Monthly Archives: January 2010

THE HARRY SMITH OF TIN PAN ALLEY Tiny Tim

There was a lot more
to the outsider music maven born Herbert Khaury than tip-toeing through the
tulips and TV weddings.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

 

The rehabilitation of Tiny Tim’s legacy – from weirdo
novelty artist with a bizarre falsetto to gifted American original – has been
going on ever since his death in 1996. He’s now becoming recognized as a sort
of Harry Smith of Tin Pan Alley, a man who cherished, discovered and preserved
old standards when nobody else was interested. It would have been nice if he
could have benefited more from it while alive; he spent a lot of his last years
paying bills by grinding out amusing versions of rock hits like “Highway to
Hell” and performing, his trusted ukulele by his side, songs from the early 20th Century American songbook in less than optimum club situations.

 

One of the posthumous albums that has emerged – 2003’s Tiny Tim Live! At the Royal Albert Hall,
a 1968 show with an orchestra directed by Richard Perry – shows just how
enchantingly magical he could be, with his extensive range and intonations,
behind musicians capable of as much coloration instrumentally as he had
vocally. Had he lived to see this respect for his work, he more than likely
would be performing with pops orchestras around the world today, a revered if
eccentric musical figure. His “standards” albums would be perennial sales
generators, if not quite as big as Susan Boyle.

 

The recently released I’ve Never Seen a Straight Banana (Collectors’ Choice Music) isn’t an album
of Royal Albert Hall musical
importance, but it does have its charms. Best of all, it’s not out to exploit
Tiny Tim’s weirdness, but rather to let him enjoy himself – and some of his
favorite songs and stories – in a natural, intimate environment. He responds
free of shtick, offering a glimpse into how much he loved his music.

 

The album has an unusual story, which echoes a bit the
Robert Johnson recording sessions in a San Antonio hotel. In 1976, a
16-year-old Richard Barone – who would go on to be in the Bongos and have a subsequent
solo career – wasn’t able to get into a Tiny Tim show at a TraveLodge bar in Tampa because he was
underage. But he and two female friends listened from the lobby. The singer
emerged after the show, asked them what they thought, and when they said they
couldn’t get in to watch he invited them up to his motel room for an unrushed
private audience, just him and his ukulele. Barone returned the next night with
a stereo tape deck to record another relaxed motel-room show.

 

Tiny Tim introduces the provenance of each song, and changes
his flexible voice to recall each original (and obscure) singer of his
material, be it Billy Murray, Henry Burr, Byron G. Harlan, Lewis James and
other forgotten names of the recording industry’s early days. He also performs
and explains some of his own compositions, including his mash note to Tuesday
Weld, “Dear Tuesday,” and “You Are Heaven Here on Earth,” written for a “Miss
Snooky” that he met while performing at a Greenwich Village bar “where the
girls liked each other” in 1963. (Tiny Tim had a very complicated relationship
with women.)

 

Although the CD’s liner notes are unclear on this point, it
appears Barone got Tiny Tim into a studio on a return visit for several more
songs. But the material thereafter just sat there while Barone began a career
and Tiny Tim ended one, never released until now. Barone has fiddled with the
recordings a bit – to the detriment of historic authenticity yet at the same
time showing his good taste in arrangements. Added is a string arrangement
featuring Deni Bonet to a mysteriously dreamy song called “What Strange God
Designed Me?,” which may be a Tiny Tim original. He also added backing vocals
to the comic title song, a perky vaudeville relic; and an accordion part by
Bonet to a 1930 ballad, “With My Guitar,” that sounds very much like Edith
Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.” Tiny Tim plays guitar on it, a rarity, and sings in a
high-tenor-to-falsetto range that is remarkably sweet and heartfelt. His tiny
motel-room audience breaks out in spontaneous applause after he finishes.

 

By now, Tiny Tim’s friendship with Bob Dylan is well-known –
Dylan wrote about it in Chronicles and Tiny Tim sings about it on Royal
Albert Hall.
But he gives Barone and friends a funny account of being a
guest at Dylan’s home, punctuated with him singing a snippet of Dylan’s “Like a
Rolling Stone” in Rudy Vallee’s delicate croon and then doing Vallee’s “My Time
Is Your Time” with Dylan’s stretched-out, drawling enunciation. The story ends
with Tiny Tim recounting that Dylan offered him a banana and he replied, “No, I
have my own fruits.”

 

Oddly, Tampa was very good to Tiny Tim. One of his last
albums, Prisoner of Love, took place
there in late 1994, when University of
South Florida music
teacher Paul Reller assembled an orchestra to back him on a tribute to the
crooner Russ Columbo, a contemporary of Bing Crosby and Vallee who died in a
1934 shooting accident. In a splendid voice close to Columbo’s own gentle
baritone, clearly comfortable with the care and respect he was being given,
Tiny Tim responded with one of his best performances ever. It would be
wonderful if, as interest in Tiny Tim continues, this would be reissued.

 

[Photo Credit: Baron Wolman]

 

NOW THE LUCKY ONE Freedy Johnston

You’re damn right:
people still remember. The singer-songwriter shows us how it’s done, once more.

 

BY HAL BIENSTOCK

 

For someone whose breakthrough album contained a song called
“The Lucky One,” singer-songwriter Freedy Johnston has been anything but. He
had the misfortune of doing some of his best work at the dawn of the grunge
era, when being a folk-rocker was hardly a great career choice, then getting
lost at a major label at a time when they were only interested in rap-rock and
boy bands.

 

Since 2001, it seemed as if Johnston disappeared completely. While he
released live albums, an album of covers and a collection of early demos, it
wasn’t until this year that he gave his fans any new music.

 

From the first note, his latest album, Rain on the City, is a reminder of what people loved about Johnston in the first
place.  [No shit. Our reviewer gave it 9 stars in the BLURT review. – Ed.] The
simple, but undeniably catchy melodies and smart, detailed character studies
are the reason the Village Voice called his 1992 classic Can You Fly “a perfect album” and Rolling Stone named him
“songwriter of the year” in 1994.

 

We caught up with Freedy getting ready for a gig in Chicago to celebrate the
release of Rain.

 

***

 

BLURT: What have you
been doing for the last eight years?

 

JOHNSTON:
I basically tried to make the record that you have in your hands a couple of
times and it didn’t work out. The years go by. And so eight years may seem like
a long time now – and it is a long time – but to me all that time, I was trying
to make this record. I was working my butt off the entire time. I just wasn’t getting
anywhere.

 

Was there something
you didn’t like about the record? Something you just couldn’t get right?

 

It was just a hard time. Every time I was doing it, I
thought I was going to get it and I didn’t. I learned you can’t spend that much
time between records. You just make them. I won’t wait that long again. I
already have five or six songs done for next record, and I hope to record it
this summer.

 

You hear a lot about
long delays between albums because someone is being a perfectionist. Was that
the problem here?

 

The word perfectionist is batted about quite a bit by people
who aren’t perfectionists. For me, I had an idea of what I wanted. I just don’t
know how to get it. I simply couldn’t achieve the sound I wanted. It was that
and having a troubled personal life. I was going through a divorce. I had
problems with the IRS. I was a fucking wreck, if you want a straight answer. I
finally got it together and now I’m happy again. I’m happy being a nerdy
gearhead musician and going from town to town. It’s a great life, but it’s not
compatible with any other kinds of life. I thought I could have a real life and
be a musician, but you can’t. You just can’t. And I’m OK with that.

 

Now that the album is
out, are you surprised how many people still care?

 

I’m pleasantly surprised. I’ve learned to expect nothing.
It’s good for me to have no expectations at all, because with the last couple
of records, nothing happened at all. Now things are happening. Last night, we
played Minneapolis
and had a great crowd. There was a kid who couldn’t get in and listened through
the door. I met him after the show and his hand was cold. I almost wanted to
cry, it was so lovely. I’m so lucky someone would stand out in the cold
listening to me. I get to go onstage and make people happy. I learned the hard
way what it’s like not to have that, so I’m very grateful.

 

The conventional
wisdom is that you came along at a bad time to be a singer-songwriter. Do you
ever feel like you were born too late?

 

Things went how they went. I’m glad I had Can You Fly out, a record people really
like. If you’re lucky, you get one record in your career that people love, and
I got that one. Then I made This Perfect
World
, with a couple of songs people still remember. That was always my
dream when I was a little kid. I just wanted to become a musician and for
people to have my album. I got that. Now I have to go beyond that.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Chris Carroll]

 

 

BLURTING WITH… Jello Biafra

The man born as Eric
Reed Boucher on Obama, Abbie Hoffman, Canadian customs officers, the media,
fake MySpace addresses and more.

