Fred Cole, Dead Moon and the DIY Ethos of Portland Punk

By Kate Kaye

Kelly Halliburton pulled into Tombstone in his truck that afternoon in 2007 and spotted Fred Cole out trimming the grass with a weed whacker. It had been around six months since Dead Moon had broken up, and when he drove out to Clackamas, OR that day, he’d been expecting that Fred and his wife Toody would just want to have a few beers and talk.

“There was no, like ‘Hi’ or ‘How’s it goin?’ or anything. The first words he said when I rolled down the window were, ‘OK, so Toody’s got the drum set up upstairs and, uh, I’ll be up in just a second.’” Halliburton, a bassist whom Toody had called out of the blue to ask if he’d play drums with them, was caught off guard. “I mean the last thing in the world that I thought we were gonna do was actually play.”

Halliburton was no stranger to Fred Cole, who had founded what seemed like a zillion bands by then. Even when Halliburton was just a kid, Fred was a presence. His figure hovered on a flyer on his family’s fridge from a show featuring Fred’s ‘60s band The Torpedos, and Halliburton’s dad sometimes alluded to the prolific songwriter in tales of playing with Fred in a short-lived ‘70s band called Albatross.

After stumbling into Portland with The Weeds in 1966, Fred became a serial founder of bands, going heavy with Zipper in the mid-‘70s, blending the speed of punk with the jangly ‘60s garage he came up with in acts like The Rats in the early-‘80s, and other times adding some twang in Western Front and The Range Rats.

Fred Cole died November 9, 2017 in his home in Clackamas.

Fostering Punk Community

Along with Toody, the life-long mate he’d met soon after arriving in the once-sleepy logging town, the two fostered a communal energy sparked by their entrepreneurial and welcoming natures. The musical equipment store they ran downtown in the Dekum Building, Captain Whizeagle, served as a central turbine generating a DIY spirit that electrified many younger musicians in Portland’s burgeoning punk scene.  

“Captain Whizeagle was set up so that people would sit around and play music. It was like a public space,” said Mark Sten, veteran Portland punk rocker and author of the book, All Ages: The Rise and Fall of Portland Punk Rock 1977-1981.

“There were so many musicians in Portland, like old musicians, who got their first guitar by going in there, like hundreds of ‘em,” remembered Poison Idea vocalist Jerry A, calling Fred a pioneer: “Johnny Whizeagle-seed.” In fact, A joked about how he and the other members of Poison Idea would have to dodge Cole because they couldn’t afford to continue paying him for the P.A. he’d supplied to them. “We would have never been a band, honestly -- we probably would have, but I would have probably got electrocuted singing through my stereo or something, ya know? He gave us a real P.A.”

Along with the music store and its notoriously liberal credit policy, Fred and Toody founded record labels that became known as places where anybody could get a record made. The couple had already established a reputation of dedication to DIY during their days homesteading in Alaska and later building the family’s home in Clackamas. So, it didn’t take long after they’d launched their Tombstone label in 1988 for apocryphal tales to emerge about Fred and Toody literally pressing the vinyl themselves.

“Oh, Fred and Toody, they’ll put out anybody’s record on Tombstone. That was kinda the word on the street back in the late ‘80s early ‘90s,” said Halliburton. “We thought, OK, if you get a record pressed on Tombstone, Fred and Toody actually make it, and that’s how you can order like 100 copies or something. He had this ridiculously low pressing number,” he said. “It was later that I learned that they were just brokers.”

Brokers or not, the legend grew, and with it Portland’s backwater punk scene. But by the mid-‘80s Fred Cole still hadn’t found the right formula for a band that could really take off.

“My dad got just burned out and just pissed off at rock ‘n’ roll because he wasn’t making any headway,” said Weeden Cole, son of Fred and Toody. “We’re talkin’ about a guy who’s probably written about 5,000 songs in his lifetime. I remember him showin’ me all these yellow notepads in boxes, stuff that had never even made it to the guitar.”

“Fred’s interactions with other people booking shows or putting out records -- always -- he’s a very impatient person and he felt like people were either taking advantage of him or not doing it the way he would like it to be done,” suggested Halliburton. “And that’s been the central element of his character that defines his interaction with everybody and his entire life’s output as a musician and as a contributor to the Portland culture.”

