How A Dead Bass Player Changed My Life

This was first published in the 2012 edition of Northwest Boulevard – the Eastern Washington University creative writing publication.  I am publishing it here in remembrance of my friend Bruce, who was an integral part of this story, and who is no longer with us.  Though we lost touch in recent years, he was a good friend who always had a contagious smile on his face.  He accomplished a lot more in his life than what I’ve recorded here, but this small piece is an example of how his life impacted mine forever, and because of that, I’ll always remember him fondly. 

 

Walking off the stage at break-time, my back aches, and my ears feel stressed.  Rock and Roll does that to a person.  I’m not famous.  I don’t make a lot of money doing this.  I’ve made a few albums, but I’ve never sold more than a couple of hundred copies.  I play guitar and sing in two different rock bands in Spokane – a city where huge marketing firms send their unverified strategies to sink or swim.  One of my bands, Plastic Saints, has just finished the third of five sets filled with classic rock cover songs in the Mirabeau Hotel bar in the Spokane Valley.  We’ve got plenty of our own music to play, but we do cover shows for the money.  That’s what we tell people, anyway.  The truth is, I do these types of shows because for a whole night, we own the stage, and I just love to play music and put on a show – regardless of whose music I’m playing.

As I walk over to a table full of my friends who religiously come out to support me when I play, a couple of random strangers, a man and a woman, approach me and throw compliments.  It’s not the mob of teenaged girls that plagued first Elvis, then the Beatles, then the Rolling Stones, but this happens pretty consistently, and I’ve been doing this long enough to become callous to it.  I don’t really crave attention from strangers the way some musicians do.  Tonight, though, I feel good, and I stop to talk to them.  The man asks me how long I’ve been playing.  I almost gasp when I hear myself say, “About twenty years.”

It started in 1992 with the voice of a dead bass player.  “Bass solo: Take one.”  Metallica’s Cliff Burton nonchalantly makes this proclamation before breaking every rule of sonic possibility with a bass guitar on the song “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth”.  I first heard those words in a trailer park off of the ironically named Rich Avenue in the Spokane Valley.  It was bright and sunny outside – an early September day.  The Spokane area is usually beautiful that time of year.  It was warm, but the heat of the summer had started to retreat.  The few deciduous trees in the area hadn’t quite started to change their leaves yet, but here and there, the little pockets of yellow contrasted nicely with the clear blue sky.  I suppose it’s this way with all of these sorts of events, but I had no idea that the day I heard those words would change the course of my life.

I was fourteen – just starting my freshman year of high school – and had taken the bus home with Bruce, a friend of mine with darker skin who was a little taller than me.  One of his distinguishing features (apart from the jet black hair) was the fact that he was completely ripped.  When I had first met him in fifth grade, he was a scrawny little nerd like me.  During middle school, though, he had seriously bulked up.  He was so strong that he could hold his whole body out sideways from a pole, kind of like a flag.  He was still a dork, though, which kept him on my level, and as we caught up with one another at the beginning of the year, we discovered over the past summer that we had both been seduced by hard rock and heavy metal music.

For me, the seduction started a year earlier with relatively small doses of Guns N’ Roses, but by that summer, I’d moved on to the harder stuff – Metallica – with a nearly worn out copy of the self-titled Black Album.  By the time school started, all of the reservations I’d previously held about heavy metal (my parents’ voices: “They’re Satan worshipers!” “Next, you’ll be doing drugs!” etc., along with the fact that only the bad kids wore the Metallica and Iron Maiden shirts at school) had been systematically exterminated by the addictive power of raw, distorted guitar riffs, rumbling bass lines, and drums that sounded like machine guns firing from my headphones.  Even though MTV had exposed me to a lot of other metal bands, and of course, the whole “grunge” movement, Metallica and Guns N’ Roses were the kings of the hill in my mind, and I was thirsty for more.  Bruce had gotten his hands on a copy of Kill ‘Em All, Metallica’s 1983 debut, and he was raving to me about how I wouldn’t believe the difference in the sound between it and the Black Album.  I couldn’t wait to hear it, and as I climbed the half-rotten wooden porch steps to the front door of Bruce’s trailer, I was full of squirrelly teenaged anticipation.

