JANUARY 31, 2014
Here’s an amusing anecdote or three. There will be rock stars later.
In 2001, I worked for a few months at a Half Price Books in Austin. (In case you’re wondering, yes, it’s the one in the photo below.) I was there long enough to say I actually had a day job when the planes hit the World Trade Center in September. The co-worker I walked from the bus stop with that morning (who never watched TV and had no idea what was going on) thought I was so full of shit until we got to the store and everyone was screaming about the end of the world. Speaking of that guy, It’s been 13 years since then, and most of the people I stocked books with are STILL working there. Guess the terrorists won, huh? Life is funny and someone needs to make a movie out of it.
Anyway . . . while I was working at Half Price, my personal library of books, records and tapes increased dramatically, because this place was where all books, records and tapes go to die, eventually. And I mean ALL OF THEM. You haven’t ever known a shrieking panic such as the one that crept up my spine nearly every other day, when I was actually told to ORGANIZE the stockroom of that place—which was a HUGE store with a HUGE buy table that ran hundreds and hundreds of titles across its surface on a slow day. On a busy day, you had maybe ten thousand books coming in the door. The inventory flooded so wildly that you couldn’t get the stuff on the shelves fast enough. And that’s no exaggeration. The books would arrive by the truckload, get bought off unsuspecting rubes for pennies on the dollar, and then we would throw them in a room filled with giant cardboard boxes, each marked HUMOR, ART, FICTION, HORROR, whatever. The process of sorting through the massive inventory and dividing each book into those cardboard boxes, so that they could then be sent out on the main floor to be shelved in their appropriate sections, was known as “cubing.” You sat in that room for weeks, throwing movable press, CDs, old vinyl albums and whatever the hell else into their proper “cubes.” I’m sure in some countries, this sort of thing is a punishment visited upon convicted felons. Here, you get a hair above minimum wage, with quarterly profit sharing checks, and an hour off for lunch every day.
I liked having that long lunchtime. I’d never had a minimum wage gig where you were given more than 20 minutes or so to eat. It gave me precious extra minutes off the clock to go through my secret stash of ill-gotten stuff and sort out what I didn’t want to take home. See, the one fringe benefit of “cubing” (there were NO others, believe me) was that you got Absolute First Crack at any book that came through the store at a giant employee and/or five finger discount . . . and, let me tell you, people, we grabbed ALL THE GOOD STUFF. Anything that looked remotely interesting. And a lot of stuff that wasn’t remotely interesting at all. You got pretty punchy after a few hours in the cubes, baby.
One particular book almost got thrown back, but it had a cool cover and an interesting title, so I decided to keep it, after all. I think I actually stuck that one in my backpack and walked out with it. Who, after all, would want to pay even a few dollars for a book called . . .
Wait for it . . .
Um. CHEESE CHRONICLES? Really?
See that cool cover? That’s what decided me on risking immediate termination from my glorious hair-above-minimum wage book store gig to steal the damn book. (I never had a problem heisting stuff from work—it made your life easier in the cubes and there was so much surplus inventory that it would take every single customer shoplifting every-minute-on-the-minute to make even a tiny dent in the company profit margin.) But, make no mistake, I had no intentions of actually reading this CHEESE CHRONICLES thing. In fact, I eventually tore the cover right off and used the art in some insane ceiling collage I was making in my house.
See, my house used to look like this:
Somewhere in all that is the awesome CHEESE cover art pictured above.
During the making of that collage, I actually tossed the stripped book in the garbage, then fished it out in a weird moment of clarity when I realized I didn’t even know what the damn thing was about. I was literally judging a book by its cover, man. What a jerk. Out of sheer guilt, I thumbed through a few pages, realizing it was a biographical thing, written by the lead guitar player of an unknown rock group called Government Cheese. I laughed out loud at the thought of some dark-and-edgy “tell-all” about one of those hard working bands no one had ever heard of—you know, the kind that make a couple of indie albums, tour around, get a shitty manager, never get a real record deal, then break up and get day jobs. But then, in mid-laugh, I thought: Hey, that actually sounds like a good idea. In fact, who CARES about the bands that actually GOT somewhere. The ones that never get anywhere at all probably have much more interesting stories anyway, right?
So, having talked myself into believing I had mutilated a perfectly honorable work of literature, and still feeling guilty about the whole sordid affair, I stuck CHEESE CHRONICLES, sans cover, on my bookshelf.
