Tommy Guerrero 40th Birthday Party
San Franciscan artist/musician/ex-professional skateboarder Tommy Guerrero and his lovely wife invited friends to help celebrate the big four-o last night with a private affair at the Verdi Club in SF. Money Mark provided entertainment. Tommy hired a taco truck for the event. Can you say free carne asada taco's?
"Is that a real poncho or a Sears poncho?"—Frank Zappa
Murder Ballad Miners: Bob Frank And John Murry
Many moons ago, while playing guitar for my guru of voodoo: Jim Dickinson, he pulled out a song called "Wild Bill Jones"... a killer tale of blood and lust. When I asked who wrote it, he said, "That's Bob Frank. The greatest songwriter you never heard—long since disappeared from the face of the earth." I filed that away and kept an eye out for Bob's debut (and only) record originally released by Vanguard in 1972. One day at a used record store, I scored big when Bob's face looked right back at me from the bin like a dope-running, Jesus loving, Davendra doppelganger. Eureka!
In 2002, Bob broke his silence and released Keep On Burning, his first album in 30 years. I got wind and ordered it straight from the source, Bob himself. Bob and I talked a bit and I sent him a check. I learned that Bob no longer lived in Memphis and was actually living just over the bridge in Oakland. He even came by one of my shows. God-damn! Bob Fucking Frank! I was struck by his good humor, youthful appearance and the fact that he rarely wore shoes. We chatted each other up and made big plans to play some shows together.
The shows never really came together.
Presently, I rent a shoebox-like office space above Closer Recording Studios, a kind of underground studio collective run by my old pal Tim Moony. Turns out that Bob Frank and his sidekick John Murry have been in the studio below me toiling away on another record of Murder Ballads. New Murder Ballads. Interesting. Bob Frank was getting less and less obscure. I poked my head down there one night when Bob, John and Tim were working and was floored by what I heard coming out the speakers. Bob and John had been rooting around in the muddy shadows of American history for long-forgotten true tales of murder, suicide, and death. The goal was to create a CD of songs that are a dark reminder of the skeletons in our nation's closets. And the singing and playing are pretty good too.
Bob and John celebrate the release of World Without End with a rare live appearance backed by a group of musicians so big they could induce vomiting from Lambchop. The show will include a multi-media slide show replete with images and crime scene evidence. A gig not to be missed. They will be appearing live at the Freight and Salvage on October 26th. Opening the show will be the Stephanie Finch duo with yours truly on guitar... quite the honor. The following is a recent conversation I enjoyed with the two of them.
CP: Hey Fellas.... Bob, you made your first record for Vanguard back in 1972, your second record didn't come out until 2002. Why so long between records?
Bob: Long story. I was busy raising a family. I didn't see how I could make any money from music, so I got a regular job.
CP: You're both Southern boys... from Tupelo Mississippi in the case of you John, and Bob, you're from where?
Bob: Memphis, Tennessee.
John: The Sovereign State of Mississippi.
CP: How'd you guys meet?
Bob: A mutual friend in Memphis, Don McGregor, told John to look me up when he came out here. Don plays music, sings, in fact, he says he's been singing some of my songs as long as I have.
John: I moved to Memphis after high school and was sorta adopted by Don McGregor. He taught me all the worthwhile guitar stuff I know. When Bob and I started playing together he'd pull out these songs I already knew how to play because I'd heard Don do `em so many times before. I didn't know whose songs they were, I just thought they were good. Stuff off the Vanguard record like "Before The Trash Truck Comes" and "She Pawned Her Diamond".
CP: How'd you come to take on this project? Not for the money I imagine.
Bob: It was John's idea. Originally, we were going to do an album of old murder ballads, songs that already existed. Like "Omie Wise" and "The Banks of the Ohio", but when we started recording them, we realized it wasn't going to work. They'd already been done too many times. So John says, we will have to write all new songs, but make them sound old.
John: I started getting annoyed with the salvatory overtones of all the old murder ballads. You know, somebody's right and somebody's wrong. They go to hell or heaven. Lots of judgment, usually the entire last verse. Not all of `em but most, anyway. What disturbs me the most is knowing that people (all people) are capable of taking on both the role of the killer and the killed and sometimes, it seems, they do it for no damn reason at all. That's reality, ya know. I wanted to make sense of some of the mess for myself. There's an old Italian proverb that says, "At the end of the game both the pawn and the king go back into the same box". Nothing I do in this life can stop it. In the end, life kills you if something else doesn't do it first. So... for me some of this came out of a fairly morbid fear of death and some of it came out of wanting to set the record straight, let folks know how some of these stories really happened without telling them how to feel about it.
