There were several people whom we bounced around with, the majority were people in our same age group who had the same interest, The New Bomb Turks, Greenhorn, Moviola and various bartenders and bar maids. Outside of this group there was a core group of Columbus musicians and artists whom we all admired; these were for the most part the 80’s generation of the underground music scene: Dan Dow, Ron House, Mike “Rep” Hummel, Scrawl, Don Howland, Jeff Evans, Dan Dougan and Jim Shepard. We all had our walls, some built up by bandied down rumors, some by musical preference, some by the types of intoxicants people took and others by past and future romantic interests. For a while, Jerry, Jenny and I spent a great deal of time sitting in the wooden booths at Larry’s, standing by the stage at Staches or Apollo’s or manning the corner window at BW-3, drinking a vase of happy hour Budweiser.
Jim Shepard was an outsider in a land of outsiders; he had spent a great deal of his life in Florida, a veritable outpost of misfits and a state that was constructed for interlopers and floaters who would head down south in search of new beginnings and self-inventions. Jim was a short man, who wore his mat of greasy black hair as if it were a prop from a Harry Crews short-story. He walked with a slight lean as if the weight of the world pulled him forward, waiting to smother him in its own gravitational pull. He was constantly unshaven but never bearded; it was as if he had gotten a George Michael shaving kit from the liquor store. He was a constant ruffled sort, who spoke in a deep mumble as if he were sending himself coded messages. In a sense, even though I drank copious amounts of alcohol and spent hours on barstools next to Jim, I never really knew him but then again I’m not sure if I’ve never really known anybody.
Jim had Jerry’s and I respect from the get-go, he was semi-famous by our standards as a long-time home recorder who had been putting out records for well over a decade. He also had garnered a well versed fan base especially with the East Coast music tastemakers such as Thurston Moore, Johan Kugelberg and Byron Coley. He had been performing music for many years and his band Vertical Slit was a quiet, yet solid underground force in Columbus.
When I met Jim, I was working at Used Kids; he was working for a local jukebox repair shop and was good friends with Mike Hummel. Jim would drop in during lunch time and hang out, flip through records and chat. Once in a while he would sell us some of his records which were put out by out of town labels such as Ropeburn and Siltbreeze. He would huddle with Hummel next door at the Used Kids Annex and they would fuck with his tapes and bang out music deep into the night. On certain Monday evenings, Jerry and I would stroll down to Larry’s for our start on the evening and we would be disappointed by the weekly poetry night, we took offense to collegian artist’s types butting in on our time at Larry’s. On many of these Mondays both Jim and Mike would be there, reading and spontaneously spouting off their poetry. Jim’s being more of the science-fiction-cum-gutter-found prose influenced by Phillip K. Dick and William Burroughs. Jerry and I would crowd against one another, no doubt too chicken-shit to express our own poetry in such a stark setting, Jerry would couch his in between blasting guitars and punk-rock beats and I my own would lay dormant in dog-eared rumpled notebooks where they still sit, twenty years later.
V-3 came about after the breakup of Vertical Slit, it was an unsightly band with Jim’s paranoid dark blue-collar mystique, Rudy, a drummer of small demeanor and Nudge Squidfish a jovial wide-eyed gentleman who was prone to talk of UFO’s and conspiracy theories when prompted by a few drinks. Live they were freakish sight straight out of community access television but they carried a powerful force in Jim’s highly melodic art-ish squall that was one part early Fall, another part Joy Division and the rest filled with land-locked Florida bizarreness and mid-Western sludge.
Jim was funny, even if one could not always hear his almost inaudible comments that would slip out of his mouth like a small bump in the road. For a moment when he spoke you would think that a ghost passed through the room, moving a coffee cup or beer bottle across the table; you would think you heard him and then you didn’t. It wasn’t before long that Jim and Jenny Mae had developed a strong friendship, both of them had a fondness for the dive bars of North Campus and both of them enjoyed slurping a few drinks before the sun set down.
