JON SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION
Spring 2011 to Autumn 2012 Travelogue
Part II by Jim Hayes
I got lost in Birmingham. I was driving in circles for an hour. I told the police officer that if he was ever lost in Marietta, I hope someone helps him. The "Bottletree" is an incredibly hip club. I heard that somebody in Man or Astroman owns it. To the right is a two room back stage, one of the rooms has a screen porch, behind the other room is an air-conditioned silver bubble trailer with a huge TV set and couches. It's a nice backstage. It really is, Birmingham Alabama. I finally stumble in. The Blues Explosion has a very professional roadie. I can't remember his name! He was tough and smart. He was from Pittsburgh and after introductions he said that he didn't believe any of the stories he heard about me. There's a drunk in my past. The first band he broke his rock and roll cherry with was Half Life. 1-2-3-4 Ward Street Hardcore, you were there right? Being a writer means that the game moves as you play. You see things and you typewrite. The soundtrack is always underlining the scene. A chick once asked me what my sound track would be- I told her and she was so un-hip, she didn't recognize the band. Sad. Those who do not. The JSBX are a candle with which to light other candles. Blues explosion number one, radio stations I question their blueness.
My hands were shaking- I told Jon that it was from the anti-depressants which is reasonably true and I gave him a copy of the Gibson Brothers set list as well as a list of JSBX songs I found at Maxwell's during the first Clinton Administration.
About sixty fanatics crowded the front of the 40 Watt stage shouting "blues" or perhaps: "blooze." I got lost in Birmingham. It's a small city on some hills. Parts of it look Southern and charming and other parts of look like Hudson County rail yards. It's a wide open town. I finally found the club. It's incredibly hip. I found the back stage. Jon muttered a "hi" when I walked in. Around a corner is a little camper that has a TV and other rock star necessities, I was so warm I wanted to take off my sweatshirt. Since I'm so skinny and I didn't want anyone to see. "Where are you going?" boomed the voice of Jon Spencer. I was so embarrassed. I told him I was just right there changing my shirt. I quickly left but I felt bad. I know the JSBX are concerned about theft. I watched Mr. Spencer make sure that the back door in Atlanta was bolted. Incredibly, that night, one of my Blues Explosion promos was stolen! I got it on EBay! So I understand his point.
During the Earl Sound check, I noticed that the sound was thicker without the people. The band played the riff to "ghost riders in the sky." I was taking some notes and Russel asked, "What is that? The Diary of the Blues Explosion?" Twenty years ago, I was walking down Ludlow to cop and Russel's head appeared out of an old white van. "Where are you going Jim?" I just shrugged my shoulders.
Outside Russel told me that Facebook was like Facebook for dogs. He meant that when you logged on to Facebook, it sounded like a kennel, all of the scratching barking and whining. Look at me! Adopt me! I never shit on the floor said the puppy. He told me that once you're on Facebook, it is very hard to get detached from it.
During the sound check at the Earl, they played "She Said" which I later heard in its entirety in Birmingham in front of about a 120 people. The Bottletree is a cool, ultra-hip club. The JSBX is really tight (they go without set lists). How do they know what songs to go into next? I'm told that it's all cues from Jon- either he says a title or he plays a riff. Oh, Russel missed a cue! They sounded slightly rough going into the "bellbottoms" song that turned into an audience sing-along and finally, the music just exploded. Wow, they can really rock the house. It's a well-paced show as they play a shuffling blues number just before "She Said." Jon is such a showman. He shouts out ‘blues explosion" every chance he gets until it starts to resemble one of the early Dada sound poems. Where the nonsense syllables just touch each other-radio stations, I question their blueness.
"Birmingham delivers!" he roars and the crowd responds. All of a sudden, they crash into "My War"- wow, they really flesh out the power of this song.
Facebook was mentioned and Russel spit: "Facebook's for dogs!" I asked if he meant that when you log on, you hear the sound of a kennel and he nodded. We started talking about records and Russel said: "every record that you buy is an investment. Me, I have over 5,000 records." Suddenly he segued into a collector, querying me about Psychic TV records, which ones were good and which ones were valuable. I made some suggestions and he started manipulating his phone. "You said NY Scum Haters right?" I nodded while he clicked. (I always thought it interesting that Genesis predicted the NY Scum tag five years before anyone else. Actually, four years later, Mykel Board put out that ROIR tape that Russel's on as a Honeymooner).
For some reason, a famous rock star's name came up. (Do you remember the nineteen eighties?) "Oh I heard he's kicking, or he's on medicine to kick or he's gonna kick, it's just so, it's so whatever y'know?" His shoulders went up and down and his face winced and his hair shrugged. To him, it was just ridiculous to be addicted to dope for so long. Especially since Russel knows so many people that are ex-junkies. He looked so lean. He was always intense, he always had a gaze about him; but now he seemed so much in charge and in focus. Like the old extra weight was distorting his picture of himself. He once wore a t-shirt with the Stax Records logo over his breast.
