Carry On, You Bass-Smashing Drum God
Following the tumultuous break-up of my eleventh grade punk band the Roswell Incident (recap: four songs, one gig, and countless tears), I attempted to put together a new band whose emphasis would be more on the funny and less on the “Hey, wear something over that Megadeth shirt so we don’t get our asses kicked by all the scenesters tonight.” I christened myself Johnny Turd and decided this new musical endeavor must be called the Commodes. Can you believe the judgment of a seventeen year old was misguided?
I got together with my friend Gabe (the original Roswell Incident drummer before he flunked English, had his drum set taken away as punishment, and was subsequently kicked out of the band) and started assembling the musical stupid. The idea was definitely to have fun, but Gabe and I had very different ideas of what “fun” was supposed to be. I wanted to play fast, cutesy rock songs about absurd topics in the style of the Ramones or Angry Samoans. He wanted to play the kind of goofy ’70s pop associated with “The Partridge Family” or Hanna Barbara cartoons. We fought constantly about the direction of our non-band. This is probably what drove away all the people we invited to come “jam” with us in Gabe’s carpeted garage (which was exactly the kind of place you’d expect David Cassidy to live).
Near the end of our senior year, Johnny Turd & the Commodes booked an inaugural gig as the opening act for an all-night local punk festival. One of the other groups performing was Kills Competition, a hardcore band fronted by our pal (and former Roswell Incident singer) Greg Rivera. Greg had put the Commodes on the bill out of pity, I think, which is fair. We were pretty pitiful. So pitiful, in fact, the guy playing bass, a sweet kid named Bob who took the instrument up just for us, quit about a week and a half before our scheduled debut. He couldn’t take the arguing anymore. He just walked out of practice. It looked like the Commodes were headed for a still birth.
A night or two after Bob’s exit, I was over at the Kills Competition practice space recording Greg and his band on my spiffy four track mixer so they’d have a tape of some kind to give to people at the show. At one point, it came up that the Commodes empire was crumbling beneath me. We had no bass player, I lamented. We could play no shows. Suddenly, Joe Gear, the wee monster who played drums for Kills Comp, piped up.
“I’ll play bass for you guys!” he said enthusiastically.
I had just spent about an hour listening to Joe drum with my jaw on the floor. This kid was small for his age—he looked maybe eleven or twelve tops—but he could play with such a tremendous amount of power and speed. He made it look so easy, popping out those light-speed beats while he just kind of stared into space, tussled skater haircut falling over his eyes. And he never made a mistake! He played those intense Bad Brains/Minor Threat tempos flawlessly every time. I was in awe of this Joe Gear character—and now he wanted to be in my band?
Of course I accepted Joe’s offer. Johnny Turd & the Commodes would live to play their first show.
Just barely, though.
We’ve already established that Gabe and I were in different neighborhoods creatively. Really, the only thing that kept us together was our friendship outside the band and our lack of basic musical skill (I couldn’t sing and play guitar without trying to keep one eye on my fingering; Gabe, bless his eager heart, didn’t seem to know a drum roll from an egg roll most of the time). Now Joe, a seasoned musician from another planet, entered the picture not realizing it was amateur hour. On top of our wobbly sound, he had to put up with arguments about what picture should go on the bass drum and other totally inconsequential shit only novices attack each other about. Joe’s frustration with us was pretty apparent. He had a look of muted pain on his face pretty much the entire time we played together.
Yet, I have to give Joe Gear total respect. At no point did he blow his stack at us or call us out for being the talentless morons we undoubtedly were. Joe stuck it out, like a damn trooper, following through on his promise and taking his not-so-latent anger out on random inanimate objects instead of our skulls.
Unfortunately, one of those objects happened to be the bass guitar he owned and used as a Commode. At our second and last practice before the big show, Joe’s sticker-encrusted bass was cutting in and out. One of the wires had come loose inside, I think. I say “I think” because the matter was not properly investigated before Joe removed the off-white instrument from his shoulder and slammed it baseball bat-style several times into a nearby wooden support beam. It was pretty funny watching all this wood and fiberglass splinter until Joe turned to me and quietly admitted that was his only bass.
