I feel good. The sun is shining, I'm wearing my favourite Tom Waits T-shirt, I have two great musicians walking next to me as I head down the street... A voice breaks my happy-knappy line of thought:
Hey, guys; this is it.
Sam points to a worn-down house. The paint is chipped, the windowsills are slanted, and the roof is missing more than just a few shingles. All in all, the place is a dump. But, according to Sam, there's a fantastic drummer inside with a drum kit and extra amps.
Tell me again how you know this guy, Tommy says in a sceptical tone.
We used to hang out together in high school. Jammed all the time, Sam explains.
I kept working as a musician, he decided to try a political career.
I raise my eyebrows. Political?
Yeah, the guy's a socialist/commie nutcase. Che Guevara, Palestine, anti-capitalism, government conspiracy, rigged elections... Whatever you do, don't ask for a Coke, he will f--king kill you.
I look at Sam to see if he's joking, but the expression on his face tells me that he is deadly serious.
Why would he do that? asks Tommy, intrigued.
Oddly enough, there's a white-picket fence surrounding the house, with a gate. I push the gate open, only to have it fall to the ground. We step through; grass up to our knees on either side of the concrete path. We get to the porch, and Sam knocks on the door.
Sure that's not going to fall down as well? Tommy remarks snidely.
Shut up, Sam retorts, Hey, Doc, are you home?
We hear the sound of heavy feet running down a flight of steps, then the door slams open, nearly knocking Sam off his feet. A very large, black man with rippling muscles and long dreadlocks stands in front of us.
Sammy? Is that you?
It's me, Doc. How've you been?
The two old friends grin, then Doc embraces Sam in a bear hug. Only then do I realize just how big he is: not Michael Clarke Duncan big, but close; certainly big enough that you would appreciate having him on your side in a bar fight.
Sam and Doc exchange excited remarks about how long it has been, etc. until Doc looks at Tommy and me.
Oh, this is Andrew, the bassist, Sam says, gesturing to me.
I'm Doc, he smiles, shaking my hand. I expect him to crush it, but his handshake is light and pleasant.
Andrew, a pleasure.
And this is Tommy, our vocalist, says Sam, nodding towards Tommy.
Doc, nice to meet you.
Tommy here, likewise.
Doc invites us inside, where we pass through a delinquent hallway and into a makeshift living-room. He seems very pleasant and jovial, and offers us beer. All three of us accept, and we sit down around a stained coffee table, appreciating the cold drinks on the warm summer day. Sam and I have our instruments in gigbags, and we set them down, propping them up against a couch. Around the room there are large posters and flags; FREE PALESTINE, LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTION, QUESTION AUTHORITY, IN MEMORY OF CHE GUEVARA, etc.
How did you get a hold of this place, Doc? I ask.
Well, I've been living up north for the last few years, trying to organize the cause. Eventually I got chased out of town.
Tommy and I exchange glances.
So I decided to come back here and see what my old friends were up to. I had impounded a bunch of equipment from a skinhead band, bought an old van with my last savings, and just drove here with the soul intention of starting a band.
He takes a long drink from his can of beer before continuing:
Anyway, I got here and found out that I had nowhere to stay. I couldn't sleep in the van because it was full of drums and amps, so I drove around, looking for something abandoned, and found this house. I've been staying here ever since.
Sam, Tommy and I look at each other, slightly bewildered.
So, let me get this straight, Sam says slowly, you stole another bands equipment
Nazi scum, Doc mutters.
Skipped town because nobody liked your political lunacy
Extremism, not lunacy, he corrects.
Come here, find a derelict house in a derelict neighbourhood and just decide to stay?
Sam looks around the room.
I must say, you've done wonders to fix up and redecorate the place, he remarks sarcastically.
How did you get power? Water? Tommy enquires.
Doc smiles, I was digging in the back one day, I was going to bury his eyes go wide and he goes silent for a moment. Nevermind that. Anyway, suddenly I hit an electrical cable and a water pipeline, right there, next to each other. So I diverted some of the water and the power to the house Bingo, there's water and power! Free, too.
Whoa, whoa, I stutter, Divert power? Flowing water? You know how to do that?
Yeah, sure. My dad was a handyman, did odd jobs, taught me a lot of useful stuff.
But don't you need, like, weird equipment and shit for the water?
He gets a guilty look on his face;
Yeah, I sort of borrowed it from a plumbing firm.
Sam and I look at each other, exchanging insecure glances, but Tommy is grinning.
That's hilarious, he exclaims, I like your style, Doc. Doc smiles and drains his can of beer.
Anyway, he says, you guys didn't come here to discuss the condition of my residence; let's go jam. I want to see if Sam sucks any less than last time we played together. He grins.
F--k you, Sam smirks, where's the gear?
In the basement, Doc answers, leading the way.
The basement is, in coalition with the rest of the house, crappy. Grey concrete, cracks everywhere, fungi growing in the corners, and so on. There are three large amplifiers, one bass and two guitar, a speaker system for vocals, and a drum kit. The bass drum has a large communist star spraypainted on it.
