Neds Atomic Dustbin
La Luna, Portland, Oregon, June 1996
published: 23 /
In 'Gig of a Lifetime' Erick Mertz writes of attending a Ned's Atomic Dustbin show in Portland in 1996 with a friend, who at his first gig, believes that he attending a Doors show and ends up having his life changed by rock and roll
“The Doors are on at 7?”
I look down at the bill, posted just above the $5.00 cover charge sign. All the expected bands are listed, down to the opener with the bottom line reading: Doors 7:00.
“Uhm,” I say, not wanting to embarrass my friend, or even curb his enthusiasm. “That just means the doors open at seven, you know.”
He looks at me blankly.
“You know. So we can all go inside.”
Zack and I work together in the same delicatessen. I have run the shop for a few years, while he’s seeking extra cash before going off to college. Zack is quiet, which says a lot after hanging around with me because I talk – a lot, about a whole host of topics too, music, books, movies and the young women who come through our shop on lunch break from the craft store. Zack is reluctant, which I take as a kind of challenge.
After a couple of weeks closing together, Zack finally lets loose. Poor guy. He probably felt like he had no choice, what with this strange guy talking his ear off. He reveals that he’s Mormon, which means he’s part of that 9% of our local graduating class that still looks at chocolate milk from the cafeteria as risky behavior. If you don’t know, Mormons boil down to no sex and no drugs, meaning no alcohol and caffeine. In the fall, Zack reveals that he’s going off to Ricks College in rural southern Idaho, which is where you go to school when you’re Mormon and find Provo, Utah too cosmopolitan.
Among the other abstinences for Zack is rock music. The guy was eighteen and owned no records, no tapes and no CDs. His only exposure to music was the tinny AM/FM radio in his family van, competing with six sisters and four brothers on their way to Wednesday night seminary, Friday study and Sunday all day mass. When I asked him what he knew about music, he said that his parents turned the radio up for Peter, Paul and Mary which was their wedding song.
Obviously though, Zack also knew who the Doors were too, even though his sense of rock Babylon was maladjusted.
As Zack and I descend through the subterranean catacombs toward La Luna’s sweaty, hot ballroom, a wave of paternal instinct washes over me. Zack had never been to a show, his primary music exposure coming from some middle-aged khaki wearing guy on the church basement acoustic. I’d been coming to the club three or four nights each week to see everything. As I lose sight of him momentarily in the dark corridor, the thought comes to me. This could get, I don’t know, a little weird.
The summer of 1996 was a car summer. Unlike summers to come, spent prowling campus in Birkenstocks, I drove everywhere. My white, 1987 Mercury Topaz (go ahead, Google a picture) had a tape deck. Most of those blistering months were spent back and forth between the Red Hot Chili Peppers' 'Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik' and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin’s 'God Fodder' which were, in my neophyte, indie rock sensibilities, the yin and yang of summer music. Funky and off-kilter contrasted with fuzzed out and stoned but devastatingly smooth. I was the master of flipping the cassette on 'Until You Find Out' to land on the gap preceding the quintessential Ned’s song, 'Grey Cell Green' or zipping through the last song to get to 'Kill Your Television'. My father hated Neds. He’d stomp down the hallway and shout, “You want to kill your television so badly?”
I could live with my nineteen year old duplicity. He could not, I suppose.
Asking Zack to go see Ned’s with me made sense. We worked the closing shift. After the doors closed, we would crank up the alternarock station. Neds was playing with Letters To Cleo and Sponge, bands he could recognize from heavy rotation on that station, the latter’s 'Molly' song (you remember the refrain, “Sixteen candles down the drain”) seemed to resonate with him.
The venue is, as always, sweltering. The summer sun sets through the cobweb dense skylights, growing increasingly dim with each song. There is a painting high on the west wall, a white figure on black canvas, a stick man, painted in broad strokes.
The first set is Letters To Cleo, a band whose song 'Here and Now' spent some time on heavy radio rotation. I watch them without much interest, wondering more how anyone could expect the Doors to appear on the Portland stage. Jim Morrison was, in my mind, a Bunyan-esque figure, bigger than life whose songs filled my parent’s car on rides through town. I would ask about the sultry baritone singing 'Light My Fire'.
“He died in a Paris hotel bathroom,” my father would mutter as the keys ascended toward heaven.
Zack has a sly sense of humour though. He’d played dumb before during our late nights cleaning up in the kitchen. Was this one of these moments?
Sponge came on next. That stupid 'Molly' song was okay, but the rest of the set was like garnish on a dish.
Zack grows restless. He paces back and forth, edgy, as though he was expecting something more from his first concert experience. I sidle over to ask as the house music warmed the crowd.
“There’s a bucket of water over there,” I continue. “I don’t think anyone has turned it over on their heads yet.”
“That band sucks,” he says.
I smile broadly. “Oh yeah?”
“That song on the radio was cool,” he says. “But the rest was garbage. Does that ever happen like that?”
Oh does it. I think of the time Matthew Sweet fucked off on stage with his pedals and instruments more than he played, or when Mudhoney was so high they stopped playing songs at random intervals to dry hump their amps. I don’t mention these.
“Yeah,” I say. “Happens.”
In 1996 there was no internet. There was, of course, an internet, but I wasn’t using anything more than zines and Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll for news. I suppose if I was wired at that time, I could have figured out that the end was coming for Stonebridge’s Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. A couple of days later they would play their last show (only to reunite years later on) and walk away, around that blind corner that former bands pass.