It would appear that musically that Jim and Jenny would have little in common musically as many of her pop songs where constructed out of a love of early sixties pop, The Beach Boys and the bounce of early eighties college rock whereas Jim’s music was as serious as a life pursuit. What they bonded over was a sense of melody and a meeting of the bohemian lifestyle, filled with creativity, late nights, cheap rent and the cultivation of laughter. Both suffered, more internally than physically, with Jim although it should be noted I did not know him well-he was too closed for that, you could feel the gravity of his darkness through sunken eyes, mused hair and the stubble around his chin. He wore his clothes as if they were an afterthought, articles for warmth-nothing else; they consisted of ragged blouses, jeans and old flannel. He carried himself as if he were Harvey Pekar, one with a distrust of the modern world and its complexities as a point of contention. His songs evolved around science-fiction, social commentary and the pursuit of a connection I think he never gained with the exception of his music. Perhaps his greatest line was “negotiate nothing, tear it all down.”
Jenny and he started drinking together shortly before his death, they would both meet at either Walt’s or Bourbon Street in mid-afternoon passing the afternoon hours in a connected shadow world lit by bar lights and their own brilliant creativity. Jenny told me one day that she had been drinking with Jim for a while and that they had started recording together, mostly her adding keyboards and trumpet to some of his tracks. I joked that they should record a cover of the Dolly Parton and Kenny Rodgers duet “Islands in the Stream”, which Jenny used to play. She shocked me a week later and told me that Jim was up for it, I have no idea if it were ever recorded.
Our world was small but it opened up the universe where ideas bounced off of one another like bubbles in beer, we would have one ingenious idea flowing after another without a filter to identify the logical of said idea. Huddled around empty bottles and amplifiers the stage of the world was in the basements and living rooms of our lives. Fashioned out of four-track tapes, sticky homemade record covers and note books furnished out of loneliness and dreams that were one part illusion and another part delusion Jim, Jenny and Jerry bonded over the ideal that the world was what you carved out of it, one note at a time.
As much as Jim’s outsider manner defined his life and his being, he made strong connections with other like minded people, although many of us came from somewhat disparate backgrounds we all had (have) a passion of the transformative essence of music. The opportunity to escape the mundane of our lives through the process of electricity, sound and speakers. Jim made an impression on Bob Pollard and commented one drunken evening to Bob while marveling at Bob’s propensity to fashion melodies as if they were breathes of air, that he “was like a vampire on Titus, sucking songs out of the earth.” Titus was the street that Bob lived on at the time, next thing you know the next Guided by Voices album was named “Vampire on Titus.”
Jim, Ron House, Bob, Don Howland and Mike Rep were the elders in our world, wizened cynical “old” men who had been there-done that and were still plugging in and plugging away, making vital music deep into their (aghast!) thirties while most other people we knew of that age were watching Disney videos with diaper fitted children and listening to generic alt-rock pretending that one could be hip with a mortgage payment. That lifestyle was so far removed from what we were living it might have been in an alternative universe. Our own misgivings kept us happily insolated and isolated.
Jim, Ron, Mike, Don and Tommy Jay somehow having the insight to recognize their own place in the small pond of the Columbus underground scene managed to tolerate one another long enough to record together under the guise of Ego Summit and released a terrific record titled “The Room Isn’t Big Enough” (now available digitally on Old 3-C Records). A smorgasbord of clashing but similar styles coalescing to carve a minor dent in the history of nineties home-tape underground. It contains one of the most disturbing songs in the Midwestern music cannons in Ron House’s “Half Off” about a prostitute who eats her leg off to get out of a trap. Sung/spoken by Don Howland it is as chilling as it is as shittily recorded, with a claustrophobic aura that chokes the listener almost as much as the smoke being exhaled by the musicians when recording the record. Therapy is recommended after every listen, it is that frightening.
