Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Q&A: Slayer's Kerry King (May 9, 1995)

The year was 1995. Bill Clinton was in the White House, and Rush Limbaugh was on both radio and television. I interviewed Kerry King because I was writing a piece for WORLD on songs about Rush Limbaugh--of which there were several at the time, pro and con--and Slayer's then-latest album, Divine Intervention, contained the song "Dittohead" (talk-radio slang for "fan of Rush's show"). I quoted from this Q&A in my piece; below is the transcript in its unexpurgated entirety.


ORTEZA: I'm working on an article for WORLD magazine about Rush Limbaugh songs, and "Dittohead" fits in that category.
KING: I think it pretty much owns it (laughs).

ORTEZA: The song doesn't mention Limbaugh. Why did you call it "Dittohead"?
KING: The title came after the lyrics and the music were completely done. I wrote the music, and it was pretty much the punkiest song I'd ever heard, and the pissed-off lyrics were inspired by all the crazy things I'd seen on TV for the past couple of years at that time.

ORTEZA: Like what?
KING: All the blow-out trials and lack of responsibility, and lack of just about everything. That's when I watched Rush Limbaugh everyday. I had the song completely written, but I had no idea what I was going to call it. Then I thought, "Well, it sounds like a radicalized version of what Rush Limbaugh does on TV everyday, so I'll just use that name."

ORTEZA: You wrote it in response to the Rodney King trial?
KING: Rodney King, the Menendez brothers, Bobbitt.

ORTEZA: In retrospect, would you throw the O.J Simpson trial in there?
KING: Oh, certainly.

ORTEZA: What does the appearance of a pro-Limbaugh song on a Slayer album say about rock-and-roll?
KING: It's pretty democratic (laughs).

ORTEZA: Does the whole band tune in to Limbaugh?
KING: Jeff [Hanneman] and I do a lot. I don't get to much anymore because I've been touring. I watch him in California a lot. In Arizona he's on late at night, and I always forget he's on. But Jeff and I always watch him in California.

ORTEZA: I bet most Dittoheads don't listen to Slayer.
KING: That's probably true.

ORTEZA: What do you think you have in common with the rest of his audience?
KING: The main thing is our beliefs about what's wrong with the political system, to start with, things we see that we can change. Obviously, a lot of people wanted change because they overthrew the old Congress in a landslide. But it's hard to say. Our music is pretty much for a pin-pointed age group. The late-to-mid teens to age twenty-one seem to make up the bulk of our audience. It's mostly a teenage audience that listens to us.

ORTEZA: Don't you think most of your fans would describe themselves as liberal?
KING: It's hard to say. I don't know.

ORTEZA: Do you vote?
KING: I'm going to next time (laughs).

ORTEZA: Against Clinton?
KING: Oh, yeah.

ORTEZA: What other aspects of the conservative agenda do you support?
KING: If anybody ever puts on an initiative for a flat tax rate, I'd be the first in line.

ORTEZA: You don't agree with those who say a flat tax demonstrates an unwillingness on the part of the well off to help the less well off?
KING: That's bullshit. I mean, Rush said it best: "Penalizing the achievers." Why should I get penalized for learning how to make money? I didn't have all the opportunities. I didn't have scholarships. But you don't hear me bitching about fucking having to sit in the gutter. I got off my ass and did something with my life. That's what being an American is about, not sitting on your ass and letting the rich people pay for you. It's about getting off your ass and accomplishing things.


(Update: Discussing the song "Americon" [from Slayer's
2009 album World Painted Blood
], King said, "It's about what I think the rest of the world thinks of America. We may not be big on a lot of people's lists, but I don't care what you think of my government, of my economy, or whatever. I live here and this is one of the best places that I've ever found to live. So f*#k you if you don't like it.")

Monday, June 29, 2009


(As published in the Illinois Entertainer)

As an Irish quartet composed of three men and a woman, Chimera has had to endure occasional comparisons to that other similarly constituted band, the Cranberries. Otherwise, though, according to the group's bassist Steven Emerson, their recent tour of the United States has been entirely enjoyable.

“One of our reviews actually said, 'If the Cranberries knew how to do it, they'd be Chimera,'" Emerson laughs, "but we put that comparison down to lazy journalism. We think people can be more creative than that. Besides, I don't really think we sound like them."

They don't. Take, for instance, "Liquid Star," the first song on Chimera's latest Grass Records release, Earth Loop. Beginning with a guitar-and-drum rumble that eventually erupts into a roar, the song goes on to dip and soar along the contours of Eileen Henry's enchantingly lovely voice. From time to time, Henry disappears, allowing Ted Laverty's distorted guitar to re-emerge, and from time to time Laverty returns the favor. By the time it runs its course, the song has established the tone of what's to follow.

Among the thirteen songs that do, the drum-machine-powered "Catch Me" has caught on as the track of choice among the radio stations that have put Chimera into their rotations. That many have done so, Emerson explains, accounts in part for why the group has enjoyed its U.S. tour so much.

"We have a pretty good radio team here. They know which stations are playing us. A lot of the time, when we go into a city, we go to the radio station and perform a couple of songs and do an interview. Generally, we have been targeting the cities that have been playing us so that people, having heard one or two of the songs, come down to the gigs. It's worked out very well."

The Belfast natives have also benefited from good promotion in general. The powerhouse label BMG, Grass's distributor, has not only gotten Earth Loop into mainstream record stores and kept it there, but they've also set the group up with in-store appearances at some very heavily trafficked points of purchase.

"BMG has been great for us," Emerson recalls. "In August, when we were touring on the West Coast, we went into the Virgin Megastore on Sunset Boulevard, and there was a huge Chimera display near the listening post. We played in-stores in Virgin stores all the way up the West Coast. And I have a habit of, no matter where I am, going to the local record shop to see if our album is in there. Very few times have I not been able to find us."

Apparently, even people who aren't members of Chimera are finding Earth Loop, too. In addition to footing the bills for the group's recent U.S. tour, the album and tour receipts have been sufficient to keep Emerson and his band mates from having to hold down day jobs back home. As a result, they intend to turn their winter vacation into something of a busman's holiday, writing new material and sharpening their stage act for their return to America in March.

One area of confusion that could hamper Chimera's transformation into a dormroom, if not a household, word is the pronunciation of their name. Dictionary toters on both sides of the Atlantic have long pronounced the word--which originated as the name of a polymorphic, fire-breathing monster in Greek mythology--“ki-mir-uh." The Belfast Four, however, pronounce it "shimmer-uh" because, says Emerson, "it sounded softer."

"It actually came from the old Bill Nelson record, Chimera. We thought, 'Oh, that's a nice word.' We were fully aware of the proper pronunciation. We all got our Oxford Dictionaries and got the phonetic spelling. But we said, 'No, we prefer our way.'"

Another thing they prefer is their hometown, a hometown often perceived by foreigners to be the U.K. equivalent of Beirut and Bosnia--i.e., one of the world's most volatile hotbeds of terrorism and political violence. Perceptions, however, can be deceiving, and, according to Emerson, in Belfast's case, they definitely are.

"Would you believe I've never heard a gunshot in my life?" he laughs. "Like every city, it has its bad areas, but it really is normal, almost to the point of being boring. We have McDonalds. We have Virgin record stores. I'm very happy to live there."

One stereotype that Earth Loop does confirm is that those who dwell in the land of Yeats, Joyce, and Van Morrison (whose "Sweet Thing" emerges as a hidden track minutes after the disc officially ends), possess a more heightened spirituality than those of us benumbed by life in the materialistic West.

"I think there's probably less decadence and more emotional intensity among the Irish," Emerson muses. "I know that we didn't go into this way of life lightly. We definitely put our hearts and souls into what we do."

Catchy and gorgeous but never merely so, Chimera's music evokes depths well worth exploring. Somehow, wishing them good luck seems unnecessary.


