Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Scenes from London life

Excellent civil libertarian graffiti, in the shadow of a massive Royal Mail sorting office

Panther Burns (sporadically 1983 - 84, 1991)

The other day I was in a used book store on Charing Cross Road, when I came across the Economist Intelligence Unit's World Statistical Handbook for 1993. In the section on the global music industry, I was taken aback by the startling estimate that, as of December 1992, nearly 3% of the U.S. population had been members of Panther Burns at one time or another. This struck me as an improbably low number, but there you have it, "imperialist running dogs and backslidin' heifers" - the EIU doesn't lie - I am a member of a small and elite club. "Jam up and jelly tight. T-99!"

The first time I met Tav Falco was at the home of my classmate/friend/later girlfriend Gretchen Gassner, a beautiful minimalist modern single-level house on Harbert in Midtown, designed and built by her late father, Francis Gassner, an eminent Memphis architect. I have a feeling this might have been before I saw the Panther Burns for the first time, because I don't remember having any immediate association of Tav with music when I met him, though some of the more unkind among music critics might say this is just a natural reaction. If it was before I first saw him play, then this would probably have been late 1979 to mid-1980, but we're splitting hairs here. Tav, or as he was introduced to me, Gus, was big sister Amy Gassner's beau at the time, and we were all having dinner together with Gretchen and Amy's mother and step-father.

Gus was, as anyone who has encountered Tav might guess, impeccably dressed from another era, very articulate, well-mannered and charming. I recall him mentioning his work with Televista, and also the fact that he was a tango instructor, I believe at the Fred Astaire school in Memphis. To the 17 year-old me, this was about as close as I had ever been to time travel, though I now engage in it frequently.

As it happens, I think I also met Alex Chilton around the same time at the same house, though this time there was no parental supervision, and he was watching TV with Amy in the living room. Given that I was born in 1962 and didn't move to Memphis until 1974, I didn't really have any understanding at this point of the significance of Memphis music in the 1960s. I knew the song "The Letter," of course. I can remember hearing it frequently on my parents' car radio in Texas in the late '60s. I had certainly never heard of Big Star. So to me, at that point, Alex Chilton was this pale guy in a leather jacket watching TV on the sofa. He seemed friendly enough, but didn't really say much.

Gretchen later told me that at some point this weird band from out of town called The Cramps had stayed at the house while they were in town working on a recording with Alex. I got the impression that they were a bit on the unfriendly side as far as she was concerned. Damned Yankees!

Anyway, the years passed, and Panther Burns released their seminal early recordings "Behind the Magnolia Curtain" and "Blow Your Top," and toured extensively, punctuated by the odd show in Memphis, one of which I seem to recall took place in the street outside a party at the old Lou's Antique Clothing in the then decidedly un-chic and un-reformed Cooper-Young district, sometime in 1982.

I think Alex Chilton was based in New York at this point, and then moved to New Orleans in 1983 or thereabouts, Jim Duckworth had fled into the arms of Jeffrey Lee Pierce, and I have some weird recollection of bassist Ron Miller having gone off to do serious jazz stuff with Archie Shepp or someone like that. Tav, who had also been reliant upon out-of-towners for his touring band, seemed to reappear in Memphis on a more regular basis around this time, and was clearly in need of a local band.

Kings of the Western Bop, which plumbed the depths of a similar toxic cultural ditch to that of Tav, albeit with an overlay of professional wrestling and The Honeymooners, were on the scene in Memphis, and seemed to be the body least likely to reject a mutant strain of Panther Burn DNA. I knew most of the material already, Linda was quite capable of picking up the bass parts, and the band already contained founding Panther Burns drummer Ross Johnson, so we were obviously a capable and cheap proxy lineup for the purposes of local gigs. It didn't hurt that Linda and I were relatively young, inexperienced, and enthusiastic enough to be really flattered to be onstage with Tav. And, yes, he had been a big musical influence, and anyone who would have claimed otherwise was lying.

So we embarked on a string of local gigs in which KOWB would open for Panther Burns, the only difference between the two being the front men - much like a low-budget circus I saw as a child in which the Romanian Gypsy acrobat family bore an uncanny resemblance to the American Indian high wire act and the Brazilian trapeze artists. Venues included The Antenna and the old cinema on Highland (help, what was it called?). The set list was a mixture of older material, along with some relatively new additions, such as "Shade Tree Mechanic," and we didn't sound half bad, though this was a far cry from the original visceral screeching chaos of Panther Burns, and more a cabaret act.

In some cases, I recall Kai Eric from New York stepping in on bass, as in a gig in 1984 at the Old Daisy Theater on Beale Street, where Panther Burns were booked for two nights running. Originally, Kai and I were meant to have played both nights, but Alex Chilton and Rene Coman pitched up from New Orleans, and Tav was ready to bump us in favor of the first-string team. (This happened on one other occasion, the infamous gig opening for The Clash at Vanderbilt, though in retrospect maybe not being part of that was not such a bad thing afterall.) I reminded him that I had taken both weekend nights off work from my restaurant job, foregoing some much-needed income, and told him I was not happy about the prospect of being dumped. I think Kai, who had traveled from New York, felt similarly. So we agreed that Kai and I would play the Friday night show, and Alex and Rene would do Saturday night, which was an arrangement I could live with, and Alex and Rene agreed. (I have to say that, during the entire time I knew Alex, he was always kind and pleasant to me each and every time I saw him in Memphis, which I found very odd because I knew a lot of people who had nothing good to say on his behalf, but I speak as I find, and he was always cool with me.)

So, the show at the Old Daisy (a proper old movie house where the screen, and thus our stage, was at the back of the hall, meaning that the audience walked in past the stage) would take place with the first-string guitarist and bassist in the audience, which made me more than a little uneasy, but I wanted to get paid. I certainly earned my money during the opening act, when Ross, Kai and I accompanied Cordell Jackson through a very challenging opening set, complicated by the facts that 1) the songs had no clear beginnings or endings, 2) she had a very curious sense of tempo akin to a record skipping, and 3) Kai and I only knew a couple of her songs, neither of which sounded remotely the same when she played them live anyway. She was clearly completely mad, but very charming. Before we started I walked over to her and said, "It's a pleasure to play with you, but I'm afraid I don't know many of your songs," and she simply smiled and said "Don't worry, let's just have a good time," before launching into "Football Widow," or one of her other peculiar songs.

