Back during the year when I lived in Austin, TX, I would often make road trips back to my alma mater in Arkadelphia, AR, to see my friends back at school. One group of guys, known as “The Bird House Boys” because of their ringleader, Jason Bird, had taken me in on previous occasions and made me welcome in their home. A couple of the boys, Jason himself and his roommate Neil, had some great musical talent. Jason played drums and Neil played electric guitar. We had jammed a little with each other back before I graduated, but we never really made any definitive music, as we had a hard time finding practice space and fitting it into our schedules.
The boys now lived in a house of their own at the end of a cul-de-sac street, and they could make music any time they wanted. Neil had a minidisc 4-track, and they had laid down some pretty decent songs. So when I came back to Arkadelphia for a week-end stay during the week before their spring break, Neil sat down with me to show off their new musical work.
I really like the style. Neil produced songs with a very eclectic flavor. You could definitely detect the strong U2 influences, but some more subtle hints of Dave Matthews and Sixpence None the Richer also pervaded. Unfortunately, neither Neil nor Jason could sing. They had gone into the studio and put some of this music down for real, but they wanted me to lay down vocal tracks for them. I felt really hesitant. In all honesty, I didn’t want to work that hard on my vacation. I enjoyed Neil’s friendship, and I appreciated his talent, but I just didn’t want to get involved.
Eventually, I gave into Neil’s persistent requests. We spent the night before my studio recording debut reworking the lyrics and then went into the studio (the bedroom at some guy’s house — a really nice guy, by the way) the next day. I had a cold at the time, so I loaded up on decongestants and drank lots of lemon honey tea to keep my throat working. It definitely didn’t sound like my best work, and I had to do some strange things with my voice in order to make sound come out sometimes, but we ended up with a few decent songs.
Cut to later that year. I sit behind my VW van in the late summer sun at the mini-commune where I lived with the camp cook family in Marble Falls, TX. I have just put the re-worked heads back on my van’s engine and slid the jack under the chassis to get ready to put the engine back in the van.
“Rix, you have a phone call,” shouts one of the girls in the family.
Who the hell knows I live here? I wonder, wiping the greasy dust from my hands onto my jeans and heading up to the house.
Neil shouts my name on the other end when I say “Hello.” He tells me that they had given the demo tape that we cut to a friend who knew a friend of Eddie DeGarmo’s and he listened to our stuff and liked it. Or something like that. Who knows the real story? But the gist boiled down to the fact that a really big name in Christian music had heard our stuff. I could almost hear Neil shitting his pants on the other end.
“Dude, that’s so cool,” I congratulate him.
“So, how soon can you get back to Arkadelphia so we can cut a real album and start shopping it around to the labels?” he asks.
See, when Neil got an idea into his head, he didn’t let anything hold him back from going for it. I had barely seen the tip of this iceberg with the way he had coerced me into making the recording the past spring. And even with this phone call, I still hadn’t really seen anything yet.
“You have to give me a minute to think about this, Neil,” I tell him.
“Okay. You think, and I’ll come down there tomorrow so you can listen to the demo.”
I had never heard the demo. I had lain down my voice tracks on a handful of songs, but I had never heard the mixed product. And until that point, I really didn’t care. I looked at it as a thing to help Neil out. He obviously saw it differently. This demo amounted to his whole future.
“Dude, it’s like a 7 hour drive,” I say, feeling a bit bewildered about the fact that he would want to drive that far to let me hear a demo tape. “Why don’t you mail it to me, and then I’ll call you once I listen to it.”
“This can’t wait. We need to get moving on this. I’ll leave here at lunch and see you tomorrow evening.”
“Dude, you’re crazy.” I didn’t know how true that statement would prove. “But, whatever. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
And I did. Neil’s little pick up came down the dusty driveway the next day. We drove around the Texas Hill Country listening to my voice croon over Neil’s guitar work. I liked it. It differed greatly from my own style of songwriting, but I liked it all the same. It felt exciting to hear my voice blasting over that little Dodge’s sound system. The music had hooked me.
I sometimes wonder how differently my life would have turned out if I hadn’t shoved my engine back in my van and returned to Arkadelphia that summer. I had moved to Austin with the idea in mind of getting Texas residency and going to UT to study linguistics. I planned to get my PhD and become a professor. I envisioned myself returning to Ouachtia as a professor after a few years of world travel, perhaps having translated the Bible into Kazakh and Tadzhik. But when I pointed the snubby little nose of my Volkswagen back toward dear old Arkadoo, I knew that all that had changed.
“I can always go back to school,” I told myself. “Some people wait until their 30s to get their masters degree. But the chance to make rock and roll doesn’t come along every day.”
So we rocked. We lived in a little dive of a rental above some frat boys on 8th Street in Arkadelphia. We had the drums, lead guitar, acoustic and vocals covered, but we needed a bass player and (according to Neil) another electric guitarist.
We ended up pissing off some friends before we finally settled on a bassist and 3rd guitarist. We found a church where one of the professors served as the pastor, and they let us practice there on the week nights. We wrote some new songs and started getting in gear for the big time that supposedly loomed around the next corner.
Unfortunately, though, we didn’t have any money. Jason and Neil had quit their jobs as exterminators. John, the other guitarist, still had classes. Doug had just moved into town to freeload off John. I offered to go back to working at the Ouachita cafeteria so we could pay rent and save up for studio time, but Neil and Jason both thought we needed to focus on writing full time.
