Sunday, January 15, 2006

Jason & The Scorchers: "Who the heck are these guys?"

" We were truly pioneers. Whether you like the music or not, you can't take away from the fact that Jason and the Scorchers were true pioneers." Jason Ringenberg, interviewed in 1993.

I recently made a mix tape of Jason & The Scorchers favorites for a friend of mine (it was a CD, actually, but "mix tape" is the generation I'm from). It's been quite a while since the Scorchers were last on the scene; unless you're a Nashville resident, it's been just over eight years -- an eternity in music-time. As I listened to this old music, culled from the back pages of 1982 - 1997, I tried to hear how it might sound to new ears, and I tried to remember how it sounded to mine, back in the day.

I'm not sure how well I succeeded in either task. I picked the songs I thought were the best of the best, of course, and left the real clunkers in the back of the vault. To my biased ears, the sound hasn't really aged, because it wasn't a sound that embodied the times that endured them to begin with.

The last time Jason & The Scorchers played Toronto (the fall of 1997, I think, at The Horseshoe), they were billed as "The Godfathers of Cow-Punk!!" "Cow-Punk" gets me wondering just who else lays claim to the genre. Certainly the Scorchers embodied it. The Scorchers' guitarist Warner E. Hodges has said The Sex Pistols were tangentially influential on the band just because they realized, after hearing the Pistols, that sounding "rough" could be a good thing.

The Scorchers live album Midnight Roads and Stages Seen has amusing footage of the Nashville video establishment -- CMT's progenitors -- scratching their industrial coiffs in a state of bewilderment. Are these guys country, or rock? And just who the heck are they, anyway?!

Are they country? It seems to me the Scorchers enjoyed having that accusatory finger pointed at them. The four of them took the stage and embodied four fingers pointing back at the Nashville establishment, asking in effect: Do you honestly think you're country? Just look at the top country songs of 1982: Dolly Parton's soundtrack contributions to The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas and 9-to-5, and Mac Davis's jokey Oh Lord It's Hard To Be Humble (When You're Perfect In Every Way). Parton sounded too polished to be from "the country", and Davis sounded too smarmy to carry off his own punchline.

Jason tore into Nashville too hungry, too angry and too horny to modulate or tell jokes. He wasn't a prototypical "talented young man, eager to break into the scene"; he was the son of an Illinois hog farmer, with nothing to lose and everything to prove. He didn't want to "break into the scene"; he wanted to be the scene. He had no interest in taking things up a notch; he wanted to burn the place to the ground -- right bloody now!

So intensity trumped a polished sound, particularly in the earliest records. The Scorchers also favored sincerity over irony -- another disconnect from the musical ethos that reigned in Nashville. The Nashville music scene, then as now, stuck to tried-and-true formulae, usually incorporating trends from scenes already exhausted by the pop music radio mill. An artist could emote, but nothing too raw. Country "roots" were necessary, of course, but nothing that harkened too closely to the Sawdust Trail of Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams. That stuff was good in its day, but by the 80's heightened standards it was corn-pone and hick -- strictly Hee-Haw material. Nashville had moved on, and was intent on marketing its own brand of slick and glamorous, a la Glen Campbell's Rhinestone Cowboy.

Jason & The Scorchers ran contrary to industry wisdom. Jason deliberately wore glittering fringed shirts and a bizarre spotted-hyena cowboy hat, while the rest of the Scorchers favored a discomfiting fashion combo informed in equal measure by The Dukes of Hazzard and The New York Dolls. Their costumes were the grand total of their irony: when it came to their live performances, Jason claimed, "I want our music to be like a religious service, only a lot dirtier" -- and he meant it. Bassist Jeff Johnson held the back-end down with his low-slung bass, while drummer Perry Baggs, guitarist Hodges and singer Ringenberg all competed for the most outrageous stage presence possible. Insane things happened, and the performances became legendary. When the Scorchers finally got to London, the NME reviewer assigned to them reverently declared the night to be one of three seminal moments in the London rock scene.

So, no, they weren't "country" -- not by a long stretch. But were they rock? Well, of course they were. And yet, and yet ... not only did they fly in the face of the top country acts of the day, they did so in the face of the top rock acts as well: Journey, Foreigner, Toto (geez, I remember Boston still being a staple of the airwaves!). As if that weren't bad enough, the Scorchers were in the habit of bringing their shows to a screeching halt every 20 minutes or so to drag out a musty chestnut like The Long Black Veil, which capitalized perfectly on Ringenberg's whip-poor-will voice, but hadn't been played on country radio in years. Waaaaay too country to be rock & roll.

JATS was the sort of act you only come across by wild happenstance. A buddy of mine from Bible school had a room-mate who scoured the discount bins at Sam The Record Man and thought he'd gamble three dollars on Fervor. Well, boy-howdy. Snarling odes to blood spilled during the American Civil War, an Old Testament sense of judgment hanging over every lascivious request ... it was as if Jerry Lee Lewis had been given a second chance to reclaim the crown of rock & roll King -- and this time he decided to follow through.

