Lives: Rick Dreyfuss, drummer of Half Japanese

Rick Dreyfuss and Wiley, a German wire-haired pointer in their backyard in Silver Spring. Rick Dreyfuss and Wiley, a German wire-haired pointer in their backyard in Silver Spring. (Xena Dreyfuss/Courtesy John Dreyfuss)

Written by J. Freedom du Lac

Not long after he turned 50, art-punk old-timer Rick Dreyfuss got the band back together at his Silver Spring home. He had a slightly outrageous proposal, so he summoned the guys: his brother, John, and their old friend, Mark Jickling; plus Jad and David Fair, who had absorbed Rick and John and Mark into their underground rock group, Half Japanese, more than a quarter-century earlier.

I’ve got this great idea, Rick told them. I want any band I’ve ever played with and everybody associated with the people from those bands to get together some afternoon, in some rented space somewhere, and put on a show. We’ll have our own day of music — our own festival to share with friends and family.

The Lives Issue: Runner Hedy Marque. The Lives Issue: Runner Hedy Marque. (George Banker/George Banker)

Realtor Rita Devine. Realtor Rita Devine. (Courtesy of Rita Grace)

Tuskegee Airman Herven Exum. Tuskegee Airman Herven Exum. (Courtesy of family)

Snowball’s chance, John Dreyfuss thought. But Rick Dreyfuss insisted. On July 7, 2007, on a private residence in rural Westminster, Md., the Shakemore festival was born.

The first lineup featured a whole lot of … Rick Dreyfuss.

Ricardo V. Dreyfuss always liked drumming — or at least beating on things. As an art major at the College of William and Mary, he sawed off a couple of broomsticks and used his bunk bed as a drum kit, making as if he were Mitch Mitchell in the Jimi Hendrix Experience. While serving as a photo lab technician in the Army, he got serious and got practice pads.

In the mid-1970s, “he decided to commit totally,” John Dreyfuss recalled. “He bought a drum set and proceeded to keep us up at all hours.”

Soon the Dreyfuss boys, who liked their music obscure, joined their first punk band, the Chumps. Later they persuaded Jad and David Fair, the reclusive brothers behind Half Japanese, to do some shows with them in Washington.

“They had these genius songs, and everyone on Earth — a very small Earth — wanted to see them,” John Dreyfuss said of the Fairs. “They were notoriously shy. David Fair had the classic response to us: ‘One hundred percent of me wants to play, but the other 100 percent of me doesn’t want to play.’ ”

The Dreyfuss brothers joined Half Japanese onstage for a few shows, then joined the band. Some of their earliest work together is documented on Half Japanese’s 1980 triple-album, “1/2 Gentlemen/Not Beasts,” rereleased this year. The music Web site Pitchfork published a glowing review in April, weeks after Rick Dreyfuss died.

The timing might not have mattered, said Jickling, who met Rick in grade school when they were Foreign Service kids living in Guatemala.

“It would have been nice for him to see that, but he never looked for outside approval,” said Jickling, who became a member of Half Japanese shortly after the Dreyfuss brothers. “He was always very much underground. His mind-set was that the making of the stuff, the work, was everything.”

“He didn’t slow down at all,” his brother John said. Four days before he died at age 58 of complications from cancer, Dreyfuss recorded two new songs.

Rick Dreyfuss had given up the drums and the songs for years, becoming a family man with a career as a photo-microscoper at the National Institutes of Health. But satisfied with the stability at work and at home, with the youngest of his four children in high school, he wanted an outlet for his creative energies. Shakemore, his brother said, was “a way to revisit his past, satisfy his need to perform and maybe usher in a new era.”

John, a saxophonist, said his brother had multiple slots at the first festival: four with the bands they’d played in together and a couple of solo sets, including one that Rick — a drummer, songwriter and occasional singer — dubbed the Polyglot Onslaught. The festival was held in the middle of nowhere, on a property surrounded by fields. People went swimming during the show. The PA was problematic. Kids sometimes wound up onstage. Just about everybody in attendance was a scheduled performer or related to one.

Rick was thrilled. “He was really excited that the whole thing had come to fruition, and I think he was surprised by how well it turned out,” John Dreyfuss said.

Shakemore became an annual event, growing every year. “Many bands!!! Many friends!!! Starz galore!!!” read the banner that Rick Dreyfuss hand-painted for the 2011 festival. (There were, in fact, no stars on the bill, though some of the artists that Half Japanese had influenced became famous, including Kurt Cobain.)

Said David Fair, who organized the event with Dreyfuss: “Rick said to me a few times he was as proud of the festival as anything he had ever done.”

As Rick struggled with lung cancer — he was in and out of hospitals and in chemotherapy during the last few years of his life — he increasingly focused on his music, writing regularly, recording, practicing, performing and organizing Shakemore.

“He didn’t slow down at all,” John said. “It was kind of shocking.” Four days before he died at age 58 of complications from cancer, Dreyfuss recorded two new songs.

Several months later, the seventh Shakemore was staged in the usual spot, with its creator’s likeness (sort of) hanging from the big tent. “David made a gigantic painting of him — it sort of looked like the Nosferatu version of Ricky,” his brother said.

“We put it up outdoors and felt his presence,” David Fair said.

About 400 people attended. Rick’s most recent band, Spidercake, performed with a stand-in vocalist and drummer. Half Japanese filled the void with two drummers.

“You can’t really just replace him, so it seemed like a nice honor to get two guys,” Fair said. “And it sounded like Rick with the energy he used to have years ago.”

J. Freedom du Lac is a Washington Post staff writer.

For more in the Lives issue, read about:

- Realtor and single mother Rita Devine

- Herven Exum, Tuskegee Airman

- Hedy Marque, long-distance runner through her 80s

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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