 

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

Jello Biafra’s voicemail
greeting is a must-listen. You see, he screens his calls-probably for good
reason, as the vociferous punk rocker and spoken word artist can’t help but
make enemies. And, being what he is, he likes to be heard. So let’s listen.

 

“Cost of the Marshall
Plan, adjusted for current inflation: $115.3 billion. Louisiana
Purchase? $217 billion. The race to the moon? $237 billion. The
savings and loan crisis that Reagan and the first Bush gave us, $256 billion.
Korean War: $456 billion. Vietnam:
$698 billion. New Deal, only $500 billion (estimated). Invasion of Iraq: $600
billion and counting, not including Afghanistan. Rest of NASA: $851.2
billion, adding up to approximately $3,925,500,000,000 taxpayer dollars-
less
than half of the estimated 8 to 12 [trillion]
dollars handed out to banks and mortgage companies who caused our current
economic crisis in the first place. Plus, I can’t help but wonder, how many of
their estimated losses were based on what they thought all these houses would
continue to be worth if the market grew? In other words, how much of the
bailout money that both George W. Bush and the Obama Administration gave to the
thieves, in reimbursement and bailout, was money that
never existed in the
first place?”

 

Powerful shit, huh? Jello didn’t crunch those numbers so
much as set them in a contextual mold for us with that last line. That’s his
stock in trade: Getting in the last word, the worldview-altering zinger that
goads one into action. Throughout the last three decades, it elevated his band Dead
Kennedys to notoriety beyond the punk microcosm (and caused a feud with his
now-ex bandmates), landed him in court as a scapegoat of Tipper Gore’s Parents
Music Resource Center and saw him recruited as candidate for the Green Party’s
presidential nomination (he lost to Ralph Nader, whom he supported then and in
’04 as well as ‘08). Today it continues to cause him varying degrees of trouble,
but since Biafra views silence in the face of rampant
political and social hypocrisy and exploitation with utter disdain, almost all
of it is worthwhile.

 

With a new band, The Guantanamo School of Medicine, and a
new album, The Audacity of Hype (on
his Alternative Tentacles label), Biafra stirs
the usual shit. The Shepard Fairey-esque cover art and cheeky title let us know
it’s not all about red-state Bible-thumpers, whom many of us-this writer
included-have made scapegoats for the world’s woes. The fact of the matter is,
in Biafra’s world, there’s as much reason to
hate Barack Obama as there is/was to hate George W. Bush because they play for
the same team of corporate fatcats, and all their rhetoric is tantamount to WWF
chest-beating, a little theater to distract you from the terrible truth.

 

Once Blurt heard
the requisite voicemail greeting and announced ourselves, Biafra
was only too glad to discuss this-among other things.

 

***

 

BLURT: The new album smokes.

 

JELLO BIAFRA: Well, thanks!
That’s kinda the idea. I’m still a fan and a vinyl junkie and all that so I
always try to make my albums something that I myself would wanna listen to a
lot.

 

I have a hard time
imagining you as a music fan-offstage, I picture you with your nose in a book,
or at a computer typing long, venomous screeds… But jamming out to tunes in
your car? Uh-unh.

 

It depends on what I’m hearing in the car ‘cause that’s
usually the only chance I have to listen to all the demos we get in. Even in
the [digital age] we still get hard copies of demos by the crateload. It’s
worth going through the bad ones because when a really good one or a really
unique one comes up, it’s always a great surprise; it’s always cool.

 

Do people send you
more targeted demos or do you get the same slush pile as every other label?

 

We get a lot of kissy-ass pop punk for people who wanna be
the next boy band with Sid Vicious haircuts or something. We occasionally even
get demos from pushy stage mothers thinking we can somehow get their precious
child on American Idol or something.
Like, ‘Look at her! She’s 14. Isn’t she pretty? She’s a cheerleader, she’s in
French club, and wait ‘til you hear here sing, ‘Redneck Woman’!’ I mean, that
one was so off the wall, I thought, ‘Okay I am gonna listen to this one.’ I put it on and sure enough, the girl had a great
country voice. But I thought, shit, if she’s being pushed this far at this age,
she may wind up hating music by the time she turns 18 and a great talent might
be lost. Either that, or some other pimp will make her into the next Britney
Spears and she’ll have a meltdown and wind up hating music a little later in
life.

 

I’m still trying to
get over the fact that someone actually sent you that.

 

Oh, yeah. There was another one that had her daughter
singing Pat Benatar songs in her bedroom.

 

Do you have a
trainwreck collection, a freakshow archive?

 

I’m a librarian’s kid so I know the importance of archiving
things. There’s been more than once case where I’ve had to dig through old
cassettes to find the last existing copy of a band’s demo or live recording so
they can put it on a retrospective CD or something.

 

You should pull an
Irwin Chusid [Note: Chusid is an avid
supporter and collector of cool and strange-“outsider”-music.
] and release
a compilation of the weirdest submissions.

 

Sometimes you can tell from the people that sent it that you
don’t wanna get close enough to them to negotiate the release rights.

 

As soon as I saw the
cover of The Audacity of Hype I
understood what it would be about. As someone who became political when Bush
stole the 2000 election, I thought being the opposite of him and the
evangelical right wing was the appropriate reaction. So of course I bought into
the Obama hype, but being older and more cynical, I feel like I should mistrust
all politicians-

 

Falling for the myth that there’s only Choice A and Choice B
and some issues don’t have two sides, they have 52 sides? I mean, whether or not to send more troops to Afghanistan is
just one. Although the current or last issue of The Nation with the headline “Obama’s Fateful Choice” on the cover
has about ten or a dozen people reporting on different aspects of Afghanistan and
make a very powerful argument that we
should get the hell out of there. That it’s gonna be miserable there whether we
stay or go, and maybe vastly worse even for women, if we stay.

 

That’s just it.
Obama’s sent more troops, which feels like more of the same. It feels hopeless.
A friend of mine has even started checking out conspiracy sites like
PrisonPlanet.com.

 

I like my conspiracy theories to be supported by logic and
science and a lot of the 9/11 conspiracy stuff is not. To get to the bottom of
the allegation that the whole 9/11 conspiracy theory was started by Lyndon
LaRouche-although that itself may be yet another conspiracy theory. There’s a
song I did long ago with Lard called, “Can God Fill Teeth?” where the guy goes
so crazy that he’s pulling his teeth out looking for bugging devices and
saying, ‘Look under any rock-you’re gonna find a conspiracy.’ Man, life is a conspiracy. As horrified as I
am by the way things really work in this world, I’ve tried to guard myself
against all that consuming me. If I didn’t have such a sick sense of humor, I
might’ve pulled a Kurt Cobain 20 years ago.

            I think the
key word is ‘coin-operated.’ And Obama’s Congressional voting record reflected
that, as did the fact that Wall Street picked him as the candidate to put all
their money into instead of McCain or Hillary Clinton. And what do they get in
return? He surrounds himself with some of the worst offenders for setting the
stage for our economic collapse. People forget that it wasn’t the Bush
Administration that monkeyed with all they laws, allowing all these financial
institutions to be run like casinos. It was the Clinton Administration. And the
people involved were [Clinton] Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and his protégés
Lawrence “Larry” Summers, who is head of Obama’s economic team now, and I
believe [current Secretary of the Treasury] Timothy Geithner pops up in there
somewhere, too.

 

See? There’s a song
on your album called “I Won’t Give Up” where you say surrender is “not an
option.” How are we ever gonna dismantle the two-party system and stop the
corporatization of America?
I see your point that the only thing we can do is fight and try to educate a
lot of people-

 

It’s a hell of a lot of fun. A prank a day keeps the dog
leash away. That doesn’t mean fighting the power is all some big funsy-wunsy Disneyland affair-there’s sacrifice and lots of hard
work. But at the end of the day, it’s gratifying to know that you’re making the
effort not to be as big a part of the problem and to, in our own puny way as
individual human beings, try to be part of the solution. And there isn’t one
magic solution, either.

But as I’ve said at the end of so
many spoken word shows, as well as that song, ‘Doing something is better than
doing nothing.’ And the most basic step-‘cause after the 2000 election when
they were doing the Democracy Rising rallies, I shared the stage with Ralph
Nader and Michael Moore at some of the events. They were telling the audience,
‘You’ve got to do something!’ I thought, ‘Okay… What?’ I decided I better find
some type of basic, first step, dip-your-toe-in-the-water, what. And so what I
stress to people is, ‘If you choose to do this, just make a little vow to
yourself that ‘I’m not co-operating with corporations or their agenda anymore.
They can’t have me.’ And that means being very careful where you spend your
money, who you give your money to. Don’t vote for their puppets and try not to
work for them. If you must work for them, just remember that the digital age
has ushered in a whole new frontier of sabotage on the job.

