Copyright 1999 By Mac Beaulieu
From Aural Innovations #10 (June 2000)
". . . so they find this guy on a Pacific island -- decades after the war, and he refuses to
believe it's over!"
"It makes you think, doesn't it?"
"Well, yeah. It makes me think about how much I wish you'd shut up and start playing."
"I wish you'd both shut up and start playing! We've got our most important major gig tomorrow night and I'd --"
"My gig on the toilet this morning was more important than that! How many times are we gonna play for these irrational cave people and call it a "major gig"?! There's an entire world out there for Timmy's sake!"
"No need to start taking his name in vain now!"
"I don't care! Timothy Leary is probably dead anyway! And for all we know the Vietnam war could be over. Our parents came here almost 30 years ago; who the hell knows what's out there now! Even if it isn't over, I don't think we should hide anymore. It's time we let the world know that Mellow Ham is here and Mellow Ham rules dirt!"
So it was that Mellow Ham set out to conquer the world. Despite their disillusionment with the fact that they do not yet rule the dirt, the pathetic state of popular musics inspires them to persevere and make their mark. They do this by playing very loudly, very frequently, and very loudly. And very loudly.
To date, they've established recognition from at least three notable entities: head shops, convenience stores, and insurance companies. Consider the example of their most recent concert, where their mark has manifested itself as the charred remains of the lovely and historical Patriots Theater.
Global communication via the Internet has ensured that today's musical underground is at mole-level. Thus, a small army of rabid freaks mobilizes when the Hamsters' come to town. The first casualties are the local head shops, their shelves left bereft of stock. Thirty minutes later the convenience stores are attacked. Specifically targeted is anything in a plastic bag, preferably those items with soft creamy centers or those with a salty crunch. Liquids are history. This evening, Patriots Theater is abuzz in more respects than the obvious one. Such as the buzz coming from the stage. Mellow Ham's bass player is responsible for equipment management. Considering their communal families' penchant for creative names, one thinks that "High Voltage" would have been a good choice here. Instead, he was prophetically named "Fire". Tonight would be special, as Fire was inaugurating a wall of old amplifiers to complement their already considerable arsenal of vintage gear. In the quiet (except of course for the buzz), darkened theater, the equipment on stage shone with a satisfying warm glow, with enough tubes to supply the former Soviet Air Force. Special too because it was the first time that "Space" would go near his Leslies since they tried to eat him during an intensive bout with "Wizard's" latest chemistry project.
Wizard is the spiritual focus of the band. He wields his guitar like a magic staff, weaving a hypnotic spell on his audience and sucking them in like vacuous disciples. Despite his proclivity for pharmacological experimentation, he is adamantly opposed to taking hallucinogenic drugs himself for two reasons: First, he is plagued by nightmares in which he is coerced into getting stoned before a show. During the night's most climactic moment, with all lights and eyes on him, he cracks a smile. The Prince of Darkness does not crack a smile. The second reason is still as fresh as a scabless wound: He was approached by an Italian band who was on the brink of recording the ultimate progressive rock album. "Montagnio Nero's" highly lauded first two efforts were mere hints of the brilliance they reserved for their upcoming third. For this, they wanted masterfully dark English lyrics with the sun-shiny promise of a black hole.
Wizard met his calling. Wizard knew that an angry drunken stupor was the ideal mental vehicle to drive his pen, yet Fire convinced him that LSD was the key to unlock his latent creativity. Before the night and his trip were over, he mailed his magnum opus to Italy in both written and spoken forms. After weeks of grueling rehearsal and painstaking effort to get their pronunciation clear and Anglicized, Montagnio Nero recorded their album in conspicuous secrecy. Then with much solemnity and a heartfelt flourish of gratitude, they sent the first copy to Wizard along with an extensive -- and expensive -- calligraphied lyric sheet, to be included with each of the CDs, which were printed in unprecedented numbers. Though horrified beyond belief, he nonetheless felt too guilty to tell them the ghastly truth. "Flubble Belly Poops the Petulant Squiggle-Bunnies" was released to a ruthlessly mocking world, casting a deathly pallor on a colorful career.
The crowd was filing -- floating -- in with fevered anticipation. Matches and lighters were lighting everywhere, but curiously, the resulting smoke never quite overcame the smell of burning attic dust. Without warning, a tympanic drumroll marshaled the arrival of the band as the bass rumbled threateningly. Layers of hideous shrieks cried out from the Mellotrons, then all fell silent except for one steady note from a Hammond organ. As it grew increasingly louder, the Leslies fired up, the lights lit up, and the rest of the band thundered in a tumultuous crash as they unleashed their sinister, snarling brand of classic heavy progressive rock, unheard of this side of a time warp. The crowd's reaction was a mix of unbridled enthusiasm and nervous tension. The band fed hungrily off the crowd's energy as everything seemed to reach the pinnacle of synergy. Emotions were high, yet an increasing sense of alarm was felt in the audience, such was the fearful intensity of the music. It may have also had something to do with the fire that began to rage on the stage. Growing cries of "fire" ascended from the crowd as Fire proudly hammered on his bass, until he realized they were shouting "fire", not "Fire". Everyone bolted in a panic-stricken frenzy while Fire selflessly rescued as much gear as he could. Forty-three people were treated and released at the local hospital as the four closest fire departments wrestled with the blaze. Fire was on an adrenalin rush as he kissed his blessed charges and packed them on the truck. Settling down, he casually remarked, "I think we were at our peak there. That was an awesome gig." "Our most important gig yet, "commented Wizard as the others slept peacefully in the Mellow Limo, on its way to their next important major gig.
76 had been nurturing a few interests that were to converge inevitably and lead to their most important major gig. An interest in Germany was piqued by krautrock and the enduring German hippy movement, as well as a love for Schlenkerla Rauchbier from Bamburg. After developing a morbid fascination with Defoe's "Journal of the Plague Year" and anything else related to the Black Death, he was delighted to learn that an entire German village perished quite gruesomely at the hand of the plague and has been deserted ever since. He instinctively recognized this site as the perfect foil for a major Mellow Ham gig. The band agreed.
