A Smaller Life
I was only ever in 2 bands really, Negative Trend and the Toiling Midgets, each many bands in themselves. The Midgets have been an instrumental trio, a foursome, a five piece, with fulltime a singer and with a part time singer.
I’ve been a Toiling Midget for over 30 years now. It was never my band. I never told anybody what to play or not to play, except maybe Paul just to stop. When we started we were a gang, most bands are when they start. We were always going to be an instrumental band. We never even considered a singer. Even the first gig, which was without Paul, was as an instrumental trio. It was underrehearsed and barely listenable but the idea was strong. Once we started playing with Paul it all made sense, in a way we had our singer. All other singers were accidental.
For me the idea of us as an instrumental rock band was not to be a surf music or a freak out noise jam but a band that does songs with melodic riffs and feedback textures. The chemistry between Paul , Tim and I was unique. Unfortunately Nosmo was never quite up to the task. While his bass playing did get better over time, it never caught up. It never got in the way either. We were insular on stage. We circled around Tim as we did in rehearsal, our backs to the audience, watching and listening to each other. And so people would listen, I wanted them to listen, not look for something to watch but maybe look inside, listen harder. Or some such proto-pretentious bullshit...
When we finally let Ricky sing with us, surprisingly, he was rarely too fucked up to sing. He would just stand at the microphone, hair in his face, hands in his pockets and sing. He had a good nurse. I don’t remember how or why but by the time Annie and Aaron had joined the band, Ricky wasn’t around. Within a few months of Annie joining the band we broke up.
When we reformed in 1989 just before the SF earthquake I still hadn’t heard anything that sounded like us. After a misfire with my brother Jason singing I really thought we could do the instrumental thing and make it work. This time all the players were at the same level. Once more a singer was added. This time Eitzel. Then Lisa Davis quit very messily. Tim quit gradually and Joe had Wade. By July of 1992 Paul and I had no Midgets. I was devastated.
One day I called Tom and asked him if he wanted to be a Midget. I didn’t think he would want to but he did. What instrument would you like to play Tom? Drums. We added Erich Werner, former Telepaths and Blackouts guitarist on bass and played a couple of gigs that way then started to rehearse with Ricky. One show later Ricky was dead.
Over the next year we tried a couple of singers, Mostly at their insistence rather than our desire for a singer. David Ripley sang for us about 6 months and a big guy named Jack sang at one show.Tom said he made us sound like Pearl Jam. Tom was gone for awhile in 1993 so we had to replace him briefly with Adam Aaronson from Thrill Kill Kult.
By January of 1994 it was back to Craig, Paul, Erich and Tom. We had become an instrumental force. We had tried recording a few things before but none of it really was the Midgets, close, but no cigar. I had to go to Canada for awhile in July and when I got back Mark Sullivan had been added on keys. Mark was the perfect addition and something I never would have thought of, yeah Tom.
Another Tom idea brought about the writing and recording of the 1995 recordings that became Beaver Proxy as well as song the seeds of songs completed over a decade later.
We showed up at the studio to record and Tom had us all put on headphones. He then put Stravinsky’s ‘The Rites of Spring” and then “Petrushka” on in the phones and told us to play along. He recorded it all. Noise and then, everything coalesces for a couple of blissful moments. Tom. We also did a session with Jonna Hood, Paul’s sister. She was playing a 400 year old viola at this time.
Through 95 and 96 we kept doing shows and our audience dwindled. Life in SF was a bitch and we were getting nowhere. I decided I had to give it up and get out of town to survive. Paul soon decided the same. Our last show in the 90’s was in Northbeach at the Lost and Found Saloon with about 20 people in the audience, most being the other bands. We wouldn’t play agin for 12 years.
In June of 2007 a benefit for Dirk Dirksen, the Mabuhay promoter, was held at the Old Waldorf and Great American Music Hall over one weekend to cover his funeral expenses. Paul first tried to get the original Midgets together to play the Old Waldorf night. Paul was in Seattle and I was just across the border in a small Canadian town. We were still playing together but Tim said he didn’t want to repeat himself so we went with the obvious and better idea, let’s just pick up where we left off. And that’s what we did.
I moved back to SF in 2008 and we started seriously rehearsing and writing. Even though Paul was in Seattle we were able to rehearse and sometimes gig with Paul online from Seattle when he wasn’t able to be here. We have been gigging and recording for the past 5 years and will continue until we are all dead. We are older Midgets, but Midgets none the less. So there.
Even though we have been mainly an instrumental band, we tried many singers, even gigging with a few. Besides Ricky only one other person sang with us in the 80’s and that was Kelly Brock (Connie Champagne). She managed to sing half a song at a show in 81 before we kicked her offstage. It was in the 90’s when we tried the most singers though. As I said some where else on the site, I don’t think Tim, Lisa and Joe had any confidence in us as an instrumental band even though some of the singers ended up being a disaster, my brother Jason being one. He uncharacteristically went beserk when he sang our first show back. It was not good. It ended up with Jason returning to the UK angry with me and the band mad at me.
