Rusty by Rodan

Published by John St. John on

In this essay, I take a close look at Rodan’s only LP, Rusty, in an effort to understand its enduring majesty. What follows is an exploration of the album’s meaning, and a song-by-song exploration of its tracks.

Rodan Rusty album cover

So much, for me, began here. Rusty came out in April 1994, when I was an 8th grader in Louisville. It was during that year that I was becoming more and more aware of the local underground music scene, mostly through the intriguing t-shirts that the cool skater kids were wearing to Kammerer Middle School. These t-shirts bore monikers like “Evergreen”, “Bush League”, “Endpoint”, “Sunspring”, and “Kinghorse”, and featured alternately funny, ironic, frightening, terrifying, political (anarchic), and otherwise interesting designs. In particular, I recall several kids with Evergreen t-shirts based on the Bazooka gum logo (I think), and an Endpoint t-shirt informing anyone looking at it that, every 26 seconds, a woman is raped (that was a really awful thing to know, and also a really weird t-shirt for an 8th grader to see one of his peers wearing).

This was all right in the midst of the broader alternative music revolution, and I was already becoming a fan of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and all of the other bands that rocked the buzz bin. So I thought it was cool that there were apparently bands just like those bands in my own hometown. A lot of the kids my age were starting to go to shows at a place called The Machine, where many of the afore-mentioned bands would play. I was a shy kid, and felt that a lot of those kids were way cooler than I was, so I just kind of hovered at the edges of that scene for a while, intrigued, but too intimidated to wade in myself.

Sometime during that period, there was a feature in the Louisville newspaper (The Courier-Journal) about the local all-ages music scene, as it was starting to draw a lot of national attention. I read that whole article and my imagination just ate up everything that I was learning. Somewhere, there were kids my age, or just a few years older, who were not only making their own music, but people were really making a big deal about it. 

A few members of a band named Rodan featured prominently in that article. There were a few grainy photos of them playing at The Machine. I was shocked to learn that one of them, Rodan’s bassist Tara O’Neil, was the same mysterious teenager who had lived next door to my family for several years. I had never really known Tara personally (an age gap of 5 years at that age was cross-dimensional), but that just reinforced the magnitude of what I was discovering here: rock stars weren’t magical beings from other worlds, they lived just down the street.

When I finally started going to local shows in late 1994, I learned that Rodan had actually just broken up. I didn’t really care at that point. I had heard one of their songs (I think it was their cover of The Misfits’ “Who Killed Marilyn?” on the Louisville Babylon compilation tape), and I was less than intrigued. Of course, looking back, that was the most horrible and non-representative introduction possible to Rodan. The track was grainy, ugly, and amorphous. Besides, I was too busy discovering other, more easily accessible local bands of the time like Metroschifter and Hedge.

Yet as I learned more about the local scene, Rodan continued popping up as particularly noteworthy, and one Saturday morning in the Fall of 1994, on a visit to ear X-tacy, I decided to use whatever spare change I had to buy a CD copy of Rusty. What happened next is a pivotal moment in my life.

Not that it was any really great moment objectively, but subjectively, my whole outlook on the world and creative possibility was changed. I remember it clearly. I was with my dad that morning, and he got out of the car to go take care of something. I decided to unwrap Rusty and pop it into the CD player so that I could get a taste of whatever it was I had just purchased. I fully expected something harsh and nasty sounding, something along the lines of “Who Killed Marilyn?” I probably turned down the volume, just in case. So it was shocking to hear a quiet bass and undistorted guitars intone the first few notes of “Bible Silver Corner”. As I continued to listen, expecting an explosion of drums and vocals at any moment, I really couldn’t believe it. Who was this band? What in the world were they even doing?

This was my introduction to the world of difficult music, music that requires the attention and patience and investment of the listener in order to payoff. The 10 bucks or so that Rusty cost me was probably my last 10 bucks at that point, so there was no way I was just going to give up on it from the outset.

I don’t think I actually listened to all of “Bible Silver Corner” at that point. I probably heard a minute of it, scratched my head, and then pressed skip. Of course, if you know Rusty, you know that’s the joke. One button pressed, and the bomb goes off. “Shiner” erupted out of the speakers, all fury and aggression. It was more like the kind of stuff I was into at that time, but the dynamic effect, the surprising juxtaposition of quiet and loud, scared me, if I remember correctly. I think I popped the CD out at that point, and decided to listen to the rest later.

