The Year was 1989. I was in college and like many ‘artsy’ types, I was a refugee of the ‘Greek’ system and joined my roommates in starting a post-punk, quasi-goth band. The lineup:
Joe – (Vocals, bass) Never mind that he later married my sister. At the time, he was the cool guy from California, who knew all about Gary Numan, Yellow Magic Orchestra, and Devo. He studied art and psychology and brought the impetus (and lyrics) for most of our songs.
Jeff (Guitar) – A computer geek just before computers were everywhere. He worked for NASA on his breaks. When I met him Freshman Year, he was living in the dorm room just across from mine and had posters of Metallica and Iron Maiden. He also had spent time in California and knew the music of the Dead Milkmen and Suicidal Tendencies. Listening to my keyboard playing (on the infamous ‘Cheesemaster 1000’) he once told me I sounded like Ray Manzarek of the Doors, which I thought was cool. He remains one of my best friends.
Mark (Drums) – Trained in jazz, but with a love for thrash-metal/hardcore, we met Mark at a Baptist Student Union picnic (this was just before the fundamentalists took over). He had been in a band called Rabid Animals. I was born in Baltimore and he was from the suburbs there in Maryland so I felt at least a geographic kindredness with Mark, though he and I were probably the furthest apart musically.
Myself – (Keyboard and vocals) A Southern Baptist preacher’s kid who grew up in church choir, listening to American Top 40 on the radio. Favorite albums of the time: Thomas Dolby’s ‘Golden Age of Wireless’, U2’s ‘Under a Blood Red Sky’, and Depeche Mode’s ‘Some Great Reward’. I had also stumbled upon ‘In No Sense? Nonsense!’ by Art of Noise, which began my love for sampling and experimental music.
Later, we added Mick, who not only had his own Tascam 4-track machine, which introduced me to underground recording, but he was a prolific songwriter and virtuoso guitar player. He joined our Senior year and I remember being very impressed with his synth-guitar rig, which, of course, allows the guitar play a whole spectrum of sound, long before Matthew Bellamy thought of his bag of tricks.
But, rewind a notch. When we first started out our Sophomore year, we had one amp, one guitar, and a cheap mic. We would rehearse in Joe and Jeff’s dorm room, with me on vocals singing out of a dictionary and trying to remember the words to Roadrunner as sung by The Sex Pistols. We called ourselves ‘Stranger Tones’, which sounded suitably new wave. Apparently, though, by Junior year, we had tired of the name and decided we would call ourselves ‘Surrender Dorothy’ from the often overlooked Martin Scorsese film ‘After Hours’ (a film Jeff introduced me to).
But, somehow that didn’t stick either and so, one afternoon in the dining hall, we circulated a questionnaire. On loose-leaf, lined, three-hole punched paper we asked the question: ‘In 5 Words or Less, If you have to name a rock group, what would you you [sic] name it.’ I believe either a girlfriend or ex-girlfriend wrote up the questionnaire so I’m not sure why the extra ‘you’ was there, but no one seemed to notice.
Here, for posterity, are the answers (names of the contributors were included, but for privacy I will simply list their first name):
Pagan Girls of the Basilica (Ricky)
Paisley Jello Sunset* (Anne)
Nuns ‘n Moses (Scott)
Cinnamon Elevator (Cynthia)
Perilous Waters of the Mind (Linnea)
The Burpin’ Bee-Bops (Roxanne)
The Snug Nightbugs (Sally)
Ilio Cremora (Amy)
Minimal Expectations (Lauren)
Aftershock, Anticipating Fallout (Sandy)
The Un-Rock Group (Timbah)
The Nema-Toods or Earthophiles (Tim)
Keith Eddy and The Islanders (Vann)
The Song of the Whipperwill (John)
Nuns in Poses / Dying Artists (Rob)
Rooty Kazooty (Ken)
Smash Hit (Tom)
Lights Out! (Cathy)
Gophers at Split Enz (Andy)
Sniglets in Drag (Murray)
*later showed up as a track name on one of my demo tracks
I also remember Joe’s love interest at the time, Joli, suggesting ‘Joe and the Arizona Boys’, which we always regret not using. It had no connection, thematically with our sound, but the irony was the thing.
My own contribution was actually a rigged effort, since while the questionnaire was circulating, the principal band members and a member of the college soccer team were discussing the name conundrum and somehow the result came up to be ‘The Starke Option’. Now, I had originally thought ‘The Stark Option’ (notice the lack of an ‘e’ at the end of the word ‘Stark’) would work, sounding a lot more ‘post punk’, even minimalistic. I had just been exposed to Bauhaus, Joy Division, and Severed Heads. But, no – the story behind the use of ‘Starke’ (with the ‘e’) came from the last name of an infamous member of our outer circle of friends, who was a perpetual student. His method for going through school was 1) no classes before noon 2) no more than two or three classes per semester 3) a generally relaxed attitude towards the whole academic thing. Thus, this was ‘The Starke Option’.
No, we were not a Grateful Dead cover band. Instead we had songs like ‘State of Decay’, a doomsday song about society in disarray, long before the Tea Party and 2012 Mayan doomsday theories. We had a song about ‘The Persistence of Memory’, the Dali painting. In our version, there are no dripping clocks, just a monotony of sound and words about the detachment of personality in a mechanized world. We had a song called ‘Oligarchy’, a pop song about the ruling elite. Joe had even designed a logo, which was a peace sign overlapping an anarchy symbol. The ‘peace-anarchy’ concept has since been adopted by the Occupy Wall Street movement all these years later.
