When Bruce Cole doesn't want to do something, he offers a noncommittal grunt. Right now, he doesn't want to go down to his basement. Forty years' worth of unfiltered tobacco having taken their toll, what comes out sounds like an engine being dragged along concrete.
He attempts to change the subject. "I coulda gotten my dick sucked yesterday if I would have had a can of ravioli," he announces. "This girl will suck you for a can of ravioli. But I don't want no broad like that in my house."
He's sitting at the kitchen table in the tiny Ferguson bungalow where his parents raised him and his two older brothers, rolling a butt from loose-leaf Bugler tobacco. A Playboy centerfold adorns one kitchen wall. His dad died about fifteen years ago. His mother is in a nursing home. His brothers moved out long ago.
It's noon. Cole's been up since 4 a.m. Until recently he was up early scrubbing a couple of north-county bars in exchange for Busch later in the day. That revenue stream, however, dried up, and now he relies on the occasional TV or stereo repair to augment the meager allowance he gets from his mother. He can revive nearly anything that lands in the alleys surrounding his domain, be it a karaoke machine, DVD player, tape deck or VCR. Most mornings it's the same routine: Get up, pull on some clothes, walk out to the garage, flip on the fan, plant his ass in a recliner and turn on Cops, his favorite show. After a little a.m.-news coda, he shuts it down, returns to his kitchen and bakes a batch of muffins, which he'll share with friends and neighbors. At 6 a.m. Howard Stern comes on the radio. On Tuesdays his older brother Michael picks him up and takes him to the grocery store. (The 54-year-old Cole surrendered his driver's license about five years ago after a string of DUIs.)
His freezer is filled with TV dinners and generic Steak-Ums. The fridge contains milk, cheese and can upon can of A&W Root Beer, RC Cola, Squirt and orange soda. The refrigerator door is peppered with phone numbers: for "Slimy" and for "Dirty," for "Albino Broad," "Bitch Face," "S___ with big tits" and "Big tit S___." There's a photo of Cole's friend Eldridge Moore Jr., who died a few years back. Cole was a pallbearer. ("The heaviest corpse I ever carried. We had six guys on it, and it was still heavy.")
Cole walks to the living room. His profile makes it clear beer has taken a firm hold of his belly. Where once he was tall and skinny, he now shares Foghorn Leghorn's physique. Like a more ragged version of Neil Young: stringy black hair, carved face. But where Neil's chasing cowgirls in the sand, Bruce is still contemplating that ravioli trade. "I wouldn't mind getting my weenie wet," he concedes, "but I don't want her in my fucking house." He gave up brushing his teeth a couple years ago, he says: "It wasn't worth my time anymore." A front tooth's missing, to boot.
Cole pops in a CD and hits "Play."
His voice booms out of the speakers, like Howlin' Wolf with a hangover. A rare live performance, from Philadelphia, 1996: "It's time for a recitation," he declares, but it comes out resuscitation. "I got all kinds of words and stuff. Some hot poetry." A woman hoots, and Cole dedicates a poem to his "partner in crime," Jon Ashline, who's unable to attend because as a McDonald's manager he couldn't get time off:
Daddy's work people work all day long,
Singing working-on-the-railroad railroad songs.
Real hamburger flavor and true fried fries,
Cooking deep-sea fish sandwiches and frying apple pies.
Biscuit and breakfast grease lingers in the air,
Saturating daddy's tie and getting in his hair.
Getting up early every day and coming home late,
In the whole hamburger chain daddy's link is first rate.
One day off and working six days a week,
He's so tired when he gets home that he can't even speak.
Fishing for relaxation is what daddy likes the best,
And daddy's workpeople put daddy to the test.
Daddy's hiring and firing people all the day long,
Only good hamburger flippers keep the work force strong.
Keep the customers happy, treat them like a human bein',
That's why daddy's work people are the best you've ever seen.
The audience cheers. Cole and crew rip into a song called "Garden of Earthly Delights."
Bruce Cole is the rockingest motherfucker in St. Louis.
