Nobody knows when the Song began. Some say somebody’s been playing it since the time of the Prophets, in some form or other, the melody hummed and chimed and sounded, sometimes loud enough to echo off Coliseum walls, choruses thousands upon thousands strong, sometimes drifting down to just one lone traveler, whistling in the night between towns, before she could find a partner somewhere. Others say no, it was only a recent time that it has been going on, the blessing of the newer eras of Liberation, maybe in the ‘60s, or the ‘20s, or just last week. Myself, I’m inclined to think somebody’s been singing it since our First Mother, with her two or three men-friends in some African Eden, birthed our human race. But the Song, however ancient its origins, has been a moving thing, moving with our consciousness, its melody harmonizing with the insentient noises of the world round its singer, passed from form to form like the fire of the Olympic Torch, like the Eternal Flame of Prometheus, never dying.
I first heard the Song at a Dead show in 1995, the last Saturday night, when Jerry was singing all those songs about his death, preparing his fifty-thousand friends for what he knew was inevitable. “Chinacat Sunflower” flowed into “Rider,” as it had so many times before over twenty-five years of constant touring, but with an added meaning the crowd instantly picked up on. You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone . . . But that faded, too, into a cover of the Beatles’ “All Too Much,” and I and fifty-thousand others blest Jerry who stood on a silver sun, where he knew that he was free. The music was beautiful that night, and it didn’t end when they played “Box of Rain” and then turned out the stage lights abruptly and we all had to file out of Soldier Field. For out in the parking lot, an old hippie was singing, his old but harmonious voice singing verses of “Box of Rain” I’d never heard, as if continuing the last song of the concert, as if the concert hadn’t ended. A girl in her teens, drinking an imported beer from a cooler at the back of a trailer, came up and offered me one. She saw me watching the singer, and with wise child’s eyes, she told me the man had been singing for twenty-five years, following the Dead around, only stopping when the concerts actually went on. He slept only rarely, being a speed-freak and an acid-head, and when he did sleep, he sang in his sleep.
“Or, so I’ve heard,” she smiled. I accepted the beer and popped it open, and then I noticed another beer popping across the way, then the sounds of sipping, then a belch, then the sound of the summer wind hissing through the trees. The young woman laughed, then, chuckling over and over, with a natural rhythm and refrain, and I realized I’d begun to hear the music of the universe. I began to hear the Song . . .
It fell to us to continue the Song. Not all of us, after all, is a speed-freak acid-head capable of singing in his sleep. For the Song to continue, you need a group of people, the larger the better, to make it go on.
It started small, though. A few friends, gathered in a two-room apartment in the southern reaches of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, a place in transition from poor to privileged, with the electric feeling of displacement and anticipation searing the nights.
A summer night, just one of any of the many, lost in early ‘90s America. But, the Song was about to change its tone that night, channeled through new players.
There was Bliss. He’d been listening to the Song since his birth, some twenty-two years before, and then, through poverty and isolation, through trailer-living and crippled leg-braces, he found his high school calling. He’d been a man with few friends, for in that Southern Illinois backwater, few people really seemed to get it. He cultivated a grand collection of music, ranging through punk and metal to folk and country, always searching for the new. Yet, not only the new; for some of it was old, almost as old as the Song itself.
He gathered people together, in his college at DePaul where he endeavored Computer Science, many friends he found in cosmopolitan Chicago. Here he met others who had come from far afield to pursue their studies and their voyages of self-discovery, through beer and drugs and sex and politics, coming finally into their own. For most of the truly cool people, Bliss observed, hadn’t really liked high school, or grade school either. College was the Liberating Time, and Bliss had occasion to meet many of them, and share.
He’d hatched an idea in his head and heart, an open-ended mindset that hadn’t really been tested, whose parameters were yet to be determined. But, the idea was there all the same. He began to invite people to his apartment, to make music.
Bliss played guitar. So did his roommate, an enigmatic fellow who most people just called Bolt Upright. He was a long-haired fellow, clean-shaven, deep-voiced, who was comfortably a part of ‘90s counterculture. He played with a band, an underground rock band called “The Closet” that, too, endeavored the Song, though its members were unaware (as most all musicians) that the Song they played was one in the same Song as the one I was to discover three years later. He’d jammed with Bliss a few times before, but neither he nor his roommate thought much of it. It was a diversion, something other than the serious endeavor music seemed meant to be.
It was not until somebody actually took up Bliss’ invitation to play music at his pad that the Song’s progress was to come to a new fruition. Sidney was the name of the first guest. Named for a Sex Pistol, he’d once had the trappings of Punk Rock all about him, a clean-shaven face, hair a ratted, tangled, free-standing mess. His hair had been as feathered icicles, spiky yet soft, like the gothic mane of Siouxsie Sioux, or Robert Smith. But, then, Sid had for a variety of reasons abandoned that eyeliner look, and settled into a beard and untreated, flowing brown hair. He looked now very unlike Sid Vicious, or anyone like that; he looked more like Allen Ginsberg circa 1967, only without the glasses. Yet, he retained the name of the Punk Rock idol, and with it, a certain quietly-stated rebellion against the norms of society.
The three gathered together, that night in early summer of 1992, and smoked a little and drank a little; then, they picked up three guitars, and plugged them into a mixer that Bliss had bought just for the purpose.
They began to play.
Sid started first. He played a simple, three-chord progression of distortion guitar, a la the Ramones. He kept it up for a minute or two, then stopped, as a sudden feeling of self-consciousness overwhelmed him.
“Is that okay?” he asked meekly.
“Yeah, man!” affirmed Bolt Upright effusively. “Keep goin’!”
Joyfully, Sid jumped back into it. He’d never really appreciated his own musical ability before. He’d been surrounded by guitar players who were trained, who were talented. One was Patrick, his old buddy who had marched with him against the Gulf War the year before, when Sid was, with every shouted slogan and chant, trying to bring back home his high school best friend who was stuck in the Army, forced to shoot and be shot at for a cause he did not believe in. But, though comrades on the picket line, Patrick and Sidney were not collaborators on the musical front. Pat was too arrogant, too proud to play with Sid. Not that he was a particularly arrogant or proud fellow; just, he suffered from a certain musician’s prejudice, a certain inability to transcend his own training. Unless it was done the “proper” way, it was not music.
All these insights came to Sid later, after he himself had been playing for a number of years. At the moment, however, he just thought he couldn’t play. But this feeling of inferiority, which could paralyze and silence the voice of the artist before there was any art, preventing in fact any art from being made at all, this feeling disintegrated in Bolt’s affirming encouragement.
Bliss smiled. He saw the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis, this artist just aware of his art, and began, too, to play. His bespectacled eyes grew into a languid calm, even as his guitarwork fluttered and flashed with all the energy of a Jerry Garcia, had Jerry been a member of The Dickies. And Bolt played a bridge between Sid’s rhythmic ostonato and Bliss’ melodic explorations, much as a jazz bassist might bridge the drums and the sax.
The Song lived again. I wasn’t there when they got together that night, nor would I be there for many years thereafter. But, in a sense I cannot at this moment explain, I was listening.
For when the three young men fell away, it was with a strange but certain sense of completion. It worked! The improvisation spanned the gambit of musical experience. Bolt Upright was a musician, trained, working with more than one band in his time, playing gigs in public venues for money. Bliss was an amateur, in the sense that he knew more than a novice, but not much more. And Sid had barely picked up a guitar before in his life.
Yet, the Song lived. And then, at the hour they finally stopped playing, after some three hours of constant jamming, they listened to the music they’d made.
Bliss showered his friends with praise.
“Bolt,” he said, “you really bridged us, man.”
“Couldn’ta done it without you guys,” he said. “I’da had nothin’ to bridge.”
“And Sid,” Bliss smiled, “where’d ya get those rhythms, man?”
“I don’t know, man. Just came to me.”
“Well, you really started somethin’!”
Sid chuckled again. He was a little embarrassed taking this praise. But it had worked. The Song was a living, flowing thing. Bolt took his guitar and began to play with the recording, and singing funny, made-up lyrics.
“Wait, man,” Bliss said. “We oughtta record this, too.”
Bolt Upright laughed. “Let’s jam some more!”
And the Sheep Fiends were born.
Why “the Sheep Fiends”? Sid came up with the name. It was a joke at first. For the connotation was kinky, strange and bestial. It had a punk rock sensibility, they all thought, and it was a name that stuck as others faded. But Bliss began to think this working title was most appropriate. For, if so many people in society were sheep (and the argument could easily be made), then what the musical experience was trying for was to infuse a little “fiending” into the sheep. The Fiends amongst the sheep, crazy hysterical naked, driving everyone on to something further. Why be a sheep? Why be locked into a bleating existence amidst the status symbols of society, upwardly mobile jobs and big screen televisions and fancy cars and the horrid rat race that stems from the competition for these things, when one could instead forge a new tradition of passionate experimentation, to fiend for the stellar communion with God, the Universe, and each other?
Lifestyle. So much went into it. People spent literally trillions of dollars configuring their own identities by what they consumed. Fifteen percent of the world consumed some eighty-five percent of the world’s wealth, creating a lifestyle impossible for many more of our human family to enjoy. And it was on the backs of the rest of the human family that the First World lifestyle rode upon. Consumption on First World levels was unnatural, and was further a living insult to the dignity of the world.
But, how to break with it? Bliss had an idea. And it was an idea that came to be embraced by many more people as the summer went on.
There was Abby, Sid’s lover who then became Bliss’. She was twenty years old, but she looked about twelve, under five feet in height, with dark hair framing a birdlike face with dark eyes and a wise child’s smile. She hung out with the Sheep Fiends a lot in those early months, at first not playing; but in the fullness of time, she began to trust her surroundings and herself, and began to participate. Her style was to speak from a child’s perspective, sometimes just speaking plainly, sometimes venturing into what was almost “baby talk.” Bliss and Sid would play behind her, pretty guitar arpeggios in open chords that provided a sound nostalgic for times of extreme youth. Abby would lose herself in the chords, and tell her stories, seemingly aimless stories that in their aimlessness captured the fickle but profound mind of the four-year-old child.
There was Ruben Horowitz, a beginning guitarist who was to develop his skills in playing with the Fiends, who was an old friend to Bliss. His voice was high-pitched and almost jarring, but it expressed who he was, and this made it beautiful. He played well with Bliss, and with Sid hit it off so well that the two of them planned to play in the subway for money, just jamming with a few simple songs both of them learned by ear.
There was Meg, the younger sister of Sid’s roommate Cow, who was in her way quite outside the normal definitions of sanity, but was with that very unique and talented. She played with her own band, and eventually invited some of the Sheep Fiends to play with them. There was Monika, a quiet girl from Poland, whose big blue eyes stared and studied, who played the flute. There was DeLonde, a brilliant composer, who at nineteen had already conducted music of his own composing in the DePaul Music School. There was Ass Hammer, the bassist in Bolt Upright’s underground rock band, The Closet, who spent his time jamming saying “I am not now, nor have I ever been affiliated, with Satan . . .” His odd moniker stemmed from the inside jokes that abounded in The Closet, a kind of jesting homoeroticism that struck these straight men as particularly funny. There was Xavier, the lead guitarist in The Closet, who did not as such jam with the Sheep Fiends in that early time, but was to rise to prominence later, contending for the position of “lead vocalist,” owing to his peculiar talent for making up lyrics, strange, funny, and often uncannily significant. There were about a half dozen others that came over the course of the first summer of the Sheep Fiends, who came perhaps once or twice or thrice, but left their marks on the musical experience; for Bliss taped them all.
There was Ian, a friend of both Bliss and Sidney, who came at the latter’s behest. Like Ass Hammer, he was a good bassist, and had played in bands in high school. But he’d spent most of his time listening to and collecting music, not playing it, and it was a little strange at first jamming with the others. He rose to the occasion, though, trusting in his friends not to object to his playing. This was a trust that all of them had to have, and they spoke of it quite freely. Trust was something that made dialogue between people possible, and it was something that had to occur in this forum, too. Early on, this trust made the Sheep Fiends experience very liberating for the people involved in it. True dialogue, while perhaps impossible in words (so said Wittgenstein, the early Sheep Fiend “groupie” and philosophy major Dayzi told them), was quite possible in music. For those who would be skeptical on this point, just come to a Sheep Fiends jam, and pick up and instrument—and see . . .
Ian was, in addition to Sid’s friend, also Sid’s comrade. They were involved in a Revolutionary Socialist organization, one that they were helping to build from the ground up. Ian had been the first to be interested, finding a comrade during the Gulf War who introduced him to the politics. Ian had introduced Sid, and the two of them had jumped into the experience after both of them, hand in hand, had gotten their toes wet on its shores. They held each other as they jumped in, and were prepared for anything as two comrades in the struggle.
That Socialist group (or “Communist” group, as their comrade Nick preferred to call it [it was more provocative that way]) was to provide a strange parallel experience to the Sheep Fiends’ early life, one that would at times compliment it, at times compete with it. In the end, one would survive, and the other fall into obscurity. In those early days, though, it was unclear which would be which.
I’ve been told the Song was played on the fringes of a Housing Project in New York City on a spring day when the 1970s were new. One man, always a little queer, a little outside, Bug-Out, I think his name was, came into the park with a Marshall stack and a turntable. He plugged into some outlet, some electrical miracle, in some forgotten crack in some forgotten wainscoting, and began to spin two records together . . .
had heard the Song. He’d been lying back after a long, hard
night, having watched the sun slowly seep in through the blinds of
his cinderblock brick project flat, strung out from a mixture of
influences, and in that queasy morning after, heard his Coltrane
soloing over and over, over and over again. Bug-Out wondered what it
was that made that solo keep going, till, coming to full
consciousness, he realized the record was skipping. He’d
played it so many times, it had warped. But wasn’t that the
Song? he thought. Wasn’t that what it was all about?
For, then, Bug-Out heard the pigeons chirping and burbling, nesting on the ledge outside his window; and he heard the traffic sounds, the squeals of police sirens and the constant F sharps of the car horns, questioning and answering each other; and he listened to the thumping of the funky bass tones of the apartment above; and he heard the crazy bangings and hissings of the radiator in the corner; and all that mixed with Trane’s clipped solo, and he realized: the Song . . .
He spun the records on the turntables, amplified through the amps he brought, realizing a roots music made from the discarded leavings of a whole culture, his culture, the tortured and tortuous American experience. His backbeat came from reggae, his foreground from jazz. But his amalgamation was something new.
The kids came, and they danced. And then, from the crowd came a wordman, a poet, a child of griots. He spoke the words of Langston Hughes, of Amiri Baraka, of the Sunday pulpit and the street corner hawker. He spoke as a militant Black Panther, an Allah-inspired Malcolm. He spoke as a rousing Che Guevara, a Martin Luther King. Words were his notes, his music the rhythm of the sentence, sentences and sentences forming volumes. But not dusty texts, to be filed away and ignored in some monastic library; rather, words that were as vibrant and important to the everyday lives of people as the pulsing heart of the city, of the country, of the Universe. This was the legacy of the first poet.
But he was not alone. Soon, others came out of the crowd. They played a game of the Dozens to the DJ’s backbeat. Something old with something new. A new artform was born . . .
But nobody on Magnolia and Rosemont liked rap much. They didn’t care for Hip Hop, or the various artforms that had grown in the twenty years since its inception under its aegis. They were ignorant white people, though they thought themselves quite erudite. There was John, the leader of the group, who lived with his parents in some Northern suburb of Chicago, and trekked down here to Roger’s Park to share in the company of his old high school friends, and share with them the underground music he’d purchased over the past weeks. (Without expenses, he spent his whole paycheck buying music—so he had a lot.) There in the cold and dirty basement apartment was Jan, a tyrannical woman of eighteen years, who once endeavored punk rock, but in her old age had eschewed it (and the values it represented). There was her boyfriend, Cow, a six-foot-six crazyman who was a poet himself, and was less ignorant than the rest of them, having spent most of his life living on the city’s Westside, along with his family of some seven brothers and sisters. And there was Phillip, a kindly, elfin man of twenty-one years, who bought them their beer.
All of these were roommates of Sidney. Cow had been his friend, having met him in a poetry class at DePaul. They’d found each other warm and true company in that early ‘90s autumn, and had decided to live together straightaway. But Sid had not bargained for Jan, who took an instant disliking to him, and made his life hell whenever she wasn’t doing the same for her boyfriend or Phillip. Only John was immune to this tyranny, as he didn’t himself live there. But even he didn’t challenge her, or her grumbling propriety.