We had several songs written for other particular personalities on campus: K.P., Big Dog, and Little Girls. K.P. did not stand for ‘Kitchen Patrol’. I’ll let the reader guess what it was all about. ‘Big Dog’ ended up being a dance song for people who don’t dance. ‘Little Girls’ was about creepy guys who hang out in all the wrong places. It was meant to be funny, but in the age of internet predators, in retrospect, it seems simply like bad taste. Still, the music was catchy.
We also had a series of joke songs. Strangely enough, I was the one who ended up writing and singing these. One was simply a punk version of The Addams Family Theme Song, with added (and ruder) lyrics. I also wrote a song called ‘Get Standing Twisting Louie Off My Wild Bamba Cloud’, which despite the joke was our one true attempt at a traditional rock song. It was based on an idea by Joe’s brother, Floyd (who infamously was known simply as ‘The Floyd’). It was, just as you would suspect, an amalgam of every three chord gem from the history of rock. Joe added to the concept. So, by the time we had performed it three or four times it had expanded to include snippets of ‘Paradise City’ by Guns n’ Roses, R.E.M.’s ‘Stand’, and the Who’s ‘Can’t Explain’.
We also had a cover of ‘Surfing Cow’ and a parody of U2’s ‘With or Without You’ called ‘With or Without Shoes’, which documents a fictitious trip to the mall with a girlfriend who stands in line too long to buy shoes. ‘I can live with or without shoes,’ is the key line in that one.
I did write some serious songs for the band back then. Besides a rip-off of The Cure’s ‘Lovecats’ called ‘Fifty Million Love Songs’, there was a strange, almost ambient track called ‘The Red Truck’. Rather than pay any attention in my Calculus class, one day I simply wrote out my extrapolation of the clear yet mysterious attributes of this weird, unmarked, and totally red truck that showed up on campus from time to time, moving stuff from building to building. It was a truck with ‘powerful frame’ and ‘inside source’. Somehow this song seemed to pair well with ‘Oligarchy’. But it was a little too abstract to be accessible. There was also a jam version of it that the band wrote together. I also wrote a song called ‘Pieces of You’, which is just about the typical thing – a frayed relationship gone horribly wrong. I thought this was our strongest track. Unfortunately, it came later in the life of the band. Even better songs were written by Joe and Mick together (a true musical powerhouse) in latter-day Starke gems – ‘Application’ and ‘Cold’.
We played local clubs in Richmond – the Metro, Kahootz – as well as on campus at The Pier. Over the break, we recorded a demo, which we named ‘Eskimo’, after the movie Heathers (see the last entry) in a studio up in Maryland. We used all the money we made playing out to record the demo. The only other recordings were of the Kahootz show, and both shows at The Pier. There was an ill-fated attempt at a demo also made at The Pier. The sound man, however, didn’t know what he was doing.
By time we played The Pier the second time, we were a multimedia and art show band, with a gothic paper mache keyboard stand, prepared videos for key songs. We were also theatrical; sometimes, in an unplanned way. After the sound man (the same one that messed up our first demo) got drunk and was messing up the second set of our show, I got pissed during ‘The Addams Family’ and kicked one of the monitors off the stage. For that, I was rewarded with a broken toe, a week of crutches, and the sound man stopped the show and kicked us out. It was our last show as a five piece.
Senior year was a time of mammoth transition. College bands cannot logically continue. Everyone has invested so much time into the academic side of the college experience, with an eye on a job, a career and it is only an accident of fate if any two members end up in the same city, in the same state after college. Jeff and I reformed years later when he moved back to Richmond and had a brief project called ‘Alex’. I had been recording my own 4-track gems for years and brought him into the mix. We never played out, but did record an album of four-track underground tracks, including covers of Gary Numan’s ‘I Die: You Die’, Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ and Joy Division’s ‘Twenty-Four Hours’. We would later join up with a true punk vocalist with a three piece called ‘Stahl Tippen Der Vecker’ which loosely translated means ‘Steel Toe Alarm Clock’, or so said a girl I once met on Yahoo chat (back when that was actually an interesting thing to do). This was a more regressive, primitive punk group, with none of the nuances or graces of ‘art’. Our lead singer was the real deal – a six-foot plus skinhead type with ink. He had ‘Strength to Endure’ sprawled across his back and flames up one wrist. Going through some old files just today, I found a playlist on a pocket-sized spiral notebook which included covers of the Sex Pistols’ ‘Pretty Vacant’ and ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ as well as covers of their covers ‘Stepping Stone’ and, old standby, ‘Roadrunner’. We also did The Clash’s ‘London Calling’. All of our originals were penned, lyrically, by myself, with music by Jeff and me (I played bass). Brad, the singer, also contributed a few. We had illustrious tracks such as ‘Crack Whore’ and ‘Shithead’ and ‘My Country Pissed On Me’. We also had more erudite fare, such as songs ‘Belong,’ ‘Blizzard of Lies’, and ‘Battle for your Brain’. At one point, we even tried out a drummer. But, eventually it fizzled out due to, well… life. I got married and wanted to start a family. Brad did the same.
And so it goes.