Guitarist Arnold "Action" Jackson is ready to call Thunderbleed, aka Blind Vengeance, to order. "Should we warm up with 'Bloodsucker'?" he asks into the practice space's lone vocal mike.
Jackson's bandmates, Mike Corely (bass), Doug Pooch (drums), and Bernie Jungle (lead guitar) brighten instantly. "Bloodsucker" is one of their favorites, and they know its steely contours the way Steven Tyler knows rehab.
Pooch taps his drumsticks and lays into the beat. The drummer's springy biomass of hair -- large enough to be considered Thunderbleed's fifth member -- heaves like a dirty brown pom-pom as Jackson smashes a Converse sneaker onto a battered overdrive pedal. Jungle, the newest member, barely breaks a sweat as he reels off a screaming, fleetfingered intro. And then there's Corely, frowning in concentration, his fingers running thudding laps around the fretboard.
In the real world -- outside of practices and the occasional gig -- Thunderbleed's members lead very different lives. Bassist Corely goes around as Ted Ellison, a mild-mannered Oakland stained-glass artist better known as the bassist for indie darlings Fuck. Pooch is known as Russ Blackmar, head of KALX's music department and member of Beam. Jackson's driver's license carries the name Ajax Green; in his non-Thunderbleed-ing hours he plays guitar for Granfaloon Bus. And Jungle (yes, that is his real name) leads a much more subdued life as a member of Warm Wires.
Why an indie supergroup would be up late on a school night mastering Deep Purple's "Bloodsucker" (or Iron Maiden's "Wrath Child" or Ted Nugent's "Cat Scratch Fever") is a story of forbidden love, performance art, and cover songs. It's also one of the best jokes in the East Bay. Because, according to Thunderbleed, there's nothing funny about it at all.
Many Midwestern adolescents in the mid-'80s went through a hard-rock-and-metal phase, and Russ Blackmar was no exception. Def Leppard, Cinderella, AC/DC -- they were all part of a constellation of bands that brought hope to the mild-mannered Blackmar, along with a host of middle school's other unathletic outcasts.
For Blackmar, the allure was the sense of danger emanating from the music. "Brian Johnson's voice sounded unholy," Blackmar recalls of the AC/DC screamer. "Just his voice when I first heard it... I couldn't believe that someone was allowed to sing like that on the record. It was scary, but it was satisfying at the same time."
Unlike most of his middle-school friends, Blackmar never left metal, even as he started to get more interested in jazz, world music, and hip-hop. And at UC Berkeley he paid the price for it: As an undergrad, Blackmar found himself having to defend metal's cheesy lyrics and teased hairdos. A less devout fan would have just kept his tastes to himself, letting people wrongly chalk his Dio shirts up to irony. But Blackmar wouldn't be dissuaded. And after graduation, he slowly began to meet people like Green and Ellison -- East Bay hipsters who shared the love that dare not speak its name.
Thunderbleed practices at Secret Studios in San Francisco, using the space after Granfaloon Bus finishes with it at 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday nights. Their gigs are infrequent -- usually parties or backyard barbecues -- but half the fun is just burnishing the songs so they shine, working out the lead licks and cowbell clunks until they sound just like they do on record.
Not that the members of Thunderbleed aren't enthusiastic performers. As the Web site www.geocities.com/thunderbleed can attest, the band already has created a mythic, stripper-filled history and rabid following for itself. Concerts give them a chance to play up the more ridiculous, theatrical aspects of metal like sweat-sopping wrist bands, bandannas, and gleaming white sneakers.
For Blackmar, the tongue-in-cheek costumes and blistering performances are a nice break from the aw-shucks stage presence that underground music engenders. And however much the band may be grinning from the stage, there's only a modicum of sarcasm behind the smiles. As weird as it is to detractors, Thunderbleed is deadly serious in its love for the music. Its members are some of the East Bay's hardest-working hard-rock outreach workers, bringing heavy metal lessons to the hipster masses.
The most important rule, according to Blackmar?
"Only throw a devil sign when it's warranted," he says, laughing. "I saw it on the cover of Newsweek -- they were doing a feature on a new Christian youth movement. There's all these happy, tan kids on the front holding up the devil sign. That was real sad. That was a real low point for me."
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