“I did stupid things in my youth, all the same things my friends did. I survived, they didn’t, it’s dumb luck.” — Mark Arm
The music world is lucky the Mudhoney frontman was able to dodge the proverbial bullet. Of singers to emerge from the dirty 1980s and ‘90s of the Northwest, Arm (born Mark McLaughlin) deserves to be mentioned in the same rarified breath as Cobain, Staley, Cornell, Vedder and Wood. Whether singing with Mr. Epp and the Calculations, the much-underrated Green River (a band that featured Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, later of Pearl Jam) or (naturally) Mudhoney, Arm has been in the shit, neck deep on the front line, spitting and screaming at the birth of the grunge “movement.”
A time that, for Arm, was strange. “Our song ‘Overblown’ says it all. It was a feeding frenzy. People descending on our town, snatching everyone up.” Since the beginnings of his first band in 1981, Arm has seen many changes in the music business, changes he really does not pay much attention to. “For me, the ‘business’ part of music is beside the point; I try to ignore it as much as possible. There are things you have to deal with, like making sure you get paid and stuff like that but how the biz works, the ins and outs of strategizing and selling records, that bullshit, is supremely uninteresting to me.”
Formed in 1988 following the collapse of Green River, Mudhoney was an aberration, an antidote to the pop garbage taking over America in the ‘80s. Combining elements of noise rock, garage and punk, the band (named for a Russ Meyer movie) would go on to influence such standouts as Nirvana, The Fastbacks, The Gits and Tad, having a major hand in creating what is today considered to be alternative rock.
The idea of Dan Peters (drums), Steve Turner (guitar), Matt Lukin (bass; since replaced by Guy Maddison of Perth, Australia) and Arm coming together to make anything was a bolt of lightning from the rock Gods. “The fact that Mudhoney became a band that was able to tour and make money was a weird quirk of fate; it wasn’t anything we were aiming to do necessarily. We were happy to have that happen of course but we didn’t plan it.”
What bands did Mark Arm idealize, immolate and fetishize you may ask? “It depends what age you’re talking about” he says with a chuckle. “At one point, it would’ve been Three Dog Night, and then it was The Sweet, just various things over time. One of the musical events that spun my head around was going to see Devo at The Showbox in Seattle after going to a handful of arena shows and realizing it was so much better in a club.”
He continues, “Man, I went from sitting in seats far away or being on the floor far away with the barricade and the stage being so high to being one person away from the front of the stage at the club, so close I grabbed Bob One’s guitar neck and he hit me over the head. I just thought, this is amazing! It never crossed my mind that I could be messing up the show.”
In the middle of our conversation, there was something I couldn’t help but ask. On the latest record Vanishing Point (released last year via Sub Pop), one of my favorite songs is “Douchebags on Parade.” Is it a comment on the overwhelming trend of douchebags and bros being the norm today or an observation on the decline of western civilization as a whole?” When Arm finished laughing (clocked at a minute and a half) he replied, “Take your pick! Juiceheads and bros walking around everywhere and it’s a worldwide phenomenon. Jersey Shore types by the tons in Brisbane, Australia and Manchester, UK. Shit man, that’s a gray, rainy town and they got these spray tans. That’s one kind of douchebag. Then there’s also the suave douchebags, it’s weird man.”
One thing that has changed for Arm and the boys over the years is touring. “In Green River it was very difficult. We would try to set up our own tours, no booking agent and with the first tour in ’85, shows fell through. We all saved up like $700 each; we basically took a vacation together where we tried to play shows.”
Of all the cool things that a band like Mudhoney has done, the highest that didn’t involve narcotics would be recording an album on the world famous Seattle landmark, The Space Needle. However, Mudhoney cannot claim responsibility for that: it was Sub Pop’s idea. “I had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea when it was first floated. We went up there to look at it and the big part of the roof slopes a bit; they were going to build a stage and I had a nightmare scenario where the stage would start sliding down this slope and we all die. Luckily, above the slope there is a flat spot where the needle comes out that’s 20-25 ft. in diameter with a railing around it. To document the whole thing, KEXP (the local independent rock radio station) did a simulcast and recorded it. So we put it out.”
Times have changed for music fans. In the days of my youth and Arm’s, we had to know someone that had cool music so we could get a dubbed cassette. Now, kids get it in .0005 seconds thanks to the internet. Does the lack of “the Hunt” make them lazy and less interested in the music that they find? “You know, I don’t know. It’s hard for me to judge, I can’t get in the heads of the young kids. There is something pretty great about having instant access to stuff, I take advantage of that and, sometimes I get a little greedy and download a bunch of crap. Back in the day, when you first got into records, you only had a couple so you did deep, heavy listening and really got into those records. As your collection grows, you don’t go that deep. I don’t think kids now have a chance to get deep into a record and that’s too bad.”
The obligatory question arises: where does Mudhoney stand in the Grunge history? “We were a band from Seattle that happened to be around at that time. We were lumped in with bands that got much more famous than us. You know, we were all lumped together but we didn’t sound the same. ‘Grunge’ is just an easy, offhand way to talk about a time and a place, sort of like punk is except there are so many different kinds of punk: ’77 punk, hardcore, crappy pop punk. Now, when someone says punk, you don’t know if they are talking about Void or Green Day. When someone says ‘grunge’ it’s easier to nail down”
Looking at the charts and seeing what is popular now, does Arm think music fans are doomed? “No. People that buy stuff on the charts are probably doomed but the people that seek stuff out will be fine. It’s always been like that. Generally, shit on the pop charts is shit. There have been times when rock n roll and pop shared it the charts; in the ‘50s, you had ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window?’ and Elvis side by side, but mostly shit on the pop charts is shit. The point for us now, as a band, is to make music not because we think it will sell or chart, we make music that we enjoy and that our fans will enjoy.”
Mudhoney doesn’t crank out pop shit and furthermore, contrary to grunge lore, Mark Arm was not the first guy to stage dive. Mudhoney is one and only one thing: They are simply who they are and for that, they are legendary.
Mudhoney will be doing selected dates each month, including this weekend in Asheville, NC (Aug. 29) as part of the Harvest Records’ Transfigurations II festival and at the Muddy Roots Festival (Aug. 30) in Cookeville, TN. After that comes Kansas City, MO, venue the Riot Room (on Sept. 13) and the Riot Fest in Chicago (Sept. 14). Details HERE.
Whether playing solo or as a side man, an expansive new box set offers proof that music remains his mantra.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Nils Lofgren would have likely achieved significant standing in rock circles even if his sole claim to fame had been limited to his participation in Grin and the early incarnation of Crazy Horse. Or, for that matter, had he emerged fully formed and simply pursued the solo career that now finds him in his fifth decade of making music on his own. The fact that he can also claim indelible associations with both Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen only adds further luster to his star-like sheen, an achievement that was recently capped off by his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside other members of the E Street Band.
So too, Lofgren’s career seems to have been blessed from the beginning, when, as a 16 year old wunderkind at the helm of his band Grin, he met Young backstage and was immediately invited to join an early incarnation of Crazy Horse, which not only backed Young on several of his landmark efforts (After The Gold Rush and Tonight’s the Night among them) but also recorded its own eponymous debut in 1971.
After Grin’s unfortunate demise and the death of Crazy Horse’s chief singer and songwriter Danny Whitten due to a drug overdose, Lofgren went solo, producing a string of remarkable radio-ready albums throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s, yielding several memorable signature songs (“Back It Up,” “Keith Don’t Go” and “I Came to Dance”) in the process. Despite being abandoned by the major labels, he continues to record under his own auspices, proving that his prolific prowess remains undiminished.
Still, it was his recruitment into the E Street Band in 1984, and his subsequent participation in the Boss’ landmark Born in the USA tour that brought him to the masses and assured him his public persona. Still considered the new kid after 30 years, he’s become a key lynchpin in that band, thanks to his seamless dexterity on a variety of instrumental essentials.
Still, in light of his reputation as a superb sideman, Lofgren’s own remarkable body of work has sometimes eluded the scrutiny it deserves. Thankfully then, Face the Music, a lavish ten disc box set comprising nine CDs, a DVD and a rich and revealing 129-page booklet, brings the spotlight back on the artist himself, detailing the whole of his 45 year career. It’s a remarkable collection and certainly one of the most sumptuous anthologies ever offered. BLURT was fortunate enough to be allowed the opportunity to talk with Lofgren from his home in Arizona, and we listened intently while he generously shared his backstory.
BLURT: This box set is among the most impressive we’ve ever seen.
LOFGREN: It’s kind of a shock that after years of watching my music become extinct and out of print I found a company that was willing to go back and put out the best of it. As a ten disc box set, re-mastered correctly, and assembled chronologically, five decades of music… it’s quite an accomplishment.
Whose idea was this?
The president of Concord and Tom Cartwright, an A&R person I’ve worked with on other projects, came to me, and the conversation was a serious one, even though it was going to be messy because the old record companies had to be approached for the masters. Some of them had lost the paperwork and lost the music, but Concord was really committed to doing it and the project moved on from there. We spent 18 month assembling it and we managed to get all the rights to the music, so that was pretty extraordinary.
Did you actually curate it?
Yes, my wife Amy and I and our assistant Omar got well deserved production credits because we basically turned our house into a production studio. But to Concord’s credit, they offered to give us whatever we needed. We had good debates over which songs should be put on or left off, but at the end of the day, they let me make every decision. So, yes, I am the curator.
This box is of epic proportions to say the least. Was there any attempt to trim the size or the number of discs?
There was some concern, but I went through twenty discs of music. The goal for me was to make a set of songs where there would never be any need to lift the needle. I never listen to my old music at all, so I’m a pretty critical audience. I thought if I could put together a set of songs that I could enjoy, I’d succeed. So as I went through and discarded things, I went to Tom Cartwright, who is my go-to guy, and he told me they were happy to have nine discs as long as they could have two discs of unreleased, unmixed basement tapes and obscure, unusual things – even a karate jingle, just all kinds of stuff. So we’re talking enough material to cover a 45 year career. And they were up for it. They listened to it and thought it was appropriate and nothing gratuitous. We did debate some things, but in general, this is something I can listen to and be proud of and I feel it’s a great representation of my 45 plus years. I’m grateful they went with it and bought the rights to every song I picked. So that was really exceptional to have that kind of support from a record company, especially considering I’m not a hit record artist and I’ve been working alone for twenty years on my website. To get that done was extraordinary.
You say you hadn’t heard most of this stuff in awhile?
Not really, You listen to it so much when you make it. I do still perform a number of these songs live a lot and for me, that’s a big charge because live is what I love most about my job. But to go back and listen to all these things, to hear the fresh sounds of the young wide-eyed musicians of Grin, with the help of David Briggs and Neil Young, makes me realize we were very lucky to have such great mentors. Back in the ‘60s, the only real game was to play live, so we did really work hard at it and we translated it into our recordings. Even though we were green, it was just a beautiful journey that really doesn’t happen anymore. If you don’t have hit records, you don’t get to make records any more. I was really stunned when I looked back at the work I’ve done and the collaborations I’ve been fortunate enough to have had along the way. I thought it was kind of a singular tale. Companies don’t tell you, “Well, we really like your record, and we think your music is good, and you’re out playing all the time, and your live shows are good, so yeah, we’re going to make another one.” That sort of dried up in the ‘90s and I saw the writing on the wall and went out on my own. I spent a year and a half trying to get my release from the contracts, but I needed to be a free agent.
Early on, you had some very high profile record label affiliations, what with Sony and A&M. So now you’re releasing your music on your own?
Yes, first on Vision and now Road Records. I realized that’s what I needed to do to keep my freedom. I understood that with so much money at stake, if you weren’t bringing in the money, the record companies would insist on being hands-on and they were going to tell me what to do. I realized it would be work, but I eventually got my freedom and I kept making music. I was proud of the music I’d release, whether it was video, music, CDs, single songs, unusual demos or whatever. I wouldn’t get that freedom with a record company unless I was a Bruce Springsteen or a Sting, and even those artists get some scrutiny. Sting made a lute album, but no doubt his company wished he had made a Police album or a great Sting solo record. But because he was Sting, it still got released. I made Trans with Neil Young and the company suspended him and said it was too “un-Neil Young-like, so we’re going to sue you.” I looked at that situation with artists of that caliber and I realized I better get out of here and get a website and do what I want.
One would think that given the substance evident on this album — as well as your ample associations alongside Neil and Bruce — the majors would be biting at your heels.
That’s not how they read it at all. Concord did come to me like that when they offered to put out a comprehensive box set, but all the other companies, they don’t care that I play with Bruce Springsteen. They don’t care about my overall body of work. They simply look at my track record of making albums that didn’t sell. That’s it. And I don’t begrudge them that. That’s why I went through a very difficult time — a year and a half — to get extricated from my last contract. As frightening as it was to be without a record company, it was a very freeing feeling because all of the bureaucracy, all that musical dance you have to do to follow your heart and to make the company feel like they’ve put in their two cents, it just got to be oppressive. I didn’t have the financial track record and hit records to tell them no thank you, I’m going to do what I want. The only way that was going to happen was with freedom, which is what I got. So again, I don’t begrudge them that. They don’t see me as a good bet at all. So I’ll put out this box set and I’ll be proud of it and promote the hell out of it, and then I’ll write another album and keep on playing and singing.
Is there a possibility that after this box set, Concord might want you to do another album with you?
(in exasperated tone of voice) I don’t know. I can’t speak for them. They’ve been great to work with. This has been a labor of love, an enormous project that may or may not make any money. I’m very proud of it and they did a great job from A to Z. I’d be surprised if they wanted to keep working with me, but that’s not our focus today. That’s down the road. It’s a business, and thanks to people like you spreading the word, if it does well, maybe that would be something to look at.
