Sunday, May 27, 2012

Every Which Way But Loose

With the high-school reunion approaching, I’m recalling all those weird little quirks so many of us had back in high school, the late 70s turning into the early 80s.  Of course, it wouldn’t have occurred to us at the time, but it was a good time to be a teenager.  We thought we were in hell, and if you took me back in a time machine now and made me spend a week in high school, wandering around like a Dickensian Ghost of Christmas Past, I’d more than likely agree.  But I can see through the scope of passing time, the life of a relatively care-free teenager in a small town circa 1982 wasn’t a bad place to be.

We weren’t imbued with the useless negativism and self-loathing that came into play with so many kids in the 90s.  We weren’t raised by people from the 60s, i.e., the Baby Boom Generation, thank God.  We were the tail end of it.  Rest assured, the parents before them stuck to a far more traditional background that had been in place for decades.  And as the 70s wore on, kids weren’t as wild.  When I watch the movie Dazed and Confused now, while I can view it with nostalgia, the truth is that movie represents kids from the early 70s, who tended to be far more druggy and lost than we were.  Not like we were rockets aiming towards the future.  But if you described a kid as a burnout, you knew exactly what that meant, and it was a much smaller group of kids from previous years.  Even with that heavy drug influence of the early/mid 70s, I can see a lot of those people, as they aged, maintained more of a stoic/Korean War vet take on life.  Much like their parents.  That’s what you don’t pick up on as a kid.  You somehow morph into your parents over time.  Which might make you shit your pants in terror.  But is comforting as time goes on.  Unless you were raised by assholes.

College wasn’t considered a financially crushing endeavor back then.  If you had halfway decent grades, it was expected that you’d go, mostly because it was reasonably affordable, at least compared to today.  Going to Penn State, I worked two years in the factory, worked part-time when I got up to the main campus, and when the smoke cleared with my B.A. in hand, I was $5,000 in debt, which was comparatively low to most of my friends.  But most of them were looking at no more than $10,000.  These days, I hear of people tens of thousands dollars into their college educations by the time they leave.  And the kids who didn’t go?  The ones I know have fended reasonably well for themselves, falling into long-term working-class jobs that ended up not being such a bad deal 20-30 years down the road.  They might complain about security and lack of pensions, but we’re all in the same boat now, no matter what color our collars are.  (Dad worked three decades in a factory and left Mom with his pension that allows her to live comfortably in her old age.  You think this is going to happen with 401-K’s and Social Security?)

But never mind all that.  Going back to the early 80s.  For some reason, I keep thinking about this guy M, who was known for being a great wrestler.  In one of our English classes our senior year, I distinctly recall one of those round-table discussions where we all talked about what wanted to do with our lives.  I’m sure I said something about writing … not knowing then that hardly anybody has the life of Stephen King, making a fortune, living comfortably in large houses in the New England countryside.  If you had told me I more than likely wasn’t going to make a living at this, unless I took some insane editorial job with lousy hours, low pay and a constantly shifting future, I might have thought twice.  But nobody warned me about that, not even in college.

I remember when it came M’s turn, unironically, he said, “I want to drive a truck around the country with a chimp as my only companion.”

What the fuck.  We all knew what he was talking about.  A few years earlier, Clint Eastwood had a massive hit movie with Every Which Way But Loose with the exact same story line.  He followed it up with Any Which Way You Can.  In those movies, Clint made side money by staging impromptu bare-knuckle brawls in factory and farmyard lots for big money.  I’d imagine M saw himself doing the same, as he was a tough kid.  More importantly, he probably wasn’t referring to these movies, but the hit TV show, BJ and the Bear, with the dashing star Greg Evigan taking over the Eastwood roll, sans brawling, as a care-free trucker traveling the land with Bear, his chimp compadre.

Never mind that we had no idea of how wild and hard-to-tame chimpanzees are.  That thing would be shitting in the cab routinely.  Tearing up the upholstery.  Jerking off constantly.  I suspect chimps on a movie set like that are routinely drugged to keep them under control.  Driving around the country in an enclosed space with one?  Come on.  For every cute scene of the animal charming people in a diner while wearing a captain’s hat and faking human laughter, there’d be a few hours of him kicking out windshields with his powerful legs and rubbing his erection on teenage girls in parking lots.

