All the Requisite Billies:
The Untold Legend of Dex Romweber
When a Nashville journalist asked Dex Romweber about a new song the guitarist had recorded, Dex told him, “It’s a kind of a dark, sort of hillbilly blues…folkie, rock & roll thing. It’s hard for me to describe. You’ll just have to hear it.” Dex’s music mixes so many elements that even he has trouble describing it. What you hear when you listen to it, though, is a veritable who’s-who of rock music’s Southern progenitors: Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Link Wray, Buddy Holly, Little Richard. Throw in some Duke Ellington, Hasil Adkins, Django Reinhardt, Dick Dale, and The Cramps, and you’ve got a list of ingredients that still doesn’t give a full sense of what Dex sounds like.
In underground music circles, Dex is a legend. During the late ’80s and ’90s, he fronted North Carolina’s fabled Flat Duo Jets. They were a raw, influential two-piece who blended surf, rockabilly, Blues, hillbilly, garage, and country into a savage, one-of-a-kind slurry that paved the way for twenty-first century roots-rock duos such as The Black Keys and The White Stripes.
Now, he and his sister Sara make up the Dex Romweber Duo. She plays drums with the force of a tornado. He writes the songs, sings, and plays guitar. Due to the relative simplicity of this and Flat Duo’s arrangement, many people call Dex’s music “straight” rock & roll, or “authentic” and “stripped-down.” No bass. No keyboard. No backup singers. Just Dex on a cheap, aging Silvertone run through a medium-size amp, backed by drums. He doesn’t even use effects pedals, only drapes a microphone over his amp.
Rockabilly, hillbilly, and surf undoubtedly provide the basic components to Dex’s music, but the overall effect could be called an amalgam of all the requisite, sub-genre billies: gothabilly for its frequent dark, haunting, melancholic qualities; surfabilly for his guitar tone and instrumental compositions; trashabilly for the occasional B-movie themed lyrics and loose, garage feel; and, of course, rockabilly for the dynamic chugalugging rhythm. (I used to call his music “Dexabilly”—then in 2006 he released the album Piano, which consisted of thirteen original classical piano compositions in the style of Chopin, and I had to rethink the suffix –billy.)
Born in Indiana in 1966, John Michael Dexter Romweber has spent most of his life in and around Chapel Hill. His mother played piano. Two of his six older siblings played in bands, and he formed his first, called Crash Landon and The Kamikazes, at age eleven. When he met a drummer named Chris “Crow” Smith in high school, they started jamming together, learning songs they pulled from the Romweber family’s enormous collection of 1950s records. They dubbed themselves Flat Duo Jets, and Dex moved into a detached garage in his parents’ backyard. He and Crow nicknamed it The Moz, short for mausoleum, and decorated it like The Addams Family’s house. You can see it for yourself. By which I mean you have to see this footage.
MTV filmed a short segment about the Jets for the show “The Cutting Edge,” and in it, The Moz more closely resembles a haunted house than any domestic structure. The front door frame is cocked sideways. Vines stripe the dirty white walls. Boulders and cement pylons fill the yard, and the interior is as dark as a cave. When the MTV crew goes in, their camera provides the main source of illumination. A beam shoots through the subterranean darkness like light from a spelunker’s headlamp. Towers of junk stand in the room’s center—tables, chairs, ironwork—though you can’t tell how much for sure. There appears to be a tree in there too. In one shot you see Crow sitting in front of a table made from a coffin that they found in the woods by the railroad tracks. The coffin’s covered with cigarette butts and beer cans.
Initially, Flat Duo Jets was only a duo because no one else was around to play, but soon the arrangement produced such a fluid, intuitive interplay between Dex and Crow that theirs became a seemingly telepathic relationship. They recorded their first album live in 1985. A tiny independent released it on cassette. They recorded songs at home and in local studios. They recorded other songs in weird places to experiment with acoustics. On the album Safari, a janitor kicks Dex out of Chapel Hill’s Morehead Planetarium bathroom while he’s playing “The Lonesome Road.”
They performed around North Carolina’s Research Triangle and in hip, youthful spots like Athens, Georgia, and their raucous music attracted as much attention as Dex’s wild stage presence. His face contorted and his eyes rolled back in his head. He frothed, jogged in place, and swung his body as if temporarily freed from the pull of gravity. People thought he was possessed, but everyone from R.E.M to the B-52’s took notice.
In it, the Jets play a show in winter on a frat house’s porch. A bit more footage is now available in the documentary Dexter Romweber: Two Headed Cow. Director Tony Gayton filmed the band on tour in the early ’90s, but, due to various unforeseen problems, had to abandon the project until now. Gayton never found a commercial distributor; he released the documentary on his own label, and although it makes a strong case for Dex’s genius, it contains far less concert footage than many fans would like.
Dex has always worn his influences on his sleeve. He covers Ronnie Allen’s “Juvenile Delinquent” on Safari, does a blazing live rendition of The Collins Kids’s “Hoy Hoy Hoy” on Two Headed Cow, and on Go Go Harlem Baby, he transforms Duke Ellington’s “Harlem Nocturne” into a haunting surf instrumental. Dex is one of those rare performers who makes covers sound like originals. When I once told him that his live version of Wray’s “Mr. Guitar” on Two Headed Cow is more energetic and musically complex than the original, Dex shook his head. “Ah, man,” he said, “I don’t know about that.” Apples to oranges maybe, but the fact remains: when a song gets the Romweber treatment, all the muscle, fire and rhythm of the primary document gets passed through his manic filter, transmuted through his fingers, and amplified with such intensity that the material is reborn into something approaching the raw, unbridled energy released from a supernova. He’s not recreating the past from some sense of nostalgia. He’s transmuting it by channeling the same spontaneous brilliance that powered artists like Jerry Lee Lewis and early Elvis.
