Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Get Behind Me Satan And Push- Intro Chapter

EDIT: A few years ago I was bored, living in a shit hole town (that would be Madison, WI), not able to find a decent job, and miserable. The only things that made me feel better at that moment were the oodles of obscure country, blues and rockabilly songs I was hearing via Mark Lee Allen’s “Vinyl Wastelands” CD comps and YouTube playlists (now out on vinyl on Trailer Park Records). Desperate for distraction (other than all of the beer and cheese), I decided to write a book about some of my favorite scandalous, raunchy and silly tunes. It helped to pass the time and keep my fingers warm in the freezing apartment I lived in with my emotionally frozen then-wife. Life was UNGOOD.

But the music, and writing about it, got me through. I dunno if I will ever finish or publish this book, but I wanted to share some of it here. Below is the opening chapter.

RECORD COLLECTORS ARE PRETENTIOUS ASSHOLES (or, how I selected the songs for this book)

I have a recurring dream. In this dream, I am floating through the air in slow motion. The world seems to look as if I was watching it on an old sepia-tone film, and a golden light streams softly into my vision from afar. Clouds, or unseen hands, or perhaps an invisible mini bar on wheels supports my weight as I lay there on my back, slowly floating forward. All around me, spinning slowly, rotating and flipping sides, are floating 45 rpm records. I languidly reach out my hands to grasp them, but they slip through my fingers before I can read their precious labels. But I can see their logos, oh yes. I can see the Sun rooster, I can see the slick fonts of Cadence and Swan and Starday and King and Meteor. I look around and I realize that there are millions of these records, suspended in the air. Billions. All floating just beyond my reach. Falling like black licorice snowflakes. I know then, and the sudden sickening lurch of my stomach knows too, that I will never be able to hear them all. These beautiful, spinning black discs. These shining prizes. This arcane knowledge, this vibrant, unknown music that is etched in the grooves of these magical records will not be mine to know.

Somewhere off in the distance, I am certain I can hear the voice of Charlie Feathers, his southern drawl dripping with honey and laced with a delicious, hiccupping speech impediment. It is the voice of the hopes and dreams of men. Men and women who wanted to drive Cadillacs, wear fine clothes and sing absurd hillbilly rock and roll for a living. Still, their glorious records are spinning faster now, wildly faster and out of my grasp. Charlie Feathers’ honeyed tones turn into a slap back echo laden, tortured wail, and I jolt awake, sweating.

Writing this book was a lot like that dream of mine. I started earnestly and with great hope. I made a list of some rockabilly songs that I loved, that I figured were both a little “out there”, and fun to write about. Some pretty well known, and some more obscure. Then I started sending the list to rockabilly and hillbilly DJs, record collectors, musicians and fanzine writers whom I either knew personally or was friendly with on the internet. Some of these people referred me to other people, those people referred me to others, and it went on and on. Many of them were not interested in speaking with me. Many were suspicious of my intentions. Many mocked my song selections as “too obvious, too popular” and said that these records were merely the tip of the iceberg. The peak of the mountain range that is the great, mid century, hillbilly detritus. The vast, ever-reaching piles of obscure, bizarre, strange, inept and disturbing rockabilly and hillbilly records recorded in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Of course, I already knew all of that. I knew that even if I researched this book for the rest of my life, I would still likely never hear all of the crazy shit that’s out there. So, about two days into my research, which began on Elvis Presley’s birthday (January 8th), I decided to ignore the experts and do what I wanted to do, which was write a book about a handful of songs that moved me, rocked me, made me laugh, made me feel taller, made me dance drunk with my wife against her will in our living room, made me shake my head in silent disbelief, made me put extra grease in my hair, and made me eat a whole boot sock full of raw bacon fat, just because.

Another good reason to write about a record is that the record in question is utterly terrible. Whether it’s terrible in a humorous way, or terrible in a way that makes you dizzy and feverish with vomiting and loss of consciousness. Those records are also fun to write and read about.

These simple and very personal pre-requisites had to be my guide, because as soon as I discovered one hilarious hillbilly song about alien abduction, I then unearthed a behemoth mountain pile of even more demented, obscure, arcane, wigged out songs. Every time I found a great tune about ghosts, or vampires, or ghouls and goblins, I soon stumbled onto endless lists of a million more mid-century Halloween novelty records.

