Johnny & the Distractions
In his 1982 song “Complicated Now,” Johnny & the Distractions singer Jon Koonce howls, “Put on a leather jacket and scream about your broken heart,” which pretty much sums up what he’s done better than anyone else in Portland for almost three decades. His dramatic, weather-beaten voice and jeans-and-boots wardrobe earned him endless comparisons to Bruce Springsteen, as did his lyrics about fast cars, hard women and a hankering for freedom. Johnny & the Distractions put out two albums with A&M Records in the ’80s and even made the stadium rounds opening for the likes of Tom Petty, the J. Geils Band and Joan Jett. Today, the indefatigable Koonce continues to ply his trade with weekly gigs at smaller venues around town and at various McMenamins establishments.
The Limelight: The Distractions’ 1982 album, Let It Rock , sells nearly 100,000 copies, mostly in the Northwest.
The Lowlight: Their follow-up album, Totally Distracted , tanks—and then “the phone stopped ringing,” Koonce recalls.
2001-present Indie Rock
The Decemberists’ Capitol Records debut, The Crane Wife , may have scaled to No. 35 on the Billboard charts late last year, but lead man Colin Meloy got his start some six years ago on the Portland open-mike circuit. Back then Meloy, a recent transplant from Montana, attempted to win over audiences at smoky bars like the LaurelThirst Pub with middling, earnest alt-country tunes—an effort that failed to impress. So he junked the country set list and tapped into his “whims and fascinations” with historical literature—and the revamped repertoire proved irresistibly offbeat. “I honestly thought I would get fewer audience members,” he recalls, “but it had the opposite effect, which is a happy accident.” Today Meloy’s morose but charming pop songs about chimney sweeps, consumptive wretches, shanghaied sailors and fallen women (who else would have two songs referencing “petticoats” on the same album?) occupy a permanent place on the playlists of indie fans everywhere, while the band’s name usually sits close to the top of the bill at major rockfests from Bonnaroo in Tennessee to nearby Sasquatch in the Gorge.
The Limelight: Decemberists guitarist Chris Funk appears on The Colbert Report late last year for a six-string showdown with the comic pundit.
The Lowlight: At the last minute, Stephen Colbert invites Peter Frampton to play in his stead. Funk loses in a controversial judges’ decision.
It’s an easy jab to call Poison Idea the biggest band Portland has ever seen: Singer Jerry A weighs in at 300-plus pounds, and deceased guitarist Tom Roberts (aka Pig Champion) tipped the scales at a stout 450. But the beer-fueled and physically imposing PI was responsible for some of the most cathartic punk ever hatched: Jerry A was prone to cracking his noggin by flinging himself off the stage and could blow fire like a circus pro (a talent that resulted in bans from several local clubs). On one occasion he swallowed coins thrown at him from the crowd, and on another he carved the band’s name into his bountiful belly (the resulting carnage appears on the cover of the band’s 1986 album Kings of Punk ). That record, along with the incendiary Feel the Darkness (1990), showcases the band’s blazingly nihilistic stance and its antiauthoritarian bluster. Though album sales have never been huge, PI’s notorious legacy continues to expand.
The Limelight: Pantera covers PI’s “The Badge” on the platinum-selling soundtrack album for the Brandon Lee flick The Crow .
The Lowlight: Pig Champion dies of liver failure on January 30, 2006.