“If you want to be part of MY world, I’ll accept you with open arms”: We say farewell to the late Northwest punk/garage legend and lifelong champion of the DIY aesthetic. (Above photo by Michael Passman exclusively for BLURT.)
BY FRED MILLS
When the final chapter is writ, one of my greatest regrets will be having never seen Fred Cole perform live. Sure, I have all the records—from the Clackamas, Oregon, rocker’s ‘60s garage outfits The Weeds and Lollipop Shoppe, through his legendary two-decade run fronting Dead Moon, to Pierced Arrows, which ran from 2007 to 2016, at which point his increasingly poor health dictated that he finally call it quits.
In rock ‘n’ roll, of course, we never say “never,” always holding out hope for another encore, just one more song. With Cole’s passing this week at the age of 69, that hope is permanently dashed. (Go elsewhere on the BLURT site to read our Cole obituary; he’d recently experienced a serious scare involving bleeding in his liver, and According to Willamette Week, despite treatment had remained “still very ill.”) Cole’s passing was announced at the Facebook pages for Dead Moon and Pierced Arrows:
I’m so sorry to have to let you know that Fred lost his battle with cancer & passed away peacefully in his sleep last night, Nov 9, 2017. Thanks you one & all for all the years & memories we all shared together, for being friends first & business partners second, so proud to be a part of your lives.
Fred had that quality of being “immortal” and I believe his songs & recordings will make it so. We can always hear his voice & his passion there and remember it like it was only yesterday & will go on forever. I love you all, Toody
“The last train is leaving
Can’t you read the signals in my eyes
And I’m standing on the platform
Waiting for the ones I’ve left behind”
Losing our musical heroes has become increasingly, depressingly, commonplace, and each of us deal with it in different ways—pulling out the albums, of course, or attending a candlelight vigil at a relevant shrine, or even organizing a tribute concert where other musicians can also work through their grief. In one sense, then, I’m luckier than many fans, because as a music journalist since the late ‘70s I’ve sometimes had the privilege of interviewing the deceased, and as a result, those earlier one-on-ones take on a deeper and richer resonance for me—and additional salve for the grief, a way to pull close to the artist one last time.
What follows, then, is a pair of interviews I conducted with Fred Cole, along with his wife and longtime bass-playing musical foil in both Dead Moon and Pierced Arrows, Toody Cole. The first conversation with the couple, conducted by phone for Harp magazine, to Oregon in July of 2006, was on the occasion of the impending release of a two-CD anthology from Sub Pop, Echoes of the Past, that essayed the trio’s recorded career to date, most of which the Coles had released (in lathe-cut mono, no less) on their own Tombstone label. Concurrent with Echoes was the DVD release of a documentary on the band, Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story, so for the story I also talked to Jason Summers and Kate Fix of Magic Umbrella Films, both of whom proved invaluable resources.
One quote that sticks out in my memory from that ’06 interview was from Toody Cole, who spoke of her husband in terms both peer-admiring and industry-defiant: “Fred was going to be great at whatever he did. He’s also the kind of guy that you don’t tell him he can’t do something. If you do – he’s so there. He’s a great inspiration.”
Unbeknownst to me at the time, Dead Moon was on its last legs. A few months after the release of the CD and the film, in December, Fred Cole posted an announcement on the Sub Pop website, writing, “After 20 yrs, Dead Moon is retiring. It has been a journey we will always treasure and feel that a worldwide family has emerged in its place. Dead Moon became much bigger than the band itself, it became a DYI underground hopeful for a lot of people. The candle is still burning!” So that was that. Although it soon became clear that Fred and Toody remained very much a personal and musical unit, because while drummer Andrew Loomis was now out of the picture (sadly, in 2016 he would pass away, from lung cancer), by May of the following year the Coles were back in business as Pierced Arrows, tapping Kelly Haliburton for kit duties. By 2008 there was a Tombstone-issued Pierced Arrows album, with more records to come.
Then in early 2010 I’m on the phone again, this time for Stomp and Stammer zine, with Fred and Toody, getting the state-of-Pierced-Arrows broken down for me. That feature, along with the prior one for Harp, appears below—both stories in, you guessed it, director’s cut/expanded form, as I was able to locate my original interview transcripts. What was once around 3500 words is now nearly 9000.
To any Fred Cole devotees out there—and particularly to Toody Cole, if she ever comes across this appreciation—this one’s for you.
And for me, too.
In 1990, a package with an Oregon return address arrived in the mail: Dead Moon’s third album on Tombstone, Defiance. Included was a hand-written note on brown stationery from Fred Cole, thanking me for the reviews I’d written of his band’s previous records. I still have the LP and, of course, the note. Years later, as our 2006 interview was winding down, Fred mentioned that he’d always remembered those early reviews because of our shared first name, and how nice it was to finally connect directly over the phone.
Then he thanked me profusely for being one of the writers who had stuck with the band over the years. I’ll never forget how he put it to me, simply but sincerely:
“Fred, thank you for digging the scene after all this time, and for being into Dead Moon, for this many years.”
R.I.P., Fred Cole. May the angels of Heaven all sing in mono.
Ed. note: Not long ago a Kickstarter campaign was announced by Mississippi Records about a proposed elaborate Dead Moon book + LP project. It appears now that the campaign far surpassed its goal and that a release date has been set for next April.
DEAD MOON: The Whole Story (Originally from Harp magazine, Sept./Oct. 2006, here expanded with previously unpublished quotes.)