There are a gazillion religious country songs that mention Satan in a quaint and amusing manner. There are a shocking amount of songs about suicide and death out there, such as Buddy Knox’s “I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself”, Billy Hunt’s “The Welcome Touch Of Death”, and Louie Innis’ “Suicide”, all of which are great songs, on top of being either amusing or disturbing. Sexual politics is another favorite hillbilly subject, and songs such as Gloria Becker’s “16 Pounds (of Laundry)”, Benny Johnson’s “Burn Your Bra, Baby”, and Little Carolyn Sue’s excellent (and to the point) tune “I Hate Men” are some pretty viable examples. There are even some records out there that are too weird to be categorized, such as young Troy Hess’ jaw-dropping “Please Don’t Go Topless, Mother”, and Jerry And Brad’s absolutely brilliant kitchen sink drama “The People Hater”, which I had not heard before writing this book, and is now one of my favorite songs. There are artists like Nervous Norvus, who was committed to being weird on every song he ever recorded. There are also thousands of songs with weird or funny concepts that just aren’t very good as music, like Yodelin’ Shorty’s “Crazy Laughin’ Blues”, which sounds exactly like you’d think it would. If you delve into the Rhythm and Blues side of the rockabilly fence, there are even more crazy discs to spin.

There are a million songs about prison, drugs, booze, sex, midgets, werewolves, witches, vampires, name it. Many of the artists behind these obscure songs are simply unknown. They seem to have recorded their bat shit crazy tunes and then promptly vanished into the ether, forgotten by time and whichever of their peers are still living all these years later. Even the internet seems clueless. There’s hardly enough information- meat to sink my jaws into there, as much as I might have wanted to. The last thing I wanted to do with this book was to simply write a dry, academic list of every weird rockabilly and hillbilly song in the universe. You have the internet for that. I do want to mention the better and weirder of the obscurities that are out there, and I did attempt to address those where and when I could.

Some people will question some of my choices. Why, for example, would I include Billy Lee Riley’s “Flying Saucers Rock and Roll”, when it’s a fairly well known song (in rockabilly circles), and when there are so many other, even more demented UFO songs out there? Two reasons. Number one, that record is not only weird and funny, it rocks. It is a great song, and a song that I love. Number two, while I welcome the readership of record collectors and experts, this book isn’t just for you, who have already heard all of these songs and thousands more. It’s for the casual rock and roller, or punk rock or garage punk fan who is discovering this weird world for the first time. We all remember how we felt when we first encountered this stuff, no? We were amused, inspired, frightened and a little sickened, but we wanted more. I want to share that feeling with the world. Having said all of that however, I did get some spot-on suggestions and pointers from some truly great record collectors and experts, and I thank them whole heartedly. They are fine, passionate, and knowledgeable people and you’ll find their names in the acknowledgements section of this book. If anybody out there reading this has any corrections, additional info on any of the songs/artists, or suggestions for future editions of this book, please get in touch.

To all of the crazy, debauched, drunken, inept, bad ass, politically suspect, morally dubious, disquieting and downright demonic records that I did not include in this book, I say this: Don’t fret, little babies. You are spinning black discs of shiny perfection. We will meet again. — Charles Matthews

MORE “Get Behind Me Satan And Push” coming soon!

On Repeat: Songs I Can’t Stop Playing, Both In The Then Times And the Now Times.

EDIT: I started writing this blog post two years ago, and I never bothered to finish it. Life got in the way, I guess? I recently met a really cool random person on the internet because my blog exists- and since I’m recently seaparated/divorced, I now have the “sitting and thinking” time to revisit. I decided to publish this old draft that I’d saved, even though it was unfinished, and add some new content. I had completed my rambling about one song here, but judging from the title I had saved, I must have meant to write about two more songs, clearly. I don’t remember what those were. So, in the interest of finishing the post, I wrote about two more songs that I’ve been spinning here in the now times.

