68 hours in Manzanita…. The Monkey Power Trio’s 24th day as a band

The weekend of October 20 marked the 24th meeting of my one-day-a-year pseudo-band, the Monkey Power Trio. For those of you who might not be familiar with our origin story, it all began back in 1995 with a promise between old friends one hot, summer afternoon in Brooklyn. Without much in the way of any real planning, we’d decided to make a record. We gathered whatever instruments were at our disposal, and we made our way into an unlocked basement storage room in a Carroll Gardens apartment building [131 Union Street], where we proceeded to scream and beat on things while an old cassette recorder whirred away, suspended in front of us from a string tied to a sewage pipe. The result was a 7″ record, which we decided to call The First Hour, acknowledging the fact that we’d agreed, shortly after finishing, to meet up and do the same exact thing every year until the point when only one of us was left alive, creating extemporaneous noise over beers with no practice, forethought, or concern as to what people outside the band might think of it. And, against all odds, we’ve stayed true to our word for 24 years now, despite the fact that, every year, it becomes exponentially more difficult for the five of us to get away from our real-world obligations, put up with each other’s idiosyncrasies, which have grown more extreme over time, and express ourselves creatively… This year, we elected to meet in Portland, and drive out to the small Oregon beach community of Manzanita.

WHY MANZANITA… Generally speaking, we like to do things as inexpensively as possible, which usually means that we go where we can stay for free, whether it be at the vacation home of someone’s family friend in Lake Tahoe, or the basement of a bandmate who lives in the soulless exurbs of Atlanta. Occasionally, though, we all chip in and rent a house for a few days, like we did the year before last across the street from that liquor store in Baltimore, or a few years before that in a Cleveland neighborhood, where we thought we might find some inspiration at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or a few years before that in Jackson Hole, where we knew someone with a truck who promised that, if we came his way, he’d not only set us up with an inexpensive place to stay and record, but drive us around in search of large, wild animals. Well, this year, when an opportunity opened up to stay for free at a house along a relatively desolate spot on the Oregon coast, we jumped at it. While we generally like to be in proximity to restaurants, bars, museums, and other things that we might draw inspiration from, there’s something to be said for saving money. More importantly, though, it just seemed like a year for quieter introspection, given that we’re all of an age where we’re starting to contemplate the grim reality that awaits us.

When all of this started, and we made our “every year until death” pact, none us really considered the fact that, one day, we’d be gathering to record either soon before, or just after, the funeral of a bandmate. And, this year, that thought was very much on our minds, as one of us had recently been diagnosed with cancer. As it turns out, it seems to have been a very treatable form of cancer, and we’re told that, now that it’s been removed, he doesn’t even have to go through chemotherapy, which is awesome. We didn’t know that when we met, though. [His surgery was a week after this year’s session.] All we knew when we met for this year’s session was that this might be the last time all five us would be together. So there was a lot of drinking chardonnay while walking on the beach, and talking about wills between games of Scrabble. Not exactly what we signed up for as kids back in Brooklyn almost a quarter century ago, but, as they say, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Here, for those of you who might be interested, are a few photos from the trip, along with my abbreviated notes. I know it’s unlikely that anyone reading this will care, but, with my memory starting to fade, I think it’s important to document these things… just in case my children ever start to show and interest.

