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Back to Bataan

On 30 January 2000 at 8:38 p.m., I listed a 45 rpm record by a band called the Maids on eBay. I included photographs of the front and back of the paper sleeve and the following description:

The Maids were a short-lived Berkeley garage band that had a minor reputation based on this DIY single they issued in 1979. It features the sometimes covered “Back to Bataan” with “I Do I Do.” This is pure raw driving music from a trio that featured John Ritalin (6 strings & v’s), Red Snapper (4 strings) and Chuck Menses (no strings). The record label was the Maids‘ own Anemic Records, and this was their only release. The single comes in a paper picture sleeve that is yellowing and wrinkled around the edges. There is an original lyric sheet inside along with the record. If you like Green Day, Rancid and the Offspring, this might work for you, but you’ll need a turntable that handles 45‘s.

I asked for a minimum bid of $7. I went to bed. I checked eBay the following morning, and the high bid was $137. I thought there must be some mistake. Six days later, when the auction closed, the winner had bid $212.50. Now I was positive there was a mistake. What made this single so special? And who exactly were the Maids? I had no idea how to answer the first question. But I will try to answer the second.

In 1977 I came back to the United States after living in Italy for a year. The Italians had a word for my occupation. They called it “a bum.” Returning to the U.S., I had no job, no prospects and no idea what I wanted to do. So I took up my Italian occupation again. Before going to Italy, as well as after my return, I lived at one of the more infamous anarchist communes in Berkeley, “Parker Street” (named after the street it was located on).

Parker Street consisted of two large, two-story wood-shingle houses, the Brown House and the White House, a four-room cottage behind the Brown House and two detached garages. The first time I visited the commune there was a black flag flying over the Brown House and a large sign mounted near the front steps that blinked “Smash the State.” A 2-foot-tall white plaster statue of Chairman Mao stood at the foot of the stairs. The facade of the White House (just next door) was adorned with the black spray-painted legend “Abolish the State.” Later I learned that socialist folk singer Malvina Reynolds lived a few doors up the street.

As an anarchist commune, Parker Street had seen its heyday long before I arrived. In its prime, a Who’s Who of Berkeley figures (Black Panther Bobby Seale, China and Tibet expert Orville Schell) had lived there or passed through its portals. But that was then. In the mid-‘70s, the sophisticated offset press in the basement of the Brown House that had produced full-color brochures such as “Don’t Vote -- It Only Encourages Them” stood idle. There were still various police mug shots of commune members pinned to a bulletin board in the Brown House kitchen, but they were now simply a memorial to past demonstration heroics.

The sad truth was that someone had had the inspired alternative idea of selling drugs to support the commune. So the wily anarchist activities of its best and brightest turned to dealing. (Though the team did rally to produce “The Fuckin‘ A’s” T-shirts that looked just like the Athletics‘ logo of the era, “The Swingin’ A‘s.”) And as those things go, drugs became the be all and end all for some members and an anathema for everyone else. By the time I arrived in the fall of 1975, there were three coke dealers living at Parker Street and one person who grew and sold magic mushrooms.

One of the non-dealers was Mark Ryken. The first time I met him I was riding BART to San Francisco, and he sat across from me holding a violin. No bow. No case. Just the violin. His face looked familiar to me, very much like a lady I worked with at a newspaper in Oakland. I asked him, “Is your name Ryken?” He said it was, and the lady I knew turned out to be his mother. I asked him if he played violin. He said, “No, but I figure if I carry it around, I’ll learn.” During our conversation I mentioned that I needed a place to live. He said he might know of something.

Mark was one of the founding members of the commune. An architecture major at Berkeley, he outfitted the garage behind the White House with a shower, sink, tiny stove and heater. A toilet bowl stood exposed just inside the front door, and there was a sleeping loft that was accessed by an aluminum extension ladder. The loft contained a 3-by-5-foot skylight rigged with a pulley so its corrugated fiberglass cover could be lifted to reveal sky. Mark and his companion, Patty Frazier, lived there with their daughter, Carman. (Carman was born at Parker Street and her birth weight was originally determined by taking her to the nearby Safeway and weighing her in the produce scale.) However, the loft proved a dangerous place for a toddler (she fell out once), so the trio relocated to the recently vacated cottage behind the Brown House.