Author F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives,” but had he been around in ’87 he might’ve revised that oft-quoted statement. Because that’s when the first stirrings of Dead Moon were heard—and the second stirrings of Fred Cole. Slithering outta the Portland, Ore., garage/punk underground to chart a purposeful trajectory into the Amerindie scene’s consciousness, Dead Moon – singer/guitarist Cole, his wife Toody on bass and vocals, drummer Andrew Loomis – has been in the national and international spotlight ever since.
Jason Summers, of Magic Umbrella Films, which did the 2004 documentary Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story, first heard the band around ’91 and summarizes the band’s sonic appeal thusly: “That was back when Nirvana was starting to get big and Dead Moon just sounded nothing like what was becoming college alternative pop — kinda creepy, more rootsy, and somehow having a vein that went way back in history. No matter what style they play, it’s got their signature style. It could be a country song or a ballad or a screaming punk song, but it’s always got some kind of cobwebs on it.”
“We don’t care anymore!” cackles Cole, from his home in Clackamas, near Portland, when I ask him what motivates him year after year, but you sense his flippancy’s a self-deprecating ruse. For Cole, he of the leather-lunged, Arthur Lee-meets-Roky Erickson howl, serial killer riffs and outside-of-society lyrics, and a staunch DIY lifer, these past two decades must have been a hugely gratifying second act.
Addressing the rabid core of fans that snap up Dead Moon’s independently-released records and pack punk rock clubs whenever the band tours, Cole adds, “Come see us live again, soon. Come and see a fat old fuck play some real rock ‘n’ roll!”
He laughs again, this time proudly. Yeah, he cares. A lot.
Despite his contemporary project’s tenure and popularity, Fred Cole’s first time around in the music biz was in no way an inauspicious one. Born in Tacoma in 1948, as a teen Cole wound up in Las Vegas where he worked with several bands – among them, the otherwise all-black R&B band Deep Soul Cole and Top 40 covers outfit The Lords – before notching some regional success in 1965 as the lead singer for the more garage-leaning The Weeds. The following year saw the band relocate to Portland – to evade the Vietnam draft, they’d headed off for Canada, only to have their van break down en route – and they began gigging regularly up and down the West Coast, sharing bills with the likes of Big Brother & the Holding Company, Seeds, Chocolate Watchband, Buffalo Springfield, Love and the Doors.
The Weeds subsequently changed their name to the more teen-palatable Lollipop Shoppe and, signing with UNI Records, released an album (1968’s Just Colour) and scored a hit single (“You Must Be A Witch,” which would become an oft-covered staple of the garage/psych genre ripe for rediscovery during the Nuggets milieu). By ’69, though, the band had run its course.
Cole continued to make music in Portland, but meanwhile, he was also enjoying the domestic life. When the Weeds first landed in Portland in ’66, he’d caught the eye of Kathleen “Toody” Connor, a young, dark-haired beauty fresh out of Catholic high school, and intrigued by “this tall, skinny lead singer in the hottest band in town.” Love at first sight?
“Oh God, yeah,” gushes Toody. “Well, it was attraction at first sight. You gotta understand, I was a sweet Catholic girl, and he had a notorious reputation. So it was an oil and water thing. I totally expected him to be the biggest egocentric airhead from hell. But once we actually got together and talked, which we did a lot of, it was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re nothing like I imagined you would be…’ Once you actually get to know somebody…”
“I just wanted to do the ‘please don’t’ with her!” interjects Fred, referring to a certain carnal Dead Moon lyric of his from the song “Poor Born.” “But no, she just knocked my socks off. And she was so arrogant and just thought, ‘Oh God…’ and wouldn’t let me touch her. So every night either before or after a gig she and I would go up to the park and talk and eat red liquorish – I was on a band budget, making about 80 cents a day to eat, and saving up our money to record, so I’d buy a big package of Red Vines, and that’s basically what happened for two months. Everybody would say, ‘Fred – pffftt, forget about it, there’s no way this is gonna work out.’ Her parents thought she was a lesbian because she didn’t hang out with guys. I remember when her dad finally met me, and I stuck my head in his car window and all he saw was all my hair, and his eyes got real wide, like on the Little Rascals.”
Fred and Toody married on June 14, 1967, a little fact they had to hide from Fred’s image- and career-conscious bandmates. Says Fred, “People would’ve freaked. In ’67, if you’re the lead singer in a band and you’re married, you can forget about it!”
The Cole-Connor union (which recently celebrated its 39th anniversary and to date has resulted in three children and seven grandkids) would yield more than just marital bliss. In 1976, on the heels of several underappreciated bands — notably hard rock quartet Zipper, which released an eponymous LP in ’74 on Cole’s fledgling Whizeagle label – Cole, inspired by the Ramones, Sex Pistols and the rest of the punk explosion, put together hi-octane trio the Rats. The band lasted until 1983 and issued three albums on Whizeagle, a Spinal Tap-esque drummer scenario ultimately deep-sixing the popular outfit’s aspirations. But with Toody tapped by Fred for bass chores in the Rats, one of indiedom’s most enduring musical partnerships was forged.
“I always had a thing about getting up on stage and always thought it would be drama or something like that, but it never worked out,” says Toody. “So Fred did me one of the biggest favors anybody can do: ‘Hey, get your ass up there, I know it’s gonna make you crazy, but…’ It took me a lot of years to get comfortable. But I just love it! So he picked the right time, and started me with something pretty basic. He hadn’t played that much guitar at that point himself. He just kinda wanted a bunch of amateurs to get up there, hammer away, and see what happens. Luckily for me he pressured me into it.”
What happened, of course, would be Dead Moon.
