Friday, April 26, 2013

At Least You Thought You Wanted It, That's So Much More Than I Can Say For Me -- George Jones (1931 - 2013)

I grew up in a dozen small towns in Nebraska, passed on from relative to relative, friend to friend, orphanage to orphanage, while alcoholism, military life, court battles and adultery ravaged my family. Despite this predisposition to the very marrow of country music, our family was middle-brow to a fault. When we'd accidentally catch a snippet of twang on the car radio, we'd clamp our noses closed between two knuckles and honk out some improvised lyrics about trucks & trains, even before we'd heard Steve Goodman's country send-up, "You Never Even Called Me By My Name". My father loved deep, masculine voices and would get a little tight and sing along to Mario Lanza, Paul Robeson, Ezio Pinza, and Giorgio Tozzi in the wee hours, a bi-product of his alcoholism I actually found comforting and miss very much even thirty-some years after the booze killed him. He also played the hell out of Jim Reeves & Tennessee Ernie Ford records, singers I don't think he ever really connected to country music. I guess he -- like many Americans -- was thrown off by all those lush strings and voices colored more by the diaphragm than the adenoids. My mother liked "Go-Go Boot Country" -- Nancy Sinatra, Jeannie C. Riley, Bobbie Gentry, Joanna Neel, etc. -- but once again, I think she associated that more with hip LA than Nashville. We listened to a little opera, but only the arias. So country seeped into our lives from the jukeboxes in cocktail lounges, transistor radios balanced precariously atop the hoods of diner grills, the open windows of passing pick-up trucks, and the cabs of those fancy new combines that actually caused traffic jams on otherwise deserted highways. Stuck behind them for an hour, it was possible to get a pretty decent education in country music. And still our family insisted it wasn't for us. 
      There's nothing worse than the middle-brow mocking the low-brow. I'll smile and take it if Gore Vidal wants to tell me country music is atavistic hogslop, but small-town merchants in polyester leisure suits who listen religiously to Roger Whittaker, Glenn Yarbrough, and Helen Reddy, probably don't have much purchase when running down Conway Twitty. 

     You can't grow up in rural Nebraska and not know country music. While I didn't listen to it myself, I could sing you a little of every country hit and the names of the bands and performers were not lost on me. KRVN, a radio station out of Lexington, Nebraska, was always no more than a drugstore comic book buying spree away, and even if you're not paying much attention, your nose buried in an issue of Unknown Soldier or Weird Worlds, you're going to come away with a little "Hello Walls" or "There Stands the Glass" lodged in your pre-teen muddlehead. Of course I came to country music cattywumpus. Even though it was right there, the tinny radio soundtrack of my Nebraska life, it took the Grateful Dead, Pure Prairie League, and Eric Clapton covering Don Williams' "Tulsa Time" to get me curious about what I'd been trying valiantly to ignore. I remember DJ-ing a dance at Garden County High School in Oshkosh, Nebraska (my home for five years) and playing a few of the twangier Grateful Dead cuts off of Europe '72, thinking I'd turn all of those damn cowboys into Deadheads before the night was through. One lanky, half-crocked son of a bitch shambled over to the DJ table and told me stop playing "that disco shit". I guess I'd never really know what "Jack Straw" sounded like to them, how it reminded them of disco, but I'll always appreciate that cowteen for talking me down off my high horse. 

