Rushad Eggleston’s ability to rally a crowd makes him Monterey County’s first supernatural rock star.
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Whether Rushad Eggleston is greeting his mother, meeting his drummer or saluting the hostess at the Barnyard’s Robata Sushi Grill, he holds his hands up closely in front of his chest, then breaks his wrists, flopping his white nail-polished fingers forward like an oversized, androgynous rabbit. Those who have experienced the Carmel native’s welcome know he then waits for the bunny hands to be reciprocated.
The welcome is unique. But the bizarre greeting is merely the most immediate indicator that there’s nothing ordinary about Eggleston.
His outfits certainly aren’t – before performing, he spends hours reinventing himself with over-the-top cosmic costumes that have recently included everything from a red polymer bodysuit to nothing but a pair of cheetah-spotted briefs.
His passion for music is even rarer: While other eighth-graders were outside playing basketball or flirting with girls, Eggleston was spending hours on end transcribing the violin music of Niccolò Paganini; by college, while he was still attending harmony and musical arrangement classes, he was nominated for a Grammy (in 2003).
Nothing is very normal about his ego, his family or his appetite for women. But perhaps least ordinary of all is the type of energy Eggleston can evoke from fans – or the instrument with which he conjures it.
A guy with salt-and-pepper hair, who has been standing alone quietly sipping a cocktail for most of the night, throws down his couture leather jacket and dives into the chaos of the 100-plus people suddenly raging on the small Monterey Live dance floor.
Sweat halves the back of a girl’s white shirt as she grinds against the air as if she were performing a mating ritual. Another girl in purple high heels hypnotically gyrates like a whirligig in a hurricane.
As the audience sings along to his freedom anthem, “I’m a Falcon,” Eggleston rips off his shredded T-shirt and aims his cello at the amplifier, inducing distortion and feedback. He takes the feedback and molds it into the sounds of a falcon cry echoing through a canyon.
A moment later he’s simultaneously attacking the strings with a mercury-quick bow and leaping on and off the stage like a possessed banshee in green tights, lifting the rabid crowd into synchronized shouts of the chorus.
His quick riffs and percussion-like chops rattle inner organs; the look on his face suggests he’s already transformed into the powerful bird and is soaring through the sky. The audience can only try to keep up, flailing their arms around like spastic sparrows. A woman takes off her headband, revealing long, curly blonde locks that she whips around in circle. She closes her eyes and clenches her fists as Eggleston takes her and the crowd back into the chorus: “I’m a falcon/ you’re a falcon.”
Even on nightlife-heavy Thursdays, Fridays or Saturdays, virtually nowhere in Monterey County do crowds achieve this kind of energy. As local concert promoters have learned, the 29-year-old Eggleston is as reliable a draw as any local act. Tonight’s rock-and-roll rabidness is happening on a Sunday.
The Tornado Rider frontman doesn’t conduct his music-induced mind control with the ordinary rock star tools: a guitar, bass or drums. He’s enlisting an instrument traditionally applied by chamber groups in settings that better resemble libraries than nightclubs.
And he’s using it in a way that has surely never been done before: Cutting, sawing and stabbing the strings with his mouth half open and his eyes glazed over.
At one micro-pause in the music, Eggleston holds up his cello bow and yells, “This bow is a tool for expressing schizophrenia, squeezed through a butthole of rationality!”
Eggleston rifles through a vintage, lime-green suitcase with the exhilaration of a 5-year-old tearing the wrapping paper from a Christmas present. Before the Monterey Live show – or any of his performances – his mission is to create a new costume that will top all his past innovations of medieval psychedelia.
Garments coat the floor of the greenroom like a teenager’s bedroom. He discards a caldron of choices: cotton candy-pink tights, a Santa Claus hat, Viking horns, silver nail polish, sequined shirts, a mess of mismatched argyle socks and a pair of silk boxer shorts.
Barely 140 pounds, with short, tousled hair and eyes carrying the intensity of a dire wolf, he picks up a pair of Granny Smith apple-green tights.
“THIS BOW IS A TOOL FOR EXPRESSING SCHIZOPHRENIA, SQUEEZED THROUGH A BUTTHOLE OF RATIONALITY.”
