It is around 10 p.m. on a Friday night at an Inland Empire warehouse party in 1995, and there is music in the air. Not the music people came to hear this evening—mostly nondescript punk rock played by local high school kids—but a special feature in between sets. This “band” is just two guys, one on drums and the other on bass, weaving their way through a jumpy, paranoid, vomit-inducing number that leaps from metal to jazz to something reminiscent of a Sesame Street song. What is being heard is at once inexplicably annoying, impressive, and bizarre. It is my brother, Danny, and me in—in our words—“the critically acclaimed power duo from Rancho Cucamonga,” Birdhead.
The sea of onlookers that had stood near the stage not five minutes before has mostly dissipated, gone with their red plastic cups to the other end of the cacophonous structure to flee our odd brand of noise and refill on crappy keg beer. The song—the first we ever wrote—is meant to musically simulate an acid trip, which is a funny thing to attempt considering neither of us has ever taken LSD before.
But it seems to be working.
Rancho Cucamonga in the mid-1990s was, in general, a boring place to grow up. The Inland Empire of my youth was a different place altogether than the Möbius strip mall it is today—there was still an “outskirts” feel to parts of the area, a few fading trademark vineyards, days unchoked by smog. Vast expanses of field had yet to be built upon, and unlikely businesses such as Casaletti’s Polka Palace remained open thanks to the longstanding patronage of kind locals. Today it looks as though a cloud of giant, tract-home-shitting locusts passed over the city, covering the base of the San Gabriel Mountains with turds of banality. Our small stretch of Route 66 has been swallowed by three different mega-malls pocked with parking meters beneath a maze of freeways.
But 15 years and three shopping meccas ago, there was a lot more time to kill. As many of our peers turned to less productive outlets like vandalism and jimson weed, we spent afternoons overheating in the garage, torturing my mother with musical instruments: Danny on drums, I on bass. We each had our own punk bands, but we both yearned to transcend the inherent simplicity of the music that Pegboy snarkily called “three-chord monte.” We played around with all sorts of styles, never really landing on one.
One day this relatively straight-shooting friend of ours told us he took acid with another kid. Perplexed, horrified, and slightly amused, we decided to write a song about it: “Drop Tabs With Larry.” As we designed the song’s musical structure and penned its haunting riffs, we conjectured what an acid trip might consist of, and how this unsuspecting friend of ours would have handled what we figured were hours upon hours of sheer terror swirled with moments of ecstatic delight. (“He’s running from a giant tub of ice cream during this part,” Danny suggested, to which I added, “a giant katana-wielding tub of ice cream.”) We actually felt kind of bad about it at the time, as we were pretty much having a lot of fun at his expense.
Little did we know we would have that friend to thank for a musical legacy that has spanned a decade and a half and rocked living rooms and campfires all over the state of California.
Birdhead was born.
Freaks and Beaks
The early days of Birdhead were fun but nerve-wracking. Friends—particularly those in other bands—seemed to appreciate our musical vision quest and would display us in freak-show fashion at shows and parties, allowing us to play in between sets to bewildered, sometimes offended audiences. There were only two songs in the beginning: “Drop Tabs With Larry” and our sophomore opus, “Pleasant Bunnies Cavorting Through a Sylvan Forest.” Like “Drop Tabs,” “Pleasant Bunnies” was what we thought of as a “story song,” where the music was supposed to relay a tale—in this case, one of happy, generally satisfied rabbits experiencing a horrifying brush with death after taking a wrong turn down a dense, dark forest path. (In the end the bunnies escape.) Most people hated it, and nobody understood it.
Admittedly, it grew frustrating being the only two people who appreciated—or knew—the stories behind the songs. For example, having to explain over and over again why the final bass line of “Pleasant Bunnies” sets up perfectly its intended (though unwritten) sequel, “Lackadaisical Bunnies Relaxing Upon an Urban Sidewalk in Post-Industrial America.” These songs told wonderful stories that were imperceptible to their audience when coded beneath instrumental compositions. So we decided it would be a good idea to try adding vocals into the mix.
In another dramatic shift, Danny and I—now rooming together in a small Orange County cottage—made the choice to forego the louder bass/drum combo partly out of respect for our roommates and partly because there just wasn’t room. In a sort of reverse-Newport Folk Festival Bob Dylan we abandoned our electric ensemble, reconfigured our style, and penned the first acoustic Birdhead songs. (We would never again play plugged.)
Our first song in our new style, “Market Wrap,” was named for a cable TV program devoted to the money markets, a show of which a friend of ours was creepily fond. Over a simple, happy chord progression, we sung the lyrics call-and-response style in a high-pitched shriek that would later come to define our sound. Over and over, variations on the following lyrics were repeated:
My name is Rich, and I watch “Market Wrap.”
My name is Rich, and I like “Market Wrap.”
I wanna be Rich, so I watch “Market Wrap.”
My name is Rich, and I lollypop “Market Wrap,” oh yeah…
This same era saw the writing of “Shanghai Express Yourself,” a terse, poppy proclamation of puppy love gone very awry:
Shanghai express yourself / and I’ll take down my pants.
