Shaking Hands With Mr. Happy
An iconic band resurfaces
by Luther DiBergi
No band wants to be relegated to the infamous “where are they now” file, but Mr. Happy really made us wonder.
Each of their four short years together brought better songs, more live shows, better venues, tighter musicianship, and bigger crowds, filled with fans who knew their songs by heart.
They made their professional recording debut at Seattle’s Egg Studios with producer Mark Gunther at the helm. The resulting 5-song EP, World’s Largest Egg, was well-received (and still sounds great today). A full-length album, Go South Young Man, was reportedly in the works.
They played Every Venue That Mattered: The Swan, The Vogue, The Off Ramp, The Cave. They shared the stage with such local legends as Tina Chopp, Peach, Clyde, and Stumpy Joe. They co-headlined two free indoor/outdoor concerts with 10:07 when that band was just getting its start. The iconic Mr. Happy cartoon face adorned car bumpers, t-shirts and guitar cases all over the Northwest. The band thrived in the spotlight, becoming darlings of “Creepy Clicker” photographer Michelle Guilford, who took most of their publicity photographs, including the now-infamous “underwear bus stop” picture.
Suddenly, at the height of their fame, they stunned the world by playing one single farewell gig and then disappearing from public view. That was it. No solo albums, no lucrative reunions, nothing.
On October 15, 1994, I went to Tacoma, Washington to a popular metal-heavy music venue called 805 Steel. Don't look for it; it's not there anymore. But that night, I heard a band that for me redifined the term “basement rock.”
Mr. Happy had a way of taking the gritty ethic of early 90s Seattle and twisting it into a seemingly endless number of shapes, all as engaging as they were original. They moved effortlessly between catchy pop, angry punk, and emotional ballads, hooking the audience early like a novel you just can’t put down.
At six-foot-six, frontman Dan was impossible to ignore. He would swirl and swoosh through rapid-fire guitar hooks and blistering solos while delivering vocals that moved from smooth to jarring and back without warning. Though his tall stature kept him from looking effeminate in any way, he had a sort of urban androgeny about him that was hard to describe.
Legend has it they used to practice in a basement with a ceiling so low that Dan had to stand with his head poking up between the ceiling joists.
Abe hit every drum with nothing less than total enthusiasm, grinning throughout. In the early days, the band was so poor that they couldn’t afford stands for all the cymbals, so Abe hung a couple of them from the ceiling, positioning them perfectly for hitting but causing a dangerous situation when a cymbal would swing back like a pendulum after being hit. Somehow, he managed to dodge the flying cymbals without losing the beat.
D.J. was the joker in the band, quick to insert weird bass lines or unconventional instrumentation, cracking himself up on a regular basis. More than once, I witnessed one of the other band members encouraging him to tone it down. I couldn’t tell if I was witnessing real conflict or if it was just part of their schtick, but there was no doubting that D.J. was a serious cool cat.
Beek was an enigma, happily interacting with the crowd one minute and then turning his back and playing an entire song without looking at the audience at all. In the early days, he mostly played bass, a trademark Ibanez sunburst model. After D.J. joined the band, he played mostly rhythm on a cheap Squier Strat, standing close to his own amplifier from which he milked all manner of feedback.
The irony of the band’s name was clearly intentional. Beek’s lyrics tended to be brooding and angsty. Tunes such as “Slave,” “Stir Fry,” and “Twist The Knife” were unrestrained declarations of loneliness and desperation. His wailing “Dave” felt like three minutes of self-directed pity (His real name is David.). Even his lighthearted “Country Song” only masqueraded as tongue-in-cheek; the depressing lyrics were clearly heartfelt. Add Abe’s scowling “Joke” and “Into Black,” and you get the picture.
Daniel’s poppier “Still Mine” and “Stupid Pop Song” provided a bit of a foil for the negative stuff, but to be honest, it didn’t matter. Somehow, regardless of their key or subject matter, the band’s songs had a catchy vibe that routinely put smiles on everyone and had them dancing around in the pit. I’d never seen a band pull off such a thing so well. I’ve never seen it since.
That night, Mr. Happy seemed like a band poised on the pinnacle of garage rock greatness, ready to tour the world and elsewhere. But those of us lucky enough to get in to that gig knew we were not witnessing a beginning but an end. The “Mr. Happy Wake,” as that event was called, was indeed their last. Save for a one-off acoustic set at Daniel's wedding reception the following year, the four members of Mr. Happy have not even been in the same room together since.
If there was tension among the ranks, the band never showed it. Abe’s only explanation at the time was that the band members had decided to “just be friends.” Given the fact that that line came from “Joke,” the whole thing seemed suspicious. But for whatever reason, it was over.
So...What happened? And (OK, we can’t avoid this) where, indeed, are they now?
Let’s make one thing clear: we do know where the drummer ended up. As a radio personality and “walking encyclopedia of music,” Abe Beeson’s fame has long since eclipsed that of his old band--so much so, in fact, that many of his fans know nothing of his past as a rock drummer. On those rare occasions when someone asks him about it, he’s been known to chuckle and change the subject.
I caught up with Abe just before he left for Hawaii to marry his longtime girlfriend, music power executive Julia Cummings. The prevailing rumor is that the Mr. Happy reunion will coincide with their wedding reception in the Seattle area. Abe wouldn’t conform or deny that rumor specifically, but he did confirm that the guys in the band were planning on getting together to jam soon. “I just have to put my drums back together,” he said with his trademark grin. “I loaned them to somebody a long time ago and now they’re all messed up. So I guess we’ll see.”