No one laughed when M said this.  Probably because doing so might entail him tying the offender up like a human pretzel.  He was a nice guy, anyway, when not wrestling.  I’m sure a few of us gave each other a “what the fuck” look, but his declaration was taken as seriously as anyone else’s.  In fact, I remember him getting into a brief discussion with another kid about the logistics of acquiring a chimp and taking it on the road … as if this was as viable an option as attending a local community college for Accounting.

And that’s a berserk form of innocence that no longer exists!  Maybe thanks to reality shows, which are horrible, but at least are a strategically-edited form of reality.  As opposed to the endless stream of cockamamie sit-coms we were raised on in the 70s.

On the other end was my friend L.  I wrote a piece about his passing for back in the 90s called The Blue Shirt.  Which was actually about our entire-class picture in the yearbook, all of us gathered in a field behind the high-school, a cool picture to this day.  My friend J, standing next to me in the picture has a fluorescent blue shirt and no right hand.  In reality, he had both hands and was wearing a white shirt.  The problem being, in each of the five pictures taken that day, he was giving the middle finger with his right hand wrested on his should each time.  The pain of it being, I was doing the same thing, with my arms crossed, save there was a guy standing in front of me just enough to block out my hands from each picture.

But that picture also reminded me of L, who was right next to us, laughing his ass off.  He was gone within a year, suicide, although I suspect to this day loved ones probably consider it accidental.  But I knew the guy, and he was smart enough not to leave a car running in a closed garage, which was how he was found, and also knew he was despondent over a break-up.  It’s a touchy subject I’d rather not get into – the few kids/adults who have committed suicide from our class are always hard to discuss because no one wants to think about a life ending that way, especially for somebody that young.

I remember the lunch-room discussions we used to have.  R was also part of that lunch crowd, I think in our junior year.  (Here’s a goodwrite-up of how R was.)  R could often be found doing weird things to his food, like taking his hot dog out of its bun, cutting it up with his butter knife to make it look like a penis, tearing up and shaping the bun to look like two testicles, and placing his mashed potatoes at the head of the hot dog/penis to make it look like recent ejaculation.

Doing so would make him laugh that horsey laugh of his for minutes on end, past the point of tears, to near heart-attack level.  What can I say, this is how we were as teenage males left to our devices, and I suspect little has changed over the years.

But I remember L and I once getting into a red-faced argument over my opinion that, “Anything was possible.”  L scoffed at me and told me it wasn’t.  I can’t even remember how I framed it or what we were talking about.  But it quickly grew into a deep philosophical difference between us, that I thought anything was possible, and that L knew for fact that some things had to be impossible.  The lynch pin of his point of view was that there was no way scientists could invent something that would allow his arm to snake 15 feet over three tables and steal French fries from a girl’s plate sitting that far away.

And I told him, don’t be silly, I’m not talking about possibilities in terms of crazy shit like that, I mean in terms of your life, what you want to do with it, how you want to live it, anything is possible, positive or negative.

I can’t recall why he got so angry, but you could tell he was genuinely offended that I would hold such a point of view, positioning himself as the voice of reason and experience, while I had to be out of my mind and childish to hold such a point of view.

All these years later, I could see that moment now as an omen of what was to come.  Because you have to believe life is impossible to check yourself out in a closed garage a few years later, car engine running, while you sit there hoping nobody finds you before the deal is done.  I’ve had some dark days in my adult life, but never to the point where I’d ponder checking out like that.  Because I’ve lived long enough to know that all things pass, good and bad, continuously, and it’s a rare life that gets locked into one or the other for long periods of time.

And yet, as I get older, I can see what L meant, that things are a lot less likely to happen for some people than others, particularly when you’re raised working-class like we were.  That was probably the heart of the issue for him, recognizing our place in the world.  Whereas I refused to recognize that, pictured myself going to college, getting an English degree, writing all the time, getting famous, making truckloads of money as a result.

Well, three out of five aint bad.  And that’s the difference.  L would have looked at three out of five as a demonstration of impossibility, a failure of sorts.  I probably would have, too, back then, before the internet rolled around and made writing a damn near impossible stand-alone job.  I’ve learned that the simple ability to write whatever I want is all I really need, since I’ve been supporting myself by other means since the day I left college all those years ago.  It would be lovely to write all the time and get paid a fortune, but I suspect the quality would be no better or worse than what I’m putting out here, and you can take that for whatever it’s worth!

But L did touch on some sense of disappointment, not just within myself, but within everyone I knew from back then.  Even the extremely intelligent kids, I could sense, were not going to change mankind and alter the course of humanity, despite having the potential to do so.  From what I’ve seen, most of them have fallen into lucrative professions and, pretty much, learned how to cover their own asses.  I’m not knocking it.  In this world?  That’s to be expected by any sane person.

