My very first memory of anything to do with Dead Moon was my brother Ian telling me about seeing them in Bellingham in the early 1990s. He said it was like nothing he’d ever seen—so raw and simple and instantly familiar. He was in high school and secured an interview with them, and they followed through on it, answering a kid’s questions for a photocopied zine called 99 mm that maybe 25 people might have read. That they gave it the same attention as something that would be much more widely seen told me that Dead Moon was a band cut from some special cloth. Dead Moon’s singer and guitar player, Fred Cole, died on Nov. 9, and that has made me reflect on what his life meant, and how much many simple, important truths he embodied.
Story is important
Dead Moon is one of those bands everybody who likes punk rock seems to have a story about. Often, it was as simple as getting to witness one of their blistering and soulful sets in a small club. Those sets always started with a group hug, a shot of whiskey and lighting a candle placed atop an upturned half gallon Jack Daniels bottle. The first time I witnessed the Dead Moon ritual was at Jay’s Upstairs in Missoula in the late ’90s. Being a self-conscious, skeptical 22-year-old I was overly concerned with coolness and it all struck me as hokey. It didn’t take much for me to change my mind, though. The ear-to-ear grin on bassist/singer Toody Cole, the sweat pouring off drummer Andrew Loomis and Fred’s unadorned style (no effects pedals, just a guitar plugged into a Marshall amp and cranked) all made me realize that stuff was, in fact, very real. Dead Moon was probably the least ironic, most authentic example of a rock and roll power trio I’ll ever see in my life. Dead Moon’s story (and Fred’s, by association) preceded them. The moon and skull image. That Fred and Toody were a married couple, old enough to be your parents. That their wild drummer (Andrew Loomis, RIP) was a lot younger than they were. That they played harder than anybody you could think of. That their drummer always poured beer on his floor tom during “Johnny’s Got a Gun” and it would spray up dramatically during the song. None of it was done with the thought of telling a story, but it was done so consistently that it all became their story and, in some small, passive way, I felt like I was a part of it.
Keep at it
If you were a kid like me who grew up in the pre-internet Pacific Northwest, obsessed with Seattle bands like Mudhoney and Gas Huffer, you learned about music by talking to people and reading zines. And eventually you could trace these groups back to people like Fred Cole, and realize that the widely accepted narrative about punk coming from England and the Sex Pistols and Clash was kind of garbage, or at least a lazy read on the history. In fact, people had been playing rock and roll in garages and at dances well before the mid-1970s, and some of them were playing pretty hard and fast. Before finding commercial success as melodic heartthrobs, the Beatles had been leather-jacketed toughs in Hamburg’s red light district. Listening to Crypt Records’ Back From the Grave collections and even Montana’s own great Lost Sounds compilation speaks to the diversity and weirdness that already existed in the U.S. in the early 1960s. Fred came out of that proto-punk scene, first recording in 1964 and making his way through bands like the Weeds and Lollipop Shoppe, which landed obscure collector-circuit hits. The music was harder, wilder, blues-based rock and roll, and Fred was a working musician from the time before radio had been consolidated and corporatized. The story goes that Toody and Fred, who didn’t want to be drafted for Vietnam, were on their way from California to Canada and ran out of gas money in Portland, Oregon—and there they stayed. In Portland, Cole started bands like King Bee and the Rats, and, in 1987, Dead Moon. Unlike so many of his peers, Fred never gave up rock and roll. As a result, his success will be measured by the lives he touched with his music and his catalog, which will endure.
Plenty of things set Fred Cole apart as a rocker, but for me, and I’d guess lots of others, it was his amazing voice. We put on some Dead Moon yesterday and I just kept being reminded what a gift that guy had. Fred’s was a voice that communicated love, loss, hope, hardship, fear, freedom, defiance and so much more. It embodied the wild potential of rock and roll, not unlike Neil Young’s, or Roky Erickson’s, just a little rougher around the edges. When he sings, “I’m pissed off, pissed off, pissed off. That’s just the way I am,” you know he honestly is. And when he and Toody sang “It’s O.K.,” it was a testament to their long marriage and love for each other. That song always made me cry it was so sweet. His voice will go down as one of the greats. My favorite Dead Moon songs are:
“54/40 Or Fight”
“Johnny’s Got a Gun”
“A Fix On You”
“Fire In the Western World”
I was pretty starstruck the first time I talked with Fred and Toody. Fred proved completely easygoing and appreciative that somebody was listening to his records. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Latvia in 1998, I wrote to Tombstone Records asking if Dead Moon had any plans to play in eastern Europe. I got a nice letter back from Toody, and a Dead Moon sticker. When I later invited Toody and Fred’s post-Dead Moon band, Pierced Arrows, to play Total Fest, I did it by Googling “Tombstone Music Clackamas,” and then calling and talking to Toody. I don’t know what I expected exactly, but she just answered the phone. We talked about a guarantee, she said she’d talk with Fred, and lo and behold, they came out. Seeing them at the Badlander was a Top 5 all-time Total Fest highlight for me.
Be comfortable being old and with people who are old
I always thought of Dead Moon as old. And rather than that having the negative connotations that our culture puts on “old,” with Dead Moon it was a clear reminder to forget what you’ve been told about youth and open your ears. Fred and Toody were widely known as the “rock and roll grandparents” because they were so rock and roll. And they were grandparents. But Fred was a stark reminder of some important things: To watch him play was to watch someone who had worked his craft for 50-plus years. It was the distilled essence of the human experience, and it had an emotional depth that’s just mathematically impossible for younger people to pull off. He wasn’t somebody saying, “Pay attention to me, I’m old!” He was a guy you naturally paid attention to. And then you realized: He’s old! And after that you considered that maybe you should be more like him.
A big part of Dead Moon’s appeal for me was the lack of polish, both in their sound and in their graphic aesthetic. They were a good band, but I’d never describe them as tight. That just wasn’t their deal. That imperfection and playing from the heart vs. playing from the brain not only endeared them to people like me, but I think it had a Johnny Appleseed kind of quality for people around the world. It said something like, “Don’t wait to be perfect before you create something.” As simple as that sounds, that’s profoundly important.
I know this is a rambling way to remember somebody as great as Fred Cole. And I wish it was tidier. But there’s a lot to talk about when you consider Fred’s life. After close to 25 years of listening to his music, I keep coming back to it. Maybe not every month, but every few months. In addition to the Dead Moon stuff, I picked up the Mississippi Records represses of the Range Rats and Rats LPs not long ago, and that added a whole new dimension to my listening. His music is timeless, important stuff, and if you like rock and roll, and haven’t experienced Dead Moon, take some time to really dig into it. If you know Dead Moon and Fred, you’re going to be sad for a while. It’s a brutal loss. Find a record and play it loudly.