A couple of years later, a number of us young musical whipper-snappers would attend the Moon Records 40th Anniversary party at her home in Georgian Hills, where I also met Estelle Axton, which was really thrilling. Even later, Cordell would develop an interest in Linda Heck's songwriting, inviting her to her home to audition some songs. I recall Linda telling me that she played a recently-written piece, called "House is Burning" (an excellent version of which may be found, ahem, on the still unissued "Great Lost Linda Heck Album"), which was really about Memphis gossip and schadenfreude, and contained the tag lines, "Everyone knows your house is burning/everyone sees the straw foundation/everyone knows that there's no turning back," which Cordell thought had some sort of Satanic connection (UPDATE: I got this wrong. See Linda's comment below which clarifies that Cordell thought it was a song about cocaine addiction). Like I said, she was sweet, but probably nuts.

After Cordell, the Panther Burns took the stage and went through the typical set of the time, and we conducted ourselves pretty admirably. I'm pretty sure it was at my insistence that we included Conway Twitty's "It's Only Make Believe" in the set, and as I played the opening C-chord and Tav moaned the first line, "People see us everywhere..." a pained, pleading voice rose up from the audience, "Noooo! Noooo!" This voice I immediately recognized as that of one Alex Chilton, distressed to hear a beloved song about to be mercilessly vivisected. This incident makes me smile still after 25 years.

One other show from this period stands out in my mind. I believe this was also in 1984, and Linda and Dan Hopper were living at the Clarke's Quick Print building in downtown Memphis, which in those days was a virtual ghost town at night, and pretty much any other time. Legendary drummer Bob Fordyce worked downtown in the early '90s and once told me that on his lunch break one day, a German tourist, who was obviously looking to kill time on a lengthy layover at the Greyhound station, came up to ask him which way was downtown Memphis. Bob said, "This is it." The German tourist replied, "You're kidding!" Anyway, Linda and Dan were, as was so common back in those lean times, having a rent party/"happening" on the third floor, I seem to recall. It was a Saturday night, and I had to work, but I bribed someone to let me out first, so I raced downtown to play with Tav and Ross (we were bass-less for some reason I can't recall). Because I was getting there at 11:30 or something like that, I was the only person in the entire building (with the possible exception of Ross, who I believe was teetotal at that point, and Tav, who I don't recall ever drinking) who wasn't under the influence of anything. Everyone else seemed to be completely rat-assed in one way or another, and I arrived to see the aftermath of a minor physical misunderstanding between Tommy Hull, Linda and Dan, the details of which I don't really know. I also got stuck in the basement for about ten minutes at one point with Joey Garcia and Craig Shindler of Burnin' Schmen, due to some elevator malfunction. This was my first encounter with Craig, who was still in high school, but would later go on to form K9 Arts with Jim Duckworth and Rich Trosper, who, like Craig, is sadly no longer with us and fondly remembered.

I have a tape of the gig somewhere, and I think it was probably the best one I ever did as a Panther Imposter. Ross and I were both playing really well, and gelling, despite, or perhaps because of, not having a bass player, and Tav seemed genuinely excited and inspired. Perhaps it was the presence of a psychedelic oil wheel light show. The tuning of Tav's violin-shaped Hofner guitar (with built-in distortion button), however, started to drift, without intervention on his part. I recommended that we play The Doors' "You're Lost, Little Girl," a song I had heard Panther Burns play with Alex on guitar, and which Tav and I had messed around with a bit recently. We played it impeccably, except that by this time Tav was probably a half-step out of tune across the board, though playing quieter than I was, which created an almost redneck gamelan-like quality to the sound. The soundman, Tommy (surname?), cocked his head to one side, like when a dog hears something strange and incomprehensible. Tommy and I smiled at each other in mutual recognition of having reached a moment of microtonal Nirvana which Harry Partch himself would have envied, or at least that's what I thought. He might have been thinking, "Shit, I'll be glad to be outta here." When I later played this tape for Tav, he too smiled and said, "Sounds like a pack o' wild dogs off in the woods somewhere." I wish I had a Tav Falco speech synthesizer for times like this.

Lest I forget, there was also a recording session which took place in an empty Antenna Club (empty because it wasn't actually open to the public) on something like a Monday night, in early 1984, which consisted of Tav, Ross, Mark Harrison on guitar, Jim Spake on tenor sax, and me on guitar. As I recall, we recorded three songs: "Cuban Rebel Girl," on which I played through a hideous multi-effect box I had which made a sort of fuzz-bass sound, which made me the surrogate bass player, "Jump Suit," and "Hairdresser Underground," all of which later appeared on a cassette release called "1984," and which may have been re-released on vinyl or CD later. I think Kurt Ruleman may have also appeared on the same release, albeit in a different session. As far as I know, no one involved was ever paid anything for their efforts - it was all about the glory.

Anyway, I went off to Japan at the beginning of 1986 (awakening for my first day in the school dorm in Osaka to the news of the Challenger disaster, which should have told me something), came back, formed Linda Heck and The Train Wreck, went to Japan again, and came back to Memphis in 1990. During this time, Tav found international stardom on New Rose Records, prolifically releasing albums and touring behind them with an evermore eclectic lineup of musicians.

We next met in spring 1991, when I played a couple of gigs over one weekend with him, Ross and John McClure on bass. As I recall, we went to Little Rock, Arkansas, on a Friday to play to a very sparse crowd in a club whose name I have forgotten. I rode with Tav on the way over, and John on the way back, and it was the only time I ever had a chance to talk to Tav one-on-one at length when he wasn't more or less in character. We talked about Arkansas in the '60s, his time as a wandering artist, and life in general. He told me that he and Robert Palmer (with whom I had recorded in Hot Joe - another story) had been in the same fraternity at university, a revelation which he followed with the admonition, "Don't tell anyone." I couldn't tell if he was joking or not, but I guess the statute of limitations has passed in any event. It was an intriguing couple of hours, and I felt closer to him, but also somehow a bit sad.