On the way to the show, Zack talks about school. He plans on taking “general studies” at Ricks, trying to decide between a seminary career or something that would give him administrative skills he could apply to a church job.
The guy was sincere but there was something utterly unconvincing in his tone. He was talking to me about the choices others presented to him, instead of what he was wrestling with from a genuine perspective. I don’t argue though. As we descend off the freeway ramp, into the old city neighborhood around the club, I simply nod and listen.
You can tell when someone has precious few friends in their world that will take the time to listen to them.
When Ned’s steps out from behind the curtain, the stage rush is immediate. Suddenly two hundred crazed people descend from the balcony, the bar, the hall hell bent for the railing with reckless enthusiasm. Song one (if I recall correctly) is their iconic, bumper sticker fodder, 'Kill Your Television' the chorus of which serves as an undeniably powerful call and response, fists in the air, voices back unbridled.
Zack is beside me. Then like a puff of exhaled joint smoke, he vanishes. Was it the crowd inertia? Was there some cataclysm, a vortex opening that swallowed the mostly stoic young man? Had either question resulted in a yes, my behaviour would not be any different. Ned’s is on stage, light and smoke and blistering guitars, a perfectly blissful confluence of factors.
Besides, Zack is a big boy. Zack knows where we parked. I know this, because I made him draw a map on his hand from the club to car door. We’ll reunite, I think. I know we will. A young man should have his own first concert experience, after all.
Over the course of the set, I gradually make my way toward stage left. In observation mode, second hand smoke buzz, the spectacle of a favourite band is enough. The band is compelling, banter with the crowd in that steady tone; guitarist struts back and forth, tossing a curly mop in cool defiance.
The set is breakneck, surreal and, when the encore comes, I am rimmed with sweat, redolent with the kind of relentless heartbreak that keeps me awake into the night. It is the recognition of things ending.
When the lights come back, the song choice seems obvious. Everyone has been waiting through an hour and a half set, in which we have not heard the band’s classic 'Grey Cell Green' yet. As the rumbling bass drum kick starts and the opening chorus is struck, the word riot reaches new definition. A thousand fists raise in unison. People call out “desire” in their best, sumptuous drone. Bodies fly in the air.
And one of those bodies, as my jaw drops in astonishment, turns out to be Zack.
His shirt is gone, garment lost to the beer soaked, hard wood floor and his inhibitions seem abandoned with his half-naked form. Zack exhorts his carriers, closer to the stage, closer, closer. His eyes clench. He shouts to the noise. I carefully watch his lips. They do not form the song lyrics, nothing close to them, but he does not seem to care. As clear as day, as though the show was yesterday, I recall one of his trademark black, Converse All-Stars was gone, an unfortunate sock dangling precariously. The guy is a mess, an unrepentant, breakneck mess and he could not be any happier.
Then the song ends with the crescendo line, “it has been found”. Lights go on and just as dawn always follows the halcyon dream, our Ned’s adventure was over.
I wait at the car a long time before Zack shows up. One shoe. Tear in his cargo shorts. He has purchased a Ned’s shirt, a couple of sizes too big.
“You ready?” he asks.
I nod. “Uhm, yeah.”
We get into my car. I turn the engine over, watching as Zack buckles in.
“So?” I ask. “Did you have a good time?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Oh yeah.”
Zack left the restaurant to move to school, as expected. Between the show and his eventual departure, we remained friends although we never saw another show. After the doors locked, he continued to discuss his life choices, seminary or admin, and when he left, I had no indication where he was; anywhere other than lost.
That Christmas break I picked up hours at the deli. I took a few day shifts to occupy my two-week sentence at home. I was homesick by then, longing for school, for my radio show, but most of all, for the girl I met in that break room.
One bone cold night, Zack came in. He was alone. For a guy from a big family, I never saw anyone else. He wore a tie-dyed shirt. His hair was, although still short, turning ratty around the ears. He ordered a sandwich and I watched him take his seat.
“How’s it going?”
“Good,” he said.
“When you going back to Ricks?”
Zack smiled. “I’m not.”
My stomach turned over. “What?”
His sandwich appeared, and perfectly on cue, the tall, lanky kid rose from his seat and took his foot long hero under his arm and turned toward the door.
“What?” Where are you going?”
“Berkeley,” he replied. “I’m going to study physics.”
“I’ve always been interested in science.”
Zack smiled. He walked out, into the cold, no other explanation than good-bye. He got into the driver’s seat of the family Econoline and drove off.
I never saw him again.
I don’t know if rock saves. I don’t necessarily believe that a guitar, three chords and the truth are enough. That, it turns out, is up to you.
I do know this. Somewhere between seminary and the pursuit of science, between the wastelands of southern Idaho and the Golden Gate, a change occurred. A light came on. Fundamental truths were revealed.
I doubt Zack drives a 1987 White Mercury Topaz with a cassette deck (I don’t either anymore, in case you were curious). Perhaps he has forgotten Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, moving on to other rock pleasures as he drives into his cushy research job.
Whatever he listens to, I’d love to see the guy. I’d love to spend a few minutes in his company talking. Even if he doesn’t remember, I do. I’d like to thank him.
He was part of my show of a lifetime.