BIGGEST LAUGH OF THE WEEKEND… I’ve just started listening to Pete Holmes’ podcast, and there’s a question that he poses to guests from time to time. “When did you laugh the hardest?,” he asks. For me, I’m almost positive, it would be this time in high school, when, sitting in the library, I started laughing, and just couldn’t stop. I can’t remember what it was that my friends and I were laughing about, or which friends were with me, but I remember the direction that I was facing, the shape of the table in front of me, the chair that I had to pull myself back onto, and the fact that, no matter how hard I tried, I just could not stop convulsing with laughter. I’ve often thought, if it’s true that your life flashes before you when you die, I’d like to see that scene again, and hear what it was that was so damn funny. When considering the totality of laughing fits I’ve had in my life, I suspect nearly half of them have been with members of Monkey Power, most of whom I’ve known since 9th grade, with huge percentages also going to my old Shadow Art Fair crew, and my fellow zine publisher Jeff Kay. [Come to think of it, a small Monkey Power Trio laughing fit was even captured on tape back in ’95, during that historic first session. If you’re interested, you can actually hear it. Did’t people laugh funny a quarter-century ago?] At any rate, this year was no exception. I had an uncontrollable laughing fit on my first day at the house, just minutes after walking through the door.

Matt, Dan and Mike had arrived in Manzanita the day before I arrived to buy groceries and set things up at the beach house, and Dave, who lives in Portland, had stayed behind to pick me up at the airport and drive out to meet them the following day. [While everyone else was flying into Portland, I was at a work event here in Michigan, trying my best to ignore the text messages about how much fun I was missing. Speaking of which, I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it here, but I also came in late to our session in Reno about ten years ago, and remember getting a photo sent to me en-route of a few bandmates at a craps table, jumping for joy with fistfuls of money, flanked by attractive young casino employees, who they’d somehow talked into playing along. This time, they just sent photos of themselves eating what looked like pizza and ice cream, which, I guess, is like the old man version of attractive young women.] After hugging Matt and Dan, I went to wake Mike, who was sleeping upstairs on a couch, as old men tend to do after a few drinks. Well, as he lay there, with his eyes covered from the sun with his baseball cap, he demanded that I hand him a box of Cheez-Its that they’d bought the night before. And that’s when things began. And I’m sure it won’t sound funny when I explain it, but, as I haven’t laughed so hard in a year, and since I suspect I’ll want to be reminded of it later, I’m going to do my best to record it here.

OK, I’m not going to attempt a play-by-play, but it started with me tying a Cheez-It to a piece of string, removing my shoes, and tiptoeing over to dangle it in front of Mike’s nose as he lay semi-conscious on the couch, and it ended with Mike, a former professional baseball player, chasing me around the room, as I attempted to stuff every one of the Cheez-Its into my mouth before being caught. Again, I know it sounds stupid… two 50 year old men fighting over Cheez-Its… but I laughed my ass off, and it’s a memory that I’ll cherish. Here’s a photo, taken by Dan, who I know probably thought that I’d either have a heart attack, or choke to death, as I stuffed fistfuls of Cheez-Its into my mouth while laughing so hard that I was gasping for air.

I don’t think I ever told this story here, but I once worked at a hotel in Kentucky, where, on occasion, they hosted World War II reunions. The attendees, I think it’s fair to say, when they got together for these things, acted like children. I have distinct memories of octogenarians running through the halls with giant novelty condoms on their heads, and making silly voices outside the rooms of their friends, only to shuffle off quickly to hide, attempting to stifle their laughter. I guess, when you’re friends from a relatively young age, that kind of shit just never ends.

THE RECORDING SETUP… The house had two floors. We slept, ate, and hung out on the top floor, and we spent our recording day on the ground floor, with Matt playing his wind instruments in a bathroom, Dave playing the drums in the garage, and Mike, Dan and myself in a little living room space. [I thought, for a good deal of our car ride from Portland to Manzanita, that Dave had somehow acquired the drum set of Hasil Adkins, but they were actually borrowed from Jody Bleyle, formerly of the band Hazel. I think he must have thought that I was a super huge Hazel fan, the way I was going on about how cool it was that he’d somehow managed to get them for us.]