Ah, poor Jerry Lee. We rightly remember him for Great Balls of Fire, of course -- but we really remember him for the conversation recorded prior to that song. "I got the Devil in me!" he tells Sam Philips. "I mean it! I got the Devil in me!" Sam doesn't know what to do, because Lee is scared as fuck, and that isn't good. They go back and forth on the issue, then Lee finally gets down to the business of laying it out for the world to hear.

And that is the key to the Scorchers' lasting influence on me: they were knowingly caught on the wrong side of The Salvation Equation, and they were intent on singing about it in the exact tonal range this condition required. There are times when the lack of irony brings discomfort: if ya don't got irony, ya don't got dignity. But then Country isn't about dignity, it's about the way things are -- or at least, it should be.

Each of the Scorchers found their own way to the other side of the equation (most of them returning to the stage after stints in rehab). Strangely enough, this is the fate Scorcher fans -- to a person -- wanted. The fans genuinely liked the Scorchers as people too much to desire the usual rock & roll carnage. My first live exposure to the Scorchers was their fresh-out-of-rehab appearance at The El Mocombo. They kicked ass: three encores, and the third brought the show to a close only because Jason's voice finally gave out. I hadn't expected anything like what I'd seen, and I staggered home a very satisfied customer.

This summer I got to see Jason solo at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. Having seen the Scorchers twice, I wasn't sure what to expect. When the show was over, I was breathless, wondering why I hadn't expected exactly what I got: a slam-dunk, rock & roll thumping.

Jason recorded a "roots" disc a few years back, which included a song called The Last of the Neon Cowboys. It's a triumphant song about a less-than-triumphant figure who takes to the stage and gives every audience, no matter how big or small, the fabled 110%. It's become Ringenberg's anthem, and his calling card. One skinny guy and a Japanese guitar: it doesn't matter if he opens for Slipknot in Norway ("They're really nice guys, actually, except when they're gambling") or if he stomps the stage on a Sunday morning in Birdshill Park, Manitoba: if he shows up within driving distance, do not miss the chance to let this truly exceptional performer take your breath away.

Jason Ringenberg's official website is here. The official Jason & The Scorchers website is here. Guitarist Warner E. Hodges is doing his musical thing here. This guy makes the salient observation that "Jason and the Scorchers were rock enough not to be country, punk enough not to be rock and metal enough not to be cool." Amen to all of that. This guy has some nifty JATS recollections, and makes the point "If there's one thing the rock audience, and rock performers, have forgotten, it's how to be crazy onstage." True enough, I say, but I lay the blame at the feet of new acts: if you're struggling to make the two-minute mark with every song you write, you aren't allowing yourself any time to be crazy. And finally, if you're wondering what I'm gassing on about but aren't inclined to spend primo bucks on eBay, visit this site and hit refresh a couple of times: you'll get a quick musical sense of what JATS were all about. Excelsior!



DarkoV said...

Your glowing writeup has left nothing to add to. All that you mentioned, connected, catalogued, and concluded come together in a terse, and deserved, Excelsior!.
JATS sound like quite a few different other folks, at times, and each time, each tune shows a different tilt of the tone and the head.
George Thorogood and the Destroyers.
Bottlerockets.They Might Be Giants.James McMurtry
The Clash.

It's not that JAST sound like EACH of these bands. It's as if parts of these artists are all incorporated in JAST.

Their covers of "Long Black Veil", "Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown", and "Rocky Mountain High" are all original takes on these standards. This band has no need for special effects or over-tracked producing. They are raw and polished at the same time.

CP, I envy your having seen them live, especially at The El Mocombo, where there've been some great live recordings ( Elvis Costello's Live at the El Mocambo comes to mind). Sounds like it an evening true to their name, Scorchin'.

Whisky Prajer said...

Thanks for weighing in, DV! Interesting - I hadn't thought of Thorogood, but the resemblance is definitely there in both Jason's vocal delivery and Warner's guitar chops. As for The Bottlerockets and James McMurtry, I can't help wondering if they haven't members of the Exit/Inn audiences of yore. The Clash of course is inescapable, and you know I'm a fan of the Giants.

I'd never made a connection between JATS and The Ramones, until this summer when I heard Jason sing "I Wanna Be Sedated". It was one of those "of course!" moments, when you hear a unique voice uncovering something special in material you've taken for granted.

Gilded Palace of Sin (Brighton) said...

Thought you and others) might be interested to know that there is renewed activity on the Scorchers front. They're playing London's Forum on May 1st - and I guess other shows in Europe if they're coming all this way!Think there's a US date planned for later in the year too...Johnstown Folk Festival. Yee - and, indeed - haw!