“I may not strip tonight,” he says. “I wish I had a really tight shirt – does anyone have a really tight shirt?”
At the other corners of the room, Tornado Rider’s bassist Graham Terry and drummer Scotty Manke vibe off Eggleston’s eccentric wardrobe fetish.
“Anyone have a cape?” Manke asks before affixing a Moses beard to his face.
As the 10pm curtain call approaches, Eggleston makes his choice: a frayed white T-shirt covered with hand-painted creatures, the green tights, leopard-print briefs, sailboat socks pulled up over the tights and his signature, checkered VANS.
He puts on red pinstriped boxer shorts over the way-too-revealing leopard briefs.
To top off his cosmic get-up, he throws on a green-and-yellow wristband, a green headband and writes “ZARF” on his arm with a black pen.
“It’s like a metrosexual elf,” Eggleston says. “I think this outfit is gonna work.”
Eggleston’s atypical style impulses are nothing new. At Carmel High School he went through a barefoot stage – he’d come to school wearing normal-enough shirts and pants, just no socks or shoes. When school administrators told Eggleston that attending school barefoot was against school regulations, he came to school the next day wearing green Converse All Stars with the soles cut out.
Like his costume decisions, Eggleston’s other choices can seem abrupt and sometimes a little ridiculous: Just last month, he spontaneously tore across the country in a Prius – driving 52 hours each way – just to pick up some things he had in storage, mostly clothes.
“I was really psyched to get back the elf shoes,” he says. “They curve at the top.”
The decision to pursue a career in music – one that would soon lead to the first scholarship ever granted to a cello player by Berklee School of Music – was similarly sudden, but completely appropriate.
It was after his sophomore year in high school that Eggleston discovered the existence of the high school equivalency test. His decision to take the test was immediate.
“When I was in school, it was like music was just an extracurricular activity and after homework I’d have only two hours to practice,” he says. “Music is more than an extracurricular activity. It’s my life. The decision to quit school was easy.”
He spent every day focusing on music. Sometimes it would be four hours straight before he’d take his hand of the neck off his cello for a brief break. Practice time ran from 8 to 14 hours a day.
Eggleston’s unusual affinity for music was evident even as an infant.
“I was always playing classical records for Rushad and when he was 18 months, he started to pick out the records he wanted to listen to,” his mother, Nazeen Eggleston-MacDougall, says. “When I’d play Baroque, he’d say, ‘Nice pretty music.’”
By the age of 3, Eggleston began playing the violin. He moved on to the cello when he was 8.
Margie Dally, Eggleston’s first cello teacher, quickly noticed he was different.
“[Eggleston] really loved all the technical exercises and he learned them all so quickly,” Dally says. “I knew his ability was pretty special.”
Though Dally recalls Eggleston as a shy and polite child, she did see glimpses of the character to come.
“Anytime he played, he never cared about how he looked,” Dally says. “He was not self-conscious at all about the faces he made.”
When Eggleston became the youngest member of the MPC String Orchestra, conducted by Dally’s husband, David, his wild ways became more apparent. Margie Dally says Eggleston’s grand entrance would always get the audience’s attention: He would leap onto the stage and spin in the air, sometimes with his cello in hand.
“We never worried, because after watching him do this before every performance we knew he was in full control,” Dally says. “And of course, he’s still doing things like this when he performs.”
WHEN I MET RUSHAD, HE HAD THIS BIZARRE HOBBY OF JUMPING OVER PARKED CARS. I THINK HE WAS UP TO MIATAS.
It was when she gave him a recording of Appalachian Journey – featuring Edgar Meyer, Mark O’Connor, Stephen Foster, Alison Krauss and legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma – that Eggleston’s musical boundaries expanded dramatically.
“He told me that he would listen to that CD over and over again. He never heard cello playing in anything but classical music,” Dally says.
Shortly after Eggleston was introduced to this alternative cello style he continued his exploration by trading his cello for the guitar and listening to bands like AC/DC and Nirvana.
