Spontaneous combustion rules

Gary Young, inveterate rock ’n’ roll drummer, inventor and eccentric gardener, is fixing to go

Gary Young, a.k.a. The Chief, at his home studio amid the walnut trees of Waterloo.

Gary Young, a.k.a. The Chief, at his home studio amid the walnut trees of Waterloo.

Rule of thumb No. 420(a): Anyone ever featured on Beavis and Butt-head is fair game for coverage in this space.

On the phone was the man whose shambling 1994 ode to folks with a green thumb, “Plant Man,” spawned a video, shot in Central Park, which got mocked rather deliciously by MTV’s cartoon duo. According to Gary Young, the man on the phone, big things were in the offing: a new record and a retooled band.

This necessitated a midweek drive down to San Joaquin County, in the walnut orchards between Waterloo and Linden east of Stockton. There, Young has a recording studio called Louder Than You Think. It isn’t the same studio where the EPs Slay Tracks 1933-1969, Demolition Plot J-7 and Perfect Sound Forever and the landmark indie-rock album Slanted & Enchanted were recorded by Pavement, the group for which Young, now 50, ran the board and wound up playing drums. That studio was situated in a house in a north Stockton suburb.

As a member of Pavement, Young had a penchant for various liquid refreshments that led to impromptu onstage headstands and offstage vegetable distribution—but only the difficult-to-hurl ones, like stalks of celery. “Never give the audience something they can throw at you later,” he explained.

Young exited Pavement in 1993. Then he relocated to bucolic Waterloo, rebuilt his studio and recorded a solo album, Hospital, which begat a band with the same name. It turns out the new CD Young has put together, The Grey Album, consists in part of tracks culled from The Things We Do for You, a disc he released in 1999, now out of print. “Yeah,” he quipped, “but no one ever heard that one.”

So, Young’s story is that if he can convince a record company to release Grey, he’ll be able to reassemble some incarnation of Hospital and move on to world domination.

It was mid-afternoon, and Young and Terry Blank, a guitarist and keyboardist with whom he works, were hunkering in the air-conditioned comfort of Young’s poolside studio. Between the occasional dissing of Pavement and talking about how, sans instruction manual, he repaired the hydraulics in a backhoe someone had parked on his property and how he plans to rip out all the trees on the perimeter and replace them with palm trees, Young managed to cue up a few songs the two had been working on during the past few days. One of them pretty much consisted of Young ranting variations on “Got to get outta here now” over a prog-rock maelstrom of guitars and synths.

His creative process tends to be slightly less than calculated. “I set up a microphone, and I played the guitar, and I just winged the song,” he explained. “No lyrics or nothin’. But,” he said, gesturing at Blank, “he works in a mental hospital. And everyone wants to get out of what the hell they’re doing. So, I tried to relate to everyone who’s stuck in their little box.

“Everyone thinks that I’ve got this heaven—swimming pool, houses, tape recorders and everything like that,” he added. “And, boy, there’s nothing I wouldn’t give to be able to get the fuck—’scuse my language—outta here.”

This explains Young’s particular creative gift. Though he’s linked historically to one of alternative rock’s touchstone bands, Young’s own work is that of an outsider. And outsiders—from Syd Barrett, the Shaggs and Daniel Johnston to such lesser-known geniuses as Jandek—often make some of the best records, because their frames of reference are rooted in a different reality, where by-the-numbers careerist moves suck and spontaneous combustion rules.

And what if Young’s genius continues to go unrecognized by the star-making machinery? His fallback position is his studio, where the Modesto band Grandaddy recently recorded a B-side, and the Universal Microphone Shock Mount, a female adapter glued to an ingenious plastic ring that encircles a microphone and holds it in place with mini-bungee cords, insulating the mic from vibration. Young invented it, and he makes them in his spare time.

Oh, and he’s still gardening, too. Beavis and Butt-head would be amused.