We entered into the dingy, dark singlewide mobile home together.  Bruce’s adopted parents were both long-haul truck drivers and were gone most of the time.  Bruce was fifteen, a year older than me, and they figured he could pretty much take care of himself.  Also, his grandparents lived in the trailer next door, so he wasn’t completely unsupervised.  The interior of the trailer had all of the stereotypical elements: Hideous orange shag carpet, walls covered with wood-panel veneer, and a framed velvet portrait of Elvis – yes, really; it was there on the wall in the hallway – but it also had a big screen TV and a super hi-fi stereo system with a CD player.  I lived in a doublewide mobile home on land that my family had owned for generations, and I didn’t get my first CD player until later that year, so the thought of judging the Bruce’s living conditions didn’t even occur to me.  Actually, with the lack of parental supervision and state-of-the-art entertainment center, Bruce’s house was like paradise to me back then.

Bruce put the CD into the stereo and handed me the album liner.  I’d seen the cover art on countless dirty T-shirts worn by the long-haired stoners and burnouts at school, but the picture on the inside cover was new to me.  The band looked so young!  They were teenagers, and as the first few tracks played, their youth was reflected in James Hetfield’s screeching vocals and in the maelstrom of thrash guitar riffs.  The music was a world apart from the polished production and mainstream grooves that had made the Black Album such a huge commercial success.  The band playing on this album was hungry.

When the fifth track came on, I heard Cliff Burton say the words.  “Bass solo: Take one.” And then I heard sounds that I’d never heard before.  It was like somebody had taken a Bach piece and shoved it into a meat grinder.  There were classical melodies in a rich baritone timbre that, though overdriven and distorted all to hell, floated through the air like a flock of birds – chaotic one moment, flying in unison the next.  Then, about two and a half minutes into the track, Lars Ulrich’s drums kicked in and, without warning, the notes that were birds a moment before turned to a swarm of killer bees and attacked.  The speakers of Bruce’s hi-fi system rumbled and shook the whole trailer – probably the whole trailer park.  When it was over, four minutes and fifteen seconds after it began, I made Bruce stop the CD.

“How the hell did he do that on a bass guitar?” I demanded, as if Bruce, by some virtue bestowed upon him for simply owning the CD, would know the answer.

“I don’t know.  It’s pretty fuckin’ sweet though, huh?” Bruce answered, laughing.

“Yeah.” I said.

That was the moment I knew I was going to be a musician.  Sure, I had thought about being a rock star before, thinking maybe I could sing, but in the back of my mind, I doubted my ability to actually follow through with learning a musical instrument.  What I heard that day in Bruce’s trailer, though, convinced me beyond any doubt that music was the course my life would take.  I knew that I would summon up whatever discipline I needed to learn to do what I had just heard.

As soon as I got home that day, I brought the idea up to my parents.  Of course, I told them I wanted to get a bass guitar.  Over the next few weeks I assaulted them with begging, pleading, mild suggestion – anything I could think of to get my hands on a bass.  I was the kind of kid who always had huge, fantastic ideas.  I would say things like “I’m gonna’ make a movie” or “I think I’ll be an astronaut when I grow up,” so I can’t blame my folks for not wanting to shell out a lot of what little money we had for every one of my whims.  This time, however, my persistence paid off.  My dad finally agreed to take me to a pawnshop to see what we could find.  We came home with a black Fender P-Bass knock-off made by a company called Hondo, with a red pick guard and a sticker of a skeleton dog catching a Frisbee on it.  It was beautiful. My dad paid about 75 bucks for it.

I had no idea how to play it, of course, but I plugged it into an old Magnatone tube amplifier that was handed down from my dad’s uncle.  I made our trailer rumble.  I’m sure my dad instantly regretted his decision to put such a potentially annoying thing in my hands.  I did my best to learn the notes.  I played along with every metal album I had, even though I knew I wasn’t always getting the notes right.  I jammed with Bruce and other friends as often as I could, picking up bits and pieces from other people who knew how to play.  I had no idea what notes I was playing, but I found that my ear was pretty good, so that encouraged me to keep at it.

By April of my freshman year, Mom and Dad had conspired with my grandpa to convince me to take guitar lessons.  I clung furiously to the idea of playing bass with the tenacity of an alligator snapping turtle, but I was undone by my parents’ logic.  Their reasoning was that guitar lessons would help me be a better bass player, and my fourteen-year-old brain couldn’t find the flaws in it.  Besides, the parents had a secret weapon – Grandpa.  He and I were always close, and he was responsible, more than anyone else, for my love of music.  He loved old country music, and he could play a little guitar and harmonica, but not much more than a couple of chords and a few notes of old cowboy songs.  He bought me my first guitar – a junior-sized Harmony acoustic in a tobacco-sunburst finish – as a Christmas present when I was much younger.  I still have it today.  Until he offered to pay for the lessons my parents were urging me to take though, it had pretty much just been a novelty item taking up space in my closet.

