s songs to get to Hide And Go Freak. But that tape died long ago.

By the end of sophomore year, the family had pretty much broken up. A couple graduated or dropped out of high school. John and his wife, Shaila, got a "divorce." Then Shaila legally married Ruben, another family member. They got a legal divorce and now she's in a civil union with her girlfriend. These days, John lives in New York City. Every few months, I run into him and ask about Hide And Go Freak. Last Sunday, I put the 7” on my turntable in my apartment in Brooklyn. The needle was broken, so I could only hear through one speaker. That wouldn’t do, but I craved to hear these recordings again. So I got John’s phone number from Facebook and called him. We talked for a while. Thankfully, he still had all four recordings, including another mix of “It’s My Party, And I’ll Kill If I Want To.” He emailed me the songs. I pressed the refresh button on my Gmail continually, until they showed up in my inbox. Now that I have been reacquainted, all I want to do is listen—over and over again.

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