Doc seats himself behind the drum kit and starts hammering a little bit here and there, readjusting the chair, cymbals, etc. Tommy messes about with the speaker system, connecting the microphone that he brought with him. Sam and I plug into the amps, messing about with various knobs, trying to find the sounds we want. I notice that the sound from my amp is a bit rusty; sort of unstable. I thump a simple bassline, play some scales, make sure the jack is plugged in properly. Still; shaky.
Sam mucks about, plays some chords on the clean channel. His amp sounds a bit cracked, too.
Sam? How's the sound on yours? I ask.
Kind of weird. You too?
Yeah, I suppose we'll just have to grin it and bear it.
Sam pushes down a button on the footpedal, switching over to the distortion. It sounds loud and dry, dirty and raw; just the way I like it. Tommy tests the mike;
Testing, testing, one, two, how now brown cow? Larry licked a limabean while living in limbo.
It all sounds relatively good.
What should we play first? Doc asks.
I think about it; something political so as to please Doc, something rock and roll so as to please the rest of us, something that we all know:
Set it Off? I suggest. Audioslave?
Sam nods, Sounds good to me.
Tommy and I have been diehard Audioslave fans ever since the debut album. I was a hardcore Soundgarden fan, Tommy lived for Rage Against The Machine. So you can imagine our joy when we heard that Chris Cornell and most of RATM were going to make an album. We bought the record together, listened to it together, learned the songs together
Sam starts pumping out his own equivalent of the weird, scratching, distorted guitars that Set it Off' opens with, clawing at the strings and slamming his wah-pedal back and forth. When the time comes, Tommy starts a slow growl that becomes an intense scream as the drums and bass kick in, and Sam starts playing the main riff. Eventually Tommy ends the scream and starts singing:
He was standing at the rock, gathering the flock
I listen to Doc; he has a brilliant, thrashy sound that reminds me of a mix of Deftones with their eerie, articulated drumming, and Led Zeppelin's noisy, intense beatings. I love it.
As Tommy approaches the end of the first verse, he screams out the last line;
And there he found the spark to SET THIS F--KER OFF!
We all join in for the chorus: Sam, Doc and I screaming behind Tommy's clear vocals:
Set it off, set it off now children! Set it right! Set it off, set it off now, children! Set a fire!
I love this, it's like a dream come true: I've finally gathered some great musicians, all dedicated, and we're just playing some great shit. I keep pounding my bass, grinning from ear to ear. Before I know it, we've come to the bridge. I stop playing, and Tommy carefully and meticulously croons the lyrics:
Jesus at the backdoor, everything is alright, all we need is some direction
We all listen carefully for the last line;
Time is waaaaaastiiiing
The whole band explodes into a gigantic, mind-blowing, tantric mesh of noise and music; a devastating wall of sound that makes my head float. Without forewarning, Sam launches into a ridiculously bizarre improvised guitar solo, blazing away across the frets, tweaking his wah-pedal to and fro. Sometimes it sounds like a clean solo, sometimes it sounds like a bunch of weird, industrial noise, sometimes it sounds like a bunch of trippy, funky, psychedelic stuff, all the time it sounds amazing.
He lets the solo come to a close, signalling to Doc. As Sam plays the main riff, Doc starts playing a million different beats at the same time, drumsticks swimming back and forth over the skins, still holding the rhythm perfectly. Eventually he starts a series of mini-crescendos, each time the crescendo gets longer and longer, using more and more beats per round, until there's one long build-up that fills the whole room, shakes the walls, makes the floor quiver, sending an intense, vibrating energy through all of us. The drums stop, the guitars stop, the bass stops, the vocals stop, the headbanging stops. We all look at each other, but nobody says anything.
I don't want to lose the fierce energy, so I start the opening bassline of Joy Division's Digital.' D sharp, D, A sharp, A sharp The drums and guitars kick in, the sheer power of the coalition between the instruments blows me away. Eventually the first verse comes along, and Tommy does his best Ian Curtis impression.
Feel it closing in, feel it closing in
I feel like I'm on fire. After months of looking for musicians with no success, I started thinking that this would never happen. But here I am, surrounded by three collaborators, illuminated by a few bare light bulbs hanging from the roof, playing my ass off. This is by far too good to be true.
Day in, day out, day in, day out, day in, day out, DAY IN! DAY OUT! DAY IN! DAY OUT! DAY IN! DAY OUT!
I keep to the same bassline; don't make things complicated, just appreciate the music for what it is. Sam plays an exact replica of the original solo, perfectly simple, perfectly sound. The song comes to the last verse:
I see you fade away, don't ever fade away, I need you here today, don't ever fade away, fade away, FADE AWAY
The song ends, but it doesn't stop there: Dazed and Confused, Strawberry Fields, My Iron Lung, Foxy Lady, a few songs that I don't recognise (Sam and Tommy have this weird musical sync), Blitzkrieg Bop, Stairway to Heaven, I Wanna be Adored We finish it off with Free Bird.
After one-and-a-half hours of continuous jamming, I'm exhausted. We all are. Both Tommy and Doc have taken off their shirts. Sweat is dripping from Sam's forehead, and I see that his fingers are shaking slightly. My T-shirt is drenched with sweat, and I really don't care.
We all keep quiet for a moment, breathing heavily after a major crescendo on Free Bird.'
Tommy finally breaks the silence, whispering hoarsely: Shit, I think we're a band.
Robert Ippolito, June 2009