The last Virgin Megastore passed away in 2009.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Tripping Daisy: Petals to the Metal (1995)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer)

Somewhere in the backwoods of the Yucatan, a young boy dreams of making music--not the traditional folk music of the guitar-strumming rancheros so beloved in his village, but the invisible music that the funny-haired white man with the dollars put into his ears, the strange music that he couldn't grab but that made him smile the smile that made the funny-haired man click the camera. He had asked the man, <<¿Como se llama la música?>> When the man answered, the boy knew that he would only be satisfied when the day came that he too could put into the ears of his people the marvelous music called Tree-ping Day-see.

"We were in the northern part of the Yucatan," explains Tim DeLaughter, Tripping Daisy's lead singer and the funny-haired man in the scenario described above. "We'd just finished the record, and we wanted to get our ya-yas out. So we went deep into the bush of the Yucatan to see the Mayan ruins, and we came across this family that lived in a grass hut. The boy came up, and he was trying to sell us some stuff. I put the headphones on him and played him a song, and he immediately knocked them off his head. It kind of scared him."

The song with which DeLaughter frightened the young entrepreneur was "I Got a Girl," the first single from the album that Tripping Daisy had just finished recording, i am an ELASTIC FIRECRACKER.

"I didn't want to scare him," DeLaughter continues. "I thought 'I Got a Girl' was the friendliest song on there. Well, he'd never heard music through headphones before, and it freaked him out. When we put the headphones back on him, he kept making these hand gestures, as if he were trying to catch the music. It was really weird. Then, all of a sudden, he looked up with this smile, as if he'd finally gotten what was going on, and I took a picture of it."

Tripping Daisy reprinted the photo inside the ELASTIC FIRECRACKER CD cover, a cover whose outside photo is even weirder. It shows a skinny old man who appears to be bleeding from all pores like a character in Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death."

The old man, it turns out, is Guglielmo Achille Cavellini, the person generally credited with starting what has come to be known as the mail-art--or stamp-art--movement.* As their name suggests, mail artists create works of art that they then reproduce as stamps and sell by the sheet. The bloody Cavellini photo itself originated as a piece of stamp art by E.F. Higgins, who sold DeLaughter the stamp on a sheet with fifteen others in a New York bar.

"It fascinated me that this man was in a bar, selling stamps that he'd made," DeLaughter recalls. "I liked the Cavellini image a lot and became fascinated by the story behind mail art, and after I found out about Cavellini, I looked even more for a reason to put him on the cover."

DeLaughter sees a parallel between the attempts of the mail artists to get the world's attention through unconventional means and Tripping Daisy's attempts to do the same. For although they're signed to Island Records now, and although Bill, their 1993 debut, eventually got picked up by Island's indie subsidiary Red, they began humbly, peddling their powerful and twisted version of rock-and-roll as just one more indie band from Texas.

"It's a constant struggle for anybody who's doing creative things to have success, either financially or from being praised by your peers and others," DeLaughter insists. It's a complaint he develops on one of ELASTIC FIRECRACKER's most purposefully caterwauling songs, "Piranha."

"It seems that the press is always the piranha in my situation. There seems to be this fad among some younger writers to be extremely vicious and rely on the thesaurus to kill bands these days. But the song isn't just against the music press. It's for anybody that's always trying to bring you down when you're trying to do something creative."

Judging from the reaction that ELASTIC FIRECRACKER has gotten since its release last June, Tripping Daisy apparently has little to fear from piranhas. With twenty thousand copies sold in the first month (a pace that will turn the disc gold in two years) and with top-five college-radio for "I Got a Girl," DeLaughter and Company will soon have bigger fish to fry--especially if the record keeps selling.

"We made our choice to go with Island because they were the label that got our vision as far as building the band from the ground up. They did that with Bill by depending on us to tour behind it, which we did for over two years, and they just added three months to our current tour. The more success the record has, the longer the tour gets."

With an arrangement like that, Bob Dylan might not be the only one with a Neverending Tour for long. Besides, if Tripping Daisy's U.S. crowds ever drop off, there's always the Yucatan.


*Actually, Cavellini did not become a "mail artist" until the early 1970s--almost twenty years after the mail-art movement is generally thought to have been founded by Ray Johnson.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Spotlight: Fleming & John (1995)

(As published in B-Side)

Granted, Freedy Johnston's "Bad Reputation" was O.K. as bad-reputation songs go, but it had nothing on Thin Lizzy's, and it has even less on the one that can be found on Fleming & John's recently released R.E.X. Music debut, Delusions of Grandeur.

"I don't want to be a hero!" wails Fleming McWilliams. "I don't want to be a weirdo! Don't want to be Ms. Understood!"

Fair enough, but when your band makes music this rich and wacked-out, chances are you're going to be perceived as a hero--or a weirdo--by someone.

"Some of that song comes from growing up in East Prairie, Missouri," confides McWilliams, obviously the "Fleming" of the act. "John" is her husband John Mark Painter, a multi- instrumentalist whose name liner-note readers will recognize from the latest Nanci Griffith and Indigo Girls albums.

But back to "Bad Reputation" and East Prairie, MO.

"I've always been fascinated by people who want to have a bad reputation," says McWilliams, "because I've always wanted people to think well of me, that I'm nice and friendly and kind. That there are people who want people to think the absolute worst about them--I guess I've always felt a little bit square."

"Well," observes Painter, "there's always that I-may-be-square-but-I'm-not-dead thing."

"That's true," agrees Fleming. "I did have a lot of friends who died. I mean, there's nothing to do in a small town, so all people did was drink, do drugs, and ride around. But it's not until recently that I've realized how weird the place was."

Time out. Lest this examination of East Prairie get out of hand, it should be noted that "Bad Reputation" is not the only song on Delusions. There are, in fact, nine others, ranging from the shimmeringly plaintive "Rain All Day" to the subterranean-homesick-Led-Zeppelin blues of "I'm Not Afraid," the first single. And there are lots of rewarding stops along the way.

But back to East Prairie. Just how weird was it?

"Like, the girls would just go out to this road and fight all the time."

You mean duke it out?

"Yeah! You could go down to this road and just watch these girls fight."

Over what?

"They'd fight over these guys that were just--ugh!-- terrible, guys who'd graduated from high school five years before and now lived in some trailer."

McWilliams finds the memory amusing now. But what her growing number of fans will want to know is how many of these fights she won.

"I never fought, but I had friends--talented, nice girls--who really got into that. The place was called Piss Road."

Time out again. Lest the story behind the name "Piss Road" get out of hand, it should be noted that Painter really enjoyed the Griffith and Indigo Girls sessions. "It's a lot of fun," he admits. "Seeing 'Guitars by Mark Knopfler, Bill Dillon, and John Mark Painter' made me happy."

It should also be noted that in addition to Nanci, Amy, and Emily, Fleming & John's fans include Adrian Belew and rock's most famous bald bassist, Tony Levin, both of whom recently showed up at one of F&J's Nashville shows.

But back to Piss Road.

"It was called Piss Road," McWilliams continues, "because it was a dirt road, and if you were riding around town--and especially if you'd been drinking and didn't want to go to your house and use the bathroom--you had to use the bathroom there."

"But," Painter interrupts, "it really is a nice town."

One last time out. Before F&J go on about how nice East Prairie is, it should be noted that McWilliams has one of the strongest voices--countrified folk on the soft numbers, full-bodied shriek on the rockers--and some of the best hair in indie-rockdom. Now, for East Prairie ...

"We go back there," McWilliams explains, "and everybody's so happy that we have a record out. They don't care that we're not on MTV or that we're not on the charts."

Besides, it's probably only a matter of time.

"My mother is a high-school music teacher there, and she's sold close to two hundred copies of our album out of the house. There are wonderful people there."

"But you know," she adds, "it is a little bit hick."

The Police: "Dead End Job"

(This little real-life story has been online at http://http://www.ia.wvu.edu/~magazine/issues/spring2004/htmlfiles/remember.html for a few years. Now you don't have to go there to read it.)

