Opening act (and the real focus of this entry, quite honestly): The God Machine
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Another little run of shows here I was at, clearly, given the date — the Sundays/Madder Rose show, the Weenie Roast, then this. I must have really wanted the first year of grad school to be over so I could just do this. (And I did.)
And this, a show of regrets. One I’m glad I caught, though — but in retrospect, so sad.
Not, I should say, because of the headlining act, who I have nothing against. Heck, I reviewed most of their albums for the AMG if I remember correctly. But as time has passed I’m less about Cop Shoot Cop and more about Firewater, the band which Tod A formed after the earlier group had collapsed and which I gather he still oversees, though I should check on that. I had a good time at the show, I will happily note, and their song “10 Dollar Bill” which had become the fluke hit of sorts via their Ask Questions Later album got a good performance as did everything else. I mostly remember Tod’s figure silhouetted against the lights behind him as he busted out on the whistle near the start of said song, and that everything else was agreeably loud and twisted and off. Had I spent my life near NYC instead of LA I suspect I would have seen them a lot more and had more to say about them in the end.
But it was the opening act who I was especially there to see, and who I was very glad to see — and who I never saw again, and who nobody in America could ever see again. Still makes me sad to think about it.
The God Machine were, also in retrospect, a set of hometown heroes for me had I only known they were around. They formed under the name Society Line back in 1985 and so would have been performing around the time I came back with my family to the San Diego area for the rest of my high school days. Somewhere along the line they moved out to New York, minus one member, then after that they eventually ended up in London around the start of the nineties. So the first I heard about them was due to Melody Maker, thanks to some writers happily championing the band any chance they could.
What I had heard of got my interest, certainly. Signed to the Cure’s label, Fiction? Had to be at least a slightly good sign. Opened in London for Swans during a Love of Life tour date in 1992? Even better sign. Also, frankly, a good name, and the more I heard people who didn’t like the band complaining they were too dark or too gothed out that just meant I had to hear them all the more, it couldn’t sound any more up my alley than that, especially when I heard that they had gone right ahead and covered Bauhaus’s “Double Dare” and Echo and the Bunnymen’s “All My Colours” on a single — as well as Peggy Lee’s “Fever” and the KLF’s “What Time is Love?”
Scenes from the Second Storey, the band’s debut, appeared in the spring of 1993, and I imagine I was one of the few people in Southern California outside of their family and friends down south to even know about it. That sounds more precious than it’s meant to be, but while they had at least a slight profile over in the UK via the music press there was nothing at all out here, no KROQ breakthrough or anything similar. Stately and focused and powerful as the single “Home” was it just didn’t quite fit in the Alternative Nation stereotype approach for marketing. It wasn’t grunge, it wasn’t self-consciously quirky or sloppy, and they didn’t look goth (or industrial or what have you).
But they did get the opening spot on this tour and that was all I needed to know. By hook or by crook I was seeing this show and I’m pretty sure Jen V. and I were the ones making the by now very familiar trip up from OC to LA for a Sunset Strip show. The friend of Jen’s over at Polygram who might have hooked us up with tickets — not sure, really — I had met before, friendly dude, an intern like Jen, and I hope he’s doing well wherever he is right now. It was in conversation with him outside the Whisky that I had a bit of an encounter with the famous — with him or showing up soon afterward was Rob Dickinson, lead singer of the Catherine Wheel, whose second album Chrome was due for release or had just been released and who would be performing later that summer. I had become a big fan of theirs in the previous year but hadn’t seen them live yet so I was happily pleased as punch to meet him; he was a cheery sort in turn, all pepped up at catching the show himself. Nice to see, really.
At some point in talking with the dude from Polygram, either some days before the show or on the day itself, the possibility of an interview with the God Machine had been discussed. I have a feeling it was almost an impulse thing since I didn’t have a tape recorder with me, though someone from another college paper or station did and I was able to borrow it later on. More on that in a bit, but mostly I then just remember being in the venue itself and gearing up for a band I really had wondered if I was ever going to be able to see.