    Three events really pried me open and transformed an interest once coincidental and arbitrary into one conscious and deliberate. First, I fell moon-eyed in love with a girl from the rodeo club. Though I was an army brat and our family moved around a lot, from Puerto Rico to the Philippines, Alaska to Mexico, there were types in Nebraska that seemed utterly exotic to me. One year I courted a Mennonite girl for six months. She lived miles from town, in the absolute center of nowhere, and I spent many evenings on her porch, under the stern eyes of her mother and aunt, sipping fruit juice, admiring her excruciating blondness, and watching pale feathers of her hair escape from bobby pins and bonnet as the unchecked prairie breeze gusted through their meager acreage. Gradually my natural teenage impatience got the better of me and I found more suitable feminine companionship. That is, until I met the Rodeo Club Girl. Now, I don't want you to think that I was a Zeppelin/Sabbath-listening pothead brave enough to break free from my social set and compete head-on with the real-live bull and bronc-riding cowboys of Western Nebraska for the hand of this beguiling barrel-rider. I only proceeded once I decided she wasn't being nice to me at Quonset keggers because she'd downed half a barrel of Southern Comfort and grape Kool-Aid on a dare. So we began to date, and because she had the upper-hand, I began consuming country music as it was meant to be consumed, driving pick-up trucks on late-night country roads with the speedometer needle buried and a pint of Jim Beam clenched between my thighs. We'd drive and drive, changing 8-tracks willy-nilly from the pile of them on floor -- Merle Haggard to Tom T. Hall, Alabama to the Oak Ridge Boys, Tanya Tucker to The Kendalls. Thankfully, I was savvy enough not to start wearing cowboy hats and snakeskin boots, in fact my wardrobe ran more towards Robin Williams' duds in Mork & Mindy, with the occasional foray into tie-dye. But I definitely adopted her music. Of course she moved on after a few months. Apparently she found me exotic at first, but once I ran out of stories about Mexico and Alaska, she started to ridicule my horsemanship and that was that. Of course, the soundtrack to my busted heart was George Jones -- The Battle and Memories of Us in particular. Although I do recall one night when I listened to Tanya Tucker's "Would You Lay with Me (In A Field of Stone)" from 7 p.m. until eight in the morning, which is hell on an 8-track. 

The mid-70s was a great time to be into what was called "Real Country Music". Crossover was everything and gradually it got so bad you could listen to allegedly country radio stations for hours without hearing a steel guitar. Imagine that. While the group Alabama packed stadiums, you could catch Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Porter Wagoner, Ferlin Husky, and Johnny Cash at county fairgrounds for three bucks, and I made it my business to see them all. During this time I began playing taps for the funerals of dead veterans and fell in with a feisty bunch of old drunkards from the local VFW. After I stood on some Ash Hollow Cemetery hillside in the rain for an hour waiting for the rifle salute cue to begin burbling taps through my waterlogged old Conn trumpet, they'd get me out of school for the entire day and we'd sit down at Tom's Tavern, drinking beer and loading up the jukebox with quarters for beautiful, soggy afternoons full of George Jones, Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Horton, and Ray Price. Some misguided soul opened what he hoped to be the next Branson, Missouri on a lake about a hundred miles north and started putting on huge shows, bills overloaded with outmoded country geniuses. These feisty vets and I made the trip up at least once a month, and when I wasn't smoking pot on the high jump pit and talking Led Zeppelin with my stoner friends, I was galavanting around the badlands with a bunch of drunk old men to hear Jim Ed Brown & Helen Cornelius, Roy Clark or Mel Tillis. I paid to see George Jones on about twelve separate occasions and only managed to actually see the man perform three times. You've never seen anything like a crowd turned away at a George Jones show. While there was always a groan of disappointment, it quickly gave way to wry grins, quickly stifled guffaws (a lost art), and conspiratorial whispers, as if it wasn't a known fact that Jones was inebriated between here and wherever. Nobody wanted to be a gossip.