CP: Murder ballads are interesting because the people in the songs are real. A good murder ballad exposes the souls of the perps as well as the dead victims who aren't here to speak for themselves. Do you ever feel funny giving a voice to the dead?
Bob: I feel funny doing anything, Chuck. But as for singing like I'm a dead man, no, that seems perfectly normal. Although, I do sort of wonder if these people were actually anything like we drew them. Like John Willis. Did he really have a sister? What was he like? I don't know. So in that sense, yeah, you could say it's sort of weird. But in another sense, you just use this story to present a certain mind. And you try to stay true to that sort of mind. And in these cases, in these songs, the minds are all pretty extreme. So you get a lot of emotion going on. In Dharma, they say there are 84,000 afflictive emotions. I think we covered `em all in this album.
John: At first I just wanted to get it right. You know, make the lines and music fit, get the story right and all that shit. It wasn't until after we had laid down the basic tracks that I sat back and realized what we had done. It does hit me in a strange way sometimes, almost like I've stepped out of myself into something else entirely. Maybe these stories didn't happen exactly like we interpreted them, but I can see them unfolding so clearly in my mind. It's kinda haunting.
CP: Pretty gruesome stuff here. Jesse Washington's character from the grave sings, "They cut off my balls and doused me with Kerosene..." Later in the song he sings, "I could smell my own flesh burning.... somebody wacked off my fingers..." Was there anything too graphic for you guys?
Bob: Well, we didn't get into pornography here. We could have. But that would have been really funny, as in humorous. Like my favorite old blood and guts song about the "Castration of the Strawberry Roan." There's a graphic song for you. But no, there was nothing too gruesome to put on here. Some of these stories, we didn't know the whole story when we wrote the song, so it could have been even more gruesome or macabre in some instances, but we did the best we could with the limited means at our disposal. Actually, the more graphic and gruesome it was, the better we liked it. But we tried to do it in an amoral manner. That was our intention when we set out. Whether or not we succeeded, now we aren't so sure...
John: I wanted to tell these stories like they really happened, as best we could, anyway. Particularly Jesse Washington. The city of Waco, Texas still refuses to build a memorial acknowledging what the NAACP called the worst lynching in American history happened on the lawn of their courtyard, with their chief of police and mayor looking on. What the fuck is it with Waco and fire? They've repeatedly said they wanna just put it behind them. You can't shove shit like that aside. It's too much to ignore. They're still doing it 90 years later. My wife won't listen to that song. She says it's too painful. I hope it is. I hope all of these songs are. Not because it's fun to make people uncomfortable but because it's necessary sometimes. Like Bob said we tried to do it in an amoral way. I always liked that Hannah Arendt quote about "the banality of evil" until we did this record. There's nothing "banal" about it. They're fucked up, these stories. I doubt anyone involved in these killings would've agreed with her statement. I can't believe it anymore. It's far too convenient.
CP: Do you have a favorite murderous song, like "Psycho" by Jack Kittel or something by say Black Sabbath?
Bob: Huh? My all time favorite recording of a murder ballad is Jim Dickinson's version of Wild Bill Jones, on his 1972 Atlantic album, "Dixie Fried." That sort of set the standard for modern murder ballads, just ask Nick Tosches.
John: I figured Bob would say that was his favorite. He wrote it. It's a great song. As far as old ones go I like "Lily Schull" and that Leadbelly song "You Don't Know My Mind" (the version Kenny Brown, RL Burnside's old guitar player did is brilliant. Dale Hawkins produced it.) I can also get down with some "War Pigs", Neil Young's "Down By The River", and The Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer". All the Tom Waits stuff is good too.
CP: Nick Cave did a record of murder ballads a few years back—with all due respect to Mr. Cave, I got the distinct feeling that Nick Cave didn't give a shit about those people he was singing about. Did any of the folks in these songs get under your skin more than others?
Bob: Some of these people, you couldn't help but form an opinion on them. We sort of liked Little Wylie Harpe better than Joe Smith. In fact, I guess I have an opinion about all of these folks in these stories. They're like real people to me, so you try to understand them, figure out why they did what they did. So in that sense, they all got under my skin. Because the stories are different, the characters are different, so you feel a different relation with each of them. Like Kid Curry, you sort of like that guy. And Boss Weatherford. They just sort of took what came their way, whether it was an opportunity or a danger. And Jesse Washington. He was mentally retarded, they say. So you really feel for this guy. That song will break your heart.
