The Argo was small, ratty-carpeted, packed with about 300 teens. I was one, along with three friends who came with me. Christmas lights hung limply above the stage. If I remember correctly, because it was an all-ages show, there was no alcohol to be sold, though kids popped in and out of the Argo to smoke whatever and drink whatever. No one smoked inside, somehow out of respect for the place, which I thought was weird then but charming now. But the Argo, basically someone’s house with a good sound setup, was a jewel of Denton, TX, and treated reverently. It was a church of indie rock and, if I wasn’t exactly a worshiper, I was a lay observer. Despite its small size, its presence in a podunk north Texas college town, and the fact that the site was so nondescript that I’m not sure how we even found the place that night, the Argo attracted big names in the Dallas indie rock scene: Centro-matic, Baboon, Comet, Slobberbone, Chomsky, Mazinga Phaser, Transona Five. You’ve likely heard of none of these, except maybe Centro-matic, but these were centerpieces of the New Texas Sound circa 1995. It was a spacey sound, laden with delay loops and slow tempos, built more around atmospherics than, um, song structure. Tortoise, a like-minded national “post”-rock act, traveled from Chicago to play at the Argo, because they recognized something special and weird happening there. It was an exciting time, if you were a weird kid.
We were weird kids. In this memory, it’s June 1996, so we’re nineteen or so. And we’re at the Argo for Bedhead. Five bucks gets us in. The place smells like pizza and Teen Spirit. Kids smoke clove cigarettes then, even if not inside, so it smells like that, too, radiating off their skin. I want a beer, something to relax the claustrophobia I feel, because it really was a tiny place, and it doesn’t look like it is up to fire code. Hell, that carpet we sit on is probably covering asbestos as best as it can.
But Bedhead is worth it. The band doesn’t sell as well as their Dallas compatriots the Old 97’s, with whom they had split a 7-inch single, but they are already legendary on the scene. People talk about them in whispers, make homemade t-shirts devoted to them, write Bedhead in Sharpie marker on their sneakers. We spend hours decoding lyrics, or even trying to make them out, because Bedhead’s Matt Kadane is pretty much a whisperer, hiding his voice underneath layers of swirling but slow guitars.
Hide in plain sight is basically a mantra for Bedhead, and we love them for it. Their album covers are minimalist to the extreme, text-design with no photographs and with any semblance of illustration blurred and obscured. The band photos, when the group is shown at all on their album covers, are printed small, out of focus, as if presented reluctantly and only after considerable debate. Lyric sheets are emphatically not provided. The band is a mystery, and likes it that way. They know that, because their songs were strong enough and idiosyncratic enough, listeners will lean in to find them.
OK, so time for a quick history lesson, so back to past tense: Major labels tried to horn in. They came a-courtin’, gobbling up so much of the scene, occasionally scoring hits. MC 900 Ft. Jesus had a video directed by video wünderkind Spike Jonze; Toadies—from Fort Worth but we claimed them—got big for a bit with “Possum Kingdom”; Tripping Daisy never quite leapt from being Big in Dallas to being genuinely big but they got close with “I Got a Girl” (I thought “Raindrop,” from that same album, is way better). Old 97’s landed a few albums on Elektra, and became avatars of alt-country just when they were getting tired of that label. Even Cottonmouth, TX, a spoken-word act merging funny hard-luck stories with jazzy beats—got a deal with Virgin Records, and toured with Lollapalooza.
Point is: From 1991 to 1997 or so, the Dallas scene was jumping, and the industry money was flowing. Like every other slightly weird band from Big D, Bedhead had major labels chasing them, during a time, pre-streaming, in which that meant something. Unlike almost everyone else, though, Bedhead said no. Or, rather, as quietly insistent as the band is on record, they said no thank you, please, we’re fine. They would rather stay on Trance Syndicate, a label run by a guy in Butthole Surfers, and maintain all artistic independence than try to go big without any guarantee that they’d be allowed to remain themselves.
Until Bedhead, I don’t think I realize that saying no was an option. I think that was true of lots of Dallas-area teens. Given that this was a band that opened for Fugazi, for fuck’s sake, at one of its most notorious and talked-about shows, maybe we shouldn’t have been that surprised. Still, the idea that you could choose to stay underground if the mainstream came looking was new to me. Bedhead wasn’t as fast or as loud as the punk I was getting into then. Their songs developed as a slower pace; the lyrics were never, ever shouted or yelped; the instruments got so tangled together that it was hard to distinguish who was playing what. But, in making that decision to turn down fast cash, they became the most punk band to my eyes.
