The Fire, Fury and Second Life of Punk Survivor Toody Cole of Dead Moon

The Fire, Fury and Second Life of Punk Survivor Toody Cole of Dead Moon

by Nate Rogers

for https://www.billboard.com

Now the last surviving member of the era-defiant Portland DIY group Dead Moon, 70-year-old Toody Cole is suddenly carrying on the legacy of her and her late husband Fred’s world on her own. But if you ask, she’ll still be glad to show you some of it.

At Lone Fir Cemetery in Portland, Oregon, Toody Cole is having trouble finding a grave. She’s looking for the plot of Andrew Loomis, the longtime drummer of her band Dead Moon, for which she sang and played bass and her husband Fred sang and played guitar.

Once upon a time, the three of them came together for some 19 years in a maniacal dust storm of merciless, sweat-soaked hard rock, fighting tooth and nail to build a diehard cult fanbase, one fan at a time. She’s only seen Loomis’ plot once before, after he died of cancer in 2016 at the age of 54, and she thinks he might be over in a specific section in the middle. But when we walk through it, Loomis is nowhere to be found.

“Come on, Andrew!” she says. “Give me a call out.”

It’s a gloomy late-summer day in Portland, with rain from the morning still wet on the grass and thunderstorms lingering on the forecast for the afternoon. But for now it’s cleared up, a brief window allowing for us to stroll across the large cemetery grounds, lush with Pacific Northwest greenery and mossy tombstones dating back to the 19th century. “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, uh…” Toody murmurs, looking around, assessing the options. “Shit, this pisses me off.”

She’s wearing all black — appropriate for a visit to a cemetery, of course, but Toody didn’t choose the clothes for this occasion. For the last 30-plus years, since Dead Moon started in 1987, she’s been mostly wearing a variation on the same outfit that she’s wearing today: black cowboy boots, black jeans, and a black Dead Moon shirt. (For a certain contemporary subgroup of down-and-dirty rock and roll fans, whose interests might range from Jerry Lee Lewis to Black Lips, wearing a Dead Moon shirt has become a calling card of sorts, indicating a shared ethos of simplicity and purity with the band.)

The shirt is styled to look like it has the Jack Daniel’s logo on it, which is itself a reference to the tradition the group had of lighting a candle on an upside-down bottle of Jack to start their shows, after which they would thrash until the candle burned out. Running up the side of the bottle on the shirt are words from two of their most enduring and definitive songs: “Goddamn I hate the blues!” it says on one side. “Walking on my grave!” it says on the other.

“This is like five minutes before showtime,” Toody jokes. “‘Where’s Andrew? We’re on stage in five.’”

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Peter Pakvis/Courtesy of Toody Cole, from Dead Moon The Book
Dead Moon

I had initially reached out to Toody Cole not knowing if I would hear back. An employee of Mississippi Records, the label behind an extensive series of recent Dead Moon reissues, had given me her email address with a “no promises” warning. (He had originally contacted me to give me a heads up about an upcoming reissue of In a Desperate Red, the third and final album from Fred and Toody’s pre-Dead Moon band The Rats.) I was worried Toody would say no when I asked for an interview — let alone something more extensive and in-person. I was worried it was still too soon after Fred had died in 2017, of cancer at the age of 69, for her to want to go on record about life without him.

When I got a response, the name attached to the email was “Fredrick Cole,” but it was Toody who had written the words: “Not sure what new there is to add,” she wrote, “but we could do a bit of a tour of PDX and you can come out to the house as well.”

“The house” is a central part of the Dead Moon lore. Located about 40 minutes outside of Portland, in rural Clackamas County, the massive, wooden, two-story building was built by Fred himself in the late ’70s. It was there that Fred and Toody settled down, in a sense, from a more topsy-turvy first 20 years of marriage, during which time they and their three kids lived in various parts of Portland, in addition to a few other brief stints elsewhere. At one point, in the early 1970s, the family packed up their things to head to Alaska, and ended up in Canada, where they decided to homestead on the wild Yukon terrain, living out of a tent for several months while Fred built a cabin. (During this stay, he shot and killed a bear.) After returning to the States for Christmas, the Canadian authorities wouldn’t let the family back into the country, so Portland it was.

