THE ASYLUM STREET SPANKERS
An Highly Subjective Appreciation
by Michael Layne Heath
1. In Search Of The Enormous Yes
In the beginning was the word. And, for this reporter, the word has always been YES. Like British poet Philip Larkin writing about Sidney Bechet:
That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes
like New Orleans reflected on the water...
On me your voice falls
like an enormous yes.
We who profess to be fans of any form of the creative arts are always looking for those moments, those instances where an individual or group shares that YES with us, thus justifying all the misery, stupidity and sucking mediocrity of the outer mundane world.
Here, then, is a brief personal tale of one such encounter, and the circuitous means by which I got there from here. The year was 2007. I was a freelance writer and poet with a couple of slim volumes published, casting around for inspiration. One such source came in the form of a copy of Paul Devlin's 1996 documentary Slam Nation, documenting the National Poetry Slam Championships, held in New York City in that year.
I was aware of the whole Poetry Slam movement and all the attention it got back in the early '90's, but I didn't really follow it. First off, the concept itself, of poets and spoken-word artists in competition, being graded by points, didn't appeal. That they were being feted and hyped by media outlets like the thrice-damned MTV was another demerit. Besides which, I'd already been exposed to the Beats, to Miguel Pinero and the Last Poets, and more recently those British poets who took their poetic style and rhythms from punk and reggae - Linton Kwesi Johnson, John Cooper Clarke - to say nothing of the whole hip-hop scene. What could these Slam people show me that was so unique and different?
As if I was born in Missouri, seeing Slam Nation showed me alright. Okay, so a lot of the performers I still didn't 'get,' but there were those who had a presence, an edge and a tightrope-walking fearlessness to their offerings that I definitely if retroactively picked up on. An energy that resonated and affected me as positively and effectively as a great song or concert.
National Poetry Slam participants are grouped into teams sent from Slam communities in cities around the country. The dramatic arc of Slam Nation was built around the homecity team of New York, featuring future Slam icon Saul Williams. And while they become that year's eventual champions, I got much more of a buzz from their competing rivals, especially the quartet representing Austin, Texas. They were a wild and wooly lot, none more so among their ranks than a voluble, horsetail-sporting, beer-drinking hulk of a Texan answering to the single moniker of Wammo. I saw Slam Nation numerous times, which not only fired my poetic ambitions, but made me curious to know more about those involved and where their paths had taken them since. In the case of Wammo (who, as it transpired, was far from a pure product of the Lone Star State; originally born in New York, his dad was a featured vocalist with the Metropolitan Opera who had set a record for appearances on the Tonight Show), he'd actually managed a positive parlay of his Slam notoriety.
It got him a slot as part of a side-stage showcase of spoken word performers on the 1994 Lollapalooza tour. There were also events like a literary package tour of Europe that also featured veteran NYC poet mover/shaker Bob Holman, and such reknown Slam compadres as Beau Sia, Mike Ladd and the now recently deceased Maggie Estep. Wammo even had two albums of poetry, rants and original music released on a major record label, via NYC spoken-word concern Mouth Almighty. Most intriguingly, further detective work turned up his longterm involvement with what one music scribe described as a 'post-modern jug band.' Active since 1994, they were called the Asylum Street Spankers. Now this rang a bell; I even had a vague recall of that name recently appearing on the marquee of the Great American Music hall in my homeburg of San Francisco.
Around this same time, I had stumbled upon the online resource known as the Internet Music Archive. It turned out the IMA included more than a few live recordings of 'the Spankers,' which I duly gave a listen. At first, to paraphrase Chrissie Hynde, I wasn't exactly stunned and amazed; that came later. But I was impressed: here was a band that clearly knew their way around all manner of, for want of a better term, 'American roots music' - blues, ragtime, gospel, jug band, Western swing, early jazz and such - resolutely presented without modern amplification ('demon electricity' they called it), played with oodles of hard-earned chops and finesse, but also with a decidedly reverent irreverance.
