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Surfer Ruth dies, thousands mourn
Montana Kaimin, Friday, January 29th 1982
By Shawn Swagerty
“Surfer Ruth,” that curious, foppish pair of words, first abraded my ears when I moved into Elrod Hall my sophomore year. It was September, 1980 and I was walking down the second floor hall when I heard someone being cruel to an electric guitar.
The offender proved to be a tall, thin, bespectacled twelve-year-old-looking person with a face so dour that it seemed to me he would have been happier being bludgeoned with a hoe handle than introducing himself to this pud standing in the doorway.
The other person in the room, taking the social initiative, greeted me with the enthusiasm of a sincere frat-geek offering to help a freshman unload his luggage and invited the wide-eyed whipper to a rush ritual rife with “little sisters.”
Joey Kline, freshman in elementary education, that young man turned out to be, and his pall with the affected disgust oozing from every pore as he tried to play the serious guitarist was Richard Mockler, freshman in Honors, that’s Honors with a capital “H”, the program for the capital “I” Intellectuals, as in “I, Richard Mockler.”
I tried to hide my amusement when they told me about the band they were going to start and the songs which they had already written, one being a “country-western surf song.”
A day or two later, in the middle of a meal at the Lodge, I was greeted by a passing Richard’s “Hello” so jam packed with condescension that I felt the transfer of his aura’s energies. “Who’s that?” my dinner pal asked. “He’s this asshole from my dorm who thinks he’s going to be in a band,” I said.
At their performance at the Hat, I was sitting up on the stage “running sound” with a couple other people, none of us knowing what the hell we were doing. Jon (Rose) was playing piano, and half the time he had the volume turned off because he didn’t have the songs down. It was really loose, and not particularly good. So we just turned it up really loud and pissed off the bartenders. Still, the people who were there really dug it.
–David Worthington, associate, fan
Surfer Ruth debuted at the Top Hat in the autumn of 1980 to a fairly sparse weeknight Top Hat crowd. That evening the band consisted of Joey Kline on lead guitar, Charles Wheeler on bass, Jon Rose on trombone and low-volume piano, Richard Mockler, who played piercing homophonic lines on his cheesy Yamaha keyboard and made his public debut as a guitarist, and Mario Ramirez, the band’s first drummer.
The performance was shoddy, but was carried off with an odd combination of a reformed sinner’s evangelistic zeal and a confirmed gutter-crawler’s abandon, which somehow made the whole thing fly. Abusing the concept of a “multi-media” presentation, Ruth, dressed with the taste of mens’ club conventioneers who moonlight as kiddie-porn pushers, threw plastic toys onto the dance floor, mumbled and shouted commercial slogans and spewed radical jingoisms.
The sets were slices of diverse pop music genres ostracized into hour-long gummy clumps. “After the Loving” and “Love Me Tonight” were repellent, “The Weight,” bode Charles Wheeler’s non-Caucasoid tendencies, “Life During Wartime” indicated Mockler’s histrionic leanings, “Brand New Cadillac” foreshadowed Rose’s role as sometime scream-and-snarl representative and on “Dead Flowers,” Kline scrambled the expense of his fretboard in a solo that took the song well-beyond the musical limitations of the such a young band.
Quite excited, I gushed enthusiasm all over a page of the following Friday’s Kaimin. I still blush when I think of that article’s unbridled gusto. Garsh.
“I have seen the future of trash Rock ‘n’ Roll, and its name is Surfer Ruth.”
-Shawn Swagerty, late 1980.
I love to say I told you so. I also love to quote myself and mention myself in my subjective articles, much to the annoyance of certain readers who easily fed up with self-indulgence. Those readers would do well to stick with the World Student Times. Thucydides, in the interest of establishing a sense of his biases and perspectives that may have colored his accounts for his readers, began his histories with a brief personal sketch. I have no doubt that I will be as important to rock criticism as Thucydides was to history.
