The Magic Rats
Q-Tell us about the infamous Magic Rats?
A- The Magic Rats was then first band I was in. ‘The genesis of the band actually started in Jr. High school.
As a 13 year old I was obsessed with music in general and rock and roll in particular. This was around 1977-’78. It was a great time for rock and roll. The Stones put out Some Girls, Patti Smith released Easter, Springsteen put out Darkness on the Edge of Town. Old guard acts like Paul Simon were mingling on the charts with brand new bands like Talking Heads. It was a great time to be a 13 year old kid with a skull full of guitar riffs and a paper route.
The trouble I was getting into in school somehow found it’s way to me owning a black Fender Music Master bass guitar and a small Ampeg bass amp. I think someone from the school thought it would be a good idea to channel my growing insouciance into a stint playing bass for the school band. In hindsight, they probably should have watched the Stones on Saturday Night Live that year. They might have reconsidered their strategy.
For some reason, the school allowed me to bring my bass in and “rehearse” after school hours. The only drummer I knew was Wayne Hutchinson. Hired. The only guy I knew with a guitar [aside from my perpetually stoned neighbor James Anderson] was my buddy John Roberge. Our three-piece power trio played the riff from “Cocaine,: “Louie Louie” and I think maybe the riff from Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath.” We didn’t even play the whole songs. Just the riffs, over and over and over.
My memory gets hazy from there but, roughly a year later as a high school freshman, we had the fully formed rock and roll tragedy we called The Magic Rats. The name we ripped from a Springsteen song. “…the magic rat drove his sleek machine over the Jersey state line…” New Jersey was exotic to us. Remember, we lived in South Berwick, Maine, for Christ’s sake. Manchester, New Hampshire is exotic if you live in South Berwick, Maine.
The legendary Magic Rats line up was: Slaid Cleaves-Keyboard, Wayne Hutchinson-Drums, John Roberge-Bass, James Wolcott-Vocals and Saxophone, Rod Picott-Guitar. As I recall we played a total of three shows every one of which was stopped by the cops. That is an unparalleled, unquestionable success rate for a bunch of drunk and stoned 14 year old kids.
After a practice in Wayne Hutchinson’s living room where we were caught completely and utterly drunk post-rehearsal by Wayne’s parents [furiously chewing Bubble Yum to conceal the alcohol], we practiced in my father’s garage on Old South Road. I honestly don’t understand how the neighbors allowed us to continue breathing, nevermind rehearse night after night. Ann Williams lived next door and I watched her poor father’s hair turn grey over the course of a few months. A few more strands went white every time we started Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page.” And we played that song a lot.
At our peak we knew about 40 songs. None of which contained more than 5 chords. I couldn’t play a single lead line if my life depended on it. We were absolutely horrible. It’s a testament to how much teenage boys can love rock and roll that we could even listen to ourselves.
It was great fun at times. I remember loving the thrill of standing in front of people with a guitar strapped on. It’s something that’s difficult to describe. When you are 14 years old and rock and roll is the most important and powerful thing in your world and you see yourself with a Fender guitar strapped across your shoulder, you see something entirely different than what other people see. You don’t see a spot-faced too skinny kid with an ill fitting sweat stained t-shirt slapping at an out-of-tune chunk of wood and steel. You see possibility. You see into the future. You have a volume knob and you’re going to use it and it’s going to make something happen. In this case it made the cops show up but that’s still something.
I’m not sure what the experience of playing in that garage band was like for the other guys. I remember I was by a long shot the least talented kid in the band but, of course, I had the strongest opinions. Life is usually like that. The guy with the big mouth is usually the guy who’s afraid he’s about to get found out.
We spent a lot of time stealing milk crates from Cumberland Farms to build a drum riser. We spent a lot of time figuring out how we would get beer. We spent a lot of time playing Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page”. We were in a band…I have a cassette tape from a show we played at the elementary school in South Berwick. It’s the most atrocious thing you will never hear. At one point our singer Jimmy [how brave is that? Who at 14 years old says, “sure, I’ll be the singer”?] reprimands the kids that they should dance fast to the fast songs and slow to the slow songs not slow to all songs. It’s very funny. Slaid hits some impossibly bad chords on his Farfisa organ and my guitar is so out of tune it sounds like I’m playing in a different key.
There’s something interesting about the tape, though. We’re playing “First I Look at The Purse”. We’re playing “Turn The Page.” We’re playing “Hey Jude” [more than 5 chords but we still only play 5 of them!]. We’re playing real songs. We’re not playing “Cocaine” and “Locomotive Breath” and we’re not playing the songs people want us to play. We’re trying to play beautifully-written, honest songs that are moving to us. Yes, partly we’re avoiding Van Halen because I’m the guitar player and a 14 year old boy doesn’t inhabit spandex the way David Lee Roth does; but generally we’re following our own muse down a road that is built on fully realized songs.
It’s a small epiphany to look back that far and realize I was already thinking about the writing part of this craft. I didn’t understand it yet but I was working on it.
Today, I spent 4 hours cutting demos for the next record with some great players in a funky little studio over in east Nashville. I got home about 7:30. It’s 11:00 now. I spent the last 3 hours working on a new song. I don’t understand it yet but I’m working on it. And now I pour a glass and salute The Magic Rats, Ann Williams’ father [who never said an unkind word to us though, apparently, he unloaded a river of them in his own house] and the kid across the street who plays horrible drums every once in a while and drives me insane. Play on kid.