Where it remained.
For 13 years.
Two days ago, I realized I watch too much TV and that it was time to read a book. A cursory examination of my shelves revealed to my horror that CHEESE CHRONICLES was the only book in my library I had not read. So I pulled it down. I sized the poor little thing up like you mournfully check in on the victim of a violent crime or a traffic accident, years after the fact. The victim’s scars have scabbed over, and he’s long since resigned himself to a life without a face. I still felt like shit for never reading this and ripping off the cover. I felt even shittier that I’d kept the book to remind me.
So I sat down and read it.
Tommy Womack (pictured far right) is the author of this magnum opus. He’s the prototypical Kid Who Grows Up In A Small Town But Just Wants To Rock. (Hell, the guy even has an ordained minster for a dad.) He can’t want to trade in his sucky day job for a life on the road with a bunch of like-minded miscreants. He finally gets his shot, and the funny thing is this: In their day—which was the late eighties and early nineties—Government Cheese was apparently a relatively popular local band in the Nashville/Bowling Green area, with a following and everything. They were country-tinged punk-rock or something, all about the energy on stage. The book reveals enough about this that I am compelled about six chapters in to Google the band . . . and, lo, even though the band is still long-decimated, there are albums for sale and videos aplenty at You Tube, including this one, which I find amusing:
The song is jaunty, well-composed, well-produced nonsense, but the they have other things on the set-list like “Fish Stick Day,” which exhibit a really weird, almost Zappa-esque sense of humor:
Being able to reference the music like this and share it with you in such a direct way is something that rather blows my mind, because the book itself was published in 1995, and the author actually apologizes several times in the text for talking about songs and lyrics that you’ll probably never hear for yourself . . . because, well, they never really got famous or anything. I’m pretty sure Tommy-boy never anticipated a time in the VERY NEAR FUTURE where anything at all would go nationwide at the click of a mouse—where ANYONE AT ALL can be a celebrity all day long on his very own You Tube Channel. Never mind a bunch of marginally-talented hooligans who actually had a real flesh-and-blood nightclub following in the age before social media.
I can’t think of one local band I grew up with now who doesn’t have an album on sale at Amazon, come to think of it.
This is a strange day-and-age we are living in, indeed.
Everyone is a rock star here.
But there’s also something kinda magical going on. A book that was defiled and placed in suspended animation for 13 years in my home has been reanimated like Buck Rogers, into a super terrific future-world where its author can actually become the immortal guitar god he always wanted to be. Or, at the very least, his book can now be supplemented with the music he knew for certain would be forgotten and never heard by anyone within the reach of his words. How fucking cool is THAT?
Pretty fucking cool, dude.
And, yes, it turns out I actually like the band. They remind me of REM meets Beefheart meets Fear meets something else I can’t quite identity. Apparently their career was sabotaged by one of those evil small-time promoter/producer guys who signed them to an ironclad deal and screwed up everything they did—but even then, the energy in a lot of this stuff is damn admirable. I buy the re-mastered compilation album they now have for sale at Amazon and listen to it on repeat as I burn through the rest of CHEESE CHRONICLES in a brisk two evenings.
It’s not all great. Some sections play dull for me. And there’s a whole chapter devoted to sermonizing about drugs—their effects, political impact, whatever. Tommy likes to rant. Sometimes works for me as social commentary. Sometimes I want too get to the net tae a little faster. He also repeats a lot of things, and the story itself is . . . well, pretty typical. Nobody ever kills anybody. Nobody O.D.s in the back of an ambulance and has to be revived with a two-needle kickstart to the heart. It’s all bad clubs and shitty luck and guess what? The band eventually goes nowhere. What keeps my interest, ironically, is his eagerness to tell these rather wide-eyed tales, in a voice which seems to get more confident with each new chapter. By the time his band visits Houston, Texas and the legendary nightclub Fitzgerald’s—which just so happens to be MY old stomping grounds—he’s doing pretty well in the humor department. I don’t like the way he structures certain sentences (because I’m a snob and everyone should write their books like I do, which I why I tend to avoid reviewing things a lot of the time), but often, his nutty worldview redeems such oddness. As in the following line, which is I think is clumsy in execution… and yet it also had me laughing out loud for almost twenty whole minutes last night:
“Hot sauce was on every table in Louisiana, because these people would catch whatever mud-dwelling crustaceans were running around behind the house and eat them, following a sound drowning in liquid dynamite.”
