Drive-By Truckers

MONSTER

Monster

CHRIS QUILLEN (MONSTER)


Ten years ago today I lost one of my best friends. Chris Quillen played guitar, bass, barrel-house style piano, drums, mandolin, sitar, and harmonica just to name the instruments I saw him play. He probably played a few more. I heard rumors that he was adequate on fiddle but I never saw him prove it. I do know that he had perfect pitch and one of the most beautiful and versatile singing voices that I have ever heard. He had a sense of melody that easily rivaled that of anyone I have ever met and was an amazing performer. He was also a great and hilarious guy. I loved him dearly, as did everyone else I know that ever met him. Next to my grandparents, he is the closest person to me that I ever lost and it still hurts ten years later with nearly the same intensity that it did ten years ago.

I heard about Chris before I ever met him. Cooley gave guitar lessons at a local guitar shop and kept talking about this young kid who would come in the shop and play the living shit out of everything in there. Soon he was playing in several local bands, none, honestly nearly as good as he, but all improving exponentially upon his addition. Furthermore, he wasn't the same in any of these bands. Chris was a true musical chameleon in the grandest sense. If he joined a metal band, he became a metal guitarist. If he joined a pop band, he became a melodic wizard finding counter-melodies, usually far more interesting than the original. If he played punk, he played like a punk. His country was as flawless and impeccable as his R&B. His blues was very black. He seldom sang lead, but was to this day the best harmony singer I ever met. When he sang with me, he mimicked my voice as he harmonized with me as if I was dubbing both parts, except that he could take his places that I never dreamt of reaching.

Shortly before my band Adam's House Cat broke up (in 1991) our bassist left the band and Chris, who preferred to play guitar and was already busy in a fulltime band, agreed to play with us until we found a fulltime replacement. The three months that he played in that band were the best times, musical and personal, of the six years that band played together. He literally learned our show in 2 days and played it flawlessly for the first time in Birmingham AL at The Nick.

Only jambox cassettes exist of the shows and rehearsals we had together that summer. We worked up a handful of brand new songs, the best of which "Pollyanna" I recently recorded for my next solo album. In fact there are few recordings of him at all, as sadly most of his work was in the live performance realm, something I'm sure he would have corrected if time had allowed.

A week or so after joining Adam's House Cat, Chris suffered a mishap in which he broke his right hand. He didn't have insurance, but found a doctor who was willing to set his hand in a plaster cast. Unfortunately, we had a show a few nights later and he found the cast too restricting to play, so shortly before sound check, he found a hacksaw and cut out two fingers so that he could improvise the bass parts and get us through the show. His hand never really healed correctly and although it never seemed to impair his playing, I'm sure it eventually would have caused him a lot of grief, but he was never one to think of things in that way. To him, he had a job to do and did what he had to do to pull it off. He was just made that way.

At the end of that summer, Cooley and I moved to Memphis in hopes of relocating the band there. We broke up instead, but never shook the notion of playing again with Chris. Our dream was to maybe one day form a band where all three of us played guitar, although we would have been first to admit that the notion of a band having three guitarists is pretty ridiculous and certainly seemed outdated and stupid in 1991. Instead, Cooley and I moved from Memphis to Auburn AL and played as a duo called Virgil Kane while Quillen played on in various bands back home in Muscle Shoals.

I moved back to North Alabama in early 1993 without Cooley, who I had fallen out with for a time. By this time Quillen had acquired the nickname Monster (I think our friend Jenn named him that, but I'm not sure) and we immediately began playing together under the name Prom Needles. In that band, I played acoustic guitar and he played electric guitar. Sometimes our friend Earl Hicks played this old air organ. I was really prolific in those days and wrote around 150 songs during the eleven months that we played together in that incarnation. Out of the overflowing notepads from that year, I had 30 or so keepers that made up the bulk of our shows then. An early incarnation of "Feb. 14" dates back to those shows.

Early in the tenure of Prom Needles, Monster had another mishap, this time breaking his left hand. Again, a doctor set his hand, and again, he took the hacksaw to it to cut out enough fingers to play his guitar. He played guitar better with nine fingers and a plaster cast than most people ever dream of with all their capacities.