In the failed experiment of nineties rock and roll perhaps the most elaborate but yet simple minded plan was for major labels to sign well respected but commercially limited bands and dropping then when sales didn’t match those of Seven Mary Three or Bush. Columbus was ripe for this idiotic take on major label experimentalism, and sadly this would have detrimental effects on most persons in this blog. It’s not as if signing to a major label was idiotic in itself it was that at that point in the business design of corporate music was one part fed off the ideals of the sixties and early seventies when artists as diverse as The Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, Moondog and Phil Ochs could be signed and allowed the freedom to be artists. Whereas the major label mindset professed this ideology it still worked (works) with the mind frame of the quick-cash turnover of the most blandest and cynical music of the nineteen-eighties, whereas the bottom line is sales and the exposure. Hence some of the oddest couplings of artists and money since the Hampton Grease Band signed to Columbia. Such was V-3 signing to American imprint Onion records.
Johan Kugelberg had left Matador Records to take a job working directly under Rick Rubin and was given his own vanity label which he titled Onion, a very tasty but yet smelly vegetable. He managed to sneak in four excellent releases before the label realized his venture would not bring in any money. These were: The Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments “Bait and Switch”, The Monks re-issue, The Stiffs (whose uncanny New York streetwise-art-punk would predate the Strokes by several years) and V-3. Even by the non-startled place in our collective world the signing of Jim Shepard to American was stupefying basically because Jim’s music could be equally standoffish and abrasive, a challenge of sorts to the listener just like the man himself. “Photograph Burns” has some very warming songs on it, most notably “Bristol Girl” which ended up on countless mix tapes I constructed on my living room floor deep into the night. There was nothing odd about the conundrum of many of the underground artists signing to major labels, as Jerry once told me “I want to be famous”, what I think he really meant was that he wanted to be immortal. It is easier to be immortal if more people know who you are, so it only makes sense to hitch your song to a corporate machine like Warner Brothers whose Bugs Bunny may be more immortal that any human. Besides one could always return to the basement, although Jim never really returned to the basement after V-3 got dropped after Johan lost his job. He was dead within two years.
I saw Jim huddled next to the video trivia game console on the end of the bar at Bourbon Street one Sunday night during an absolutely depressing bout of Karaoke sung by half awake hipsters who took pride in the fact that their jobs didn’t require them to be their early Monday morning. He eyes were flat and deep enough in his skull that they could be mined. He had a jar of beer sitting in front of him, I asked if he were ok and he said he was fine. He was a vacant as a vacuum. I said something to Jerry who loved Karaoke about Jim, “he’s just fucked up tonight.” A few days later at work, Ron hung up the phone and said “Jim Shepard hung himself last night.” Jim’s funeral was the first of several in a few years’ times for a small but close knit scene of outsiders, artists and music fans. A collection of dazed and rocked ex-girlfriends, musicians, bar-keeps and family gathered around a photo of a smiling (!) Jim and talked to pass the time as a sweaty undercurrent no doubt sent us all scurrying to various hidden parts of ourselves that we dare not try to touch.
Growing up in Ohio is different for all Ohioans, most because, like so much of the United States, Ohio is both vastly rural and also contains some of the largest and best known cities in the country. Everybody has heard of Cleveland and Cincinnati two large cities with history and reputations. Cleveland was populated by a large ethnic population from Eastern Europe, with massive Serbian, Hungarian and Czech immigrants who traveled west-ward to boil away their lives in the steel mills and manufacturing jobs of Northeastern Ohio. Cincinnati is nestled in the southwestern part of the state, just across from Kentucky; it is metaphorically across the invisible mason-Dixon line of Ohio. Hamilton and Clermont counties are two of the most conservative counties in Ohio, and while much of the state has overcome many of the racial tensions, Cincinnati with several large riots in the past two decades appears, at times mired in the early 1960’s.
Columbus would be that invisible Mason-Dixon Line, most people have heard of Columbus, the largest in terms of population of all the cities in Ohio it is mostly known as the largest college town in the country. A city that lives and breathes Ohio State football, which was mired in a multi-decade hangover after repeated defeats in the Rose Bowl that costs the saintly Buckeyes numerous National Championships. Even the smaller cities of Ohio are known, Toledo, Dayton, Canton and Akron have all garnered space in the minds of national citizenry, even if it is for such pop-culture phenomena as Corporal Klinger, the Wright brothers, the Pro Football Hall of Fame and rubber tires.