Down in his basement, along with a shitload of his mom's old crap, is the makeshift recording studio where he and Ashline, a.k.a. the Screamin' Mee-Mees, recorded hundreds of songs beginning in the mid-1960s when they were just kids. Much of the material never saw the light of day. A 45 was pressed back in 1977, an LP in 1992, followed by a string of 45s and a second full-length, Nude Invisible Foot Phenomenon. Another disc, entitled Plastic Hong Kong Doorbell Finger, is due out later this year. When it's released, a few hundred diehards from Boston to Scandinavia and beyond will rejoice.
The fans love the sody songs, Cole says. "Hot Sody" mourns a soft drink left in the sun. "I Drink Sody" is a celebration: "I drink sody to stay alive/I drink sody to survive." "You Never Give Me Sody" is self-explanatory. Other songs in the Mee-Mees' prodigious repertoire: "The Jerseyville Bake-Off"; "Why Can't a Watermelon Pray"; "The Radiator Song"; "Psycho Ward Reunion"; "Surface of the Moon."
"The stupider, the better" is one of Cole's mantras. "I think everything we do is pretty fucking stupid. Wait until you hear this new shit: 'Spilling Stuff on People'? Now tell me, what does that title say to you?"
The whole sordid history, in the form of nearly 40 years' worth of audiotapes, is piled high in Cole's basement.
But lately he can't bear to go down there.
"I'm scared to go down in the Basement," he confesses between drags on a hand-rolled Bugler. "I don't like it down there. It's like walking into a time machine."
Neither Bruce Cole nor Jon Ashline was popular when they met in junior high in 1965. Cole, explains Ashline on the phone from his home in Topeka, Kansas, "was the pimply-faced reject that nobody would have much to do with except me. He didn't hang around with too many people at school. Neither did I, for that matter. Me and Bruce got together just because we lived so close. It developed from there."
The youngest of three brothers, Cole took to his toy Lionel Electronic Lab early on and discovered music soon thereafter. The two passions converged when he hit puberty. In 1965, as rock flooded the airwaves and record stores, he and Ashline were knee-deep, messing around with the reel-to-reel recorders they each got for Christmas. They proclaimed Cole's tiny bedroom to be their recording studio and dubbed it "The Closet." They'd play Yardbirds records at double speed and scream "EAT!" at the top of their lungs over the top of them, with a reel-to-reel picking up the racket. The finished product they titled "The Eat Tape."
It's still down in the basement.
"There was a whole tape of me and Ashline's farts," Cole recalls. "How long it took to fill up the reel depended on what we had to eat." Another collection, "The Past Tense of Regurgitation," is a more formal affair, a series of comedy skits complete with liner notes. From "The Pill," a meditation on birth control, to a fake Jolly Green Giant commercial and a recording of Cole's niece called "The Fetus Speaks," the tape captures the sound of two claustrophobic teenagers discovering the power of sound reproduction, and having a blast. It was recorded, Cole says, "before our balls dropped."
Eventually they outgrew the Closet and so the Basement was born. Cole bought an acoustic guitar, duct-taped a transistor-radio speaker to it and taught himself chords. Ashline couldn't play anything, so Cole told him to bang on coffee cans. "We just grabbed whatever we could find around the basement," says Ashline. "Slide whistles -- whatever somebody would pick up we'd start playing."
Over the next decade, with Cole on guitar and Ashline on percussion, the songs poured forth. "Struck Out (Again)." "Disco for Drunks." "Pigs," which contained the joyous, defiant refrain, "We are the pigs that don't wear wigs/We are the pigs!" They recruited Ashline's brother Lance, then age ten, to record "Green Guitars from Mars" ("Riding on my spaceship one day/Hit something and I looked at it/It was a green cigar from Mars/I turned around and ate it"). On "Max Factor," Jon Ashline mimics a harelip's lisp.
"Mouth Song" is meta-songwriting at its purest and most inane, with Ashline tapping cans and singing off-key to Cole's acoustic accompaniment: "I'm gonna put my mouth up here and sing/I'm gonna put my mouth up here and sing.../It's been so long since I had my mouth near a microphone/I've been a long way from home/I'm gonna put my mouth up here and sing/I'm gonna take flight like a bird on a wing/I'm gonna put my mouth up here and sing."
Combined, the recordings capture a weird but magnetic rock & roll glee. Cole's rich howl and manic wah-wah guitar slam off the concrete walls of the Basement. Ashline screams into a microphone and bangs cymbals. It's a sound that's been described as "equal parts acid and stoopid."
