by Matthew Vollmer
In January of 1998, when we were twenty-four years old, my friend John Ringhofer and I sat on my bedroom floor with a pair of guitars, a Yamaha keyboard, and a He-Man and the Masters of the Universe storybook cassette, and began to write songs for what would one day become one of Chattanooga, Tennessee’s most legendary musical acts: Wookieback.
That’s not a misprint. Our band was actually named Wookieback—as in the posterior of a “wookiee,” the Sasquatch from Star Wars. (Brandon Buckner, our drummer, had misinterpreted a radio DJ saying “We’ll get back to you” as “Wookieback to you,” and it’d stuck.) As for being legendary, I’ll admit that might be somewhat of a stretch, since it’s quite possible—if not probable—that you’ve never heard of us, even if you happen to have lived in Chattanooga during the late nineties, which, for some people, namely the members of our band, was otherwise known as “Wookieback heyday.” It’s true that we didn’t rock harder than anyone else. We weren’t appropriating cooler corporate logos in the manufacture of our T-shirts (like how Confessed Folk Singers made a CFS logo using the KFC font). We didn’t have T-shirts. We weren’t playing more shows or getting more songs on the radio than any other Chattanooga band. We weren’t even generating more buzz.
By the time we were done, though, we’d built a legacy. Using guitar, bass, drums, samples, xylophones, vintage keyboards, trombones, and a bunch of other random instruments, we’d penned songs about subjects as diverse as E.T., Han Solo, Flash Gordon, and Roll-da (Yoda’s twin brother in a wheelchair). We’d sung verses that included lines like “you might be bigger than me/ but I’m made out of plastic” and “Earthling, you da bomb.” We’d rhymed “jettison” with “Jedi’s son.” We’d made noteworthy observations—“Wonder Twin power activation depends upon the knuckle introduction”—posed significant inquiries—“how can Orko move around without any legs?”—expressed disbelief—“I can’t believe it’s true/ humans used for computer food!—and articulated earnest supplications —“please don’t take me to the moon, I’m here to save the earth.” And, once the golden age of Wookieback had ended (only three short years after it’d begun), we’d composed fifty-some songs, the entire catalog of which we could burn through in less than three quarters of an hour.
Wookieback was the brainchild of John Ringhofer, a guy I first met in1984. It was the same year, incidentally, that my mom had thwarted several covert attempts to obtain a copy of Thriller (though she’d failed to prevent me from practicing the moonwalk as I tried to lose myself in the illusion that a satin Carolina Gamecocks windbreaker was Michael Jackson’s zippered jacket from the “Beat It” video). John was a scrawny kid with glasses and greasy bangs who loved Chef Boyardee, G.I. Joe, LEGOs, and the Chicago Cubs. We attended the same church—where we survived long sermons by drawing, on the backsides of bulletins, caricatures of the members of our congregation—and we attended the same church school, where we sat in a room of a dozen kids in grades 5-8, and generated an elaborate system of hand signals to alert each other when somebody in our room was doing something we could make fun of: we’d cough or clear our throats, then flash a sign (making a phone-shape with your hand meant look at Joy H., who once wore a belt that looked like a curly telephone cord; making an overbite meant, “look at Chris B., he’s grinning for no reason”). In other words, we were two kids, who, as fans of comic books, MAD magazine, and You Can’t Do That on Television, were engaged in the constant pursuit of cracking ourselves up.
Eventually, we shipped off to a Christian boarding school in Calhoun, Georgia, where, in 1991, after learning how to fool around on the guitar, we formed a band called “The Print” and won our school’s talent show by playing U2’s “One Tree Hill,” despite the fact that the school’s official take on rock and roll was basically: “anything that doesn’t praise God is probably inspired by Satan.” The school handbook claimed that rock’s “primal rhythms” titillated the body in ways that were unhealthy, probably even soul-tainting, and that the lyrics to popular songs were anything but uplifting, a fact that Robin, our assistant chaplain, exposed when he fiddled with the auto reverse switch on a Walkman, enabling him to play songs like “Stairway to Heaven” backwards, thus revealing that reversed vocals sound super creepy, especially when it’s Robert Plant singing verses like, “Here’s to my sweet Satan, the one whose little path would make me sad.”
