Saturday, December 27, 2008

Hillbilly Highway

Like a lot of culture vultures with an appetite for so-called Americana, I'm ambivalent about the sticks. I'll sing along to Terry Fell one minute, then lapse into Easy Rider style hicko-phobia the next. On my recent drive from Boston to Austin, which took me through parts of Appalachia, the Ohio River Valley, and the Ozarks, I had plenty of opportunity to swing between extremes.

Here's a partial diary:

December 22, 2008: I gotta wonder, are the ugliest people in the US scattered along I-70? Driving west thru Washington, PA, Wheeling, WV, and Columbus, OH, I get the impression that every rest stop, gas station, and quickie mart we hit is full of fat, drawling mutants lining up to buy Big Gulp Mountain Dew. Caught a bad dose of the heartland horrors at a Wendy's just outside of Zanesville, OH, surrounded by characters that could have come straight from Roy Tompkins' "Trailer Trash" comic. None of us really ate our fastfood --so soft and bland, almost like babyfood-- so much as we seemed to absorb it thru large facial orifice.

December 23, 2008: Left Dad's place in the St. Louis suburbs, drove thru late afternoon rains along I-44, which follows the old Route 66. East of Springfield, MO, we stopped at one of those corny souvenir/antique shops dotting the highway here. Turns out they had a big bin full of C&W records.

Scored a mono copy of that 1st Webb Pierce LP. One big highlight here is his version of Jimmie Rodgers' "He's in the Jailhouse Now." Great country boogie guitar on that one. Was Roy Hall playing piano for Webb at that point?

Also picked up a mono copy of the Johnny Paycheck LP "Jukebox Charlie", on Aubrey Mayhew's Little Darlin' label. Crazy steel guitar provided by Lloyd Green. One of my favorites here is their version of Bobby Bare's "Motel Time Again."

Finally, I couldn't resist cornball Johnny Bond party record "Ten Little Bottles" on Starday, which features the boozer's singalong "Three Sheets in the Wind".

December 23, 2008: Took highway 65 outta Springfield, MO, thru silly-ass Branson, bound for Little Rock. This road goes thru Ozarks, eerie hollers and pitch-black woods. Fog was so thick at certain points that we could see no more than 10 feet in front of the car. So that slowed us down to an utterly tedious 20mph for almost 50 miles. Easy Rider phobia kicked in hard at this point. I could see us trying to rest at a mountain turn-off, to end up getting moonshined, or hip-mo-tized by Ozark myth monster the Yarp, or otherwise devoured by the evil lurking in the American wilderness. I was never so happy to see a Tiger Mart open in the middle of the night as when we finally reached Conway, AR.

Illustration: Harvey the Hillbilly Bastard, by Roy Tompkins

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Still Paying the Rent

By now, thirty years after the release of their first single, Jeff Conolly's band the Lyres have become sorta like their namesake ancient instrument. They've been here among us since the earliest days. Cities come and go. Civilizations rise, fall, and burn. But the Lyres remain. In the underground rock universe, thirty years is a long goddamned time.

Maybe they've released nothing new since... when? 2003? But who cares? Especially when Conolly, who's hired and fired more musicians over the years maybe even than Buddy Rich, currently leads his greatest line-up through the monthly hometown "rent gig." Drummer Paul "Machine Gun" Murphy, bassist Rick Corraccio, who both played with Conolly in the mighty DMZ, and guitarist Dan McCormack (along with Conolly himself on vocals and vox) make up the same band that plays on the classic 1984 On Fyre LP, as well as the "She Pays the Rent" EP from the following year, both released on Rick Harte's Ace of Hearts label.

