First

by Myke

What follows are excerpts from “Trains, Brains, and Auto-Erotica: An Oral History of The Dingbats,” the greatest rock band you’ve never heard of.

Ray Beam, bassist 1975 – 1981. And again from 1987 – 1988
Thing you gotta know is that I was not an original member of the Dingbats. Antero goes back a ways with ‘em–he’s as close as they got to an original member, but it’s hard to say. I think his dad or something started the band originally. I dunno. Antero liked drinkin’ more than talkin’.

I think his mom mighta been in the group for a second. I don’t remember her. Wait, does she have a tattoo on her tit?

Ramona Yearling, drummer 1963 – 1977
It was pretty unusual to see a woman on the traps back then. I think the Velvet Underground had one, but she looked like a boy. We’d been playing VFW halls for a while and then we got our first real gig at this bar somewhere in downtown Minneapolis. I was just 16–I had no business being in a bar, but there I was with my Slingerlands and wearin’ dungarees since I couldn’t play in a skirt and I’m coming through the side door carrying the bass drum, and this guy stops me, a real big guy. He says “Tell your boyfriend to bring his own drums inside.” And before I can say “mister, I’m playing these drums,” here comes Antero and Jules with their amps and Antero says “Hey Ray, why don’t you tell this asshole to be a gentleman and get the rest of your drums set up?” (It’s okay, Antero always kept a knife taped to the inside of his amp).

Turns out that big guy was the club owner. I don’t know if we got paid that night. But I didn’t have to move another drum.

Man Tibold, music critic
The Dingbats do not follow the typical narrative of a rock and roll band. They appear to have started as some kind of family band led by Antero Jessup’s grandfather back in the 1920’s and they played tent revivals across the Southeastern United States. But then as the children and grandchildren took over, the music quickly became very profane and un-church-like. There’s only anecdotal evidence of this, but the Dingbats’ “coming out party” of sorts was at a radio station in Macon, Georgia, where they went in to cut an acetate of a gospel song, but wound up playing one of Antero’s songs, called “Nine Fingers Inside You.” Didn’t go over well. That was in 1956.

Ultimately, The Dingbats are the only post punk band to predate the punk movement by a good two decades.

Stephen Lamont Howard II, pianist, percussion 1964 – 1971
I think we were one of the first groups to do like full-length records rather than just a bunch of singles. Apparently Antero had this bad experience with radio and just didn’t care about getting played which was just an unheard of attitude in pop music.

I remember we were playing a restaurant somewhere in New England and at the time, Antero had gotten hold of this big Orange amp that just come out of London. All these metal guys play ‘em now, but back then no one had seen ‘em over here. So he’s having to use international converters to plug it into the wall and they might work on your ‘lectric shaver, don’t work too good on’a guitar amp. Naturally we’re having grounding problems: ‘ees getting shocked by microphone. I keep looking up from the organ to see his head snapping back and the lights dimming. At one point, there must have been a spark because there was a flash! His beard caught fire! And he just kept singing! Luckily, there was some guy right up front that threw a beer in his face and put it out. I don’t know if he was trying to be helpful–we were getting a lot of stuff thrown at us back then.

Ray Beam
My second stint with the band back in the 80’s was real weird. Antero was tryna do this thing where there was two of everything onstage–two bassists, two drummers, you know. I think he was also doing twice as much speed as he used to–who knows? We pissed off a lot of sound guys on that tour because what we’d do was one half of us would set up on stage, the other half would set up in the back, behind the audience. And we’d all be playing the same exact thing, but the audience was like trapped in the middle. One night, this one chick got really panicky from all the noise coming at her from every direction and was trying to leave, but we were in the way of the door. She’s desperate, so she walks right up to Antero–he’s yelling into a megaphone playing the theremin–she just decks him right in the face. He drops to the floor and she must’ve jumped five feet to get over the drummer and out the door.

Antero Jessup, frontman 1956? – present
My dad gave me my first guitar after some blues guy got shot outside of a bar he was in. He just picked it up and took it home. That guy wasn’t going to use it anymore.

When he took over the band from Grandad, he tells me the first show they played was for basically the same kind of crowd–a church social. Only dad had gotten into this weird mix of Delta blues and Big Band. He had a guy on trombone and he was playing guitar and hitting a kick drum, one-man-band style. And these people in their Sunday clothes are just staring at them while they’re trying to do these sped up blues numbers and eventually someone tells ‘em to shut up. Someone else yells it and another guy scoops up a slice of chocolate cake and chucks it at ‘em. Then more food starts flying. They haven’t stopped playing–dad’s just stomping on the drum and the guy on trombone has stopped even trying to play the music and he’s just furiously hitting fifth position, going BWAAAH BWAAAH. Then someone threw a chair and broke his teeth. Good Christian folk. They were just trying to do something different.

There was an expression dad was fond of: “First only matters in the history books.” So yeah, my aim is to be waiting at the top of the mountain for you with a knife, but more often than not, being first means you get your teeth knocked out and everyone else learns to duck.

This piece was originally written for and performed at WRITE CLUB Atlanta against Laura Straub of Vouched Books.

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