John: Yeah, the gunshots and microphone spittle in Nick Cave's version of "Stagger Lee" (he even fucked up the spelling) are ridiculous. I liked "Tender Prey" and some of the other stuff and think some of the lyrics in his version of "Crow Jane" are sorta brilliant. When I played it for Bob once he just sat there and said, "That guy's just angry". Bob's right, I think. Australians have to work hard to be dark. The South was just built that way. I wanted to leave our songs open-ended and let the listener have their own opinion. Maybe it didn't quite work out. You can't help but have an opinion about these stories. We tried, though. Something about being human kinda makes that impossible. Do you think Nick Cave is from another planet, maybe?
CP: What about a favorite concept album? You know, like Quadrophenia? Do you guys have one?
Bob: I don't have much of a concept about that.
JM: I love The Drive-By Truckers' "Southern Rock Opera". Also, Love's "Forever Changes" and The Kinks' "Muswell Hillbillies". You know Aleksandr Scribian? He was a Russian composer who wrote these symphonies to bring about the end of the world. He thought it had gone on far too long and for the good of humanity wanted to end it all. He died before he finished. I like that, too.
CP: I have a Murder ballad collection here written by Olive Woolley, a Mormon woman in 1958. She describes the murder ballad as "an exciting side street of American History". In this collection, there are verses dedicated to the massacre of the Indian and the white man. I got to thinking that maybe if it were to be updated, it might have to include the Jonestown Massacre. What do you guys reckon?
Bob: Oooooh, yes. You'd have to write that one. Jim Jones and his electric kool aid. That's a terrible tragedy. But you'd also have to include the Middle East. Maybe the Twin Towers. Somebody walking into a library with a bomb in his satchel. The Oklahoma bombing, the guy up in Montana, the Davidian thing in Texas... there's too many of `em. You could write murder ballads from now til doomsday. Might not be enough time left to write very many of em....
JM: Yeah, the Jonestown Massacre would have to be in there, but you'd have to include the part about how Jim Jones fought so hard to erect a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge for years before he murdered all those people. I'd wanna do the Heaven's Gate thing, too. Maybe an album of religious mass suicides?
CP: Tell us about some of the musicians—for example. Brad Postlethwaite played the bowed saw. Who's Brad and why a bowed saw?
Bob: John got these musicians together. He picked a perfect bunch. He wouldn't rehearse the songs with them ahead of time, just had them come in the studio and play it off the cuff. He wanted them to come up with something weird and unusual, and when you hear this album, you will know that's just what they did. They were all unique musicians, with ideas of their own, and that's what gives the album such a unique taste. I could talk about all these folks, like Quinn Miller, the dead-on bass player, or Brian Hendrix, who played the banjo and fed us all some of his homemade barbecue, or Kate Howser, who sang such a pretty harmony on "Joaquin Murietta", or David Manning, who played a 600 year old fiddle and came up with some killer lines.... and shared his whisky with me. Or Tim Mooney, when I watched him playing the drums, it was so pure and smooth, it approached the inexpressible. I think it actually arrived there. But the guy who played so many instruments on all these songs, and actually set the tone for the whole album, was Nate Cavaileri. You don't ever want to make an album without him on it. Only problem is, you have to drive him home afterward... As to Brad Postlethwaite, John can answer this one. All I know is, he played that saw perfectly. Hit just the right notes, with just the right feel. Perfect.
John: Brad's in a band in Memphis called Snowglobe. We've been friends since we were 18 years old. He played on the first thing I ever recorded at Easley (which sadly burned down a year and a half ago). He's a brilliant songwriter and can play anything, especially things not meant to be played. He's got a great solo record out called "Welcome to the Occupation". Everyone should listen to it. I really can't say enough about the folks who played on this record. I really gotta say that Nate Cavalieri made the thing what it is, though. He's amazing. A real ringer, ya know? His piano, organ, tympani, glockenspiel, accordion, etc., work made the record what it is.
CP: This record was produced and engineered by Tim Mooney (Sleepers, American Music Club). How did you guys hook up?
Bob: John found him. Tim's a genius. Talk about knowing what to leave out, this guy wrote the book on it.
John: I just always liked the American Music Club stuff and think Timmy sort of embodies the rock and roll ethos, like Dickinson says Bob Stinson did. What a nice guy, too. He let me smoke almost all his cigarettes every day we were in there. Bob can get a little proprietary about his sometimes, especially since I quit smoking. Tim believed in this record like we did, wrestled with ideas right along with us. And goddamn he can play the drums.
CP: How long before we can expect a sequel? There's been a lot of bodies piling up in the last hundred years. Might I suggest Bebi Lee as subject matter? She was a UC Berkeley student who was killed by her boyfriend while out for a jog in 1984. Dude smashed her head in with a rock. Later after her body was cold, he came back for a midnight booty call. A farewell romp. Anyway, it was pretty big news around here. So yeah, what about volume two?
