Wild & Far-Out Sounds from the South
Rock & roll music is nothing if not rife with all manner of clichés; a plump embarrassment. Typically, some band or artist performs or records something that gets a tad bit of notoriety within the atomized confines of some rock sub-genre or other and suddenly, and quite predictably, there are twenty other acts slavishly aping the original group’s gestalt. It has been forever thus. Witness the uncountable rockabilly 45s released in the wake of Elvis and Carl Perkins, or the seemingly bottomless well of 1960s garage-punk bands that glommed very nearly all of their sonic coolness from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, or any other tough, chart-topping guitar combo you care to name. How many variations on Them’s “Gloria” are out there? How many 1960s combos owe their brightly flaming moment not to anything of their own but instead to a particularly inspired reading of The Yardbirds’ “Train Kept A-Rollin’ ” or The Leaves’ “Hey Joe”? What matters, for me, is the way some of these bands and their recordings are pregnant with what came before them—pregnant not so much with an obvious tableaux of influence but fat with the synthesized presence of invisible sonic ghosts.
The author Albert Murray speaks of Harold Rosenberg’s concept of “the tradition of the new” in an interview with the late writer Joe Wood in Conversations With Albert Murray. Here’s what Murray says:
Anybody who thinks that innovation is the prime imperative for the creative person does not know anything about art or the history of art. Because that is the pursuit of novelty. Nothing could be more superficial.... Each new effective aesthetic statement alters the existing emotional scale. So it’s not simply a dialogue, it’s a colloquy.
Though Wood and Murray were discussing a kind of jazz idealism, they could just as easily have been breaking it down and kvetching about jazz’s slummy brother, rock & roll.
Over the last two or three months, I’ve become a bit obsessed with a band from Oxford, Mississippi, called Bass Drum of Death. They have recorded one album for the Mississippi-based label Fat Possum, and they should have another one out in the fall. Sometimes, they’ve been billed as John Barrett’s Bass Drum of Death as the guitarist, John Barrett, flexes the lion’s share of the creative muscle. Bass Drum of Death is a guitar-and-drums duo, that increasingly ubiquitous agglomeration that is responsible for a short list of great (but many more truly egregious) recordings by a whole clown-party of bands bobbing in the wake of the peak rock-fantasy success of The White Stripes and The Black Keys. By way of illustration, I’ll tell you that I went to a club show a few years back at a tiny rock joint in Iowa City, Iowa, and was bemused to see six bands on the bill, not one of which had a bass player, all duos or trios with guitar and drums, lashing out a speedy blur of something approximating garage punk, each band’s sound and substance an uninspired continuation of the band before, an overbearing melodrama of pastiche. It sounded and felt tired, utterly sad—lifeless. You wanted to cry for ’em! There was no relationship with the past amongst these Iowa City bands; certainly no communication with any progenitors of their form, with history, or with much anything else. The music was simply novelty—cheap, lusterless, aural kitsch; a clunky comic cliché—and as far away from cool as Britney Spears.
It seemed to me at the time that there might be something inherently wrong with the guitar-and-drums duo, the accidentally recycled dumb-thud blues riffs so threadbare and transparent. It appeared as though the brilliance of Jack White and The White Stripes (along with the commercially unsuccessful Boston duo Mr. Airplane Man and the legendary North Carolina duo Flat Duo Jets) was the ne plus ultra for the device, with White’s intelligent and witty songwriting and ferocious guitar playing so distractingly luminescent as to disallow any further musical communication within that truly limited context.
It seemed for a hot minute that any attempt to continue some Talmudesque commentary on the guitar/drums duo format was just going to be covering conquered ground. What’s the point? The White Stripes are bit like The Beatles, then, in that regard. Jack White created something that was so strong, refreshing, beautiful, and monumental that it couldn’t be approached with anything other than admiration for its (his) mastery. Of course, what many long-time rock & roll nuts found so attractive and immediately likeable about The White Stripes was their deep, loving dialogue with the history of not just the pantheon of rock & roll and blues greats but also pre-1970s country music, American folk music, and scorched avant-garde sonic trips. The White Stripes seemed forever connected in a tender whisper with the past, an unfathomable love coupled with a secret-handshake loyalty that could, one sensed, never be compromised or more perfectly articulated.
