The Consumers Interview, Part Two
ALL MY FRIENDS ARE DEAD
Ryan: Larry [Hardy] told me there’s a funny and somewhat sadistic story behind “Teen Love Song.”
Mikey: David was gay. We just had fun with “Teen Love Song.” It was this riff on classic doo-wop love songs. What’s funny is David just snarls his way through it.
Ryan: He sings it with total aplomb!
Mikey: [laughs] Yeah. It was an in-joke with all of us: “Let’s get David to sing a song about taking a girl to a drive-in movie.” We played with people’s conceptions of punk rock.
Paul: We were anti-punk rock at the same time. When we got to Los Angeles, we felt the punk scene was a little formulaic. We thought, “Fuck that.” We used to blast Donna Summer at The Canterbury because people were like, “Disco sucks, man.”
Ryan: [laughs] That’s pretty rad.
Mikey: Giorgio Moroder was a genius.
Ryan: He was. Punk became codified by ’78. You mentioned earlier how those Virgin Records releases left a huge impression on you, Paul. But it wasn’t safe to like that stuff until about ’81—when post punk was at its peak.
Mikey: You’re right. When we started The Consumers there were very narrow confines of what music you listened to. If you were a rock guy, you listened to rock music and your friends did too. That’s what brought us together. We had different interests.
Ryan: The visceral anger of All My Friends Are Dead is striking.
Paul: We were angry people.
Mikey: I think so.
Paul: I’m still angry today—but not nearly as much. Phoenix offered nothing to young people back then. Our reaction to the place was, “Fuck all of it.”
Mikey: It was a violent and narrow-minded place.
Paul: I was raised on hardcore Mormonism. Mikey was too but not as extreme.
Mikey: So was Greg.
Paul: Greg was too. Getting out of Mormonism—our reactions were, “What the fuck just happened to us?” I didn’t leave it until I was fourteen. The song “Punk Church” is about that. The great thing about the song is—I was living with this girl who came across the lyrics. She said, “How could you write something like this about me? [laughs] I told her, “It’s not about you. Believe me.”
There was a lot of aggression. I came from a very closed-in background. I never fit in anywhere. Not even in grade school. We were surrounded by jocks who loved to beat us up.
Mikey: Luckily you played guitar. They’d leave you alone a little bit because of that.
Paul: Not in my case. I had long hair. I graduated high school in ’71. The football players and their crowd used to actually spit on me. Phoenix was really polarized. I had some friends but we were the smart, little guys.
If you grow up hardcore in something like Mormonism and you leave it, you have no road map. You’ve been programmed with this roadmap. When you deny it, everything is gone.
Mikey: Especially if you’re sensitive and artistic which we were. It might have hurt us a little more than someone else who was unwilling to look at themselves and the world around them
Paul: That’s true.
Mikey: And we were looking at the world around us and it affected us. The song “Anti Anti Anti” was a result of that.
Paul: I almost got drafted into Vietnam. Jesus Christ. My lottery number was two. They were pulling numbers on who went by birthday. They were taking everyone down to two hundred. The year that I would have gone, [Gerald] Ford ended the draft, so I didn’t have to deal with it. But I had friends who went.
Ryan: “Dream Hits” is probably the most negative song on the album. I experience cognitive dissonance when I listen to it; it seems obvious that you care about the world around you but are so angry at your own surroundings that you don’t want to hear about it.
Paul: Didn’t you come up with “Dream Hits”, Mikey?
Mikey: I did. I came up with the lyrics. You wrote the music, Paul.But then I came up with the most positive one [“Teen Love Song”] on the flipside of that.
MOVING TO LOS ANGELES
Ryan: You moved up to Los Angeles and got Johnny Precious on drums.
Mikey: Johnny was a Phoenix guy.
Paul: Johnny was from Phoenix and had played in a group called The Liars with Don Bolles.
We want to make one point abundantly clear. Don likes to imply that he was a part of The Consumers. He wasn’t in any way shape or form. Again, Don was never in The Consumers. If he says he has tapes of The Consumers, they were probably stolen.
Mikey: Johnny Precious was a friend of Don’s who was in cover bands with him. Don was a very good singer in cover bands. And Johnny was the drummer for different Top 40, we’ll-play-your high school-type bands.
Ryan: Did you have any contacts in the scene up here?
Paul: David came first. Somehow he had made friends with the Pasadena Mafia. The Pasadena Mafia was made up of groups like The Los Angeles Free Music Society and B People. Human Hands too. We called them the Pasadena Mafia which is ironic because they were the nicest people you could have ever met.
Mikey: Very art-damaged kids.
Paul: Yeah. They were some avant-garde compatriots. They were coming from that background.
Mikey: I’d like to add that David was such a nice guy. He had a great personality. Everyone really liked him. He made friends easily and fast. He paved the way for us to come out to LA. He was here already. He talked me into coming out to Los Angeles.
Ryan: The Consumers had run its course in Phoenix. You actually broke up. So it was David who convinced you to keep the project going out in Los Angeles?
Paul: Yes, but we’re talking about a very short time.
Mikey: Maybe two weeks. It didn’t take a lot of convincing to move out of Phoenix.
Paul: Mikey and I drove out to Los Angeles in my ’69 Chevy Imperial. We arrived at the Canterbury. I’ll never forget this—I arrived in a Grateful Dead T-shirt. I think David had rounded up all the punks to meet us. They looked at me and went, “What the fuck?”
Mikey: We moved into the Canterbury. We all shared a studio apartment at first.
Ryan: So it was Greg, Paul, Mikey and David all in one studio apartment?
Mikey: At Don Bolles’ studio. We’d stay at other people’s places occasionally. But for the most part it was just all of us at Don’s apartment causing trouble.
Paul: The Canterbury was a sick apartment complex. There were a bunch of punks there. But there were also a bunch of street-level people who lived there—primarily black guys—who’d smoke angel dust down in the basement. They had a freaky band that I’ll never forget. They’d be just totally dusted up. You’d go out on Hollywood Boulevard and they’d be out there begging for money, pretending they were Vietnam War veterans.