 

I see the logic in
that, but I my problem is that I can’t see it having an effect.

 

It lessens the effects of the other side. Not by much, but
like I say, it’s better than doing nothing. And to help spread the word on this
and inspire other people to do the same thing, I mean- Yet another thing that
our dumbed-down, propagandized, corporate McNews has been very successful at is
avoiding any news coverage of victories against the system. Sometimes they do
happen, for example the Coalition of Immokale Workers went after Taco Bell and
Burger King and I believe McDonald’s, among others, using word of mouth on
college campuses to get those chains boycotted until the tomato pickers finally
had their wages raised about slave level. As far as I know, it worked. It was
never on the national news, it was never discussed at a cartoon level by Wolf
Blitzer or anyone at MSNBC-but word got out.

 

So the idea is that
these little victories eventually will add up, become too much for the media to
ignore.

 

Hopefully, yeah. But in the meantime, at least get through
to those fast food chains that they should quit treating people like slaves. I
mean, getting the job done is the most important. I had some 9/11 conspiracy
zealots corner me after a Seattle show demanding that I talk more about that
and, of course, that I agree with them on everything. And they were very cold
and humorless about it; it kind of reminded me of anti-abortion zealots or
über-vegans or something. And I said, ‘Hey, look-even if all this is true, and
I’m not convinced it is, isn’t it more important to get the troops out of the Middle East so less people get killed? They’re like, ‘No,
no. This is the most important thing. This is the most important thing.’ I felt
like I was talking to Scientologists or something.

 

You talk about ‘a
prank a day.’ I remember how they treated Abbie Hoffman, the Weather
Underground…

 

The documentary about The Weather Underground is very, very
interesting, but it should also be seen next to a documentary on the Students
for a Democratic Society, that they broke off from. One thing to get loud and
clear about what brought down the SDS is that people got more hardline, more
factionalized. The African-Americans broke off to be part of the Black Power
Movement. And people that thought the SDS wasn’t getting through enough, broke
off and started playing around with weapons and explosives in The Weather
Underground. And my one complaint about The Weather Underground documentary is
it doesn’t really explore whether or not some of the people involved in The
Weather Underground from the get-go were undercover FBI agents. What better way
to discredit an entire anti-war movement than to have a small group of people
that the media can brand terrorists and then turn not just the entire anti-war
movement but the very idea of opposing the Vietnam War as being some type of
sympathy with terrorists or something.

            You’ll
notice they try to do that with the environmental movement, too. Whenever
somebody from the ALF or whoever burns down a vivisection lab or a spanking-new
ski lodge near Vail or something, they try to call all environmental activists
‘eco-terrorists’. Or as soon as the window at Starbucks broke at the Seattle
protest, that was the big news on CNN instead of the fact that the Teamsters
and nurse’s unions and airline pilots’ unions was all siding with the
protestors and everyone was marching peacefully, and that the WTO was the
problem, not somebody who broke the window of a poor, innocent Starbucks.

 

How have you avoided,
in your career, being labeled a terrorist?

 

Oh, I haven’t. I mean, people like Al Gore’s wife Tipper
tried [to portray] me as some kind of child killer because there was a Dead Kennedys
song called “I Kill Children.” And they took the lyrics slightly out of context
and then had a field day with that. And of course the religious right TV
programs even claimed we were devil worshipers and blasphemers because of “In
God We Trust, Inc.”

 

They’re not even
listening.

 

No. You label your own critics blasphemers and then you
kinda sidetrack the fact that “In God We Trust, Inc.” was aimed at religion for
profit, not necessarily religion itself.

 

When Tipper did that,
it was 10-15 years ago?

 

Um, the PMRC first reared their ugly, society-lady heads in
1985. And Tipper’s husband, the Senator named Al Gore, who everybody thinks is
some kind of saint now, used a committee that had nothing to do with this area,
to stage a hearing on evil music. And he called his own wife and her buddy,
James Baker’s wife Susan, as his first expert witnesses. And then Tipper and
Susan ushered in some more people they called expert witnesses and it turned
out to be a parade of religious right nutjobs.

 

Who you’d think
they’d be Al and Tipper’s enemies…

 

That was one thing that was pretty well-documented, although
not by straight media, was that the Parents’ Music Resource
Center was working
hand-in-hand with the nastiest forces in the religious right from the get-go. Susan Baker was on the board of
directors of Focus on the Family. They also had a direct line to Jerry Falwell
and another one to Pat Robertson, as well as being able to tap into those
people’s networks of bigots in individual towns to try and get shows shut down
and, in my case, musicians busted.

 

What I actually meant
when I asked about being labeled a terrorist was recently-like have you
appeared on a no-fly list or anything like that.

 

Uh, thankfully not. Not a no-fly list, no. Having a
European-Caucasian legal name [Eric Reed Boucher] on my birth certificate
hasn’t hurt. There’s no way I’d ever legally change my name to Jello Biafra.
I’d have a lot more explaining to do if I got pulled over by the cops or
something. Although, ironically, a couple times I’ve been waved through customs
with a smile, coming in to Canada, because the customs officer recognized
me-“Oh, how you doin’? Come on in!”

 

Didn’t you play a
Canadian customs officer-

 

Yeah, that was in a movie called Highway 61.

 

One of my favorite
movies!

 

The ironic part is, even though it was shot in Toronto, it was supposed
to take place on the American side of the border, where I myself got busted in
customs on the Canadian side of the
border as an 18-year-old! They found a joint in our car-we were pre-punk
hippies, and all. I took the rap ‘cause my friend was underage and I didn’t
want his family to find out we got nailed for trying to bring a small amount of
weed into Canada.
But their drug laws are a little more humane than what we have now. I just
spent a night in jail and then was fined a hundred bucks the next day, which
they reduced to ninety because of my night in jail. And my only two jailmates
were an aboriginal guy that just kinda smiled and laughed and stared a lot, and
this hot-headed dude that said he was in for going on a grand theft auto spree,
and then they finally caught him when he was taxiing a stolen plane down a
runway. He said he was considering joining the military because he thought it
would give him some discipline.

            Then the
next day, the court appearance was even funnier. Here was this stern judge, in
old semi-medieval robes ‘cause of course Canada’s a part of the British Commonwealth. And there’s a picture of the Queen
behind him. First up was kind of a dumpy older woman who was charged with petty
theft and had a big scowl on her face. And then the next one was these
unrepentant-looking teenagers who were charged with all kinds of vandalism and stuff over a one-night spree, including
something to do with sabotaging motorboat motors. You could tell the mom, one
of them, was like, ‘I don’t know what to do with these kids!’ And the kids were just kind of amused by the whole thing. And
I had to not laugh because I was up next!

 

You’ve always struck
me as pretty fearless-my brother-in-law was the first guy to play your spoken
word albums for me, and I always thought, This
guy has balls.

 

I’m not sure I’d quite put it that way. I do-I am really
grateful, blown away actually, that anybody would still be interested in
anything I do, at my age. But it also applies kind of a positive pressure, not
fear, but pressure, that if I’m gonna keep doing new stuff, that it better be
good. It better be something that I, the anal music fan, whatever, wanna go
see. And the content of the spoken word shows also needs to be good. And as
best as I or any human being can do, try to make it accurate.

That also means that I’m very
reluctant to quote bloggers in the spoken word shows. I mean, it’s one thing to
enjoy fellow ranters who already agree with me, but there’s a difference
between ranting and actually being the journalist who does the research. What
scares me about this is some people who are completely turned off the corporate
media because of how propagandized and stupid it is, and are stupid of ‘all
assholes, all the time’ all over the news, automatically believe a blog. And
ex-girlfriend at one time put up one about how wicked and evil I was, and made
some pretty wild allegations in there that weren’t true. And there was all the
parrots, emailing in, including somebody from a long-running East Coast punk
zine, you know, saying ‘Oh yeah, god what a terrible person, on this is so
awful, oh this is bad’ and then nobody questioning it. And then Klaus Flouride, the old Dead Kennedys bass player,
tried the same thing. And there was some more parrots chiming in. With that one, I figured ‘Okay, I don’t like to wade
into this small-town, henpecking, gossipy bullshit, but I gotta set the record
clear on this one’, so I wrote about three sentences in and that was that. [The
parrots said] ‘Oh, okay. Now I see the other side.’ But I kept thinking, Jesus,
a lot of the people writing in are intelligent people, that are just not using
their noggins. There’s plenty of intelligent people who don’t always show a lot
of wisdom.