The duo typically recorded without so much as a practice take to work out chords. "The recording sessions were spontaneous," says Ashline. "I'd sit there and leaf through a magazine and find something I liked: 'Let's do a song about this.' Some ad for Arthritis Today turned into a song. I found some old letter [Cole] had written that said, 'Your face looks like the surface of the moon.' I wrote a song on the spot. I'd set it down, make up lyrics as we went along. He'd say, 'Let's tape it,' and he'd click on the recorder and play it live. We never rehearsed anything, and we never replayed any of the songs."
Their influences were legion, drawn from countless hours spent listening to radio and records and reading Creem magazine. "Bruce always found bands that were not popular initially and would become hits after he had purchased the vinyl," Ashline says. "He got me into the Seeds, Can, Amon Düül and a lot of European and German imports."
It was around this time that Cole found a kindred spirit in St. Louis music junkie Hot Scott Fischer, who was penning record reviews for Creem under the editorship of Lester Bangs. Fischer and the Mee-Mees bonded, and soon they were recording as a trio.
Cole calls them "experiments in racket" -- wild feedback freakouts captured on two volumes of Warp Sessions from 1972 and 1973. Songs like "I Am Nothing" and "Mommy I'm Falling," pure wails of despair that extend to ten and fifteen minutes apiece.
Fischer eventually moved away, and the Mee-Mees were back where they started: in the Basement with a lot of time on their hands. They went down to a local open mic where some of their friends were playing, with the intention of making their live debut. But just as they were starting, Ashline changed his mind. Cole sounds bitter to this day. "He's a chickenshit," he says, stamping the event with an infamy on par with the attack on Pearl Harbor: "It was at Florissant Valley, 1974." Then his voice softens. "Which is okay with me, because I wasn't really up for it either. It would have been fucking horrible."
To this day, he and Ashline have never played together live.
Bruce Cole has worked many jobs. "Selling papers and emptying trash cans at a bar on Chambers where I still go -- where I wish I was right now," he begins when asked to recount his employment history. "Caddied up at Norwood Hills golf course for a little bit. Worked at a pancake house one night, puked in the pancake batter and got fired. Didn't eat pancakes for 30 years after that. Worked at Hirschberg's House of Magnavox delivering TVs and putting up TV antennas, fixing record players, shit like that."
In the early 1970s he moved to Kansas City and went to electronics school and worked for a record distributor. "Came back here, worked at Stix, Baer & Fuller in the women's shoe salon stock room. That sucked. Then I worked for a United Artists record distributor, delivering records to record stores. After that I got a job driving out of town with Sun Classic Pictures -- used to carry the movies with me, take them to the theaters and drive-ins, run them, collect all the dough, throw it in the bank, go to the next town doing the same fucking thing." He ran movies at the Tivoli, showed Three Stooges flicks at the Varsity (now Vintage Vinyl) a few blocks up Delmar Boulevard, ran projectors at the North Twin Drive-In, South Twin Drive-In, Olympic Drive-In. Somewhere amid those dozen years he got married and divorced a couple of times, fathered a son and a daughter and, in the early '90s, landed back where he'd begun: living above the Basement.
The Basement looks like your average cluttered basement. Half the space is consumed by a laundry room, the other by piles of crap. A toddler's rocking horse sits at the foot of the stairs. An old recliner, Ashline's former base of operations -- sits next to a beaten-down drum kit, which faces the room's gear table, a jumble of recording and audio equipment. Nothing fancy: reel-to-reel recorders, cassette decks, a double CD burner, a broken turntable, a pair of solid studio monitors. ("I think they were hot," Cole says of the monitors. "The jukebox guy sold the pair of them still in the box for a hundred bucks, said, 'Don't tell nobody.'")
Piled on every flat surface in the vicinity are tapes. Scores of tapes. On shelves, on the floor, beneath old National Lampoon and Creem magazines, 40-ouncers, bags of trash, records, cigarette butts, a Studebaker parts catalog and vintage copies of Heckle and Jeckle, Mr. Magoo and Cab Calloway flicks. On the wall is a framed sleeve of the Screamin' Mee-Mees' triumphant 1992 debut LP, the oddball tour de force Clutching Hand Monster Mitt. Below it is the band's business card: The Screamin' Mee Mees. "Music For No Occasion." Bruce, Guitar. Jon, Drums.