The third event seems innocuous enough, but it legitimized my country music listening to such a point that I no  longer felt like a city kid wearing a seed cap for show. During a Junior Class Slave Sale, I was purchased by one of the bigger farms in Garden County and put to work roaming the fields on a tractor, lifting about ten thousand bales of hay onto a flatbed trailer. I relished the ritual of getting up at five in the morning, stopping by Doug's Texaco for an Old Home Cherry Pie and a Mountain Dew, and smoking a joint while I made the hour-long drive to the farm, the highway to myself, the dirt roads even more-so. I also enjoyed the work. I suppose that had something to do with knowing I was bound for college and wouldn't have to do it the rest of my days. When my week was up, they asked if I wanted to stay on, and I did. I think they just liked the idea of some bookish four-eyes doing back-breaking labor eight hours a day. I worked two summers on the farm & my favorite part was repairing shit in one of their huge barns. There was a disemboweled tractor in a corner of the barn, spider webs where the essential innards would normally be, and on the rusty seat sat a little Braun transistor radio, always tuned just ever-so-slightly off a country station and the little radio hung on for dear life to that signal, giving me classic country day in and day out, while I pretended I knew what I was doing. By the time I actually knew which end was up on farm machinery, I had a storehouse of "earned" music in my head, at least that's how I saw it. No matter how fraudulent I was in the long-haul, the music came to me legitimately. Discussions of what's genuine, what's legitimate, and what's hokum are valid, but I think everybody would agree that music has a natural state. If you listened to disco in New York City in 1976, you were listening to something different than I was, dancing to The Trammps at a Ramada Inn in Kearney, Nebraska.  If you listened to Doc Watson and Hazel Dickens during a mining strike in Kentucky, you heard something very different than what I heard listening to them at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The songs from that little Braun radio, combined with my sunburned neck, my morning drive, my aching muscles, and the voices of men of few words yapping out orders in clipped, nearly incomprehensible, syllables, were beginning to feel lived-in, not simply recognized. 

     As years of befuddling heartbreak set in after high school, a series of events set off by the death of my father, I turned to Joy Division when obstacles seemed surmountable and to George Jones when they didn't. Of all the country singers who'd shared my days on the farm, his voice seemed the strangest, the most unique. Though he sounded like any number of his idols early on, by the late-60s his voice was a jazz instrument, a completely unique set of nasal groans, deep dark baritone hollows, and gothically sad phrases tortured across registers like infidels on the rack. I'd put it up against Albert Ayler's saxophone any day for sheer invention. Like Coltrane making art from the treacle of "My Favorite Things", Jones' nearly infinite control of his instrument, combined with the silky, and sometimes bone-chilling, catharses of Billy Sherrill's arrangements, made shiver-inducing transport out of standard-issue country pathos. And when the lyrics poetically sketched out a kind of tract-house Gotterdammerung, as on Jones' version of Jerry Chesnut's "A Good Year For the Roses" or "The Grand Tour", he could be an all-consuming blue flame, sucking all the pretend-happiness from a tavern and replacing it with the richer textures of shared experience and memory. My sister could never understand my fever for country music, asking me why I wanted to be sad all the time, and I found it difficult to explain that lovely blue zone between sadness and contentment, the place where experience and memory are at peace. You don't have to exaggerate the good times or make light of the bad times to show your face. The operative color may be blue, but it's a pulsing, vibrant blue, a community of blue, and there, George Jones will always be king. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Forever Angels Proud: The Real Lizard Kings, Part One

St. Nic of Detroit, AKA Nicodemus

"Show me a cop who thinks he can fuck with me & I'll show you one fuckin' dead cop!" - "Skullcap" from The Liberty Riders (quoted in the police training video 1% Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs)

Just in case the inhospitable pre-adolescence of this shiny new century hasn't been enough to instill a cranky distaste for the human race, there's always the 1% Outlaw Biker Gangs police training video, which has long been a favorite of wee-hour video store employees & other cellar-dwelling misanthropes. While we normally associate bikers with comic-book chopper heroes like Steppenwolf, it should be obvious to most thinking folk that the Freedom Rock of "Born to Be Wild" & the kind of fiends who would initiate "old ladies" through gang rape, force them into prostitution & give medals for performing cunnilingus on menstruating white women & corpses, don't really jibe. In order to calm your fears, your neighborhood Dan Haggerty-lookalike motorcycle aficionado will explain with ursine good cheer that these demons are only 1% of the total number of bikers & that they inhabit a Maldoror-like netherworld most decent citizens need never encounter & that seems a fair explanation until you see this video & then suddenly 1% seems like a percentage no sane society should have to live with. If one percent of teachers raped all of their students & gave one another medals in the teacher's lounge for violating children in ways that would make Gilles de Rais blush, you'd probably think one percent represented a gaping hole in the fabric of society.