In preparation for the show, Wizard sequestered himself from the rest of the band. As the primary composer he would formulate his ideas and present them to the band for final arrangement. Not that the others were incapable of writing good music; Wizard excelled at it, he knew it, and he immersed himself in it fully. For two full days and nights he toiled without food or respite. He produced a night's worth of music whose intent was to scare the living daylights out of anyone who heard it. "Coincidently" they only rehearsed it during the day.
After a lengthy trip and a fiasco with customs, they were ready to begin their long journey through the German countryside. The group, as usual when they arrived at a new place together, felt their collective presence profoundly: 76, Wizard, Fire, Space, and Jeff ambled randomly with an air of mental distractedness as they collected provisions for their trip. 76 loaded up on rauchbier and smoked cheese, despite his mild lactose intolerance. Wizard cynically believed 76 ate cheese to ensure that he would be afforded ample personal space. Wizard himself was too busy reading to eat: something to do with leather, chains and bondage, of the medieval torture type. Fire bought rice cakes. He always kept a rice cake handy in his back pocket so he'd always have something to eat. When you eat rice cakes you always do need something to eat. Space was in heaven with a grease-laden bag full of freshly cooked sausages, red cabbage, spaetzle, and fried potatoes with a fried egg on top. After feigning nausea like an actor in a 1960's Sci-Fi movie, Fire succumbed to temptation and begged Space for some of his generous bounty. This left Jeff, second guitar and effects. Jeff was born and named before his parents' first hallucinogenic experience, which subsequently led them to a wholesale lifestyle swap that culminated in their trip to the commune (as well as their trips in the commune). Jeff smugly indulged in a balanced meal that was worthy of a dietary textbook. He saw his role in the band as that of the voice of reason, which is precisely why he was perpetually ignored.
When they arrived at the site of the show, they were filled with awe. The former village was now a macabre scene of overgrown rubble with the remnants of a deteriorating graveyard. Low clouds kept the mist in confinement as it alternately concealed and exposed the time-ravaged monuments to the dead. Ancient trees surrounded the village in stark anger, their branches pointing accusing fingers at the village for robbing them of their land so many years ago.
This was happening. Mellow Ham were into eerie gloominess. Stage fright took on a whole new meaning for them, and especially for those who would see them next weekend. The band thrived on the notion that people might harbor an element of fear as they watched their shows. Not fear of the Halloween type: that's too lighthearted. Modern chop-em-up horror flicks: too tangible. The supernatural: not tangible enough. No, The Hamsters loved Gothic fright, that which came from the diabolical minds of madness, or in this case, the tortured souls of the dead.
The show was put on at considerable expense, as it was no mean feat to transport all of their equipment and generators over the barely passable terrain. Large quantities of beer were provided to the many guides who led the intrepid fans to the event. The benevolent Wizard provided a special pharmacological cocktail for everyone. It was all worth it for the band as this event was to provide invaluable inspiration for a long time to come.
All elements were in their place. The air was full of mist as the final moments of twilight yielded to the foreboding darkness. The night's silence was suitably disturbing. Clinging together closely, the waiting crowd kept their apprehension at bay with nervous conversation and Wizard's cocktail, though the latter was probably not a good idea.
The band was ready. Ready to unleash an aural raging storm to rival the mighty storms of Jupiter, while possessing its weighty gravity as well. For the beginning of the show the stage was dimly backlit to emphasize the darkness and enhance the feeling of mystery. Wizard walked purposefully to the center mike and stood, a silhouette in silence. He was the Prince of Darkness. With his jet-black eyes, hair, closely-cut beard, and black clothes from his boots to his cape, he was the only member who didn't dress differently for the show. He lifted his arms and began to recite Shamanistic verses. His voice rose in pitch and urgency, gradually increasing his aura of otherworldliness. As if becoming possessed, his body contorted as he began to moan and wail. At this point the uneasiness he expected from the crowd was in fact, pure terror. Just when they needed him to break out in the theme song from "Barney", the lights blared, flames flared, and the rest of the band howled and shrieked like tortured demons from beyond as the frightful sounds of Mellotron, Hammond, screeching guitars, and tympany blasted forth like Armageddon. Everyone bolted in a panic-stricken frenzy as the band continued to play. Very loudly. In the still night their sound raged for miles as their helpless victims scattered randomly throughout the unknown forest.
After several days all were accounted for through the concerted efforts of organized search and rescue teams, police dogs, helicopters, and the German army. It was reported internationally in print and on television.
"Ahhh, this is just the kind of exposure we need," crooned Fire as they basked in the
luxurious rays of the media.
"Definitely our most important major gig yet," answered Wizard as he schemed inwardly.
Jeff insisted that the band's next important major gig should be at a location where theoretically nothing could possibly lead to a disaster that would result in injuries to innocent people, or the loss and/or destruction of equipment.
"Scah-REW that shit!" retorted Fire as he salvaged the last of the rice cake crumbs from his back pocket. Upon first glance at the lanky madman known as Fire, one's initial thought was "hair". Just like the man who grew it, his curly, frizzy, black hair was scarcely under control. It erupted wildly from his head, face, and body to the point where it would inspire laughter. Nobody laughed however, because the next feature noticed was his maniacal eyes: Like an outraged house-thief who's found his home has been burgled, his eyes bulged madly under brows that darted angrily to the bridge of his nose.
"A Mellow Ham concert is a force to be reckoned with. Scah-REW the pansies who can't survive it!" He knew that his exaggerated pronunciation of the word "screw" was a source of irritation for Jeff.
Fire being the least likely to respond to reason, Jeff played his trump card: "Wizard. You spend a lot of time and energy writing great music. Don't you realize that not once have our fans seen a complete show?"
Fire fumed as the band plotted their "safe show", to be played in the middle of a desert. He did some plotting of his own as well. It was highly unlikely that any harm, or even some benign controversy, would come from a show in the middle of a desert. So in exchange for his agreeing to do the gig, he got permission to write a song of his own, especially for the show. What he viewed as a triumph was merely a pacifier in the others' eyes.
The turnout was surprisingly good. After the opening band "Delirium Tremens" finished, Mellow Ham walked onto the stage to the cheers of their largest crowd yet. This Memorial Day weekend would be something to remember, The Hamsters would see to that. They started the set with their classic opener, "Awaken The Dark", as the full moon rose to cast a stunning glow on the desert landscape. Spirits were high tonight as the music took on a life of its own, driving its performers to play in empathy with the beauty of the moonlit night. The Mellotron strings enveloped all in their lush embrace as the songs' lilting melodies touched their souls with bittersweet lullabies. Wizard's works of darkness were transformed, if only just tonight.
