Note: I did not teach this lesson.
“…they won’t wear your t-shirts now….”
Local H, “All the Kids Are Right”
Through a good friend, I had heard of Dead Moon in the mid-’90s: “They’re garage rockers, but their lead singer’s about 50 and has been playing since the ’60s.” I had checked out their album Trash and Burn, which was lean, mean, raw, and wiry, with vocals that reminded me of Bon Scott’s, but, at the time, I was being deluged by so much music and stuff-o’-life that the rekkid got lost in the shuffle, even though it spoke directly to things that matter most to me about rock and roll. When they played a club here around the same time, I knew about it–but it was on a weeknight and, being a good-boy teacher for the moment (I was erratic in that area, at best), I skipped it. To what will be, I am sure, my eternal regret.
Fast forward to the mid-‘Oughts. I am sure most owners of record collections numbering 5,000-plus will relate, but, one weekend, sniffing around for something to listen to, I fetched Trash and Burn from where it had been hiding for a decade, slid it into the player, and stood back as it lit our house aflame. Both my wife Nicole and I exclaimed, in spontaneous chorus as old marrieds often do, “Where has this band been all our lives?” With the Internet now at our fingertips, we delved deeper, and found out about a documentary about the group called Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story, and immediately ordered a copy.
As will happen, I swear, to anyone who watches this film, we were stunned, then joined in lifetime loyalty to Fred and Toody, “The Coles,” as they are known to cognoscenti. Married for almost 50 years at this writing, successfully applying the DIY ethic yearsway before it was hip in the rock biz to everything from home improvement to instrument repair to music production and distribution to child-rearing, functioning as pretty-damned-equal partners in singing, playing and writing, these two dyed-in-the-wool rockers not only defined the rock and roll life in a way that didn’t get you looking at your shoes, but also served as a textbook case of true family values. I am not going to describe it; you just order the film, podnah. We have been pushing it on every vulnerable soul for seven years.
Concurrent to this discovery, at the Columbia, Missouri, teaching gig that was subsidizing my record collection, I was experiencing some surprising turns of event with an extracurricular club called The Academy of Rock, which a student of mine and I had founded in 2004. A couple of enterprising students had suggested that we try to convince bands who came through Columbia for shows to stop by our meetings and chat about songwriting, the rock life, and anything else fun. The worst that could happen was being told “No,” so onward we went, and, literally before we knew it, Amsterband (the future Ha Ha Tonka), Cary Hudson (former Blue Mountain and Neckbones), The F-Bombs (a local punk band), and–I had marks all over from pinching myself–eventually, The Drive-By Truckers and The Hold Steady had played–played, not stopped by to chat–in our school’s Little Theater, for free, with deep-ass Q&A, friendly autographing sessions, and invitations to come to their shows with guest-list privileges. So, when Nicole and I discovered that The Pierced Arrows, the Cole project that rose from the ashes of Dead Moon, were playing The Record Bar in Kansas City, we decided to go and maybe strike up enough of an acquaintance to ask them to swing by Hickman.
True to everything we had heard about them, Fred and Toody sat with the rabble through both of their opening bands’ sets, drinking beer, smoking, and obviously engaging with the groups’ music. Between sets, I tip-toed over to Toody, and begin shooting the shit. When I told her about our club and our (by now) tradition of bringing in bands, she enthused, but said, “Well, we’re heading for Europe next week, and we’ll be there for a few months, but, if you give me your phone number, I’ll get in touch with you when we’re back in the States.” Returning to terra firma after a shattering Pierced Arrows set (for the uninitiated, the only real difference between Dead Moon and The Pierced Arrows is slightly heavier guitar and slightly steadier drums) and hitting the prairie pavement back to Columbia, I turned to Nicole and said, “Well, we did get to meet them, we do have Toody’s phone number, and the show kicked ass–but surely after two-three months they’ll forget about us.”
Wrongo. Almost three months to the day of that show, Toody called me out of the clear blue sky and asked, “Hey, we have a day off coming up between Columbus and Kansas City, could we [YES–“could we?”–I shit you not] play at your school then?” I was so gobsmacked that about 10 seconds of silence followed before I Marv-Alberted a “YES!” into the receiver. We quickly agreed on details–we’d pay for their hotel room and food after the appearance, since they’d have to hit the road immediately following for the Kansas City gig–and I proceeded to pinch another red mark onto my arm.
The day before the band was due to play, I was moderating a Socratic seminar for my British literature students in our school’s office conference room when my cellphone began buzzing. I don’t get phone calls much, especially during the day, so I sneaked a look, and saw it was Toody. I put the temporary kibosh on the seminar–do you blame me?–stepped outside, and took the call.
