Who's going to tell Fred and Toody Cole they can't smoke in here?
No one at Mississippi Studios, certainly. Upstairs in the North Portland music venue's green room, the punk-rock power couple is crammed knee-to-knee in a tiny two-seat booth, filling a plastic cup with butts and the room with the stale aroma of the clubs they used to play. It's a frostbitten night in early December, and in a few hours, the 65-year-olds will descend the stairs to blast out a set of dark, heavy garage rock as Pierced Arrows. In a month, they'll play their biggest show in almost a decade, reuniting with drummer Andrew Loomis to headline Crystal Ballroom as Dead Moon.
But they're only thinking about that now because someone is asking about it. There are plenty of other shows to worry about before then. After getting offstage tonight, the Coles will drive back to their home in Clackamas. They will drop off their equipment and pick up acoustic guitars, then head to the airport to catch a 6 am flight to New York. There, they'll perform two gigs as a duo, before flying to Europe for 10 shows in as many days. They'€™ll return to the states just before Christmas, giving them about a week to solidify the planned two-hour Dead Moon set and nail down songs they haven't played in eight years.
With that schedule, no one would begrudge them a cigarette or five. And there isn't a person with the slightest reverence for Pacific Northwest music history who'd dare kick the grandparents of Portland punk out into the frigid cold—indoor smoking ban be damned.
This breakneck pace isn't unusual for Fred and Toody: They'€™ve gunned through much of their life with undeterred momentum, usually from behind the wheel of a tour van, and have rarely stopped to look back. That's what makes the resurrection of Dead Moon, the most beloved of the bands they'€™ve been in together, a bit unexpected. Asked why this is happening now, the Coles cite their personal connection with the Crystal, where they met in the '€™60s and which marks its 100th anniversary this month ("I think that's where Amanda was conceived, in the elevator," adds Fred, referring to the eldest of their three children); numerical superstitions (something about the relation of the date of the show to Fred's birthday); and, well, it just felt right.
But Fred also says the last year "has been a nightmare." He had a hernia operation, and endured other undisclosed health issues. He appears notably thin, his signature battered black cowboy hat now giving him the look of an ambulatory scarecrow. Loomis, who's MIA this evening, has had problems of his own: He was hit by a car while riding his bike, breaking his collarbone and fracturing his sternum. Toody, for her part still exuding the brassy spirit (and tobacco-stained cackle) of a veteran barmaid, says the band is rounding back into form, but admits, "It's not as easy as it used to be."
"€œIt'€™s just like, fuck, we're not puppies anymore," Fred sighs, ashing into the cup.
The Coles deny that reviving Dead Moon has anything to do with confronting their own mortality. But, for as indestructible as they seem, they ain't getting any younger. Talking to them, there's the sense that a window of opportunity is closing. If they don'€™t do it now, who knows if they'€™ll ever get another chance?
For Fred Cole, the road to Dead Moon is littered with bands even he only half-remembers. The Lords. The Weeds. Lollipop Shoppe. Zipper. Albatross. King Bee. He'€™s lived rock'€™n'roll from the time he was a teenager. It's all he'€™s ever done. But that doesn't mean he'€™s ever known exactly what it is he'€™s doing.
"I just play what sounds good to my ears," the singer-guitarist says. "I don't know anything about music beyond the fact that I put my fingers where the dots are or where they aren't."
"That'd be self-taught!" Toody interjects, cackling.
No surprise, then, that Fred found his niche in punk, where lack of virtuosity is considered a virtue. In 1978, spurred by seeing the Ramones for the first time, he and Toody began making quick, compact bursts of melodic noise as the Rats. That lasted eight years, until Fred decided to go in a different direction. "At first, I just wanted to do country," he says, "but we got Andrew out there to try out, and he couldn't play country worth a shit." A diehard Rats fan 13 years the Coles' junior, Loomis' experience was in bands that, well, sounded like the Rats. It didn't help that he was trying to fit in with a married couple with built-in musical chemistry.
"When we get a rehearsal together, we're stuck in this room where there's barely enough elbow space for them to strum guitars and me to hit my fucking drums," Loomis says. "So they're standing right there, and I'm just like, 'Durrrr,' and for them it's like taking a shit."
Still, Fred was enamored enough with Loomis'€™ playing to adjust the band to the drummer'€™s strengths. While Dead Moon ended up louder than planned, Fred didn'€™t abandon his aspirations to write songs steeped in a certain kind of Americana. His lyrics tapped into a shadowy, rustic doom, full of images of graveyards and nooses and endless rain, sung in a wounded, high-pitched bray worthy of the blues. The stripped-bare sound of Dead Moon wasn'€™t "€œcowpunk," nor revivalist rockabilly, but something akin to Northwest gothic.
It was perhaps too regionally specific: For its first six years, Dead Moon never left the West Coast. In Portland and Seattle, though, the Coles, already well into their 30s, were the cool parents with the awesome record collection to an entire generation of young punks.
"What resonated to me was everything," says Mudhoney guitarist Steve Turner. "There was a sense of continuity, of rock'n'roll, '60s garage and psych into '70s punk into '80s whatever-you-want-to call-it, which very few people from their generation could see."
By the '90s, when all those kids—like Eddie Vedder, who's covered Dead Moon songs in Pearl Jam's live sets—became international rock stars, the entire world suddenly sounded like the Northwest. But nothing much changed for Dead Moon. The band had found a rabid following overseas, and for the next decade it just kept cranking out records—13 in all, released on their own label—and touring relentlessly. They became a model not just for how to operate as a band, but for how to live as a band.
"As they continued, and got better and better, and I got to know them, I could see the passion, love and heart in what they did so much more clearly," Turner says. "Fred's managed to write his and Toody's life together into some sort of grand opera of rock'n'roll."
Plowing forward with your head down for 20 years, though, you're bound to hit a wall eventually. It happened to Dead Moon in 2006 during a 60-show tour "that would break any fucking band," Toody says. Their bodies went first: On a flight to Gothenburg, Sweden, Loomis' leg swelled up. Details are sketchy, but doctors thought he had thrombosis; he played that night anyway. Fred began having migraines. Toody had already taken the previous year off due to tendonitis, which left her unable to even pick up her bass.
And aside from those physical ailments, they were all becoming sick of each other.
"I was done before it was done," Loomis says. "All the feeling was out of it. It wasn't fucking fun. It was, 'I hate my job, and I hate my boss.'"
When the band got back to the states, Dead Moon was over. The plan for Fred and Toody was to take a few years off. It wasn'€™t four months before they started Pierced Arrows with drummer Kelly Halliburton, and the pedal, once again, hit the metal.
In the last few years, however, the Coles have allowed themselves fleeting moments of reflection: Their recent acoustic shows serve as career retrospectives, and in 2011, they agreed to a one-off Rats reunion, just for Loomis' 50th birthday. But Dead Moon is a different situation. The expectations are immense. Offers have poured in for more shows—particularly in Europe—that they're willing to entertain "if we can make it through this," Toody says.
But Fred and Toody have a secret, one that'€™s helped sustain both their bands and their marriage: constant competition. Whether racing to complete crossword puzzles or the Portland Marathon, which they ran at age 60, they keep trying to one-up each other. They simply won'€™t let themselves suck. It'€™s what'€™s kept them going. It may be what'™s keeping them alive.
"€œWe have a race right now," Fred says, lighting another cigarette. "€œI'€™ve always told her I'm going to live to be 100. We'€™ll see about that, but it's always been, who can outlive who? Who'€™s going to bury who?"