Let’s talk a little about your work with Bruce. When he decides to go out on tour, do you get enough advance notice that you can adjust your schedule accordingly?
Well, yeah. In general I’m a member of the E Street Band, but I’m looking at a run of dates I’ll do acoustically in England in January. So I’ll ask if it’s a problem, which is something I do just as a courtesy. And if they say no, it’s not a problem, there’s no plans right now, then I’ll go book it. But I always let them know what I’m planning and it’s very organic. They’ll say, “No, that’s great, we don’t have any plans for you.” If they think it might be a problem, they’ll let me know. But at the moment, it appears there will be some down time that will allow me to make another record and tour a bit and kind of recharge my solo career. And there’s no better way to kick it off than with this box set.
You were recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the E Street Band. That must have been a great feeling of accomplishment.
That was a beautiful night, but it was kind of bittersweet. We had hoped they would have figured it out before Clarence and Danny died… and they should have. Nevertheless, it was great to take my wife to New York and see a lot of great friends and hang out and play some great music with a great band and get acknowledged like that… and just be able to speak to Clarence from the podium and put my two cents in. Of course, I spoke for two minutes and ten seconds and they chopped two minutes out of it for TV. But I get it. I’m part of a big band getting inducted and musicians tend to ramble on, and it is a TV show. It was all great and we had a lot of fun. And that sums it up — beautiful but bittersweet because they should have done it while Clarence and Danny were alive, and we all agree with that.
It was interesting that Bruce revealed that Miami Steve had pressed him to insist that the E Street Band be included when he was inducted a few years back. Apparently they had some disagreement over that.
I thought that it was very beautiful that Bruce shared that very personal story and seemed to regret not taking it to heart at the time. Nobody is more aware of how hurt Danny and Clarence were than Bruce himself. Yeah, it was rough stuff. I’ve been in the band 30 years, and like Bruce said, when you’re in a band, sometimes you hurt one another in small or big ways. You’re a family, so you carry on, dysfunctional or not.
It’s funny that after 30 years, you’re still considered the new guy.
I am the new guy. But hey, after 30 years, I’m certainly not a rookie and I certainly feel at home. I’m glad there are guys that have more history than me. None of us have all the answers and we’re regularly helping each other with takes on different songs, arrangements and that sort of thing. It really is challenging but it’s also lots of fun and it calls on all our expertise, not only as musicians but also as far as how to be in a band, how to be on the road. There’s a lot of things to navigate past the music and we’ve all gotten pretty good at it.
Does Bruce encourage that sort of spontaneity and input, especially as it applies to the new material?
It’s unspoken. A lot of times we’ll be on stage and he’ll walk to the microphone and start singing something we’ve never heard. We listen for 30 seconds and then pick it up and start playing. In ’99, when Steve came back, I challenged myself to be a swing man, because you don’t need four guitarists up there. I learned a little pedal steel, dobro, lap steel, bottleneck and banjo to fill out the tool chest. So I have a lot of sounds at my disposal. I’ll go, okay, maybe I’ll just go over to the dobro for this one. Maybe I’ll pick up the lap steel and do a screaming lead rather than just play guitar. Once in awhile we’ll start playing and Bruce will point to me and the pedal steel. It’s very organic like that, and we all come up with ideas because we love and understand the music, which is even more of a qualification than our musicianship.
Is that how it works in the studio as well? How does he demo the material for you?
There’s a million ways to do it and by now we’ve heard them all, even though we’re always looking for different ways. There’s not really a set method. Generally you work it up and as soon as you have a glimpse of a song, you try to cut something so it’s still fresh. And then you start to put it together like a jigsaw puzzle. Let me add this guitar part, or let me add some color. If one of us doesn’t have an idea, Bruce may have an idea as we track it. In a studio, it could be something as simple as, why don’t you move over to acoustic guitar? It’s very organic.
Like any band leader, the less he has to coach his players, the better. By not coaching them before he opens the chute, you get more surprises. People that love the songs are adding their own touches. Sometimes Bruce will come in with a decent demo and if he’s got a dobro part sketched out, I’m the guy who plays dobro, so I know that’s my part. You take a sketch and just refine it a little. It’s very simple in that regard. The height of that is when he walks to the microphone, starts singing something we’ve never heard and we just start playing and it works. And that’s the beauty of the band. Of course, if he needs to give us direction, that’s fine. But with the great bands, like this one and like Crazy Horse, it’s based more on everybody’s instincts and respect for that body of work rather than some coach who tells everybody what to do.
That first Crazy Horse you did was one of the great lost treasures.
It was a great line-up, with Danny Whitten, Jack Nitzsche… Ry Cooder played on several tracks as well. To go from After the Gold Rush to that was just incredible. And of course by then, I was buddies with everyone in Crazy Horse. They asked me to join the band and help make the album, which I did. And with Jack Nitzsche as the keyboard player, it was amazing.
So what brought that to an end?
What happened was that I had my band Grin, and we were playing and working and recording, and Crazy Horse wanted me to quit Grin and join them. So I made it clear I wouldn’t do that, but that I would make a record with them. And they finally acquiesced to that and hoped I’d change my mind. But what happened was that when Crazy Horse was done, soon after that, we lost Danny and he was the main singer. Crazy Horse went on to make other records, but for me, it would never be what it was meant to be without Danny. A year or two later, I made Tonight’s The Night with Ralph and Billy. It wasn’t called Crazy Horse – it was just the Tonight’s the Night band. So they asked me a couple more times to join, but I told them that with all due respect, without Danny, my heart just wasn’t in it. He was the lead singer and writer, so without him it just wasn’t the same.
Grin(pictured, above) was such an outstanding band. What led to its demise?
We made our albums with David Briggs who took us under his wing, and I met David thanks to Neil Young at Washington’s Cellar Door. Then Neil told me to look him up in L.A. and when I got there he was still the same cool, supportive guy who wanted to help. We did four albums and got great reviews. Back then, the label provided money for tour support. It was like, if you go out and play we’ll support you. And of course, we loved to play, so we ran up a lot of bills which were charged against us and which we never paid back. But we got some help to go all over the world and play. And after four albums, we didn’t make any money, so they said, guys, you’re making good albums but you’re not making us any money so we’re going to have to drop you.
That was just the first big wake-up call of welcome to show business. But they let me carry on as a solo artist, and yet even that took awhile so I was in limbo for quite a bit and very depressed about my band breaking up. We did a farewell concert at the Kennedy Center because we wanted to go out with some class, which we did. We were the first rock band to play there. And then I carried on as a solo artist. Yet, it’s so great with the box set that I could go back and pick my favorite Grin songs and re-sequence them in an entirely new running order so they flow. For Concord to get the rights to every one and Billy Wolf to master them so beautifully, was the best stroll down memory lane I could have taken.
What is your relationship these days with Neil Young now? You did a tribute album to him not that long ago, but have them been any opportunities to reconnect with him?
I check in regularly and always try to see him playing when I can. I remember the day I went to this heavy lawyer’s meeting about this ex-manager I was trying to get out of my hair because in my eyes, he was being a jerk, and I was doing some errands and running around acting like an adult, like “Look at me, Mr. Adult… trying to do all these things — appointments, lawyers, doctors, all these stuff that’s part of being an adult.” I mean, I’m 63, but the kid in me doesn’t want to do any of that stuff and that’s the challenge. So I’m driving down the freeway and the phone rings and it’s some weird number. So I think, okay, what’s the next problem I have to put out. And that’s how I answered the phone. Okay, what’s the problem? Tell me what I have to do and I’ll put it on my to-do list. And it’s Neil Young. And he says, “We’re up here with Crazy Horse and we’re doing the Music Cares thing. Bruce is being honored and he’s asked me to do “Born in the USA” and we need you to come up here and play the keyboard part.” I’m like what?, but all of a sudden I go from thinking there’s another fire to put out to “when do you want to do this?” And he says, “now!” So I go from being the cynic and putting out fires to being a kid in the candy store. I get this beautiful call and I show up in San Francisco the next morning and play keyboards on “Born in the USA.” So I got to do that and it was a beautiful adventure. Then when Neil did his film project Greendale, I got a call to be in that band, but I had to say no because I was committed to a run of E Street shows. So I was both flattered and frustrated, but hopefully that will happen again because Neil knows I love playing with him.
To have played with both Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen is incredibly impressive, and yet you’re clearly more than a mere a sideman. How do you view your standing, especially in light of this remarkable box set?
I’m a band oriented person. I learned that at a very young age – eighteen years old — while leading my band Grin, writing their songs, being the co-lead singer, being very comfortable in that role. I used to jam all the time and I still do. I’m very comfortable as a band leader, but when you get to play with great people and to play great music, that’s just as exciting for me. So when I get the chance to do a Ringo Starr All Starr tour, I’ll do it as well. It actually enhances my own work because when I get back to my own music, I’m excited about it.
It’s all part of the same journey, whether I’m in a band or leading a band. It’s all music that I love. There’s a whole different take on it when you’re not the leader, but it’s still fun. When I do my own shows, I play all the solos and I’m singing all the songs, but I still love singing harmony and working with other people and great bands. So for me who loves music and the people, it’s actually very complementary to my own music.
Top photo credit: Joseph Quever. Below: tracklisting for the Lofgren box plus the trailer video.
Flawed but fascinating, the recently released The Pleasures Of Being Out Of Step: Notes On The Life Of Nat Hentoff profiles the legendary jazz critic, dipping into both his music and his politics.
BY MICHAEL BERICK
The name Nat Hentoff resonates with music aficionados. The 89-year-old Hentoff, who looks a bit like the late film director John Huston, sits among the pantheon of influential music critics, particularly for his writing on jazz. The new documentary The Pleasure of Being Out Of Step looks Hentoff’s long career writing about music as well as political issues. Filmmaker David L. Lewis follows a rather standard documentary style – mixing archival footage with interviews of Hentoff, his colleagues, his friends and his former friends – although he structures the film more around ideas than chronologically, which seems appropriate for a man of ideas like Hentoff. The actor Andre Braugher serves as narrator and does a marvelous job reciting Hentoff’s eloquent prose (often from liner notes) about jazz giants like Miles Davis and Max Roach.
The documentary certainly makes a strong case about Hentoff’s importance in the jazz world. Early on, historian John Gennari proclaims that Hentoff ranks “among the handful of non-musicians you need to reckon with if you are [interested in] the history of jazz,” while musician Phil Woods more plainly states that Hentoff “was part of the family… a friend of music.” Musicians, it is said, especially liked him because he wasn’t a “moldy fig” – someone who thought jazz stopped with Louie Armstrong.
Out of Step chronicles Hentoff’s work as he goes from writing for Down Beat in the ‘50s before he started Jazz Review (a more scholarly but shorter lived journal) and later moving on the Village Voice, where he served as a columnist for 50 years. The film points out how Hentoff arrived at an opportune time for writing liner notes. Just as he was becoming a well-known jazz critic in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, the music business was switching from the 78 to the 33 1/3, which allowed for more liner note space.
Many non-jazz fans associate Hentoff with his early coverage of Bob Dylan, whom he profiled in the New Yorker and Playboy. In the film, Hentoff admits that he didn’t really like Dylan’s guitar playing but admired his lyrics. He recalls how, for the Playboy article, he played the straight man while Dylan hilariously regaled with his fictional life story. Hentoff also wrote about, and become close with, Lenny Bruce, and the film includes several funny, but eventually sad, clips of Bruce.
Out of Step also spotlights several of Hentoff’s non-journalism career moves. He served as a main consultant for the landmark 1957 TV show The Sound of Jazz, which brought together a diverse and talented lineup of jazz stars, from Count Basie to Thelonious Monk. Hentoff fought successfully to keep the Billie Holliday on the program although sponsors didn’t want the scandal-shrouded singer to perform.
One of the film’s interesting revelations is that Hentoff actually ran a label for a short time. As head of Candid Records in 1960-61, he put out records by a number of cutting edge jazz players – Charles Mingus, Coleman Hawkins, Cecil Taylor to name a few – but Hentoff is most proud of his civil right-themed We Insist that Max Roach created in 1960.
In the documentary, Hentoff asserts that he follows the idea that “if music is to be free, it has to be done by people who feel free.” This statement, along with his interest in people like Lenny Bruce and projects like We Insist, weaves into Hentoff’s profound belief in the First Amendment, civil liberties and personal freedom. During his Voice years, he had a column where he could write about a range of topics, especially politically ones. While his support of African American jazz musicians put him on the liberal side of the civil rights movement, his stances on issues like abortion, women’s rights and AIDS (which, to simplify an explanation, he didn’t support) put him in conflict with liberals and others who sided him on music and other matters.
Among the political controversies that the film focuses on is his assertion, in 1977, that the Nazi Party should be allowed to march in the predominately Jewish town of Skokie, Illinois. He explained, in vintage news clips, that they should have the freedom of expression. His beliefs caused him to lose several longtime friendships and created animosity amongst his Voice colleagues.
While Out of Step is on solid ground when examining the music side of Hentoff’s life, it is less steady when dealing with his political beliefs and personal life. The film’s director Lewis doesn’t really come back to Hentoff to see how he feels, for example, about how one-time ACLU president Aryeh Neier severed his friendship after Hentoff came out against a woman leading the ACLU’s New York branch. Somewhat like Hentoff did with Dylan, Lewis lets Hentoff tell his story with really asking him the tough questions. The closest the viewer gets to an explanation of Hentoff’s often extreme Libertarian points of view comes from his current wife Margot, who says that Hentoff likes to back the underdog and likes to debate people on issues.