And where this leads is, more and
more newspapers and magazines that pay journalists are going under-and most
blogs, even Huffington Post, are
volunteer labor. I guess Arianna Huffington, who already had a lot of money,
may be the only one except for paid assistants to her who’s making any money
off the Huffington Post. I’m not
saying that the only journalism worth believing is when people are paid-no. But
I do worry what happens when there aren’t enough outlets left who can afford to
pay really good, muckraking reporters a living wage to research a story for six
months or even one or two years before they report something that’s really
important and are willing to basically deal with dynamite in order to do it. It’s
not the same as just blogging after you get home from work. To keep journalism
alive and believable, there has to be somebody that can actually do the work.

            There’s
nothing wrong with writing for free-I had a whole spoken word album called Become the Media. And the fact that more
and more people are becoming the media is great, but that just means we have to
keep our bullshit detectors cranked up to 11. Don’t just question Fox and CNN;
question bloggers, too. ‘Cause sometimes-I mean, there’s been several times
over the past 10 or 15 years that reports of my death have gone viral and all
kinds of people who should know better started believing it. I had to say,
‘Wait a minute-I looked for the bullet holes in the shower, and I couldn’t find
the blood or anything. So as far as I know, I’m not dead.

 

I’ll be happy to
report that.

 

There you go. But you never know. By the time you actually
report it, you might find something else going viral on the Internet. After
all, if the Internet says it, it must be true. Right? Wrong.

            There
apparently is also somebody on Facebook claiming they’re me, and at one point
there were two dozen Jello Biafra MySpace addresses and none of them were mine.
And that was dwarfed by the number
for [Alternative Tentacles artist] Wesley Willis.

 

 

[Photo via JelloBiafra.org]

 

 

TWITCHING ‘N’ DIVING Tin Huey

The weird and the
ordinary jostled for your attention in this Buckeye State
anomaly’s oeuvre.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

Lots of very strange bands have come from Ohio – proto-punks like Dead Boys and Pere
Ubu, conceptual new wavers like Devo. Still none was stranger than Tin Huey,
whose baroque conglomeration of jazzy saxophone, abrupt tempo changes, joke-infested
lyrics and funk-punk feral drive outweirded even inspirations like Captain
Beefheart and Frank Zappa.

 

The band, formed in Akron
in the early 1970s as the Rags, initially included Mark Price on guitar,
Michael Aylward on bass and Stuart Austin on drums. Harvey Gold joined soon
after on organ, and Ralph Carney (future Tom Waits horn player) in 1974. The
last core member, Chris Butler (also of the Numbers Band and the impresario for
The Waitresses), came on in 1978, and somewhere along the line, Price and
Aylward switched instruments.

 

A new compilation, Before
Obscurity: The Bushflow Tapes
(Smog Veil; www.smogveil.com)
assembles 14 tracks recorded at the height of Tin Huey’s mad creativity, just
before and during the band’s unlikely stab at major label success. (They were briefly
signed to Warner and delivered one record, 1979’s Contents Dislodged During
Shipping
, before being dropped.) 
There are also four live cuts laid down at an live gig in 1973, apparently
before Ralph Carney joined the band (there’s no saxophone), that give an
inkling of Tin Huey’s earlier, more propulsive punk sound.

 

None of these tracks have been released before, though some
are alternate versions of album cuts, b-sides and recordings by related bands. (The
best-known versions of “Heat Night” and “The Comb” were recorded by the
Waitresses, and “Hoseanna” by the Swollen Monkeys.)  One cover – a live take of “I Wanna Be Your
Dog” – honors Iggy Pop’s birthday.

 

Even if you know Tin Huey, then, The Bushflow Tapes are full of unexpected gems. The album includes the first-ever recording of
“The Comb” with Patty Donahue trying out the bratty, pouty girl-punk vocals
that would later define big hits like “I Know What Boys Like” and “Christmas
Rapping”.  There’s an early live take on
“Slide,” twitching with slap and pop bass and diving vertiginously into its
blues-funk chorus. “Heat Night”, with its twining, late night saxophones and
snarls of proggy guitars, sounds almost like a manifesto, with its verse,
“Stop! And reverse the wires, switch the ground, something’s crazy here got
twisted around, what got into that anyway, who threw the rules away? Who tore
the boundaries down?”

 

Nostalgists for the 1970s will enjoy a spattering of
contemporary references – the Vonnegut nod in “Ice 9 Hop”, a call for ERA
passage in “Pink Berets,” and an aside about long-time Ohio State
football coach Woody Hayes in “Closet Bears.” One of the album’s most
difficult, multi-parted Prog tracks, “Right Now, Betty White” calls out the
perky star of Hollywood Squares and other game shows, in between flights of
Farfisa fancy and tangled time signature shifts. Ordinary signifiers of
American popular culture are framed by musical difficulty – robot keyboards
that sound like Devo, the skronk and squawk of detuned sax, abstract
post-classical spasms of staccato chords.

 

And that’s not just in the lyrics. Little bits of
conventional music – lite jazz, musical hall strut, even country – get wrapped
into atonal cacophonies. The weird and the ordinary jostle for your attention.

 

The four closing songs on the disc are, as mentioned
earlier, from a live gig in 1973. Though not very well recorded (the sound
fades out pretty drastically on “Zebra Operation”), they give an intriguing glimpse
of Tin Huey’s infancy. The sound is far more straightforward than in the later
material, following just one rhythm per song and putting the bass and drums to
the front. It’s also a more conventional rock band set up, with no horns,
kazoos, whistles or other instruments. Not as arch or complicated yet, but
still plenty interesting, the band’s early incarnation sounds a bit like
Michael Yonkers in his prime.

 

The Bushflow Tapes are nicely though not elaborately
packaged, with contemporary photos, decent notes and a long essay by Robert
Christgau and Carola Dibbel. It’s hard to imagine a better way in to Tin Huey,
and if you’re already in, there’s plenty here that you haven’t heard
before. 

 

[Photo via Smog Veil]

 

BLUE MELODY Iggy Pop

Of Stooges, Franco
pop,  new values – and all that jazz….

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

You’ve heard the mighty Iggy Pop traverse the rockiest
waters and the direst straits with his deep baritone rattle. As solo entity or
Stooge, he’s fingered fate, failure and success. He’s lustfully handled with
different degrees of heatedly literary and primal aplomb 1969 and 1970, China girls, dum dum boys, skull
rings, zombie birdhouses, death trips, weird sins, new values, and all manner
of weirdness. He’s done this very loudly and very quietly – yes he has most
definitely done the latter, if you’d paid hard attention. And he’s kept his abs
and his wits about him.

 

Yet one thing Iggy hasn’t done is croon nihilistic yet
hopeful end-of-earth songs, sometimes in French, about a man and his dog to the
accompaniment of a New Orleans-ish jazz band and his own bluesy acoustic guitar
licks. So, bring on the Franco-existentialist distress and the hot Jelly
Roll-ing jazz that’s Pop’s most recent solo album, Préliminaires, its score music and tentative tender lyricism
inspired by Michel Houellebecq’s 2005 novel The
Possibility of an Island
.

 

Speaking from the backyard of his “club house in Miami with its own little
river,” Pop, it seems, certainly has his more-than-a-possibility of an island.
That allowed him to steer his own course when it came to the haunting jiving
jazz of Préliminaires (it’s not all
jazzed out, kids) and Pop’s brief but poignant history with the writer’s output
and certain projects revolving around Houellebecq

 

“A year before I thought about doing this music I’d read it
[Island]
and it became a favorite fiction read for the last few years of my life,” says
Pop. “I hadn’t found a piece of literary fiction that was entertaining,
relevant [and] also technically fairly dazzling.” Houellebecq traffics in icily
complex takes on fringe religions and cult leaders, sex tourism and
prostitution, and an abiding love for pushing free-market economics into his
humanist reveries. Yet, Islands was warmer within its chilling look at a
scorched earth scenario; compassionate, companion-filled, loving. This French
writer is gifted, his soul and tone human; his manners make Pop feel things.

 

“It made me feel a lot,” agrees the singer. “Islands was
capable of casting a human spell.”

 

Mention to Pop that we’re drawn to images, text and ideas
based on the course of our life and he agrees wholeheartedly. “You don’t even
have to finish that sentence,” laughs Pop. “I’ve been living more of a world life,
since I was twenty-five. I knew the girl, I knew the cons, the drugs, I knew it
all and I have a dog about the same size as Fox [a central figure in the book]
and had a similar career arc and financial position as the protagonist.
Actually, I’m a little better off than him.”