 

I rented the garage from Mark as I started my senior year at San Francisco State. Mark and Patty left behind a kitchen table and two chairs, as well as a collection of trunks, boxes, shelving and an assortment of tchotchkes that completely consumed all the floor space. Among the keepsakes were enough musical instruments to supply a small orchestra. They included an accordion, a trumpet, a marimba, two guitars, a banjo, a saxophone, a violin, a collection of harmonicas, a set of timbales and a piano. With some ingenuity, I squeezed my few belongings (mostly film books) into the remaining space, never realizing that it was in my power to ask Mark to remove his things.

One of the items left behind in the garage was a blond Gibson guitar amplifier (Model GA9) that was smaller than a wastebasket. Though tiny (it contained one 7-inch speaker), when you turned it all the way up it gave off so much sustained distortion that it sounded like a Marshall stack. I didn‘t own a guitar at that time, but Mark had a Montgomery Ward three-quarter-size Airline electric guitar that had a dull gold finish and looked like something from an episode of The Jetsons. In times of trial (every day), I played the hell out of that guitar through that amp and entertained delusions of guitar grandeur.

After graduating from college, I squandered the year in Italy, then came back to roost in the garage. Though it seemed logistically impossible, the garage was even more cluttered when I returned. Just to the right of the toilet, past the extension ladder, a drum set had materialized. It belonged to Ralph, a salesman at Pacific Stereo who dated Nancy, the typesetter from the Berkeley Barb who lived in the attic of the White House. Later, a friend of a friend, Mike Baker, brought over his Vox Super Beatle amp and homemade speaker cabinet for a jam session, and it sat next to the kitchen table for the next three years.

That amalgam of instruments and the fact that neither Mark nor I worked led to a lot of jamming. Another Berkeleyite, my best friend from film school, Steven Okazaki, frequently joined us. Originally from L.A., Steve had a deep record collection garnered from the $1 bins at the old Aron’s on Melrose and a fair amount of high school band experience playing drums. He brought a cheap a copy of a Fender Telecaster into the mix and an excellent knowledge of new wave and punk.

A tremendous amount of instrument switching occurred during our jams. Someone would start out on piano and end up drumming. Mark might whip out the accordion or a trumpet. Ability on an instrument never came into question. It was very loose, and as I never locked the door, open to a lot of scrutiny by the drug traffic from the front houses. Usually someone would enter to find out what all the noise was about, watch for five minutes and then leave in disgust. We never stopped playing to acknowledge the visitors, treating them with the same disdain we had for song structure and overall musicianship.

The playing went to another level following my move out of the garage. After months of lying about, I got a job at a xerographic supply company in San Francisco called Business Products. Being a working stiff, I couldn‘t handle the late-night party scene at Parker Street anymore. The final straw was when one reveler fell off a second-story back porch onto my doorstep. Indulging a lifelong gastronomic fixation, I moved a mile and a half away to a bachelor apartment above Dream Fluff Donuts. The move meant that jamming had to be more formalized, in that it had to be scheduled. What’s more, each of us had to chip in $20 a month to guarantee that the garage would remain unoccupied.

Mark, Steve and I practiced three nights a week. Though he‘d never played them before, Mark took over drums, and Steve and I switched off on guitar, bass and vocals. At first we only played covers. Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” as arranged by John Cale, Kevin Coyne‘s “Eastbourne Ladies,” Kevin Ayers’ “Decadence,” the New York Dolls‘ “Trash” and Garland Jeffreys’ “Wild in the Streets.” Before long, Steve and I began writing originals. These were basically three-chord songs. As I was very much taken with the Ramones, I tried to write and play tunes that were fast and lean. I had no skill as a guitarist, but because Mark‘s Airline guitar had such a short neck, I could execute the fast changes without too much trouble. As to lyrics, I just followed Captain Beefheart’s example: plenty of free association seasoned with puns, the more double meanings the better. E.g., these are part of the lyrics from the song “I Do I Do”:

 

Cakes coming over the rise

Bet they make it home before the pies

The brewer‘s yeast a real surprise

I’ve got crust in both my eyes

I do I do I do I do

In January of 1978, Mark pressed us to start playing in public. Steve and I were less enthusiastic, feeling the band was more recreational than anything else, but we went along with the idea. Mark had been systematically recording rehearsals, so he put together a demo tape to submit to the punk club of the time, the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco. This forced the issue of a name. After many agonizing hours combing the special collections in the Moffett Library, we arrived at “the Maids.” The name was a heartfelt paean to Jean Genet (via his play) and a more general tribute to the S&M aspect of servitude (exemplified in Buñuel‘s Diary of a Chambermaid). Actually, we were sitting around M&P’s (Mark and Patty‘s) kitchen trying to come up with a name and there was a box of Honey Maid Grahams on the table, and Steve said, “Why not the Maids?”