“Phil, we are so, so, so sorry we are late! I think we can set up in ten minutes once we get there [they were 30 minutes outside of town] if you can still make it happen!”
“Toody–it’s not until tomorrow.”
“You’re shitting me! [Turns away from phone, shouts “It’s not ’til tomorrow,” is met by jubilant screams from the rest of the van’s occupants….] Fantastic! We are tired and hungry and need to decompress…but, hey, come by the hotel room and say hi!”
I am not making this up.
Nicole and I swung by to see them, but they were obviously beat, so we just gave ’em some dining recommendations and double-checked the details. We were particularly careful about the latter; when The Hold Steady visited, they arrived an hour after they were supposed to, and at the very moment that, in front of a packed theater, I was running out of steam stalling the crowd with their biographical details–sanssoundcheck and sans anxiety, since they drifted in on a cloud of cannabis cologne. Fred assured us they’d be on time for a soundcheck, so we left them to get their rest.
I had arranged to have a substitute take my afternoon classes the next day, and, late that morning, as some Academy of Rock club members and I were setting up the PA in the theater, my phone began buzzing again.
“Hey, Phil, we’re here.”
“But Toody, you didn’t need to be here for another hour-and-a-half!”
“Oh, that’s OK! We want to meet some of the kids and hang out if it’s OK […if it’s OK????].”
“Well, hell, I’ll send a couple of ’em to come get you.”
We spent the next 90 minutes not just sound-checking but actually hanging out and talking about everything under the sun, with Fred giving some of the school’s theater tech kids, who were helping us, tips about rock and roll sound. For example, since he had lost 70% of his hearing by that point [no big deal!], he preferred to have two monitors on each side of him, facing each of his ears. That was just one of the many things the kids learned from him in that very information-rich hour-and-a-half.
The performance? Titanic. Also, easily the loudest in Hickman’s history (the DBTs and Hold Steady had played unplugged–but you don’t unplug Fred Cole). We recorded it, but, unfortunately, we screwed up Fred’s vocal levels; it’s still power-packed and worth a listen, though (see below). The band played all of their then-new album Descending Shadows, plus the best of their previous record, Straight to the Heart.
After the sixty-minute show, they then took student questions, which–if they weren’t already excellent, which most were–they would cannily reconfigure for the best possible responses. I would recap it, but, if you search intelligently, you can read the Columbia Tribune cover story about it. The amount of wisdom shared in the nearly three hours they were in the theater was mind-boggling, and, even when the bell rang to dismiss students for the day, they were not yet done.
I sidled over to Fred, Toody, and their awesome drummer Kelly Halliburton, who matched them word for word, note for note, gesture for gesture in sheer rock-band fan-care, and said, “Well, district rules forbid us from getting gift certificates for visiting ‘educators,’ but here’s $40 to go eat some pizza and drink some beer at the local-favorite pizza joint. Let me draw you up some direct—-“
Fred: “Hey, just bring some of the real big fans and come eat with us.”
“As a heartattack! Just let us have one of the kids to navigate!”
As it happened, one of the kids was already thoroughly inured to the ways of The Coles through our having forced Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story on him and his having avidly explored their discography. (Oh yeah: we also took him to the aforementioned Pierced Arrows shows in the guise of our nephew, since it wasn’t all ages and the manager had given us permission–don’t try that one at home, fellow teachers!) So we sent him along, and, people, I have never seen a student happier. He even got to bum a cig off of Fred!
At the pizza joint, we bought several pizzas, the band knocked back a few pitchers, and we had a total blast. To the end, though, the Coles and Mr. Halliburton were fan-centered. I had expected dinner to be a barrage of questions from the kids about rock and roll history (Fred goes back to the mid-Sixties through his involvement in The Weeds and The Lollipop Shoppe, and knew Janis Joplin well), but, instead, the trio queried the kids about their lives, their tastes in music, their experiences in bands, and…just life.
That kid on my right was a ninth-grader. As I drove him out to his folks’ house, neither of us could keep from shaking our heads in amazement that, along with rocking our asses off, they lived up to their advance notice and more. And as he told me,”I can’t believe they came to my school!”–it wasn’t his yet, but it would be the following year–I realized that it was probably the finest moment I’d ever experienced (could probably hope to experience–and, no, it ain’t been topped yet) as a public school educator. Beyond the educational impact, the encouragement the Coles’ chemistry and commitment gave Nicole and me, who have approached marriage unconventionally in more than a few ways, continues to resonate.
Fred had successful heart surgery earlier this year, and just turned 66 last week (Author’s note: Mr. Cole passed away in 2017). I am sure, however, that he will be back on the road with The Pierced Arrows soon, and, if they come to your town–go. They are about rock and roll, but so much more. Be sure to bring t-shirt money, whether you are a kid or not.