Arts Desk

Clark Sabine 1975-2009


Local musician Clark Sabine, who performed in the bands Statehood, The Andalusians, The Motorcycle Wars, and Metropolitan, passed away Tuesday night at a hospice facility in Arlington after a long battle with cancer. He was 33 years old.

Sabine was an accomplished musician, playing bass, guitar, and keyboards, but as a front man, he was without parallel. In particular, Sabine's antics as the singer of The Motor Cycle Wars, a punk quartet he helped found in 1999, were truly the stuff of legend [Several of the band's songs are streaming  here]. If anything, he knew how to make an entrance.

"Clark outdid himself at every show," recalls Metropolitan's John Masters. "Ben Adams and I used to put on concerts in Clarendon Park, in front of the store–the Motorcycle Wars one was epic. Clark was carried in on some sort of DIY throne by, like, 10 dudes, and he stopped numerous lanes of traffic in order to arrive. Shelby [Cinca] from Frodus was there wearing some sort of wizard suit to announce that the Wars were coming on."

"[One time] he rappelled off the roof of the Galaxy Hut," says former Q & Not U singer Chris Richards. "The band went on and started playing and suddenly everyone saw feet in the window and he was rappelling down on bungee cables. Then he came in and totally ripped it like Iggy Pop 2.0. It was one of the most unforgettable things I've ever seen"

"The Motor Cycle Wars were all about big entrances/stunts but could barely hold the songs together," says Jason Hutto, the band's guitarist. Of those stunts, Hutto remembers his favorite being a birthday party that took place in Dismemberment Plan drummer Joe Easley's basement. "There were a lot of people waiting for us to play. Ian MacKaye was upstairs trying to hurry things along, but Clark's big entrance for that night's show was taking a long time to set up," recalls Hutto.

"So, finally the basement was opened, people entered, and the rest of the band started right into our standard opener "Instant Night." We continued galloping away one monotonous chord and the audience started wondering 'OK, where's Clark?' After about 5 minutes the basement's ceiling's tiles explode overhead and Clark crashed down right on top of Ian and the audience."

Apparently Sabine had been in the ceiling throughout the entirety of the opening band's set, more than an hour, having tied himself to a water pipe. "It was so shocking and hilarious," remembers Hutto. "But he wasn't able to undo the knot on the cord, so he wound up stranded in mid-air above the crowd"

Ryan Nelson, who played drums in Dead Teenagers–with whom The Motorcycle Wars perpetuated a hilarious faux-rivalry–admits that at first he was a bit taken aback by Sabine's outrageous stage persona.

"He was unpredictable on stage. He said anything that popped into his head," says Nelson. "I mean, c’mon, he didn’t even have lyrics – he just made up new words every night. I started to worry that Clark might say something offensive on stage and that the audiences would take it wrong way. In D.C., we were all in on the joke. Outside of the District...man, who knows."

Nelson recalls feeling particularly embarrassed after one night, during a Dead Teenagers/Motor Cycle Wars tour, Sabine made an off-color macho comment to some female audience members. But he quickly realized that the girls weren't offended, that even though Sabine was performing in front of total strangers, he could still bring his jokey shtick across.

"Of course they understood Clark was playing a role. And of course it was genuinely funny. And that’s a testament of true charisma—hard to possess, and even harder to define," says Nelson. "Everyone who caught the Motor Cycle Wars got more than their money’s worth. There were no bad shows."

Several years later Sabine started playing solo shows under the name Statehood. He programmed rhythm tracks into an MPC sampler and then sang over them karaoke-style.

"He did this house show at [Jason] Hutto's house where he came in with his shirt off and wearing dilly-boppers that had some sort of smoke bombs attached to them. That was his M.O. with those early shows," says former Dismemberment Plan bassist Eric Axelson. "My girlfriend at the time was there, she called me and said 'You have to play with this band.'"

Eventually Statehood evolved into a quartet, including Axelson, Easley, and guitarist Leigh Thompson. They recorded one full-length album, '07s Lies and Rhetoric, and toured, did some modest touring around the East Coast and Mid West.

But while Axelson looks back fondly on these shows, the time that the band spent in the basement rehearsing was most important to him. "Being in a band with Clark was hilarious," says Axelson. "He always had hilarious stories, he would go off into voices and tangents. When I was stressed out over teaching high school, it was great to go to practice and laugh my ass off," he says. "I miss shows, but I miss that the most."

Statehood wrote and rehearsed material for a second album, but Sabine's health took a turn for the worse before the band could enter the studio. They did make some demo recordings.

"It was insanely important to him to finish this record. While he was in the hospice we set up recording stuff. We brought out some nice mics and a guitar so he could continue working. He wanted to make sure he saw it all the way through. It’s been a goal of ours to make good on that."

"Back in January or so we had done some rough demos in the basement," Axelson continues. "Eventually we’ll sit down and see how good the takes are and then maybe use some studio magic to make it work out."

But nobody who ever saw Sabine onstage will need recorded evidence.

"No one had more fun getting hurt, taking it all-the-way, and unleashing the dragons than that guy," says Hutto. "He is missed."

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  • Dave McKenna

    great piece, aaron. you made this guy a rock star.

  • sock puppet

    Agreed. The Dead Teenagers vs. Motorcycle Wars show were always fun. Who can forget Clark mounting the Fort Reno stage and jumping into the arms of the soloing DT guitarist? or Ann Jaeger, DT bassist, crashing through the MW drum kit at the NOW! music store show?

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  • Rosalie

    Awesome tribute to Clark. He was a really amazing guy. I'm saddened to hear about his passing. RIP Clark.

  • Colin

    Clark's either bringing some heaven to hell, or some hell to heaven. Either way, they won't know what hit them! Thanks for this nice piece on the legend of Clark Sabine. He was legend enough in his own mind to make quite a scene in DC and a bit beyond, and he will be greatly missed. Motorcycle Wars vs. Dead Teenagers was one of the funniest/most brilliant things I encountered in 13 year immersed in the DC music scene. RIP, Clark!

  • Ron

    I was at Joe's house show when Clark was suspended up inside the ceiling...the entrance was totally insane...took half the ceiling down with him!

  • Mick Winters

    Thanks to the Mr. Leitko and the City Paper for this phenomenal telling of Clark's life and musical antics. Clark and I met in 9th grade guitar class and played in our first bands together in high school. It was always amazing to me to see his growth as a musician, as he would tackle new genres with each band he formed. His frontman persona in Motorcycle Wars was as pure and genuine as the man himself. Also a showman, he strove to best himself with new ideas for every performance. He was completely honest and true his influences and so very funny, a rare combination for DC musicians.

    He was my best friend, my best man too. If you were able to see him perform, you got 45 minutes of pure Clark. I was lucky enough and so very blessed to have him in my life for almost 20 years. I love you Clark. We all miss you beyond measure.

  • Lance Westerlund

    This truly is a fantastic piece that still manages to capture the essence of the great friend and bandmate I had the pleasure of knowing back in the day. It's to my lifelong regret that I let us fall out of touch, Clark. 'Til the next life...

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