However, as John Lithgow’s character in the movie Footloose can verify, trying to keep someone from rocking is next to impossible. The kids at our school smuggled CDs, Walkmans, and entire stereo systems into the dorms, received shipments of cassettes from Columbia House and BMG, and wore their Iron Maiden T-shirts inside-out to avoid getting in trouble for offending their peers. Every once in a while (usually during study hall or in the middle of the night), a bell would ring, and you’d trudge up to the dorm chapel and wait for two hours in a haze of farts and the pong of ninety pairs of adolescent feet while the dean and RAs conducted a room search—one that might result in the confiscation of your copy of “Appetite for Destruction” or “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.” More conscientious kids might decide, after an especially persuasive vespers service, to voluntarily surrender their music (as did one of my roommates, who tossed an entire case of Duran Duran tapes into a bonfire). Still, there was no way to completely eradicate the influence of rock music: somebody was always playing Metallica’s “One” on an acoustic guitar, somebody else was drawing those Black Flag bars on their Trapper Keeper or carving the Van Halen emblem onto a desktop. Then there was John Ringhofer, who knew every Beatles song by heart, and spent hours sitting on blankets in the middle of campus, cycling through them on his guitar, usually with some cute girl at his side singing harmony.
John had always been a sort of unpredictable guy, in ways that sometimes, to be frank, embarrassed me (like the time we went to see the movie Ghost and he laughed hysterically whenever Patrick Swayze’s character got emotional). By 1998, he wasn’t just unconventional: he was a full-on indie hipster. He had an art degree from Chattanooga State, a milk crate of 7-inch records recorded by bands on obscure independent labels, and a portfolio of paintings of figures with crooked, Egon Schiele-like bodies. On any given day, you might’ve found him wearing a Cub Scout cap, a threadbare t-shirt celebrating a Trans Am, or a softball jersey emblazoned with the name “Shirl.” As far as I could tell, he subsisted, quite happily, on Ramen noodles, Toaster Strudel, and Taco Bell. He had a Lite Brite on the back of his toilet and glow-in-the-dark stars in his shower. He could grow and did grow a full beard. Sometimes, as photographs of him from this era confirm, he wore his hair in pigtails.
The night we began writing songs for Wookieback, John had come to visit me at my parents’ house in Andrews, North Carolina, and we were staying up late listening to songs and playing guitar. I don’t remember everything he brought that night—he often traveled with a tote bag or suitcase from which he might extract a paper Burger King crown, a kazoo, a tambourine, a miniature accordion, or a white sequined glove—but I do remember that, at some point, he presented me with a battered storybook cassette, which bore the familiar logo of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, the mystical muscleman from another planet who battles evil hordes with the help of a talking saber-toothed cat and a floating elflike creature who can’t quite master his magic spells.
John covered the square holes at the top edge with two strips of tape (thus making it recordable again—a tactic he’d used when turning forgettable cassingles by bands like Color Me Badd into mix tapes), slid the cassette into the deck and hit play. We listened to five or six seconds of the story; John hit the stop button. Our goal, he explained, would be to write a short song based on what we’d heard, then record that song over the story tape. Once we’d finished recording, we’d hit stop, then hit play again, listen to whatever line of dialogue or narration arrived next, hit stop, and then record another song inspired by the next couple of lines or sound effects—regardless of how nonsensical or downright stupid.
If writing songs based on He-Man sounds silly and infantile, believe me, it was. It also turned out—like most of Ringhofer’s ideas—to be insanely, even sublimely fun. Within a couple of hours, we’d produced some shamelessly goofy shit—including some guitar/keyboard instrumentals that might’ve been appropriate background music for an episode of the Smurfs—but we’d also come up with a few catchy melodies and guitar riffs: a funky number concerning Teela (the unicorn-riding warrior goddess) working out on something called an “Attack-Track,” a faux-bluesy ballad about Skeletor, He-Man’s hooded, skull-faced enemy (which included the phrase “you’re bad to the bone”), and a triumphant anthem celebrating He-Man’s final victory over an evil spell.
And lo, the rules of Wookieback songs had been established.
