The Main Event
No one on earth makes electric bass look more fun to play than Rose Thomson. With two bare hands, she slaps the strings with vicious cartoon violence, splaying her legs comically far apart and cracking a grin wider than an eight-lane freeway. It's like she ate that seven-CD Sly and the Family Stone box set for breakfasther instrument gushes a constant torrent of melodic burps, farts, roars, screeches, and growls, an endless and endlessly joyous fount of onomatopoeic funk. Whatever the exact opposite of "classically trained" is, Rose is definitively, triumphantly it.
As an added bonus, tonight she is also seven and a half months pregnant.
It is a mid-May Friday night, and Rose's old band, the NYC alt-rock/art-funk trio Babe the Blue Ox, have reformed at Magnetic Field in Brooklyn Heights for a six-song set, their first in three years or so. It is an occasion already fraught with joy and anticipation, for band and crowd alike. This pregnancy business is an unexpected (well, for us, the band probably knew about it) and unexpectedly wonderful bonus. Watching a seven-and-a-half-months-pregnant woman play electric bass is a poignant, almost transcendental experience.
"It was poignant to me too," Rose cheerfully explains over the phone a few days later. "It was also partly comical. It's hard for me to get in The Stance now. I'm out of breath even doing that. I don't know if you know, but your organs all kinda get smushed together when you're pregnant, so it's hard to breathe. Your lungs actually don't have much room."
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A protruding stomach plays hell with your ability to reach the higher frets, too. ("I hadn't really come up with a solution for that," Rose admits.) She managed. Her bandmatessinger-guitarist Tim Thomas, drummer Hanna Fox, and Hanna's husband Eddie Gormley on supplementary cowbell and other percussionfell in seamlessly beside her. And one of Brooklyn's finest and most unfairly unsung rock bands sprung instantly back to life.
This word, "unsung." It is problematic. "Lost classic." "Best band you've never heard." "Why Aren't These Guys Famous?!" That kinda shit. It's a most dangerous game, and not a terribly fair one to the band itself. For a decade or so beginning in 1991 and peaking in '98 with their relentlessly glorious lost classic (ah, shit) The Way We Were, Babe developed and perfected a vibrant, volatile blend of catchy melodies and spastic, rambunctious noise, like Captain Beefheart making children's records, Tom Waits auditioning for Kool and the Gang, the Minutemen meeting girls. They specialized in booming noise-pop rants awe-inspiring in both girth and mirth1996's "Fuck This Song," a delirious, profane anthem delivered in a crisp 1:41, sums their range up excellently, the whispers to the unhinged screams, the cacophonic riffs to the subtle pop sensibilities. Concluding lyrics: Fuucccck! This songggg! Fuccck! This songggg!
That tune summed up People, Babe's gritty but glistening major-label debut on RCA, after several even grittier records for Homestead. But People's follow-up, The Way We Were, is the one that still kills me. How did "Basketball," a propulsive epic that screams SUMMERTIME in 100-foot neon letters, not burst forth from every car radio in North America? It just ain't fair. Instead, RCA dropped the band shortly thereafter, and Babe eventually disbanded. Which brings us up to date, to the evening a few days after the Magnetic Field reunion, when Tim reclines on a park bench on the Brooklyn promenade and listens to me rant about his lack of deserved megastardom.
It occurs to me mid-rant that as a compliment such indignance is a bit . . . complicated. I get to feeling like a doofus. Neither Tim nor Rose nor Hanna regard their relatively low profile as a grave cosmic injustice. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted, etc. This is the rational, adult response. "I probably would've been really angry in 2001," Tim allows. "I would've been really excited in 1996. I would've been baffled in 1991. You know? But now I can look back on the whole thing, and I do have a lot of really fond memories. And I do hope Friday night was the beginning of charging our batteries toward doing something in the future."
It is funny to hear Tim reminisce about the RCA experimentthe emphasis placed on opening for bigger, allegedly like-minded bands (Cake, Cibo Matto, and Tim's favorite, Cheap Trick), the band's habit of naming their own records after Barbra Streisand albums, and their eventual quest to write Songs We Can Get on the Radio. "Basketball" was a triumph in this regard (it did get a few nibbles, particularly in Rose's homeland of Minnesota, to both her delight and the delight of her 14-year-old niece, who suddenly had a "famous" aunt). But the fact that Babe once offered up "T.G.I.F.U.," a vitriolic rant against the tyranny of chain restaurants, as a potential radio hit is a good indication of what the problem was here. Tim notes The Way We Were's last song is called "Plan B" for good reason.
Really, Tim was angry in 2001 not because he didn't take over the airwaves, but because he'd been momentarily convinced that he might, or that such a thing was even desirable. The band's subsequent dissolution hit him the hardest. "I think we felt like we had all the time in the world, and that we would be playing together until we died," he admits. "That we would figure out a way to keep our music evolving, and work it into our lifestyle so we'd never have to stop."
The Magnetic Field gig suggests such a thing is still possible, even now. Tim is 40, and works full-time for the avant-noise collective Bang on a Can. Hanna's a lawyer; Rose is a "kick-ass" accountant, as her bandmates happily confirm.
And in fact, the Magnetic Field gig started as a showcase for all three members' current bands. Rose played bright, brittle pop with the Walking Hellos, which coincidentally featured another extremely pregnant woman, this one favoring the banjo. Hanna and Eddie performed together as Vatican III, an odd, drum-heavy consortium, like two marching-band cadets starting a breakaway republic. Tim's power-pop quartet Noblesse Oblige was simple, catchy, immensely appealing, Tim himself a bit cleaner-cut compared with his Babe persona, singing classic three-minute rock songs in a white button-down shirt.
But retaking the stage as Babe the Blue Ox, everyone instantly reverted to their swaggering, stomping selves, rumbling through old indie barbs like "Health" and "Ego Pimps," bashing through the uncharacteristically dark "Tattoos," and wrapping up with a gassed-up cover of the Pretenders' "The Wait," Rose channeling Chrissie Hynde's strut like so few can. Tim befouled his button-down shirt with quite a bit of sweat. All was right with the world.
"It was one of the greatest moments of my life, to be quite honest with you," Tim says. "It felt sweet," Hanna muses a few days later over the phone. "It felt a little bit like having sex with an ex, minus the heartbreak. It felt real sweet in terms of nostalgia."
Nostalgia can be deadly, of course, but that doesn't seem to be a danger here. "I think we will play together again," Rose says. "I don't know what that means exactly. I remember worrying, 'Is this gonna feel like nostalgia, or is this gonna feel like something that exists now?' And it kinda felt like both."
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