“Max Ernst” on a Stage With No Lights

Mission of Burma poster
Mission of Burma poster

This entry was written on Saturday, May 8.

Landed at the Kansas City airport. Bob Weston’s (Burma’s live tape loops and sound person) flight was a bit late, so Jimmy (Conley, our bass player Clint’s brother, as well as our road manager/disciplinarian) went to get the van. When Bob arrived, we loaded up the guitars, equipment, etc. Sharon, our fan and friend, had rented a car, so we formed a little caravan driving to Columbia, Mo., for the Burma gig.

Halfway there, I realized I’d left my shoulder bag (with my drawing tools, notebooks, wallet, camera, etc.) at the airport! Momentary anxiety. Made a few phone calls and connected with the airport police—they of course had it. At airports these days, unattended bags don’t remain unattended for long. (This is the first time I’ve been happy with the “homeland insecurity” situation our current “administration” has created.) I concluded that I didn’t need the bag today, so I told them I’d pick it up tomorrow when we returned to the airport. Despite the potential for trouble, the situation turned out to be quite amusing. No harm done.

This is the most difficult part of shifting gears from Alloy to Burma (and back): In Alloy, the way we organize our gear and bag movements is very specific and well-rehearsed—today’s lost bag situation would never have occurred. But it’s never a problem actually to perform with both bands over consecutive days. It’s just that the organizational difference sometimes confuses me (especially when I am also a bit sleep-deprived!).
Mission of Burma formed in 1979 and folded in 1983. We existed in the “post-punk” era. What made us special was our mix of raw punk energy and urge to chart new territory through unusual song structures and lyrical content. (I had been a composition major at CalArts in 1976.) When we broke up in 1983, due to my tinnitus problems (ringing in the ears caused by exposure to loud volumes), we left a minimal recorded output. However, we were “one of those bands” that seemed to get more famous as the years went by. So, when we reformed in 2002 for a couple one-off shows, it turned out we were now playing for over a thousand people instead of for a hundred, like in our earlier incarnation. This led us to the release of our new CD, ONoffON, on Matador records, and continued sporadic performing.

The all-day “Spring Fling” at U. of Missouri was on a massive asphalt parking lot, and bands were already playing when we arrived at 4 p.m. With a pretty hot sun beating down on us, we scoped out the situation and quickly went to our dressing room.

There were two stages set up, for alternating bands. We were on the smaller stage, which didn’t bother us until later (as you’ll read if you bear with me). Jimmy set the gear up—I tuned up my “Mr. Science” guitar (given to me by a wacky technician in Wisconsin who called himself “Mr. Science”); it uses an unusual drone tuning. Pete tried to force the rented drums into shape. Clint had drawn up a set list, which I modified before scrawling out four copies. Bob expressed some anxiety because the students in charge of the PA system had little idea of what they were doing; from his perspective, the situation was inadequate.

Just before we went on, an audience member pointed to my custom vacu-fuzz distortion unit—smoke was literally coming out of the input. The unit is set up so it can get power from my other floor unit, a tremelo box; unplugged the power connector to the vacu-fuzz and Jimmy got a regular quarter-inch cable to connect the two. Since the vacu-fuzz now was running only on a 9-volt battery, I figured it wouldn’t pose much of a health hazard. Wisps of smoke (and an odd burning smell) wafted from the jack as Jimmy put in the new cable, which worked perfectly.

We went on as it started getting dark. Into the first song we realized that there were no lights on stage at all—zero. The lighting consisted of massive floodlights blazing directly at us from the audience, like being stuck in the blazing headlights of two gigantic trucks. I could barely read the set list (I mixed two songs up) and missed some fingerings because I literally couldn’t see the detail of my guitar neck.

We started with “Dirt” and went directly into “The Set-up,” both from our new CD. But after “The Set-up,” Pete called a halt while he tried to make his vocals audible in his monitors. (I don’t use monitors onstage, but both Pete and Clint have small speakers near them with a balance of instruments that they would like to hear more clearly. Vocals are usually needed the most.) By now it was clear that no matter what we did, this was not going to be one of our “hot” sets.

Nonetheless, we delivered pretty tolerable versions of our songs. During another technical problem lull, I “filled up the space” by working some guitar feedback. In these situations I attend more to sound than notes, trying to mold the “incorrect” squalls between the guitar pick-ups and amplifier into something interesting. When I saw that we were getting ready to go again, I shifted the feedback and pitches toward the root of the first chord of the next song so that we could start together and the “feedback interlude” would make sense in context.

The set went on (now Clint appeared concerned about the sound of his rented amp). I made the night worthwhile for myself by continuing my feedback explorations, and Pete altered his drum entries on a couple songs. This kind of improvisation is totally acceptable in the band; it keeps us interested and on our toes.

Clint checked his watch and saw that we were running out of time (there were many bands, and set times had to be strictly adhered to), so we cut a song and went directly into our “Max Ernst/Academy Fight Song” medley. “Academy” is one of our biggest “hits,” and “Max” was the B-side on the 1980 Ace of Hearts 45. (“That’s when I Reach for My Revolver” is our other “hit.” We played it mid-set, after “Absent Mind.”) The crowd was very enthusiastic. We thought we were supposed to end, but no sound was coming off the other stage, so we went back on for “This is not a Photograph” and called it a night.

Hardly a perfect night by any stretch of the imagination, but peculiar enough to be amusing. We packed our small amount of gear into the van (everybody got their bags?) and off to the hotel. Bob and Clint went swimming in the pool (and were kicked out of it because it closes at 10 p.m.). I love swimming—it de-kinks your body on a tour. I always bring a suit. Maybe I’ve been kicked out of too many pools already, but I opted for one more Bell’s Amber, and Pete and I watched TV (I literally never turn it on at home) for 45 minutes or so before we finally found the 5 minutes worth watching: Conan O’Brien absurdly insulting countries in alphabetical order.

Then showers. Set the alarm. Sleep.