After the Rats’ demise Fred briefly indulged a Country & Western fetish with cowpunk trio Western Front, but his garage roots soon beckoned. One night in ’87, while on vacation and driving across the desert, Fred gazed up at a crimson-hued moon and suggested Red Moon as a good moniker for the back-to-basics combo they’d recently been brainstorming. Toody countered with Dead Moon, and the name stuck. Fred remembered a talented Portland drummer, Andrew Loomis, late of a Plimsouls-like new wave combo called the Boy Wonders, then working at local punk club Satyricon, and an audition was arranged.
“Now that was love at first sight,” recalls Toody. “Andrew had been coming to see us when we had the Rats and we didn’t even realize he was a big fan of ours. Instant chemistry. And we’d had so much trouble in the Rats trying to keep a drummer, so we thought, hey, we’ve got something that works, and Fred had been through breakups with the Weeds/Lollipop Shoppe, so when you’ve waited for 25 years to get it back again, you ain’t gonna let it go again the second time. It’s like falling in love, getting married, and then realizing that it’s a working relationship; sometimes things fuck up, but you don’t just say hey, hit the door jack.”
Now, even at their most vibrant, local music scenes can be pitiless towards new bands, even those fronted by a more or less known quantity such as Fred Cole. And Dead Moon definitely paid their dues early on, playing mostly cover tunes and taking gigs at any regional dive that would have them. Remembers Toody, “We played in this one place and came on after the local amateur comics finished doing their spiels – oh my God, it was unbelievable! But in a lot of ways it made us who we are. It was a very humbling experience, and to this day we appreciate it when people show up.”
But with the release, in 1988, of their first couple of 45s, “Don’t Burn the Fires” b/w “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “Parchment [sic] Farm” b/w “Hey Joe,” and debut album In The Graveyard, both on the Coles’ second homegrown label, Tombstone, the Dead Moon snowball began rolling. Wildly enthusiastic national reviews ensued for this “music too tough to die” (as the Tombstone motto defiantly proclaimed) – primarily from the fanzine sector, where yours truly, writing for The Bob, drooled over Dead Moon’s “incendiary rumble” and “feral yowlps” of “primitive garage-rock fuggit-all.” Ahem.
Hype-laden wordsmithery aside, reviewers consistently hailed the group’s primitive yet incendiary sound and took due note of the band’s steadfast avoidance of effects such as reverb and echo, not to mention their preference for recording in monophonic. For his birthday one year, Toody bought Fred a vintage mono lathe, reportedly the same one the Kingsmen had used years earlier to cut “Louie, Louie”; to the notoriously frugal Fred, saving money by cutting his own record masters was a no-brainer. This turned out to be a telling aesthetic/practicality factoid not lost upon other reviewers, including Spin’s Byron Coley and the influential editor of Britain’s Bucketful of Brains, Jon Storey. Second and third albums Unknown Passage (1989) and Defiance (1990) followed in short order, each to similar underground press raves.
The aforementioned snowball turned into an avalanche upon Dead Moon’s inaugural overseas trek, which came at the instigation of Hans Kesteloo, owner of Germany’s Music Maniac label. Kesteloo, a die-hard garage freak a Fred Cole fan, had met Greg Sage of the Wipers while on tour in Europe; Sage, who knew the Coles from their Rats days and also frequented their Portland instrument store, Tombstone Music, agreed to put Kesteloo in touch with Dead Moon. Kesteloo subsequently licensed some Dead Moon tracks for a pair of Music Maniac compilations, and when the band landed in Europe in 1990, Fred, Toody and Andrew were treated like conquering heroes. (The Music Maniac alliance for Tombstone’s European market continues to this day.)
Fred, devoted to the one guitar/one amp school of touring, still marvels at the reception they got. “Our tour manager over there had toured with all the biggest bands – he had been doing the Lemonheads, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed. He showed up at the airport with this huge fucking van and 14 guitar stands in the back. ‘Dude, I only bring one guitar…’ The van was probably 3 times bigger than what we needed for the little bit of gear we carry!”
Toody notes, of the European market, “They accepted us like gangbusters over there! Same with a lot of different bands, like the Gories, that would go over and the Europeans just loved.” Dead Moon would return to Europe time after time in the years to follow; nowadays both Coles will eagerly single out certain cities where they have the equivalent of an extended family they look forward to seeing on each overseas trek. Meanwhile, having a loyal European fanbase allows them to return home with a profit, which partly explains why U.S. Dead Moon tours, while not necessarily rare, are neither as frequent nor as extensive.
“I always look forward to touring, especially Europe,” says Toody. “You know what hard work it’s going to be, what it’s going to take out of you, and it’s not like those early years when it’s so fresh and new that everything’s a surprise and you’re riding so high on emotion. We used to have this rep for playing three hour shows! But there’s another quality you gain from experience, so you try to give every audience the best you’re capable of every night because you realize that this many people are willing to pay the ticket price to see you.”
Such loyalty to their fans mirrors the loyalty that Fred, Toody and Loomis demonstrate towards one another; long ago it was decided that the Dead Moon brand would be retired if for any reason one of the three couldn’t continue. Fans observe this devotion each night when the band undertakes a pre-performance ritual. With just a candle jammed into a Jack Daniels bottle for illumination, the trio gathers at Loomis’ drum kit, leans in to one another, and firmly clasps hands.
“Fred’s very much into ritual and superstitious stuff, repeating things over and over again. He still laughs how as a kid he’d keep going back and touching the top of the door jamb 20 times just to make sure he had a good day that day,” explains Toody. “So we do The Handshake. It’s like, all is forgiven, whatever happened yesterday is in the rearview mirror and does not matter, let’s just go forward. The Handshake is a way to touch bases and let us all know that we love each other.”