Mikey: Hollywood was a very different town back then. It was right at the cusp of it being at its worst point. There were prostitutes, drug dealers and scam artists everywhere. Hollywood and Highland was a big corner for prostitution. I spent a lot of time there—hanging out and watching stuff go down. I didn’t have money to do anything else.
Paul: I loved it. Coming from a little white suburb in Phoenix it was great.
SHOWS IN LA AND DANGERHOUSE
Ryan: How long were you guys active in Los Angeles before the band imploded?
Paul: I think we lasted nearly a year in LA. Greg quit. Greg decided he was done with Los Angeles. I actually moved back to Phoenix for a year after he left and then came back to LA in ’79. Once Greg left that was it. The band fell apart. David was starting to play with Juan Gomez of the Pasadena boys. They eventually formed Human Hands.
Ryan: Was there ever any talk with Dangerhouse about releasing some of the tracks off of the Joey Dears recording?
Paul: I used to bug Black Randy and David Brown. We had come just as Dangerhouse was running out of money or something. And Black Randy was becoming a terrible dope fiend. I remember him telling me, “I’d give the whole record company away for a spoonful of dope.” I’m like, “Okay! Let’s get one right now.” [laughs] Then Dangerhouse got desperate and put out what I consider their worst release—Yes LA. It was in response to No New York. I was embarrassed. I just thought, “Really?”
Mikey: We didn’t get on that compilation. But even if we did, we still would have been outsiders. We were “The Cactus Heads.” A lot of people didn’t accept us as being part of their scene. We were really angry but at the same time goofy guys.
Paul: We played a show at the Whisky and David brought a fake gun that he had stolen—it looked just like a real .45. He was sticking it in his mouth like he was going to blow his head off. These punk rockers just moved back, recoiling in horror. Another time we had prearranged to have this fight between me and David. The roadie came out and tied David up with guitar cables. A scuffle started and somehow—I think it was me—I pushed David over and his front tooth went through his lip. He’s bleeding. People were horrified, backing up and saying, “Oh my God!”
Mikey: We started doing some strange things on stage. One night at the Whisky we had a big show. We brought a television on stage and it was just Johnny on stage with the television on, reading a newspaper. And he didn’t do anything.
Ryan: Was there any camaraderie between The Consumers and the Los Angeles punk bands?
Mikey: I didn’t feel any.
Paul: I didn’t either. We all knew everybody because the scene was so small. But David was the social butterfly in the group.
Mikey: I’d rather stay in my room and draw pictures and read novels than hang out with the punks.
Paul: Yeah. The rest of the group was not all that social. I didn’t go to shows often. When I first got to Los Angeles I did. But after a short while I just stopped. I wasn’t into it.
Mikey: I didn’t like pogoing and I didn’t like the spitting crap.
Ryan: Had Greg not left and had you gotten some support—say from a Dangerhouse release—would The Consumers have lasted longer?
Paul: To be honest, we had found out that Johnny Precious was a terrible drummer. [laughs]
Mikey: That was sad. I had some issues with Paul over that. The rest of the group wanted to replace him and I had some Phoenix loyalty. I didn’t want to replace Johnny. But then years later I heard a tape of some tracks we had recorded with Johnny and another friend from Phoenix. Paul was right and I was absolutely wrong. Johnny was terrible.
Paul: Jim, the first drummer, he was phenomenal. If you listen to the speed he was playing at—and then he’s putting things in there.
Paul: He was an amazing drummer and Mikey was a phenomenal bass player. I’m so proud of all of the stuff we played on that record.
Ryan: In all aspects, The Consumers was a band slightly ahead its time.
Mikey: Paul said something before—sometimes it’s just as bad to be ahead of the curve as behind it. The Consumers never got the curve correct.
POST CONSUMERS/45 GRAVE’S AUTOPSY
Mikey: Right after The Consumers I joined the Navy without telling anyone.
Paul: Mikey was just gone.
Mikey: I disappeared off of the face of the earth. I didn’t even tell my girlfriend who I was living with at the time.
Paul: I didn’t find out what happened to him for a long time.
Ryan: You didn’t contact anyone while you were away?
Mikey: I didn’t want to. My family didn’t know where I was.
Ryan: I imagine they must have put out bulletins trying to find you.
Mikey: Nope. No one did.
Paul: It was a surprise, but not a big surprise.
Mikey: “Mikey disappeared. Oh well.” Three years after The Consumers broke up I moved back to Hollywood. I ran into Don [Bolles] of all people.
Paul: The first band I put together when I got back to Los Angeles in ’79 was Vox Pop. Anyone could play in Vox Pop. That was a great band because we never all got together to rehearse at the same time. We didn’t care. But it got me back to California.
I got a job as the sound man at the Hong Kong Café. I worked there the best year it was opened.
Paul: The Germs and Black Flag were playing there.
Ryan: That was the period where they were filming the Decline of Western Civilization movie [late ‘79/early ‘80].
Paul: Yeah.That was filmed near the end of my time at the Hong Kong. I mixed Black Flag and Red Cross’ first LA show [this would’ve been before the name change to Redd Kross]. X, The Go Go’s and Fear—the list goes on and on. After the Masque closed down, the Hong Kong was one of the prime places for punk rock in Los Angeles.
Ryan: You were doing a lot of production work too. You recorded the first Dream Syndicate EP that Steve Wynn self released.
Paul: I was. I was recording a lot of stuff.
Ryan: When you formed 45 Grave, you performed and recorded a lot of The Consumers’ songs.
Paul: That’s true.
Ryan: Did you record and perform those songs as a way to get 45 Grave going?
Paul: Not at all. 45 Grave did not start by playing Consumers songs. It started by playing “Riboflavin-flavored, Non-carbonated, Polyunsaturated Blood”. That was the first thing. The other early songs I wrote were “Black Cross” and “Wax”. That’s how the band started. We ended up doing Consumers songs because Don [Bolles] was in the band and Rob Graves—Rob’s from Detroit but had moved out to Phoenix because Don played Rob The Consumers over the telephone and Rob loved it. We knew Rob in Phoenix. I’ve known Don a long time. Don and Rob were well-versed in The Consumers so it was logical that we’d cover some of the songs. But it was not done at all to document the songs.
