Notes To The Sky Beings Floating Over Pens Full Of Jupiter Sheep
I first met the Banner Brothers in 1982. Thomas J. Barnes and Maxwellian Gehefnik Beeswald Wyvern were their names, so not all the Banner Brothers, just two. Tom advertised on the Changing Hands Bookstore board for a rideshare to the Kerouac Conference in Boulder, Jay and I needed a ride, and that's how it started for me.
Jay and I joined Tom and Bridget and Greg for the long journey from Phoenix to Boulder. Jay and Greg and I rode in the open back of Tom's brown Toyota truck all the way with no sunscreen or hats, so murderous sunburns and exposure all around but gorgeous vista.
We met Max in Boulder, and the week of the conference was transformative for all of us. William S. Burroughs and Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary. Klan Nuns and Giant Walking Penguins and Ken Kesey showing the original Prankster clips for the first time. Metaphysics and quantum physics and art and cut-and-paste writing seminars in the middle of the most powerful new writers and artists and film makers. Parties and roaming Boulder at night and edgy performance art all around. Crazy amazing.
The energy of that event still lingers in my core. I shook Abbie Hoffman's hand at the Boulderado. I watched Timothy Leary laugh wildly at a party. I sat five feet away and listened to William S. Burroughs read from The Soft Machine.
And I got to know Greg, Tom, Bridget and Max.
A year later Jay and I moved to Boulder with Greg and Craig Cornett and Laura Lee. We managed to rent a big rambling house on the edge of Boulder, five bedrooms, three levels, plenty of space to grow cubensis and make films about existentially-challenged criminals.
And music. We were dirt poor the first year and would often street perform on the Boulder Mall for wine money. We hung out with anarchist lesbians and underground leftists and the cream of 1982 Boulder Weirdo Culture. I was in the Boulder auditorium the day Norman Mailer debated William S. Burroughs on the existence of god and the lights went out both times Mailer banged his fist and proclaimed there was none.
Just like that. All the time. Big Weird Events, Little Weird Events, Constant New Stimuli. I grew. We all grew. The mushrooms grew. What a time, it shall never come again. Boulder was the Center of the Cyclone in those years.
Tom moved up for awhile, lived in the garage. I started recording weird little bits at that time using the ambient mike on a boombox and a second ancient mono cassette-recorder to multitrack, teaching myself to play guitar and writing my first songs. Tom moved back home, and when I came to visit I talked him into booking a session at Orangewood Studios in Chandler. I wrote 'Moving Like A Shadow', 'I'm An Android' and a couple of sketches -- Tom invited an excellent keyboardist for a band he'd produced in Phoenix, really filled out the tracks. Tom sang backup, I sang my heart out, and I wore out copies of that tape for years.
Some time later I was back in Phoenix going to ASU as a theater major. Tom and I would occasionally record at his home studio, but I was more focused on writing plays and acting at the time. Tom's employer moved both him and Steve Green to Folsom CA, and once they got there Tom called Max, Greg and me and asked us if we wanted to come to California to start a band.
I was a semester and a half away from graduating from ASU, I had a girlfriend and a large creative circle -- but I went anyway. Everyone went. We lived with Tom for awhile at his mountain house in Pollock Pines until Max, Greg and I found a big house on a remote walnut farm near Plymouth where we could practice. We all found jobs. Tom and I built his garage into a studio, Steve Green funded a PA, microphones and amps and a board. Max and Greg and I found a live drummer and started playing out as the Brickbats, a cover band playing Beatles and Zappa and Hendrix at Lake Tahoe and big bars on Saturday nights..
We recorded originals at Tom's house, and things were developing when a successful gig in Lake Tahoe ended in disastrous, violent breakup. Max and I found a new house in Sacramento, and the Jupiter Sheep were born. The band was named after gaseous life forms in a Clarke novel and was a direct response to the traumatic events of that night.
It was also the name of the first song we wrote.
Tom and Steve were unsettled by the change, but eventually backed the new project. Tom agreed to play drums and keyboards, and Max and I started writing songs.
We auditioned guitarists. A few false starts and odd stories later, Steve 'Ramboullet' Randall gave us a call. We picked him up and drove him back to the Sheephouse where he promptly blew our minds -- the most talented guitarist we'd ever stood next to, period. He joined the band, and we started practicing every other night. He was dating Natalie at the time and after a brilliant audition she joined the band.