The Coles have always been known for their fearless entrepreneurial spirit. After the homestead adventure they opened Captain Whizeagle’s, a music store in Portland where they would give kids good deals on bad equipment, sometimes signing off on a “pay what you can, when you can” deal. Fred knew what it was like to be broke and young, wanting to be in a rock band — he got his start in the ’60s playing in various psych groups, most notably The Weeds (a.k.a. The Lollipop Shoppe) — and after his initial dreams were squandered partially by shady publishing deals, he decided to start doing everything himself.

This included self-releasing the music of his Black Sabbath-esque bands, like Zipper and King Bee — on his and Toody’s own Whizeagle label — and teaching Toody to play the bass as a way to start The Rats, a gritty punk group with mod tendencies. (“I dug the fact that it was just one more thing that we could do together,” she explains.) Later it meant building a whole new compound in Clackamas, called Tombstone, to include a general store, a dollar store, and a music store to replace Whizeagle’s. There was also a new label called Tombstone Records. Its slogan? “Music too tough to die.”

This is where the story gets particularly interesting: Out in Clackamas in 1987, having tried and failed to make an impact with The Rats, Fred and Toody embraced a darker side. They cloaked themselves in black and enlisted Loomis to start the ominous power trio known as Dead Moon, chain-smoking and drinking Yukon Jack and just generally living hard all the while. Primitively recording almost their entire ten-album discography upstairs in the house on their own — and using a secondhand lathe, said to be the one used to make The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie,” to literally cut their own records themselves — Dead Moon then erupted like a grease fire.

Fred, Toody, and Andrew weren’t graceful players, but Fred had a gift for primal, earworm melodies, and he and Toody sang their songs — frequently about desolation, despair, and death — with an almost terrifying passion. They captured something real, and cobbled together a defining voice for a growing generation of young punks, as well as for themselves. This all happened as they were entering their forties.

“We would always call ’em ‘Mom and Pop,’” says Louis Samora, The Rats’ third and final drummer. “Or later on we’d call ’em ‘old folks,’ because they were older than everybody.”

“It was funny,” Toody considers. “After a couple European tours, the most common question we got asked was, ‘Well, don’t you feel you’re too old to play rock and roll?’ And I look back at those early pictures and it’s like, Jesus, we looked young!”

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Ines Schaber/Courtesy of Toody Cole, from Dead Moon The Book
Dead Moon

We’re walking back to the car now, Toody having reluctantly decided to call it quits on finding Loomis’ plot for the day. But as we’re exiting the cemetery gates, a middle-aged man and a slightly younger woman dressed in punkish all-black getups are entering, clearly also there for Loomis. At first we pass each other without stopping, but soon a voice calls us back.

“Hey, Toody!” the man yells from the distance. “Where’s Andrew on the ground again?”

“That’s what we’re looking for, dude!” Toody yells back.

Heading back into the cemetery once again, this time as a group of four, we are no doubt an odd sight to behold. But there’s no one else around on this weekday lunch hour, and there’s no other engagement any of us seem to need to make. We start to look again in earnest.

“I gotta put my glasses on,” says the man, trying to look up an image of Loomis’ grave on his phone.

“I love it that all you kids are getting this old!” Toody says, letting out a huge laugh. “My sweet revenge.”

Wandering around the region of the cemetery in which we first started to look, I then see it in the distance: the creepy, cackling skull of the Dead Moon logo on a gray tombstone. “Boom,” I say, nudging Toody. “Andrew.” As we approach, the epitaph starts to come into focus: “Life is good, sept the parts that suck.”