After about a month of taking that old Harmony acoustic to my lessons, I started to realize that playing guitar was not nearly as hard as I thought it would be.  Once that realization set in, there was no stopping me.  The next logical step was to get an electric six-string.  This time, dad and I headed down to Hoffman Music.  We traded in an old pedal-steel guitar (another heirloom from my dad’s great uncle), and my once-prized Hondo bass for a black Chinese Squier Stratocaster.  The pickguard was white, and the fingerboard was rosewood.  It was a Squier, a cheap, entry-level guitar, but it also said “Made by Fender” on the headstock – which, as far as I was concerned meant I had a Fender Stratocaster!

I had that guitar for about a year and used it throughout time I was taking lessons.  My guitar teacher was named Josh.  When I first met him, he was a salesman at Gonzo’s Guitars and More – which is where my folks got his info as a teacher.  On the day of my first lesson, a few peculiar things about Josh and his apartment struck me.  His apartment was immaculate.  Nothing was out of place.  The potatoes were stacked in a pyramid on the counter.  Seriously, I remember that.  He was immaculate, too.  His blondish hair was perfectly brushed.  His teeth were completely straight and bleach-white, and his chin line made him look like a prince out of a Disney cartoon.  He liked everything to be in its place – just his way.  That’s why my lessons ended after a year.  He told me that he wanted me to stop taking lessons from him because I wasn’t practicing the songs he was giving me.  I was learning music theory and technique from him – I owe him that – but I was applying it to Metallica and Megadeth songs rather than the Bryan Adams songs he’d give me to practice.  I remember feeling really weird on the day he told me we were done.  On one hand, I felt good because he’d told me that I was doing well learning things on my own, but I couldn’t help feeling rejected at the same time – like he was just fed up with me.  I was too young to understand that this type of condescension was one of Josh’s dominant personality traits.

After a few months of filling every spare hour I had with practicing heavy metal, I started my first “real” band with Bruce. This was 1994, the summer before our junior year of high school.  Bruce and I spent that summer and a good part of the fall going through lineup issues – trying to find any of our friends who were talented.  At one point we had six people “in the band.”  We had a keyboard player for a while, and we tried a few different singers because, at that time I didn’t realize that I could sing.  By the end of the summer, though, it was easy to see who was serious about making music and who wasn’t.  I wanted people to take the band seriously.  Looking back, I’m amazed at how driven I was.  I have an old cassette tape of one of our rehearsals – listening to it now, I can hear my voice in between songs yelling at the other guys for goofing off and not playing their parts right!  I wasn’t really worried about anyone’s feelings; I just wanted – needed – this band to work.

Finally, one night at a coffee shop, after we’d axed one of our singers, it was decided that we would be a three piece.  I would be the guitarist/vocalist, Bruce would play drums, and we had another friend, Duane, who played bass.  It never really occurred to me before that night that I could be the singer, but I guess to the other two guys it just made sense.  I was writing all of the songs and bossing everybody around anyway, I might as well sing, too.

Duane was a friend of a friend at first.  He is four years older than I am, so at the time, he was twenty and obviously no longer in high school.  He’d never played bass before, but he loved music more than anyone I’d ever met and he had a natural knack for the bass guitar.  He picked it up very quickly.  Duane is a very interesting guy.  He is half-Japanese – Duane’s mom is a native of Japan.  She grew up there and met his dad during the Vietnam War.  She immigrated to America after they got married.  This is important to know about Duane because his personality is very uniquely Japanese.  He has a Zen-like sense of discipline when it comes to art.  He puts this incredible focus on everything that he does creatively.  It is this quality that made him a natural musician.  Before we began jamming in Bruce’s trailer that summer, Duane had never played bass before, but in just a couple of weeks none of us would have ever known it.

We named our band Kimara.  Don’t ask me what it means.  I still don’t really know.  At the time, I was very amused by the fact that we’d picked out a name that really didn’t have a definition.  I thought it was enigmatic.  I just liked the way it sounded, though our people at school always mispronounced it because of the spelling.  We originally took it from the word “chimera,” which we looked up in a dictionary. I didn’t like the spelling, though, so I spelled it Kimara.  We also didn’t really know how to pronounce “chimera,” so I pronounced it /kɪmrə/.  People always pronounced it differently, though.  When asked what it meant, I would usually fire off something like, “Well, if you look at it this way, it means…” I was also taking Japanese in school, though, and I realized that the way I had spelled it opened it up to a Japanese interpretation.  I convinced some exchange students to find three Kanji for the syllables, and the meaning we came up with was “group of evil trees.”  In reality, though, if I said that word to a Japanese person, they wouldn’t know what the hell I was talking about.

