It was conceived a decade ago as a one-off event—wham, bam, phew. It didn't even have an official name: Most knew it at the time only as Good/Bad Art Collective Benefit 22, the latest link in the heavy chain of events staged by Chris Weber, Martin Iles and the rest of the beloved, bemusing Denton collaborative that has since collapsed altogether. All folks knew was that it sounded like a genius idea, a small-star jam mish-mashing the Denton, Dallas and Fort Worth music scenes into one hot shit-or-get-off-the-stage event where even the bad was going to sound good by night's drunken end. The moniker "Rock Lottery," that didn't come until later.
On the morning of February 9, 1997, 25 musicians gathered at the now-defunct Argo in Denton for breakfast. Such local-music luminaries as Centro-matic's Will Johnson, Brave Combo's Jeff Barnes, Ten Hands' Paul Slavens, Baboon's Mike Rudnecki, Wayward Girl's Lisa Dirocco and Brutal Juice's Sam McCall threw their names into a cowboy hat. The five drummers on hand each put their grubby mitts in the hat and started yanking names, resulting in five bands that existed for all of one night: Dong, Blood Lotion, The Saucer Section, Magic Johnson: The Gathering (responsible for the infamous epic "Lord of the Pit") and Codename: FUCK. Each had only a few hours to write a handful of songs—and only one cover allowed, thanks for playing—and prep 'em for playing at the Argo that very night.
"It was daunting," says John Freeman, among the participants back when he was fronting Dooms U.K. "It wasn't for the faint of heart. It's all so totally random and high pressure, but in a high-pressure situation people always come through."
Freeman was in Codename: FUCK—"If you don't like it," he told the cheering crowd, "then fuck it!"—which opened its set with "Rock and Roll Lottery." The anthemic, if slightly anemic, prog-pop song would more or less become Rock Lottery's call to arms: "It's a rock and roll lottery/Come inside/Everyone's a winner tonight/It's a rock and roll suicide." Sounds about right: Performers that night said later they damned near killed themselves trying to assemble a start-from-scratch 30-minute set in a single afternoon.
Only, the "Rock and Roll Lottery" was born again a mere seven months later, and then again and again and again, eight times over since '97, and that doesn't even include the three Rock Lotteries that have taken place in Seattle in recent years. A one-off turned into a fixture turned into a franchise, which brings us to this weekend, when two Rock Lotteries take place in Denton—two, because a brief hiatus a few years ago created a gap in need of bridging. Still, it's a hell of a way to celebrate a 10th anniversary, and "that's kind of exciting and frightening at the same time," says Iles, who recently moved back to Denton from New York City. "But it's absolutely necessary, in keeping with the spirit of where it came from."
On Saturday, 25 more-or-less comers will gather for Rock Lottery 9 at Dan's Silver Leaf; they hail from such bands as Astronautilus, Dovehunter, the Theater Fire, the Happy Bullets, Mission Giant and Nouns Group. The 25 were assembled by a committee that includes Bryan Denny (a local promoter with an ear for metal), Jonah Lange (into "esoteric-y avant-garde," says Baptist General Chris Flemmons, now a Rock Lottery organizer) and Heather Yiirs, who books Rubber Gloves. The idea, says Flemmons, was to bring in a "wide spectrum of people who allow for a wide range of choices." Flemmons, Weber, Iles and Jetscreamer's Samantha Moss had "editorial control," meaning they added or subtracted from the committee's suggestions when they felt the list needed a "wild card," as Flemmons puts it.
"We started choosing people in April and got the list assembled in May, and people started making huge complaints about it, but you're never going to please everyone," Flemmons says. "It's a rather painful process, because we try to have spirited conversations about why they chose this person or that person. And there's usually beer involved."
The ninth incarnation will follow the familiar fresh-faces format, but Sunday's 10th-anniversary show promises something heretofore unheard of in Rock Lottery history: The 25 for that show are alumni of past Rock Lotteries, and Weber alone compiled the roster, something he hasn't done in years, given that nine years ago he moved Good/Bad's operations to New York City and then relocated to Seattle in 2004. Weber wanted to pick the cast—including George Neal of Little Grizzly, Day of the Double Agent's Regina Chellew, acclaimed sound jockey and Tre Orsi member Matt Barnhart and other familiars—without subjecting Iles and Flemmons and the other lords of the pit to disgruntled musicians' claims that they were playing politics.
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"Yeah, this whole 10th anniversary thing was my bright idea," says Weber from Seattle, where he's creative director for the McLeod Residence art gallery. "I kinda yelled it out in public, at Rock Lottery 7 at Dan's, and I couldn't take it back. People were talking about 10 years coming up and we were behind, and I said we could do back-to-back and catch up and invite people back for the first time. So for the 10th I picked all the musicians, and I think it's also a case of the others politically wanted me to take all the blame and/or credit for who was left off or why people were picked, which I totally understand."
There's also another wrinkle: For the 10th anniversary show on Sunday, drummers won't be picking names out of the hat. "So this year a band could end up with two drummers," Flemmons says, "or none at all." Weber just figured he needed to up the ante for the alumni show.
For those who've never attended a Rock Lottery show, it's far from a gimmick, a gag. Absolutely, it's a bit of a catastrofuck at times, and much of the music over the years doesn't hold up. Out of the eight previous Rock Lotteries in Denton, only a handful of songs remain more than faded memories: "Lord of the Pit," which Barnhart's Pink Bullets majestically covered for Rock Lottery 6 in September 2005; and the band Wombstone Pizza's eponymous rock opera, which lasted 20 what-the-fuck minutes. And only one band actually stayed together after its Rock Lottery ticket had been punched: La Cheenies de la Boonies, from the second shindig. But Rock Lottery is all that remains of Good/Bad, and it's a worthy tribute to the collaborative's resonant efforts to make something out of everything.
"It would be wrong to think it's all about the music," Iles says. "It's about being there, being in the moment. That's what kept me loving Rock Lottery and wanting to do it past Good/Bad's time. It keeps the thing I loved about Good/Bad fresh in my mind—that experience, that one night with a big group of people in a room where they'll see something they'll never see again. And it could be the best thing in the world or the worst thing in the world, but you couldn't blame us—it was in our name! Rock Lottery's like Good/Bad itself, full of heroic failures and debatable successes."