(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )
Jim Horton Heath--a.k.a. the Reverend Horton Heat--has never been officially ordained, but that hasn't stopped him from attracting a fanatical flock during the course of his many circuit rides throughout America's rock-and-roll clubland. Armed with nothing but a guitar and more rockabilly fervor than you can shake a pompadour at, he and his rhythm section have spent the '90s preaching to the lost and helping them stay that way.
"I can't imagine what it would be like to be a real reverend," Heath chuckles. "To have to write a sermon every week!"
One look at the titles of the Texan's most recent songs explains why he'd consider the task of sermon preparation daunting. After all, what would even the most liberal churchgoer make of sermons with names like "Baddest of the Bad," "Liquor, Beer, and Wine," "It's Martini Time," and "Big Bad Rocket of Love," especially when the man delivering them would as soon show up wearing an AC/DC T-shirt as a suit and tie?
"AC/DC," muses Heath. "Now that's a fuckin' rock band, there."
So is Heath's trio. Despite the fears of some that It's Martini Time, the Reverend's new Interscope album, might not put the pedal to the heavy metal the way his 1994, Al Jourgensen-produced Liquor in the Front did, new songs such as the Ramones-like "Generation Why," the Nick Lowe-by-way-of-New York Dolls "Now, Right Now," and the aforementioned Billy Zoom-worthy "Big Bad Rocket of Love" definitely leave skidmarks on the good intentions with which the road to post-Stray Cats rockabilly hell is paved.
Or, to put it another way, by turning up the heat on rock 'n' roll's past, Heath and Co. cause a musical grease fire that, along with the Reverend's brimstoned singing style, puts a revival fervor in his ministry that even Al Jourgensen--Mr. Ministry himself--couldn't quite match.
Surprisingly, Heath, whose offstage manner is far less inflammatory than his onstage one, has a more sober view of It's Martini Time. "I think we went a little bit back to novelty on this one," he observes. "'Cowboy Love,' 'It's Martini Time,' and 'That's Showbiz' are all basically novelty songs."
Speaking of "Cowboy Love," the track most likely to provoke sociological discussion wherever the new album is played, one should point out that while it isn't the first recorded song about homosexual cowboys--Ned Sublette's classic "Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly" lays claim to that honor--it certainly deserves an honored place in the canon.
"We have a lot of cowboys here in Texas, and some of 'em are gay cowboys," laughs Heath. "Since there are gay country-and-western clubs both here and all over America, I thought it was a scene that should be documented, especially after what happened to Jimbo [Wallace], our bass player, and one of our sound guys in Fresno."
What did happen?
"They got a cab, and they told the driver to take 'em to a bar that was popular and happenin' and had a lot of cars. He said, 'Well, there's this one country-and-western bar,' and Jimbo and the sound guy said, 'O.K., let's go there.' Well, they went in there, ordered a beer, and looked around, but they didn't figure out they were in a gay country-and-western bar until they saw a black cowboy french kissing a white cowboy."
Heath laughs again. "They need their own songs, you know? And they gotta be real country songs, too. More than anything, that song makes fun of being white trash. In the way I sing and the way I deliver the song, I'm really makin' fun of myself."
Not that Heath is all self-deprecation and comedy. "That's Showbiz," far from towing the narrow novelty-rock line, is a bitter, deadpan, beat-style recitation a la Tom Waits and T Bone Burnett that excoriates not only show business but also the "little people who spit-shine and polish [his] long and jagged trail to the top." As the last of It's Martini Time's fourteen tracks, it doesn't end the album on a downer so much as provide the more fanciful numbers with a context in which they take on a significance greater than the sum of their parts.
Like any good rock 'n' roll album, however, It's Martini Time's parts are pretty impressive on their own. "We always have at least two good rock 'n' roll beats on our albums," Heath explains, "and what I call a rock 'n' roll beat is a fast four-four, like Jerry Lee Lewis's 'Great Balls of Fire' or 'Whole Lotta Rosie' by AC/DC. We have three fast rock 'n' roll songs on this new album. Then we have a slow rock beat. Then we'll do a fast swing and a medium swing, or sometimes we'll do two fast swings. Funny, but if you take the four-four really fast, it's called bluegrass. If it's a little slower, it's called speed metal."
Songs like (the non-gospel) "Time to Pray" and the Reverend's cover of Bill Haley's 1951 "Rock the Joint" embody his knack for bridging bluegrass and speed metal particularly well, the latter coming complete with Heath's note-perfect performance of Haley's famous "Rock Around the Clock" guitar solo. It is, according to Heath, a solo that was years in the works.
"The first band I was ever in was this '50s band that had these two really talented brothers. I was the guitar player, but when we did 'Rock Around the Clock,' I'd sit on the sidelines because one of the brothers could play that solo and I couldn't. He'd play it, and I'd be sitting there thinking, 'I'm gonna learn that solo if it kills me.'"
Obviously, Heath survived. He has also managed, so far, to survive his far more lethal and well-publicized substance abuse. "I tell you what: coke and heroin are tour enders. You can do coke, do a great gig, have a good time, and get in the van and start drivin' to the next city, but when you get there, you're not worth a shit the next day. I'm not even supposed to be drinkin' anymore because when I get drunk, I can really get out of hand and make everybody's job a lot more painful. I've just come around to seeing that gettin' drunk isn't the coolest thing I can do."
Noble thoughts, and one wishes the good Reverend the best, but his new album is called It's Martini Time, a title that gives rise to the question, "When, if ever, is it not martini time?"
"Just about any time is martini time," Heath laughs. "I've had 'em for lunch. I've had 'em for dinner. I like mine with a twist of lemon, straight up, but you've gotta shake it real good to where it's got that layer of ice on the top. That's what I really like."
"I've never had 'em for breakfast though," he says. "A martini breakfast -- I've never done that."