They got stoned a lot. And when they did, they listened to music. Trippy music, crazy music. And dark. They were “cool kids.” They thought themselves very adult, though, and they looked down on high school kids, like Cow’s sister, Meg. They looked down on a lot of people their own age, too, to be sure, as well as those older. For, they were onto something important, something that made them into critics of the world at large, that made them subtly superior. What it was they were onto was obscure, but, in the haze of grass smoke and obscure underground music and tasteful laughter, to admit you didn’t understand it was to admit you didn’t know. And that was enough to get you rejected . . .
Sid didn’t see this aspect of them at first. He was happy to meet new friends, friends who seemed alternative to the mainstream, who could be people who would be either interested in communism or the Sheep Fiends.
As it turned out, they were interested in neither. This would have been more than all right for Sidney, but for the idea that they were not merely uninterested, but in fact disdainful. They saw Sid as a threat, to Cow, to their own circle. And while they never exactly stated this in words, they were more than willing to show this in all its cold-shouldered intensity if it seemed to them appropriate.
Sid wanted Cow to come to the Sheep Fiends jam, especially. It seemed as the band developed, that they were as the Doors; they needed a Jim Morrison figure in front. (At least, so it seemed to Sid then.)
This potential in Cow was apparent from the one time they all got together for a jam of their own. John was there, and Phillip, as well as Cow. John had a broken bass guitar, with one string (the lowest string), and a kicked in amp. Sid had his snare drum, which he’d kept from the time he was in the concert band in his grade school. Phillip had a set of different sized buckets he’d stolen from work, each of which made a different sound, hollow, almost African in timbre. And Cow?
His instruments were a large chain and a stolen metal mailbox on the floor.
They turned on a tape recorder, and began to play.
The jam started as a rendition of Flipper’s “HA HA HA.” Sid played the drum beat on his snare, and John played the bass line. Then, they began to improvise.
Cow yelled into the tape recorder—PUT ON YOUR DANCIN’ PANTS! PUT ON YOUR DANCIN’ PANTS! PUT ON YOUR DANCIN’ PANTS!—WE’RE GOIN’ TO THE CITY!! PUT ON YOUR DANCIN’ PANTS! PUT ON YOUR DANCIN’ PANTS! PUT ON YOUR DANCIN’ PANTS!—WE’RE GOIN’ TO NEW YORK CITY!!!
The jam continued with a dark improvisation in which John played a driving pulse of a bass line, Phillip played a complicated improvisation on the buckets, and Sid went wild on the snare. And Cow banged the mailbox with the chain and recounted a horrible recurring dream he’d had as a kid, in which he went to his grade school without his pants on. All the other kids laughed at him, and his teacher sent him down to the principal’s office. And there, humiliated and terrified, Cow stood shaking before the principal, who towered over him behind his desk.
“ . . . and I begged the principal to forgive me! I just forgot! I forgot! Please don’t—don’t expel me—don’t hit me—and the principal looked me in the eye and said to me, ‘Son, son—”
Cow stopped beating the mailbox, and leaned into the tape recorder.
“ . . . he said, ‘Son, son—PUT ON YOUR DANCIN’ PANTS! PUT ON YOUR DANCIN’ PANTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
. . . And with that, the song concluded.
It was only after the song had ended that Sid realized Cow’s hands were bleeding. He’d beaten the mailbox so hard, blood had splattered all around, something Sid was too stoned to understand; but, looking back on it, Cow seemed the perfect candidate for a musical shaman. Jim Morrison would have been proud.
But, Cow wasn’t interested. Though Sid had praised the group for the jam, John was unconvinced that something like that meant anything. It was just something they did when they were stoned. Maybe someday, after they’d practiced a few years, they’d amount to something. But, until then . . .
Sid was disappointed. But, no more disappointed than with Cow’s complete disgust with the politics they’d both once shared. Cow wouldn’t talk about socialism with Sid, even though he’d been eager and happy to talk about it for the whole semester before. Jan had even come to a few meetings. But, now?
What was it that was driving a wedge between the friends? What had become of the trust they’d shared? For, what had happened, for the first time in Sid’s life, is that a friend had stopped being a friend. And there seemed no explanation.
Sid wracked his brain trying to understand it. But, nothing would come of it. I would have told him not to worry; all things change in life, all things pass. And, if trust and dialogue wane, then perhaps it wasn’t meant to be. But, who can truly accept such a thing, especially at first? For all my wisdom, I know I couldn’t easily accept this either. And Sid was no different.
The Not As Bad As Water Torture Band was a kindred group to the Sheep Fiends, a kindred experience. They were young, freaky people, all well under twenty-one, and they moved as a group, a kind of traveling culture, a nomadic tribe of gypsies moving from campsite to campsite under the steel and stone canopy of the Chicagoland’s Black Forest. They piled into the apartment I was crashing at to visit me and my hosts. There was Quinton, a fellow of long dark locks and a gentle beard, who spoke in a stoner’s near silent Albion accent. And there was Meg, the crazy seventeen-year-old girl under five feet tall, with a shaven head and the face of a sanguine, smiling Irish Buddha. She wore robes of grey, and little thin Chinese slippers she wore in all weather, even inch-thick snow. She had a shaker of nutmeg on her belt, from which she rolled joints of the spice in the belief that they could get you high.
Meg was Cow’s sister, and shared with him a surname and an affinity for Roger’s Park bohemia. But that’s where the similarity ended. For, unlike her brother, she enjoyed the Sheep Fiends, seeing them as a sisterly group complimenting her own easy avant-garde musical aspirations. I was there, hanging out with her, Quinton, and half a dozen others of the Not As Bad As Water Torture Band. And I danced with them out the door into the wild and early Chicago winter.
We traipsed across the city’s streets and alleyways, on our way to a rendezvous far out in the Northern suburbs. It was the chilly end of autumn, the night after All Hallow’s Eve, the Night of All Saints. We proceeded down the quiet, wet streets in a daze, stoned ethereal in dialogue with the passing seasons. It felt a little like a coven on its secret way to a Witches’ Sabbath; the train conveyed us I know not how to the silent stretches near Ravinia. There, concert-goers would go to prearranged dates, to be an audience for everything from folk shows to classical symphonies. But, no concert for an audience was scheduled for that night . . .
“We’ll hafta go through the forest preserve,” Meg said with a sense of uneasy wonder. “The police here patrol the streets. And, we’re the kinda people they’re lookin’ to shake down . . .”
The young gypsies, criminals on sight, navigated through the streets of the cold, wet, silent imperial suburb, under the cover of the trees. No sound was heard but the wind. It was ominous, there. There was a feeling of palpable danger. We weren’t welcome here. The powers that be were dead set against everything we gypsies were. You could tell it in the way the few passing cars glided with surreal authority across the wide, winding roads, in the way the great three story mansions stood proudly against the steel-grey purplish horizon. There was wealth here, and power, and the grim specter of normalcy. People here were dedicated to something other than the Song. They were dedicated to silence . . .
Gated communities. These were, in their way, more frightening than ghettoes. For in a poor community, even one astrife with crime and violence, there is a sense that you are not an intruder. You come and go as you like. But in a gated community, or a community that might as well be gated (since no one who does not live there is welcome), the air is tense, almost foreboding. There is a tightness that takes the gut, a paranoid looking over the shoulder. The people who live there belong; you do not. And with our ragged appearance, and our general youth, we were the very force the police of this Northern suburb were paid to deny.
Meg and Quinton and the others felt no defiance, no hatred for their surroundings. Rather, there was a sense of adventure, as they made their way through the forest to the Sabbath, like a group of pagan infidels in Puritan Salem. Fear. But fear harnessed and channeled into exhilaration. We were not as the residents of this Highland Park. We were traitors to their creed. A slap in their collective face. Yet, who were we? Who, but a group of people wanting to live our lives, to live lives of meaning? There was no rebellion, no rebelliousness. It made perfect sense. Just people, making love to the Night.
For the Song must be sung. That was our creed. To live, truly live, and not just exist, we must celebrate. This was the meaning of the rendezvous.
We came out of the forest, and into a cul-de-sac of a semicircle of mansions, silently standing in the mist. But they were not to us fortresses of sense, but a mystical backdrop for our own Dionysian drama. Like ruins against the sky, the columns of their facades like the temples of old, one of them opened its doors to us, and we entered.
The foyer was warm after the night, with its lights turned down low, and the young fellow who greeted us smiled warmly. But, we did not linger there; the Song was already in progress, deep in the basement. Meg led the way, yet was but one of the many. We followed her down into the grey stone cellar at the end of a flight of stairs. As if hidden from the rest of the house, the gathering could be heard only obliquely till we were almost upon it. There, over a dozen huddled on the stone floor, their hands on drums, their eyes closed or wide, wide open.
Someone handed me some paper sacrament, and I gratefully took it, as a wafer of some cosmic communion, and soon, I was drumming, too.
As the drumming went on, without beginning, without end, the space between the members of the circle blurred and blended, till all was the playing. There was no wrong way to play; every fall or slip in the beat just suggested a new rhythm, and the overarching organism that was the Song grew to incorporate it. With the acid, and the general feeling of speedy euphoria it wrought, the drumming would continue all night, and into the dawn. The experience was being recorded, and the ten hours of drumming and chanting would be studied and enjoyed for many years to come.
But Sid couldn’t take the acid, couldn’t drum till the dawn. He had come with Monika, and the two of them joined in the drumming for a few hours. But then, they had to retire, climbing back up the steps of the house to find a place on two adjoining sofas.
The morning found the place all shadows and grey dawn. November 2nd. Just another day of the year.
Quinton was listening to the recording of the jam with quiet approval. Meg was enthralled. Somewhere there, deep in the midst of the drumming and the night, a grasshopper had appeared on the basement floor. It jumped; it danced. Meg saw it as a sign.
“She was dancing with us,” she smiled.
“Yes,” agreed Quinton’s quiet British voice. “If you listen real hard, you can hear her . . .”
Sid listened. Monika listened. But they had not the benefit of the lysergic mystical medicines the others had been graced with; their ears were the dull normalcy of full sobriety. Sid smiled.
“Too bad you couldn’t mike her,” he said.
“That would’ve been wonderful,” Quinton agreed.
“Yeah, but,” Meg smiled, “something as big as a microphone would’ve probably scared the grasshopper.”
Quinton stayed over, along with a few others, making a weekend of it. Meg joined Sid and Monika on an egress from Highland Park on the train.
“What are your plans today, guys?” Meg asked as the train sped into Roger’s Park, Chicago.
got to get back to my father,” replied Monika, “back on
“I’ve got a meeting,” Sid said, in a weary determination.
“A Communist meeting?”
“Yeah. The most important meeting of our group. The Decision-Making Body meeting.”
“So, you couldn’t blow it off?”
“Oh, no, man. No, that’s what kept me from dropping with you guys last night. I couldn’t show up to the Decision-Making Body meeting comin’ off an acid trip.”
“Yeah, I guess I could see that. . . . But, you’ll enjoy your meeting, I’m sure.”
because Sid was sad at having missed the chance to join the all night
jam, perhaps because this November morning was chilly and somber, or
perhaps because he was feeling that honesty that comes from
disillusionment, Sid chuckled, “you’d think so, wouldn’t
“Well, sure, Sid. Revolution is nothing, if it’s not fun.”
“Yeah, man, that’s true. ‘Least, it oughtta be true. Just, before me and Ian joined, I pictured it all bein’ a lot more—well, a lot more rewarding, in the short term. But, Revolution takes work, I guess.”
regarded this a little oddly. Revolution shouldn’t be “work,”
exactly, she said. “Work” was what made people want to
revolt in the first place. Right?
Sid got a little defensive, then. He said he was happy to do the work. There was a certain seriousness that came from giving yourself over to the Revolution. It affirmed him, this seriousness. He had to give up things like tripping all night and creating art; such things he’d give up, so that, someday, everyone would be able to enjoy such things.
Meg nodded. It was indeed admirable, she thought, and said. But in her heart, she thought it a little misguided. She never understood the concept of “revolutionary discipline.” It seemed to her that the revolution was a process, not an event. And how could you really begin that process of creating freedom by restricting freedom? It seemed to her that the act of discipline, the puritanical “giving up” of things, would only lead to the same thing later, down the line.
But as she cared for Sid, Meg contented herself with picturing the revolutionary world itself, the deferred dream that made Sid wake up so early on a Sunday to cross Chicagoland to attend what seemed to her nothing more than a dreary church service. She smiled that, to her, the Revolution was all about events like the one she’d just participated in.
“We’ll all move around,” she said, “from place to place, in our little tribal groups, and meet one another in the towns, to sing our song together. And the towns would have the power plants, or the factories, or what-have-you, and we’d get what we need there, and then we’d move on.”
“But who would work in those town factories?” Sid asked.
“Oh, it’d be all automated, man. Nobody would ‘work’ anymore. Either that, or there’d be so little work to do, we’d be able to parcel it out, so nobody’d work that much. Like, maybe an hour a month.”
“Sure,” Sid smiled, “I could see it. That’s the kinda world we see, too, Meg. A world where work is shared out, so nobody would be stuck doin’ it all the time. . . . Still, you see us all becoming tribal again?”
“Sure, man. That’s the natural way people are. They break down into groups of friends. And we’d be mobile, too.”
you think, though, that we’d wanna be connected to the rest of
“Oh, sure. That’s why we’d be so mobile. Wouldn’t ya wanna go visit other tribes, and make music with them, too? Traveling all around the world. Like following the Dead.”
Sid nodded and smiled. It was a good vision, he said. But how to get to that reality? With that, Sid began to preach, his gut-reaction to such talk. He was always, even when half awake on a Sunday morning, trying to get people involved in his vision of changing the world. There needed to be a Party, some means by which to organize the movement for change. This is what he wanted to build. This was why he’d foregone the pleasures of the acid and the musical dialogue he might have enjoyed last night. And Meg smiled, thinking Sid a good friend, even if not a comrade . . .
For the vision was there. Sid saw it in his comrades, as they sat around a table at the Roma’s diner near DePaul. They were all tired, all but for Nick, who had gotten a good night sleep the night before, and was an early riser by nature anyway.
Michelle came late, almost fifteen minutes late. She’d been working long hours that week, and had drunk a bit much the night before, trying to unwind. Nick scolded her for being late, for being obviously hung over, to which she responded meekly. They all responded meekly to this, as if they’d all been guilty of her crime. All sympathized. But, there was discipline, and this informed the discussion for the next half hour. Then, the meeting began proper.
There was much old business, much reporting on the same old contacts reading the same old readings. Sid and Ian both wondered, then, as they had begun to wonder lately, what the point of it all was. Here they were, rehashing the same old arguments in the same old ways, over a year and a half after they’d started, and very little progress seemed to be made. They’d spent literally months of latenight meetings hammering out the bylaws of their little group of seven, all for an audience just as small, the old Spark members in Detroit. Nick had been a member of Spark Chicago, the international organization with some hundreds of members in the country, and connections to the largest Trotskyite organization in the world, the two-thousand member Lutte Ouvier in France. But, much had happened since Nick was a member of that group, a group which had effectively folded in Chicago, and much bad blood had flowed between them all. (No unusual situation for Leftist groups in America.) But, a group of people around a fellow named Peter in Detroit had dropped out of Spark, and was considering doing work again for socialism. Nick was Peter’s old friend, and he’d expressed the hope that maybe he’d like to join him in the work of the newly formed Organization for Workers’ Power.
But, after seeing the bylaws Nick and the other six comrades had hammered out, Peter and his friends had politely declined the idea of joining up. It seemed the same thing they’d just left, their decade of activism in the same elitist, closed organization that had worked them nearly to death. Nobody understood or appreciated the depth of the quiet rejection of Peter and his comrades, least of all Nick who had been in Spark with them and had endured just the same workaholic schedule for some ten years. But it was Nick that had insisted on drawing up the bylaws.
Yet, Nick could not be blamed. He was honest, and he was trying just like all the rest of them to be open-minded to the working class, the very people the group was created to serve. (Even though, of all of them, Michelle was the only one with anything like a working class life; the rest were undergrad students, but for Nick who was working on his PhD. Michelle had given up on college to be a full-time worker militant for the organization; yet, her opinions were not the forefront of the group’s, but Nick’s.) The purpose of the group, to reach the working class, was sacrosanct and unimpeachable. It was a vision that sustained them.