So we played instrumentally until Eitzel “joined” us. My relationship, or lack of one, with Mark , was always strained. I didn’t particularly like his band and with us he sang to songs already written and recorded. It wasn’t a collaboration. There was no commitment to us. Rather than make it easier to book shows it was harder “Is Mark going to sing”? I dunno, ask Tim. He might show up. When Mark heard that I had talked to Ricky about doing some recording Mark called me and tearfully told me that I could go ahead and erase all his vocals on SON and replace them with Ricky. I told him that while he was taking our drummer away on tour we were going to do some new recording with Ricky. His response was “Do what you to want to do, I don’t care” and hung up. I don’t think we have spoken since, well maybe drunk.
As I had told Mark, we recorded with Ricky while AMC had Tim on tour. Ricky was healthy-ish, and he was ready. His singing was amazing. The main difference between Eitzel and Ricky, and what made Ricky a better singer with the Midgets was that Eitzel was a singer/songwriter who wrote lyrics and then put a melody to them or fit them to a pre written melody. This is not to say he wasn’t a good singer, SON was the best record he ever made. But Ricky, Ricky started with a few magazines, some scissors, maybe a notepad, possibly a book and a can of beer. Then when the music started he created melody and lyrics within the music. He was always willing to take his voice as far as it would go. At these sessions he was at a peak. But being Ricky by the time we played the Halloween show with him in 91 he was smoking crack. When we reformed with Tom and Erich in 92 it was also with Ricky. He had been clean and doing well. Then, so quickly, he was gone.
After Tim and Joe had in 92 left we were left with 2 sessions of music recorded with them. One was from just before we went on tour. The tension from Tim and Joe’s unspoken decision to leave the band was evident in the music which carried it’s way through the tour. The other was recorded in New York at the end of the tour. Jackie Dustdevil and Joe sang on one song, sort of a duet as they were sleeping together.
Back in SF after the tour Paul, Tom and I tried to make a record out of both recordings. We asked Jeff Murphy, a friend from Seattle who had moved to SF, and Kathleen Harris, Paul’s girlfriend’s sister, to come into the studio to sing on some tracks. The thinking was a record with different singers for some tracks and some instrumentals. In the New York stuff there were only a couple usable phrases amid Jackie’s croaking and Joe’s vocals made it sound like some crappy English band. Jeff and Kathleen’s tracks were interesting and they sang well but it didn’t really work. Musically, in both sessions, Tim and Joe were ignoring Paul and I and just playing with each other. That didn’t work either.
After Ricky’s death we didn’t even think of a singer again until David Ripley, a friend we met through Joe, harassed us into singing. He had grabbed the mic from Ricky at one point at the Halloween show and sang a couple of lines. He joined us when Adam was playing drums and stayed with us when Tom was back in the band. Tom saw some potential in David. He had stage presence. He once dressed as a priest and played with himself. His singing however, was limited. He tended to sing the same melody to everything and his lyrics were usually about his parents. Again, it didn’t really work.
We tried one last singer, just as a favor to him really. His name was Jack and he was a big bald guy with a deep booming voice. He could sing but he sang over the music, we became a backing band. As Tom said “ He made us sound like Pearl Jam”. He was the last singer we tried.
What we found out was that there was only one singer who would ever work and the reason Ricky worked was he always sang with and in the music, somewhat as Paul did with his guitar. With other singers we always had to make room or become a backing band. At the core though, we are an instrumental band.
In the early Midgets and through Sea of Unrest, Tim, Paul and I were a musical unit with Tim acting as the bridge between Paul and I. We played without thinking. Our facing each other was as important for our playing as it was for the music. We tried to create our own musical world where you were welcome to join us, but you had to make the effort. Nosmo was forever trying to make his way in. Ricky joined us there, hiding behind his hair. When we were good it was unique but we walked a fine line between controlled chaos and just noise. Sometimes it was a mess.
The first time we played with Aaron, it was recorded. He brought his 4 track reel to reel and drum machine and a mic to my house on Nob Hill one night. We played and recorded all night. Aaron was a bass player and a good one. It was hard to part ways with Nosmo but the band needed a solid low end. The results can be heard on the Deadbeats tracks with Aaron. Also on those tracks is Annie.
Annie’s sound was so different from mine and Paul’s that I thought it could be complimentary. Now that we had a bass player who could carry the song, it was, for me, obvious. More depth, more sound, more melody. Circumstances stopped us short and Annie left not long after the recordings. As a band I don’t think this version of the Midgets really got to develop fully but the direction of the Deadbeats recordings show us in control.
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