 

Along with the cult in Islands being based on the black-sneaker-loving Raelians who parade through Pop’s Miami – “Little Haiti” –
area, he had lots of somethings to be turned on by when a team of European
filmmakers doing a documentary on Houellebecq contacted him about doing
soundtrack music. “It was me and Neil Young they bugged. The filmmakers wanted
to follow the author of Islands around during his attempt to make a big budget
film of his own book. Of course he never made the big film – he‘s a maniac –
but I was interested in the guy and loved his poetry.” Shove came to push and
push came to Pop and the documentary guys (with a modest budget) liked a few
plucky new songs Pop was working on. At the same time he ran into a producer
who had been in one of Iggy’s itinerant bands years ago, and who coincidentally
also had some tapes of Pop singing “Autumn Leaves.”

 

Pop took the meager money and ran. In a good way. Pop didn’t
really care about the documentary anymore. The book was his muse and he had a
budget enough to make lots of music cheaply without the horror of an American
record company breathing down his neck. As it developed Pop began to realize
that he liked this music and wanted it out as his own album.

 

Remember, this all took place during the glow of his reunion
with the Brothers Asheton and the triumphant return of the Stooges. “I am
entering a part of my life,” declares Pop, “where I really don’t have anything
that I feel of my own to say anything to anybody. I need an occasion, and the
Stooges were an occasion. It was to fulfill a function for a band that hadn’t
been fully fulfilled, and this was part of going ahead and making a record and
taking our lumps.” (When I mention Pop’s current possible commitment to staying
a Stooge, he skirted the issue. I didn’t and won’t find this a failing with
Iggy. The 60-year old Ron Ashton’s passing earlier this year had to be hard on
Pop, 62. Since this interview was conducted, Pop did indeed make the decision
to reactivate the Stooges, this time tapping the talents of Raw Power-era guitarist James Williamson
to join him, bassist Mike Watt, drummer Scott Asheton and saxman Steve Mackay.)

 

Préliminaires,
however, marked a shift in the singer’s playing tastes.

 

“I wanted to play to tracks with a real Fats Waller, Jelly
Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong kind of feel,” says Pop, who points out the
swaying beautiful swing of “King of the Dogs.” 
He was going to do quiet little depressive songs, saying with a laugh,
“My spirit’s shot, it’s not a problem, I just wanna go to the beach, I’m in
pain, leave me alone, everything’s cool.” And he was going to do it his way.

A few things to note; firstly, that Pop has done soft and quiet; “Tiny Girls”
from The Idiot; bits of The Stooges and Funhouse; even on a bootleg I have of Pop singing “The Shadow of
your Smile.”

 

“The first Stooges album has half a ballad on it sung very
badly, but I tried,” says Pop, abruptly crooning the lines “you took my heart and you broke my will”. “It’s a quiet song and I could only sustain it for about a minute and a half
before we lapsed into a psychotic murder bludgeoning bolero. But, you’re right;
it has always been there.”

 

Secondly, Pop had always espoused a love of the more
dissonant brands of jazz: Coltrane, Ayler, Coleman. Pop was exposed to jazz’s
avant-garde through MC5 manager John Sinclair and never really listened to Fats
Waller and Louis Armstrong. “I’m just kind of catching up now. I think part of
it has to do with being older, more mature or something. I should’ve been
listening to Louis when he meant something – that voice is so expressive. He
did what he hadda do to get over in show-biz, to the point to when I was a
young kid I just saw this guy trading shots with Bing Crosby.”

 

As for the light-hearted Jelly Roll Morton, Pop learned
about him through William S. Burroughs’ The
Western Lands
. “I wanted flexible music with life in it that runs opposite
to the drek that’s available,” says Pop, of his own new values based on a love
of vintage wines from the cellar of Fats, Jelly Roll and Satchmo. Though there
are thundering rock elements and a blues bit (“He’s Dead She’s Alive”) on the
album, Préliminaires is the sound of
a man done with the dunderheadedness of loud guitars.

 

“Rock is now officially the world’s worst musical form,”
announces Pop. “It’s lower than polka. At least polka you could have two beers,
and if the accordionist is good, you’ll be happy. You can’t say that about the new
Coldplay or whatever it is.”

 

That’s some Apocalypse Iggy Pop’s got here.

 

 

 

 

BLURT’S BEST KEPT SECRET #8: The Public Good

D.C. band with deep
Amerindie roots purveys pure pop – with power – while keeping a sense of humor intact.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

The BLURT staff put our heads – and ears – together and we
have the latest pick for our Blurt/Sonicbids Best Kept Secret”: it’s The Public Good, based in Washington, DC.

 

The band was formed in 2007 by John Elderkin and Steve
Ruppenthal, a veteran songwriting team that had previously garnered national
acclaim back in the early ‘90s as members of Chapel Hill’s
The Popes. A big college radio fave, the band’s 1988 album Hi We’re the Popes has steadily grown in stature over the years
among indie rock aficionados, and in some corners it’s considered one of the
great lost artifacts of the pre-Nirvana era of alternative rock.

 

After the demise of that band (partly due to an ill-advised
record deal with First Warning that went south), Ruppenthal and Elderkin worked
together in Stumble, followed by the Lovely Lads. The Lads – not to be confused
with the hardcore band of the same name – issued a pair of well-received albums
on Put It On A Cracker Records, but that group, too, folded and the pair went their
own separate ways to pursue work and academic careers.

 

Later, they both wound up in D.C. where they resumed the
partnership, eventually meeting guitarist/keyboardist Sam Esquith and drummer
Chris Garges. Dubbing themselves The Public Good, they set about playing out
around the nation’s capitol – still having strong ties to the Chapel Hill music
scene, they found that town to be receptive as well – and by the summer of 2009
had released their debut album No. 1.

 

The record’s stuffed to the gills with hi-nrg pop, from the
Husker Du/Replacements-worthy “F-105” and the irrepressibly jangly, Kinksian
“(Imagine the Girlfriends I’d Have) If I Still Had Hair” to the
chiming/humming, buoyantly harmonious “Cigarette” and the sinewy (and lyrically
snarky; see below) – “It Was the Wrong Thing.” Suffice to say that the Public
Good lives up to, and in many ways surpasses, the early musical promise
demonstrated two decades ago by the mighty Popes.

 

We caught up with Elderkin and Ruppenthal recently to get
the details. Read on, and meanwhile check the band out at their official website, MySpace page or Facebook page. They’re one of the good ‘uns, trust us.

 

***

 

BLURT: Tell us a bit
about how and when the Public Good came together.

 

John: Steve
and I first started playing in high school (at West Charlotte High in NC),
played in college a bit, and then gave it everything we had after that as The
Popes in Chapel Hill. We both loved the
original British punk bands that, listening now, were really just playing fast
pop songs, and all the ‘60s British stuff, especially obscure Kinks and Who
stuff. So I think that bonded us and gave us a real focus. And we worked our
asses off — we were really ambitious. Looking back, I think something that
made us unique was the way we combined working so damn hard but also leaving
room to be goofy and funny on stage and in our writing.

 

After the Popes broke up, Steve was down in Atlanta and I moved there
for grad school and to play again. I think we’d figured out that we shouldn’t have
broken up. Then I put away music for years and it wasn’t until we both landed
in DC by chance that we started playing again.

 

Steve: We
met Chris about a year ago. He’s been drumming for Mitch Easter, and he was
nice enough to sit in with us when we opened for Mitch last year. Since then,
he’s joined the band and has been producing our new CD, which comes out in
March. We’ve been very lucky meeting him, and signing up Sam, who went to the
same MFA program as John. Sam brings so much to the table – he plays a lot of
instruments and allows us to orchestrate songs in entirely new ways. It has
really advanced our songwriting.

 

 

Your careers would
appear to be permanently entwined despite periods of being apart – what
qualities do you see in each other that helps complete the larger picture?

 

John: I
think the foundations of our tastes are the same, and that’s very hard to find
with someone else. It makes the focus of the songs we write really sharp.
Beyond that, I think our personalities are different, so we come at things
differently and often surprise each other. We push each other without trying
to, and that’s crucial for doing good work. And it keeps things fun for me.
When I have an idea for a song, I’m always excited about what Steve will bring
to it, where it might go that I wouldn’t have predicted.

 

Steve: I’ve
always thought John was the extrovert and I’m the introvert, but the cool thing
– I hope – is that you wouldn’t really know it in the songs. I think that’s
what makes a good songwriting partnership work.

