Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride

Bob Aul illustration

The only English phrase fit to describe Dale Crover is one I have to borrow from my friend Mike Boomer: unstoppable killing machine.Crover has been the Melvins' legendary drummer for more than 20 years; he once played drums in the great doom metal band the Obsessed; he was, yes, Nirvana's very first drummer; and he has been, since the mid-'90s, the guitarist and singer for Altamont, a band that sounds to my ears like something near the middle of a circle drawn through Kiss, Butthole Surfers and Sabbath.
That description might apply just as well to the Melvins, though, and while there are some unavoidable similarities between the two bands, the first thing that jumps out about Altamont is the standard rock tempo of many of the songs, unlike the often unrelentingly slow Melvins. Altamont still has a deep, twisted, stoned sound, but the band does not seem to have the Melvins' instinct to bum out an audience in the transcendent and visionary way that only the Melvins can, painting instead with colors drawn from Hawkwind, say, and Bloodrock, or perhaps not. In any case, Altamont's third, most recent, excellent album—certainly one of the best of 2005—The Monkees' Uncleseems to answer the question "What if the Melvins had never listened to side 2 of My War?"

"When I saw my first Elvis record," Crover says, explaining the album's title, "I could tell he was older, but he looked like the Monkees, and I'd heard the term 'monkey's uncle' somehow, so I figured, 'Oh, that must be who they're talking about, that must be the Monkees' uncle.' Thinking about it now, it's pretty funny that I realized that he was this older guy. That's how I think of us: we're these older guys now—we're not young kids anymore. We're kinda like the Monkees' uncle. We're the Monkees' uncles for the new millennium."

That goes some way toward explaining the album's cover, which depicts Elvis looking pretty cool and satisfied with himself given that a pickle the size of a Cadillac is flying toward his head. Crover confirmed that he is an Elvis fan but would not confirm that the object was a pickle, saying it could also be a cucumber, but that in the end "it's the same thing one way or another."

That philosophical attitude has served Crover well. The Melvins have toured all over the place and made bold, terrifying choices, such as covering "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with Leif Garrett on vocals. They are no one's saps. These men have been to the Lost World; they have seen things beyond the ken of science. "[Melvins] were playing Ozzfest, and Motörhead was on the same stage as us," Dale says, "and we saw Lemmy sunbathing in a pink thong, reading a Stephen King book and smoking a butt. And a friend of mine later interviewed him and asked him if it was true, and he said, 'It wasn't pink, it was just faded red.'

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"Those guys are pretty nice, and for some reason we were one of the only bands that would talk to them on that tour. The drummer would come watch us play, and he told Lemmy that he should come out and watch us, and our bass player saw Lemmy walk up the back of the stage in a thong and stand behind me and watch me play. I'm kinda glad I didn't see him, cuz I probably would have been really frightened, or nervous. I still have a picture of him somewhere with that thong."

Since Dale is primarily known for his drumming, I wondered how long he'd been playing guitar and was surprised to learn that he plays some guitar on "pretty much every Melvins record, whether it's a solo or some little part here and there."

"I started playing guitar first—I started playing when I was 8," he says. "I just kinda happened upon the drums—a neighbor had a drum set and I borrowed it, and I showed this other kid how to play it, though I didn't know how to play it. I thoughtI knew how to play it. I knew other guitar players and I didn't know any drummers, so that's how I started playing drums. Guitar has always been sort of a hobby, I guess, and drums became the career."

Crover talks in an easygoing way, with a melodious West Coast accent that comforts me in the same way I imagine snow does an Eskimo, or orchards a Floridian, or blind, ignorant racial prejudice a Klansman. The Melvins seem to move south along the coast every five or 10 years, having first left Seattle for San Francisco and then moving to Los Angeles ("Next it's gonna be San Diego, and then probably South America," Crover jokes). In his liner notes to the recent Melvins CD Mangled Demos From 1983, Buzz Osborne declares, "If I'm going to crash and burn it may as well be in sunny Southern California," which is a good sign for all of us down here among the Sunkist groves. And it affords us more generous opportunities to catch them in real life too, before the crash and the burn set in. Whenever you have the chance to encounter the supreme killing power of Dale Crover in live performance, take the advice of the late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson—buy the ticket, take the ride.


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