One moment a moonshine soaked rural hoedown, another a smokey-dokey rollick through a Max Fleischer cartoon, the next a hungover Sunday gospel penitence, the Spankers were laying out an agenda: to honor and revitalize the numerous and disparate worlds within indigenous American music, past and present. This appealed to my sense of the absurd and sense of adventure, to be sure. Listen: any number of purveyors of old-timey music can muster up a competent run through some or other Red Hot Skillet Lickers chestnut. But how many would have the devilish notion to throw - as Wammo did with the Spankers - a verse of a certain Jim Carroll anthem into an otherwise faithful rendition of the '20's blues classic "It's Tight Like That"?
Once the initial shock and surprise wore off, one could step back and better appreciate the founding trio that made up the Spankers' front line. There was Guy Forsyth, plainly no slouch on the National steel/resonator guitar, his vocal style a improbable but delightful meld of the blues-steeped soul of a John Hammond Jr. with the musical-theatre, hit-the-back-walls projection of a Gordon MacRae.
Front and center was the group's de facto den-mother and taskmaster, singer Christina Marrs- as adept at a poignant torch song or a brassy blues as she was with more playful, Betty Boop-vintage Victrola razmatazz. Meanwhile, whether scratching away on washboard, blowing a mean Sonny Terry-style harmonica, or failing to resist the chance to throw up the devil-horns hand sign during a momentary detour into Zep's "Misty Mountain Hop" (part of one of the Spankers' signature turns, "My Favorite Record"), Wammo ably completed the picture.
The moment that the Spankers' M.O. really clicked for me though was midway through the 2rd or 3rd IMA-curated live set. It came with the Wammo original "Antifreeze." Typically in a Spankers set it might be book-ended by, say, a Forsyth-sung stomper like their eponymous 'Asylum Street Blues' , and by Marrs stealing one's heart with a Bessie Smith ballad, or turning on the steam heat with the fingerclicking smoulder of an original like "Breathin'."
"Antifreeze," on the other hand, was a full-on present-day pop song, albeit one whose lyrics were a string of surreal, disconnected images (with tips of the hat to Jesus Lizard, Sonic Youth and homeboy Daniel Johnston!). It was a fantastic upending of context, and quite the WTF moment: if its lyrics had been used in a song by, say, some art-rock band, or set to a tune by your quirkier combos like They Might Be Giants (or Gibby Haynes' lysergic mob of fellow Texans), no one would have batted an eardrum. But to set them in the framework of what was ostensibly an acoustic/roots-music-type group definitely made me take notice, and thus take the Spankers more seriously.
Not an easy thing given the more overtly comic side to the Spankers, which certainly came hand in hand with their commitment to messing with preconceptions. They seemed to collectively possess a virtually bottomless bag of tunes both riotous and ribald. It was a bag that contained such salvaged nuggets as "The Pussycat Song," and "If You Want To Love Me," a down-home-blues battle of the sexes between Forsyth and Marrs. There were also dubious relics of regional Texas history like "Lee Harvey (Was A Friend Of Mine)," and the assortment of X-rated country/blues tunes that made their way onto Spankers EP's like Dirty Ditties and Nasty Novelties.
Originals, meantime, included gems like the parodic C&W weepie "(If You Love Me) You'll Sleep On The Wet Spot" (a Marrs and Wammo duet this time), "Wammo's Blues" (complete with more off-the-wall boasting and a reference to his beloved B. Sabbath) and "Beer," a rousing singalong checklist of recreational substances, legal or otherwise (a topic addressed on yet another EP, Spanker Madness).
This side of the group garnered them exposure via regular airplay and the occasional live set on such radio programs as The Bob and Tom Show - a syndicated 'morning zoo' affair originating out of Indiana. It also momentarily threatened to pigeonhole the Spankers as a mere 'novelty act,' on a par with the Doctor Demento's (or indeed, morning zoos) of the world. It was something that, in typical fashion, they ended up lampooning later on in what they called their 'Medley Of Burned-Out Songs.' The Spankers also succeeded in breaking out of their Austin environs, with regular gigs happening at such local venues as the Electric Lounge and Ruta Maya. During the course of their career, they toured the States and as far afield as Europe and Japan.