The first time Jason Rerun saw the Basement, he couldn't believe the Mee-Mees recorded amid that chaos. Rerun and his wife, Ann, collect rare punk records. They knew the Screamin' Mee-Mees' obscure gem "Live from the Basement," released in 1977 as a 45. While the Sex Pistols were calling for anarchy in the UK and the Ramones were blitzkrieging New York, the Mee-Mees were bemoaning the state of their beverages: "Left my sody out in the sun/It got warm, it tastes no fun/Hot sody in the sun/It ain't no fun." The couple befriended Cole when he turned up at an open-mic night at Frederick's Music Lounge in 2001, one of precious few local live appearances. Thrilled to be able to see him, they bought him a beer before the show. "He wasn't going to get up onstage," recalls Jason Rerun, who hosts the punk program Scene of the Crime on KDHX (88.1 FM). "He brought along a guitar, but he didn't have an amp. He was real nervous and we had to really cheer him on. He started to play the first couple chords of a song then said, 'No, no, no,' unplugged the guitar and started to walk off." It took more nudging before he finally got up and performed.
Not long afterward, he invited the Reruns to his house to play.
Cole's mom greeted them from her lounger in front of the TV. She and Cole, they discovered, had worked out a system to control the noise level: When it got out of hand, Mom would come to the top of the stairs and flick the light switch. "We were coming in carrying a bass and amps, and his mom's, like, 'What are you guys doing?'" Jason recounts. "Bruce is, like, 'Oh nothing, nothing,' and we go downstairs. He flips on the twin reverb, hits one chord and the light starts flicking on and off."
The three set up, Jason on bass and Ann on drums. Bruce started in on guitar. "I said, 'Wait a minute, Bruce, I need to see what you're playing,' Ann remembers. "And he's like, 'No no no.' He wouldn't let me hear it first. The first time you ever hear it, you're recording."
Finally she told Cole she wasn't in tune and asked to stop.
His response: "Who cares? Play."
As he got more comfortable around Cole, Jason Rerun began poking through the piles of tape and discovered gold -- or something.
Since the four-song "Live From the Basement" EP was released, the record had become something of an oddball legend in collectors' circles.
Author, publisher and archivist Byron Coley co-published the influential 1980s Boston fanzine Forced Exposure, which featured writing by, among others, Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, rock producer Steve Albini and rock critic Richard Meltzer. "I was lucky enough to find the first EP not long after it came out and was immediately struck by the insanely primitive garage and/or basement genius that it seemed to ooze from every pore," Coley recalls via e-mail from Boston. "The record was a complete anomaly for many years, and was filed next to other blasts of pure raunch madness that were kinda punk in a way but were really not definable in any kinda linear/temporal way -- they were just totally wild."
Coley calls "Live From," along with a few other obscure releases of the era, "timeless in [their] insanity, and also far enough outside any established 'scene' that they appeared to be complete enigmas." The disc now fetches up to $50 on the auction block.
When Rerun learned that the four songs on the disc represented only a small part of a much more extensive session, his eyes lit up.
Cole was resistant, or unenthusiastic, or lazy. "It took going over there several times and him chain-smoking and listening to old tapes at full volume while I dug around while he wasn't looking, basically," Rerun recounts. Finally he unearthed a box. "It was under one of the speakers, and the box was all moldy on the bottom," he says. "There was this car stereo in there."
He held up the stereo: "Bruce, what's this?"
"Ah, I had that in my '76 Nova."
Underneath was a cassette case. "There were three tapes that he had been listening to in his car, three of the Holy Grail tapes," Rerun says reverently. "He was like, 'Where'd you find those?' We had gone through hours of reels."
In the end Rerun and Cole uncovered nearly 100 songs. Over the past few years, Los Angeles-based Slippytown Records has released a significant portion on six CDs. Another label, Gulcher Records, based in Orlando, Florida, pressed two collections of singles. Each release sells no more than a few hundred copies.
Translation: Combined, about 300 people on Earth think Bruce Cole is some kind of outsider genius.
