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The Decline of Northern Civilization: T.C. Ottinger

T.C. was a long-time scene maker in Anchorage, with his impeccable style and 50s and 60s-infused rock and roll. All driven by his ever-present Rickenbacker. Never one to mince words, he had a lot to say about local music history when we caught up via email a while back. He’s been living in Columbus, Ohio for more than a few years now, rockin with the Lee-Enfield Trio, among other projects. The Alaska music scene will never have a more vocal advocate (and critic). It’s my honor to welcome him to this oral history project.

Josh Medsker: When did you first get involved in the local music scene?

TC Ottinger: Going way back to about ’83, my first band was Diagonal Incision, followed by Irrational Youth in college. The precursor to Dead End Kid was The Subterraneans with Scott Comins, Don Schwartz and Tim Lottridge on drums (who would subsequently move to Oly with DEK). DEK was a great band with some fine tunes, equally influenced by Social D’ and The Misfits in addition to the burgeoning grunge element. With our relocation, we broke up (a theme to be repeated ad nauseum). Dean Fryer and I moved back to AK at separate times and he formed Sonic Tractorhead–and then moved again. I hadn’t seen him since–maybe–’92 though when I ran into him in AK in July, I realized why I loved playing with the guy and really did miss him. Too bad our recordings of DEK were fookin’ shite.

As to my involvement in the “scene” of the early ’80’s, I had gone to some punk shows, went to The Warehouse once (no big deal) and bought all the issues of the Warning fanzine, so I wasn’t too into what was going down, although I knew what was up (I was already distancing myself from the “stupid/drunk” punk, by having already owned Gang of Four, The Damned, early R.E.M., The Jam–natch–but that was definitely out of the musical knowledge of the local musicians which sucked when I tried to form a band–another theme to be repeated ad nauseum). More later.

JM: You gotta tell me the full story of you rooming with Kurt Cobain in Olympia.

TC: Cobain was never my roomie though I did get to “jam” with him a few times and eat pizza at Jo’Momma’s and drink pints at KS’s Reef Room and all three of us in DEK moved to Oly in Aug ’90–just in time to witness the last, great, epoch/genre-changing musical phenom (for real: music, fashion, politics AND the bonus of making Warrant, Garth Brooks and Michael “NAMBLA charter member” Jackson completely irrelevant).

Quick note on The Subterraneans: for about a year, we were the only band doing anything. We had some great originals and did covers of Echo’, Bauhaus, Love and Rockets, The Cult… We played on the beach with a generator long before a “coastal trail” existed; we played the park behind Egan before anyone (with a permit, too), we opened the UAA Pub (yawn) and played some legendary house parties. Then we saw The Guests and knew it was time to move on (my opine: The Guests are one of the five greatest AK bands–ever; Skate Death are around #9, if you’re going to ask).

JM: Oh I am.

TC: And by “greatest”, I should qualify that to mean “most-lasting impact”.

JM: Top ten… Fave local bands ever and why… Hopscotch was always in my top 3.

TC: Not in any order and not because I may like them–or not (I fuckin’ hate SD) but: TCOs, The Guests, SD, Psychedelic Skeletons, Tuesday Weld, Roman Candles, Sonic Tractorhead, DEK, Freedom 49 and Dr Zaius. There are some more recent bands but they are so fuckin’ blah on stage.

Hell, too bad The Ambition was only around for a year (until we moved to OH and broke up) because we would’ve been better, bigger and more influential than most of the previous bands previously mentioned. Hopscotch? Hell, we were pretty fuckin’ good but could’ve been so much better if the line-up didn’t fluctuate so damn much! ‘Pretty much 6 lost years of my life…

JM: I’ve always appreciated that you worked your ass off, musically, during that dead time in the late 80s. I’ve been told it was dead. I wasn’t around.

TC: If it could be any deader, this would be that period. I decided to move to Dallas after 2.5 years at UAF (great school in a shitty city) early ’88. When I returned to Anchorage in the summer, I found myself in a band that was quite good (The Subterraneans) and played quite a bit. Very few bands would venture north and those of any local quality would depart even quicker than they would later in AK’s history! One of note–that continues to spark interest among those of us who know talent–was The Guests. At one spectacularly poor “festival” for the University Free Press (which was around for, probably, 3 issues), The Guests were amazing; in a nod to pre-grunge, they should’ve gone on to be much bigger once they moved (but…drugs, ego, women). Their originals were far superior to anything anyone else was playing though, once they closed the show with an incendiary, punk-cover of Gary Numan’s “Cars” (with one Cliff Hall hammering a big sheet of metal), they were nothing short of gods. 

This was also a time of hippy/jam bands starting to take off, in addition to white-funk shit, a la RHCP. When bands like this took off, I knew that the local flavor was really starting to suffer.

Now, this was a time of many venues opening and closing, so the opportunity to play was actually greater than it had been in many years; further, one could put on shows for relatively cheap without too much bureaucratic tape, i.e., cops being cops.