The documentary also contains some obvious holes regarding Hentoff’s life. The film does a decent job talking about his growing up in Boston, which he describes as a horribly anti-Semitic city, and how he discovered the joy of jazz by hearing Artie Shaw being played in a music store. Although his wife and his sister talk about family tragedies, Hentoff isn’t asked about them. Furthermore, there are passing references to his children, but they have no presence in the film (his pro-life stance doesn’t seem to extend to being pro-child).
Out of Step winds up offering an intriguing but incomplete examination of Nat Hentoff’s work and life. It is a little too anecdotal and not analytical enough to provide a full portrait of this complex man. Music fans, particularly jazz lovers, will really dig the wonderful music-related sections of the film; however, the more muddied look at Hentoff’s politics touches on interesting points without delivering enough information or answers.
Read an interview with director Lewis HERE at Encore Magazine.
Today’s math lesson: The Romantics + Blondie + The Cars + Chesterfield Kings = a rock ‘n’ roll supergroup guaranteed to be as much of a blast for the players as it is for the fans.
BY DAVE STEINFELD
As any fan of rock and roll knows, supergroups are a hit or miss thing. For every supergroup that succeeds, there’s another one that either gets torn apart by egos or that simply fails to live up to the sum of its parts. When I first heard about The Empty Hearts earlier this year, I had my fingers crossed that they wouldn’t disappoint; thankfully, they don’t!
The Empty Hearts are Wally Palmar of The Romantics on lead vocals, rhythm guitar and harmonica; Elliot Easton of The Cars on lead guitar; Andy Babiuk of The Chesterfield Kings on bass; and Clem Burke of Blondie on drums. If you came of age in the early ’80s (as this writer did), this band amounts to a sort of New Wave dream team. The mere sound of Wally Palmar’s voice or Clem Burke’s distinctive, Keith Moon-influenced drumming is enough to make you remember the days when you could turn the radio on and hear these and other like-minded bands. What’s great about The Empty Hearts’ self-titled debut (released earlier this month on the 429 Records label) is that it proudly wears its influences on its sleeve and yet it sounds totally fresh. You get the feeling these guys had a blast making this record — which, apparently, they did.
The Empty Hearts contains a dozen tracks and was produced by Ed Stasium (The Ramones, Living Colour, etc.) and recorded at bassist Babiuk’s Fab Gear Studios in Rochester, New York. Even though Palmar is the frontman as it were, this is clearly a collaborative effort and the Hearts are very much a band. There are no big egos dominating the disc; rather, it’s just four guys who are playing new songs inspired by old bands — the bands that made them want to get into rock and roll in the first place. And rock and roll they do! Songs like the album opener “90 Miles an Hour Down a Dead End Street,” “Soul Deep,” “Perfect World,” “Just a Little Too Hard” and “Drop Me Off at Home” are straightforward rockers that hearken back to both the British Beat and American garage rock. But not all the songs clock in at 90 miles an hour; there are a couple of cool detours and scenic routes on this ride. “I Don’t Want Your Love,” the first single, is an almost Slade-like slice of glammy rock and roll. “Jealousy” is a midtempo blues stomp while “Fill an Empty Heart” and “I Found You Again” are more delicate, the latter even displaying a surprising country influence. All in all, The Empty Hearts is a fun, fantastic debut.
For this piece, I interviewed Palmar and Babiuk, two of the most unpretentious guys you’ll ever talk to.
BLURT: I’ll start by asking how the four of you came together in the first place.
WALLY PALMAR: I’ve known all the guys in the band, some longer than others. But I’d have to say the main instigator of this would probably be Andy. I was still out of the road with Ringo at that point, in 2011. He contacted me when I was going to South America with them and threw this idea at me. I had enough on my plate at that time and I go, “What makes you think you’re gonna be able to get these guys?” He goes, “Well, it’s just a thought, you know? Let me do some work.” And he asked if I’d be into it. I go, “Yeah, I’ll help you finish up some ideas. Personally, I don’t know if we’re gonna get the other guys.” Even though Clem played with The Romantics for a stretch… At any rate, by the time I got back from the tour with Ringo, he had contacted everybody and everybody seemed to be on board, even without hearing any song ideas! [But] I had some song ideas, and [Andy] had some, and we kinda started fleshing out these ideas. And eventually, we took ’em out to the West coast to hook up with Clem and Elliot. [Then we] all sat in a room together and started to throw these ideas around…
But you have to keep in mind one thing… There’s a lotta bands out there that will get together and say, “Let’s go play, do some clubs, this and that.” That was never our intention. Our main intention from the get-go was [to] put out a record. That was the focus. After one trip out to the West coast, I went back to work with Andy a little more in Rochester, and then [made] another trip to the West coast, It started to take shape. And once it did, it all started to happen fairly quickly.
ANDY BABIUK: Wally and I had known each other for like 25 years. We did a lot of shows with The Romantics. It was like, “Hey man, we should do something sometime.” And years go by and you just never do, because everybody’s busy. [But] I really just had this idea: ‘Remember when you picked up a guitar when you were a kid? Because you liked The Beatles and The Stones and The Kinks. Wouldn’t it be cool to have a band where everybody gets in a room and just writes songs and plays?’
And so [Wally] was part of the Ringo All-Starr Band and they were goin’ to South America and I was wishin’ him a good time and all that. And I just said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we started a band?” He goes, “Yeah, but I live in Detroit and you live in Rochester!” And I said, “Well, how ’bout we get Clem Burke? He lives in LA!” (laughs) He goes, “Well, who were you thinking’ about on the guitar?” I go, “Elliot Easton. He’s one of the nicest guys I know and he’s also one the most brilliant guitar players I know. So imagine that. Wouldn’t that be fun? We all get in a room and write songs together?” [Wally] was like, “Wow. It’s kind of a crazy idea. We all live in different cities.” I said, “Go on your tour and have fun. Call me when you get back.” And he called me and goes, “You know, I’ve been thinking about that idea. It sounds great.” Next thing you know, we flew out to LA. And we got together in a studio and started writing songs and havin’ fun, just jammin.’ That’s kinda how it started.
Oh, did [you know] how we got named? You’re a writer, so you might be aware — but go find a name for a band that’s not been used. Good luck! I have an attorney friend of mine. He was aware of what we were doing and he’s like, “You better be careful picking a name… There’s gonna be some little kid band in Iowa that plays in a bar that has an attorney, and they’re gonna sue you and make you stop using the name. So choose wisely.” Every name we thought of was used. So [finally] we asked Little Steven. He goes, “I’ll tell you what. I’m gonna give you my secret list of 20 killer rock and roll band names that I’ve been saving.” [But] of those names, almost all of them were used…. It took us months to think of a name. Months! Every name we thought of, somebody’s using it. So I get a text message from Little Steven. “You fucking guys think of a name for your band yet?” I just sent him a one word answer: “No.” I get a text back: “You’re gonna be called The Empty Hearts. I said so.” (laughter) You’re familiar with The Sopranos?
Yeah, of course!
AB: When I tell you that Steven is exactly like Silvio Dante, I’m not lying. He’s not acting on that show. [He says] “The only difference between me and Silvio Dante is that he gets to kill people and I don’t!” So he sends me this text. “You guys are gonna be called The Empty Hearts. I said so.” I highlighted the whole thing, I copied it and I sent it to the other three guys and I said, “Okay, guys. If any of you [wants to] argue with Silvio Dante, be my guest. If not, I guess we’re gonna be called The Empty Hearts.” That’s literally how we got named.
It’s a really good album. And in a way, it reminds me of what The Traveling Wilburys did — a bunch of guys from other projects coming together and no one has a big ego.
AB: Well, yeah. It was kinda like that. It wasn’t like I showed up with a ton of songs and said, “Hey guys, can you play on my record?” It wasn’t that. We have a rule in the band: it’s gotta be fun, and the minute it’s not fun, let’s stop. We don’t really take it all that seriously. We just shot a video — well, two videos — for the album. And I mean, we were just sittin’ around talking about things like The Three Stooges and stuff. We do more of that than anything else. We have a lot of fun just hanging out! It kinda shows in the music, I think, when a band’s having fun.
The lead song [on the album] is “90 Miles an Hour Down a Dead End Street.” What inspired that? Did you write the lyrics or was it more of a collaborative thing?
WP: I can tell you [that] Clem had the title. We were doing a song… This was at a rehearsal. After we did the song a couple of times, we took a break, he walked up [to me and just said] “90 Miles an Hour Down a Dead End Street.” I go, “Okay.” It fit the actual phrasing of the chorus that we were singing. You know, we had an idea [of] how we wanted the chorus to sound. The melody was written and the phrasing was written and it just so happened that that was his title. It was great.
AB: I think I came up with some “na-na-na” thing but I didn’t really have any lyrics for it. And Clem goes, “How ’bout ’90 Miles an Hour Down a Dead End Street’?” I go, “Wow, that’s pretty crazy.” He goes, “Well, you know, [it’s like when] you’re on a path to full destruction but you keep on goin’ down it.” I think that time thing there was Clem’s thing. And then Elliot came up with [something]. Just very organic.
Another one I like, which kinda hearkens back to The Romantics, is “Drop Me Off At Home.”
WP: Oh yes! “Drop Me Off at Home.” I think Andy had the chord structure and… when we brought it to the rehearsal studio, everything just fell into place. I think I had the title. And it kinda lends itself to a simple, rock and roll, Detroit-type thing. You know, some of the lyrics are kinda funny. And it probably came about late at night (laughter). Sometimes you come up with ideas at that time and you sleep on it and take a look at it the next day [and] sometimes they don’t make that much sense! But this one happened to stick so we just ran with it.
One of the other songs that stood out to me was “I Found You Again.” Most of the album has more of a rock and roll vibe and that’s almost a country-ish ballad. Who came up with that?
WP: I can pinpoint that. That was Andy’s. He had this idea and he had a title and the chorus was not quite what it is now. But he had a title, and an idea of how he wanted the song to be. It was more in that vein of… almost like a “Dead Flowers” or something like that. So we sat around and I helped flesh out that idea too. Clem came up with the perfect beat for it, Elliot came up with the idea of playing [what] sounds almost like pedal steel guitar but he’s doing it on a Telecaster. He did a phenomenal job.
AB: I had [the] idea for that song. I think I played it for Wally initially. I said, “I got this idea. What do you think?” He goes, “Yeah, it’s pretty good. How ’bout if we do this to it and change this?” You know, I had some lyrics. Then when we got together, all four of us, it evolved even more…. I [said], “Elliot, did you ever learn how to play pedal steel?” And he’s like, “You know, I never did.” But at some point, he switches his guitar and puts a compressor on, a treble booster. All of a sudden he goes, “Are you thinking something like this?” And he starts playing the guitar like a pedal steel! I’m going, “How the fuck do you know how to do that?!?” (laughs)
What does each of the four of you bring to the band that’s unique?
AB: I think each guy had enough of a career where they’re known for doing something [already]. You know, Elliot Easton [is] one of the few guitar players where you could hum his leads. He has a very specific way of playing that’s kinda cool. And on this record, he just did his stuff… [By] the same token, some of the songs that had a lot of pocket to them — you know, like on the Blondie song “Dreaming” — that wouldn’t be the same song if some other drummer played it. I mean, [Clem] played a drum part that made that song, without a doubt. He’s a real great drummer and if he’s allowed to do his magic on a song, it becomes his signature. With Wally singing, it’s [also] gonna sound like his thing. But how many rock and roll bands use harmonica? You can name them on one hand. Arguably, Wally played the most memorable lead harmonica part on any song ever. I mean, “What I Like About You” [has] a pretty famous harmonica break. So we kinda tried to highlight that stuff. We wanted each guy to just do his thing.
WP: The easiest way for me to explain it [is] this way. You name the bands: Blondie, The Cars, The Romantics, The Chesterfield Kings. [They] all have their own styles. No two of those bands are alike, if you really break it down. There are similarities that chain us all together — but they’re all different styles of bands. You put the elements of all those bands into one blender. You get Clem playing the drums the way he knows how to play… You put me in there doing what I do, singing, rhythm guitar and harmonica here and there. You’ve got all the guitar work on The Cars right there. And you get that thumping, driving bass that was very noticeable in The Chesterfield Kings. You put them together, throw it in a blender [and] see what comes out.
Wally, in terms of The Romantics… I know a lot of people love In Heat, a lot of people love the first album. [But] I thought [the band’s sophomore LP] National Breakout should have been a breakout! Even now, I still love that album. I’m just curious: any memories of making that particular record?
WP: We had done quite a bit of touring to promote that first record, and we could have continued to tour even more. But the record company, I think, wanted us to get into the studio and do a follow-up. You know, we had a little bit of a buzz. So we had [new] song ideas and we also some songs that never made it onto the first album. We were pretty much prepared to go in and record. We recorded that [album] in New York with the same producer, Pete Solley. The first album was recorded down in Florida. We enjoyed doing that album a lot because we knew that we kind of had our footprints in the ground, so to speak, and that there was an audience there at that point.
It’s funny, it feelslike a New York album to me… It seems like the scope of The Romantics’ music got broader on that album — even though I know it didn’t have a huge hit on it, like some of your other albums did.
WP: Right. I have to tell you, that’s one of my personal favorites too. I mean, I like all of ’em, don’t get me wrong. You know, they’re all your children. Some children [are] just a little bit better than others.
Andy, tell me about some of the bands or, in your case, the bass players that were big influences on you when you were a kid?