Now obviously this is a police training video, so the chances of it being completely accurate are slim. I mean, these are the people who told high-schoolers in the 1970s to look out for kids who wore long-sleeve shirts in the summer because they were most likely heroin addicts. But let's admit, this is probably a more accurate, eyes-on portrayal of the subculture than, say, Sons of Anarchy or Roger Corman movies. Many of the more unsung biker films of the late-60s/early-70s do suggest the level of amorality & Sadism practiced by one-percenters, see the menacing real-ass biker Sonny Barger in Hell's Angels '69. There's no accounting for the power of his performance. It's not good, it's not bad, but I dare you to keep your eyes off him when he's onscreen. He is much more suggestive of evil than that beatnik court jester Charles Manson ever was. Even with the Brechtian distance provided by television, VHS player, capsule review in a Psychotronic film book & time, you'll be tempted to get up & lock the windows when he's onscreen. This is the real Lizard King & "Born to Be Wild" would only make him chuckle.

The secret music of bikers appeared on a dozen private presses from the 1960s well into the 80s & in it all the paranoia, bad vibes, Motor Saint braggadocio & backporch wickedness of the one-percenters squirm in wild paroxysms of drug & hooch-fueled ecstasy, fucking & violence. Various record labels who specialize in private press obscurities have released some incredible "real" biker rock in the last decade & it's hardly all of one piece. While there's a prescient melding of Blue Cheer, The Stooges, Black Sabbath & Skynyrd that make late-80s Sub-Pop sound behind-the-curve, there are also odd Goth touches, crypto-jazz, a glimpse of what The Doors would have sounded like had Morrison not lazily accepted the nebbish-blues of Krieger & Manzarek, boozy singer-songwriter treacle made interesting by the singer's inability to fathom his own degradation, Casio trailer park hijinks, Butthole Surfers-level warp & wobble & a cornucopia of nagging, junksick guitar breakdowns that really make the whole fucking batch worthwhile. Though the music blogs of record insist all of the records tackled here have some association to biker culture, only a few actually have documented connections to the aforementioned netherworld. Still, all of them represent a grim wasteland of those who just will not "come on in for the big win" as the Colonel in Full Metal Jacket so blithely put it.

Raven's Back to Ohio Blues is probably the most instantly enjoyable bit of stranger danger represented here. Recorded in 1975 in Columbus, Ohio, this is proto-punk that lives up to that moniker -- every lyric an invocation of sex, drugs & death, every riff a pummeling graveyard shake. Raven (the main man's sobriquet, not a particular band configuration) gasps at one point, voice raw from amphetamine, bourbon & beyond, "Shoot me up with some morphine & let me die here in my grave/Just gimme some junk & let me fade away". Unbelievably this plea doesn't sound like something he'd appropriated from an old blues record. Unmoored as it is from standard coy rock'n'roll drug metaphors, it's chilling as any smack rock from that era (and that era had some GREAT smack rock) & Mr. Raven sells it with the kind of first-time-fronting-an-electric-band abandon that should dot your backbone with shivers just like Ron Ashton's dead-stop & re-establishment of the theme in "TV Eye". Though much of Back to Ohio Blues sounds like the Rosetta Stone/Missing Link between the more primal aspects of Cleveland's generous contributions to garage rock & the gravity-defying obliteration of genre gifted us by Mirrors, Rocket from the Tombs, Electric Eels, Styrenes, Pere Ubu, etc., there's no real evidence that Mr. Raven was doing anything other than delivering his own tortured take on blues rock of the era & obeying the zapped knell of his blistered id. Best of all, the guitar torture in the 13-minute plus title track is enough to make you forget what a snore blues rock turned out to be. To call this music "druggy" would be doing it an injustice. It's druggy with space, with a real, but hazy & purely instinctual, notion of what the next mad primal guitar dirge will mean when connected to the last. In the buzzing air pockets between riff & solo, between the naked drips of electricity from the amps & the plectrum striking the hot-wired strings, is carnage waiting to occur, the road as a generator of uncontrollable impulses. Back to Ohio Blues was recorded at Owl Recording Studio in Columbus as a limited vanity pressing to hand out to friends & associates, but its freakish mutations of metallic funk ("Raven Mad Jam") & ass-dragger Harley balladry ("Don't You Feel It") deserve a place in the pantheon of white boy junkyard hoodoo & other aural miscalculations to live by. It took geniuses to deconstruct this kind of blues/garage gore into something as transcendent as Electric Eels or Ubu, but some barely-sentient weirdo roadhogs had to make the riffs & sonic aphasia worth dismantling & reconstituting in the first place. The original Owl Records LP seems to be going for around $100+ these days & the 1994 Rockadelic reissues for between $50 & $80 depending on condition. You can pick up the Raven Jams reissue for $20.