Kimara started picking up steam in the middle of my junior year – around late 1994/early 1995.  We had learned a few songs that I’d written and they started to sound pretty tight.  We knew we had to find a way to get them out of Bruce’s trailer, though.  None of us had any experience with bands, so we had no way of knowing how to get gigs or anything like that.  On a rainy night in late January of 1995, Bruce announced at one of our rehearsals that he wanted to go into a recording studio and cut a demo tape.  He had heard about this place called Bop-Tech Studios and wanted to look into it.  I called them and they mailed me a pricing sheet.  It was going to cost us about $275 for about eight hours of production time.  That was a lot of money for us to try and come up with.  Bruce was really into car stereos and decided to sell one of his decks.  Duane had a job, so he came up with his third pretty easily.  I decided to get creative.  I decided to do pre-sales.  I went around East Valley High School and took orders for copies of the tape from everyone I knew.  I charged $4 per tape.  It didn’t take long before we had enough money to cover the recording cost, and we booked the studio for early March.

Bop-Tech Studios was located in a sort of seedy part of Spokane known as the lower South Hill.  It was a little hard to find because, from the outside it was just a grey brick building with no windows and just a small sign saying what it was.  The pink door – not the light, pastel pink, but the deeper electric neon pink – was always locked and we had to buzz to be let in.  I thought this was weird at the time, but I know now that it was so people didn’t come walking into the middle of a recording session – because the door opened to the main studio room, not the control room.  The main studio room was an enormous seeming 900 square feet, covered in gray carpet with patches of Auralex acoustic foam glued here and there on the walls and ceiling.  There was a big window through which you could see the control room.  The control room was exactly as I imagined it would be. It had towers of high-tech rack mounted recording equipment, and a huge mixing consol.  It looked just like the ones I’d seen in music videos and documentaries!  This was the big time!

The experience of being in a recording studio both excited and terrified me at the same time.  This place was the real deal, and I had only been playing guitar for two years.  I tried my best to act like I knew what I was doing, but in reality I was a ball of jitters.  Michael, the owner/producer/engineer at Bob-Tech, did his best to make me and the other guys feel at home, though.  Michael was a tall, skinny guy.  His very receded hairline, ponytail, and beard gave the impression that he really knew what he was doing.  He coached me through a lot of the guitar and vocal overdubs when I was nervous.  We only had eight hours to get everything done, so he helped me to decide which mistakes needed to be fixed and which ones we would have to live with.  I’ve since learned that that’s a lot of what recording is.  I don’t think anyone ever gets their real ideas recorded perfectly.  The music on the recording never sounds exactly like it sounds in my head.

Overall, I remember the recording of that demo tape with Kimara as one of the best times of my life.  We had eight hours of studio time spread out over two days.  I felt like a rock star.  A room for smokers, attached onto the main studio room, had a couch and a TV and a bunch of posters and pink lava lamps.  It was where family members and friends hung out during recording sessions, and where the rest of the band would be when I was doing vocal and guitar overdubs.  Duane’s fiancée, Cathy, was with us the whole time, and she videotaped a lot of stuff during those two days.  I remember hanging out in the smoking room and pretending like I was Keith Richards doing interviews – cigarette, English accent, and all:

“So what do you think of the way the album’s sounding, Brandon?”

“Right, well it’s all a bit bollixed up, in’t it?  I mean, we can’t get the microphones just right over the drums and my guitar just isn’t cooperating.”  What a gas that was!

When we finished recording the eight songs we’d brought in, Michael needed until the next afternoon to do the mixing and mastering.  Bruce called me when it was done, and we drove down to the studio that night.  Michael gave us each a copy of the master tape.  It was a school night, and my parents were getting upset that I was out as late as I was.  They hadn’t fully understood what I was doing and were giving me a hard time about being out so much.  Once I got home, I popped the tape in the stereo for them.  When they heard my voice coming through the stereo speakers, though, I could tell they were proud.

For me there was not really anything like hearing my voice and my music on a recording for the first time.  At least there hasn’t been anything like it for me since.  I’ve recorded a lot of songs, but I’ve never felt quite so mystified and excited as I was listening to that tape for the first time that night.  When I listen to my records nowadays, I mostly think about the mistakes I left in.  The magic of recording isn’t quite there anymore.  I thought I felt it the first time I heard one of my songs on the radio, but even that wasn’t exactly the same.  I’d really accomplished something great that night, and I knew it.

