Ben is far too important a figure in my musical and personal history to have a short entry so this will, once again, be a LONG post. For those who never knew Ben, you might still enjoy the look into my earliest days of leading a band!
Sadly, a lot of my photos of Ben are lost so there aren’t many visuals here.
MUSIC BEN SHARED THAT IMPACTED ME THE MOST:
Metallica, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Black Flag, Anthrax, Fugazi, Weird Al Yankovic, Primus, Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Butthole Surfers, Nirvana.
Just as much as music, though, Ben introduced me to skateboarding.
WHEN WE PLAYED TOGETHER:
1991 – 1993. Ben was the first person I really played music with that wasn’t an adult/instructor*.
HOW WE MET:
Ben moved to Cleburne (south of Ft. Worth – I lived there from 1983 – 1995 age 7-19) when we were both in 6th grade in 1988. I rarely saw Ben at school, though, because we didn’t have a single class together until high school and even then it was only PE and Art.
We actually met in church. I was practically the only Mormon boy my age for the 7 years prior to that in Cleburne so I was overjoyed when Ben moved to town.
We didn’t know it then but we were both sort of on the Jack Mormon path. Neither of us seemed to be preparing to serve as missionaries and religious matters only butted into our fun when adult church members or our parents were around. Otherwise, we were listening to punk and metal, skateboarding and talking about girls. We also did a lot of camping in our Boy Scout Troop (598).
WHAT I LEARNED FROM BEN:
I learned a lot of good non-musical stuff from Ben – like surviving in nature. I was cured of being a wussy for life when Troop 598 went on an intense trek at Philmont in 1992.
The big thing I took away from our time together was that different is good. Although it took me YEARS to truly apply this lesson to my life.
We were not popular. We wore glasses and were members of a church that our little Bible Belt town called a cult. I actually lost a few friends and quit a soccer team because of this. Of course, money could trump that – the most popular girl in our class was also a Mormon but she was also very sweet, pretty and (most importantly) rich. Ben and I were called freaks, art fags, skaters, losers, etc.
(Side Note: At least we didn’t receive the worst possible label you could receive in conservative Cleburne — “devil worshipper”. Everyone seemed obsessed with the idea that there were devil worshippers in the forest… or down by the lake at night… or on the east side of town**. Scary house on your street? Devil worshippers DEFINITELY lived there. Hilariously, Ben was often the first one in our group of friends to invoke devil worshippers in any given conversation.)
Being different wasn’t new for me. It just wasn’t good. I’d been the class nerd for my entire elementary school career and was still living with the delusion that I could be one of the cool kids. Ben didn’t suffer from the fear and self-esteem issues I had as a pre-teen and teen-ager. To Ben, “different” was interesting and therefore almost automatically good. His curiosity for what was happening around us woke me up and I came to accept myself more and stopped trying to fit in with people who were never going to like me – and who I didn’t even like anyway. Thank you, Ben, for helping me take the first steps to dispel my “logic” of self-hatred.
Ben was the person who got me away from top 40 radio and MTV. We stayed up late (probably 11 PM) one weekend in 1989 and listened to most of Metallica’s …And Justice For All on Ben’s bootlegged(?) cassette in my dad’s stereo with the volume set to a whisper while my family was asleep. I remember lying on the carpet of the living room next to Ben with our heads right next to the speaker and him laughing something like, “If you smile while listening to this, it just makes you feel evil!” I didn’t listen to commercial radio much after that night… I’d been bitten by a heavy metal vampire and turned into one myself.
Then we saw Faith No More on MTV.
This changed everything. I didn’t know what to think – I was still subconsciously in the “different is bad” mindset and Faith No More was unlike anything I’d seen or heard. Metallica was scary but this was… silly and… surreal and… hard to pigeonhole.
Ben loved them immediately.
Thank goodness for peer pressure. Once I knew Ben liked them, I embraced the music. “Epic” was the anthem of our summer in 1990. Then it was Primus’ Sailing the Seas of Cheese and then of course Nirvana’s Nevermind and later The Butthole Surfers’ Independent Worm Saloon***. We’d listen to the albums over and over in his parents Chevy Suburban which we called “The Bantha”. In fact, I didn’t own a copy of …Seas of Cheese until I was in my 30s because Ben wore me out on it over the course of three years. From there I branched out on my own and got into NoMeansNo, Dead Kennedys, Mudhoney and Godflesh – bands I mostly listened to on my own.