“Workers’ circles,” Nick explained to Sid during their weekly one-on-one meetings. “In Russia, in the 1890s, there were groups of workers and students who gathered together to read banned books and discuss politics. Then, they began to plan work-related actions, centering around these little groups. Eventually, these groups linked up and from them was organized the Bolshevik Party. . . . What I’d like to see is the forming of these workers’ circles now. All over Chicagoland, and all around the country. Hell, man! All around the world!!”
“And our group is being built to foster the formation of these circles?” Sid asked.
“Exactly, comrade. We’re too small to be a ‘Party’ on our own. That’s why we call ourselves the Organization for Workers’ Power—not a ‘Party.’ That’s why we don’t call our meetings ‘Central Committee’ meetings, or even ‘Executive Committee’ meetings, like Spark did. We call it the ‘Decision-Making Body.’
“But, eventually, if enough workers’ circles are formed, something bigger can be built around them. That’s our hope . . .”
And, indeed, it seemed to be working. Nick’s old contact, a fellow named Nav, was talking about getting together with a few friends and doing work outside workplaces on the Southside.
“That sounds great, man!” Ian exclaimed.
“Yeah!” agreed Sid.
“I don’t know,” Nick continued, as if they hadn’t said anything, “whether we can really trust Nav. He’s from a privileged background. And his commitment to the politics has never been proved.”
“But, isn’t his little group like a workers’ circle?” Sid asked. “I mean—”
“—No,” he said, “not at all. He’s gotta prove himself to us, before we could ever work with him. I mean, what would he tell those Southside workers?”
“Their rights,” said Michelle. “That’s what he wants to do, right? He and his friends wanna hand out leaflets telling ‘em about their union rights. Seems to me—”
“—That’s not good enough,” Nick said decisively. “We don’t just want workers to unionize, comrades. We want them to be led in revolutionary directions, right? So, Nav telling them their bourgeois rights just seems reformist at best. He’s got a lot more work to do before I feel he could be an asset to our group.”
“But,” Ian said, “he doesn’t necessarily wanna join our group. He’ll do what he’s gonna do, regardless. So, I feel we oughtta support him. I feel—”
“—I’m sure he is gonna do it anyway.” Nick said. “But, whether we have a relationship with his little group or not is the question. And I feel it’s correct to demand more from him than he’s been willing to give. He never read all the readings he should have. And he persists in rather petty-bourgeois attitudes toward the politics. . . . But it’s not up to me. Let’s vote on it.”
With little information about Nav other than that provided by Nick himself, the comrades of the group all accepted Nick’s appraisal after some interrupted debate. They eventually tabled the discussion, realizing the wisdom of not relating to Nav or encouraging him. Let him do whatever he wanted to do. They decided to ignore him.
The meeting went through another hour or two of rehashing old contacts and making plans; but eventually, it ended, the comrades all going their separate ways. All, that is, except for Ian and Sid, who went away together.
Ian pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and sucked in a drag.
know, comrade,” he said in a gust of smoke, “sometimes I
get the feeling we’re not goin’ anywhere.”
“Yeah,” Sid said. “Yeah, I get that, too.”
“Nav seemed like a nice enough guy at the meetings. But, I dunno. Nick knows ‘im, and all.”
“Yeah. . . . You ever think, sometimes, that for all our formality, our group is really just a workers’ circle? Just one, among what could be many?”
Ian laughed, then smiled almost sheepishly.
“I wouldn’t say that too loud, Sid,” he said.
“No,” Sid smiled, also sheepishly. “No, I guess not.”
Ian dragged another, deep, deep drag.
“So, you ready to go to Bliss’ next Friday?”
“I’d love to.”
“Yeah, me, too. Sometimes, a little ‘petty-bourgeois’ behavior is necessary for all the work of the rest of the week.”
Sid laughed and agreed. But, it struck him strangely, after he’d thought about it a while. “Petty-bourgeois”? Was the Sheep Fiends really that?
Of course, Sid knew what Ian meant. Getting stoned, or drunk, or both, and playing around. It wasn’t “serious.” At least not serious in the sense of politically serious. It was not political at all, really. And, it was far, far too much fun . . .
There might be a time, Sid thought later, in the grotto of the basement apartment on Magnolia and Rosemont, when Sid and Ian would have to choose. They would have to either jam with the Sheep Fiends—and all that meant—or, they would have to do work with the OWP—with all that that entailed. Somehow, doing both wouldn’t be an option. Not that he thought the two were so incompatible. But, somehow, he knew the two were as organs of dual power, like the soviets and the constituent assembly, representing two different concepts of what people wanted to do. Dual power couldn’t be sustained; either one, or the other, would eventually triumph, smashing the other.
Sid had no idea how much this feeling would become a reality . . .
DeLonde invited Sid and Bliss to a party he’d be going to, a birthday party for a woman he knew in Albany Park, at the end of the Brown Line, the Kimball stop. Bliss in turn invited Meg, and the three of them, Bliss, Sid, and Meg, prepared to make the trek to the party on the far Northwest side.
The party itself wasn’t very interesting, other than the fact that DeLonde first tried marijuana there, deciding the smoke tasted like Cool Ranch Dorito chips. But getting there, and getting back, a nearly two hour journey either way, on train and on foot, was very much a Sheep Fiends/Not As Bad As Water Torture Band event, except that there was no recording of it. Bliss pulled out two harmonicas, tossing one to Sid and blowing the hell out of his. They played out of key, as one harp was a C and the other a E, but managed to make many choruses of “Oh Susannah,” interspersed with much improv between the choruses. Meg for her part took out a set of Tibetan hand chimes, and played a pulsing rhythm which seemed a call to meditation, oddly tucked between the raucous harps.
As they made their way there (or back home—who knows which?), the three found a ready audience on the el train. At first, the people on the train seemed startled by the noise, even annoyed, and they conveyed those feelings by harsh stares, as if they could shut the kids up by the sheer force of their displeasure. But when Bliss and the others smiled and blew and kept going, the coldness of the commuters quickly melted, and there was laughter and approval. One kid, a boy of ten or eleven, even came out of the crowd and began banging on the seat beside Sid.
It seemed almost a challenge at first. But Bliss, Sid, and Meg met the challenge, adjusting their rhythm pattern to welcome the fourth musician into the mix. The boy laughed and banged away, and there was a feeling there for a split second that others were going to join in too.
But then, the conductor came through the car, and silenced everyone. Bliss smiled in ironic sulkiness, and pocketed his harmonica. Sid and Meg put their instruments away, too.
“Man,” Sid said later, “I think we almost had ‘em there.”
“Yeah,” agreed Bliss. “Ten more seconds, and we’d’ve had that whole train playin’ with us!”
“Imagine the potential of that!”
“Gives me an idea,” smiled Meg. “Makes me think we oughtta go down to the Dunkin’ Donuts on Belmont and Clark, and preach to the punk rocker kids.”
“We could get ‘em to jam with us!” Sid smiled.
“Yeah!” said Bliss. “We could preach the Sheep Fiends and Jesus Christ!”
“And Zen,” said Meg. “I think we should preach Zen on the corner, and then demonstrate Zen—y’know—the Song . . .”
And the three made grand plans that night.
But, soon after, the next time they spoke, Sid told Bliss in a very serious and regretful voice that he was sorry, but he could not preach Zen to the kids at Belmont and Clark. He’d obviously been thinking very hard on it all weekend, and he realized he could not in good conscience preach anything but Communism publicly. Zen was out of the question.
“I’m sorry,” he said again.
Bliss was a little taken aback by this. It indicated a seriousness which made him a little surprised.
“Well, Sid,” he said gently, “I don’t think Meg was seriously proposing it. Or, if she was, you wouldn’t be forced to preach about Zen—or anything else.”
Sid sighed audibly enough to hear his relief over the phone.
“That’s good,” he said, as if a great personal crisis had been resolved.
They spoke a while longer, then the conversation ended on an upbeat note, an upcoming jam over at Bliss’ new place on Bryn Mawr. It would be a housewarming jam, and it would be the first really big party the Sheep Fiends ever played at. The dream, of course, was that the audience and the band would cease to be separate entities. Everyone would play. The largest group that had ever played at Bliss’ old pad was about five; many more would have been impossible to fit in the little place. So, this would be the first real test of the principle.
On that happy note, the conversation ended. But, Bliss still thought it just a little strange his friend had reacted that way to Meg’s half-joking proposal. Had he talked about it with someone? Or had he developed some kind of self-censoring Catholic guilt, after he’d eschewed that faith in favor of Marxism?
“Marxist guilt?” Bliss asked himself, then chuckled at his thought.
Sid’s living situation was horrendous by this time. Jan was directing all her venom at Sid, and Cow, Phillip, and John were each indifferent to him, as if sad at the situation but fundamentally happy it was him and not them.
Sid had given up pot by this time, another sacrifice for the Revolution, and this did not help the tension. Some of the only times that there was peace amongst the denizens of the basement at Rosemont and Magnolia was when they were all high together. And now, there was a lack of connection in yet another of the few ways that existed between them.
Friends became sacred to Sid. His new girlfriend, Cheryl, did not come over, but she offered her place for Sid to come to to get away from the basement. Ian came, and his formidable command of underground music was respected by the basement set, and they were very friendly to him. That is, until the tape affair . . .
“I think,” John told Sid on the phone, “that
we should make tapes to listen to when we get high. It’d be
fun, I think. We could construct them from our favorite music. . . .
Seeing this as an opportunity to share with them all once again, Sid said, “Sure! I’d love that!”
“Good. Let’s say, next month, the beginning. That’s when we’ll all share our tapes. I’ll tell the others, Sid, so you don’t have to. But, tell Ian, would you?”
“Good. Good enough . . .”
Ian was quite thrilled to participate. Both he and Sid worked hard on their tapes over the next few weeks. Cow created a brilliant and disturbing soundscape, which featured Mr. Rogers, warped and slowed down—sometimes people are good, and they do just what they should—but the very same people who are good sometimes, are the very same people who are BAD—
Jan put together a rather unimaginative collection of oldies, but everyone marveled at it as if it was right up there with the best of musical experience. John held out, and Cow’s sister Meg and their brother Greg came over and listened to the rest in anticipation of John’s coming triumph. Phillip declined to participate, as if ashamed of his musical taste.
Then there was Ian. He played an interesting collage of sounds and music. But, unlike the others, it did not tell a “story” as such. While this should have been no problem, everyone got up and left the room as Ian played his tape—before the tape ended! And, they didn’t come back . . .
“What happened?” Ian asked, openly hurt by the rejection.
“I dunno, man,” Sid said heavily. They ended up going back to his place, and trying to forget.
Sid played a tape eventually. In his paranoia, looking back on it, he would conclude that the whole thing was a colossal set-up. For when John (who was not there when Sid played his tape the first time) played his own tape, it was loaded with the kind of music he expected Sid and Ian to like. Industrial music, and Punk Rock, mainly. There was a bunch of insulting noises added to the beginning of a Nitzer Ebb song Sid indeed liked, and after cutting up such fare for the majority of the tape (to the wild amusement of everyone who gathered to listen), the string of songs ended with a distorted Sex Pistols’ refrain—NO FUTURE!!!
But Sid had not used music popular with the underground, the stereotypical “alternative.” His music was that which was popular only with him. It ranged from Public Enemy to the 15th Century choral music of Pierre Falez the Elder, and it told a story with its changes, one that kept the stoned people very entranced, till, jarringly, Sid’s tape interrupted the flow with the dueling banjo theme from “Deliverance.”
Everyone was nonplussed, but for Cow, who laughed and said “Thank you!” Looking back on it, it was the perfect song to interrupt it all with; the scary aspect of Deliverance lived again in that basement, though none but Cow seemed to catch it.
Ian stopped coming over after that, offering instead to hang out with Sid at his place in Boystown. Sid ended up hardly staying at the place at all, an hour or two a week; it was better that way.
But, it was hectic, and depressing, the situation. Sid and Ian looked forward to Bliss’ housewarming jam with wide-eyed anticipation, a chance to escape the tensions of life amongst inhospitable roommates and a communist experience that was proving more and more taxing emotionally on the fellows, despite their best intentions. It would be good to have a jam.
I wasn’t there when they got together at Bliss’ pad, the second floor of a mansion-like house on the northern fringe of Andersonville. It was a mild, kindly spring day, with a hint of wet but not of chill. The last of the winter had finally passed, so I was told, and the Sheep Fiends were all looking forward to a year that was finally alive and new.
I say I was not there. But, truly, the event was but another in a series of events for which someone like me has always been there. Someone like me was with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, playing their crazy Chinese music to back up Ken’s speaking to a demonstration in San Fran in ’65. Another like me listened to the riot inside the porno theater-turned-concert hall when the Sex Pistols and the Clash and a hundred other bands broke apart the fourth wall between the stage and the audience, with spit and thrown chairs becoming mediums of communication, dissolving the wall during London’s Summer of Hate. Still another like me hung out in hobo jungles and box cars, listening to Wobblies preach against capitalism and Joe Hill sing his songs. And another of mine partied for three days and nights, stealing breakfast from convenience stores in Spanish Harlem when DJs with turntables plugged into streetlamps converted the New York back streets to night clubs—without ceilings or walls—when hip hop met mambo in the passing of the torch between generations. My kind, you’ll find, has been attentive to such goings on since they’ve gone on, since the woman in that African Eden a million years ago gave birth to the first human baby, and sang to it a lullaby.
Still, this gathering was historic, in its way, for it would be the first time the experience would be a truly mass phenomenon, and I wish now that I could have been there personally. Some twenty people were in attendance, and they shared a little libation and talk. Abby, who lived with Bliss, was there with her massage therapy friends, and Bliss had invited some friends from school. And, of course, those who had up to now jammed with the Sheep Fiends were there, forming about half the party.
The Sheep Fiends among the gathering had a natural affinity, and the others there could detect the ease with which they interacted. Yet they, like the rest, were from a variety of different backgrounds. The questions came from those outside the Sheep Fiends experience, questions as to how all these strange faces knew one another.
“I went to DePaul with Bliss,” said Ruben Horowitz, holding onto a small pipe sold for the express purpose of smoking tobacco; but the bowl was far too small. “We’re in the same class, even though we study different things.”
“What are you studying?” asked a friend of Abby’s from the massage therapy school, a pretty woman who smiled to Ruben.
“Psychology, history, lit. But I wanna be a
social worker, later, after I get my Master’s Degree. Working
with the mentally ill really fascinates me. So many people go
through that experience, the shifting of perceptions from what is
considered ‘normal’ to what is ‘abnormal.’
I’d like to help.”
“That sounds wonderful.”
“What got you interested in that line of work? I mean, it’s good to help, but why help in that way?”
“Different consciousness. What makes the reality we see the true reality? I mean, we all agree to—well, Bliss calls it ‘context.’ The Postmodern philosophers call it a ‘paradigm.’ Where’s the line between one context, and drifting off into another? Especially when that context gives a person pain? I guess I’ve always been interested in how one’s consciousness becomes altered.” (He smiled, and held up the pipe.) “We all go a little ‘crazy’ from time to time. The trick is, I guess, keeping it in a context where you enjoy it. Where you can turn it on and off.” (He chuckled.) “Shifting consciousness is enjoyable—when it is.”
She laughed with him, and then shared the pipe.
DeLonde accepted the pipe, while he spoke to a very pretty couple, a woman and a man, who had heard of his virtuosity with a number of instruments.
said the woman, “you’re in this Sheep Fiends thing,
“Yeah,” smiled DeLonde, more gracious than proud. “I’ve been writing music for a long while, now. I write what I like to call ‘Pop’ songs. I know some people might call them ‘Folk,’ because they’re a man and his guitar. But I don’t write folk songs. I think ‘pop’ is a less offensive title.”
“Offensive?” the fellow queried.
DeLonde smiled, as if amused with his own appraisal, and a little bit amused at how the couple didn’t get it.
“You mean,” suggested the woman, “that calling it ‘folk’ would be pretentious?”
DeLonde just grinned grandly, as if to say such a thing was pretentious would itself be pretentious.
“I just write pop songs,” he smiled obscurely, then dragged on the pipe. “Still tastes like Cool Ranch,” he said to himself, as he passed it on to another smoker in the bunch.
