Tuesday, March 27, 2012

RIP, Ben

This post first appeared on MOG, February 9, 2008.

Ben MacMillan died recently. I am really saddened by this news. My sincere condolences to Ben's fiance, family, and friends -- and fans.

My friend and fellow fan Pleaseeasaur wrote me yesterday to point me to a Seattle PI reader's blog with some songs and videos from the two bands Ben sang for: Skin Yard and Gruntruck, both of which I adored when I was growing up.

I still love both of these bands, though, for me, Skin Yard's music has aged better. Or perhaps it's simply that Skin Yard was one of the first bands, along with another SY band, Sonic Youth, to obsess me completely, and not only, of course, because of our shared initials. I have almost all of the albums and singles recorded by Skin Yard and Gruntruck. My favorite Skin Yard incarnation is the lineup of Ben, genius Jack Endino, drummer Norman Scott (who also drummed for Gruntruck), and amazing bassist Daniel House. Their '88 album "Hallowed Ground," which I'm listening to right now, is a classic. Every time I listen to Skin Yard, "Hallowed Ground" in particular, I get choked up on a wave of memories and flashbacks from my youth in the Pacific Northwest. It's raining, I'm driving through a seemingly endless tunnel of evergreens.

I tried to go to every all ages show Skin Yard played in the Seattle area during my last two years of high school. Once I stayed for an especially long encore and missed the last Winslow-bound ferry. I slept on a wooden bench at the Coleman dock. I was sweaty, it was cold, but I didn't care. There was always a large pit when Skin Yard played, but I always felt that it was a safe space, that someone would pick you up if you fell, people were smiling, laughing. I credit Ben's community-minded, almost fatherly, regard for his fans as the reason for these slam dancing utopias. I can't number the nights that my friend Josh and I drove around Kitsap County in his old Audi, listening to Skin Yard and smoking nasty Benson & Hedges menthols.--Or, driving along in an altered state, having to pull over during the song "G.O.D." because I was experiencing something like an epiphany. The song remains one of my favorites: the way Ben's saying "talk" over and over organically fuses into the rhythm of the song's opening moments to become a "tock," a haunting, extra bit of percussion, of time.--Or, driving with Josh to Olympia to see Nirvana, singing along to "Drunk on Kerosene" at the top of my lungs. Ben's long scream in the song "Hallowed Ground" is one of the most spine-tingling rock vocals in my vast music collection. I had the Skin Yard t-shirt with the Giger image on the front and "too much acid / too many people / too little to do" on the back. My mother refused to touch the shirt, and so its purchase marked the moment when I began doing my own laundry. I wore the shirt so frequently that, when it was retired (to a cedar chest with other scrapbook-like objects), only the printing was holding it together, the cloth having more or less disintegrated.

I think Ben was from Poulsbo, the tiny town where I grew up, but, at the very least, he hailed from the same vicinity, Kitsap County. I think I wanted to be Ben MacMillan. After my first Skin Yard show, I started wearing jeans and black leather belts and shoes like Ben. I grew my hair, had earrings. I formed a band with friends, The Dorx. Whether unconsciously or not, I modeled my vocals on Ben's. Lots of delay, tight versification, some religious themes. I listened to Gruntruck's album "Push" on a daily basis during my sophomore year in college. It was the soundtrack for my bout with a certain addiction and of my coming to my senses several months later and recommitting myself to my studies.

One of my birthdays coincided with a Gruntruck show at the OK Hotel (I can't quite triangulate the date, probably my 18th, spring of '92). The logic of the coincidence was compelling: I took the ferry to Seattle for the occasion. Gruntruck played with savage precision that night. "Move in Silence" was perfection itself and listening to it now, years later, still gives me chills. Ben high-fived me when I was being squeezed against the stage by the moshing crowd behind me. He was drenched in perspiration, his long hair matted to his forehead. I was ecstatic. The evening is captured in the black and white photo inside the "Push" jacket: the top of my head can be seen just below Ben on stage; I am facing the crowd, as though part of the performance, which I was, for, despite the aural brutality of his music, there is beauty: Ben had a way of linking himself to the audience to create a momentary antidote to alienation. He will be missed.


  1. lately, i've been listening to and reevaluating the first gruntruck album, "inside yours." it's not that i ever thought it was weak -- definitely not. it's only that the skin yard albums felt stronger; now i'm not so sure. at minimum, "inside yours" is badly under-appreciated. it's such an inventive album -- and heavy, addictively heavy. endino's terrifically warm, articulate, loud production is a fundamental part of the album's success. i owe that insight, in part, to this dig me out podcast.

  2. though i must say: "fist sized chunks" is completely mauling me tonight. not like you're not already paying attention, but just before the 2 minute mark, "go to sleep" grabs you by the short and curlies...