On Fyre, which for several months in '84-'85 held a steady position on the college radio charts, demonstrates the Lyres' cover song effect pretty well. Mingling there with signature Conolloid originals "Help You Ann" and "Don't Give It Up Now" are a couple of Kinks tunes, another by the New Colony Six, and one by Pete Best, "The Way I Feel About You." Likewise, the "Lyres, Early Days" live CD, a merger of two earlier, oop live LP's on Crypt, features tons of covers, with work-outs of material mostly by American bands like the Wailers, Don & the Goodtimes, and the Chocolate Watchband. Nowadays, the live set seems to emphasize Conolly's fascination with Wally Tax and Tony Jackson. These two currents of 60's punk --that Northwest sound, and the European, or what's now called freakbeat, have fueled Conolly's output going back to the DMZ days.

According to Brett Milano's Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting, Conolly follows a code when selecting the band's cover material. The Lyres only play songs which he owns in original form, as singles. To think of it sorta boggles a record collector's mind. Imagine, original versions of "Enough of What I Need" by San Antonio thugs the Stoics, "Wasting My Time" by the New Breed, "Talk About Her" by the Sevens, all current rent gig regulars. Tony Jackson? Forget it. You couldn't find it even if you had the dough. As Conolly says, as quoted in Milano's book, "I'm not a collector, I'm a friggin' archivist."

That he makes these songs his own speaks, I think, to Conolly's talent as a stylist. And that's a talent that don't get too much cred these days. But there was a time when careers were built as much on interpretation and delivery as composition. The Coasters did their Lieber-Stoller. Jerry Lee Lewis played, well, everything. And their versions of the chosen material often stand out as the best. In some cases, I think the same can be said for Conolly's covers. Like for rockin' power and menace, I'll take the Lyres' version of "No Reason to Complain," and Don & the Goodtimes wish they sounded as good playing their own "Little Sally Tease."

By harping on Jeff Conolly as a song stylist, I don't mean to detract from his song writing. And he's penned some rockers. If you add it all up, the split's about 50/50, covers vs. originals. Not a bad rate, over the course of a R'n'R career. Like Axl Chitlin has said, an artist is doing good to write one decent song ever, great if they write one per year. This bit about churning out an album's worth of original material each year is a standard propagated by record companies, and has only led to an increasingly vast heap of insipid dreck.

So is Jeff Conolly the Jerry Lee of 60's (by way of 80's-2000's) garage punk? Go ahead, try that one on for size. The fit might feel a little loose at first. Still, many have tried, but few, including many from that original crop that Conolly first sought to emulate, have managed to bash this stuff out so relentlessly, for so long, and with such skill. As others have noted, most garage bands from the last thirty years have merely been Lyres-in-training. And barring the occasional break or hiatus, Conolly & Co still belt out some of the best live R'n'R you're likely to hear in these suckshit times, and they do it almost every month. And it's still possible on those truly special nights down in the dank basement of the Cantab Lounge, in Central Square, to hear 'em run through practically the entire songbook, no matter how indifferent the world might be at this point. And how often does that happen in your town?


Although I'm partial to those old Ace of Hearts records, nearly all of the Lyres' best releases were reissued on CD by Matador Records about 10 years ago. I think many of these are still in print 'coz I still see them in the bins from time to time, and they always include lots of great bonus cuts and scattered EP's. Tim Warren keeps most of those Crypt releases in print too.

Thanks to Stevie Gomez for use of the band photos.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Shootin' My Spacegun

I ain't no autogaph collector, or handwriting analyzer, but here's my favorite show-biz signature, scrawled by... Well, you can read for yourself. The Ledge's original version of the song "I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spacecraft", not Bowie's suckshit disco version, inspired the name for this blog. I'm currently unable to post the song, since the copy I have is on vinyl and I don't yet own one of those USB turntables. But here's some Youtube footage of his appearance on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. When? '67-'68?

The portrait was taken by Stephanie Chernikowski and originally ran in Forced Exposure (#16), from around '90-'91, just one of her many great shots that appeared in that magazine.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

You Oughta Do Like Me and Get on Down to Lansky Brothers

Screamin' Jay Hawkins & Cinque Lee in a still from Mystery Train. Screamin' Jay's suit from Lansky Bros., Memphis, TN.