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The Final Mission of Chicken Starship

John Moe

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Jack Chicken's Swan Song
(Jill Moe)
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Every man, woman, and child in America should be in a rock band. If you cannot find a band, the government should assign you one. Only by being in a rock band can humans be fully alive. I say this because part of me died recently. I was moving from Seattle to St Paul, Minn., which meant the end of Chicken Starship, a group I've fronted for a long time. It's been my respite, my fellowship and my fountain of youth

See, I never thought I could be in a rock band. I've never had any -- what's the word -- talent for music. But in 1993, when the Seattle music scene was blowing up, I found friends who played guitar, bass and drums, and we made a band. I became lead singer not because I could sing -- couldn't, can't -- but because I was able to make up new lyrics on the spot. Which proved necessary, since we were unable to play any song the same way twice. We called ourselves Free Range Chickens. We wore chicken suits on stage. We played all over town.

By the end of the '90s, however, trouble: Our time had become more precious, and scheduling rehearsals was hard. Marriages, kids, careers. After one bitter train wreck of a show, where I may have lost some of my hearing, we disbanded.

A few years later, my wife threw me a surprise birthday party and reunited the band. It was supposed to be a one-time only gig. Problem was, we had way too much fun. We got back together, renaming ourselves Chicken Starship. And the band served a new purpose: making us feel younger than we really were. For a few hours, we could trade in our Dockers for ripped blue jeans. The jobs and families that used to prevent us from practicing were now the motivators for practicing: escape our mounting responsibilities, plug in, drink beer, be guys. If you're playing "Godzilla" by Blue Oyster Cult, you're sharing a common emotional experience with friends without having to talk about feelings. It was like a bowling league. With amps. And chicken suits.

But in 2008, I was moving, and it was ending. Before our final gig, I had a beer with Joe the guitarist and Scott the drummer. It's good to have a beer or two before you perform in chicken suits.

"I feel pretty good, my gout's not bothering me too much," said Joe, who also had a hip replaced a few years ago. "And it's a good thing it's coming to an end because I can't handle any more health crises. I may not be able to play too much longer, you know."

Our set list that night featured all the songs we could remember, several that we'd been playing since 1993. Play a song long enough, you get better at it, right?

John Moe: Do you think we've gotten better over time?

Joe: Okay... When we played, the -- what's the club that just closed down? In Belltown? The Crocodile -- when we played the Crocodile, one of the reviews said, "They weren't very good," in reference to us. To me, that was a high compliment. Because we had gotten from "completely horrendous" to "not very good," which was incredible. I mean, a couple guys felt bad about it, but that's singing praise for us.

Moe: We passed the class, we got a C-minus.

Joe: Pass/fail. We're out of there.

Scott: We were mentioned in something! We hadn't been mentioned in anything before.

The venue for our final show was this little theater behind a drum school. No alcohol served. Tens of people are there: friends, family, spouses, the drummer's 83-year-old mom, our kids. Not exactly a hard-core rock scene, but probably appropriate for what the band was at that point. I'm trying to remember the words and maybe stay on pitch a little.

And before I know it, we're at the end of the set. It's the end of the band. The death of the band. The death of the part of me that is the band. Should I deliver a eulogy? Try to wrap it all up?

But I don't. I'm silent. It's like when a 110-year-old man dies. You're like, "Well, that's too bad, but maybe it was just time." Besides, to tell the crowd or the guys what this friendship and vitality has meant to me -- to get emotional -- would violate the dry-eyed spirit of the band. Not to mention how silly it would be to cry while wearing a chicken suit. At the bar afterwards, our other guitarist, Steve, nurses a pint and through over-the-top blubbering mocked the whole idea of sentimentality.

"I know that we had a good run and all that," he moaned, perhaps only partially in jest. "But one day, you're going to wake up and think, 'I'm not a chicken anymore.' And you're going to go, 'Dammit!'"

Chicken Starship had a good run but was now dead. And I think if some band in St. Paul called me up and wanted me to join up with them, I would have to say: Absolutely! What time is practice?


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Howlin' Houndog

    From Seattle, WA, 11/29/2014

    I recorded some of the Free Range Chickens material and thought they were a FANTASTIC/Cool/Weird band. Seattle didn't get them. I thought Joe's letter to the Rocket Magazine telling them off about Critter's Buggin' copping their image on the cover was also a highpoint of the 90s here in Seattle! Let's Go Camping and Federal Way were classic songs. Keepa Rockin' boys!

    By Saki Saki

    From ZhXDlZkounwwfzMuFKO, AB, 01/27/2013

    By bill jahsman

    From Salt Lake City, UT, 11/23/2008

    I'm in a band called, if you can believe it, Free Range Chickens. I'm 57, Esther's 58, Bill's--what? 62? Mark's retired, Greg's either a little older or a little younger than Esther. Playing keeps us young. Mostly we play retirement centers these days. One hour gigs. Like getting paid to practice. The audience is always so grateful. Our repertoire slants toward songs these people know--"Just the Way You Look Tonight," "Dream a Little Dream of Me," "Old Bones," but we mix it up with some Steve Earle, Tom Waits, Ray Charles. And once in a while we'll play a club. The survivors turn out in full force so we always have a good house. We play for ourselves but the when the audience gets charged up it feeds back to us and we take it to the next level, or crash and burn. It doesn't matter. We play through. That's what life is, isn't it? Most people like the name Free Range Chickens. It's funny and non-threatening. We call it "chicken soup for the ears."

    By International Laundress

    From Highland Park, IL, 03/18/2008

    very cute story... thank you!

    By Pam Saari

    From Seattle, WA, 03/18/2008

    Great story. But I was sad to hear John was moving to the Twin Cities. Seattle (well, technically, Federal Way?) will miss another hometown boy! Good luck in Freezerville, John.

    By Jesse Pelkey

    From Minneapolis, MN, 03/15/2008

    John: A great story. I've been a musician for 15 years, and I've no doubt been through the "band breaking up" bit, but also the "band breaking up because I'm moving to the Twin Cities" bit, too. I'm on my couch this morning sick with something-or-other, and your story was just the thing to make me wax biographical and laugh through my aching, sore throat. TC welcomes you.

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