Squirrel Bait

Apparently this is the only known live footage of Squirrel Bait, one of those hugely influential bands no one remembers anymore. But if you were around in 1985 and into the punk/post-punk/whatever scene–the rock’n’roll underground basically–you certainly do remember them. That self-titled debut 12″, especially, was incredible. It came out of nowhere, putting established bands like the Replacements to shame, musically and conceptually, and even had Hüsker Dü back on their heels because, well, Squirrel Bait were such better musicians and had such a natural grasp of composition and dynamics. But it was just raw talent. I read an endless interview with one of the guys that was done back when people would read endless interviews (the internet has changed everything) and it was apparent that the band didn’t really know what they were doing. None of it was planned. They’d always played this way, they just got better at it, and always written tunes that way, and just got better at that too. It wasn’t something special from their point of view. The five of them were just guys in a band making music. None of which would have made any sense to us at the time. We all assumed the obvious, that Squirrel Bait had been a well kept secret around Louisville (where?) for years and were about to be the biggest band ever. The fact that they were a bunch of high school kids (and had formed their first band in sixth grade, I think) was unknown to probably everyone on the coasts, not that we would have believed it. But it’s true, they were a local party band, basically. They didn’t get along too well, some of the guys were bookish intellectual types and some of the them were jocks into chasing girls. The nerds thought the jocks were immature, the jocks thought the nerds were, well, nerds. I’m serious. Just typical high school stuff. Yet they impacted us, or a helluva lot of us, in a major way, the way Nirvana impacted everyone else five or six years later. But in Squirrel Bait’s case, it’s as if Smells Like Team Spirit was right there on Bleach. Like the whole explosive Nirvana package on one goddamn debut EP. I have neither Squirrel Bait’s LP or that EP anymore, who knows why, but that EP especially I played every single day for a year. Before work, after work, late at night. Sun God was probably my favorite tune on the thing. And it’s still one of my favorite tunes thirty years later.

Squirrel Bait busted up after the LP (Skag Heaven) came out in 1987. They weren’t entirely happy with the results, you know how those things go, and then a couple of them went off to universities back east. The others I think still had a year of high school left. They’d played a couple dozen gigs, toured a bit, called it a day and broke up. I don’t even think their turn in the spotlight lasted much over a year. Maybe two years. There was still mystery in those days, there was no internet, no Google or Wikipedia, and information and news in the rock’n’roll underground was mostly by word of mouth or gleaned from dog-eared fan zines that got passed around. Squirrel Bait just appeared, out of nowhere, flamed brightly and were gone. By the time Nirvana came around five years later no one talked about Squirrel Bait anymore. No one played them on the radio, or pulled out the records at parties. As DJ culture rose they remained undiscovered. David Grubbs, one of the guitar players (who may have actually written Sun God, I’m not sure) actually went on to have a very productive career in Slint and other memorable bands. Yet Squirrel Bait remained forgotten, their records never reissued. If they were reissued no one noticed. I certainly would have had the CD, but I don’t. And when after thirty years in somebody’s closet this video began popping up on YouTube, kids thought it was OK, but not very original. Just another Nirvana wannabe was the complaint. The singer thinks he’s Kurt Cobain. I suppose it needn’t be said that when Cobain put Nirvana together back in 1985, he was (according to the Melvins) nuts about that first Squirrel Bait record. We all were. It was in the air. They were the American band that knocked all the other American bands on their asses that year. They were incredible.

So here it is, the only known footage, Squirrel Bait playing a rough version of Sun God somewhere in Kentucky back in 1985. It’s an animated crowd, you can smell the sweat and testosterone, and it’s obvious the PA sucks and the band can’t hear anything over all the feedback. You can tell that they really were just a high school party band, not professional in the least, which is kind of charming, actually. It’s also an intense and ferocious performance, and as the tune and as the band powerdrives the riffs to their smashing climax it’s hard to believe that these were just teenagers who had to find someone’s mom to drive them to the gig (the singer thanks her.) And then the tune comes to it’s sudden end, unresolved, leaving the listener hanging, unrequited. That’s an old bossa nova trick, leave the melody hanging in the air like that. It’s just not something you hear often in rock and roll, and you certainly never heard it in punk rock. Their heroes Hüsker Dü hinted at it in, say, Celebrated Summer (which always reminded me of Sun God, for some reason, or is that the other way around), but then Bob Mould resolves it in with his little acoustic coda. But Squirrel Bait take you right off the edge at the end there but there’s no finish. You can even here the finish in your head, you’re tapping it out with your foot, air drumming the heck out of it, except the damn things not there anymore. It’s over. It’s disconcerting as hell. It’s unexpected, it’s wrong, and you would have a helluva time finding another rock’n’roll band then or now or even before then who would have stopped that tune cold like that and watch all the air guitar players and air drummers topple into space. It’ll work with prose too, though I never figured out how to do it until I was past fifty. And not because it’s hard to do, but because I didn’t even realize it was possible. In American music and American prose we like our endings solid and punctuated, we like our sentences and melodies and ideas and even our movie endings to work themselves out. It’s tradition, going back centuries. It’s in the cultural DNA. And João Gilberto didn’t dream up that unresolved ending to his classic take on the Antonio Carlo Jobim tune Ligia on his own. Those couple notes on guitar and voice that hang there glinting in the sun, that that’s old Portuguese musical tradition, right out of fado, the ancient Portuguese ballad form that traces its own origins back to the Moorish occupation and the music of the Arabs. To this day you’ll hear Arab pop music leave melodies hang like that. Jobim reveled in it, and Gilberto just adapted it to his stripped down sambas where it worked beautifully. It was all a natural ethnomusical progression from the court music of medieval Moorish Spain to a very stoned Joao Gilberto in 1950’s Brazil. On the other hand, Squirrel Bait were in Kentucky listening to Ramones records.

There, I just did it again.

(You might check out the studio version of Sun God–it’s all over YouTube–to hear the tune as we heard it on record in 1985. I can hear that ending in my head as I type this, hanging there. Pretty hip stuff for the time. My fave Ligia is the take by Joao Gilberto and Stan Getz from 1976, and after Stan takes as gorgeous a saxophone solo as you swear you have ever heard he lays out and João takes up the verse again, the words in soft Portuguese, and you wish the thing would go forever, but it doesn’t, and the end is exquisite, guitar and voice glinting in the sun. It’s all over YouTube, 5’22” long. Please don’t tell anyone that I mentioned it in a discussion on punk rock, however.)

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