This wouldn't do. Wizard was worried about his reputation. Fire was not, for it was time for the world debut of "Scah-REW That Shit!", featuring Jeff on lead guitar and backing vocals. It was Fire's rant against . . . well, everything basically. A recurring theme however was the American military -- a sort of commemorative damnation of Memorial Day:
Scah-REW the American military machine!
Scah-REW the evil and murdering marine!
A little aggression was quite welcome at this point as Fire's impassioned cries penetrated the darkness unhindered. The sound system was at its peak, flowing with a liquid warmth. It was very loud, but superbly engineered. Each sound, each syllable, was as clear as the desert sky.
If one could, one might hitch a ride on the air vibrations associated the lyric cited above. Ride the vibrations as they float effortlessly across the desert landscape; barren, yet full of the life and glorious vistas that are peculiar to these climes. Coded vibrations riding free on an indiscriminate search for a tympanic membrane to receive their message and pass it on for decoding. An unlikely prospect in the middle of this vast, uninhabited wasteland. One can't imagine what flight of fancy or breech of sanity would lead another to settle this drought-ridden, sun-baked, bone-scattered, inhospitable . . . but wait! An anomaly is before you: Lights . . . buildings . . . movement . . . ears perhaps? Yes! An enormous monument to man's pursuit of self-preservation! Dozens of square miles of man and machine, a home to America's fighting marine! A desert military base filled with thousands of youthful, battle-starved warriors, fueled with a heightened sense of patriotism and a heightened blood-alcohol level as they indulge in a celebration of Memorial Day to honor the memories of those soldiers who gave their lives for their country. You ride the still potent vibrations as they lovingly insert themselves into the eagerly receptive orifices on the heads of these mechanisms of adrenalin. The message is decoded:
Scah-REW the American military machine!
Scah-REW the evil and murdering marine!
If one could, one might hitch a ride on a Hum-V responding to the lyric cited above. Ride the Hum-V as it tears effortlessly across the desert landscape along with a horizon-filling wave of assorted military vehicles with a destiny. Drunk and full of life, the occupants were embarking on an indiscriminate search for some heads to act as tympanic membranes to receive the vibrations of their tightly clenched fists. Yup -- there's the anomaly on the vast desert landscape: a bunch of insurgent potheads, bouncing and weaving to some tyrannical asshole trashing The United States of America! Guided by the light of the stage, they approached at high speed with their lights out. The music's volume ensured that none of the concert goers would hear the approach of their new friends. The vehicles stopped, and on cue via radio signal, they turned all their lights on the crowd. Taken totally by surprise, the gaping-mouthed band stopped playing.
In the utter desert silence, one could hear the sound of a pin drop if weren't for the sound of a thousand furious, blood-thirsty marines screaming like banshees charging their prey. After the initial shock subsided everyone bolted in a panic-stricken frenzy. Groups of marines scattered after the hapless fans, but most remained for the primary target: the band, with Fire as its focal point. They rushed the stage to seek revenge on the culprits responsible for those damnable affronts to their country's departed heroes. Surrounding the stage, their onslaught was momentarily halted, for in the middle of them all was Fire. Brandishing a knife, he glanced around desperately like a cornered animal, darting to and fro, keeping the enemy at bay. Wizard's presence alone was self-protection enough: it seemed an inexplicable blasphemy to assault the impressive figure. Ever the nimble thinker, he launched into a fuzz-stained rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic". 76 contributed a crisp, patriotic marching snare while Space served up the coup de grace: a fat, monophonic synth rendering of "America The Beautiful", providing a touching counterpoint to the honored marine anthem. The soldiers were quite moved to tears by this impromptu gesture. Though Fire protested like a madman, no one could hear his throat-tearing screams as he "officially" declared war on The United States of America.
The band continued to play for the inebriated fighting men as Fire sulked dejectedly beside a keg of beer. When the show was over, the new allies swore drunken oaths of lifelong friendships amidst much hugging, handshaking, and backslapping.
Upon reflection, Fire realized he had almost single-handedly caused an extraordinary disaster. Drunk with the pride of his accomplishment he boasted, "That was brilliant! I think I've introduced Mellow Ham to a whole new audience!"
Wizard looked at him blandly: "Fuck you."
Outside the unairconditioned van, Cairo was a humid 105F degrees. A suffocating stillness blanketed the city and choked all hopes for a breezy relief. The streets were ablaze with the colors of food and textiles bursting from overflowing market stalls, while uniquely Arabian voices spoke forth in song, further cementing a timeless sense of place. Unique as well was the fragrance that permeated the olfactory senses of those in the van. Dominated by a sharp spice-like character, an underlying fruitiness swept its way into the sinuses before turning decidedly sour, with a rich pungency not entirely unlike rotting fruit. Despite the open windows, the air in the crowded van was thick with odor because Mellow Ham did not believe in underarm deodorant. Growing up on the commune without antiperspirants was perfectly natural to them; in fact, they rather liked the smell of the human body, though most third parties were inclined to agree that a shower or two more per month would not have done any harm.
The uniquely Arabian voice filling the air in the van was that of the driver who was threatening to throw the band out in the street if they didn't use some of his cologne. His head was swimmy and his stomach promised to remind him what he ate for lunch in a violently distasteful manner. As the band refused, the driver's insistance escalated until he was quite hysterical, his veins protruding grotesquely under his skin, which had reddened to the point of masking his normally deep bronze color. Fire laughed as he waved a brochure under his raised arm in the direction of the driver.
"You very bad men! VERY, VERY BAD!!!"
Egypt was to be the band's first foray into ethnic exoticism. The site was chosen partly because Jeff suggested they to do something different but safe, after their narrow escape in the American desert. Thus, the logic of the rest of the band reasoned, they should try the incendiary location of a Third World desert. Another reason was the addition of two new members to the band: twin brothers from the commune, they were of ambiguous ethnic descent, though they liked to consider themselves Arabic. The hyperactive brothers played hand drums with commanding intensity and verve, filling out the band's sound with extra depth and a newfound ethnicity.