If you want me to mess myself / then baby, just dance.
What is hard to explain is that, while we knew there was a certain silliness inherent to what we were doing, this did not feel necessarily juvenile. There were genuine creative forces at work, and these were songs we needed to write at the time. Typically our songs immortalized friends, so we gained a faithful audience among our peers that made it feel like we were doing something good and fun and meaningful. We were never going to get real gigs, but that was never the point.
The band continued on for a couple of years, eventually going on indeterminable hiatus when Danny moved to Santa Barbara for graduate school. Birdhead would never be the same—or continue to be at all, I had assumed. My brother recently pointed out that “Like so many great but ill-fated brother bands before us—the Kinks, CCR, Nelson—creative differences would eventually prevail.” And they did in a way that would rebuild Birdhead completely and take the shit to a whole new level.
A couple years had passed without mention of Birdhead, when one day I received a call from Danny.
“I wrote a new Birdhead song,” he mentioned casually. “It’s called ‘Pterodactyl Isle.’”
This threw me. Our songwriting efforts had always been collaborative. With us no longer living in close proximity, I had just assumed the Birdhead brand had been retired.
“OK. So, like, what…you’re Birdhead now, or something?”
“Well, no, but…it’s definitely a Birdhead song, though. Here, I’ll play it through the phone so you can see what I mean. You might want to hold the receiver away from your ear a bit. I sing it in what I call ‘reptilian falsetto.’”
What came over the line for the next three-and-a-half minutes was inspired brilliance, and he knew it—“Pterodactyl Isle,” a song about a magical prehistoric paradise where humans are subservient to large dino-birds, to which they must offer up sacrificial birdseed, sung by a Drano-drinking protagonist.
Meet me on Pterodactyl Isle,
Bring along your birdseed and a smile,
Meet me on Pterodactyl Isle,
Come along in pteranodon style.
Musically, the song at first seemed vaguely reminiscent of the old sound, until it suddenly veered off into Crazy Land with an awesome, oddly timed set of arpeggios that mirrored the hypnotic melody of the accompanying lyrics. The high-pitched vocal delivery also recalled our earlier efforts, but with a marked “creatureness” that enhanced the song’s theme and feel. “Reptilian falsetto.” He had given identity to the previously indefinable Birdhead sound, and I was slightly jealous, and very impressed.
Ever since, Birdhead has continued this way, with Danny finding inspiration in the bizarre goings-on of the newly created, lizard- and bird-obsessed world inside his head, then sitting down with a pen, paper, and guitar and writing another awesome Birdhead song—without me. It’s gotten to be a longstanding joke among our oldest friends, who’ve known the music since its inception. I am not “really” part of Birdhead anymore. I sit alongside Danny while he sings the new songs, playing percussion and making the occasional bird noise on kazoo, but it is definitely his show now.
The Bird Show
Perhaps the most beloved Birdhead song of all time, “When Georgie Hosts a Bird Show,” was written after a mentally disabled man exposed himself in the Winchell’s Donuts around the corner from my brother’s Santa Barbara duplex. A female police officer knocked on Danny’s door one afternoon, wanting to know if a 300-pound man who wore rainbow suspenders and was possibly mentally disabled lived there.
“Yeah, I’ve got him in the closet,” he joked.
She went on to explain that someone had reported his indecent behavior in the doughnut establishment and that if Danny saw him in the neighborhood he should call her. (Turns out the culprit actually lived in an assisted living home right down the street.)
When Georgie hosts a bird show,
They say there’s simply nowhere else to go.
Come see the egret and the apteryx,
When Georgie hosts a bird show. When Georgie joined the halfway house,
He weighed as much as half a house,
And the day he had his bird show,
He had a bear claw in his mouth.
Before the officer left, she found one particular descriptive trait worth mentioning. “One witness says he walks kind of weird, fluidly…like he doesn’t have any bones,” she said.
They caught-un Georgie spankin’ bird at Winchell’s.
Five-O said it looked like his bones were all gone.
All except one, I suppose.
When Georgie hosts a bird show…
Clearly the band had become something else with my brother at the helm. We were not unlike a worm cut in half, one side simply healing over and the other magically regenerating itself, an adapted, modified version at once old and new. Something like that. Work a prehistoric bird creature eating the new worms into that metaphor, and you’re probably close to explaining it.
I know Danny’s songs will always be Danny’s songs, even if he is nice enough to let them be called Birdhead songs. I am happy to squawk along to numbers such as “I Never Met a Slot Filler I Didn’t Mind” and “California Condor-minium Complex,” shaking a maraca or drumming on the back of my guitar because I don’t know the chord progression. I am content I had an equal share in the birth of something at once so genuine and creative that brought joy to our friends and terrifying moments of anxiety to our parents. I even still manage to write a song here and there, like our blistering show opener, “Nad Ripper.” In that regard, I’m still very much a part of Birdhead. Also, I started our Facebook page.
But there’s an aspect I miss that is much harder to describe, and I get the sense it’s possible to be nostalgic for something that still exists—no matter how crazy that particular thing may be.