In the fall of 1977, I heard the Sex Pistols. I'd actually caught part of "Anarchy in the UK" the previous winter (on Chicago radio, of all places). I'd also scored an import 45 of "Pretty Vacant" in July, without really thinking much of it. (It's still my least favorite of their singles.) But it was when I returned to Bloomington, Ind., for my senior year of college that I really heard them: heard "God Save the Queen," its blistering B-side "Did You No Wrong" (as close as the group ever got to Stones-style R&B), the astonishing "Holidays in the Sun." I snatched up the first import copy of Never Mind the Bollocks the day it arrived at the local Karma store. This was like nothing I'd ever heard before, hard rock so intense and fully realized that it made the Stones or Who, at their best, seem like they were kidding. Song after song built to unbelievable crescendos, exploded, made your heart race every time you heard them.
The Gizmos, circa 1979
More than that, this was music that made the world seem like a wholly different place. The lyrics were great - funny, vicious - but it was the sound of those records, the sound of Johnny Rotten's voice, that spoke volumes. They sounded exactly how it felt to be alive just then, when nearly everything - television, fashion, chain stores, advertising, career paths - seemed so drab and contemptible. The Sex Pistols added rock music to that list, obliterating any distinction between Led Zeppelin and McDonald's. Punk proved how liberating - how much sheer fun - it could be to hate things.
Of course it also made me want to be in a band, an ambition I'd largely abandoned after high school as unrealistic. The gradual corporatization of everyday life had subtly rendered the path from picking up a guitar to making records a deliberate mystery, an out-of-reach secret, a nostalgic pipedream. Punk changed all that, suddenly offering would-be rockers the simplest of strategies: Just do it. Start a band with the knowledge that any noise you ended up making was guaranteed to be lightyears better than Pink Floyd (let alone the junk that passed for rock on your local scene). My problem was, I was operating in a void; I didn't know anyone else who actually liked this stuff. Even my roommates were barely tolerant of my new musical tastes. So in October, when I saw an ad placed in a local weekly by Gulcher Records, offering auditions for "a third band" to add to their "new-wave roster," I thought what the hell and called the number.
Two days later, Ted Neimeic and Gulcher owner Bob Richert showed up at my house and explained that what they were actually trying to do was recruit a backing band for Ted, a founding member of a local studio-only group called the Gizmos (whom I'd never heard of). Basically, they were looking to put together a version of the Gizmos they could take on the road. I told them it wasn't exactly what I had in mind, but that I'd give it a shot. They made sure I could strum an E chord, told me I was hired and left me copies of the band's three EPs. I thought the first one - featuring Ted's "Muff Divin' in Wilkie South" and Ken Highland's ode to dating etiquette, "That's Cool (I Respect You More)" - was pretty great, in a drunk frat-party kind of way. The songs were legitimately funny and the band caught a stumblebum groove. The other two records though were a lot more jokey and a lot less funny, with nary a groove in sight.
All told, it was a much campier aesthetic than I was interested in pursuing (unlike glam, there was never anything camp about punk), but I was assured that I would be able to contribute to the overall character of the group. I was even encouraged to write songs and soon came up with two: an over-the-top punk anthem called "1978" and a simpler tune called "Cry Real Tears" (based loosely on Neil Young's "Don't Cry No Tears"). Over the next couple of months, the "new" Gizmos lineup came together: Ted and me; Billy Nightshade (Daryl Frazier, an MBA student) on bass; Shadow Myers (Indianapolis record store mogul, slightly older than the rest of us) on drums; Steve Feikes, the closest thing we had to a lead guitarist; and Phil Hundley, an Indianapolis teen-ager, who had originally auditioned to be the drummer, but who was kept in the lineup (Bob explained) because it would look funny (and thus be in keeping with the original Gizmos aesthetic) to have a fat high school kid on stage playing tambourine. (Did I mention this wasn't exactly what I wanted to be doing?)
Musically crude in the extreme, this lineup lasted just one semester, culminating in a week-long tour of the East Coast. When school resumed in the fall of '78, Ted (the band's raison d'etre), along with Phil and Steve, announced they were leaving the group. This seemed A-OK to Billy and me, who were anxious to be in a different kind of band anyway. Over the past year, we'd become heavily immersed in all things punk, buying albums and any import singles we could find by the Clash, the Vibrators, X-Ray Spex, the Jam, the Boys. I had probably 20 original songs by this time and Billy was writing as well. After some argument, we convinced Bob to let the two of us front the band. (We could, of course, have started a new band at this point, but "Gizmos" was such a damn good name.) All we needed was a second guitarist, who soon materialized in Tim Carroll, a friend of a friend.