A few years ago, Cole says, a band covered one of their songs. "Some Japs made a remake of 'Pull My Finger.' Why does anyone give a fuck what we do? Belgium? What the fuck do they know?"
Says Slippytown Records honcho Eddie Flowers: "Mee-Mees fans are scattered around the globe, although I've noticed a slightly bigger interest from people in the Scandinavian countries and in Japan."
Jon Ashline is baffled at the notion that anyone is hearing the stuff they laid down in the Basement. "What really shocks me is the stuff overseas -- in Japan, in Italy. I never thought it would go that far. Of course, it's a lot smaller world than it used to be. But hell, I never expected it to leave St. Louis.
"We weren't forcing the issue," Ashline adds, attempting to grasp the allure of his and Cole's efforts. "We weren't trying to make good music. We weren't trying to do anything except make Screamin' Mee-Mees songs. We didn't really put any effort into it. Sometimes you just overdo stuff and it doesn't work. For us, I think that would have been the issue. If we tried to write decent songs, we would have failed at it miserably. At this, we were successful. It was something we could pick up and have fun doing. Be as stupid as we want. And somewhere along the line people picked up on it and said, 'Hey, that's pretty cool.'"
Asserts Coley: "I think that music (at least most of it) would have appeal to anyone who really digs the idea that rock & roll should be out-of-control -- like a train speeding down the dark tracks towards a disaster that is certain, but as yet unknown. I mean, the Screamin' Mee-Mees make the White Stripes sound like a couple of professional French cheese slicers."
Cole has a story about every machine in the Basement. He points to a Fender amp. "I traded a '64 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia for it. I seen the guy I traded the Volkswagen to a couple weeks later, said, 'How's that VW running?' He had two words to say to me: 'Fuck you.'" Ashline too swapped a car, a beat-up AMC Javelin, to acquire his drum set.
Cole bought an Alvarez acoustic guitar in 1975. It has never been out of the house. "There's a little Silvertone amp that electrocutes you every time you try and use it," he says. Then he points to his reel-to-reel recorder, the one that captured many of the early songs. "That thing cost me nothing. Jim Scheff at Audionics called me, said, 'Come up and get it or it's going in the Dumpster.' Zoom, I'm up there." Scheff gave him the stereo amp he still uses upstairs, ditto a pair of Bose speakers, which he sold. He also sold his favorite guitar, nicknamed the Green Monster. ("I got it from a nitwit who couldn't play shit -- chiseled him down to $250.") He found the cassette decks next to Dumpsters, which he scours regularly. The Yorx speakers were sitting in a Shop 'n Save parking lot. All the gear is still hooked up in the Basement. Cole has named the process by which he records "Hi-Fido." Each record comes with a written tip: "Play Loud on Cheap Stereo."
Rerun can't believe the sound quality Cole coaxes out of the rudimentary technology. "It just seems so accidental. It's not like he's using good equipment at all. The tape he uses is atrocious. Everything is on tapes that have been used 80 times and listened to 400 times. After he's dumped the tapes to the twelfth generation, how does it sound that good? The tape decks he's using are out of the trash. They were worn out to begin with, and he's fixed them. It's not like he put any money into them replacing the heads. How did you get it to sound like that?"
Simple, Ashline explains: "It's a two-mic setup. We started with Realistic plastic microphones. He'd set one on the tabletop by where he was playing, and he'd set one as far away as he could, near the drums. Most of the time he was taping on reel-to-reels."
They eventually graduated to better microphones, but the process remained the same. Because of the nature of the music -- voice, guitar, bass, coffee cans -- most of it required few overdubs or additions.
After going dormant through much of the '80s -- both had families -- Cole and Ashline reunited out of boredom when Cole moved back home in the early 1990s.
Clutching Hand Monster Mitt was released in 1992. Cole had polished Hi-Fido, employing a daisy-chain system of reel-to-reel and cassette decks. By piling sound upon sound onto a tape and overdubbing the accumulated sounds onto other tapes, Cole -- or rather "Miroslaw Fernandez" and "Horace Bimly" (along with "Oral Sturgeon" on Monster Mitt) -- created unlimited space for noise. Monster Mitt features toy laser guns, sped-up Chipmunks vocals, feedback, wah-wah, static. These layered dubs, in the form of three-minute snippets of revelation, consume countless reels in the Basement.