Scenes for the Second Storey, you see, had rapidly become one of if not the favorite album of mine that year, and while it’s been a long, long while since I’ve heard it through again, I stand by that judgment. From a distance I can see the connections and roots a bit more clearly — all the bands I’ve mentioned in context with them earlier had their impact on the trio (well, maybe indirectly in Peggy Lee’s case) — and even then I knew they weren’t sui generis. But it was an album of massive, self-conscious ambition that was carried off with skill, focus, style and heart, however shadowed (“Pictures of a Bleeding Boy” perhaps showed that heart most clearly but it wasn’t on the album — in different ways, “It’s All Over” and “Purity” did, and they were among said album’s highlights). It wasn’t the only album like it of its time but even now I see it as something understatedly monumental, if that doesn’t sound contradictory in terms. So many bands and albums later followed that also wanted to scale those heights that in ways I think of the God Machine as prophets without honor. Certainly that Swans opening spot situated them more clearly than most, given all the bands since who worship at Gira’s altar — in their own, quietly allied way, they had already achieved their own sense of the intimate, the high volume and the agog.
As was proven live. I think they would have gone off even more in front of a crowd that was theirs, straight up, as opposed to an opening spot thousands of miles away from the place where they’d made a name for themselves, now near what was home and yet so very far away from it. Pre-Internet, it really was another world — no website to maintain, no tracks to preview, no blog leaks, nothing like that at all.
It was a hell of a great show. “Home” was played, Bulgarian women’s choir sample and all, the monstrous, majestic “Seven,” “Dream Machine,” others that I wish I could remember. They gave it their all, Robin Proper-Sheppard on vocals and guitar, Jimmy Fernandez on bass, Ron Austin on drums, a trio who had stuck through it all and lived the dream and had gotten this far where so many other bands would never have even gotten that far. I wish they had had T-shirts for sale, something with the beautiful and blasted landscape image from the front of the album on it. I’d still be wearing that.
The kicker was after the show — I did indeed get to interview the band upstairs in the lounge or greenroom or whatever it is up in the Whisky artist area. Jimmy and Ron were fairly relaxed, chiming in every so often, but I will always, always remember that interview I did with Robin, because of his focus, his absolutely intense look. It wasn’t unfriendly, but it was serious, man on a mission stuff. You had a sense in talking to him that he was going to see it all through however he could. I really enjoyed it, and I hope he did too (I heard afterward that apparently that was the case, simply because I actually knew something about the band and where they came from).
I don’t have the tape, unfortunately — whoever I was borrowing the recorder from kept it for his own interview and that was that (again, pre-Internet — no easy way to track the guy down). I wish I did, it’d be a slice of history in its own way now. Somehow my other remaining impression is that of Jimmy in particular, smiling, relaxing and laughing. I like having that memory of him, however brief the encounter.
Because I never saw the band again. After that tour, nobody in America did. The following year, when everyone summed up the end of the year talking one way or another about the death of Kurt Cobain, I mentioned the rock tragedy of that year which really affected me instead. During the completion of the sessions of their second album, Jimmy Fernandez was in the studio and suddenly collapsed. He was dead shortly thereafter that day — it turned out an undiagnosed brain cancer tumor was the brutal cause, unknown and unsuspected, until one day was the last day. I only learned about it a couple of weeks later via an issue of Melody Maker, the kind of delayed reaction that seems like forever now, and felt a little crushed.
Nothing as ‘romantic’ as drink or drugs, as harrowing as AIDS, as perversely mythologized as suicide — just the cruel twist of nature’s way. Ron and Robin completed the sessions and released the album, One Last Laugh in a Place of Dying, as a tribute to their friend and musical partner of nearly ten years, and the band was over — no farewell concert, no final tour. Simply an ending because they could not continue on. As simple as that.
Ron, to my knowledge, has concentrated on film musical work since, while Robin took on a new focus via an excellent label, The Flower Shop Recordings, and a new band, Sophia, that reflected different inspirations and directions, something he spoke of in later years as better capturing the space he was in at that point — an honest self-assessment and I’ve always been glad for him for that, someone who has thrived on his own terms all these years later, twenty five years on now from that first Society Line demo and seventeen years on from this show I’ve discussed.
I’m glad I caught it, I’m glad I remember it. Some experiences, however distant they are, remain all the clearer because someone will always be the smiling guy relaxing, enjoying life as he could. Said it back then in a newspaper column for UCI, will say it again — RIP Jimmy. Glad I got to see you.