Back home, in between tours, the Coles devote their energies to running their record label, operating a maze of other income-generating businesses (Tombstone Music, their instrument shop; Tombstone General Store, a convenience-type mart; and several nearby rental properties), and of course recording Dead Moon records. In mono, natch.
“Basically,” recalls Toody, “we started Tombstone for ourselves just like we did with Whizeagle Records. Then it became almost like a mentoring thing. Locals would ask us how they could get a 45 out, get gigs and all that, so we pressed up local bands, doing it on the cheap, and we got our street creds, so to speak. Then we had bands from all over wanted to have records out on Tombstone. But we haven’t done anything for quite awhile because we’ve been so busy. But we still have people asking all the time. Fred will have a continual lifelong affair with vinyl. He wants someone to listen not to the first song on a CD, but to listen to the whole first side of the record and want to turn it over to see what happens next.”
And the whole Fred Cole-Tombstone Records mono thing? This throwback touch was partly due to Fred’s steadily mounting hearing loss over the years, but it was also borne out of serendipity, explains Toody.
“That just happens to be the lathe he has, an old ’54 model lathe and that’s all it does. And hey, we all grew up with mono, and for him it’s like, ‘I’m deaf anyway, so all I’ve got to do is put two signals in one direction and, bam, they’re there.’ He hates effects, obviously, and there’s the old thing about stereo panning and all this other stuff. He figures, ‘I’m a vocalist, I write these songs, I’m not a guitar god.’ It all goes back to that old crunch of Bob Dylan: keep it simple, and let the songs speak for themselves. If the songs are good, it doesn’t really matter.
“So there’s no frills: you either love it or hate it. For a lot of people, mono is irritating as hell, and for the other half, hey, they love it, so it’s great. You hear all that reverb and compression on records from the ‘80s, and that’s his biggest beef. The reason we sing live and on records with completely dry vocals, no reverb, is so you don’t have to compensate for that. Just let your voice do what it’s supposed to do. He’s a pure naturalist, he really is. To him, effects are cheating. When it gets so homogenized, anybody can sound good. But how can you tell what they really sound like?”
In September Sub Pop, which along with other indie tastemakers such as Sympathy, Empty and Australia’s Dog Meat has occasionally played patron over the years to Dead Moon’s ever-growing back catalog, issues the two-CD Dead Moon career overview Echoes of the Past. Personally compiled by the Coles, it provides a compelling series of snapshots, stretching back to In the Graveyard and running up through 2001’s Trash & Burn – the most recent release is ’04 studio album Dead Ahead – and with a full Sub Pop roll-out slated for the set, it should also boost Dead Moon’s domestic profile considerably.
“The Dead Moon-Sub Pop northwest connection seemed important and valid,” agrees Toody. “And in a way it’s been a godsend that Sub Pop wanted to do this, because, you know, we think everything’s gonna last forever, but once Fred sent back and started messing with these old tapes – whew, you forget how old tapes start disintegrating after awhile. He was going crazy, having to keep re-cleaning the tape heads in order to go back and get what he wanted. He’s like the absent minded professor, so half the tapes he ever had were recordings in boxes, sometimes labeled with what songs and in what order, sometimes with nothing written on there. So a lot of it was disorganization on our part. And as I said, with the Sub Pop thing now, it’s great to know that in a way all of this is going to be saved if those tapes are at some point completely unusable. And thank god we have the technology to salvage them.
“We didn’t do any true remixing, but there was a lot of balancing and computer programming to try to even out tones, bring out the bass or drums on certain tracks. I mean, our tapes are – cough – sorrily lacking anyway! Between the different eras, and where we were recording and how we were recording it — and because Fred’s deaf as a post, treble frequencies are lost, so when we are recording he tends to mix the treble up really hot so what he hears sounds right to him. We got our copies a few weeks ago and I’m really impressed. Fred and one of his old bandmates worked on it here, and also Sub Pop went in and tweaked it out again, so they really did a nice job ‘given the quality of workmanship’! [laughs] So in a way the stuff sounds dated – as it should! We did this 15 or 20 years ago.”
Favorite Dead Moon records or songs?
“Oh God,” sighs Toody. Even getting the Sub Pop thing together was tough. Same thing going back and putting together a song list for this upcoming European tour. I love the fact that at different points we don’t listen to our own material that often that it impresses me like crazy all over again. But if I had to pick all over again: What we did on Unknown Passage, between “54-40” and “My Escape,” which happens to be one of my favorite songs. And Defiance, I’m especially proud of “Trash & Burn.” At different points it gets really difficult to pick a favorite.
“Trust me, Fred’s biggest fear, growing up in the ‘60s, there was X amount of bands that had one or two songs and you went out and spent your hard earned money to buy this album and you love this one song so you’re hoping the whole album is awesome – but usually it’s that one song and a lot of filler. So that’s been one of his biggest fears as an avid music fan. Just remembering that. And it was a bonus bonanza when the whole album was great.”
I ask the Coles if they encountered any surprises while sifting through their tape archives, or did they find themselves cringing at any of the old stuff…
“A lot of stuff we hadn’t heard in a long time,” admits Toody, “so honestly, the hardest part was having to pick out what would fit on two discs, and we left out a lot of stuff we wished could go on there. We left off [the first 45] because they were cover songs. And our cover songs, we’ve always kind of done them from memory – ‘Oh yeah, I think it goes like this…’ – and we always get it wrong, which is great, so it’s never a true cover song. It becomes a Dead Moon song. As an added bonus, Fred got the title wrong – it was “Parchman Farm,” not “parchment”! But hey, that’s our style! Our version of “Play With Fire,” which I sang, we left a whole verse out – ‘Whatever, it’s our song!’ [laughs] AC/DC’s “Long Way To The Top,” we got that whole rhythm wrong too, so it’s our song and the way we do it.
