Getting a handle on Maynard James Keenan‘s complex life story is no simple task. For the first time, the 52-year-old Tool singer’s many pursuits – from high school cross-country standout to Army trainee, alt-rock superstar and renowned winemaker – will come together in a single narrative when Keenan publishes his aptly titled authorized biography, A Perfect Union of Contrary Things, on November 8th. Co-author Sarah Jensen, a longtime friend of Keenan’s, gives equal weight to her subject’s formative years and offstage life as she does to the projects that have made him famous. In this exclusive advance excerpt, read how Tool’s beginnings in L.A. dovetailed with the formation of Rage Against the Machine.
After the clubs closed at night, Tom Morello often accompanied [Maynard] back to the loft, where they discussed Devo’s innovative time signatures and the blues roots of Led Zeppelin. They loaded the tape deck with music a step beyond the mainstream, the obscure and innovative music Maynard had always appreciated the most. “I remember he played for me a Swans album, which was way outside my comfort zone,” Tom would recall. Maynard explained the group’s minimalist chord structures, the emotional effect of their snarling vocals, their primal interpretation of heavy metal, and Tom took careful note.
Now that Lock Up had officially dissolved, Tom focused his energies on laying the groundwork for a new band he planned to call Rage Against the Machine, a group he envisioned would push the boundaries of metal and challenge political complacency. Determined that Rage would be a cut above the fledgling bands he and Maynard saw at Coconut Teaszer and Raji’s, he set about learning all he could to avoid the missteps that had doomed Lock Up. “Maynard taught me drop D tuning,” Morello would recall.
The two sat on the park bench that completed the aviary’s décor. Maynard cradled Tom’s Fender Telecaster and tuned the low E string to D to create the Seattle sound, the heavy resonance that gave bands like Soundgarden and Nirvana and Pearl Jam their signature sonic quality.
Tom had recruited the best of the best to populate his new band: longtime musician Tim Commerford on bass and backup vocals and Greta drummer Brad Wilk, who’d contribute his extensive percussion skills. He had only to identify a suitable lead vocalist to round out his ensemble. By now, he’d attended plenty of Maynard’s Green Jellö performances, had heard the C.A.D. cassettes, and respected Maynard’s vocal talents as highly as his ability to analyze complex arrangements. “There was sort of in the air an idea of us working together,” Tom would recall. “Brad and I had been jamming with both Maynard and Zack De La Rocha. We really liked playing with both of them, and Brad and I had this long phone call to discuss who we should ask to the dance.”
In the end, rapper De La Rocha proved to be the most logical partner. His hardcore band, Inside Out, had gained a substantial underground following, and his success would help validate Rage. It would be only a matter of time, Tom told himself, before his band would be noticed by one of the labels scrambling to be the first to sign distinctive and serious acts.
“Maynard taught me drop D tuning.” –Tom Morello
Maynard’s minimal Green Jellö role hardly warranted a recording contract, and he’d written nothing new since his Grand Rapids days. No guitarists or drummers were on deck to perform even his C.A.D. songs, and he’d prepared no business plan or artistic manifesto. But he had one thing most other bands lacked.
From his table in the shadows at the back of Club with No Name or English Acid, he cast a jaundiced eye on the performers who cavorted about the stage. “I’m at the back of the room watching those bands and criticizing everything they did,” he would remember. “They clearly wanted to be up there. But they didn’t have a need to be up there.
“These bands were just there to dance around and be popular, to get into the club without paying or to get laid, to catch the attention of A&R guys who might be in the audience, or whatever it was that they were trying to do. They’re wearing stupid hats and hopping around and not telling any story. And they’re not even bonky-bonk-snapping very well. The whole scene was just vapid.”
If he were ever to take his place in the spotlight, Maynard knew, his act would involve more than superficial leaping about. He had stories to tell – decades of stories – and an aching need to tell them. His was an instinctive drive to transform pain and loneliness to riffs and chords, an imperative to translate fear and disappointment and plans gone awry to words and rhyme until sadness and anger dissipated in pulsating sound that beat in rhythm with his soul.