We ordered fifty copies of the tape from the duplication place that Michael was connected with.  Bruce wanted a CD for himself, but CD’s were still kind of a novelty – especially for a garage band – so he shelled out $50 to get one copy of the album burned onto a CD.  The tapes didn’t come with any liner artwork or anything like that, so I had designed an insert using Microsoft Publisher.  Our cover was simple black and white with a clip art picture of the Earth on the front, along with Kimara in that Matura font along the top and the album name, Falsehood, in a brush script along the bottom.  When the tapes arrived, Duane, Bruce, and I went to our favorite coffee shop and spent the evening signing the liners.  We’d promised autographed copies to everyone who had pre-ordered the tape.  Those fifty copies sold very quickly and I made a lot more copies for people who wanted the album after that.

A couple of weeks later, I got a phone call from Michael asking if we would be interested in playing a show.  He said that a friend of his was putting on a show at The Met, and he needed a band to open.  He had recommended us because he said that he thought the songs we recorded for Falsehood had real potential and he thought the experience would be good for us.  I couldn’t believe my ears!  We’d never played a show before – not even a party – and now we were going to be playing The Met!  The Met (now called “The Bing” after Spokane native, Bing Crosby) is one of the oldest, most historic and prominent theaters in Spokane.  At the time, I could only think of two other places in Spokane that would have been more prestigious to play:  The Opera House, or the soon-to-be-completed Spokane Arena.  The show was scheduled for April 8th, 1995, and we were going to be opening for two other local bands, Snaut, and Cottonmouth.  I’d never heard of either of these bands, but when I asked around, I found out that both had pretty good followings established for themselves.

When the day of the show arrived, I had to work very hard to get the knots untied out of my stomach, but of course, I tried to play it all off.  I was still playing through that old Magnatone tube amp, with just a Morley wah/distortion pedal in front of it.  I didn’t realize what an amateur, rinky-dink setup it was at the time.  It was loud, and it was rock and roll. We set up our gear while an anime movie was being projected on to the wall behind us, and when it was time to sound-check they couldn’t get the vocal microphone to work properly.  I had no idea what I was doing, so I just stood there onstage, feeling very exposed, saying “Check, check” into the mic over and over for what seemed like an eternity.  I just wanted to play.

When they finally worked out the bugs with the microphone, we started playing.  We rushed through our set list, jumping from song to song without saying a word in between.  Bruce was a picture of concentration, hitting his cheap, starter drum kit with as much precision as his nerves would let him muster.  Duane was also quite focused.  He walked around in circles onstage with his bass slung low like he was looking for something on the ground.  Neither he nor I owned an electronic tuner, so we were out of tune for the whole set.  My black Ibanez guitar pounded out grungy rhythms, and the solos, though definitely rough, showed the basic characteristics of what has become my playing style – a mixture of slow, soulful bends accented with more speedy pentatonic scale runs here and there to prove my dexterity.  My voice wobbled in and out of key through most of the set, and my throat was audibly dry from the jitters, but I remembered all the words and I belted them out as loud as I could.  I was sixteen, and even though I was scared to death, I felt at home on that stage.

That night was almost twenty years ago.  It was the first time I’d walked offstage to greet my loyal friends and a few new people who admired what I had just done.  I soaked it all in.  I’ve never abused drugs, but that night I definitely felt a high – and it’s a high I’ve chased ever since.  Sure, I have nights where playing music feels like a job, and the guy throwing compliments is too drunk to even know where he is, let alone truly appreciate my performance – but most of the time I can’t wait to get on the stage and just let life go.  Up there on stage, I forget about breakups and the last thing that she said.  Up there on stage, it doesn’t matter which bills still need to be paid.  Up there on stage, my idiot boss is three million miles away.  Up there on stage, the collective works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and the merits of the TPA lesson format are as useless as paperweights on the moon.  Up there on stage, it makes no difference if my back aches, or if my eardrums are stressed, or even if my fingers start bleeding.  Up there on stage, all that matters is a crisp but warm, perfectly-bent E note sent from my PRS guitar through my perfectly dialed-in pedalboard and out of my sixty-watt Fender SuperSonic tube amp.  Somehow, I know that that’s what Cliff Burton must have felt in 1983, when he played a bass solo in one take in a San Francisco studio that changed the course of my life.

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