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He Forgot All the Words He Ever Knew: Teenage Bison Boys, Politics and Digital Archives

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Once, a cavalier attitude led us to the crime of conservatism. And forms of digital media, and the integument of Internet between them, makes 1970 appears closer to 2014 than it did to 1980.

Mike Mosher

The spirit loves mockery. Common speech, which never deceives us, throws this lively warning in or faces. Around and within power the spirit floats and plays. It is always self-sufficient. Laughter unties the knot; we are intent enough not to be hanged on the spot…To be free in oneself, to be free of oneself, is the first object of reflection, and this object is laughter.

—Alain (Emile-August Charier), "Spirit", Chapter 10, The Gods, (1934). 1988, London, Quartet, p. 139.

The Bison Boys, as a band, spun out of sixteen-year-old Jimm Juback’s 1971 movie “Daniel Boone”. Directing credit was shared with Tony LaRocca. a year younger, but it was eminently the product of Juback’s own aesthetic and sense of humor. The long summer afternoons of 1970 spent filming the Super 8mm extravaganza in fields and leafy streets north of Ann Arbor, MI, led “Boone” actor and skillful Spanish guitar student Gary Malvin’s to impulsively offer to bring “his band” to classmate Janet Lundberg’s party. He mentioned the idea to Jimm and to me, and we agreed to be that band.

We began with two- and three-chord folksy, country songs about bison, strummed on acoustic guitar and cemented with my simple schoolmarm piano. Soon we were purveyors of bongo-accompanied instrumentals like the clockwork “Opus One” and the intensely percussive “Stomach Music”. The descending chords and steadily word-dropping “He Forgot All the Words He Ever Knew” resulted in a final verse that was gesticulating silence.

In 2014 our shared constellations of personal experiences as a band, an art gang, a bunch of high school friends persist, and 1970 appears closer to 2014 than it did to 1980. Forms of digital media, and the integument of Internet between them, animates the old jokes, spins the old tunes and rattling Super 8mm footage, rather than erase and obliterate this category, this clot, of memory. The digital mediasphere of our time manifests, articulates, re-speaks and resuscitates distant memories and associations, and re-opens them to wider audience inspection and comment; it invites all our other friends to Janet’s party, ongoing and seemingly eternal.

As nothing is unknown in our security-state—what future social scientists might call the Panopticoniferous Era—perhaps it’s a time for confession as well. I shall risk being revealed as acting fresh when a high school freshman, sophomoric when a sophomore, jejune as a junior.

I. Grandpop Music

In Michigan’s rock cauldron of heavy psychedelic-metal-Punk (Stooges, MC5, Up, etc.), the Bison Boys’ music was distinguished, among our equally creative friends in high school, for our insouciant innocence and corniness. We were Beatle-influenced since childhood, and major part of their background, especially that of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, was the British music hall. Ann Arbor had its own Gilbert and Sullivan Society that performed Victorian operetta, its sprightly tunes and verbal wit. The New Vaudeville Band had appeared on Ed Sullivan Show with its Rudy Valée-esque “Winchester Cathedral” in 1966, and the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band (ex-art students who, we appreciated, had been the Bonzo Dog Dada Band) also began by playing the “trad jazz” and novelty songs of the 1930s. Introduced to us by our older classmate Harry Hammitt, the Bonzos (who once played to a near-empty ballroom in Detroit) were as impatient as we were, constantly changing musical genre—Dixieland jazz, electric blues, 1950s ballad, reeds-driven movie music with eccentric narrative, etc. Their Elvis-like tearjerker “Death Cab for Cutie”, appearing in a Beatles movie, inspired a band in this century. I didn’t like their forays into 1940s big band music, nor Bette Midler’s “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”, for I associated it with Lawrence Welk, my mother’s generation, and authority figures her age in my own school. Late-1940s Western Swing and Jump Blues were interesting to us though, and Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks were an acoustic hybrid of those styles.

We privileged humor in the music we played, and our influence Hicks had a “Laughing Song” about a boy who “laughed and laughed so much, he finally laughed his HEAD OFF”. Sounds like us, for our metric for the best next line in a song we were collectively writing was the one that most reduced us to uncontrollable laughter.