AB: Well, the bands really freaked me out when I was a kid were The Beatles and then The Stones. You know, I had two older sisters that were into The Beatles. I think I stole my sister’s Beatles ’65 record when I was five or six years old, something like that. Then I [saw] Help! and I vividly remember telling my parents that that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. I wanted to be a Beatle… [My mom] was trying to reason with me and trying to explain that that’s not a real job. (laughter)
So obviously, McCartney was a big influence as a bass player. Bill Wyman. I just published my book Rolling Stones Gear, which is a history of all their equipment. So I had the pleasure of actually going to Bill’s house in London. For me, that was a thrill because I’ve always admired his bass playing. You know, really solid. [He’s] not overly flashy but always makes the band great. That’s always been more my style. I’m not the guy that’s gonna be playing those crazy bass lines. Honestly, I love Entwistle too but I’m more in the vein of a Bill Wyman kind of thing.
Wally, you also mentioned playing with Ringo in the All-Starr Band. I imagine that The Beatles were a big influence. What was it like touring with Ringo Starr?
WP: It was an honor to even be asked in the first place. I was wondering how I was gonna fit into the scheme of things. But once we got to rehearsals and I saw how the whole show was gonna go, it turned out to be a great time. A ton of fun, you know? There was work involved too. But once you do all the rehearsals and learning everybody else’s songs and knowing what you have to do and then you get onstage, it was a lot of fun. [Ringo is] just a great person [with] great stories. It was great being able to be onstage and take a look to my left and seeing him standing there between myself and Rick Derringer. He was right there singing vocals. And then you turn around 10 minutes later — we’re doing, for instance, “Talking in Your Sleep” — and he’s playing drums!
Was it surreal at times?
WP: Oh yeah! Very much so. Like I said, you’re standing there and you take a look and he’s there singing “Photograph” or he’s behind the drums singing “Boys” or “I Wanna Be Your Man.” You know, it’s crazy. If asked to do it again, I would do it in a heartbeat.
“We broke a lot of rules and never looked back”: In which ye olde editor pays tribute to the legendary pre-Americana icons, and along the way makes a pilgrimage to Arizona.
BY FRED MILLS
Ed. note: For this installment of my ongoing “College Rock Chronicles” series (previously excavated: archival interviews with Big Star, Dumptruck and The Gun Club), I’ve dipped back to one of my favorite groups, a band that helped make the ‘80s just a little bit brighter for me and, no doubt, scores more fans of the U.S. guitar band scene. Some called it the Paisley Underground; others, the New Sincerity. Either way, though, as peers of such classic ensembles as the Dream Syndicate, Long Ryders, Salvation Army/Three O’Clock, True West, Zeitgeist/Reivers, etc., Green On Red was also wholly unique, channeling pre-Americana sounds with gusto.
My article here is essentially a composite of several pieces, including a 1986 interview with GoR frontman Dan Stuart (the story for zine The Bob was titled, inscrutably, “It’s A Long, Long Road From Mel’s Diner,” and no, I do not remember why), liner notes I did for a couple of GoR archival titles that were released in 2003, and a live review of the group’s 2005 reunion concert in their hometown of Tucson—I flew out to the Old Pueblo for the event, being the (yikes!) superfan that I am. Seek out any and all Green On Red records—1985’s Gas, Food, Lodging remains a stone classic of the Amerindie underground—and maybe even scoop up a copy of Stuart’s new memoir chronicling his misadventures with the band, The Deliverance of Marlowe Billings. – FM
Rock ‘n’ roll mythology being the seductive proposition that it is, I’d love to report that my initial encounter with Green On Red took place at some legendary or otherwise colorful setting – a New Orleans cemetery, perhaps, or even the “crossroads” of Robert Johnson lore. Hell, a notorious NYC or L.A. venue would’ve been fine too.
Not, sad to say, the case. The first time I saw Green On Red was at a rundown Charlotte, NC, punk dive called The Milestone Club, a joint whose owner was so cheap he charged bands for the beer they drank and who, in lieu of springing for a real heating system, would sometimes tear off planks from the walls as fuel for the club’s lone wood stove. Indeed, it was on a particularly frigid November night in 1983 that Green On Red – singer/guitarist Danny Stuart, organist Chris Cacavas, bassist Jack Waterson and drummer Alex MacNicol – arrived to perform a solid, if rushed, 40-minute headlining set largely culled from the then-current Gravity Talks album. Afterwards the quartet quickly donned coats and mittens and huddle around the heater, graciously accepting kudos from the handful of fans who’d turned out (including yours truly, on the prowl for autographed record sleeves) while no doubt asking themselves, “This is why we left the Los Angeles sunshine?!?”
But a bond was somehow forged. Not long after I would interview Stuart for American rock zine The Bob, and over the years I continued to follow the group’s progress, from shining star to crashing comet. Upon moving to Tucson, Arizona, in ’92, who should I run into one night at a local Mexican restaurant, but Stuart himself, dining with his wife and some friends. After reestablishing our friendship, we would get together sometimes, usually at a local record shop to talk music, and he’d fill me in on what he’d been up to following the heroin-addled demise of the band and a subsequent return home from Europe for a much-needed drying-out period in his hometown.
Stuart wound up staying in Tucson, also spending a good chunk of his time in Mexico, and aside from a mid ‘90s solo album, Can Of Worms, plus a collaboration with Tucson guitarist Al Perry, he pretty much decided to lay low, musically speaking. Stuart was eager, however, to press me into service to draft liner notes for a pair of GoR projects, an odds ‘n’ sods collection of rarities entitled What Were We Thinking and a reissue of Gas Food Lodging, both released in 2003. Conversations commenced with the surviving members, and a narrative history began to unfold…
“I thought that we would play together like the Dead – at the height of it I thought we’d play together forever.” —Jack Waterson
“I believe bands have a certain amount of life. But I’m grateful to those guys. They got in the van. They suspended whatever was going on in their lives for abut five years. They didn’t get much out of it.” —Dan Stuart
“Still, they were, for sure, some of the best musical years of my life. It was a pretty amazing slice of musical history to be part of.” —Chris Cacavas
Green On Red began life as The Serfers in 1979, inauspiciously enough, in Tucson, Arizona, when Danny Stuart (guitar, vocals), Van Christian (drums) and Jack Waterson (bass) hooked up at a party. Organist Sean Nagore also signed on, only to be replaced after a few gigs by Chris Cacavas, a veteran of a popular punk combo called The Pedestrians. As Cacavas describes the Serfers, “…primitive, punkish, but not merely three-chord rock. What I did was bring a melodic sense; Dan would go for a wall of noise on his guitar; and Jack came up with really creative basslines. I guess we were making quirky music, sort of ‘art-punk,’ perhaps?”
Tucson’s punk scene was just slipping into high gear at the time, at venues like Pearl’s Hurricane and Tumbleweed’s, featuring the likes of our heroes, the Pills, Suspect, Useless Pieces of Shit and Giant Sandworms. “During the day it would have bikers and Vietnam Vets on disability,” explains Stuart, of the latter club, continuing “then the punks would come in at night and one of us would have to draw straws to see who would go around to the regulars and get them to pay the cover. Some of ‘em really got it: ‘Oh, this is just like the Seeds!’ And others were more, ‘You know what a punk is? A punk is someone in prison who gets buttfucked!”
“I remember one night this other bar up the street was closing, all those people in the middle of the street, and suddenly there was this huge brawl like something out of Quadrophenia: rockers versus punks!”
The summer of ’80 found the Serfers headlining packed shows as well as opening for Black Flag, Human Hands, Fear, the Subhumans, D.O.A. and X. Locals Gene Armstrong and Jennifer Murphy, at the time young smitten scenesters who would go on to become popular music critics in Tucson, frame the Serfers thusly: “The last couple of songs [of a gig] they all changed instruments, someone started blowing on a clarinet, and there was just this great cacophony,” recalls Armstrong, with Murphy adding, “It was punk, thrashing about onstage a lot of energy and really raw — but edgier and darker than any other Tucson band. They weren’t just imitating the Sex Pistols or the Ramones.”
After exhausting the possibilities in their hometown the Serfers relocated to Los Angeles and rechristened themselves Green On Red, after a Serfers tune of the same name that originally appeared on a 1980 Tucson radio station’s compilation of locals, KWFM On The Air. (The name change was prompted by a booking agent secretary’s suggestion to Stuart that the recent southern California influx of violence-tilting hardcore-inclined surf-punks rendered a name like “Serfers” a bit poorly timed for the Arizona ex-pats.) “We moved into this sleazy, flea-and-drug-ridden hotel called the Villa Elaine,” says Cacavas. “One room, a bathroom, a kitchen, and out-of-work musicians. There were times we were so broke we’d go out and steal hamburger and beans!”
Scrambling for gigs amongst the litter of the L.A. postpunk scene, the quartet (now with MacNicol, cribbed from Lydia Lunch’s band, on drums; Van Christian would go on front Tucson desert rockers Naked Prey) — didn’t find fame and fortune, but it did find a supportive peer group with such outfits as the Rain Parade, Bangles, and Dream Syndicate. And an old friend from Tucson, Rich Hopkins (later of Sidewinders and Sand Rubies fame), stepped up to loan Green On Red $1200 to cover studio time to record a red vinyl, limited-to-500-copies, 12” EP titled 2 Bibles.
Recalls Cacavas, “I remember when we first got it. We were sitting on the front porch and putting the records into the sleeves, just sort of glowing in the freshness of this vinyl. I thought it was pretty cool — ‘We exist, finally!’ — even though in retrospect it’s [laughs] a pretty quirky little record.”
Meanwhile, it was through a connection in the aforementioned Dream Syndicate that Green On Red’s professional career, in 1982, moved forward a notch.
“We had played a gig with them at the Cathay DeGrande,” says Stuart.” Steve [Wynn] had seen us and he showed up at one of these barbeques we used to have. I played him a tape we’d recorded for less than $200 at this rehearsal space we used that had an 8-track upstairs, and he said, ‘I got a label, let me put it out!’ So that whole tape became the Down There record.”
Wynn’s Down There label had been established in order to release his group’s material; already a fan of Green On Red, he now offered his services to the band. (Stuart, “We all owe a lot to Steve. He did a great job with his label; then he helped us out in the studio later doing some songs; and then he helped us get our first real deal, too.”) Green On Red came out in ’82 and, as both a solid musical effort and a crucial sonic snapshot of an important alumnus of L.A.’s then-burgeoning neopsychedelic/garage scene (later dubbed by critics “the Paisley Underground”), it holds up to scrutiny to this day, its seven songs running an impressive stylistic gamut. There’s the subtly gothic fuzz of “Death And Angels” (its twin Stuart-Cacavas vocal line reveals how musically democratic the band was early on, before Stuart fully assumed the songwriting and singing reins — not to mention Cacavas’ organ serving as the lead instrument); the eerie, noirish surf-rock of “Black Night” (the song, with its insistent Ventures bassline and swipes of tremolo guitar, would remain a favored staple of the group’s concert repertoire for some time to come); the jangly garage pop of “Aspirin” (listen for one of Stuart’s rare — but in its brevity, highly effective — guitar solos); even the paranoidal psychedelia of “Apartment 6” (like “Black Night,” one of the band’s most popular live tunes; interestingly, on the original edition, the song never ends, the closing organ/guitar feedback instead trailing out to a vinyl lock-groove). If the band sounds a bit rushed at times, chalk that up to its punk roots, for the chemistry between players is readily apparent.
Now at the time, Green On Red entertained few career aspirations that extended much past the Hollywood city limits. But also around this time hip L.A. indie Slash Records entered the picture, signing the Dream Syndicate and releasing the seminal Days Of Wine And Roses LP on its Ruby subsidiary. When the Syndicate subsequently moved to A&M Records, Wynn, who in late ’82 had produced a new three-song demo for Green On Red slated for a Radio Tokyo compilation, suggested his friends to Slash. The label was duly impressed; in July of ’83, Stuart, Cacavas, Waterson and MacNicol went into the studio with Slash house producer Chris D (of Flesheaters fame) to record their first “proper” record. (MacNicol notes that at one point Miles Copeland, hungry for fresh “New Wave” bands for his then-happening IRS label, almost signed Green On Red “except we dressed like a bunch of slobs — if we could just dress like the Three O’Clock. Danny just told him to fuck off!”)
Nowadays Stuart reckons that the album sounds somewhat amateurish, but upon its release in the fall of ’83 Gravity Talks, sporting a cleaner sound than the Down There record and elaborating handsomely upon its predecessor’s musical themes, caught the ear of the American indie rock intelligentsia. A rambunctious cross-country tour was mounted in support of the record, earning critical kudos for Green On Red and consolidating its fan base — a grassroots movement that quickly spread overseas.
Recalls Cacavas of the group’s initial touring venture, “It was as big a deal as a coffee and donuts tour can be! Just the fact that people wanted to hear us outside of L.A…. For me, it was the first time seeing the States, and we did seem to be on the road constantly after that. Getting to Europe the first time was very cool. It had seemed impossible at the time – ‘These people got the wrong band!’ To this day, I think European audiences are the most respectful, even at a cult level. They’re good to you, and they appreciate good music.”
The next stage in Green On Red’s development arrived in the form of San Francisco gunslinger Chuck Prophet. The four members were already contemplating the addition of a guitarist in order to free Stuart, a self-professed fretboard hack but charismatic onstage and inordinately blessed with gab skills, to concentrate on frontman duties. The Rain Parade’s Matt Piucci had sat in for a few gigs (and even appeared on a subsequent bootleg album, Eight Miles High). But Prophet, aka “Billy The Kid,” would ultimately prove the right fit.