Monika said nothing really, as she sat by Sid’s side. She just studied the scene though her intense blue eyes. She’d brought her flute, as she had to the few jams she’d been to before, in that Buena Park apartment (the Developers’ term for south Uptown); but she seemed unlikely to play it here. Sid encouraged her, and the two talked quietly in a corner for a while. But whether she would participate again, or just sit enjoying the scene from afar, was not at all a certainty. It would depend much on what the rest of the room’s attitude toward the whole thing would be.
Bolt Upright told funny stories with his friend and bandmate Ass Hammer, drinking Budweiser and smoking Camel Lights. He looked out over the scene with a slight disapproval; he’d come to think of the Sheep Fiends as a fun experience, but one that did not yield the results that he’d in his heart of hearts might have liked. He didn’t know a lot of the other guests, other than those who he’d played with. But he was ready to put on the show, ready to win them all over, with his music later as he was with his jokes and banter right now.
Meg would stop by later, along with her new boyfriend, a fellow Buddhist named Pesoch, who had been raised in an ultra-orthodox Hassidic family, the son of a rabbi. When they came, they would play East Indian tabla drums, and enjoy the camaraderie of the Sheep Fiends of which they, though relative strangers, were members from their first taste.
The Sheep Fiends indeed had camaraderie. Yet, it was not because they’d all gone to the same school, or worked in the same profession. Many had been invited, both Sheep Fiends and those that had not ever experienced the Sheep Fiends, by a variety of routes. Abby had abandoned her education at the DePaul Theater School as a in costume design because of creative differences she had with the conservatory. She’d tried a number of different things in the interim, from babysitting to working at a children’s bookstore. But she’d found her own in the massage therapy school, working with energies. Sid, who didn’t as a rule buy the idea of “energies,” could vouch for the power of her massages. Something was going on, beyond mere muscular manipulation. It was enough to make him paranoid, even as he enjoyed the effects. She’d invited a number of people from the message therapy school, including her mentor, a fifty year old white woman who wore crystals and robes.
Bliss had invited others; originally, it was his invitation that had been the way Bolt had come into the Sheep Fiends. But, it was through Bolt that Ass Hammer had come, as well as the open invite to others of his underground rock band, the Closet. There was Xavier, who played with The Closet, making his first appearance at a jam. Later, he would be an important member of the Sheep Fiends, with a ranting style only surpassed by the enigmatic Professor. But this comes later. For now, it was Bolt and Ass Hammer of the Closet that came to the jams, and of these, of course, Bolt was the principal contributor. The Closet would go on to make several records, and their relation to the Sheep Fiends would be only tangential, yet the thread of the shared members would always make the two bands into brother projects.
Ian and Sid had brought many to the Sheep Fiends’ space, and as the two contemplated a “petty-bourgeois” experience, one that they realized they needed, as much as it was a kind of “guilty pleasure.” But, talking to Ruben, Ian and Sid realized that there could be political dimensions to the gathering.
“You’re interested in Labor a lot, aren’t you guys?” Ruben was saying.
Ian and Sid nodded.
“Is that because of your own—or your family history in Labor?”
Ian answered that he himself was not from a working class background. But, Sid was. Ruben smiled, saying that he might be interested in the fact that Ruben’s grandfather had been the Secretary of Labor under Kennedy. Sid smiled. Ian, too, smiled. Nick was wrong about the Sheep Fiends. There was love here.
The talking and the drinking continued casually for a long while. But then Bliss, on some cue known but to him, turned on the recorder right in the middle of the party. Sid picked up a guitar, then, and began doodling a little on the C scale. The crowd continued to chat and laugh, and in the recording that survives, you can hear this. But, one by one, people began to pick up instruments, or hum or chant. The crowd continued talking, even as from right within it came the Song.
The Song proceeded, till more than half the party was involved in creating it. The music continued with the steady ostonato in the key of C, and the music evolved out of that and around it, without pause or interruption. The talking continued, though lessened; but this was in keeping with the general feeling of the Sheep Fiends: the informality. It was almost as a scene from a tribal village, in Africa or the Americas before the coming of the White Man. There were singers, shamans, griots, telling their stories and singing their songs, with the people of the village, the audience and the fellow participants, drifting in and out of participation, easily, organically, till the whole village was singing, was living, together.
I heard the Song in the deserts of Australia, the Aboriginal Corroboree, the nightly gathering ‘round the campfire. There, the people would talk, and laugh, and sing, and compose new songs and recite old ones, then laugh and talk again. This was the dream Bliss had, the dream realized fifty thousand years before his birth, on the other side of the world. Before television, before radio, before books and newspapers, people had fun! They lived a low-tech existence, with just a fire and a didgeridoo; they took up very little energy; yet, for fifty-thousand years, they kept their culture alive by these nightly corroborees. They keep it still . . .
Bliss saw this potential in the Sheep Fiends. More than the Song, more than a religious experience, more even than the dialogue between people that was possible through the medium of musical exchange, the Sheep Fiends offered an experience that was better than the alternatives First World society offered. They were expending far less energy, the twenty people playing music together at Bliss and Abby’s, than the same twenty people at home watching separate televisions, or listening to separate stereos. Plus, the interaction was in itself more rewarding than being alone. People interacted with their friends, sharing quality time, sharing in a meaningful way. So much more meaningful was it than the isolated “fun” of watching TV, or playing a computer game; so much more affordable than a night on the town, bar-hopping or club-dancing; so much more genuine an experience of community was it than the decision to put a patch on your clothing advertising some band or some brand of automobile or tennis shoe. The Sheep Fiends were a way to engage in community, and have fun, with little else needed besides the friends involved in doing it.
Of course, not everyone understood or approved of such a community vision. The crowd at Rosemont and Magnolia talked about the Sheep Fiends obliquely, passive-aggressively. They never came out and said—“this experience is not worthwhile”—at least, not to Sid or any of his circle. But they snickered, they smiled, whenever the subject was brought up. They were better than the Sheep Fiends. This was the subtext whenever the subject was brought up in their presence.
The tensions between Sid and the rest had grown from horrendous to intolerable. And it was into this mess that Bliss arrived, one night in the fall of 1993.
“What do you guys wanna do?” Bliss asked, big and friendly and goofy, smiling at them as they sat on the sofa, after an hour of listening to one of John’s selections, an underground band whose name was obscure.
“I dunno,” John said.
“No, I don’t know, either,” said Cow.
“Well, how about we jam?” Bliss offered. “We could all jam, and thus be doing something—as opposed to not jamming, and doing nothing.”
Phillip smiled that he had his buckets still, referencing the drumlike things he’d stolen from work so long ago. But as he said this, he noticed the almost palpable feeling of cold that emanated from his friends. Bliss smiled.
“Let’s jam, Phil,” he said. “You, me, and Sid. We can go into your room, and everyone here can stay out here and do nothing if they want.”
“I—I can’t, man,” Phillip said in a worried voice, looking to his friends on the sofa. “Not now.”
Sid got up, then, and offered everyone some pineapple he’d bought. The crowd on the couch declined in a way that made Sid feel the pineapple was almost in bad taste. Bliss smiled that he would love some pineapple.
Sid went into the refrigerator and extracted the pineapple. The refrigerator was a vile mess, as was all in the kitchen. Inside, things were rotting away. The dishes in the sink were piled up to overflowing, and they had fruitflies in all seasons, even in the dead of winter. Such was the disarray of the roommates’ inability (or unwillingness) to get along. Sid extracted his pineapple, a beautiful, fresh thing, and brought it proudly out to his friend.
Bliss ate. And Bliss smiled.
“This is wonderful, Sid,” he said.
“Thank you,” Sid said. “Glad you like it.”
“Sure. You guys don’t know what you’re missing.”
“I don’t like pineapple,” John said.
“Have you tried it?” Bliss asked.
“No. Not recently.”
“Then, you’re just goin’ by rumor. Isn’t it strange, Sid? People don’t check things out for themselves. They go by rumor. They hear about something, and they say—‘oh, I know what that is.’ When they really have no clue.”
“Yer right, man,” Sid said.
John got up and put on another tape. Then, he sat back down, as the basement set sat around in a bored and boring assemblage. Bliss laughed.
“What’s this shit?” he asked about the music.
John proudly informed him of the music’s authors.
“Sounds a lot like the Sheep Fiends!”
“These people had to write this music down, man,” John said proudly.
Bliss laughed out loud.
“Seems like a waste o’ time to me! We can do this stuff just off the top of our heads!”
John got visibly nervous. He was unused to having his musical taste challenged. So, he got up, and changed the tape. He sat back and took pleasure in things returning to normal. But Bliss laughed again.
“This sounds exactly the same as the last shit!”
John didn’t know what to do. He got up and turned the tape off. Then, he sat back down, and in the silence, they all sat a moment.
“Well!” Bliss said. “Why don’t we all jam now?”
“We don’t wanna do that,” John said decisively.
“Why not? You played your music for an hour. Why not play some music you actually make instead of buy?”
“No, man. I don’t want to lose control.”
This was, in retrospect, the wrong thing to say. For Bliss focused in on it, and didn’t let it go.
“Oh, control! You have a control
“Yeah,” smiled John sarcastically.
“Well, then! Why don’t you take that TV channel changer on the table there, and me, Sid, and Phillip can play something—and when you’ve had enough of it, why, you can click that channel changer, and we’ll change the music?! Then, you’ll be in control!”
“No, man. That’s all right—”
“—C’mon, man! It’ll be fun! At least as fun as sittin’ around in a basement in Roger’s Park, doin’ nothin’!!”
Bliss laughed. Sidney laughed. They laughed and laughed. And, after some moments, John said something, and his whole crowd got up and exited the apartment, leaving Bliss and Sidney alone.
But that was only for the best. They jammed, then, and soon some other of their friends arrived, and the jam went on for hours into the night.
The year of living with Cow and Jan and the rest was finally up, the late autumn of 1993, and Sid found another place to live, a month-to-month lease further north, in Roger’s Park proper. Not much happened to him for the next months, other than the fact that he grew very lonesome in his little studio by himself. And, the rent was rather more than he could handle. Eventually, as 1994 came and progressed, Sid found a place with his old college friend, a girl everyone called “Gypsy.”
Living with Gypsy was tight, but comfortable. A little studio in Lincoln Park, but a stone’s throw from the university, they lived very sparingly. But, Gypsy was only there in the evenings, and spent her time knitting or otherwise quietly engaged when she was there, making the little studio more than adequate for her and Sidney. And, besides, there was the roof . . .
The rooftop was on the seventh floor, a large space which was accessible through a door a few yards down a little hall from the elevator. A few apartments were above it, connected by fire escape steps to the surface of the roof, about four stories higher. The door opened to a relatively small quadrangle of wood, a deck with high picket walls; but, access to the roof itself was a relatively easy affair, through a space in the pickets, a “door” in itself.
Sidney came up here to get high, something which he had started again, despite his commitment to the OWP. Getting high there, with the view and the summer silence, was an experience in itself. There was a chimney, behind which Sidney hid to smoke up, and then sat there, watching his surroundings in an altered state. The Byzantine church which neighbored the building made that whole side of the world dominated by a great, stylized dome. On the other side was what seemed a stand of trees (for their tops were all that could be seen). It was as a whole foreign skyline there, under the stars, and it was most invigorating to spend time up there, all alone.
But, never more than when there was a chance to spend it with others. Angel, a friend Sid had recently made while talking Communism with people, came over to the rooftop with him, and he and Sid got high in the moonlight and played drums.
They were still new with each other, Angel and Sid; there were still areas which they had not explored. Trust. It was essential to friendship. Yet, you could not force it. You could only tease at it, and allow it to pull things out of you. And, in the Sheep Fiends experience of the rooftop, with two new friends, testing the waters, trust began pulling words out of them.
They began to say words over the drumming, words loaded with meaning. They spoke as if doing word-association, saying things to which the other would respond with another word, and the subjects carried the words into unexpected directions as they drummed. As if to test the friendship, Angel said, openly, “spic.”
Sid smiled and responded, “niggerlover.”
Such were the words that had been thrown at them in their youth, both instantly understood. Both were sharing these words. Angel vocalized the epithet that had made him cry as a child, chased home by mean kids of Sid’s complexion. And Sid recalled the taunting arrogance of such complexioned kids who threatened to beat up him and his friend Dana, who might have been the first black guy those Cal City bastards had ever seen.
Both had been hurt by these words; but both now could laugh them into song lyrics, lyrics for the music of the night, this summer night in mid-90s Chicago, the town of both their births. Here, they’d lived some twenty-odd years, buffeted by unkindness and cruelty; but here, now, they’d each found a friend to share it all with.
“Chicago,” they each said, and it was echoed by Bliss later on at his place.
“Chicago,” said Bliss, “has been the pioneer in improvisational artistic forms. You know Second City, of course, which explored a completely improvisational style. And there are lots of little theaters, quite a life in this town, which strive for the improv ideal. Like the Neo-Futurists and the Annoyance, to name two. There are other examples, I’m sure . . .
“What the Sheep Fiends are is the manifestation of this Chicago improv ideal as expressed in music. There’ve been a lot of improvisational music here, to be sure, blues jams, and jazz, etc. But nobody, I think, has ever done improv in music to the same degree or with the same consistency as The Sheep Fiends.”
“Chicago’s a great town,” Sid agreed.
“Yes, it is.”
“I think of it as my ethnicity. I’m Chicago-ish. Both sides of my family.”
“That’s true,” Angel agreed.
“That’s what my friend Dean Delancy said about ethnicity.”
“He’s the guy who was in the Gulf, right?” Angel asked.
“That’s right. They were asking him in the Army about his ethnicity. They asked him his race. Now, Dean is blue-eyed, blonde-haired, tall, an Aryan in the literal sense of the word. But he wasn’t being sucked into this way of discussing things. . . . They asked him his race, and he said, ‘Human.’ Then they said, ‘You know—what’s your ethnicity?’ And he said, ‘oh—Chicagoan.’ They said—‘where are your parents from?’ He said, ‘Chicago.’ ‘Where are your grandparents from?’ And he said, ‘Chicago—before that, ya hear stories, but what can ya really believe?’”
They all chuckled at Dean’s way. For a man who was never there, Dean exerted a lot of influence over the people in this circle. Abby still dreamt of him, and Bliss thought he was very interesting. Angel had met him, during one of his annual week-long visits, always unpredictable, and had been impressed. Sidney had had his problems with him, but when all was said and done, he missed him. He’d traveled across the world, but still retained the Southside of Chicago as his motherland, a place to which he owed his undying loyalty and allegiance, a loyalty and an allegiance which to bigger entities, like the country or Catholicism, he did not acknowledge.
“Chicago,” echoed Angel, looked out his window onto the corner of Rockwell and Haddon in the night. He’d invited Sid to his pad, the second floor of a two-flat in Humboldt Park, or as he liked to call it, the Paseo Boricua. This community, even more than the Chicago outside it, was the one Angel looked to with patriotism. For, it was the place where the Puerto Rican Diaspora had made a home in Chicago, going back some seventy years, now.
They sat in the living room, a place of plants and books and collages hanging from the walls. The summer was blessed, the tropic temperatures suggesting an island feel, an island theme. Puerto Rico. The two flags hung in Angel’s house: the traditional Puerto Rican flag, with its star and stripes, as well as the Lares, or independentista flag. They were the flags of his country; but, too, they were the flags of his small community within Greater Chicagoland, the flags of his street. Division Street, Paseo Boricua. Six blocks between two metallic banners, each fifty-seven feet high and arching over the street. They were put there in the stead of the statue of Pedro Albisu Campos the community activists wanted to erect. But, the initiative to memorialize that leader of independence, who was tortured to death and irradiated by the United States government, settled for the compromise of the flags, and it was a good compromise. It helped to visually define the community.
Community was important to Angel, and it was increasingly important to Sidney, too. The neighborhood Sid lived in now, Lincoln Park, was a notoriously yuppie mall of a place, not the community with history and roots it had been before. Angel’s family had come from Lincoln Park, which in the 1970s and before had been a working class Puerto Rican community. Many of those folks, displaced by the yuppie advance, had settled in Paseo Boricua, to join the community already there. This same community was under attack from latter day yuppies. But, it was resisting . . .
“We’ve gotten the developers to build new, low-income housing for the community,” Angel smiled, “and we’ve gotten together with farmers, many family farms owned by Black farmers in the Midwest, and we’ve created a Farmer’s Market for the community.”
“Farmers’ Markets?” said Sid suspiciously. “Aren’t they just a sign of gentrification?”
