August 5, 2018

The National Endowment for the Arts Presents . . . The Pain Amplifiers


The plan was I’d be crashing on Andy’s couch on Sunday, my first night in Chicago. It would give us a chance to talk a bit and hopefully figure out what the fuck we were going to do that week to justify his hefty new grant and my presence there as a collaborator. We would both be giving talks at Quimby’s Bookstore (still the coolest book store in Chicago) on Thursday night, so that was a start. He was hoping to set up a descriptive tour of an outsider art museum there, something he could record and turn into some kind of presentation, but the directors of the museum never got back to him. So when we got to his place, I dropped my bag on the couch, we opened a couple of Pabst tallboys, and we started talking.

            Andy, like me, is blind as a result of retinitis pigmentosa. He’s about ten years younger than I am, a burly, charismatic guy with round red-tinted glasses and anachronistic facial hair. In the mid-Nineties he’d been in a hardcore band, after that a metal band, and for the past decade or so he’s fronted The Velcro Lewis Group, a down and dirty Southern boogie outfit I once described as sounding like the kind of band who’d play a biker gang house party in an episode of The Rockford Files. He’s also an audio engineer, artist, and outspoken advocate for disabled rights. This new grant he’d received was specifically for an art project focused somehow on disability.

            Well, as we sat there on the couch listening to The Cramps, Cheap Trick and Waylon Jennings we didn’t come up with much beyond some vague notions of him recording me talking about this or that, telling a story of some kind, then having him compose some accompanying music. That was fine, I figured. It was something anyway, and it’d be easy.

            The next day Grinch came by Andy’s place to pick me up. We’d figured that while I was in Chicago I’d spend the days with Andy working on whatever, and then crash at Grinch’s place at night.

            Well, the three of us sat down in Andy’s living room and started talking, mostly about music. We all had a few war stories to share, and it turned out Grinch and Andy knew a bunch of people in common from the Chicago scene. Then out of the blue Andy said, “So why don’t you guys come over to the studio tomorrow and we could record some new Pain Amplifiers? We have a lot of instruments laying around there, some hunks of metal, even a vacuum cleaner. It’s an N.E.A. grant, and it just makes sense that the N.E.A. should be backing the Pain Amplifiers reunion.”

            I think it’s safe to say a few eyebrows were raised at the suggestion, and we immediately forgot all about that whole “I’d tell a story and Andy would come up with some music” business. Grinch and I had played our last show and released a four-song cassette thirty two years ago, and since then have been joking about a reunion. Given our reputation back in Madison in the Eighties, let’s just say it was the one rock’n’roll reunion no one wanted to happen, except us.

            The Pain Amplifiers started as an accident. The fine folks at Sears Roebuck had sent Grinch an unsolicited credit card. He promptly took it to a nearby Sears catalog outlet and ordered a guitar, amplifier, Casio keyboard, microphone, mic stand, and, for some reason, a music stand. Then he threw the credit card away. After stealing an eight-foot-long tin caboose chimney from a local railroad yard to provide percussion. We officially had a band. We played our first show outside the university library at three a.m. the night the instruments showed up.

            Our goal from the start was to become the Worst Band on Earth, and I dare say we succeeded. Having no idea how to play an instrument, and furthermore having no desire to learn, definitely helped. Too many stories to tell here, but we had quite a run of it there for a while, quickly establishing ourselves as the most despised band in Madison. Our last show took place at the famed O’Cayz Corral, where we played with St. Vitus and our musical heroes, The Mentors. Afterward the club’s manager told us, “People came here tonight to see a really obnoxious and offensive show, and you guys gave it to them.” It was one of the kindest things anyone ever said about the Pain Amplifiers.

            Now over three decades later, we were once again being offered the same opportunity Sears Roebuck had offered us earlier, and just as immediately and unexpectedly. What choice did we have?

            “Sounds like a plan to me,” I said.

            “Let’s, as Eldon Hoke once famously counseled, keep on a-rockin’,” agreed Grinch.

            We obviously didn’t have the time to sit down and write epic numbers like “Super Bowl Sunday,” “The Grinning Man” and “Blood Sucking Freaks” the way we had back in the day. And to be honest we couldn’t even remember those old songs anymore, so there was no question of re-recording them for a new generation. We’d just have to wing it. That night at Grinch’s place we didn’t exactly brainstorm, but a couple of notions made themselves apparent. We’d take a look at what kind of instruments Andy had laying around the studio and make some shit up. After all, if the fucking National Endowment for the Arts was going to be bankrolling us, however unwittingly, we had to do it right and in proper Pain Amplifiers fashion. Plus, when you had a blind producer working with a blind musician, how could anyone argue, right?