“I was in a band that got thrown on the bill with these ‘Paisley dudes,’” recalls Prophet, of his initial encounter with the band. “My first impression was they looked like guys who should be operating the rides at a carnival. They played and it blew my mind! It was chaotic as hell, but really entertaining and musical, and the songs were there.”
Prophet became a regular face at their S.F. gigs and, upon moving to L.A. in ’84, landed a spot on Waterson’s couch. Soon enough, he landed the band’s lead axe spot, too, additionally demonstrating a natural flair for songwriting and arranging and bringing a measure of musical discipline to a band in the process of shedding its punk skin. (Prophet: “There didn’t seem to be a lot of communication going on, musically or otherwise, at least not to the naked eye. I remember the first time we got together to play, and Dan presented ‘Hair of The Dog.’ We just fell in and it came right to life, but when we were done I said I thought it seemed to run out of steam after awhile and asked if they had a bridge for it. Everyone just looked at their shoes…”)
Prophet and Stuart in particular forged a friendship that would eventually evolve into a Mick-and-Keith songwriting alliance. And Prophet’s presence in the lineup definitely helped elevate the playing, a point that Cacavas suggests is key. “I was skeptical only inasmuch as I was being territorial,” says Cacavas. “Like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna have to give up some ground here.’ But as we became not four but five musicians interacting, where everyone had to make room, I began to like it. By not playing constantly, I was able to listen more closely. [Chuck] certainly brought up the level of musicianship and made us all play better.” Stuart agrees, saying that the addition of Prophet strengthened him as a songwriter as well: “The way I wrote, it used to be one good line followed by a bunch of throwaways, but when I started working with Chuck that wasn’t allowed anymore. When he came aboard we suddenly had an arranger, too. And as a writer, I had to learn how to balance things — if there was going to be a lead guitar break, there had to be a keyboard break, and so on. I started hearing arrangements.”
It was a five-man Green On Red that went into a Hollywood studio in December of ’84, with producer Paul B. Cutler (later of the Dream Syndicate) to make their followup to Gravity Talks—and what would turn into their all-time classic release. Two months earlier the band members had returned from a brief European tour with a wealth of new material they’d worked up while on the road, and they were eager to record while still firing on all cylinders. Having negotiated a release from Slash in order to go with the larger, better-organized and -funded Enigma Records, no one was more eager than Stuart. The sessions with Cutler went by in a whirlwind, says Stuart, “because we basically cut it live, real fast, very easy. We just had to get it down, and get it down then –because if we didn’t we somehow knew it wouldn’t turn out as good as it ultimately did.”
Right from the outset, on Gas Food Lodging opening cut “That’s What Dreams,” the band establishes an indelible signature: an echoey guitar twang is answered by a churning, Garth Hudson-like organ figure, then an assured, unhurried rhythm section tug follows as Stuart casts his lyrical net widely for losers, dreamers, heroes, villains — as pure a slice of musical and thematic Americana as one could ask for.
From there the album rises and falls with a cinematic sense of time and place — the harmonica-fueled country-rock of “Black River,” the woozily anthemic “Fading Away,” the mordant, minor-chord desperation of “16 Ways,” the churning and epic-in-feel “Sea Of Cortez” — to ultimately arrive at closing number “We Shall Overcome,” the familiar folk-protest ode whose gospel-choir vocal harmonies and melodic lilt suggests an uplifting answer to the disturbing questions posed nine songs earlier in “Dreams.”
On Gas Food Lodging, producer Cutler achieved a sonic spaciousness as broad as the travelogue implied in the album’s title. Too, the band was nearing its performing peak, the Waterson-MacNicol rhythm section a perfectly-tuned V8 throb, Cacavas’ keyboards tonal and colorizing nuances expertly rendered, Prophet’s cosmic cowboy guitar licks in the foreground yet never overriding the other elements, and Stuart finally shedding his lapsed punk sneer and replacing it with an unforced, wide-plains drawl. As a lyricist, too, Stuart had come into his own: gone are what he calls the “throwaway lines” of his early efforts as he sketches out situational slices-of-life, sometimes placing himself at the center of action (check the boozing and hangover in “Hair of the Dog”), others creating vivid character-personas (such as the Bundy-like serial killer in “The Drifter”). As much of GFL was written during the group’s extended touring forays of ’84, it’s first and foremost a road album, and an archetypal one at that. But more importantly, the record is representative of what hundreds of other American guitar bands were doing or dreaming of doing in the mid ’80s. By any stretch, a classic album — and a lasting document.
(Worth noting: Rounding out the 2003 Restless/Ryko reissue, in addition to the Down There and Gas Food Lodging records, are two tracks that never before appeared on CD. “16 Ways II,” originally included on an ’85 label compilation called The Enigma Variations, is a faster, punkier version from its counterpart on G,F,L. And the song “Gas Food Lodging,” a chugging slab of on-the-road garage rock (which, curiously, didn’t make it onto its longplaying namesake), initially turned up on a semi-legitimate Dutch 45 in ’85, before eventually surfacing in America as the A-side of a limited-edition ten-inch platter that Enigma saw fit to release in ’86.)
In March of 1985 Green On Red hit Europewith the vengeance of true barnstormers. When the L.A. band clambered onto stages with nothing to hide behind but faded jeans, flannel shirts and a we’re-gonna-show-you attitude, audiences initially may have been skeptical. Two hours later, however, everyone in the club — crowd and employees alike — would be stamping their feet and hollering for more. The tour was intended to capitalize on the European jaunt of the previous fall, as there was a growing fan base whose word-of-mouth loyalty was not to be underestimated. Too, as both the Down There and the Slash LPs had seen overseas release, even the influential British weeklies were joining the media chorus already instigated by Bucketful Of Brains and assorted German and Italian fanzines in heralding Green On Red the spearheads of no-bullshit rock ‘n’ roll, American style.
Indeed, the group’s marathon sets encompassed all that was great about American music — from band originals like the boozy, punk-fueled garage number “Hair Of The Dog,” the Velvets-inspired neopsychedelic droner “Sea of Cortez” and the lush, countryish folkrocker “That’s What Dreams,” to choice covers of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Creedence Clearwater. That spring the quintet slayed crowd after crowed with their white-hot twang ‘n’ roar, serving as the United States’ preeminent ambassadors of guitar-based roots-rock long before anyone had coined the term “insurgent country; the following year they’d be invited to perform at Farm Aid. Even the bootleggers, notoriously resistant to young artists in favor of the usual Dylan-Stones-Beatles-Springsteen fare, paid the ultimate tribute to Green On Red: underground label F.F.O. issued a handsome, full-color sleeved LP entitled You can run… but you can’t hide documenting the group’s March 28 appearance in Rome.
In May, just a couple of weeks after the band returned to the States, Gas Food Lodging was released (via Enigma, and on green vinyl, in the U.S.; Zippo, U.K.; New Rose, France), quickly becoming a staple of American college radio and even cracking the British Indie Top 20. The combined clout of touring prowess and critical acclaim drew the attention of Polygram, which would sign Green On Red to a worldwide deal and fly the group to London that summer to record the No Free Lunch mini-album. Extensive gigging would be the game plan from then on — a fall tour throughout the U.S., a winter trip to the U.K. and Europe — and prior to that the band would also weather one casualty in the way of the departure of drummer MacNicol (to be replaced by veteran L.A. drummer Keith Mitchell). Stuart reckons MacNicol had simply had enough of the insanity, saying, “The No Free Lunch album was when things were getting, ‘Oh, Chuck and Dan are pushing too hard.’ Alex bailed, and God bless him, we must have been driving him crazy!”
Green On Red’s star was clearly rising, though. Plans were laid for what was to be the make-or-break album, The Killer Inside Me, this time hiring a name producer, Memphis maverick Jim Dickinson. (Prior to the album sessions a set of demos were cut with Gas Food Lodging producer Paul B. Cutler; they would eventually surface on the 2003 CD What Were We Thinking? released by Normal in Europe and Shock in Australia.) The group entered Ardent Studios in Memphis (some of the sessions were also held in L.A. at El Dorado Studios) to record with Dickinson, the sessions now remembered by Prophet as being a mixture of chaos and grueling work.
“We had all this manic energy but we just couldn’t seem to articulate it,” he admits. “Dickinson just set the mikes up around us and let us at it. In retrospect, I now see he wasn’t interested in meddling around for mild short-term results. He was looking to capture more than that – something bigger. We thought we were so untamed and offensive and brave. But in the end, he taught us that we had to be willing to offend ourselves.
“I guess we had to face our own limitations. It was a struggle, and in a way that’s when it stopped being as much ‘fun’ and somehow started to get ‘real.’ The sessions just seemed to go on and on, and what eventually wound up on the record was some of that raw madness and, underneath the abrasive surface, more than a few fairly lackluster performances. Up until that point, we thought we could fly under the radar… It is a tough record in a lot of ways.”
Cacavas is a bit more forgiving, explaining that he’s still fond of the album because it was “different sounding and I was glad we weren’t making the same record again.” Stuart, though, feels that a lot of money was spent “on a bad record. It does have this kind of manic-depressive energy, but nothing’s in time. It’s that old Duke Ellington thing: if it don’t swing, it don’t mean a thing.”
Prescient words? The subsequent tour to promote Killer would be the last one for this lineup of Green On Red.
Waterson: “It was the biggest and the worst. It was the best treatment we had and the most money, and certainly the highest profile, but the soul was gone, man, and I was just doing a job.”
Cacavas: “Dan and Chuck had definitely formed an alliance, and I felt more on the sidelines. Still, it was meant to be a big deal, and I was having a blast. But you could see that Dan wasn’t enjoying himself.”
Stuart: “I was living through a walking blackout existence. I think I went through a nervous breakdown.”
After the tour’s conclusion, the exhausted members scattered. Stuart himself disappeared, and when he resurfaced and it came time for him to reconvene the band for another album, only Prophet was invited along. The resulting Here Come the Snakes, recorded again with Dickinson plus assorted Memphis side musicians and released in ’89, was almost billed as a Stuart solo album, with Prophet on hand, but the record label insisted on calling it a Green On Red album despite the fact that in only featured one original member of the group.
“The truth is, nobody called those three guys [Waterson, Cacavas and Mitchell] to tell them what we were doing,” says Stuart, a distinctive rueful tone in his voice. “Those guys deserved more than a phonecall, and they never got even that. I had tremendous guilt and shame, for years. I still do. But that band had done all it could. We went for our big ‘masterpiece’ on Killer and failed miserably.” Following Snakes Stuart and Prophet would relocate overseas, recording several more albums under the GoR banner (This Time Around, Scapegoats, Too Much Fun), each with diminishing returns, before finally pulling the plug for good in ’92 in a haze of disenchantment and drug addiction.
For their part, Cacavas and Waterson took things particularly hard when they heard from third parties that Stuart and Prophet were recording as Green On Red, each weathering his own period of shock and anger. Over the years, though, they’ve reconciled with the past—as you’ll read in a moment, enough so to sign on for a 2005 reunion concert—and have gone on record as saying they’re immensely proud of what the band was able to accomplish together.
“I’m amazed we did what we did,” says Waterson. “What we had to work with, where we started from. It just shows that the nerve to do something is enough to compel it to happen. It was a great band.”
“A lot of love and respect — but we just drove each other nuts, and the hardest part was losing Danny’s friendship for all that time,” reflects Cacavas, quickly adding, “but still, we had a lot of fun. We easily rode the crest of the mid ‘80s wave.
“You know, things got ugly,” agrees. Stuart. “But I had a lot of fun too. I’d have to say we got away with murder. The music was almost secondary – it was a punk rock thing of not copping out: ‘Let’s stick together and be against the world. Then go get some beer!’”
“We broke a lot of rules and never looked back,” is Prophet’s succinct summarization. “It was a good run.”
The Reunion Concert
Rialto Theatre, Tucson, Ariz.
Sept. 4, 2005
As far as reunions go, it was ranked among the “least likely” – right up there with Husker Du’s acrimonious split. In that regard, when legendary proto-Americana combo Green On Red took to an Arizona stage over Labor Day weekend it was obvious that the musicians – singer/guitarist Dan Stuart, keyboardist Chris Cacavas, bassist Jack Waterson and guitarist Chuck Prophet, plus Austin drummer Darren Hess replacing the late Alex MacNicol – had something to prove professionally and personally. That the show was slated to be filmed for a live DVD (Valley Fever, Brink Films) only upped the ante.
Eighteen years since the Tucson group ground to a halt following the Killer tour the burning question was whether GOR would live up to the legend, or kill it. As Stuart and Prophet had continued without inviting any of the others back, one also had to wonder if hard feelings still lingered. Judgment call in a moment.
The concert was part of a larger three-day celebration of Tucson music. Yet you didn’t have to be a native Tucsonan to enjoy the Sidewinders blazing through their melodic desert rock, or a late night marathon featuring Giant Sand morphing into the Band Of Blacky Ranchette, or Joey Burns and John Convertino playing under their pre-Calexico moniker Spoke (Convertino and GOR’s Cacavas were the weekend’s MVPs, each guesting with innumerable acts), or a pair of surprise gigs by the reunited Doo Rag — although, technically speaking, you had to be female to take in one of those sets, as it was held in a women’s bathroom. With wildly divergent performances ranging from hard twang (Al Perry & the Cattle) to New York Dolls-styled glam (The Pills) to discordant art-punk (Mondo Guano, featuring Doo Rag’s Bob Log III) to manic funk (Pollo Elastico – “Rubber Chicken”) to hi-velocity garage (Knockout Pills), the First Rule Of The Old Pueblo became: There Is No Rule. Icing – BBQ sauce – on the cake was a Howe Gelb-hosted Sunday cookout wherein Giant Sand, Friends Of Dean Martinez, Pieta Brown, Chuck Prophet and others paid tribute to acclaimed Tucson guitarist Rainer Ptacek, who passed away in 1997.
