I Was A Teenage Jam Band Scenester: Coming Around On The Ominous Seapods And Other Life Lessons

The Ominous Seapods.
Through a series of maybe not-so-unfortunate events, I was a teenage jam band scenester, which, when properly italicized and luridly capitalized, sounds like a sordid music-crit version of a '50s exploitation paperback. But the truth is, I wasn't seduced by drugs, sex, or anything else until college.

There was a thriving local ska circuit on Long Island, where I grew up, and I went to a clutch of gigs at church rec centers and the occasional all-ages night hosted by the local metal club, The Roxy. But ska didn't offer what I wanted. Richard Brooks, the leader of local heroes the Scofflaws, was a bus driver at our high school, and I appreciated his obvious punkness. But getting out of my hometown was a priority. Despite being a b-side collecting fan of Nirvana and, through them, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, and a few others, underground music in 1993 paradoxically seemed like something that you saw on television, not participated in yourself.

The jam band world was the first music community I had access to. As a suburban computer kid, I got online as quickly as I could, and found that Deadheads had the pre-WWW 1993-era internet well-colonized. I eventually made my way to Larry Bloch's Wetlands Preserve, the magically handmade club in pre-gentrified TriBeCa where somehow my pitiful fake high school ID that said I was 18 got me in the door. Not that I was trying to drink; I was there for the music, maaaaaaaaan. The idea of improvisation—something "new" every time—was throughly mindblowing to me, and the Grateful Dead seemed far more approachable (and fun) than, say, Miles Davis. But, inside Wetlands, I found a pretty complete world. There was a VW bus parked by the door, housing an environmental activism center (like, actual hang-off-buildings/throw-blood-on-fur-wearers activists); a wrap-around mural of a pastoral festival scene; hippie-built nooks; black lights; and a benevolently foreboding basement lounge. There was also a radically open-minded booking policy that included hardcore matinees, Allen Ginsberg readings, grrl-folk (including Ani DiFranco's first NYC appearance), and lots other surprises. Of course, I knew none of that then.

But it was there somewhere, sometime, that I first heard about the Ominous Seapods. Their version of the jam band model seemed to embrace thrift-store kitsch, which was one part of Long Island culture that I definitely appreciated. So I did what I did whenever I heard about a new jam band with a stupid name and an interesting reputation: I found somebody with some live shows on the band's tape-trading list, dubbed some cassettes in exchange (probably Phish), and got a crispy soundboard a few weeks later. Nuts to piracy; jam bands had their fan-driven DIY distribution system long before most people had any bandwidth at all, let alone enough to download a single MP3. There were fanzines and newsletters in addition to the offline tapers' networks. Plus, my grandma lived in the city, and I could take the train in, stay with her, and head home the next day. It was fun.

I didn't hate the Ominous Seapods at first. The music just struck me as bland, especially in the face of the all the hippie/rock/bluegrass/prog/funk/ska/avant-jazz fusioneers that had drawn me to Wetlands in the first place, and I put the tape away. I had a hair-trigger for new-and-exciting-sounding music, and was prone to bum-outs when a band didn't live up its billing. Gradually, as the Seapods ended up on more and more bills with other bands I did want to see, I pulled out the tape again. And that's when I truly started to despise them, most especially their signature stoner anthem "(Wednesday Afternoon) Bong Hits and Porn" and other moments of (what sounded to me like) lite-funk-pop. People kept putting Seapods filler on tapes of other bands that I received and hyping them up on mailing lists I was on. Pfffffft, I thought. Why would anyone like that crap? I badmouthed them anytime I could to the point where it became almost a mind-puzzle to figure what it was, really, that I didn't like. As I did, I first truly understood what the word "generic" meant. Indeed, before ecstasy and electronic music hit the scene, the Seapods virtually defined the middle-brow grooves that served as a base rhythmic vocabulary beneath the happy genre-fusers. (I've also come to realize that pretty much all good music involves some kind of genre/idea-fusing, but that realization, too, came much later.)

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