As far as collectibles go, the ABSENTEES epitomizes the obsession with
By Death type obscurities. For years, desperate collector scum combed through
fanzines, poured over flyers, talked to old scenesters and sniffed out any and
all far-fetched leads only to find themselves searching in vain. The only known
information was that the 7in. was from 1981 and that it had a fuzzed-out A-side
that just about floored everybody who heard it. "Tryin' To Mess With Me" appeared
on Killed By Death #7 in 1993 and what followed was utter frenzy. The record
was at the top of every want list across the globe. "I NEED that fucking record"
was an oft-repeated phrase. The only name — the only possible lead —
credited on the record was to one "R. Roll", what seemed to be an obvious pseudonym.
This did not stop at least one collector from writing to every single R. Roll he
could find. Such is the brand of madness the Absentees inspired.
THE ROSETTA STONE
The key, the link, the Rosetta Stone, the guy who cracked the code came in the
form of a Maximum Rock & Roll reader affectionately known as Brendan
Lawsuit, and I hereby proclaim him my hero. No shit. I love this man. Brendan
discovered that his friend (Amy) had an uncle who was in the Absentees. Mr.
Lawsuit wrote to me explaining that "he'd shown Amy and her uncle your MRR
column and a couple of the classified ads over the years in MRR to prove
to them that they actually had something that people all over the world were
looking for". This uncle turned out to be the lead singer and guitarist for the
Absentees, and he still preferred to be called — you guessed it — Rocco
Roll (no, it's not his REAL name). "I was shown the magazine. I had a hard time
believing it because it had been such a long time. I had to be shown that OK,
look, people want to buy your record." The idea that this record was actually
sought after still seemed strange, so Rocco picked up the phone and called Zed
Records in Long Beach. Zed was the only store that bothered to carry his record
back in the day, and — defying all odds against punk record store longevity
estimates — their doors were still open for business in 1998.
THE ZED CONNECTION
In the desperate search for Absentees information (of which I was a part), we
(that's me and a friend) turned to the only two people we knew with the record:
Tim Yo and Jello Biafra. Asked where they originally got their copies in '81,
Jello remembered: Zed Records in Long Beach. Knowing this and knowing Zed was
still around, I wrote to them a few years ago (at least a decade after Jello
walked in and bought the record) offering a cash reward for any information
about the Absentees (a la Crime Stoppers) or, better yet, a copy of the
single. Yup, I was desperate, and as X once sang, "we're desperate... get used
to it." No dice. Zed had no information other than that they thought the Absentees
were from the area. A few years later, I remained where Zed had left me, stagnant,
Over the years, the conjecture that the Absentees were a Long Beach outfit had
trickled through collector's circles, and Zed frequently fielded inquiries about
the single. I'm sure "take a number, pal" became the standard response. So, for
a change, when the guy on the other end of the phone line said he didn't want a
copy of the Absentees, but that he HAD a copy of the Absentees to sell, the chimes
began ringing in Mike Zed's head. Rocco was asked to COME ON DOWN. In the mean time,
Mike Zed posted to the usenet saying he had a copy of the record and what was it
worth? I had planned on ignoring the post since I figured it was just some joker
(there was no indication that Zed Records was making the post), but friends said
I should follow up especially in light of some recent thievery from the collection
of Tim Yo (late founder of Maximum Rock & Roll). I replied and got this
response: "Hey, I just got a copy from the singer of the band :)" For me, the smiley
emoticon at the end of the sentence was akin to calling the Titanic a "boating accident". If you care to simulate
my mental state at that very minute, I suggest snorting a can of Folger's. I told
Mike to get any and all information. Less than twenty-four hours later, I was in
direct contact with Mr. Roll. The information drought was about to end.
THE ABSENTEE CONCEPT
The Absentee Concept was Rocco's original name for the band. As best he can recall,
the name was a reference to some problematic absenteeism that had beset the Long
Beach public bus lines where Rocco drove for a living. While the city sent out
memos about the problem, Rocco formed a band which undoubtedly did nothing to
help the problem. It is unclear when the name was shortened to the Absentees.