Bob: I'm up for anything. We will definitely be writing some more songs about something someday soon... might as well be another murder ballad... John has an idea, do a whole album about just one story. So every song would be sort of like a moment or two in the sequence of the tale. Which is probably just what an ordinary musical is.... so maybe that ain't such a unique idea as it seems... But I can guarantee you, if John Murry does it, it will come out sounding unique, no matter what.
John: Jesus Christ that's fucked up. Necrophilia and all. Maybe we oughta do a more modern thing, with stories more recent. It'd be harder, though. Not as
much distance from the subject. I wanna do the Bubba Rose story as a whole album. We found out a lot more about it after we wrote the song. It's an incredibly Southern Shakesperian tragic-comedy. I wanna do it from when he was a little kid until he was sent to prison. Hell, I'll do anything Bob wants to do.
Last thoughts from Chuck:
I'd like to apologize to anyone who found the previous conversation offensive in any way. Particularly any family members of the People's Temple cult. It's not easy to stare down shit this gruesome without the uncomfortable chuckle or sideways crack. The songs and the performances are really quite moving.
Sometimes we laugh to keep from crying. That's what they say. Maybe it's true.
PS: If you're looking to find a copy of Bob Franks' Vanguard record, when asked where to find this record, Bob encourages folks to pester Steve Buckingham, Vice President of Vanguard. By calling him up and encouraging him to re-release the record. (Steve Buckingham's number in Nashville is (615) 297-2588.)
Talking Fender Trash With Jonathan Richman
(Editors note: Mark Kozlek, Tarnation, Chuck Prophet and Jonathan Richman (speaking only) will be performing June 3, 2006 at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco in a benefit for the West Memphis Three defense fund. A Fender Stratocaster will be auctioned off. The guitar was hand picked by Chuck and Jonathan.)
"Like gasoline in the sand, Fender Stratocaster/Like a motorcycle at a hotdog stand/Oh and the sound so thin it's barely there/Like a bitchy girl who just don't care/Fender Stratocaster, well there's something about that sound." --Jonathan Richman
I was in a creative slump. Not sure where I got the idea but it hit me that the answer to all my woes could be a new guitar. After playing the same Telecaster since the 80's, I thought switching to a Stratocaster might be the sea change I needed. It's pretty radical, I know it.
Like a lot of sensitive people, guitar shops tend to overwhelm me and I can short out pretty fast. So I decided to bring an expert consultant to help me through the experience. Who better than the man who wrote the song Fender Stratocaster? Jonathan Richman.
I agree with Jonathan. There's something about that sound. Don't take our word for it, ask Buddy Holly, the Ventures, or that bloke from the Floyd. Not to mention, Hubert Sumlin—arguably, the first guitar player to play that out-of-phase Stratocaster sound that I thought Richard Thomson invented—or Curtis Mayfield, Tony Joe White, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan. Every-old-body. And listen here kids; when a seriously tweaked Neil Young turns to Robbie Robertson during the Last Waltz and says, "They got it now, Robbie..." what kind of guitar do you think Robbie was playing? You guessed it. A Fender Stratocaster.
To avoid the "Waynes World" vibe—or what Jonathan calls the "Toyota dealership" like atmosphere of the bigger chain store in town, we agree to meet up at Haight Ashbury Music.
We meet up across the street and make small talk about weird and off the beaten path gigs, (a passion of ours). Jonathan writes in my notebook: "Place You'd Love: The Nyabingi Dan Centre in Youngstown Ohio". Name sounds like: Champagne, sportcoats, art matron, and `ethnic' culture. Really is: Old bar run by mechanic-guys with AC/DC on the jukebox and the club in the backroom with lights that they tape up with duct tape.
I pull out my Sony Walkman (a songwriters best friend) and we get down to talking some serious Fender Stratocaster trash over Chai Tea (Jonathan) and carrot juice (me).
CP: About the Fender Stratocaster. The other night we were talking about Dick Dale. What do you know about Dick Dale?
JR: Dick Dale is one of my favorite guitar players. Dick Dale to me is a dramatic guitar player. There are other guys who can play those progressions that he... fine guitar players. They're fine, they're technical. But what he has for me is drama.
CP: Doesn't he play a Stratocaster with the strings on backwards and crazy high barbwire like action?
JR: Yeah, I've played that guitar. Funny thing is I've heard him play on that guitar two nights in a row. And depending on his attitude it sounded totally different. So, it's not always the guitar, it's the player too.