When we got to the gig, however, Tav the difficult artist reappeared, giving the soundman a hard time during the sound check because he couldn't hear my guitar in the monitors. The soundman pretended to fiddle around with the settings, and Tav was satisfied, but later the soundman told me that he had merely turned Tav's guitar down a little bit. This difficulty with soundmen would manifest itself again the next night with an unlikely outcome. There was no opening act in Little Rock, but we were treated to an extended slide show from Tav's world travels as the Ambassador of Ditch-digging, stirring up the dark waters of the unconscious. Ross, John and I sat together, and Ross gave us one of his inimitable running commentaries as photo after photo scrolled by: Tav, carefree on the Champs Elysees; Tav, thinking deep thoughts beside the Trevi Fountain. We were in stitches. On another occasion, back in 1988, John and I had experienced a similar bout of convulsive laughter at the Overton Park Shell, with my Dad, who had come to see the Train Wreck play earlier, and stayed on for Panther Burns, which the three of us watched from seats near the stage. The sound was terrible, and Tav was very unhappy with the soundman, threatening to walk off if it didn't improve, and all this drama unfolded during the opening number, a 15-minute version of "Jungle Rock." We nearly wet ourselves, and my Dad was practically prostrate. It is one of my most prized musical memories from Memphis.

The next night, at the New Daisy Theater in Memphis, we played to pretty much a full house, and it was a good performance. However, at one point, Tav launched into a fairly harsh criticism of the soundman, an older, muscular ex-Marine named Johnny, whom he named and shamed in front of the audience. The gig over, no sooner had we come offstage and into the dressing room than Johnny stormed in, stuck his finger in Tav's face and said, "Tav, don't you ever call my name and talk to me like that in public again, got me?" Tav, who had a height disadvantage of about a foot, a weight disadvantage of probably eighty pounds, and had never been in the Marines, stood there impassively. John, Ross and I watched, and I expected Tav to either apologize or begin quoting Rimbaud, but instead he suddenly grabbed Johnny by the collar with both hands, said "Come git some, motherf*cker!" and physically manhandled him out of the dressing room, thereafter leaning against the door as Johnny gave it a frustrated kick or two. I was speechless. Suddenly everything stopped, and Tav moved away from the door. We all looked at one another. The door began to open slowly, and Tav picked up a folding chair, ready to brain Johnny when he stepped in the room. Ross restrained him, and around the door slowly appeared a smiling Alex Chilton, who said, "It's only me, man."

Monday, 28 September 2009

Scenes from London life

Crystal Palace sphinx 1

Four Neat Guys (1983? - 85)

Unlike the first two bands I played with, Four Neat Guys already existed when I joined. Thinking of it now, I don't actually know when they formed, or who the original members were. I think it must have been an offshoot of, or adjunct to, Cock Rock, whose reign I had sadly missed. I didn't actually spend as much time at The Antenna Club as I could have in those days, given that I was a full-time university student and was typically also working four nights a week, by this time as a waiter at the uber-puke-tastic Steak and Ale on Summer Avenue, now a peculiar-looking mock-Tudor half timbered Chinese restaurant, of all things, at least the last time I checked.

In short, I missed a lot things, and Cock Rock was one of them. As I recall, this was primarily the brainchild of Mike Cupp (a.k.a. Mick Cock), whom I found when getting to know him later, was a superbly talented rock satirist (as evidenced by a recording I have of his side-splitting "tribute" to Antenna Club owner Steve McGehee, entitled "Me and My Buddy McGehee," sung to the tune of "Me and Bobby McGee"), and Dave Catching, who I only now realize after Googling him to see where he ended up, is the same person as that famous Dave Catching guy (albeit with much less hair). This shows how much I have paid attention to personnel listings on albums in the past ten years.

Anyway, the first recollection I have of knowing anything about Four Neat Guys was an account from Linda Heck, who spent a bit more time at The Antenna than I did in those days, and had caught them on some random weeknight. Her description went something like, "There was this really awful band at The Antenna last night, they really sucked, and I went up to their singer after they played and said, 'You guys really suck,' and he smiled and said, 'Yeah, I know, isn't it great? Thanks.'"

This was Geoff Marsh, lead singer of Four Neat Guys, brother of Julie (now Julia) Marsh, later of The Alluring Strange. Geoff's brother Mike, if I remember the lore correctly, had been the original singer of Four Neat Guys, but had moved away or something, and Geoff took over. Mike did perform with the version of the band I played in at least once that I can recall, which was the farewell performance of the band, wherein Mike and Geoff ran on and off the stage on alternate songs, dressed identically in black tails and top hats, which could have really flummoxed the audience, if not for the fact that Geoff was about a foot taller. Geoff was referred to by one and all as "Dude," and he also addressed and referred to pretty much everyone else as "dude," which meant that any conversation within the band would inevitably be dominated by the word "dude." A non-English-speaking observer would have erroneously assumed that "dude" was some sort of essential pronoun or conjunction in the English language.

The first performance I saw, opening for someone at The Antenna on a Saturday night, and possibly with some band I played with being on the same bill, pretty much confirmed what Linda had observed previously. I think the band that night consisted of Mick Cock on bass/vocals, Geoff Marsh singing, Randy Reinke on guitar/vocals, and Harris Scheuner on drums, who I recall had shoulder-length curly hair, almost like a perm, which was not a common sight at The Antenna in those days. The set was pretty rough and ready, but they had a strength of personality and a surreal sense of humor which made me like them.

I can't recall if I had met Randy prior to this, though it's possible, as he was one of the denizens of the hideous old Jones Hall cafeteria at MSU, where I also met Misty White for the first time, I think, among others. Alas, my mind is fogged by time, and also by the fact that for years all these people were such fixtures in my musical and social life that pinning down where and when I had first met them was something that never occurred to me to do when I was in Memphis and could easily fact-check. So reconstructing it now by myself, across the Atlantic and nearly thirty years later, inevitably leads to some blanks and probably some errors on my part. I'm hoping that someone reading this may put any such omissions right.

