October 16, 2002

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Damaged good
After walking away from indie rock success as the cofounder of Sebadoh, the ever psychedelic Eric Gaffney resurfaces in the Bay Area almost a decade later.

By Mike McGuirk

AS A FOUNDING member, drummer, and songwriter of the '80s-to-'90s lo-fi phenomenon Sebadoh, Eric Gaffney was once poised to break the big time – owing in part to the growing popularity of his band but more directly because of the emergence of cofounder Lou Barlow as indie rock's premier songwriter. This was in 1993, when MTV still showed videos and even had a hand in breaking bands on a national scale; indie rock, a movement that Sebadoh had a part in creating, was still interesting; and the United States government had just taken a break from dropping bombs on Iraqi civilians.

What ended up happening was this: Gaffney left Sebadoh practically five seconds before they became huge, the band became huge and began to suck beyond anyone's wildest imaginings, and Gaffney pretty much disappeared from the rock music landscape.

Now it's almost 10 years later, wholesale murder in the Middle East is just a few Constitution-eroding weeks away, MTV is sexier than ever, and Gaffney's solo project, Fields of Gaffney, is playing a show on the same bill as former Sebadoh bandmate Jason Lowenstein. That match comes about a week after Barlow plays a show at the same venue. Then five days after Lowenstein and Gaffney play, J. Mascis, who got four stars in Rolling Stone not long after kicking Barlow out of Dinosaur Jr., is scheduled to appear at the same venue.

With the amount of useless music Mascis and Barlow have foisted on the public since their earliest days as bona fide rock music geniuses, this 14-day stretch could be thought of as some harmonic convergence of total irrelevance but for the appearance of Gaffney's solo project (and Lowenstein's as well, but really the possibility of those two getting together onstage and playing songs from the legendary, insane band they had at one time called Ass Happy is what's going to be getting my 10 bucks). The fact is Gaffney was always the most interesting member of Sebadoh. As the band's popularity grew, and Barlow's talent gradually gained national acceptance, Gaffney's material veered drastically from anything resembling the indie pop the band was perfecting.

Sebadoh started out as a collaborative/collective (read: hippie) type of band, and their records were sloppy and overlong, as if they didn't care about anything. You never knew what was engineered to make fun of the very scene they were a part of and what was supposed to be taken seriously. Barlow celebrated his lack of masculinity so openly it was cool, but possibly it was a joke, and on you. And Gaffney's stuff was just too weird to be a joke, half hardcore and half psychedelia. Remember, in the beginning, indie rock was very rigid as far as what was and wasn't OK to do. Maybe the code of conduct thing was a holdover from hardcore, but exploring unaccepted, nonpunk forms of music was frowned upon until Dinosaur (Jr.) came along and went Neil Young on everybody, and then on Mascis's heels came Sebadoh.

At first the albums were filled with abrupt, sharp contrasts, but by the time Sebadoh III (Homestead) came out, with Lowenstein contributing songs, everything flowed together, each member had a defined, personal songwriting voice, and it made for an incredible record. A few EPs followed, with Barlow's songs playing on college radio stations, and when Sebadoh signed to Sub Pop, they were becoming known as a vehicle for Barlow songs rather than a three-man effort.

Sebadoh's first Sub Pop record and fourth studio full-length was Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock, which had only two Gaffney compositions, one a purely indulgent noise jam and the other a song called "Mean Distance," which starts out pretty and light – the sort of pot-smoking perfection that had made his songs on Sebadoh III so great. But the last half of the song is a screeching crystal meth nightmare with gurgling puke vocals and spurting guitars that cut the air like knives. It's almost as if Gaffney is refusing to give in to the move toward pop-oriented material.

If that was the case, then the songs he recorded for Bubble and Scrape – the last Sebadoh record that featured any of Gaffney's songs and their second Sub Pop release – were an act of hostility. Gaffney's explosive freak-outs sound positively unhinged here next to Barlow's cleanly structured ballads. They burst from the speakers, crackling with treble cranked into the red, breaking off from melody into shambling, tripped-out codas and pure noise collapses. Gaffney sings in a high-pitched squeal, as if he's on the bad end of 17-month acid trip and he's seen something he wishes he hadn't.

When Bubble and Scrape came out, Sebadoh was being groomed to take a large piece of the indie rock pie and Gaffney was the freakiest musician on the whole semi-underground landscape. There was no way they were gonna cut it on 120 Minutes with Gaffney writing these bizarre tunes. It's too bad, because the way the songs played off one another was one of the reasons Sebadoh was great, and with that tension gone, the band had none of the charm that had made a lot of us love them.