CP: Ever notice when you play a Stratocaster that the springs in the box of the guitar actually vibrate and breathe, creating a kind of organic reverb?
JR: Not really, but you noticed it. Now that you mention it, I can hear it. And feel it. Maybe it makes it more like an acoustic box feel. I don't know.
CP: I play a lot of electric guitar not plugged in. So I like that extra psycho acoustical enhancement.
JR: Yeah, and they are all different too. You can play fifty of the same model and they will all sound different and feel different.
CP: Those early Fender guitars were all assembled by little old ladies back in the 50's and 60's. Those housewives got handy with soldering irons during WW2. We're not talking mass produced instruments. They're all unique.
JR: That's why I like Flamenco guitars. Each one is so different.
CP: You don't seem attached to any one guitar. Like Hendrix, they're just like disposable Bic lighters to you.
JR: It's not the guitar, it's the player. In fact, uh, my most recent Flamenco guitar isn't even a real Flamenco guitar. It's not made out of the right woods. Made out of walnut. It's twangy. I bought it and I, uh, I like it.
CP: I believe you, those CYC (Catholic Youth Camp) guitars will surprise you. They say Leo Fender made all the right mistakes. Do you think there is any way that the Fender Stratocaster can be improved?
JR: No way. I can't even think that way. It's just... to me you don't improve on a 1953 Studebaker GoldenHawk. That's what it was.Ya know a 1956 Ford Thunderbird? I ain't going to mess with that.
CP: It's amazing isn't it? Many have tried and many have failed to improve on Leo Fender's vision. They put the fat pickups in there, and they rip out the springs. Can't blame them for trying.
JR: Inspiration. You can't mess with it. It was one of those days. When someone gets that inspired to do something, you don't mess with it afterwards. Don't mess with success (laughs).
CP: Fender guitars have more tension. The scale is longer so you really have to tweak them to tune them up to the note. They say that's where the twang comes from.
JR: It is? Huh. I didn't know.
CP: They also say the Fender Stratocaster is the most successful guitar. I bought my first Stratocaster at Guitar Center on Sunset boulevard with my paper route money. I just knew I'd get a Stratocaster. Aside from witnessing Hendrix play Wild Thing and light his Strat on fire in that clip from Monterey Pop that I'd seen on TV, and my sisters Beach Boys records. Not sure why, but somehow I just knew. I had no desire for a Gibson. Fender Fender Fender. Anyway, what about the colors?
JR: Well that's something I do know about... the colors. One of the best guitars I ever had... I walked into a pawn shop in New York in Times Square. Saw a bunch of junk guitars all over the place. I saw one for 36 bucks with no name on it. It was a fake Telecaster. Don't know what brand it was still. It was blue and white and maybe like an inch thick guitar. Probably weighed like three pounds. A friend was with me and he knew by the way I was looking at it that if it made any sound at all I was gonna take it home. It's one of those guitars. Don't know much about it. All I know is that it was great. Like I say, I liked that blue. So that's what I wanted.
CP: Maybe someone just made it.
JR: No. It was made by a real factory. Had a name like St George. That's one of the best I ever had.
CP: I have an irrational attachment to my Telecaster. I'm convinced I can't play without it.
JR: There's a reason to that. A Telecaster can do something a Stratocaster doesn't. It's got a little more, what do you call it? Ah, percussion! So you can do something in a band with a Telecaster. Lotsa reasons... does that make any sense?
CP: Yeah, want to walk across the street to the store and check some out?
(Upon entering, Jonathan immediately heads for a gold Squire Stratocaster and starts playing the rhythm lick to "I Can See For Miles and Miles" by The Who).
JR: I like that Pete Townsend shattered glass sound. Yeah. (Jonathan throws the toggle switch to the treble position). Here's where you get that percussion. It's a solid body... you can't get that ultra dark tone and the percussion at the same time. At least I don't know how to do it. (Now he's in the bridge position). I like that dark green or purple tone.
CP: I thought that was a kind of brown tone.
JR: Could be. I like this gold guitar. I always end up preferring the cheap ones.
Time flies like an arrow and fruit fly's like a banana. Mike, our music store clerk, was a swell guy and let us play as many guitars and make as much noise as long as we wanted. We didn't play every Stratocaster in the store, but we played a lot of them. And eventually settled on the first one we picked up. The gold one. Coincidently, right around this time, my old friend Angelo decides to give me a Stratocaster as a gift. I've decided to turn around and donate the gold one to the West Memphis Three auction. So if you happen to be in San Francisco June 3, come on down to the Great American Music Hall and put in a bid. It could be yours, it plays and sounds pretty great. We can vouch for it.