The Other Basement Tapes

"I Drink Sody." "Disco for Drunks." "Pull My Finger." Pearls from the overlooked oeuvre of Bruce Cole and the Screamin' Mee-Mees.

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.

Jon Ashline (left), with Cole in the 1970s: "If we tried to 
write decent songs, we would have failed at it 
miserably. At this, we were successful."
Jon Ashline (left), with Cole in the 1970s: "If we tried to write decent songs, we would have failed at it miserably. At this, we were successful."
Cole in his youth: "I got all kinds of words and stuff. 
Some hot poetry."
Cole in his youth: "I got all kinds of words and stuff. Some hot poetry."


Listen to Screamin' Mee-Mees mp3s:
"Hot Sody"

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."

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