Fraction's Moon Blood is the most conventional album here & if it had been released on Sub Pop in 1989, no fan of their Stooges-meets-Sabbath trademark sound would have blinked an eye. While the caveman guitar goo is occasionally worthy of Sub Pop's only truly great band, Mudhoney, the orderly song structures & radio friendly vocals would have made them instant staples of 90s alternative rock. Recorded in 1971 at Whitney's Studio in Glendale, CA by a bunch of ne'er-do-well LA musicians who'd been in & out of dead-end bands for a decade, this private press/limited edition record became known as hard-rock godhead by collector types, some who thought it was Jim Morrison moonlighting with another band, even though Fraction vocalist Jim Beach sounds NOTHING like Morrison. Well, that's not entirely true, he does go for a very mannered Morrison on "This Bird (Sky High)", but this only goes to show these journeymen were decent mimics. Most of the record, however, sounds like a Zeppelin record slowed down just a hair. Every song is a long-ish to long guitar epic, performed professionally, but with a little more sonic splatter than you'd expect in a major label offering. Another wiggy bit of trivia -- the members of the band were apparently Christians, though the spectrum of hippie Christianity in the early-70s ran the gamut from vaguely psychedelic Guitar Mass strumminess to baptisms with blood & mud in Topanga Creek & being brain-washed into chanting some Gnostic "OM" until the world went up in flames. The lyrics on Moon Blood rarely slouch towards the apocalyptic, making this one of the less interesting Christian musical artifacts of the era. Beach even sells out the Doors pastiche "This Bird" by grunting & shrieking the usual Jesus Freak "white dove" doggerel. For an album that allegedly sold for $2000 to wide-eyed collectors, Moon Blood is a bit of a letdown. Despite its rough edges & last-band-on-earth sprawl, these were mockingbirds grasping for stardom, not outsider freaks. Still, if you can get past the abominable lyrics & the aggressively annoying rock star impressions of Beach, it's worth a listen. Just don't pay more than $10. The Mexican Summer reissues are going for $30, but you get a free 10" in the bargain.

Kenneth Higney's Attic Demonstration is finally getting to the weirdo core of the matter. Not that it's a great album, in fact there are those who may find it utterly unlistenable, but it's obviously meant for a decadent, hermetic audience who don't give a shit about radio, manners, coolness, or intellectual acuity.This is cave spazz that almost never hits the mark, which is its crazy charm. When Higney tries to be funky, he slogs along   with his proto-rap (?) long after the drums & bass have surrendered their fucked groove & started jamming with no regard for rhythm whatsoever. When he tries to lay down a garage screed about hating John Denver, something that could have been a three-chord classic, the band decides to venture off into amorphous free jazz. Nothing here melds, coheres, gels...Every element fights the others, with Higney occasionally crying out for order as the mess disintegrates, but it's all done with such wasted glee that Attic Demonstration stands as one of the great TOTALLY FUCKED albums of all-time. When Higney tries to be heartfelt ("Children of Sound") a synthesizer glurps & splurks brilliantly in the background until the damn thing becomes a masterpiece. This is freak rock.