On a chilly afternoon in the fall of 1983, a friend of mine and I stopped into Nick's Canteen for what was supposed to be a quick lunch between classes. As we waited for our orders to arrive, we examined the song selections contained by our table's jukebox unit, eventually noticing "Roxanne" by the Police. I convinced my buddy to let me play the record's B-side, the then-rare "Dead End Job."
I would not have normally felt comfortable subjecting my fellow diners to the song, a noisy punk rant that hardly qualifies as dinner music, but given the recording's brief duration, I figured no harm would be done. What I didn't know was that Nick's copy of the record was scratched. So instead of singing "Don't wanna be no number, don't want no dead-end job" and getting on with the song, Sting ended up singing "Don't wanna be no number, don't want no dead-end job" over and over. Because the skip did not interrupt the song's natural rhythm, no one noticed. Although it meant missing our next class, we decided to stay and see how long it would take for anyone to complain.

Eventually, someone sat down adjacent to us, made his own jukebox selection, and ordered and ate his lunch without getting to hear the song he'd paid for. Miffed, he brought the situation to the attention of Nick himself, who immediately stopped what he was doing and disappeared through a door, reappearing only after he'd brought the Police’s three-minute, thirty-second song to an end—forty-three minutes after it had begun.

Profile: Morphine's Dana Colley (1995)

(As published in B-Side)

When people think of Morphine--the disque noir rock trio best known for bringing the jazzy ambience of the Beat Era into the '90s--they usually think of Mark Sandman, the band's freely associating frontman and master of the two-string bass. But the full-bodied sax of Dana Colley plays an equally important role in the Morphine sound. Like Mark Sandman's singing, it's an eloquent voice in the trio's unique, three-way conversation. "Well," chuckles Colley, "I've always said that one of my biggest influences is Mark Sandman."

On Yes, Morphine's second and latest album for Rykodisc, the sax, bass, and voice interact with Billy Conway's articulate drumming to create an atmosphere of intrigue that's largely disappeared from the alternative landscape thanks to the Lollapalooza generation's obsession with obviousness. It's a mood that the trio doesn't arrive at by accident. "My role is to play back and forth between rhythm and harmonies," Colley explains, "between Billy's drums and Mark's bass and among the different chordal effects we get using Mark's voice and bass, with the sax taking on a third. You can go from a third to a rhythmic element at any point in any song. So there's a lot to work with."

As a result, different degrees of Morphine's muted intensity emerge throughout both Yes and its predecessor, Cure for Pain, from the subterranean hush of a spoken-word piece like “The Jury” ("The defendant will be remanded to the bailiff and fresh mint in sparkling water...") to the rumba-billy shimmy of Yes's first single, “Honey White.”

But all of it writhes with an after-hours sensuousness that boils to the surface most suggestively in “Super Sex.” "We figured 'Super Sex' would go over well in Europe," says Colley, recalling the band's decision to release it as a single overseas. "It's a little more dance oriented, and there's a big dance scene there. But when it came to deciding the U.S. single, we saw the potential of 'Honey White' immediately. It's a cut-to-the-chase kind of song that will stand up to radio play."

Colley began his development into one of rock's most visible saxmen at the age of "about seven" when the opportunity to join a school band presented itself. "My next-door neighbor was playing clarinet, and I thought that would be a cool instrument. But I found that there wasn't a lot of clarinet music I was interested in. It just didn't have the balls, the passion, or the soul that a saxophone did. So I made the transition.

“Then, when I was in high school, I got into jazz. But because I grew up in the '70s, I listened to a lot of guitar players and wanted to be more of a guitar player than a saxophone player. So I tried to find a way to do what guitar players were doing, but on the horn."

To this end, Colley eventually came up with ways to coax more than the usual number of rock 'n' roll sax textures out of his instrument. He also developed the crowd-pleasing trick of playing two saxophones at one time, an approach he even uses occasionally in the studio because he likes the sound. But as a lover of serious jazz, he's also careful not to exploit his role in the band for its gimmick value.

"Coltrane is my favorite saxophonist of all time," he confesses. "And I love Eric Dolphy and Ben Webster, too. I also love Steve Berlin of Los Lobos. He's been a great inspiration. But Coltrane, I think, took what Charlie Parker did and made it accessible. And Charlie Parker, you know, was the greatest."

Near the end of Clint Eastwood's 1988 Parker biopic Bird, a scene transpires that shows a seriously ill and no-longer-popular Parker confronting a significantly less-talented rival who nevertheless packs rock 'n' roll venues with screaming fans. It's a scene that illustrates the tension between experimentation and crowd pleasing, a scene that, according to Colley, "speaks volumes for any jazz player, or rock player, for that matter."

"There was no one who could play like Charlie Parker. But it wasn't understood. I mean, people also need to be able to empathize and feel that they could be the ones up there playing. I think that the greatest success of many rock bands is that they really can't play, yet they do it somehow. It's important to make what you do accessible."

Nevertheless, Colley hopes that Morphine remains a vehicle for the testing of musical boundaries. "‘The Jury' is definitely a little outside. And on 'Sharks' there's a level of distortion, a level of dissonance, that's more successful at conveying emotion than any series of scales you could play. We're definitely trying to bridge the gap between melody and dissonance and bring them both into play.

"I've often felt that the saxophone has been underutilized, and I certainly try to give it a different approach in terms of its position in rock music. But ultimately Billy and I are role players who attempt to hold up Mark's lyrics with the best possible foundation.

“After all," he adds modestly, "in order for a band to be successful, it has to go with its strengths. And Mark's songwriting is definitely the primary strength in this group."
Mark Sandman passed away in 1999 at the age of forty-six.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Profile: Epic Soundtracks

(As published in B-Side, 1995)

Epic Soundtracks--an English pop romantic whose music glows with the absorbed influences of Phil Spector, Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson, and Sister Lovers-era Alex Chilton--is feeling somewhat defensive these days. First of all, on the eve of his first U.S. tour, he worries that some of those most likely to enjoy his music may not have heard of him yet. Second, he fears that when they do, the information may come burdened with adjectives like "old" and "retro."

"I do love a lot of music from the past," he explains, "which is only to be expected because there's so much more old music than new music. But I also think the songwriting in the '60s was much better than it is today. Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, that Brill Building, pop songwriting--that's a dying art, and that's what I'm trying to latch onto."

Change My Life, Soundtracks’ third album for Bar/None, features such efforts at latching onto this dying art as “You Can Be My Baby”' (which with its mid-’60s Beatles flavor could've probably passed for a Fab Four outtake on Anthology One or Two), “Stealaway” (which with its classic “Be My Baby”' backbeat manages to echo not only Spector and Wilson but also Gerry Goffin and Carol King), “Wild Child” (which with its Jerry Lee Lewis-and-Iggy Pop quoting title and borrowed Carpenters lyrics still manages to sound like a Nick Drake tribute) and “Sweet Sixteen” (which with its Chuck Berry-and-Sam Cooke-quoting lyrics and its Burt Bacharach-on-downers ambiance ought to win over anyone not yet appealed to by the aforementioned tracks).

When horns show up--as they do, for instance, on the “Gloria”-derived “Landslide”--they sound punchy enough for Stax, and when they disappear--as they do, for instance, on the instrumental “Ring the Bells”--leaving Soundtracks' piano and two-man string section alone, one sees flashes of hazy-around-the-edges '60s films about young lovers running toward each other through fields full of wildflowers.

And what Soundtracks doesn't derive from pop he derives from gospel. The expression "steal away," after all, comes from the Negro-spiritual phrase book, and titles like “There's a Light Up in the Sky” (not to mention “There's Been a Change,” “I'll Sing a Hymn,” and “I Believe,” from his 1994 album, Sleeping Star) brim with inspiration. Yet Epic insists that religious yearnings as such have nothing to do with his music.

"I don't use that language because I'm religious. I'm probably the opposite, really. I use it for its feel. Alex Chilton has a song called 'Jesus Christ,' but he has said that it's not a religious thing that he's doing. I think, like me, he's drawn to the emotional content of gospel music and using it as a reference point."

