only half bad
If we could time travel back to Dayton, Ohio 1987, we’d see The Pleasures Pale reaching a creative peak. After drummer Jeff Keating left the band in late '86, his replacement Tim Payton Earick stepped in with a mod-fueled attack and propelled the band toward a fuller, more forceful, kinetic sound.
With momentum building after the release of The Pleasures Pale! LP early in the year (on Cincinnati’s Heresy Records label), and with an eye toward expanding arrangements for a followup recording, the band began the task of phasing in two new players — keys and a second guitar. Bassist Luis Lerma’s brother Terry was outfitted with a super cool Vox Super Continental organ and Eric Olt was invited to supply textural compliment to guitarist Mitchell Swann’s rhythmic playing.
To help the younger Lerma and Olt work out their parts, the band set up a 4-track cassette recorder in their East Third Street rehearsal space and ripped through a set of 14 songs, mixing drums, bass and first guitar to two tracks. At my rented house on Marcella Avenue, I overdubbed voice and gave Terry and Eric rough mix cassettes from which to do their homework.
Rock bands being what they are — fleeting romances with sizzling sparks and crashing burnouts — The Pleasures Pale fractured late in the year and the expanded arrangements were never realized, save one song. Manning the black-keyed Super Continental, Terry laid down a solid organ track on “Not Fey.” It was an exciting start, but by the dawn of 1988, each of us had moved on to other projects and were eyeing separate horizons.
For 25 years the session cassettes languished in a shoe box, traveling from Dayton to San Francisco. Then, in December 2012, I began the process of digitizing and mastering the songs. As I swept away the dust and coaxed out as much nuance from the sounds as I could, I experienced what I imagine must be the archaeologist’s rush when uncovering a rare artifact or lost treasure. Listening now as an observer rather than a participant, I felt an electric surge. I was struck with not only the ferocity of the playing, but also the precision from Swann, Lerma and Earick. To my ear their performances on these long dormant recordings possess a thrilling tension, pitting savagery against elegance, careening headlong at speed along a razor’s edge between stolen joy and the snapping jaws of doom. How they managed to charge the music with the spirit and attitude I’d hoped for in the lyrics — a kind of outsider’s defiance — is either a strong brew of witchy alchemy or some kind of dark magic. However or whatever, listening now with hairs on end, I’m fully under the spell!
There were moments in that east side warehouse when I felt music — our music — a roaring mashup of drums, bass, guitar and voice — similar in construction but fundamentally apart in execution from the thousands on thousands of other rock quartets searching for sonic salvation in the 20th Century’s fading light — had the unified resonance to liberate all ills, particularly my own. In one instance, surely associated with the writing and development of these songs if not in the midst of this session, I stood on the roof of that derelict building, arms aloft, while a violent thunderstorm raged directly overhead. I dared lightning to strike, to strike me down, for the cosmos to send me a jolt of recognition — as if the power in our music, still ringing in my ears, could match the force in the menacing clouds. It was a fool’s game, an artist’s Russian Roulette. By appearances I survived. Then again, with the aid of hindsight, maybe I didn’t. Quite possibly lightning did strike.
I find the recordings from this session among the most inspired and compelling of those made in my Dayton days. Half Bad features 12 songs — including the title track (below) with its big-as-a-whale 12-string guitar hook — and captures The Pale in full stride toward a new sound. We’ll never know how that new sound would have sounded. But we do have a clue in these resurrected recordings.
Update 10 November 2019: Visit The Pleasures Pale’s Bandcamp page for recently released versions of “Half Bad” and “Not Fey,” as well as other tracks from the 1987 Third Street Sessions — and stay tuned for an eventual Bandcamp release of the entire Half Bad LP.