THE SONG: the greatest form of communication ever invented by humanity. I would be willing to bet you, Sonny Jim, that the song was invented by some desperate caveman who just couldn't speak to his cave lady without a decent back beat. Something about the form of the song lets you say things that you would never be able to utter without that 3 chord security blanket to make it all OK. I have dedicated my life to the song, and in return the song has paid me possibly 2,000 dollars over the course of a 20 year "career" in "music". Maybe more, I'm no good at math and the money's all gone. Still, I love the song and the song loves me, and I doubt this not one second of any day. Writing, and hearing, and understanding good songs is what my life has been about, no matter what I'm forced to do for money. Or for a "living".

Everyone knows a few songs that for whatever reason, at whatever particular time, they could not stop listening to. In fact, you listen over and over until you can't stand the song anymore. Then you wait a few days and listen again. I do that kind of thing very frequently.

As a person who would prefer to get a root canal than drive a car, I take a lot of busses, and I walk a lot. This allows me to get closer to The Song. More time, you see. Maybe you listen to a lot of music in the car. Whatever. It's usually those times when you feel isolated and "in your own head" that a song can really speak to you.

There are certain songs which will ALWAYS speak to me, no matter how old I get, how many times I've heard it, or what's going on with me. The Replacements' "Bastards Of Young" is one. Redd Kross' "Stay Away From Downtown" is one. Elvis Presley's "Tryin' To Get To You" is one. The Manic Street Preachers' "Found That Soul" is one. Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" is another. For a music geek like me who has heard many, many, many songs, the list is endless.

Right now I want to showcase three songs that I have been listening to on repeat lately, just this past week. All newer artists, none of which are "classics"...yet.

The Bellfuries- Lovin' Arms (Hi Style Records)
These guys are RIDICULOUS. It's almost as if I dreamed up my perfect rockabilly band, and they came to life. But GASP--- "are they rockabilly??" Because, as you know, it's REALLY important to categorize music and have the right pants on for the genre you choose, regardless of artistic merit or creativity, because what IS that shit, anyway? Nobody knows, just words. What's really important is: are these Bellfuries guys gonna toe the rockabilly line and put their barre chords where their cuffed jeans are, or what? Thankfully, they don't give a shit about that. These guys see the connection, the great narrative, the big lineage of the SONG, which is always the same song, dressed up in different leather trousers...from Bill Haley to The Beatles to Slade to the Sex Pistols to Joy Division to Slayer to the Stray Cats to JD's all the same thing. The riff, the song, the interesting hair cut. and the Bellfuries have effortlessly (?) thrown their songs in that ring, and you know what? they hold up. Two brilliant albums ("Just Plain Lonesome" and "Palmyra") that were really different in tone and scope have led to this third album, "Workingman's Bellfuries", which is finally a crystallization of the semi- disparate ideas presented on the first two. This song I speak of, "Lovin' Arms", is the lead off single from the new album.

EDIT: Below is the new section that I just now scribbled.

THE TRIPWIRES- Nothing Of the Kind (House Frolic)
When I first came to Seattle in the much better days of three years ago, my walking and bussing journeys around this gorgeous city were all soundtracked by the Tripwires’ perfect album “Get Young”. The first band I ever saw in Seattle was the Tripwires. I’ve seen them probably five times now. Eventually, my band got to open for them and that was a proud moment for me.
I can’t understand why these four veteran Seattle legends aren’t more known in other parts of the country. “power pop” has become a better understood and known term in the international underground “rock community”, if there is such a thing. You’d think the songwriting of John Ramberg would be celebrated far and wide, and in a sense it is....but not to the extent that it should be. This song, like a lot of John’s best stuff (listen to “Maybe Now” by his old band the Model Rockets) can either be perceived/felt as melancholy or happy go lucky, depending on the mood of the listener. His lyrics are usually vague enough as to not interfere with this, but interesting enough to pull you in with very vivid imagery. The band’s playing is energetic and sparkling but never thrashes or crashes. While “power pop” is a catch all term that could catch this song as well, I can’t think of any other band that sounds remotely like the Tripwires. If anyone asks, I tell them “The Beatles meets Television”. This is a great, great song that will burrow it’s way into your psyche forever on first listen. I have listened to it probably a hundred times, and no matter what mood I’m in it seems to echo that feeling. I can’t think of many songs that do that, but I know that Lennon and McCartney wrote most of them.