“Even if you don’t know what your endgame is or what you’re trying to do, if you fuckin’ mean it, I can feel it,” Maynard explained. “When Brando did a scene, he meant it. When Dee Dee Ramone hit the stage, he meant it even if it was the one millionth time he’d done it. I wasn’t seeing that in L.A.”
Maynard’s frustration only grew when he realized he’d become an appalling cliché, just one more jaded L.A. hipster living hand-to-mouth and finding fault with the soulless posturing of bands whose sense of teamwork was as out of tune as their thrift shop guitars.
“Eventually, people got tired of overhearing me being a judgmental asshole,” he would recall. “They finally started saying, ‘Well, if you think you can do better, why don’t you?'”
Maynard had thought from time to time about forming another band, but he’d never taken the whim seriously. He’d watched C.A.D. dissolve as its members focused on the rush of popularity to the exclusion of details that might bring success: sensible spending and attractive flyers, commitment to creative advancement, and a shared vision of the band’s future. Like the L.A. groups he criticized, C.A.D. had toppled into oblivion under its own imbalance.
He remembered enough guitar chords to write at least a few new songs until he could find suitable bandmates. “When the challenge came to shit or get off the pot and show what I meant by ‘You suck!’ the Irish side of me was like, OK.” Maynard would recall. “I’ll show you how to do this better. Not forever. I’ll show you how it’s done so you can do it yourself.”
The madcap chaos of Green Jellö was a safe environment in which to explore his art, but with his own band, he could dig deeper into his frustrations and anger. The lyrics were ready to be written, lyrics that would address the discontent and resentment simmering just below the surface – and perhaps incorporate a bit of dark humor to spice things up and keep his listeners guessing.
On too many nights, Maynard lay alone in his bed while his menagerie settled into their nests. He watched the moon rise in the Hollywood sky and brooded over disappointments and hurts he should have laid to rest long before: the view from his mother’s VW of the Indian Lake house growing smaller in the distance; his wary walk, armed and cautious, down dark Grand Rapids streets; his grandmother’s scorn over his punk attire. Maybe she’d been right all along. Had he accepted the West Point invitation, he wouldn’t be scrambling at week’s end for change to buy crickets for the iguanas. An art degree might have meant by now a supervisory position at the studio, higher pay and regular hours.
The wrong turns had led to a dead end, a dissatisfaction and questioning of his every decision, the weighty sense of exile from the magic he’d believed in when he’d left Boston. As it was, he’d wasted nearly a year at the studio, marking time.
He’d ambled long enough. The time had come to sprint.
“The frustration I felt at that time is definitely what got this project off the ground then. I’d had good friends in Boston and I’d been successful at the pet store and I believed was on the right path. Then I lose everything and I’m living on $400 a month. I needed to destroy. I needed to primal scream and I needed to be loud enough to make people go, ‘What the fuck was that?!’ I needed to get it out. It was that tipping point where you either become a serial killer or a rock star.”
“It was that tipping point where you either become a serial killer or a rock star.” –Maynard James Keenan
Meeting the challenge would not be a chore, but a joy, he discovered. The familiar sense of accomplishment returned as he tuned his guitar and worked out a tentative smattering of melodies and lyrics. Writing in tandem with Tom as he worked to establish his own new band energized and motivated them both.
“I was jamming with different people as Rage was beginning,” Tom would recall. “One day, Brad Wilk, a bass player named Noah, Maynard, and I were jamming and pairing riffs. Maynard was developing a brand-new song called ‘Part of Me.'” Back and forth, the two played, creating by turns a counterpoint and a harmony of Maynard’s piece and a song Tom called “Killing in the Name.”
“It was pretty clear right away that the songs fit together,” Maynard would explain. “We didn’t actually create a song. We were just having fun.” But discovering together the segues and intervals where their music meshed was encouraging, a validation that he was on the right creative track.