Bam and Bamm were following behind in a truck filled with Mellow Ham's gear. After brushing the dust and dirt off the other slightly shaken members of the band, they made room for them among the equipment. The brothers, who seemed to do everything in choreographed unison, ushered the band into the vented oven that was the back of the truck. Fire was the only one who naively argued with them about who should get to ride in the air-conditioned cab.
"Juss gait een da vahn mahn," they said as they tossed Fire headfirst into a gong. Guided by a combination of what appeared to be telepathy and their own idiosynchratic language, the twins were masters of their own destiny, as well as the destiny of anyone who chose to associate with them. Their annoying, virtually unintelligable pseudo-ethnic accents were entirely self-generated; a sort of cross between French and Jamaican accents although they were supposed to be Arabic.
Just 3 hours drive would take them to the site of the show. This was about 2 hours and 59 minutes too long for Fire, who drank his entire water supply while in the first van. Banging on the back of the cab while screaming "I have to go to the bathroom" didn't cause the truck to stop. In fact, he could have sworn he heard howls of laughter coming from the cab.
Groups of curious people were perched on a pyramid that sat perpendicularly to the stage. Mountains of amplifliers -- they seemed to multiply like rabbits between each show -- were piled high like mini pyramids. Of special note was the percussion area: congas, gongs, glockenspiel, wood blocks, chimes, gourds, bells, etc., were at Bam and Bamm's disposal. They had no intention of using them. 76's tympani were their targets, much to his chagrin. The Bam(m)sters had sent their hand drums out for refinishing the week previously, a decision that led Wizard close to firing them.
The show began well into the night when the temperature had mercifully gone down. Wizard had his Middle Eastern vocalizations down, and the music was tailored to them. Though convincing in theory, in performance it wasn't very effective since it couldn't be heard over the tympani. Bam and Bamm hijacked an inappropriate amount of amplifiers to mike their drums, and they pounded them furiously. The rest of the band didn't try to decrease the tymps' level though: No, in standard Mellow Ham fashion they turned everything else up. Each member increased his volume in round-robin fashion as they demanded of each other to turn "my volume up and yours down!"
The ground was shaking violently and some members of the crowd were vomitting. Some were also being pelted by stones and a fight broke out between those that were hit and those they believed had hit them. Then they realized it was the pyramid crumbling above them.
Chaos ensued as everyone bolted in a panic-stricken frenzy. The band viewed this display with a sickening sense of déja vu as they wondered "what the hell was the problem now?" They didn't wonder long as the massive entrance gate that was behind them plummetted to the ground with a mighty thunder. All eyes were directed at the loss of this ancient historical edifice while the band slunk away sheepishly.
Fury replaced shock as the crowd demanded death to the Hamsters. People grabbed torches as they scattered in pursuit of the band. Initially, they screamed and searched fruitlessly for band members amongst themselves. The loudest of them all were Bam and Bamm, frothing at the mouth as they mockingly demanded vengeance on the evil representatives of Satan. They started packing the gear in the truck, intimating to the crowd that they were stealing it. The crowd helped them and within minutes Bam and Bamm were driving away with the equipment intact.
Meanwhile, the rest of the band had slipped into a crypt they had explored earlier. Following a tortuous maze, they decided on a hiding spot and turned off their flashlights. After Wizard tied his bandana around Space's whimpering mouth, they fell completely silent.
Distant voices came closer and closer as the band resigned themselves to hours of painful torture before a slow death under the desert sun. When even the remotest hope seemed futile, the voices suddenly turned and started leaving the crypt. Breathing a sigh of relief, Fire sat heavily on a stone, causing the rice cake in his back pocket to crackle loudly. In the echoic chamber it sounded like a string of firecrackers, leading the pursuers to charge toward them with renewed vigor. Just then a young man stepped forward and said it was he who made the noise. He locked his hands together and cracked his knuckles to demonstrate. After an irritated elder slapped him, the crowd rushed outside to make up for lost time. The young man found the band and introduced himself as one who would help.
After a few hours of patient silence, they took a circuitous route to the airport in the man's car. During the trip they suspected they were being followed. As the ride's length grew, so did the length of the vehicle chain behind them. Cars left the chain in efforts to catch him at anticipated intersections, but he nimbly out-maneuvered them as though he was obsessed with a personal mission. And indeed he was: If he wasn't so focused on his driving, he may have told the band about the beautiful girl he desired to wed. Though they loved each other dearly, her uncle would not consent to the marraige because the young man was broke. If only he had a modest savings, that and his employment would be enough to have the woman of his dreams. Since he imagined all American rock and roll musicians to be as rich as sultans, he assumed the band would lavish him with a generous reward. He had a saber in the car in case they didn't.
At the airport, Bam and Bamm plotted to demand a considerable ransom for saving the band's equipment. This would include a lump sum of money, a percentage of profits from all recordings including those they weren't involved in, and majority control of the band. They loaded the plane and made arrangements for a speedy take-off immediately upon the band's arrival. The would-be band leaders drew up a contract and congratulated themselves on their impending coup as they waited outside the plane, armed with mallets.
By daybreak, scores of vehicles cluttered the front of the airport. A flood of angry would-be assassins awaited the arrival of the band as they too plotted against the imperiled musicians. The would-be bridegroom drove at very high speed past the front of the airport and headed straight for the runway fence. Laughing like a madman, he crashed through the fence and followed Wizard's directions to the plane. The trail of vehicles behind them increased exponentially as the pilot of the plane prepared for take-off. The Hamsters charged out of the car and ran for the safety of the plane as Bam and Bamm slept peacefully on the grass amidst the confusion. The plane started rolling away as Jeff climbed the last stair.
Realizing he forgot to demand his reward, the bridegroom begged hysterically for the plane to stop, but to no avail. With angry tears streaming down his face, he turned to face the onslaught of the failed assasins, whose apparent front man was his love's very own uncle.
The uncle was beside himself in an uncomprehending rage as he realized his niece's lowly love was responsible for aiding and abetting "The Great Destroyers'" escape. His rhetorical demands for an explanation escalated until he was quite hysterical, his veins protruding grotesquely under his skin, which had reddened to the point of masking his normally deep bronze color. The Hamsters, now taxiing down the runway, would have recognized this man as the tormented driver of their first van.