We began playing around town that winter as a quartet: myself; Tim, the youngest Gizmo and a considerably better guitarist than I was; Billy, who compensated for any lack of finesse on bass with plenty of muscle; and Shadow. Billy, one of the funniest people I've ever met, stood 6-foot-4 with a shock of bright yellow hair and provided the stage presence the rest of us lacked, managing to come off as simultaneously hilarious and vaguely threatening. But it was Dave "Shadow" Myers, a former music theory major with a long rock resume, who was our ace in the hole. His drumming was frantic, rock solid, full of off-kilter fills. Best of all, he pounded the living shit out of the drums. If we occasionally came across as a rhythm section, it was because Shadow was in the driver's seat.
Throughout 1979, we played anywhere we could - which meant most of the bars in town exactly once. We played an anti-apartheid rally at one of the dorms, the auditorium at the public library, a campus-radio-sponsored street dance. We played bars in Indianapolis several times and ventured as far afield as Detroit. We close-cropped our own hair and assembled our stage wardrobe from thrift store sales and whatever day jobs we happened to have. (I wore my Wendy's cap to one show and a pair of pants decorated with Keebler Cookie price stickers at another. I was also fond of women's blouses and using extension cords as belts.
We were arrogant, wore our anti-professionalism proudly on our sleeves and despised every other band in town. Of course the music scene in Bloomington made this pretty easy to do, consisting as it did of cover bands, humorless SoCal-style country-rock groups, self-indulgent jazz-fusion outfits and fake blues bands (with a few painfully earnest folkies scattered around the edges). We wrote a song about how stupid the scene was and called it "Duke Tomato" (after a moronic white "bluesman" especially popular just then). For an idea of the context we were attempting to infiltrate, try finding a copy of the '79 Bloomington compilation This Year's Crop.
Being the only punk band in town was a lonely proposition. A few people got it and started showing up regularly at gigs. (We knew almost all of our fans on a first-name basis.) For the most part though, "punk rock" had no common coin at IU whatsoever. "Cool" at that time meant Bruce Springsteen, not the Ramones. When we weren't being ignored altogether, the Gizmos were usually either reviled as incompetent or tolerated as a novelty act. The IU student newspaper described us as "insipid ... faddish ... spoiled seventh-graders" - a quote we proudly displayed on a flier for a local show.
We finally found some kindred spirits in Dow Jones and the Industrials, our counterparts at Purdue. The two bands became friends, traded hometown gigs, played together in Indy. The Gizmos began recording with their synth player, Mr. Science, at his home studio (still in business today as Zounds), eventually compiling enough tracks to share a split-album with DJI (Hoosier Hysteria, 1980). The first significant broadening of our fanbase came in the fall of 1979 with an opportunity to open for the Ramones. We also gained some notoriety when our set at a well-publicized battle of the bands led to some aggressive slam-dancing (still a relative novelty) and near-riot at the popular Bluebird nightclub - which promptly banned us from drinking (let alone playing) there ever again.
That winter, a (great) new Dow Jones song called "Can't Stand the Midwest" offended our sense of place and inspired us to pen an answer tune, "The Midwest Can Be Allright," which eventually became our last-released recording. Ironically, it was also just then that the Gizmos were deciding to abandon their beloved Midwest, to try our luck in New York City. We moved to Hoboken, where we had friends, in April 1980, brand new drummer Crash Kinser in tow.
After one week on the East Coast, Crash (a native of Ellettsville who had never ventured outside Indiana before) ran away in the middle of the night. Once a suitable replacement was found in Long Island drummer Robbie Wise, we started gigging in earnest - but it just wasn't the same. If we were a step ahead of musical trends in Bloomington, we were definitely a step behind them in New York. We thought we'd been operating in a void in Indiana - in New York we found out what a void really was! At least back home, people cared enough to dislike us. We never found an audience in the big city and broke up the following summer (though not before making our most professional recordings at Ziami Studios, with fellow Hoosiers Mark Bingham and Mark Hood at the knobs).
Had we stayed put, things might have worked out differently. When I moved back to Indiana in 1983, the change was pretty stunning. Everywhere you looked on campus, kids sported pink hair and buzzcuts. New wave dominated the local scene. We probably should have seen it coming, since a sizable percentage of the Gizmos' original fans had been high schoolers (including the Panics). But I don't think any of us have spent much time regretting the experience that came with moving to New York. All of the former Gizmos have stayed active in the music business, with varying degrees of success. But, speaking for myself, the feeling of rock 'n' roll actually mattering in the outside world, of its being connected to something bigger than a career path, disappeared long ago, probably about the time MTV showed up. That feeling - that playing rock 'n' roll meant fighting the good fight - was at its strongest when I was in the Gizmos. The fact that no one wanted to hear us just made us play louder.
For more information on the Gizmos, visit http://www.gulcher.gemm.com/.
Who: The Gizmos Reunion Show
When: Friday, Dec. 31, 10 p.m.
Where: Second Story, 201 S. College Ave., Bloomington
Admission: $12 at the door