“I know, brother, I know. Usually, that is the case. But we’ve made deals with small farmers to get their food here cheap, at Fairly Traded prices. It’s good for the farmers, and it’s good for the community. We’ve made deals with local businesses here to stock fresh produce in their stores. We’ve got people in the community educating people about obesity, HIV/AIDS, police brutality, and exposing and confronting agents of gentrification, like this Block Committee thing I was telling you about.”
“Tell me again.”
“Well, you might remember that flier that was sent around last month. It was a call for throwing out the Section Eights from the community, and particularly the low-income housing units that are being planned on down the street from here. Well, the yuppies that held a conference, a publicity op for their committee—they didn’t bargain for what they got.”
“It was beautiful, Sid! About a hundred people from the community came and protested their meeting! They confronted the committee, asking them questions they had no answers for—like how they expect to protect ‘diversity’ in the community by driving out the poor! Like, why were people being singled out as ‘dangerous’ by the committee when they were the same men, women, and children that have lived here for generations! It was muy coolo, man!!”
Sid wondered. It was good and right to have people in the community mobilized to defend that community. But, Sid still had questions, issues. If he himself moved here, to Paseo Boricua, would he be considered an invader by the community, too, just because he was white?
“You’re not a yuppie, Sid,” Angel almost laughed. “You don’t belong in Lincoln Park any more than I do.”
“Yeah, but do I belong here? I love it here, man—the people, mobilized, radicalized. Man! This is the Revolution, the one I’ve been working for for two and a half years with the OWP. Only, this is—how can I say this, without being a traitor? This all seems more—more real—because it’s organic. It’s not some outside agitators, trying to establish a presence here. It’s people in the community—organizing people who are their friends and neighbors. I love it, man!”
“Well, that’s wonderful, Sid. Wonderful, brother. And if you really wanna move here, I’d enjoy bein’ your neighbor. But, you’ve gotta be aware, too, of the way the presence of white people allows yuppies to feel safe, and, y’know, colonize the place . . .
“ . . . In the truest sense, though, Sid, we’re not against the yuppies joining our community. The only problem we have with them is that they, as a group, tend not to just ‘move in’; they displace people, the people who were here for seventy years. Now, the Puerto Rican Cultural Center is looking to do outreaches to the young urban professionals who are moving in here. It’s new ground, Sid. No community that I know of has been as successful at remaining viable when the gentrifying forces move against it. If we’re going to continue being a community, there must be a dialogue between the yuppies and the old neighborhood. And, we’ve been able to foster that dialogue.”
“Just by inviting people to the Center, for discussions about what a neighborhood is, what the problems facing ours are. The rich white people talk, and share their fears and their own issues, and the Puerto Rican poor people share their fears, and their issues. It’s very healing.”
“So, Sid, I don’t want you to feel that you wouldn’t be welcome here. In a way, it’d be helpful. You’re white, and you’ve got a way to talk to the white people here in a way I can’t. They won’t shut you out. And you can tell them about the issues you have—exactly why you’re so happy and excited to be a part of living here. Maybe you could win minds and hearts.”
“Sure, man. I could let them know how diversity really works—economic as well as racial or cultural. Why affordable housing is good for the community. And, why there should be respect—fuck it, man! Why there should be love!! That’s what I can contribute.”
“Si,” he said. “Si, compai’. You could be a great asset to the community . . .”
They spoke a while longer before retiring to bed. In the beautiful summer street sounds, outside the window, came the sounds of a steel drum band. They were neighbors of Angel’s, a family, three generations, who played together. They practiced on weeknights, and it was beautiful to hear.
Again, music, the Song. And, like the Sheep Fiends, the community and the spiritual worship of the music combined in a wonderful harmony. For there was a sense of unity here, in Humboldt Park, in and around Division Street, that expressed itself in artistic directions. There were musical groups and concerts; there were poetry readings involving many young Puerto Rican men and women, as well as older folks; there was art produced by community artists, and impromptu gallery spaces to show them, including work by Puerto Rican political prisoners. Everything reinforced the community’s love, its determination to stay, to remain alive. And in the name of that love, even those outside it were welcome—provided they wanted to be welcome.
The Sheep Fiends were a lot like this. In some ways, it was different, of course. The Fiends chose to be Fiends; they did not have the forces of the world label them and force them to relate to the dominating culture as oppressed, colonized, Third World people. But, the celebration was common to both, and the diversity. Men and women both had played with the Sheep Fiends; whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians, Jews and Gentiles, Gays, Straights, and Bisexuals—all had been represented within its ranks. So, the community of Paseo Boricua, a cultural community that accepted the darkest and the lightest, the richest and the poorest, the English-speaking and the Spanish-speaking, all manner of religions, genders, sexual orientations, and political philosophies. Both stretched the idea of what “community” was; yet, both had a working understanding, if not a working definition, of what community meant in their lives. It meant dialogue. It meant love.
Sid imagined a Sheep Fiends gathering on Division Street. Maybe next year . . .
There, in a tavern on the outskirts of Kiev in 1905, there was a group of traditional Jewish men drinking. They had long beards, and covered their heads with hats and their shoulders with prayer shawls. They danced and sang in celebration for one of their number who was taking a wife.
As they danced, one of them inadvertently bumped into a Gentile Ukrainian. There was tension on both sides in that schtettel, the memories of pogroms in the minds of both groups of men.
But, the Song was there. And the Ukrainians sang with their uncovered heads, their boots, and their balalaikas, dancing their Slavic dances in between the Horah of the Jewish men. For a brief moment, there was peace in Anatevka . . .
Some of these men’s cousins were gathering in the city. They were gathering in circles of discussion and action; they were Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Socialist-Revolutionaries and Anarchists, as well as unaffiliated but concerned workers and students and soldiers. They were Jews and Gentiles, atheists and religious, and they came together without prejudice to find a way to Revolution.
And, they sang the Song . . .
But, the Organization for Workers’ Power, some eighty-nine years later, had forgotten these crucial lessons; either that, or they had never known them. They insisted that everyone connected with them agree to one set of principles. They viewed the workers’ and students’ meetings they fostered as opportunities to give speeches, and to direct the free conversation of the people who came into prearranged directions. What could have been a genuine worker-student solidarity was frustrated by the ideas imposed by the Organization’s inner circle. And this group of seven activists presumed to tell an entire milieu of forty or fifty souls around the city what their politics should be, and how to go about living them.
The Song was not sung anymore. It had become a stifled cacophony, a case of a conductor trying to direct a group of musicians who did not have the sheet music, who were in fact trying in many cases to write their own. But that conductor kept waving his baton, and kept demanding order.
It wasn’t working anymore.
There was a feeling now, in the middle of 1994, that the group was losing its momentum. They had been politicized in the wake of the Gulf War, which they had opposed. Many people had become radicalized over the War, and the socialist group that Nick and Chris had founded with them had fed upon the angers and insights of that community of protesters. But, it had been more than three years, now. And the momentum had long died.
The contacts they had managed to secure were all abandoning the socialist camaraderie for their own lives. And to the increasingly incestuous position of the group, its cultish ethos, these changes of mind seemed almost betrayal. Both Ian and Sid felt themselves pressured to produce without the means to do so, watching their contacts drift away. And, in exacerbation of this sad circumstance, the comrades could not even in good conscience release themselves with anything to alter their consciousness. They were lectured for drinking too much. They were taken to task for doing anything “illegal.” And, they were lectured for hanging around with nonpolitical friends. And it began to come to a head as the summer waned, and a new year was upon them. Sid had graduated, and had elected to take some time off between college and grad school. And Ian was struggling to finish. But, neither of them was likely to have much organic contact with the campus anymore, and this led them to wonder how they would maintain a presence there, for the group, for communism.
All these things were in the minds of Sid and Ian, and they vocalized them to each other with increasing regularity. They were becoming as inclined to agree with their contacts that were considering leaving the group as they were to argue; for their faith, too, was waning.
It all had come down to what kind of community was being fostered by the group. Sid saw Angel’s community organizing, his tolerance for various points of view, as refreshing, and while committed to Revolution, Sid and Ian both were less convinced lately of the efficacy of their particular brand of politics to achieve it.
Into this came the final crisis. Final, at least, for Sid. And, it all started on a regular day, during a regular activity of the group. There was no warning for what was about to happen.
Sid showed up for a leaflet distribution with Nick on the usual day for it, once a week they met to leaflet a factory shift change. The leafleting went on for its usual hour and a half without event. Then, Nick, who had been smiling pleasantries the whole time, suddenly informed Sid that they were going to have to have an emergency meeting to discuss “charges” brought up against him. Sid asked what the charges were, but was not informed. He was merely told to report to a place at DePaul to stand trial.
Sid spent the next two days (it was a weekend) trying to get at what his “charges” were, talking to Ian, to Chris, to Michelle—his comrades who were going to show up at the trial. But, nobody would tell him anything. This was especially hard for Ian, who had been a friend of Sid’s long before the whole communist adventure. But, they were all pledged to secrecy by Nick, and all Ian could say was that he was on Sid’s side.
Finally, the day of the trial came. Sid was asked to detail his relationship with certain high school friends, with whom he’d been in a friendship group that called itself “the Family.” Briefly, the Family consisted of boys and girls who related as sons and daughters of Sid and his girlfriend at the time, who had “adopted” them all. Sid gladly, even wistfully, spoke of the Family, openly nostalgic for the time when his friends were so close back in high school. He did not think to ask why he was being queried about it.
Nick quietly, but darkly, asked him if he was planning to build another Family at DePaul. Sid answered no, wondering what would have given him the impression that he was. Nick didn’t address this. Instead, he asked more questions, weird questions, things that seemed in retrospect to malign the friendship group, which he finally said he opposed.
Finally, Sid confirmed that he was not “building” such a thing. But, while they were on the subject, why not? Nick said he was not allowed to join or build such a thing. Sid protested that nonpolitical friends and he had every right to relate in whatever ways they chose.
Not so, Nick informed him. It was from one’s friends that one made one’s political contacts, he said; thus, the OWP had a right to regulate who Sid could make friends with, and what dimensions those friends related in.
Sid couldn’t believe it. He was being forced to say something in his past that he had considered beautiful was in fact ugly. Implied in all this cultish nonsense was the power of this little group to determine how he could relate to everyone. The Family, the Sheep Fiends—everyone! If he gave up on this, he would be a robot for the revolution, the very thing that they all feared the most. He would have no social life beyond the group (again, something they feared, at least in theory, more than anything else—for, no such group would be successful). But, Nick looked at him with eyes ice cold, like he didn’t even know him. Would Sid capitulate?
The past two and a half years seemed a waste to Sid in that moment. He’d given up so much for this organization—so, so much! He’d given up his look, his old way of life. He’d tried to give up drugs and drink, and he’d even lost friends. He’d given up God for this group. But, now, it seemed all this was not enough.
“All right!” he cried out suddenly. “You caught me! I’m the traitor—I’m the bourgeois agent! I can’t do this anymore!!”
He ran out of the room crying.
After a few tense moments, Ian went to the washroom where Sid had fled and talked with him.
“Man,” Sid said, “can you go back in there and get my bag? I don’t wanna face them now.”
“Sure, man,” Ian said, and he went back into the room where the trial had taken place.
Everyone had their head down. The silence in the room was deafening. Nobody agreed with Nick, but Nick’s power in the group was supreme. He was the Lenin of the group, they’d all long acknowledged. Now, though, he seemed more the Stalin . . .
“I guess,” Nick said quietly, “I could have approached that differently.”
“Yeah,” Ian said.
“So,” Nick said, his eyes focusing into Ian’s, “if Sid builds this Family at DePaul, would you join it?”
And Ian didn’t know what to say.
It was only a matter of time before the Organization for Workers’ Power as a group dissolved. Sid and Ian were the reasons why the group had contacts at DePaul. All the people who were interested in communism had come from the circle of intimates of Sid and Ian. And with Sid so ignominiously tossed out of the group, Ian soon left it, too.
As for the “workers’ circles” the group had helped to organize from working class contacts of Michelle on the Northwest Side, they, too, soon lost interest. Any group that went around trying to control people like this one did had less and less attraction for the people involved in it. Meg’s words had come back in sharp relief; Revolution had to be fun, or it was not worth working toward . . .
Such was the wisdom of Meg, a self-proclaimed anarchist. So, too, the wisdom of another anarchist, Sid’s high school friend, Dean. Finally out of the Army, Dean came back from wherever he was living (he would not trust anyone with this information—not even his old friends, Sid and Abby), and spent a few days with Sid who was crashing at Bliss’ for the week.
“Sonnyboy Delancy” was what his friends were calling him lately, though Sid still called him Dean, as he called him Robert. A harp player, in the blues sense, Delancy was a man of formidable talents. He was friendly, but in an almost aggressive way; his nervous energy compelled him to be always on, always working the crowd. He had memorized vast speeches and sections of plays and epic poems, which he would rattle off flawlessly to the delight and amazement of his audiences, and he in his spare time devoted himself to everything from literary composition to the construction of various and sundry items of both low and high technology. He built bongs of aluminum cans, bottles, bits of potatoes, and musical instruments. He worked with computers, building them from scratch. And he’d even welded together an entire trailer from various auto parts, creating his own mobile home with which he traveled the country.
Sid and he had an ancient relationship, almost tender, but for Dean’s formidable paranoia, which caused him to lash out, to compete. They drank together, they shared women friends, combining with them in ménage a trios to chase the elusive but powerful female orgasm. But never were they closer than when they smoked together.
Sid had had his guard up. For Dean could be tough, could be cruel, even as he reached out in friendship. Dean had been to war. He’d known the rejection of parents, of friends. He was a lonely man, though wherever he went, he found admirers, particularly female admirers. He was sexy and gentle, rough and repulsive. He was Dean. And no one who knew him ever got to know him. Nor could they ever forget him.
But, when he was high, he was as a little child, innocent, kind, able to admit his fears. And there, in Bliss and Abby’s apartment, the two old friends bonded.
“It’s good to see you,” Dean smiled, as they sat very close on the sofa.
“Yeah,” smiled Sid, letting his guard down, too, “it’s good to see you, too.”
“There’s nothing quite as liberating as marijuana.”
“Well, there’s acid.”
“I’d never do acid, man.”
“Because, I don’t wanna have flashbacks. I can picture bein’ somewhere, with people shooting at me, and there I’d be, watching the bullets whizzing by and saying—Wow! Look at the pretty colors!”
Sid looked at him. He seemed so calm, so peaceful; yet, his tension was almost schizophrenic in its intensity. Moved by the good feeling of the drug, and by the happy circumstance it had wrought between them, Sid felt the need to heal his friend. He began speaking of Buddhism.
For, Buddhism, Zen, had been Sid’s salvation. Being able to allow thoughts to arise and then fade, without attachment to them, had been something that he had been taught by Bliss, as well as by Alan Watts (an author Bliss recommended). Long conversations Bliss and Sidney had had, during tough times for both, Bliss’ problems with his relationship with Abby, Sid with his recent jilting from Communism, which precipitated a crisis of faith from which it took many, many years to recover. They’d bonded over the wisdom of Zen, and its allowing them to cope. And now, Sid tried to extend this peace to his friend.
“Just watch your thoughts,” Sid said peacefully. “Just watch them come, and then watch them go . . .”
Dean nodded and smiled. He knew this game, and he was prepared for it. For he knew of Zen, in his studies of the Japanese Samurai. He knew what it was to shoot an arrow, and aim at everything but the target. He felt he was wise. Both of them felt this. But, with Dean, there was a confusion between intelligence and wisdom. Intelligence he had, assuredly. But wisdom was a trickier thing.
Dean began to query Sid, and their conversation quickened.
“—Have you bypassed your own ego?” he asked Sid quickly.
“—I feel beyond it—the whole of the world is a Song which I hear all around me. Even the sound of my own voice is just another part of the Song.”
“—Do you feel the Song?”
“—I am the Song.”
“—Am I the Song, too?”
“—We’re all the Song.”
“—So, you are enlightened now?”
“—Enlightenment is the easiest thing in the world. Staying enlightened—that’s the challenge.”
“—So, you don’t even know what you’re going to say next?”
And Sid opened his mouth to speak, listening to himself say—“I have no idea.”
Dean bowed to Sid, and said instantly—“You’re beyond me.”
They loved each other in that moment. Not a sexual love, though they had shared a sexual space with Abby, and half a dozen other girls before her; rather, it was a brotherly love, but closer. There were no barriers between them. There was but the Song, of which they were both sounding voices. Sid smiled to the instruments in the instrument part of the living room.