Attic Demonstration was recorded in 1976 as a way of promoting Higney's songwriting, but 500 copies made it into the world & became "holy grails" (sigh). To his 500 crazy friends, this dead-end album yielded a messed-up fireside shamble for bikers & other road savages, "No Heavy Trucking". It's a galvanizing, fist-pumper for those too drunk to lift their arms & conveys a message of lawlessness so tame ("No heavy trucking/Do it on your own time/No heavy trucking/No heavy parking fines"...or "porcupines"?) that it's an eye-roller when sober, a valid statement of purpose after a quaalude & ten shots of Jack Daniels. Either way, it's goddamned irresistible. There's something automatically alluring about listening to an absolutely unlovable, subhuman singer tell some girl he can't possibly love her & Attic Demonstration has several classics in this department, the best being "Can't Love That Woman" where Trog Higney tells the object of his affection that she's just not sensitive enough for a boy like him. Higney went on to a series of other failures which (guess what?) became collectibles, including an album of Attic Demonstration detritus called American Dirt he recorded with an Allman Brother & other hired guns & an album of all-new material, Ambulance Driver. If you have great love for Lester Bangs & The Delinquents' Jook Savages on the Brazos, Attic Demonstration would make an ideal B-side to that cassette in your glove box nobody on earth will touch. This is a classic & you'd be a damn fool not to own it & force people to listen. It's the musical equivalent of optimistically trying to masturbate when you've no hope of even achieving an erection.

By now it's probably become apparent that the biker theme of this piece has become more or less hypothetical, though there is some evidence these private press editions were quite popular with self-professed outlaws who yearned for a music all their own. Raven was definitely a favorite with Middle-American bikers & the next three records really get to the crux of the matter. Easily the best of this bunch, Circuit Rider's self-titled dirtbag classic is biker heaven, the kind of album you picture only being listened to around a lurid bonfire, all the wrong drugs passed hand-to-hand, the chicks half-flirting/half-retreating for safety, tongues of fire reflected in the chrome of thirty resting Harleys. This is a record full of snorting hogs, barking dogs, atomic blasts, slippery off-kilter beats, lyrics that constantly celebrate the triumph of the beast in man -- true Lizard King music. Perhaps recorded in the early-70s, maybe as late as 1980, Circuit Rider's album is (but for the kinda Santana-ish & predictable "Limousine Ride") a demonic sneer from beginning to end. The Doors-ish moments are actually the best, because they're so much better than anything that band laid down behind Morrison. We have no way of knowing if the lead vocalist of Circuit Rider had Morrison's charisma (though I suspect all that info will become available shortly with this primo re-issue from Numero Group), but slithering snake dances like "How Long" & "Old Time Feeling" evade Morrison's artier impulses & get directly to the Dionysian/limbic boiler room. Once again though, many critics have gone overboard with The Doors comparisons. Circuit Rider's singer has a backporch drawl that countrifies even the band's most acid rock settings. Desert lopers like "Billy Bad Billy" seem meant for the soundtrack for an even darker version of Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, while the hoarse, damaged cat-strut of  "Red Dog" seems more at home in the short-lived white garage blues "explosion" of the mid-90s than the acid blooz scene of the 70s. This is high desert snake-handler testifying at its most seductive, filled with shallow graves, silent morning escapes from lust & murder, the slow death of conscience & the ecstasy of being finally beyond morality. A classic & the Numero Group reissue is going for a paltry $15.