Adding musicians to his lineup would add levels and dimensions to the music, Maynard knew. He understood the interplay of guitar, bass, and percussion, the gestalt a solo act could never yield, and he began to look at musicians who passed through the loft and the clubs with a more discerning eye.
Over midnight breakfasts at Canter’s Deli, at the picnic table at the Libertyville barbecues, in the back corner of Raji’s, Adam [Jones] had hinted for months that he and Maynard should collaborate. He’d heard the C.A.D. cassette, seen Maynard’s Green Jellö performances, and upped his urging after Mother fizzled. But Maynard had remained resistant. “I hadn’t seen what Adam was capable of,” he would recall. “I knew he was a successful special-effects makeup artist at Stan Winston, but I wasn’t sure what he could do musically.”
He’d observed Adam’s slow and meticulous process in assembling Mother – slower at least than that of Maynard, who once he embarked on a project, whether an aviary or an 800-mile walk, worked obsessively to complete it to perfection. And he wasn’t about to deal with the same lack of commitment he’d seen in the Grand Rapids bands. Unless his new bandmates shared his hunger to succeed, he knew the group would stay together for no more than one or two loft parties.
But Adam was persistent, and Maynard began to take his interest seriously. “It didn’t matter who I got into the room,” Maynard would explain. “The band would have a different vibe with the different people, so it didn’t make much difference at that point who it was. Any reservation I had about working with specific people was irrelevant. I had an idea and I was going to see it through.”
It was up to Maynard to communicate his vision – the pure simplicity of the arrangements, the minimalist sonic approach, the archetypes of pain and redemption underlying the lyrics, the raw emotion reflected in guitar and clashing cymbals. Once the others agreed on the parts that must be in place, individual differences would take care of themselves. “The geometry of this table we were building was very basic,” Maynard explained. “It wasn’t Victorian. It was four legs with a top on it, a very simple structure. If somebody was going to start doing guitar solos and noodling everywhere, this just wouldn’t work.”
Maynard invited Adam to jam on a basic song structure and recognized immediately his rhythm skills, his methodical pace that reflected commitment to his craft, and he had no doubt he’d lay down a firm base for his words and fury. Adam was no noodler.
Adam brought one afternoon to Danny [Carey]’s rehearsal space a new Stan Winston coworker, a Spokane transplant who spent his days creating special effects until his dream of working in film might come true. Paul D’Amour’s skills at the pool table were matched only by his proficiency on bass. A member of a number of Washington bands that had never quite gotten off the ground, he was eager to audition for a part in any new group with even a whiff of success about it.
Maynard leaned forward when Paul began his aggressive picking, a style he immediately imagined enhancing the song he’d been working on that morning. Paul was an ideal candidate to fill in on bass, Maynard told Adam – at least until a full-time player might turn up.
Identifying a suitable percussionist was another matter altogether. The Green Jellö loft was a revolving door of artists and musicians, an ever-replenishing talent pool if one were assembling a pickup band for an impromptu show or a party – unless one needed a drummer.
“In Hollywood at that time,” Bill Manspeaker would explain, “everybody wanted to be a singer or a guitar player, and that’s it. Next was a bass player. But a drummer? Forget it. That was the hardest thing to find.”
The drummers Maynard and Adam met failed to appear for their auditions, or if they did, couldn’t grasp Maynard’s plans for the band. They came through Danny’s loft – past his foosball machine and high school basketball trophies and under the inflated pterodactyl suspended from the ceiling – and never once commented on the décor. Their apathy only reinforced Maynard’s fear that his venture would be a repeat of Grand Rapids. He waited for no-show after no-show, calculating Danny’s rental fee while the rehearsal space sat unused.
“I felt kind of bad when their drummers weren’t showing up,” Danny would recall. “And I really wasn’t doing anything, so I decided to play with them since my drums were already set up there.”
From A Perfect Union of Contrary Things (c) 2016 by Sarah Jensen and Maynard James Keenan, published by Backbeat Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard LLC. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.