The Absentee Concept cum Absentees played regularly but never found
themselves to be part of a "scene". Rocco took his cues from the likes of Iggy Pop
and the Damned but his band never quite integrated into the more well-known punk
circuit. "We weren't like Fear or Black Flag. We were doing our own thing. We
didn't fit in with those guys too well." Some members dressed the part of a punk
while others couldn't bring themselves to lose the long hair. The mixed nature of
the band made them misfits. This fact would be reflected in the dearth of references
to the Absentees in fanzines and early US punk rock's collective memory.
The member line-up was constantly in flux. Rocco remained on guitar while other
players were forever being kicked out and recruited. Rocco was the self-proclaimed
band leader and implementer of the revolving door policy. The door swung back in
his face when Rocco's girlfriend (also the singer for the band) eloped with another
band member not long before the Absentees were to record. It is this woman, Mary W.,
who would be the inspiration for greatness. Pissed off to the Nth degree, Rocco
composed a couple little ditties and took over as temporary singer for the Absentees
and recorded six songs. Out of pure spite, it would be the two songs inspired by
Mary that Rocco would choose to comprise both sides of the band's legendary single.
"Tryin' To Mess With Me" and "F.U.M." (a subtle acronym for Fuck You Mary) were
pressed as a jukebox friendly 45 in 1981. The A-side is the clear prize winner
of the pair with its freaked-out reverb vocals, its Tapeworm-esque engineering,
and its prurient appeal. I find that the song fits nicely into my imagined remake
of the Taxi Driver soundtrack.
Four other unreleased songs from this session were released on the Brain Transplant
label in 1998.
GET INTO THE GROOVE
Though the Absentees stayed together long enough for the single to get pressed,
the band fell apart shortly thereafter. Two hundred copies were manufactured, and
Rocco came up with $163, enough to pay for half the pressing. The other half
(94 copies to be exact) were never picked up from the pressing plant. The copies
that Rocco did get were mostly given away and, of course, Rocco made sure the
subject of his contempt, Mary, got a copy. Mike Zed reports that: "Even the ones
that were sold at Zed Records (including the ones that went to Jello and Tim Yo)
he gave to the store for free just so we would carry it. He said he brought them
and felt weird about it the first time, but the second time he came in we listened
to it and liked it, and he has liked us ever since." "Promotional copy" was printed
on the 45's label to avoid a perceived infraction of copyright laws, and "promo"
would be unwittingly accurate since Rocco did give away out most copies. Rocco was
freely giving out copies to his niece's friends years later. That last sentence
surely has punk collectors around the world shaking their heads in disbelief. Up
until Rocco was found again, only five copies had surfaced "in the wild": one in
a San Francisco shop, one mail-ordered from Berkeley, one in a British record store, one
on a German set sale list for 10 DM, and one was rounded up by the Stitches guitarist
amidst a box of junk records at a local swap.
STARS GET IN YOUR EYES
As would be expected, the sudden deluge of attention caught Rocco off-guard after
nearly two decades of thinking his efforts had been wholly ignored. "I'm puzzled.
Shocked. And I'm overwhelmed. But this makes me very happy. I wanted people to
hear my music for years and finally I found out, yeah, somebody HAS listened to it."
Combine the intense interest of a couple dozen serious fans across the globe with
the speed of the internet, and what you get is Rocco's newfound fifteen minutes
being all the more sudden — and volatile. Unbeknownst to Rocco, the Absentees'
began an unprecedented rise to infamy almost five years ago with the bootleg release
of "Tryin' To Mess With Me" in the Killed By Death series. When asked about
this, Rocco replied like so many early punk rockers have: "It was an illegal bootleg,
but I couldn't be happier that it was put out." Having sold the remainder of his
copies, sugar plums are dancing in this ex-Absentees' head. Over the years, a number
of former bandmates and former students have achieved varying degrees of success
(running the gamut from the Runaways of yesteryear to No Doubt in the past year).
