What is the distinction that makes some mashed animal organs pate de foie gras and others mere liverwurst? Was Robert Mapplethorpe a fine artist or a dangerous dickwad? There's a thin line separating genius from junk, and sitting on that line (perhaps even defining it) is a local band called Methadone Actors.
Of course there's a colorful story behind these defiers of description. Guitarist Brian Spitzer befriended Mario Ramos in college; at that time, Ramos was content to manage the bands Spitzer played in. Two years ago Ramos was loft sitting at a friend's condemned waterfront mansion. Shayne Hansen was living on the second floor, which was quickly becoming a duplex since the ceiling had caved in. "He'd just prance around in his pajamas and army boots," Spitzer reminisces. "We actually saw him in a club in his pajamas. He'd bring this little mannequin and harass the bands that were playing. He mentioned that he was a drummer, so we kept him in mind."
Hansen was subsequently hired, but there was trouble with the bass player, whose stage persona was somewhat lacking. "He used to hide behind things because he didn't want to be seen," says Spitzer. "He'd eat doughnuts while he was playing." Hansen took umbrage and the bassist was ejected. Destiny spun its blender and sent bass player extraordinaire Junes into the laps of the Methadones. (Junes's real name is Louis, but after eight months in the band, the other members still don't know his last name.)
The finishing touch was Spitzer's decision that Ramos should take over the microphone, not so much as a singer but as a front man. "He speaks," Spitzer says of Ramos's unique vocal stylings, "but I wanted him in the band because he's a showman, like P.T. Barnum. I think people want to see someone dressing up, pulling his pants down, noshing and schmoosing." Which brings us to the true essence of this band.
There is no other way to experience Methadone Actors than to see them live, not only because they're unsigned, but because recordings would probably do them no justice. I came to realize this (but not much more) at one of their recent shows.
Junkyard, the club they played in, was approximately the temperature of Satan's sitting room. Three Methadones shot on-stage: Spitzer looking the typical slouched guitarist in black T-shirt, jeans, and Converse high tops; Junes in the height of skate fashion, wearing either a diver's or a welder's mask perched on his forehead; Hansen, the casual drummer in black shorts and bare feet. Ramos, who looks like a friendly resident of a halfway house, went for the full effect. He was carried to the stage in a body bag.
A lounge lizard from the Bizzarro Universe, Ramos demanded a drink and a light for his cigarette before beginning. As the band struck the opening chords to a grinder called "Overtown," Ramos took out a clipboard with lyric sheets for every song. Geez, and people gave Axl Rose flak for taking cues off a TelePrompTer.
"Originally the clipboard was because he didn't know all the songs," Spitzer explains. "Now he does it because it's his thing to do, even though he knows all the songs by heart. It's also there in case a stray bullet should come our way. That's no ordinary clipboard."
Bulletproof clipboards must have come in handy at past shows, when Ramos was a bit more daring in his theatrics. "Sometimes we'd have a gal come up and Mario would undress and she'd whip him with a cat-o'-nine-tails for the finale. But usually we couldn't find anyone to hit him hard enough, and it would end up being a brawl. He'd be screaming at the girl, `Hit me harder!' and then he'd try to encourage her by insulting her family. We just wanted to excite the audience and express our First Amendment rights."
Even Madonna might be shocked by that kind of self-expression, though exactly what the Methadone Actors are trying to get across when they vent their artistic spleens is open to interpretation. Consider "Zodiac," a trashy romp about San Francisco's famed serial killer. "The lyrics are some of the poetry he was mailing to the police department," Spitzer relates proudly. "I don't think he copyrighted it, so there shouldn't be a problem. I did think about that, because he might get peeved."
The Methadone Actors are, for the most part, an antiband. If they happen to play together, it's almost by coincidence. Their sound is a dastardly mash of punk and garage, and what keeps it from being dissonant slop is Junes's highly sophisticated bass playing. Another interesting aspect of the Methadones' music is that Junes and Spitzer seem to have switched traditional functions, Junes playing more melody and leads on his bass and Spitzer taking up the rhythm slack with his guitar. "I look at Junes and I have no idea what he's doing," Spitzer says of his bassist's proficiency. "I've heard him play guitar, and he's a lot better than me. I hope he doesn't get any ideas."
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In fact it's Junes who starts to play the melody from Motley Crue's "Home Sweet Home" - as Hansen cries, "This one's for the troops!" - in the middle of one of the Actors' own songs. It's a touch of ironic sarcasm that even Spitzer doesn't seem to recognize as brilliant. "That was a mistake and a disaster," he asserts. "We don't even know the song, and it's a lousy song, too. The other one we did was `Freebird.' We did it once, and then at other shows people who'd seen us do it before kept holding up lighters like at a Seventies concert. And we had to do it over and over. We never even learned the song. For every show, if we do one unique thing, it's fine, but to constantly do the same gag - because that's what it is, a gag...."
That much is fairly obvious, but what isn't is the answer to the question of whether this band represents a new art form that should be highly praised for being ahead of its time, or if they're a bunch so cretinous one begins to lament the good oxygen being wasted by them. It's the kind of mystery that gives senators' wives something to do with their free time.
Ultimately, one must see Methadone Actors and decide for oneself. Do it while this is still a free country.