Ryan: Rob’s one of my favorite bassists. I love his bass playing.
Paul: He was a great player.
Ryan: The Autopsy album with The Consumers tracks came out in ’87. 45 Grave became active again after the release.
Paul: No. We did a couple of reunion shows. When Rob died we played one show with Mikey—he played bass—and we gave all of the money to Rob’s parents. That was it for 45 Grave. I had joined Dream Syndicate. You might be thinking that 45 Grave continued for longer than it did after the release of Autopsy because one of the reunion shows was recorded and released as the Only The Good Die Young record.
ALL MY FRIENDS ARE DEAD GETS RELEASED (1995)
Ryan: Where did you first hear The Consumers demo that would turn into All My Friends Are Dead?
Larry: I first heard the tracks at Mary Simms’ house [AKA, Dinah Cancer, singer of 45 Grave]. My friend Rick and I were coming up from Orange County where we lived to Los Angeles to see 45 Grave. Before the show—I think it was at the Whisky—we stopped at Mary’s house for a get together. Everyone was drinking. Paul Cutler, Don Bolles [drummer of 45 Grave] and Rob Ritter [bassist of 45 Grave] were sitting around, playing cassettes of things they were involved in. I heard a bunch of Vox Pop recordings. I’m not sure if they even had anything out yet. Then they threw in The Consumers tape. It made my ears perk up.
This was well before Sleep In Safety (1983). I want to say I first heard the Consumers demo in the summer of 1981. I knew a number of the songs from seeing 45 Grave. But I had no idea who the band was until I asked them. I just figured one of them had been in it. I thought The Consumers did a better job with those songs than 45 Grave did.
A few years later, my friend Rick ended up moving in with Paul Cutler. He told me that Paul had a bunch of tapes of live shows and unreleased recordings. I asked him to dub me a tape of The Consumers demos I had heard at Mary’s house. He did. I still have the same tape.
Prior to starting In The Red I had told other people with labels about the unreleased Consumers album. I remember when Long Gone John started Sympathy [for the Record Industry] I had told him about it. I told him it was a record he should release but he wasn’t interested. My friend Bill Bartell from the band White Flag had a label called Gasatanka. Bill was friends with the people from 45 Grave. He was familiar with The Consumers and even he didn’t want to put it out. Bill didn’t think anyone would buy it because no one knew about The Consumers. They were a defunct group with hardly any documentation and they never released anything. When I finally got into a position where I could release the demo, I got in touch with Paul Cutler and asked him if he wanted to put it out. He was into it.
Ryan: Were you surprised to hear from Larry Hardy inquiring about The Consumers album? You had recorded the tracks nearly eighteen years before.
Paul: I was pleasantly pleased. After getting to know Larry, and seeing how he’s dealt with it, Mikey and I are really happy.
Mikey: When he first released it, I didn’t even have a tape of the album.
Paul: I had the master tape all along. But I had no way to play it. It was a two-track.
Ryan: I heard that when you first went to transfer the tape over you hadn’t baked it. The first song was almost destroyed.
Paul: It did eat the tape. It was shredding oxide like you cannot believe. But the guy he had hired knew what was going on and said, “Nope. We’ve got to bake this thing.”
Mikey: We didn’t have the technology back then to release this material. Larry helped save it. I’m really thankful for what he’s done.
Ryan: I know David Wiley passed away in 1986. Did Joey Dears or Greg Jones live long enough to see the first release?
Mikey: Unfortunately not. None of them did.
CD REISSUE (2001)
Ryan: You did a vinyl release and then a CD release a few years later, correct?
Larry: Yeah. I released the LP in 1995. We pressed one thousand copies. It sold out about a year or two later. In 2001 I re-mastered it for CD. Unfortunately it was not a good re-mastering job. It was way too hot. I regret that. At first I thought it was cool. When Paul Cutler heard it, he immediately said, “No. It’s way too loud. But we’ll just let it go.” I wish I would have listened to him.
When I released the CD in 2001, I got Brendan Mullen to write the piece that’s on the inner sleeve. When I had put it out originally, Paul gave me the cover artwork Mikey did, and Paul kind of liked the fact that the front and back of the LP didn’t tell you much. Usually an archival release of a band will give you its story and important dates. But the original vinyl pressing of All My Friends Are Dead didn’t tell you much. The original pressing was sort of an abstract release with almost no information. It was kind of cool. People did say to me, “I wish there was more of a story to go along with this release.” There was some speculation that the LP wasn’t actually an old recording. It’s cool that there’s proof now—Brendan’s liner notes and the Slash write-up—that the band actually did exist.
VINYL REISSUE (2012)
Paul: Larry put so much work into this last packaging. I didn’t have any flyers or clippings to give him. He put them all together.
Mikey: I had a few things I gave to Larry, but he found the rest of the stuff.
Ryan: Over the years you’ve collected news paper clippings and show flyers which show up in the new gatefold reissue. Were people sending you these things over the years?
Larry: Yeah. Other punk collectors got a hold of me. There’s a guy named Antonio Aguirre—he’s a big a punk collector—he had some Consumers flyers. He scanned them and sent them to me. David Wiley, the singer of The Consumers, had written a letter to my friend Tom Recchion. The letter was written on the back of a Consumers flyer. Tom gave it to me to use. When I approached The Consumers about the current reissue, they had come across a few clippings over the years as well. That’s where all the stuff that appears in the gatefold came from.
Mikey: Seeing the clippings was great. I was like, “Where in the hell did that come from?” on a couple of things.
Paul: I hadn’t seen the Sound of Sam flyer in so long.
Ryan: On historical merit alone All My Friends Are Dead would’ve been a great release. What gets me about the LP is just how amazing the music is—how a demo so incredible could be left unreleased for so long. It’s a lost gem. The music is timeless. There’s a real vitality to The Consumers’ music.
Larry: I agree. It is kind of timeless. They recorded the music in the last month of 1977. It’s pretty agro sounding. Not that there weren’t other bands releasing stuff that tough sounding. But comparing it to the first Germs single—it’s pretty incredible. The lyrics are timeless. They’re just angry. There’s nothing really topical about the lyrics. They weren’t political. They didn’t really have a message like the Dils.