The weekend’s de facto headliners, however, were unquestionably Green On Red, who’d rehearsed for two days and came out swinging. As Stuart drawled, snarled and barked his tales of dreamers, drunks, troubadours and serial killers, the band churned nonstop. Key tracks from 1985’s Gas Food Lodging formed the core of the 90-minute set, notably bilious alkie anthem “Hair Of The Dog,” psychedelic swamp choogler “Fading Away” and the furiously epic “Sea Of Cortez,” which found Prophet, Stuart and Waterson forming a Crazy Horse-like brotherhood of riffs at center stage while Cacavas’ keyboards oozed noirish atmosphere.
Other gems included the 4-part harmony-strewn “Cheap Wine,” from 1983’s Gravity Talks; a sticky, malevolent Stones-like reading of “Jimmy Boy” (No Free Lunch, ’85); and slow-burn raveup “Clarkesville,” standout track on 1987’s Jim Dickinson-produced The Killer Inside Me. With the audience howling for more (the final encore was, fittingly, GFL’s wistful “That’s What Dreams Were Made For”), GOR clearly proved its mettle. But did the band prove anything to itself?
Dan Stuart himself, speaking over breakfast the next morning, gets the last word: “You know, the band ended badly, and I never told those guys [Cacavas and Waterson] that I was sorry. So maybe this was one way to finally make it up to everyone.
“And I gotta tell you, all of us had a total blast last night.”
With a series of tragic losses in the regional NC/SC/VA/GA music community still fresh in mind, our correspondent pays his last respects to Joe Young of ANTiSEEN, club bookers Jeff Lowery and Art Boerke, David Brockie of GWAR, and Dean Riopelle of the Impotent Sea Snakes.
BY MICHAEL G. PLUMIDES, JR.
In the immortal words of David Lee Roth, “Where have all the good times gone?” My rock-n-roll comrades are dropping like flies. I guess when you achieve a certain age, it ‘s unavoidable. Death is a part of life, as they say. But in a short period of time, we have lost a few visionaries here in the Southeast, and as I write this, it’s hard to be poetic. I’m a little more misty about the tragic losses of these men because they all touched my life, some for good and some for bad. However, each of these men left an indelible mark on me in my formative years, so that would be an intricate part of my definition.
Joe Young – ANTiSEEN (April 30, 2014) Lenoir, North Carolina
When I was sixteen (circa 1981), Joe Young worked at the Record Bar at Southpark in Charlotte – yes, the legendary sludge-rock guitarist worked at the mall. I wanted to work at the mall record store too but they wouldn’t hire me. Didn’t matter how much I knew about music, everyone employed there was easily ten years older than me (except for Joe) and I knew nothing about retail.
While in college at South Carolina, ANTiSEEN was making a big splash at the college radio station where I worked. I think we had one single that received a considerable amount of airplay on the “punk” show, “Raucous Waves”. I hosted occasionally with Keith Bullard (now deceased). But their first LP, Honour Among Thieves garnished the band some attention with their brand of loud, southern dis-hospitality.
After graduating college in 1988, I moved back to Charlotte – only 90 miles up I-77. When the 4808 Club opened on 7th Street, ANTiSEEN became a fixture, first opening for bands like TSOL, and Soundgarden, then headlining shows. Jeff Clayton, the band’s lead singer and long-time partner of Young, was even married at my club in December, 1989, with Joe, bassist Tom O’Keefe, and drummer Greg Clayton playing the wedding march. Joe and I even shared a girlfriend at one point. I remember one time Joe trying to encourage me to come to see G.G. Allin’s show at his “Church of Musical Awareness” – he said, “Mike, you really oughta come see G.G.’s show in October. He said after the set, he’s gonna bring a loaded revolver out on stage and shoot five people in the audience and save the last bullet for himself.” My response was, “Why the fuck would I want to be there?” Joe died suddenly of a heart attack last April after playing with his band for thirty years. [Ed. note: go HERE to read the BLURT interview with Young. Photo above by Moloich Photography.]
Jeff Lowery – Pterodactyl Club/13-13 (August 3, 2014) – Charlotte, North Carolina
If I had an arch-nemesis, it was Jeff Lowery. At one time, I admired Jeff, and wanted to be part of the new scene he was constructing in the Queen City – first, from the shambles of the legendary punk mecca, the Milestone, inheriting the Tuckaseegee shit hole from Bill Flowers and making a go of it again, bringing in alt. acts like Flaming Lips, and Camper Van Beethoven. Then Lowery opened the Pterodactyl Club, and there was nothing like it in Charlotte. I remember the summer of 1987, I applied for a job as a deejay there. Lowery hired me and then fired me before I had spun one record. It seems the other deejay didn’t like me. All the more reason to open my own place in 1988.
Whether I want to admit it or not, Lowery was an influence – but not just on me. Andy Kastanas, Bob Okamoto, and Conrad Hunter opened the original Park Elevator on South Boulevard and had hosted some shows beginning late 1987 – Gang Green, King Diamond, Psychic TV, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to name a few. Then I opened the first 4808 Club on Central Avenue, a rock’s throw from the now-leveled Eastland Mall. I brought in the likes of Johnny Quest, Dumptruck, Dark Angel, and Widespread Panic. But both clubs were operating on shoestring capital – unlike Lowery, who was killing it – with bands on Wednesday, and progressive dance music Thursday through Saturday. Problem was, Lowery didn’t like competition.
As Park Elevator was operating on a month-to-month lease, Lowery snaked their venue out from under them, forcing them to relocate – and Lowery opened 13-13. He later did the same to me at my last 4808 location on 5th Street. Lowery and I had gotten into a bidding war over GWAR, but I got the contract – me being stupid enough to allow an all-ages show. Lowery didn’t like that too much, so he bought my building. And to add insult to injury, allegedly, he tipped off Daniel Sellers at Alcohol Law Enforcement who raided my club and arrested Oderus Urungus and myself. Coincidentally, Lowery was on the guest list and watched with a needful eye as the chaos unfolded, snickering in the shadows during the incident.
Lowery also went out with a few of my ex-girlfriends – it was weird and incestuous. At a gathering last night to celebrate Jeff’s life at Amos’ Southend, I went, out of politeness. If anyone was shitty, I was going to tell them, “I only came to gloat.” His ex-partner, Tim Blong, tried to convince me of Jeff’s fondness. “Mike, you’ve got it all wrong. Jeff liked you. He said you made it interesting.” Kris, who was Lowery’s long-time girlfriend in the early nineties retorted, “I heard a different story.” We all laughed about it, however tragic. I’m sure me filing Bankruptcy in 1991 was “interesting” enough for the night club entrepreneur and property mogul, with 3 million supposedly in a Cayman account at the time of his demise. But as my Dad used to say, “You can’t take it with you.” Lowery was found dead in his home on August 3, 2014. A toxicology report is pending.
Dean Riopelle – Masquerade Club (September, 24, 2013) Atlanta, Georgia
In the waning days of the 4808 Club, I had befriended Greg Green, who worked as an assistant at the Masquerade Club in Atlanta. Dean Riopelle, his boss, was a night club owner from Florida, who had a string of venues – notably, The Ritz in Ybor City. Greg would become manager of the Masquerade in the early 1990’s. While I was in law school, circa 1994, Dean decided to start the Masquerade Recordings label. Greg suggested me as “General Manager’. Dean and I discussed terms and he hired me on the spot. I didn’t last too long there. Dean would always walk by my office not saying a word, pausing momentarily in the doorway, then he would go up to his office and call Greg down the hall. Then Greg would come and tell me whatever Dean’s gripe was.
Dean was also in a theatrical outfit called “The Impotent Sea Snakes” – who were mostly a raunchy drag queen troop who incidentally were also musicians. Some of the guys even lived downstairs in the practice space in the bowels of the club at the old Excelsior Mill. They did have a little notoriety though, with guest appearances by the likes of Lemmy Kilmister, Jenna Jameson and Ron Jeremy. They were a weird group of folks, really into BDSM, which was something that made me a little uncomfortable. Some were into heavy drugs – but not Dean. Dean didn’t drink or do drugs to my knowledge. Dean even used to chastise band mates if they were abusers and encourage them to give up their drug of choice.
When I discovered that Dean had died of a heroin overdose last September, I was dumbfounded. It didn’t make any sense to me, but there again, I knew a guy who started smoking at 40, so what’s the difference? Turned out, Dean was allegedly given a lethal dose of heroin by his girlfriend, Alix Tichelman, who more recently has been implicated in the murder of a Google executive. Dean and Alix were all into the bondage thing and had recently done an interview with fIXE Magazine, a fetish rag, where they talked about their master-servant relationship. Also, Tichelman allegedly bit Dean on the hand after an argument at the club, and he later had her arrested. Dean was dead within a week of her release. Tichelman, who made the 911 phonecall, left Atlanta in some haste to became a call girl in Silicon Valley. That’s where she met her client, Forrest Hayes of Google, on his boat – where she allegedly injected him with heroin. There’s video of her stepping over Hayes’ corpse, finishing her glass of wine, and exiting. The “Black Widow,” Tichelman, is being held without bond. Riopelle was reexamined in July after Tichelman’s arrest in California: A tragic end to a legendary club owner.
David Brockie/Oderus Urungus – Lead Singer of GWAR – Richmond, Virginia
Dave Brockie. What can I say. He was a real sick genius. Interestingly, the above photo was taken at the Masquerade Club in 2009, shortly after the release of my book, Kill the Music. David and I were friends. We happened to share the same jail cell Jeff Lowery put us in by allegedly tipping off the cops that fateful September night in 1990. First conversation Dave and I ever had was in the back of a squad car.
On the eve of his memorial before the Gwar-B-Q in Richmond on August 15th (see photo at top of page), I write this: Brockie and I were arrested together after a live show that allegedly violated North Carolina obscenity statutes, during the moral hysteria of the PMRC years. The charges were later reduced to misdemeanors, and Gwar was banned from performing in North Carolina for a year. The incident was covered by the national media including The Associated Press, Billboard, Rolling Stone and MTV. My 4808 Club in uptown Charlotte was closed by authorities shortly after the arrests.
In its wake, the band shot to stardom, eventually scoring two Grammy nominations, touring the world and becoming known for highly offensive, tongue-in-cheek shows that landed somewhere between Alice Cooper, Monty Python and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Brockie was an extraordinary painter, a talented musician, a criminally ignored lyricist, a quick-witted comedian and actor, and a mesmerizing frontman. He performed with musical acts X-Cops, Death Piggy and DBX, appeared in several movies, was the “Intergalactic Correspondent” on late-night Fox News program “Red Eye,” and was on two seasons of Fearnet’s “Holliston.”
Brockie and I had continued our relationship in the 25 years since our incarceration. I promoted a number of Gwar shows in the Southeast in the early ’90s and wrote a book, Kill the Music, which chronicled our experience during the PMRC era, I als interviewed Brockie at Bonnaroo in 2010 for an article titled “Bonnaroo Must Be Destroyed,” and wrote frequently about Gwar for Blurt and my blog. He even asked me to work on a “Blackbeard” project he was working on. Gwar overcame many obstacles and changed lineups over the years, but Brockie remained the consummate taskmaster at his company, Slave Pit Enterprises, and was the last original member to play with the group. His death followed that Cory Smoot, the long-standing guitarist, found dead in his bed on the tour bus coming back from Canada in 2011.
I knew Dave had dabbled in all sorts of drugs and debauchery, but I didn’t think he habitually chased the dragon. Dave died of heroin overdose shortly after getting back from a very successful tour of Australia and Japan.
Don Drakulich (aka Sleazy P. Martini of Gwar) may have said it best: “If there is any solace in this, it’s that there was little suffering. He went out on a high point in his career. And he will never know the feeling of just fading away. He went out like a rock star. My biggest regret is not getting a chance to say goodbye.”
Art Boerke – Rockafella’s Night Club (February 17, 2013) – Columbia, South Carolina
Art Boerke was huge – but he was also a big influence on me. He was a legend at my college radio station. In 1988, when he was the Program Director at 95-7 FM, I asked him for a job while I was still in college. He told me, “You talk too much!” Funny, coming from Art because he seldom would let you get a word in edgewise once he started going. But Art was a brilliant guy. He was also a great promoter and owned the iconic Five Points club, Rockafella’s. Art gave acts like Edwin McCain, and Hootie and the Blowfish their start.
I learned a lot from Art, both what to do and what not to do. I said for him not to buy that Quiet Riot show he lost his ass on, and supposedly, he told me not to do an all-ages Gwar show. Admittedly, I did it so Lowery wouldn’t get it – that was a life choice. Art became dear friends with my brother Damon, and was always with us for as far back as I can remember. But it was Art Boerke who put Columbia on the map for music in the 1990’s. The Impotent Sea Snakes played at Rockafella’s, so did Gwar, and ANTiSEEN.
Art, me, and Lowery – we all did business with a guy named Chris Bojonavich, who used to work for Cecil Corbett. We all popped into each other’s clubs from time to time.
