Whoever it was that declared the teenage years “the best years of your life” was presumably a freak of nature who had emerged fully mature from his mother’s birth canal in time to celebrate his twenty-first, marry into money and take up a remunerative position with a European bank. Nobody who has endured the abject misery of teenagerhood, enlivened only by episodes of furtive masturbation, substance abuse and ritual humiliation in the schoolyard, could formulate such an expression.
For all I know today’s sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds ameliorate their crushing ennui by huffing Glen 20 – that would explain myspace’s aesthetic – but in my day (says the grizzled elder, clutching at his creaking lower vertebrae) we stuck it to the man – and his eardrums – by forming bands. At least that’s what my friends and I did. There were other kids at our school who made the best of a bad decade by being popular, having sex (often with people other than themselves) and graduating into the welcoming arms of top universities. I’m sure they’re all really miserable now, though.
My band was called Crumb, nominally after the artist Robert Crumb, with whom I was familiar thanks to Terry Zwigoff’s eye-opening 1994 documentary. The name was later (and rather unfortunately) changed to Kull Wahad, an Arabic-derived expression found in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune that Herbert translates as “I am profoundly stirred”. To be honest I suspect we were, if anything, profoundly stoned. At the time I didn’t know that there had already been a raft of Dune-inspired music, most of it French or German in origin, and most of it sharing our project’s pretentiousness and lack of popular appeal.
The original Crumb line-up was myself (guitar, vocals - as opposed to "singing"), Andy (drums) and Mike (bass). Mike bought his bass specifically so he could join in with Andy and I; after two rehearsals we unceremoniously dumped him in favour of another friend, Andrew, whose spider-like dexterity and commitment to actually learning how to play his instrument made him a formidable recruit.
Although as a matter of principle I despised Eddie Van Halen and everything he stood for – whatever that might be: chicks and whammy bars, I guess – I was nonetheless inspired by his example. In an interview I read in some guitar-wanker magazine, Eddie revealed that his astonishing fretboard technique developed through diligent practice, day after day, year after year. I attempted to follow his example, but no matter how hard I practiced I never seemed to move beyond a certain basic facility.
Not that it mattered: Crumb’s music was built around simple power chord progressions, and the style of any particular song was usually stolen wholesale from whatever band I was listening to at the time. Our songs had titles, but were just as often referred to by their inspiration. There was “the Helmet Song” and “the Archers of Loaf Song” and (somewhat shamefully) “the Korn song”. We were nothing if not eclectic, writing Wire-esque scorchers one day, moody prog instrumentals the next, jaunty novelty tunes inspired by Simpsons quotations the day after that.
My parents were tolerant of my musical career. Most of our rehearsals, or “jams”, as we called them with musicianly fervour, were held at our house. The neighbours occasionally complained about having their Saturday mornings interrupted by our feedback-soaked performances of two-thirds of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (I couldn’t play the solo), but fuck them, right? Rock on, etc.
The one and only time my parents sat down and listened to our songs – on tape, mind; they dared not enter the room when we played live – they were underwhelmed. “It’s a bit… bassy,” Dad said. “The songs all sound very similar.” I explained that I had played them instrumental versions, lacking the key vocal element. “I hope your lyrics aren’t full of swear words,” Mum said. “No,” I said, keen to defend my art. “I mean, there are some swear words, but mostly my lyrics are about girls and society and… and The Simpsons.” There was an uncomfortable silence after which my parents thanked me for sharing my music. “You’re obviously quite passionate about it,” Dad said. It was never mentioned again.
Crumb/Kull Wahad never played any proper gigs, not least because I couldn’t sing and play guitar simultaneously. I couldn’t really sing or play guitar independently either, which may have been why Andy and Andrew formed a side-project with a proper guitarist named Miles, for a series of backyard gigs. As the band dwindled into non-existence, I used Andy’s four-track tape recorder to lay down a series of solo tracks, none of which went on to become quirky hit singles on JJJ in the manner of Beck’s “Loser”.
I remember telling my parents that I didn’t want to go to uni straight after high school, that I wanted to take a year off to “focus on my music”. Kind-hearted, Glen Campbell-enjoying folks that they are, I doubt they laughed themselves to sleep that night, but they would have been well within their rights to do so. I was a shocking muso and never would have gotten anywhere. On the other hand, I haven’t gotten anywhere anyway. Perhaps it’s time to get the band together again, for one last shot at the big time.