Monday, 28 September 2009

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.


Linda Heck said...

"Coulda been" a rock star? You mean, you're NOT? I am totally screwed, since I am working your moves. (Which has not gone unnoticed.)

FYI: I have recently Indian-named John "Vesuvius Parakeet Shoehorn" (coincidence that each of these words contains 8 letters? Note to self to investigate numerological possibilities...) He played the most beautiful off-the-cuff version of "Look Out For Love" at the gig the other night- an encore request made by Bob Elbrecht- on the Silvertone... along with Spake and I think Kurt stayed with the drums. An amazing feeling, which can only be described as, Is That Really My Song? (Because I still remember the on-the-vergeness of the attempt I made to nail down this idea in my head; and the near-channeling of it's release; that I couldn't even play it. Wow!)
Harris made a recording of the show, which is stuck for the time in digital limbo, awaiting release by some busted-interface-device-whammy which I don't fully understand, but trust will someday be resolved.

Linda Heck said...

Finally remembered the name (although uncertain of the spelling) of the other Cock Rock ring-leader: Adam Sader! And (coming out!) YES, I was at every show because I found him to be Way and Compellingly Crushable. I also loved everything about the Cock Rock experience, even though I may have reported "sucks". (Was I fronting? Prolly.)

James Enck said...

Sorry Linda, my bad syntax confused you. You told me that Four Neat Guys sucked, not Cock Rock. I will change the text to make it clearer. And good recall on Adam, but was it Sater or Sader? Or Satyr?