I was very unhappy then and living back home was doing nothing to cheer me up so I saved every penny I could get my hands on to move to Georgia (Atlanta being my initial plan until fate changed it to Athens). Monster, on the other hand was in his element there. He had everything he needed and had no desire to ever move away. He didn't drive, and there he had an endless supply of folks who would gladly take him anywhere he needed to go, or bring him whatever he needed so that he didn't have to go anywhere. All he had to do was play and he did it all day, everyday. He would occasionally hold down some crap job (usually to buy a new guitar or something) but usually got by on very cheap living and a lot of playing.

Once I ended up in Georgia, I didn't get to see him very often. He would talk of coming to see me here, but with no car nor money it never really happened. Around that time I reconciled with Cooley and we would get together once a month or so and 4 track new songs that I was writing. Again, talk would return to dreams of one day having a band that included Monster. Talking with him was also a rare treat because he usually didn't have a phone and when he did, he notoriously never answered it. Playing with Monster meant arranging (in person) any practices or shows and always picking him up and taking him home. He was just that way.

In the fall of 1995, I planned a trip to a cabin in the North Georgia Mountains. Cooley and his gal Ansley came, as did Monster and Tim (Facok who currently works for DBT) and Rob Malone and some other close friends from back home. I brought a new friend I had recently met in Georgia named Jim Stacy. The cabin was very old, filled with antiques and heirlooms belonging to my then wife Donna Jane and her family. There was really nothing to do but sit around and much picking and grinning ensued.

Jim and his date Debbie brought a bunch of great old-timey country compilations featuring Porter, Loretta, Tammy, Faron, and tons of others that sounded like new nectar to my ears that had grown so weary of all the same old crap I had been listening to. Jim also brought a banjo and played us a song cycle he had just written about circus life called Big Top. Later, he staged it as a punk rock circus that also shaped some of my opinions about performance art, but just hearing the songs on banjo was like a light being turned on. Later that night, Rob grabbed the banjo (which I don't think he had played before) and he and Cooley and Monster and I stayed up until sunrise reinventing songs (old and new) and passing around the bottle. We had so much fun that we made plans to repeat what we had done over Thanksgiving weekend at a venue back home. By Thanksgiving, I had written a few new songs to include and we called this show Pizza Deliverance.

Pizza Deliverance was played with Cooley and I on guitars, Rob Malone on banjo, and Monster played drums. I have a video of the show and believe me, it was a total train wreck, but it was also the most fun I had had on stage in years. Among the songs played that night were "The Company I Keep", "Nine Bullets", "18 Wheels of Love", and "Box of Spiders". After the show we stayed up all night, drinking and making plans of turning this experience into a "real band" in the not too distant future. Later still, Quillen slept with Cooley's car keys stuffed down his underwear to make sure that he didn't do something stupid like driving his drunken ass home.

Quillen was always doing things like this. He was a constant reminder to "fasten your seatbelt" and not drive drunk. He was a believer that in order to live carefree, you must be a little careful. I can't count the times he hid someone's keys or talked someone out of doing some stupid shit that could get you killed or arrested. He had such an endearing way of doing these things that made it all the more effective.

I don't think I ever saw him again after that Thanksgiving weekend. I returned to Athens GA where my idea for a band morphed into a recording project I renamed Drive-By Truckers. I continued writing at a fast pace and trying to save up some money for a day of studio time to record some of these new songs. In March, I wrote "The Living Bubba" which was inspired by the final days of Gregory Dean Smalley and either a week earlier or later (can't remember now) I wrote "Bulldozers and Dirt."

The day I wrote "Bulldozers and Dirt" I was walking my dogs in the field behind where I was living. Our house at the time backed up to University land that was undeveloped and perfect for walking Aretha and Loretta. I was somewhere out there when the song hit me and I ran home as fast as I could to write it down before it was lost forever. In this case, I knew I had written a song that would be important to me and because when I heard it in my head it had Quillen's harmonies all over it, I couldn't wait for him to hear it. I knew that the odds of him answering the phone were next to zero, but I called him anyway and to my surprise, he answered on the second ring. Before even saying "hello", I sang him the song, a cappella, in its entirety. He was blown away, saying it was the best song I had ever written. We then talked for over half an hour, making grand plans for him to catch a ride to Athens with Cooley for us to record it and a few more. I was so excited that I went ahead and booked the studio time (June 10, 1996) and began casting the other players for the session. I never spoke with him again.