We fancied ourselves cosmopolitan, and welcomed all kinds of influences. For a 1973 flyer trying to drum up gigs we billed ourselves as “Fourth World Funsongs and Charles DeGaulle Bison Music”. While Afrlcan-American, Latino and Native American activists, on the UM campus and elsewhere, called themselves Third World (after Regis Debray’s designations of the US-allied, USSR-allied, and nonaligned nations respectively), there arose a term for western European secessionist and nationalist movements like the Basques, Scots and Walloons. Charmed by the Gallic lilt of his family’s Italian accordion, Juback (reading a biography of Aristide Bruant at the time, and composing guitar instrumentals with European art-song titles like “Mephistopheles at the Seashore”) used “Charles DeGaullle” as a shorthand for Parisian, Left Bank bohemian. But it could equally mean a rather conservative nationalistic General, the one who pursued brutal war in independence-craving Algeria.

II. Bison Boys’ Politics: I'm In the Mood for Crime

In fine too-smart-for-their-own-good art student manner, we framed our schoolboy pranks as performance art. Ann Arbor’s cultural milieu, its University of Michigan Museum of Art exhibits and surrounding bookstores gave us ammunition to claim our pranks as art crimes, in venerable tradition of the Dadists and pistol-toting André Breton, and their burly drinking buddy Arthur Cravan.

We asked to borrow numerous white t-shirts one gullible classmate “for a science project”, then I created a stencil of Gary Malvin's slightly pompous friend Chris Harker (now an Oregon state legislator), and sprayed it upon all the shirts. These were then delivered in a bag to Harker “to give all his girlfriends” during the middle of a class. As we ruinously laid patches on Harkers’ parents’ lawn during the March thaw, numerous sepia prints of the same graduation photograph of Harker shot by Malvin were displayed in a showcase in the halls of the high school, entitled “Paris Street Scene”. Beside the assemblage was Juback's ceramic scepter ("Jesus' Dick"), with birdseed. Similarly, Juback and Malivin spread birdseed and raw meat upon the floor of the rival Pioneer II Earthworks alternative school, who found an unlocked door facilitating their prank. Haw! Score!

Student council members in my own graduating class who moved a statue of the Big Boy from a restaurant two miles to Pioneer High to set it upon the roof of the school library, but that was small potatoes, without theoretical basis. The Billboard Bandits, faculty brats from two or more high schools that included two Bison Boys, saw to it that roadside billboards (then on wooden poles) were sawn down on each of several productive nights in 1970-71. In the Crossbows of Christmas, garish plastic holiday decorations were targeted with arrows until an inevitable ending in an elderly couple’s picture window. As noted elsewhere on this website, the crossbow was also brandished outside the John Sinclair Freedom Rally in December 1971.

Such a cavalier attitude led us to the greatest crime in liberal Ann Arbor: conservatism! Or, at least the public pose of it.

My parents made sure I had a subscription to National Review, in hopes I would write like William F. Buckley. In ninth grade I had a membership in Young Americans for Freedom (as, recounted in Bad Subjects, so did leftist economist Doug Henwood), and argued politics with Greta Schiller, later a notable film documentarian of GLBT history. When I visited its UM campus office, and there picked up a pamphlet “Taxation is Theft” from the Foundation for Economic Freedom which Juback and LaRocca displayed, as they were festooned with play money, before their onscreen credit as the “Daniel Boone” movie’s Producers. I painted a cubist military officer, entitled "General Alfredo Stroessner, Dictator of Paraguay", inspired by the Ruritanian accents we affected during Diplomacy games at the house of the chainsaw- owning (and crossbow-loaning, for that adventure) guy who is credited with having dreamed up billboard chopping.

The same summer that the Up were singing of personal autonomy “Just Like an Aborigine”, the Bison Boys vented their faux-conservatism in a song called "I Think We Should Have a Depression. It suggested "Higgins, Hefner and Slote/Why don'tcha get on a Chile-bound boat?" John Slote and Keith Hefner (Youth Liberation activist, later a youth advocate in New York) were leftist editors of the Pioneer High School Optimist. Bill Higgins, who died in a workplace accident shortly after graduation, joined the song’s junta because had once collected funds in a bucket drive at a Sunday rock concert for imprisoned "Father Chinner"...who turned out to be a total fabrication; as revolutions have often harbored bandits, Ann Arbor’s rhetoric-drenched left politics became our demographic’s convenient excuse for teenage pranks.

