The Human touch

May 11, 2005 at 12:00 am

The Human Eye is in the Totally Awesome House, a two-story, wood-framed beacon for the weird, the pretty and the trustfundafarians on Ann Arbor’s North Side. Around a small kitchen pass cans of American beer, Canadian weed, filtered cigarettes and bottled water. Bearded dudes walk barefoot and refer, unsolicited, to Jesus and Buddha; stylish girls glitter in spangly tops, leather miniskirts and dirty boots. Outside, in the back and the front, people sit on lawn furniture, sprawl on ripped old sofas or sit against the wall of this old house, an unlikely setting for a late-April festival featuring about 30 performers over a three-day weekend. It’s less unlikely when you consider that Fred Thomas (Saturday Looks Good to Me), Dead Machines (side project of Wolf Eyes’ John Olson), the late Terror at the Opera, Little Claw and dozens of other assorted musical oddballs have played here.

Even in this scene of margin-dwellers, the members of Human Eye stand out. Earlier in the night, people turned their heads as Billy Hafer, Thommy Hawk, Johnny Lazar and bandleader Timmy Vulgar entered the party.

The band has real buzz building. Their self-titled new LP released last month on In The Red was described by Belgian mag (which publishes in Flemish and Dutch) as “rewriting garage in Detroit ... where the music is like religion.”

The Human Eye is developing a diverse local fan base consisting of glammy dress-up kids, Michigan noise-freaks and skateboard punks who are as confrontational as the band is and bored with the fading garage scene. “Rock ’n’ roll should be desperate,” Vulgar said a few days before. Then he added: “I want the music to reach every fucking weirdo out there.”

Back in the kitchen, Hafer, Hawk, Lazar and Vulgar mingle and lean against appliances, countertops and door frames. If the kids here know anyone in the group, it’s Vulgar, a punk-rawk fireplug who fronted the Clone Defects for five years.

Vulgar’s presence aside, this band has a natural walk-around style that’s hard to ignore. Their self-designed, ill-fitting art-punk clothes — which combine elements of Dada, op- and pop-art and spaceman kitsch — are eye-catching, to be sure. Their hair is perfect — even Vulgar’s receding blond fluff shows his baby face to full advantage: He looks like a 2,000-year-old kid, as comfortable in this room as he would be in historic Athens or Rome. (When asked his age, Vulgar answers: “Immortal.”) But it’s something else that holds your attention, something you have to experience up close, not merely see or hear. It’s confidence. It’s inspiration. It’s lunacy. All rolled into a neat (but not too neat) combustible package.

The band is not easy to track down. The members practice at Vulgar’s house in Hamtramck, but illness (Hawk came down with an infection that put him in the hospital for a day) and the Human Eye’s increasingly hectic travel schedule make Ann Arbor the last option for interviews before they again head out of town.

The group has just returned from New York, where they played Brooklyn (Magnetic Field) and Lower Manhattan (Ace of Clubs); the next day, the band is leaving for Akron and then Milwaukee, where they are to play, not some rock ’n’ roll venue, but a barbecue. The eventful New York trip, the first for the Human Eye, is a story that Vulgar lays out in vivid detail. It’s a scene that wouldn’t surprise anyone who knows the band, and says as much about the band as any overwrought adjective.

“My last memory of New York is seeing my friend’s van, broken down in Times Square with the emergency lights flashing, as the bus I was in pulled away from the terminal,” Vulgar says. “The van was fucking up all the way from Pennsylvania on the way there, but I didn’t think it would break down. She only bought the thing the week before. It took 14 fucking hours to get home.”

He says he almost removed the van’s license plates before leaving, but didn’t.

“The police were watching us like we’re terrorists. Little did they know I am an art terrorist, ha, ha, ha. I got into an argument on the street [with my friend] and I was yelling, ‘But the cops are everywhere! The cops are everywhere!’ Ha, ha, ha. I thought it was best to get on the bus and get the fuck out of there.”

The rest of the group returned to Detroit in another car. But some important band property had to be left behind.

“We had to leave our ‘human eyeball’ in New York,” Vulgar says, referring to the band’s signature stage prop: a giant, bloodshot model of an eye. “It’s funny, ’cause I was paranoid while we were out there that someone would break into the van and steal it. That didn’t happen, but we couldn’t haul that big thing back home on a bus, ha, ha, ha. But it’s safe now at a friend’s house in Queens.”

He knows how to push his own buttons as he talks, alternating heady self-observation with deprecating street-urchin humor. The singer’s a walking, talking punch line, a human wall of natural presence.

Back in Ann Arbor, the band is getting antsy as the night grows longer and drunker. They are scheduled to play between their friends Odd Clouds — a freak-out, noise-core crew — and an end-of-night make-out party that’s supposed to start at 2 a.m.

Following Vulgar with a camera captures him in patented Vulgar mode: He mock-rampages around the house — chewing disposable cups, breaking cassette cases with his teeth, guzzling beers and nuzzling women’s necks — until he says, “No more pictures. No more. That’s enough.” Band bassist Hawk leans over and says, “What he means is, ‘Keep shooting.’”

Vulgar tosses an empty beer can against a wall, and stomps into an adjacent room where another band is playing. Then he dances his way back.

“Timmy just wants to play. He’s restless,” keyboardist Lazar says. Lazar and Hawk are fresh faces on the Detroit scene. And drummer Hafer, by the way, has an MFA from Wayne State and also paints and teaches. He also keeps time in the Paybacks.

The command the band has over the house begins to intensify as soon as they plug in and start sound checking. A guy leans over and asks, “Who are they?” Another kid takes a position in front of Hawk, fixes his eyes on the bass player and glares. Lazar fidgets with the knobs of his machines. Hafer pounds a cymbal with a stick, and then silences it with his fingers. Vulgar plugs his guitar into an amp and whacks the strings.

Suddenly the room fills with musicians and fans and sound; the songs come fast and fierce, as tight and free as they need to be. The house PA doesn’t hold up, and quits. At one point, Lazar loses all power to his gear. But who cares? Someone yells, “You guys are better than Cream!” Vulgar shouts back: “I’ll cream in your panties!”

So what does the Human Eye actually sound like? Start with a rolling, tribal beat, layer it with stun-guitar blurts and howling vocals, then surround it all with electronic noise and occasional accompaniment by a psychedelic horn section (horns grace the LP, and many of the band’s live shows). Finish by imagining Roxy Music, Hawkwind and Albert Ayler all playing drunk and naked. Or some shit like that.

LATER, the sound comes back on and the kids begin again — surging, pushing, rolling on the floor, jumping skyward, fists pumping. Outside the house, there’s a ferocious, rising drone coming through the walls. It’s a force so strong, so propulsive, that if the whole damn place were to lift off its foundation and fly straight up, getting lost in outer space, it would just make sense.


Saturday, May 14, at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700) supporting Easy Action.

Walter Wasacz is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]