MORRISSEY- Spent the Day In Bed (Etienne)
Opening with a strikingly fresh sounding electric piano riff, this is one of Morrissey’s best singles in ages. He still manages (along with his eternal songwriting partner Boz Boorer Of Polecats fame) to write instantly memorable tunes on every album he does, but I don’t know if he’s had a great single in awhile. Having said that, “Kiss Me A lot” from the last record just popped into my head and won’t leave. As a classic Moz single, STDIB will do nicely. His lyrical voice is strong as shit here, unfortunately the same cannot always be said of him these days, as he tends to over indulge in sloganeering to promote his sometimes questionable political beliefs. He does slip into that a little here with the lines “stop watching the news/because the news contrives to frighten you...”, and “spent the day in bed while the workers stay enslaved”, but these are well turned phrases that don’t distract from the melancholy message here. The message? Media over saturation, depressing and frightening world events, and personal isolation drive many of us straight to the couch (or bed in Mozzer’s case)after work each day, numbed my meds or alcohol and sore from the battery of the outside world. As usual Moz just wants you to see this in yourself, and take solace in the fact that most of us feel the same way in this modern world. No solutions or suggestions are given, other than “stop watching the news”. Typical Morrissey. Still, it’s a great song, and will no doubt turn into a shut-in anthem live.

WELL, that was that. Weird to have started writing something two years ago, only to forget all about it-and then finish it in the now times. Some weird shit. Some spooky business. Am I better off now than I was three years ago? Not as far as I can tell. But I soldier on, ya know? Speaking of, I’m going to try to update this blog more often. I have the half-finished rough draft of a book I was working on, and I think I will start publishing those chapters as blog posts. The book was meant to be about my investigations into wacky rock and roll novelty records of the 50’s and 60’s. Lots of talk about aliens, tattooed ladies, and people who just don’t like people. Check back often, or something.

Monday, November 17, 2014

American Heritage Brands- Timeless Style and Function in Yer Face!

We don't make a lot of things in this country anymore. Big corporations discovered long ago that it was cheaper to move operations to countries like Korea and China, where workers are paid peanuts(sometimes literally, I'd imagine)and working conditions are not supportive of healthy human life. The fact that this takes jobs away from U.S. citizens, exploits workers from other lands, hurts the U.S. economy in the long run, and reduces the quality of their product does not ever seem to have phased these people, when there was more money to be made. More, more, more. More to the point of gluttony, more to the point of over saturation. That is how most modern business men have interpreted the American Dream.

But it wasn't always that way, was it? America, this great rugged land of ours, was once a place of innovation, and quality, and pride. Pull up a chair, crack open a beer and let me tell you about some cool-ass stuff you can still get made here in North America that isn't (always) mass produced cookie cutter crap.

Irving Schott was the son of Russian immigrants. In the early 1900's, he started working in pattern making for various clothing manufacturers in NYC. In 1913, he and his brother Jack decided to open their own factory and leather company in a run down basement in the slum that was then Manhattan's lower east side. Schott Bros first product was a sheepskin lined raincoat, which they sold by literally going door to door. They started attaching their fancy new "Perfecto"label to their finest coats. The label itself was inspired by the logo on boxes of Irving's favorite cigars.
Irving and Jack were not bikers or car racers, in fact Irving never even learned to drive. Motorcycles were brand new technology in the early 1900's, but the name Schott would become forever tied to images of bikers, punk rockers, outlaws, rockabillies, and daredevils. Irving had a friend, who was part of the Beck family, who had become one of the nation's largest distributors of Harley Davidson products.At the time, since the motorcycle was a new invention, there was no clothing made for riding specifically. At Beck's behest, Irving and Jack began to make rough, thick leather jackets for cyclists, with a zipper (zippers were also brand new tech at the time) on one side of the jacket, rather than down the middle, to make it easier for riders to unzip the jacket with one hand while steering with the other. Irving was the first person to put a zipper on a commercially available piece of clothing.
In 1928, the garment that we now universally recognize as the motorcycle jacket was officially born. The Schott Perfecto. It cost $5.50 then, and will now run you around $600.
Over the years, the Perfecto has become an icon. Marlon Brando, James Dean, Sid Vicious, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Bruce Springsteen, the Stray Cats, the Ramones...the list of icons who have famously donned a Schott Perfecto is long and star studded. The list of companies who copy the Perfecto is five times as long as that. I've had many of the copies, and now that I own the real thing (I have a Perfecto that was produced between 1968 and 1970, and I found it in a vintage store for a very reasonable price. And you can, too!) I can tell you that there is nothing like a real Schott. Save up for one, it is worth it.
MOST (but not all) Schott leather jackets are still made in America (and the somewhat shockingly high price reflects that), they are still made from hand cut pieces of leather, and the machines used to put them together are run by human beings. They are the same machines from the old Schott factory, dating back to the turn of the (19th-20th) century. Yes, they are beyond the reach of most people financially. As I said though, you can find gorgeously broken in used ones on eBay and in thrift stores. Sometimes these can be had for around $200.My Schott Perfecto is magical. I found it by accident, it's around the same age as I am, it fits perfectly, and I got it for under $250. Get a Schott, I'm telling you. Just get one.

