A Band Called Shitty
I was in a band called Shitty. It all started at the Huntington Beach Library in Orange County, California — I’d guess around late 1995 or early ’96. I’d grabbed the mic between bands one night, claiming I was going to read a poem to all the emo kids in the audience. Of course, they were very excited to hear a lugubrious poem that would give them a chance to cry. Instead, they got me dashing off a sarcastic bit of dry humor about having consensual sex with a cow in a field. The last line was something like, “And then I left. The cow was alone again, yet satisfied.” There was a great amount of shock and horror and even some literal jaw-dropping after I’d finished. The drummer for the band going on next hit his cymbal. And I stood there for a moment while the crowd grumbled and shuffled their feet in an uncomfortable bit of stalled quiet.
But a few folks there that night loved it. One was named Mike, and he was famous for swinging naked around the library’s flagpole during the shows. (Streakers running around outside the library during shows wasn’t as uncommon as you might imagine, but the flagpole swinging added a classy guise to it.) I had admired his tenacity of spirit and asked if he’d like to be in my band. He agreed, but considering that I didn’t play any instruments, it was difficult to explain to him how this would work. How was I in a band? What did I do? What were we called? Did that band even exist? I assured him that everything would work out great. I told him I needed a drummer, and that he would do. He was already in a band called the Parking Lot Kids, who performed, as one might expect, exclusively in parking lots. But since he played guitar in that band, not drums, I thought it wouldn’t be too much to ask to have him be in my band, too. I told him that band was called Shitty. He thought that sounded good. So, that’s about how it all got started.
The Huntington Beach Library, or just the HB Library, was the hippest emo venue around at the time. All the touring bands would play there. A guy I knew named Neil had rented out the library’s back room to have shows in, as long as there wasn’t any “rough stuff” or “slam dancing” going on. Neil had to make sure people were only lightly swaying in place to the music or he’d lose his lease on the space. For the most part, this wasn’t too difficult, primarily because of the type of folks these bands attracted, who were more into having a slight spiritual moment and a good cry while keeping their bandana tied tight over their dyed-black hair than they were into dancing around and bumping into other fans.
I decided to recruit other band members on the sole criteria that they did not know how to play the instrument they’d be playing in Shitty. And, just as important, that they did not own the instrument they played in the band. We’d all have to borrow instruments. We’d go on between sets at library shows, playing the guitars and bass and drums and keyboards of the band about to go on, just after they’d set up. We’d never practice. We’d just improvise on stage for the short time allotted to us before the band whose equipment we were using got pissed and kicked us off the stage. As it turned out, it was easy to find new recruits. People seemed drawn to this stupid idea: a band called Shitty, that was actually just that — shitty.
Our first show at the HB Library was a huge success, beyond anything I could’ve imagined. We played between Further and Strictly Ballroom, both classic emo bands in their heyday. We just ran up on stage—there was a whole gaggle of us, probably like eight or nine in all—grabbed the first instrument we could find, and started banging away. I yodel/screamed into the mic while thrashing the hell out of some poor guy’s Stratocaster. People started to gather around, wondering what the hell this spectacle was. I remember feeling possessed, as if all of my life were coming together in this brief shining moment of glory. I was finally having my “fifteen minutes” up on stage, and I had everybody’s attention, and it was incredible.
People seemed drawn to this stupid idea: a band called Shitty, that was actually just that — shitty.
The noise we made was loud and scratchy and awful, full of reverb and terrible timing and feedback, yet there was an unbalanced unity in it, some sort of coalescing of static and mangled lullabies. People started swaying and plugging their ears. I don’t think another cacophony ever roared quite like it. I moaned and crooned deep and low and then shrieked high and wild. Mike ruined the drums in a bashing uproar like someone beating the shit out of a refrigerator with a baseball bat. My good friend Justin was messing up a bass pretty good, the notes wavering and way off-key and thunderous. I remember strangers I’d just convinced to come on stage with me noodling scales on a keyboard together, and another guitar somewhere behind me being held and, well, even played, like a ham hock. Someone might’ve been knocking a triangle around or madly rattling some maracas. It was really fucking joyous. People even clapped and hollered and whistled when we were done. We all came to a rambunctious, mind-altering crescendo: a dissonant racket of triumphant ineptitude.
Then, with no reason or warning, I just stopped, suddenly, for a moment, and, incredibly, so did everyone else who was barnstorming the stage along with me back there. And I said, “We’re Shitty. Thanks.” And then, as quickly and mysteriously as we’d arrived out of nowhere, we left.
