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It's not uncommon at a major record label's headquarters to see a hip, bald man in his late 30s cleaning out his cubicle. In his four years as a business analyst at Universal Music, Rob Coe has seen more than 200 people pink slipped and escorted from the building. What's unusual about Coe is that he's leaving by choice. He's giving up his cushy, $75,000-a-year, L.A.-based job to jump in the van and split $100 to $200 a night with his mates in the Enablers -- a band that's played only eight shows in its two-year history and zero in its current incarnation.
To make matters even sketchier, all of his band members live in South Florida, his culturally bereft home. Why would he do such a thing?
"Most people at labels don't know much about music or about business," Coe says in a hushed tone while waiting for his exit interview. "They happen upon something -- it could be by chance. There's not much going on. It's based solely on what's the current thing going on. What was Shaggy? It was an act of fate that everyone ran to take credit for once it happened."
In contrast, his escape from Miami and subsequent four-year exile in the City of Angels was anything but accidental. Coe took a year's sabbatical from his teaching job at Palmetto Middle School, got a master's degree in computer education from Barry University, and returned to teaching for a year before retiring.
Any of Mr. Coe's students who wondered why he wasn't sticking around could have found the answer in a July 2000 copy of Street Miami, the alt-weekly where Coe infamously flipped off the Miami skyline in a two-page spread. More than a decade of struggling in the South Florida music scene as a guitarist in hard-drinking punk bands Naughty Puritans, Cell 63, and Fay Wray had so poisoned Coe that he developed the theory that "Florida killed rock 'n' roll." This came despite Cell 63's sizable local following and the unanimous critical huzzahs that championed both of Fay Wray's CDs for Gainesville's No Idea label. Then Coe, who once wrote a song called "I Think I Hate LA," moved west.
The trip to L.A. proved anything but glamorous. Coe took up residence in the Hotel Maryland, a flophouse for the would-be famous.
"It was pretty skid-row," he remembers. "It had a single bed, and there were no amenities. No fridge, TV, or stove."
To kill time before it killed him, Coe began appearing at open-mic nights.
"There were lots of cell phones," he cracks. "Sometimes, I think people would just go up there and play phone tones. For something that should be kind of an organic experience -- people go there and think: 'This is it! This is going to change my life!'"
Coe soon found that the would-be star whoring wasn't limited to the would-be famous.
"Steven Bishop ['70s soft rocker of "On and On" fame] played right after me one night," Coe remembers. "He went on about being with some model: 'I wrote this song after I was with this girl in a hotel room...' I started clapping, and he got surly and said, 'You weren't there.'
"Hey, if you look like Steven Bishop and you get with a model -- that deserves applause!"
In between open-mic nights, Coe began making pilgrimages to Joshua Tree National Park, where he paid tribute to the legendary late folk rocker Gram Parsons by performing in the annual festival dedicated to him. Parsons' musical sensibility always had intrigued Coe, but Parsons's biography, Hickory Wind, changed the trajectory of his life.
"His wife was saying that when he was trying to kick the drugs, there was always a steady stream of enablers coming in. He could never cut himself completely off," Coe says. "There was always someone ingratiating -- something that operates within our society -- that never gets called out. It's a very real thing -- people who enable other people. In this case, they came out of the woodwork, and it did him in."
Thus, the concept of the Enablers took hold in Coe's brain. Being in L.A. -- where show-biz flameouts happen every day and moderation doesn't exist -- helped immensely.
"I updated it," Coe explains. "Robert Downey Jr., on one of those episodes, the guy calls him up: 'I know you're out of rehab, but I think a trip to the strip club won't hurt.' And it was all over. What I was trying to do was hold it up to the light. Showing it up for the hypocritical thing it is."
And show it up, he did. Before he assembled a single musician, Coe put up www.myenablers.com, a website that houses celebrity mugshots, his theories, patented rock 'n' roll stage moves, and a growing collection of MP3s -- which tie into the other half of the Enablers concept. Coe expands: "The one thing that enables the people I know is the music. You can fall on your worst time, and if you put on a blues record from the '30s, that's what enables you to get through the bullshit."
Though acoustic guitar and harmonicas may have helped Woody Guthrie kill fascists, Coe remained a rock 'n' roll animal without a band until he hooked up with Interscope executive/bassist Mitch Powers, who helped him recruit a band. And the Enablers were born as a live act with a weekly residence at L.A. punk club the Garage in June 2002. The band made an immediate impact, which shocked Coe.
"You realize that, anywhere, people are starved for a good show," he says. "You know, it's L.A. There are a lot of bands. But there's not a lot going on out there. I saw a flier yesterday that said, 'There's 1,000 bands playing Los Angeles tonight. We are not one of those bands. '" He laughs: "Then what are you?"
Unfortunately, Powers got engaged, and the Enablers soon found themselves sans bassist. But before Powers left, Coe's South Florida homeboy, Quit guitarist Addison Burns, came out to L.A. and recorded the Enablers material. Coe began e-mailing MP3s of Burns' recordings to anyone who ever gave any of his bands the time of day, a shotgun approach that soon paid a dividend.
"I thought I was e-mailing the file for 'Tomorrow' to Russell Remains at Fracture Zine," Coe muses. "Instead, it landed in the hands of Dave Hopkins, who was just starting [UK indie label] Newest Industry. He liked it and said, 'Do you have any more?'"
Newest Industry signed the band, and in March 2003, Coe flew back to Miami for a weeklong bacchanal/recording session at Dungeon recording studios with Burns, ex-Dashboard Confessional bassist Dan Bonebrake, and Pivot drummer Jordan Keith.
"I blew out my voice on the plane because of the altitude or something," Coe recalls. "I thought, 'I can either take care of it and stop drinking, or I can just keep drinking and go for it.' So I kept drinking. We'd go until we were too drunk to do anything. And you'd have to be pretty drunk not to play. So we'd sleep on the floor of the Dungeon, curl up in one of the blankets that they wrap the microphones in, and repeat the process the next day."
The result, Sweet Fuck All, is Coe's masterpiece. While lacking the unhinged mania of Fay Wray's best work, Coe's Dylan-meets-Westerberg lyrical stylings ("Dear Beer/Can you say when?/I'll hear the telephone ring/And make her take me back") work wonders, while the music sounds like a three-way street brawl among Social Distortion, the Replacements, and Leatherface. Despite (or perhaps because of) the alcohol consumed at the session, the playing is crisp and balls-out. Not bad for a band that had never played together before the session.
Newest Industry was so thrilled with the record that it is flying the Enablers across the pond for a two-week UK tour next week -- the first overseas tour for all but Bonebrake (whose brother Darryl is now playing drums). That was enough for Coe to put his stuff in storage and go for broke. Is this his midlife crisis?
"It's a prelife crisis," he responds. "I held out for good terms. They are taking care of everything! Flying us out, lodging, renting the back line, the van, getting the work permits -- who gets that opportunity? It ain't rocket science. I'd have to be a moron to pass up what's in front of me."