Down at the Cubby Bear recently, Eleventh Dream Day was on, and as usual, things were exciting as hell. Even the covers–Modern Lovers, Neil Young, Allman Brothers, etc–sounded like originals. They all bore a distinctive Eleventh Dream Day stamp: wiry and raw, hard-bitten and hard-hitting. After the band quit, though, the players looked discouraged.

I just had to ask lead guitarist Baird Figi what he thought of the set.

“It sucked,” he said.

Many local guitar-rock aficionados in attendance (including members of rival bands) would have respectfully disagreed. Some would even go so far as to call Eleventh Dream Day the best rock band in town. Though the members of the band seem to find self-promotion truly distasteful, Eleventh Dream Day’s reputation has slowly spread. Now there’s a record–a six-song EP on the LA-based Amoeba label–and as I write these words I’m listening to it on headphones, Figi’s slide guitar whispering in my right inner ear, Rick Rizzo’s voice clear and strong in the center of my cerebellum, Janet Bean’s drums cutting a wide rhythmic swath through the soggy density of my frontal lobe. It’s fine, fine music: spiny, loose, spare, and vaguely threatening.

Word of mouth about this band was spreading within months of its formation in the fall of 1983. Eleventh Dream Day was then a three-piece: guitarist Rizzo, drummer Bean, and one Shu Shubat on bass. This lineup cut some good demo recordings and gigged sporadically until the spring of 1985, when Shubat left and two new people–Figi and bassist Doug McCombs–came in. From that point (with a major improvement in Bean’s drumming) Eleventh Dream Day rapidly became the raging two-guitar buzz bomb it is today.

Calling Eleventh Dream Day a guitar band isn’t meant as a slight against their songwriting, which is actually quite well developed. These folks love to jam, but they write songs that could stand perfectly well on their own, songs that are real songs, as opposed to mere tune-racks to hang licks on.

Let’s pause to note that they don’t get carried away with the jamming. “I think we want to try to avoid doing just that,” avers Rizzo. “I mean you can’t have a ten-minute guitar break on every song! Some of those breaks are becoming more compact. But there’s always gonna be the songs that we want to stretch out. There’s only actually three or four of the songs that we’ll really stretch out pretty long, to where we don’t know when we’re coming back.”

Eleventh Dream Day’s rock songs tend to flow endlessly on a hypnotic chord change or riff, the kind of thing that serves best as a launching pad for ax-banging excursions into the unknown. As for lyrics, let’s consider a piece of “Liz Beth,” from the new record.

“Liz Beth loves

And she’s loved by everyone around her

But lately she looks in the mirror and she sees her fear

Well, she’s on a roller coaster

That only goes down, down, down

And she’s trying to see how many she can take with her.”

I worry a lot about my relationships with people,” Rizzo explains. “And the songs that come out of it are usually about situations that have blown up. I usually don’t write about little petty things. I write about situations that I enter into with different people and how I deal with it. I kind of use metaphors to describe the situation–I completely mask it.”

Example? Take “The Arsonist”–which, besides appearing on the new record, was also one of the few bright spots on Heat From the Wind Chill Factory, a compilation put out by Northwestern University’s radio station, WNUR, in 1986. Taken at face value, “The Arsonist” is apparently about a guy who sets fire to his own house and then watches the flames dance across the ceiling. Rizzo, however, says there’s more to it: “It’s actually about a guy that feels like he wasn’t gonna be hurt by a situation, but he was–and maybe wrongfully so.”

This sounds like serious stuff, and it is. Yet it’s only rock ‘n’ roll, and everybody knows rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be fun. But not necessarily the kind of fun that makes you smile and dance. Eleventh Dream Day illustrates this principle: I’ve never ever seen anybody in this band smile while playing. They don’t move much, either (except for Rizzo, who sort of hops around absentmindedly). They just stare off into space. I don’t think they’re trying to act surly; they’re just too busy concentrating on their music to worry about how they look.

Well, I sure do like to hear Eleventh Dream Day play, and I don’t give a shit what they look like or whether they can dance–I’ll do my own dancing, OK? Eleventh Dream Day will be performing tonight with the Slugs at the Cubby Bear, 1059 W. Addison (kitty-corner from Wrigley Field). Expect them to go on sometime around midnight; cover is $5. The number is 327-1662.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.