by Dave McLean
Athens, Ohio is transformative. And it’s haunted. Not just in the “Scariest Places on Earth” sense of the word — though it is that — but in what I call the “repository of dreams” sense.
Home of Ohio University, Athens has borne the feet of thousands of aspiring souls trudging up and down the Hocking River hills since 1804. From Nancy Cartwright — who would become the voice of Bart Simpson — to a late blooming Matt Lauer to me, a journeyman rock-n-roll musician who never made it.
This is not pathos. I’ve also managed to build a rewarding career in advertising and public relations, which was kind of why I went to school in the first place. My firm, King’s English, is 20 years old and might not have happened had I not studied at “Harvard on the Hocking” from 1977 to 1981.
But back to my parallel life….
When you visit Athens you sense all those young dreamers who passed through the oak canopy of the college green out into its ramshackle neighborhoods and who might have left behind the flotsam of their idylls from any given night when all you needed was jeans, a T-shirt and five bucks.
Such was a September evening when I passed the Frontier Room, a rustic bar in the student union with large double-hung windows, all wide open to the humid night.
A band inside was doing a sound check with the sloppy suspended chords of a Stones cover. This being 1978, it stopped me in my tracks simply because it was not the usual country swing or disco fare of the day.
I made a beeline inside and watched what turned out to be a scruffy, proto-punk biker band primed to play three sets. I stayed in the Frontier Room the rest of the night.
When the show cranked up, this band called the Bogus Brothers pounded out sly four-chord originals peppered with covers, including a short list of Lou Reed and Velvet Underground numbers.
It moved me physically. For the first time in my life, completely on my own, I got up and danced wildly in public in a throng of biker women, assorted hippies and soon-to-be debauched college kids like me.
As the band ripped into “White Light/White Heat” a thunderstorm blew up outside. Lightning flashed in every window, practically in time with the song’s refrain, like a sign from God. As the deluge washed down the boozy sidewalks, I was soaked inside with the sweat of three hours of catharsis.
I decided that night I had to start a rock-n-roll band as quickly as possible. Later, I started another and played in one or two side projects. Then I graduated and married the guitarist from my first band. And I started other bands in succession even as I worked real jobs out in the straight world.
Since the mid ’70s I’ve been one of those people who is in bands for no real commercial motive.
In 2008, I organized my most recent band, the Raving Knaves. The band’s name comes from a song I wrote for one of my bands in the ’80s. And this month, we’ll play our final show.
I’ve been lucky all these years that none of my bands have ended badly. I’m luckier still that the Raving Knaves has been such a success. And there’s still no significant money or fame.
Why would I call this a success?
Because I’ve decided that the only way you can honestly judge any such off-the-grid band is by the satisfaction of its members. And Adrian Foltz, Danny Bayer and I played wild, tight, original music for seven years together, contributing equally through a creative friendship and respect. Rehearsals were just as fun as public gigs and when even one person was moved to dance wildly, it felt like an offering to the universe.
One of my reasons for winding down my role in the band is to put a little more time into my “straight life,” running my firm. But 37 years since I ventured into the Frontier Room, the visceral pull of the American backbeat can’t be ignored. And I can’t deny that it doesn’t shape the way I manage my straight life today.
My two parallel lives have actually grown closer together. Clients, who are increasingly younger than me, want to know about my band. At the same time, my rock-n-roll persona has kept me in touch with a side of the community that is young in spirit, often unconventional, sometimes edgy and seldom beholden to the boundaries that constrain my 9-to-5 roles and associations.
It’s a kind of faith. Faith in wildness. Not drugs and booze, but wildness. Like the wildness in nature, only it manifests intellectually as well as physically. And it’s part of who I am in every aspect of my life. There’s nothing superficial or trivial about being in a band. It simply has to be done.
David McLean is a writer and owner of King’s English, an advertising and public relations firm.