Over the next few months, I would come back to Rusty, though not immediately. The myth of the band had only grown posthumously, and Rodan’s former members were starting new bands (like June of 44 and Rachel’s) that were generating a lot of local buzz. Also, I was starting a band with some other kids my age, and they were really influenced by Slint and Rodan.

So I’m not sure when I actually realized how much I loved Rusty, but it was probably some time in 1995. What was it about this album? As a budding music snob, there was probably something smugly rewarding about being in the know on a record so off-putting to the typical sensibilities of a 15 year old kid, but I knew then, as I know now, that it was also truly beautiful. I came to connect with each of the songs on a deeply personal and emotional level. In fact, it turned out “Shiner” was my least favorite of the album’s tracks, by far. I don’t know how many hours I spent listening to “The Everyday World of Bodies” alone! Rusty didn’t just seem like another angst-ridden grunge record. There was a delicacy and sophistication to it. It was thoughtful, poetic, even artistic in a classical way. It was also one cohesive thing, where the tracks blended together, rather than a collection of disparate and otherwise unrelated songs. It was all those high-brow things, and yet, it rocked my ass off.

I’d like to share some thoughts on each of Rusty‘s six tracks because, if for no other reason, I’ve listened to them a lot, thought a great deal about them, and feel like Rusty is one of those album’s that deserves some decent reflection. So here goes…

Bible Silver Corner

I’ve already hinted at this, but I can’t remember a time I was so utterly surprised by the opening track of an album. I had always associated Rodan with the local hardcore punk music scene, and before this I had only heard their harsh and strange cover (if you can really call it that) of The Misfits’ “Who Killed Marilyn?” I had never even considered that a band that played loud and aggressive music could do something this quiet and lovely. OK, yeah, I had heard enough Metallica to know that even heavy metal bands could do more melodic and intricate stuff, but even then, it usually fell within the given context of something already noisy and brutal.

But it wasn’t just that “Bible Silver Corner” was a melodic, drumless instrumental. It seemed utterly out of place, a thing unto itself. I didn’t have the words, or even the concepts, to describe what I was hearing. I knew it was beautiful, but even the emotions were obscure, though I sensed it was a deeply emotional song.

I love the way “Bible Silver Corner” takes on a whole new mood half-way through. For that matter, I love the way it starts, and the intricate interplay of the guitars, bass, and piano. I love the fact that Brian MacMahan of Slint produced it, like he was passing the torch to them as the standard-bearers of the Louisville sound. And I love the fact that the title is such a perfect fit: a weird phrase that indicates sacredness, detail, even forgotten-ness.

A few years ago, I adapted “Bible Silver Corner” for one acoustic guitar so that I could just play it for myself. I’m a decent guitarist, not great, but I just love playing this song, the way it makes the guitar feel so graceful in my hands, the subtle emotions woven through it, and the idea that a group of punks had the creative and emotional intelligence to make something so delicate, and to be so bold as to open their debut LP with it.

Shiner

I have to chuckle when I think of the band sequencing this album. Following “Bible Silver Corner” with “Shiner” seems like an artistically brilliant practical joke. How many people bought Rusty and, after turning up the volume in order to hear “Bible Silver Corner”, had to rush over to the volume knob before they blew out their eardrums or woke up the neighbors?

I’ve never really thought too much about “Shiner”. I guess I’ve always assumed it was included more for effect than anything else. Still, that effect is important. After all, Rusty begins in such a dream-state that it needs waking up. “After last night / After last night it’s hard to shine!”

The liner notes indicate that it’s a song about wanting to destroy the sun. I guess that makes sense. Again, I never thought very hard about the chorus: “Pop pop! Down goes the enemy!” But the lyrical imagery places the sun in an adversarial and destructive context. So I guess the sun is the one taunting the listener: “Shoot me out the sky!”

Of course, the last minute of the track is arguably the most important part, because of how the feedback connects it to the next track, “The Everyday World of Bodies”. Did I mention I love the continuous and organic feel of the album?

The Everyday World of Bodies

Mueller and Noble both gave the world a lot of long songs. With June of 44, there were “Sharks and Sailors” and “Anisette”; with Rachel’s, there were “Full On Night” and “Lloyd’s Register”; with Shipping News, there were “Steerage” and “A True Lover’s Knot”. In truth, that was something of the delight of Rodan, certainly for me and I believe for many others. The convention of punk and hardcore was to play short songs, to shun the sort of sprawling works that so many progressive rock bands were churning out in the 70’s.