Gazing coolly out the windows with an air of complete detachment from the scene outside, they watched as the two men fought wildly beside a van engulfed in flames. Out of their view were two more men, running behind the plane and waving their arms frantically as they gave chase.
"Anyone seen Bam and Bamm?" Space asked disinterestedly.
The others mumbled negatively as a veil of boredom shadowed their faces. Suddenly Fire sat up. With a broadening smile, he pulled out a reel of tape and announced: "Mellow Ham conquers Egypt!" Shouts of triumph were punctuated by high fives until a spot of turbulence littered the cabin floor with the Hamsters.
The others watched Fire devour a rice cake as they secretly pondered their mortality.
Helmut Klenchfister was a self-described "international southern hemispherical rogue tour operator, specializing in the sub-Antarctic islands and peninsula". He described his estrangement from the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) as "an amicable manifestation of our philosophical disconcordancements", in which he "respectfully withdrew from the confines of its maternalistic umbrella in favor of more indemnifacatory independant pursuancements." Whatever it meant, it sounded good to the band.
"Mr. Fister" docked on the Beagle Channel at Ushuaia Argentina. The band took a long, leisurely trip there, with no shows along the way. Wizard didn't like the idea of letting so much time lapse between gigs, especially since their next show -- in Antarctica -- would be recorded on video for posterity. Fire suggested that a quick concert in the southern-most city in the world would be a good warm-up, as well as an impressive feather in the Hamsters' cap. Instead they hurriedly boarded Mr. Fister's boat at the "suggestion" of some local gauchos.
Understandably, few people in history have made the treacherous trip to Antarctica. Those that have are usually filled with a sense of overwhelming awe, as well as a realization of their vulnerability and insignificance in the untamed wilderness. Conversely, as the band set sail they experienced a sense of their explorative command of the world: "Prepare to succumb to the powers of Mellow Ham!" Fire bellowed to the sea.
"This is your Captain speaking. The first leg of our trip will be spent crossing Drake's Passage. It takes two days and can get just a weeeeee bit wavy. You may want to take a few of my pills and take them as needed." Jeff took Mr. Fister up on his offer of sea-sickness pills as the rest of the band sneered. They laughed as Fire tossed the rest of the pills out to sea with exaggerated ceremony.
The first hour of the journey was occupied by the band hamming it up, feigning sea sickness and imitating Jeff taking his "pillie-willies" so he wouldn't get "sicky-wicky". Jeff spent the time rummaging through their belongings to find some brochures he requested from the IAATO.
Jeff felt his name and appearance were rather exotic, inasmuch as his "normal-ness" stood in sharp contrast to the ragged, hippy excesses of the rest of the band; he imagined that people would wonder about this enigmatic character. The other members felt he gave the band a bad reputation, inasmuch as his presence might give them a good reputation.
Space: "Why don't you try not combing your hair?"
Fire: "Why don't you change your name to Skidmark?"
76: "How about wearing your clothes for a few more days before washing them?"
Fire: "How about growing some hair on your shoulder blades?"
Jeff figured that two days crossing the passage would be the perfect opportunity to review the environmental protocols set forth in the Antarctic Treaty System. After briefly perusing them he presented his idea to the band.
"Scah-REW the goddamned protocols!" vomitted Fire. He, Wizard, Space, and 76 moaned in wretched misery as they rocked across the Passage, one of the world's fiercest waterways.
Their miserable journey ended upon their arrival at a site suggested by Mr. Fister for its mix of elements that were classic Antarctica: It was a modest beach head with a towering glacier behind it. Uncountable thousands of penguins and seals made a playground on the beach and bergs. Chunks of ice as big as houses broke off occasionally, crashing violently into the ocean or on the beach. It was December, the height of summer.
Ominous as nature's mayhem was, the band had to get off the boat and onto dry, non-moving land. Unfortunately, after rocking on the ocean for two days, their bodies weren't going to give up that motion without a fight. Mercifully, it wasn't bad enough to cause them to vomit again. But the fragrant elephant seals were. The band couldn't imagine a more god-awful smell, though Wizard suggested 76's bedroom "ranked" a close second.
"If it ain't your damned lactose intolerance it's your pot plants!"
"It's a farm Wizard. It's a pot farm. Any professional farmer uses nature's fertilizers -- "
"Soliciting waste from any neighbor who has a pet in exchange for the occasional spliff is not exactly the height of agricultural professionalism!"
"It's agrarianism Wizard."
"You wouldn't know agrarianism if it bit you on the ass and said Hi, in the name of the Council of Agrarianism, I'm here to redistribute your pot farm' --"
"I'm talking about sharing resources Wizard, not land distribution."
"I want to get back to the farting!" Space interjected.
"Oh, nice! Now you're gonna make fun of a natural, virtually crippling malady -- "
"Malodory more like," said Fire joining the fray.
"There are pills you can take for that 76," Jeff reasoned. "It's hardly a crippling malady."
"Listen Jeff, just because you're willing to throw any ol' pill down your throat --"
"Oh, excuse me! I guess I should be buying my pills from some guy named "Animal", as he presents his grimey, crusty hands adorned with chewed and dented fingernails, full of bacterial luxury condominiums, unlabeled drugs and pocket lint, professing to have the only supply you'll find in that miserable little rat-infested gutter complex that he calls his world as his breath, smelling like your bedroom, wafts through the air past his barnacled teeth and snotty nose!"
Insulted and out of patience, 76 presented the band with a challenge: He angrily announced that he was going to set up his drums on the perilous beach to play the show. The rest of the band watched uneasily as he promptly turned around and marched to the ship for his gear. The next step was obvious: Since no member was brave enough to appear cowardly, they cowardly set about the business of appearing brave. They set up.
Space chuckled nervously as he suggested they perform a Mellow Ham "unplugged" set, with no response. The band plugged in and started to warm up. 76 pounded a violent drum-roll and stopped. The roll echoed eerily off the glaciers; they rumbled in response. He pounded again and the ground quaked beneath their feet as the ice shifted. He cracked his sticks to signal the start of the set -- there was no turning back! The volume was at its usual peak level, and 76 pounded the drums with unrelenting fury. The sound rode the wind across the sea for a hundred miles or more. It was unclear whether the ground's shaking was caused by the music or the ice shifting. All but 76 eyed the glacier with mounting apprehension. Mr. Fister grinned mischievously as he thanked himself for his cash-in-advance policy. He figured the video equipment was far enough to escape harm, and he was looking forward to his next client's cruise: the Medditeranean, "his specialty".