I’m really proud of All My Friends Are Dead. I think it’s one of the coolest things I’ve done.
Mikey: The Consumers was a neat band that got a lot of people together. Paul has been my friend ever since.
Paul: I met Mikey when he was eighteen years old. I’ve known him ever since—thirty-five years now.
Mikey: The Consumers was also a stepping stone to other projects we did over the years…
Mikey Borens: Consumers, 1977-1978; US Navy (AKA “The Missing Years”) 1979-1983; The Romans, 1982-1983; Cathedral of Tears, 1983-1984; Twisted Roots, 1983; 45 Grave, 1982-1984; Chris Cacavas and Junkyard Love, 1991-1993; Musical drifter, 1994-present (hill and folk music)
Paul Cutler: Consumers, 1977-1978; Vox Pop, 1979-1981; 45 Grave, 1980-1990 (performed very sporadically after Cutler joined The Dream Syndicate); Dream Syndicate, 1986-1991; International Metal Supply 2002-2004
Larry Hardy: Head honcho of In The Red Records, 1991-present
Jim: Consumers, 1977; Emerson, Lake and Palmer cover band, 1977; date of death unknown
Greg Jones: Consumers, 1977-1978; date of death unknown
Johnny Precious: The Liars, 1977; Consumers, 1978; Killer Pussy; passed away in 1983
David Wiley: Consumers, 1977-1978; Human Hands, 1979-1981; passed away in 1986
The Consumers Interview, Part One
The following interview originally ran in Razorcake #69 (www.razorcake.org)
The Consumers were the first Arizona punk band. That distinction alone would make the group’s story an interesting one. Fortunately there is a lot more to The Consumers’ incredible story.
The Consumers formed in Phoenix in 1977. The group was David Wiley (vocals), Paul Cutler (guitar), Greg Jones (guitar), Mikey Borens (bass) and Jim (surname unknown, drums). The Consumers faced incredible hardships in Phoenix. Top 40 bands playing middle-of-the-road rock covers were the order of the day. The Consumers didn’t play covers; the group was an erudite punk-rock band, well versed in avant-garde music and art. After a good gig, The Consumers were hurriedly shown the club’s door. At worst violence would break out—Paul Cutler had a knife pulled on him at one show. After hashing it out in Phoenix for approximately a year (Cutler estimates they played twenty shows there) the group relocated to Los Angeles—but not before The Consumers cut an album’s worth of tracks with Paul Cutler’s friend Joey Dears.
All My Friends Are Dead wouldn’t exist without Joey Dears. The Consumers’ sole album—posthumously released in 1995—was recorded using studio time Dears had accumulated as a perk for working at a Phoenix studio. The Consumers had only eight hours to record eleven tracks. Luckily Joey Dears was a skilled engineer; the fidelity of All My Friends Are Dead bears witness to his ability. More importantly the record captures just how amazing The Consumers were. In David Wiley, The Consumers had a fierce vocalist. Wiley’s performance was a byproduct of the psychogeography of Phoenix—alienated and frustrated, he sang with total conviction. Paul Cutler was (and still is) one of the great guitarists of American punk rock. He remains underappreciated. Like Cutler, bassist Mikey Borens was an accomplished musician before punk hit. His playing on All My Friends Are Dead is both skillful and innovative. Not much is known about The Consumers’ other guitarist Greg Jones. There were no lead or rhythm guitar designations in The Consumers; Paul Cutler remembers Jones having a “choppier, more percussive” rhythm guitar style than him. Even less is known about the band’s original drummer Jim. He was with The Consumers during their days in Phoenix—played amazingly on the Joey Dears session—and then left the group to drum in a more lucrative Emerson, Lake and Palmer cover band. Of the six people who participated in the All My Friends Are Dead recording session, only Mikey Borens and Paul Cutler are living.
In early ’78 The Consumers (with Johnny Precious taking Jim’s place on drums) relocated to Los Angeles. Although they hit it off with the Pasadena Mafia (a tag name for Pasadena groups The Los Angeles Free Music Society and BPeople), they received a cool welcome from the Los Angeles punk-rock crowd. The Consumers got into a notorious scuffle with Kim Fowley’s entourage at The Whisky, while early plans for a Dangerhouse single never materialized. The Consumers came to an end when Greg Jones decided to move back to Phoenix in late ’78.
For many years The Consumers remained a rumor—a notorious band from Phoenix that raised hell in Arizona and Los Angeles and then disappeared. The group released nothing during its lifetime, but claimed Paul Cutler, Mikey Borens and David Wiley as ex-members. Fortunately The Consumers received much of the recognition they deserved with the release of All My Friends Are Dead.
In 1995 Larry Hardy, head honcho of In The Red Records, was convinced the Joey Dears recording session needed to be released. Hardy, a fan of 45 Grave and Autopsy (1987)—a posthumously released 45 Grave album that contained several rerecorded Consumers tracks—asked Paul Cutler and Mikey Borens if they’d be interested in finally releasing All My Friends Are Dead. Cutler and Borens agreed. One thousand copies were pressed on vinyl in 1995. In 2001 a CD reissue was released. By 2012 original LP pressings of All My Friends Are Dead were going for sizeable amounts on ebay, prompting Hardy to reissue the album again on vinyl. This latest go around includes a gatefold chockfull of rare photos and clippings from the band’s days in Phoenix and Los Angeles.
Listening to All My Friends Are Dead for the first time rekindled my interest in punk rock. The sincerity of the band and the acute intelligence and work that went into the arrangements and lyrics were conspicuous right away. The Consumers recorded a seminal moment that remains timeless. Thankfully with this third pressing, All My Friends Are Dead appears to be receiving its rightful recognition as one of the high-water marks of punk rock.
Interview by Ryan Leach
Photos courtesy of Larry Hardy
GROWING UP IN PHOENIX AND FORMING THE CONSUMERS
Ryan: Were you both from Phoenix?
Paul: Everybody except David Wiley was from Phoenix. David moved to Phoenix from Ohio.
Mikey: Paul and I went to the same high school and church.