It’s enough to make sense of the world and your place in it, to not lose hope or sanity, to keep on keeping on, because as I saw on my father’s death bed, we’re all going to end up in that place, in that room, taking our last breaths one day, and pondering what it was all about, and what, if anything, is going to happen next.  And whether you set the world on fire, only covered your own ass or checked out early because it was all too much, there’s bound to be a sense that life, in and of itself, was enough.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Gourds on Film

Since the turn of the century, I’ve been saying The Gourds are my favorite American band.  I’m not sure what that means.  Most of what comes out of the UK these days is the same old stuff, which is not an insult, but not since Pulp has a band from over there blown my doors off.  Favorite American band?  I think what I’m trying to say is they’re the my favorite band still playing.  Period.

And now some folks are trying to raise money to do a documentary on them. After I post this story, I’m going to get over to Kickstarter and make my donation.  Why not?  Even if I buy the DVD when it comes out, I’d still be dropping $20 or so after shipping, so it makes sense to kick in on the funding and make the thing happen.  Every few days I check in, and I suspect they’ll make that $45,000 goal by June 11.  Most likely from word of mouth at gigs and among fans on the web.  And things like this – if you’re reading this, a fan, and didn’t know about it, please, drop a few dollars, you know these guys are worth it.

I can’t even recall how I got into The Gourds.  I had the first album: 1996, Dem’s Good Beeble.  I can’t recall if I first heard them on Vin Scelsa’s radio show on WNEW, or if longstanding pal, P.J. turned me on to them.  P.J. actually knew the band at their inception, having lived in Austin in the early 90s, literally across the street from Jimmy Smith, and was privy to the early days of the band before the first album, which must have been a blast.  P.J. had followed his college flame to Austin, eventually married her, moved back up here to live on a farm her family owned in Otisville, NJ, eventually divorced her after the birth of their child, and I guess the one thing he can thank her for, aside from a good daughter, was her turning him onto The Gourds.  (It’s always a good idea to take the good with the bad when you look back on major disasters in your life, because there’s always some kind of good mixed in.)

That first album didn’t floor me at the time.  I remember thinking, “These guys sound like an updated version of The Band, with Kevin Russell nailing that rural Levon Helm vibe, and Jimmy Smith providing the looser Rick Danko element.”  I also recall the band denying they ever heard of The Band at the time, which was utter BS, even I knew that.  They knew their country and rock history.  I’d eventually come across Kevin’s earlier work in the Picket Line Coyotes, and that was one dude who must have worn out his copies of Murmur and Reckoning … so fucking glad he morphed into something else with his next band!

The next album, Stadium Blizter in 1998, that was where I got into them and started sending that “favorite band” vibe.  That was also the year of “Gin and Juice” … which probably would have been a lower Top 40 hit had they released it as a single.  But the band didn’t want to be considered as a novelty/cover act at the time, and the song floated all over the web in the nascent days of Napster, getting mis-labeled thousands of times over as being performed by Phish by stoner jam rock guys who must have had their heads completely up their asses.  It may not seem like much now, but that was a crucial point in the band history, one that could have broken them onto an entirely different level.  But, by choice, and by that weird misidentification, the big Wilco-style tour bus drove right by them, leaving them with the rental van and the 2-3 week touring schedule.

Son of a bitch, that and the next album, Ghosts of Hallelujah, blew my doors off.  Gangsta Lean.  Magnolia.  I Ate the Haggis.  There was such a looseness about their sound, the kind of looseness you had when you were seventeen, and the kind of looseness you never lost, providing you didn’t turn into a shithead when you grew up, as so many adults do.  This was the kind of country music I liked, and still like now.  Made by smart, loose guys from a rock background, who grew into country as they got older, but never forgot that sense of fun rock and roll has in its heart.  This was the sound of America, that melding of so many southern influences into one coherent whole, the same way people like Chuck Berry, Elvis, The Beach Boys and CCR did, once upon a time.  Not so much a conscious effort, just people joining their musical backgrounds and fitting it into a format that may be as old as the hills, but can easily sound new when someone brings his own take into it.  As opposed to the current state of pop country, which is a pathwork of bad cliches, 80s stadium rock with the occasional fiddle and/or steel guitar solo.