Small chunks of ice were tumbling down as Space made the sign of the cross. By now the band had turned around completely as they watched the threatening wall of death. 76 refused to make eye contact with the others, so he played with his eyes closed. No one could see as Mr. Fister gathered up the video equipment and set sail. As he made his escape he blew his massive horn and waved good-bye to the suckers.
The horn obviously came from a distance and the band spun around in horror. They reeled at their predicament: stranded on Antarctica!
Though long-term survival was of compelling concern, of immediate concern were the penguins, who apparently did not share the band's enthusiasm for loud music: Thousands of pissed-off penguins were charging the stage. All manner of embarrassing sounds came from the speakers as the guitarists plucked randomly at strings while they scrambled to get their guitars off, Space climbed on his keyboards, and 76 tripped and fell into his kit, sending drums rolling, cymbals crashing, and a cow bell bouncing.
No sooner did Mr. Fister's ship leave their sight than another ship came into view. This one looked a little more "official" than the Hamsters would have liked, but they weren't in a position to be choosy. Surrounded by ruthlessly pecking penguins, they jumped and danced and "ooched" and "ouched" while the microphones picked up every sound and broadcasted them out to sea.
As happy as they were to see their rescuers, it was painfully obvious that the sentiment wasn't mutual. They were ordered to pick up every scrap of their equipment and put it on the ship, after which they were to board and keep their mouths shut. As visions of unrelenting torture filled their minds, they suddenly realized they had to cross Drake's Passage again. Jeff snuck one of Mr. Fister's pills into his mouth while the others weren't looking. None of them dared ask the crew if they had any.
As they pulled into shore they were finally spoken to by two men wearing imposing starched uniforms and immense, gleaming black boots. One, who seemed perhaps a non-commisioned officer, carried a clipboard with forms on it. The other was apparently an officer. They were here to take names.
Space stepped forward. Attempting to act casual, he chuckled stiffly and said, "Listen, El-Cap-ee-tain, let me explain --"
He was promptly spun around and an immense, gleaming black boot bonded briefly but firmly to his backside, sending him soaring through the air exactly like a penguin doesn't.
After the formalities (which included notification that they and their equipment would arrive at permanently different destinations) they were taken to their cell. A portentous cloak of doom embraced them.
The boys spent much of the ensuing time tearfully redressing past wrongs and promising trusting friendship until death. Except Wizard. He sat silently until he could stand it no longer.
"ENOUGH! of your teeth-chattering, nail-biting, bellie-aching, tear-jerking, hand-wringing, heart-wrenching, sniveling, defeatist bullshit! Enough already! We're gonna stay here for a few days, we'll get out and find a promoter. Then we'll make some money and buy new equipment. Simple as that. We'll be back where we were in no time, playing Mellow Ham songs."
Jeff was enjoying the closeness and openness that he and the other members were experiencing. He was angered by Wizard's outburst and was feeling confrontational. "Speaking of Mellow Ham songs, I've written one myself that I want the band to play."
Space, 76, and Fire fidgetted conspicuously while avoiding eye-contact with Wizard. Wizard lifted one brow and looked down his nose at Jeff. Although they outwardly spoke of Mellow Ham as a democratic affiliation of musicians that just happened to play only his music, the unspoken truth was that Wizard was a dictator who ruled his subjects utterly. This was the first flagrant grab for power.
"Alright. I'll listen."
Jeff picked up the tattered acoustic guitar that the officials laughingly allowed him. He strummed the first chord and was immediately interrupted.
"Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa! What the hell was that?"
"That was a major chord, Wizard."
"A major chord. I've written a ballad Wizard; it has a gentle sound. I think it's time for a change in direction for the band."
"Oh you do, do you? Well you're not in the band to think! You're in the band to play as I say play, just like the rest of you losers! I write the songs and decide the band's direction!" It was in the open now.
"I already played it for the others and they agreed to use it."
A mutiny? "Is this true?" Wizard stood aghast. "This is supposed to be a democracy and you've all conspired against me!" He looked like Arthur discovering his knights were no longer true. "Then this is my ultimatum: Either we don't play Jeff's song, or I am no longer a part of Mellow Ham." He was incredulous when he saw the other members did not immediately show a change of mind.
"I'll laugh as I watch you sink."
Wizard sat in front of the television and contemplated his freedom; a newfound freedom that lesser people might find lonely. He however, felt light and nimble, no longer shackled by the confines of the plebeian bullshit that was the Mellow Ham democracy. Not that he ever really paid attention to the democracy, but at least now he didn't have to act as though he did. His positive mood shifted as he began to think about the band.
Mellow Ham. Humph. Not quite a household name, but who would want to be? They were big where it counted, and there they had no peer. Advancing the cause of prog-rock by attracting those who were tired of the mainstream, they were a beacon of darkness at the end of a tunnel.
Jeff. That misguided, "reasonable", pain in the ass. The instigator. Doesn't he know that reason is grossly overrated? In music it's an outright impediment to creativity.
Fire. Very disappointed in Fire. Formerly a freely reckless animal who savored life and devoured danger. Formerly a figurehead who's hedonistic drive was the spark of the band. Formerly a like-minded warrior that Wizard could count on without a second thought. Formerly . . . formerly Fire.
76. That temper tantrum in Antarctica brought out a side in him that he should let out more often. Imagine: a perpetually pissed-off percussionist! Regrettably, the only thing in life that was guaranteed to set him off was his name: "Named after the bicentennial?" was always the question, to which he'd froth at the mouth and rabidly denounce any hint of patriotism in himself or his parents. His parents didn't even name him at first. They thought names were symbols of self-centered individualism. They believed "boy" was a small part of the organic whole that was dust-organism-animal-earth-sun-universe. After years of confusion without a name, the legendary communal pot crop of 1976 gave cause for the ultimate celebration and a living memorial to that crop. "boy" became "76".
Space. Should be "Chameleon". He just wants to play his keys in a functional band and who can blame him? Whatever the other guys voted, he just went along for the ride. That's just Space.
