The Sick Pies
When I got out of high school I played drums for a punk rock band called Friction. The group always had a gang of lunatics that followed us around and made trouble. Often they would do something that would cause us to be banned from the clubs we played. Random acts of vandalism were a favorite.
These people created a circus-like environment for our entertainment. Usually half of the audience would find its way into the dressing room to snort coke and act like idiots.
One of these was Brian Held, or B.R.ian as he went by as a cartoon artist. When I first met Brian he came to my apartment with a mutual friend. He dressed in tattered jeans and a motorcycle jacket and carried decorated clubs made of large animal bones with screws protruding from them for extra menace.
They looked like something out of a Mad Max movie. Brian soon became a regular with the group. Often riding to shows in the band’s van.
Other hanger’s on included Vince Pacini, an Italian kid from a slightly wealthy family with a bum eye. The eye was rumored to have been caused by a bought of childhood cancer. The eye was a little distorted and aimed way off course.
Vince was a compulsive liar who always had an outrageous tale of some adventure he was soon to undertake. Usually gold mining in Saudi Arabia or the like. He would tell you his yarns in all earnestness even while you were laughing in his face. There seemed to be a disconnect from reality on this issue.
He was also prone to walk into a McDonalds and set upon some unsuspecting cashier and demand free food for the entire crew because his father owned the place. He would lie with such force that the poor girl would be at a loss as to what to do. If you didn’t know he was a lunatic, his lies were just outrageous enough to sound true.
In a moment of brilliance Vince and a friend were driving and partying and decided to break into a rural convenience store to steal the money and get cigarettes. They went in and rifled a few bucks from the till and then left. As they drove away, the owners who lived above the store saw them out the window. After driving away they realized they forgot the cigs.
And here’s where the smarts come in, they went back to steal the cigarettes even after they’d been spotted. Of course when they got there the police where waiting and a high-speed chase ensued through rural PA. After the chase went for about 20 miles they missed a turn and ended up stuck in someone’s front yard. For their exploits Vince’s friend went to jail, but because of his family’s money and connections Vince got off Scott-free.
Another of the Friction hanger’s on was Blink, who became our lighting man for a period. Blink could always be found with a bottle of Southern Comfort in his hand, which he ceremoniously pushed on everyone else. A brutal form of refreshment to say the least. You could pour a lid full in the bottle’s cap and light the stuff on fire to warm your hands on a cold winter’s night. The only catch to Blink’s forceful generosity was that the next week he’d be whining that everyone should buy him a case of the rotgut because we drank so much of his stash.
Blink also had the unholy distinction of being known to greet guests in his bathrobe. And for good measure he could always be counted on to accidentally flash his guests before the visit was over. Eventually he was arrested for wearing a dress and peeping in people’s windows, after which he disappeared from our little scene.
Then there was Steve, a soft-spoken man who hauled our equipment and crew from gig to gig in the back of his old green bread truck. Steve always traveled with a German Shepard dog. He bread the dogs in a mountain cabin and traded them to the local Hari Krishna farm in exchange for magic mushrooms. The Krishna trained them to be seeing-eye dogs and sold them to fund their community.
Steve was also a very successful pot farmer, whose seventh generation skunkweed yielded 12-inch glistening buds that would put you halfway into a coma. He always kept a garbage bag full of the stuff above his dashboard and when the group went to gigs out of town we always arrived brain dead from a non-stop supply of his Cheech and Chong sized spliffs.
Then there was Bad Brad. He was your stereotypical bad boy in black leather and dark good looks. A ladies man to the drunken white-trash sluts who haunted the local dives. Brad seemed to be completely without morals. He would be your best friend to your face and stab you in the back in a moment’s notice.
Brad was also a bit of a liar who told of his heroic exploits in Vietnam, although it turned out he never left the mainland. It was also suspected that Brad was a bit homo, despite his stud status.
On one mysterious night Brad took Brian for a ride deep into the forest in his van. Finding a dark pull-off he parked the van and sat staring at Brian as if waiting for something. After a few minutes, when Brian failed to deliver Brad drove off and the incident was never mentioned again.