Once, though, that The Subterraneans inevitably broke up (forming some regrettably blah, white-funk bands), I ran into Dean Fryer and we put together DEK which was–since The Guests weren’t around–the best band of ’89-’90. Sure, that’s reads a bit self-centered, but we were fuckin’ mega; live, no one could touch us (too bad our recorded output was stale)! We put on the best rent parties, legendary house parties, rented the Spenard Rec Center and blew it up and–still–the greatest bunker show in AK history before going to Olympia… 

JM: What is your recollection of the Kincaid Bunker Show?

TC: The Kincaid Bunker show (“4 bucks/3 bands/2 stages/1 night”) really was something that should’ve been documented (this, of course, in a time before the ubiquity of digital this and that). I challenge anyone to replicate even half the energy and fun of that night; the “good vibes” will never be duplicated as today’s little fucks would find someway to ruin it with rap, thug-life b.s., baggy-panted misery and just plain ego-play. That, and they’d charge some disgusting fee to “make” money rather than just try to recover their investment. Hell, the pit that erupted in front of our closing set was self-policing, friendly-yet-spastic and–by many–considered the largest ever mosh pit (qualify: not counting the big-money shows that K-WHORE would produce, as the pit at Metallica might’ve been the largest). 
More later…enjoy

JM: So, in your estimation, how were the 90s, compared to the 80s, scene-wise?

TC: The ’90’s were a great time of musical growth for Anchorage with the opening–and the subsequent closing–of many venues; so many places were run so half-ass, there never was any doubt as to their being open for any length of time, e.g., Gigs, Plunking Monkey, The Underground (of course, with some, it was only a matter of time once the wrong element was allowed to frequent the places). So many good bands sprung up at this time that challenged the old guard of Skynyrd and Zep’, Tuesday Weld being one that comes to mind and one of my all-time fave AK bands.

Unfortunately, a great many bands also appeared that were nothing more than terrible musicianship packaged in forgettable stage demonstrations or good musicianship with absolutely no idea of “mach schau” (hell, you can be the greatest shredder alive but if you dress in white tennis shoes, torn jeans and can’t bother to take a shower and are just boring as fuck live, you might as well be playing in your living room). In some cases, a few bands’ over-inflated view of themselves and their attempt to impress the eight fans they had at that moment led to some ugly confrontations (for example, Philipino Haircut–which sucked–vomiting on stage after their usual shit performance, totally disregarding common decency with regard to the following band having to stand around in stench; Kenny Bo’ and I threatened to beat the shit out them– until they cleaned up after themselves. Somehow, we came out as the “bad guys” in the whole mess). Odd, in all this, I was going to school full-time, working full-time, playing in bands, DJ-ing on radio, writing music reviews, booking shows for other artists and yet found time to frequent a number of performances–demanding to pay full admission, as is morally the right thing to do–yet rarely seeing other bands at our shows! How was I viewed as the “evil man” in this scenario? Sure, I spoke my mind on radio and press but that’s because no one should sugar-coat their opinions when dealing with something so esoteric as music; if you think you have the onions to be a rockstar, you might want to listen to what a musical veteran is putting out. I know talent when I hear it and though I may not have been a fan of a certain band’s music (Freedom 49, 36 Crazyfists) I ALWAYS wrote of my admiration and respect for those artists, putting out one good review after another with regard to those in question. 

Obviously, though, the ’90’s gave rise to so many copy-cat bands wanting to be Nirvana or Rage Against the Machine or, later, Limp Bizkit. I was always cheesed at how the local scene was such a vacuum that nothing really original ever grew though there were the occasional gold nuggets, the aforementioned Tuesday Weld comes to mind, again (some bands, like Pikal, are just…yawn).

Sure, I never put anything out that was ground-breaking but I was in a surf-instrumental band before “Pulp Fiction” was released (leading to the resurgence of the genre), my bands would wear suit and tie just about 80% of time (long before “Trainspotting” appeared) and we started the switch to a rockabilly sound…all this before they became nationally fashionable which led to many thinking that–once they finally saw us–we were part of a trend. Sheesh, I even did a rap-thing with just drum, bass and mic that really turned some heads (opening for Cypress Hill, some locals were upset that F’49 didn’t get the slot–throwing coins, shoes, spit, blocks of wood…at my head!– but we lobbied for the gig the same way everyone else attempted but were chosen by CH’s management on the merit of better material…so suck it).

JM: You escaped to the Lower 48 for a while, right? With Hopscotch.

TC: Yeah, even ol’ Hopscotch made it out of AK for a bit to the now-defunct NXNW, chosen on the strength of our tape, bio and press package. Once that band went through its fourth or fifth iteration, I finally had to put that to bed and formed The Tall Cool Ones which is–probably–the best band of the ’99-’02 period (qualifier: with Damian and Clint, not the regrettable Joey Fender version), as we walked away with Best Band honors three years running (without doing any sort of stumping for votes, too, we gobbled up over 60% of votes each year!). 