“Let’s play,” he smiled.
“Let’s,” smiled Dean back.
They plugged into the mixer, and turned on the recorder, and Sid played guitar and Dean played bass. Dean seemed fascinated with playing the beginning bass line to the Barney Miller show, and continued trying to figure it out for twenty minutes while Sid improvised and tried to blend with him. But, there was no blending. It was stilted and formal, Dean trying to play a song he’d heard before, trying to “perform.”
But, the force of the Universe that birthed the music, that birthed the Sheep Fiends, that birthed Dean and Sid themselves, took a hand. A microphone found its way into Dean’s hands, and the bass migrated to Sidney’s.
Dean began to sing.
He performed. This was Dean’s way. But it did not hurt the experience. For, Sid found a way to improvise, slapping the bass pick-ups like a bodhran, while Dean sung a story-song about the Scotsman who fell asleep beneath a tree, and was examined by some fair young maids, determined to see what he didn’t wear beneath his kilt.
“Hi di diddle I di de o—hi di diddle ee I o—I don’t know where you been, me lad—but I see you won first prize!”
So concluded Dean’s invitation into the Sheep Fiends. And the song remains in the discography. But, Dean Delancy, who had been Dean Mulcrone, who had been likewise a half dozen different names, wanting to erase his name from the history books, and from public registers, later told Bliss he wanted all mention of him erased from the Sheep Fiends. Bliss obliged him, then watched him fade into self-imposed oblivion.
But, Sid still remembers the moment, when all conflict ended, and they both became part of the Song . . .
By now, there were fewer barriers to the Sheep Fiends’ exploring and contributing to the experience its members were blest to participate in than there had been before. There was, by the fall of 1994, a tradition established. There was a large core group of members of the Sheep Fiends, and there were many others who came and went, participating in the parties of Bliss’ hosting. Into this came a new force: Gravity.
Gravity is an internet community, formed in March of 1992, but a few months before the first Sheep Fiends jam. They remain a group of people from all over the United States, who originally bonded over the internet for the purpose of discussing and exploring the mind-expanding topics. They get together, at various places in the country, and interact as a community, after learning about one another in the context of e-mail and related communication technology. And when they get together, they share drug experiences, literary and artistic endeavor, and friendship.
Bliss had been in contact with the group, and had in fact joined it, since 1994. And now, various members of the Gravity community were visiting and in some cases, moving to Chicago. And, in the course of their interactions, many had come to jam with the Sheep Fiends.
They were a varied group. They included young people of various races, as well as older folks. There were people who also had connections with other alternative groups, such as the Rainbow Tribe, and Burning Man. Gravity had many parties, and there, the many personalities of the group came together in a tapestry. One of these, one of the most colorful, was the Professor.
He was first introduced to those outside of Gravity through the person of Sid. One day in the spring of 1995, Sid was walking with Bliss and Abby down Bryn Mawr to their place, and was listening to the two lovers getting into a lover’s quarrel. Their subject was the Professor.
“The Professor,” Bliss smiled, in answer to his lover’s query, “I invited him over.”
“Oh, God!” groaned Abby.
“Who’s the Professor?” Sid asked.
“Well,” smiled Bliss, “maybe you should see for yourself.”
“Yeah!” laughed Abby. “Seeing is believing!”
Her disgruntlement a mystery to Sid, and an amusement for Bliss, it continued as they walked up the steps of the front porch, to see an old white-haired, dark-eyed fellow in a three-piece blue flannel suit sitting with his feet up, flipping through a paperback.
“Hey Professor!” Bliss hailed him.
The man regarded him obliquely.
“The enforcers of the public order are maintaining their vigilante watch on the streets,” he said, “and in the camouflage of middle class acceptability, even the crazy is safe.”
The meaning of this odd lecture, directed to no one in particular and everyone in general, was rendered clear when the man was in the living room. Standing in the middle of the floor, he suddenly and unceremoniously stripped himself of the suit, shirt, tie, pants and all. Reduced to a ragged t-shirt and a pair of bright red swim trunks, he sat down, completely unaware (or uninterested) of the spectacle he’d made of himself, and rolled himself a jay. His way of rolling was to simply fold a bit of rolling paper into a thin rectangle, loosely packed, and then he proceeded to smoke it, disinterestedly, still reading the paperback in the other hand, as he parked himself in front of the computer.
Now safe inside, he’d abandoned the “middle class camouflage,” and was himself. Aware of his oddity, he consciously kept up appearances on the street, fearing the police, who might easily (had they seen him now) take him for a homeless.
He’d brought a six-pack of RC, which he handed around to everyone in greeting, though his nose still in the book, his other hand the little fold-over jay, he did not otherwise interact with anyone.
Thus was Sidney’s first introduction to the Professor. And the others outside Gravity, such as Bolt Upright, Ruben Horowitz, and Ian, soon knew him, too. He spoke as if from a distance, rarely speaking directly to you, but more exactly at you, as if you were one of several hundred students listening to him lecture in an auditorium. Most people related to him just as obliquely as he related to them, the Gravity community viewing him in a strange, almost annoyed manner. He was a member of Gravity, and was in his way a valued member; the contributions he made to the e-mail dialogue constantly going on in cyberspace were evidently erudite and fascinating. But, somehow, in the flesh, people tended to treat him with an amount of disdain.
This was a mystery to Sid, who, like Ian, found his lectures fascinating, as the old man deconstructed Marxist dialectics with an alacrity and a freshness which was satisfying to these once-Marxists. Indeed, it appeared (especially to Sidney) that the disdain of the mainly younger Gravitys was the result of ignorance; if they only could appreciate the Professor’s finer points, they would understand the originality and relevance of his intellect.
But there was more in it than that. Sid observed it from a distance, coming into the room at a party over at the home of a Chicago Gravity named Dave, when he was seeking the Professor out to sit and listen and dig him. He found the old man rudely hitting on several of the women of Gravity, his advances only rebuffed by Dave himself (who was a tall, strong fellow), standing literally between the women and the Professor; thereafter, the Professor was all apologies.
But the damage had been done. Over the course of several months, and many Gravity parties, the Professor was observed to treat women in a strange, almost threatening manner. Not that he ever overstepped the bounds of decency (or legality). But he teetered just on the precipice of this. He never spoke to the women kindly. His lectures in their presence were harsh, focusing on how they were all supposedly involved in some kind of Lysistrata conspiracy to deprive him of sex. And, assuredly, nobody in their right mind would entertain to be sexual with the rather horrid old man the Professor unapologetically was.
These traits made him persona non grata for a lot of people. But, in the proper context (as when only males were present), the Professor could be a lively and entertaining force. He’d taught at prominent universities for over twenty years, had written or co-written over a dozen books, and was a world-class expert on Freak Culture, as it had developed through the ages, and how in particular the counterculture of the 1960s worked. He seemed a beatnik, more or less, with his short hair and conservative dress, yet his penchant for mind-altering chemicals. He was a concrete link to the culture of the ‘60s (and immediately before), and yet he was a part of this very new computer-internet community scene. For all his faults, one thing you could say about the Professor: he was never boring.
Sid became known as the Professor’s “babysitter,” for of all the people in the Gravity community, the Professor interested Sid the most, and he spent most parties just sitting at his side, listening to his lectures, and ferrying him a host of questions. He usually was greeted with the same oblique speeches as everyone else; you’d ask him a question, and he’d simply change the direction of his lecture, addressing the issues you brought up. This is how he answered you.
But, at times, when both were really high, or on acid together, there was the possibility of actual communication. One time, Sid was so taken with something the Professor had said, that he fell back in a kind of ecstasy.
“Did I reach you, man?!” the Professor smiled, also in ecstasy.
And Sid nodded profoundly.
The Professor went on to say something about Bliss’ choice of album names, for one of the first albums he’d come up with. (Bliss had begun to organize and edit the music produced during the jams, highlighting the best ones for inclusion into “albums.”) The name of the one the Professor was commenting on was “Sacred.”
“You cats say ‘sacred.’ We always said, ‘holy,’” the Professor said, without really explaining who the “we” was. But Sid understood. The “we” were the first Freaks of the current era, the Beats of the ‘50s, of whom the Professor was one. “Holy” was what Allen Ginsberg said all things were in his footnote to “Howl.” Sid felt a link with tradition, which seemed very precious and rare.
This was a very positive aspect of Gravity. The cross-generational aspect of it. For, there were other people of older generations who interacted at the parties. Dave was at least ten years older than the first Sheep Fiends had been. A fellow calling himself “Psycho Babble,” too, had experience beyond Generation X. And there was the fellow who was an important part of the Rainbow Tribe.
A non-Gravity was standing in the kitchen at a Gravity party, savoring the drinks, feeling a little out of place. She was young, but more punk than hippie, more cynical than joyous, wearing combat boots and a Dead Kennedys t-shirt. An older woman, a hippie-turned-yuppie, took issue with some cynical thing the punk rocker said. She criticized the t-shirt.
“Who are they?!” said the older woman, spitting her contempt upon the t-shirt.
“You don’t know the Dead Kennedys?” the punk rocker challenged.
“You’re too cynical! You’re too young to be so cynical!”
Before the girl could respond, the fellow from the Rainbow Tribe, also an old hippie (but not a yuppie), simply and quietly remarked that for anyone born after 1960, it made perfect sense to be cynical. And the punker girl warmed to him.
Such was the tenor of the Gravity community. Such were the opportunities it afforded you. And that community naturally gravitated to the community of the Sheep Fiends.
Many new voices were incorporated into the Sheep Fiends dialogue, people with names that stuck in the memory with their personalities and talents. There was a fellow calling himself “Dookie McLightning,” who later on carried the Sheep Fiends experience on when Bliss moved away to Ireland. There was the wonderful keyboard player and singer Psycho Babble; his instrumentation was enough to impress people who had tended to dismiss the Sheep Fiends’ musical talents, an accomplished musician, who yet jammed well with the other musicians of the group, regardless of their level of experience. There were young women who contributed their voices to the experience, a fellow who had also written several books he put on-line, and a host of people who came but a few times to the jams, but left their mark.
They got together a lot over the years 1995 and 1996, and the jams they produced were of increasing complexity and innovation. The occasion of the Sheep Fiends’ Birthday, marking the third year of the band’s existence (without knowing exactly when it was that the first jam took place, Bliss had decided that the birthday should be celebrated in the first few weeks of May), was an occasion of especially good fortune musically.
On this jam, the Professor sat back on the futon sofa, in a little corner of Bliss and Abby’s living room, almost unseen. He seemed content to blend into the scenery, as much as a one like him could blend in. Having shed the three-piece suit he came in, he was decked out very sparingly, in but a pair of swim trunks and a thin, threadbare t-shirt, advertising an ivy-league university, one which he’d taught at for almost ten years, the last university he taught at before he left teaching. Exactly why he left teaching was a mystery, though it seemed some part of it might have had to do with the dexidrine he imbibed by the handful, there in the corner, or perhaps the involuntary palsy that made his voice have its characteristic almost drunken timbre. It was discrimination; it was malice. This is why the Professor had been forced out of academe; or, so he hinted, during his long, convoluted lectures occasionally broaching the subject.
But he didn’t lecture now; he didn’t seem likely to speak at all at this point. He was harboring a grudge against somebody, something. He’d been slighted in his e-mail correspondence, and seemed less than willing to participate. Besides, the music was developing quite nicely on its own.
The songs had been coming almost without pause for more than an hour. They were brilliant, by any standards. Everyone had the feeling that this jam, the Birthday Jam, was to be something worth remembering. Every song seemed a keeper. It harkened back to the earliest times, when the “albums” weren’t the selected, carefully pieced together products of Bliss’ editing, but the long jam where the audience would experience the music exactly as the artists had—all at once, in real time.
There were pauses in the music, times when the songs concluded, at regular intervals. And, unlike other times in the Sheep Fiends’ history, the musicians all agreed when the songs ended, as easily as they agreed to begin. This was a bit of a contrast to many of the jams in the years before, which went on and on and on, the feeling of creating the music often too good to stop, despite the fact that the quality of the playback often suffered. The music proceeded in different sounding songs, each with a different flavor than the one previous, with different instrumentation as the musicians traded off and switched, some sitting out while others played, only to resume in the next song. As the music went on, most everyone forgot where they were, swept up into the Song. So entrancing was it all that it was jarring to hear the crackling voice of the Professor, almost forgotten, resume his lecture that he’d been delivering earlier in the evening, almost to the word.
What he was rambling on about was clear only by degrees, at least to those who were interested in hearing him continue. He seemed to be on about the T’ang Dynasty period in China, the time when there were long-haired dropouts who would gather to do drugs and create art and talk about just where the empire was headed. Déjà vu? Freak culture, the Professor implied, had a long history, and little had really changed. Hippies then, and hippies now. The counterculture had a continuum, a history, and a legacy. Questioning society’s directions, imagining new ways, and sharing in a communion, a community of dissent. This was the Song being played in the past, I understood, and I blest the Professor for bringing it all up, again . . .
Then, with a new song’s beginning, the Professor switched subjects. He began to respond to a criticism from another Gravity, or group of Gravitys. Whether the criticism was actual, or a result of his own paranoid imaginings, he was quite defiant in relating his response to it. You are in control of your destiny! he mocked the tone of the accuser. You have no one to blame but yourself . . .
He began to lecture, as the music went on, till it spiraled into a forceful place, a culmination, and the Professor brought his lecture again into the realm of the historical.
. . . And now, you are there, and you have to give a speech to the Mexican Army, at the conclusion of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. And you tell them, that if they really wanted to, they could have won the Mexican War . . .
For Sid, Ruben, Bliss, Ian, Dave, and the others, the song was merely the conclusion, corresponding to the conclusion of the lecture. The barbed meaning of the Professor’s speech was lost; all that was apparent was the meaning infused into the song itself, off-beat, avant-garde, and satisfyingly symmetrical. What did it mean? What did any of it mean? What did Jackson Pollack mean? What did Jean-Michel Basquiat mean? What did William S. Burroughs or James Joyce mean? It was a moving picture, an impression, an expression. Few ever knew what the Professor meant. But, listening to the jams, over and over, one could eventually get a sense of it, even if the meaning was not a literal, three-dimensional meaning. It wandered into the realms of the surreal, and that made it oddly and thoroughly satisfying.
Here, Sidney thought, was the Jim Morrison figure he’d always wanted for the group. The Professor was all that Cow had been, but more. For Cow had been pretentious in his creations, at least as he stepped back and viewed them. He had a tendency to congratulate himself for his art, however much he tried to be cryptic and esoteric. The Professor did not even want to speak most of the time, Bliss having to almost force the microphones into his general area. Cow tried to wow you with his art, to seem unusual and strange. The Professor was stranger, yet less strange. Only he knew where he was going. But, a little familiarity with history, or theory (Sid and Ian thrilled to his deconstructions of Marxism), was all that was necessary to realize the Professor was talking sense, however obliquely he was doing it. Cow had talked nonsense, disguising it as meaning; the Professor had meaning, and delivered it as nonsense.
As the music went on, though, the Professor stopped speaking. Instead, as the music swelled into intense and beautiful crescendos, he began grunting in satisfaction, AH! AH—AH! Then, when we all took a break finally, after several hours of jamming, the Professor added into his microphone—“I think this would be a very rewarding experience to share with the police.”
We all laughed. He added, in observation of some oblique reference—“Funny, she said—you don’t look police-ish . . .”
With the Birthday Jam, a different era had begun for the Sheep Fiends. The Gravity community took the experience onto the World Wide Web. It made the experience of a few people in Chicago into something international. And it happened almost overnight.
The result of this was difficult to imagine. All of a sudden, it became possible to speak of the dream of the Sheep Fiends, the exporting of the experience all over the world, as truly possible. And that wedding of the Sheep Fiends with the technology of the internet enabled the community to grow and diversify. Now, when the albums were made, different artists contributed to the album art, including rather high-tech artistic techniques. The Sheep Fiends soon had a website, one of the earlier websites in internet history (for it was put on early in the same year as the founding of the World Wide Web). And the art that increased the expression of the Sheep Fiends community included the designs for band posters, which began to advertise the coming concerts in public venues that the band was soon to embark upon.
