JON SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION
Spring 2011 to Autumn 2012 Travelogue
by Jim Hayes
I once asked Counselor Michael Gerald about a member of Pussy Galore. He said after the Madison gig they went out to Denny's but the other guitarist stayed at home with the cats. I cannot remember which Pussy Galore guitarist stayed with Mr. Gerald's cats and who went to Dennys. One of them was on a Mykel Board tape and the other wasn't.
Two of the six people were wearing sunglasses in the crowded restaurant. We talked about a lubricated acquaintance that was on Vitamin M in the East Village. I spoke up, "I heard he did this puppet show with his penis. I'm sorta curious about that. You know that Zappa said the best Mothers concerts were in Appleton right?"
Backstage at the Forty Watt, I mentioned my favorite song was "Son of Sam". Jon pulling on his leather pants, "Son of Sam okay." (Wow! That was easy. Judah said the Chain Gang song was difficult to play). (Not as dramatic as the brain-damaged rock critic Paul Williams asking for "Caribbean Wind" in SF 11-12-80, but still very special and really appreciated).
I sent a text about seeing a meteor during the Leonid shower. Out in L.A., she was watching a 20 Miles video. When she hit me back, I had just started reviewing notes about the Blues Explosion. Why would someone take notes about the Blues Explosion? During the sound check at the East Atlanta Restaurant and Lounge, there was a pause in the empty room. Even though the "no smoking" sign was in force, the top of the room had a bluish haze. Russel leaned over his drums with a stick and looked right at me. "What is that?" Gesturing towards my notebook: "the Diary of the Blues Explosion?"
"Nah, it's a book about witchcraft. You remember that scene in American Beauty where the rose pedals fall down? That's like Melville glimpsing the White Whale; we're all chasing the White Whale."
Russel put the stick down and asked if I always talked like that. The amps were making some type of amplifier sound.
"Bottle Baby" starts with a riff, a groove and then a radio dial turns and a completely different song begins, it's a completely different riff. Mr. Spencer can still be surprising. "At last I feel like one of the beautiful; standing here with this statuette: I feel like a god but I still have trouble paying the rent" and Mr. Spencer criticizes and rhapsodizes like a preacher: put the bottle down and get the fuck off the stage. He's addressing himself as both a barker and a legitimate contender. Mr. Spencer constantly goes back and forth between his persona as a rock star and a musician. In the official video for "Black Mold," he is mysteriously handcuffed in the back of a ‘70's county sheriff vehicle. He escapes and a handcuffed hand is later seen on the ground. He escaped his predicament but not before leaving his earlier discarnate identity behind. Nothing is there now but the recordings.
Stone Mountain is a monadnock in Northern Georgia. The 1600 foot summit is visible on a clear day, exposing a bas-relief on its Northern side. The southern tableau was created by Gutzon Borglum who sculpted Mount Rushmore.
These three Confederate colleagues are portrayed on horseback, 30 years after the invention of the railroad. The sculpture depicts when men started to travel at the then-record speed of 15 miles an hour. Lee, Davis & Jackson communicated by telegraph- the early days of the electronic wire that conveyed pulsating rhythms. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion perform thirty plus years after punk rock, thirty years after the initial telegraph of the electric blues. JSBX affirm the past and embrace the future. The meat and the bone are created at the same time, in the same instance. The sound of punk rock hangs like slabs of meat pounded by a bleeding Bayonne boxer whose life was the basis of a film script.
Jon was smiling, dripping sweat. His face was glowing, radiating after the set and he was heading to the backstage. The last of his fans had got their CD's and posters signed and he was satisfied that he didn't miss anybody. I caught his eye.
"Hey! Thanks for playing, great set!"
"Thanks for coming on out." He didn't stop walking but he really meant it. Much like the set, he, Judah & Russel really meant it. Signing records, shaking hands and posing for photos was really like a second encore. A coda that revealed a genuine reverence for the fans of the music, of the sound. The JSBX act as a conduit of rock history from the fifties to the present.
