Sparked by the recent inaugural Uncle Tupelo tribute show in St. Louis, I am posting some chapters from my unpublished musical memoir that deal with those guys. This is Chapter 79, nine chapters on from my previous post, "Trading horses".
No Chris Bess
By Chris King
The front and back of gigbooks from our years on the road always have hand-drawn calendars, crowded with tour itineraries, details for court appearances (I had a parking ticket problem), and other bits of crucial dated information. “Pay doctor! Pay hospital!” starts popping up in the summer of 1992, after I broke my foot playing football on tour, and stretches longer into my future than I care to remember. And another phrase becomes common as that summer faded into fall: “NO CHRIS BESS”.
Scheduling around Chris Bess’ absence when he drove to Massachusetts to play on the second Uncle Tupelo record, Still Feel Gone, became a pattern. It got more and more convoluted as Chris’ services became more widely known through our travels across the country. Now I was trying to schedule a traveling band around a traveling accordion player.
In a way, we made things harder on ourselves. If there was a place on your stage for a charismatic sideman with comic gifts and virtuoso chops on accordion, then we were a mobile showroom for what you needed. As we slid into the category of goof rock, we were constantly paired with bands that drooled over Chris Bess. Quite a few of them got over their shy crush and asked him out, and quickly learned that he was an approachable guy who truly loved to play – and was starting to look for an escape hatch.
It’s human nature, and a law of the marketplace: don’t quit one job until you have found another one. In fact, take full advantage of the resources at the job you want to leave to land the job you want to have. Chris Bess never phoned it in with Enormous Richard – he played his butt off, every night – but he was certainly mailing out resumes from the stage.
And who would blame him? The guy liked a smooth, assured sound with a big, accessible shtick. Our ass pop period, which he had ushered in, had suited him just fine. Then Matt and I dumped the band upside down the second Elijah got back from Hong Kong and Johnny got bit by the Hasil Adkins gig bug. What was smooth and assured in our sound suddenly became nervy and unpredictable. Skuntry was a chaos that could be transcendent or godawful, from gig to gig, song to song, even moment to moment. It began to cut the big, accessible shtick that Chris Bess loved back to our old, problematic, messy hilarity.
If Enormous Richard actually held gagmen sessions, where we all sat down at a table and tore the act apart, perhaps we could have salvaged the Chris Bess version of the band, or at least ended it as adults. Instead, we were headed straight for the schoolyard.
Imagine Elijah, abandoning a dopey blues band in Hong Kong and settling down in middle Tennessee, where he knew no one. Then, on select weekends, he gets to join his buddies on the road to play songs with the flavor of his creativity all over them. He knows that Chris Bess now sprawls all over these songs, but Elijah has heard the grumbling, and he knows his old parts are more than welcome with us. He is back from Hong Kong and sprung for the weekend from the hills of Tennessee, and he is going to get his licks in, regardless.
I’m in a band! is what he’s thinking. He stretches out his long legs, encased in stretchy hippy pants. He takes that banjo solo, just like he always did, back when Chris was just a charming stranger who joined us in my sister’s basement to record one song for The Almanac. I’m in a skuntry band! Elijah thinks, as he takes that next banjo solo, too.
The song ends. Elijah wiggles his butt. He’s in a band! His banjo chops are coming back. This is cool! What’s the next song?
Elijah sees Chris Bess motioning to him. It’s the age-old come-hither gesture. Elijah watches the knob of his banjo so he doesn’t hit anybody in the head, and leans back toward Chris to hear what he has to say.
Chris Bess delivers a stinging slap to Elijah’s cheek.
“Let me take a solo once in awhile!” Chris Bess says, in his crabby-old-man voice.
To Chris Bess’ credit, he did convene something of a gagmen session, just before he quit. It was in the kitchen of the Marconi house. That dim, vermin-infested room was the only place where we ever sat together and looked each other in the face, and never for more than a few minutes.
On this night, Chris Bess surprised us with an ultimatum: he would stay in the band, but only if we added a new song to our set list. He produced a ukulele – Chris’ size is such that he really can produce a ukulele, as if from thin air – and sang his new song, “Funny Band from Hell”. I can't say any of the words come back to me now, but I’m sure you get the gist from just the title. This was his I Hate Enormous Richard song.
The songwriting was on the wall.
Chris quit abruptly that fall. He stepped to the mike as we were finishing a gig and announced that he had just played his last show with Enormous Richard, and that was that.
I haven’t set foot onstage with Chris Bess in going on twenty years, and I never see him anymore. But I can always hear his playing, no matter what I’m listening to, if I so desire. It’s an interesting consequence of playing a lot of music with someone, particularly if the musician in question is forceful and original in his playing, as Chris Bess always was.
It’s like I have a Chris Bess track burned into my brain. No matter what is on my stereo, I can mix him in, if I wish. All I have to do is ask my imagination to turn up the accordion, and all of the sudden I hear Chris Bess, his characteristic swelling and surging, his bold and subtle flourishes, his solos that always add to the momentum of the song. It’s the greatest gift one musician can leave with another at the end of the gig.
From And Let Him Ply His Music: Adventures in Post-Punk and Amateur Folklore (unpublished).
Previous posts in this series
In the hothouse basement
The allure of the ever-elusive exposure gig
Opening for Uncle Tupelo
A meeting in Old Blue
Strangers in the village
Managing your religion
A farewell to Old Blue
This stage shot of us pulling our Pale Richard stunt when opening for Pale Divine is one of the few surviving shots of Chris Bess onstage with us.