Eventually this crew became known as the ‘Sick Pies.” The name came when Friction played at a huge outdoor party at the Sig Phi fraternity in some forgotten college town. Brad was drinking with some of the frat boys and someone ask him, “Are you a Sig Phi.”
A little wasted and not sure what they said he answered, “Yeah we’re all sick pies.”
And the name stuck.
So our regular group of Sick Pies along with an ever-changing array of extra stragglers would follow the group from town to town. They never served any real practical purpose, such as carrying equipment or paying the cover charge at the door. It was always, “I’m with the band.” Sometimes half the audience would be “with the band.” Meaning we got paid nothing when working for the door. Mainly the sick pies just partied and caused trouble.
Now the aforementioned Brian was something of a genius who never read a book. He was a walking performance artist who spoke in surreal abstractions. For those that learned to understand his bizarre form of communication he could make cynical comments on social situations without those being commented on knowing what he was saying.
He was a true working class punk who had contempt for everything and tried to poke a hole in every bit of mendacity. You could always count on him to say the wrong thing at the right time. On one occasion Friction was playing a small yuppie dive in Harrisburg, PA. Right as Craig, the band’s singer, was holding a coke spoon up to his girlfriend’s nose the club’s manager walked into our dressing room. Now you might think that this sort of behavior would be expected from a punk rock band in the 1980s, but the manager was shocked and outraged.
Sitting in the dressing room was the entire band, our manager, the folk singer Jeffrey Gaines, a few groupies, and Brian. The club manger gave us all an angry lecture as if we were naughty schoolboys. As silly as it sounds we all sat in total silence as he gave his speech and tried to set all right with the world. When he finished, the room was taken by an awkward pause. On cue, Brian opened the door to exit yelling behind him, “OK, see ya later guys, thanks for the horse.”
While the fans of most bands yell out their favorite tunes or adoring accolades such as “You guys rock,” but on old recordings Brian and our other fans can be heard shouting inspirational chants such as “Shoot your breakfast for dinner,” “Bleed from the hole,” and “Play one we know.”
Brian was also known to do some creative dancing while the group played. The 80’s were a horrible time for punk bands in most of America. On a usual night the dancefloor at our shows would be filled with yuppie couples who would rather be hearing cover versions of the latest Flock Of Seagulls hit than a punk band playing original music. In the middle of such as group you would find Brian dressed in a spiked collar and black leather po-go-ing by himself. He didn’t seem to give a fuck what anyone else thought, he did his own thing.
On the same night as the cocaine incident Brian was in rare form on the dancefloor and smashed his head against the corner of the PA monitor causing a bloody gash on his forehead. Despite the bleeding wound he kept dancing the rest of the night. By the evening’s end the entire dancefloor, the walls, and the clothes of anyone else who was brave enough to get out on the dancefloor, were covered in patterns of crimson blood spots.
At 3 AM as the band was loading out the equipment Brian was alone with a mop and a bucket cleaning his own blood from the floor and walls. The manager bullied him into it after angry professionals complained that their white party dresses and khaki trousers were ruined by a bleeding lunatic who was “with the band.”
Brian was the guy who could be counted on to smash a bottle over his own head to liven up a boring party. He once took it into his head that he wanted his fingers to be longer. To this end a tried to cut the webbing between his fingers. Luckily the plan was abandoned before things to too bloody.
On a personal level Brian was a gentle and giving person. Always the one you could go to when you needed help. His violence was always symbolic, as an act of performance art. He once told me he wanted to write a manifesto against society and make copies of it, then strap explosives to his body and climb to the top of the memorial tower in the town square and blow himself up. Not in any way that anyone else would be hurt, but to scatter the manifesto copies far and wide.
Being punk rockers in the age of hair bands always kept Friction in the underdog status. The local hair bands always made more money than us, and always seemed more favored by the club owners. None of us new a thing about the music business, including our coke-dealer manager who wouldn’t have known a recording contract from a crack-pipe, but succeeded in making money by selling $90 grams of blow to the band members. Thanks to his side business the band members often walked unto the stage all simultaneously wiping our noses from the last minute lines, as if it were some kind of stoner-version of a boy band dance routine.
