Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Linda Heck and The Train Wreck (1986 - 88, 1990 - 93)

On January 29, 1986, I awoke for the first time in the foreign students' dormitory at the Kansai University of Foreign Languages, otherwise known as Kansai Gaidai, where I had enrolled for post-graduate Japanese language study, including the opportunity to live with a host family. Wandering into the day room, I found a large number of new arrivals and veteran students watching TV and trying to absorb the news of the Challenger Disaster. My first experience of Japan would both begin and end with incomprehensible, senseless loss.

A few days later, I met my host family, the Okutani's, who lived in Uji City, South Kyoto, roughly one hour's commute from campus. Hideo and Ryoko, the parents, were in their mid-40s, and their only child, Eiji, was 15. Hideo came from a large extended family in Kyoto and drove a cab at night, in his brother-in-law's taxi firm. Ryoko was a housewife descended from the landed gentry near Hiroshima, and in the eyes of the world (to the extent that it was interested), had almost certainly traded down the class ladder a couple of rungs, but clearly true love lay behind this choice. Shortly after I arrived, she had applied and been accepted to an evening degree program at a local university - a fairly unconventional thing for a middle-aged Japanese housewife to do in 1986. Eiji was pretty much a typical Japanese teenage boy - not particularly communicative, prone to oversleeping, very concerned with his appearance - but a sweet kid. They were a lovely family, and looked after me very well, taking me various places at the weekend and making an effort to speak to me in standard Japanese, as opposed to the mix of Kyoto and Hiroshima dialect they spoke to one another, which was pretty much incomprehensible to me when I first arrived.

In the spring, Ryoko started her evening classes, and as Hideo was driving his cab at night, Eiji and I were left to our own devices in the evenings. The first couple of nights we sat together and ate the dinner kindly prepared and left for us, and I understood that this was an opportunity to bond with him in a way which the dynamic of the home hadn't necessarily required or allowed before. I was pleased about this, because I felt that in the three or so months I had been there, I had so far been remiss. After a couple of nights as a duo, I was invited across the street to a neighbor's house for dinner, and to watch videos of their recent trip to Europe. Eiji was going out for a while to meet up with a friend. Unfortunately, this was a slightly older kid who had dropped out of school, gotten a job, and bought a powerful motorbike. A few hours later Eiji was dead, having broken his neck after losing control of his friend's bike and hitting a parked car.

In the interval between hearing this news of his injury (as it was first relayed) and his parents' arrival back at the home, I went out for a walk around the neighborhood to try to process this. Given that it was late at night, there was no one from the university whom I could call for advice. As I walked, I stumbled upon what I knew to be the site of the crash - broken glass, blood, a motorbike rider's glove. I knew he was dead. They returned later, thoroughly distraught, and the extended family began to arrive. To my surprise and distress, Eiji's body was brought back from the hospital and placed in the living room, where we all sat and cried into the morning. I went to school the next day to see what advice they had for me, but apparently this had never happened to a student before, and the Japanese staff in the office seemed to have no advice on funeral etiquette, which I found surprising and deeply disappointing. I returned home to find that a wooden altar had been assembled over Eiji's body, and this became the focus of attention in the days leading up to the funeral.

The school staff did at least manage to visit and to communicate to the family (who seemed unduly worried about how I was feeling) that I didn't wish to be a burden or source of stress during this terrible time, and I moved out for a few days during the preparations for the funeral. On the day, I, along with Sarah, the previous student lodger in the home, attended the funeral, which was open-casket at the front of the family home. Eiji's school friends filed past, in floods of bitter tears. Sarah and I were asked to accompany the family to the crematorium for the Buddhist cremation ritual, though, heart-breakingly Hideo and Ryoko could not attend, because, as it was explained to me later, the sect they belonged to had a prohibition against parents attending the cremation of an only child. We, and the family members in attendance, were ushered into a room where we were confronted with his bones and ashes, which we then took in turns to transfer to an urn. Obviously Sarah and I were totally unprepared for all of what we experienced, and found it very traumatic, but also felt deeply touched that the family had seen fit to include us in such a personal and intimate experience. I shall certainly never forget it, nor would I want to, painful as it still is.