Yet while “The Everyday World of Bodies” is long, what makes it so enduringly special is its unceasing immediacy. Yes, it’s equal parts loud and quiet, fast and flowing, but it never feels pieced together or self-indulgent. The underlying emotions are so well sustained that even when everything falls out except for a few voices, the feel of the song is still very much present.

And what a composition it is. It’s crazy to think that these kids really couldn’t even play their instruments a few years before they wrote this, and now here they were composing something so uncompromising and full of vision. I don’t know if I’d call it masterful, but it’s the sound of some gifted young whippersnappers approaching masterful-ness, and genius probably isn’t too far off the mark.

I could list out for you all of the things I love about “The Everyday World of Bodies” – the guitar work, the echoing bass (O’Neil’s bass playing is outstanding throughout Rusty), the shared vocal duties, the different parts – but it’s the grand finale, and the build-up to it, that totally seals the deal. Yeah, yeah, I can see now that it’s mimicking the finale of “Good Morning, Captain”, but who knows whether that was intentional, and even if it was, who can blame them (and it’s not THAT obvious).

Yeah – this was the song. I can still remember sitting in my room, fiddling with my acoustic guitar, trying to figure out every part of the song for myself. I just could not get enough of THIS SONG – that it even existed in THIS WORLD. “The Everyday World of Bodies” told me, at a time when such an impression was huge, that creativity need know no bounds.

Jungle Jim

One of my best friends used to say “Jungle Jim” wasn’t really too great. I think his point was that it sounds like a storm of noise. I can see that. The heavier parts seem to be all distortion and no nuance. However, I think that’s too harsh a judgment. There’s a lot to “Jungle Jim”, it’s just that it falls between Rusty‘s 2 highest points.

I, for one, really love the quieter parts of the song. I find them quite melodic and beautiful. I also really enjoy Tara O’Neil’s vocals. I can only pick up hints of what she’s singing here and there, but it contributes to the dream of this particular song. And the noisier and abrasive parts have some fantastic drumming going on.

Could “Jungle Jim” have been better? Probably. But it’s the strangest and most mysterious song on the album, and it fits quite well with the language and spell and logic of Rusty nonetheless.

Gauge

“Gauge” is much shorter than “Everyday World of Bodies” (though it’s still long for a rock song), but it’s no less epic, and it’s crafted from a similar mold. After hundreds of listens to “Everyday World of Bodies” alone, I eventually latched onto “Gauge”.

The coolest thing about “Gauge” is the night to day transition that occurs at exactly 2:54. Before, the song is a dream state of traded spoken vocals between Mueller and O’Neil. After, it proceeds in a graceful frenzy. Looking back now, it’s almost like it’s rapped, which might not be too far off, given the roots of Rodan in the rap group King G & the J Krew. But whatever it is, it feels like the insane ramblings of a great poet experience a nervous breakdown.

The second coolest thing about “Gauge” is the bass solo that begins at exactly 5:21. I’ve spent a lot of hours trying to figure that thing out, and while I’ve managed to get most of the parts, their are a few bits that I just can’t nail down. And yeah, it’s a bass solo, but it doesn’t sound wankerish or bluesy in the slightest. It sounds just as dreamy as the rest of the song. Again, what was this strange genius?

Tooth Fairy Retribution Manifesto

Like “Shiner”, “Tooth Fairy” was one of the band’s earliest songs, originally released on the Aviary demo cassette in 1992. Also like “Shiner”, the early demo version isn’t very good. The last track on Rusty though is great and a fitting finale. Credit for that goes to both the band, who had managed to tighten down their playing between recordings, and to the production work of Bob “Rusty” Weston. It feels wide open and clean here, whereas the demo was, at best, lo-fi and patchy.

Up to this point, there had been a lot of experimentation and interesting ideas on Rusty, and it doesn’t end here. The song opens with a sample of some kind of Fisher-Price toy (weird childish bell sounds, if you grew up in the 80’s you’d recognize them), and, like “Gauge”, exists in two distinct segments. The first is kind of a pretty instrumental vamp on a bouncy drum pattern, the second is briefly quiet and dark, and then a punkish workout.

I’d later discover a live version of “Tooth Fairy” that is worth seeking out (you can find it on the rarities compilation Fifteen Quiet Years). It gives you an idea of what this band must have been capable of live. It opens with someone yelling “Welcome, Rodan!” at the top of their lungs, and then two guys (I assume Mueller and Noble) chanting “Rodan!” over the opening drum pattern of “Tooth Fairy”. Is it corny to admit that this still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up? I can live with that. I’m a sucker for a powerful live show.