People are carrying about their latest album, Old Mad Joy, as if it will be their “breakthrough” … but let’s cut the bullshit.  These guys are never going to “breakthrough” in that blockbuster commercial way I’ve seen so many people imply in reviews.  Either these people aren’t listening correctly, or they’re just full of shit … knowing music critics, you know which option I angle towards.  It’s a good album.  All their albums are good.  The hype leading into it was this “real” producer Larry Campbell was going to take the band, in Levon Helm’s studio near Woodstock, no less, and forge a new sound of sorts that highlighted all their strengths.  I think we all pictured the guys in the cellar of Big Pink creating their version of The Basement Tapes.

Fucked if I can tell, but it sounds like any other good Gourds album I’ve bought in the past 15 years.  Not a breakthrough.  Not a higher level.  They always work on a high level.  It sounds like Campbell might have encouraged them to tighten up their sound, but that doesn’t necessarily make them a better band.  It sounds like doing so had the best effect on Jimmy Smith, or at least “Drop What I’m Doing” is the best song he’s done in years, one of the best Stones-style riffs you’ll ever hear.  I’ve always been more of a Kevin Russell fan (Gourds fans always seem to lean one way or the other), but the sum is always much greater than the parts with these guys, and Jimmy’s songs have that necessary rough-and-tumble quality that the band could not function without.  (Jimmy's song "The Blue Bottled One" from one of his solo albums is surely in my Top 3 by the band.)  Their greatness is that sense of union and tension between Kevin and Jimmy.

And it seems like they’re good enough guys, like each other enough, that whatever differences they have, they can keep it together and go on as a band.  That’s rare with musicians, and the whole band seems like they’re friends.  Compare and contrast with, say, The Ramones, driving around in vans for decades, and no one talking to each other at all, mile after mile, week after week, year after year. 

That’s got to be hell.  I sometimes fret when bands I love don’t make it on that larger level, but I’ve learned, by the same token, not making on that level generally allows you much more control of the product, and if you have enough of a fan base, freedom to tour at will and still make some kind of money.  Most people I know have no idea who The Gourds are, and I’m completely comfortable with that.  For the songs I’m compiling for a class reunion in July, I’m including “Gin and Juice” but doubt I’ll get a chance to slip it on between the Toby Keith and Rihanna and Beyonce and Loverboy and Seger and Madonna and Kid Rock and Lady Gaga and whatever else people in their 40s want to hear that still makes them feel cool.  Shit, I’d have about two dozen Gourds song in that mix if I were going to do it by my personal taste, but I’m not.  Class reunion is not hipster funhouse time, and like it or not, at least in the northeast, you’ve got to be a bit of a hipster, a 90s-style hipster of sorts, to be into The Gourds.  Or into alt country in general.  It might be different down south, and surely is in Texas, but up here, you say you’re a Gourds fan, the general response is, “Why not squash?”

I’ve met the guys a few times through P.J., and it always felt weird, as we’re talking pre-show in NYC.  Once, we even went backstage when they played the Bowery Ballroom.  I just felt like a dick.  The band is always a little nervous and in their own space before a show – any band is like that.  Well-wishers came by, guys who were clearly hipper than P.J. and I were, and we all felt like dicks … because The Gourds aren’t a black-turtleneck hipster sort of band.  I struck up a conversation with Kevin about college football which eventually turned into periodic email exchanges, but we lost that thread a long time ago, long before the demise of Paterno which I’ve written about extensively here, but Kevin struck me as a very smart, funny, warm guy … just like his songs.  Jimmy’s just like his songs, too, you half expect the guy to wear a bell around his neck so he doesn’t get lost in the streets before the show.  I remember one show, pre-show, seeing him on the street, and looking away, because I figured he wouldn’t remember me, but damn, when I looked back, I caught him looking away with a “shit, I know that guy, but this is New York and we have to play it cool” look on his face.  Shit.  I’ve always felt like an asshole over that moment.

But, I’m rattling on here.  Go find the band if you already haven’t.  I’m now going to head over to Kickstarter and drop down a healthy donation, so I can get my DVD when the time comes.  There are two bands I grew up with: The Replacements and The Gourds.  While Paul Westerberg seems to have dropped out for the time being, and that’s somebody I’ll hang in there with, no matter how much he pisses me off, The Gourds have never let me down as musicians.  I was well into my 20s when I heard them, as were they, and they've felt like that one band I could pace my life with and still feel some ongoing connection in the music they make and how I live.  They’re never going to get what they deserve, but that seems to be a running theme in most of my favorite musicians’ lives, not to mention my own!