Thursday, July 19, 2007

Dumb Job (1993) – Oiler

About 14 years ago, I was stopped at a red light in my hometown. A former classmate, John Baker, pulled up beside me and we exchanged salutations. He told me to come and see his band, Oiler, play. (Regrettably, I never did.) A few days later, I went to my favorite independent record shop for a weekly replenishment and saw an Oiler/Rig split 7”. I purchased it and went home, eager to listen. Oiler’s contribution to the single, “Asphalt Field,” fit right in with the Amphetamine Reptile brand of noisecore I was immersed in at the time—more Helios Creed than Helmet, but enjoyably raucous nonetheless.

Let me back up a little, for my musical proclivities owe a great debt to said Mr. Baker.

I was a lonely loser in seventh grade. I was the guy who had signs taped on his back by cruel pranksters. I had one friend, and he was privy to the “in” crowd, so I had always hoped that, being one step removed, I could eventually qualify for inclusion in their exclusivity. In eighth grade, John, a member of the “in” crowd, was kind enough to at least acknowledge my existence and associate with me on a friendly level. I felt as though he took me under his wing, if not out of pity, then perhaps out of human decency.

He was always one step ahead of the crowd, extremely bright, handsome, popular, and, quite frankly, I don’t think he even gave a fuck. I suppose that’s why he extended a hand of friendship to me: he saw a pathetic figure who needed someone to show the way when others wouldn’t. From there, I idolized John’s stylistic sense, and took a cue from his musical outlook and academic pursuits. We would pound out the urban beats of “Planet Rock” and “Looking For The Perfect Beat” on our desks, yet he wasn’t ashamed to admit that the glamorous Duran Duran was rad. When I wanted to take Japanese or French, he coaxed me into taking Latin (which believe it or not, came to have its benefits). We were both going to be brain surgeons, you see. And I say that without the least bit of sarcasm. Well, at least HE was smart enough to become a brain surgeon.

He was a fan of what were at the time relatively cutting-edge bands like The Cure, Echo and The Bunnymen and Dead Kennedys, while I proclaimed on my Pee-Chee All-Season Portfolio an allegiance to radio-friendly new wave like Berlin, A Flock of Seagulls, Missing Persons and Billy Idol. He sported extreme and colorful skull-adornment choices before I ever dared to gallivant with my approximations of Robert Smith or Ian McCulloch gravity-defying hairstyles.

My high school years proved to be rich with drama, each fanciful misstep enhanced and exacerbated by the backdrop of what was then known as “alternative” music. But, I may never have ventured out of the mainstream were it not for John’s waywardness by example. I aspired to his exhibitionism in calling attention to oneself through flagrance, and his inscrutableness in caring fuck-all about what people thought. He influenced me both in terms of cultural tastes and self-esteem.

Although we drifted apart in high school—he went full-on hardcore punk, while I sank into the depths of quasi-gothdom—he opened my mind to music that eschewed the popular conventions that were polluting my classmates’ minds. And, I was reminded of his excellence when he wandered down the auditorium aisle all zombified, cutting a Sid Vicious-like figure covered in stage-blood in the senior class’s humanities production of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. This dude was awesome.

At one point during junior high, John and I had briefly traded basses—I have to believe he did this out of benevolence, as I had a crappy Rowland (not misspelled) bass, and he had, if I recall correctly, a candy-red Fender P-bass. It’s not surprising that he eventually came to play bass for Oiler.

On “Dumb Job,” my favorite Oiler track, John doesn’t threaten to eclipse Geddy Lee’s virtuosity by any means, instead adopting the modus operandi of indie musicians: hawk attitude as an aesthetic over ostentation. Here, the bass plays a standard part, anchoring the low-end in workmanlike fashion, laboring beneath a constant slab of guitar fuzz and clanging sheet-metal percussion. Female vocals, courtesy of “Beth,” air the grievances of a proletariat with singer potential, alternating between antagonistic Wicked Witch of the West growls and Moon Unit Zappa valley girl jadedness. Clocking in at a shade under two minutes, it fits the bill as a smoke break anthem for misfits with a mall job.

After briefly speaking with John in the early nineties at a rehearsal studio, at a record store, and then at the traffic intersection, I saw him on the cover of a local ‘zine as a member of Charles Brown Superstar (with Benett). Then, I lost track of him. Someone had spotted him at a computer convention, and a couple of years ago, my father briefly spoke with his mother at a community event. But I suppose the fact that I haven’t seen him in 14 years perpetuates his status as cult hero in my mind.

John, if for some reason you ever come across this, I would like to thank you for planting the seeds of enlightenment in a hobbledehoy who longed to ditch pariahdom. You really made a difference in my life.

  • Not available from iTunes Music Store.