Also like Alex Chilton, Soundtracks is drawn to the emotional content of the Chilton songs “Nightime” and “Thirteen”--so much so, in fact, that he's hidden a live medley of the two at the end of Change My Life.

"The end of the album is really 'The Wishing Well,'" says Soundtracks of the album's eleventh track. "But I put the Alex medley on there because I thought it had a really good feel to it and because it's a live recording of my current live band. I thought that since the current lineup doesn't really play on the album, this would show what the live band sounds like."

All this talk of Alex Chilton, Phil Spector, and Brian Wilson brings up the obvious question of the degree to which Epic's love for their music renders him vulnerable to the mental instability that often seems to be a necessary side effect of seeking salvation in audio perfectionism. One can't help asking, in other words, whether Soundtracks balances his often melancholy pop songs with hopeful lyrics because he fears that, deep down, the quest for the perfect pop song, like so many romantic quests, might be doomed to end in illusion.

"My stuff operates on different levels," he concedes, "and people who aren't really up on the music that has influenced me get mine all wrong and hear only the prettiness. But I'm latching onto something more. Take 'I've Seen the Light' or 'I Believe.' I think there was a turning point in my life, which wasn't religious so much as a feeling of simply getting through the worst of it and coming out in one piece."

And he believes that a large, if so far largely untapped, audience exists for his kind of music.

"That's the difficult thing," he observes, "trying to reach these people who you know exist and who you know would like your stuff if only they could hear it. My music's really miles away from the 'alternative rock' scene. It has nothing to do with Smashing Pumpkins.

“There's a lot of hope in my music, and the last thing I want is for people to hear it and say, 'Oh, that's sad,' because that's not what it's about."

Epic Soundtracks passed away in 1997 at the age of thirty-eight.

Gillian Welch: O Sister, Where Art Thou?

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer, 2001)

When Gillian Welch spoke to the Entertainer in the fall of ’98, she was a big star in a small constellation. Her second album Hell Among the Yearlings (Almo Sounds) had just come out, establishing with its sepia-tinted cover and austere folk balladry her status as America’s foremost bearer of the Western folk-song tradition. Still, the percentage of record buyers who’d heard of that tradition was significantly smaller than the percentage who hadn’t, and, short of a full-scale media blitz (Ken Burns Folk?), no change loomed on the horizon.

Enter O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen Brothers’ film based on Homer’s Odyssey, starring George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson as chain-gang escapees on the lam in Depression-era Mississippi. In addition to demonstrating the cinematic possibilities inherent in mixing myth, slapstick, grim realism, and music, the film contains
Welch’s first appearance on the big screen. Wearing a period-piece hat and glasses, she asks a clerk, “Do you have ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ by the Soggy Bottom Boys?” “No, ma’am,” he replies. “We’re all sold out.”

O Brother’s most enduring accomplishment, though, may turn out to be its discovery of a heretofore untapped audience for “old timey” music. As of this writing, its soundtrack has sold over two million copies and topped both Billboard’s “country” and “Internet” charts, a notable feat given the complete absence of contemporary country hitmakers from its nineteen-track program.

Overseen by T Bone Burnett, who also produced Welch’s first two albums, the soundtrack includes two performances by Welch--a duet with Alison Krauss on the gospel standard “I’ll Fly Away” and a trio with Krauss and Emmylou Harris on Welch’s own “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby,” the latter of which is lip-synched in the film by three libidinously languorous “sirens” as part of a successful attempt to entrance and waylay the Clooney, Turturro, and Nelson characters. “Doing ‘Nobody but the Baby’ was good,” recalls Welch, who not only had the thrill of singing it with Harris and Krauss but also, as the song’s composer, found herself in the status-conferring position of teaching it to them.

Not surprisingly, they proved quick on the uptake. “After all,” she points out, “it’s a fairly repetitive song, seeing as it’s one part field holler.” Even repetitive songs, however, can pose challenges. “We had to have a little discussion about who would take the high parts and who would take the low part. I think Emmy is so often asked to sing the very high parts that whenever she has the opportunity, she loves to sing the baritone because no one’s ever asked her to do that. So she pretty much said, ‘I’ll take the baritone,’ and she sounds really great.”

Incidentally, the main reason for Welch’s current spate of interviews is to allow her to promote Time
(The Revelator), her excellent, new, self-produced solo album and her first for Acony Records, the label she and her partner David Rawlings established in the wake of Almo Sound’s collapse. But she doesn’t mind discussing her association with the O Brother projects (she appears twice on Down from the Mountain [Lost Highway], a just-released recording of O Brother musicians performing live at the Grand Ol’ Opry’s Ryman Theater). Neither does she mind discussing her recent recordings of “Beulah Land” (on Avalon Blues: A Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurt [Vanguard]) or the folk ballad “Wind and Rain” (on Vanguard’s Songcatcher soundtrack). “I know it from the [Jerry] Garcia Acoustic Band,” she says of the latter. “I’ve sung it around the house for years but never performed it out or recorded it.”

Indeed, aspects of the artistic sensibility at work in Time (The Revelator) emerge even in the discussion of a topic as seemingly unrelated as “Wind and Rain.” For instance, Welch admits that she only heard the Garcia Band’s version (available on 1988’s Almost Acoustic as “Oh the Wind and the Rain”) one time, years ago, and therefore the lyrics she has committed to posterity are not necessarily those sung either by Garcia or by countless other balladeers throughout the centuries. “It’s the kind of song that, you hear it one time, and you remember the story,” she says, “but I couldn’t remember the specific verses, so we had to play fill-in-the-blanks. There’s some stuff in our version that’s never been around, and that’s O.K. Now other people will learn it with weird lyrics.”

She laughs at the irony of such a confession’s coming from her, an exemplar of roots authenticity admitting blithely to falsifying history. Only it turns out that perhaps reports of her fidelity to history may have been exaggerated, that, contrary to expectations often engendered by the very image that she herself has projected, she’d rather use, or even toy with, the past than venerate it.

Consider Time (The Revelator)’s central song, a seven-minute, forty-one-second song split into two tracks titled “April the 14th Part 1” and “Ruination Day Part 2,” and, like the rest of the album, pared down to nothing more than the yearning voices, acoustic guitars, and occasional banjos of Welch and Rawlings. Loosely constructed around events associated with significant and not-so-significant April 14th’s--the sinking of the Titanic, an indie band’s playing to no one at a godforsaken dive, the arrival of a great Oklahoma dust-bowl storm, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. But the song never says “Titanic,” referring only to “when the Iceberg hit.” It doesn’t specify the name of the band or why the “Okies” are fleeing. Instead of “Lincoln,” it simply refers to the “Great Emancipator” who takes “a bullet in the head.”

Welch isn’t particularly concerned that listeners, especially younger ones with bad grades in history, might not follow her allusions. “That’s O.K.,” she shrugs. “I mean, that’s the same thing with the word revelator. Someone might not know ‘John the Revelator’ [the gospel song from which Welch became acquainted with the word], but people have a reaction to that word anyway, in a vacuum, in a void. Something about that word has resonance for people, and I think the same thing’s true if you refer to the Great Emancipator. I may have a specific historical instance in mind, but I think it works even if you don’t know that, because it’s a good word.” Even if someone thinks she’s singing, say, about Martin Luther King, Jr., or Malcolm X. “I’m not particularly troubled by that. In fact, I’m almost more interested to see how people make their own sense of this stuff. It’s been really interesting so far.”

It could get more interesting. When the Beastie Boys quoted Steve Miller’s 1976 hit “Take the Money and Run” on License to Ill in 1986, millions were in on the joke, but Welch’s quotations from Miller’s 1968 non-hit “Quicksilver Girl” in “My First Lover” will no doubt mystify many a contemporary hipster, as might the verse in “Elvis Presley Blues” likening the King of Rock-and-Roll to the hammer-wielding folk hero John Henry.