Again, I know this won’t matter to anyone outside the band, but there were two relatively big advances this year in terms of setup. First, we were able to use FaceTime, or something like FaceTime, to communicate with Dave, who was locked up in the garage, pounding on the drums. He’d put some kind of distortion filter on it, which warped his face when he leaned forward to change the levels on his computer (Dave did all of the mixing in the garage too), but it was cool to just look up at the LED screen next to me to have a conversation with him. I don’t think that it’s something that we’d want to do again, as it’s more fun when we’re all together, even if the sound suffers, but it was interesting in that it demonstrated, at least to me, that we could be headed toward a time when one of us, perhaps incapacitated for health reasons, might be able to participate remotely by way of live feed. Hopefully it never comes to pass that more that one of us is bedridden at a time, but who knows what the future holds… And, second, I discovered that an ironing board makes a great stand for my notebook and megaphone. Again, I know this won’t matter to anyone, but I want to remember for next year… Here are a few photos.

As the most technically skilled person on the team, Dave does almost all of the technical work on the days that we record. He sets everything up, records everything, and mixes stuff on the fly. This is why, on the “hand” of Monkey Power, he’s the thumb… As I wrote about 20 years ago, when we last updated our website, “The thumb, opposable, brings with it tools and the ability to use them.” And that’s Dave, who also chips in equally for booze, even though he doesn’t really drink. He is, in short, the perfect bandmate… the one we all want to live to be in the final two. [While all the other guys in the band are old high school friends of mine, Dave is someone I met in college, when I was about 21, when a mutual acquaintance suggested that we share an apartment in Ann Arbor.]

That’s Matt, sitting in the bathroom, behind Mike. He’d open the door between songs, when he wasn’t paying his various wind instruments, or taking a nap. [Dave played some trumpet this year, but otherwise all the wind instruments were played by Matt.] Matt, for what it’s worth, usually plays sequestered off somewhere from the rest of us, as his mic tends to pick up the sounds of other, louder instruments. This isn’t an issue when we record parts separately, but, when we’re all making up stuff on the fly, playing together, it makes mixing the tracks almost impossible. So it’s not that he’s in the bathroom because we don’t love him. We do.

Yes, Matt somehow got three crumhorns past security this time.

That’s Dan on the right, standing alongside the ironing board where I did my work. We didn’t make use of the fireplace, but we probably should have. In the past 24 years, I don’t think we’ve yet had a session around a fire. We should probably do that… This year, it would have been super easy to carry an acoustic guitar and a flute down to the ocean, build a fire on the beach, and try to come up with something. I tell myself that, if we were younger, we probably would have. The truth is, though, we probably wouldn’t have. I remember, several years ago, when we were going to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, suggesting that we go into the bathroom and record a track of us harmonizing the morning of our session. Great idea. But no one wanted to do it. And that includes me.

I have no idea what I’m doing with my hand. It looks like I’m doing some kind of Señor Wences impersonation. If memory serves, this was me screaming dance instructions to a non-existent audience for our song “The Sand Flea,” which you may hear four of five years from now, once the record finally comes out. [The last record we put out, The Ballad of Christian Wolfcock, got us caught up to 2015, so we now have a backlog of just three sessions that need to be released.]

THE SONGS… There was at least one pretty good song this year. We worked hard on it. Or, at least, hard by our standards, meaning that we did more than one take of it, and worked on it for an hour or so. I can’t remember exactly what it was about, now that a few weeks have passed, but I remember having liked it. There was also the dance song, which I mentioned earlier, which was inspired by a walk along the beach the night before our session, where we were beset by small, dense clouds of sand fleas. Again, I can’t remember the specifics, but the dance, as recall, involved my yelling commands like, “scratch your ankles,” and “hop to the ice-cold water.” There was also a song about jellyfish, and what antisocial dicks they are. As always, we fed off what was given to us. And, this year, the universe gave us lots and lots of sand fleas and jellyfish. The jellyfish off the Oregon coast, as least the weekend I was there, were really amazingly colorful. [They were really purple.] And, of course, we sang about death. I don’t want to listen to the recording right now, but I can recall saying “contemplating the abyss” a few times.