Then there is small town Ohio, with images of Sherwood Anderson, unlocked doors, county fairs filled with cotton candy and first kisses. An idealistic concept that feeds into the basic American dream that a small-town anybody can arise from corn-fields and hidden glens to climb into space like Neil Armstrong or John Glenn, the Presidency (seven of them-all mediocre hail from Ohio, or the silver screen such as Paul Newman and Clark Gable.
Because of its history and rich tradition, Ohio ranks fifth in colleges and universities which logically lead one to believe this is the reason it is home to so many artistic and inventive people. In spite of all of this, when one grows up in Ohio, one has the feeling of being the underdog, of someone who always just comes up short.
Ohio is known and felt as an also-ran, an area known for what it almost has but never had, and in fact never will. For an ocean we have a large lake, for mountains we have foothills and we are forever defined by our collective losses. Our sports teams are known for despair, in Cleveland it is brought out in such slogans as The Fumble, The Drive and losing the World Series with one out to go. Cincinnati is tethered to a football team better known as the Bungles and Ohio State Football went thirty years between National Championships and is better known now for losing two in the past five years. We are in our hearts cynical but lovable malcontents.
Musically, Ohio is rich, especially when it comes to punk rock, with an abrasive arty sound that helped birth the movement. Helped by the ample liberal arts colleges that dot the state, such as Oberlin, Kenyon and Antioch and huge state universities such as The Ohio State University, Ohio University, Kent State and Bowling Green. The arts scenes have always burped out terrific and idiosyncratic fare such as Pere Ubu, Devo, the Wolverton Brothers, the Dead Boys, and Guided by Voices. In the late eighties each town had its own brand that helped define and nurture the other bands and artists. Cleveland had the most excellent and under-appreciated Prisonshake, the Mice, Death of Samantha, My Dad is Dead and Cruel, Cruel Moon. Dayton had Guided by Voices. Cincinnati had the aforementioned Wolverton Brothers whose shambling country-art punk is as twisted as anything from a David Lynch movie, the Ass Ponys and the Afghan Whigs. Athens birthed Appalachian Death Ride and Geraldine, two sinister bands that would be at least marginally famous if they resided anywhere but Athens, Ohio.
In Columbus, we first had Jim Shepard (Vertical Slit/V-3), Scrawl, the Great Plains, the Gibson Brothers, Royal Crescent Mob, Boys From Nowhere and Mike Rep all made up of various odd-balls and characters who would play a huge role in the development of what is somewhat now being regarded as a high point in the Columbus underground scene. The specialness of that time was mostly due to the large and fanatical friendships and respect we had for not only one another but also for those bands that set the stage. Jerry Wick and Jenny Mae would both be besides themselves to share the stage with any Ron House fronted band and the same would be said for the New Bomb Turks who would open for any band they deeply respected, whether it be the Fastbacks (from Seattle) or Prisonshake.
We put stock in ourselves and to a large part, our friends. Friends who would carry the torch of loneliness offset by a burning desire to be heard and to hopefully lay next to another congenial soul by five am. Our hopes, crashed as theirs did when things did not quite pan out as we had planned. We were prepared for it, as it is in an Ohioan’s soul to step up to the plate and be called out by the proverbial sinker ball. Three strikes. The Trip. The Fumble. The Drive. Etcetera and so forth. Nobody got famous, nobody ever really made a dent in any product counting mechanism like Billboard, The College Music Journal or MTV but we loved and cherished one another as if our lives depended on it, night in and night out. What we discovered was the result wasn’t the prize; the prize was the friendship and the making of art for fuck’s sake. That is what an Ohioan does, not always stylish but always sincere.
and please don’t forget the Ramones comic: