Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Art That Changed My Life: Mr. Bungle

Before I wax on and on and on about the genius of Tom Waits or anyone else, let me give a shout out to the band that will forever be my favorite: Mr. Bungle.

Only three records and yet such a cult following, such devotion. There’s so much on the net about this odd little band that anything I say will be superfluous, so, rather than write about their biography or try to describe their music (which always makes the writer sound like an idiot), I’ll make this one short and sweet and tell you, whoever you are (aside form you, niña), the reason(s) why this remains my favorite band ever. I mean, EVER!

1991. Coming down from the big rock of Van Halen (my obsession through high school) and mildly fond of the grunge thing that was sweeping the suburbs, Mr. Bungle fit in perfectly. Nirvana, as much as I liked them, seemed like the next big thing for maybe five minutes. (What did I know?) Nevermind, a fine record (though not as good as In Utero), didn’t so much “blow me away” as it impressed me. Yeah, there was enough three chord rock to appease the Ramones fan in me, and the lyrics were strange and appealing to the booming Gen X would-be nihilists collectively created by MTV, Rolling Stone, Spin, and all the sheep (like me: BAH!) who bought into the idea that, yes, there was no future and we might as well do heroin or shoot ourselves.

But I was not that down and not that young. As depressed and stupid as I can get, I could never get so gloomy that, say, a Smashing Pumpkins record could truly reach me. So what filled the void? A self-titled gem with a clown on the cover.

I was well aware of who Mike Patton was, though I wasn’t too thrilled with his antics in that fish-out-of-water video. Still, my friend John DelPonte pressed Mr. Bungle upon me, and I shall forever be thankful to him for it. There I was in my mother’s basement listening to “Travolta” (later re-titled “Quote Unquote” due to legal concerns), wondering what it was my dubious friend had gotten me into. Yeah, there were the easy hooks and gross-out humor of “Squeeze Me Macaroni” and “The Girls of Porn” but it would be “Slowly Growing Deaf” and “Dead Goon” that would stick in my head for years to come. To this day, when I dust off that chestnut, I usually play those two tracks twice if not three times each.

Did Patton really sing: “Will Warner Brothers put our record on a shelf” in “Carousel” or am I hearing things?

By the time Disco Volante was released I was a very different person living in a different place with different friends and different tastes. I was pretty out of the loop musically and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was over Pavement and the goddamn Smashing Pumpkins. It was 1995 and no one seemed to care about Pearl Jam, at least no one that I cared about. Cobain offed himself (or did he?) and there didn’t seem to be much worth listening to anyway. I sank deeper into the jazz hole, rekindled my love of Naked Raygun and the Misfits, and occasionally condescended to play some of that classic rock stuff I used to love. Sure, Patti Smith or R.E.M. might have found a rotation or two around that time, but otherwise music was less interesting than it had been when I was 15. I only cared about literature. Even movies were starting to seem a bore. And then came Disco Volante.

Disco Volante is the Bungle masterpiece, make no mistake about it. All the pop elements so praised on California are evident in small pieces shattered and shuffled across the avant-garde landscape of Disco Volante. There is the noise, sure, and the “rock” moments (about three, total), and there is some strange cut-ups and loops and samples or were they really playing this shit? Go somewhere to read an accurate description of the record (if one can be written) or better yet, give it a listen. It fucking holds up.

Memories: buying the CD at midnight with Xtop’s money, staying up late to listen to it in full, looking at the clock and noticing that track three, though it seemed over, was still going strong at nine minutes. Xtop rushes in from work and I play him “Carry Stress in the Jaw” and let it go on into the secret song. Two heads blown that night in Chicago.

Another four years passed. No music to speak of, save for some Zorn and Melt-Banana, and, of course, the Boredoms, but I was desperate for another Bungle CD right around the time they dropped California on the world like an unfunny gag gift. Though people love the CD now, and critics call it their best, I don’t know that the old Bungle heads who ate up the first and tolerated the second were so thrilled when they heard “Sweet Charity.” By the time they got to “Retrovertigo” and “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare,” I am sure they were praying that something was coming, something with funk bass grooves and blistering guitars, maybe hidden at the end. Vlad Drac? Scummy? Hello… Maybe you need to pop the CD into your computer to get a rehashing of “Stubb (A Dub).”

No, this was Bungle in the year 1999. The millennium was coming to an end and so was Mr. Bungle. Their sound, the one they started with, was already over. They matured, moved on, and, in doing so, created one of the last analog masterpieces (second time I’m using this word but it fucking fits!). California is, in many ways, brilliant. It was a good record to end on, the culmination of this oddity from Humboldt County. Barely any of the horns that categorized their first record, and low on the electro-acoustics and noise and whatever that shaped the sophomore effort, California was their idiosyncratic take on a conventional record with conventional songs recorded in a nightmarishly painstaking process that is now the stuff of legend (and, sadly, becoming more of an antiquated process as technology marches steadily into the cold, digital tar pits). I’m still digesting this CD ten years later.

Let’s talk about why I love this band. First: the personalities, or lack thereof. I was drawn to the mystery of the early Bungle, the masks, the anonymity. We knew Patton was the singer, despite the credits listing “Vlad Drac.” But who was Scummy? What was Heifetz? Who the hell was Trevor Roy Dunn? Was that a real name? There were rumors: Les Claypool was the bass player; Buckethead played all the guitar; Zorn was the real saxophonist. None of this was true, but it helped with the allure of the band. Seeing them live helped as well. They played Billy Squire’s “The Stroke” ala Doom Metal. They sang about being a clown and alienated the audience by speeding up the lunkhead favorite “The Girls of Porn” because, as Patton said, “We hate that song.” Patton dived from the rafters of the Metro and landed on the drum kit, crashing so hard they had to carry him off stage. It remains the greatest live show I have ever attended. I was a lucky, lucky young man. Nothing has ever been the same.

When I got a handle on who was who, I only grew to love the band more. They were my Beatles, or, if you will, my Monkees. And now that they have splintered, I can only follow their respective careers: Secret Chiefs 3. Trio Convulsant. Mad Love. Umlaut. Fantomas. The Tango Saloon. Tomahawk. Faxed Head. All of these bands have some form of Bungle DNA throbbing within them. Some are better than others (stay tuned for the SC3 post), but, like a geek fanboy, I follow them, much to the chagrin of my girlfriend and bank account. And while it is clear that at least two of the members are unwilling to consider a reunion, some of us still hold a secret prayer in our hearts that what happened with Faith No More can happen with Mr. Bungle. Stranger things have happened, right? I mean… Faith No More? Yeah, they have two brilliant records, but is there really more of a reason for them to reunite than Mr. Bungle? I think not.