Dex’s career isn’t a commercial venture. It’s one born of dedication to his enthusiasms. He plays the music he likes, and he hopes you’ll like it too. As Sara told me at a show: “That’s the thing about my brother: He has no gimmick. There’s no shtick.”
He’s been listening to a lot of the same music since he was a kid. In high school, he was so obsessed with rockabilly that he wrote a European history paper on Denmark simply because rockabilly was experiencing a sudden popularity there. His relationship with rock & roll might best be summarized by the lyrics in his cover of Ronnie Dawson’s song “Rockin’ Bones”: “Well when I die buried six foot deep / with a rock & roll record at my feet / A phonograph needle in my hand / I’m gonna rock my way right out of this land.”
After releasing their first full-length album in 1990, the Jets toured to support it, opening for rockabilly B-movie gore-hounds The Cramps. They even played a fiery rendition of Benny Joy’s primitive rock scorcher “Wild Wild Lover” on Late Night with David Letterman.
Flat Duo folded in the late ’90s due to poor record sales and internal tensions, but Dex did not. How do you drain the force from a magnet? His fingers were made to touch strings. Just watch him before a show: He’ll be standing to one side of the stage, or maybe by the back door or soundboard. He’ll have his old Silvertone strapped on, and you’ll know it’s him because he’ll be swaying back and forth, kind of walking in place, while he works the strings in what seems both a trance and a finger exercise.
You might call his music underappreciated. You might call it obscure. Jack White of The White Stripes calls it “one of the best kept secrets of the rock & roll underground.” White is a huge fan of roots music. In the August 2009 rock-doc It Might Get Loud, White cites Dex as a key influence, admitting that he owned all Flat Duo Jets’ records when he was a teenager. That same year, in his new home studio in Nashville, White even recorded a 7-inch with Dex and Sara for his label, Third Man Records. One side was a cover of Geeshie Wiley’s haunting old “Last Kind Word Blues.” The other was a Dex original called “The Wind Did Move.” While Jack was sitting in the control room, watching Dex play in the studio through the glass, Jack turned to Sara with a huge smile on his face and said, “You have no idea how long I’ve waited to hear that guitar tone in my studio.”
Other musicians have also recently honored Dex’s talent and influence. The Dex Romweber Duo’s first album Ruins of Berlin features cameos by Neko Case, Chan Marshall of Cat Power, Rick Miller of Southern Culture on the Skids, and Exene Cervenka of the seminal punk band X. Despite such a deserved tribute, the eternal question remains: Why do some of the world’s great musical talents go unrecognized while arguably lesser ones become household names? Maybe if the Jets hadn’t broken up, Dex would be famous instead of infamous. Maybe if the Dex Duo had played Conan O’Brien before Conan’s NBC show folded, he wouldn’t still be playing to tiny audiences in tiny clubs. Surely an NPR appearance would be enough to hurl him into the popular consciousness. Even in our era of instantaneous information and social networking sites, some news travels slowly.
A month after the release of Ruins of Berlin in 2009, the band played a cavernous WWII-era Quonset hut turned college bar in Tucson, Arizona. Appropriately named The Hut, the bar sits in the city’s university district, an area where drinks tend to be neon and sugary and clubs are known more for their 2-for-1 ladies’ nights than live music. There were only eleven people watching the show. There’d been five at the beginning.
I sat on a stool near the tiny stage. Behind me at the bar stood nearly forty University of Arizona sorority and fraternity kids. They wore plastic Mardi Gras beads around their necks and were raising glasses and woohooing to one another while downing shots. The Hut’s arched aluminum roof amplified the noise, and sometimes customer chatter overpowered Dex’s guitar.
He and Sara tore through a slew of fast-paced covers: Benny Joy’s “I Need a Whole Lotta You,” “Ruins of Berlin” from the 1948 film A Foreign Affair, and a version of the fiery surf instrumental “Thunderhead” by the band The Thunderheads. In the middle of Kitty Lester’s upbeat 1962 hit “Love Letters,” a tall, tan, long-legged woman in super short shorts sauntered up to the stage. A piece of paper was pinned to the back of her tight white shirt. It had a number printed on it, like in a marathon. She said something to Sara that made Sara shake her head. Dex told the girl, “I don’t think so, honey.” She had requested they play The Stones’ “Beast of Burden.”
At one point, three college guys stepped close to my stool to watch the band. They wore flip-flops and board shorts and reeked of cologne. One was talking on a cell phone, or trying to, until the Duo’s gypsy-surf instrumental “Cigarette Party” drove him outside. One of the remaining guys turned to me and yelled, “You know this guy?” pointing at the stage. When I nodded yes the kid said, “He’s a friend of yours?”
Not personally, I told him. “I’m just a fan.” He squinted as if digesting the idea that this was not a local music showcase, then he asked if I liked reggae. I leaned off my stool to get close to the kid’s ear. “He’s one of the best rock & roll guitarists alive,” I said, “and you should stick around and watch. You won’t be disappointed.” The kid stood there for nearly two songs before returning to the crowd of revelers. When I saw him again after the show, he and his two buddies were each carrying copies of Dex’s Ruins of Berlin.
“Bye, Dex,” one of them said. “Awesome show, man.”
Dex shook their hands as they streamed past. “Thanks for coming, guys.” He patted his shirt pocket searching for his cigarettes, and a local kid with a synthesizer and a didgeridoo took the stage.