30 Years after ten years after the invention of what we call rock and roll. Jon was wearing a magenta vest; Russel must have lost 30 pounds. There are no set lists. Jon gives visual cues or he shouts out a title, or he just starts playing. It's a mosaic you'd see inside the Augean stables, African artists making the Virgin Mary out of six Elephant's dung, punk rock means the stone that was rejected is now the cornerstone. Satellite radio stations? I question their Blueness.
The battered maraca that was left in the rehearsal space is now appearing on stage. Whose maraca was that? Who manufactured it? Who designed it? Who loved it? Who lost it? But did the Blues Explosion really just ‘find' this maraca? Was it placed there by unseen forces to conjure a spiritual rebirth of the tornado battered New South? The recent deadly hurricane: "hadda go uptown to find a charger, home all ok."
The powerful twin guitars rush a top conjurations, Knoxville radio and the Big Beat. JSBX create a howlin' wind that turns the air into shapes and the flames on candles dance. Jon was inquiring as to whether the back door would be closed and locked. He wasn't going to take unlocked for an answer; he has such an authority when he speaks, when he's working. I know that years ago, all their equipment was stolen, though I'm not sure what the market is for slightly used theramins (at least the JSBX didn't send out an email alert asking people to look for their equipment, could you imagine? I mean how bourgeois).
In the middle of a crowded restaurant, I asked Jon if he was interested in antiques, did he collect anything.
"No." and he immediately looked into his plate of food. The next day, I stumbled into the expansive backstage of the Bottletree and encountered him crouched over a lap top, wearing spectacles, he looked very studious. He was working. On what I have no idea. He greeted me politely but it was obvious there was a bubble around him. Sometimes you meet rock stars and they have a certain glow (Genesis said Brian Jones had one).
It was a week after 350 tornadoes touched down on Alabama, soil-large funnels that can be imagined felt and visualized, captured on photos- the devastation and random death was awesome and truly sad. The details of the story are the story. The sun was in Taurus, the Ox, Beltane; the night at the 40 Watt was Walspurgnicht. Goin'down the road feeling bad. I spotted Russel in the record store next to Barry's Forty Watt. That was Jon in the store too. The store stayed open past their set to accommodate their tasteful wallets.
Amps man. Jon amp is Kustom... like CCR... Judah's amp is Fender twin and Fender deluxe. Russel 20" slingerland kick drum. Jon was talking seriously to the stage manager.
Time lapse photography captures a few people in a rather brief moment in time. The day the Blues Explosion were in Alabama the authorities were busy blowing up levees on the Mississippi. Flooding, tornadoes, personal possessions scattered to the wind. Spray painted on a ruined house just split to pieces; spray painted on a splinter of Plymouth plywood was "we praise you in this storm." Thumbing through the Book of Job, hoping to assimilate his patience. JSBX represented the defiance of the Minotaur. The sacred sky bull ruled by Venus on the first night of the new moon in Taurus. A century and a half since Stonewall Jackson was cut down in Chancellorsville. "Chances are." The Minotaur, that particular incarnation of Pan that can always be lured. Everyone was filming the gig to have personal proof that yes in fact, the strange Calvary was here. Judah brooding as Jefferson Davis. Russel as Stonewall Jackson imaginatively spearheading the flank. And of course Jon as Robert E. Lee, the wise Engineer that you'd never dare call ‘Bob.' Like the granite relief etched in time, three men holding the instruments they grew up with, constructing a battle plan in a decidedly hostile environment. But the sound of their plan, the sound of their reading which talks back, that can be felt by the deaf through the floorboards. Blue rider explosion number one. Blue riders in the sky. "Ohio? Ohio? I woulda rather seen that band in Germany. Ohio!" (Hollywood arrives in Georgia and renames it "Ohio" on film, on motion pictures, on invoices. When the Blues Explosion arrives, a laundry list of laundry lists sets off motion pictures of their own. What's in their blue rider? "No smoking? What about drinking and fucking?").