The lineup also expanded and contracted over time, drawing from an inexhaustible pool of Austin-area musical talent. There was the Zen jazzbo insouciance of singer/clarinetist Stanley Smith. Vaudevillian panache was evident in the presences of early vocalist and nominal MC 'Mysterious John' Dodson and, later, multi-instrumentalist Korey Simeone. There were the ukelele chops of Pops Bayless, and the flattop box stylings of 'Colonel' Josh Arnson (younger brother of California surf-punk guitar legend Dave Arnson of the Insect Surfers). A French gypsy jazz tinge gracefully seeped in, courtesy of guitarists Olivier Giraud and the splendidly monickered Django Porter. New Orleans contributed some greasy fiddle licks as well, via the mohawked expat player known as Sick. In all, over forty musicians passed through Spankers ranks during its lifetime. But whether it was the ragtime piano swing of Reese Grey, or the bugfuck-backporch lunatic antics (and Tuvan throat singing prowess) of Charlie King, each new addition brought their own distinct flavor to the mix, with the prime Spankers directive resolutely undiminished.
I eventually got to see the Spankers work their road-tested show live in 2008 - and, if I had perhaps come late to the proverbial party, the two shows I saw in San Francisco that spring and fall made it clear that things were still jumping. By now, Guy Forsyth was pursuing his own path as a solo artist of note; his chair was now filled most capably by another National resonator wiz, the calypso-mad Nevada Newman. Even so, both sets were still a joy to behold, with all the Spankers colors on full review.
'30's Harlem jazzers and vocal groups (along with the ghost of Sun Ra) were invoked in the opening tune "Hit That Jive, Jack." Wammo gave annoying neighbors what for with his song "Leafblower," and rhapsodized both the band and his prized '65 Chrysler Imperial in a new original, "Every Day's A Parade." Christina Marrs stepped up with the anguished ballad "Blue Prelude," then beguiled with a solo turn on the musical saw. Nevada Newman playfully advised caution when on the make in the Caribbean, thus introducing his song "Hermaphrodite." Charlie King moaned to Jerusalem and advised similar romantic caution when encountering a "Mujahideen Mama." Everyone in the audience joined in on "Beer," and hi-yo-silvered to Wammo's 'barley pop'-tongued, redneck-rap mashup "Hick Hop." Another Spanking good time was had by all.
But of course, all good times come to their inevitable end. Citing the economic and financial difficulties of keeping a band on the road, the Spankers decided to disband in the spring of 2011. A farewell tour was undertaken, with one glaring omission: Wammo was sadly absent from the band lineup, for reasons only known among the Spankers themselves.
YouTube clips of a penultimate gig at one of their regular local Austin venues (supposedly filmed for an eventual DVD release; a live CD, The Last Laugh, is also due out now) shows a band going down swinging - yet, like many fans, I chose not to attend when they hit my town on what seemed a rather Pyrrhic victory lap. For better or worse, it just wouldn't have been the same.
Even so, we still have the numerous studio and live CD's (a beginner's guide is included below), as well as several DVD's. YouTube has a raft of fine live clips, as well as their antiwar, viral video hit "Stick Magnetic Ribbons on Your SUV" (hilariously staged and set to the tune of "Tie A Yellow Ribbon," natch). And many ex-Spankers - Forsyth, Newman, Marrs, King and countless others - have dusted off and struck out either on their own, or in new and assuredly listenable combos.
So, farewell then, Asylum Street Spankers. At the end of the day, at the end of the run, if in fact you were - as you famously promoted yourselves - 'God's Favorite Band,' it's proof positive not only that He has a sense of humor, but hugely diverse musical tastes. And while I may not believe in Him, I definitely count myself among the many fans who believed in the Asylum Street Spankers.
See Part II of this article- our interview with Wammo
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|