My house in Cincinnati looked out on a Catholic elementary school parking lot. Often, when I should have been working or something, I sat on my front porch and smoked cigarettes and watched the students during gym class or recess hurl balls at each other. The students wore the same uniforms my classmates and I wore in Catholic elementary school thirty-five years ago (light blue shirts and dark blue pants for the boys; plaid dresses for the girls). The balls they chucked at each other were the same, too—hard, oversize rubber things that were more thud than boing, balls that other schools in other places had probably banned, or given away to Catholic elementary schools in Cincinnati.
One day, when I was smoking and watching, a boy ran up holding a ball that was much bigger than a watermelon, and probably just as soft. When he was within, oh, a foot of his victim, the boy threw the ball as hard as he could at the back of the other boy’s head. The struck boy didn’t fall, but he did stagger around a lot, and I bet he was at least a little bit concussed. Anyway, finally he stopped staggering and yelled at his attacker, “You dink!”
Mark Twain was supposed to have said, “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always twenty years behind the times.” I’d put it only somewhat differently. Before I moved to Cincinnati, I hadn’t heard anyone say the word dink since I was in Catholic elementary school myself, but since I’d moved to Cincinnati, in the summer of 2001, I’d heard the word used twice. The first was a few weeks earlier, at a bar called the BarrelHouse, where I’d gone to see a band called the Ass Ponys. The Ass Ponys’ most recent (and last) album, Lohio, had just been enthusiastically reviewed in the Village Voice. Or maybe it was Rolling Stone. Anyway, I’d read the review. So had lots of other people. The bar was full. You could tell it wasn’t full very often, because it was hard to get a drink. People were buying several beers at a time, just so they wouldn’t have to bother later on. I bought three beers, and then had a difficult time figuring out how I was supposed to hold them, so I drank the first one really quickly and then put the empty glass on the bar. Then I had to hold only two beers, which was more manageable, but still pretty pathetic. I was by myself. The concert hadn’t started yet, but the band was onstage, messing around with their instruments. Their lead singer and rhythm guitarist, Chuck Cleaver, looked like a guy whose high-school football coach could never convince him to try out for the team: he had thick, tattooed forearms and a biggish belly and graying, wiry hair and a goatee that was long and wide and wild enough that it deserved to be considered a beard. The bassist, Randy Cheek (those really were their names: Chuck Cleaver and Randy Cheek), was short, and unbelievably white, and wore unbelievably dorky thick black glasses; his hair shot up from the top of his hairline, which was high, and his jeans were rolled up many times and still were too long. He was smoking; he looked like he’d always smoked; he looked like he’d grown up smoking in a cave. The guitarist, Bill Alletzhauser, was also short, but handsomer, and younger-looking than the rest of the band. While the rest of the band tuned their instruments, Alletzhauser kept looking around the bar, as though searching for another band to rescue him. (He was the Ass Ponys’ guitarist for their last three albums; the guitarist for the first three had been John Erhardt, who’d quit the band and then rejoined them soon after this show. Lead guitarists were to the Ass Ponys what lead singers are to Van Halen.) The drummer, Dave Morrison, was the tallest drummer I’d ever seen. He was toward the back of the stage, sitting behind his drums, his knees up to his chest, looking about as comfortable as a big man wedged into an airplane coach seat.
There were other bands from southwestern Ohio at this point in history who’d made it somewhat big in the indie-rock world. Cincinnati’s Afghan Whigs, for instance, who reeked of sex; Dayton’s Guided by Voices, who reeked of booze. But it was hard to tell what the Ass Ponys reeked of. They didn’t look exactly like a band, but they didn’t look exactly like anything else, either.
Anyway, it was taking them too long to tune their instruments. The band realized that, and seemed to be laughing about what fuckups they were. Finally, Chuck Cleaver stopped twisting the knobs on his guitar, then leaned into his mic and said, “I know what you’re thinking: What a bunch of dinks.”
Dinks! I thought, and might have actually said out loud. It made me so happy to hear that long-lost word! But, it could just as easily have made me feel pathetic and sad and lonely, to be taking such pleasure in hearing and actually saying out loud this ridiculous, obsolete, childish word to myself, in a bar full of people I didn’t know, drinking too many beers at one time. (Incidentally, this was pretty much how I felt about my entire nine years living in that great, grim city. I’ve never felt as alive and at home as I did when I lived in Cincinnati, except for those moments when I genuinely wanted to kill myself.)
