The day before I tested positive for COVID, I woke up with a really dry throat and took a test. I didn’t want any lingering doubts when I left for school. Plus, Brendan and I were supposed to meet up for the J. Robbins / Bob Mould show. The test was negative, and my throat felt better.
Wednesday, Day 0 – Again with the dry throat, though it passed quickly, and I felt fine all day at school. Later, driving to Sean’s game after work, I felt the strangest sense of fatigue, like a fever-free flu. I sat off by myself during the game. On the way home with Sean, I wore a mask and kept the windows down. I went straight to my bedroom, closed the door, and took another test. Sure enough, two solid lines. Bold, easy to read, and positive. I stayed in my room and tried to guide the kids as they took tests. I had to yell because we were speaking through the closed door. The kids spread out, Maggie in the living room, Sean upstairs. They tag teamed the directions like pros, though there was lots of yelling because we were trying to talk to each other from different rooms and floors. Fortunately, their tests were negative. I called my partner, Joh, texted the kids’ mom, and started writing sub plans.
I played drums in the house band on Chris Gethard’s live talk show at the UCB Theater. I’d played in punk bands for years but never experienced anything like the chaos of those shows. Gethard drew on the likes of Andy Kaufman, Uncle Floyd, and Howard Stern. He wanted mayhem. Low budget, unpredictable, and ready to embrace discomfort. The shows started at midnight one Saturday a month. It was nearly two in the morning by the time I loaded out my drums and three thirty or four by the time I drove home.
Voice Memo 3: “I started listening to the Ergs in the early aughts because we’re friends. I keep listening because they’re a great band, deep cut worshippers with appetites for a really wide range of sounds. Then again, so am I and that doesn’t make me a great musician or songwriter. The Ergs are more than fans with instruments. They flavor their pop punk with country, jazz, and thrash. They’ve also developed an effective collective bullshit detector to ensure they don’t sound like dilettantes when diverging. For the most part. I don’t know what they were thinking with the ZZ Top cover that closes the new compilation.”
Thursday, Day 1 – I made a lot of phone calls: nurses at each of the kids’ schools, the nurse at my school. They were so helpful—informed, succinct, empathetic. The best I could get from my doctor’s office was a message. “If you’ve tested positive, press 4.” Figure it out, bub, we don’t need to talk to you. It left me feeling a little like Charlie Brown when he’s trick or treating in the Peanuts Halloween special. “I got a rock.” I’d hoped to read or listen to music during the day, but I was drained and my vision was blurry. The best I could muster was watching bits of documentaries between naps.
One Gethard show was billed as “The Night of No Laughs.” It was a full length show with the regular cast and guests, but no laughter. If you laughed, you had to leave the theater. I managed to survive to the end of the show. It was equal parts by-design success and cringe-inducing trainwreck, devoid of laughs but still fascinating to experience as the theater slowly cleared out. There’s footage online of people being interviewed as they left the theater. One friend said, “Brutal, just brutal.” Another commented, “Not sure that was such a good idea.”
Voice Memo 5: “Hindsight Volume Two is the Ergs second collection of non-LP tracks. In his liner notes, bassist Joe Keller concedes sequels are ‘usually a bad idea,’ but Hindsight is a blast. Here is the full title—I have to look at the cover to get it right—’Okay, Enough Reminiscing.’ Hindsight Is 20/20, My Friend Volume Two. 22 tracks mixing originals and covers. Side one has two of the band’s best EPs. That’s It…Bye! was originally released close to the band’s breakup and has three of their best songs. At the time my sense of those songs was tainted by wondering How could they break up now? The bittersweet part of those feelings has faded. The Ergs’ split 7” with the Measure is included, too, along with “Blah Blah Blah” and a killer take on Devo’s “Blockhead,” which fit the flow perfectly.