Ryan: So you and Paul knew each other growing up?
Mikey: Not really.
Paul: I’m a little bit older than Mikey. Greg Jones, the other guitarist, also went to our church. That’s how I knew him.
Ryan: Most of the information I’ve obtained on The Consumers comes from Brendan Mullen’s liner notes to All My Friends Are Dead. He mentions you guys being into Henry Cow and Robert Wyatt. That struck me as being really advanced for your time and place.
Paul: That’s true in my case. When Spiders From Mars came out I stopped listening to rock. I figured it was finally the triumph of form over substance. I started listening to jazz and eventually reached the periphery of jazz—Cecil Taylor, Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra. From there I moved to avant-garde classical music—Kagel, Stockhausen and John Cage. The first Virgin Records releases in America—Robert Wyatt, Gong and Henry Cow—had a huge influence on me. Those records were extremely avant-garde. They were the first domestic releases that Virgin did in America and they all came out at once. I worked at a record store at the time. Those Virgin releases influenced a lot of people. David Wiley was the same as me. We were coming from an avant-garde background. I didn’t start listening to rock again until Roxy Music.
Ryan: Roxy Music was a life preserver for a lot of rock fans in the mid ‘70s.
Paul: I related to Eno. Roxy Music was a pop band but also arty.
Mikey: You have to place that in the context of being in Arizona at that time. We grew up in a guitar-dueling society. At that point you had to be a great player. You’d go to these desert parties and play your guitar riffs. So when Paul went out on a limb by listening to avant-garde music, he really alienated himself from a lot of people.
Ryan: When Malcolm McLaren booked The Sex Pistols he had them play a bunch of random cities. One of the worst receptions they got was in Texas; they played there in early ’78 just after you recorded your demos. It’s easy to forget how hostile people were to punk back then, especially in the South.
Paul: We were already done performing in Phoenix when they came through Texas. It was the same for us though. I had a knife pulled on me. Being the first punk band in Phoenix was very rough.
Mikey: It made us aggressive. We were used to protecting ourselves. We were punk in a very ‘50s way. Rebel rousers.
Paul: If you grow up in Phoenix, there’s no getting around the redneck elements of the place.
Ryan: What were you listening to, Mikey?
Mikey: I liked art rock. I was a little bit of the opposite of Paul because I was playing in Top 40 bands. But I was always the guy who didn’t fit in with everybody. I liked The New York Dolls, Eno and The Velvet Underground. Nevertheless I was always in these stupid bands playing the pop hits of the day. Paul and I were introduced by one of the guys we both knew who was playing in a Top 40 band. He thought Paul and I were incredibly weird and that it’d be a funny joke on everybody for us to meet. It was in a way. [laughs] We’ve been friends ever since. We met in ’76.
Ryan: I’ve gathered that the nucleus of The Consumers was Paul Cutler, Mikey Borens and David Wiley. Was Greg Jones part of it as well?
Paul: Greg was totally a part of it.
Ryan: Do you have an approximate date on when the Consumers actually came together?
Paul: We formed in 1977. But I have no specific dates. The last member to join us was our drummer.
Ryan: I have him listed on the album as just “Jim.”
Paul: We don’t remember his last name.
Mikey: He passed away. We couldn’t really find out what happened to him.
Ryan: Did he leave The Consumers recording session to play in a covers band?
Paul: No. He didn’t actually leave right then. He did a little later to join an Emerson, Lake and Palmer covers band with a laser light show.
Ryan: [laughs] That goes back to what you both were saying about The Consumers being the polar opposite of the Phoenix norm.
Mikey: After Jim left…
Paul: We were punks.
Mikey: And we weren’t going back to mainstream music. That was just who we were.
Original invoice for The Consumers recording session, courtesy of Paul Cutler.
RECORDING WITH JOEY DEARS
Ryan: Your friend Joey Dears accumulated eight hours of free studio time as a perk for working at the studio. He used that to record you guys, correct?
Ryan: You really banged out all those tracks in eight hours?
Paul: Oh, yeah.
Ryan: Incredible. Your playing is so tight.
Paul: We were good musicians.
Mikey: That came from living in Arizona in the ‘70s. You really learned your instruments back then. If you played guitar, you really learned how to play guitar well.
Ryan: After listening to All My Friends Are Dead the first couple of times, two things became apparent to me—that your influences were top notch and that your musicianship was at a high level.
Paul: The musicianship was at a high level for a punk-rock band. Phoenix was a place that was so fucking boring for young people that you’d play guitar in your bedroom for hours, every single day.
Mikey: I started doing that when I was fourteen years old.
Paul: I did the same. I was playing in my room everyday for ten years before we started The Consumers.
Ryan: The caliber of your guitar playing is pretty well known, Paul; your bass playing is incredible, Mikey. On “Ballad of The Son of Sam” you play these unbelievably fast bass fills on the breaks. That’s hard to do. They work so well.
Mikey: The funny thing about that—we insisted on all downstrokes. We wanted that mandolin picking. It was all straight down picking.
Ryan: That’s so fast.
Paul: It’s ridiculous. I can’t even do it now.
Mikey: I tried. I can’t.
Paul: That’s how the music sounded best. Greg and I played all down strokes.
Mikey: On Paul’s homemade amplifier.
Ryan: What are your memories of the late Greg Jones’ guitar playing?
Mikey: My impression of Greg was that he was a very careful guitar player. Great, great timing and he always knew what he was going to do. He did circular things that used to boggle my mind—simple arpeggios played at breakneck speed. A very technical musician.
Ryan: If you listen to early punk singles, they’re usually pretty rough sounding. The fidelity of All My Friends Are Dead is striking. It’s clear someone knew what they were doing—especially taking into consideration the short recording time.
Paul: Joey knew what he was doing. For one thing we used the studio’s drum kit so there wasn’t all this time spent setting up drums and getting a drum sound. That takes the longest and it was already done. Both Greg Jones and I used these Heathkit amplifiers that we built ourselves. You could buy them through a mail order and then solder them together.
Mikey: I was using a Sunn Coliseum head and a Kustom tuck-and-roll sparkle cabinet.