While I'm writing these posts as though each band I was involved in was a discrete and isolated unit, this is not the way things really were at all. My time in Four Neat Guys overlapped to some extent with Kings of the Western Bop, and I remember Dan Hopper doing guest singing turns with Four Neat Guys, as well as later versions of KOWB comprised of some Neat Guys. So putting a precise chronology around all this is both difficult and pointless. It was all a gigantic, deafening ball of confused cacophony, and an awful lot of fun.

Randy was living with/off Harris at this point, in a small house off South Highland near MSU, and we tended to rehearse there most often - though the word "rehearse" may be a bit generous. One of the operative principles of Four Neat Guys was to endeavor never to play the same set twice. I think this reflected Randy's manic and irrepressible enthusiasm for discovering music, which was admirable, but also meant that we were always being confronted with songs that he had recently become obsessed with - some of which we knew, and some of which we had to learn and play together in the space of a week. In many cases this was done via cassettes circulated to the band members, with maybe one rehearsal before the show if we were lucky. It's also important to note that back then, unlike now, routes to accessing music were far more constrained, which is to say that some of the stuff we were trying to learn, say from Big Star or The Velvet Underground, was out of print, which seems inconceivable in 2009. Randy had managed to get his hands on a lot of this stuff, and going through potential song candidates with him was in many cases the first time that I had heard much of this amazing music.

Needless to say, we were always exceptionally rough around the edges. For most bands, this would be a problem, but some of the other essential operative principles of the group were spontaneity, "musical integrity," and an interest in testing the audience's stamina, which often manifested itself in an endless version of either Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive" or Flipper's "Sex Bomb Baby" as the last song of the set. On at least two occasions, Steve McGehee's long-suffering sister Robin, who often ran The Antenna on Sunday nights, had an entirely understandable sense of humor failure, and pulled the plug on us, which we regarded as a great achievement.

We also had the plug pulled on us by the lunatic woman who ran the Madison Avenue bar (later renamed WKRB in Memphis, for some unknown reason). On that occasion, after our own opening set, we were providing the ambient soundtrack to a psychedelic light show and poetry reading as part of a Tav Falco "happening," and poet Mary Pretorius, with whom I had also worked at Steak and Ale (it was obviously a real locus of creative friction!), read a poem which contained the sentence, "The Christ Child was illegitimate." The next thing we knew, it was all over, the PA was dead, the lights were on, and we were asked to leave. Tav was incensed, and protested a violation of free speech or some such. The crazy woman bar owner said she didn't care about free speech.

During my time in the band, the lineup initially consisted of Randy on guitar, Dude on vocals and sometimes bass, Harris on drums, and me on guitar and sometimes bass. Mick Cock turned up occasionally, and we always sounded better as a result. Everyone sang at some point, though we never worked up any serious harmony parts, mainly, I suppose, because that would have involved too much effort. As with KOWB, any semblance of order or planning was purely accidental, and I can recall having to scramble to piece together PA systems here and there at the last minute on more than one occasion. Performances were chaotic, disputes frequent (particularly between Randy and Harris, who had a relationship not unlike that of Felix and Oscar in The Odd Couple), instrument tuning was a +/-20% proposition, gratuitous feedback de rigeur. And the amount of alcohol consumed was no help to any of this. We were once booked to play in the student pub at Southwestern University (I'm pretty sure KOWB was on the same bill), for the princely sum of $100 if I recall correctly, paid upfront, which was all spent on cases of beer, a large stack of which was actually placed in the middle of the stage and consumed during the course of the show. Shameful, but not out of character.

This version of Four Neat Guys had the uncanny ability to sound either like the best band in the world, or like a bunch of tone-deaf children whose instrument-playing limbs were comprised entirely of involuntary muscles - often within the same set, or even the same song. I remember once being onstage performing (some would say desecrating) The Jefferson Airplane's "Volunteers," and Dude was singing and playing bass, flailing around like he was wounded, with his voice cracking terribly on the "Got a revolution, got to revolution" line. At that moment I thought we looked and sounded so preposterous that I laughed pretty much uncontrollably through the rest of the set. Who needs drugs when your own band can reduce you to euphoric laughter?

Other times were much better. Somewhere in my archives is a tape of a performance at The Antenna opening for Alex Chilton, wherein we played heroic versions of The Standells' "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White" (always our best song, I think) and The Left Banke's "Walk Away Renee," both of which were star turns by Dude with solid playing by the band and even some passable harmonies. We also played a drum-less version of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Tuesday's Gone," on which Alex suddenly emerged from the dressing room and got behind the drum kit, which I found surprising given my assumption that he would have held Southern boogie-rock in disdain. The tape of this evening is very funny to listen to, because it was made with a tape recorder sitting on a table in the audience, where Antenna regular Cherry Bryant and some other drunken friend engaged in a scathing running commentary on the band in between actively heckling us.

At one point we were invited to perform on Memphis Cablevision's public access channel, where Andy Hyrka had a show which often featured local bands playing live. I fear there may be a tape of this show in existence somewhere, featuring our performance of Larry Williams' "Bad Boy" a la the Beatles' version, in which I manage to forget not some, but most, of the lyrics. There was a redeeming feature to this appearance, which was that Dude, when not required for vocals, sat in an armchair and watched TV on screen. That bit I liked.

Harris Scheuner's 21st birthday party was held at the Ornamental Metal Museum, which for the benefit of any non-Memphian readers was the scene of many a mini-festival in my time, and has a spectacular view of the Mississippi River below Memphis. This was an all-day jam-o-rama sometime in summer 1984, and among the many performers on the bill (including the Neat Guys) were Alex Chilton and Rene Coman, who had been playing together in New Orleans (as well as in the Panther Burns, obviously), as a precursor to Alex's revival of a solo career ("No Sex" was released in 1986). Harris played with them that day, but I also spent a lot of the day behind the drum kit, and they seemed to like my playing. Somehow at the end of the night, I wound up at the legendary Pat's Pizza (make sure you check this link) on Summer Avenue with Alex and Rene in the wee hours, where they floated the idea of my coming to N.O. to play drums with them at a regular gig they had on Bourbon Street. I was flattered, but I was a student, and the complications would have been just too great. Still, I coulda been a rock star. Shoulda, woulda, coulda - the three words which a London trader once told me were the easiest to say, but the most difficult to live with. Perhaps not in this case, but no doubt it would have been fun.