In 1991, I bought an electric guitar (rather, my Dad did and I mowed lawns to pay if off). Ben and I started a band together that was later named Shemp. At first, it was just Ben on a hilarious headstock-heavy imitation BC Rich bass and me on guitar. I remember choosing Ben to be the bass player based simply on the fact that he was my best friend. He’d never played bass or guitar.
The idea of tuning our instruments to the same pitches hadn’t occurred to us. We just tuned individually to whatever our lowest strings happened to be that day and then played riffs we made up. Ben went and played with an older kid one time and I remember being jealous. However, when he came back to play with me the next time, he had learned that we needed to tune to the same notes as each other and there were even such things as electric tuners. We sounded a lot better after that.
One day, Ben had an idea for a riff that was in a weird time signature. At the time, we barely knew what a time signature was let alone that you could break out from standard four-four time. I couldn’t follow what he was doing. Deep down, different was still bad and scary and I dismissed the riff as “not even real”. I felt foolish saying it even then. Ironically, by the time I was 20, most of my music was purposely in odd meters.
I played my first ever rock show in Shemp at The Esquire – the oldest movie theater in Cleburne – with Ben on bass, Jeff Williams on vocals and Haven Snow playing drums. A band of older guys had apparently heard of us and asked us to open for them. We thought it was because they had heard us and thought we were ok, but looking back on it, their real motivation was probably based on the hope that we’d draw all our high school aged classmates.
We did. Something like 100 kids showed up that night. Amazing! It was the first time we’d played anywhere other than our bedrooms or garages. I played out of a real tube amp (thanks to the guitarist in the other band) instead of my 5-watt tiny practice amp with an 8” speaker. It was about as good a first show as any 15 year-old self-taught kid living in the 5th most boring city in Texas could’ve hoped for. The guy running sound (and probably promoting the show) videotaped it and wanted something like $50 for the tape – a fortune to a teenager in 1992. Somehow, we got the tape for free later. I wish I knew where it wound up!
We played The Esquire three more times and our draw decreased exponentially each time. The last show we played there was horrible. Ben was grounded (as usual) so our friend Aaron Johnson agreed to learn our songs and do the show. Little did I know that this first experience with a stand-in player was foreshadowing many more. At the show, it was obvious that Aaron wasn’t really prepared. When he got nervous or forgot parts, he’d just go into noise. Haven didn’t know what to do so he’d go into what we called a grindcore drum beat (the term “blast beat” either didn’t exist or wasn’t known to us).
Now… keep in mind, this was 20 years ago. Blast beats were pretty extreme then and we were young and not that good and couldn’t pull that off at all. This lasted about three songs before the sound man and headlining act (a Stevie Ray Vaughn wanna-be trio called Torrid Rain) angrily struck our gear as we played and moved it out on the street.
That was Shemp’s last show in public.
Soon after that, we discovered Mad Hatter’s, an all-ages club and vegetarian eatery in Ft. Worth. The Toadies and Brutal Juice had already developed followings by the time I was old enough to drive and we’d go up from Cleburne to hear local bands play live. I dreamt of us playing there but we never did – I was the oldest in the band and we were collectively far too young and far too distant to make something like that happen without adult help****. Plus, I don’t think the other guys’ parents would have let them. (Kudos to my folks for letting me have the freedom to make my own choices even at the age of 16!)
In the spring of 1993, our clique of friends heard that The Dwarves were unbelievably playing an all-ages show at Trees in Dallas with Flipper. A group of about 12 of us made the terrifying and exhilarating trek into the then 2nd biggest city in Texas in Corey Stone’s station wagon (known as “Woo, the Wagon!”). The opening act, Ed Hall, blew me away and eventually became my favorite band in the state. I remember that a mosh pit had taken shape and when I looked into that scary circle, I saw Ben in his usual knit beanie riding on top of it. Flipper was boring.
We were all amped for The Dwarves when the Dallas Police showed up (on bikes) and kicked everyone out of the club that was under 17. I was actually old enough to stay but no one else was and Corey was my ride home. (I did finally see the Dwarves about 10 years later in Austin.)