 

 

For the No. 1 record – with that title I can’t
help but think of Big Star, of course – what do YOU hear when you listen to it
now, as opposed to when you were making it?

 

Steve: “No. 1” was supposed to be a take on Public Enemy No. 1, but I think
I’m the only one who got the joke. When I hear it now I think it’s a strong
record all the way around. We were still finishing the songs right up to and
including the recording time. For songwriting, usually one of us has a main
idea, a chorus, a verse, or a riff, and brings it in for feedback. Every once
in a while the song is brought in finished and then tweaked for harmonies, etc.

 

John: Those
songs were actually pretty new when we went to record them. But making that
disc took a long, long time. Lots of unexpected complications came in, so that
by the time we finished it, we’d been playing the songs live for a year and
knew them much better than when we first went to record them. Honestly, I have
no idea what the upshot of that is. I doubt we’d have arranged the songs
differently. When I listen to it now, I’m really happy with how it sounds – it
rocks. And I’m proud that if you really listen, there’s a depth to what we’re
doing. The songwriting is tight and the stories we have to tell aren’t one dimensional.

 

Is D.C. a good town
to be an indie rock band in? What do we need to know about the music scene
there?

 

Steve: D.C.
has a great history. There was the whole Fugazi and Dischord Records scene,
which was huge. And in fact we’ve been recording at Inner Ear Studio with Don
Zientara, who helped record a lot that music. That’s been a great experience.
And the city also is home to Chuck Brown and the Go-Go scene, so that’s cool,
too. But we’re coming in as outsiders, and as a straight-ahead rock band, so we’ve
had to work hard to get noticed.

 

John: Part
of the difficulty is that we’re older and don’t hang out at clubs with other
bands like we did all the time in Chapel Hill.
Plus, with so many transients here, it’s hard to break in with the long-time
locals in the scene. Of course, we’ve heard some cool bands here – Short Stack,
The Break-Ups, and Middle Distance Runner are some that come to mind.

 

Plans for 2010?

 

Steve: The
next record, getting some attention in the D.C. press, beefing up our audience
here, new contracts, and boots.

 

John: The
iron is hot – we are writing tons of songs, and we have a new CD coming out
this Spring. Our drummer produced it – it sounds fantastic, a slightly new
angle on how we’ve sounded in the past. I’d like to flood the world with more
of our new songs in 2010 and beyond. Hopefully we’ll record another CD’s worth
of them this year with Chris.

 

And if I had a wish for 2010, it’d be to find a way to get
the music distributed out into the world better. We’re fully committed, working
hard and writing material we know is very strong. And hell, I’ll admit it, I’d
like to have a little success. I’d fucking love to hear one of our songs come
blasting out of someone’s FM radio, shaking up the world for a couple of
minutes. Just one! That’s my 2010 dream.

 

One thing I like
about the group is the sense of humor that comes through without being over the
top. So tell me two things. (1) Re: “(Imagine the Girlfriends I’d Have) If I
Still Had Hair”: what kinds of girlfriends WOULD you have if you still had
hair? (3) Re: “It Was the Wrong Thing”: exactly what is wrong with such rock
‘n’ roll mainstays as (a) jam bands,  (b)
groups who sing about their pain and woe, and (c) getting high every day, all
of which you single out in the song?

 

John: Oh
man, where to start? That hair song was a way to poke fun at me for obsessing
about my hair loss. Used to make me crazy. But I didn’t want to take the
obvious stance with it. What I like about how the song turned out is what you
suggest — it doesn’t get silly, instead it sticks in that middle ground where
the narrator knows he’s being ridiculous, can’t help himself, and then
confesses to real loss toward the end. That combo of goofy and poignant.

 

I’ll let Steve tell you what’s (always been) wrong about a,
b, and c.

 

Steve: I
still have hair but not a girlfriend, so I’ve wondered if the opposite is true
of the song? As for those mainstays:  (a)
they’re boring; (b) every band does it, but there’s a difference between
“pain and woe” and say, getting dumped, which is what the narrator
means; (c) you get to be stupid and lose any creative edge – hence jam bands.

 

Since you’ve been
part of the Amerindie landscape stretching back all the way to pre-Nirvana
days, what are some of the key changes you’ve seen go down in the past 20
years? What kind of advice would you give to a band starting out in 2010?

 

John: I
don’t understand the business at all. And any time I think I’m getting a clue,
the rules change again.

 

Steve:  I miss the demise of a collection of songs as
an album, though not “concept albums” (Green Day’s last record – ugh!).
And I wish John Lennon, Joe Strummer, and Arthur Lee were still alive.

 

John: I’m
the last guy to offer advice on making it. Other than to say, if you know
you’re good and you have something to say, and you need to say it, stick with
it. Ride it out. It takes guts, more guts than I demonstrated. I kept quitting.
Because of course when you want to “make it,” even outworking
everyone else is no guarantee of success. I wish someone had talked to me
seriously about what life as a writer means when I was in my 20s.  I used to think that because the Beatles or
Neil Young or whoever made killer records when they were 23, I should also be
constrained by time and age. That’s so wrong.

 

Steve:  Stick to Web 2.0 stuff and forget about
getting “signed,” because, as we all know, the record industry is
fucked at the moment (HOORAY!). Play out, write, write, write, and shamelessly
promote yourselves.

 

 

THE MOST FUCKED UP THING I’VE EVER SEEN: Angus Khan

The band’s bassist recounts
the Legend of Big Joe – toucher of death, consumer of meow mix.

 

BY DINO EVERETT

 

Long ago, we had a friend called Big Joe. Joe would do
anything at any time-the more shocking, the better. He was like a giant, strong
Sid Vicious with the sort of youthful energy that would generally land him in
deep trouble, and eventually landed him underground when he flipped and rolled
his truck for the last time.  

 

Joe was super fun, and we had a special sort of crazy
kinship. I have many fond memories of him walking down the street, jumping up
and smashing his head against the street signs, usually slicing his forehead.
He had the kind of scars that professional wrestlers usually have from cutting
the same spot so often the skin no longer heals properly. And the very first
day we arrived in Hollywood, all green and
ignorant from Florida,
Joe was so drunk he walked down the middle of Hollywood Boulevard screaming, “I want to
punch somebody! I want to hit someone hard!” But he was so big that no one
would ever dream of challenging him. 

 

Anyway, on the trip out from Florida,
we were driving through Texas
late one night. There’s a stretch that seems to go on forever and is as black
as night. If you’re sharing the road with anyone else, you’re lucky. Around 2
or 3 a.m. we saw another car
about ten to fifteen car lengths ahead of us. Suddenly it swerved and pulled
over-then we felt a quick bum-bum-bum-bump under our vehicle. We too swerved off to the side of the road.

 

We got out of the truck and saw the couple from the other
car walking toward us. Joe leaned over something in the road and yelled, “It’s
a dead guy… Look at this shit.” We saw pieces of torso and flesh that was
once a man on a motorcycle. We wondered how long he had been there and what
should we do. The couple said they had a phone in their car (this was 1989, so
it was one of those giant ones), which meant that we could leave and continue
on our trip to Los Angeles
and become rock stars. Figuring it was his only chance, Joe went back to touch
the dead body. Then we jumped in the car and drove off to LA.

 

Touching that dead guy wasn’t the most fucked up thing I saw
Big Joe do. One time he ate cat afterbirth. We all went out drinking afterward,
and we wondered aloud if he could get a girl to kiss him that night – and he
did! Someone’s first kiss may have been the most fucked up thing I have ever
seen! Yuck!

 

Angus Khan’s most
recent album,
Black Leather Soul, was
released by the Nickel And Dime label. Check out the band at their MySpace
page
.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Alison L. Beier]

 

JUST WANNA HAVE FUN (AND GET HIGH) Girls

But whatever
you do, don’t call nü-indie rock icon Christopher Owens a cult hero…

 

BY HAL BIENSTOCK

 

As a child, most of the music Girls’ lead singer Christopher
Owens heard was written by people he knew. Owens grew up in the Children of God
cult, where he would attend sing-alongs of religious songs created by other
cult members.

 

“I resented being in the cult, but I later came to
appreciate the way music was presented, which was as something that anyone
could do,” he says. “It was seen as something inspirational that was ours. It
was a way to express how you’re feeling inside.”

 

There were a few other songs that were allowed inside the
cult. The Children of God’s leader had a few mix tapes of songs from the ‘50s
and ‘60s called “My Old Favorites” that he circulated. It had show tunes and
songs by artists like Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline and The Beatles.  What was outlawed was any current music,
although older kids would sometimes sneak in contraband like Michael Jackson and
Guns ‘N’ Roses.