One can't imagine what despicable, radio-ready rubbish they'll peddle now. It's a shame that the name Mellow Ham won't just live in infamy, its memory consisting only of its glorious, ferocious past. He looked to the television for escape.
Space: The final frontier.
No doubt they'll do well playing disgustingly accessible songs.
These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Unfortunately, people here and now will know Mellow Ham for whatever they're playing here and now.
Its five-year mission to explore strange new worlds.
There must be a way to preserve Mellow Ham's reputation for future generations . . .
To seek out new life and new civilizations.
. . . for all eternity . . .
To boldly go where no man has gone before!
That's it! Space! He had heard of people sending radio signals into space in hope that some intelligent life somewhere might hear it. That's what he would do.
Space. Intelligent life. Eternity!
So send the signals he did. He chose the recording of the Germany show since it was Mellow Ham at its fiercest. Everything seemed to fall into place as he sought out someone to transmit the signal; it was so easy it had to be right. He was feeling on top of the world. Ha! New direction for the band indeed. Major chords. Ballads. Gentle sounds. What bullshit!
"Major chords! Ballads! Gentle sounds! Scah-REW that shit!" Fire raged as rice cake crumbs bounced from his mouth like Mexican jumping beans. "Here is Mellow Ham in a major-label recording studio taking directions from a mannikin in golf attire on how we can appeal to ten year old kids who'll be listening to us with their mommies without cowering under their blankets! Space is using digital lounge-synths, 76 has a triangle added to his kit, and we've got guest musicians with clean clothes and perfect teeth calling their wives to see what's on for supper when they get home while singers oooh and aaah over the sounds of birdsong and running water!"
"The guest guitarist is pretty cool," Jeff attempted to fool himself.
"The guest guitarist is a poser! A loser! A twenty-year-old punk who thinks he's the first kid to wear a flannel shirt and blue jeans! He ridicules all the old-timers and denies their influence while copping every tired old lick they ever played! If I see his pimply little ass in here one more time I'm gonna take that birthday present he calls his "axe" and chop his limp little dick off with it!"
In a far away galaxy is a planet with a race of people who are lucky to exist. They evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, and in their Golden Age they were impossibly beautiful beings. Their planet was a marvel of pastoral beauty, their spirit of altruism ensured they had no need for government, their art was fully appreciated by all, their athletes were inspiring in win or in loss, and their philosophers had omniscient insight. Their music reached such stunning heights of majestic beauty that it was considered as vital as the air in which it naturally flowed. They were supremely intelligent, and though technologically advanced, they had no interest in space exploration. They loved each other, they loved their planet, and they loved life.
Their entrance into the Dark Age is traceable to a precise point in time: the moment they received the signal from Wizard. Until then, they had never heard utterance of anything even remotely dark. Since The Change, not a day has gone by in which each person hasn't lamented their intolerable state of existence. Like someone who can't avert his gaze from a horrible or threatening sight, they could not stop listening to Mellow Ham's music. For hundreds of thousands of years, the music has played without respite, while the people evolved into the most fearful and distrusting people in their galaxy. Now entirely nocturnal to best shield themselves from their very lives, they spend their nights in woeful misery and they long for their ancestors' lives of beauty and happiness.
They live in a paradoxical state of existence: The evil music forced them to evolve into extinction, yet by sheer will they continue to propagate their species so they may exact revenge on the aliens responsible for their pathetic state. Thus, their appearances and odors have become so utterly repugnant that they have to force themselves on one another to procreate. To repel physical contact they secrete slippery, foul-smelling oils from every pore of their poorly delineated, pale, mottled flesh, while suction cups on their hands allow the grip that enables forced sexual contact.
After many years, the Repuglians managed to pinpoint the exact time and space of the music's source, but they could not make the journey alone: they would need the help of The Intragalactic Powers. Though they were normally barred from contact with the Powers, as an indigenous galactic species they managed to secure a hearing to tell their tale.
The hearing was attended by representatives from a thousand worlds. With heart-wrenching poignancy, they reduced the panel to empathetic tears of anguish. Their alteration by aliens from another galaxy was incomprehensibly malicious. Indeed, the Grovelmutes claimed that they had sent an explorative mission to the same planet and after their people crash-landed, they were captured, imprisoned, killed, dissected and studied.
The Repuglians had already won the unanimous support of the Powers without resorting to their backup plan: They would have introduced the Music of Darkness to all the Powers' worlds, and it would most assuredly insinuate itself into the minds of their peoples like a virus.
Hundreds of gargantuan battle cruisers equipped with a collective gravity shifter were each bedecked with thousands of warships, themselves serving as launchpads for innumerable individual fighters and scouts. They were prepared for the worst we had to offer, but the Prudence Clause in the Powers' Warfare Policy prevented undue use of excessive force.
During the journey there was dissension regarding potential loopholes in that policy. For example, since the policy's preamble refers specifically to the Intergalactic Warfare Treaty established among the immediate galactic quad-cluster, some didn't believe our planet was protected since our galaxy is not within the cluster. These were the proponents of using the collective gravity shifter, which, by aligning the battle cruisers in a certain configuration and engaging the CGS, they would send our planet into a hyper-elliptical orbit, and hence to its doom.
This dissident group was also a dissident group at the Intragalactic Headquarters. The Slagborgs were by far the most militarily advanced of the galactic states (their technology was in fact, largely responsible for the galaxy's strength). The Powers forced their submission by sheer numbers: the rest of the galactic states outnumbered them by 1000:1. On this mission however, they had been granted the power of command overrule, for even by galactic proportions, this was a monumental endeavor. The Powers were grateful that the Slagborgs dedicated so much of their might. Upon their arrival at the planet, they planned to send a battalion of soldiers to the site of the alledged Grovelmute abduction.
After a long night's worth of drinking and composing, Wizard lay on his bed listening to giant mutant termites devouring his walls and furniture with an alarming voracity. Try as he might, he couldn't move to escape. The heinous sounds of their crackles and crunches hammered inside his aching head relentlessly: "crackle-crackle-crackle . . . crunch-crunch-crunch". And the coughing and throat-clearing. The forced and demanding coughing and throat-clearing: "crackle-crackle . . . crunch-crunch . . . aHEM!". Then came an ear-shattering belch that seemed to resonate from such an enormous cavity, it could come from no other source but . . . he opened his eyes and at the foot of the bed was Fire.