Anyway, I moved back in, upon Hideo and Ryoko's clarification that they were genuinely happy to have me, and for a few months I carried on with the motions of going to classes, returning home in the evening to spend time with Ryoko, whom I had from the start been encouraged to call "Okaasan" (mother), though this seemed inappropriate now. I was running out of money and felt pretty beaten by the whole experience. I decided that I wouldn't look to get into part-time English tutoring, as did so many of my classmates, and would not renew for another semester. In retrospect, I think this was probably a mistake, but there was some subtle pressure coming from the extended family to stay on, find a nice Japanese girl to marry, settle down and become part of the family, which I viewed as natural in the circumstances, but not in anyone's best interest longer term. And I also felt like I needed to be back around my own family, and to try to make some sense of all this. So, back to Memphis I went, in the summer of 1986.

I arrived home to find the girlfriend I had left behind had moved on, and felt pretty much adrift and in need of something positive to pour my energies into. As it happens, around the same time, Linda Scheid had returned to Memphis with Dan Hopper after his Naval experience in Virginia. We got back in touch, and she revealed that she had written a lot of songs, and had produced a demo cassette of her playing guitar and singing her material, which I think was called "Comin' At Ya" and featured on the cover a cartoon self-portrait, though the "self" had a new name - Linda Heck. As I recall her explanation, the new surname was a sort of Southern trash tongue-in-cheek play on Richard Hell, which still makes me giggle to this day. We called in John McClure, with whom I had played in Four Neat Guys, and we were away. Precisely when we came up with the Train Wreck name for the band, or who thought of it, I don't recall, but it seemed to make sense as we were the result of several collisions of fate, and also because we individually had so many different influences.

We ended up recording three early demos with our first drummer, Harris Scheuner (also from Four Neat Guys), in his bedroom at his aunt's house in Midtown. We had a fairly poor borrowed 4-track cassette machine, which we only had for one day, so we worked quickly, cutting three pretty basic tracks: "So Long" (a fast country song which featured in early Linda Heck and The Train Wreck shows), "Doo Doot Doo" (an upbeat, poppy song which had a longer shelf-life), and "Too Bad" (a vaguely bluesy/rockabilly song with vocal harmonies). These are fairly noisy recordings (in the signal-to-noise ratio sense of the word), but listening to them now, I'm frankly pretty surprised that we had done three passable songs in a few hours with a poor set of tools and minimal preparation. "Doo Doot Doo" was entered into some sort of local demo contest, but generated no interest that we could detect.

Our first show was at the first-ever Hell On Earth at the old Bluff City Body Shop on Marshall near downtown Memphis (around the corner from both Sun Studios and Phillips Recording), an event which, I am told, continues every Halloween to this day in one guise or another, still curated by its founder Misty White. At that point in time, The Bluff City Body Shop was actually a working body shop, which Misty had managed to hire for the event. I clearly remember an almost overwhelming fug of auto paint and industrial solvent fumes, which seemed to drive many of the revelers outside during much of the event. There was also apparently some dispute between the owner of the P.A. system, John Paul Reiger, and Tav Falco, who was headlining, and this resulted in no P.A. or sound engineer materializing. We had to scramble quickly to find some solution, and ended up piecing together a few mics from the Four Neat Guys' rehearsal set-up, and used a bass amp for the vocals, which was terrible.

All in all, it was truly hell on earth - the room was hot, toxic fumes abounded, and the sound was diabolical. Things would improve in future iterations, as was also the case with the first Linda Heck and The Train Wreck set. I think Harris may have been a bit over-exuberant, because our set was played at break-neck tempos throughout. Linda seemed very annoyed with the whole situation, but we got through it and people seemed to enjoy it. I don't remember how or when we subsequently came to the conclusion that we needed a different drummer, but that was the view, which was hard to deliver because Harris was such a good guy. Obviously this decision triggered some sort of long-term karmic retribution, because throughout its life LHTW struggled more with drummer continuity than any other band, perhaps apart from Spinal Tap.