Rock & roll is an old language, but it’s a mystery language, a grammar that can’t be learned from study or gleaned from high technical ability: It’s a language that only reveals itself over time, through time, as one engages it in dialogue. What’s missing from many, if not most, let’s be honest, rock bands (commercially successful or not) is just that dialogue. That’s what was missing that night in Iowa City. Moreover, the sense that the music is even available for innovation is a delusion. What’s always been perfect and soulful and right about rock & roll has already happened. It’s already been articulated somewhere by someone in a perfect, prismatic way. The great rock, country, blues, folk, jazz, or whatever records of the past are all like phone calls that have been put on hold. The line’s still always open, waiting for someone to pick up the line and talk to it again, to hear its worn-out, old story of transcendence and grace, its cool, come-hither whispers, and its flirtations. Like The White Stripes (and Flat Duo Jets before them), Bass Drum of Death took that call.
Cool and cocksure, Bass Drum of Death listened to the old cryptic story and started connecting the dots (or wires, as it were). Just picking up that receiver made them cooler than most rock bands out there. I first saw Bass Drum of Death about three or four years ago at a dark, dank, and nasty lounge attached to what may very well have been a hooker-and-crackhead hotel in Jackson, Mississippi. They drew a good crowd, filled with a bunch of wide-eyed youngsters and a passel of aging hipster regulars who had nothing better to do than try to keep the faith, check out a band, and drink a few beers. The band was clearly not in that lost and lame mold of those tired Iowa City bands. They were connected and engaged, but it wasn’t really clear where the dialogue was going. As the duo slid around the stage, there was a tip of the hat to Flat Duo Jets here, a knowing nod to the fabled Gories there, a coy dalliance with tradition. John Barrett was a vortex of hair and stumbling stage poetry, jerking his body all about in some kind of delirium, attacking his guitar like a hunching, spindly spider. The drummer, Colin Sneed, was manically and mechanically propulsive, alternating a kind of Southern Gothic version of Kraftwerk’s “motorik” rhythm with effusive bursts of blurry complexity. He was lanky and deeply focused, a poised powerhouse who was clearly serious. (On stage these days, the band is augmented by a second guitarist, Print Chouteau.) I bought a copy of their 7" record, told them I dug the show, and made a mental note to check them out again sometime down the road.
Last summer, during a particularly humid and languorous stay in New Orleans, my son’s godmother played me the then recently released Bass Drum of Death LP, GB City. I confess that I didn’t get it right away. Maybe I simply wasn’t paying attention, just letting the music wash over me, fuzzed-out and warm, not really hearing that old dialogue as Bass Drum of Death caught it. Like a creepy crook in a dark alley, though, the record kind of skulked up on me, and I’ve been playing it constantly ever since.
The album, GB City (the “GB” a reference to “gravity bong,” a once-preferred method of marijuana ingestion amongst some friends of Barrett’s) is bloated with all sorts of rock & roll references. There is nothing easy and apparent here, though it might seem that way at first listen. What is here is Barrett and Sneed’s colloquy with the tangled audio wire of rock & roll history. When I pick it up and spin it around for the umpteenth time, I hear in Barrett’s effortless pop songwriting and the band’s impressive minimalist arrangements the best qualities of rock & roll newly coiled and synthesized into something their own—a sound that is not too shy of majestic. The song “GB City” easily name-checks Iggy Pop, as well as Down by the Jetty–period Dr. Feelgood. “Velvet Itch” channels the likes of Demolition Doll Rods and The Gories, while “Spare Room” is a delicate dance with Syd Barrett as filtered through early ’80s UK bands such as The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Chemistry Set, or early Biff Bang Pow!, glazed with a sheen of white guitar noise that sounds borrowed from the Rhys Chatham style and a guest-star bass line only slightly less mighty than The Move’s “Brontosaurus.” “Leaves” sounds nothing like—but somehow manages to feel like—a post-primal scream from John Lennon; a near-perfect junkie stumble. “I Could Never Be Your Man” is quilted with legendary New Zealand rock bands like The Chills, Look Blue Go Purple, or Straightjacket Fits. Elsewhere, I sense the presence of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Howlin’ Wolf, Black Flag, Lesley Gore & The J. Geils Band, Can, and Dinosaur, Jr. In “Young Pros,” I can hear the ricochets of Lili Zeller’s guitar ringing as spleen-shudderingly loud and just as clearly as on her early recordings with her band, Splash 4. Who knew? And, in “Nerve Jamming” and “Get Found,” the duo has knocked out two nearly flawless singles—and there’s so much more! Here's an LP you can converse with and around for as long as time keeps going forward.
Over a lunch of soul food at Momma Jo’s restaurant in Oxford, John Barrett tells me he hears none of this, and I’m not surprised. What the band really is, and this is why they’re so good, is something like a perfect antenna—like The White Stripes before them—bringing down solid gold samples of saw-tooth waved sound in the absence of forethought, but from instinct, ineffable and imperfectly called, for now, rock & roll. Here’s to hoping they conquer the world, these skanky stars of the coming apocalypse.