Paul: Joey worked at that studio for a while and had recorded a lot of people. He also knew music. Nevertheless Joey had no idea what we were going to do. [laughs]
Joey Dears was my guitar mentor. He was the one who taught me what it takes to get good at guitar. Dedication. Joey was from my neighborhood. He was a fantastic guitarist. Unfortunately Joey never left Phoenix. He ended up just joining cover bands. Joey’s playing went downhill. He was copying other people’s style and that’s something you can’t get away with forever. He became a drinker. He’s now dead.
Mikey: The recording session was effortless. I remember going in there and just punching it out.
Paul: All the songs were one take. Maybe two on a couple of them. It was just, “Bam! Here you go.” [laughs]
Mikey: We came back an hour later and did some background noises.
Ryan: So there was a little period set aside for overdubs?
Paul: We probably mixed it right after that.
Mikey: But it’s a two-track.
Paul: It’s a two-track. The settings were probably the same on all of the songs. A total of twelve hours were spent on that record, from start to finish.
Ryan: Was Joey sympathetic to punk rock and what you guys were doing?
Paul: I don’t think he was for it or against it. We were really close, old friends. He was going along with whatever I brought in. That’s the reason we were offered the studio time to record the songs. Joey knew I had started a band. That’s how it happened.
PLAYING IN PHOENIX AND CONSUMERS FLYERS
Paul: Back then in Phoenix the only way you could play on a professional level was to be in a covers band. That was it. You could play country, funk or the new disco stuff coming in—but the only way you could make a living was to be in a covers band. When The Consumers started playing clubs we’d have to play three or four sets because that was what people were used to. We had enough songs for two sets, and then we’d repeat songs for our third and fourth set.
Mikey: Live, we’d sometimes play the songs on The Consumers record three times in a single night. It really toughened us up and made us good.
Ryan: Do you have a rough estimate on how many shows you played in Phoenix?
Paul: That’s a tough one. Twenty tops. We got out of there pretty quick.
Mikey: Once the band started clicking, we decided to move.
Paul: Playing in Phoenix wasn’t much fun. We opened up for The Rocky Horror Picture Show and everyone threw their popcorn at us before the movie even started. That’s how it was.
Ryan: One of your flyers mentions you opening up for a John Waters film.
Mikey: That was a mess.
Paul: That was for Desperate Living at Neeb Hall, which is the performance venue at Arizona State University. David had made this big, pink cake. He had put a firecracker in it and during the performance he lit it. It exploded all over the people on stage and in the audience. [laughs]
Ryan: [laughs] That’s so cool!
Mikey: The people didn’t like it and neither did Neeb Hall. I was doing their ads at the time and that came to an end after David blew up the cake. I was a student at Arizona State University.
Paul: Mikey is a very talented visual artist.
Ryan: Were you creating some of The Consumers’ flyers as well, Mikey?
Mikey: I did some of them. There was a lot of collaborative work going on with those flyers too. That was what was so fun about The Consumers. People would chip in on a lot of stuff. The flyers that were more sort of straight graphics were the ones I was doing on my own.
Paul: Mikey also did the cover for All My Friends Are Dead.
Ryan: One of your flyers really caught my attention. It’s the one influenced by Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. Did you come up with that one, Mikey?
Mikey: The Sound of Sam one?
Mikey: No. That was David and Paul.
Paul: David and I came up with that one. It wasn’t that long after Berkowitz. We also had a song with the opening lyrics, “We’re taking orders from our neighbor’s dog.” [laughs]
Mikey: We’d put those flyers up months before we played and they were everywhere. They were up in classrooms at different colleges. They’d be up really high, tucked away in corners. I remember we were flipping through the newspaper and going through the personals. We came across an ad that said, “Sound of Sam, call me!” It was such a guerilla-style tactic used to get things rolling for us.
Paul: When David and I made flyers, we’d just take old school graphics and paste them up.
Mikey: That’s another good point about all of us. We all had a background in art. We loved art.
Paul: I took art history in college. In addition to avant-garde music, we were of course influenced by Dadaism and Surrealism.
Ryan: Guy Debord’s work didn’t really connect with the punk-rock crowd until Greil Marcus’ book Lipstick Traces came out in the late ‘80s. The Situationists and The Society of the Spectacle were much more esoteric back in ’77. Your flyer really impressed me.
Paul: When we got to Los Angeles, there weren’t tons of people with avant-garde backgrounds. We did have some compatriots though.
Mikey: There was a certain amount of ridicule against us from the “real punks” in town because of our knowledge of art.
Paul: That’s true.
Mikey: I remember handing out a flyer to someone and they said to me, “Oh! Somebody went to art school.” They said it in a very derisive manner. They didn’t like it.
Ryan: They displayed anti-intellectualism toward your band.
Ross Johnson Interview, Part Two
Interview by Ryan Leach
Vanity Session cover photo by BullyRook
Ryan: Not too long after The Yard Dogs, you played on one of my favorite records, Like Flies On Sherbert (1979).
Ross: Yeah. There were two basic sessions for that record. The first one was in February of ‘78 at Sam Phillips. The people in Mud Boy and the Neutrons played with Alex on that date. They hadn’t rehearsed much; there weren’t too many first takes, mostly second and third takes. Alex told me beforehand to come down and “maybe cut something.” I went to a wet T-shirt contest instead. That was more important to me. I had a friend with big tits and she would always win these wet T-shirt contests by pulling up her shirt; she’d get fifty bucks every time. In the end we did manage to show up to the session later that night. We just watched and listened. I was in no shape to perform. Gail Clifton has a picture of me and Alex at the board that night. Unfortunately, I have no conscious memory of being there. Alex cut a few songs later on at Ardent—that was the last session on August 16, 1979. That’s where “Baron of Love, Pt. II” comes from. There are seven or eight other outtakes too. Dickinson was supposed to be there that day but he was having stomach trouble. He had really bad stomach pains, like ulcers, in the late ’70s and early ’80s. That left Alex in charge of the session. So it was me, Alex and John Hampton, the engineer. I was not a big THC fan back then. Marijuana was outdated. But Alex said, “Please smoke this.” I guess that activated the Tourettes-like muse I have. We did other songs that day. I was knocking over mics during the session, stumbling around. I ducked out for a bit to pick up a couple of six packs at 10AM.
