Communism is great in theory, but then you end up living in a co-op where nobody cleans up the broken eggs on the floor, or you have a long meeting where it's decided that peeling a banana in the dining room is sexual harassment. Both of these things happened, incidentally, in Madison, Wisconsin--my hometown and the birthplace of university speech codes. But for some reason, I always imagined communism as hotter and happier in Austin, Texas. In 1991, Richard Linklater's cult movie Slacker seemed like Madison without hang-ups. And when I met my first real-life Austinite not long afterward, at a co-op conference in Ann Arbor, I spent the night sharing a sleeping bag with her, the two of us surrounded by a basement full of easygoing Texans, all dutifully pretending to be asleep as we tried to keep quiet. Communism works, sometimes.
What Austinites accept, and Madisonians can't, is that anarchism is pure anarchy. Recognizing that fact might not save political democracy, or even group housing. But it could save punk rock, and the idea clearly propels the best Minneapolis band made up primarily of former Austin, Texas, residents. Heads and Bodies, who perform at the Triple Rock Social Club on Sunday, make a full and equal voice of the clarinet--a first in punk history. They sound like Fugazi playing Captain Beefheart at a Bar Mitzvah ("hardcore circus music," says one fan, local noise musician Benji Gross). But as much as the clarinet remains distinct in the roar--a goose holding its own in a dogfight--the noise never gives listeners an easy in.
Heads and Bodies are so anarchist, they even resist hierarchy in their hooks.
One evening in May, at a party in the communally run Seward Café in Minneapolis, a little girl scampers through the forest of legs to snatch up one of the discarded broken drumsticks on the floor of the dining room. It belongs to Merle Newberg, who is pounding Heads and Bodies through a violent but funkily precise twilight set for friends and fellow punks. The band's cultural affiliation is given away mainly by tattoos and grime: Guitarist Paulie Glatt, "lead" bassist Jake Malmberg, "rhythm" bassist Sean Stewart, and reed player Carissa Payne exude what might kindly be called greasy beauty. (Their proud unkemptness makes it even funnier that the owner of Big V's calls them Heads and Shoulders.)
Glatt and Stewart do most of the screaming, but Payne chimes in, too, and you get the feeling each band member would rather share the mic than steal the show. "I'm uncomfortable onstage," Glatt says later. "I like being right up against people and kind of on the same level as people."
The band took their name from the 1999 Fugazi documentary Instrument, in which Ian MacKay says he doesn't want to feel like he's just playing to a bunch of "heads and bodies" or "consumers": "I want to play for people." That same commitment keeps Heads and Bodies doing all-ages gigs despite their obvious affection for beer. Their DIY ethos is rooted in politics: Stewart has spent time in Chiapas, and the group has done benefits for Anti-Racist Action. When Stewart lived in Texas with Glatt, playing together in Foilin' the Works (a band named for a homemade explosive), they often performed at a local free school, where Zapatista solidarity benefits were held.
The two friends moved to Austin from Minneapolis in 1998, intending to stay only three months. They ended up living there for three years, renting a flop at first, and then getting sucked into the city's economically self-sustaining hedonism.
"A hard day was waking up at noon and having an ice-cold Lone Star for breakfast, then having a barbecue, then taking a nap before going to work at the bar, which you only needed to do three days a week, anyway" says Stewart. He's sitting on a patio picnic table outside the Seward Café, relaxing before the show with the other Bodies. "If you get hooked into bar culture there, you drink for free everywhere you go."
"So why are you here?" I ask.
"Because I wanted to get something fucking done."
Heads and Bodies have managed that, without releasing much in the way of recordings--a split single and compilation tracks thus far, with a five-song EP, Ground to Join the Dust, scheduled for release next month by a pal of theirs who has the money to do it. Still, they've gained a fierce live rep over the past six months, and now usually headline. The lineup is two years old: After Glatt brought Payne back with him from Austin (she had moved there from Indiana), both coaxed Stewart to move here and form a new band with Malmberg playing a second bass (two basses was always a wish). Then they recruited Newberg, who had played Austin with the Minneapolis band Book of Dead Names, and soon, Heads and Bodies were performing their first show on October 28, 2001 at the Lab, opening for Grotto.
"It was right before Halloween," says Stewart, "and one of us had the ingenious idea: 'Let's all wear pumpkins on our heads.'"
Then, in characteristic Heads and Bodies fashion, the band members begin talking all at once:
Glatt: "It's hard to carve a pumpkin and make it fit your head."
Malmberg: "It's also hard to hear the shit going on [around you] when you have a pumpkin on your head. We didn't think about ear holes."