Final Thoughts

As I said earlier in this article, Rusty was a pivotal record for me. I’d even go so far as to say it was life-changing. Yeah, I probably would have eventually discovered a lot of the underground and obscure music that I love now had I never heard Rusty, but does that really matter? Rusty was the doorway for me, even moreso than Spiderland. For someone who believes records and the artworks we love play a big role in shaping who we are, I can’t help but ponder and appreciate how much this album, produced by five or six very creative souls, has made me who I am today, for better or for worse.

Additionally, Rusty was a record I felt so much pride in as a teenager. Even ownership! It sounds stupid and crazy now, but to my teen-aged self, it was a masterpiece produced by kids like me in my own back yard, proof positive that Louisville was a truly special place. Spiderland gets all of the accolades and makes all the lists now (and I’d say deservedly so), but Rusty was my first true love. Not just a crush, but maddening and emotional love. I never knew I could love an album that much.

I would go on during my high school and college years to gather as much of the band’s creative detritus as I could. Back then, it was hard to get your hands on the band’s cassette demo Aviary, or a decent quality bootleg of their monumentally great BBC / John Peel session. I used to dream about what a second album might have been like for Rodan (we almost got one too; on the broadcast, Peel mentioned the band’s intent to record the follow-up to Rusty for release the following year, 1995). There are at least six bootlegged cuts that didn’t see an official release until 2013 on Fifteen Quiet Years, and some of Rodan’s tracks were apparently carried over to later projects (such as “Rungs”, which appeared on the first Sonora Pine LP). 

The three song Peel session is the strongest indicator of what a second LP might have delivered. It featured 3 new tracks – “Sangre”, “Big Things, Little Things”, and “Before the Train” – a diverse collection, yet uniquely brilliant, a continuation of and growth beyond the sound of Rusty. The tracks are arguably even more raw, dark, lovely, and haunting than anything on Rusty. When you consider what members of this band would be responsible for creatively over the next 10 years – from “Sharks and Sailors” to “Water from the Same Source” to “Eek” to “Quiet Victories” – it makes you, in the words of Peel himself, want to stamp your little foot when you realize that the human race has missed out on what they might have done together.

Rodan’s members have done so much separately, but who knows what greatness they could have achieved together? And I don’t really mean commercially either. It’s unlikely they would ever have had a Top 40 hit or anything of that sort, but could they have become artistically successful and significant on the level of a band like Radiohead or Sonic Youth? Again, I think the merit of the members’ later works makes the case that yes, this is a group of rock and rollers that could have been contenders for enduring greatness.

Tragically, it will never be possible for Rodan to play even a one-off reunion. Jason Noble, whom you might think of as the band’s Thurston Moore, passed away from cancer in 2012. While a reunion of the other members in some form might be possible, it could never really be Rodan without Jason.

I’ve always wanted to tell the world about Rodan, and Rusty. Once upon a time, I didn’t really need to. The collective memory of indie rock remembered them well. But Rusty hasn’t retained the status of Spiderland, and without the prospect of a reunion, it’s unlikely that the press will have a reason to look back upon them fondly. As I was in the process of writing this, I thought to myself “This might be the final significant word on Rusty. Maybe that’s a role I’m supposed to play for this album that has meant so much to me.” I hope that’s not the case – I hope future listeners will discover the record, and be as surprised and delighted by it as I have been for all these years and repeated listens. But if it is, what an incredible honor it would indeed be, something my 15 year old self – sitting in his room, discovering the wonders of Rusty – would find just as mind-blowing as the record itself.

Etcetera

A few other interesting notes about Rodan that I wanted to document:

  • Fifteen Quiet Years contains live bootlegs of the otherwise unreleased tracks “Wurl” and “Martin”.
  • The track “Pale Horse Sailor” from June of 44’s debut LP Engine Takes to the Water may have been a Rodan song originally. I say this because I remember seeing it listed on a live bootleg tracklist for Rodan. But I’ve never heard a recording of it.
  • Aviary contained 3 great tracks that should be mentioned: “Darjeeling”, “Tron”, and “Milk and Melancholy”.
  • “Milk and Melancholy” was the A-side to the How the Winter Was Passed 7″ released on Three Little Girls Records. The B-side was the incredibly great instrumental “Exoskeleton”. Seriously, “Exoskeleton” is one of my all-time favorite instrumentals.

Have your own thoughts to share about Rusty or Rodan? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.