The Artist Formerly Known As “D.J,” Derek Mikael Johnson joined the band midway through its tenure. It was his punchy, innovative bass playing that gave Mr. Happy the “extra push”—a fuller sound that got people’s attention.
Being an accomplished musician in a garage band had its downside, however. A multi-instrumentalist and a cellist by training, he could easily grow restless playing straightforward rock and roll bass. Since the band’s breakup, he has indulged his avant-garde musical preferences, primarily playing acoustic/electric cello in non-traditional and improvisational settings, often as a soundtrack to a hand-made, direct animation slide show of his own creation. He has also collaborated with numerous other artists, including Unwound, Jherek Bischoff, and Amy Denio.
In the years since Mr. Happy, Derek has taken up auto racing, becoming a regular fixture on the Olympia rally circuit and even winning the prestigious Noble Way award earlier this year. Upon accepting the award, he remarked that it “means way more to me than any silly music award I've ever received."
BEEK AND DAN
As the main songwriters, Beek and Dan bared their souls with every new song, but both retreated into private life after the breakup and have shunned the spotlight ever since. Beek, who never enjoyed large crowds (and was known to disappear from clubs before and after Mr. Happy played their set), became a schoolteacher, trading the “Beek” moniker for “Mr. Hanson” in his professional life. Daniel, meanwhile, has a beautiful wife, three beautiful children, and a mortgage. One can only assume that his tenure in Mr. Happy gave him valuable training for his current career as an executive in the wine industry.
I am not making this up.
I recently had the honor of witnessing the first Mr. Happy jam session this millenium, held at Beek’s home in the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma.
Beek answers my knock on the door. “Lute!” he greets me, using my college-era nickname. I’m impressed that he remembers me at all; I was just one of many fans, back in the day.
He ushers me into the house. The small living and dining room section is full of musical instruments, amps, speakers, other gadgets, and cables running everywhere.
“Do you actually play all these?” I ask Beek.
“I play them and I cherish them,” he responds proudly. “This is at the top of the heap,” he says, gesturing toward a 30-watt Line 6 guitar amplifier. “Listen to the sound of that one!”
“I don’t hear anything,” I protest.
“You would, if it were playing. This stuff sounds way better than the shit we had in the 90s. Kids these days have no idea how good they’ve got it.”
As it turned out, this rehearsal doesn’t involve the whole band; only Beek and Dan are there. Abe is still in Hawaii, post-wedding, and Derek is recovering from a bizarre hand injury he suffered while working in his garden. They plan on attending the next jam session, I am told.
Beek is sporting some well-cropped facial hair that has a streak of gray running through it, but otherwise he is still the same wiry geek he always was. Dan is still tall, still clean-shaven, and doesn’t seem to have a gray hair on his head.
Beek shows off his new guitar. It’s black, with a black neck. “How much more black could it be?” he asks in a faux British accent.
“None,” I respond in kind. “None more black. What happened to the white one you used to play?”
He admits to me that he sold it, several years ago, and didn’t even buy the black one until the reunion idea happened. “I know, I know, it’s lame,” he admits. “I probably spent the money on a new water heater or something.”
Now, not only does he have a new guitar and amp, but also a keyboard (or two or three). Back in the day, Mr. Happy claimed that keyboards didn’t mesh with their guitar-heavy sound, but the reality was that they couldn’t afford keyboards anyway. Now, apparently, they can.
Does that mean Mr. Happy might even sound better the second time around? Dan chuckles at the notion. “Sure, but that’s not saying much.”
After untangling numerous spiderwebs of guitar cables and electrical cords, Dan switches his amp on and plays his first amplified notes in years. The contrast here is striking: unlike Beek, Dan never sold his gear, and as a result, he sounds exactly the same as he did before. Even the guitar amp presets are the same.
Preset number one is unmistakable: “Slave,” one of the earliest Mr. Happy compositions and a mainstay of their live show. Dan claims that his guitar playing is rusty, but I don’t hear any evidence of it. The minute he and Beek launch into the song, any fears I had are put to rest. They begin and end the song at the same time, they remember all the chord changes, and it sounds remarkably fresh.
So are there going to be any “new originals?” Beek says he wouldn’t rule it out.
“I brought the idea up to Dan once, when we were in our 30s,” he tells me. “He was totally against writing new stuff. He was saying how in your 20s, you write stuff like ‘I love you but you love someone else and now I feel like shit.’ In your 30s, it’s ‘I can’t believe they’re charging me $2000 to insulate my house.’ No one wants to hear a song about that.”
So why does he think Dan might be changing his tune now?
“Being in our 40s, we’ve had time for some new heartbreaks,” he says. “Divorces, kid drama, deaths in the family, all that stuff. When you’ve loved and lost the way we have, then you know what life’s about. Death sells!”
So there you have it. I can’t make any promises about what happens with Mr. Happy now, but something tells me they’re into something good. If this reunion idea really does come to fruition, I will be there, front and center, ready to capture the sights, the sounds, the smells of a hard-working rock band once again.
Music journalist Luther DiBergi's first full-length book, "Tap Into America: Microbreweries and their impact on Rock & Roll," will be published this fall.