By the winter of 1986, I had bought my own 4-track cassette machine, and John, Linda and I spent some time working on new demos, with the vocals, rhythm guitar and bass recorded mostly in Linda and Dan's freezing apartment in the Cooper-Young neighborhood, where their feeble and senile downstairs neighbor would hallucinate wild parties happening upstairs, and was known on more than one occasion to appear at her cracked-open door with a small pistol in her trembling, bony hand. Having had a 22 pistol pointed at me in Overton Park a few years earlier, I was unenthusiastic about repeating the experience, particularly with a hallucinating old woman on the other end of the barrel, and I always felt decidedly nervous about coming and going in that old building. Anyway, with the basic stuff recorded, I would head back to my parents' house in East Memphis, where I would add drums, using my brother's drum kit, electric guitar, backing vocals, and whatever else seemed right. There were four songs which made it through this process to something like finished material: "Coming Up Roses" (which I always liked for its suspenseful stops and empty spaces), "No More Tears," "Carnival of Souls" and "Tired of All This Crying," all of which were features of early LHTW shows.

We played with a number of drummers during this period, including Jones Rutledge, Brenda Brewer, Ross Johnson, Jim Duckworth, and a few others we auditioned but never performed with. On one occasion, with no other alternative, I drummed at a show at The Antenna, leaving Linda strumming away on her electrified acoustic Silvertone, which sounded very strange on its own. A power trio we were probably not destined to be.

Linda and Dan moved to a house next to the Exxon on Madison at Belvedere, a property owned by Prince Mongo, whom I had first seen on TV shortly after moving to Memphis in 1974, in a news report about his eccentricities, during which he was lowered in a casket into a grave in his front yard. Many years later, he would attempt to return to Zambodia in a hot air balloon, but ended up having to make an emergency landing at Southwestern University, so I recall. Anyway, I saw him a number of times coming by to collect the rent during that period, and he was much more subdued than his public persona, though he did, in fact, address everyone as "spirit." John McClure ended up moving into the apartment across the hall, and we had ourselves a rehearsal space and recording studio.

We recorded two batches of songs during this period, in this house. The first eight were done in Linda and Dan's living room, and mostly used the same approach as previously - vocals, rhythm guitar and bass first, with me adding drums and other stuff back at home. However, on a couple of songs we were joined by Jones Rutledge, who stood on the long wooden staircase outside and played a piece of ceiling tile with a coat hanger, stamping his feet along, in place of drums. The first of these, "Can't Change Me," was always one of my favorites, and remained a fixture of shows later on, albeit with a "Paranoid" intro cheekily inserted by John and me. The demo version has me singing harmony below Linda throughout, which I like and should have tried more of through the years. Another song featuring Jones on lead staircase stamping, was "Look Away," one of Linda's early songs which we sometimes opened with. There was another song called "PTL (Pass the Loot)," a rare topical song by Linda and a swipe at Jim and Tammy Bakker. It's a song that got ditched later in live shows, but the recorded version has an "old time" gospel two-step break in the middle with hand claps, which may explain why we couldn't really do it justice in a live setting. "Ooh, That Girl" was written about someone who was annoying Linda at the time, and features John on some really over-the-top fuzz bass, some "La Grange"-style "haw, haw, haw" from Linda and some backwards guitar from me. "Skinny Little Thread" is one I always was proud of as a recording, because it seems perfect in spite of the primitive circumstances under which it was created. The vocal is recorded close and dry, and Linda really sings this one with understated conviction. It is a fine song. "Not Saved" was another early song which we never really got to grips with, as far as I can recall, though it is also a fine song. "It's True" is another beautiful country-tinged song with an undercurrent of unhappiness, on which I play a wooden box with some mallets constructed from segments of coat hangers wrapped in masking tape, in an attempt at an effect I think I heard on an NRBQ record around that time. Sadly, the vocals were recorded with too much reverb, which cast Linda down a deep aural well, never to return. The same is true of the country song "That Same Instant," featuring the same wooden box played with sticks, but redeemed by some fine guitar playing by John.