Art got out of the night club business, went back to school and up to the time of his death, was a college professor. Art and my brother Damon wrote a children’s book together called, The Adventures of Caterwaul the Cat: Feline Pie. Art died after falling on his head when he was released prematurely from Carolinas Medical Center, after he had taken too many Ambien, prescribed for a sleep study, in February of 2013.
These guys were punk pioneers in their own right, before the corporations took over. I wrote about each in my memoir, just a few short years ago. They were all still alive in 2009. It makes me feel very alone thinking about them. Nothing lasts forever, it seems… but their tales will echo in eternity.
The Bangles’ Vicki Peterson and the Cowsills’ Susan Cowsill finally consummate a musical collaboration originally begun 2 ½ decades earlier.
BY STEVE PICK
Twenty-five years ago, Vicki Peterson found herself out of a high-profile job. Her band the Bangles had spent some time in the upper reaches of the pop charts, but then broke up amidst differing perceptions of what sort of focus the music should take.
Around this time, she met and befriended Susan Cowsill, who knew a little about hit records, having been involved in them way back in 1969 when she was 10 years old, the youngest member of her family’s band the Cowsills. Peterson and Cowsill discovered pretty quickly that their voices blended beautifully, and that they had some seriously shared musical influences and ideas. Around 1989 they began writing songs and performing live as a duo, and were recruited to lend background vocals to records by the likes of Jules Shear and Belinda Carlisle. They called themselves the Psycho Sisters, which made a kind of sense as these two, who had spent so many years perfecting harmonies with their own siblings, were able to sing together in ways normally associated with sister acts.
After a while, the Psycho Sisters found themselves members of a bigger group, the Continental Drifters, who spent the ‘90s being one of the greatest live bands in the world, recording a couple of albums including the spectacular Vermillion, and eventually splitting apart in ways foreshadowed by their very name. Cowsill left her husband, the keyboard/guitar player, and married the drummer. Peterson got back together with the Bangles. Both made terrific music in the 21st Century, and both talked now and again about revisiting the old partnership.
Up On the Chair, Beatrice is a document of something that happened more than two decades ago, recorded now and sounding fresh and inspired. If these songs had been laid down in 1992, they would probably have received a big expensive production, and received a decent shot at the marketplace ripped open by the sudden interest in alternative rock at the time. But, with the possible exception of “Numb,” which could, with the right producer, have sounded like the best female version of Soundgarden imaginable, the likelihood is the songs wouldn’t have been given the most comfortable treatment they deserved.
Now, the budget is small and the chart expectations nonexistent, but the music is perfectly served. Peterson and Cowsill recruited their drummer husbands (Peterson married Cowsill’s actual brother John in 2003, thus becoming a bonafide Psycho Sister-In-Law), a bassist, keyboardist, cellist, and violinist to flesh out the acoustic arrangements the songs had once been given. Add to that Peterson’s exquisitely tasteful trademark electric guitar riffs and highly melodic solos, and you’ve got the perfect backdrop to the magical harmonies of these two talented singers.
Ten songs, three of them covers, three of them sisterly co-writes, three of them Peterson solo writes, and one co-written by Peterson and Susan’s brother Bob. This album gets in and gets out, enchanting without overstaying its welcome. The aforementioned “Numb” is a stunner, especially with the powerhouse riff being picked up by the violin and cello in this arrangement. “Wish You” is a nasty rocker kicked into high gear by the hard-edged harmonies the Sisters give it. “Never, Never Boys,” with its sad-eyed look at the loss of intimacy between friends who grow up, is a distant cousin to Peterson’s masterful “Dover Beach” from the Bangles’ All Over the Place album. “This Painting” is a goodbye and fuck-you song which could have been given a country treatment, but which steadfastly refuses to cry in anyone’s beer.
The covers, which undoubtedly are only a drop in the bucket known to these two long-established lovers of singing other people’s songs, are lovely. “Heather Says” was originally sung by Susan with the Cowsills all the way back in 1971, and this new version holds its own against that beautiful original. Harry Nilsson’s “Cuddly Toy” is done as a tribute to the late Davy Jones, who sang it in the Monkees – the version here feels like sinking into the fluffiest of pillows with all those “la-la-la’s” going round. Peter Holsapple (the keyboardist/guitarist to whom Cowsill used to be married) wrote “What Do You Want From Me,” and despite the fact that it instantly sounds familiar as a Holsapple classic, it has apparently never been recorded before.
Imagine the restraint involved in knowing you had written and/or sung all these really good songs, and knowing you had a fan-base of some size interested in hearing anything you did, and yet simply sitting on them for all these years. At any rate, that oversight has now been rectified, and the Psycho Sisters album is a terrific addition to the discographies of two very talented singer/songwriters.
With their hit-fueled 1994 album Rubberneck recently reissued on both CD and vinyl, the Texas rockers hit the road, additionally finding time to talk to our Midwest correspondent.
BY DANNY R. PHILLIPS
Faith, the search for it or the complete loneliness that comes with losing it, is woven throughout music created by the Toadies’ Todd Lewis. Jesus is a promoted figure in the band’s most well-known work, Rubberneck, but it isn’t in a positive light; it’s just what Lewis knows. “Faith is the vernacular I was brought up with,” he says. “I was brought up Southern Baptist by a preacher and my basic communication skills come from that. I don’t buy into that (religion) anymore, it’s not my bag. I definitely don’t have anything against anyone who does but it’s not my thing.”
From “Backslider,” “I Come From the Water,” and “I Burn,” this is a man at odds with what he was told as a young child in Fort Worth, Texas — the truth, without question. As Lewis explains, “To each his own I suppose. I may not buy into it but it’s still in there, it’s part of how I process thoughts. I believe in believing in humans, in their humanity and a lot of people misinterpret that into some God thing, some Jesus thing.”
The 1990s were a great time for rock music but with great times come bands that deserved more attention — like Nada Surf, Wax, Superdrag, Toadies favorites Reverend Horton Heat, Wax, Ash and Failure to name just a few — but were ultimately relegated to “one hit wonder” status. When Rubberneck was released in August 1994, it exploded, powered by the single “Possum Kingdom” and its dark video that seemed to play on MTV on a constant loop. The band had formed in 1989 after Lewis tired of playing in cover bands: “I wanted to play original music but the guys I was playing with just wanted to do covers because there was money in it but you can’t grow creatively doing covers. I wanted to do my own stuff.”
Unfortunately, The Toadies were one of those bands lost in the shuffle, even though Rubberneck was easily one of the most cohesive rock albums of the alt-rock era.
“I wanted the first record (Rubberneck) to be of what I considered to be our best songs, the ones that I felt the most confident with, and the ones I would want to play over and over,” Lewis tells BLURT. “’I Come From The Water’ was one of the first songs I wrote with The Toadies and ‘Backslider’ was written weeks if not days before we went into the studio.” Regarding “Backslider,” there is a palpable tone of fear locked into the song. Lewis agrees, saying, “Absolutely there is. What started the whole process of that song was me thinking back on me as a kid and thinking that if I thought or did the wrong thing, I was going to Hell. As a young adult, I looked back on that time and seeing how fucked up it was, how mean and cruel and twisted it is for someone to make a little kid feel that and it happens every fuckin’ day.”
He continues, “People all over the world believe that a kid, at 9 or 10, is old enough to take Jesus Christ as their savior but don’t take into account that a kid is still a kid. Kids don’t understand Death, eternity or anything else. They just want to make mom and dad happy. It’s just not far; its brainwashing.”
With Lewis’s stance on religion currently, one would expect there to be conflict with his father, a Southern Baptist preacher. “We [his father and Lewis] have agreed to not discuss it. We have re-constructed our relationship and now we get along better than ever.”
In an album like Rubberneck, there is intensity upon intensity, “I Burn” is the one that crushes your soul down to nothing, pulverizing you, smashing your beliefs; it could be about religion, literal fire or the one that burns in your core. “I like to experiment with my writing and try to figure out different ways to do things. I had just written ‘Possum Kingdom’ which has some super intricate turnarounds and time signatures, it was an exercise in making it difficult but still groovy and cool hopefully. After that, I thought it went pretty well, I wonder what would happen if I tried to do the exact opposite? ‘I Burn’ is taking the fewest ingredients and making something out of it that moves people.” (Below: the band back in the day.)
While Rubberneck has more than its fair share of frustration and anger, (“Quitter” being the finest example of that) it also shows Lewis’s Texas roots and his love for the boogie rock of fellow Texans ZZ Top. “It wasn’t intention but yeah, ZZ Top did sneak in there. When I was a kid, I used to make mixtapes for my cousin at Christmas. One year I made a mixtape of all ZZ Top, like La Grange and Tush then the next year it was a tape of The Cure. That was the weird shit that I was into and it never struck me as being weird or being two different things, it was just music. But, yeah ZZ Top was a big factor back in the day, strange thing was, I didn’t notice it until people pointed it out to me.”
Things in your life creep in, your environment shapes that you are and, whether you like it or not, what you are taught as a kid can destroy you or build who you are. Passion and struggle feeds the beast in you, shaping the future ahead.
Luckily, for Todd Lewis and the members of The Toadies, they get to have an exorcism every night on stage to wash the blood from their hands and the lift the weight from upon their souls.
Until July 31, I had never seen The Toadies. They were one of my favorite bands back in the day and Rubberneck has seen steady play at my house since its initial release twenty years ago. Nevertheless, the little boogie rock band from Texas had always eluded me. Things come up, life changes your plans but this unseasonably cool night in the middle of a stifling Kansas City summer, a visit to Knuckleheads Saloon would remedy that. First, I must see Ume. What is another 45 minutes tacked onto a twenty year wait?
Ume was solid, quite good in fact. The main selling points for me were: (a) female lead singer/guitarist — women in rock bands are badass, and when I saw L7 at the dawn of the 1990s I nearly had a stroke; (b) the music was awash with distortion a la Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine; (c) Lauren LL played a Lee Ranaldo signature model Fender Jazzmaster with both aggression and finesse. Ume was good, powerful and LOUD. All the makings for a perfect revivalist noise rock band. Thumbs up.
After a short break in which the sound guy played four songs from fellow Texan Buddy Holly, The Toadies took the stage and blasted in the lead track of Rubberneck, the instrumental “Mexican Hairless.” A song that Lewis told me was a tribute to good friends Reverend Horton Heat and the instrumentals that often kick off Rev Ho records. Within the first two chords, the venue came alive, abuzz with the electricity of a crowd in awe of what they were witnessing; within a moment, the time machine took us to 1994. It was good, it was great.
This show was one for the fans, the ones that have loved The Toadies since day one, and the people that know Toadies tunes past the criminally overplayed and misinterpreted “Possum Kingdom.” Standing at the front of the stage soaking it in, what I saw on the stage was not just a band; it was a well-oiled machine, conquering heroes re-living past victories, ready to march on with no quarter. This was a unit and one of the best rock bands I have had the pleasure of witnessing with my own two eyes.
Over the past few years, I have seen a disturbing trend of people (hipsters mostly) paying hard earned cash on tickets to great shows only to spend the time nursing a Pabst Tall Boy while texting or checking their phones to see what is cool to like ironically this week. It’s irritating; the show is on the stage not in your hand, asshole. This did not happen at the Toadies show. As soon the band hit the stage, it was eyes front. In rapid succession, they blew through “Backslider,” “Mister Love,” “Velvet,” “Tyler” (which along with “Away” got the best response) and the rest of Rubberneck. However, this was not a Rubberneck only night, oh no.
The band rolled out “Push the Hand,” “Rattler’s Revival,” great covers of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and Pylon’s “Stop It” where they were joined by Ume’s Lauren LL on guitar. Through the night, if only for a little while, I felt like I was back to a time before I had responsibilities, kids or gray hair. Back to a time when the most pressing worry was if I was going out or staying in to get loaded while watching “Ren and Stimpy” or 120 Minutes. It was great to be there again and The Toadies provided one kickass, groovy soundtrack for my nostalgia trip down Memory Lane.
I Come From the Water
Push the Hand
Heart of Glass (Blondie Cover)
Stop It (Pylon Cover)
Hell in High Water
Top photo by Matt Cooper; all others by Danny Phillips. (Image above is the group’s recent Texas-shaped picture disc.)
“I was driving across the country to Portland in 1996, and listening to a mixtape someone made me ” explains filmmaker Nickolas Rossi. “I heard ‘Satellite’ and immediately grabbed the case, trying to figure out who it was. I’d never heard anything like that before.” So began Rossi’s introduction to Elliott Smith and a synchronistic journey that led him to make Heaven Adores You, a visually arresting and musically revealing documentary devoted to the life and art of indie rock’s beloved, fallen singer-songwriter.
Arriving in Portland in the mid-’90s, Rossi got acquainted very quickly with Heatmiser, the alternative band Smith concurrently performed and recorded with while emerging as a solo artist. “And then I remember reading in Willamette Week that ‘hometown hero’ Elliott Smith was leaving Portland and moving to New York. I didn’t know why they would report something like that, but I noticed it because I was leaving, too, and going about my life,” he explains. Rossi went on to work in film as a cinematographer.
Smith of course also took the opportunity to break from Portland to set out on a life journey of his own. His 1994 album, Roman Candle had first brought Smith to light as one of the premier songwriters, alongside Beck, of his generation. His facility with melody, the poetic, sometimes illusory but always heartfelt words, even if they were bold and embittered, were fully realized on albums like Either/Or and XO. But the maker of such gorgeousness as “Ballad of Big Nothing” and “Waltz #2 (XO)” was suffering, slowing sinking into the abyss and under the weight of substance abuse, depression, and a profound ambivalence to his tremendous success. Smith, born on August 6, 1969, in Omaha, Nebraska, would’ve been 45 this month had he not died, reportedly by his own hand on October 21, 2003 (an inquiry into the circumstances of his death remains unresolved).
