A Mad Man With A Mad Plan*

AWOLNATION is my favorite band right now. And I know that sounds like I’m a teenage fanboy, about to gush uncontrollably about some pop-tastic nonsense, but it’s true and I don’t care who knows.

A few times in my life I have been overwhelmingly gob-smacked by other musicians. Sometimes you see someone perform and there’s no choice but to fall under their spell. Sometimes, the music itself, (which is sort of the point), casts a spell and you are taken, obsessed really, and there seems to be no way to listen enough, read enough, feel enough, live enough…

Music, captivating music, has a way of infiltrating your soul and buoying you along on the turbulent currents of the universe. Nothing much is certain in life, but the musical moments that are able to ignite infinite and almost indescribable feelings of transcendence and emotion within us are the most devoutly to be wished. (Thanks Shakespeare.)

Jane’s Addiction and Perry Farrell were the first infatuation. I’ve been a music fan since as far back as I can remember. From an early age, all I wanted was to play music, be an entertainer, but when I was in high school and this strange man with dreadlocks and nose ring and lipstick and angst and blistering alterna-rock entered my psyche I was pretty much blind to everything else for awhile. Jane’s meant something, they smashed through the blandness of a world that was squared away and colorless in comparison to their white-hot rush of exotica. They made it okay to be weird for my generation. Fishbone blew my mind, as did Nirvana and all the other 90s touchstones, yet it was Perry and Eric and Dave and Stephen that spoke to the thing in my heart that needed release.

When I finally came face to face with the band it was more amazing than I can describe. I saw them at John Anson Ford Theatre in LA, during a now legendary 7-night run for such an “underground” band at the time. The place was small, an amphitheater set into the hillside across the freeway from the Hollywood Bowl, but when Jane’s came out, in the dark, the guitar squealing, bass thumping to the tribal drums, it was triumphant, a party, a freaky fiesta of new proportions. We were smashed together in the pit, bodies and B.O., a human stew at the apron of the stage. There was movement close by. A flash went off and there, peering out of the darkness, smirking, ready to unleash the hounds of rock and roll stood the (then) king of Bacchanalia, Perry Farrell in his dreadlocked glory. The music swelled, people went crazy, the scent of illegal intoxicants rose into the air, and four weirdos assaulted the audience with a stunning display of punk rock glam and nihilistic bombast. It was a beautiful moment in time. Jane’s Addiction are still one of my favorites. They were my Led Zeppelin. I guess there will always be a part of me that wants to fly into a slam dancing frenzy when I hear one of those old songs.

My first attempt at college ended badly, but in the process I met one of the greatest humans I have ever known. JB and I had a class together, but we pretty much stopped going and spent most of our time hanging out, sharing musical ideas, eating at Taco Bell, or driving aimlessly around the city. He is one of those people that seems to have an inner light and I loved hanging out with him in Long Beach and surrounding areas. Like me, JB was in a band and one day he invited me to see them play at some record store in Hawthorne or Torrance or Garden Grove. I can’t remember. But I do know this, his band was nothing like mine. They were powerful, soaring, uplifting and awesome!

That day, in a part of Los Angeles that bred The Descendents and Black Flag and The Offspring, I saw Sensefield for the first time and was quite blown away. They were so tight. They were a machine of loving grace! And JB, at six plus feet, was a presence with a voice that was both intimate and wrathful. It was the voice imitated by hundreds of emo-core wannabes to follow, but that day it felt like my secret. Sensefield performing live was like kneeling at the altar before the Almighty Herself and being forgiven for everything, past, present, and future.

I was invited to see a show with a number of friends. Some band that everyone was talking about, but I had never heard of or even listened to. It was 1993, we drove to Hollywood, to the grounds of the Church of Scientology, for crying out loud! We waited through the strange lounge act band with black-clothed, tatted beasts from a different realm. Blue hair, green hair, shaved heads, ears and noses and faces pierced to high Heaven, it was like the Jane’s Addiction Army had taken over the Earth, but there was a deeper evil lurking. An undercurrent of hostility I’d never experienced. Scary looking men with blank-faced stares took the stage and a small little demon, gnarled and warped with a droopy mane of black hair stood before them. This is Maynard. This is Tool. Fear them. Bow down in their presence. Fall on your knees in awe as a voice, unlike any other you’ve ever heard, filled with anger and rage and revenge and betrayal makes you feel things that are both horrible and redemptive.

Maynard, at the time, was a force. His performance was reckless and wild and frightening. He was, in a word, riveting. Tool is still an amazing group of musicians. Danny Carey is an amazing drummer. Adam Jones is an amazing guitarist and artist, but Maynard, wow. Even now, his voice is still so dynamic, capable of evoking tenderness and menace, often within the same line.

And then, about a year ago, watching dumb television late one evening I came across some band performing live somewhere in Denver. The listing said something about AWOLNATION. Odd name, I thought, but I selected the channel just as the first song started and the band, particularly the singer, Aaron Bruno, proceeded to captivate me for the next hour. The energy was palpable. The singer looked like a wry-smiled surfer crossed with actor Peter Stormare with the charisma of a revival tent preacher. Who were these guys?

Since then, I have learned a bit about this band. I have purchased albums and listened to the music over and over. I am infatuated by the intricacies, the surprises, the strange familiarity woven into the fabric of each song. AWOLNATION’s music is like a union of rock and electronica. It’s like Beck meets NIN meets Rage Against the Machine at David Bowie’s disco-era Manhattan pad. And yet, they sound like nothing I’ve encountered. A new breed of band for the second decade of the 21st Century. But it is the televised performance that sticks with me. Rocking out in front of crowd is what matters most. This band is capable of being so in the groove, so potent, so exhilarating that it’s exciting to imagine what comes next.

And not to sound like a teenager, but maybe that’s what it’s all about. Maybe good music, good times, these things are not just reserved for the young. Maybe when it all comes together, the pure joy, the vibrancy of transcendent music is the same overriding spark that churns within our youthful hearts. Whatever it is. I’m not looking to be right, but when AWOLNATION plays here in Tempe next month and their new album is released, I will be there. When a band of bad MF’s like this exist there really is no choice but to give in to the adolescent thrills.

*From “Jump On My Shoulders” AWOLNATION


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