Around this time, uber-multi-instrumentalist Roy Brewer, who was living with his wife Brenda in Binghampton, had discovered a neighborhood bar which was open to having bands. I had passed it many times driving down Broad Street, but it was not the kind of place I would have ever considered going into, because it had all the outward signs of being a place where you could get open heart surgery at no charge. It had a sign featuring a guitar and a frothing mug of draft beer (which inspired Linda's later song, "Beer and Guitars") and was called Fred's Hideout, but it is better known to local hipsters today as The Cove. In 1987, it was not the kind of place I would have ever considered eating an oyster, if any had been on hand.

Alas, no oysters in 1987, only a small group of neighborhood folk who came in to drink too much at inappropriate times of day, and who were so starved of entertainment that they were willing to let a bunch of youngsters invade their home patch on Friday and Saturday nights in the hope of some break from drunken monotony. The proprietor was a likable chap named Bob Lightsey, who during the all-too-short reign of Fred's Hideout in the musical firmament, used to hold Sunday fish fries, and the like, for his new friends and the old regulars, who all mixed peacefully despite my early trepidations. He would also have the occasional after-hours lock-in, and on one occasion encouraged me to "Stay and git drunk if ya ain't got too far to drive." I passed, but this phrase persisted in the band for years. Fred's Hideout hosted shows by LHTW, The Odd Jobs, Marilyn and the Monroes, Harris and the Hepsters, The Brewers, and a lot of other bands (please help me remember them), and was a genuinely welcoming, friendly room to play in, with a tiny stage lined with mirrors behind, which always led me to suspect that some exotic dancing had taken place there at some point in the distant past. Again, as with many of the key turning points in the history of these bands, I can't recall how Roy Brewer came to be our drummer, but he did, and for once we had some continuity and sounded pretty good.

This lineup appeared on Andy Hyrka's local access cable TV show, and I think my parents still have a VHS copy of this at their house. It was a good performance, wherein we played "Look Out For Love" and "My Crying is Done," a stalwart of LHTW shows which we never recorded, apart from years later in the context of Hot Joe. This group also made a handful of recordings, in John's apartment, which by this time was set up as a primitive recording studio. "Desperate Man" was a straightahead rock song about a nine-fingered man Linda had known, and features John on some very wild distorted psychedelic guitar. "Eggziztence" was another favorite of the time, which live could turn into quite an angry workout, but recorded is a bit more tame. Fantastic lyrics, and a decent recording considering I was recording everything live in one room with no sissy baffling or other such trickery. "Off My Mind" always reminded me of a Jerry Lee Lewis song, so I put some minimal piano on it, and though it suffers from some guitar tuning issues, it has some nice three part vocal harmonies. "Lonely As Me" was another one of those rare recordings which just seemed to be perfect, and there's one moment in it that makes my hair stand on end to this day, when we all resolve together at the end of Roy's superb violin solo. "When Water Burns" became one of our barn-burners in live shows, and we later recorded it on "The Lost Album," but the Madison Avenue version features some nice harmonica by Roy, and some solid playing from everyone, slightly diminished by my stupid decision to put some chorus on Linda's voice, which is always best taken pure. There are a few other recordings sans Roy which were made around this time: "So Sorry" (a solo song inspired by a teen suicide pact in the news at the time), "Look Out For Love" (written for Amy Gassner and later a fixture of Hot Joe performances), "'Tis the Season" (a psychedelic blow-out written to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Love, a newer version of which closes "The Lost Album"), "Cool Breeze" (a nice bossa nova with John on guitar), and "Dear Diary" (a melancholy torch song which probably deserves to be revisited). All of the recordings I have discussed here lie dormant in my iTunes library, under the collective title "Lonesome Train on a Lonesome 4-Track." Perhaps some day they will be heard.