As I was working to put together my own band, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to pick up some shows being backed by one of my favorite local bands The Possibilities. They agreed to back me up, under the name The Lot Lizards. We were invited, by Greg Smalley (right before his death) to play at Atlanta's famed Star Bar at their annual Bubbapalooza Festival. This was only my second time to play in Atlanta with a band and I was very excited to be there. After the show (May 25, 1996) I spent the night at my friend Amy's apartment in Atlanta. Amy was from back home also and the next morning we were awakened by a phone call from another friend who told her that Chris had been killed the night before in a car accident.

Nothing about Monster's death made sense to me (then or now). The next several days were a blur of tears, grief and disbelief. We all met up at Tim's apartment (where we had rehearsed Pizza Deliverance a few months earlier) and cried uncontrollably for days and nights on end. Quillen, who preached against drunk driving, was doing just that, sans seatbelt, when he hit a telephone pole and was killed instantly by a blow to the head.

His last night had been somewhat triumphant for him as well. His then band The Fiddleworms, had released their debut album that week and played a huge outdoor festival in downtown Florence AL to celebrate. Later that evening, they all convened at the singer's lake house and partied into the night down by the pier. Sometime before sunrise, Chris excused himself to go up to the house to sleep. Sometime later, in some kind of stupor, he took a car and evidently tried to make it to his own bed. The fact that he was killed on another side of town from where he was living only adds to the confusion and disbelief. No one who knew him understands any of this to this day, as the whole episode is completely uncharacteristic of him and all of his beliefs.

The night before his funeral, several of us had the exact same dream, in which he spoke to us clearly and candidly about what was up and what it all meant. I've never been one to put much faith in "out of body experiences" or ghost stories, but I awoke with vivid memories that I have to this day. Upon talking with several others, we all realized that we had had nearly the exact conversation with our beloved dead friend. I remember asking him if he was all right and he said he certainly was. He laughed in his trademark way about the irony of his having passed in such a ridiculous way. Towards the end of the dream I asked him if he would ever "visit" me again, but he said that it just didn't work that way. At this point, my dream took a turn that the others didn't, in which he said with a smile "watch this" and then, as if shining a flashlight onto a path in the woods, he showed me a path to follow, A path that I have followed ever since regarding my music and artistic life. The specifics of this are hard to explain, but it was literally like a road map that has led me from where I was then to where I am now.

On June 10, 1996, I convened at Andy Baker's studio in Athens GA with five friends. Half of us knew and loved Chris while the other half had never met him. We recorded five songs "Bulldozers and Dirt", "Nine Bullets", Margo and Harold", "Zoloft", and a brand new song that I wrote about Chris' senseless death called "Careless". To say we felt his presence in the room that day would be a severe understatement. Even those that never knew him could feel the electricity in the air that day and the performances, worked up on the spot, with no rehearsal, attest to it. Of the five songs, two ("Nine Bullets" and "Bulldozers and Dirt") were issued as our first single (on a long out of print vinyl 45). The take of "Margo and Harold" (the musical and emotional highpoint of the day) was later included on our second album, which we titled Pizza Deliverance. A few years later, we re-cut "Careless" for inclusion on our fifth album "Decoration Day".

Cooley and I recently celebrated 20 years of playing together. Rob Malone (who also shared the dream) joined our band in 1998 and played with us for three years, including our album "Southern Rock Opera". Our band will mark its 10th anniversary on the opening night of our upcoming tour opening for Black Crowes (Seattle is the opening city). A few of the songs we played together appeared on my first solo album, but with me attempting to sing his old harmony parts. He has made cameo appearances in various songs I have written, but never in a literal way. "Plastic Flowers on the Highway" tells of a friends death in a car accident, but under far different circumstances and his funeral is mentioned in "Tales Facing Up."

Chris' family erected a beautiful monument in the cemetery where he was laid, and area musicians still take guitars and leave offering of picks, and records and assorted musical memorabilia that he would like. The community has also started a scholarship program and a summer music camp in his name, which continue to this day. I still think of him all the time and try my best to honor his memory with my music and the band that he was supposed to have been a member of.

I haven't been to his gravesite since his funeral but the next time I return home, I intend to take my wife Rebecca, daughter Ava and my guitar to his monument and sing him a song. Maybe I'll have a new one for the occasion.

We love you Monster.

Patterson Hood
May 25, 2006 - Athens GA



Read Jenn's Monster memories.



For more information concerning Chris Quillen, his legacy, the scholarship fund, Camp Quillen and his music, click here.