 

After leaving the cult at 16, Owens moved to Amarillo, TX, and later San Francisco, where he
became part of the punk scene. Two years ago, in his late 20s, he began writing
his own songs, which would somehow merge all of his musical passions: the urgency
of punk, the melodies of Elvis’ classic pop and the heart-on-sleeve openness of
religious folk music. Those songs became the bulk of Girls’ 2009 full-length debut,
entitled Album (True
Panther/Matador).

 

We talked with Owens about his unusual youth and how
songwriting helped him come to terms with his past.

 

***

 

BLURT: What
was it like growing up as part of the Children of God?

OWENS: I resented the whole thing. I resented my entire
life. I didn’t want anything to do with religion. I wanted to be able to make
my own decisions and do my own thing. I didn’t have any freedom.

 

Do you
still resent the cult?

Not anymore. I just went on with my life and figured out
what happened and why. Being able to understand what happened helped me get over
it. It’s not that crazy to me anymore, how something started out as a good idea
might get out of hand.

 

What do
you mean? Which part of it was a good idea?

The Children of God were teenagers in the ‘60s who wanted to
live together and have fun. They believed in God and thought they were saving
people’s souls. They weren’t bad people, just idealists in a way. I think it
all got out of hand when they had kids – when they forced a whole generation of
kids to believe what they believed, when they restricted their freedom and took
away their right to make up their own minds. They didn’t pay attention to the
fact that these children may not want to stay in the cult their whole lives and
should have gotten a better education. By the time you left as a teenager, you
were different from other people, whether you liked it or not.

 

You
eventually wound up in San Francisco
and started writing your own songs. How did that happen?

I became friends with the guys in a band called Holy Shit.
They were my favorite band. I noticed how rewarding music was to them, and I
casually started to write my own songs. When I found that music was a tool to
talk about my feelings and vent things inside of me, I felt like a huge weight
was lifted off my shoulders. I would play songs and feel something I never felt
before. It was so great.

 

You
said the music you listened to in Children of God was meant to be uplifting.
Are you trying to do the same thing with your music?

When I started, I wasn’t trying to do anything for anybody
else. I was trying to uplift myself. I wanted to write songs that would help me
feel better about my life and myself. But now that other people are listening
to it, I hope it affects them the same way.

 

That’s
a funny thing to say about an album that was inspired by a bad breakup.

I was definitely going through a rough time when I wrote
these songs. But I feel like even the songs about loneliness and feeling
frustrated with life have a positive message in there somewhere. A lot are
realistic and address the fact that at some point everyone feels alone in life,
but each one comes around to the idea that it’s up to you whether you stay in
that place. Any song that talks about depression also offers an alternative,
which is to keep going, not accept that depression and not dwell on your
misery.

 

[In
addition to Owens, the other members of the band are Chet “JR” White, Ryan Lynch and Garet Godard. Girls’ tour starts next week. Go to their MySpace
page
for dates. On April 17 they are also scheduled to play Coachella.]

 

[Photo Credit: Sandy Kim/ courtesy Matador]

 

THE BLURT BULLY PULPIT: Anders Parker

The singer-songwriter tells
how, while searching the N.C. woods for items to make furniture, he found
himself a friend.

 

BY ANDERS PARKER

 

You Can Call Her Oly

 

Fall 1999:  I had
moved to Raleigh, NC in the summer of that year. I found a job
as a carpenter. The guy who I worked for had shop out in Fuquay-Varina, NC,
which was real country…  lots of
tobacco and cotton farms. Anyway, the shop had a little wood mill and I
volunteered to run the mill. There was so much construction going on at the
time that builders were cutting down great old trees and chipping them. Whenever
we could we would haul take the trees out to the shop and I would mill them. There
was lots of red and white oak as well as some cherry and cedar and pine.

 

One day I was working at the mill and Odell, a guy who
sometimes helped out around the shop, came by with this cute little pup walking
behind him. She was probably three months old at the time. I could see right
away that she was missing an eye, but she seemed none the worse for wear. She
was perky and funny and full of energy. A happy dog. Odell said that the pup
had just showed up a couple of days before and that she was living under his
trailer but that he didn’t want her. So, I told him it was okay to leave her at
the shop until I figured out what to do with her.

 

When Odell left the shop that day the pup tried to follow
her. Odell turned around and yelled at her, telling her to go home and tried to
kick her. She would cower for a few seconds and then her tail would go right
back up and she would start to follow him again, happy as can be. So, I grabbed
her and she stayed at the shop for a couple of days. I bought her some food and
I would play with her on breaks and after work. After a couple of days another
local character came by (overalls, chewing tobacco, 70s Ford truck) and offered
to shoot her, “seeing as she’s a bitch and half-blind and all.”

 

The next day the pup came home with me. Named her Olympia, but you can call
her Oly.

 

The vet thought that she was born with a defective eye, but
he wasn’t sure. The vet took out the eye and tear duct and sewed the eye up. She
does just fine. Occasionally she’ll bang into something on her blind side, but
she’s a good and happy dog. She loves people. In fact, she has absolutely no
filter for people…  she loves everyone.
It’s kind of embarrassing. She’s a terrible watch dog, despite the fact that
she does look kind of tough with her missing eye…. One day I was walking
through Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY
with her and a kid called out to me, “Hey, mister! Does that dog guard a
junkyard?”

 

Well, Oly got real sick this past winter. After taking her
to a number of different veterinarians in the area (Burlington, VT)
she was diagnosed with an advanced case of Lyme Disease. During the illness one
of her back legs went out. She’s gotten better, but she’s still fairly lame, so
we don’t go out on the long walks we used to do every day.

 

She’s well enough now that she looks forward to the walks,
but we’re reluctant to take her out for too long. Our vet is optimistic that
she’ll recover fully, but in the meantime she’s on a reduced exercise schedule.
The squirrels will have to wait.

 

 

Anders Parker’s new
double-album
Skyscraper Crow is out
now on Bladen County Records. Check him out at his
MySpace page.

 

[Photo Credit: Jessica Anderson]

 

SAYING GOODBYE TO HURRICANE BOBBY Bobby Charles

The swamp-pop
godfather passed away last week, leaving a huge hole in the hearts of Americana
fans everywhere.

 

BY ALEX RAWLS

 

Ed. note: Back in our
third issue (September ’08) we profiled swamp-pop godfather Bobby Charles, born
Robert Charles Guidry, whose roots stretch back to the ‘50s and Chess Records.
Many fans know him from his association with The Band (whose Rick Danko
produced 1972’s
Bobby Charles) and
his appearance at the Last Waltz. Though known to be reclusive and not one to
seek the spotlight, he recorded hits for numerous other musicians, and his solo
albums, though few and far between, consistently got the ears of critics and
lovers of Americana music alike. Charles died unexpectedly on January 14 at the
age of 71, just a month before his latest album, the Dr. John-produced
Timeless, was to be released. He will be greatly
missed – as the many accolades published in the last few days attest (including
this one at NOLA.com – and by way of tribute, we hereby republish our 2008
feature on Charles. – FM

 

***

 

The brass alligator that serves as a grip on his cane-a gift
from a friend-reminds you where you know Bobby Charles from. Chess Records had
a hit in 1956 with the Abbeville, Louisiana native’s “See You Later, Alligator,”
which was later a smash for Bill Haley and the Comets. Charles was only 15, and
Chess signed him sight unseen. According to Charles, now 70, Phil Chess met him
at the airport with a pretty young blonde girl when he flew to Chicago. 

 

“After everybody had left, Phil Chess came up and said, ‘You
can’t be Bobby Charles.’ I said yeah,” Charles recalls. “He said, ‘motherfucker.’
First time I’d ever heard that in my life. He dropped me and the girl off at a
hotel and gave me $200 and said, ‘Have a good time.’ That’s the way it was.
They weren’t going to bring a black girl for a black guy. They knew what he
wanted.” 

 

His days touring as part of Chess package tours were
intense. He was the only white man on tours that included Chuck Berry and
Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. He was still a teenager, but he played black
clubs, stayed at black hotels, and was turned away from white restaurants that
saw him get off the musicians’ bus. “I thought I was going to get hung trying
to buy 50 hamburgers,” he says. When Charles effectively retired from
performing after a few Chess tours, he started doing promotions work for the
label. Once, while promoting an Etta James record in a southern city, a station
manager asked, “Hey man, want to come to a hanging? They’re going to hang this
black dude.” 