The cut most likely to inspire “interesting” interpretations is the semi-title cut “Revelator,” a mysterious song that Welch renders even more so by not including printed lyrics in the CD booklet and by slurring them as she sings, freeing listeners to wonder whether the “fortune lady” in verse two “walked inside” or “walked and sighed,” or whether its last couplet is “clean and face and imitate her,” “cling and phase and imitator,” or something else entirely. One thing about which there’s no question: Welch begins verse four by singing “Leaving the valley, fucking outtasight,” a line as sure to hinder her induction into the Grand Ol’ Opry (which she’s played many times) as it is to accelerate her connection with the South Park generation.

Welch’s love for Time’s elusiveness extends to any discussion of the exact nature of her “partnership” with Rawlings (“Does it matter?,” she asks rhetorically). Yet there is one thing about which she’s adamant: the significance of the fact that Time’s cover is in color. Using black and white for the covers of Revival and Hell Among the Yearlings, she once said, “seemed appropriate” because the songs were “very stark” and “fairly dark in nature.”

Doesn’t she find the songs on Time stark and dark as well? “Give me some of what you’re having,” she sings in a dreamy, almost stoned voice on “I Dream a Highway.” “I’ll take you as a viper into my head, / a knife into my bed, / arsenic when I’m fed.” “Perhaps,” she answers, “but I see them as more colorful. There’s definitely more implied than is actually said, and there are larger musical arrangements implied than are actually there.

"I think there’s a broader palette.”

Gillian Welch: Purgatory, Anyone?

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer, 1998)

When Gillian Welch's first album, Revival (Almo Sounds), appeared in 1996 on a label notorious for being home to the overtly sleazy Garbagewoman Shirley Manson, it hardly seemed hell-bent for controversy. What, after all, could be less controversial than a twenty-eight-year-old woman strumming an acoustic guitar and singing plaintive ballads that went "When He calls me / I will be able / To meet my family / At God's table"?

Nevertheless, Welch ended up starting a rather heated debate in the editorial rooms of America's music magazines: Did a young woman who grew up in Hollywood, who didn't start listening to bluegrass until she was in college, and whose parents actually wrote music for The Carol Burnett Show have the right to pass herself off as some latter-day combination of the Stanley Brothers and Emily Dickinson?

Strange as it now seems, some of the sharpest, freshest, most affecting, and least affected music to shuttle down the major-label pipeline in years was actually on the verge of getting lost in an anemically academic debate--a debate, by the way, that was settled over thirty years ago when Hibbing, Minnesota's Robert Zimmerman moved to New York and emerged as Bob Dylan.

The debate eventually subsided, but not before surfacing once more in the August 9, 1998, issue of the New York Times. In an editorial headlined "So What's All The Fuss About 'Keeping It Real'?," Mark Kemp, MTV's vice-president for music development, paraphrased the central question thus: "Which is more genuine, the artist who is committed to the art of artifice or the one who uses real tragedy to land a hit single?"

Kemp proceeded to argue persuasively that "[s]trictly using the facts of an artist's background as a barometer of his or her honesty not only has become tedious but is also downright lazy thinking." Still, the very idea that he or anyone else has to defend Gillian Welch's music against such charges--especially when "Everyone lies about sex" has become a national mantra--is itself provocative. (Admittedly, "All singer-songwriters lie about their roots" isn't much of a soundbite.)

Perhaps the most ironic twist of the entire fracas is that even the Los Angeles Times's Robert Hilburn, whose reputation rests in large part on the few interviews he has conducted with Bob Dylan over the last twenty years, felt obliged to begin his positive review of Hell Among the Yearlings, Welch's latest album, with the following disclaimer: "Once you get past the fact that Welch is from West L.A. rather than the Appalachia you'd expect...."

The good news is that neither Welch nor her fans seem to care about her past, not when her present offers more musical riches than one can shake a Grammy-winning Anthology Of American Folk Music at. Like Revival, Hell Among the Yearlings finds Welch, her musical partner David Rawlings, and her producer T Bone Burnett eschewing nearly everything but acoustic guitars and an occasional banjo in their pursuit of that rarest and most delicate of pop-music commodities: a clear vision.

Welch, now thirty-one, began writing songs when she was in junior high. Although she has no plans to record her juvenilia or shop any of it around, she readily defends the relative merits of her precocious work. "They're not bad songs," she says. "They're a little more confessional than what I do now, but they're not terrible." As proof against more charges of revisionist self-history, she has preserved the notebook in which she wrote her early efforts, but, she says, "about the only people who've seen those are my parents."

If only for nudging contemporary songwriting away from confessionality, the music world owes Welch a debt of thanks. Instead of "expressing herself," she expresses something bigger, older, and more important. Just what it is she's hesitant to say. Like so many musicians, she has a hard time categorizing herself, laughingly referring to her work as "whatever genre you want to call what I do."

One reason that tags do not adhere to Welch's music is that all of her songs are co-credited to Rawlings, rendering the term "her songs" somewhat ambiguous. Another is that the tag has yet to be invented for music like Welch's: Ancient-sounding yet new, it's both more and less than the sum of its influences.

Its "folk" elements have made her a favorite at folk festivals around the country, and indeed fans of Sandy Denny and Linda Thompson will hear plenty to like in a songs such as "One Morning" and "Miner's Refrain," as will fans of Nick Drake in "Whiskey Girl." It was, however, the bluegrass and country communities that extended her the warmest welcomes when, after two years at Boston's Berklee College, she moved to Music City.

"When I moved to Nashville, I had about four songs that I would play for people," Welch recalls. "I knew that I needed to spend more time writing." Securing a publishing deal, she was able to stop adding to her growing list of day jobs and "really be a full-time writer."

It wasn't long before her efforts began to bear fruit. Kathy Mattea recorded "Patiently Waiting" and "455 Rocket," Trisha Yearwood recorded "Two Days from Knowing," and Emmylou Harris recorded "Orphan Girl," the song with which Welch would eventually lead off Revival. "That's how a lot of people first heard of me," says Welch of Harris's cover.

Not to be outdone, the bluegrass community also began helping themselves to Welch's expanding output. Tim and Molly O'Brien recorded "Orphan Girl" and "Wichita," Valerie Smith recorded "Red Clay Halo," and the Nashville Bluegrass Band recorded "Red Clay Halo," "One More Dollar," and "Tear My Stillhouse Down," the last two of which, like "Orphan Girl," also turned up on Revival. "I was really embraced by the bluegrass community in Nashville first," she says.

Being embraced by bluegrass musicians was fine with Welch, who describes herself as "a big fan of 'brother-team' music." "The early Monroe Brothers, the Delmore Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, the Stanley Brothers--that stuff had a pretty big impact on me." Especially the Stanley Brothers. "I don't think I'd be doing what I do if I hadn't heard them. Ralph Stanley's singing is probably one of the biggest vocal influences on me."

One of the biggest conceptual influences on her has been bluegrass's frequent exhumation of Scottish, English, and Appalachian ballads. "Most of the best ballads have as their subject a tragic incident," writes E. Talbot Donaldson in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, "often a murder or accidental death, generally involving supernatural elements." Substitute the phrase "Welch's songs" for "best ballads" and you have a perfect description of the songs on Revival and Hell Among The Yearlings.

The tragic incidents on Revival include the death of a child ("Annabelle"), the destruction of a life through gambling ("One More Dollar"), and the destruction of a life through moonshining ("Tear My Stillhouse Down"); on Hell Among the Yearlings there's an attempted rape and a murder in self-defense ("Caleb Meyer") and the destruction of a life through drugs ("My Morphine").

As for supernatural elements, Welch's songs are a primer in old-time religion. References to Christ the Savior, the Devil, heaven, and hell abound. "Till my body gives out / Gonna read the gospel pages" she sings in "Rock Of Ages," "Satan he lives / In my whiskey machine" in "Tear My Stillhouse Down."

"I've definitely listened to a lot of ballads," says Welch, who numbers "She's More to Be Pitied," "Pretty Polly," and "The Butcher's Boy" among her favorites. "The Devil Had a Hold of Me" (Hell Among The Yearlings) even contains a direct reference to the latter, while "Barroom Girls" (Revival) owes an obvious debt to "She's More to Be Pitied."

