On the Road With the U-Men (Part 1)

Posted: July 13, 2011 in U-Men

The following is from a chapter addendum I unfortunately had to cut from the book.  For those not aware, the U-Men were one of the most influential bands to come out of Seattle.  They never became famous, but their influence upon the local scene was incalcuable.  They preceeded the grunge era, but the U-Men were much more than just “pre-grunge.”  They combined avant-jazz leanings with Sonics-influenced garage rock and postpunk to create something special.  U-Men audiences consisted of members (or future members) of Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam.  Part 1 of this addendum follows.

Beginning in 1985, the U-Men—along with Green River and the Young Fresh Fellows—were among the first generation of underground Seattle bands to embark on national tours.  The U-Men left Seattle three times during their existence, with each excursion enjoying a unique name: the “No God” tour (1984); “Doomed Faggots” (1985, first national tour); and “Out for a Stroll”(1985-86).

Don’t conjure up images of ‘15-shows-in-26-days’ kind of tours.  Rather, the U-Men travels equated to migrations.  The band would venture down in a school bus to San Francisco, or Austin, Texas and live there for a while—effectively becoming entrenched within the local scene.  “…they basically became an Austin band for a while,” says James Burdyshaw, who later played with the U-Men’s Tom Price in Cat Butt.  “We became a San Francisco band for a while,” guitarist Price adds, “and an LA band for a while.”

Organization was not the band’s forte and most tours had significant downtime.  Take four men in their early twenties, add a couple of roadies, a school bus—and very little else—and the unpredictable will happen.  Faced with little funding, the U-Men were forced to siphon gas and shoplift at 7-Eleven to survive.  The band kept accounting for show receipts on the roof of the bus.  “We did one show in New York City where we got paid $500,” says Price.  “Probably all the combined pay for all the other shows on all three tours was about $500.”

In addition to the band’s four members: Price on guitar, vocalist John Bigley, bassist Jim Tillman, and drummer Charlie Ryan, the band was sometimes joined by David Duet and Larry Reid.  Duet acted as the roadie, while Reid—who managed the band in Seattle—assisted in any way he could.  Duet added color to the band’s ventures, often inciting unsuspecting bystanders merely to get a reaction.

The band first ventured out of town (other than a prior show in Tacoma) in 1984, heading down to LA in a school bus.  The bus would become the vehicle of transport for all three tours.  “[The tours] were all in our 1960 Chevrolet 46-passenger, 27-foot school bus with a 250 straight six and a four-speed—and no emergency brake,” Tillman recalls.

The U-Men made stops in Portland and San Francisco on their way down the coast.  Shows were infrequent and often did not go according to plan.  The band managed to book itself at San Francisco’s notorious Mabuhay Gardens.  Around midnight as the band played, management suddenly cut the PA.  A frustrated Bigley screamed as loud as he could, only to have his voice drowned out by the instruments.

The band finally made its way to LA, but had issues booking shows once they got there.  As a result, the poorly-funded U-Men had a lot of time to fill.  Tillman got a part-time job for survival money, hosting at a restaurant for $1.80 an hour.  The band crashed at Popdefect’s apartment (formerly Seattle’s Psychopop, with Price on bass.)

At one point, the U-Men found themselves in the back of a friend’s jeep cruising around town.  The vehicle came to a stoplight in a rough area of the city, idling while a group of scary looking gangstas glared at them menacingly from a street corner.  Duet, fueled with a few beers, seized the opportunity.  “And David—just out of nowhere—goes, ‘Excuse me, y’all know where I could get me a human head?’ [And I thought] ‘Oh God, I hope the light changes,’ says Price.  “And it did and these guys came after us.”

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Comments
  1. ann says:

    interesting

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