Swathed in our leather jackets, we took promotional photographs against a brick wall holding a silver platter containing a heart-shaped cake (baked by Patty). Piped across the top of the white cake in black frosting was the word Maids. Next we invented names for ourselves. Steve was Red Snapper, Mark was Chuck Menses and I was John Ritalin. Because we were all major-league pansies about promoting the band, Steve’s girlfriend, Frances Politeo, whose family organized with the United Farm Workers, acted as our rep. She submitted our photo, bio and tape to the Mabuhay, requesting a gig.

As best I can estimate, the Maids had exactly one serious fan. That was Patty, Mark‘s paramour. Patty would frequently come through the garden window (which she used as a door) and jump around as we practiced. She was full of encouragement. Her enthusiasm suggested that the band had a future outside the garage. That dream was probably also shared by Wes Hester, whose house was just behind the garage. Wes had a preschool at his home that began each day at 7 a.m. As the Maids rehearsed late into the night, he’d bang the back wall of the garage and scream at us to stop playing. We thought it was funny, so we never stopped. The beauty of Wes was that we never once saw him. He was just a disembodied voice pounding on the wall and screaming in the middle of the night. Why he never called the cops remains a mystery. Maybe he feared going to war with the anarchists.

In addition to my straight job and Maids activities, Steve and I team-taught a film class at a private Berkeley high school called Maybeck, whose campus was located in a Methodist church right across the street from the university. We got wind that Maybeck was putting on a music show that featured a student band. On a whim, we asked if the Maids could play. As we were not getting paid for teaching, the school gave us the go-ahead. Shortly thereafter, we heard from the Mabuhay. It booked us to play on Monday, May 1, 1978.

On April 21, 1978, the Maids played their first public gig in front of the Maybeck student body. The band that played before us did a Dead-influenced set of long jams and space music. By contrast, the fast pace and punk attitude of our set generated some heat with the audience of 40 kids. Given the amount of tuning problems and false starts we had, that was a minor miracle. At one point Mark was so embarrassed by the fuckups that he stormed offstage. But somehow the set worked despite itself, and after the last song I took a pair of wire cutters and cut all the strings off my guitar, announcing, “No encores.”

 

The momentum of the gigs was abetted by the notion of recording. Bruce Lancer, a character we knew from film school (listed in the S.F. phone directory as Django Reinhardt), was trying to put together a compilation of Bay Area groups to be presented by Novak, a local performer who billed himself as “the Bobby Sherman of Punk.” Lancer hooked us up with Lee Parvin, who had an 8-track recording studio in his house in Pacifica, just south of San Francisco. The week following our Maybeck gig we took our meager equipment -- Mark‘s mongrel drum kit, a generic bass, the Airline guitar and the Gibson mini-amp -- and quickly recorded two songs I had written: “Back to Bataan” and “I Do I Do.” We played the songs live, and I added the vocal tracks afterward. From start to finish we were in the studio for four hours, and the session cost us a total of $82. We were now ready to conquer the Mabuhay.