"They're very archetypal, to use a big word," laughs Welch. "They're very profound stories. They cut very deep, and they touch on some really basic emotions and human responses. That's part of what I respond to in the music, and that's part of why I write the way I do. I'm hoping to touch on that stuff too."

She's also hoping to gradually broaden her palette, and not only sonically. For her next album cover, the former photography major says that she's considering something other than the sepia-tinted black-and-white images that have adorned her first two releases. "That seemed to really suit this collection of songs. They were very stark and fairly dark in nature, but we're actually thinking of using color next time!"

To a music business that already finds Welch controversial, a color cover will probably rank with Dylan's going electric. If it does, Welch will deserve every bit of the ensuing acclaim.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

My Dinner with Jimi: Turtle Soup!

The line between an obscure flop and a cult favorite may be thin, but it’s real, and few films have walked it as patiently as My Dinner with Jimi (Micro Werks/Rhino).

A hit on the independent festival circuit in 2003, the ninety-minute film had a limited theatrical run in 2007. Now, with its release on DVD, it may finally become for fans of the Turtles--the pop group whose story it tells--what Head has long been to fans of the Monkees: a kaleidoscope through which to catch glimpses of that most dizzyingly centrifugal of decades, the ’60s.

Directed by Bill Fishman, My Dinner with Jimi is really two films in one. The first recreates the months in 1967 when the Turtles were transformed by their chart-topping hit “Happy Together” from Los Angeles favorites to international stars. It lasts an hour but feels shorter due to the fast pacing necessary to include multiple key episodes such as the Turtles’ appearing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, their late-night hobnobbing with rock royalty in L.A. (Jim Morrison, Cass Elliot, Frank Zappa) and London (Brian Jones, Graham Nash, the Beatles), and the tragi-comic draft dodging of the band’s frontmen Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman.

The second film-within-the-film inspired the title and provides the climax. It dramatizes a four-A.M. dinner that Kaylan had with a then little-known Jimi Hendrix at London’s Speakeasy club in 1968. It lasts only fifteen minutes but feels longer because it focuses on the uninterrupted eating, drinking, smoking, and talking of two characters.

Hendrix, whose career would soon sky rocket with his appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival, wants to know how it feels to have a number-one record. Kaylan, driven to introspection by the drugs and alcohol he has been consuming all night, confesses that neither fortune nor fame has brought him any nearer to discovering “inner truth” than he ever was. Hendrix urges him to enjoy the ride for all it’s worth; after all, it’s the “Summer of Love.” But for Kaylan, the “Bummer of Love” is more like it.

There are, of course, problems unique to films that depict historical events populated with famous people. Although the credits make clear from the outset that Kaylan himself wrote the script, viewers made skeptical by one too many over-fictionalized biopics may still find their enjoyment hampered by a preoccupation with the film’s verisimilitude or lack thereof.

Such skeptics should select the “extras” option from the DVD’s main menu and watch the film with its commentary-track enabled first. In it Kaylan and producer Harold Bronson spontaneously, and very entertainingly, establish that many of the events took place exactly as depicted and share relevant behind-the-scenes anecdotes.

The other problem is casting actors who look enough like the people they portray to enable suspension of disbelief. On this score My Dinner with Jimi succeeds surprisingly well. Royale Watkins as Hendrix, Jason Boggs as Volman, and Brian Groh as John Lennon are so convincing in both appearance and manner that the few who fall even a little bit short (Quinton Flynn is more Eric Idle than Paul McCartney) are conspicuous by comparison.

There is one interesting Turtles footnote that goes unmentioned in Bronson’s and Kaylan’s commentary: Volman, who with Kaylan still performs as the Turtles, became a Christian in the 1990s and is now an associate professor at Nashville’s Belmont University and, with his wife, a youth-group leader at his church.

Knowing what he has become significantly enhances the scene in which he meets musicians once considered “bigger than Jesus.”


The (Actual) Turtles: "You Baby"

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Boozoo Chavis: For Mature Audiences Only

(This piece was the cover story of the 1999 Jazz Fest issue of Offbeat magazine. Of all the interviews I conducted with Cajun and zydeco musicians, the one from which this article grew was my favorite by far.)


The directions to his house that Boozoo Chavis gives journalists who call to schedule interviews with him can be confusing. Sometimes he says "turn right" when he means "turn left" and "turn left" when he means "turn right." Inevitably, if the journalist is lucky, one of Chavis's sons will be near the phone, overhear the confusion, and straighten out the mess.

Given Chavis's unusually strong distrust of interviewers, one can't help wondering if he provides wrong directions on purpose. "When they say 'interviews,' it's like you're hitting me in the head with a stick," he says. "But after I'm doin' it, it's O.K."

Chavis, sixty-eight, has made many such remarks over the years. Today he's making them from the kitchen table of his Lake Charles home over the sounds of an afternoon TV show playing unwatched in an adjacent room. Later tonight Chavis may or may not watch the Grammy Awards in that room. One reason he might watch is that he considers the Grammy one of the few truly meaningful awards in the music business.

One reason he might not watch is that his last album, Hey Do Right! (Antone's), came out over two years ago and therefore can't possibly be among the titles nominated in the only category in which a zydeco album can win: "Best Traditional Blues." Still fighting, fifteen years after beginning his comeback, for the recognition he deserves as one of zydeco's true living legends, he almost certainly won't derive enough pleasure from the sight of other musicians getting theirs to make an evening of it.

"'I'm comin' to interview you!'" he laughs, imitating the many journalists he's talked with over the years. "They ask you some of the damnedest questions you ever see. And when I tell them, 'Don't put that in there,' they put exactly that. If you say the wrong thing about an individual and it's on the tape, when them people see you, you don't know how to face them, and they don't know how to face you."

More than once, Chavis has vowed to stop giving interviews altogether. So far, however, his management and the record companies for whom he records have been able to find ways to get the gruff-voiced zydeco star to keep on talking.

On this sunny February afternoon, he'd prefer to stick to subjects that won't get him into trouble--subjects, in other words, that won't make him mad. Fair enough, you might think, but given the fact that with Boozoo Chavis almost every topic raises his hackles, the prospects for a meaningful visit all of a sudden look bleak.

When asked how long he spent at Dockside Studios in Maurice, LA, recording his brand-new album, the excellent Who Stole My Monkey? (Rounder), he says "one day" and launches into a colorful assault on those who approach the recording of albums like the building of Rome. No sooner has he begun, though, then he espies the tape recorder and asks, "You got that thing on?"

Yes. Is that all right?

"No. I'll quit right there."

For the next fifteen minutes, the tape recorder shut off, he gets quite a bit off his chest. He believes, for instance, that interviewers like to quote him complaining--"telling the truth," as he calls it--because they think his rural Creole English sounds funny. He also believes that Rounder has decided to use photographs of him with his mouth open on the front and back cover of Who Stole My Monkey? because he looks funny that way. In short, he's afraid of not being taken seriously, of being taken for a clown and nothing more.

Wilson "Boozoo" Chavis is much more than a clown. In addition to being one of the two most influential modern zydeco musicians (Clifton Chenier, of course, is the other), he's a successful race-horse trainer, husband, father, and grandfather. He's also a walking encyclopedia of Depression-era American pop music. He's happy to reveal, for instance (after having been assured that the tape recorder will be shut off any time he starts to grouse) that he based his hit from Hey Do Right!, "You're Gonna Look like a Monkey," on a song with a similar title that was popular when he was a boy.

"That's an old song, yeah. Somebody else cut it with a guitar way yonder in Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker's time, way back there. People forgot about that song, but I remembered it because I used to play it way before the '80's. I don't know who cut it, white or black, but they cut it somewhere around in the blues time.** And it wasn't no zydeco. No. Nobody around here had sang and cut that. I'm the only one.

