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Oral Damage: An “In Their Own Words” Case Study of Icky Boyfriends

by Justin F. Farrar
originally published, issue #7, 2005

…Spending nights (and early mornings) guzzling brews, smoking grass, beating off, snorting coke, talking music, and rattling the Greek neighbors’ faux-Swarovski chandeliers with high-decibel emissions of what we wasted fuckers lovingly referred to as “retard rock”: Puff Tube, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, Sad Sack, Happy Flowers, Lil Bunnies, Paraquat Earth Band, Sockeye, and San Francisco’s Icky Boyfriends.

Icky Boyfriends’ raw, brutal, barbed, bitter, and piercing lo-fi hard rock never really fit the retard rock label: it always felt more intelligent, poetic, desperate, and more severely human than the wonderfully twisted noise produced by the other freaks listed above. Listening to the Ickies’ I’m Not Fascinating LP was (and is), in a strange sense, as vital and psychically wrenching as listening to, say, Neil’s Time Fades Away or Television Personalities’ Painted Word, or even side four of the Jan and Dean Anthology Album.

As I scan these stark, black-and-white, forensic-like photographs of the Ickies from the early- to mid-90s, each damaged rocker dude looks like he might have died by 2005. (Fortunately, none of them did; they just seem a wee bit scarred.) The guy with the long, stringy metal-hair is Shea Bond; he played guitar or bass, but never guitar and bass. (That’s an important fact to remember for all you Beat Happening fans.) The stoned, sleepy-eyed fella is the drummer, Anthony Bedard. He once bled all over his kit and occasionally gnawed on a drumstick when smacking his hi-hat. The savage genius maintaining the massive, skyscraping ‘fro is vocalist Jonathan Swift. He was/is this genuinely brilliant, irate (and somewhat delicate) filthy-mattress outsider poet, even if that phrase now reeks of some urban slamfest nightmare. As the nosy rock journalist dredging up ancient history while constructing this, I felt like Swift possessed the capability to size me up and cut me down at any moment, because that’s what Jon Icky did to the entire fucking world. He would open his trap and sing, scream, wail, and growl scathing, insightful lyrics while his fellow Ickies laid down one cracked punk-jammer after another. Then again, that’s too mythical for these guys. As the Ickies once said, “Fuck that rock star crap.”

Warehouse Beginnings: 1989-90

Anthony: Jon and Shea met at a bus stop [when] they both went to San Francisco State.

Shea: Jon and I had an English class together. I think I actually introduced myself to him in the class, but probably got to know him better on our shared commute. Eventually, we became roommates. Then I’d set up my four-track and say, “Okay, Jon, when I push record, start your lyrics. I’ve got some riffs. I’ll play along.”

Jon: When I moved to San Francisco, I met Shea and moved in with him. He was a guitarist and bassist, and we started writing songs. Someone had to sing ‘em.

Anthony: Jon and Shea were doing these four-track recordings, and I thought they were so fucking funny, weird, and cool. They were just vocals and guitar – bedroom recordings basically. It was “Frank: A Rock Opera.” [Clocking in at an epic 5:28.] I was like, “Holy shit. We got to get this guy Jon over here.”

Jon: Shea and I thought we’d write a rock opera for people with short attention spans. We were both major Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood fans thanks to Nicholos – a friend of ours who wanted to make films but died of AIDS before he could realize his ambitions. Naming the character “Frank” may have been some kind of unconscious tribute to Nicholos. You know who Nancy’s dad was…

Anthony: Shea was living in [a] warehouse that had been the headquarters of Ralph Records. Snakefinger used to live there. There were all these folks living in this place and paying almost no rent. We would get Jon to come over, and we would drive [his] roommates nuts.

Jon: As a child, I heard lots of traditional mountain music and loved singers like Sara Carter and Jean Ritchie. I always loved the delivery Lord Buckley would use in his routines. I like Patti Smith’s sense of drama in songs like “Piss Factory” and “Ain’t It Strange,” where she tells stories instead of just expressing moods. Tom Verlaine’s vocals on Marquee Moon are great. ….. And Charles Manson was a fine singer who wrote some good songs. To deny that just because he is a psychotic asshole would be magical thinking.