Stephen David Heitkotter's Heitkotter was recorded by a drug-destroyed lunatic & a trio of friends in Fresno, 1971,. The songs are meandering, mumbled, nearly formless pleas for heavenly mercy, despite the real-world concerns indicated by titles like "Fly Over the Moon", "Cadillac Woman" & "Quaker, Dog Got Away". The easiest reference point would probably be Jandek, though Heitkotter exhibits none of that once-mysterious Texans otherworldly control. The little band, with zero sympathy for Heitkotter's cosmic predicament, jams on & on, veering through moods that only occasionally represent the haunted desperation of the man at the center of it all. When it comes together -- anarchic, amateur vacuousness melding with Heitkotter's troubling, tuneless Nembutal afterthoughts -- it can be brilliant, but Heitkotter is most frightening when the band goes one way & the poor crazy bastard goes another, achieving a spectral loneliness one rarely hears from a band allegedly committed to some communal goal (a record). They hit something like a groove for "Cadillac Woman", and it's like listening to a home-recorded ZZ Top 8-track with a Quicksilver Messenger Service live bootleg bleeding in from a past recording. Every song starts out haltingly & ends up in a meaningless pile of shit that finally dribbles away to silence, which seems somehow appropriate to Heitkotter's half-brained/half-hearted attempts at desire & occasionally long-lost biker bravado. One senses he may have been some kinda tough guy before the electroshock therapy, but even when he rises to the occasion, scatting like a welter-weight Manson in "Quaker, Dog Got Away" the song cuts off, probably to calm the poor bastard down before he jerks & flails himself out the window. And nothing -- not the palsy of an old woman trying to knit, not the yelp of a dog with a paw caught in the fence -- will  ruin your day like hearing SDH try to croon "I love you" over & over in "I Don't Mind". The rampant anti-telepathy among the various members of this hopeless trio becomes hypnotic eventually, if you've got the stomach for its heart-breaking immediacy, but you'll never leave Heitkotter's world alive. You can get some original Heitkotter vinyl for $80 through Amazon, or the reissue for $25 from Time-Lag Records.

"I picked up an acoustic guitar at seven years old and could instantly play, much to my surprise. I played an unconventional style which many other guitarists could not figure out what I was doing or how- they were into the copy note for note conventional guitar lesson taught style of music-mimicking their heroes. In my teens I had a band, J.H. Trio, and got a real good shot at being signed to Motown, which was an exceptional experience. I remember David Ruffin telling me, "Man, it don't matter what they say about you as long as they keep talking about you and spell your name right." - From the Myspace page for St. Nic of Detroit, borrowed from the wonderful Frog Not Prog website.

The two records by St. Nic of Detroit, AKA Nicodemus are the most fascinating of the bunch, a gutbucket visceral taffy pull of Goth, New Wave, serious biker/redneck Gotterdammerung, sociopathic stabs at sensitivity & jarring attempts at what can only be called "hit-making". Nic, with his long white beard, leather cowboy hat, legitimate club colors & dangerous fist jewelry comes on like a trailer court Stephen Merritt, moving from style to style with more aplomb than you'd ever expect from such a creature. In fact, both of these albums make up a kind of One-Percenter 69 Love Songs, with Nic singing honestly about his often objectionable sex habits, his unrepentant substance abuse, the scuzzy melodrama of outlaw love...sound familiar? Raw Energies is awkward on occasion, with the synth-stippled country death song "Wednesday Morning" sounding like something you'd hear on the demos of a million bar bands across the nation, but for the most part Nic's breathtaking ambition wins the day. Even if one Bat Cave-y Christian Death homage doesn't exactly rise to the occasion, the next brutally honest, besotted Mark Lanegan-style shanty will & the fact that everything seems to be played live on junky keyboards & hopeless guitars engenders a feeling of good will that gets you over the rough patches. Oh, those endearing rough patches.

