Brian McMahon, guitarist and cofounder of the Electric Eels, wrote the new memoir Jaguar Ride (HoZac) to tell the story of the confrontational and underappreciated Cleveland protopunk trailblazers. But it’s not till the book’s waning pages that he says something explicit and direct (inasmuch as he’ll allow himself to be) about how he understands the band’s short life: “A peculiar strain of non-selective toxic antibody that cannot exist outside the context of the diseased environment which sustains it.”
The Electric Eels lasted from 1972 till ’75, and McMahon, 66, has lived in Chicago since 1988. He still treasures the way the band built a creative engine that ran on self-destruction—they were fueled and ultimately done in by the turmoil they spewed into seedy hangouts and alleys populated by twentysomething derelicts. McMahon seems to see it as a fortuitous accident if not a joke that the Eels ever recorded a lick of material or played any shows. Of their five total gigs, he was onstage for only one.
I interviewed McMahon at a coffee shop in Humboldt Park, near where he lives with his wife and collaborator, Mary Burzynski, who designed the off-kilter layout of Jaguar Ride. “I was the member that thought the Eels was ephemeral,” he says. “I figured it was here for now, so let’s enjoy it. Wouldn’t a recording get in the way of us writing songs and playing? Wouldn’t packing up to play out come between us and what we’re doing? I don’t like playing onstage.”
For McMahon, the Eels represented a visceral experiment in nihilism by three blue-collar kids from Lakewood, Ohio. The founding members—McMahon, guitarist John Morton, and front man Dave E. McManus—thumbed their noses at popular rock ‘n’ roll and colored outside the lines, because, well, fuck the lines. The Eels were a screeching wreck, with no bass and at first not even drums—the antithesis to what McMahon remembers as a culture of safe cover bands that loaded into Cleveland bars to play catch-of-the-day radio-rock hits. Named for one of the Eels songs McMahon wrote, Jaguar Ride focuses on the band’s cultivation of defiance. He aims to get at the root of the band—at what he sees as their mysticism—and he doesn’t spend much time picking over the nuts and bolts of their formation, detailing the grunt work of rehearsals and gigs, or wringing his hands over their breakup.
“Ground zero for the writing was around 1996, when huge attention was being paid to the Eels for the first time by major music papers,” McMahon explains. “I’d heard there were some bootlegs out there and began thinking, ‘Paul [Marotta] did save those tapes,’ you know?”
Paul Marotta, who served a short stint with the Eels prior to forming the Styrenes, had made four-track recordings of the band’s rehearsals that would later constitute the bulk of their catalog. (The Eels released nothing during their lifetime.) Hearing those bootlegs inspired McMahon, he says, to “drop out of the straight world and just do art.” He ditched advertising and began writing music again—he released solo records in ’96 and ’97—while simultaneously working on the memoir and other long-form writing projects.
McMahon still carries around pocket-size versions of William Burroughs’s books (“It’s a joy to open at any page and just start reading”), and he structured Jaguar Ride as a series of vignettes that frequently jump between decades. They’re often introduced by excerpts of exclamatory media praise for the band—usually from the stretch in the late 90s when they attracted real hype. The memoir’s language can be laborious and hard to parse; sometimes McMahon will plunge without warning into a long philosophical aside before doubling back to his main thread. Or he’ll descend into a dream sequence. Or he’ll detail a road trip a la Kerouac.
None of this is haphazard, even when it feels like it. McMahon insists that the book was therapeutic for him to write. He wanted to occasionally take a pun too far or refresh a moment with weird inner dialogue written in his own brand of inventive jive. “I don’t consider it to be sabotage, but I just like to stir things up a little for myself,” he says. “It’s a great equalizer.”
McMahon might provide three different names for the same character in a single paragraph (“Bob,” “Niz,” and “Niznik”), or disrupt an anecdote by questioning his own corrosive, inebriated intentions even as he follows through with them. Even more disorienting for the audience, McMahon often treats his readers as though every one of them has been his friend for 50 years—when he spins an obscure, pre-Eels yarn of adolescent oppression, the missing background can make the whole exercise feel surreal.
“Like the Eels, I wanted the book to evolve organically. If you notice a tree growing over a fence and out another way, what do you do? Follow it,” McMahon says. “I applied avant-garde techniques to break things up, like I did in the Eels. There’s intense wording that’s hard to work through, and I found rereading it I had to get back in the zone. I call it a hard book for me to write, and I want it to be a hard book for people to read. We should all have to pay for this.”
To help readers through his dizzying narratives, McMahon creates Dogman, a fictitious midwestern quasi-beatnik he describes as an omniscient but corrupted narrator. Dogman’s smart-ass diatribes bookend chapters, often lending context for what’s to come or what the hell just happened. The narrator might also take a jab or two at guitarist John Morton, with whom McMahon often fought—those fights occasionally drove McMahon to quit the Eels, at least for a while, and he still seems to enjoy resenting his old bandmate a bit. Dogman simplifies composite characters (who often combine several real people) and provides backstory and exposition. “It was getting so full of me I couldn’t stand it,” McMahon explains. “I wanted to go for the gonzo side when it came to truth finding—and I needed someone to juggle the facts.”
McMahon says he doesn’t much care if Jaguar Ride sells, because in a way he wrote it more for himself (don’t tell HoZac). A loyal keeper of Eels ephemera, he litters the book with shots of rock ‘n’ roll relics and grainy black-and-white photos taken in and around Cleveland and Columbus, where the Eels holed up for a spell. There’s a jukebox label for the Eels’ “Silver Daggers” and “Spliggity Splat” (actually “Splitterty Splat”), an image of McMahon’s Lakewood High School report card, a series of tax statements from several short-lived menial jobs, and my favorite, a letter from Morton written in 1982, after he and McMahon had a run-in in a Manhattan restaurant. It’s short and simple, cordial and pleasant: Morton wonders if they might get together and talk for a few hours the next time he’s in Cleveland (“Just man to man, or dog to dog”). McMahon admits that he never replied—and he also includes a note that Frito-Lay, Inc. sent him in response to a complaint he’d mailed the same week Morton’s letter arrived. “Thank you for your recent communication relative to your dissatisfaction with a purchase of Tostitos brand crispy round tortilla chips,” it reads. He was refunded $1.69. Priorities, I guess.
In terms of page count, Jaguar Ride is hardly a backbreaking book, but don’t plan on blowing through it in a weekend. McMahon’s wants it to be a challenge, just like the fried, alienating music of the Electric Eels. Expect to furrow your brow, and expect to get worn out. It seems that as the band’s legend grew, so too did McMahon’s ambition in writing the book—and thankfully he maintains a good sense of humor throughout.
“When it comes to creative outlets that one can have the luxury of indulging, the Eels are as satisfying as anything could be,” he says. “You have to think about the market to some degree, but writing for the market is a dead end and numbing. The Eels were a different kind of market called ‘unmarketable.'”
McMahon will sign copies of Jaguar Ride at Bric-a-Brac Records (3156 W. Diversey) this Saturday (4/15) from 4 till 6 PM, followed by a performance by Indiana punk band the Cowboys.