Our next show was at a house party that the Parking Lot Kids were having. The bands were playing in a small living room at someone’s parents’ bungalow on a tree-lined lane in Mission Viejo. We’d decided by this time that the band was just me, Justin, and Mike — who from now on would be known as the Rock ’n’ Roll Whore when we played. He wore a green rubber mask that was like a balaclava with eye and mouth holes and was dressed in only green short-shorts and Converse, with “Rock N Roll Whore” written in black marker on his chest. Justin would take off a piece of clothing after each “song” until he was completely naked, his privates covered only by a bass guitar. I, of course, was dressed to the nines the whole time, cool as shit: elbow-patched V-neck sweater and bike-chain necklace and long wallet chain and slicked-back hair and maroon Vans and argyles showing below the unhemmed cuffs of scissor-cut Dickie highwaters. I would howl and viciously croon and strum somebody else’s guitar like a madman the whole while. It was quite a show. The Parking Lot Kids were nice enough to let us use their instruments, and we played a decent set, probably 10 to 15 minutes — enough time for Justin to completely disrobe. Then we stopped abruptly, I said “We’re Shitty” into the mic, and all three of us ran out of the living room together.
People clapped—the living room was packed with sweater-and-denim-clad emo kids who’d been swaying and embracing themselves in seatbelt self-hugs during our set—and started to meander and mingle. We deemed it a huge success.
Shitty never practiced, of course, and rarely played, as there was little room at most shows for a band who had no instruments of their own and didn’t know how to play any — or have any songs to play, for that matter. We did play a party at a boathouse once. We hadn’t played in front of people for months. There were kegs of beer and steaks grilling and parent-age folks milling about, ready for some hard-rock action to come their way. I’m not sure what band was supposed to be playing that night, but their instruments were set out for us to use on the stage. There was an actual raised stage, which was a first for us. We felt like rock stars up there. And, well, we were. Or at least we thought we were by this point. A legend had grown up around us. Since we rarely played and few people had actually witnessed us perform, the word of mouth that really got around about us—mostly apocryphal, as it were—was a hot topic among scenesters. Who was this mysterious band called Shitty? When would they play again? Who was in this band? What’s a Rock ’n’ Roll Whore? What color did they paint their toenails? Were they just pretending to play their instruments badly as some artistic statement against the highly trained and skilled musicianship of the new crop of bands coming out? Was any of this real? Did Shitty even exist?
Play. Play instruments. There’s some tacit acknowledgement between audience and performer that the said performer would “play” their music for the enjoyment of the other. And I thought, hell, we’re playing just as much as anything with these instruments that don’t belong to us. In fact, we’d never seen these instruments before. What better verb than “play” would work to describe what it was we were doing? Our process? Shit. We just went up there and played. Nothing more to it. Playing. Like children. Simple. Easy. Profound.
At the boathouse, where everyone was jostling around and gabbing with red Silo cups of keg beer, we decided this would be our last show, ever. The band was breaking up. The lake lapped the rocks below us. The wind stirred. We stared with an intense silence out over the water as the insects buzzed and flitted all around, filled with a deep longing, a great sense of purpose. This was the end of an era. Shitty, like all things, also must pass.
Justin and I were in the middle of making a documentary about the band. It consisted mostly of one of us holding a camcorder and pointing it at the other one, who would do things like sit in a tree or lie in bed singing in his sleep or watch a bad movie on a tiny television or go on a walk with his hands clasped behind his back through a makeshift garden. It was high art. We even got Mike to put on his Rock ’n’ Roll Whore outfit and dash around a Ralphs supermarket late at night as we filmed him in all the glory of the bright lights, scampering down the aisles, getting odd looks from the few other customers in the store, and eventually buying a bag of chips and some guacamole from an incredulous clerk who did not want to be filmed but who definitely was filmed.
We ran up on the stage at the boathouse, took our positions, almost like a real band, even somewhat coordinated and rehearsed at this point. I went down into a deep crooning growl and screeched away on the guitar’s higher notes while Justin plugged away on bass and Mike pounded on mightily in his now-fraying shorts and mask. We had a certain style to us by this point, and our theatrics, well, it all was starting to feel a bit too routine. We looked like an actual band up there. A three-piece that was almost sharp, even though we had no songs and no real ability on the instruments we were playing. At a glance, we looked like your average band of 19-year-olds trying to make it. We were a hoax that wasn’t very elaborate or even that interesting anymore. Everyone knew what to expect. It bothered me. After we finished our set to a bunch of screaming “fans,” I said, “Thanks. We’re Shitty. We are done.” And that, as they say, was that.
Justin and I ended up finishing the documentary, which clocked in at a laborious 55 minutes, uncut and raw with multiple takes of the same scenes still in the final version, about a month after our last show. We premiered it at a house party, again in someone’s parents’ living room, to a roomful of what were mostly our extended group of friends. We doused the lights and made them sit, most of them on the floor, through almost a full hour of our droll idiocy. One guest summed it up best when he said to me afterward, “That was brutal, like dental surgery.” But they all sat through the whole thing and clapped when it was over, though perhaps more out of relief than approval. It was shitty. Supremely shitty. A band called Shitty. The perfect way to wrap up the most absurd and original and, well, shitty band that ever existed.