“I learned four chords and spent all day in my room playing them and rearranging them,” he says.
He quickly learned how to play all the songs he listened to and soon began writing his own songs. He still remembers the lyrics to the first song he wrote:
“I’m a cat/ I got jumper cables on my back… ”
But the affair with guitar was short-lived; the cello beckoned to him to fuse his newly found rock influence with the classical music that continued to run through his blood. Eggleston developed a whole new cello style: a combination of Metallica and Wagner on massive doses of speed. He began performing every week at the Monterey Farmers Market with Pat Clark of the Cachagua Playboys.
Around this time Eggleston’s father urged him to send in a recording to the Berklee School of Music in Boston, after the Herald published an article announcing that the prestigious music school was looking for new talent in the area. Eggleston submitted the recording, and was asked to audition in person at the Monterey Fairgrounds; not long thereafter, he was offered a full scholarship to Berklee, the first ever offered by the school to a strings musician. Initially, Eggleston wanted to decline the offer and live off the land in Big Sur. But at the urging of his longtime cello teacher and parents, he accepted the scholarship.
“It took an army to convince him that it would be a great thing for him,” Dally says. “His parents were especially adamant about him not passing up the opportunity.”
A close relationship with his parents helped him honor their advice. Though they separated in 2003 after raising Rushad and his two younger brothers, Zarosh and Zubin, in Carmel, both his parents have been instrumental in encouraging and fostering his music career.
They are also unique birds themselves. His father, Bob, who permanently renamed himself Raboon after a surfing trip in Nicaragua, is a longhaired local icon living in a house he built in the Cachagua backwoods (where pro skateboarder Zarosh is currently constructing a massive concrete skate park in the backyard). His mom, a Zoroastrian originally from Mumbai, is a gourmet chef with a vast knowledge of classical music.
“Rushad would call from Boston and say that he was broke and had to get a real job,” his mother says. “We’d tell him, ‘No, you’re not going to get a real job, you’re going to support yourself through your music.’”
Eggleston’s parents knew that once the musicians in the area caught wind of their son’s ability, he would find plenty of work in music. They were right.
Darol Anger, a famous fiddler who has played with everyone from Earl Scruggs to David Grisman while earning extensive musical honors (including the California Arts Council Composer Fellowship), first met Eggleston when was a student at Berklee.
“I had heard his name and there was a lot of talk about him,” Anger says. “We first connected at an alternative strings convention in Montreal.”
Eggleston and Anger had an impromptu jam session in Anger’s hotel room. Anger became quickly enthralled with Eggleston’s musical ability. He refers to Eggleston as the “coyote” who always “goes deep with his music but is playful at the same time.
“When I met Rushad, he had this bizarre hobby of jumping over parked cars. I think he was up to Miatas,” Anger says.
But Anger saw beyond Eggleston’s apparent quirkiness and felt an immediate musical bond, as if they had known each other for a long time.
“[Eggleston] transcends all musical limitations,” Anger says. “I also saw that physical vitality is part of who he is. It was very exciting,”
Soon after their first meeting in Canada, Anger asked Eggleston to play with his virtuoso bluegrass band, Fiddlers 4, and his side project, Republic of Strings.
In 2002, while a junior at Berklee, Eggleston was nominated for a Grammy in the “Best Traditional Folk” category for his cello work with Fiddlers 4.
The praise got pretty lofty: “Rushad Eggleston has become the premier cellist in modern roots music,” The Boston Herald wrote.
Anger agreed, calling Eggleston “one of the best cellists I’ve ever worked with.
“[Eggleston’s] one of the smartest people I know. He’s someone who’s always doing something outrageous. Usually you don’t want someone like that in your band,” Anger says. “But everything that comes out of his cello is always right. I could always count on him musically, whether he was throwing his shoes off or doing something else crazy.”
Though they remain friends, and despite the accolades they earned together, Eggleston eventually quit his rewarding musical relationship with Anger because he wanted to do something that featured his cello more. It wouldn’t be the last time he would terminate a collaboration over creative control.
The same bold ego that has an unmistakably positive effect on his high-octane performances, say some of Eggleston’s closest friends and former band mates, drives his need to own that control. It also generates turmoil in some of his closest relationships, both musical and romantic.