Shea: For me, the songs began with riffs. I was matching them to Jon’s lyrics. The riffs were either bass- or guitar-specific so there usually wasn’t a decision to use one instrument or the other, just which riffs better matched the lyrics.

Anthony: We would lock Jon in the closet so we weren’t even with him. We would just start playing in the other room. I was teaching myself the drums as we went along; I simply played along to Shea’s riffs. We didn’t even set out to play shows—it was more of just getting together to jam and record these songs. Then this guy, Kyle, came over. He booked shows at this club [the Covered Wagon], and he offered us a show. We were like, “Okay.” But, we didn’t set out to be a rock band. We didn’t set out to get tight. We didn’t set out to even get better. We just recorded everything we did.

Icky Boyfriends as a “Real” Band: 1991-94

[Scott Derr ran the seldom-heard-of, but profoundly influential, Blackjack Records and mail order. He released two Icky Boyfriends singles, Cuckoo (1994) and End of Lust (1995). Scott was also the bassist for Bay Area psych-rock legends-living-in-obscurity, Monoshock, from whom Comets on Fire learned a thing or two.]

Scott: The Ickies were the greatest—very antagonistic, but loveable at the same time. Anthony is just a rock animal on the drums. He’s one of the best I’ve seen or played with. Shea had this creepy wandering eye. In my memory, he was a hunchback. And, Jon was really the icing on the cake— the perfect front man.

Anthony: Jon and Shea were into Frederick Wiseman documentaries like Titicut Follies. Wiseman used this painfully real documentary style. A lot of the lyrics that Jon sung and wrote were like this stuff. … They were things that were happening to Jon on the street. We were never about intentional artiness. We were about this raw, naked realism, and even that wasn’t intentional.

Shea: The word “catharsis” comes to mind, but I hate when people use that word or its variations. Also, depression and despair were important emotions driving our band.

Enjoyable experiences may make life bearable, but they don’t make good art. Conflict does that. That’s why instead of singing, “We got stoned and had a great time.” I’d rather sing, “I was lying in a hospital bed,” or, “I started a new kind of bank. I give money to junkies, and I don’t get it back.”

Jon: Enjoyable experiences may make life bearable, but they don’t make good art. Conflict does that. That’s why instead of singing, “We got stoned and had a great time.” I’d rather sing, “I was lying in a hospital bed,” or, “I started a new kind of bank. I give money to junkies, and I don’t get it back.” We tried to make great, irritating music, but we didn’t always get there. You should hear what got left off the CDs! And, as for confrontation? I dug it! High school chicks yelling “Go home. You suck!” when we opened for Mudhoney. What’s not to like about that?

Anthony: We played with this group called Beardo once. They played wearing fake beards. We played with them at the Pony Express pizza parlor in Redwood City. The woman who ran the place was trying to shut off the power while we were playing; she was actually at the fuse box pulling every single switch. Power was going out in different parts of the pizza parlor as we were playing, but she never found the right switch. There was just something about us that managed to irritate a bunch of different people from different scenes.

Jon: [W]e never felt the need to stir up the audience, like Jello Biafra hiring beefy thugs to elbow their way through the crowd at early Dead Kennedys gigs. Instead, we let our music do it.

Anthony: Jello Biafra even sent us a letter on official Alternative Tentacles stationary saying, “Hey, I got a friend who just moved to town. He’s a bass player. You guys looking for a bass player? I’ll send him your way.” [W]e weren’t even looking for a bass player. He was just fucking with us.

Anthony: At the time, San Francisco was dominated by all this thrash-funk and grunge—totally sexy-rock-male posturing. And, all of a sudden, Icky Boyfriends were doing their thing. Up on stage, we had this sexually frustrated vibe going. We didn’t have traditional rock instrumentation. People would yell, “Where’s the bass?” … Then, in the middle of the set, Shea would switch his guitar for a bass and start playing. And, people were really pissed off about [it].

Shea: But annoyance wasn’t our driving force or main purpose. I was really trying to make funny and catchy songs. At first, most of the songs were about sexual mishaps, especially where contraceptives were involved. Later, more were about social issues and overexposure to ads and media. I guess the subject matter is itself annoying to some.

We made these skeletal, bombastic, free-for-all rock songs. When people saw us live, I think they saw Jon shrieking at them—probably about things they didn’t want to hear about. … People would recoil the minute we started playing.

