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