Bedhead rarely played in its hometown. Hell, they rarely played at all, which was part of why they never got bigger. And here they were, in this out-of-the-way college town in a place next to or connected to a chain pizza parlor, on a stage riser barely two feet above the audience, with so little separation between band and audience that I could’ve fiddled with the soundboard myself if I had been inclined. It was an event but an intimate one. The house lights abruptly shut off; the Christmas lights flickered on, barely illuminating the stage. We all stood up, stretched our legs, but did it all without much fuss or noise. While there were a few scattered claps as the quintet ambled up on to the riser, the audience was reverential. It was odd but right. The musicians scratched themselves a bit, furtively glanced at each other. I gave a thumb’s-up to co-leader Bubba Kadane—bearded, brooded, bespectacled, very gentle and funny—because he was a regular customer at the Whole Foods Market I worked at. He grinned, turned to the rest of the band, and they delicately started “The Dark Ages.” An audible gasp from the crowd. Here was a new song, the first track from an EP I had bought just last week.
It’s a perfect song. In a long-ago journal entry, I wrote about a different song but I could’ve meant “The Dark Ages”:
On “Liferaft,” a quiet bassline (or is it a low-tuned guitar?) gradually develops into a melody, and the other instruments slowly work themselves into the mix, so imperceptibly that you don’t notice them or, rather, you notice them suddenly and wonder how long they’ve been there. The vocals—sung/spoken by Matt Kadane—must have begun at some point, but they feel as though they’ve been there eternally. When they leave, it feels so natural that you can’t quite remember that they were ever there…
The band’s songs build to loud, chaotic crescendos—in fact, “Haywire” is basically one long, excruciatingly powerful, bleeding peak of guitar squall—but the development of these crescendos occurs so gradually that you don’t notice them happening. Bedhead surprises you with sudden flashes of noise and catchy musical refrains, not because the bursts jump out of quiet structures—a la the quiet-verse, loud-chorus dynamic of much of 1990s rock—but because you can’t tell when or where the quiet, spare structures became so damn loud and so lush with layers…
The line between anxious chaos and pointillist beauty, always blurred with Bedhead, got smudged beyond recognition in a live setting. The Argo was aggressively ugly in appearances but its acoustics—airy, crisp, enveloping—were perfect. For 75 minutes, everything was perfect. Nothing could faze me. I closed my eyes, as if in prayer. Maybe I was:
You would think, with a sound like this, that the songs [would] fade in and fade out of consciousness. In a way, that’s true. WhatFunLifeWas feels like a sunset. You watch the clouds grow red and orange, watch the sunlight bleed across the sky, changing the sky from pink and indigo to finally a deep, dark blue. The refraction of light on the clouds gradually turns to glittering stars in a clear sky. It’s night, but you couldn’t pinpoint where the dusk ended and the night began to save your life…
But, in a way, the fade-in/fade-out is deceptively false. All of the album’s songs stop at a clear point, on a finalizing chord. This is not a sound that floats ethereally, stretching itself thin, but a full-bodied sound that somehow also has the qualities of smoke. Like a sunset, they can be no question that a Bedhead song happens, but you’re never sure when or how or even where, and in the end it doesn’t matter.
At least, it didn’t that night at the Argo. The band never segued between songs but the show felt like a continually pouring raincloud, with occasional spikes of lightning and the surprisingly intricate dynamics of rainfall and petrichor. I surely heard a slew of my favorites from WhatFunLifeWas that night but also a slew of new pieces from the just-released Beheaded, maybe a stray cover as well. Every song was distinct but every song was part of a singular flow. Mike Watt talks about imagining a concert as not being 30 played songs but instead as one song with 30 parts, the experience featuring sections of a single organism. The Bedhead show was a model of this. Hearing it remains a pivotal moment for me, a cracking-open of rock’s possibilities to me. More than that, they opened up the possibilities of home for me. Dallas didn’t have to just be a place to run from and make fun of from a distance. If Bedhead was from there, maybe anything—including a true underground, true weirdness, and an outsider world—could be from there. Maybe I could claim it as my own, even if I ultimately left it.
I remember leaving the Argo dazed and woozy. My ears still ring with what I heard that night but it’s WhatFunLifeWas that got me in the room in the first place. I think I slapped Trini Martinez (Bedhead’s drummer) a high-five but that could be self-regarding nostalgia. I know I bought a t-shirt because I still have it, 24 years later. It all lingers, like clove smoke on skin, like this band on my heart.