Anthony: In the very early days, there were occasions when we would enter social situations and people were kind of vibed-out by Jon or creeped-out by him. He was such a great guy to talk to, but many people had this instinctive, aversive reaction to him. He would enter a room twirling his hair and mumbling to himself. And this was only intensified up on stage.

Scott: I remember them coming over to my apartment in Oakland to stuff their singles into sleeves. Anthony took me aside and asked if I had any provocative reading material for Jon. They didn’t want him stuffing singles because he was constantly twisting his hair, and apparently, when they put their LPs together, a number of them had Jon’s big, greasy paw prints on them.

Jon: The reason for the handprints on th I’m Not Fascinating cover is because of the kind of ink we used.

Cinematic Endings: 1995

Shea: There was a slight loss of interest at some point combined with a desire not to run things into the ground and ruin the beauty that had come before. We didn’t have a fight or anything like that. There were also definite lifestyle issues. Can you tell I’m being intentionally vague? But these weren’t really the main or sole causes of the end.

Anthony: By the end, we were becoming a fairly tight rock machine while, at the same time, the personal problems around the band were totally fucked-up and blowing the band apart: hospitalizations, seizures, and arrests. … I think Jon was starting to think that I was forcing him into something that he really didn’t want to do anymore. And I kept pushing the band because I thought [it] was still really exciting and fun. It started as a warehouse recording-project that accidentally fell into a live rock band. We actually got tight in spite of ourselves.

Shea: Some of us were fairly fucked-up individuals, but we’re better now.

Anthony: For a couple years, Jon had been threatening to leave San Francisco. He was always very vocal about how much he hated this city. … Around 1995, he said he was moving to Baltimore. Once we realized he was leaving, we were like, “Fuck, we got to make this movie that we’ve been talking about for three years.”

[I’m Not Fascinating –The Movie! (a Past It/Small Gauge Shotgun co-release) went straight to video in 1997. It was directed by Danny Plotnick, and, “chronicles the pointless shenanigans of rock ‘n’ roll ne’er-do-wells the Icky Boyfriends and their futile quest for rock ‘n’ roll stardom. Undaunted by the universal hatred of both their music and their look, the band perseveres netting themselves a hefty major label contract…One of the most resplendent footnotes of rock ‘n’ roll anti-history ever to grace the silver screen.”]

Jon: To me, nobody, at least in music, has ever summed up the nebulous quality of life in San Francisco like the Jefferson Airplane and Grace Slick’s previous group, the Great Society, with lines like, “Today I know what I want to do, but I don’t know what for” … “I looked out my window, a cloud was grimly forming,” … “You are the crown of creation and you’ve got no place to go,” … and “Was it just something that I made up for fun?” I like that people in San Francisco are less career-oriented than in New York and Los Angeles. I mean, what other town could produce the Grateful Dead and Flipper?

Anthony: We were living in the middle of a junkie town, and then the “dotcom boom” hit. Between ‘95 and ’96, San Francisco went from being this totally rundown town for art refugees to being a place for these well-heeled hipster kids. It was a weird, cataclysmic event in this city. It broke a lot of shit apart. Maybe Jon split just in time. He would have hated this city even more had he experienced the dotcom boom.

Jon: San Francisco—I at least cared enough about the place to write songs about hating it.

Jon: The band was fun when it started, but, as it went along, relations grew worse, though I thought the music we were making just kept getting better. Each record was better than the last one. We were three very different people, or, as someone once told me, “It’s as if three guys who never met before happened to walk onto the same stage.” As for the group breaking up, I think everyone was ready for that to happen. Shea got married and dropped out of the music scene. He was in three other groups besides the Ickies. Anthony started another band with Dave Nudelman [the Resineators], who played my replacement in the movie. Our last gig at the Purple Onion was great, and I’m glad it ended that way. Plus, it was thrilling to be standing on the same stage where Tom Smothers sang “Mediocre Fred”!

Anthony: Maybe after a certain point, Jon got sick of being out in front all the time. But, had he stayed in San Francisco then I would have wanted to keep doing the band.

by Swingset Magazine on 9/11/2012 in Features | Tags: , , , , , ,