Or so we thought. Because of my job at Business Products, Mark and Steve had to handle getting the equipment to the club and doing the sound check without me. When I finally joined them, I found that they weren’t talking. They had had a major blowout during the afternoon. It went downhill from there. Before a Monday-night audience of 15, we took the stage and proceeded to melt down. The guitar amp, which was borrowed, fed back horribly. Steve and I were radically out of tune. We slogged through two numbers, breaking a guitar string along the way. Someone in the front began showering us with what I thought was confetti. After receiving a beer shower, I realized it was actually baskets of popcorn being tossed by a disgruntled listener. During the third or fourth song, Dirk Dirksen, the infamous impresario of the Mabuhay, came onstage and gave us the hook. The experience was dispiriting to the point of being painful. a

The amount of bad blood generated from the Mabuhay gig sealed the fate of the band. Steve told me that he couldn‘t play with Mark anymore. Patty nobly tried to arbitrate, but the band was at an impasse. The Maids had, as it were, no future. Even a request from Dirk Dirksen to play an upcoming benefit at the Mab couldn’t heal the wounds. It came down to a contest of wills between Mark and Steve, two of the sweetest, most soft-spoken guys you‘ll ever meet. As my mother used to tell my sisters, “Watch out for the quiet ones.” Fortunately for me, I had a heartbreaking romance to obsess about.

You don’t realize what a small town San Francisco is until you consciously try to avoid seeing someone there. After months of running into this woman who was driving me crazy, I gave up and decided to move to New York. It was at this point that Mark decided we should issue our own single of the two songs we had in the can. The idea seemed nuts to me, as I already had a departure date set. But Mark was not to be deterred. As he agreed to finance the record, I went along with it.

Mark laid out a detailed production plan that still wows me in its thoroughness. First, we took photographs of Patty in a maid‘s outfit, laid out the photos alongside a topological map of the Bataan peninsula (unearthed by M&P in the UC map room), added press-on type, then Xeroxed the assemblage on 8 12-by-14 paper. In a concerted effort (mostly Patty), we then folded and hand-glued the sheets so that they formed sleeves for the eventual vinyl. Two thousand and thirty-four of them.

Taking the sleeves with us, Mark, Patty, Carman and myself got into their 1968 Plymouth Satellite and drove to L.A. We were under an extreme deadline, in that I was flying out of LAX for New York in three days. Upon arrival we immediately tried to get our recording mastered at RCA, but failed. At 10 p.m. that first night, Mark called Parker Street alum Gifford Myers (a gifted ceramicist), mentioned that he was in town and asked if we could crash with him. Gifford said okay, so we drove out to his house in Altadena. He proved to be an exceptionally gracious host, but his live-in girlfriend wasn’t too happy about the visit. The next day Gifford and his girlfriend attended a lecture on how to relieve tension.

Our mission enjoyed some tension of its own. After two false starts, we eventually got our tape mastered. Then we had the master plated, a mother struck from that and stampers made from the mother. (The records would get pressed off the stampers.) Buying art supplies along the way, Mark designed and executed a rotoscope for the Anemic Records label (a Marcel Duchamp tribute). The result was that when the record turned on a turntable, a concentric circle on the label would demonstrate retrograde motion. We dropped off the art for the labels to be printed, then contracted with a pressing plant for 2,000 records, leaving the Xeroxed sleeves there.

 

Then disaster hit. Mark, who was bankrolling the operation with cash, lost his Pendleton shirt with all his dough in it. Good anarchists that we were, none of us had any credit cards. All seemed lost. It was very bad. Despite the collective despair, we brainstormed. The last place we remembered seeing his Pendleton was on the trunk of the Satellite as it sat in front of Fidelatone, a mastering facility in Hawthorne. Hypothetically, we drove away with the Pendleton still on the trunk; it flew off and was probably lying in the street.

Mark stopped at a pay phone and called Fidelatone. He asked the receptionist to go look out front and see if the Pendleton was lying there. She reported back: It wasn‘t. Because we didn’t have any other choice, we drove our exact route back from the pressing plant in El Segundo, keeping our eyes peeled for the shirt. Unfortunately, there was no sign of it. Things looked incredibly hopeless. We were pulling into a parking space at Fidelatone when something caught my eye. Flattened like a pancake, as if a semi had run over it, the Pendleton was sitting in a water-filled pothole in the middle of the street. Mark fished it out and checked the pocket. The money was still there.

With the production on the single finalized, I departed for New York on February 8, 1979. That May the single appeared. In the interim Mark Xeroxed lyric sheets on red paper to be inserted in the sleeves. He also created handbills that advertised the disc and that we wild-posted in both Berkeley and New York. Using a post-office box in Richmond, California, we took out ads in Trouser Press and Slash, selling the 45 for $2.25 mail order. I made the rounds hawking it to record stores in New York, like Bleecker Bob‘s, but the general line was, “We don’t make money on singles.” Steve didn‘t have any better luck in Berkeley. Rather Ripped Records carried the singles, they disappeared and we were never paid for them. We got some airplay on KTIM in the Bay Area and a review in Trouser Press (advertising pays?), and probably sold 100 to 200 copies total. Each band member got between 100 and 200 records to do with as he wished. And that’s pretty much where the story ended.

