Sparked by the recent inaugural Uncle Tupelo tribute show in St. Louis, I am posting some chapters from my unpublished musical memoir that deal with those guys.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 70, just around the corner from my previous post, "A farewell to Old Blue".
By Chris King
When we finally recorded a follow-up to (Why It's) Enormous Richard's Almanac in February of 1992, it was a compromise between ass pop and skuntry. The record straddled a line that divided the band into two camps, the accordionist Chris Bess vs. the drummer Matt and me.
Junior, the former child clown, was never quite accepted as possessing an adult vote. Skoob was always a silent partner. Prop him up with a pitcher of beer and a borrowed cigarette and he would chop chords all night long without asking any questions, other than for directions to the bathroom. As for Guitar Karl, he was gone.
The return of Lij had evaporated him. They both occupied roughly the same spot on the gig spectrum: the unpredictable, trippy guy with a natural musical gift. Having them in the same band was like having two guys in the same room at the same party wearing the same bizarre hat. One guy has to leave — or knock off the other guy's hat and beat the shit out of him. Karl left.
There was something of a parting fight — in Louisville, of course. Drunk at an afterhours party, Karl picked up Skoob's acoustic guitar and broke into "Whiskey Bottle", an Uncle Tupelo dirge. I have never liked that song. It strikes me as so ponderous that it verges on a parody of world-weariness.
Whiskey bottleThe symbolism is just kind of beating me over the head with a whiskey bottle here. But it spoke to Guitar Karl in the dark hours of the rock & roll night. It became the only song he wanted to play when he was desperately drunk at the end of a night on the road.
That night in Louisville, as he started to belt out the Tupelo dirge once again — not forever, but just for the fifth night in a row — I impolitely suggested that he stop. "This station is really overplaying this song," I said. Which touched Karl off to remark that he had been forced to sit through a fuck lot more of my singing than I would ever be subjected to his. "And, frankly, your singing sucks!" he said. "You contribute nothing melodically to this band!"
"I might suck as a singer," I came back at him, "but I wrote almost every melody we play. I'm still waiting for you to write an actual guitar part. The only actual guitar parts you play, you copped from Guitar Johnny. Everything else is just acid head doodle."
To bounce back from heartless attacks like these, you have to both really want to be together again. That wasn't the case for either one of us. So Guitar Karl was gone.
Lij still had no urge to occupy our guitar chair. He was itching to reclaim and further his fiddle and banjo chops. Chris Bess urgently did not want this to happen in the context of our upcoming recording sessions. I can seldom quote Chris Bess from memory, because he was not very verbal when it came to confrontations. His method was to throw up his arms, say something abrupt and scornful, and walk away, leaving the rest of us to sort it out. "I guess Chris Bess doesn't want Elijah in on this thing," for example.
Chris' wishes seemed fair on that point. We had a well-honed set list of ass pop that really didn't cry out for jagged banjo or scratchy fiddle. So we set Elijah to work on the next batch of songs, mostly mail-order collaborations with Guitar Johnny, and began negotiations toward finalizing the electric guitar and studio choices for the recording.
Of course, there were no actual negotiations. Junior soaked it all up, Skoob soaked in beer, Matt and I confided in each other, and Chris Bess threw up his arms in scorn and walked away. In this manner, we arrived at a guitar player, Ayatollah Joe, and a new engineer, good old Meghan Gohil, our Wash. U. chum who set up and then slumbered through the Almanac sessions.
It occurs to me, now, listening to the recordings we made that winter, that if Ayatollah Joe and Guitar Karl had ever taken a road trip together, they could have easily agreed on a selection of road tapes. Karl was a classic rocker, but Joe was also formed by the 70s — particularly Neil Young and the early, brutal Aerosmith. The best Joe could do in the context of ass pop were spidery lines that sounded a little like Robbie Krueger of The Doors. Guitar Karl could have envisioned and played those parts, if only one of us had thought to say, "Treat it like a Doors song."
Ayatollah Joe's approach failed on us in the studio twice — on one song from each camp. For our skuntry contingent, Joe couldn't get the right grungy sound on a goofy piece of country post-punk called "Freezer Full of Meat". So I enlisted Brian Henneman, of Chicken Truck and the Uncle Tupelo crew. Brian came over to the Marconi house one biting cold day and laid down the original Chicken Truck shit tone for us.
For Chris Bess' ass pop song, his only composition on the record, he wanted no part of Ayatollah Joe (or Elijah, God knows). Chris called in his friend Scott Roever from the Tree Weasels and EJ Quit, who played slick and precise and went along with Chris' preference for reverb-drenching. These watery guitar tones surrounded a funny, gutsy Chris Bess song about the Marconi neighborhood, "The Hill".
"We are Italian in every way," Chris Bess sang, "except on St. Patrick's Day".
Horse trading continued between the ass pop and skuntry camps in the band as I raised money to release our record. This was my one successful piece of fundraising in a life of mostly making do without dollars.
As I borrowed money from Cicero's — $500 interest-free against future earnings garnished at the door — Ayatollah Joe asked us to contribute to a compilation he was producing, St. Louis Schoolhouse, a bunch of local bands coverings songs from Schoolhouse Rock, the educational television snippets we all grew up watching. Matt and I chose "Interjections" — and gave Chris Bess a leading role in the recording. Chris got to spit out all of the interjections (hooray! aww! eek! drats! wow! hey!) and did so with maximum hilarity and spirit. Of course, Ayatollah Joe — the skuntry pick — played guitar on our song.
As I borrowed money from Joe Edwards at Blueberry Hill — $500 interest-free against future earnings garnished at the door — those shitkicker yo-yo friends of ours, The New Duncan Imperials, asked Chris Bess if Enormous Richard could contribute a track to a compilation they were producing: rock bands coverings songs released by K-Tel on their cheesy "Classic Hits from the 70s" series. Chris Bess chose "Music Box Dancer" by Frank Mills — and let me sing the lead vocal. His friend Scott Roever, of course, played guitar on Chris Bess' project. (Uncle Tupelo also did a cheezy cover for the occasion, "Movin' On".)
So we had achieved an uneasy truce.
Lij appeared on none of these winter recordings. But there he was in the hills of Tennessee, practicing his banjo and fiddle when he wasn't learning how to capture music on tape. Guitar Johnny kept dragging his roadhouse guitar out of the closet every time a songwriting tape appeared in the mail. The old, original, skuntry Enormous Richard was stirring to life, like a drunk who had slept through the best hours of the party.
From And Let Him Ply His Music: Adventures in Post-Punk and Amateur Folklore (unpublished).
"Freezer Full of Meat"
with Brian Henneman
From Answers All Your Questions (1992)
with Scott Roever
From Answers All Your Questions (1992)
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
The image is Lij (in Skeletor mask) jamming with Guitar Johnny in the van that replaced Old Blue. I tried to name it "Big Orange Guy," but the name never took.