“And yes, sometimes I do [cringe] personally, to this day. But hey, that’s one of the unique things about us, and that’s why we say we’re ‘entertainers.’ We’re not ‘musicians’; we learned how to be adequate on our instruments with a certain flair and style, and the chemistry just happens to be magical. Name just about anybody and they can play rings around us. But that’s kinda cool. Part of having that constant struggle where it’s not one of these unbelievable natural born talents – you have to work at it, and that kind comes through. And I think people love the fact that it doesn’t look too easy when we do it.”
“We’re not an all-star band,” interjects Fred.
Agreeing, Toddy adds, “And that’s why we’re amazed that we have so many musicians that are fans. At any point at least 30-50% of people out in front of us at shows are musicians. And we are what you see – this is the real deal meal.”
Fred: “And you better not expect a guitar solo that lasts more than two or three bars, either!”
Both musicians are quick to point out that the gig’s the thing and always has been. Toody, elaborating, recalls wrapping up a particularly memorable, extended 2004 tour.
“And when we got back, I had tendonitis in my left wrist. So we took 9 or 10 months off and didn’t play at all. I was in a brace and basically let it heal. So we played a local gig here, rehearsed once, a fly by the seat of your pants thing. And we got up onstage and we basically fell in love with it all over again. Because at certain points, when you’ve done this many shows, when you know you need to stop is when you get to the point of, ‘Oh my God, this is becoming a job and I’d rather be doing anything else tonight…’
“So this show in Portland, we worried if anybody would remember us and show up, but the house packed out, and my mom, who’s 84, came to the show with my three brothers, and we honestly just had one of those magic nights.
“There’s been other shows like that. Shows at Vera, in Groningen, our second hometown, for example – shows where you feel not just the electricity in the audience but when that electricity and chemistry happens to be working between all three of you. It’s like basketball players being in this zone where they make 15 three pointers in the same game. And you know you can’t do that every night. But when you do, oh my God, there’s not a better high than that. And certain cities just work their magic with us too.”
One of the more intriguing recent twists in the Dead Moon saga is Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story, the feature-length documentary from Magic Umbrella Films, aka North Carolina’s Jason Summers and Kate Fix. The pair initially got the idea to make a film about Dead Moon while working in the film and television industry in New York in the late ‘90s. Fix, who’d attended college in Portland, was already a big fan of Dead Moon and a friend of drummer Loomis; Summers was exposed to the band’s records as a deejay at UNC-Chapel Hill’s WXYC-FM but had never seen Dead Moon live until one night in ’98 when he and Fix spotted a flyer announcing the first-ever NYC Dead Moon gig. After the show, which Summers says “completely blew me away – even Jon Spencer was there in the front row, going nuts,” they invited the band back to their apartment and subsequently kept in touch.
“We’d get these long letters from them on Tombstone letterhead stationery,” recalls Summers, “which seemed to speak volumes about them even before we started broaching the subject [of the film]. We figured if they were that way with us then they must be really genuine.
Fix agrees, saying, “They have such sharp, sharp memories for everything, especially for the number of people they’ve encountered over the years. People are so excited to talk to them and you’re just amazed they can remember meeting someone once for just five minutes.”
Fascinated by both the band’s music and by the musicians as people, Summers and Fix eventually broached the idea of a documentary to Fred; already impressed by some of the Super-8 live video the pair shot of Dead Moon in New York, he agreed, much to their surprise – and delight.
Explains Summers, “We’d become more and more intrigued. Their music had gotten us. But it was the other parts of their lives that really got us. They were so quirky, so eccentric, so many projects going on all the time that it seemed like to them the music was kind of like a derelict hobby. I tend to think that musicians who don’t think of themselves as superstars, there’s something more there to that, about having a lifestyle where you can take all the things you love and build a working life.” Summers mentions the 1969 Robert Elfstrom documentary on Johnny Cash, The Man, His World, His Music, as a “brilliant piece of cinema verite” that influenced him as he and Fix were editing their film.
Indeed, Unknown Passage, while loaded with riveting concert footage, is equally weighted with intimate interviews (including Loomis and the Coles’ three children) and segments showing the Coles going about their daily activities at home and at their businesses, essentially painting a portrait of a couple at peace with the lifestyle they’ve carved out for themselves. A wealth of archival material outlines Fred Cole’s lengthy musical resume – there’s a priceless live clip of the Rats appearing on a Portland cable access TV program in the late ‘70s – while glowing Cole testimonials from the likes of Music Maniac’s Kesteloo, the Kingsmen’s Mike Mitchell and Mudhoney’s Steve Turner add additional context.
One intimate scene has Fred Cole displaying the Dead Moon album masters and casually tossing them around, not heeding the potential for damaging them. Summers says that’s his favorite part of the movie. “It reminds me of William Blake or something etching his little copper plates. Fred looks like Ben Franklin in his dirty robe with his bi-focals on, going through tape after tape after tape, getting these ancient machines working.”