For the band had broken enough ground, in the opinion of its founders, as well as those new to the experience, to begin to play to an audience outside the confines of the group itself. Bliss took upon himself the task of promoting the band, sending recordings to different venues, and then following up with phone calls. He got a good hearing in several places, and the Sheep Fiends soon had their very first public gig, at the Zebra Crossing Theater on Irving Park.
The prospect of playing to an audience brought several issues up, things that had been before only theory. For one thing, the idea of the blurring of artist and audience was tested in a big way. Would the crowd at the theater join in with the music? Would they even be welcome to do so? What were the logistics of allowing a crowd of over a hundred to get up on stage and play? And, was this even desirable, if the gig was to be a “gig,” in the sense that the crowd had paid money to be there, and to see the band play? Was it desirable from their perspective? Was it desirable from the band’s perspective?
And, who would “perform” the musical selection offered? For, certainly, the Sheep Fiends in total, numbering almost a hundred people by this time, could not easily all get up on stage and play. But, if the group would only be a small number of the people in the band, who got to decide who they were?
How would the “song” be done? Sheep Fiends jams had historically been known to last half an hour or more—just one continuous piece of music. For the program, the various variety show-type skits of the plays offered that night (Psycho Babble had introduced them all to the space, and was in part responsible for the putting together of the material), there would only be a small space of time available to be allotted to the Sheep Fiends. No more than five minutes—that was all. So, how do you limit the improvisational jam form to five minutes? In terms of practical logistics (not to mention philosophical issues, like the Sheep Fiends’ purity, and tradition), how do you know when to end, and how do you know who plays what at what time? And, finally, how do you prevent the experience of the Sheep Fiends (the open-ended dialogue, the improvisation, the emphasis on artist/audience overlap, and the song’s viability and freedom) from becoming just another “band,” a musical group which plays for money, and is viewed passively by a crowd? And, do you even need or want to prevent this? Is this all just part of the evolution? Or, does it mean that the whole philosophy of the musical experience must be adjusted, or even scrapped?
All these concerns came up in the context of the first time the Sheep Fiends was to play in front of a crowd of strangers. Some things were resolved.
Firstly, the crowd was to be separate from the performers. This was because of two related reasons: 1) The crowd, strangers to the experience, wouldn’t know any other way to relate, and; 2) The group needed to be small, in order to make the five-minute confines work. Secondly, the band as it would be presented would be only a small handful of the musicians who had jammed with the Sheep Fiends. The practicality of this was self-evident. The choice as to whom would be involved actually turned out to be much less problematic than it might at first seem; comparatively few people wanted to get up in front of an audience, and many who might have wanted to figured there would be other times in the future when they could do so. Therefore, those who volunteered for the task were primarily the ones that were chosen. It was done more by consensus than by majority vote, since everyone was used to a free and easy dialogue amongst the participants in the experience. Basically, it came down to the core group of musicians who had been playing together in the most recent timeframe.
Third, for the actual performance of the song, a compromise was worked out between pure improvisation and something planned. Someone would begin by playing a simple riff on the guitar, and the others would come in and improvise around that, till on a cue from all of them, the crescendo which naturally developed (they had already experienced how this worked in the past) would naturally wind down.
Finally, the concern about whether performing in this structured way made the Sheep Fiends less like the Sheep Fiends was allayed with much discussion (and a good amount of beer). The conclusion they all came to was simply this: the Sheep Fiends could function as a musical band, as a part of its evolution; but that did not mean it was locked into being this forever. The Song (as I came to understand it) could go through different movements, different themes, without losing its original freedom, or its ability to add new ones later. The Song had elasticity; the Song could develop into a theme and variations, without losing the sense of its original character; indeed, the theme would only be enhanced by this periodic variation, this sojourn into bandhood, into performancehood, only to return to the open ended experience it always was later.
Still, with all the theoretical bugs worked out, the performance itself still had to be done. There were more commonplace problems and challenges, things almost forgotten about by the Sheep Fiends in their philosophical explorations and dialogue, but which nonetheless had power as the performers waited backstage and listened for their cue. There was the thing called “stage fright.” There was the concern long ignored in the friendliness of the jam, but challenging now, as they prepared to go out there, as to whether the musicians were “good” enough to command the attention of an audience, one completely unfamiliar with the music that had developed over three or more years of playing. Would the audience “like” it? Would they boo and hiss? Would they stand up and throw money? Would their reaction be some mediocre middling of these extremes?
As the skits wound down (the Sheep Fiends’ performance was to be the final event of the show—and the part most of the audience had come to see), there was a certain butterflies-in-the-stomach sensation for the performers, but they came to have a confidence, owing from both the improvisation and the planning. There was an easy organization to the music; it was certain how it would begin, and it would be relatively easy to end. At the same time, the improv aspect of it made it certain that the audience would have no way to know if they “messed up” something or not. And, after all, they’d been playing with each other for several years. There was a confidence in that, too.
The musicians went on stage, after Psycho Babble introduced them. There was a round of applause. Then, they sat down on the stage, just the people and their instruments. And, without saying anything, Sid began the riff they’d rehearsed (or, at least, that they had planned—there was no way to really “rehearse”), and after a few measures of the riff, the band began to play. It was a very controlled exploration, as far as the Sheep Fiends went. Each person had basically figured out about what he or she was going to do, or at least the theme he or she would play variations on, and the actual playing was, for the bandmates, almost anticlimactic. Before they knew it, they were done. It was phenomenally easy. And they ended, all of them winding down easily, till the last of the music played, and then the audience cheered.
It was a glorious success. And, what made it better was that the band itself had hardly been aware they were up there, on stage; playing together had become such a dialogue, so comfortable, that it was relatively easy to just do it, and get done with it. There were no glitches. In fact, it would be hard, in retrospect, to conceive of how there would have been any. The crowd cheered, and then everyone went out and celebrated.
What the music was, in essence, was the sound of a few guitars and a few drums, unplugged, acoustic, in the kind of exploration that came naturally with those instruments. The result of it all was a great boost to the confidence and the faith of the group to do anything they wanted to musically. It was not a heady success. But, it was a good feeling.
The stage was set for other gigs at other venues. They played next at the Lunar Cabaret, a place in Lincoln Park that was the successor to the Club Lower Links, which had during the Gulf War performed a benefit billed as a Hard Core Art Show, a display of visual art, a reading of poetry, and a playing of hard core music, all organized by the punk rock/skinhead organization, Anti-Racist Action. The Club Lower Links had been a place where outsider artists and extremely alternative, underground musicians could find a hearing. The Lunar Cabaret had become the heir to the Lower Links, which had closed in 1991, providing a home in Chicago for music and art that would have had no other home. People like Quintron played there; people like Eugene Chadbourne and Jimmy Carl Black (the latter a former member of the Mothers of Invention) had done concerts there; and, now, the Sheep Fiends did a gig, in December of 1995.
With a crowd more in tune with strange musical expressions, the possibility of a true Sheep Fiends experience definitely existed. The band had members who sat in the audience, and at certain times during the performance, they got up on stage and joined their comrades. To the audience, though, this would seem much as just regular people in the audience joining in. The hope was that the crowd would be inspired to get out of the crowd and make music along with the artists.
As it turned out, this did not happen. But, the music was great anyway. The first inkling of the concert’s success was had during the sound check, which turned out to be an improvisational song that lasted fifteen minutes. The crowd very much approved of the feat, cheering, surprised and impressed with the band’s ability to improvise so tightly. After this, however, some of the crowd seemed to tire of the Sheep Fiends, which had many of its members in attendance getting out of the audience and getting up on stage, switching off instruments, and playing long, long jams.
There was a point where Psycho Babble on piano and Ian on bass found their way into a riff that was as traditional jazz. In that moment, they proved that they could “play” if they wanted to; but they, laughing, fell away from this after a few measures. While the Sheep Fiends had the ability to play traditionally, they did not want to do so. Rather, they followed their own vision, their own style, and while the crowd was eventually lukewarm in its appraisal, the concert was good enough to allow them another gig later, at a more traditional club called Lounge Ax, also in Lincoln Park. They got together here in 1996, and some twenty musicians jammed on the big stage, to the approval of the crowd.
But still, the dream of the audience joining in was not realized. And this led the band to consider the efficacy of playing in public. The Sheep Fiends had proven themselves; they could do it, if they wanted to. But, after all that, it was a matter of debate whether the band really wanted to be a “band,” or whether it wanted to stay truer to its roots, and abandon the urge to “perform.”
Years later, the band would succeed in blurring the artist/audience divide. In 2002, the Sheep Fiends participated in a party given at the Section X studio, where they’d practiced since 1997. The space was one that was paid for by various Fiends, including Bliss; when he left the city, later, it fell to Psycho Babble to foot the bill, keeping the space open to the Fiends during that time of the turn of the century. Twice a year, the owner of this studio space sponsored parties where the different bands that used the space performed for people who came to listen. After playing several rehearsed songs, the Sheep Fiends core group at the time invited the people who had come to dig them to join in and jam. And, many people did just that. Though several of the core members were not playing with them at that time, Ruben Horowitz, Bolt Upright, Dookie McLightning, and Ass Hammer were among the Fiends that participated. And the audience participation produced extended jams that were good enough in Bliss’ opinion to form another album, entitled, simply, Section X Party.
The potential for the group to create the circumstances where the artists and the audience becomes one is still very open-ended, still very possible. And, so the Song continues . . .
The time of 1996 was turbulent for many of the Sheep Fiends. Sid had again embroiled himself in a social scene that was disapproving of the experience. Bliss, too, was a part of this scene. It centered around Roger’s Park, the “Feed the Hippies Night” event hosted by Cow and his new girlfriend, Tammy. Tammy was an accomplished cook, as well as a union carpenter, and Cow and she lived together in an apartment on Sheridan and Chase, along with several other bohemian-types, including a fellow named John. Like the John of the Rosemont and Magnolia scene, he was an avid critic of the Sheep Fiends experience. But where the first John had been a connoisseur of music without being a maker of it, this John was an accomplished musician. He got high with Sid a lot, and spent the times arguing the worth of art and culture, in a way that was initially amusing, but eventually very dead and pointless. But it took Sid a little while to realize this.
The Sheep Fiends had already proven their worth in the traditional sense. They included very accomplished musicians, as well as people who were less skilled. The ethos of the Fiends remained; the open-ended musical experience remained a place where people of various levels of skill could interact without the prejudices of the more skilled or the lack of confidence of the less. But, these Roger’s Park people, as they termed themselves, who gathered round Tammy’s weekly parties featuring various homemade meals, had all the cynical self-satisfaction and condemnations of the dark scene round Andy Warhol in the Doors movie. They were dedicated to art, just as the Sheep Fiends were; but, where the Sheep Fiends’ ethos was open, bright, and positive, the Roger’s Park bohemians were about keeping the art firmly in the hands of the traditional artists. This ethos was gradually elitist and negative, in which the community were not so much supportive of one another, as into critiquing each other’s work.
Sid had completed a novel by this time, a tale of his high school friends and the problems they’d faced. The Roger’s Park people were at first prepared to be critical of the work, but it stood up to their tests, and they grudgingly acknowledged Sid’s talent for writing. John gave Sid the respect the former felt the latter deserved, for (if nothing else) having written an almost-four hundred page novel. The work it represented was more important than even its quality. John spoke of his own commitment to guitar, and spoke of it very jealously. Sid and Bliss invited John to jam with the Sheep Fiends, as it was a fun thing for a musician to do. To this, John replied that he only jammed with people his own “musical age.” He proudly reported that he was about nine.
Sid was not to be given any credit for musicianship. This was clear. This was John’s domain. And, surely, Sid should be satisfied with being a writer. Such was the attitude of the group of bohemians at Sheridan and Chase.
The Professor gave his own input into the whole affair quite nicely when he and his friends showed up to a performance given by John and his band at a bar called “Roy’s,” just around the corner from the Heartland Café. Listening to the solo of John and the traditional rock musicians he played with, the Professor clapped and shouted “Adequate! Adequate!”
This adequacy was certainly true of John and his band. But in his mind, John was a very skilled musician. Just, he was not very imaginative or innovative with his musicianship.
The Sheep Fiends continued to develop without regard to the grumpiness of the Sheridan and Chase crowd, however. Gypsy, Sid’s roommate, had to do a project for the DePaul Music School in which she would mix a band in a studio. It was free for the band, and it was an opportunity for experience on Gypsy’s part. So, early one morning, the Sheep Fiends gathered at the Streeterville studios, to construct a song.
There was a plan; but it was just a sketch. Ruben Horowitz had composed a song called “Grey Car Busted,” in which he recounted a road trip down to Southern Illinois. He had an idea of the melody, and had written some lyrics. But, other than this, there was nothing that the musicians had on the drawing board. They came to the studio that morning with an open attitude, and a confidence that by the end of the day, they’d have a song.
Sid played drums, laying down three tracks of percussion. Ian played bass. Ruben and Bliss played a duet on guitar, Bliss playing an extended bluegrass solo that continued for the whole of the song. Ruben laid down two vocal tracks and the guitar rhythm part. Bolt Upright was there, too, along with a few other musicians, all contributing something to the mix. By the end of the day, they had a very professional sounding song, mixed on a number of tracks, one of the Sheep Fiends’ few “studio cuts” to date.
Any band that could go into a studio in the morning with practically nothing planned, and come out by the afternoon with a professional song was not without skill. But, to the Sheridan and Chase crowd, the Sheep Fiends’ skill was not worth mentioning.
How they came to the conclusion that the Sheep Fiends were without skill was beyond Bliss, who at first tried to change their minds on the subject, but ended up just shrugging and laughing at them. Sid for his part didn’t want to impress John so much as include him. He wanted to know John in that way, to dialogue with him musically. It was a realm which John spent so much of his time and energy within, it would have been beautiful to spend time with him in that realm. So Sid thought.
But John, though he once jammed with Sid and some others with pencils and spoons and glasses and beer bottles on a coffee table, to the great delight of all involved, maintained an attitude of revulsion and disgust with the whole idea of the Sheep Fiends. And with Sid visiting on such a regular basis, under the influence of various substances, there was bound to be a confrontation eventually.
It came. The crowd at Tammy and Cow’s thinned out after a night of revelry, and by the time Bliss left them there, the crowd was very drunk. Sid found himself playing a little on John’s acoustic guitar, enraptured with the moment. John, with his girlfriend sitting beside him, prepared to impress everyone, and put Sid down.
“You have no respect,” he smiled darkly.
“What do you mean?” Sid asked.
“The way you’re treating that guitar. You have no respect for what it is.”
Sid had had enough. He was too drunk to restrain himself, too tipsy to realize that John was trying to impress his girlfriend and his other friends, that he had put his own pride on the line. Sid smiled sarcastically.
“What do you know, man?” he challenged.
John puffed himself up in his seat, as if prepared to tell him all that he knew.
But, Sid just laughed a little and said, “I know what you know, man. But, what the hell do you know?”
The girlfriend laughed, impressed with Sid’s audacity, and John quickly got up and left the room. In an instant, there was the sound of a crash.
Down the hall, John was smashing his guitar. Rather than admit that anybody else could enjoy his guitar, he was prepared to destroy it. He cried that Sid was an asshole and told him to get the hell out of his house. Cow showed up, and told Sid that he’d better leave.
As Sid, bewildered, stumbled out of the apartment, then stumbled home, it was gradually clear that he was walking out of the intimacy he’d shared with that bohemian community. Quantity had changed into quality; revolution had come.
As the year 1996 became 1997, the Sheep Fiends community grew to include more people, including some from the Roger’s Park circle. Various people of that scene, undeterred by John’s resentments, found a productive and fun time jamming with the Fiends, including a few who became regulars participants. Dookie McLightning, though he had come earlier to the jams, was originally a part of the Roger’s Park scene. A husband and wife team came, playing cellos and singing and reading their poetry, and brought their little girl to the jams as well. And Noam, a fellow who had a relationship to Abby for a time, came to the jams and contributed greatly. His band, Atomic Jones, had a relationship to the Fiends which was sisterly and positive. The communities had a merging which showed that art could be made for art’s sake, and that even more skeptical musicians could find the experience of the Song transcending the barriers such people as John saw so damning.
The cross-culturalization of the Song was what the Sheep Fiends increasingly seemed to express. Various different circles had meshed and overlapped in the forum the music was creating, the dialogue that was enough to bridge people whose ideas and opinions might have clashed in other circumstances. But music, like other forms of art, had an inherent tendency to allow for communication beyond words. Gravity, Roger’s Park, the OWP, Angel’s community of Humboldt Park, and a dozen other circles, may well have reasons to disagree; but, the Song was not about agreement—or, at least, not the conventional agreement. It was an agreement of emotion, which was perhaps more profound than verbal agreement.