“GB City” by Bass Drum of Death
“Leaves” by Bass Drum of Death
Pat Cochran is a fountain of musical knowledge that we’re pleased to tap into. He’s a stranger to no genre—from Norwegian death-metal to pre-War Mississippi blues, Pat is acquainted with and has an appreciation for it all. For his new OA column, “Dust Crackles and Tape Hiss,” Pat goes off the beaten path in hopes of uncovering hidden Southern music treasures and providing insightful commentary along the way. Let’s get to know Pat!
THE OXFORD AMERICAN: What is the earliest song from your childhood that you remember affecting you?
PAT COCHRAN: The earliest music I remember really affecting me was, truthfully, four songs. I played these four 45s from my dad’s collection incessantly. His LP collection was horrible, littered with crap like O.C. Smith and The 50 Guitars of Tommy Garrett, heavy on the easy listening. I was obsessed with these: “Let Me Go Home Whiskey” by Amos Milburn & His Aladdin Chickenshackers, “Drunk” by Jimmy Liggins & His 3-D Music, “Jukebox Help Me Find My Baby” by Tommy Mitchell, and this cool big-band number by Ralph Flanagan & His Orchestra called “Something Special” from RCA. I played all these to death!
THE OA: What are your top five songs of all time?
PC: That kind of changes all the time, week to week! Off the top of my head:
1. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” The Rolling Stones (1968 single/B-side: “Child of the Moon”)
2. “River Man,” Nick Drake
3. “Come Back to Me,” X
4. “Strawberry Fields Forever,” The Beatles
5. “Maybellene,” Chuck Berry
THE OA: Who are your favorite music writers?
PC: Byron Coley, Robert Palmer, Otis Ferguson, Lester Bangs, Simon Reynolds, Nick Tosches, Robert Gordon, Ann Powers, Richard Meltzer, Charlie Gillett, Nelson George, Joe Carducci (Rock and the Pop Narcotic, anyway), Dick Hebdige, Nick Kent, Nick Cohen, Greg Shaw, Will Hermes, John Leland.... You know, Old Schoolers.
THE OA: What is the best live show that you’ve ever seen?
PC: The best live show I’ve ever seen is a three-way tie: B.B. King (with guest appearance by Bobby “Blue” Bland at the Medgar Evers Homecoming Concert in a parking-lot tent of the Jackson Coliseum in Jackson, Mississippi, ca. 1982); or the legendary Virginia band The Candy Snatchers at The Continental on Third Avenue in NYC, mid-1990s; or Teengenerate at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey, around the same time. Gil Scott-Heron at The Bottom Line ca. 1993 ranks right up there, though.
THE OA: What do people need to know about Southern music that they probably don’t?
PC: People need to know that there is an unbroken line of continuity between artists like The Carter Family or Blind Willie McTell and, for instance, The Overnight Lows (a present-day Jackson, Mississippi, punk-rock band). It’s a line that’s taut, strong. There’s nowhere else in the world where that’s the case, where a culture is so deeply interconnected in such an odd, unlikely manner. It’s beautiful!
THE OA: Who is your favorite new act?
PC: Dead Gaze from Oxford, Mississippi. They blow my hair back pretty nicely. Also, I’m quite fond of Shannon & The Clams (seriously...) and Real Estate.
THE OA: Who are your favorite pulp writers?
PC: Jim Thompson, naturally, but also Walter Mosley, Lewis Elliott Chaze, Charles Williams, Chester Himes, the great Charles Willeford of Little Rock, Arkansas, Iceberg Slim. I dig those trashy titles by William Faulkner’s brother, John Faulkner, like “Dollar Cotton,” too.
THE OA: What is your favorite B-movie?
PC: Entirely too many favorites really, but Rat Pfink a Boo Boo or Wild Guitar with the ridiculous Arch Hall, Jr., are two perennial faves....
THE OA: What is your favorite line from a song?
PC: “Something about the way you taste/Makes me wanna clear my throat/There’s a message in your movements/That really gets my goat” from Devo’s “Gut Feeling.”
THE OA: What do you like most about how Oxford, Mississippi, has changed?
PC: Though I once would have considered it unlikely, the more people move to Oxford and settle in here, the more relaxed and interesting the town is. As well, the wealth of new restaurants and bars, the large number of people involved in producing, selling, and proselytizing for the farm-to-table food movement is impressive and incredibly welcome. I hope it keeps growing like a weed!