THE NAPPING… By my count, three of the five of us fell asleep while recording this year. This, again, is something that we hadn’t bargained for when we started this, as we certainly weren’t taking naps mid-session when we were 25. For what it’s worth, as one of the nappers, I can tell you that it’s pretty awesome to just wake up and find that an entire song’s been written, and that you just need to get yourself off the couch for a few minutes to yell nonsense… As I don’t want to share photos of us sleeping, here’s the lovely view out the window.

OTHER STUFF… In addition to the music, the Scrabble, and all the talk about wills, there are probably a few other things worth noting, if only so that, years from now, those of us who remain can read over them and pretend to remember. Here they are, in no particular order. One – I don’t know how it came to pass, but two new nicknames were bestowed this weekend — “Pantless” and “Low Sack.” For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure those nicknames weren’t earned at the same time, but I suppose it’s possible. Two – There’s legal weed in Oregon, so a couple the guys availed themselves of that. For what it’s worth, I didn’t. I also didn’t drink much. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I think I’ve finally come to learn that the hangover the day after isn’t worth the incremental effect of the additional drink or two the night before. Three – I learned a lot about divorces, and the court system as it pertains to alimony and the like. [Two of us are now divorced.] I also learned a lot about cancer of the appendix. Four – I walked the beach several times. The night that we recorded, Dan and I walked down to the ocean, which required cutting through someone’s yard, at about 4:00 AM. It was really lovely, as the night was incredibly dark, and the stars were super bright. [During most of the day, it was foggy, like on Skull Island.] I recall that we identified a few constellations. I wouldn’t know it until a few days later, but, had we gone out earlier, we would have seen an meteor shower. So I guess you can add that to regrets, along with the fact that we didn’t have a fire on the beach. Five – We only went out to eat once while in Manzanita. We walked a few miles to a place where we ordered scallops. They were good, as I recall. Six – Matt and I walked the mile an a half into town for groceries one morning, and Dan, who had apparently finished off the mayonnaise the evening before, was insistent that we get more, to the point where I started to think that he might have an addiction issue. I texted him this picture from the store. Before cell phones, I would have had to buy all of this mayonnaise for the joke to work. Now, though, thanks to technology, I just had to snap a photo and put all but one back on the shelf.

THE REST OF THE STORY… Matt and Dan were the first to fly back home. I’d decided to stay a day, as there were some things I wanted to check out in Portland. And, Mike, apparently in no hurry to get home, decided to stay as well. So Mike and I crashed with Dave, his significant other, whom I like very much, and their six year old daughter, who I’d yet to actually meet. She was smart, funny and bright, and many laughs were had. [As all three of the remaining members of Monkey Power suffer from bad backs, we had to take turns carrying her down the street for dinner that night… Collectively, we make one good dad.] And I just hung out on my own for a little while, driving around to three different restaurants that I’d wanted to check out, and sneaking around McMenamins properties, looking for inspiration. [Now that I’m technically a developer, given that some friends and I own a commercial building, this is how I spend my vacations.] I also hit the World Forestry Museum, where I learned about efforts to build high-rise developments from wood, and the Oregon Historical Society, where I took this next photo. Oh, and I also hiked for a couple of hours in the mountains outside of Portland. [note: I really like Pear Hawthorn trees.]

As I’m not quite sure how to end this, here’s a little something I wrote a few years ago about these annual sessions of ours, followed by a photo of us on the beach of Manzanita.

Standing there, in front of our microphones, like it or not, we have to confront the fact that our minds aren’t working as fast as they once did, and that our ideas aren’t quite as sharp as they once were. It sucks, but that’s life. And, if nothing else, I think this little project of ours is a reminder that we should enjoy the time we have left with one another… Listening from year to year, in these tiny little audio snapshots, you can literally hear us collectively breaking down like a space capsule upon reentry. And it’s actually kind of beautiful… if you can get beyond the sadness.