 

Experiences like those and various rip-offs made Bobby
Charles a reluctant member of the music business. He recorded sporadically and,
as is the case with his new album, Homemade Songs, released music on his
own schedule. When he works, it’s out of friendship, as is the case with the
six songs he co-wrote or contributed to Dr. John’s recent City That Care
Forgot
, or because ideas come to him whether he wants them or not. “When I
write, I write,” he says. “I can’t help that.”

 

***

 

Shucks in Abbeville is a non-descript room of mid-’80s
vintage except for the small, glassed-in room in the corner with “Whole lotta
shuckin’ goin’ on” painted in script on the window. The seafood restaurant specializes
in oysters, and Bobby Charles has his table at the back of the room, where he sits
three to four days a week-“sometimes more,” he says with a conspiratorial grin-and
staff and regulars alike pass by to say hi. It serves as his unofficial office,
and when singer Shannon McNally was in Abbeville to record an album of Bobby
Charles covers late last year, he’d often take her to Shucks. “He’d come round
me up around noon every day and want me to sit there until two or three in the
afternoon,” she remembers, laughing. “He sits down there and has his sautéed
oysters or fried oysters and his martinis and holds court.”

 

Dr. John-Mac Rebennack-produced the McNally album (which is
currently in need of a label), and it’s a project she had long wanted to do. Ever
since her husband gave her Bobby Charles, the album he recorded in 1972
in Woodstock with co-producer Rick Danko, she has wanted to re-record that
album. “That Bobby Charles record he did is one of the best records ever
made,” she says. “It should be as important to the alt-country world as Grievous
Angel
. It’s one of the top five records of an entire genre. It’s overlooked
because it’s not really available.”

 

The album is now downloadable as an mp3 at Amazon.com, and
it shows how much the Band vibe was in the Woodstock air. The songs groove
loosely, and Charles’ songs have the sly wisdom of the country bumpkin who
slowly lets on that he knows more than he seems. It’s in his voice, and it’s in
the songs, which are written in the common tongue to such a degree that they
seem artless. “There’s something very Gump about him, and I mean that in the
best way,” McNally says. “He’s a very simple person, but in the highest form of
simple. It’s no small thing to get Mac’s attention, but when Mac talks about
him, Mac would shake his head and say, ‘Dat muddafucka can write. He just
couldn’t go wrong.'”

 

That was his musical life, though. Charles gets vague when
he talks about dates and places because he has spent some time on the lam. He
ended up in Woodstock after a pot bust, and when he arrived, no one knew who he
was because he used an assumed name. He quickly fell in with neighbor Paul
Butterfield and a houseful of musicians including Amos Garrett who introduced
him to Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman. Charles was suspicious of Grossman
from the start, but he signed with him to deal with his legal issues. According
to Charles, Grossman heard his songs and asked, “‘Why don’t you make a record
for me?’ I said, ‘Why don’t you get me out of the trouble I’m in and maybe I
might?'” 

 

The album’s high point is “Tennessee Blues,” the song that
convinced Grossman he wanted to manage Charles. It’s a sweet, wistful song of
longing:

 

 

If I had my way, I’d leave here today.

I’d move in a hurry.

I’d find me a place where I could stay,

not have to worry.

A place I’d feel loose.

Some place I could lose

these Tennessee Blues.

 

 

His simple, quiet hope for a home was also a comment on
being on the run from the charges hanging over him, which were filed in
Nashville. “It’s like living in jail in your mind.”

 

After he found a loophole in Grossman’s management contract,
Charles said, “See you later, alligator”–literally–and set out for more
adventure. He spent time in Arizona, California and Tennessee, but he’s fuzzy
on where, how long and why. At some point–likely in the 1980s–he returned to
Abbeville, and in the early 1990s, he started recording one-off sessions at
Dockside Studios in Vermillion Parish with guitarist Sonny Landreth leading the
band.

 

“For me, he’s the quintessential South Louisiana
singer/songwriter,” Landreth says. He’s also a challenge to work with because
Charles writes only the words and the melody, often by singing them into a
recorder. When he has ideas and a recorder isn’t at hand, he sings them into answering
machines. It falls to Landreth or guitarist Sam Broussard to figure out chords
and an arrangement. Once, Charles told Landreth he had the song written out. “He
brings in one sheet of ‘String of Hearts’ but it was in a picture frame,”
Landreth says. “Here’s our chart, so we had to wing that. That’s classic Bobby
Charles.

 

“Working with him is a creative circus that shows up in the
town, and you don’t want to miss it.  It’s
chaotic and we’re making all this stuff on the spot. The thing about him is, when
he’s excited about the song and has that feeling, that’s what you want to get.
When he starts trying to polish it, that’s not what he’s about and you lose
that magic. Sometimes he’ll start singing and we’re still tuning up and we
haven’t got that far with the song, but that’s part of the ride. It wouldn’t be
as special if it were any other way.”

 

While the return to Acadiana was good for Charles
creatively, he suffered more setbacks in his personal life. His house burned
down in 1996, he was treated for cancer (currently in remission), and in 2005,
his home at Holly Beach on Gulf of Mexico was wiped away along with the rest of
the community by Hurricane Rita. Back and dental problems have slowed him down
and limited his mobility. He canceled a scheduled appearance at the 2004
Ponderosa Stomp, and he surprised everybody when he agreed to perform at the
New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2006. Sonny Landreth was the
bandleader, and Marcia Ball, Dr. John and Shannon McNally were invited to help
carry the load. To no one’s surprise, Charles backed out of the show and at the
last minute, it became a tribute to him. It was one of the highlights of Jazz
Fest, particularly McNally’s segment, as she approached the plaintive,
unassuming quality of Charles’ voice, but the set was more spontaneous than the
audience realized. “I was finishing up the set list as they were calling my
name onstage,” Landreth says.

 

Missing recent shows doesn’t stop Charles from making plans
to perform, though. “Bobby called me up and said, ‘Man, I want to go to Europe.
Let’s get your guys and go to Europe,'” Landreth recalls, laughing. “I said, ‘How
about we try one closer to home first?'”

 

Like 2004’s Last Train to Memphis, Homemade Songs is a collection of new songs, new recordings of old songs, and recordings that
were never released. The title track was demo’ed for Bobby Charles, but
this version was recorded in Nashville in 1975 with a band that includes Willie
Nelson’s harmonica player, Mickey Raphael. “Here I Go Again” has already been
recorded by Paul Butterfield and Gatemouth Brown, but the album also includes “The
Truth Will Set You Free (Promises, Promises),” which reflects his general
hostility toward politicians. He started co-writing the song with Willie Nelson
when he commiserated with Nelson on his tour bus. “‘The road to the White House
is paved with lies,’ I said. He said, ‘Write that down right now.'” When Nelson
suggested the next line–“the truth will set you free”–the collaboration was
underway.

 

Charles’ political concerns find fuller expression in his
collaborations on Dr. John’s new album. For Rebennack’s lacerating look at the
world that abandoned New Orleans, he contributed “The Truth Will Set You Free,”
and collaborated on a number of songs including “Time for a Change.” Though its
subject matter is pointed–politicians selling their asses to Big Oil–it came
out of good times. “We were just talking on the phone, sitting right here,”
Charles says, pointing to his table at Shucks. As they traded lines, each nudged
the other into places they might not go on their own, resulting in commonplace
anthems that forego Dr. John’s hoodoo so that no one misses the point. “Mac’s a
lot of fun to work with, a good friend. Once I get the right inspiration, it
doesn’t take me 10 or 15 minutes.”

 

While Rebennack takes on greedheads of all stripes, the
songs he co-wrote with Charles focus on the environment, particularly the
Louisiana wetlands, a pet concern for both. An ongoing frustration for Charles
is Louisiana politicians’ unwillingness to take him up on the “Solution to
Pollution” song and book he wrote with school age children in mind. “The
government’s not much of a government these days,” he says.

 

And as happens in every barroom in America, one complaint
about the government begets a dozen more. “We’re going to have another civil
war. Looks like they’re sure trying to start one,” he says. “We’re lucky we
lived in the times that we do. I don’t know if I want to be around in 10 years.”
He likes Obama, has no love for McCain, but he’s interested in the ideas in T.
Boone Pickens’ ads on television. But as befits someone who has found his
identity in his songs whether he wanted to or not, talk of Washington circles
back to “The Truth Will Set You Free.”

 

“I’m glad I wrote it,” Charles says. “I tried to do
something right. I feel good about that. I feel a lot better than a lot of
other people walking around, people who still have Bush and Cheney stickers on
their cars. I can’t handle that.”

 

 

Bobby Charles
Wikipedia page can be found here.

 

There’s also a good
discography located at this fan site.