Through a series of maybe not-so-unfortunate events, I was a teenage jam band scenester, which, when properly italicized and luridly capitalized, sounds like a sordid music-crit version of a ’50s exploitation paperback. But the truth is, I wasn’t seduced by drugs, sex, or anything else until college.
There was a thriving local ska circuit on Long Island, where I grew up, and I went to a clutch of gigs at church rec centers and the occasional all-ages night hosted by the local metal club, The Roxy. But ska didn’t offer what I wanted. Richard Brooks, the leader of local heroes the Scofflaws, was a bus driver at our high school, and I appreciated his obvious punkness. But getting out of my hometown was a priority. Despite being a b-side collecting fan of Nirvana and, through them, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, and a few others, underground music in 1993 paradoxically seemed like something that you saw on television, not participated in yourself.
The jam band world was the first music community I had access to. As a suburban computer kid, I got online as quickly as I could, and found that Deadheads had the pre-WWW 1993-era internet well-colonized. I eventually made my way to Larry Bloch’s Wetlands Preserve, the magically handmade club in pre-gentrified TriBeCa where somehow my pitiful fake high school ID that said I was 18 got me in the door. Not that I was trying to drink; I was there for the music, maaaaaaaaan. The idea of improvisation—something “new” every time—was throughly mindblowing to me, and the Grateful Dead seemed far more approachable (and fun) than, say, Miles Davis. But, inside Wetlands, I found a pretty complete world. There was a VW bus parked by the door, housing an environmental activism center (like, actual hang-off-buildings/throw-blood-on-fur-wearers activists); a wrap-around mural of a pastoral festival scene; hippie-built nooks; black lights; and a benevolently foreboding basement lounge. There was also a radically open-minded booking policy that included hardcore matinees, Allen Ginsberg readings, grrl-folk (including Ani DiFranco’s first NYC appearance), and lots other surprises. Of course, I knew none of that then.
But it was there somewhere, sometime, that I first heard about the Ominous Seapods. Their version of the jam band model seemed to embrace thrift-store kitsch, which was one part of Long Island culture that I definitely appreciated. So I did what I did whenever I heard about a new jam band with a stupid name and an interesting reputation: I found somebody with some live shows on the band’s tape-trading list, dubbed some cassettes in exchange (probably Phish), and got a crispy soundboard a few weeks later. Nuts to piracy; jam bands had their fan-driven DIY distribution system long before most people had any bandwidth at all, let alone enough to download a single MP3. There were fanzines and newsletters in addition to the offline tapers’ networks. Plus, my grandma lived in the city, and I could take the train in, stay with her, and head home the next day. It was fun.
I didn’t hate the Ominous Seapods at first. The music just struck me as bland, especially in the face of the all the hippie/rock/bluegrass/prog/funk/ska/avant-jazz fusioneers that had drawn me to Wetlands in the first place, and I put the tape away. I had a hair-trigger for new-and-exciting-sounding music, and was prone to bum-outs when a band didn’t live up its billing. Gradually, as the Seapods ended up on more and more bills with other bands I did want to see, I pulled out the tape again. And that’s when I truly started to despise them, most especially their signature stoner anthem “(Wednesday Afternoon) Bong Hits and Porn” and other moments of (what sounded to me like) lite-funk-pop. People kept putting Seapods filler on tapes of other bands that I received and hyping them up on mailing lists I was on. Pfffffft, I thought. Why would anyone like that crap? I badmouthed them anytime I could to the point where it became almost a mind-puzzle to figure what it was, really, that I didn’t like. As I did, I first truly understood what the word “generic” meant. Indeed, before ecstasy and electronic music hit the scene, the Seapods virtually defined the middle-brow grooves that served as a base rhythmic vocabulary beneath the happy genre-fusers. (I’ve also come to realize that pretty much all good music involves some kind of genre/idea-fusing, but that realization, too, came much later.)
My tastes imperceptibly started to inch toward music that was at least more cognizant of the difference between creativity and novelty. I vividly remember going to see a hot new, ahem, klezmer-bluegrass-zydeco band, taping the show, having fun, and discovering upon listening again that maybe klezmer-bluegrass-zydeco (or at least that iteration) wasn’t something I needed to pursue. Another such lesson came from when the genuinely bizarre Col. Bruce Hampton split from his band of nimble nerds, the Aquarium Rescue Unit. The out-of-print ’70s albums I’d collected by his former acts—the Hampton Grease Band, the Late Bronze Age, and others—were evocatively and articulately weird, a Southern lounge version of Captain Beefheart. But the Aquarium Rescue Unit descended into a murk of blues-jazz-progginess. Over the next decade, I eventually had that moment with nearly every jam band.