Bubbling under

Around the release of Bubble and Scrape the band played a show at the Paradise in Boston, and I went. Barlow's ability to combine indie rock with Bread was peaking with local college radio, and so Sebadoh's set relied mostly on his songs. People starting asking for Gaffney to play something, and finally he did. When he came out from behind the drum set, he looked fucked up and scared, like he didn't want to play. He went to the side of the stage and opened a guitar case, pulling out a metallic green Fender Mustang with twin racing stripes that ran diagonally across the body, a crappy, great guitar. He clumsily plugged it in and started playing total shit-ass dissonance for like five minutes before anything resembling a song emerged. This howling wall of feedback swelled and swayed and slowly came together into a throbbing, tidal melody. Gaffney began screaming into the microphone, and I recognized the song he was playing to be "Listen to the Lion," by Van Morrison.

What a perfect, fucked-up thing to do. "Listen to the Lion" is a 10-minute epic off Saint Dominic's Preview, and it's one of Morrison's weirdest, greatest moments. He mimics a lion's roar, he sings cryptically about Christ, he meditates – the song is fucking great. Gaffney took this beautiful song, which probably no one in the room had heard, and translated it into his own code, a chaotic mess of caterwauling feedback and schizoid psychedelia. The thing that was brilliant was that the song lost none of its spiritual power or beauty in the process. It was clear that performing the song meant something to Gaffney. It was as if he were seeking the peace that Morrison wrote about but his attempt was as desperate and doomed to failure as the chaos coming from the stage. Whatever it was, it said something, and something personal at that, which is more than can be said of all too many musicians. Gaffney is a songwriter whose tantrumlike bursts of noise bear as much meaning as his conventionally structured songs. It's communication beyond the accepted vocabulary of music.

The last time I saw him perform, as Fields of Gaffney, he was solo, with a guitar and a drum machine. He ended the set with the Sebadoh anthem "Gimme Indie Rock," and the song devolved into a downwardly spiraling guitar solo and flailing atonal strums, like a scribble at the bottom of a page. He was sitting in a chair on the stage, and his final act was to knock over the microphone stand.

Real genius

Full disclosure here: Gaffney is a friend of mine. He lives here in the city and is something of a fixture on the scene. When I met him, I was star-struck as hell. I had literally worshipped the guy in my 20s, and his disappearance just before the big time had always seemed like the coolest thing to me. Anyone who avoided success was a hero to me in those days – who knows why. In fact, they still are; I just don't actively emulate them anymore. Anyway, me and my friends always referred to Gaffney as the real genius of Sebadoh, the failed genius, the ultimate rock antihero whose own refusal to bend to the whims of the pap-seeking MTV generation had gotten him in the end.

He turned out to be exactly what I thought he would be and more. That means he's half nuts, and meeting him taught me a valuable lesson about heroes being human and all that shit. So now that I have no illusions about Gaffney the man, you can rest assured that my summation is not colored by misconceived notions of genius. You can trust me when I say the guy is some kind of genius. Why? Because he's sure as hell not like the rest of us.

Gaffney is as wild as they come, with a superhuman appetite for good times and an ability to talk about 15 different things at once. As a friend of mine once said, "Eric is a psychedelic person." Many of Gaffney's songs are reminiscences of his childhood, with these weird, nursery rhyme-like images. The artwork he did for Sebadoh's record covers, as well as for the Fields of Gaffney record, is weird collages with blurry photos and pictures from books you'd swear you saw once when you were a kid, and the creepy drawing of a humanoid rabbit stuck with you. These half-remembered images and tragic yearnings are themes that have always populated his music. And he employs them so they come off as a genuine expression rather than as a tool to construct songs.

Gaffney is somebody who makes music because it is all that he can do. He has little choice in the matter, and that is what makes his talent something worth paying attention to. The fact that at times he hits on perfectly damaged psychedelia is a bonus. And judging from the cloud-tasting trip to never-never land that is the song "Fields of Gaffney," from his 1999 release Brilliant Concert Numbers, Gaffney's talent for writing good songs is as vital as ever. Sebadoh were a great, great band at one time, and while they are long dead and gone, the psychotropic freakiness (and the staunch commitment to avoiding commercially viable, weak shit) that made them great is still alive and well in Gaffney's music.

Fields of Gaffney plays Sun/20, 9 p.m., Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., S.F. $8. (415) 474-0365.