Summers recalls their initial filming sessions of the band as being a literal trial by concert-trail fire. Fred, shortly after giving his blessing to the project, called the filmmakers up and asked them if they wanted to join them, 11th-hour style, on a European tour. The next thing they knew, Summers and Fix were getting off a plane in Amsterdam. “We’re in the parking lot going to get into the rental van,” says Summers, laughing at the memory, “and Fred got us in headlocks and made everybody get into a huddle. He says, ‘All right, if anybody fucks with you, you’re not with us – you’re in Dead Moon now. Do you understand? You’re IN the band!’ Then we broke the huddle and went into our first play – in the van, and go!”
“We tried to stay quiet and out of the way while rolling,” observes Fix. “In fact, our presences made it more fun for them. We felt like we were the honored guests, being shown around Europe, being introduced to all their many friends they’ve made while touring over there.”
Adds Toody Cole, “It worked out great – we loved the film. And we became really good friends with Jason and Kate, too.”
The self-financed film took approximately four years, from inception to final editing, to complete; in 2004 it was screened extensively at film festivals (a pair of memorable screenings in Australia and New Zealand featured live performances from Dead Moon!) and reviews were unanimous in their praise. Fix suggests that ultimately their budget restrictions worked in their favor. “It was just the two of us, no audio person, a real basic run-and-gun setup. But if we’d had a huge crew I think we would have sacrificed a great deal just in terms of the whole feeling and spirit of the project – and the intimacy we were able to achieve with the three of them.”
Hopefully timed to come out close to the Sub Pop anthology is a DVD of the film, most likely as a joint Magic Umbrella/Tombstone release (see: www.MagicUmbrella.com or www.DeadMoonUSA.com). Unknown Passage is not the first documentary treatment of Dead Moon; in 1995 Dutch fan Wilko Bello made the 50-minute You’ll Love Them All the Same, included on a CD-ROM with ’97 album Hard Wired in Ljubljana. But with a wealth of DVD extras, from songs to archival goodies to interview outtakes and ephemera (one priceless segment captures a snooty tour manager for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club kicking Dead Moon off the stage and a subsequent screaming match between him and Loomis), it will undoubtedly stand as definitive.
Prominent in the film whenever the Magic Umbrella lenses zero in on Fred Cole is a Dead Moon tattoo, the trademark band logo depicting a deathly, grinning skull protruding from a crescent moon. Not just any tattoo – it’s on his right cheek, a highly visible symbol of the man’s devotion to his band and to his craft.
This will probably preclude the man’s ever taking a job as a Wal-Mart greeter when his senior citizenship beckons, but predictably, both Fred and Toody have no intention of entering their twilight years quietly (although Fred, in a not-unwise concession to the drumbeat of age, recently got fitted for a new, high-tech pair of hearing aids).
The tattoo’s also physical testimony to Fred Cole’s bloody-mindedness as an individual. Ironically, despite the band’s seemingly tireless work ethic and massive musical output (at last count, roughly 13 studio and live albums and 14 singles and EPs), Dead Moon has been its own worst enemy in terms of any huge commercial break-throughs it might have achieved. Fred Cole still stubbornly insists on recording in mono, of course, with the digitizing of a Dead Moon vinyl releases barely an afterthought; and after all these years, Dead Moon remains a self-produced project. (With luck, the Sub Pop release should go a fair ways towards raising the band’s profile.)
Plus, he’s notorious for shrugging off – or outright running from – any overtures the mainstream might cast in his direction. Toody notes that Fred “kinda gets into this deer-in-headlights mode when shit gets intense.”
Pausing for a moment, she then relates an incident in the early ‘90s when the band, on tour in Europe, found themselves courted by Britain’s influential weekly Melody Maker. At the time, anything from the American northwest was blowing up and the paper wanted to send over a reporter and a photographer for a cover story – but at Dead Moon’s label’s expense.
“So Hans [owner of Music Maniac] runs it by me and says it would be a great career move: ‘All we have to do is fly this Everett True and his photographer over here to Europe, put them up in a hotel, and they’ll come and interview you and it’s just going to make you guys.’ Fred was like, ‘Oh, this just so smacks of payola. Ah, no. No, we’re not going to do it that way. If they think we’re such hot shit, fine. They can come over here [on their own] and I’ll talk to them.’
“You know, Fred has been so disillusioned by the music business in general and how it works, he just thinks, ‘If I’m worth the story, I’m worth the story.’ This is important to him: ‘I just want to know I did it on my own.’”
Hearing his wife say that, Fred thinks about it for a moment, then softly agrees.
“That’s right. I mean, hey, we grew up in the ‘60s and found out how the world works then. So, okay, I refuse to be part of it. I’m not gonna go there.
“But if you want to be part of my world — cool. I’ll accept you with open arms.”
PIERCED ARROWS: “Not Just Righteous, But Right” (From Stomp and Stammer zine, March 2010)
The letter is still here, tucked inside the jacket of a Dead Moon LP, on brown Tombstone Music stationary and bearing a July 1990 postmark. It’s a handwritten note from Dead Moon guitarist Fred Cole that begins, “Dear Fred, thanks for the reviews. You’re one of the core of people who started the ball rolling…”
Only hubris would allow me to think that I really had anything to do with Dead Moon’s rise from unruly Oregon punk/garage trio to international prominence as one of the fiercest, most uncompromising underground bands of the last two decades; by the time Cole formed the band in ’87, he already had enough experience under his belt to know exactly what he wanted to do and how to do it. Just the same, helping get the word out about the band was something I and a number of my fanzine-scribbling peers approached with a missionary-like zeal, and it was gratifying to know that Cole appreciated the effort
In fact, although I never met him or his wife and bandmate Toody face to face (Dead Moon tours rarely seemed to be routed through wherever I happened to be living), we corresponded quite a bit, so when we convened via telephone in the summer of 2006 for Harp magazine dissection of their career to date, the occasion being the impending release of Sub Pop’s two-CD Dead Moon anthology Echoes of the Past, the interview took more the form of a conversation among old friends than a journalist grilling two musicians.
