It certainly wasn’t the fifth beer or the extreme mid-August Ohio heat that brought on the fever dream a few weeks back. The epiphanic reaction that occurred during the “one and only” set by Jayfish—a long ballyhooed, but buried, collaboration between Columbus oddball legends Tommy Jay and Nudge Squidfish—came from a sense that even though the songs they were playing came from a particular time and place (and who knows from what decade, the ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s), their warped congealment of Velvets art-jangle, Fugs anti-folk formations, and backwards proto-punk exists for the moment.
They were joined, not by any coincidence, by Mike “Rep” Hummel, their longtime coconspirator. The revelations swirled as the trio traipsed through choreographed interludes that included tribal chants and noisemaking. Squid pounded on a laptop; Jay acted as the shaman of forgotten blotter; and Rep stood on a stool providing campfire ambience. In all the situational capitulations these torch-holders for generations to come have undergone—as True Believers, Quotas, and Harrisburg Players—this was the most enlightening. The absolute pinnacle of that profundity was found in their rendition of “Florida Kilos.” It was spellbinding in its simplicity and magical in how it lent a distinct cool to the room. Was it a neglected Lou Reed B-side? Something Jay or Rep had conjured up on a black strap rum bender in Ocala? Perry Como? No, it was confessed to be a Lana Del Rey cover. Therein lies the power of these Central Ohio weirdos for whom rock stardom was never really on the map. Theirs has been the proverbial path less traveled, a reflection of the here and now, filtered through a lens of rural madness and basement shenanigans and created knowing full and well it might never reach earshot outside of the ellipse.
Digression aside, after a night like this, there’s an urge to want it all, every last inch of tape. Hellbender (Hozac Records), a new archival collection of Rep’s primordial beginnings, is the latest piece of the puzzle to see the light of day. The raw-and-cooked record invariably scratches that sonic prickling. Though credited to the Quotas, Hellbender has only one song by an actual band (“Black Hole ’78”), while the rest comes from an era of the Quotas during which an isolated Rep was without any musical comrades with which to collaborate. (Jay actually was on a Florida respite in Ft. Lauderdale.) Along the way, Rep released the now mythic “Rocket to Nowhere” single, and the resin kept accumulating from there. As far as Rep is concerned, “there ain’t no more” Rocket-era recordings, making the record an earmark in the cartographical study of how Ohio got weird(er). Essentially the barnacles scrapped from the well, unrefined and freeform, it’s also a window into the counter-culture’s infiltration of the Midwest.
That influence was burrowing through Rep’s psyche. My copy has a poster of Rep with a grizzled perm and dark sunglasses, gnawing on a joint, “no survivors” scrawled above the Old Age/No Age sigil. It’s apparent Rep was mining all that was cool. You can hear it in the grooves. “In My Movie” shows the brazen edge of a whirring head dazed at a Blue Oyster Cult arena show, while at the same time vehemently rejecting all that was holy on FM/AOR radio. As on “Rockstar,” Rep was living out secret stoned fantasies in the basement, dropping masturbation jokes and creating an ambiguous persona who would be just as comfortable under stage lights and an Aerosmith marquee. This is where the “lovingly fucked with” idea evolved. Nearly all of Hellbender is Rep by himself on a four-track, turning knobs and piling mono overdubs on top of each other to plant the roots of his sonics.
The epic “Last Jackal Laugh” bridges the gap between Mystery Theater radio dramas and Metal Machine Music, a jarring juxtaposition that now seems instinctual for Rep. “You’re So Decadent/Sad” is a one-take lament that shows the spontaneity inherent in this Central Ohio bohemia, while “Cowboy Gone Straight” is perhaps the downright prettiest song Rep has committed to tape. Lilting, slightly unhinged, somber, and marooned, Rep the Earth-bound space traveler plays to an audience, in the ether or not.