But I was soon to learn over the course of this show, and then the other four times I saw the Ass Ponys live, and then also listening over and over again to their last four, great albums (1994’s Electric Rock Music, 1996’s The Known Universe, 2000’s Some Stupid with a Flare Gun, and 2001’s Lohio), that this was a very Ass Ponys kind of moment, a very Ass Ponys kind of feeling. In John Cheever’s “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” the narrator asks this presumably rhetorical question: “Where were the trout streams of my youth, and other innocent pleasures?” But for the Ass Ponys, the pleasures of youth weren’t innocent; the pleasures weren’t trout streams; the pleasures were to be found in the degradation and in the degraded materials of youth; the pleasures were to be found in words like dink, or rather in using words like dink long after their expiration date.
Which is not to say that the band was nostalgic. The Ass Ponys were sometimes compared to the Band—possibly because in “Live Until I Die” (from Electric Rock Music) Cleaver confesses, “It’s afternoon. / Seems like it’s gotten here too soon. / I’m still in my underwear / listening to ‘The Weight.’” The problem with this comparison is that the Band was nostalgic—for the night we drove old Dixie down, among other things—but as far as the Ass Ponys were concerned, nostalgia was for suckers. Except, that is, if you were nostalgic for things that no one except the band missed and that were pretty terrible in the first place. Because nostalgia for those things was automatically cut with regret, self-hatred, sadness, irony, defiance. Besides, the band seemed to be saying, if we weren’t nostalgic for these worthless things, then who would be? If not us, then who?
Take, for instance, their song “Gypped,” from Electric Rock Music, which I’m pretty sure they played that night at the BarrelHouse (my first three-beer haul was not my only three-beer haul of that night, alas). It begins with Cleaver singing: “All of the things you thought would happen / didn’t. / And you’re pissed. / All the things you thought would happen / didn’t. / And you’re feeling… gypped!” Up until the last word, the vocals are angry, the music loud, everything tinted with menace. But all that changes with the word gypped. When Cleaver says it—shouts it,
actually—his voice gets happy, so happy that it cracks and goes falsetto, which gives the impression of someone who has not yet entirely gotten over his childhood. Which is just about right: can you believe this arrested character (who may or may not be identical to the person singing the lyrics, the people playing the instruments) really believes he’s been gypped? the band seems to asking. And can you believe how incredible it is that the word gypped is still around for us to use to describe how sad and angry and pathetic this character is? (Not to mention that gypped has since been outed as a racist slur, originating from gypsies and their supposedly thieving ways.) The world is shitty, gypped suggests, but the world is much less shitty than it might be, because we have this great, shitty word to help us describe how shitty it is.
I’m making the band sound grim (which might be apt, since their second album was called Grim, and because they apparently didn’t feel through with the word or the feeling: their first song on Electric Rock Music is also called “Grim.” In fact, they often opened concerts with that song, just to let their audience know what it was in for). But I have always found the band strangely uplifting, especially since they so happily—if ironically—champion people whose lives might be seen as grim. In “Little Bastard” (also from Electric Rock Music, and no doubt the band’s biggest hit) they turn the eponymous victim into a hero: “And [his grandma] calls him Little Bastard. / And she says it to his face. / He says, ‘Don’t call me Little Bastard. / Call me Snake.’” He’s a compromised hero, of course—objectively, Snake is only little bit better than Little Bastard, just as the misspelled name Ass Ponys is only a little better than the properly spelled Ass Ponies—but in the world according to the Ass Ponys, the compromised hero, the one whose rebellion is small, self-mocking, and doomed, is the only person really worth anything. Take the kid in Some Stupid with a Flare Gun’s “Your Amazing Life,” who “wore camouflage today / because [he] wanted to be noticed.” Or the band’s hometown itself, in The Known Universe’s “It’s Summer Here”:
Down behind the barber shop the barber’s burning hair.
He lights it, laughing to himself.
He knows you can’t escape
The smoke is rising from the pile
and out into the town.
It stings your eyes and burns your nose
and makes its way all through your clothes
And oh it’s summer here.
I hope you’ll go buy this album and listen to this song, if only to hear how the vocals and music soar with the line “And oh it’s summer here.” Summer, the season that’s supposed to be synonymous with everything innocent and carefree. But summer here—in Cincinnati, in southwestern Ohio—is terrible; that much is clear. So why then does the band sound so fiercely happy? Because what the Ass Ponys are implicitly asking their listener is: you, in coastal Maine (I now live in coastal Maine), what do you have in the summer that’s so great? Boats? Water? Expensive camps where you send your kids for two weeks so you can enjoy the boats and the water? That’s all you’ve got? Your summer is a fucking state-tourist-
bureau summer. Meanwhile, we have a barber who burns hair! How awful is that! How great that it’s so awful! The lyrics to that song are brilliant,
I think, but it’s the blare of guitar and the happy pounding of the drums that make the Ass Ponys so sardonically joyful. It’s like gospel music for people who’ve almost entirely given up on God, and who like their gospel squalid, and sometimes pretty loud.