Ryan: You had no preconceived notion of doing “Baron of Love, Pt. II” before the session?
Ross: Alex and I had some idea we’d do it. The Panther Burns had been playing for a few months prior to the session. The Panther Burns’ first show was on February 11, 1979. We had gotten to the point where someone in the band would hand me the mic during Tav’s frequent string-breaking incidents. I would actually try to sing now and then, but mostly I’d just talk. Alex said, “You know, I think you can do some sort of talk thing.” So, the first version of “Baron of Love, Pt. I”—which is seldom heard—was Alex singing a pale tribute to “Gangster of Love” by Johnny “Guitar” Watson—a radio hit at the time. Alex had a concept for Like Flies on Sherbert. He talked about how he wanted it to be very spontaneous. It may sound like a contradiction, but he figured that the more control he gave up (to the musicians) the more control he had. The title track, “Like Flies on Sherbert”, started out as a song called “Eurok”—which is phonetically pronounced you’re okay. It was a Brian Wilson-type thing: “Oh, baby, you’re okay.” That was the original hook of the song. Alex disassembled it and the hook became, “Eat-ing uh dick…” Even better!
Alex and I had very fractious times. Most people around Alex went through something similar. The same goes for me: I’ve fallen out with a lot of people. But Jim Dickinson was always very, very kind and understanding. Jim dealt in myth. What he said wasn’t always factually correct but in terms of myth building, it was spot on. Jim Dickinson is neither gone nor dead to me.
Ryan: It’s hard to summarize a larger-than-life figure like Jim Dickinson.
Ross: Yeah. To see Alex Chilton and Jim Dickinson in the same room—oh man! Alex had a presence, especially among women. Even those who didn’t know about The Box Tops or Big Star, it’d work every time; they’d all be charmed and he’d walk out with one or two girlfriends. I’m really not kidding. I think it was because Alex listened to women and he liked talking. He asked questions. There’s no better form of seduction than asking questions.
Ryan: Although the initial Peabody run of Like Flies on Sherbert was a small batch of five hundred LPs, do you recall the album receiving any attention due to Alex’s previous involvement with The Box Tops and Big Star?
Ross: Hardly anyone noticed the record. There was a soft release in October of ‘79. Sid (Selvidge, head of Peabody Records) said, “Ross, I have ten copies for you.” I only have one left. I gave all the rest away to ex-girlfriends. God, I wish I still had those.
Ryan: No kidding.
Ross: I think it was reviewed locally. Sid couldn’t get anywhere with it. He sold the record to Aaron Sixx at Aura Records in London. I don’t think Alex was completely informed of it. Alex came across some paperwork at Ardent—including the bill of sale for Like Flies On Sherbert. Aaron Sixx wanted Alex Chilton to do a tour of Britain. He came over to America and caught an early Panther Burns show. We were supposed to be the touring band behind Alex. Aaron said, “No, no, no.” (laughs) He also heard “Baron of Love, Pt. II” and said, “No, no, no.” (laughs) That’s why you hear “Boogie Shoes” on the Aura version. He didn’t want “Baron of Love, Pt. II” on there.
Ryan: Like Flies On Sherbert is still maligned by most critics, yet as time passes it seems that more people recognize it as a great record. From the fractured rockabilly and country covers to the strong originals on the album: “Hey! Little Child” is one of Alex’s best.
Ross: Thank you. Alex would tell me to play a “cha-cha” or a “Troggs beat.” For someone who had zero knowledge of music theory and very limited knowledge of musical terms, telling me to play the beat from “Wild Thing” really helped.
Ryan: It’s an influential record. The Panther Burns were inspirational as well. I’m not sure how aware Jeffrey Lee Pierce was of Like Flies on Sherbert or The Panther Burns early on, but they helped point the way.
Ross: They way I always saw it, in the early ’80s—at least in terms of prominence—it was The Cramps, The Gun Club and The Panther Burns in that order. The Blasters were in there too, but they were more…
Ryan: They treated American roots music with more reverence. The Blasters had a more traditional approach.
Ross: Yeah. Phil Alvin was such a nice guy too. Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Lux and Ivy, and Tav certainly were not traditionalists. (laughs) The Cramps, The Gun Club and The Panther Burns were just slightly different versions of the same band. We were fans of each other’s groups. Hearing The Cramps inspired Tav beyond measure. It did the same for me and Alex. Just seeing pictures of The Cramps in Rock Scene—the photo magazine Lisa and Richard Robinson started—back in ‘76 was amazing. I remember when The Cramps came to Memphis in September of ‘77 they were staying at Lesa Aldridge’s apartment. I went over to her place to meet them and I’m nervous as hell. I knocked on the door and Bryan Gregory answered it. He had the nicest smile on his face and said, “Why hello! How are you?” Very sweet. It totally clashed with Bryan’s look. He was such a nice guy.
Ryan: There’s an infamous early Panther Burns performance that took place on Marge Thrasher’s local Memphis television show. She’s incredibly pissed off by your performance. It’s really amazing. Do you recall the event?
Ross: Yes I do. It took place in the morning. I was working the graveyard shift at the library then, which was like 3:30 to midnight. I’d go straight from work to the bars and stay up till dawn. I picked up Alex at 7:30 in the morning and we arrived at the studio about thirty minutes later. It was very, very early for us. Tav especially. She (Marge Thrasher) was shocked and appalled by us. That wasn’t an act she put on for the cameras. At the end of the show, as we were hustling our equipment out, she had the whole crew of the TV station trying to calm her down. I thought she was going to physically attack us. I came to know her stepson later. He said, “The whole time my father was married to her I never stopped hating her.” (laughs)
One of my favorite early Panther Burns live show memories comes from an early gig we did at a rockabilly benefit—which was kind of strange—at a placed called Western Steakhouse and Lounge. It was a redneck kind of place. Charlie Feathers was in the audience. Tav said, “We’re gonna do a Charlie Feathers song: “One Hand Loose.” Charlie shook his head throughout the whole song and muttered, “No! No! No!” We did several early gigs with Charlie. I ended up drumming for him a couple of times. Every time I’d back Charlie up he’d say, “I don’t want this drummer. I hate him.” Charlie was touched by a muse. He was an artist of the highest order. He was also illiterate. Charlie was a rockabilly purist. He’d talk for hours about what rockabilly was and wasn’t. I remember another early Panther Burns show we did with Charlie. I was playing an old set of blue-sparkle, banged-up Ludwig drums. The snare sounded terrible, like a shotgun blast. Charlie’s son (Bubba Feathers) said to me, “Go down there and get that one-thousand dollar Black Beauty Ludwig snare and set it up.” I set it up and Bubba says to me, “Now play that snare and yours. Hear the difference.” I played it and said to Bubba and Charlie, “Thanks a lot but I prefer mine.” Charlie looked over at me and said, “You’re crazy.”