While I'm digressing, there is one other interesting anecdote tangentially related to this band. We were all obsessed with Big Star, whose catalog was out of print at the time, though Randy had all three studio albums and a bootleg tape of the radio broadcast from 1974. Harris, in particular, seemed to be way off into a Big Star trip, and I remember him telling me this story around this time. He was in the old Seessel's Supermarket on Union, doing some grocery shopping. An announcement came over the in-store PA system: "Mr. Andy Hummel, Mr. Andy Hummel, please come to customer service." Harris was curious, as Hummel is not that common a surname, and Andy Hummel was the name of the bass player in Big Star. So Harris went to customer service, to see a tall guy there who was unquestionably Andy Hummel.

Harris waited until he had finished whatever business he had been paged for, and asked him, "Excuse me, are you Andy Hummel?" Andy Hummel, who indeed he was, looked a bit startled and said, "Yes." "Andy Hummel from Big Star?" Apparently there was a pause, and the real live Andy Hummel said, "Yes, but how do you know about Big Star?" As Harris told it, Andy Hummel had moved to Texas to work in the aerospace industry, and apparently had no knowledge of the resurgence of interest in Big Star, despite the fact that REM and a number of other high-profile acts had by this time become very vocal public champions of the band. To anyone reading who can't remember a time before the internet, this is the way life used to be - people, relationships, bands just got lost. Unsearchable, un-Facebookable, un-Linked-Inable, just gone.

Besides the friendships I enjoyed with these guys, the musical education, the fun, and a mild case of tinnitus, the best thing to come out of this band was an introduction to the mighty John McClure. Sometime in what must have been mid-1984, I went over to see Randy and play some music, at Misty White's apartment, where he was then living. He introduced me to John, whom he'd also invited around to play bass, a consistent source of weakness in the lineup historically. How they had met, I'm not sure, but John was playing with a band called The D-Lanks (spelling?), whom I never heard, saw, or knew anything about. He had moved to Memphis not long before from southern Illinois, where he had grown up and been a student at Carbondale. He had a sister in Memphis, and had moved in with her.

Anyone who has ever played with John would probably share my view that he is the most naturally musical person I have ever met, hands down. Entirely untrained, he has an uncanny ability to visualize complex chord sequences on the guitar in his mind, along with all the augmentations and derivatives available on the bass, which is something to behold. And this seems to be a gift he has had since the very beginning. During this initial meeting, I recall that he picked up a guitar at one point and started playing it quite effortlessly and fluidly. I asked him how long he had been playing, and he said something like six months. No lessons, ever. Randy and I had both been playing for nearly ten years, and he was already miles ahead of us. John proved to be a very stabilizing force in Four Neat Guys, both in terms of musical aptitude and temperament. He was, and remains, a helluva good guy, and one that I am proud to call my friend. And of course, he became the critical third leg in the tripod at the center of Linda Heck and The Train Wreck, but this would have to wait a few months, until Linda returned to Memphis from the East Coast and I returned from a very trying first experience in Japan.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Scenes from London life

City east over Finsbury Circus to Canary Wharf

Kings of the Western Bop (1983 - 84)

Kings of the Western Bop flier scan
(Left to right: Dan Hopper, Ross Johnson, James Enck, Linda Heck)

I first met Dan Hopper sometime towards the end of my high school days, almost certainly late 1980 or early 1981. I was working at the puke-a-delic Steak and Ale on Poplar, with Jeff Green of later Grundies fame, and a guy named Mike Lowe, who went to Ridgeway High School and was a close friend of Dan's. In one of the frequent after-work parking lot parties that happened among the largely reprobate S&A employees, Dan turned up. I recognized him instantly from a year or two earlier, when I had gone to the Evergreen Theater, which was being run by my schoolmate Harmon Canon's family and used to show some great films, to see Rock and Roll High School featuring The Ramones. I had stepped into the men's room to find a considerably less lithe version of Joey Ramone standing at the urinals, chanting "Gabba Gabba Hey" and some other assorted Ramonespeak nonsense. This was Dan.

How all the pieces fall together, I'm not sure, but at some point in the early-ish phases of Pseudobop, Linda and Dan got together. They moved into a strange little shack in Binghampton, nicknamed Green Acres, for obvious reasons. This tiny house had apparently been rotated 90 degrees on its foundation at some point, and was in a bit of a state. Their landlord, the talented lunatic photographer Ronnie Goff, had the unique distinction of being both the only person I have ever met who actually looked like the Big Boy, as well as the only American I have ever met who proudly proclaimed that he was 100% pure Irish (I never dared mention Phil Lynott to him). All very strange.

I liked Dan, and if Linda liked him too, that was even better. He had a knowledge of retro pop culture and roots music which was very enlightening, possibly the product of having a couple of much older siblings, and he was very funny, most of the time. At the time I guess I felt that I was growing a bit exasperated with some of the knowing cleverness and iconoclasm of the "New Wave" scene, and desired a return to some sort of simpler, more honest, less self-conscious music, and that's probably where Dan's knowledge coincided with my curiosity.

He also knew a lot of interesting people. Through him I met Roy Barnes, whom I still consider to be one of the funniest people I have ever met, and who back in those days had a wide range of film ideas in various stages of development, including the (as far as I know) still unrealized "Car Trek," in which Dan in his Galaxy 500 boldly went where no man had gone before, to encounter hostile gay men on rollerskates in Overton Park, among other terrestrial menaces. Roy would later direct the music video for Linda Heck's "Professor of Love," which I wish I had a copy of, as well as a film called "Doom House," for which I wrote a largely unused soundtrack, recorded with Jack Adcock, Fields Trimble and Bob Fordyce. There was also his film "Gone Down South" featuring the Hellcats, to which I also contributed a horrible heavy metal caricature song which the sleazy A&R man plays for the Hellcats.