“I don’t have another one. Do you, uh, have one I can use?”
I sure as hell didn’t, but I knew someone who did—our old bass player Bob. Placing that call to Bob was one of the most awkward experiences of my life. Amazingly, he agreed to lend his trusty black Hondo four string out (I think I had to pay him).
Show time came and I was a nervous wreck. This was my first public performance since a play in the fifth grade. I was red with embarrassment the whole time. I remember we set up all the equipment and did a little soundcheck. I looked over at Joe and Gabe and said something like, “Should we play the whole set to see how it sounds?”
This was like an hour before the doors opened. I knew the Ramones warmed up by playing all their songs backstage before every concert, and of course, I wanted to be just like my newfound heroes from Queens (even though we were already on the stage). What I didn’t know at the time was the Ramones were pretty much the only band in recorded history to engage in such a grueling pre-show ritual, and that Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, Zippy, and Chunky were really more of a para-military unit than an actual rock band.
“No!” Joe responded curtly to my suggestion before checking his anger. “Let’s just wait and save it for the show.”
The Commodes exploded like messy diarrhea on stage about an hour later. I wanted to die the whole time. I’m sure Joe was secretly wishing I’d expire so he wouldn’t have to go through with this shameful act. You’d never know it, though—Joe Gear really played his heart out on that bass for the Commodes, coming across (to me, anyway) like a young Tommy Stinson. At the end of our last song—a cover of that Roswell Incident classic “I Wanna Be In E.S.E.”—Joe made it look like he was smashing Bob’s bass. Gabe and I both thought he was actually trying to go all Pete Townshend again, and we flipped the f out. We refused to speak to Joe after our performance (which, on a scale of one to ten, was probably a 4.3).
How dare he disrespect the legacy of Bob or Bob’s bass? we thought. Because, you know, the Commodes had such an amazing and respected history at that point. Sheesh.
While Gabe and I harrumphed in a corner, Joe caroused with his friends like a man just set free from prison. Kills Competition played a great set that night, as they always did. Their performance was marred only by the slight drunk of their bass player, Jed. I believe he blew out something on his amp; when I went up to look into for him like some kind of real roadie-type person, Jed didn’t recognize me and kicked me (literally, with his foot) off stage.
I saw Joe the Bass-Smashing Drum God intermittently after that first Commodes show, usually at Kills Competition gigs where we more or less avoided each other. The last time I saw him was at the Taco Bell in Orange City, FL, where I worked for two years in college. He was wearing glasses, which he didn’t normally do. We had a brief conversation, and I remember he said something about enrolling in community college to get his GED (he had dropped out of high school freshman or sophomore year). I thought that was cool. Joe was always a sharp guy. Although his time in the Commodes was far from harmonious, he did give us our best idea for an album title (Feces Pieces). He even made a mock-up of the cover. Yes, it was an alteration of the Reese’s Pieces logo. It bothers me that we never actually used that title or artwork. I guess I was secretly afraid of Joe suing the shit out of me after “the incident.”
I found out last night that Joe Gear committed suicide about three years ago. He apparently drove his car off a cliff somewhere. I don’t know anything beyond that. Needless to say, I’m in mild shock. I didn’t know Joe all that well, but as I said, I respected the hell out of him. I respected his talent, his ability, his personality. I respected his decision to stick out the one-gig Commodes spoken contract despite his obvious displeasure. I respected his viewpoints on politics and music and his general punk attitude. I enjoyed hanging out with him and hearing him play and was honored to count him amongst my musical contemporaries. It’s a shame I have to wait until I die now to tell him all this and apologize for the insanity that came with being in my dog and pony show of a band.
Thanks for the memories, Joe, good and bad. Thanks for playing, thanks for chatting, thanks for Feces Pieces, thanks for lending me your Dead Kennedys tapes, thanks for the handful of very valuable things you taught me. I don’t understand why you did what you did, but I hope you are at peace now.