by Jim Harris
They were my first band. We
formed in 1958 (when I was 11), and played until 1965. We were
best friends and did everything together. There were no girlfriends,
no social interests really outside of our life as Dirtbombs. We
had a theme song, and we had uniforms - blue sweatshirts and French
berets - that we wore constantly. We were so strange that all
of the other kids in school pretty much left us alone.
Originally called Danny &
the Dirtbombs (after Danny & the Juniors), we eventually dropped
the "Danny" part, since there was no one by that name
in the group. With the advent of rock and roll, the garage band
was becoming so much a part of teenage life that Sears was selling
guitar amplifiers right next to the refrigerators and lawn mowers.
Armed with one Silvertone amp and three Zim-Gar Japanese guitars
from Leonard's pawn shop, we set off to make musical history.
The lineup was Me - rhythm guitar, Dave - lead guitar, Ray -percussion
(bongos, pots, a hat box, and a cymbal), and Billy on bass and
Dave was the brooding anti-hero.
His nickname was "Hundig", from a character in German
mythology. Dave had an inexplicable fascination with Wagner's
"Ring Cycle" of operas. Quite strange, since, other
than that one significant aberration, he had no aspirations to
any culture higher than Looney Tunes. Almost immediately after
the formation of our group, he began writing his autobiography,
"Sweat Over Strings". I don't think he ever got beyond
Ray had the most high-powered,
insane sense of humor of anyone I ever knew. He was always acting
out some bizarre parody or other, and no one and nothing was safe
from his scathing scrutiny. This was my first inkling that all
drummers are crazy.
I guess I was funny too, but
mostly I really loved the music.
Billy was at the bottom of the
pecking order, the only rank and file member in a group full of
officers. We made him do all the grunt work, like documenting
our every move in photographs for posterity. Why he put up with
us, I'll never know for sure, but looking back, I can see that
he was both the smartest and the frailest of us all. I think
he felt safe being part of the group.
We had only one paying gig, a
cub scout banquet, and after that artistic triumph, we decided
that we had nothing left to prove on stage, and would henceforth
devote our time to recording. I had a big German reel-to-reel
tape recorder with drive belts that kept breaking. No multi-tracks
then, not even stereo. It was full of noise & hiss but it
sounded great to us.
Our improvisational tracks invariably
began with one of us announcing a nonsensical title, e.g., "Arctic
Monkey Wrench", usually thought up immediately after the
tape started running, followed by an angelic 4-part acapella falsetto
chant, (the prelude), then exploded into a cacophony of shrieks,
pots, and bugle calls (the fanfare), and settled into a long,
frenetic, incessant interchange of two totally unrelated chords
(the development). The piece would end when we all started laughing,
a belt broke, or the tape ran out (the finale).
We also had preconceived songs,
of which Dave & I were the composers. We wrote about absolutely
everything we did or saw, and were fiercely competitive with each
other. When he came in with the darkly Freudian "Do Not Enter",
I countered with the whimsical "Left Turn Only". Sometimes
he would learn a popular tune and tell me that he wrote it. For
almost a year, I thought he wrote "Willow Weep for Me",
until I heard it on the radio. Our favorite group was the Beach
Boys until the Beatles arrived, which was really near the end
of our existence as a group. When we heard the fab four, we were
blown away by their familiar sense of fun & irreverence. It
was after all, the dawning of an age.
We drifted apart after high school.
I was the only one to stay in the neighborhood, and the only one
to remain a musician. These days, I'm always looking ahead, trying
to finish the next piece before the tape runs out, but the Dirtbombs
were the soundtrack to my wonder years, and hardly a day goes
by that I don't look back and smile.