Toody is the first to go up, at which point she leans over to give the stone a big kiss right on the top. She then takes a brief moment before walking back to the three of us, who are all slightly bewildered at the scene we find ourselves looking into. (It’s not every day you visit a graveyard with someone who played on an album titled In the Graveyard.)

“So far it’s becoming a good day,” Toody says.

As we walk back to the car for real this time, a gentle drizzle starts to fall.

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Nate Rogers
Toody Cole

In person, Toody isn’t the menacing figure of the night that you might expect. At 70, she’s a grandmother of seven, after all, and has a jovial, easygoing presence, talking comically and freely, with a deep, Wild West kind of accent. But with a headful of white hair, and a tendency to cackle loudly, she seems to half want you to think she might ride off on a broom at any given moment.

“Try to imagine this street before the brick sidewalks and the bus mall and all that crap, blah blah blah,” Toody says, driving down Sixth Avenue in the Old Town neighborhood, showing me where the legendary punk venue Satyricon used to be. “This now is this huge Maybelle Center, which is a methadone clinic, which is funnier than shit to me.”

Sometimes called the “CBGB of the west coast,” Satyricon was at the center of a very different era in Portland history. This was back when it was still a cheap, slightly off-the-grid city, and the punk scene was thriving, in its own way. Bands like Wipers, Poison Idea, and — centrally — Dead Moon created a uniquely Pacific Northwest sound of dreary menace, slightly murkier than many punk bands more prominent nationally. The scene that surrounded them wasn’t big, but it was passionate.

“I loved how [Fred, Toody, and Andrew] always watched the opening bands, always encouraging,” says Tres Shannon, who founded the now-defunct all-ages Portland venue X-Ray Cafe, and is the current owner and founder of the popular Voodoo Doughnut. “I’m sure not every fucking band was great but I never heard them go, ‘Oh, this band sucks, let’s go to the bar.’ They sat there and watched the band and clapped.”

“Sisters of the Road has been here forever,” Toody says, noting the nonprofit cafe, as we keep going down the block. “They were really cool with helping all the street kids. And the tattoo parlor [Sea Tramp] was on the corner, which is where we all got our tattoos — well, we got our tattoos at a different shop that [the owner] had, just because that’s the one that got blown up.”

She’s not kidding: In 1989, a legitimate bomb went off on this block, destroying two businesses that were likely being targeted for their association with the seedier side of Portland life — a side that often spilled into Satyricon. The neighboring Sea Tramp tattoo parlor got hit pretty bad, too, which led bands like Dead Moon to play a benefit concert to help get the place back up and running. As a thank you, Toody, Fred, and Andrew were offered free tattoos, and accepted, all choosing a Dead Moon insignia of some kind. Fred, who didn’t yet have any tattoos — and wouldn’t get another one for the rest of his life — got his on the side of his face.

“I hate going back and going inside to places after they’re not what you remember anymore,” Toody says, when I ask her if she still checks out her old haunts after they change into something else — something that’s happening more and more rapidly in Portland. “You gotta realize, shit, I’ve been in this town forever. And you gotta anticipate change. That’s just the way that it goes. There’s no getting around it.”

Toody was born in Portland in 1948 as Kathleen Conner, the third of her parents’ eventual seven children. “That was one of those names that all these kids got named,” she laments. “It was either Susan, Debbie, or Kathy.” In high school, her friends started calling her “Toody” — a reference to a boisterous character in the 1960s cop sitcom Car 54, Where Are You? — and after she saw The Beatles (twice) and got into Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, she started volunteering at a local club called The Folk Singer. One day Fred walked in, on tour (and running from the draft) with The Weeds, and they caught each other’s eye. He and Toody would be married soon after, in 1967, both of them barely old enough to be able to legally sign the paperwork.

Sitting in a booth in the pub attached the Crystal Ballroom venue (which is next to where The Folk Singer was, and where Dead Moon played their final reunion show in 2014), Toody is casual about the ridiculous, overlooked saga of her and Fred’s early years, in which they briefly lived, with a newborn baby, in Laurel Canyon in 1968.