One that I did make peace with, though, was the Ominous Seapods, who were the harbinger of a still more important lesson: the difference between creativity and expression. There was something bland about the Seapods, but gradually I noticed that Max Verna—one of the band’s two main songwriters—had a beautiful voice, soulful in a way different from the Blues Hammer howl of Widespread Panic (who might’ve been the second jam band I hated, now that I think of it) and genuinely fragile. He was a sweet guitarist, too, with a tone that matched his voice. At least that’s how I remember it. It’s been maybe a decade since I’ve actually put the Seapods on, maybe more. But other things that I remember are the chords and, I think, all the lyrics to “Leaving the Monopole,” the second song on the initial Seapods bootleg I’d acquired, which later turned into my favorite. I even came to dig “Bong Hits and Porn”—by rhythm guitarist Dana Monteith—and if I ever get to compile a Heady Nuggets box set of jam band classics, its place is well secured.
“Monopole,” as I remember it, begins with a slashing two-chord riff and an Allmans-y twin guitar part and takes a full minute to get to the song part, which was pretty obviously a tribute to college town life and drinking. Something about a tequila binge, but none of that appealed to me, really, when I finally figured out that I liked the song. It was just the emotional quality of Verna’s voice. The chorus—”been down so long, it looks like up to me”—isn’t faux-profundity, despite the lite-funk, it’s an old blues lyric, and likely a reference to Richard Farina’s 1966 novel. Far from being some kind of cosmic goofiness, it was a lyric that I—as a teenager also mapping my particular shade of mope—could adopt in some way, and really felt. It was useful to me.
The live version that’s on YouTube turns out to sound about how I remember it, and Verna’s voice still strikes me as incredibly soulful, even while pouring forth from the conceptually lo-fi medium of a jam band. Ditto his guitar playing. There was a studio version of the tune, too, as I recall, but not on any Seapods album I owned, not on YouTube, and inferior to every live one I ever heard. But I hesitate to include a link to even this good live version; it’s still kind of “funky,” and will surely sound icky and nose-scrunchingly fishy (or Phishy) to the unwookified ear. I also hesitate because instant linkage has stripped some of the power out of music writing; it’s taken away the ability to let a song become imaginary again for a minute, or even years. Mostly, unlike most other music I write about, I don’t really care if you like it or not, but my feelings about it are also so anti-critical that I’d rather keep it for myself unless you’re really curious. You’ve gone this long without hearing the Ominous Seapods, probably; do you really need to hear them now? (If you feel like you do, you can listen to Jeffrey Lewis’s “I Saw A Hippie Girl on 8th Avenue,” which almost directly conveys what I’m getting at here.)
My disenchantment with the jam band scene wasn’t about somehow seeing the light of other, “better” music; I’d done so years earlier, in part via my dad’s Velvet Underground and Albert Ayler LPs, in part via the dense Dead jams I started to acquire that easily pointed the way to Sonic Youth’s Washing Machine (which I purchased and DEVOURED from the head shop where I worked for a few summers in high school). In part it was by discovering the Richard Manuel-sung outtake of “I Shall Be Released” on the Bootleg Series. Also Bleach. By the end of high school, the jam band scene nudged me demonstrably towards Sun Ra, towards Brian Eno, Cecil Taylor, Captain Beefheart, everybody listed in the liner notes to Frank Zappa’s Freak Out, and a lot of stuff ostensibly way cooler than the Ominous Seapods. I continued to pursue some part of the light until I moved to New York and realized that I could just go to Tonic and get all the jamming without the corniness. Also, Wetlands closed.
I don’t think my days as a teenage jam band scenester damaged me too much—or, at least, I don’t regret them. They prepared me to be a fan of (and listener to) music. Now, as then, people don’t give enough credence to the jam band world, as an incubator to probably literally tens of thousands serious music fans and musicians, as well as a community that extends far beyond the boundaries of the online world and punchlines to millions of jokes. And the Ominous Seapods? Well, I doubt any tracks from their (as-I-remember-it) bodacious 1998 album Jet Smooth Ride will make it onto any of my mixes anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be listening to it loudly soon and wondering where my long hair went.