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Trilobite and Isle of Wight

By Ed Park

Saturday, June 14th, 2008

from The Dizzies

“You have Dr. Sorrow? That’s either a good thing or a bad thing. The survey’s still out. I’ve heard she’s helped a lot of people get back on their feet; similarly, that she holds such power over her patients that they tend not to ever leave, prolonging their maladies in an inadvisable manner. That’s the problem with illness, you know, the ‘voluptuous state of being helpless, hands aloft like a child in a crib,’ as Grimspan has remarked. Careful you don’t lose your head with her.”

It was good to see the Colonel again, and particularly good to see him in hiking gear. He looked ready for the very Himalayas.

“Lose my head?” She was indeed distractingly built! “But what’s so wrong about parting with one’s noggin? If the ailment is all in one’s head, maybe losing it is exactly what’s needed."

"Ah,” he continued. “Then perhaps it’s too late. You’ve already fallen under the spell of Sorrow’s siren song. You never knew Leatherwood. He was before your time. I think his first name was Robb—yes, ‘Robb with two b’s,’ he’d always say, by way of introduction. Two b’s, ‘to be’—he had an existential aspect to his personality, one always felt, an impression he did little to discourage. He was friendly enough, indeed friendlier than most upon first meeting. But the more you talked to him, the more somber he’d become, even if the topic were a cheery one, for example, one-hit wonders of the post-Merseybeat, pre-acid era. Discussion of that musical subgenre—which eludes naming, but you know it when you hear it—might cause him to ponder the cruel dashing of ambition and the impermanence of art, rather than the invigorating fact that those songs still have their devotees today. More than once I saw ludicrous tears welling in slate gray eyes.

“If no one was sure how or why Leatherwood had landed in the Swamp, he soon grew to have his reasons. He was unable to sleep at night, and once out of bed, unable to read or watch television or even listen to music. Consequently, he was often sluggish during the day. When compelled to walk on these occasions, he did so with maddening slowness and not at all in what you might call a straight line. To this day I don’t know what was wrong with him. He began having so much trouble getting about that he was sent over to Dr. Sorrow and her crew. I didn’t see him for a few weeks, possibly as long as a month. Then he was reintroduced to the floor, in dazzlingly chipper mood. I asked him if his symptoms had subsided, if a cure was in sight. He smiled and shook his head. He still wove when he walked, and all of Dr. Sorrow’s machines and tests and diagrams had not quite made the sought-after corrections. If anything, he was less steady than previous. But he was undeniably happier. He spoke with great enthusiasm about those extinct rock and roll combos of his youth, British or simply British-accent-sporting. The Pirates, The Emotion, The Cornucopia Glistens, The Dwayne.”

“The Dwayne?”

“They were great rivals of The Clyde, also on the bill that night— indeed, one band splintered off the other, I forget who from whom. The Dwayne had just one album, This Is The Dwayne. The only single of note from them was also called ‘This Is The Dwayne.’”

Who knew there was so much to say about Dwaynedom? “I can’t imagine what that song would sound like.”

“Leatherwood sang it for me. I could see its appeal, even in his necessarily pared-down rendition, and despite my general indifference to popular music stylings postdating the rumba. Stuttered lyrics created a fine surface tension at the outset. Choppy backbeat.” The Colonel snapped his fingers, tapped his right foot, in complicated counterpoint. “A clever rhyme or two—trilobite and Isle of Wight? Then in the chorus, a big smooth payoff. ‘Gorgeous’ was the adjective Leatherwood used. I don’t know if I would go that far, but there you have it. The song also told a story, presumably rooted in fact, about the band itself. Its inception, early struggle for recognition and cash, growing popularity with ‘birds.’ It ends with a rather heartfelt, indeed borderline mawkish, show of gratitude to the followers of The Dwayne for allowing them the opportunity to spend day after day, night after night, perfecting the art of the catchy, brisk-selling pop ditty, of which the song in question was not merely a prime example, but the ultimate expression, as far as The Dwayne was concerned. The effect was not a little vertiginous—imagine listening to a song proclaim its own merits, utter statements about the degree to which it will stick in your mind, simultaneous with its actual adherence.”

“Perhaps listening to The Dwayne was the genesis of Leatherwood’s imbalance woes,” I said.