Lace and Whiskey, a clumsy five-piece band of confused youngsters the likes of which are immortalized in S.E. Hinton’s classic junior high novel The Outsiders, is to Surfer Ruth as the Quarrymen is to the Beatles, as the High-Numbers is to The Who, as the egg is to the scrambled egg, as the polyurethane is to the lawn furniture. Mockler, Kline, and Wheeler, then Helena residents comprised the core of Lace and Whiskey. They couldn’t help it.
The Mockler-Kline-Wheeler trio went on to appear in Sam Shepard’s rock-as-drama-as-rock manifesto Tooth of Crime produced by Ron Duda and friends in Helena. The trio’s direction shifted, and ideas began to ferment during a summer of rock-picking and canoeing with kiddies.
The three came to Missoula in the fall of 1980, planning to form a band with their friend Cliff Van Daele, whose avocation was playing lounge piano. They met Jon Rose, a Missoula native, who had a basement in which to rehearse and a most admirable past as the singer in Just Ducky, Montana’s first acknowledgment of Britain’s summer of 1977, a band of wankers so ostentatiously rebellious that they ruined a high school prom and received banner headlines in a backwoods rag.
With drummer Mario Ramirez, these boys embarked upon a project, which they conceptualized in an early interview as their own brand of new wave.
Van Daele left almost immediately complaining that the band’s Englebert Humperdinck and Tom Jones covers “made fun of” his music. Practices continued, and engagements were booked.
Following the Top Hat debut, Ruth played occasional dates around the area. The frequency of their engagements increased rapidly up to the time of the Christmas of that year. Based in Helena over the break, they performed with veteran area bands at “The Dance,” a night-long party staged at the Helena Civic Center. Surfer Ruth performed so solidly at this event that the veterans seemed to be rendered obsolete.
Early in 1981, Ramirez left Ruth over personal and artistic differences. The band went through a relatively stagnant period, hiring on a technical egomaniac to fill the vacancy. They had reached creative and spiritual plateau when Mark Alexander, a geography student from Bethesda, Md., auditioned. Alexander’s presence completed what Mockler would, in an uncharacteristically cliché moment, refer to as Surfer Ruth’s “chemistry.”
Alexander and Mockler’s dispositional differences seemed to smoothe the band’s rough stage image: the two didn’t get along well, but the music did not suffer.
“In Surfer Ruth you’ve got Chuckee, the perfectionist who wants to be black, Joey, who wants it all to be fun and outrageous, but who plays a guitar just like ringin’ a bell, Jon who wants to punk out, Richard, who keeps them on time in rhythm and to appointments with his hyperactiveness, and Mark, with his easy-going style and his wonderful drumming, who really just wants to be Little Feat.”
–Patti Bingham, fan (the girl who sings along while she dances)
It might be obvious now that some of you take an interest in this stuff, so it should come as no surprise that we’ve held high conferences to discuss the significance of this Surfer Ruth business.
One of the big issues at these discussions is the matter of “Ruthness,” or, put simply for those outside of the philosophy department, “Who or what is it that makes this band so unique in its character? What gives this band its strange personality?
Dave Worthington suggested after seeing a show at the Forum last fall that Jon Rose’s manner, appearance, vocal stylings and trombone performance might be the key element in Ruthness. This seemed at first to be a plausible hypothesis: it just wouldn’t be Ruth without Jon, would it? And besides that, whose, besides Jon’s, dad would ever get up and play rock ‘n’ roll with his son?
Well, Chuck Wheeler’s dad for one. And it wouldn’t be Ruth without Chuck, either, or for that matter, it wouldn’t be Ruth without Dick or Joey or Mark. “You just don’t find five people where something like that happens,” quoth Richard Mockler, and regardless of how self-congratulatory that remark may be, it seems to be quite accurate.
It seems most deadly accurate when one considers some of their Forum gigs last spring. I have a cassette of one of these shows, and the performance is devastating. While recovering from the trauma of having my wisdom teeth yanked last summer, I played Ruth’s “Sweet Jane” back to back with their most powerful original “Nashville Surf” and the combination of the two jerked me right out of the Anacin-novacaine fog. Similarly, their last Top Hat shows were some of their best: far too healthy for last gasps.
