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Stanford band does a number on the ordinary

Getting in step at the USC game with an outfit that, while not always tasteful, is the most consistently entertaining thing ever to come out of Palo Alto.

November 02, 2011|Chris Erskine
  • Members of the Stanford band perform during halftime of the Cardinal's triple overtime victory over USC on Saturday.
Members of the Stanford band perform during halftime of the Cardinal's… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Talk about your different drummers. Tiggy plays the kitchen sink. She has it strapped across her hips like a snare drum and bangs at it with sticks, producing a rattle-whompus-Seussian sound, like a junkyard truck crossing the tracks. Nice.

One edge of the old stainless steel sink, the one facing out, is broken off and lethal as a switchblade. No worries. Tiggy knows what she's doing. I think.

I am marching with the Stanford band, legally known as the Leland Stanford Junior (pause) University Marching Band, a subversive splotch upon the college landscape, an abstract work of upstarts.

Like Tiggy, I know what I'm doing. I think.

Drawn as I am to anarchists, bartenders and bookies, it just seems a great way to spend a fall evening, marching with a band that doesn't really march. The anti-band. The sort of unit Hunter S. Thompson might command. And about the most fun you could possibly have in a red blazer and a Gilligan hat.

You say Immanuel Kant? I say Immanuel Kan! But then I've always been an optimist.

But seriously, folks, nothing could be less serious than the Stanford non-marching band, not always tasteful but the most consistently entertaining thing ever to come out of the tiny, bejeweled principality of Palo Alto.

In the '70s, the band marked Patty Hearst's kidnapping by forming the "Hearst Burger," two buns, no patty.

In 1990, Oregon's governor tried to ban the band, not just from Oregon games, but from the entire state after the musicians lampooned logging by forming a chain saw.

In South Bend, the band is still banned for sassing the local religion, as well as drinking and the Irish. I guess being banned in South Bend is a little like being banned in Boston, a reverse compliment.

Last Saturday for the USC game I went to see how they were going to skewer L.A., a rather target-rich environment.

Here's what I found: The Stanford band features bagpipes, played by a guy named Pipez (the kids all have nicknames, and where you would put an "s," they prefer to plant a "z.")

One kid plays a high chair. One kid might be playing his nose. There's a pretty decent drum corps — the only unit in the band that requires a tryout. But pretty much everyone else is a walk-on.

"I've been doing this 30 years, and my favorite instrument was the moose head," says Todd, one of the alums (class of '79) who likes to occasionally sit in.

"I played oboe in high school, and I didn't want to learn a new instrument," Tiggy explains of her kitchen sink. "Besides, I feel like the sink is a statement. As in 'everything and the kitchen sink.' "

That's this band, a quirky blend of otherwise dedicated souls — who else gets into Stanford? — letting loose in a reminder that college games can still be fun, even if the general tendency is to turn them into the Battle of Stalingrad.

For the USC game, they rehearsed once, for about an hour. Their breakfast of choice, reputedly, is beer and doughnuts, and they're fond of the occasional stogie.

They don't march so much as scatter randomly and wiggle like jellyfish. In Saturday's game, there was a DUCK theme. I was in it, and I'm still not sure what it all meant. The directions for the pregame and halftime shows explained, "Basically U$C students are rich, spoiled...."

And that's as much of the manifest as I can print. By the way, I didn't sense that the Stanford kids came from families that were just scraping by.

Back to the DUCK for a second. During the halftime show, I'd figured that we'd spell D-U-C-K, as planned, then some of the more punky subversive would change the first letter to something else, most obviously an "L," to honor their quarterback.

But nothing like that happens. Some of the young scholars grumble that USC had to pre-approve the program, crimping their creativity. They call it overtly authoritarian. I just call that wise.

In any case, I am happy to report that an evening with the Stanford non-marching band is as fun as you'd hope. Some journalists "embed" with Bravo Company. I embed with a bunch of high-achieving teenagers, which is almost worse.

My only brush with death came when one of the trombonists started to quiz me on USC lore, and why they call themselves the "Men of Troy" when the Trojans were whipped at Troy.

As we parted, he said, "You know the first rule of the band, don't you?"

"You have rules?"

"The first rule of band is rock the @%#!$# out."

Which I always do anyway. My only regret was that I didn't fall down and do a snow angel at halftime, as a buddy suggested. I've been to a lot of football games, and I know what players do between plays — spit, snort, molt, hurl.

While a snow angel sounds properly whimsical, a goo angel — well, slightly less so.

As Kant himself said, "There is nothing higher than reason."

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