Until 21 years later. In January, Steve, who since his Maids days has become a prize-winning documentary filmmaker (Academy Award for Days of Waiting), phoned me to say Bruce Lancer had called him. Someone wanted to re-release the record. He‘d be contacting us. A day later, I had a phone call on my machine that asked if I was the John McCormick from “Richmond, California.” My only association ever with Richmond was that P.O. box the Maids had there, which I had never visited. Spooky. Then my agent’s office called saying it had also received a phone call from a guy named Roger Mah, who was trying to track me down. I called him back, and it was pretty scary. He knew more about the Maids than I did. Extraordinary details. E.g., he had found the writer of the review in Trouser Press, spoken with him and gotten the Maids‘ original correspondence to the magazine from him.

Like some punk grand inquisitor, Roger interrogated me at length. Did we have any more copies of “Bataan”? Was there unreleased Maids material? Did we have any posters or memorabilia from the old days? I told him I thought Mark probably still had hundreds of records, that there was unreleased material (the rehearsal tapes) and that we probably had a lot of stuff from that era, as Mark never threw anything away. Roger characterized himself as an extraordinary fan of the band and asked if he could have copies of all the stuff. I said it wouldn’t be a problem. He also said he had a friend in Texas who would probably be willing to take some of the records off our hands. I told him it was probably best if he got directly in touch with Mark, as he was the bank.

 

I hadn‘t talked to Mark in a few years, but Roger’s call prompted me to check in with him. Many, many changes had gone down at Parker Street since the days when the Maids practiced there. The commune flew apart and Mark and Patty inherited the Brown House and the cottage. They got married. They had another daughter, Isabel. And Patty got cancer. After a long and lousy fight with her illness, Patty died in 1993. The Maids lost their biggest fan, and everyone she knew got a big hole in their lives where she used to be. It was good to talk to Mark again. I forgot about his wizened sense of irony, his sage appreciation of life‘s rich pageant. He enjoyed hearing about the new interest in the Maids. He told me he spent a lot of his time folk dancing now. He said he’d talk to Roger Mah.

Roger‘s inquiry made me curious. Was anyone else interested in the band? I had been selling a lot of art books on eBay recently, so I thought, What the heck, I’ll throw one on there just to see if it goes. As I‘ve recounted elsewhere, it went. That initial surge in bidding gave me an incredible rush. For 24 hours I was giddy. But that feeling was soon eclipsed by a sensation of dread. It was like finding a valuable, then being encumbered by the responsibility to take care of it. The other overwhelming sensation derived from the eBay auction was one of ignorance. What did the bidders know that we didn’t know?

Mark phoned back after he had talked to Roger. I think he found this sudden attention as perplexing as I did. Because I‘d written a lot of the songs and come up with some of the ideas for promo copy, he said he’d feel more comfortable if I distributed the Maids material. In the coming weeks, he‘d put together a package of stuff from the archives and send it to me.

The initial auction on eBay apparently fanned an existing prairie fire in the punk-record-collecting world. I began receiving a shitload of e-mail inquiries about the band. A Russian kid from Oregon requested that I complete a detailed questionnaire about the group for a punk encyclopedia that was being compiled in Europe. He in turn put me in touch with a guy in Italy who wanted to pay the Maids a $400 advance for any unreleased material, which would then be pressed into an edition of 500 LPs. Further e-mails revealed that the Maids’ reputation had been prompted by a series of bootleg records that originated in New York in 1988 titled Killed by Death. Apparently “Bataan” appeared on KBD Vol. 7 and “I Do I Do” on Vol. 18.