Voice Memo 7: “Side two opens with a blur, the over-before-you-know-it hardcore EP, Thrash Compactor, then a slew of covers. Kid Dynamite, Sicko, the Minutemen, and the previously mentioned but not approved ZZ Top. (Why, fellas, why? That acreage can be used for higher yield crops!) The Ergs also cover their friends’ bands, Hunchback, the Parasites, and Egghead, (Full disclosure: I was in Egghead.) because that’s part of what good underground bands do, they acknowledge the people around them. The Ergs go one better and name a song for a friend. In this case, retitling ‘1000 Letters’ as ‘Bill Moon’ for the friend who often requested said song at shows. Take that, fourth wall!”
Friday, Day 2 – Low energy and blurry vision. In hindsight, the fatigue kept me from freaking out about not being able to see well. I tried sleeping, but I was too antsy, so I wound up doing chores—dishes, laundry, ordering groceries. It felt decadent having all that food delivered and I felt like such a schmuck when I went to the door without a mask and inadvertently freaked out the delivery woman. I went back to my order to leave a bigger tip. That night, waiting for sleep to come, I tried to replay the day, but things were too hazy.
There was also “The Pissy Pants Contest.” Cast members were encouraged to drink as much water as possible during the show. We weren’t allowed bathroom visits. We were allowed to don adult diapers, which were weighed backstage after the show. The heaviest diaper won a $20 restaurant gift certificate. Someone accused our bassist, Bill Florio, of cheating. “I absolutely cheated,” he recently told me. “I dumped a gallon of water in my diaper. I got caught blue handed.” I started to share this story with Joh. She stopped me halfway, her laughter laced with disgust, or perhaps vice versa. “That’s too much information. I don’t want to know any more!”
Voice Memo 8: “The first version of Hindsight Volume 2 was posted a few years ago on Bandcamp. I want to say 2016. Now comes the vinyl version on Creep Records. I haven’t seen a new release from Creep since one of my bands recorded at the Creep house in 1997 or ‘98. Our hosts were the guys who ran the label and owned the house. They were friendly, and the recording sounded fantastic, but nothing about the operation suggested ‘long term.’ The bathtub was streaked with mold and the toilet was barely bolted to the floor. I vaguely remember bloody tattoo bandages stapled to the wall. Yet two decades later Creep is to thank for the latest Ergs long player.”
My bandmate, John Ross Bowie: “I do not recall the tattoo bandages being stapled to the wall. I recall them being stuck to the wall with blood and lymphatic fluid. Sleep well!”
Saturday, Day 3 – I’m not sure what I did on this day, but I recall something else from day two: talking to my kids on the phone while they were in the next room. At first, we tried talking to each other with the door closed, but the yelling was draining. Also raised voices often equal angry voices, so even innocuous exchanges were tinted with an unintended edge. “Are there any more graham crackers? I said, Are there ANY MORE GRAHAM CRACKERS!?”
I don’t think the Ergs coexisted with the Chris Gethard Show. The Ergs broke up in 2008 and I played on the Gethard Show in 2009-10. But my brain has intertwined memories of the band and the show. My bandmates on the Gethard Show were among the people I’d see at Ergs shows, and Gethard was friends with the Ergs. Thinking of one triggers thoughts of the other.
I tried watching Irma Vep. It’s a movie within a movie about an actress from Hong Kong going to France to remake a 1915 silent film called Les Vampires. I’d never heard of Les Vampires and didn’t know whether or not it was fictional. Reading about Les Vampires led me to this quote from writer Chris Darke, “(Irma Vep) is not a mourning for cinema with the romantic nostalgia, but more like the Mexican Day of the Dead: remembrance as an act of celebration.”
Sunday, Day 4 – I felt nearly normal physically, my energy was coming back and my vision was clearing up, but I also felt isolated and lonely. The kids were with their mom and Joh stayed at her place. Some of the solitude was welcome, but I weakened at times. I started talking to myself which helped, and I finally had the bandwidth to absorb new music. That’s when the voice memos started. I reached for the recent Ergs compilation. It’s no coincidence I started with music made by friends.