And then the band promptly broke up.
Cut to 2010: “You know, it wasn’t your fault…” Toody Cole lets her words trail off, then chuckles loudly into the phone.
I’d half-jokingly suggested that perhaps I’d placed a curse on the band by publishing the 2006 article; the laughter dies down, and she explains that after doing Dead Moon for two decades, “We kind of got trapped in a box, especially for Fred and his songwriting, and everybody wanted to hear the same 20-30 songs over and over again. But he’s one of these people who’s like, ‘It’s whatever I’m doing now, and not what I did then or when.’”
What the Coles are doing now is the Pierced Arrows, which they put together in surprisingly short order following the demise of Dead Moon. According to Toody (who, due to Fred’s deafness, handles the bulk of interview duties, fielding the questions and turning to Fred for clarification as needed), her husband had actually been thinking about closing the book on Dead Moon for some time; the band played its final gig in Groningen on Nov. 26, 2006. “And I pretty much had to talk him into coming back after that break anyway,” she continues, “because he was done at that point. Originally we were going to wait six months to a year, but it turned out to be about three or four [months] instead — just long enough to realize how much we missed it!”
Outwardly at least, the Pierced Arrows bear such a close resemblance to Dead Moon that some fans may have wondered why even bother with the name change and potentially squander the group’s momentum. Like Dead Moon, the Arrows are a three-piece, with Kelly Haliburton (ex-Murder Disco X) taking DM drummer Andrew Loomis’ place behind the kit; Fred Cole still spews his manifesto-like punk anthems in an unhinged, Arthur Lee-like howl while unleashing furious bursts of serrated riffs; Toody Cole still wields her precision basslines and shares occasional vocal duties with Fred; and just as Dead Moon did, before each gig the trio convenes onstage in a tight semi-circle whose physical closeness signifies both a musical and personal camaraderie.
Yet as Toody told me in 2006, in an unintentional foreshadowing what was to come, “We decided a long time ago that if any one of us three is not replaceable, then that will be the end of Dead Moon. Maybe something else will come up down the line, but it will be a different name.”
Hence, with drummer Andrew Loomis leaving the Dead Moon fold, the Pierced Arrows. The Coles knew Halliburton from his turning up at Dead Moon shows (his father had also played in a band with Fred in the ‘70s), so when they got the itch to resume playing, Fred invited him over for some informal rehearsals. Things clicked, and the Arrows played their first gig in May of 2007 with Poison Idea in Portland on the anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens. “We’d only been rehearsing for about 4-6 weeks,” says Toody, “and we only had about a half hour’s worth of material. But it was just phenomenal, really over the top. We’d figured we’d have to start up the ladder again like we had done in Dead Moon, but that gig went so well things just took off from there.”
Indeed they did. Since that first show the band has toured regularly and scored great press coverage. Yours truly, reviewing debut LP (on Cole’s long-running Tombstone label), enthused thusly:
The Coles are as garage-shock defiant and hell-bent for leather as ever. Yeah, they sound a lot like Dead Moon — Fred Cole’s unhinged, Arthur Lee-like vocals and keep-it-simple chord structures ensure that — with the main break from the past being a shift away from Dead Moon’s signature lo-fi/mono aesthetic by recording in a real studio with a producer. Improved sonics aside, Straight To the Heart is aimed directly at faithful D.M. fans, notably the grinding, malevolent anti-war screed “Guns Of Thunder,” punk thrasher “Walking Wounded” (featuring a nice Fred-Toody vocal duet), a thunderous romp through Neil Young’s “Mr. Soul” and a bluesy slab of alienation (one of Fred’s favorite song topics) rock called “C-U.” Welcome back, Mr. and Mrs. Cole.
For their second album, the just-issued Descending Shadows, Pierced Arrows inked a deal with über-tastemaker Vice Records. Wisely, the Coles and Haliburton don’t fuck with their established formula too much, either; in a mere 11 tracks, the band plows forth with such feral viscosity and velocity that you’re left clutching your chest when the record’s done.
In classic Fred Cole form, the album opens with a manifesto-like anthem, “This Is the Day,” a churning slab of sinewy guitars and rhythm section thud that finds the singer bemoaning all the ugliness he’s seen — and spawned — in the past and trying to find the inner strength to rise above from this point onward: “If only I could change the way I’ve become through all these years/ I wouldn’t be watching you holding back your tears.” The creepy, noirish “Buried Alive” comes next, Fred chronicling a modern-life-is-suffocating-me viewpoint via a science-gone-terribly-wrong metaphor. That’s followed a few tracks later by the even more horrific “Paranoia” that utilizes metronomic bass, abrasive, serrated swipes of guitar, and appropriately unhinged lyric images of “creaking floors,” “evil in the night” and “the sound of blades just before they carve.” And “On the Move” finds the Coles, against a thick backdrop of dark riffage, swapping vocal lines about an impending apocalypse (literal, mental or perhaps both) that’s propelling the two protagonists to flee ahead of the coming storm.
Fred Cole has been compared in the past to Love’s Arthur Lee, and sometimes to Roky Erickson as well, but on this album he sounds uncannily like a cross between late vocal greats Bon Scott and Alex Harvey, moaning and gurgling and blustering and spitting into the mic as if through clenched teeth while reeling from a significant flesh wound. Animalistic, by any measure.
