Saturday 01 Oct 2016

Heavy Metal
David Simmonds

Five years after his death, a rock star and his now defunct band continue to attract new fans.


The first dead celebrity superstar?

Benjamin Disraeli Diego, known worldwide as "Benny D,"was the beloved guitarist and front man for the perennially popular, always-on-tour, "monster boogie" group the "Fathers of Necessity". Founded in 1969, the group got its start in the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco. It gained its fame from its unique concert performance approach, which consisted of an extended rendition of a one-chord riff.

The technique caught on with concertgoers, who initially in small, but then increasingly large numbers, followed the band from gig to gig. Eventually, the band's fans took to calling themselves "Fonetics", and developed their own distinctive signals, clothing and rituals. Even today, long after the band's demise, there are literally hundreds of Fonetics websites, with chat rooms devoted to reunions from major concerts. One assiduous reporter calculated there were more than 6,000 members of a chat room devoted to a 1975 concert in Dubuque, Iowa, that could have only held 750 people.

D was a unique character. A devout vegetarian, he was also particular in the manner of his consumption: he would only eat what he could smoke. His dietary habits seemed to attract many fans of the same orientation. Fans still remember an incident from a 1970 concert in Laguna Beach, California when a zealot threw a cob of corn on stage. Without hesitation, he poured lighter fluid on the cob and promptly began to smoke it. Although the incident cost him his hair and his eyebrows - as well as a permanent popcorn burn on his nose - it endeared him to them.

He was also a man of very few words. In press interviews, he would utter a few cryptic phrases, the most common - in fact, the only - ones being "Heavy, man"; "Far out" and "Keep on Truckin'". At the time, cynical and perhaps somewhat jealous reporters put it down to a limited intelligence, or an intellect reduce to rubble by drugs. Today, a kinder view has it that this simple lexicon was his deliberately chosen way of communicating intimately and directly with his audience.

The band's first hit album - a live recording of their 62 minute concert hit "Out Truckin'" - went gold after a year of creeping slowly but surely up the alternative music charts. This album was followed by a series of hits - the 54 minute "Heavy Man" in 1972; the 49 minute "Far On" in 1974; and the 36 minute "Keep Out" in 1977. Their biggest seller was their four-LP, all-hits collection "Keep Heavy Truckin' Far Out Man", released in 1980.

But the Fathers of Necessity are best remembered as a touring band. The original trio was comprised of D, the lunatic Roger Mars on drums, and former business college graduate and band manager "Sergeant" Tom Shuyster on bass. Mars - who was with the band for its first four years - was totally unpredictable. At one gig, he dressed up as a penguin; at another, as an Easter egg. At one gig in Bangor, Maine, he performed completely naked. His tragic death from pneumonia led to his replacement by Jimmy "Drift" Wood, but fans never accepted him completely, especially upon learning that he was employed by the two continuing band members for $9 an hour, with double time for concerts over 63 minutes.

D and Shuyster were a formidable team. Shuyster gave D "100% of the credit" for their creative work. In turn, D called Shuyster the "heavy man" in the band's promotion and innovation. Shuyster in turn modestly attributed their commercial success to what he called "a constant attention to the needs of our fans". For example, it was a revelation to the band in the early 80's that the new computer technique known as "looping" could be employed in a concert setting. Rather than having the band play the same riff over and over again, Shuyster hit upon the idea of having the band record its first few riffs, and then put the initial recording on to constant replay through the band's powerful sound system.

"This freed us up to do what we wanted on stage", said Shuyster. "And the fans either didn't notice, or didn't mind". For his part, Shuyster took to reading articles on cross-border commodity taxation ("the light was good", he said). Benny D, in his inimitable style, took to practicing his golf game, whacking balls to the back of the auditorium with his favourite #2 iron. Indeed, there are many who maintain that D could have been among the leaders on the Alice Cooper Seniors Golf Tour, now a year round phenomenon. Wood, for his part, was constrained by the leg irons that connected him to his drum set, and as a result did little to stray from his percussion duties. "A band that cared less about its fans would have just hired look-a-likes from Central Casting to prance around on stage," Shuyster noted. "That would never be us".

Even general readers will recall that D was the victim of a tragic accident, when a golf ball he had hit with some authority banged into a speaker column, bounced back off a stage monitor, and struck him in the head, killing him almost instantly. His last words were said to be "out, man".

Shuyster - who had put the band into the joint ownership of himself, D and Mars, and who therefore assumed complete ownership of the band's proprietary rights - wisely did not try to continue the band, but instead devoted himself to preserving its memory. Framed pictures of Fathers of Necessity album covers are available almost everywhere, as are Benny D golf clubs, golf carts and umbrellas. He has plans for Fathers of Necessity wheelchairs, walkers and overshoes, and has talked about establishing a Fonetics retirement community in Nevada. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that discussions are underway with the Tim Hortons group - a report that Shuyster did not deny. It is thought that he is interested in their expertise in going public, while they are interested in expanding their customer base, presumably by testing a smoke-able donut. At this stage, no-one knows whether it will be a fritter or a cruller. Analysts suspect, however, that whatever recipe is chosen will have a predominant "heavy" quality.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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