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12 Comments

  1. ElsieGal
    Posted November 24, 2018 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    You had me at Señor Wences, and I would have literally peed my sweat pants if you’d included a nod to Topo Gigio. (BTW, your McMenamins link goes to the Señor Wences Wikipedia page, in case you didn’t intend that).

    What a glorious and wonderful post of memories and commitment and friendship and LIFE this is! Thank you so much for sharing it, and in such detail–the details are what made it so genuine and just plain fun to read. I hope every other reader and commenter reacted like I did, and recalled their own moments about when they laughed the hardest. I am cycling all of my “best laugh” moments in my head as I write this, and smiling.

    Awesome. Just awesome. Thank you so so so much!

  2. Posted November 25, 2018 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the comment, ElsieGal. I’m glad to know that at least one person outside of the band found the post of interest.

    Here’s the link to McMenamins. I also fixed it in the post. Thanks for letting me know about it.

    And thanks for turning me on to Topo Gigio. I’m watching old video of him in action this morning. [Did you know that, according to EdSullivan.com, Joan Rivers actually wrote Topo Gigio’s early acts in America?]

  3. Jean Henry
    Posted November 25, 2018 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    “there was a lot of drinking chardonnay while walking on the beach, and talking about wills between games of Scrabble” – Least punk rock sentence ever. I laughed pretty hard at that one with both amusement and empathy.

    There is a theory (I think Buddhist) that men and women become more like one another as they age. There is some substance to that re hormones. But for the most part, I don’t think the genders are that different. Most of what we see as difference is cultural projection and compliance. I think as we age most of us just let go of a lot of that gendered nonsense, having discovered its limits and aged past the need to preen our gender for the sake of the biological imperative. Come to think of it the theory I vaguely remember was that we become more whole as we age. Or as my little old lady friend Mrs. Redfield said, “People don’t really change, they just become more so.”

    This was a lovely reflection. I look forward to this post every year. It’s heartening and a welcome distraction.

  4. Posted November 25, 2018 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Oh, you can be sure there was “gendered nonsense.” It was just less in the forefront this year. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Jean.

  5. Dan R.
    Posted November 25, 2018 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    It was rose, not Chardonnay.

    Wow, I sound like Matt.

  6. Jean Henry
    Posted November 25, 2018 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    Mark– What you believe to be gendered nonsense is likely not gender-specific. Especially past child-bearing years. I guess you’ll just have to trust me on that. Listen for the cackle in the laughter of women over 40…

  7. Jean Henry
    Posted November 25, 2018 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    PS– Rose is even less punk rock than chardonnay. I’m picturing you all in fluffy robes like Cary Grant in Bringing up Baby.

  8. Michael A
    Posted November 26, 2018 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed this post tremendously. Always good to hear what Monkey Power is up to.

  9. Sad
    Posted November 26, 2018 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    That’s sweet.

    There is something very Erma Bombeck meets aging pink rockers about it. And the cliffhanger for next year. Nice touch.

    I don’t care what HW says you do a nice job.

  10. John Brown
    Posted November 26, 2018 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    That place will have a great view of the big tsunami when it comes.

  11. Posted November 28, 2018 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    There are a few people in the world who consider themselves Monkey Power fans. One of them is a fellow named Nathan DeYonker, who, inspired by this post of mine, just wrote some very nice words of his own about his own personal experiences with bandmates. As I didn’t want to forget them, I thought that I’d copy them here.

  12. Posted November 28, 2018 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    And, yes, John Brown, while we were in Oregon, there was much talk of the “big one” that’ll eventually drag millions of people out to sea. I might have this wrong, but I think there’s a history of massive events taking place every 300 years or so, and they’re overdue.

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  1. […] I don’t get to it right away, I may forget something of potential importance, like the fact that we fought over Cheez Its in Manzanita, Oregon or that there were 10 homicides in Baltimore the day we recorded there, or that I fell in a lake […]

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