Not long ago I emceed a fundraising event that required me to stand on the stage where I once played hundreds of shows with my old band. Actually, the stage was no longer there, and the rest of the room had changed so much since the last time I was in it that it was hard to be sure where everything used to be. The new bar was facing the wrong way, for one thing. And where were the bathrooms? The mop-nook where I used to stash my coat? Only the dogleg staircase seemed familiar, minus the filthy red carpet that signaled the beginning and end of many an evening. I speak, of course, of the old Jay's Upstairs, the onetime Missoula rock clubhouse for my band, Humpy, plus Spanker, Sasshole, Oblio Joes, the Helltones, the Sputniks...all those long-gone bands we old timers talk about when we talk about the "Jay's bands."
Standing on that hallowed ground again, I thought I would feel more than I did. I was sure I would sense those ley lines pulsing beneath my feet, subterranean veins of psychic residue where all my joys and heartbreaks from the Jay's days must surely be stored. I shuffled around, thinking my limbs would start twitching like a dowser's rod when I was directly over my place on the old stage, now a ghost stage, which in my mind's eye still had the infamous wooden corral around it. For 10 years I gleefully inhaled the pestilent troposphere of Jay's Upstairs, and, like I say, in this new room I felt nothing. By coincidence, I did manage to spill a beer and knock over a mic stand less than five minutes into my emcee duties, but that was the extent to which it felt like old times.
It's weird growing older and hopefully a little more respectable in the same town where you used to pride yourself on being a sort of civic irritant. Lyrically, Humpy targets included loudmouth rock promoters, hippie parents, and rich kids from New England who we imagined went skiing every day while we washed their breakfast dishes for $3.85 an hour. From my perspective, though, these were always imagined antagonists. Living in Missoula, we sometimes had to go looking for things to get angry about.
- Humpy circa 1996 included, from left, drummer Yale Kaul, bassist Justin Lawrence, singer Andy Smetanka and guitarist Dave Parsons.
And listening to our old songs again, as I've been doing a lot lately, I'm struck by how cryptically it all came out in the lyrical wash. The song "Rub It In" is supposed to be about deciding whether or not to have sex with a scary girl at a party, but in no way is this dilemma clear from the words I wrote. I always liked Dave's lyrics better than my own: vaguely angry, but droll and deadpan even at shouted volume: "salt, grease, and high blood pressure/wipe your hands, you can use my sweater." Poor Justin, he seemed to have the hardest time finding something good to get worked up about: of the two songs he wrote for Humpy, one is about the sale of the Cleveland Browns and the other is effectively an instrumental with a shouted one-word chorus of "felderkarp," the made-up swear word from the original "Battlestar Galactica" series.
According to one version of our band creation myth, Humpy formed around a core faction determined to smoke pot and play very fast, just on principle, because that was exactly the opposite of what most bands did. Not strictly true, although at this remove it can be said that we were none of us strangers exactly to a jazz cigarette. Anyway, bands always have their own creation myths, refined and embroidered over time and retelling, which are rarely interesting to anyone outside the band.
The Humpy one has its twice-told tales: how at first, without a drummer, we tried to keep time by tapping on a roasting pan with a ladle taped to someone's foot. How I managed to put the van in reverse going forward at 70 miles an hour. The infamous Shoving Match by the Trout Pond. And of course we had our own hoodlum rites and ritual: We loved to pour beer down each other's pants before, during, or after a show, and to be a full-fledged member of Humpy you had to drink a Sheaf Stout through an ancient cow skull, crunchy flakes of desiccated nasal membrane and all. It wasn't even a formal initiation. At some point we all just ended up doing it.
But outside of the particulars, the Humpy story was the old story of future bandmates working and daydreaming in the same sweltering Missoula restaurant kitchens, meeting at parties or noticing each other at shows and just deciding to try it. Then as now, I suppose, it was hard to work in a Missoula kitchen and not end up joining a band.
Those days seem impossibly idyllic to me now. I simply cannot remember what it was like to have a day when I didn't have anything to do but go to band practice, probably after spending three hours over at Justin's house drinking beer and trying to remember how to play the Raiders of the Lost Ark Atari game without the manual. It helps this long forgetting of my former life that all our old landmarks have been demolished: first Jay's Upstairs, renovated to create a business lounge complete with member cubbies, then the old Humpy House near the corner of First and Orange, razed to make room for some kind of editorial gazebo for the Independent staff. Humpy would surely have written a song about that.
This last cut was the deepest. Unlike Jay's, which everyone knew was closing, I just happened to be walking past the Humpy House the day after the demolition and saw the shattered pile that used to be our mossy, dirt-cheap crash pad and practice space. None of us had been there in years. Still, I was shocked that somehow no one had thought to ask me first, invite me to walk through and sniff the ancient cat-piss and nicotine smell one more time.
Humpy plays a reunion show with Spanker, Sasshole, and guests Wildildlife at the Palace Saturday, May 21, at 9 PM. $5.