No matter how miserable, misanthropic, jaded, and defensive a young person can be, I think some tiny part of us always dreams of finding a tribe. At age 14, I was a year or two into the bitter realization that I was a strange and solitary child, and therefore not destined for an easy ride through adolescence. So, rather than trying to find my footing in the straight world, I leaned hard into my weirdness. For the next few years, I made a point of foregrounding the outermost fringes of my personality. And while that expression was as self-conscious as anyone else’s at that age, it was at least innocent and pure: an earnest oddness that represented something essential in my character.
The best expression of that character was, as ever, through music. By age 14, I had cooked up a little bedroom studio with the remnants of my Dad’s vintage stereo gear, which I fished out of a junk room in his basement. For my birthday that year, Dad augmented the hand-me-downs with an entry-level Radio Shack DJ mixer and a pair of their crappiest $20 microphones. Mom contributed a spaceship-like Technics synth, the PSS-790, the purchase of which came at a significant financial sacrifice. (Such was her belief in me.) The results careened wildly between “Front 242 as arranged by Wesley Willis” and “Thomas Dolby being pushed down a flight of stairs.” I also frequently exercised my blatant worship of They Might Be Giants (the icons of my early adolescence) and, very rarely, expressed a nascent awareness of my deeply sublimated same-sex desire.
My bizarro hyper-creativity earned me a certain mystified respect among my peers. While other kids picked up rock instruments and formed garage bands, I would occasionally invite friends into my bedroom studio for weekends of chaotic musical and hormonal off-gassing. I lined my bedroom with homebrew cassettes, each named out of some mystical codex of teenage surrealism. I haunted the neighborhood indie record store’s “local bands” section with an array of hand-dubbed tapes, each retailing for the egalitarian punk-rock price of $1.99 and issued under an exhausting catalogue of pseudonyms.
I was happy, after a fashion, at least within the limited sphere of my creativity. But if you’re lucky in life, a stranger walks into your insular world at a pivotal moment, as if rearranging the atoms of your defenses into a fleeting state of porousness. Such a person was David Eschatfische, whose musical name (for the sake of un-boggling your mind) was a phonetic pun on his publishing alter ego, “David S. Catfish.”
Dave and I bonded over ‘zines: we met one summer afternoon in 1991 while he was staffing the self-serve copy area of an office supply store. Dave was 16, and already in college; he was back in our hometown on summer break. That afternoon, I was running dupes of my latest homebrew publication, and no sooner had he grazed the pages than we began chatting about the bands I was writing about: The Ordinaires, Art of Noise, Glass Eye, the Sugarcubes. I had never known another person who could speak of these artists with foreknowledge. And he had been the covert co-publisher of a highly esoteric, avant-garde prankster ‘zine called 3dipswhoaregoD, described in ‘zine bible Factsheet Five as “weird and wacky collage from a droll group of pseudo-cultists.” I read 3dips religiously when new issues appeared at that same local indie record store, and had already written the ‘zine a theme song. We learned that we had also grown up just one street over from one another.
My first litmus test for Dave was – of course – a ritual of spontaneous musical collaboration. We knocked out a handful of tunes in my room that first night, and from that moment, he became a beacon in the darkness of my existence, a fellow chronicler of the dark byways of the underground in the pre-Internet era.
On any given weeknight, Dave would clock off his closing shift at the store and phone in details of a precisely-timed pickup. With the rest of the house asleep, I’d stand sentinel in the kitchen window and watch for the approaching headlights. We always began at a rotating selection of old-fashioned mom-and-pop diners, where we’d commune over some cultural touchstone or another and plot our nocturnal adventures.
Those were the days when suburban strangeness still lurked under cover of night, and Dave (as the licensed half of the partnership) was a master of this domain. He had a gift for summoning the mystical energies of a dying Midwestern industrial city, and I became intoxicated by this newly-subterranean view of my dull hometown. He drove me to a foggy, sodium-lit toll bridge which rose out of the middle of a nondescript neighborhood, seemingly leading to nowhere. We played mini-putt at a self-serve golf course built on the outskirts of a rural used-car lot, which used an honors-system lockbox for payment. He showed me what appeared to be a concrete-poured crypt, set in the weeded-over corner of an abandoned parking lot. And as the sun rose, we ate breakfast in a Lynchian, dreamlike joint set in what looked like someone’s living room on the outskirts of town.
And, always, there was music. Dave liked to keep the headache-inducing EQ on his car stereo to be as trebly and bass-free as possible. Thanks to Dave, I reconsidered the Residents, whose Mark of the Mole I considered blasé, but he set my brain ablaze with Duck Stab. He brought me back to the Pet Shop Boys: I’d gone missing after Actually, only to overlook the unspeakably beautiful Behaviour. He introduced me to masterpieces like The KLF’s Chill Out, David Van Tieghem’s These Things Happen, and Jean-Michel Jarre’s Zoolook. And, on rare occasions when he deemed the moment worthy, he’d bust out tapes of his own home-recorded music: elaborate and quirky instrumentals that revealed his wry, lush, and somewhat discomfiting musical influences. (As was customary with Dave, he didn’t take requests. The car and the stereo were his domain, and I was but a vessel for his good-naturedly didactic programming.)
But our moonlit adventures were not without cost. Sometimes I wouldn’t sneak home until well after midnight or 1am, even on school nights. Mom became concerned about the impact of our friendship on my waking responsibilities, but she let the discipline slide in support of my happiness. The following year, my brother went to college. Mom was starting to feel the deleterious effects of her grinding daily work commute into Chicago, which she now needed more than ever due to the reduced alimony. So I became a latch-key kid at the age of 15.
Left to my own devices, my time with Dave officially became a double life: I’d eat out with my Dad early on his custody nights, only to return home and enjoy a late second dinner with Dave at one of our usual greasy haunts. Already genetically predisposed to bulk, I packed on more weight. The nights got later and later, and I became even less engaged with school — which was already a waking nightmare of social ostracism, ritual athletic humiliation, and the ongoing scourge of my gayness, which I continually attempted to bury in the molten core of the Earth. And finally, there was the matter of these hallucinatory, sleep-deprived night drives, which influenced my life in a manner that would very soon, in my own hands, literally almost kill me.
But that’s another story…