There exists a flyer for a concert supporting the promulgation of the High School Bill of Rights, a document which Randy Prince of the University of Michigan’s Socialist Workers’ Party branch introduced to local high schools in 1970. It advertises the hard-rocking Up, the more soulful Brat, and the folk-rock Mountain Wind; the latter band included Tony Larocca, Chris Harker, banjoist Sam Clark and myself. Mountain Wind, for some reason, found an excuse the last minute to cancel.

And our cultural jabs from the right? Electoral politics made purely aesthetic, absurd, for laffs. A moody Bison Boys song alluded to Senator Goldwater’s 1964 Vice-Presidential running mate, “William R. Miller’s Confession”, and name-checked some Congresspeople (in different versions, Eugene Tunney Jr. and Shirley Chilsolm) was intended to frame a whiskey sour commercial by a continental thespian in our school Aleks Wierzbicki. Crashing the 1995 College Art Association conference in Los Angeles, Juback grinningly submitted a ballot with the name Duke Mejian, a pun on Caifornia’s Republican Governor George Deukmejian. A decade after that, and a full quarter-century after “I Think We Should Have a Depression” (which probably would have proved lucrative if revived after the financial crash of 2008), Juback considered writing a song called “I Hate NPR”. Not exactly the bullying style of FOX News and the Tea Party.

III. Who Is This Guy? Bison Boys Encounter The Other

In a time of Polack jokes and Richard Pryor albums venting the n-word, our politically un-progressive stance had odd forays into attempted ethnic humor. Malvin’s “Who Is This Guy?” sang of a Chicano-hating mystery man “Who calls Cuban waiters ‘They look like craters.” A proposed Bison Boys cookbook followed drinks called a “Kangaroo’s Pouch” and the “Crow Cocktail” with a “Hair Pie” (as much a nod to Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s “Hair Pie: Bake 1” on the impressive Trout Mask Replica double album as rude allusion to pudenda) that mixed the hirsute clippings of various ethnicities. At one point in that project, we decided to come up with another name for white Eastern European ethnics, such as Juback’s paternal, and part of my own maternal, lineage; in answer, someone wrote down, on a piece of paper, the n-word. The group collapsed in laughter, but I never heard the derisive term uttered by the Bison Boys or rest of my circle in high school otherwise.

We were, by nature, too liberal for anti-black racist banter, and smart enough to buy records, often historic (Jelly Roll Morton, Kansas City “territory” bands), sometimes contemporary (James Brown, Kool & the Gang) by black artists. At one point the Bison Boys brainstormed about a soul jazz performance called "Newark", where brass and trombone players would rise from behind barricades, play a salvo like a sniper would shoot a round of bullets, then drop back down to safety. Interesting that we set it in that city, instead of nearby Detroit, site of equally significant riots during the same month as Newark’s, and with a higher death count.

In local underground newspapers like the Ann Arbor Argus and Sun, John Sinclair called for celebration of the free jazz of John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra, “black classical music.” Sure, we quoted Sinclair and the White Panther Party’s call for “rock n’ roll, dope and fucking in the streets”, but underground newspapers were not our parents’ feared media influences to which we fell victim. It was a TIME magazine article that inspired our—OK, my—most offensive creation.

As Walter Benjamin warned in 1936 of a fascistic strategy towards aestheticizing politics, the early 1970s had notable aestheticizations of violence, in films like “The Wild Bunch”, “A Clockwork Orange”, disaster movies and others. Perhaps faculty-brat teenagers valorizing art crime were particularly susceptible; “A Clockwork Orange” impressed the Bison Boys, though at the time we felt it could have simply ended with hero Alex’s arrest, dispensing with the psychological treatment that rid him of violent tendencies. In its vein of violence promulgated by guys who could be our schoolmates, the June 8, 1970 TIME reported on teenage skinheads in the UK, sporting their suspenders, cuffed jeans and “bovver boots” on excursions of “Paki-bashing”. The Italian accordion Jimm inherited from his maternal ancestors seemed to call for folk music in the vein of the Irish Rovers’ “Bringing Home the Oil” for Gulf Oil or the Mobil commercial where the valves sang in an Irish brogue “We’re the rocker arm assembly and we don’t like dirt”.

Summer of 1971, after we’d seen the aggro and ultraviolence of “A Clockwork Orange”, remembering the previous summer’s TIME article on the skinheads, I tossed off the song "Beating Up the Pakis". Beyond its title, the pseudo-Celtic ditty threatened no more than to “burn their eyes with popcorn pies”, until “they leave us all alone”…as if they were the aggressors. If it were performed outside of Malvin’s basement—a search of song lists leaves this question unclear—it was never performed where it caused offense to anyone of Pakistani ancestry.