But Ergs records aren’t just nostalgia. Like the quote above, listening to the Ergs is an act of celebration. Their songs are cathartic—short, fast, and a joy to sing along to. They’re also more clever and complex than they need to be, in the best sense. Plus, the Ergs occasionally still release new material, including two recent 7” EPs. At the risk of oversimplifying, Time and the Season (Dirtnap Records) is the Ergs’ Mersey Beat/’60s record, while Renovations (Wall Ride Records) is the band’s latest country-tinged extended player.
I asked singer/drummer Mike Yannich about the lead track on Time and the Season, “Ultimate Falsetto Book.” “I was listening to Ultimate Fakebook obsessively at the time I wrote that song (20 years ago!), so that’s where the reference comes from. For reasons lost to time, I decided I didn’t like ‘Ultimate’ and we stopped playing it. Otherwise, it probably would have been on Dorkrockcorkrod. Actually, my two songs on the Renovations 7” were also written back then and shelved. I found the demos over the pandemic and was like, ‘These are actually pretty okay.’
On the first verse of “Penny in the Jukebox,” from the Renovations EP, Yannich sings the title phrase followed by, “Cuz it’s all I could afford.” He’s too broke to put a dime in the jukebox. Those are tough times. “So I’ll just hear the intro / As I pass out on the floor.” Right out of the blues and into a pop punk tune. My favorite line starts the second verse: “I put a penny in the jukebox / Cuz it’s all I had to give.” That takes me back to the collection plate being passed during Catholic masses and wondering if we were giving enough and what the people sitting next to us were thinking. It takes “pop music as religion” to another level.
Most pop punk bands push hooks and melodies to the forefront, which is fine. Those are the sweeteners, the additives that keep me coming back when the recipe is right. Too often, though, pop punk bands get stuck in arrested development, trying to push teen narratives, songs about adolescence that leave them, the singers, sounding like adults yearning for younger years or just stuck for better ideas. The Ergs never succumbed to the genre’s pitfalls, so even their revamped outtakes from back in the day hold up.
Singer/guitarist Jeff Schroeck wrote the title track of the Renovations EP. It’s heavy. “What’s the point of fixing your house when you won’t be around too much longer to enjoy it.” I read the lyrics before listening to the song. I wondered how they’d translate and where the story came from.
“It started out as a story idea, based on a neighbor,” Jeff responded. “I kept seeing work trucks coming to their house day after day, and it gave me an idea for a story about a guy who is trying to deny his wife’s impending death by finally getting around to building her dream home. A few years later is when I thought of a couple that doesn’t fix their issues until it’s too late, which then extends to trying to improve one’s self so all that stuff doesn’t happen again.”
I also wondered if Jeff is okay—sometimes I project the feelings of narrators onto the singers.
Jeff: “That’s 100% me.”
Meanwhile, singer/bassist Joe Keller turned to another suburban fixture for “The Half Empty Strip Mall I Call My Heart.” Strip malls dominated the landscape where I grew up and still loom over many surrounding towns, but this marks the first time I’ve heard someone sing about one.
“The strip mall was a concept I wanted to work into a song, be it Ergs or Night Birds,” Keller wrote, also referencing his post-Ergs band. “Strip malls are uniquely suburban and frequently house whatever scraps of culture a suburb can possess. And they are also quite sad to look at when almost empty. I always identified them as something you could ‘claim’ as your own if you’re from the suburbs.” When the Ergs were younger, they wrote older. Now they’re older and they write it well, mapping the post-adolescent angst of their earlier songs onto the agita of encroaching middle age.
I have a bunch of related voice memos I’m tempted to steer into at this juncture: a treatise on the virtues of 7” records; is it pop punk or punk pop; should the Ergs focus on one LP or release more frequent, shorter records? But I’ll close with these thoughts: my kids kept testing negative. So did Joh and Brendan. From what I can tell my having COVID didn’t get any of my students sick. And the new Ergs 7”s are worth it, especially with the coordinated color schemes designed by Lew Houston. Hindsight Volume Two is a treat, and Hindsight Volume Three is well underway.
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