An essay on Portland legends Dead Moon for the Rumpus’ “Albums of Our Lives”

24 Dec

Albums of Our Lives: Dead Moon’sThirteen Off My Hook

  I was 19 years old when I first witnessed the achingly beautiful sounds of Fred and Toody Cole and Andrew Loomis. They were called Dead Moon.

One rainy San Francisco night, Fred Cole stood upright, momentarily motionless on stage left, looking like a deranged scarecrow. He smiled knowingly as he awakened, unraveling his various sticky black cables and plugging his guitar into his venerable amplifier for the ten thousandth time.

Drummer Andrew Loomis stuck a lit red candle into an empty Jack Daniels’ bottle fastened to his kick drum. Loomis lit a cigarette by leaning lips first into the flame that was dancing off the tip of the candle.

Toody took a swig of bottled beer, tucked the tail of her red cowboy shirt into her blue jeans and said something to Fred, her husband. He chuckled, and the couple made eye contact with Loomis as Toody swung the strap of her bass guitar over her head. They now looked serious. Guitar picks clutched between their thumbs and forefingers, pyramid-shaped triggers for their stringed weapons, their eyes glinted with purpose. They were ready to play. Fred swiveled around and asked the soundman through the mike, “Are we ready?” When the longhaired soundman in the back of the room nodded and gave a thumbs up, Fred belted, “We’re fuckin’ Dead Moon and this song is called ‘There’s a Fire in the Western World.’”

They tore into the jangly two-string intro then those three chords with such military precision and guttural defiance that they had my attention from the first verse. After a couple rockers, Fred was able to pull back and play a soft one, then they kicked in with another screamer. Toody’s bass playing and Andrew’s drumming were somehow connected, as if attached like a beating heart to a series of veins and lungs and living matter. These were Fred’s songs, and like a clean shaven Grizzly Adams, his mischievous eyes glinted like a child who is pleased about getting away with a petty crime. There were also moments of true anguish, a man who had been trapped and rock and roll was his only way out, his only vice, and he had used this escape for so long he almost wore out his welcome, then he did it again because it was the only way he knew how to survive. Dead Moon played their set and the blood red candle burned down to a molten stump, the flame dying during the death-throes of their last song, as if the candle was fueled not by its wax, but sustained its fire with the lifeblood of the music.

My first Dead Moon show was a spiritual experience. I felt more from that 60 minutes of music then I had ever felt in a church. I felt like crying. I wanted to give Fred a hug, I wanted to pat him on the back, I wanted to one day be able to play a song as powerful at the simply profound tunes he churned out so naturally.


A couple of years later I had the pleasure to see Dead Moon on Halloween night at a shit hole in Portland. The mixed drinks were stiff, and tall cans (“tallboys”) of ice cold Pabst were an even $2.

I knew a few of their songs by this point, and that familiarity, made me feel a joy I rarely felt. They played a set of their most memorable songs (including some of my favorites, “Dead Moon Night, It’s OK, Johnny’s Got a Gun, Walking on My Grave, 54/40 or Fight,  DOA, Graveyard, I Hate The Blues,”) and a couple covers: AC/DC’s ”It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)” and Rolling Stones’ “Play with Fire.”

With the last chord played, and the club closing, there was an eerily comforting vibe I felt as I trudged home through the rain. Arriving home, I placed my sopping wet high top Converse All –Stars outside the front door. I stood there on the front porch for a moment, in my socks, looking out into the peaceful darkness, imagining Fred and Toody and Andrew loading their amps and drums into their charcoal black van and navigating the dark roads back to Clackamas, their hometown, named for the extinct language of the Chinook Indians. “Dead Moon night,” I said to myself. “Dead Moon night.”

If you don’t like Dead Moon then you don’t like rock ‘n roll.”

Fred Cole has played rock ‘n roll since 1964. Originating in Las Vegas, Fred and his garage band, The Weeds were attempting to avoid the Vietnam draft by relocating to Canada when their van ran out of gas in Portland. While in Portland, Fred met his future wife Toody Conner who was working in a local club, the Folk Singer. The Weeds, changing their name to Lollipop Shoppe, staked a claim in Portland and hired the manager of Love and The Seeds. This led to loads of west coast dates including opening slots for Janis Joplin and the Doors. Their classic tune, “You Must Be a Witch” was showcased on the influential “Pebbles” LP compilation series in the late ’70s.

When punk broke, Fred had a punk band  called the Rats who played the same clubs as Portland punk greats the Wipers and Poison Idea. Fred and Toody, married since 1967, played together in the Rats and of course continued on with Dead Moon, recruiting drummer Andrew Loomis in 1987.

Fred Cole engineered most of the band’s recordings at their primitive home studio in Clackamas. Recorded and mixed in mono, he mastered the recordings on the lathe that was used for the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie.” Their early records were released on their own Tombstone Records imprint.

Some people don’t really get Dead Moon. Fred Cole’s high-pitched croon, like a fine scotch or bourbon, is an acquired taste.  But like bourbon, it’s slightly bitter, slightly sweet, smoky and with a smooth finish.  His voice hits in the gut and takes you to the pits of sadness. You feel what he feels and become empowered to go out with all guns blazing no matter what you’re up against.

My favorite Dead Moon song is “Walking on my Grave.” From their 1990 record Thirteen Off My Hook, the song brilliantly encompasses everything about the darkness of Portland, the power of that long unbearable winter, the thoughts one thinks when going through the endless winter, the drugs and depression that hit that town from time to time and the futile feeling of protest. The line “giving direction without any plans” is even relevant to our present state, which conjures thoughts of our current political situation and financial crisis. Above all, “Walking on my Grave,” is truly about a man who doesn’t want to be forgotten. “There’s a new kid on the block, and he’s taking my place…walking on my grave!”

I used to see Loomis drinking at the Hungry Tiger on 28th and NE Burnside. He seemed to be there almost every night of the week. The locals and the bartenders respected him and filled him full of the poison that enveloped him.

Dead Moon broke up because of Andrew Loomis’ drug and alcohol abuse, but Fred and Toody formed a new band called Pierced Arrows with drummer Kelly Halliburton.  I’ve not checked them out yet because I’m nervous about putting them alongside the legend they created in Dead Moon. I should probably give them a chance.

I listened to “Walking On My Grave” the other night after 5 beers and broke out in tears.  Fred Cole, I love you man. Thank you.


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