This was true even when the Song’s harmonies were strained. Though I have recounted the jams that were “successful” thus far, it is important for me to note that on many, many occasions, the jams were not as satisfying to the people involved in making them. There were times, many times over the years, when the jams were chaotic, unharmonious, and filled the musicians with a dissatisfied feeling during and afterwards. Yet, the power of the Song was that, even when it was not pretty, was yet an ideal. Just because the ideal was not able to be achieved in the same sense as the successful jams, it remained an ideal. Dialogue was such that there was a commitment to it, the participants willing to work it through. For, eventually, as people came back to try again, harmony would return.
Survival, the Fiends came to realize, was not the goal. Whether the band remained together, or faded into obscurity, was not finally the point. What was important was the validity of the dialogue that had gone on, in whatever forms it had gone on; Bliss came to have over 700 hours of jams on tape, and the vast majority of these were not the stellar jams that made it to the albums; yet, to analyze the relationships of the musical elements involved in even the most boring or chaotic jams, I could see the dialogue was always being aimed for, even if not always, or even often, attained. This was what some of the grumpier people of Roger’s Park or Gravity missed; they seemed to mistake the Fiends’ happiness in jamming with a musical pride, which seemed at times unwarranted. But, what the Sheep Fiends community was about was the experience of getting together, in most cases to make music, but whatever the activity, the togetherness was the key. And the Fiends were but one example of what to do with one’s time, as an alternative to the culture of technologically-assisted isolation that Bolt Upright’s song “Thomas Edison” talks about. Whether there was music or not was less important than whether there was the Song, which was beyond the music. For Songs are nothing without their Singers.
But in 1997, the Song’s dealings with the some of the members of the band showed a sinister face. The Song became too much for Sidney; he began to hear its strains everywhere, in everything. Coincidence became a cross, a painful burden to bear in every chance configuration of sound. The birds no longer sang point and counterpoint; rather, they questioned and answered each other, and questioned and answered Sid, never leaving him alone. He began in that year to hear voices, voices of challenge, voices of condemnation, echoing off the winds. There was no peace anymore.
One by one, Sid’s friends drifted out of his life. The last he saw of Abby, she was at a Gravity party, and they’d promised to talk again, but never did. Ian became distant about that time, getting involved in commitments to work, to politics, and to a marriage—all of which precluded any more rendezvous with Sid. And Bliss saw Sid once, after nearly a year of not seeing him, and found him paranoid and gruff. They spoke for but ten minutes, and in that time, it was obvious something very wrong was happening with Sid.
Sid kept a few friends, such as Angel; but with that exception, none of the friends he kept were Sheep Fiends. Thus, Sid dropped out of the group completely by 1997, playing one time with them, early in that year, then no more.
I saw the signs in Sid. He’d drifted into a doldrum sea, drifting straight past the edge of the world. The world is not round. It is flat, an expanse of drifting planes, which, if you stray too far to the outer edges, you can fade right out of this plane of existence. This is what happened to Sid. And nobody knew how or why . . .
The doldrums into which Sid had drifted was mirrored by the desert into which Sonnyboy Delancy had drifted. While he had come back more than one time since his jamming with the Sheep Fiends, and promised after Sid had written his book that he would act as his agent, Dean, too, fell off the face of the earth. Dayzi, the early “groupie” of the Sheep Fiends, went to visit him in the place where he was camped; and he had evidently declined very far. All he could talk about was his need to change his identity, and erase what he considered references to him in all the places where he was mentioned. He said Sid’s book (which mentioned him) was a bad book; and while he’d told Sid he’d help him with the agency, he planned to leave him stranded.
Dayzi tried to comfort, tried to heal. She didn’t want Dean to worry about all the things that were torturing him. But, he was obsessed. He killed a dog, and skinned it and cooked it and tried to get Dayzi to eat it with him. She was repulsed. But, all Dean could say was that she would never survive in the world as it was; the world was headed for apocalypse; he’d seen the first of it during the War, and the last of it there, too. He had killed a man . . .
The Professor spiraled into madness, too. Drugs, which had been his salvation in his mind, had become a kind of raison d’etre, began to take their toll on his consciousness. He lost much of what he had gathered together; thoughts; friends. He became obsessed with the project he’d been developing for years, a book about China. He sent e-mails of increasing urgency and declining coherence to everyone on the Gravity list, but he couldn’t foster the kind of dialogue he needed. Eventually, he drifted, till he was committed to a mental hospital. There he remains . . .
Bliss kept the faith. He kept up his role as perennial host of the Sheep Fiends parties. But people began to move away, many of the Gravity people traveling to Austin, Texas; Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Washington; and London, England. There, they continued to pursue Gravity’s raison d’etre, the expansion of mind through psychedelic experience. Many of the old Sheep Fiends drifted, too, and a whole year went by with no jams at all. The power of the Sheep Fiends remained; the few jams that did occur were for the most part beautiful explorations of musical communion. But, they happened less and less often, with greater and greater times in between of nothing at all.
Bliss moved away within a few years, to San Francisco, then to Dublin, Ireland. Ian visited him in Dublin (he was the only Sheep Fiend who did get a chance to visit him out there), and the two reconnected in a beautiful moment of dialogue. But, to a great extent, the Sheep Fiends experience lost something in those years, despite the best efforts of stalwarts members like Ruben and Dave and Dookie and Psycho Babble, who kept up the jams in Bliss’ absence.
But the Song would always be sung. I knew that nothing would kill the experience, despite the best efforts of the forces of apathy, time, and madness to silence it. Though Sid was gone, though the Professor was gone, and Bliss—despite this, the Sheep Fiends continued to add new members to its cast of over a hundred. The different places the Sheep Fiends had been scattered in Diaspora became decentralized centers for the experience. There were jams in San Fran, in Portland, in Austin, as well as in Sweet Home Chicago. And many in the group interacted with other experiences of dialogue and communication, such as the Burning Man experience.
I kept in contact with the group by accessing its website, www.sheepfiends.com. There, Bliss and others had catalogued the whole Sheep Fiends experience, beginning in 1992 with the first jam. Over ten hours of music was made available for listening and download, all free of charge. The Sheep Fiends had a life of its own, and it was only a matter of time before I got together with the rest to play and hear the Song again.
In early 2006, Bliss got back in contact with Sid. Both of them had been through a lot, and the conversation they had was rich and full of redemption. Sid could barely recall the conversation he’d had with Bliss during the depths of his insanity, in the middle of 1997, when he was so gruff and defensive. Bliss put it behind him, and told Sid not to worry, that there was nothing to feel bad about. They promised to reconnect when Bliss returned to Chicago, after his long absence. They would fiend again . . .
Before they reconnected, Bliss and Sidney had kept the Song alive, each in his own ways. Bliss had done much work on the website, and during a brief stay in Chicago in 2002. Sid for his part, recovering from his mental illness, had found some people to jam with, including two friends of his mother’s in Arizona. They were marvelous people, Grace and Dave Munns. They’d been married for sixty-five years. A perfect match, they supported one another, and fostered between them a dialogue that had, among others, a musical dimension. The two of them entertained their community, playing music at nursing homes, hospitals, churches, parties, and more. Now both eighty-five years old, the two had a candle that they lit for a minute a year, to toast their anniversary on Christmas Eve. They still had half the candle left, sixty-five years later, and would not imagine being apart as long as that candle remained.
In 2002, the two began to jam with Sid whenever he came out to visit his mother in Arizona. Over the years, they’d gotten tighter and tighter, more and more comfortable playing together. Sid played a song Bliss had recorded for him years before, of a duet between him and Sid, and Grace was entranced with it.
“Sounds Greek,” she smiled, “or, maybe, Turkish.”
She found it remarkable that the song could have been made entirely by improvisation. For herself and her husband, improvisation was something to be done only within certain parameters; they tended to play music that they either saw written out, or those they’d learnt to play by ear. Grace at the keyboards, Dave on harmonica and vocals, they performed a wide range of songs in their extensive repertoire. But the purely improvisational style of the Sheep Fiends was something a little foreign to them. Just as playing set pieces was a bit foreign to Sid.
But they triumphed over their initial difficulties in fostering a musical dialogue among the three of them, and began to play. When they first started, Grace would call out the chords for Sid to play on guitar, and Dave would have trouble blowing the harp to match their shifting styles. But, eventually, they came to improvise, sometimes totally abandoning the sheet music, making it all up as they went along.
Grace was the rhythmic backbone to the experience. Sid, used to functioning in this capacity, found he was able to develop his abilities in soloing, while Dave soloed above it all with his harmonica. The three got together in March 16, 2006, and jammed for two hours, then broke into conversation, then jammed some more. Dave and Grace were set to perform songs for the annual St. Patrick’s Day party at Sid’s Mom’s house; but, that next day, they also performed music of their own styling.
The three musicians played that day, despite the talking and bustle of the little crowd. At first, the crowd ignored them, more or less, and a few even ventured to heckle the music, which was assuredly not the Irish music they were supposed to play. But, Sid played then a song Bliss had taught him during the earliest Sheep Fiends jams, when he was still living with Bolt Upright in their little apartment in southern Uptown, a rousing rendition of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Sid’s Mom and her husband joined them as they sang the song, and the crowd, who were of a generation that recalled when that folksong was popular, all came to warm to the music then. It was a very special moment for Sid, to connect with his mother this way, sharing an artistic, musical experience with her. And Dave and Grace joined in, too.
The next Sheep Fiends jam was scheduled for Earth Day at Bolt Upright’s new place around Montrose and Mozart in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, eleven years to the day that the musicians gathered had jammed together last. It was an emotional reconnection for the group, in which many members of the group that had not jammed in a while came together with the core members that had carried on the experience through the intervening years. The experience was one that rounded the world that had been flat; those who had fallen off the world’s edge found themselves falling back into it, none the worse for wear.
The musicians that gathered that night included: Bolt Upright, Ruben Horowitz, Bliss, Sid, and the former guitarist for the Closet, Xavier. Xavier had been playing with the Sheep Fiends since 1998, and thus had a comfortable, easy relationship with the others. They joked and laughed together. Sid was new to him, as he was to him, and seeing this, Bolt and Ruben were struck with how long it had been since Sid was a regular member of the group. For Xavier was a veteran of eight years with the band, had established a tradition among traditions within the greater project of the Sheep Fiends.
But, Xavier and Sid got along famously. Everyone did. Bliss picked Sid up with his Mom and sister, the former of whom depended on a wheelchair to get around. Before the jam, Bliss’ Mom and sister, as well as Bolt’s new wife, ***********, hung out with the others in the backyard, sharing cigarettes and beer and coke. Sid had been a little apprehensive of going out into a new environment, with people he hadn’t seen in a while, or hadn’t really met before. But, the atmosphere was so affirming and congenial, Sid took off the sunglasses he wore defensively (and had been wearing in most public situations almost since the late ‘90s), and did not put them on again till well after the night was over.
They set up in the basement of Bolt and **********’s home, taking an easy time in placing microphones, connecting cables, testing out drums and guitars and bass and effects pedals. They had all night. There was no need to rush.
It was the first time the Sheep Fiends had jammed in nine months. The lives of these thirty-something men were busy. Bolt was now a union electrician; Ruben was working as a social worker, studying in grad school to that end; Xavier was working for Bell Labs; Bliss had just got back into town; and Sid was just finding his way back to the world. Yet, the exploration they engaged in that night was so easy and free, it was as if they had just gotten together the night before. It remained to be seen whether they would all get together again soon, but there was a feeling as the night progressed that this experience was worth doing, and worth doing again.
They played a soundcheck. Bliss and Sid played guitar, Ruben on drums, Xavier on bass, and Bolt Upright found his calling at the microphone. They played a few minutes, then stopped, and listened to the sound levels on the playback. They found one instrument was too loud for the mix, while another was not amplified enough. They tuned again.
Then, they did something that is part and parcel of the Sheep Fiends experience; they discussed, philosophically, as well as practically, how they were going to play that night. Ruben Horowitz suggested that everyone turn to the right, to make a clockwise motion-rotation on the instruments. But (also very Sheep Fiends) Bolt had already gone to the drums from the mike, thus making the circle counterclockwise, going to the left. What had naturally occurred was what was also theory. In other words, the musicians, whether they felt comfortable or not with the specific instruments, would each “switch off” to keep variety in the jam.
Over the course of the night, each person played each instrument at least once. Each person was good at the drums, all but Sid who had never played a real drum kit. But even he had fun with it, mainly using the snare for one part of the jam, and the cymbals for another. Nobody complained. Sid felt welcomed. But, there was a little apprehension as it came time to take the mike. Sid had never felt very comfortable talking just off the top of his head. But, he wouldn’t have to. Bliss suggested he sing a song that he’d written, his elegy to Huey Newton called “More Than Suicide.” It was a simple song, with just four chords and Sid’s voice, but in the process of doing it, all the musicians participated, creating by the end a wonderfully professional-sounding number that they all enjoyed doing, and later in listening to.
They ate hamburgers from Bolt’s grill, and then they went back to playing for a number of hours. It was quite after midnight that they finished, and they all said that they would get together sometime soon. Other Sheep Fiends were trying to get there, including Psycho Babble, Dave of Gravity, and Ian. But the turn out was good, and it promised many more.
There were plans, too, as the Sheep Fiends went on into their fourteenth year of playing together. Maybe they’d play at a public venue again. Maybe they’d get a place out in the park, like Grant Park, and encourage the viewers from their variety of backgrounds to join in. Ruben planned a project to record each of the Sheep Fiends as solo artists. More people were becoming interested in playing, and the list of Sheep Fiends now included over 130 people, from all backgrounds, races, classes, religions, and orientations, on three continents. What had started as three friends in a little two-room apartment in 1992 had become something international, and alive.
I knew then, as I’d known for many years, since I first heard the Song on the last Saturday night in Chicago in 1995, that the Song was something that would give its Singers something to sustain them.
Who am I? You could call me Ishmael; indeed, I’m tempted to pass myself off as that whale of a character, and be done with it. But that wouldn’t explain it, would it? I am a singer of the Song, and I hope by this singing, these few pages of song, the character of the Music itself would come through, more than the character of any of the particular people who make it. For, all of us, all of us who participate—and that means all of us, children, if we be human—all of us lose our identities within the participation. When one sings the Song, all ego is lost, for where is the individual melody to be found, except in how it helps to create the greater harmony?
It is an exercise in Buddhism, as well as True Communism, this Sheep Fiends experience. It is anarchy. It is tribalism. It is dialogue, it is self-discovery. It is heart, head, sex, and spirit. It is history, and it is tomorrow.
It is Art. But, with this difference: art, artist, and audience are not separate things. Not here. Not now. No, it is One Entity, this art of the Sheep Fiends. And, this Entity is one that has in its aegis the healing of the whole human race. For, this Entity is nothing less than the Song.
What is it, this Song? For many centuries, our human race has held that there is a difference between noise and song, between artistic creation and God’s creation. But this is a false dichotomy. The Song is not so much in the maker as it is in the listener. For even as one makes it, one is listening to it. And to the audience as artist, the whole of the universe is alive with music.
What Sheep Fiends do, more than other artists, is to let the Song happen—to them, and to the world. Music does not for them exist as a subset of the musicians; it exists in itself. To a great extent, the musicians become a subset of the Music. Though this, too, is an illusory dichotomy. The division between Song and Singer, as between those entities and the entity that appreciates them, is an arbitrary one. And, the Sheep Fiends exist to destroy that division, to blend and to merge it all, till the audience becomes the artist, and the artist becomes the art.
If I have given nothing else to the world by these pages, these notes, let this be said: the Sheep Fiends have existed for as long as there have been True Singers of the Song, and they will exist as long as the Song shall be sung. The various movements and ideas and developments that have led to the improvisational musical form explored by 130 people over the past fourteen years have not created the Sheep Fiends; they have only allowed them to realize themselves. The human race has been human for a million years; only lately have we begun to get over our prejudicial divisions, and see ourselves finally as one family. So it is with this most eclectic and inclusive of bands. The only thing missing, as it goes on into a new millennium, is for the audience to enter into the dialogue, and cease to be an audience. I am that observer, and I must cease merely to observe.
Who am I? Who am I, but you?