Cole doesn't like visiting the time machine, and when he does agree to sift through tapes, says Rerun, it's time-consuming. "Going through tapes with Bruce, even if it isn't the final take of a song, he still wants to listen to the whole ten-minute tape. He's like, 'This is where I let my guitar feedback for fifteen minutes while Ashline laughed in the background.' He wanted to play us the noisiest, most-broken-up, out-of-tune stuff. He wanted to play it as loud as possible -- and then he would just laugh and laugh the whole way through."
The best music on Monster Mitt struggles to retain a sense that the two musicians are in control of what they're playing; it sounds as though the music is making the decisions. Like "Mudflap," a work of feedback rock that features Cole on Green Monster and Ashline attempting to harness his drums. But when the record hit the shelves, a tiny segment of the rock world rejoiced.
The British magazine Ptolemaic Terrascope raved that the disc "somehow sucks you in and spits what's left of your brain across the floor." Others described the Mee-Mees as "fuck-all, beer-blather glug...'psychedelia' by people too 'challenged' to care.'"
"American Genius at its finest," crowed Forced Exposure.
"The re-emergence of Cole was something greeted with astonishment and joy throughout the true international knucklehead-collector community, and it's pretty clear that all of his releases (both new and archival) have been 'of a piece,'" says Byron Coley. "I've never had the pleasure of meeting the guy, but obviously he marches to a rhythm that only he truly understands."
Thirteen years later Monster Mitt sounds like a recording out of time and space, an obscure, unique, genuine scream. "Your face looks like the surface of the moon," sings Ashline.
Who wouldn't want to party with these guys?
Cole crouches over a filing cabinet in the Basement, searching for copies of Sonic Youth's fanzine from the early '90s, Sonic Death, for which he drew comics. Guitarist Thurston Moore is a Mee-Mees fan. So is Beck, reports Cole. Ditto NRBQ.
The past few years have been rough on Cole. In 1999, he says, he started suffering hallucinations, and his mother had him admitted to a psychiatric ward. He was in for a week. "I was eating a lot of that Chef Boyardee crap," he explains, and drinking way too much Jim Beam. Now he sticks to beer.
Ashline moved to Topeka shortly after Monster Mitt. Through the '90s, the Mee-Mees released a string of singles. (Full disclosure: In an earlier incarnation as a record-label tycoon, I released a Mee-Mees 45, "Pull My Finger," in 1993.) In 1996 Cole dug through the archives and released a second full-length, Nude Invisible Foot Phenomenon. But the Basement slowly gathered dust, and there haven't been many new recordings since then.
"We were pretty prolific even after I moved," says Ashline, who was diagnosed with bone-marrow cancer in 2002. (It's in remission.) "Every time I came home, and even now, I still touch base with him. But I can't get him to play anymore. The last four or five times I've been home, he says, 'I don't feel like it.' We haven't done anything for probably the last six months. I just can't get him up off his butt. He's just too interested in drinking beer and falling asleep."
Cole says he has a handle on the drinking. "I have a beer every once in while and that's it. He's full of shit. I've got a problem if I don't have any beer, but beer stays in the fridge overnight."
The main barrier to recording more often, he says, is the Stone Age setup: It's a pain in the ass, switching the reels and cassettes.
The place is a mess. He doesn't feel like it. He needs a new tape deck.
Leafing through his files, Cole finally locates the Sonic Youth fanzine he was searching for and flips to the full-page comic he created especially for the issue.
"Hey Kids!" it reads. "Here's how you can make yr guitar sound just like Sonic Youth! You don't even got to know how to play an' you can sound just like Lee an' Thurston." The comic goes on to sketch out the process, which involves pipes, hammers, screwdrivers and beer can tabs. Like Cole's music, the drawings are rudimentary, but they get the point across.
He leafs through another zine, then another.
"Oh God, there's still a ton of shit," he says, overwhelmed by the avalanche surrounding him. He closes the file drawer and stands up. "Do we gotta stay down here?" he implores. "It's depressing. I used to live down here. I don't know what it is about here anymore, but it's just depressing. I just don't like it down here no more."