I like to think this song is out of character for me, a fluke. Why would I do something so stoopid? What was my motivation? Despite my boorishness, I already had some familiarity with south Asian culture, for in the 1960s my father’s engineering students from India had invited us to a couple banquets, with entertainment, put on by their populous student association; after the Beatles had visited the Maharishi I yearned to again attend, and now enjoy the long sitar concerts and traditional dance, proudly in my Nehru shirt. Alas, in liberal multicultural Ann Arbor, or our progressive UM faculty brat circles, pretend-discrimination appeared to be the only way to be transgressive, perhaps like English Punks of ’77 sporting swastikas to offend their WWII-veteran fathers. At its best, right wing Punk play tweaks middle- and upper-class pomposity as well as leftist (calling a police violence monitoring project Bad Cop, No Donut) jibes do. The Harvard men on the National Lampoon staff showed Che Guevara getting a pie in the face on the cover of the “Is Nothing Sacred?” issue. On another campus in the seventies, the Dartmouth Review was witty when it countered an Oxfam-led fast by staging an Edwardian garden party in straw boaters, with tea and cakes; yet they behaved as blackshirts when they destroyed shanties erected by anti-Apartheid activists. Or caricatured Dartmouth President Friedman (who happened to be Jewish) as Adolf Hitler.

Looking back, I suspect I was displacing whiteboy anxiety caused by my high school’s “race riots”, largely symbolic actions by black students that involved a lot of running through the halls, library shelves pushed over, but no real violence. Sadly, upper-middle-class college-bound “princes”—our friend Chris Tons’ phrase for our Ann Arbor teen demographic's bucolic existence—were as distant from the experience of unemployed 17-year-olds, in the UK or Detroit, as from the immigrant shop owners the white British youth terrorized. In art and song, we crafted our own performative fantasy worlds in which to frolic, that for only this moment claimed to be exclusionary.

As I write this, a new Bollywood rom-com “Total Siyapaa” (which means chaos) is set in London, with Pakistani Ali Zafar playing a Pakistani boy who loves an Indian Sikh girl., who has a grandfather who happily flashes the army rifle he used to kill Pakistanis; the New York Times’ Rachel Saltz describes the movie as “crudely unfunny.” Meanwhile in Pakistan, social scientist Ayesha Siddiqa laments “Talibanization”, the shrinkage of public space, excoriating of secular democracy, with concomitant promotion of “traditional” fundamentalist “ideas which eventually breed violence.” I guess I take comfort that this isn’t the Bison Boys’ fault.

IV. He Forgot All the Words

I have now published the most regrettable thing I’ve done as a teenager upon the Internet, a rude song. Like a teenager’s posting of rudeness, lewdness, drunkenness or drugginess on Facebook, will this revelation haunt the rest of my career? Or does the omnipresent mediasphere facilitate the erasure of memory? Well, on the public level, perhaps. The question remains to what degree constant electronic communication means a plowing under of the past, any more than it did in the days of daily newspapers (the multiple editions of a century ago) or TV news at 6:00 and 11:00 p.m. The Internet has challenged authority, and a lone blogger may hold the influence of a newspaper a century ago, if only momentarily.

“Cryptololgy will long mourn the passing of this wiseguy fauvist” said the Bison Boys in an absurd phrase voiced at the summer 1971 symbolic sacrifice of Janet’s dog. On March 11, 2014, Edward Snowden addressed South by Southwest, the music and technology showcase via a Google Plus videoconference, and urged cryptographers, developers, and privacy patriots to develop encryption technologies superior to government snoops, which would “allow us to reclaim the trusted and open Internet.”

How has the free and open Internet hurt or helped the Bison Boys? Back in the day, the band thought a good place to play would be the window full of newborns in the hospital maternity ward—a trope of 1940s to ‘60s movies—and thus entertain the babies. Perhaps posting our films, songs and moments online, performances out of time, are the virtual equivalent. For the children. For the education of our nation’s youth. To inspire my students to get away from their gaming consoles and smartphones and do creative stuff, to elicit further information from homeboys and homegirls, I mine our collective past to publish tales of the Bison Boys in online publications Otherzine, and Bad Subjects.