Wonder Boy Loomis

Something clicked in the mid-‘80s when Fred met drummer Andrew Loomis.

Weeden Cole remembers his father raving about the young percussionist. “Then he met Andrew who was playin’ drums in the Boy Wonders at the time, and he said, ‘Ya know, I got this great idea for this band. We’re gonna do rock ‘n’ roll again, and I’ve seen this kid play. He’s just full of energy’ and on and on and ‘It’s gonna be a killer line up.’ ”

Actually, Fred and Toody already had auditioned Loomis for their honky tonk act, The Range Rats, but eventually settled on a drum machine for that band (with middling results).

“Andrew one-hundred-percent wanted to be a rock and roll star,” said Neva Knott, co-founder of Plazm Magazine and a longtime friend and later girlfriend of Loomis. “I mean he wasn’t seeking stardom but he wanted to live the rock and roll life and he was willing to be poor…he was willing to be on the road. He had that singular focus that it takes for people to make it as artists.” Knott took on the role of caretaker to Loomis before he succumbed to cancer in 2016.

But it was in 1987, right around the time that The Range Rats were playing and that Tombstone Records was kicked off, that Fred, Toody and Loomis finally gravitated toward the collaboration they were destined to form: Dead Moon.

Knowing the collective sound of the music Fred Cole had put out over the years, it wasn’t difficult to recognize in Dead Moon the same raw connective tissue of blues-based angst and a preoccupation with life’s dark underbelly, but some noticed something unique about this new band even early on, whether or not it was obviously evident in the components of the music itself. And it was more than just Loomis’s distinctive percussion.

“Something was different from the beginning about Dead Moon…. They were bigger and we kind of knew they were bigger and it was the chemistry between the three people,” concluded Knott.

The fact that Loomis and his drum kit always were positioned right up front between the Coles during live shows rather than in the classic behind-the-band drum position, the band’s onstage huddle before they played – these tangible symbols made it clear these people weren’t just together in the hopes of making it big.

Loomis “was an integral part of the unit,” said Dawn Roe, an artist, old friend of the band and a fierce fan. “They were a family, you know, they authentically loved each other, and you could see that…. They were always completely 100% committed to each other.”

Even right before Loomis passed away, said Knott, “He would say, ‘We stayed together so long because that’s what makes a band – it’s the way the people get along.’ And he would also say it’s really hard to be in a band with married people.”

Punk Rockers Storm Portland City Hall

There was a full harvest moon above the evening of October 5, 2017 as the inseparable couple peered up to a stage outside Portland City Hall. This was Dead Moon Night, the city’s official commemoration of the legendary band.

This wasn’t a dry City Hall meeting or keys-to-the-city ceremony. This was a live punk rock party outside City Hall in honor of Dead Moon, accompanied by an official proclamation read by Portland City Commissioner and champion of renters’ rights, Chloe Eudaly, deeming October 5 from then on to be marked Dead Moon Night on the city’s calendar.

Months in the making, Dead Moon Night drew 1,100 fans of the band out to 1221 SW 4th Ave to witness an impressive lineup of Portland musicians covering Dead Moon songs, including punk veterans Jerry A and Charley Nims of Poison Idea, Chris Newman of Napalm Beach, Sam Henry of the Wipers and Sean Croghan of Crackerbash, along with folk hero Michael Hurley, Americana guitarist Marissa Anderson, local soul sensation Ural Thomas and others. A candle dripped gradually over the neck of a Jack Daniels bottle throughout the City Hall show, just like so many that had burned onstage when Dead Moon played live over the years.

It was fitting that the event took place during a full harvest moon, because as it turns out, it was just such a moon that inspired the band’s name. Recreating the Dead Moon origin story, Weeden Cole set the stage, recalling his parents’ love of casinos, Keno especially: “They used to go to Sparks, which is outside of Reno, all the time for their little trips….

“….Fred and Toody are driving back from Nevada one night in the summer of ‘87 and this like big, blood red harvest moon is hangin’ low in the sky, and they just keep remarking about this moon. He goes, ‘god, this moon it’s killin’ me, it’s just so incredible.’

“…And he’s tryin’ to think of a band name, they have no band name. He goes, ‘What about, uh, Red Moon, and my mom goes, ‘No, no, that’s lame.’ He goes, ‘What about Blood Moon?’ She goes, ‘No, that’s even worse.’ He goes, ‘Well god, it just looks so dead.’ She goes, ‘That’s it: Dead Moon.’ And that’s how they came up with that name.”