“That’s the funniest thing about your history — and you’ll realize this in hindsight — but you just happen to be there,” she says, sipping on a Bud Light. “You have no idea if it’s going to be of any importance.”

Regardless, that wasn’t really their scene, anyway: The Weeds didn’t jell with the other bands down there, and at one point Fred allegedly knocked out a drunk Jim Morrison when he tried to take the mic from him on stage. (“He had witnesses,” Toody insists, when I ask if that was really a true story.) Eventually, the band broke up, and Fred and Toody resettled in Portland to raise their family and run their businesses, which they focused on for years before Dead Moon interrupted things.

“I kind of did everything backasswards,” Toody says, “where I lived the grown-up part early in my life and got to do the wild, crazy, and free thing later. And it worked out great. Luckily the opportunities came up. Things come at you when you’re ready for ’em, and when they’re meant to happen.”

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Szim/Courtesy of Toody Cole, from Dead Moon The Book
Fred and Toody

“Those guys started Dead Moon when they were forty, and that’s the most extremely inspiring thing to all of us is that they didn’t give up,” says Eric Isaacson, founder of Mississippi Records, speaking from behind the counter of his record store in the Albina neighborhood of Portland. “I think we’re all prisoners of whatever dream we have when we’re young. And some of us who have a rock and roll type dream, we might only realize it by being a really good karaoke singer. But those dreams haunt you for the rest of your life. And most people give up on it, or come up with some compromised version of it that’s not fully satisfying, but Fred and Toody never compromised on it.”

Isaacson practically had to beg Fred and Toody to let him reissue the Rats catalog back in 2008, because they thought he was making such a bad business decision that it would ruin him and his label. They were wrong: The reissue of the first Rats album — an album that the band originally couldn’t sell 1,000 copies of — sold out its initial run of 2,000 in a month and a half.

“There was a time in the early ’80s where we had to fight for our place on a bill, you know,” notes Samora, who meets me after one of his radiation treatments he’s been receiving for prostate cancer. (He says his prognosis is good.) “At Kinko’s, we were making Xerox posters and that kind of shit. We might only get 50 bucks to play with D.O.A. or Circle Jerks or something like that — but then again, you’re playing to a packed house. It was eye-opening for me. I really felt like I was a part of something happening now.”

Tres Shannon can vouch for Fred and Toody’s hustle. “I used to work at Kinko’s,” he remembers, wearing pink sunglasses with a blue bandana around his neck as we sit outside a bowling alley, “and they would come in and work on their album covers. They were always kind of hunched over and farting around and they had their glasses on — this was a long time ago, they were old then — and they didn’t need any help… They would make their entire fucking run of these album covers and they’d go off into the night cackling and driving away in a big, smoky van. They’re such rock stars, you know. Unconventional rock stars, but they’re the real deal.”

Those records never sold much. Toody estimates that the original Tombstone Records releases of Dead Moon albums sold about 10,000 each, more or less. Needless to say, the band never made the Billboard charts, though they did have a glimmer of success in Europe, where they were much more popular — “[In the early ’90s] in Europe they were really paying attention to all the Northwest bands,” Toody explains — and frequently toured.

“Nobody gave a shit when those [Rats and Dead Moon] records came out,” Isaacson explains, “and they weren’t even a big band in Portland. There were like 30 to 50 people at shows. It’s interesting how we’re at a point where history is validating all these things.”