Another band from the ’90’s that can’t be overlooked is Kevin Smith’s perfect Dr. Zaius, a Dinosaur, Jr. meets Todd Rundgren meets Sonic Youth element. If any one band could have been labeled as the, say, the “best Anchorage band of the ’90’s”, they’d be it, without question. Far and away the most musically gifted trio in the circuit though the only complaint was they were very reserved on the stage (too be forgiven, sure, as their music could have been also labeled as “shoegazer”). 

And then the venues dried up due to poor management, people getting stabbed, bands asking for too much money or just plain disinterest from the locals. Or the rise of the internet. Whatever, apathy had fueled the implosion of a burgeoning scene and it took a few years to recover.

JM: You are originally from NOLA, yes? When did you come up to Alaska? What made you stay for so long?

TC: Born in 1967, the same year as the Saints, my all-time fave sports team regardless of record (unlike 49ers fans who jumped ship the second their team took a nose-dive in the standings…). ‘Rents moved us to AK in ’72 to have a better education and escape racism (not realizing that the indigenous people of AK are some of the most racist turds on Earth). Although we’d visit the extended fam’ a few times over the years, AK became my home as I really hadn’t anything else to which I could compare! But–aaah–once I tasted the freedom of Dallas or Seattle or NY or London, I knew it was only a matter of time until I’d finally find myself permanently out of that musical/fashion/entertainment hell.

The thing that really irked me was the apathy. I already wrote that in an earlier missive but it’s the perfect word for the Anchorage music scene and a majority of its participants. It just seems so many want so much done for them (kind of like residents of Philadelphia, Detroit and Atlanta) that they’ll bitch rather than just finding a venue; hell, so many places in Anchorage would love someone to walk into their establishment and ask to play a show (gratis, of course, at first). Bands in which I was involved played so many different places, at times being the first to play somewhere new or unique (to only be ruined by the onslaught of the “punk” rock attitude that you have to kick holes in walls or pull sinks off walls…). 

I guess another thing that may have bothered me was the frequency at which original thought was shit upon by the local media or–gasp–someone actually voicing their opinion without first consulting the various outlets, venues, artists. Again, as I wrote earlier, who cares about someone’s opinion (from me? Sure, I may have more years under my belt as a professional musician but, inevitably, what I say are just words, or advice, and you should just grow some fuckin’ stones and become a better fuckin’ band).

JM: Do you have any regrets about that time? Anything that you wanted to accomplish that you didn’t?

Tall Cool Ones, c. late 90s. (note: This is a reference to Seattle’s “Fabulous” Wailers, not our man’s initials.)

TC: Any regrets? Not playing more, not playing with musicians that understood what I was trying to do, not putting more shit together for other bands (though I did a helluvalot, mother fuckers, without any thanks). To accomplish— Just to make Anchorage a better and more forward place for music; it’s sad that backward, no-talents think they’re the shit when all they’ve done is play a few shows in AK. Saying they’ve helped some new bands get started or get some gigs and not recognizing what is missing from their “clients” bag of tricks is only hurting said artists. Yeah, I know, what have I done? Not sold out and played Benihana, for one fucking thing…

JM: How did you juggle your regular life during those times? Was it difficult, with jobs, school, GFs, etc…

TC: Fucking hard as shit. I don’t know very many in any scene that had my schedule nor could have maintained my life for as long as I did! Ken Bodensteiner, for one, that’s for sure. But, I would do just about anything to play music, put on a show because the show is all that matters–you never cancel a show (some people need to get that through their fuckin’ heads: if you say you’re playing somewhere–even for free–you play or, well, you lose a great deal of respect in my eyes). As for girlfriends, I am glad to have finally left AK and found my wife. Period.

JM: What are some of your favorite stories from those days?

TC: Too many to list but: opening for Social Distortion, opening for (and destroying) Soul Asylum, the bunker shows, getting kicked out of Talkeetna for playing too loud, being on the radio and educating the masses to better music, The Tall Cool Ones, The Ambition, recording two Hopscotch tracks with Rick Kinsey, recording TCO tracks with Kristian Rosentrater…I know there’s more, just let me finish this shot to clear the cobwebs.

JM: Was there camaraderie among scenesters, do you think? Was it pretty unified, or were there factions, cliques?

TC: There was a comradeship early in the scene, and then it became one big backstabbing, buddy fuck-fest. The cliques were pretty obvious, too, but I was never involved in any (probably because I wasn’t allowed in with the self-imposed intelligentsia or the dirty masses that felt not taking a shower was somehow cool).

JM: What was your overall impression of the music scene up there? How is it different than Columbus?

TC: I learned a great deal of tolerance but the AK scene is sorely lacking in everything–too many “big fish” heads. The best thing I’ve ever done is finally and permanently move to a city where music is diverse, educated (these people know The Wailers are a band from Tacoma…), highly competitive though close-knit (which breeds better musicianship), a high number of musician-friendly venues, working class ethic–all traits that do not exist in Anchorage. Hell, if someone writes that a band or artist isn’t “all that”–any press is good press! The danger is when someone STOPS writing about you; AK bands need to appreciate that little bon mots from someone who actually has lived it.

www.facebook.com/tchristopher.ottinger

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