That night was the first night to rock out after the tornado tragedy. Who better to witness than the Blues Explosion? With their ancient amps to broadcast a siren song that weaves as many myths inside as a fist; as it can gather, in a bundle, fasces of power mystery and occasional camp- the camera does after all, also pan backwards. The Blues Explosion embrace the past while affirming the future. Rock and roll, the blues, punk rock, energy and back and forth- a real old school get-in-the-van type of sound. JSBX can groove and they can surprise you. "I'd like to thank all the beautiful people at the record label." That night was the first night to rock out after the Hurricane.
Over a spare drum beat Judah was rapping "spray paint the walls." He was reciting a call. Encouraging, or rather demanding further furtive spray paint expression. Spray-paint-the-walls!
Then there's Tuscaloosa where they spray paint the number of the dead on the walls. Then there's Los Angeles where graffiti artists show their spray paint work in galleries. Then there's the Syrian uprising incited by the arrest of children caught spray painting anti-government graffiti in the southern town of Dara'a. Spray-paint-the-walls means different things in different cultural frames. At Christie's this year, Raymond Pettibon has donated an acrylic for Haitian relief. He stands before it barefoot and unashamed in a full page ad in the summer Art News. I wonder if he's on junk, and the recuperation of punk culture really hit home. Where are you going?
The sound of the drums convey the hooves of the Minotaur on the way to a sunset ceremony. Shamanism, conjuration- how many hook ups after a JSBX show? "Hurray for monkeys." How many people just forget about everything while the set played? How many heard an old song that brought them back? "It's the constitutional right to bear arms." Later she said: "It's the constitutional right to bear arms." That is, it's impossible to separate the biography from the cultural work. It's always picture in picture. The creative person now rolls up his sleeves and bares his arm tattoos; he now shows where he's been. He addresses the camera because the audience is full of cultural workers. Everybody is in on the act. And the act is a braille telegraph message delineating a living record collection that is one part showmanship and the rest just rock music.
The twisters shot back and forth. Sometimes they hit shit. And that part of the earth was burned over. It's not funny but it's certainly arbitrary. The tapestry-the set-the gig, the songs Jon chose-reminded me that all is not disastrous. And no, I didn't experience the tornado so it's easy for me to say that. On the walls of some ruins, the human spirit seemed momentarily outside of time and outside of jurisdiction with sprites of humor. "Have water, need beer!" It said in front of a demolished home. The granite of Stone Mountain reminds people of an earlier time. It's a mountain you can climb or mark on your maps. Some bands are thermometers and others are thermostats. It gets warmer when the Blues Explosion plays, meat cooks on top of the bone.
I was visualizing them as a flaming triangle, as a sigil. The challenge is to take a flat surface like rock music and make it dimensional. The called refrains of "Blues Explosion" between songs does not require an answer. But does it desire an answer? Do the Blues Explosion make music to talk back to other music?
Russel is tall and gregarious; he has an easy smile and a warm touch. He turns his head in concentration and closes his eyes while keeping beat, sweat dripping in time. Three college boys walked by the entrance of the 40 Watt and the crowd of smokers. They saw the marquee and the kid in the middle said: "their drummer's a monster." And the other two nodded.
That night at the 40 Watt, Jon was wearing leather pants. Jon was telling Russel he found a record with Charlie Feathers on it. "At last I feel like one of the beautiful; standing here with this statuette: I feel like a god but I still have trouble paying the rent" (Jon Spencer, "bottle baby").
The way Jon yells: ‘blues explosion' during songs, between songs, as songs; is reminiscent of Kurt Schwitter's sound poetry.
"I just thought it was part of his shtick."
-No, no, the precursor is the Dada sound poetry, the repetition of certain phrase that either starts off as nonsense or becomes nonsense through the parallel recitations. The poster of Zappa sitting on the toilet links up to the early film of a certain Brown Student taking a shit, if that film even exists- I've long heard about it and I don't want to see it but it exists as an anonymous counter-reference. The soundtrack always underlines (shouting "Blues Explosion" allows the listener to step back from the frame, it changes the perception. In the "Black Mold" video, the Blues Explosion are shown on an ancient television set in the run down shack.) Picture in picture, black mold in Chelsea basements, gonna get wet, get ready, gotta MOVE! out of the way.