            The next day Grinch and I drove over to the studio, which was located on the fourth floor of a warehouse in the old meat packing district, right across the street from the El.

            The room was littered with old Casios, an electric organ, battered guitars, half-assembled drum kits and microphones. There were cables strewn on shelves and amplifiers, though no one seemed to know what they belonged to anymore. Andy apologized for not having a caboose chimney, but he did roll in a big bass marching drum and a bucket full of metal debris. The place was absolutely filthy, apparently not having been cleaned since the late nineteenth century. Yes, it was all about as perfect as we could have hoped for. Grinch ran down the block, returned with a case of cheap beer. And we were off.

            To record our first demo back in 1986, we’d hauled all our equipment (minus the caboose chimney) over to a house in Elmhurst, Illinois. A friend of Grinch’s brother lived there with his parents, and had a little four-track studio set up in the attic. In the pre-digital four-track home studios of the Eighties, pretty much everything was done on cassette tape. Given the sloping roof in the attic, we couldn’t stand up straight, so had to play the instruments while kneeling or sitting on the floor. And since our, um, producer’s mom was downstairs and kept complaining about the noise, when it came to percussion we had to bang just once on some metal plates we’d brought along, and the producer turned it into a (literal) tape loop. Same with the grind of the old Hoover vacuum the producer happened to have up there that night. We’d decided to add it to the ensemble, but thanks to some more complaints from his mom, could only run it for a few seconds, which he then looped. On one number where untuned guitar was supposed to be front and center, a connection went bad somewhere, leaving us with nothing but a steady buzzing sound on the final recording. We decided to keep it. From a standing start we recorded and mixed four songs in eight hours, and sent the master tape off to be duplicated on fifty cassettes.

            The results were tinny and hackneyed and pretty godawful, but that suited us fine. The Pain Amplifiers were more about performance than recording anyway.

            The cover art we chose was a post-autopsy photo of Marilyn Monroe, and we sent copies of the tape off to every ‘zine, record label, and indie radio station we could think of. We never did get signed by Arista or Elektra, but amazingly enough, a few of those tapes started to circulate around the deep underground avant noise punk community, and much to our horror we got a few fan letters. Grinch took it upon himself to respond to these letters by mailing our new fans dead birds postage due.

            But that was a long time ago, those chaotic, unpredictable, drug-fueled days. We were much older now, more mature, with careers and families and reputations to worry about. What’s more, we were in a real recording studio with a real audio engineer and were being backed by the goddamned N.E.A., just like those real artists you hear about on public radio. This was serious fucking business.

            As Andy took a few minutes to mic up the room and plug a few things into the amplifiers, Grinch and I fiddled around with some of the discarded instruments to see what kinds of sounds we could get out of them. Much to my delight, the bass drum laid across a bucket of metal debris was a fine approximation of our old caboose chimney. And Grinch had always been a master when it came to dredging some unbelievably horrific noises out of cheap Casios. Then Andy went a few doors down the hall to the control room, and Grinch and I let the Muses show us the way. Fifteen minutes after arriving at the studio, we were laying down our first track.

            A couple of hours later, we had three new songs recorded, with a solid idea for a fourth. But it was getting close to midnight, both Andy and Grinch had work to do the next day, so we headed home.

            Around six-thirty the following evening, Grinch and I went over to Andy’s place. He had a small studio there as well, complete with a Theremin, a Moog, and assorted other arcane electronic instruments. We added a few touches to the things we’d recorded the previous night, drank a few more beers, and Andy, sitting at his computer, threw together a few rough mixes. Gotta say, he made us sound a helluva lot better than we had a right to sound. “We’re merely the Ronettes to his Phil Spector,” Grinch said, and we began scheming out how we might actually be able to get some of this off-the-cuff shit on the radio.

            The next afternoon Grinch had a lot of running around to do, so I went over to Andy’s alone and the two of us came up with a fifth little ditty.

            Nobody had been expecting any of this to happen, it was all just a fucking whim, but somehow it seemed right enough that before he dropped me off at the airport on Friday, Grinch was talking about having me come back out to Chicago a few months down the line to finish what we’d started. That would give us a chance to write a few actual songs, the way we had in the old days. “Three more days in the studio,” he said, “and we could have a double album!”

            Lord help you all.


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