Incidentally, there is one remarkable bit of trivia in my life relating to Dan, Linda and Roy, which continues to illustrate, at least to me, the interconnectedness of human beings and the unlikely serendipity we can still encounter even on a planet of 6.8 billion souls. Soon after I arrived in Yamanashi, Japan in 1988 on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program, I found myself on a train with a number of other program participants, including a project member who had arrived the year before. His name was Jaime Cortez, and he was from California. We started talking, and I asked him where he was from. "Watsonville, California," he said. I replied, quite casually, "Do you happen to know a guy named Grady, who once ran for mayor?" I knew this bit of Watsonville trivia by virtue of having previously met Grady, who was a friend of Roy Barnes, during his earlier sabbatical in Memphis. To my eternal surprise and delight, Jaime responded, "Grady Miller, he was my best friend in high school!" We were both stunned. "Where are you from again?" Jaime enquired. Memphis. "Roy Barnes, of course I know Roy," Jaime continued, "And the musicians, Linda and Dan, do you know them? I remember they came to visit once."

Back to 1983. Dan was singing in a group with guitarist Tommy Diana (can anyone remember the name?), but at some point we started messing around with rockabilly and blues material, with me on guitar, Dan on vocals, and Linda on bass. There is a recording, made at Mark Edwards' house, of us plus Ross Johnson on drums, Kurt Wagner on steel guitar, and Kurt's friend Chuck Book on electric guitar, playing a very lame version of "Ubangi Stomp." This lineup played a few early gigs together, but eventually the band ended up as a four-piece.

Quite how Ross Johnson ended up in the band I know not. I knew of Ross and admired his work for years before we became friends in an ethnomusicology course at MSU, where we were lucky enough to be instructed by Dr. David Evans, a curious man of huge intellect and boundless enthusiasm for his subject area, but who was also apparently painfully shy and ill-at-ease with his role, and seemed to almost cower behind his desk when lecturing. The course was awesome (I seem to recall that Stax historian Rob Bowman was in the same class), however, and getting to know Ross was a further bonus.

Kings of the Western Bop was a name chosen by Dan, and was a slight bastardization of a title bestowed upon Elvis in a billing early in his career. Our repertoire consisted entirely of rockabilly/blues/60s garage covers, ranging from the relatively mainstream ("Come on Everybody," "Scratch My Back," "Twenty Flight Rock," "The Way I Walk") to the unusual ("Tongue-tied Jill," "If You Ever Get it Once," and a major-key straight-ahead country version of the Spider Man theme) and the downright unpleasant (our versions of "A Blind Man's Penis" and "Beaver Patrol," which frequently closed our sets). We played a number of times with Pseudobop, Four Neat Guys, Panther Burns, and once or twice opening for out-of-town rockabilly purist bands who were probably pretty appalled at what they saw/heard. The venue was usually our beloved Antenna, but there were also a couple of gigs which took place on Highland in the old movie theater, and I also vaguely remember a pretty embarrassing gig at legendary all-night bar The Toast. We also entered a local "Battle of the Bands" competition at the Cook Convention Center, which was really very much like something out of "School of Rock." Lisa McGaughran, a judge, bravely voted for us, but we lost out to a throng of hairmetal bands, proving that democracy in Memphis was still safe.

The band was generally pretty solid, if occasionally erratic, but Dan's vocals tended to verge on the painful - a fact not lost on him, to his credit. His in-between-song banter frequently included the phrase, "Another tuneless racket." Other typical pronouncements included "Some people like to hang glide, some people like to skydive, but we like to get drunk and drive reeeeeaal fast!" Fueled by seemingly unlimited unfiltered Lucky Strikes and the incomparable Schaefer beer served at the Antenna, Dan stalked the stage like a man desperately in search of his car keys, and usually treated us at least once per performance to a death-defying forward roll across the stage or dancefloor. It was like being in a musical cartoon.

At this great distance, I can't remember precisely what precipitated my departure from the band, but I suspect it was a combination of fatigue with some of the more chaotic and opaque aspects of life on Planet Dan, the difficult nature of his relationship with Linda, and, I also believe, the unfortunate disappearance of a beautiful Gretsch guitar Linda had which was mysteriously pawned and then vanished into the vortex of lost instruments, which I remember at the time really pissed me off. The band continued on with John Floyd on guitar, and I think Bobby Saucier on drums, but by this time I was out of the pan and into the fire of life with Four Neat Guys. Linda and Dan later moved to Virginia when Dan joined the Navy as a cook onboard a destroyer, if I recall correctly - fortunately, no international conflicts on the high seas arose as a result.

It was his time at sea and Linda's time of isolation in a strange place which seemingly prompted her to begin to write songs, and she returned to Memphis with a very respectable songbook and even a tape of home demos when I next connected with the two of them upon my return from my first stint in Japan in the summer of 1986. These became the early repertoire of Linda Heck and the Train Wreck, but that is another story.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Scenes from London life

Another surreal South London greasy spoon name

Pseudobop (1982 - 84)

This is a rather unfortunate photo of me from 1983, featured on a flier for a gig which I now notice happened to coincide with my 21st birthday. It makes a nice counterpoint to a photo my parents have of me as a smiling four year-old (I think), in the living room in Arlington, Texas, clutching a plastic toy guitar the wrong way round (i.e., strumming the neck left-handed and holding the body with my right hand) and behind me a magazine rack and toy Texaco gas pump, which were, of course, my amplifiers. Even at this young age, I had somehow picked up on the idea of standing on a stage with an electric guitar and performing, thanks to the ubiquity of the Beatles at the time.

Well, it was a long road to actually realizing my toddler fantasy. My dad always had a couple of acoustic guitars around the house, which he would play from time to time, singing songs by Merle Haggard or some other country legend, in a really nice voice, which I now realize was very similar to my own. When I was about 12, I started noodling around on one of them, and he was kind enough to share a chord chart book he had, so that I could learn the basic chords. I don't remember making much progress until I was 14, because the first memory I have of being able to play anything at all was ironically on the day Elvis died, when I happened to be in my bedroom, strumming along with "The Sun Sessions" and feeling quite satisfied that I actually understood what was happening. During this time I was mostly listening to Jimi Hendrix Band of Gypsies, The Who Live at Leeds, and other music featuring "unattainable guitar virtuosity," but with Sun-era Elvis it all made sense, and I moved forward from there.