The silverware and water was brought to the table. It was an East Atlanta counter culture environment, all the wanna-be hipsters were there, as if they were on some vaudeville stage. It's not who you are, it's who you make them think you are. "U NEED A JAY Oh Bee Man", Mr. Spencer actually just sang good morning. DO I remember the nineteen seventies as he asks in an echo- yeah, I do. I remember the eighties too. First time I heard Mr. Spencer I was on the second floor of a house party in the south side of the college section of Pittsburgh. It was one of those two story frame houses, this one right across the street from the police station- that was the apartment where I first saw the Psychic TV videos. Somebody had a tape of Pussy Galore's cover of Exile on Main Street and it was cool. Already, Mr. Spencer was explaining that the text was connected to other readings, that is Sonic Youth's never made White Album cover. It's so funny but when you meet them, they're so ordinary (I'll never forgive them for ridiculing Genesis: some things you just don't do). You must present identification when selling copies of Blind Jefferson Davis bootlegs in the East Village.
Record collectors are pretentious assholes. I can't believe that Siltbreeze album, Blind Willie Horton is so valuable. Siltbreeze, the record label owner as post-modern artist, the post-industrial records artist, getting reports that a recent movie depicts Harry Smith as an avatar. The talismanic quality of being bootlegged is a twisted bridge of Babylon: suddenly, a certain sound is reduced to a specific representation and it now acquires a book value. The record has a life of its own; an entire existence that the artist has no connection to, any ownership of- the bootleg record becomes an ex-girlfriend. Harry Smith's ideas have morphed into the man who came to dinner.
I'm listening to a modern, as in brand new, bootleg of Pussy Galore covering the Stones. It's actually pretty funny. I laughed when Mr. Spencer starting playing with the radio dial during the fourth song (he's still doing that!). They really did tape it on a boom box. It's so postindustrial to listen to a bootleg of a tape. And PG is so arty; they split the songs up with talking and radio play, now they're trying "Tumbling Dice." An opening credits type theme: it's all about the soundtrack. The Blues Explosion is a blue movie. "Fever in the funk house now." I got this record the last Easter John Lennon was alive. "Sweet Virginia" is really sweet. Just a chick and some guitar. This is the same chick who rocks off the tape with a sputtered spiel: she chants: "I hate your fucking guts, I hate this fucking machine I don't know how to use it. I hate your fucking guts. I'll make my own music. FUCK YOU fuck you fuck you! You fucking suck," and it's hilarious.
It's so lifted from the Journal of Neo-Nietzschean Aesthetics. I took the tape loop and I left it on the voice mail of the ex-wife of one of the Pussy Galore guitarists. It was not received well. I blamed it on a painter. In the dressing room of the East Atlanta Restaurant & Lounge I mentioned this to Mr. Spencer- he nodded, okay. The bootleg was a talisman designed by Harry Smith to invade the living rooms of North America. For those interested in gossip, the only time he ever referenced or asked about his former guitarist (and it was "his" band), the only time he ever referenced the old PG guitar player was when he said ‘does he live in New Mexico?' I said yeah and the guy that lives in New Mexico, well once, some cute chicks were getting some magazines signed; Calvin Klein things and this QTpie said that one of the models looked like "Jon Spencer" and Neil laughed, "I won't even go there." But like the famed former coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, Fred Nietzsche wrote: "it's not how alike they are- it's how they are apart that shows their similarities and why they belong together." And on this PG bootleg, Mr. Spencer is throwing a temper tantrum. He's yelling "stop" and "what the fuck are you doing?" The first time I saw him (with the Gibson Brothers at Khyber Pass), he demanded that a song be started over, berating the very attractive drummer. Mr. Spencer was wearing glasses that night. When he's wearing glasses, he looks so serious. He looks like a scholar. And he is, he understands his role of carnival barker and he dips into that persona to demonstrate that he understands that his music is a history lesson. The irony of irony, the breeze of silt is exactly that, a breeze that can be discarded, record collectors ARE pretentious assholes. Harry Smith could be impossible to deal with.
See Part II of this article
Also see our 2008 interview with Jon Spencer
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