You can see the impact showing up in a variety of places and scenes. In recent years, beloved alternative acts like Pearl Jam and Cat Power and Japandroids have covered Dead Moon, and you’ll catch underground icons like Liz Harris of Grouper and Doug Martsch of Built to Spill wearing Dead Moon tees. Not too long ago, at a Foo Fighters concert, Dave Grohl said that the best thing about Portland was that Dead Moon was from there. In the early ’90s, Fred, Toody, and Andrew even turned down an opportunity to open for Nirvana post-Nevermind, in order to see through their own headlining tour of small New Zealand venues. (“I don’t think it would’ve changed our path at all,” Toody considers. “We were never looking to be Nirvana, or even on that level, honestly.”) When Mississippi Records made Dead Moon: The Book, a comprehensive tome anthologizing the history of the group, they were able to create an entire collage of photos that people had sent in of their Dead Moon tattoos.

“Now that Toody is the only one standing as far as Dead Moon stuff goes,” Shannon considers, “I think people realize that she’s badass. I think her legacy is happening now. She’s still alive, she’s still there.”

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Courtesy of Toody Cole, from Dead Moon The Book
Toody Cole at Tombstone Music

After stopping at the Tombstone compound in Clackamas, where the erstwhile Tombstone Music is now a marijuana dispensary, Toody ends the tour by driving us back to the house, now just a short drive away. About ten minutes down a winding forest road, a mailbox reading “Cole” marks a dirt driveway, and we head in, dust kicking behind the tires.

“Fred and I spent a couple summers trying to get our meadow back,” she says, pointing to an overgrown field on the left of our approach. “This used to be all cleared out, but mother earth decided to take it back while we were not paying attention.”

Stepping out of the car, the house is overwhelming to take in all at once. In the total quiet of the Clackamas wilderness, it’s hard to imagine the infernal feedback that echoed out of here for decades and decades. It’s hard to reconcile the fact that the fury of a song like “Fire in the Western World,” in which Fred and Toody harmonize over lines like “The house is in shambles / Trip wires under the door,” could have come from such a serene place. When I walk across the porch, I can hear and feel every detail of the boards bending with my shoes.

We sit down at a handmade table in the living room to talk, and I try to muster up the courage to ask her the question I’ve been hesitant to bring up for hours. Behind me, Fred’s ashes sit in an urn. Behind Toody, her and Fred’s wedding photo sits on the wall. All day she’s been switching back and forth between talking about her late husband in the present and the past tense.

“How are you doing without Fred?” I ask gently.

She sighs, the first time today that her tone has really lowered. “It’s really, really weird,” she says. “In a weird way I don’t feel like I’m without him. We were both always loners — we were just loners together. So now I’m a loner alone.”

Toody looks around at the room, surveying the litany of photos and show posters covering the walls. “You can see around,” she says. “Everywhere I look is something we did together, and places we were together. This is like memory lane for me. He’s here. And he’s literally here, up on the shelf. To me that’s life beyond death, is people’s memories, and what you left behind. He left a lot behind.”

Without Fred and Andrew, Toody insists that her music-playing days are done. “It’s one of those things I’m always going to miss,” she says. “But it’s kind of like, no, my team’s gone.” Still, she’s staying busy: In the basement of Mississippi Records, she just opened a bric-a-brac store called Junkstore Cowboy. It’s mostly items from around the house, which is practically bursting at the seams with… stuff. She’ll be working there about four days a week. (If she ever decides to part with her and Fred’s behemoth VHS collection, you’ll want to be first in line.)

“I expect to be around for quite a while,” she says. “All the women in my family lived to be pretty goddamn old — so I’m healthy, I’m strong, I’m still really enjoying life and doing a lot of stuff and have a lot of plans of different things I wanna do. Planning on going back and revisiting the Yukon; see if I can find that [homestead] place. It’ll be 50 years next.”

On our way back into Portland, the rain has finished and it’s suddenly beautiful out. Toody and I chat a little more casually now, and eventually we start to ramble about the pros and cons of various forms of music consumption, and the blindness of nostalgia if you’re not willing to keep moving forward. She points out that soon people are going to think “streaming is the best it ever got,” once it’s replaced by something else.

“That’s a fucked up thought,” I say.

“Oh fuck yeah,” she says. “The kids are gonna be walking on your grave someday, too.”

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