Friday, 25 September 2009

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.


Mark said...

I think the man in the facebag was Jim Dickinson, believe it or not. --Mark

James Enck said...

I had wondered about that.

Linda Heck said...

HOLY SHIT! (I still swear a lot. Not apologizing.)

The now demolished church containing that Panther Burns gig was on Monroe between Avalon and Willet- right around the block from the (probably then the Well?) Antenna, across from the apartment building behind Murphy's.

I recall you using the scary setting you claim rejecting on that heinous synth-effect thingey with great frequency, not to mention outright RELISH. THANK YOU, Alan Hayes! (Perception is a curious thing, and I love that the same event exists differently in different people; so even though this is Your Blog, in My Book, we are Both Right.)

And ALVIN, Wearer of the Clogs. Double-you Tee EFFFF?!

The band name selection process was multi-phased, seems like there were several ballots in order to create a distilled short list; and mainly authored by me (although I might be misremembering)... a convoluted attempt at encompassing fairness and randomness (which I now recognize as a hallmark of my approach, which was probably informed even at that time by what I thought I knew about Marcel Duchamp and who knows who or what else. Aside from Fantasia happy hour- what a great place! Sunday afternoon bartender Matthew Smith made a lot of "mistakes" that we were happy to drink.) This process resulted in a name that was absolutely no one's first choice! And I am pretty sure that Jones had suggested it, along with many other possibilities.
The Memphis State recording was "Oh No". It did come out sounding all Missing Persony- which is not what we sounded like- was it? Was it lyrics by Laura, music by Mark?
And I can hear "This Is a Room" right now... I remember having to go out in the hall with Mark's father Larry's scary paintings and sing- was I too shy to be in the room?
I clearly need my own blog! We could have dueling blogs. You have a memory for names and events, I have a memory for location and songs...
Thank you! I loved it. We are all Such Incredibly Fascinating Individuals.

laura jean said...

This blog post has kind of blown my mind. It's entirely possible that y'all opened for the Modifiers the first time I went the Antenna.