Alternately swilling beer and chomping rice cakes, Fire attacked his prey like an emaciated hyena on a freshly killed wildebeast. He met Wizard's groggy gaze, and without preface he immediately began recounting the unspeakable horrors of major-label recording studios. He rambled mercilessly as his voice got louder and louder and his actions became more comically animated and unchewed rice cake crumbs shot from his mouth at every "p" sound and it was painfully obvious that he was prepared to maintain his assault until whatever alien compounds that polluted his bloodstream faded away and he collapsed in exorcized exhaustion.
"Shut up Fire."
"No Wizard, you've got to listen!"
"No Fire, you've got to shut up."
"No really -- the others fell asleep days ago!"
"What the hell are you talking about?!"
"Your mother -- "
"Fire. You need to come down."
"No! I'm talking about the trees!"
"Alright. Come down from the trees then."
"No, listen! Your mother used to say that you can't plant a palm tree in Alaska. It won't flourish because it knows it's too far from home. It'll just die."
"My mother is an idiot, Fire."
"No! I realized Mellow Ham can't flourish without Wizard! Mellow Ham is not at home without you! The others are with me but they fell asleep days ago!"
"Yes, Jeff too. He knows he made a mistake. To prove he means it, he came up with a great idea for the site of our next concert! No, no, listen! He said we should play a reunion gig at Roswell!"
"Roswell, eh? Hmmm . . . I always said his ability to reason was a great asset for the band."
Roswell's crystal clear sky was ideal for Mellow Ham's most important major gig yet. The stars seemed out in abundance despite the full moon that illuminated the site in exquisite detail. A record crowd surrounded the stage and stretched as far back as Fire's inebriated eyes could see. The first rows of people were here to witness the glorious reunion of their favorite band. The next rows were curiosity seekers and journalists here to see what all the fuss was about with Mellow Ham. The following rows were here to see the man responsible for setting fire to a major recording studio and circumcising a young musician with a Fender Stratocaster. The rows after that were local folk and tourists here for a leisurely night out. The rows after that were Repuglians, Slagborgs, Grovelmutes, Blortfiends, and other assorted aliens here to destroy the planet. This last group had approached the crowd surreptitiously in hopes that they might manage to "fit in" and learn something about this planet's strange inhabitants before blowing them to pieces.
As they played, the band was a hypnotic focal point, seizing the eyes and minds of those who watched. The crowd formed a sea of swaying heads and bodies, deliriously soaking in the Mellotron washes and flashes of Hammond. Wizard and Jeff's guitar leads intertwined as they soared and spiraled into the heavens. The Slagborgs and Blortfiends were particularly moved, writhing, gyrating, bouncing and grinding to the music.
The stage was flanked on either side by large screens that displayed various close-ups of the band, the crowd, the moon, or whatever struck the fancy of the camera crew. What struck their fancy presently was the group of aliens at the back of the crowd. The crowd cheered riotously at the incredible special effects props. As good as the props were however, many thought it rather gratuitous to keep the same image up for so long. Unbeknownst to them, the camera operators were fleeing blindly through the desert. Just then a gentle breeze blew toward the backs of the crowd, carrying the putrefying odor of the Repuglians with it. The crowd turned.
Human and alien alike were shocked and startled, sending everyone on both sides scrambling in a panic-stricken frenzy. Various weapons' fire scattered randomly among the spooked aliens as the band watched in disbelief.
The Repuglians re-grouped and rushed toward the band. They pointed angry fingers at Wizard as they played back part of the Germany concert.
"Oops," understated Wizard.
The band began slowly backing away as the Repuglians shouted for the rest of the aliens to attack the monsters.
"Not so fast!" cautioned the Slagborg leader. "We hear much to value in this Mellow Ham." The Blortfiends extended shouts of agreement.
The Grovelmute representative stepped in: "You mustn't forget our mission! It is the will of the Intragalactic Powers that we exact revenge on these creatures in the name of the Repuglians!"
"It was the Powers' will on the Repuglians' word." The Slagborg was calmly defiant. "We
disagree with the Repuglian pretense, therefore we shall exercise command overrule and end this
"Then prepare to fight!" challenged the Grovelmute.
"Then prepare to die!" answered the Slagborg.
Each side called in reinforcements from the battle cruisers as they undertook a ground battle. As the fighting ensued, the area they used increased first tens of miles, then hundreds, then thousands. Earthshaking explosions jolted the world as its people scattered helplessly out of harm's way. A search was on for Mellow Ham, the culprits responsible for what now seemed undoubtedly like Armageddon.
Distant explosions and quaking earth heralded the return of the legendary band to the commune. Received as heroes, they were showered with praise as well as questions about the chaos taking place in the outside world. A parade was held in their honor. They were considered heroes for venturing into the outside world, but more importantly, for returning of their own volition. Though not entirely comfortable with the honors bestowed on them, they nonetheless resolved to stay put. After all, Jeff said it was the safest thing to do.
To all our family and friends:
We deeply appreciate the gracious welcome you've extended us upon our return home. Due to the overwhelming number of questions we've been asked, we decided to write this letter and mimeograph it for distribution throughout the commune.
The noise you hear from the outside is indeed, the Vietnam War come to America. Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev have crowned themselves kings and are threatening a fight to the end. We barely escaped forced conscription for all males under 65 and over 10.
Protesters are considered a threat to the cause and are shot on sight. Television is reserved for Party Political propaganda, there are billboards on the moon, and Nestle Quik is only made in Endangered Species flavors.
Unregulated nuclear reactors are used to power everything from transistor radios to mammoth flying (and crashing) cruise ships. Deoderant usage is compulsory.
The Beatles have been supplanted by The Monkees, The Beach Boys are really from Wyoming, and Jimi Hendrix is playing Country and Western music on a pedal steel guitar.
Jesus Christ wore wing-tipped shoes instead of sandals, and Timothy Leary is dead.
We hope you'll join us tonight as we play a "welcome home" concert. It's sure to be our most important major gig yet.
"Honestly Wizard, don't you think we should have had someone other than Fire write the letter?