Image: the Coles.

Fred onstage in 1978 with his band Zap Spangler.

THE MOON SQUATS OVER THE ATLANTIC OCEAN, the night cutting New York’s August heat just enough to cool the crowd’s sweat into a salty shell on the skin. The year is 2000, and inside an amphitheater perched right over the breakers of the incoming tide, thousands of people are singing along to one of Cole’s songs, “It’s OK.” Of course, they don’t know they’re singing along to one of his songs. They don’t even know who Fred Cole is.
Onstage, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder is leading the crowd in a sing-along tutorial. “I’m gonna give you a part,” he says, the tail end of the Pearl Jam song “Daughter” morphing into a skeletal, shuffling beat. “So I say, ‘It’s okayyyy,’” he sings. “And you say, ‘It’s okaaa-ayyyyyyy.’”

A couple of impromptu run-throughs and the give-and-take is pieced together. The band kicks into a slightly higher gear. Vedder pulls out a hand-scrawled lyric sheet and begins singing Toody’s Patti Smith-esque incantation from the original version. “This is my chance, this is my life and my opening hour. This is my choice, this is my voice, there may be no tomorrow.” Behind him, the rest of the band begins a slow-building crescendo. Vedder begins to growl. “This is my plea, this is my need, this is my time for standing free. This is my step, this is my depth in a world demanding of me … but it’s OK.”

And 20,000 voices answer back: “It’s okaaa-ayyyyyyy.” Spotlights swell, goose bumps sharpen, and a bona fide moment is shared among the assembled. Cole wrote the song for his daughter, Amanda, as a spunky ode to tenacity in the face of life; Pearl Jam’s take is more of an epic catharsis, a tribute to the nine people who died at one of the band’s festival shows in Roskilde, Denmark. “Eddie’s a real personal guy, and that just threw him for a loop,” Toody says of the Roskilde deaths. “He’s covered a few of our songs and comes to see us play sometimes. The last time we saw him, he wanted to let me know that he’s OK. He’s got a little daughter named Olivia and thank you so much.”

Pearl Jam is just the best known of the bands that have adopted Cole’s jagged anthems as their own. Whispery singer-songwriter Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall) covered “Johnny’s Got a Gun,” and Atlanta alt-rockers Black Lips do a version of “You Must Be a Witch.” There’s a Dead Moon tribute band in the Netherlands, and when the Foo Fighters roared through town a few years ago, Dave Grohl used a bit of between-song banter to remark that the best thing about Portland was the fact that Dead Moon was from here.

“IT’S HARD TO EXPLAIN how cool [Fred] is or how inspiring he is to me,” says Portland author Willy Vlautin, whose books The Motel Life and Northline share Fred and Toody’s unlikely fascination with the “Biggest Little City in the World,” Reno. Vlautin’s side project, the band Richmond Fontaine, even wrote a tune called “A Song for Dead Moon.” “Fred’s the kind of rock star you want to be. He loves his wife, lives how he wants, built his own house. I mean, it’s better than shooting up with a 15-year-old girl or some shit.”

“They’re definitely stalwarts of the Portland scene,” says Alicia J. Rose, a local photographer and musician who co-owns and books bands for Mississippi Studios. “But they could probably care less what anyone thinks. That’s the attitude that has filtered down into the scene that thrives today.”