Because of our naiveté about the music business we spent our time and energy playing endless gig in backwoods dives to people who wanted to hear top 40 covers or heavy metal. Nightly we endured catcalls for Sweet Home Alabama, Back In Black, or when dissatisfied audience members wanting to hear Eric Clapton’s hit yelled out, “Do Cocaine,” we dutifully responded “Give us some.”
It was years of beating our heads against the wall without any long-term goal in mind. No plan at all. We thought some label executive would just happen to wander into a bar in some nowhere town in rural Pennsylvania and reward our undiscovered brilliance with a recording contract.
This was the backdrop that fueled our major attitude problems. Within our first year we were banned from most of the venues we performed at across PA.
At Princeton University we played a ritzy frat house where our entire audience was one hippie chick practicing her ballet moves. I was in my political-radical phase and had taped Time Magazine pages with Ronald Reagan’s photos all over my drum kit.
During the performance the Sick Pies wrote graffiti on the walls saying “Anarchy For Princeton,” which brought weeks of phone calls to my house asking for money to cover the damages.
That night the hotel room was like a decadent nightmare from a 1950s drug scare movie. People wasted into oblivion, both males and females were passed out on beds, on the floors, and in bathtubs. Lit cigarettes burned holes in people’s clothing as those who passed out were demoted to serve as human ashtrays. The powerful downers that everyone was taking put people in such a comatose state that they were undressed and molested without waking from their stupors. Hotel room lamps and bed frames were set ablaze. Pillows and beds were shredded and tossed about. It was pure bedlam.
In Elizabethtown we were booked to play at an alcohol-free Christian school. We rolled in with cases of Budweiser in tow, causing a panic. Our audience consisted of two geeks in skinny ties trying their luck with the new wave look, and two girls who sat in the corner with a sour look on their faces.
Near the end of the night a guy walked through and yelled “These girls say you suck.”
Joe our guitar player asked the girls, “Why don’t you leave then?”
The event got so blown out of proportion that the next day the newspaper claimed that we threatened to rape the woman and tear down the building.
In State College, PA. A fraternity booked us for an annual salamander eating party. I knew it was going to be trouble when we were setting up our equipment and a muscle bound frat brother came into the room and stood in front of us and crossed his arms.
“So you guys are punks, huh?” he asked.
For the night’s festivities the frat boys had created a couple of small ponds in their basement and filled them with hundreds of live salamanders and newts. Within the first hour of the party all the doomed amphibians had been gobbled up by these shining young examples of American manhood for the sake of some cockeyed show of bravado.
The first half of the gig went OK, even though no one had ever heard the strange music we were playing by odd artists with names such as The Clash, the Talking Heads, and the Velvet Underground.
But soon it all went haywire. The frat boys shut off the electricity on us and started playing disco records. Since the only thing they couldn’t shut off was the drums, I played an extended drum solo. I was never clear on what happened next, but I recall some furniture was broken and a switchblade was pulled. The last thing I remember is hauling our equipment while one of our crew was holed up high in a tree in the frat house’s front yard yelling “I hate fucking frat boys!” over and over again.
At the biggest punk club in Philadelphia as our show ended one of the Sick Pies unrolled a long fire hose and through it down the stairs. On the way home we realized we were low on gas. We scraped together 20 bucks to fill the bread truck and pulled into an all-night gas station. Craig and I, and a few of the Sick Pies headed for the bathroom. As soon as we entered all hell broke loose. Within 30 seconds the place was demolished. The commode smashed, and as I was pissing in the sink, the fluorescent ceiling lights, fixtures and all came crashing down into the sink. The station attendant ran in to see what the commotion was as we ran back to the van. As the attendant threatened us with arrest Vince kept yelling mindlessly, “Call my lawyer, call my lawyer.”