While Raw Energies is a puzzling little gem,  the album he recorded with his brother Matchez (formerly the Congo Kid),  Better Art Music, is a whirling mindbender. Recorded in 1986 at their own R.A.T. (Recording Artist Techniques) Brothers Studio in Detroit, this is easily one of the weirdest & most enjoyable outsider New Wave pop albums of that queer little era. It's as quirky & atmosphere as anything concocted by Don Dixon & Mitch Easter & as fundamentally smart as anything by Was (Not Was). While Nic's vocals occasionally stray into the realms of 80s LA metal, the arrangements are pared down to daft synth blips, swampy guitar, rickety but on-target drumming & exquisite bargain basement studio trickery. Nic's oversinging in these hazy, plunky settings actually starts to work once you're used to it. It's an utterly novel sound jury-rigged from whatever didn't sell at last week's yard sale. Lyrical concerns make bleary circles from the comic-book cosmic to the practical troubles of a man who can't seem to sober up for ten minutes & then repeats the formula ten more times. If there's a peak in this consistently engaging wealth of unhinged ideas, it's the stunner "I Am Not Happy", which somehow manages to lasso the Goth, New Wave, Glam & Shitkicker elements into a perfectly cohesive something-or-other. Imagine Bauhaus & ZZ Top...well, you can't, until you hear this raging burlesque of craft-store glitter & stunt guitar. Robot disco, outer-space effects, whirring-wizzbangers, sauerkrautrock, veiled threats, some kinda Weird Al-ish take on "Junco Partner", a Zappa-inflected Casio version of "My Way", drunken dub, relatively straightforward glam metal honk that wouldn't sound out of place on an tape of Guns N' Roses demos  ("The Legend of the Headless Harley Rider") & spooky little Halloween instrumentals for the kids -- could you possibly expect more from a record?

St. Nic has a daunting variety of cassettes, singles, albums & various whatnots available from his Myspace page & I may be addicted, so Plastic Submission will keep you abreast on the Nicodemus front. I recommend visiting St. Nic's page just to read his long, engaging tall tales about the Detroit music industry, his favorite instruments, his crazy life & whatever else flits to mind.

Both photos from the 1% Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs video

Thursday, June 14, 2012


This is what he did: he unfolded the sack he was carrying, opened
its mouth wide, and seizing the youth by his head, pushed his whole body in
the rough sacking envelope. With his handkerchief, he tied up the end that
had served as way of introduction. As Mervyn was uttering loud and piercing
cries, he picked up the sack like a bag of linen and smashed it repeatedly
against the parapet of the bridge. Then the victim, aware that his bones were
breaking, became silent. A unique scene no novelist will ever find again! A
butcher was passing, sitting on the meat in his cart. An individual runs up to
him, urging him to stop, and says: “There’s a dog in this sack; it has rabies:
Put it down as quickly as you can.” The butcher is happy to oblige. As the
individual walks away, he sees a young girl in rags holding out her hand.
What heights of audacity and impiety can he reach? He gives her alms! Tell
me if you want me to escort you through the door of a distant
slaughterhouse, a few hours later. The butcher has returned and as he
throws his burden onto the ground, he has said to his friends: “Let’s hurry up
and kill this rabid dog.” There are four of them, and each picks up the
hammer he normally uses. And yet they are hesitant because the sack is
moving violently. “What’s this emotion that grips me?” one of them shouted,
slowly lowering his arm. “This dog is whimpering with pain like a child,” said
another, “you’d think it knows the fate that awaits it.” “They usually do,” said
the third, “even when they are not sick, as in this case; their master only has
to stay away from home for a few days and they start howling in a way that’s
horrible to hear.” “Stop!… stop!…” the fourth shouted, before all their arms
were raised in unison to resolutely strike the sack. “Stop, I tell you, there’s a
fact here that has escaped us. Who told you that this cloth sack contains a
dog? I want to make sure.” Then, despite the taunts of his companions, he
untied the bundle, and pulled out one after the other the limbs of Mervyn! He
was almost suffocated by the discomfort of this position. He fainted when he
saw the light again. After a few moments he gave undoubted signs of life. His
rescuer said: “In future, learn to use caution in all of your dealings. You
almost found out for yourself that it is pointless practising non-observance of
this law.” The butchers fled. Mervyn, heavy-hearted and full of grim
forebodings, returns home and locks himself in his room.