My musical ambitions, however, remained trapped in the bedroom for years afterward, save for a handful of episodes in high school when I ended up jamming with a few people I knew, but my amp was so crap that no one could really hear what I was playing. And so it might have remained if not for a chance encounter with the Memphis underground scene on a Saturday night sometime in the spring of 1979. As a high school sophomore recently licensed to drive, I was beginning to explore the cliched all-American dream of dating in cars, on a group date with some school friends. For some unknown reason which I have yet to understand, we ended up in a picnic pavilion on the wooded west side of Audubon Park, where a band was due to play.

The band in question turned out to be The Randy Band - Tommy Hull, Randy Chertow, Ricky Branyan and Buzz Waddy in full flight. I thought it was the best thing I had ever seen - mind you, I hadn't seen that much at that point in life, but they were fantastic, powerful. I think what appealed to me was the energy and simplicity of the playing, and obviously the quality of the songwriting and Tommy Hull's incomparable voice. Perhaps unconsciously I thought to myself, "I can do something like this." Anyway, the date was a huge disappointment apart from the music, and I moved on, though the memory stuck with me.

Later that year, my 11th grade classmate Gretchen Gassner and I ventured out one Saturday night to a performance by a band which her sister Amy's boyfriend was fronting, at a venue called The House of Cannon, which was apparently a recording studio (country mostly, I think) in what appeared to be a converted church somewhere near McNeil and Monroe between Union and Madison, if I recall correctly. The band was, of course, Panther Burns, which consisted of Tav Falco, Alex Chilton (who sat on the floor throughout and mainly played feedback guitar), the immediately lovable Ross Johnson, Ron Miller on upright bass, and an unknown (to me) performer in a zippered leather bondage hood on a tiny and nasty-sounding synthesizer (apparently, this may well have been Jim Dickinson), and the performance played out against a projection of a curious mixture of footage of Japanese army atrocities in Manchuria and a film of a young couple getting it on (tastefully) in a car in a junkyard. Many years later, when hanging out with Tav, I mentioned that the first time I had seen Panther Burns was at this gig, and I alluded to a porn film having been screened. He was deeply offended, countering that the piece, which it turned out was his own film, was art, not porn. I stood corrected.

Around this same time, I made friends with Mark Edwards, now a film-maker based in Virginia, who was also on the school newspaper staff at Central High School. My recollection is that he was pretending to be a staff photographer while I was pretending to be a staff reporter, but then again everyone has to pretend to be someone in high school, because the alternatives seem so terrifying at the time. Mark was a year ahead of me, but when we both later ended up at Memphis State University, we inevitably got together and tried to make some music. We both had Rickenbackers (I had a black 330), and we both had similar tastes in music at the time. So pretty much every weekend I can recall from fall 1981 through to spring 1982, we would meet up, usually on a Sunday, and usually at his house, to play, and make recordings on his reel-to-reel 4-track machine. These sessions were frequently fruitful, but on many occasions ended prematurely in favor of a pub crawl (Mark was a bartender and knew many other Midtown bartenders, resulting in some curious Enron accounting when the time came to pay the tab), with me typically winding up much the worse for wear. Some of the recordings which came out of this period were genuinely interesting, though none of them really suggested what the band would eventually sound like. We had one song called "Deb Party" which actually got airplay twice, as I recall, once on my father's radio show at MSU, where we were interviewed, and once on Candy Cox's show at the old WEVL.

As I recall it, Mark was at the time dating an alumnus of Saint Agnes, a girls' school very near my family home in East Memphis, and at some point in the spring of 1982, he attended a party with some of her former classmates, one of whom was named Linda Scheid, now better known as Linda Heck. Linda had recently pitched up back in Memphis after an apparently abortive stint at a university in Florida, and she and Mark had struck up a conversation at the party and agreed that she should come around and play/sing some of her songs. I initially found her to be somewhat intimidating, though this probably says a lot more about how uptight I was at the time than anything else. Her look was very eclectic and cool, and then, as now, she seemed to have produced a lot of her own accessories, and carried a notebook for writing and drawing. She had a fairly severe hairstyle at the time, cropped very short on top, was very articulate and funny, and swore a lot, which was refreshing. Linda came to Mark's house on one of those Sundays, and we messed around with some music, none of which I can remember apart from a song of hers which she played and sang for us, called "This is a Room." Somewhere deep in my archives (I hope) there is a recording Mark made of her/us performing that song that afternoon. So, having nailed our first song and agreed to try to get something going, we got on with the important business of heading over for drinks at Fantasia (one of our favorite haunts of the time), where a rapport was struck.

In the weeks that followed, we worked up a few more songs, with just the two guitars, Linda's vocals and a very primitive drum machine. Our first, terrifying, gig was at an engagement party for a couple of our friends, held at Stacy Cook's parents' house in the summer of 1982, and we played by the swimming pool, where the fully-formed version of the band would later shoot a "music video" directed by Andy Hyrka, which I don't believe I ever saw. The gig went well, though I seem to recall we had to play our set twice because of a lack of material, even with a few dodgy covers to pad things out (The Byrds' "Rock and Roll Star" being one). By this time I had a Fender Super Reverb, a delay pedal, and a hideous, gigantic multi-special effects box which I had bought from Alan Hayes at Strings-n-Things. It was about three feet wide, and had large rectangular color-coded buttons for the different settings. In short, it was something out of a nightmare featuring Rick Wakeman. It contained a really foul phase-shifter, distortion, something like a low-budget ring modulator which sounded awful, a sub-octave button (which I later used to pose as the bass part on the 1984 Panther Burns recording of "Cuban Rebel Girl" made live in an intentionally empty Antenna Club with Tav, Ross, Mark Harrison and Jim Spake), and some other button which created an effect much like a guitar played through a CB radio being sucked through a vacuum cleaner hose. I didn't use that setting very much.