"Remember a long time ago they had that record about the old gray mule, the old gray mare or something?" The subject of old songs has wrought a surprising transformation of mood. All of a sudden, Boozoo Chavis the Zydeco Misanthrope is gone, replaced by Boozoo Chavis the Boy at Heart.

"Way back there we was picking cotton," he reminisces. "That's where that monkey come from, way up in those times. This was back in the '40's, about this monkey. Sometimes you'd hear a song on the radio--you'd hear some good songs--and you'd say, 'Man, I could play this. I can change this song to something.' I'd catch songs on the radio when we was pickin' cotton, when I was about eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old. Yeah. This where the music come from.

"There was an old song that I used to think about cutting," he continues. A moment later he's singing "Oh, Susanna," unaccompanied and with considerable feeling: '''I'm going to Alabama with a banjo on my knee / Oh, Susie Anna, Susie Anna, don't you cry for me.' I was a little boy, nine or ten years old, singing that song all the time, and I was thinking about cuttin' that, but I said, 'No, I'm gonna be copyin' off of somebody.' I could cut that song. I know it just like it was today. Remember Louis Jordan?"

Chavis sings a verse of "Caldonia." "I could cut that. I've been knowing that song since I was a kid."

As Chavis sings, "'Choo-choo ch-boogie / take me right back to the track, Jack'" ("T-Bone Walker was playin' and all that"), one gets the impression that he could go on singing like this for days, that were he to sing all the songs he knows, all the blank tape in the world might not hold them. "'Open the door, Richard! / Richard, why don't you open that door?'" he sings. "'Hey, Mr. Landlord! Knock upon the door! / When the policeman comes around / tell him the joint is closed / and let the good times roll.'

"See," he says, "that's all them old songs. I can play all that." Pointing at his head, he adds, "That's all in here."

Not all of the songs that Chavis remembers from his childhood were staples of the Hit Parade. In fact, songs such as "Monkey and the Baboon," "Uncle Bud," and "Deacon Jones" are downright raunchy. Even in today's permissive climate, a radio station that played unexpurgated versions of the songs could lose its license.

Nevertheless, all three appear on Who Stole My Monkey? And although Chavis has cleaned up "Monkey and the Baboon" and performed it as the Sonny Boy Williamson standard "Bottle Up and Go," he's left both "Uncle Bud" and "Deacon Jones" untouched, performing them in all their X-rated glory. "Note," reads the fine print on the back of the album, "tracks fifteen and sixteen are not suitable for airplay." "Parental Advisory," reads a label on the front, "Explicit Content."

Chavis, who until today was unaware of the by now commonplace parental-advisory label ("If they ain't got that on there, the parents wouldn't know that it's rated X?"), thinks the warning is a good idea. "It's good to put that on there because the kids might get a-hold to it. 'Mama, I was listenin' to Mr. Boozoo's record.' 'What? You was listenin' to that?'"

According to Chavis, the songs, which sound like nothing so much as Redd Foxx gone zydeco, have their origins in real life. "My grandpa was named Uncle Bud. That's where this come from." He laughs. "His son was Dudley Pete. 'In 1819, twenty years ago / Uncle Bud beat the shit out of Cotton-eyed Joe'--you see? We'd be talkin' and in the field, in the room, anywhere, and we'd come up with all that kind of stuff."

Parents have little or nothing to fear from the remaining thirteen songs on Who Stole My Monkey? (which, by the way, Chavis says was supposed to be You Stole My Monkey). With the exception of the mildly risqué "Dance All Night" (the verses exhort listeners to take off their shoes, wigs, and drawers, respectively), the program consists of the sort of good-natured, rough-around-the-edges zydeco for which Chavis has become famous. And with the exception of "Marksville Slide" and "Sock It to Me," which feature the vocals of his son and rubboard player Charles, he sings lead on every song.

Chavis and his band, the Magic Sounds, recorded the new album last September, just three days after Chavis had been released from the hospital where he'd spent two weeks undergoing treatment for pneumonia and heart failure. Two days after they'd completed the album, they showed up for their annual gig at the Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Festival in Plaisance. "I was weak," Chavis remembers. "I had to play sitting down."

In addition to warning him not to perform too vigorously, his doctors also told him to eliminate salt and cigarettes. "I followed that for about a week," he chuckles. "Man, I couldn't eat that food without no salt!" Eventually, however, he knuckled under, gradually curtailing both his sodium and caloric intake.

Giving up cigarettes he has found more difficult. "I had quit before I went in the hospital. Then I went back to stealing one every once in a while. Then last week I said, 'O.K., I'm gonna quit.' So since last Friday I never smoked. Today's Wednesday. It don't bother me. I could've been quit a long time ago.

"Still," he smiles, casting an eye in the direction of his bedroom, "I got some cigarettes in that drawer. Kools, in a two-pack. And I got a lighter in that drawer too!"

Perhaps nothing captures the essence of Boozoo Chavis--the man and the musician--more fully than the fact that, after losing the top joints of two of the fingers on his left hand four years ago in a freak accident, he has continued performing and squeezing his accordion as if nothing serious had happened. "They don't hurt no more," he says matter-of-factly. "They get cold when the weather's cold, but they don't hurt."

"That was something else," he says of the experience. "One piece was hanging. Oh, I couldn't hardly stand it! But I stood it like a man."

Both the injury and the amputations occurred in Lake Charles on a Thursday. The next day Chavis was performing in Washington, D.C. "I had them fingers wrapped up because they was bleeding. But I kept going. I never stopped. And all them people just said, 'Boy, you're tough.'"

The tape ends. Chavis has been answering questions for an hour now, an hour in which seldom was heard a discouraging word. As soon as the tape recorder shuts off, however, he takes advantage of the freedom that comes with being off-the-record to criticize a lot of people whose identities are better left unknown--and to recite an a cappella version of another one of his X-rated ditties, "Boozoo's Blue Balls Rap."

Surely, his Grammy for "Best Parental-Advisory-Stickered Rap Performance by an Accordion-Playing Sexagenarian" can't be far off.


**Chavis is probably thinking of "You're Bound to Look like a Monkey (When You Grow Old)," the only currently circulating version of which is Hank Penny's 1951 Western-swing version.

Boozoo Chavis: R.I.P.

(As published in the Times of Acadiana, May 15, 2001)

When Boozoo Chavis died last week at the age of seventy, zydeco lost more than a living legend and a musical original. It also lost its most colorful and lovably irascible character.

There was no secret to his appeal: the man was a riot. He could turn a pro forma interview into an evening with Rodney Dangerfield. Not that Dangerfield would ever choose to make comedic hay out of Chavis’s favorite subjects--himself, zydeco, and horse racing, in that order--but if he were to, he’d do it with the same devil-may-care candor. “I’ve been married forty-seven years to the same woman,” Chavis once told me, explaining the duration of his success. “And when I play that dance tonight, I come back with money. I didn’t sneak and give twenty or thirty dollars to this woman here. I didn’t pay no forty dollar for no motel room.”

Chavis didn’t like being thought of as funny. He thought people were laughing at him, not with him. The real-life situations out of which his humor grew were often painful. Most of them had to do with his being ripped off: not receiving royalties for recordings or credit for songs that others had “stolen” from him, suffering the financial repercussions of having to play second fiddle to younger zydeco stars who “don’t know nothin’,” finding that a record company had put a photo of him with his mouth open on his CD cover when he’d specifically asked them not to.

I had the pleasure of interviewing him twice, the first time in January 1997, by phone. No sooner had his wife picked up the receiver than he told her to tell me he couldn’t talk because he’d just gotten out of the shower and had shampoo in his eyes. “I just got out of the shower and I got shampoo in my eyes!” he repeated when she put him on anyway. No one--not his publicist, his manager, or my editor--had told me that, aside from making zydeco history with “Paper in My Shoe” in 1955, Chavis was best known for his hatred of interviews.

Two years later I was assigned another Boozoo story. This time he agreed to host me at his Lake Charles home, even giving me the directions himself. There was only one stipulation, of which he did not apprise me until I’d arrived: he would not talk into a tape recorder. Only after I’d spent twenty minutes assuring him that I wouldn’t reproduce anything libelous would he go on the record.