There is a facebook group called Ann Arbor Townies Only!, whose most active poster is the historian Wystan Stevens. A comparable one is Bay City Memories, which teaches me the popular cultural history of the town in which I now live. Juback’s wife, painter Joyce Lieberman, created a page for the Bison Boys and Bison Productions when I showed “Daniel Boone” at the Ann Arbor District Library as a pre-event part of the 48th Annual Ann Arbor Film Festival in 2010.

About 1990, Jimm Juback had his Super 8mm films converted to VHS video. He then undertook their conversion to DVD, as well as conversion of cassette tapes to CDs. Some of this was prompted by a Bison Boys reunion in Albuquerque, New Mexico in September 2012—the 40th anniversary of Fall, 1972, the "height of our success" and activity, playing most weekends at campus coffeehouses and restaurants, or at friends’ parties. I visited Albuquerque, New Mexico—now Gary Malvin’s residence—for the International Symposium of Electronic Art (ISEA) conference, and Juback joined us there.

Yet Juback has still not put a soundtrack to his Super 8mm projects, not reconstructed the narrative nor lay down original music. While his Detroit counterpart Cary Loren made his 1970s movie projects (and musical ones, with the support of his friend and collaborator Mike Kelley) commercially available on video in the 1990s, Juback has failed to monetize his past product. Much as the jovial Slovak (who sang “I’m a Slav so fine/Only eighteen and I want to go into outer space”) would bring myriad good ideas to practices, play a song idea and abandon it, Juback has moved on to other pursuits (employment, travel and enjoying live music), as has Malvin (work and family). I’ve often pondered if, beyond a reasonably comfortable existence that allows for creative work to be done, an artist in any media most of all craves influence: generations to come saying “That looks like a Picasso”, performing Mozart and his grateful imitators, quoting lines from Shakespeare or Wilde. The Bison Boys really haven’t done much work towards using contemporary media to extend our influence. The Bison Boys' songs, or Juback's movies, could be uploaded to YouTube for greater influence and likely longevity.

We are now able to put out records of our music, singles or albums, at home, at our desks. The very terminology is archaic, but it articulates the world of vinyl music products that we knew. The cassette tape was useful, but lost something with each copy made from an original recording. The conversion of Super 8mm movies first to VHS, then digitized and published as DVD, makes the distribution of our movies cheap, convenient, eminently portable and easy to distribute. And all of these resources whose physical form I’m praising could, more easily perhaps, be simply transmitted over the Internet in de-materialized form. As zeroes and ones, as code; matter as energy. In MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte’s phrase, “bits, not atoms”.

There may be machinery of the erasure of memory that obliterates much of what America’s owners don’t want us to see, to know, replacing it with what they want us to buy. Yet we have the power to easily record and publish our songs, videos, lyrics. Paul Ford wrote a short essay “The End of Then: Past? Present? Online, It All Runs Together” in the February 2014 WIRED magazine. He points out that digital archives now mean that new songs “sit on the same shelf as songs recorded five, 25 and 55 years ago, all of them waiting to be discovered…In this eternal present, everything can be made contemporary.” While the Bison Boys delighted in finding obscure remaindered albums by rock (Harumi) or country (Elton Britt) artists, or a song to cover that sounds like one we’d have written (Ted Waite’s 1930s “Don Alfonso” on a 1970 album by English avant-jazz man Lol Coxhill), now such eccentricities are immediately all at hand, in the home, in the app phone in the pocket.

Like a Marshall amplifier stack to a Michigan rock musician’s electric guitar, digital media extends our reach, our noise, our content, preserved from its decay and dissolution in otherwise wimpy, technologically-obsolete (magnetic audio cassettes) and fragile forms. Only laziness keeps us from working harder to keep our memory alive, our “brand” in the world. Nevertheless, our situation today fits the title of a country ballad of near-extinction and renewal, one that we sang at Janet’s party and elsewhere among our friends in Ann Arbor those four decades ago: The Bison Didn’t Always Have It So Good.

At Saginaw Valley State University, Art/Communication & Digital Media Professor Mike Mosher plays rootsy music weekly with his workplace band the ReCremains. Photo of Bison Boys (1972) by Jim Rees; of skinheads and hippies in Picadilly (1969) by Terry Spencer; Jimm Juback (1970) in "Daniel Boone".

Copyright © Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.

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