Liquid dynamite. Funny joke. HAH.
(In case you’re wondering, the clumsy part, for me, is that the subject of his sentence—“hot sauce”—is used at the beginning AND the end, invoking a lopsided effect in an otherwise hilarious moment. The awful part is, I’m not exactly sure how I would fix this without ruining the joke. So I’m an asshole, I guess.)
Also, even in the heart of “typical” darkness, Tommy does have a lot to say about the plight of America’s Most Average Band. There are literally millions of them out there, most of whom will smile in red-faced shame with many of the universal truths he touches on. Things like playing ‘Gloria” for twenty minutes to a drunken sorority crowd, getting screwed over for eighty verstunken dollars by a famous nightclub owner (“You wanna play here again—take the fuckin’ money and shut up!”), the various hideous incarnations of road-food and van etiquette. If you’ve ever been in a band and gigged around (I have), it all makes complete, perverted sense. It’s slice-of-life dramady for slackers and weirdoes. In the end, it’s also quite touching, when you realize you’re looking back on someone’s Very Special Something, warts and all. So, it turns out old Tommy did okay. I’d recommend this book. I’d even recommend his band. They paid some dues, both in life and in my house. 13 years worth.
I still feel like a jerk.
Here’s a rock and roll PostScript of my very ownsome:
Tommy talks a lot in his book about a great Nashville band called Jason and the Scorchers, who basically pioneered the form of rockabilly punk. This was back in the early-to-mid 1980s, when country was country and rock was rock. You didn’t mix the forms, and if you did, you’d better have beards and your name better be Alabama. The Scorchers were a heavy early influence on the Cheese, a manic group of high octane psychobilly motherfuckers who played what amounted to fairly pure rock and roll with a twangy southern afterburn and so much gonzo lightning-in-a-bottle energy that you knew these guys were not ever leaving the stage after they finished a set—they were simply going to explode and leave burn marks on every member of the audience. With a rhythm section from hell, a switch-heavy demon on lead guitar and a frontman who looked like the spastic lovechild of Conway Twitty and Joey Ramone, they were the loudest, most aggressively original band I’d ever heard when I was 15 years old. They were also the most amazing, unclassifiable thing I’d ever seen on stage at that time—and believe it or not, I’d seen a LOT on the stage at Fitzgerald’s by that age. I had grown up in a rock and roll family and knew all the local bands. I even had my own group and we opened for all the hottest guys in town because of my father, who was a local blues legend. I was even hip enough at age 15 to be into Tom Waits and Motley Crue—non-ironically, dammit.
None of it prepared me for Jason.
I saw the Scorchers in May of 1985, when they played two dates at Fitz, and the experience was mind-scrambling, life altering. I lost my virginity just after the second show to a woman twice my age. She had platinum hair and the biggest boobs I’d ever seen. Total rock and roll. That’s probably a whole other blog in itself . . . but, even today, watching a vintage live set of Jason and his buddies is damn-near exhausting for me, and a real trip down a sort of memory lane you just can’t buy these days.
As a matter of fact, it’s FREE.
On You Tube.
It’s the future, remember?
This video only HINTS at the energy these guys put out back in the day, inside a packed club.
It was insane.
The Scorchers never did grab the kind of Rolling Stones fame and fortune they were poised to achieve back then. (In fact, their one MTV video was a cover version of “19th Nervous Breakdown” by the Stones, and many agree that’s what killed their career.) They barreled hellbent-for-whatever down a similarly Cheesy road, replete with tragedies, breakups, bad management and other natural rock and roll disasters. (The drummer even died fairly recently.) But, signed briefly to a major label, they remained legendary figures and have existed on and off throughout the past 30 years as one of those scrappy bands that never quite knows when to go away. They’re considered pioneers to this day by most bands who do what they do. You can download all the Scorchers albums at Amazon. It’s asskicking stuff. I’m listening to it right now.
I’m thinking about Tommy Womack, too.
Thinking how we are all reborn against some strange ghost of our own past. How it all reflects back on us eventually, in some bizarre cosmic-karmic whirlpool. How the world catches up with us, and we finally become immortal, in the face of every new advancement this scary world makes for us. I’m thinking about how a book I had on my shelf for 13 years blew my mind like this, travelling through time to deliver messages all-too-universal.
And ear-bleedingly awesome.
This is me, backstage at Fitzgerald’s in the summer of 1985. Rock on!