“I was living in Los Angeles and heard the news, Elliott Smith died,” says Rossi, pictured above. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s the guy from Portland,” remembers Rossi. That day, a crowd started to form at the mural on the side of a Silverlake audio store, the backdrop of the photo on Smith’s album Figure 8. “I didn’t think anyone knew him, and I went down to the Solutions wall where there was a makeshift memorial happening and I thought it was kinda weird. I wondered ‘Are all these people from Portland?’”
He shot some footage and cut an impromptu memorial, posting it on YouTube, “And it started getting all this response from places like South Africa, Israel, Sweden, Australia…” Literally millions of hits later Rossi realized what Smith’s devoted fans and admirers knew full well: “This guy we knew, who played in small venues in a punk rock band, had made a global impact.”
“When Elliott passed away it was hard to see all the sensationalism and the media surrounding it,” explains the film’s co-producer and music supervisor Kevin Moyer, an old high school friend of Smith’s. “It was hard to hear about and hard to talk about, but one thing that stood out in the clutter was this YouTube video of the memorial wall, set to ‘The Biggest Lie,’” he explains, referring to Rossi’s tribute. “It was the only thing in all the horribleness that was beautiful.” Fast forward to years later when Nickolas started a Kickstarter campaign to fund the movie, “I thought that clip was also really beautiful and connected the dots…it was the same guy who did the memorial wall video.”
With his background in the Portland scene, it was natural that Moyer be pulled in as the film’s music supervisor. “It was important that the film be beautiful. JT (Jeremiah Gurzi) and Nickolas did the cinematography and it’s amazing,” says Moyer. “I would never assume anything could make Elliott’s music better, but I think the imagery even brings it up a bit—even though that may be blasphemous to say.”
The quality of the cinematography, outside the usual talking heads and archival clips, is what makes Heaven Adores You in many respects a unique music documentary. Long after viewing, it’s the glimmering outdoor shots—natural and urbanscapes filling the screen and glistening as Smith’s haunting songs unspool at length—that linger. Rossi was very conscious of constructing a film (which made its debut at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival) that lived up to the essence of Smith’s luminescent music.
“You have to honor the music by making sure the visuals are on a par with the music,” explains Rossi. “The first time we heard Elliott’s music with images was with Good Will Hunting,” he says. “Gus Van Sant is a really talented filmmaker and so it just fit perfectly—they deserved each other.” Rossi aspired to a similar unity between sound and image.
Smith was ultimately nominated for an Oscar for “Miss Misery,” his contribution to Good Will Hunting and it was his Academy Awards appearance that provided Rossi with his jumping off point for Heaven Adores You: “We knew there was a beginning and an end to the story,” he says, “And there was also this point that everything changed… Most of the people who were exposed to Elliott Smith probably knew him from Good Will Hunting, the Academy Awards, the white suit, so we decided, why don’t we start there.”
It’s safe to say, the hardcore Smith fan is seeking something more than natural beauty and images of the public Smith in any documentary about his life; there is also plenty on offer, even for the well-schooled Smith fan, in the new film.
“Going into the archives, Elliott’s got so many different versions of songs,” explains Moyer who received cooperation from Smith recording engineer and archivist Larry Crane and producer Rob Schnapf. “There’s a song by Elliott’s band Stranger Than Fiction [which evolved into Murder of Crows, Harem Scarem and Heatmiser]. We know it as “Three” but you’re hearing the song that would become “King’s Crossing” 15 years later. Only the hardcore fan is going to know that,” says Moyer.
“There was one song, ‘Shotgun,’ that had three fully different versions—his high school band, Heatmiser and him redoing it, adding to it, and finally releasing it.” The filmmakers promise other revelatory moments of Smith artistry. “If you’re a fan, you’re going to go, ‘Oh, that guitar riff turned into this song (“Fear City”),’” notes Moyer.
Fans will also be happy to note that some of Smith’s Heatmiser bandmates as well as musical peers and close allies like musician Joanna Bolme, producer Jon Brion, and photographer Autumn de Wilde, appear in the film, among other friends and fellows. However Smith’s bandmates Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss, aka the duo Quasi, stuck by their decision to sit out all discussions on the subject. But, says Rossi, “They did not discourage us.” Smith’s sister, Ashley Welch, makes a brief appearance too though the film mostly steers off personal and family details in favor of the bigger picture.
“Elliott didn’t like to talk about his family and we didn’t want to either,” said Rossi. “They weren’t in any band with him or mixing his records,” says Moyer. “The film’s about music.”
Providing a snapshot of an era in rock ‘n’ roll and the music business that no longer really exists, as beautiful and iconoclastic as it is, Heaven Adores You succeeds as a story about an artist, albeit a tragic and short-lived life, set at the tail end of what may be remembered as the traditional music business.
“All that discussion, about how he tuned his guitar, I’d love to make that available, but we had to open up the film for the people who don’t know him, and not get lost in the details,” says Rossi. The details can of course be found in the two and three minute worlds composed by Smith, waiting to be discovered by generations to come. Rossi has simply provided another lens from which to see and ultimately hear Elliott Smith’s fragile but enduring songs.
Denise Sullivan is the author of the forthcoming Shaman’s Blues: The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors, out Sept. 1. She previously published books on the White Stripes and R.E.M. as well as 2011’s Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip Hop—go here to read our interview with her from around the time of its publication.
We conclude our story of Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton and James Mercer. (In Pt. 1 Mercer outlined his musical arc with The Shins and how his gradual disillusionment with the band primed him for a musical collaboration with Burton. Then in Pt. 2 author Lurie flashed back to 1996 when, as students at the University of Georgia, he and Burton hit it off musically and for a brief period, played together in a band.)
BY ROBERT DEAN LURIE
Having played music with Brian, and having watched along with everyone else as he’s collaborated with a staggering menagerie of artists—CeeLo Green, Norah Jones, Beck, The Black Keys, U2, Jack White, Sparklehorse, The Flaming Lips, Dennis Fucking Hopper—I feel as qualified as anyone to declare that James Mercer is the perfect partner and foil for Danger Mouse. As we have seen, Mercer is a talented and focused artist who can hold his own among the performers listed above. Yet there’s a personality factor that goes above and beyond that, the feeling of a key finding the correct lock. As Gnarls Barkley, Brian and CeeLo were “the odd couple,” and the incongruity of the grandiose and volatile CeeLo Green paired with the even-heeled (yet exacting) Brian Burton was the cauldron out of which two brilliant albums were forged. But like the collision of matter and antimatter, theirs is an inherently unstable mix.
James and Brian are the right couple. A mutual sympathy accompanies their creative synergy. One wouldn’t think, given their backgrounds, that the two would have much overlap, but in reality they are very similar personalities. During our interview, their genuine affection for each other comes through in the way they finish each other’s sentences and speak of their ongoing collaboration with the pride of happy parents. This level of trust has enabled the two songwriters to fully collaborate on lyrics, something neither has been able to do with much success in the past.
“I think there were moments where I was nervous about it,” James says.
“It stretches our friendship for sure,” Brian says, laughing. “It does, it does. It makes it tough.”
“At the same time,” James continues, “lyrics are like blood from a stone. When I find something I really want to discuss, it can flow. It’s very stream-of-consciousness writing until I can get something that starts to make sense. Brian, especially this time around (on After the Disco) had a lot of a certain subject matter and had—”
“Something I wanted to say,” Brian says. “I never thought it was going to come out like that though. When I worked with other people, I helped with lyrics, but if it’s not my record, I don’t put myself into it so much. Whereas with this one I did, and I hadn’t done that in a long time. I had taken a bunch of time off and I was really in a creative place. I was dying, dying to do something that was my own. Producing isn’t always that way. It’s a great outlet for the most part, creatively, but there’s something about working with James particularly where you can just let it all go out there and just keep the best stuff. Still, I never had planned to do any of the lyrics that way. I had hoped that James would just come back from Portland and have a whole bunch of ideas all ready that I could just help him finish. I think I did more helping on the first record. We never really discussed what After the Disco was going to be about. It’s just the way it came out. I never believed stuff like that could happen. We do stuff from scratch, so there’s scratch vocals on everything.”
“Sometimes we pull little things from that, like the phrase ‘after the disco’,” James says.
“He was singing,” Brian says, “scatting, and it sounded like he said ‘after the disco.’ What does that mean? That sounded cool. That was the first song that we wrote for the album. We sat down right there and wrote the lyrics for the whole song. ‘After the disco’: I know what that meant to me. I won’t say for him, but I know.”
“Yeah, I had my own set of meanings,” James says.
“We knocked it out. I think we knocked it out like, in a day. We just sat down with pen and pads and started going for lines. I got the first verse. We started going with it. Back, forth, back, forth.”
After your faith has let you down
I know you’ll want to run around
And follow the crowd into the night
But after the disco
All of the shine just faded away, ooh
Do what you want, do what you will
Don’t tell me it’s not our time
That’s Brian’s first verse, and here is the second, presumably written by James:
I see the ashes on the ground
Another world is burning down
And under the cold and empty moon
But after the disco
All of the shine just faded away, ooh
Do what you want, do what you will
But you can’t hide, ooh
What we have here is a dance song for a post-faith, post-meaning world, one in which the old values, the old gods, and the old safety nets have all fallen away. Adrift in the ensuing chaos, we grasp at meaning and beauty where we can find it. And if we can’t find it, we create it.
Or, if that’s too rich for your blood, it functions as a fine breakup song. Another track, “Perfect World,” addresses similar themes:
I’ve got nothing left
It’s kind of wonderful
‘Cause there’s nothing they can take away
But I’ve been turned around
I was upside down
I thought love would always find a way
But I know better now
Got it figured out
It’s a perfect world all the same
After the Disco, then, is an ideal album for both the end of the world and the end of the affair. And the ability to transform such dour subject matter into such ebullient music might be considered a form or alchemy, or an example of what the author Lieb Liebovitz calls the duende. In A Broken Hallelujah, Liebovitz’s intellectual biography of Leonard Cohen, the writer maintains that Cohen’s entire career has been spent in pursuit of this duende, which he defines as the mining of sorrow to produce moments of transcendence. I mention this idea to James and Brian. “It’s the melancholy epiphany,” I say. “But it makes you joyous when you hear it.”
“There’s melancholy in everything, I think, that we do,” Brian says. “One of the things that makes us human is our curiosity. I think that’s a celebrated thing. We know how it can get you in trouble, but also how it’s made us who we are. Self-pity and sadness are a part of it as well. These are not necessarily things that are talked about or celebrated as much, but they’re absolutely there. It explains why so much of our art, which is a representation of ourselves, is the way it is. The most celebrated art in any form at all has to do with sadness and melancholy. Whether it’s films, whether it’s music, whether it’s paintings, all of it. That’s how you know a human did it: there’s some sadness associated with it.”
Brian stops, looks over at me with his heavy-lidded eyes and his embarrassed half-smirk. “I don’t know… I’m trying to get all profound and shit.”
James jumps in. “I love that! I love that!” he exclaims. “I see that in art as well. When you experience something beautiful, there’s always, at the same moment…you realize the fleeting nature of it. That’s the melancholy. It’s always attached. If not, I don’t have time for it.”
“That’s why, when people fake it,” Brian says, “it’s so easy to tell.”
“That’s fine,” James says. “That’s pop music. It’s like: ‘We’re having a blast tonight. We’re partying and it’s fun and we’re young and happy and will live forever!'” He laughs. “That’s great, you know? But at some point you get to a place were that just doesn’t strike you. You have that melancholy epiphany one time with music, one time, and you’re fucking done. You’ll never go back.”
Was that what happened when Brian first heard those mournful notes of Portishead’s “Sour Times”? [Ed. note: See part 2 of the Broken Bells story.] I think so. I remember that perplexed look on his face as he surveyed his music collection: all the stuff that had been his soundtrack for years suddenly had no resonance. Something had reached inside his head and rearranged the contents. And it’s not as if the hip-hop he’d been listening to was lightweight; far from it. Much of it was top-flight stuff, fueled by rage and defiance and leavened with the subversive playfulness of the trickster. It was his foundation. But Portishead offered the sorrow at the end of the line, after all the defiance had failed. It should have been unbearable, yet that hypnotic beat and those atmospheric flourishes made it irresistible. The duende. Not long after that first and only gig we did together, Brian made his way to England in search of Portishead. He found them, but that turned out to be the beginning of his journey, not the culmination. What he had really been seeking was the duende. And he discovered that, like most things we seek, it resided within him. All along he’d been hearing that inner voice reflected back at him through the work of others. And at the intersection of their music and his yearnings, genius began to incubate.
Brian Burton has been involved in a lot of collaborations. Almost all of them ran their course pretty quickly. But in Broken Bells he and James Mercer have found something sustainable, something that could conceivably run for decades. Knowing that they’re in this for all the right reasons, and knowing the combination of curiosity and perfectionism that drives both artists, it’s exciting to contemplate what those future albums will sound like.
Very few people would have predicted fame for either of these guys; they just didn’t seem to lust after it the way most would-be stars do. But having connected with them on the other side of that journey, I believe that they are the only types of people that fame should happen to. It’s wasted on everyone else.
As James sings:
We prefer good love to gold
And the remains of rock and roll
In the middle of the night
We can almost see the way to go
Photo credit: James Minchin
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Filmed by Jonathan Levitt. Check out Bonney's latest record "Past, Present, Future" http://smarturl.it/SimonBonney
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