Surfer Ruth has also been known to be absolutely rank on occasion. Their Top Hat runs early last fall were lousy. They have been known to have problems of taste; indeed, it has been said that they have none: they quit doing some of their finest material, insisting, in characteristic fashion, that “the stuff sucks.” They substitute crap. They can’t play punk and should have quit trying to long ago.
Many of their rhythm and Blues numbers, despite the best liberal intentions of the band, assume subtle racist overtones as the result of attempts by five white boys to sound black. And, as John Kappes pointed out, with some exceptions like “Dead Flowers,” they really don’t play Rolling Stones very well.
Still, even when they’re horrible, I can sit and enjoy them. I sat all night, every night at the Hat last fall. The band has its own disposition; its bad sides are as interesting as its good ones and almost as entertaining. Surfer Ruth is not a pack of smiling starch-white bopping pinheads who go through their “hope yer all gittin’ real drunk out there tonight, cuz the drunker you git, the better we sound, haw haw, let’s have a big Missoula yahoo out there, haw haw, all right, now we’re gonna ‘Whip It’” masturbation ritual night after night. They think and breathe and make mistakes and act and feel – sort of like human beings.
It was our individual needs – to be accepted into the musical family of Missoula – we knew it was there, we just had to dig deep inside and bring itout, to work hard without really planning ahead, to just do do do, and do it better every time, to play your best all the time. I loved everyone involved; thanks for believing and supporting and understanding. A total partnership like this comes together very seldom in one’s lifetime. I never thought I’d learn how to surf. —Mark Alexander, drummer.
“I get really pissed off when a great band gives up. Where is their responsibility to the public? What happened to the arduous impressions of youth represented in fresh attitudes – attitudes the old despise? Oh well, who cares anyway? The Garden City has seen at least 100 bands eat the big eighth note and all of them played a significant role in cultural development for Missoula. It is a shame in a small way. Only because Surfer Ruth’s strongest member was Surfer Ruth. And we’ll never see her hang five again.” –Andre Floyd – musician, fan, associate.
So they’re kissin’ the whole kit’n’caboodle goodbye tonight. The reasons seem obscure to an outsider – somebody just suggested the band take a break, then this human band underwent a nervous breakdown and decided it couldn’t cope with life any longer. Some band members and fans are sure that, as Patti Bingham puts it, “they’re just resting,” that Surfer Ruth will play again.
I think it highly unlikely. I think that these swell boys will go on to lead quite dismal lives. Mark Alexander will become a cab driver and one of Toledo’s better-known alcoholics. Jon Rose will disappear in Barcelona, never to be heard from again (though his ghost will be spotted every flag day at Lukes), Charles Wheeler will produce made-for-television movie adaptations of the memoirs of such stars as Morgan Fairchild, Dana Plato and Eve Plumb.
Joey Kline will form a super-group with Geddy Lee, Carl Palmer and Jean-Luc Ponty. Known as Ponty, Palmer, Pompous, and Pudgy, their career will end abruptly when Kline’s head implodes at a Cleveland concert in the middle of a rousing heavy-metal remake of “Rockin Robin.” Richard Mockler will star in the longest running play in Broadway history, a musical adaptation of the classic Chuck Connors television series Cowboy in Africa. He will die thinking of himself as a success. That will bug him.
And those assholes thought they were going to be in a band.
“I’m thankful we got the chances we did to present our “Middle America on LSD” vision to people who were smart enough to just dance and not take it too seriously. I’m thankful I’ve been lucky enough to have an opportunity to live out my childhood fantasies. I’m glad the Roses and Dave and Shawn were always around to give us moral support, loan us money, rescue us and tell us when we were full of shit.
And I’m tired of thinking about the whole fucking thing. Life goes on.” —Richard Mockler, guitarist