At Right: Here's the author and his beloved late '60s/early '70s Perfecto. I don't ride bikes, but I do fall down a lot.

In the early 1990's, when the Clash's "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" appeared in a UK TV advert for Levi's jeans, a lot of old punks bristled at the inclusion of a tune by one of the iconic anti-establishment punk bands in a commercial selling blue jeans. This was kind of silly, of course, because the Clash were signed to one of the biggest corporations in the world (CBS/Sony) and had always ridden the line between selling out and rebelling, like all "rebel" bands do once they get big. Mick Jones, the Clash's guitarist and one of my fave people ever, simply had this to say about the furor: "Everybody's got a pair of Levi's. They're alright."
Alright, indeed.
Levi Strauss invented the bluejean in the late 1800s. Again, like the Schott company, it was a family affair, run by Levi and his two brothers, all Bavarian immigrants. Along with Jacob Davis, they introduced the Levis bluejean, which would become known (after several design mutations) as the 501, in 1890. As most people know this story, I'm not gonna waste time by repeating more detail. Instead here is a fantastic video about Levi's history and a very pleasant-seeming woman who has the coolest job in the world.

Levi's, of course, does not produce the bulk of it's product in the USA anymore, to keep costs down. You can buy some very expensive Historic Collection garments (the 1954 501 jean, etc) which painstakingly replicate the historic designs of the past that are made in the USA. These cost two to three times what you would pay for a foreign made pair of Levi's. However, my suggestion is that you do as I do: seek out the garments made in Levi's factory in Mexico. It's still North America, from what I can tell workers are treated fairly, and the product is always of far greater quality than the ones produced elsewhere. Just look inside the jeans for an origin tag, which should say "Made In Mexico", or "Product Of Mexico". Like Fender Guitars' Mexican operation, Levi's Mexico produces higher quality product at a very reasonable price.

THOROGOOD BOOTS, MILWAUKEE- Tough, Stylish, Reasonably Priced, and made in the USA.

Thorogood boots have been made in Wisconsin since 1918 by the Weinbrenner company, which was started in the late 1800's by Albert Weinbrenner, the son of a German immigrant who had a shoe repair business in Milwaukee. During WW2, the factory, by then very successful, dedicated 100% of it's production to the military effort. If you see an old pic of US soldiers in the 40s, chances are they are wearing Thorogood boots. Like the Schott Perfecto and the Levi's 501XX, the basic designs of the boots have changed very little over the years. They are still made in America, they are not as expensive as their biggest (and trendiest) competitor (Red Wing), and the quality is very, very high. These are tough, cool looking, working class boots. Wear them to work, wear them to school, wear them to the punk show, just wear them. Thorogood does make more modern designs, but for my money it's the American Heritage Series that does the trick.

Where a pair of Red Wings will cost you $200.-$300, a very similar pair of Thorogoods will cost you around $150, maybe less if you luck out on eBay. The quality is undeniably the same, but Red Wing has become a trendy name in hipster fashion, where Thorogood is still known mostly to people who need work boots, and people who really like work boots, like me and you, buddy! Comparing with the great guitar companies, if Red Wing is Gibson, and Wolverine is Fender, then Thorogood is probably G&L. If that helps you.
Sadly, I do not own a pair of these beauties yet, but they are most definitely on the ol' Xmas list. Here's a pic of some douchebag who has the boots I want.

