by Thomas K. Pendergast
Like the rest of the American economy in 1991, sales of new music had been slumping for a few years running, so the music industry looked to well-established acts like U2, Guns & Roses, Metallica and the Rolling Stones to turn things around. Though Nirvana released Nevermind in September of that year, it took a few months to build the momentum that made it a best seller, so for most of 1991 the music industry was still looking for the 'next big thing.'
The band they should have noticed was playing around the neighborhood that same year, or so thought many of us who made club-hopping in Los Angeles a lifestyle. While certainly not fit for family consumption, it was also a given among the band's fans that if marketed right, this act would be a huge hit among teenage, college-age and twentysomething people, perhaps even thirtysomething, especially if they liked gory horror movies and great Rock n' Roll.
The name of this unholy terror to anyone with a shred of "good taste" was Haunted Garage. Over-the-top only begins to describe them, as does shocking, bizzare and ferociously flamboyant. Perhaps that's also more or less why they broke up not long after their only album, Possession Park, was released and went nowhere.
For those of us lucky enough to have seen their shows, it was hard to decide who was the bigger loser: A band that missed its shot at the big time, a music industry that had the next big thing playing right under their noses, or us, the people who knew we were losing not only a great live show but music that could put some of the fire back into an industry mired in the stale and predictable. The guitar-driven music of Haunted Garage was laced with awesome and original riffs that somehow three decades of Rock n' Roll music had missed.
It wasn't just the music and it wasn't just the show; it was both. Haunted Garage was the brainchild of Dukey Flyswatter (a.k.a. Michael Sonye) and the lyrical theme was reflected in the show, inspired by low-budget "B" horror movies and Sci-fi flicks, gore films and the cheesiest bad-girls-in-prison schlock. Of course it was a natural for testosterone-driven young men but it also appealed to some women who like to see men dressed in drag and still appreciated the one thing the music industry apparently did not: a band that didn't take itself too seriously and was having way too much fun.
A sampling of their song list gives a clue: After opening with their "Theme" they would usually go into Welcome To Hell, then follow it with She Freak or 976-KILL, Brain In A Jar, Party In The Graveyard, Torture Dungeon and a cover of Psychotic Reaction. The set would usually end with the traditional Hokey Pokey.
Imagine Motorhead, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath and The Cramps forming a band together and you'll start to get the idea.
The show often climaxed with some outrageous act that was like watching a bad traffic accident, in that you couldn't believe what you were seeing and you also couldn't look away. Some shows featured acts of sadomasochism, with leather-clad women dancing and whipping Dukey, fake dismembered limbs in the tradition of Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer, and real piercings, live onstage, as Dukey would get long, old-fashioned hat pins run though his pectoral muscles.
The music was even better than the show: with catchy hooks, infectious grooves, powerful riff-rock, heavy but not ponderous, clever and unpredictable without being self-indulgent. Above all it was fun to mosh and slam to but not in a way that resulted in fractured bones.
Their songs had a wide range of tempos. Little Green Men (from outer space), for example, had as fast a double-time beat as any hardcore or speed metal band could pull off, plus it had a quirky, harmonized middle part that probably wouldn't even occur to most metal bands. They also had mid-tempo numbers that got the audience into racous sing-alongs with the band, as in the song Bitch Like You, which had a comically wicked groove that rumbled along like a drunken Rolling Stones fan looking for a prostitute.
Then there was Dead And Gone, an ode to necrophilia that was almost a dirge; think Black Sabbath writing a romantic love song to a woman long dead. It was this song, amazingly enough, that seemed to cause the most extreme reactions.
At least one club in America cut off the power and ended the show during Dead And Gone, because Dukey was singing it while dancing with a fake skeleton named Lucy. The lights were low and romantic, he said, until the sound died and the houselights came on.
When they toured Europe, however, the Spaniards and the Italians raved about that song, impressed and moved by those very same romantic qualities.
Another song, Brain In A Jar, featured a huge 'brain' coming out onto the stage with plastic hoses attached to it from which fake blood sprayed out into the audience. The liquid was actually a mixture of Kayro syrup, water and red food dye, which gave it roughly the same look and consistency as real fresh blood.
At least twice I saw some members of the audience bring yellow raincoats and umbrellas, open them up or put them on and then rush to the stage when the 'brain' arrived spraying crimson fluid. Most of the stuff splattered on the walls here in these photos was the same kind of liquid.
Haunted Garage started in 1986 when Dukey met my friend Johnny Ho, who'd been playing guitar with his cousin, Gabby Godhead, in a band called the X-Men. They weren't exactly breaking into the bigtime and Dukey, a B-movie actor and writer who'd written Frozen Scream and would later appear in Surf Nazis Must Die, had an idea for a band.