I brought up the Elliott Smith biography. "Oh that writer." And his eyes grew like slits and he shook his head. "Elliott Smith was a grown man."
"Yeah cos I saw where she called you ‘notorious' and I certainly would never use that adjective to describe you" (especially since the so-called author initially confused Russel with some hip hop activist/mogul).
We were on the back wooden stairs of the club. The back door was wide open while the roadies were bringing the equipment in. I pointed to the soggy stairs and reminded Russel that on my 32nd birthday, I was thrown down them three times. I was tripping and throwing money around. Remember that rock and roll bands respect people that can pay their own way, like Julia Phillips told Charlie Watts, ‘hey I'm rich too.' Russel asked if people think I'm a douche bag or do they know I have a warm and generous heart? It's a fair question, especially since a woman I'm in love with called me a douche bag three years ago. It was interesting ‘cos it was a word I rarely heard, the syntax is interesting. What connects Nastenka and Russel? On my birthday, I had just heard that the RTX tour was cancelled, and I sincerely and seriously needed a drink. I was carrying like two grand. There was some opening band, a bunch of chicks that did some publicity about how "cute" they were but in fact they do indeed "rock." One of ‘em asked me for a light and I told her I give her one if she was better looking (they did look distorted, they definitely were all the ugly chicks in high school put together) so I was on playing on that. If you're willing to market yr band on how "cute" you are, you better be cute. Her boyfriend didn't like it and he threw me down the back stairs. I was tripping and I saw these silver stars spinning as I went down. I just walked into the front of the club and came back. He did it again and I kept laughing. "Why do you record my phone calls? Are you planning a bootleg LP?" I vaguely heard a local rock star explaining that I was a confrontational writer. He was saying that I was part of the institutional avant garde. There was a blond chick on the back porch, obviously a friend to one of the opening bands. She usta lived across the hall from me, yeah, in Inman Park at the Pendleton- that was a hundred year old Chelsea Hotel built to house the servants of Coca-Cola executives. Red brick building filled with strippers, DJ's, shamans, transgendered people, junkies and strippers. I fit right in as a cultural worked dedicated to the institutional avant garde under dictatorship of the proletariat. This chubby chick, she was cute, the one day she came over banging about, turning the volume down ‘cos I was listening to HWY 61 rehearsals so loud that you could inhale the lyrics. Yeah it was like Christmas Eve and she was over there playing Billy Holiday loud. Yeah really, it's sad, get-drunk, chubby blonde girl music. I knocked with a case of Milwaukee's Best. Class. Pure class. We made out and I know I got my hand down her pants, but I was really rude. I shouldn't have come on to her like that. I said I was sorry the next day and that night on my birthday, there she was! I'm getting thrown down some stairs by some guy in a beard and I spy her. We made eye contact.
"Hey. I'm real sorry ‘bout that night. I hope I didn't hurt your feelings, I was wrong." "I don't think this is the time." And the guy with the beard grabbed me by the shoulders and tossed me headfirst down the stairs. I could hear the Atlanta Rock Star. "Now what you're doing is assault because there are witnesses that he didn't do anything." I got him a drink because you know that any band that remains that unimaginative, you just know they can be bought off with gifts. He made a grimace as it was brought to his table. If you want things to go away, just throw money at them. I pointed to the soggy wooden stairs and I told Russel this story about a Bastille Day long past. This was the cue for Russel asking if people think I'm a douche bag.
"Do people know you have a warm and generous heart?"
I was taken aback by his empathy. I sputtered something like ‘I hope so.' I was wearing a badge of Elijah Mohamed that certain birthday. I've gotten a great deal of mileage out of that evening, as a matter of fact, as we sat down to eat, the band surrounded by roadies, attendants and a groupie pretending to be a writer; while sitting down a musician without sunglasses asked "is any part of your "legend" going to interfere with our dinner?"
I sighed. I said ‘I hope not, I don't think anyone in Atlanta wants to beat me up right now.' That was a long time ago. It's people in Marietta that are tired of my life as performance art piece.
While he was accepting the reassurance a man in a windbreaker hovered over the table. "Y'all with the Jon Spencer? With the Blues Explosion? You were all great last time out; I can't wait to see you again."
"Oh wow, thanks, thanks a lot." One by one Jon, Judah and Russel politely and sincerely thanked the gentlemen. Henry from Chunklet came over next; he spoke to the smart and tough roadie, nodding a "hello" in my direction. He ignored the band and the band themselves were studying menus. I mentioned that the worst thing about Georgia were the descendants of Capricorn recording artists; they were under every fucking rock. It seems like Capricorn really did have a chunk of the Georgia music economy in the ‘70's and its royalties are still ca-chinging... naah about twenty miles North East up 85 is a place called Doraville where Al Kooper had a favorite studio (Studio One, it doesn't exist anymore)- that's where the first two Lynyrd Skynyrd albums were made. That's where the Atlanta Rhythm Method was based, something like that. They say that's where rock bands had the choice of dying, disintegrating or straightening out into survivors.