One night Tom brought in a friend of his -- Sky Harbor, the only other guitarist I've ever met who could match Steve's crazy-assed bizarrely tight talent. The audition felt like Destiny, we all felt it. It stuck immediately.
Once we wrote and practiced enough songs for a set we raised enough money to afford professional studio time at Enharmonik Studios and booked the Black Album sessions. The engineer assigned to us was none other than Peter Clemente. It was his audio talent that made the Black Album so effective, so big and wide. He fell in love with the music and became The Jupiter Sheep Engineer forever.
The Black Album made people sit up and listen. We used it as our demo tape and started to get bigger gigs. We auditioned another singer -- Jennifer Paige Ward, who joined the band for long enough to play a few gigs and record on the World of Fire sessions. But she was very young, and when her mother moved out of town she had to follow.
Pete's wife Missy heard some of the new material we were working on, particularly 'Star Waltz' -- she was an incredible local talent, an amazing vocalist and pianist, and when she requested an audition everything clicked into sharp focus. Missy joined the band and the lineup was forever complete.
We started playing every gig we could get all over NorCal and the Bay Area. Bars, clubs, festivals, block parties, private parties, benefits. We filled the Sheephouse with people for parties and played for hours, gave interviews and did cable shows. We recorded Leda's Earthcannon live at the Sheephouse, and wrote the songs for Choose Your World. Every day and every minute was the Music, and the Band, and the Sound.
By then I had returned to college at CSUS as a theater major while working full time as a bartender. I wanted to make music videos for the band, so I used my my entire student loan for a semester to shoot both Radio Sol and Beat Park over two weekends. I hired a fim crew from SF through a young cameraman I'd met working on a commercial film shoot, Michael Harrison. I conscripted the entire Theater department's help including several professors and more than a hundred students. Famed puppeteer Richard Bay provided the creatures, and talented actors Janine Russo and Gil Morrison danced as the Flame People.
A young woman who sat in front of me in a class agreed to direct the project-- Jennifer Hinkey. She'd never directed before but proved to be quite organized and hypercompetent after I talked her into it. Once the clipboard was in her hands she took over masterfully and made it real. The Radio Sol footage was filmed in the Playwright's Theater on the campus, and Beat Park at Wah Studios in Sacramento. Michael Harrison's camera and lighting crews were dedicated professionals, and the unique quality of the 16mm footage shows it.
We started to get some national attention, short positive reviews in Guitar and Alternative Music magazines. The Sacramento Bee featured us in a Friday entertainment section, front cover with a full article. We played in San Francisco and anywhere else we could drive to. One night at the Classic Jukebox we headlined to a huge packed house where I started the show by passing out a hundred daisies. The opening band that night was Sex 66.
We finished recording 'Choose Your World' at the famous Moon Studios and released it on CD and 45 RPM vinyl. I started writing and recording sketches for the next album with Sky, Steve, Missy and Max. We began to get some larger gigs, regular play of 'Radio Sol' on a few regional radio stations and more media attention, including a full interview on one of the bigger pop stations. We received a letter of interest from Arista Records. The album was popular, people liked the sound and the songs, and it was all starting to come together.
Then we broke up.
The reason is irrelevant now. It's hard to keep a creative group of any kind going for years; we lasted more than five. Our main competitor Cake was essentially one man cycling though a series of other musicians; they went on to platinum albums and enduring fame. But the Jupiter Sheep were a collective, a cohesive circle of souls engaged in an impossible balance -- one member leaving meant the end. We were locked into a special musical molecule that couldn't last; it's just the truth of the band, but I still love the fact that I was a part of it. Wouldn't change a thing, because then everything that's followed would change and I count myself too lucky of a man to risk that.
Lighting in a bottle. Sometimes when we played the hair on the back of my neck would stick up with the power of That Sound. I can still see Tom pounding with his eyes closed, grinning maniacally, Max wielding his bass like a weapon, Steve laying down impossibly delicate patterns while Sky roared over the top of them, Natalie sailing in with her pure hot soul shining out, Missy kicking it up Over The Top and then off we would go into -- that weird wild rarified beaming-it-out-to-the-galaxies. That Feeling. Why humans make music together. We Spoke As One to the Multiverse.
I'll write a book about it someday. Bittersweet and glorious and oh so real it was. It's still in me, and I still love it. Hail the Jupiter Sheep and godspeed Sky Harbor, who remains lost at sea, his fate unknown. I knew him; I knew them all, and I'm grateful.