After a few months of struggling to make ends meet and scrounge for new equipment, Neil hit up his parents for a loan, and we got enough cash to get started. It felt really crazy to borrow ten grand from strangers to do something really stupid like try to fulfill a rock and roll fantasy. But all the sudden, I could pay my student loan and credit card bill. I got a new pair of glasses to replace the pair that had broken which I had repaired with JB Weld. I bought another trademark, green fedora to replace the one I had lost in Austin. And I got a new guitar. With the trade in of my old Bently (which I had just gotten back out of hock in Austin) I got a beautiful, piezo pickup, cedar top Seagull acoustic for $777.77. Surely that amounted to a sign from God, right?
We also found a new rat hole to live in.
We practiced really well. The music felt pretty tight. We had that part down. Now we just needed some gigs. I landed us a show for some student function at school. I thought that the fame of my former glory days at OBU would draw a huge crowd. After all, my blowout “Last Hurrah” concert that I had performed (with Neil’s assistance) in the last week of my last semester of school had drawn a huge crowd. But this new gig really let me down. Probably, people thought (and rightly so) why the hell did that guy come back? He should get a real life.
Neil had some ideas of his own. He thought that if we talked to some real musicians, we could figure this thing out. Just in the last year, a brother duo team from OBU had landed a big cross-over deal with some non-Christian label and even had one of their songs playing on the trailer from some movie. Naturally, Neil felt drawn to these boys, and immediately he had dragged me into his little Dodge pick-up to go to Dallas and see these guys.
Personally, I didn’t like the idea. I can’t remember why. Maybe it felt like intruding to call these guys up and ask to meet with them a day later. I remembered how fervently Neil had come down to Marble Falls, and I started to get a grasp on how relentlessly he would pursue his ideas. Fortunately, the brother team had no problems meeting with us. We sat down for lunch with them at a Jack in the Box in Dallas and got the spiel about how they had hit the big time — which boiled down to luck. Granted, these guys had talent. But in the end, they met somebody who knew somebody, and that had made all the difference.
“Whatever happened to Eddie DeGarmo listening to our stuff?” I asked Neil on the 4.5 hour drive back to Arkadelphia.
It turned out that the famous Eddie DeGarmo had never actually heard our stuff. Somebody who knew somebody who knew him had tried to get the second somebody to give him a copy of our demo, but it never panned out.
I felt more than a little deflated. I felt like a sucker — like I had bought into a sham. I felt like the whole music industry — even the Christian music industry wreaked of shady undertones. Neil, on the other hand, felt elated to have talked to some famous people.
And it happened again. On that spring break after I had recorded the vocals for Neil, I went on a trip with some of my friends to Kansas City to hear the band Waterdeep play. I really liked their unusual style, and the husband/wife team that fronted the band had a really friendly style about them. Eventually, Neil remembered that I had met them, and the wheels started churning in his brain.
I don’t think we even so much as called the Waterdeep folks to tell them that we wanted to meet with them. We just drove 8 hours to Kansas City on the off chance that we could catch these people at home and invade on their privacy enough to find the mysterious key to Christian music stardom. At this point, I realized for certain that Neil didn’t play with a full deck.
We got to KC, looked up the address of the husband and wife in a phonebook and drove around until we found their house. Weirdly enough, we caught them arriving home after a tour. I tried to convince Neil that we shouldn’t bother them. I tried to get him to think about how tired they must feel after having lived on the road for who knows how long. But Neil just looked at me like I had lost my marbles and said that he didn’t drive all this way to turn around without talking to them.
I’ll never forget the look on the wife’s face as she glared at us for cornering her husband. Funny thing about Christians, though, they often feel like they need to fight comfort and convenience in order to help out a fellow brother, and Neil definitely felt like taking advantage of that aspect. The husband hurriedly gave us some tips about working hard and selling our CD to Christian music stores and taking it to radio stations before he had to get back to unloading the trailer.
I felt like an ass the whole way home. I resolved that I wouldn’t let Neil push me around like that anymore.
We got home and took our demo CD to the local radio station. I heard one of our songs play once before the school year let out. Of course, they chose the worst song.
Then things started to fall apart in earnest. Neil and Jason tended to overpower me and Doug when it came to making decisions (John had basically come along for the ride). I felt stifled by the way they wanted to do things. They felt ironically let down by the fact that I didn’t take a bigger leadership role. Eventually, I started spending a lot more time with my girlfriend and a lot less time with the band.
See, back before I had moved down to Austin, I had met this pretty redheaded freshman. She became friends with all my old friends, and we had started writing letters and emails back and forth to each other while I still lived in Austin. I met her a few times whenever I came back to Arkadelphia, but we never took things past the friendship level. Eventually, she started dating one of my friends. They got serious. Then they broke things off. Fortunately, I happened to move back into town to help her pick up the pieces — as any good friend would — and we fell in love.
So when the mood back at the Bird House got too gloomy and oppressive, the girlfriend and I moved into my van. I eventually defied band law and took my old job at the Ouachita cafeteria. And I just kept getting further and further away from the band.
By the time summer rolled around, the last vestiges of our rock and roll dreams came crumbling down. Neil and Jason decided to try and hit up another band — some other former Ouachita students, and I took my leave of them. I think out of the whole group, only Doug felt sad at the band’s passing. We probably made it worse by never actually telling him when we broke things off.
I moved back home that summer to live with my parents and help my dad with his heating and air conditioning business. I planned on heading back to Texas in the fall to try once again to get my residency and start grad school. Meanwhile, the girlfriend and I had gotten really serious. We actually decided to get married on the very last night that we spent at the Bird House. That September we moved to Fort Worth, TX, to start a new life together. And I never looked back on my lost rock and roll legacy.