The group with Roy was as good as it had ever been, both musically and in terms of confidence. Roy had some definite opinions on presentation and the need to "sell" a performance (my words, not his), and I think we all took it on board. We were set to play a Saturday night gig at Fred's in July 1987, but Roy had become a dad, with the birth of his first daughter Eva. Ross Johnson filled in at short notice, and it was a very fun evening. I remember we did some unusual covers like "Hurdy-Gurdy Man" and also had a particularly good time with our show-closer of that era, "Serious About Rock-n-Roll." Being a dad, and having multiple other bands to play with and proper paying gigs to do, Roy stopped playing with us shortly thereafter.

Somewhere along in all this, Linda and Dan split up, and Linda moved in with Craig Shindler, Diane Green (of The Odd Jobs and the Hellcats) and Bob Fordyce (The Odd Jobs, Shagnasty, Grundies, Eldritch Ersatz) in a place just down the road from Fred's Hideout. She later was taken in by Melissa Thornton and lived with her on North Parkway, where Linda entered a new and unprecedented phase of songwriting prolificness. Only she can explain, but I observed, and what I saw was a great release and a quantum leap in confidence. There was also a geeky technical thing which i think affected her writing. Around this time, her then-boyfriend, Philip Tubb, keyboardist with the band Rin Tin Horn (along with Jack Yarber, a.k.a. Oblivian), had given her the blue Fender Mustang she still plays today, and I think John McClure's brother-in-law Don, who was a country session musician and owned a recording studio in North Mississippi (or perhaps it was John himself) had played her a guitar strung with just the high strings from a 12-string guitar. This will probably mean nothing to the non-guitarist, but it sounds different, let's leave it at that. Anyway, Linda strung her Mustang the same way, and to my ears the songs she wrote during that era sound different from everything she had written before or since.

We had all become friends and fans of K9 Arts, consisting of Jim Duckworth on guitar, Craig Shindler on bass and vocals, and Rich Trosper on drums. They were as different as they could be from us in style and approach, but a rapport was struck, and we began playing shows together, with Rich joining us on drums. New drummer, new songs, and a new sound. Rich was an amazing drummer, very intuitive, with a very sensitive grasp of dynamics, who also believed in injecting tension (true to his love of Tony Williams), but never annoying or unduly flamboyant. Refinement seemed to be his defining characteristic. He was good-humored and full of surprises. I knew that he had an undying love of prog-rock drummers, so much so that he told me he chose his little house near Memphis State on the basis of the address alone - 2112. Yet, on the few occasions when I actually visited said house, the only records I found on display were old jazz 78s, hundreds of them.

We never recorded with Rich, apart from one song ("Looking 4") at Doug Easley's backyard studio and some very good live tapes I made at the old Barristers downtown (this was the small place, not the second, larger Barristers, into which I had the pleasure of booking the first gig in 1991). The relationship between the two bands was great, and we always made a point of honoring K9 Arts by playing our version of their signature instrumental, "Tav," as a mark of respect. Linda wrote songs for each band member, two of which appear on "The Lost Album": "Laff" was written for Jim Duckworth, and "Today," which I think is one the best from that era, was written as a wish for Craig to help him through a low point. There was another song called "After Talking," written for Rich, but it was only played live a few times as part of the "K9 Trilogy" and never recorded. There are probably others that I can't remember or don't know about, which were written as messages to individuals.

I went back to Japan in August 1988, for two years. It was a tough decision to take given the apparent momentum the band had, but everyone was very supportive. I think LHTW played a few times after my departure as a three-piece, but subsequently became dormant. Upon my return, we played a few times at the second, larger Barristers, under both the LHTW name as well as "Linda Heck and the Yes Men" (thus the poster image above - the only Linda Heck one I have in my possession) either in an "unplugged" configuration, or with the fabulous drummer Keith Padgett. The story in the 1991 - 1992 period, however, was mostly about the recording of an album still unheard by far too many. The songs written during the Rich Trosper-vintage LHTW period form the core of the 21 songs found (or not found, as it were), on what I continue to refer to as "The Lost Album," recorded with Doug Easley and Davis McCain at Easley-McCain studios in 1991 and 1992. This remarkable recording deserves its own post, which I will write in due course.