Speaking of that, I realize I haven’t given a sense of what the Ass Ponys sound like. They do sometimes remind one of the Band: fiddles, mandolins, and slide guitar were often sneaking into the mix, and Cleaver’s voice was full of countryish creak. But the band also made noise, noise that reminded you of the Velvet Underground or the Replacements. But not quite: the Replacements, for instance, for all their hammered hijinks, for all their sabotage (self- and otherwise), really were rock stars. They behaved liked rock stars, and they looked like rock stars, even if not quite enough people bought their albums for them to qualify as rock stars. The Ass Ponys were never rock stars. As I mentioned, they did not look like rock stars. That had something to do with it. But mostly, the Ass Ponys were never going to be rock stars because rock stardom had no place in their view of the past, or the present, or their hometown, or themselves. Rock stars were people who never quite grew up, it’s true; but rock stars are never into obsolescence the way the Ass Ponys were. Rock stars were the worst kind of dinks: rock stars were dinks who would never, ever call themselves “dinks.” Then again, maybe these rock stars were onto something. Rock stars also weren’t forty years old and still playing in bars in their hometown that they’d played in ten years earlier, still using words they’d used twenty years before that.
But, god, in the BarrelHouse that night I was glad they were, and did. I was especially glad they played the first song off of Lohio, “Last Night It Snowed,” maybe their greatest song, a song with all the band’s enduring qualities on display, a song worth quoting in full.
Last night it snowed.
Powdered sugar cedars lined the road.
They look good enough to eat,
but I don’t think I would.
I can’t imagine that they’d taste too good.
The blanket white, at least it was when it came down last night.
The morning brings the rain.
The blanket’s washed away.
Now everything turns back to gray.
And now you’re there.
The rain is falling, wetting down your hair.
I hate to be the one to say
“I told you so.”
But I believe I might have told you so.
So live and learn.
The snow is melting, never to return.
Cross your t’s and dot your i’s. And write “the end.”
Maybe someday it’ll snow again.
Last night it snowed!
I remember being drunk, and listening to the song, feeling Dave Morrison’s loud, pounding drums coming up through the floor with the words but I believe I might have told you so, feeling about Cincinnati the way the band felt about the snow. The spring before there had been race riots in the city. A white cop had shot and killed an unarmed black man. It’s perhaps melodramatic to say, as several newspapers did say, that Cincinnati burned for three days afterward. But it’s true that a lot of buildings were burned, a lot of windows were broken, and a lot of people were hurt. A city like Cincinnati never makes the national news for a good reason, and, sure enough, the national television news showed repeated shots of groups of black men knocking stuff over and throwing rocks and bricks at mostly white riot police with their shields and helmets. The BarrelHouse itself was in the neighborhood where the kid had been killed, the neighborhood that had been most fucked up by the riots. The BarrelHouse had done much better business before the riots than after; a few years after this Ass Ponys show, the bar closed. And not long after the show, the Ass Ponys began the familiar rock-and-roll journey from lineup change through hiatus to breakup. Neither of these things should have surprised anyone, the way no one in the Ass Ponys song should have been surprised when the snow turned to rain. As “Last Night It Snowed” promised, “Live and learn.”
But then again, the song also hoped that “maybe someday it’ll snow again. [Because] last night it snowed!”And it did snow again.This was a year later—January 2003. As I said, the band was already well on their way to breaking up for good. The guys had begun to drift into other bands, or into no bands at all.
I was hanging out with Dave Morrison, their drummer. Their ex-drummer. He didn’t seem too sad about the whole thing. He had a good job, was married, with kids on the way. Anyway, we were drinking beer and smoking pot in my house when Dave said, “Shit, look!” and pointed toward my front window. It was snowing, hard, the way it rarely does in Cincinnati. I could barely see out the window. “I’ll get the Frisbee,” Dave said, and then sprinted out my front door and to his house, two doors down. I didn’t know what the hell was going on; we had never mentioned Frisbee in general, let alone “the Frisbee.” But I put on my shoes and walked outside. Dave was already standing in the parking lot across the street, the parking lot where the kid had hurled the ball and the other kid had called him a “dink.” It was covered with snow, and the snow was falling so hard that I could barely see Dave. Remember, he was tall. It was like seeing Sasquatch through the winter gloaming, holding a Wham-O. I ran across the street and he threw it to me and I did not catch it, because I was high and drunk and it was dark and snowing and there was almost no visibility and I did not play Frisbee. I picked up the Frisbee and threw it back to Dave and he also did not catch it. We threw the Frisbee around for maybe fifteen minutes and it’s possible that neither of us once caught the thing. But I was so happy. I never wanted to lose that feeling, although of course I did. But when I say “the feeling,” I mean the feeling you shouldn’t have about the thing you didn’t know you wanted to be doing.