They got King Dinosaur to play bass and Stiff Slug on drums. It seemed like good timing when they started playing a Hollywood club scene that -- as the growing popularity of established club bands Guns & Roses and Megadeath indicates-- had completely lost all sense of proportion and self respect, not to mention sanity; The perfect environment for this glamour-goul virus to fester and grow.
In the early 1980s I met Johnny Ho at a Golden West College history class in Huntington Beach, California, a town which had a thriving Punk Rock scene at the time. I remember sometimes we'd laugh at our professor because she'd always talk rapturously about loving Kenny Rogers. We both moved to Hollywood about the same time and stayed in touch as we went through different bands in that scene. So as HG got popular I was both a friend and a fan.
By the late 80s and early 90s I owned a van, so they asked me to roadie for them and help haul their equipment from LA up to SF, where they were playing a gig at the I-Beam club on Haight Street. The registration on my van had expired and while I was parked around the corner on Schraeder Street, unloading the gear to go into the club, a mounted San Francisco police officer on a huge brown stallion wrote me up a $70 ticket for the registration. Otherwise the gig went great, everyone I know had a blast, although I noticed that the SF audience shied away from the spurting 'blood' and gave the band lots of room, whereas many in the LA audience would hold back until the crimson splatter started flying, then they rushed in and packed themselves directly in front of the stage.
I ran into the law again on the way back to LA. Debbie is the blonde woman with a Mohawk haircut dancing in some of these photographs. She hitched a ride with myself and another roadie, John. Before hitting the grapevine, we stopped for fuel as she was explaining to us that she thought LA was much better in general for music but SF was best for sex. John was large and burly but friendly, with a tall, green, spiked-mohawk hairstyle and a handlebar moustache. I had long hair dyed several colors and wore a lot of pop art T-shirts and Doc Marten's shoes, so though we looked fairly different from each other, together the three of us must have been an extraordinary sight.
I'm sure the Kern County Sheriff deputies who spotted me driving into a gas station with bad tags didn't expect anyone looking like us to pop out of my plain white van, like rats jumping ship.
Debbie immediately ran into the women's restroom. John and I, however, greeted the deputies with friendly smiles as they exited their squad car. I told the officer right away that I was aware of the registration problem and had just been ticketed by the SFPD. The cops nodded but seemed distracted by John's Mohawk. He used the old-school barsoap method to keep his spikes standing straight up but he'd missed a day or two and now a couple of them were starting to sag a little, all of which he patiently explained to the officers as they circled around him examining his head, appearing sincerely interested in the mechanics involved.
Then one of the officers looked through my rear window and spotted Lucy, the fake skeleton that Dukey danced with in Dead And Gone.
"Is that a dead body back there?" he said.
"Oh that's just Lucy," I responded immediately. "She's part of the act."
They had me open up the back and bring her out for inspection. I told them about Haunted Garage as they looked her over, that we were hauling the band's sound equipment and what the act was like, describing the stage show and a few songs.
After they were satisfied that Lucy had never actually been human, the cops took a quick look at all the amplifiers and other gear, then apparently decided that we probably were alright. Truthfully, I think John and I really enjoyed blowing these cops minds with wild stories about the band and we put on a little show ourselves. I guess we were entertaining enough because the cops eventually let me go without even a ticket for the tags.
When Debbie came out of the bathroom she scolded us for using so much foul language around cops, which we hadn't really noticed. It was only after we fueled up and were rolling out of the station that we suddenly realized someone (it was so long ago, I couldn't possibly remember who) had left a marijuana cigarette 'roach' on the dash board and it was sitting there in plain sight the entire time.
So what brought about the collapse of a such a delightfully depraved band? That probably depends on who is offering an opinion.
Dukey said that around the release of Possession Park, members of the band were "at each other's throats." The core issue was the show itself and how far they should go with it; Dukey argued for the wildest show possible but most of the others countered that their label, Metal Blade Records, would give them more tour support and promotion if MTV played their videos. For that to happen, they needed to tone the show down and try to make their act more acceptable to the American mainstream. This was only a few years before Marilyn Manson and Gwar started getting MTV airplay, though Gwar videos were toned down quite a bit compared to their stage show antics.
The internal tensions over this issue eventually caused a rift in the band that they could not overcome and for whatever reason, Possession Park didn't get nearly the attention it deserved. Within a year Haunted Garage played their last show at the Coconut Teaser, then on Thanksgiving weekend, 1992, the band officially broke up and went to its final resting place, in the graveyard of great bands that almost made it.