Too, like a radically minimalist AC/DC, the band locks into some of the most primal grooves imaginable, Toody and Halliburton adopting a no-frills approach that’s propulsive yet steady, and this economy of motion additionally frees Fred to unleash a heady mixture of steel-lined riffs alongside psychedelic sound effects. There’s even an unexpected foray into British punk territory, “Zip My Lip,” that has Toody adopting a Johnny Rotten-like sneer as Fred deploys proto-metal buzzsaw licks to great effect.
The net result is a set of tunes simultaneously spilling forth on a chaotic veneer of sonics while remaining powerfully and purposefully focused.
In its time, Dead Moon became a Northwest institution, based out of Clackamas, Oregon, and amassing a core rabid fanbase that extended to pockets all across the U.S. and, in particular, Europe. From 1987-2006 the band issued 15 albums (plus the Sub Pop compilation), many of them on their own Tombstone label — official motto for their lo-fi aesthetic: “music too tough to die” — and pressed in glorious mono courtesy Fred’s vintage mono lathe.
Fred’s musical roots, likewise, extended to an earlier era: as a member of Las Vegas teenbeat combo the Weeds and later the Portland-based Lollipop Shoppe, he’d enjoyed some chart success in the ‘60s, notably with the latter’s hit single “You Must Be a Witch.” By 1976 he was fronting a hi-octane punk combo called The Rats, the first in what would a succession of bands featuring Toody (whom he married in ’67) on bass. Dead Moon was the charm, however, and while the band never sold records by the truckload it still built up a huge stockpile of indie cred during its tenure, with fellow NW bands like the Wipers, Mudhoney and Pearl Jam singing the group’s praises. Pearl Jam has frequently covered Dead Moon songs in concert, while singer Eddie Vedder recently composed an endorsement of the Coles for Spinner.com that reads, in part, “In a day and age when authenticity is harder to come by than an honest Republican, legends Fred and Toody Cole deliver on every record and at every show… [They] epitomize the true potential and pure meaning of straight-no-chaser rock ‘n’ roll. Not just righteous, but right.”
Toody and Fred had offered a telling anecdote when I interviewed them in 2006 that illustrates the authenticity and purity Vedder’s suggesting. They were touring Europe at a point in the early ‘90s which coincided with the overseas press going ga-ga for anything remotely Sub Pop-related or Northwest-based. Melody Maker wanted to come over and do a cover story on the band — but on the record label’s dime. Fred, smelling payola, flatly refused, saying, “If they think we’re such hot shit, fine. They can come over here [on their own] and I’ll talk to them.” As Toody explained, “Fred wanted to know that he did it on his own.”
Remembering that part of our earlier conversation now, I can’t help but wondering how on earth Pierced Arrows wound up on Vice, hipster haven to such acts as Chromeo, the Raveonettes, King Khan & the Shrines and, most notoriously, the Black Lips. For 2008’s Straight to the Heart, the Coles self-released, but for the followup, the decision was made to shop for a label. The timing was apt, as around the same time the Arrows toured with the Black Lips.
“That’s how we ended up dealing with Vice,” explains Toody. “We were thinking about asking around, and Sub Pop’s docket was completely full, so we said, well, let’s give Vice a shot and see what happens. We sat down with them to talk about licensing Descending Shadows and they had ideas about promotion, etcetera, so we told them we’d be willing to do that within reason. It’s something we need to do on our part to support all the work they’ve put in, and so far it’s been a really great experience.” She adds that they’re scheduled to do a split single with the Black Lips and that Vice will be flying the band out in April to record it in a New York studio.
Working with a high profile record label isn’t the only thing the Coles are doing differently this time around. Whereas most Dead Moon records were self-recorded and -produced, for both Pierced Arrows albums they’ve opted to record in professional Portland facilities (Straight to the Heart was even done digitally). The yield thus far has been a far more expansive sound and boasting greater clarity than the signature Dead Moon lo-fi aesthetic — although true to habit, Fred Cole still cuts the vinyl masters with his mono lathe.
Of the decision to work with outside producers, Toody says, “I think we’ve gotten more comfortable in the studio, and also at this point Fred’s [hearing] has gotten so bad that he realized that he can’t record and self-mix anymore; he can’t hear the frequencies anymore. Still, we’re working with first, second or third takes, so it’s also a bit of the same-old, same-old. It was a lot easier this time around and less intimidating than it used to be. And very relaxing from the fact that Fred wasn’t rattled trying to figure out, ‘Okay, which room should we use…’ and trying to roll tape and keep headphones on and play at the same time, stopping the take – it just got too ridiculous.”
Truth be told, the Pierced Arrows, though perhaps demonstrating more complexity in their arrangements than Dead Moon did (Toody also has a greater singing role in the new band), still ooze a primal ferocity that’s instantly identifiable. One detects echoes of everyone from AC/DC to the Sex Pistols to classic NW garageshock, but there’s no question you’re getting Fred Cole & Co. within the first few seconds of hearing a Pierced Arrows song. The net result is a powerfully delivered and purposefully focused sonic collision that’s as thrilling as ever.
“One of the nice things about having this new band is that you’re not so tied down to the regimen of what you’re ‘expected’ to do,” says Toody. “With Dead Moon, everything was always like, ‘It’s just this way. Don’t deviate. Nothing different.’ You know? With the Pierced Arrows, though, Fred is happy as a clam because it’s the natural direction he was leaning in anyway, but for whatever reason Dead Moon couldn’t pull it off.
“We have a whole new energy — a whole new jazz.”
I can dig it, Toody. Just don’t break up before I get to see you play this time. Cool?
Below: Fred and Toody Cole by Samantha Marble