“Leatherwood suggested as much himself. Curiously, a bootleg version of the song supposedly circulated for a brief time. Its existence is debatable, and I am by no means certain that Leatherwood actually heard it. Perhaps he was merely relaying legend.”

“Things become more interesting here.”

“Yes: exponentially. After The Dwayne released This Is The Dwayne, to respectable notice, they played a show at the Palladium, on an omnibus bill with similarly themed rock and roll outfits, each one ambitious and jumpy with raw talent, each one waiting for its turn on stage. And each one suspecting, perhaps, that the set it was about to play would be at once its zenith and its obliteration. For after that brimming, chaotic night, most of the bands would throw in the towel, some as soon as the next day. The newspapers could hardly keep up with all the press releases, some framed in grandiose terms. A few—The Johnnies, The Easy Puddles, The Don Juan Five, Les Trois Intensités from France— would make plans to record new material, tour a bit, issuing equally overblown statements to the papers stating continued vitality.

“But such projects fell through or were abandoned soon after launching. It might be going too far, as some journos did do, to say that the Palladium show put a curse on these bands. In truth, despite their youth and rebellious affectations, they were doomed traditionalists from the first, fusty sticklers in their own way despite Teddy Boy trappings or other such against-the-grain affectation. They mined a style that had already outpaced its shelf life—one foot in Top of the Pops, the other in a museum. They maintained a fearsome purity. None of them had shown the slightest capacity for adaptation. The music itself was never my vessel of darjeeling, but I admire sticktoïtiveness, in art or in life or in anything.”

“What happened at the Palladium?”

“The night of the show, the singer, who not surprisingly bore the Christian name ‘Dwayne,’ filled himself with whiskey and a corner druggist’s worth of teardrop-shaped pills. All the bands, secretly aware that this night was their conclusion, the Palladium their festive tomb, gave accomplished, at times rousing performances. The Dwayne decided to play only one song—‘This Is The Dwayne,’ what else—stretched to fill the length of the allotted three-song set. So began, under the lights of the Palladium before a crowd of the converted, the already familiar saga of the band’s colorful rise. The second time around, the chorus spun off neatly into a call-and-response routine, a feature absent from the recorded version. This met with positive response. The Dwayne, and Dwayne himself, had not planned such improvisation. They were uninterested in the longer-haired ditherings just starting to emerge from California at that time, eschewed any sort of lysergic distension.

“The spirit of the evening shifted at that point. The audience—still enthusiastic during the preceding set by The Toffee, if showing signs of sag—rallied. The band picked up on the energy. Its playing deepened perceptibly, one wants to say magically; the crowd roared back, as if electrically shocked. Their thrill level ratcheted up The Dwayne’s ambition and power, at the very least, its short-term goals. Some in the front rows began to go a little wild, a mode of behavior picked up by those on the balcony. Things were getting out of hand in a way not yet experienced that evening.

“Dwayne, the singer, had a modest talent, an agreeable level of charisma, and a baffling grip on reality. His circuitry, already haywire from substances imbibed backstage, struggled to make sense of the crowd’s intensity, the band’s strange detour into ancient chord sequences and unusual, even satanic time signatures. He did not recognize the words issuing from his own mouth. He would later describe it, in an interview Leatherwood kept in a binder, as looking down from a great height into his lungs, analyzing the air that entered his body, watching as the particles swirled in marvelous subtle colors as they coalesced from time to time into stained-glass snapshots of inscrutably symbol-strewn scenarios. Christ on a bicycle. A penguin flock diving into a cup of coffee. Disembodied hands beckoning from a pink and silver cloud.

“The song itself had its own fantastic visual component. It became an enormous mirror, simultaneously a map and a sheet of music. This last comparison, Dwayne noted, struck him at the time as extraordinarily disturbing, as he was completely unable to read notes. The treble clef in particular, swinging in his field of vision, agitated him beyond reason. Soon the lyrics would end, the song would lose energy, the crowd, he feared, would seek another outlet for his amplified, at this point dangerous, emotions. He was in such a daze that he didn’t realize that the crowd would find an adequate enough object of stimulation, also a receptacle for their energy, in the next band on the bill, angel-voiced Belfast ruffians known as The Bittersweet Maybe.”

“That name rings a bell.”

“They had a minor hit with ‘Lodge Door,’ though it came very late in their career.”