I continue to be in frequent contact with Linda, and have the utmost respect and admiration for her song-writing and singing, so it thrills me to note that she is back with a vengeance. Check out 10 songs on her MySpace page, including two new tracks recorded with John McClure, and eight from "The Lost Album." She seems totally reinvigorated, transformed, and I'm supporting in any way I can from my Henchperch here in a rainy South London. It makes me smile to note that the third member of her current trio, drummer Kurt Ruleman, was the first drummer either of us ever played with in a real band. So, 23 years and umpteen drummers later, she's back at the source, in a sense. I couldn't be happier for her, and can't wait to see where the new road takes her.


Jones Rutledge said...

I'm surprised I was on as many of those demos as you said, and I always get the chronology between Linda and Dan's Madison home above Decadence Manor and the Young Ave experience switched around.

I remember bopping a piece of foamcore in the Madison stairwell, but never knew where or what kit I may have actually sat behind as a 'drummer'. I do recall that it seems like the Young residence where I was pretty much dead to the world for at least a week and I lost a week of my cognitive history, was initiated with my onstage collapse.

I think I was an ex-pat all the way in Nashville yet frequently enough in Memphis that no one knew I was gone, where I found myself the designated drummer for the Train Wreck at some Tav Loft Happening gig, which may have been about the time Linda was pulling double duty in her time or two in the HellCats. The night before the gig I contracted walking pneumonia- literally I recall the step when it hit me, outside of a Walgreens. Despite drinking copious amounts of Orange Juice in gallon sized units, I did not make it. I think I may have been on the drum throne not even a full song when I deliriously handed the drumsticks over to Tommy Diana or some such, and that was my last memory for several days. Somehow I eventually awoke on a couch I recall as being in the Young Ave apt I think I was conscious enough to take in liquids, and walk them to plumbing between total blackout periods until I recovered days later under the loving supervision of Dan and Linda with a chunk of memory gone, having totally slept through whatever truck had hit me. I may have not been that close to comatose, but for all intents and purposes, I was.

Without denigrating everyone else on the revolving stool, Roy Brewer becoming the drummer was the best thing that happened to the Train Wreck beyond the magic of lindas angel hair tuning which opened up the sonics of the arrangements forcing all of her chords into inversions, bringing clarity and harmony to all parts. Roys trad approach was just the right backbone for the train to roll down.

Phillip Tubb said...

What a great blog. I enjoyed reading about the "train wreck"and your experiences in Japan. I saw the Train Wreck play and always felt that out of all those bands in that mini scene, k9, odd jobs, etc. you folks would go on to bigger things.
I remember working on that blue mustang for Linda for about a month. It had these ABBA stickers and Lynard Skynard stickers and My little pony stickers all over it. I had to get acetone to get the glue off and passed out twice from inhaling the fumes. It was a schizophrenic guitar and I knew it was going to good home. Might sound kinda metaphysical but i felt like linda could heal that guitar. Every time i heard ya'll play, I knew she had "healed" it.
I always wondered what happened to you folks and am glad I found your blog. Stay well
Phillip Tubb

James Enck said...

Phillip, thanks for checking in, and for the kind words and nice anecdote on the blue Mustang! Ping me at james.enck@gmail.com to let me know where you're at.

Donna Upton said...

Your Japan experience sounds wrenching. Are you still in touch with your hosts?

You should post some of these tracks! If Linda will agree. I missed all of this - I was in New Orleans. I think I saw Train Wreck once.

James Enck said...

Wrenching is a fair description. I am still in touch with them, though not as often as I should be. I owe them a long, though not particularly straightforward, update on what's happening in "my world".

As for the music, I've got it all, ready and waiting. The later, more sophisticated, recordings can be found in part on Linda's MySpace site: http://www.myspace.com/thereallindaheck

Thanks for reading!