First off: songs should pay tribute and/or call attention to the ridiculousness of science fiction or comic book heroes. Secondly, songs should begin, whenever possible, with a sample from a storybook tape or record, the kind of thing where a melodramatic actor (as in the case of Maximillian Schell, from Disney’s Black Hole) might whisper, “Tonight my friends, we stand on the brink of a feat in space exploration,” which could then be followed by a flawed interpretation of that sample (thus, John’s song titled “Astronaut Shoes,” about the feet of space exploration). Lyrics should be clever or intentionally obtuse (“Don’t mind me/ I’m just a ninja at heart”), should concern conundrums such as “psychic robots” and “android emotions,” and include, when appropriate, a string of doo-doo-doo-doo’s, eww-wee-eww’s or bah-bah-bah-bah’s. Melodies should be catchy, surprising and upbeat—something the Beatles, the Beach Boys, They Might Be Giants, or a group of wholesome teens around a campfire might get a kick out of singing. Odd time signatures were okay, as were the absence of bridges or choruses. Whistled refrains? Encouraged. Kazoos? Bring ‘em on. Finally: songs should end, as often as possible, on a “skronk,” a musical exclamation point where all musicians play one hard, loud, final note.
I like to think that Wookieback’s greatest achievement—aside from the quality of our recordings (the four-track we used made our tapes sound as if parts of the song were being broadcast from Alpha Centauri)—was our efficiency. Not only did we record each of our three albums—“Proposed Moon Suit,” “Robots Be One Crazy Weasel” (sic) and “Let Me Tell You About This Machine”—in one day, but also, because our songs averaged between 45 and 90 seconds (the longest clocking in at a whopping 2:19), we could pack roughly 18 songs into a 20-minute tape, thus leaving our fans wanting more.
And yes. We had fans. Or, rather, John had fans—he’d spent years playing praise songs for vespers services at Southern College (now Southern Adventist College), in nearby Collegedale, a town that was famous for being the home of the McKee Baking company, makers of Little Debbie Snack Cakes—which meant that every time we played a show, a horde of kids from Southern would show up.
This was sort of an accomplishment in and of itself, since we played three of our four shows at a place called Lamar’s, a hotel-soul-food-restaurant-bar on Martin Luther King Street in downtown Chattanooga, and which was run by crabby middle-aged African American men in flashy vests who seemed nonplussed by our presence but also generous in that they didn’t ask for a cut of what we charged people (we charged people!) to see us play at their venue, not that the venue was anything special, since it was rumored that you could rent rooms by the quarter hour there, and that the mattresses were infested by bed bugs, and that people’s cars sometimes got broken into outside.
Of course, none of that mattered when we were playing. Say what you will about how many tapes we sold (at least 90), those shows at Lamar’s rocked. I mean, they totally shouldn’t have, since we hardly ever practiced—immediately after our first record I moved to Raleigh to pursue a Master’s degree, thus making regular practice impossible—but we played our set list faster and tighter than we had when we’d recorded. The crowd went crazy—and often. Like, on average, every 1.25 minutes. So what if we hadn’t practiced. Maybe we didn’t need to! We were Wookieback! We were fulfilling our destiny! Which was: to play live, at least four times, in front of an actual audience (sometimes opening for other dork-rock acts like Music Tapes and Of Montreal and Danielson Familie) and to kill it every time.
Four times. That was it. I moved to Massachusetts, where I started teaching English; Brandon would eventually go to the University of Iowa to get an MFA in Painting, and John moved to Berkeley, where he founded the band Half-Handed Cloud, a psych-pop band that continues to make joyous, unpredictable songs with instruments like Omnichords, trombones, and those little toy cylinders that, when you turn them over, make animal sounds: he now tours all over the U.S. and Europe, playing venues the size of Lamar’s and packing them to full capacity wherever he goes.
And Wookieback isn’t totally dead. I recently visited our MySpace site—we’ve had over 11,000 profile visits, which, even if that isn’t impressive by MySpace standards, is about 100 times the amount of tapes we sold—and saw that either Brandon or John had posted some songs from a live show. Huh, I thought. I hadn’t realized Wookieback had bootleg recordings. I clicked a play button, ready to nod my head to some raw, explosive power-pop. Raw? Yeah. Explosive? Not so much. My guitar on “Slick,” originally a song we’d written about a missionary kid we knew who’d bragged about the number of indigenous people with whom he’d had intercourse and which we later changed to a nonsensical number about aliens—sounded tinny and fragile and out of tune. And on “TV Wonder Twin Power”—one of the few songs where I’d sung lead—I could hardly hear myself over the music, which was probably okay, since it soon became clear I wasn’t on key. In between songs, the crowd was cheering, but it wasn’t going wild. One might’ve described some of the applause as obligatory. I mean, no question about it, we were full of energy. And we had definitely rocked. Maybe just not as hard as I’d remembered.