Suddenly I was fifteen again, discovering the pleasures of radio. “What a strange song that was—‘Open the door, if you dare/comb your teeth and brush your hair.’ The title was so mysterious. I always pictured a smoke-filled recreation room, antlers and bowling trophies decorating the walls. Secret handshakes and nonsense chants.”

“Apparently it’s a reference to that film L’Age d’Or, ‘the golden age.’”

“Oh.”

The Colonel returned to his Palladium narrative, though at this point I wasn’t sure whether he was drawing from the interview or from Leatherwood’s memory. “Fearing awesome, ridiculous violence, Dwayne departed further from the plan outlined with his mates backstage. If there was a map, he threw it away at this point. Rather than repeat the verses, which would mean reiterating the band’s brief biography—anyway impossible due to the mutating nature of the music—he began to sing from a vantage point forty years in the future.”

“Meaning—today?”

“He told of how the Dwayne had been, was being, forced to play ‘This Is The Dwayne’ over and over, under threat of execution issued by the Queen herself. The verb tenses get a bit snarled, as you can imagine. This sort of thing is hard enough to pull off on the printed page. To extemporize before a crowd of thousands, hewing to a rhythm and rhyming no less, cannot be regarded as any small feat. Can’t believe her and cantilever. Dwayne possessed resources heretofore untapped, no doubt concealed even from himself. The drugs and liquor must provide part but by no means all of the explanation. As if reading from some wildly imaginative, go-for-broke novel, or perhaps epic poetry on the ‘Faerie Queene’ scale, Dwayne described in great detail how the band finally fled the stage, beneath a hail of gunfire, the drummer suffering a superficial wound—here the cymbal crashed, with great wit—and donned simple disguises. Sacks, in short. There was nothing to do but submit their prolifically shaggy heads for tonsures. For the next year they didn’t come within a wicket of a musical instrument, for fear their cover would be blown, their lives destroyed. They sold everything they had. They did volunteer work at area churches, helping the poor.

“Even such humbling was not anonymous enough. There was the chance a member of the group’s fan club might see them, recognize something in their gait or voice. They took a vow of silence and kept indoors. But the Queen had spies. London wasn’t safe. England—Europe—must be abandoned. A journey to Africa or the Orient had its appeal, but as non-natives they were sure to draw suspicion. Only America was large enough to hide them in plain sight. The crossing, aboard the Liberian-chartered Amnesia, was rough, the crew a cast of grotesques. The Dwayne made the mistake of pretending to be German health inspectors, which made for an awkward moment when the Austrian first mate began speaking the Deutsch. Laryngitis, they wrote, shaking their heads, pointing to their throats. A week and a half later they landed in New York and quickly dispersed. The Dwayne was finished.

“Entirely by coincidence, a Philadelphia disk jockey, Eddie Dingus, got hold of a tape of the Palladium show, marveled at The Dwayne’s performance, and began playing the ‘edited live version’ of ‘This Is The Dwayne’—a nuance lost on most of his listeners, as the original song had never crossed the pond. It became an unlikely hit in some markets along the Eastern Seaboard. It made inroads into Illinois, Idaho, even down to Texas. The members of The Dwayne, catching wind of their success, fled farther and farther west, independent of each other. They couldn’t escape their own creation. They maintained as best they could the vow of silence; when they had to speak, they erased almost entirely their British accents. But there was always a trace. It was impossible to function in society without speaking. They had fled a country and a continent but the net was widening, dropping, mesh shadows scoring their faces. They snuck into Canada—separately, yet within two weeks of each other’s entry. Lousy idea: The Dwayne was even more popular in Canada than in the U.S.

“Newspapers from Montreal to Vancouver reported that the group had disbanded, its members ‘possibly living among us.’ No doubt even the Inuit press had its own speculations. Music periodicals ran giant photos of each member, along with sketches depicting how they might look now, with false teeth, dyed hair, eyeglasses, nose jobs. What assumed names might they be living under? Indexes of likes and dislikes were swept into a sort of all points bulletin. Look for a thin man with hairless arms and blond eyebrows, eating pizza with pepperoni and anchovies and doused with Tabasco. This is the lead singer, wanted by the Queen. Was there any choice for him but to dig a deep hole, breathe softly, and subsist on the creatures of the dirt?"

I was getting drowsy. “Is this the song or real life?”

“Precisely!” said the Colonel.