Because many of the bands featured on the Killed by Death records were unknown apart from their songs, detectivecollectors like Roger Mah have gone to extraordinary lengths to track down and identify them. We are talking methodical, FBI-like work here. Roger‘s cohort in Texas, Ryan Richardson, has documented his search for the historic Jesus, excuse me, I mean his quest to find the band Peer Pressure (on KBD Vol. 12), and it reads like an Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine story (see www.break myface.com, then go to Peer Pressure). Given all this effort, I couldn‘t help but think: What motivates these guys? Passion for a lost music or simply a lust for notoriety and lucre that owning a “rare” item engenders?

Unfortunately, the eBay auction confirmed many of my worst fears about the internecine world of boys (punk-record collecting seems to be a very male phenomenon) and their passions. Midway through that first auction, I got an e-mail from “Mike,” who identified himself as the “high bidder.” He said that in the event he won, he might not be able to pay for the record. He wanted out of the auction. I thought, Poor kid, he’s just some overzealous punk. But before I wrote back, I checked him out on eBay. He had 125 favorable comments after his name, and based on his bidding history appeared to be a major collectordealer. He was currently bidding on 11 different punk items. I gave it some thought, then wrote back saying I was holding him to his bid. I didn‘t hear any more from him. Then, the day before the auction closed, a bidder came in $2.50 above his high bid. Mike was off the hook. When the auction ended, I contacted the winner. Zip. I tried two more times. No response, no payment.

Given the fact that the auction had resulted in no sale, I re-listed the single. This time there were 11 bids. During the auction I got an e-mail informing me that there was a rumor circulating that I was sitting on a pile of singles. I wrote back a saying it was true. That prompted two bid retractions, with the explanations “found a cheaper copy” and “just found another copy of this record today.” Twelve minutes before the second auction closed, the bidder who actually won the single in the first auction came in again with the high bid. In eBay-speak that’s “sniping” -- picking off an item at the last minute. As I was morbidly watching the final moments of the auction, I canceled his high bid. With one minute to go, a collector from North Carolina submitted the winning bid of $177.50.

 

Yet the intrigue continued. Mark had assembled a package of Maids memorabilia for me to give to Roger Mah. It included original press materials, Mabuhay posters, fliers for the records, lyric sheets and Xeroxes of all the paperwork behind making the record. He sent it UPS from Berkeley. When I received the package, I opened it to find 17 rebate brochures for Rite Aid drug stores. There was not one item of Maids-related paper in the envelope. No note, no anything. I immediately got on the phone with Mark. Each of us thought the other was pulling some sort of joke. After many calls to UPS, it appeared that the original mailing label from Mark‘s package had fallen off and somehow gotten attached to the package I received. What other explanation was there? UPS is still conducting its own investigation.

In the last couple of months I’ve given the Maids more thought than I have in the past 20 years. How the egg the Maids originally laid became gilded is anyone‘s guess. I e-mailed the winner of the second auction and asked him why people were so hot for the record. He wrote back: “i’m not sure, but it‘s a rocking a-side. nice fuzzed out guitar.” Before I sent it off, I listened to the record to make sure there were no skips or scratches on it.

I’m going back to Bataan, back to Bataan

I want to see that Japanese man

Back to Bataan, back to Bataan

I want to see that Japanese man

When music is working, it transports you to another place. When Howlin‘ Wolf sings “I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)” or Iggy sings “Lust for Life,” the world I live in changes for the duration of the song. Though the memories associated with “Bataan” give me pleasure -- the loose “fuck-all” attitude of the band, the rehearsals, the design of the sleeve -- the tune just isn’t transcendent. It‘s disposable, at best a garage-band curio. Thus the febrile e-mails and phone calls from collectors seemed unwarranted. Couldn’t these guys discern the difference between okay and great? It‘s as though someone in all sincerity told you that his consuming passion in life is The Brady Bunch. How could you respect that? I found myself resenting anyone who admired the record. But then I caught myself.

I don’t want a mindset that views ardor as a fault. The real problem was my perspective. These people were clamoring for something I had a hand in producing. I should enjoy it. I didn‘t necessarily understand their motivation, but I did love the idea of the mad pursuit. The bonus would be if someone actually did get taken away by the tune. And this was a rare instance where a band didn’t sign away its success. Maybe Mark could recoup his initial investment.

So from time to time I‘ll throw a copy on eBay, and whatever happens, happens. God bless the collectors! God save the queen! Let anarchy, and the inexplicable, reign supreme.


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