Payne: "Mine was kind of like a pumpkin crown because it broke."
Stewart: "Hers was the best, because it went around her neck and she just had a stem on top of her head."
Malmberg: "It's really confusing, the noise you hear inside a pumpkin."
Heads and Bodies were talking like this when I first met them outside the Fuck By Fuck You festival in Austin, earlier this year. Held at an outdoor space called the Chicken Wire Ranch, which looked sort of like a shantytown version of a public square, FXFY was the city's punk-rock rebuke of the giant music-industry office party known as South By Southwest, and H and B were the first band to go on. Everyone but the clarinetist got naked during that show--and that wasn't the first time the band played au naturel in Texas.
"We got naked every day on the first tour," says Payne, "mostly in the van."
"There's a lot of nakedness in the Funmobile," says Stewart.
"We think it's funny to see your friends get naked," adds Malmberg. "It's not really a sexual thing, it's just a kind of camaraderie."
Is it hard for Payne to be the only woman in a band with four guys who want to be in the buff all the time?
"No, I think it's funny," she says.
As Payne remembers it, one trip to Austin involved playing the neighborhood pub Lovejoy's in the afternoon for a $50 bar tab, at happy-hour prices. The band tore off two songs, she says, then proceeded to sit down and drink through the tab in 30 minutes. By the time the group showed up to play a house party that night, they were ready to strip--even Payne, who took her shirt off as the audience spat beer at the band.
"[A friend] told me that every time [Newberg] hit the bass drum his wiener would bounce off his stool," says Malmberg of the drummer.
"That was when you got engaged," Stewart reminds Newberg.
"Was that the night?" Newberg asks. He explains that he was briefly--for less than 24 drunken hours--"engaged" to an ex-girlfriend of Stewart's. The arrangement involved exchanging rings made of cigarette wrappers, which they put on the wrong fingers.
"I was pretty depressed 'cause the last time we went down there, she already had a new man in her life," Newberg says.
"Maybe you should have called her," Malmberg offers.
"I was waiting to go down there and be reacquainted and get ripped apart this time," Newberg says. "But I didn't get any of that."
What was it like the first time he met her?
"A night of pure ecstasy," he says, hinting that he's somewhat of a masochist. "I'd get used up and just be spit out."
"Have you ever seen a Beetle Bailey comic where he gets all crumpled up? That's what he looked like," says Malmberg. And everyone laughs.
In the Funmobile, on the way back to the downtown rehearsal space, the band blast Dillinger Four on the stereo and talk about tour life. Glatt, who always drives, mostly ignores the goofy stories. The others explain that they draw tattoos on each other with Sharpies to stave off road boredom. "Merle and Sean drew these huge cocks on my arms," says Malmberg. "So I went in to take a piss in the rectory, and there was this older guy with his little daughter, and I didn't even know there were these cocks on there."
"And these big trucker dudes came in," adds Newberg, clearly proud of his work, though he later got his: On a trip from Fargo to Duluth, the band decided to write the names of every river and lake they passed on his chest.
Heads and Bodies aren't crude: They have joie de vivre. Later that night, when they're done unloading their equipment, the musicians return to the Seward neighborhood so we can hang out in their Fonzie-like space above Payne and Glatt's garage. Glatt plays the local country band Anchorhead while other band members grab Pabst Blue Ribbons out of the cooler Payne is sitting on. At one point or another, each member lets out a proud burp, laughing every time. The walls are painted with clouds, and a train set sits on the side. The attic room also doubles as a soccer field, with goal posts on either end.
The musicians insist that their songs are getting more "straightforward," and try to convince me that the lyrics are comprehensible. But Heads and Bodies make Sonic Youth sound like Chuck Berry. Newberg, the band's newest member, recalls his first impressions of the chaos. "At the beginning, I didn't really know what was going on, it was just like bam. And I still feel like that, like I wonder what the audience is hearing. My ears are having a tough time hearing everything."
Then the conversation turns to Pawlenty's budget, and the effects it will have on medical treatment of the mentally ill in Minnesota...until Stewart stands up, sits down on Newberg, and lets loose a juicy one.
"That looked like a lap dance," I say.
"I thought it was, and then it got ugly," says Newberg.
At that point, Payne suddenly and inexplicably slaps Malmberg's arm.
"Carissa's in the game!" Malmberg cries.
And soon, these five smart heads on five healthy bodies are explaining to me that some of them have, for more than a decade now, played a running game that involves the boys swatting one another's balls. Payne, who is at an obvious advantage in this sport, is just now finally joining the fun.
"If you're in the game once," she says, "you're in it forever."