Saturday, 26 September 2009

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.


rivercityliver said...

Great hearing this bit of Memphis history. I'm trying to remember how I met Linda and Dan, but it was definitely when they were living in Ronnie's back house.

Linda Heck said...

Chuck Book.

And OHMIGOD, THE TOAST! (On Evergreen before it was torn down, now a parking lot behind India Palace...)

I met Dan at a UK Subs show at The Antenna in dec. 1982. It was prolly sometime that spring that we set up at Green Acres. Lots of sketchiness. Awfulness. Craziness. I felt like shit most of the time. Did not hide it well.

And RAWSE. The grown-up.

James Enck said...

I thought The Toast burned down?

red herring said...

Ask Dan or Roy about the porno mag that had Ronnie g all over it. Red herring, kin to Claude hopper.