Nico Georis lived on the same block as Eggleston when they were kids. Georis came around to play with Eggleston’s younger brother but ended up becoming best friends with Eggleston in high school. They formed a tight musical bond.
“[Eggleston] knew I played piano so one day he asked me to jam and we played some great blues,” Georis says. “We’ve been best friends ever since.”
Over almost a decade, there have been three incarnations of the Georis-Eggleston musical collaboration: Nico and Rushad, This and That and Palo Colorado.
The one Nico and Rushad album pays homage to world music – it’s both tranquil and demonstrative of each musician’s talent. Eggleston and Georis play a combined total of 16 instruments on the album, including mandolin, didgeridoo and water glasses. The duo’s next manifestation was This and That: a jazz-fusion quartet. Palo Colorado – a Medeski, Martin and Wood-esque acid jazz band – was their last and most popular musical collaboration.
“He’s one of the most captivating people I’ve ever met, but he does have a dark side,” Georis says. “Ever since he was a kid he always had to be the center of attention; that’s just the way he is. The feelings that drive Rushad in everything he does are powerful. It’s hard to work with him because of this. Ultimately, [Eggleston] was never satisfied because he didn’t have his own band. He grew out of Palo Colorado.”
But Georis says that the departure from the band has been better for both of them, musically.
“With Tornado Rider he’s finally freed from the shackles of bands. He’s totally liberated,” Georis says. “His music is way original and I admire his songwriting. I’ve never counted on [Eggleston] not being successful.”
Eggleston describes the splintering of Palo Colorado differently, though succinctly.
“It was a mutiny,” he says.
Eggleston has flourished in Tornado Rider in large part because his band members have happily ceded leadership to their wiry frontman. Eggleston is now the unquestioned leader of his own group with complete musical control.
“Playing with Rushad is the most thrilling experience I’ve ever had, musically,” Tornado Rider’s bassist Graham Terry says. “He needs to have control and Scott and I are willing to give him control. We enjoy giving him this flexibility.”
Regardless of his professional success, Eggleston’s relationships with women continue to be problematic. It’s been about three months since he broke up with his longtime girlfriend.
“She just couldn’t handle that I always chose music over her,” he says.
Eggleston says that women will never come before his music, but he cannot resist falling into the thresholds of romantic relationships.
Tornado Rider drummer Scott Manke says that is simply one of Eggleston’s paradoxes.
“He loves being in a committed relationship but also loves his freedom. Women constantly distract him,” Manke says. “I wouldn’t call it an addiction but he’s definitely very into it.”
Maybe it’s the heartbreak or maybe it’s the freedom, but since Eggleston has been single, Manke adds, he has been writing great songs.
Whether in or out of a relationship, Eggleston remains in costume. Unsurprisingly, Halloween is one of his favorite holidays. This year, he spent most of the day putting together the perfect ensemble of craziness for Tornado Rider’s special Halloween gig on the lawn at the Hopkins Marine Center in Pacific Grove.
Before the show, one-piece, apple-red long johns with a butt flap, a raggedy straw hat and a navy bandana ultimately make the costume cut.
Soon, drunken Sarah Palins and sexy zombies are throwing themselves at the foot of Eggleston’s romping cello solos, fueling his fire. He goes into his punk-ridden song, “Paranoidness and Pain.”
“Paranoidness and pain, paranoidness and pain/ I’m gonna pick them up and throw them down the drain/ And I’m not gonna go insane, not gonna go insane… ”
He punctuates each refusal to “go insane,” by shouting, “No!” The audience joins him, punching their fists in the air in unison: “Not gonna go insane!”
“Not gonna go insane!”
Suddenly Eggleston drops to his knees on the grass and busts out one of his scorching solos. The crowd engulfs him tightly. Beautiful girls in skimpy fairy costumes simulate fellatio in front of the mic.
His adrenaline is screaming. The crowd is screaming. His cello is screaming. Everything Rushad Eggleston – his costumes, his passion, his control – is loud and present. And he never misses a note.