Emboldened by our early success, in other words having survived the gig without being thrown in the pool and electrocuted, we set about getting a real band up. Mark started dating a girl from Kansas City who had moved to Memphis to live with her brother. Her name was Laura Miller, she was beautiful, she played bass and had a couple of songs. Around the same time I somehow came back into contact with Kurt Ruleman, drummer extraodinaire, who was friends with some guys I had worked with at the Steak and Ale restaurant back in high school (one of whom was Jeff Green, later of The Grundies). We got him to join, and presto, we had a band - almost. A friend of Linda's somehow brought us into contact with Jones Rutledge, a student at Southwestern, musical omnivore, and keyboard player. I remember his first rehearsal with us, wherein he set up his synthesizer facing the wall, played at an inaudible level, and pretty much avoided eye contact. He didn't say much, but when he did, it was usually either very insightful, or funny, or both. And it was Jones who came up with the name for the group, which we chose out of a long shortlist of candidates.

Over the years Jones remained a musical inspiration and conspirator to many of the other projects I was involved in, as well as a musical arms merchant of sorts. Jones always had an arsenal of unlikely instruments, effects and other equipment in the trunk of his car. Once, during the recording of what I refer to as "The Lost Linda Heck Album" at Easley Recording in 1991 or thereabouts, we were about to cut a very raucous version of "'Tis the Season" and I said something to the effect of "I wish I had an e-bow to play on this." It was a silly comment in a sense, because I had never even seen an e-bow in person. Jones, who was in the control room, said, "Hang on, I think I have one in the car." And sure enough he did.

The first Pseudobop gig was at the Antenna Club on a Sunday night, opening for The Modifiers. I was scared shitless, and pretty much stood my ground and stared at my fretboard and feet. Mark, on the other hand, ventured into the sparse audience at one point, but then again, he had a much longer guitar chord than I did. We survived, and the audience, mostly friendlies, seemed to enjoy it. However, we were totally outclassed by The Modifiers. I could be getting confused about shows, but I think Milford Thompson made his entrance either being carried in a coffin, or appearing inside an old TV set which had been placed at the front of the stage, sticking his head in through a hole cut in the back of the set. This was true rock and roll.

A number of shows followed, mostly at The Antenna, but a few at other venues, including an opening spot with Jason and the Scorchers at Southwestern. It felt cool to be in a band at last, even one as tenuous as Pseudobop felt at times. I recall driving down Union Avenue on the day of a gig once, and hearing Rob Halford of Judas Priest (of all people) read out our name on the radio as he was doing a special celebrity guest edition of the Rock 103 club listings during an interview with the legendary Red Beard. That was a surreal moment. I remember we briefly even had someone who claimed to be our manager, named Alvin, whom we ditched after we ended up being double-booked. Like most bands at/of that age, we believed we needed to play the game as it was then defined, and invest in making a studio recording and getting some vinyl pressed, an extortionate business in 1983. I remember we went to visit the old American Studios on Thomas at Chelsea, which at that time was being run by Bill Glore. It was both amazing and phenomenally depressing. To stand in that room, which had incredible acoustics and had produced so many great recordings, was truly humbling. And there was a separate Elvis room, which I also recall was pretty special. But the studio franchise was in free fall. Despite the impressive legacy, it didn't appear that any investment had gone on for a long time. As I recall, he was still running an 8-track machine - hell, we made pretty decent sounding recordings on a 4-track, for free. We enquired with Bill about costs of recording there, and asked him about his availability. He played us a recent recording he had made for some God-awful crotch-rock band out of West Memphis, and also expressed a lot of enthusiasm for a child gospel singer he had been working with, who was apparently terribly deformed at birth and had to push himself around on some sort of makeshift quasi-skateboard thing. Besides a couple of sessions with this poor creature, he didn't really seem to have much else in his diary. Ultimately, the cost involved was more than we could bear, and I left feeling pretty dismayed and depressed by the whole experience. It seemed to say a lot about Memphis' attitude to its prodigious musical legacy at that point in time. American was eventually torn down and replaced by an AutoZone, standard-bearer for the new Memphis economy.

The original lineup didn't last all that long, though in my dotage I can't come up with any precise dates. Laura decided that she liked Kurt more than Mark, which led to some considerable tension in the group, and we found ourselves without a rhythm section. Richard Young, who had played percussion with us occasionally, played bass for a time, as did Sean Kerr, and we auditioned a long list of drummers, including the lovely Bob "Slyce" Fordyce, of Odd Jobs, Shagnasty, Grundies and Eldritch Ersatz fame, who is still a trusted friend and painter in NYC. We finally settled on Tony Pantuso, whom I recall seemed to like wearing a pith helmet in performance. I also recall making a recording with Kurt on drums and Sean Kerr on bass, so I guess Kurt must have come back at some point. Whatever, our momentum seemed to wane over time. Meanwhile Linda had moved in with Dan Hopper, and I had started playing with them and Ross Johnson in The Kings of the Western Bop trashabilly/shitrock outfit (a chapter on which will follow in due course). Mark ended up deciding to move out to Berkeley, and I think we played our farewell gig at The Antenna sometime in mid-1984, by which time I was also playing with Four Neat Guys (alas, another chapter). Kurt didn't make it to the last gig (I think he was working nights and had fallen asleep at home), so I played drums, and it was an uncharacteristically chaotic final set, of which I have a recording somewhere.

It's difficult to say what we actually sounded like, as our hodgepodge collection of original songs covered a wide range of pseudo-genres, which I guess was more or less in keeping with our diverse backgrounds and the vague No Wave ethos which seemed so prevalent at the time. There is recorded evidence in the form of a handful of 4-track recordings, one song cut at Memphis State's recording studio (which really put me off the anal retentive, over-engineered approach to recording - which I think anyone who has ever heard the Linda Heck and the Train Wreck 4-track stuff would concur with), and some live tapes. Some of it I like, some of it makes me cringe, but we were learning, meeting people, forging friendships and connections, and taking the next step towards whatever lay ahead. I enjoyed almost all of it.