All this time, we kept playing music in Haven’s bedroom or my parent’s garage. Looking back, it’s amazing that we made it happen at all. Most of the time the band existed, I was the only one that could drive. In fact, writing this blog made me get out the Shemp tapes for the first time in well over a decade. We weren’t bad! In fact, I’m very proud of how good we sounded for a group of 14-17 year-olds making original songs with no real guidance. I’m even prouder to say that most of the riffs and many of the lyrics were mine – rudimentary as they were. I’m very grateful to all three of those guys for following me into that venture.
I felt like we were gaining momentum and getting pretty good when it all came to an end that summer of 1993. My three best friends (Ben, Haven and Jeremy Hunsaker) all moved out of state. By the time I moved to college in Denton in the fall of 1994, I’d lost favor with the rest of the old clique – to the point of hostility with some of them. I didn’t have the same connection with anyone else that I did with Ben. Plus, Ben was much more popular in our circle of friends than I was. His curiosity and willingness to try new things took him down some of their paths that I wasn’t willing to travel and the younger guys probably saw me as a judgmental stick in the mud (especially on the topic of drugs which I suspected but didn’t want to believe was happening in our circle).
My family left Texas six months later in 1995 and things went mostly downhill from there for a couple of years. I had a car stolen. I dropped out of college and worked an utterly depressing couple of jobs as a screen printer and kept playing in bands that went nowhere. Ben had a pretty rough time of it, too, in his new home of Kennwick, WA (coincidentally the town from which my family had moved to Texas).
I have often wondered what our young adult lives would be like if Ben had been able to stay. Mostly, I think we would’ve weathered those difficult “bad decision-making” years between the ages of 18-21 better if we’d still had each other to lean on. When I asked Ben about this on the phone recently he agreed saying, “We would’ve still been a band.”
With almost all of my close, early friendships severed and my family gone, I had only my girlfriend/future ex- wife left and struggled to find others I really connected with musically and personally for years (with Jeff Brown as the exception). Shemp was a band for about 3 years. In the three years after it, I was in five different bands, always feeling like none were quite right.
It’s amazing how much of an impact the mere 6 years we were in the same town had on me. Thank you, Ben for showing me the real value of being different — even when you had to pay full price to do so.
*I started playing guitar at age 8 with crappy child’s sized Harmony acoustic guitar that never seemed to really be in tune even when my instructors tuned it for me. I kept the thing until I was well into my twenties and finally donated to Goodwill or something. I took lessons at Vikki Lynn’s Music Center and had little to no appreciation for the country songs and children’s tunes like “Pop Goes the Weasel” that they taught me. I’d wanted to play guitar because I liked The Beatles and Van Halen and saw no correlation at age 8. I did like “Ghost Riders” which was the first guitar riff I ever learned but I didn’t like the acoustic guitar and associated it with what we called “ropers”. I have to give Vikki credit, though, for teaching me the open guitar chords which I never forgot!
** Side Note on the east side of Cleburne – it really was scary. Cleburne is major railroad stop and I heard many times over the years (from adults!) that most of the drugs that came into the US through Texas made a stop in Cleburne. Years later, Chris Barger, a boy whose grandparents lived in my neighborhood, was actually shot dead in the street in east Cleburne during a bad drug deal when he was 19 and I was 18. I must admit I wasn’t very sad. In junior high, he’d written in white shoe polish “Josh Sux Dick” on the sidewalk in front of our house where I waited for the bus daily. My dad was so enraged when I couldn’t scrub it out that I was made to live with it for what was probably only a few weeks but seemed like years to my 13 year old brain. Still… Chris’ death was chilling and shocking.
***Ben had also gotten a promo copy of the first Radiohead album which was NOT adopted by our group. I still can’t get into Radiohead in spite of the fact that they have basically been adopted as THE band of the 00’s.
**** Today’s “Schools of Rock” type music lesson places boggle my mind. Kids even as young as 11 or 12 are taught to play rock music… and it’s parent-approved! It’s hard to imagine that if something like that existed in 1992 that it would’ve had much success or acceptance… especially in Cleburne