Black Mold congeals after the hurricane basement. The stones that were not discarded but kept in storage are now being pulled out of soggy residue and considered again. What rare rock and roll records are sitting inside Manhattan storage basements? Bob Black Mold: the prototype is an anarchist that sends bombs to himself to get attention. That type of vanity is mold on the species. Judah is playing a baritone guitar through a fuzz wah wah.
"Strange Baby" is just so beautiful. It ends with some slide from Judah. It's really just sweet. He said he was using a brass slide through a bank Leslie cabinet that was not spinning ("Leslie cabinets are spinning speakers so they (have) that effect-you take the belt off so the speaker can't rotate. They're just as good sounding as just a gtr amp." The famed book collector Mr. James Patrick Page uses a Leslie on "The Wanton Song").
The club sprung for a bed and breakfast that was supposed to be some type of quaint. Instead, it was in a slum next to a pewter factory. The room was small and the mirror was wide, the bed looked like a spinning iron rack. There was a bare white pipe going along the length of the ceiling. Russel's mouth was dropped open in horror. Judah pulled a string and a bare bulb sprung to life with a loud "CA-ching." I pointed to the ceiling pipe.
"You could always hang yourself right there."
It broke the tension and Judah cleared his throat. "This is pretty bad. I don't usually say anything." Naturally I photo-copied the toilet paper roll he used and made it into anonymous postcards of the hanging.
"Danger" really speeds along with propelling riff. For a minute, I thought I was listening to one of the ‘72-‘73 Iggy outtakes. "This is this worst vacation I ever was on." This is something I thought but didn't mean when I was trapped during the Hurricane. I could not see the Blues Explosion on the Bowery. They played WFMU that Saturday. I was on a train to Duchess County NY to see Stax Cordwood, the former art director of the WFMU Record Fair.
Twice they performed "My War." Mr. Pettibon's painting of the puppet clutching a knife is as iconic as his cop with a gun thrust into his mouth. "My War" indeed. When this album was brand new, the Gearhead bass player of Half Life, he told me it was "evil." A long time ago, the Blues Explosion would sometimes play "I Hate Music" from that ROIR NY Thrash tape. "I hate music, I love noise!" You were there right? But the way they played "My War" was just so invigorating. They really made it seem like a howl of pain, which of course it is. The Blues Explosion is such a good reference point. I think about all the young audiences being exposed to such a band. They're very lucky because someday, rock music isn't going to exist in this form. There's such a lineage between what Jon, Judah and Russel do (right now!) and our heroes of the past.
"Have you ever thought about learning to play an instrument? It would really help your music writing. I mean all the history and the aesthetic theory you describe is fine but when it comes down to the music..." I don't remember exactly what Judah said but his gist was that my writing would improve if I knew more about music, if I could document what "key" a song is in. And nothing represents the critique of the rock critic better than that. A legitimate musician told me that I didn't know anything about MUSIC and he was RIGHT.
It's sorta fucked up. I've been writing about music since the Reagan Administration but I can't understand a note. I don't grasp the concept of keys and chords. Tones and dense black pages are exactly that. I wish I could play an instrument. All of the ideology connected with playing an instrument restrains me. Not too forget my pure unadulterated laziness which is well described, trumpeted actually in painstaking detail in the first few pages of "Schopenhauer as Educator". "I need a love to keep me happy." I know that in the 19th century, many people played piano and sung at home. They didn't have television or social networks. It's too late for me to pick up a guitar and uhhh learn. But simultaneously I refuse to stop writing about music. This separation is both interesting and non-interesting. But Judah was right; I don't know what I'm talking about. I do know that the last five or six times I've seen the Blues Explosion, it's been amazing. I really enjoy their rock and roll music. "This is the only world I have." Radio stations I question their blueness. Can you please crawl out your window?
I got lost that night too. There was a dumpy motel in front of the nice one where they were staying. Of course I tried to go to the wrong one. I'm standing on this ledge in the middle of the night, starting to feel completely paranoid and Judah came back without the key. It's that building over there, he pointed at a glistening steel tower. Jesus. The Arab guy was really concerned about us losing face. "Don't tell them we came here," he said to say that. Unfortunately it seems like my face was stolen years ago. Somebody told me that he walked into a woman's apartment and sitting underneath a giant Blues Explosion poster WAS a member of the Blues Explosion. Part of the job description of a musician is that posters of your face are created, marketed and licensed. Who are the rock and roll dream police? If you shake a maraca in front of that poster, will something happen? Spray paint the walls with what?
See Part I of this article
Also see our 2008 interview with Jon Spencer
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|