Finally we gave him our 20 bucks even though we got no gas and drove off before he could complain too much. As we drove off and looked out the trucks back window to see him fold his forehead into his arm as if he didn’t know what just hit him.
Now we were back on the road but dangerously out of gas. I had mixed Quaaludes and cocaine and was babbling to the poor sod who was unlucky enough to sit beside me about the fluidity of reggae rhythms as compared to rock beats. Driving on fumes we reached a rest area on the turnpike to refuel. Piling out of the van we swore to the more level-headed members of the entourage, Steve and Jon, the group’s bass player, that we would not engage in any illegal activities inside.
As I came out of the bathroom as noticed Craig was at the phones booth piling torn out pages into a crumpled pile and had a lighter as if he were preparing to start a campfire. Luckily at that moment Jon also spied the action and drug Craig back to the van before he ended up in prison for a major act of arson.
All in all in seemed a wake of destruction trailed behind us. As one club owners said to our manager, “I understand you guys are artists, but we don’t want that kind around here.”
Often it was just the vast amounts of drugs and alcohol that our fans consumed that scared off club owners. It wasn’t unusual to see people passing out on the dancefloor from Quayluude stupors. I used to judge how successful and show was by the amount of vomit in and around the bathroom. The police showed up at our performances so often that we dubbed them, “the fan club.”
The band’s dressing room was always a madhouse where some lunacy was taking place. I would hardly bat an eye when I walked into the room to find Brian huddled in a ball in the middle of the floor with garbage cans, chairs and other debris and furniture piled on top of him like a sculpture of found objects that reached towards the ceiling. To add to the merriment Vince the one-eyed Italian was hurling beer bottled at the creation, covering the floor with shreds of broken glass.
Trying to work the music business with the Sick Pies around was hopeless, but then again, perhaps they kept of from becoming whores. The biggest club in Harrisburg, PA was the Metron. The club’s manager was a local music mogul who wasn’t too fond of Friction, but booked us for a series of dates because our manager blackmailed him with threats of exposing some homosexual secrets he held.
We often double billed with other ‘up & coming’ acts. One such act was a glammy new wave hair band whose name long ago faded from memory. The group’s manager was rumored to have label ties and we were hoping to impress him. The dressing room had one large mirror that both bands shared. As might be expected the hair band was hogging the mirror space all night long as they primped and sprayed their magnificent quaffs.
The group’s portly manager sat on a couch beside our manager.
A coffee table with a picture of soda sat in front of them. As our manager tried to chat up theirs, Brian stood directly in front of them and began mocking the hair band by pretending to comb his hair in an effeminate manner. He then unzipped his fly and began combing his public hair, and then dipping his comb into the picture of soda that both mangers were pouring drinks from, he continued to comb his hair.
Throughout Brian’s performance both managers sat looking, theirs dumbfounded, ours exasperated. Looking at the picture of soda their manager simply said, “I don’t think I want any more of that.”
Needless to day he didn’t take us under his wing and lead us to fame and fortune.
Bob Dylan has said of his music, “Every song I write is a protest song.”
I think we felt that way in Friction as well. Our very existence as a band and a small-scale social phenomenon was a protest. But in the end the reality we protest against is always unmovable. In the end we always fail. The best you can hope to do is be a thorn in the side of the placid status quo.
But perhaps what is more important is the experience of expressing rebellion. It is a statement of life. A declaration of individuality.
In our later years the group fell prey to our own bad behavior. Band members became consumed with drug and alcohol abuse, which hampered our ability to perform or record music. Once the music was gone there was nothing left. No point in going on. Instead of going out with a bang we just ceased to exist without much notice. By that time the scene surrounding the group had already begun to dissipate. Soon everyone just faded into the woodwork of small town life. It was as if nothing had ever happened. What was left of a local music scene returned to the usual heavy metal, grunge, and top 40 cover bands.
After I left the area and began new creative endeavors, when I returned to the area and would meet people from that scene I would sometimes feel annoyed at the enthusiasm they felt for the past. The group was tied up in the memories of their misspent youths when they weren’t saddled with mortgage payments, stale marriages, and dead end jobs.