Like They Remember the Kennedy Assassination

When Knott was up on stage telling stories during the Dead Moon Night event, she explained to the crowd why she wasn’t wearing a Dead Moon shirt that night. Instead, she had chosen to wear one featuring the logo of the Vera club, the venue in Groningen, The Netherlands where Dead Moon played their first show ever in Europe. It was also the last place Dead Moon played in 2006 before disbanding..

It wasn’t just like some band broke up when Dead Moon called it quits. It felt like the end of an era, the demise of something that encapsulated the underdog DIY spirit of Portland to a lot of people.

So it’s not surprising that when Toody called Kelly Halliburton that day months after the band had split, not only was he shocked, he couldn’t fathom how people in the scene would react to him picking up a set of sticks to play with Fred and Toody.

“My first thought was, ‘Fuck, I can’t play drums.’ And my second thought was, ‘How’s that gonna go over with Andrew and how’s that gonna go over with everyone who can’t imagine anyone except Andrew playin’ drums with them?’ ”

After Halliburton, a bassist by trade, had started playing drums with Fred and Toody in the new band, Pierced Arrows, he spotted Loomis at an old Portland bar on SE 28th Ave. “I remember the first time I saw him after I started playing with Fred and Toody – I think it was at Holman’s – and he walked in and the person I was with was like, ‘Uh oh….’ I went up to the bar, and was like, ‘Hey, how’s it goin?’ and he was like, ‘Hey!’ Ya know? Just like always, ya know? He gave me a hug or somethin.”

Loomis often referred to Fred and Toody as Mom and Dad or “the Grandparents,” but he was not alone in that; a lot of younger musicians in town looked up to them. “They really were our rock ‘n’ roll parents,” recalled Eli Johnson, bassist in the ‘90s band Heavy Johnson Trio and an owner of Portland’s Dots Café and Atlas Pizza. “If I needed advice, it would be easier for me to go to Fred to get advice back then after a show than it would be for me to call my dad. But knowing something about Fred and how he approached life and did things his own way always made me feel like I should figure it out myself, do the right thing, whatever made sense, and just do it – just deal with it….”

Some Old Portland rockers still remember the night they found out Dead Moon broke up like people remember where they were when Kennedy was shot. The band had recently returned home from Europe and were booked to play a show at Dantes on West Burnside, the club that had become a spot for homegrown punk and touring bands since venues like Satyricon and EJ’s had shuttered their doors.

“They’d go to Europe and then they’d come back and they’d be a bigger fish in the pond, and then in that way they’re putting Portland on the map, because no matter what, they were a Portland band,” remembered Knott.

“They’re one of those bands that they had to get popular in Europe first, ya know?” said Mudhoney guitarist Steve Turner, who first started going to Dead Moon shows in the late ‘80s with Mudhoney screecher Mark Arm. “Especially in Seattle, they did not have very big shows until they got huge in Europe, and then people started showing up for Dead Moon. It was like weird, like, what? This has to be re-sold to you?”

And that was a real thing. Dead Moon were “putting Portland on the map,” so to speak. People in Europe and places like Australia, the band’s growing cult followers, equated the band with the city. To a select group of underground punk rock aficionados, Fred, Toody and Andrew were ambassadors of Portland way before the stars of any parody sketch comedy show could become its celebrity face.

As Mississippi Records -- the Portland record emporium and label behind several Dead Moon catalog reissues -- once put it on a bumper sticker: Fred and Toody -- not Fred and Carrie.

“To a lot of people, Dead Moon is Portland,” said former Poison Idea bassist Charley Nims, who also played in a band called The Hell Candidates with Loomis.

It was more than the music, more than Dead Moon’s skull and moon logo or the presence of a candle in a Jack Daniel’s bottle slowly burning on stage. As the official Dead Moon Night Portland City Hall proclamation notes, “Dead Moon is more than just a band. It is a whole greater than the sum of its parts, an ethos and identity for an international tribe.”

“They’re never gonna have that widespread appeal, but the people that do love ‘em, love em’ to death,” said Weeden Cole of Dead Moon. “They would rather be loved fiercely by even just a hundred people than moderately liked by the masses. To them, quality over quantity -- intensity over apathy.”