THERE ARE THREE SONGS that make me recall when and where I was when I first heard them.1 One is “Bullet Train to Vegas,” by the San Diego band Drive Like Jehu, which was released as a single on Merge Records in 1992. I’d been in Born Against for a few years at that point, and the singer of Drive Like Jehu was clearly doing the things I’d heard my voice do only in my head. Other hardcore punk frontmen had shown the way on drama, delivery and intonation; this vocalist had something to teach about urgency. But his range, it turned out, was out of my range. I had several moments in rehearsals (and one messy breakdown in a studio) when, trying to push my voice to do what I’d heard in Drive Like Jehu songs, I hurt and embarrassed myself in front of other people.2
Meeting the owner of that voice, Rick Froberg, was a big thing for me. Our few encounters were memorable enough that they all stood out. There was a late night in New York, in 1997, after I’d played a show and found myself at a diner with Rick and several mutual friends. My voice was shredded, destroyed, yet I discovered that I could still talk in a far lower register, a strained, cartoon frog sort of voice, and it was this voice I spoke with when I decided to tell him what a huge influence he’d been on me as a vocalist. I was alive to the absurdity of the moment, but one of many things Rick excelled at was Not Making Shit Weird, and I noticed this. His behavior became a template for me when dealing with people having similar conversations with me about my own bands.
HIS VISUAL ART SHARED the urgency of his vocals. Rick drew a wide variety of raging weirdos in his loopy swooping line art. He once illustrated an article I wrote for Apology Magazine about living in the 34th Street YMCA; a troupe of wretches spell out each letter of ‘YMCA’ with their contorted, broken bodies (spot on for the piece). He could have illustrated any era of The New Yorker. And yet this: “I’ve always considered myself an illustrator and not an artist,” he wrote in his artist’s bio just last year.3 “A day’s work for a day’s pay and all that.” There’s another template for behavior there. He gave the impression of someone who’d figured out that ego is an easily avoidable liability.
Rick died on Saturday, of an undiagnosed heart condition. He went to sleep in June, but did not wake up in July. I can remember his face clearly, and yet he looks weirdly different in every obituary photo. And there are many photos. A lot of people tuned in to Rick. I’m glad to have known him.
The other two: “Heart of Glass” by Blondie (1979, in my mom’s car, in the parking lot of a Key Bank in Troy, NY; hypnotized at nine years old by a voice that clearly belonged to the most beautiful woman in the world) and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana (1991, in my pal Ted’s car, somewhere in mid-New Jersey; confused because all major-label music was supposed to be bad).
In 1992, my band’s guitarist, Adam, tried to arrange a San Diego show with Drive Like Jehu. The teenage promoter would have none of it. “Yeah, nobody likes them anymore after they signed to Interscope.” We spent the afternoon riffing on that, ‘doing’ the voices of all the many people—members of the band itself, the president of Interscope, the president of the United States—each moralizing on how literally not one human being liked this band despite them being self-evidently one of the best bands ever.