One exchange in particular stands out. Why, I asked, had he returned to performing in the mid-’80’s after a thirty-year layoff?

He paused, then said, “I just wanted to show the world what I could do.”

No one who ever saw or heard what he could do would ever think he was joking. R.I.P.

Money Music, Vol. One (Tapeworm, 1996)

In the '90s, I had the priviledge of contributing to three really fun fanzines: Radio On (edited by Phil Dellio), Why Music Sucks (edited by Frank Kogan), and Tapeworm (edited by Jeff Pike). Each had its own focus, and each included contributions from great music writers. Creations of the Snail Mail and Kinko's Age, they were labors of love in both senses of both L-words. While the online-community explosion made them easier to assemble and should've therefore kept them more alive than ever, it killed them off instead. (Or maybe the editors just excised me from the club. I don't know.) I do know that I looked forward to and enjoyed writing for them almost as much as I looked forward to and enjoyed reading them.

One of Tapeworm's recurring article ideas involved compiling a mix tape and send the cassette and its "liner notes" to Jeff Pike. Readers could request from him copies of the tape; he would publish the notes in the 'zine. What follows is my contribution to Tapeworm #4.

MONEY MUSIC, VOLUME ONE (Sony CD-IT, Type II [High Position], 94 min.)

Tapewormers, this is the tape you've been waiting for: twenty-six songs, twenty-five artists, over a dozen genres, three available-nowhere-else bootleg tracks by living legends, and--best of all--all the songs concern money! Sorry if the ninety-four-minute length puts Jeff in a bind. Maybe one song on each side will have to become a legendary, seldom-heard bonus track.


1. "There Is Nothing Quite As Wonderful As Money," Monty Python's Flying Circus (The Instant Monty Python CD Collection, Virgin '94)--One of the shortest songs here, and proof that Eric Idle was the cute Rutle.

2. "Born to Be Sold," Transvision Vamp (Velveteen, Uni '89)--One of the best rock-and-roll songs of the '80s, and proof that Wendy James should've stuck with songs not written by Elvis Costello.

3. "It All Comes Down to the Money," Terminator X and the Godfathers of Threatt with Whodini (Super Bad, P.R.O. Division/Ral '94)--Featuring Khadejia Bass on show-stealing "background vocals." One of the best rap songs of the '90s, and proof that that Terminator X should've stuck with songs not rapped by Chuck D.

4. "Here's a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)," Travis Tritt (Greatest Hits, Warner Bros. '95)--One of the funniest titles here, and proof that phone rates do affect scansion.

5. "Can't Buy Me Love," the Beatles (live bootleg, '65)--From perhaps the most famous rock-and-roll concert ever (Shea Stadium), and proof that Ringo was--well, he's inaudible, so he lacked either sufficient amplification or sufficient thwack. The shrieking girls, however, come through.

6. "Money (That's What I Want)," the Milkshakes (Twenty Rock 'n' Roll Hits of the '50s and '60s, Big Beat/Ace '84)--One of the best garage-rock covers of a Barrett Strong song ever, and proof that--um, that so far I've found six songs about filthy lucre.

7. "I Had but Fifty Cents," Jackie Gleason (And Awaaay We Go!, Scamp '94)--One of the funniest recitations here, and proof that if you want to be happy for the rest of your life, you should never make a hungry woman your wife.

8 & 9. "Money Talks" and "I Will Turn Your Money Green," Alex Chilton (live bootleg, '94)--Two of the loosest and lowest-fi recordings here, and proof that Chilton introduced the songs by saying, "We're going to do a couple of songs now about something that's not everything but that's way ahead of whatever's in second place--money."

10. "Shake Your Money Maker," Mud Boy and the Neutrons (They Walk Among Us, Koch '95)--One of the few non-B.T.O. songs on this tape to sound as if it could've been done by B.T.O. if B.T.O. hadn't been caffeine-avoiding Mormons; proof that Jim DIckinson, on his work with the Stones, Chilton, and the Replacements, was holding back.

11. "Gimme Your Money Please," Bachman-Turner Overdrive (Best of B.T.O. [So Far], Mercury '75)--One of the good songs left off the B.T.O.'s Greatest Hits CD, and proof that C.F. Turner once wrote and sang, "And I saw that he be liquored."

12. "If I Had 1,000,000 Dollars," Barenaked Ladies (Shoe Box EP, Reprise '96)--One of the funniest songs here, and proof that B.T.O. are not this tape's only Canadians.

13. "Take the Money and Run," Steve Miller Band (Greatest Hits 1974-78, Capitol '78)--One of the greatest throat clearings in the history of Top Forty, and proof, considering all the people who've robbed banks after hearing this song, that Capitol and all other responsible labels should have refused to have anything more to do with this Ice-T prototype.

14. "Git Dat Money," the A-Town Players (The Players, Vol. One, Premeditated '95)--One of the few songs on this great-and-getting-greater tape to refer to the profits that record companies hoped to make off those new-fangled, superior cassettes that would only play on those thousand-dollar, new-fangled, superior cassette players, and proof that "Wassup" is not the only phrase that kept these guys from being called the "A-Town Spellers."

Side Two

15. "If I Were a Rich Man" (Fiddler on the Roof, United Artists '71)--One of the few songs that I use in the classroom to review the use of "were" in "contrary-to-fact" statements, and proof that not knowing the words is no reason to not sing a song.

16. "Gravy," the Globetrotters (The Globetrotters, Kirshner '70)--One of the only songs that you'll ever hear from The Globetrotters, easily a better album than In Utero and Nevermind combined (especially combined); proof that the best hard-rock-soul-bubblegum song of the '70s came from the soundtrack to a Saturday-morning cartoon.

17. "Got to Get Myself Some Money," Solomon Burke (A Change Is Gonna Come, Rounder '85)--One of the funkiest pleas for "some genius [to] invent a pill that can make hundred-dollar bills" ever, and proof that King Solomon never considered the downright awkward (and quite possibly painful) consequences of trying to mint money that way.

18. "If I Had No Loot," Toni Tony Tone (Sons of Soul, Wing '93)--One of the few songs I know that cites the negative side effects of loot; proof that there's just no satisfying some people.

19. "If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time," Mose Allison (Western Man, Atlantic '71)--One of the two by His Moseness that I considered ("Love for Sale" is the other; maybe on Vol. Two), and proof that no one tells the truth as if it's no big deal better than His Moseness.

20. "Gold and Silver," Crash Vegas (Stone, London '93)--Not one of the better songs here, but the only "Gold and Silver" song I could find to put before "Silver and Gold" by Beggars; proof that I'll sacrifice anything--even listenability--for symmetry.

21. "Silver and Gold," Beggars (Beggars, Island '95)--One of three "Silver and Gold"s I tested (U2's and Kirk Franklin's were the others), and proof that shimmery alternapop rules, dude!

22. "Girl Money," Kix (Hot Wire, EastWest '91)--One of the raunchier selections on this otherwise family-friendly tape, and proof that sexism and heavy metal, despite their long history of mutual antagonism, definitely can coexist.

23. "Eat the Rich," Aerosmith (Big Ones, Geffen '94)--One of the raunchier selections on this otherwise family-friendly tape, and proof that since Aerosmith themselves are among "the rich," they really want to eat themselves.

24. "Rich Boys," After the Fire (Batteries Not Included, Epic '81)--One of the "rich" songs that made the cut when I realized that ten minutes of Iggy Pop's "Rich Bitch" wouldn't fit, and proof that there was more to these zippy Brits than "Der Kommissar."

25. "Rich Girl," Hall and Oates (Bigger Than Both of Us, RCA '76)--One of the other "rich" songs that made the cut in lieu of Iggy's lack of discipline, and proof that I didn't need Iggy to include the word bitch here.

26. "Robert De Niro's Waiting," Bananarama (Bananarama, London '84)--One of the few songs here to use pidgin Spanish, and proof that Keren was the smart Banana.