GIBSON GUITARS, KALAMAZOO- An Icon Gone Horribly Wrong

The story of Gibson is very similar to the story of Schott, Thorogood, and Levi's. Immigrant comes to America. Forms company that boasts a combination of high quality craftsmanship and innovation. Product becomes wildly popular and changes first American culture, then the world. The difference is, today in 2014/2015, I cannot recommend that you buy a Gibson. In fact, with a few exceptions, I would not advise you to buy a Gibson made after 2005.
Orville Gibson began selling instruments out of his small workshop in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1894. Word got around about the quality of the instruments, especially in the musical hotbeds of Detroit and Chicago, which were both fairly close by. Orville died in 1918, but the company grew and grew. In 1944 it was sold to Chicago Musical Instruments. Gibson was responsible for the first hollow body electric guitar, popularized by Jazz guitar great Charlie Christian. The innovations kept coming, with the birth of the Les Paul line of guitars in the early 1950s, then as the 1950s progressed into the 1960s, the ES-335, the Flying V, the Explorer, the Firebird, the SG and more exploded out of Gibson's Kalamazoo factory and into the hands of famous and working class musicians alike, who used these rock solid slabs of mahogany to change pop culture, and the world.
Between 1974 and 1984, production was slowly moved from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Nashville, Tennessee. Some people will tell you that this was the beginning of the end, and I agree. However, everyone seems to draw the line at a different place, and I think that the company still continued to make amazing guitars up until very recently.
Recent years have seen Gibson make some very public, and very stupid mistakes. From suing every small guitar company (and some large ones, too) whose guitars had even a slight resemblance to 60 year old Gibson designs, to being raided by the feds for using illegal and endangered woods, to raising prices to absurd levels, to letting quality drop to an unprecedented low, Gibson has been pissing on it's legend for years now. The most recent development is their policies regarding their 2015 line of products. There is an overall price hike, again (whereas Fender's prices have held steady for several years now), and they've announced that ALL Gibson guitars from 2015 onwards will be fitted with the company's latest unnecessary and ridiculous "innovation", the "Robot Tuner" system. This is a strange, awkward looking box mounted to the back of the headstock that tunes the guitar for you, so you don't have to. This piece of crap, which has inspired very little besides derision since it's introduction a couple of years ago, will now be on every guitar Gibson makes, whether you want it or not. In fact, if you don't want it, you'll have to take it to a tech to get it removed, like a mole on your ass. Gibson's 2014 is full of charmless, ugly, and overpriced guitars, and it's 2015 line, while showing a slight return to more traditional designs, is ruined by the "Robot Tuner" fiasco. If the company's decidedly non-rock'n'roll CEOs and owners would recognize that musicians WANT the elegance of Gibson's traditional designs, and stop trying to re-invent the wheel with absurd gizmos and dubiously "fresh" re-designs, I think they'd win our trust back after a couple of years. They'd also need to lower prices, but hey,one step at a time, man.
A lot of people have pointed to 2005 as a loose point in time where quality went to shit, and some would say it was much earlier than that. I can only tell you that I have two Gibsons that I dearly love, pictured below. On the right is my 2003 Melody Maker Junior, also sometimes referred to as the Melody Maker P-90. It's a Melody Maker body and neck with Les Paul Junior pickup and electronics. It's got a thick, chunky "baseball bat" 1950's style neck that feels great. I added a Bigsby to it a few years back, and it is just a fabulous guitar. It was made in Nashville, Tennessee and oozes mojo. A lot of people hated the "satin" or "faded" finishes that Gibson introduced as a cost-cutting method in the late '90s/early 2000s, but I love the way it looks and feels on this guitar. On the left, I have an "SG Junior 60's" model from 2012. While most recent Gibsons I've played have been shoddy to various degrees, I really lucked out with this one. It's design is a combo of a few different 60's era SG designs. It's got a larger late 60s headstock, but the body, pick guard and controls are more similar to the early 1960's models. The volume and tone controls are placed in a straight row, more like an LP Junior than the usual 60's SG control placement. It's got a glossy finish, very nice visible cherry mahogany grain, and a fairly substantial neck. It's a good guitar. To get a good Gibson these days, I'd scour eBay, used guitar stores and pawn shops. That's what I did.

So there you have it...some great American products. Some that are still great, some that have fallen from very lofty heights. All worth your time, and all great inspiration to get you dreamin' about this country's glory days.