Commerce City or Bust
Maranda Gaylord, the grande dame of the Commerce City Rollers, has never wanted for moxie. Barely one year after she first strapped on a bass, she tried out for Denver's '57 Lesbian in the hopes of filling the slot vacated by Spell's Chanin Floyd. Her audition, she admits frankly, was disastrous, but bandleader Matt Bischoff decided the fiery performer was worth a risk and provided her with a tape of the act's songs. She learned them all within two days--a good thing, since '57 Lesbian soon won the opportunity to open for a national act, the Meat Puppets, before an audience that numbered in the hundreds. Gaylord--at the time a stage virgin--remembers, "Right before we went on, I said, 'Hey Matt, you know that feeling when you first start smoking--how you get that dizzy feeling, like you're about to fall down?'"
Suffice it to say that Gaylord remained upright long enough to rock the house. And while she's taken plenty of knocks since then--for, among other things, the unapologetic, carnal fury of her live persona--she's still standing.
The genesis of her current group can be traced to a period two years after Gaylord's initial gig. Today she gushes gratefully about her membership in '57 Lesbian: "Playing with Matt was the most fundamental part of my education. I couldn't say I was a beginner at all after playing with the guy who was the bass player for the Fluid." But she returned early from the band's last tour with the conviction that she needed to start a project of her own--one "where I was working with people in more of a collective sense." Her prototype was initially dubbed Jonny Rocket, a handle that was changed after members discovered that it also served as the moniker for a nationally known chain of hamburger stands. Several lineup changes later, the rechristened Rollers solidified around drummer Madison (a defector from Fox Force Five) and guitarist Jeffrey Allen. "It was really hard to find somebody to play guitar, because Madison and I were so connected musically," Gaylord says. "We have a strict regimen about how we practice and how the band functions and what its purpose is. Not like, 'Oh, we're so serious,' but we definitely have some strict guidelines. We're the band Nazis. Not Nazis, but band Nazis--not to be confused."
Discipline and thoughtfulness inform the group's music, even though the whiskey-saturated bacchanals that are the outfit's live shows seem to belie such characteristics. These qualities are appreciated by Allen, who frequently found the lack of structure in his previous group, Ruby Hue, to be frustrating. "I used to argue with the other guitar player in the band all the time," he notes. "Say a song was in the key of A and we were doing this progression, and then he'd want to start off a chorus in A. And I'd say, 'You can't do a chorus in the same key. What the hell is that?'" During his maiden collaborations with Gaylord, however, he says, "I loved the way Maranda wrote the songs, and I liked the way I was playing. I'd never really played guitar that way before; I'd never looked at music from a bass line before." Since then, Allen has found the challenge of wrapping his leads around Gaylord's runs--which alternately hammer in the tradition of punk fusillades or hump along like a sultry camel--to be much more satisfying. "It's like, okay, here's a song that's two notes. So now I'm totally open; I can do almost anything within this structure. It's bare bones, stripped down."
"Some of the best songs in history are two notes," Gaylord contends. "Parliament, whatever...It's a matter of, the music rocks or it doesn't. That's the bottom line. There's a lot of integrity in being stripped down."
Madison, too, finds that the seeming limitations of his position stir his creativity. "What I appreciate about Jeff is that there are a lot of players that don't want to come in and try to play somebody else's music and take it as a challenge to come up with the correct part that will please not only themselves but everyone else in the band. That's what I want to do. I've always wanted that to be my role." His drumming history spans extremes; he's played everything from Top 40 to sexploitation punk. As a Commerce City Roller, he pulls out his tricks with discretion, and to great effect. "I used to play a lot of jazz-fusion sessions and had a huge kit--seven or eight cymbals. Now I just play a four-piece. I just kept subtracting. With this band, I can play quarter notes or I can play as busy as I want to."
Live, Madison cues the subtleties of the music from his perch behind the skins. Somebody's got to: His bandmates are both too busy exercising their rights to fantasy and excess. Allen executes airborne split-kicks and windmills like Pete Townshend, while Gaylord, a cigarette dangling from her lip, squeals paeans to horse lust in an estrous fever that seems perfectly in keeping with her blue-movie name.
Gaylord speaks of her in-concert alter ego in the third person, like a pet owner inexplicably fond of a murderous mongrel. "I definitely have to dissociate myself from whoever that is. I don't know who she is," she claims, laughing. "It's interesting, because people see me for 45 minutes and they assume that's who I am. The positive aspect is that I get away with a lot of haram, which is Farsi for 'taboo.' I can do whatever the hell I want and be whoever I want to be. And I think there are a lot of people sitting there sipping their cocktails, hoping that their boyfriends aren't completely going crazy because I do whatever I want.
"I think that takes a lot of endurance," she continues. "In doing that, I think I liberate other people to feel comfortable. I hate nothing more than to see people really concerned about climbing the social ladder instead of just being, 'I'm scared, I can't offend anyone, I can't be myself sexually, I can't push myself off a cliff...' If I want to, I do that."
Unfortunately, Gaylord's deliciously licentious performances tend to convince many observers that it constitutes the whole of her. "People don't see me as a mother who works full-time at a women's employment agency, supporting women constantly," she points out. "Also, it's a bummer when you work your ass off to support a band and you worry about them and about keeping a practice space, going to practice, writing songs, recording. And then you play a show--which is one one-hundredth of all the rest of the energy it takes to do a band--and then you walk into a bathroom full of women who go completely dead silent. Or it is assumed about you that you want to have sex with someone's boyfriend and you don't even know who that person is--nor do you give a shit. Those kinds of things are big downers. I find myself saying 'Retract your claws' a lot."
For their part, Gaylord's compadres admire her combination of libido and chops. "I would never want it to be thought of as a gimmick, because she holds her own and can play," Madison insists. "I think Maranda presents herself as a very strong woman with a strong will."
"She's going to say what's on her mind, and we're going to back her up all the way," Allen adds, prompting a go-team flurry of kisses and shouts.
"On stage I'll say things like, 'Hey, girls, let's talk about our bathtubs. You know that the real love of your life, the one that never lets you down, is your bathtub,'" Gaylord explains. "I've never once been like, 'Hey, you cute boy, c'mere.' It's not in my personality. I'm more like, 'Gimme another shot of whiskey' instead of pushing my tits together. I don't have time to do that. I'm playing!"
Commerce City Rollers, with Abdomen. 9 p.m. Thursday, January 2, Skyline Cafe, 777 West 29th, 296-3232.
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