It remains to be seen if an Absentees reunion is in order, or if it's best for
Rocco to enjoy the belated recognition, keeping the past at a comfortable distance.
— Ryan Richardson
originally published in Maximum Rock & Roll #184 (September 1998)
PUNK ROCK SINGER GETS 55-TO-LIFE IN SHOOTING
Lack of remorse for firing rifle at SWAT officers prompts maximum sentence.
By Tracy Manzer, Staff writer
March 25, 2008
LONG BEACH — A local punk rock singer was sentenced Tuesday to more than 55 years to life
in state prison for the attempted murder of a Long Beach SWAT officer. Rocco Bannich, who performed under the name Rocco
Roll with the Absentees, will have to serve 85 percent of his sentence before he can be considered for parole, said Deputy
District Attorney Lowell Anger.
"He's 52 years old, he's pretty much done," Anger said after Tuesday's sentencing, where Bannich was given the maximum
sentence, 55 years to life plus 10 months. Bannich was found guilty last month of one
count of attempted murder and two counts of attempted manslaughter for shooting
at three Long Beach Police Department SWAT officers during a standoff outside his
home in 2007.
One of Bannich's angst-driven songs - "Open Season" - targeted Long Beach police. The song written in 1999 proved to be a
chilling blueprint for the crime committed eight years later, including descriptions of shooting up the bar and killing cops. "Open
season is the reason to come to Long Beach to kill some narcs," reads one lyric from the song. The re-emergence of one of
his band's early singles, "Tryin' to Mess With Me," appeared on the album Killed By Death #7 in 1993 and triggered a
frenzy among some fans of the punk genre. That song and many of the other original songs dealt with Bannich's former girlfriend
and the band's former lead singer, Mary W. Several of the newer songs focused on the authorities and Bannich's conspiracy-fueled
delusions. The guitarist and singer chose to represent himself in his criminal case and demanded Long Beach Superior Court Judge J.D.
Lord throw out his conviction Tuesday. "I want to call for a retrial because I didn't
receive a fair trial," Bannich said.
Bannich started the morning by snapping at the prosecutor to not speak to him, then called the prosecutor and the judge "the devil"
and accused the witnesses in the case against him of lying. The trial was at times difficult, although Bannich was most outspoken
during his sentencing, Anger said. The prosecutor was able to prove Bannich opened fire on a bar behind his house on Aug. 30, 2007,
prompting police to respond and a stand-off with SWAT that lasted about five hours. Bannich was convinced undercover narcotics
investigators bugged the bar and his home with high-tech tools to track his every move. When he first opened fire with his .22-caliber rifle,
taking aim from his backyard, he hit two cars in the back parking lot of the bar. A customer was about to walk out the back door
when the shots rang out. He was delayed by the bartender, and he testified that he was certain Bannich would have killed him if he
hadn't turned back to give the bartender a hug. The bartender testified she recognized Bannich peering over his fence with his gun
and said Bannich harassed her for roughly 10 years.
In the shootout with SWAT, Bannich fired at least seven rounds from the rifle, with one bullet striking an officer in the shoulder —
where it lodged in his bullet proof vest — and the other passing through the inside of his pant leg near his groin. As that officer ran
to take cover with two other SWAT officers, Bannich continued to shoot at all three and police returned fire. Bannich was hit in the
forearm and suffered a graze wound. He was taken to a local hospital for treatment, then transferred to county jail, where he remained
since his arrest on the day of the stand-off.
Lord denied Bannich's request to throw out his conviction Tuesday and patiently listened as Bannich railed at him and the prosecutor.
The judge allowed Bannich to orally give notice that he will appeal the conviction, and the prosecutor arranged for a public defender
to give Bannich the correct forms. During the sentencing, Lord said he considered not ordering the maximum time allotted, but
Bannich's complete lack of remorse demanded the harshest punishment possible.
"If I had a crystal ball," the judge said as Bannich let loose with another tirade drowning out part of Lord's comments, "(I would predict Bannich)
would cheerfully repeat the conduct."
CONTACT: Break My Face