Ryan: There was a group of people who came up after punk—people like you, Tav Falco, Jeffrey Evans and Nikki Sudden—who really championed Charlie Feathers. Did Charlie form an uneasy co-existence with The Panther Burns?
Ross: Charlie came to enjoy Tav’s company on a personal basis. Over the years he begrudgingly played with us. Of course, Charlie never refused payment after a show. Charlie hated it when I played with him. Absolutely hated it. The feeling was mutual, although I enjoyed torturing him. Charlie was such a strange character. An illiterate shuffleboard hustler on Getwell Roard and Lamar Avenue. A drinker and brawler. He’d tell you crazy myths about Elvis and Memphis.
Ryan: Why didn’t you play (on The Panther Burns’ debut) Behind The Magnolia Curtain?
Ross: Because I had been fired in May of ‘81. I know it’s hard to believe but my drinking had gotten worse. I was being nasty. I remember Ray Farrell from Rough Trade was sent to see what kind of shape we were in. Ray came down on one drunken night when The Panther Burns were playing—just after Jim Duckworth had replaced me. I was crying and angry at the show. I ended up having a beer-can fight with the Panther Burns on stage. So I’m standing in front of the stage, throwing half-empty beer cans at the band and they’re throwing them back at me, and here’s Ray checking out the label’s new act. I was simply fired from The Panther Burns.
I’ve been on record saying this before—I think my firing made Behind The Magnolia Curtain a better record. Not many people know that Alex played drums on most of those songs—much more than Duckworth. Jim Duckworth performed most of the guitar solos. Had I been on the record my drumming would have been a little more slick and traditional. Granted I would have been drunker than Alex and Jim Duckworth. Personally, I think Behind The Magnolia Curtain and Panther Phobia are the only two Panther Burns albums you need. Bookends really.
Ryan: I had heard two stories: That you were fired for drunkenness before Behind The Magnolia Curtain was recorded; the other that Tav wanted the drumming to be sort of ramshackle on the record, which is why you’re not on it.
Ross: That may have been true and could have been Tav’s ultimate goal. It’s probably why the Tate County Fife and Drum Corps appear on the record. But I really earned my dismissal by being very nasty to Alex and Tav. I threw Tav out of a booth at a bar once. I was fired in May of ‘81 and rehired a month later. I’ve been fired and rehired from the Panther Burns numerous times since.
Ryan: You’re on The World We Knew (1987) which is a slicker-sounding record.
Ross: We had a bit of a budget from New Rose. We recorded that in ‘86 at Sam Phillips. I played on Sugar Ditch Revisited (1985) and Shake Rag (1986) too. I was initially happy about Shake Rag because Alex and Rene (Coman) were going to be out of town touring. That left me, Dickinson and Tav to record the album. Unfortunately, we ended up making the worst Panther Burns record and that’s saying something. I hate every minute of it. (laughs) Before we recorded Shake Rag I thought, “Great, the dominate two in The Panther Burns are gone and I know I can get along with Tav and Jim if Alex and Rene are not around.” It ended up being terrible.
Ryan: I avoided all Panther Burns records released after Behind the Magnolia Curtain because I figured they were all uniformly terrible. Panther Phobia is an incredible return to form. It’s the second best record the Panther Burns made.
Ross: Thank you for saying that. A funny story about Panther Phobia: I wasn’t supposed to play on the record because Tav wanted a slicker sound. (laughs) Larry (Hardy) insisted that Jeffrey Evans produce it and I play on it. Jack Oblivian played bass and we played double drums on a couple of tracks. We took about a month to record Panther Phobia over at Jeffrey Evans’ apartment. It was one of my favorite experiences just because it was so relaxed, even though Tav had a homicidal girlfriend. Tav went MIA before the tour. Larry had spent a lot of time and money on the record, had gotten a lot of press, and the tour was about to start—all of a sudden Tav goes missing. Larry called me up and asked, “Has Tav ever done this sort of thing before?” I answered, “Yes, but not usually of this magnitude.” That really finished Tav off as far as working with American garage-rock ghetto labels.
Ryan: There are so many good cuts on Panther Phobia: “Streamline Train,” “The Young Psychotics,” and “Cockroach.”
Ross: Thank you. Even listening to my own playing on it, I think, “Hey, I’m doing okay on this one.” I really liked playing on the record and I still like listening to it.
Ryan: Another person you’ve worked frequently with is Jeffrey Evans.
Ross: Jeff and I just click. Jeff moved to Memphis in 1989. We’ve been playing in bands together on and off ever since. We did a Wednesday night residency at the Buccaneer from 2007 to 2008. I always wanted to do that. I just enjoy socializing and talking with Jeff. At times our shows turn into—I don’t want to say standup—they’re more just like a word act. People get annoyed at times. At Gonerfest 2007 some girl yelled, “Y’all shut up and start playing!” I said, “Oh, you shouldn’t have said that.” Jeff is a dear friend and someone I love playing with. I think the world of him. I’m glad we still get to play together. He now lives about thirty miles south of Memphis in Como, Mississippi. We’re not gigging as much as we used to but he’s been talking about getting some more shows together soon. We know how to work without any preparation or practice which I always prefer. I’ve done enough practicing in my lifetime.
Ryan: I’m one of the few people who listens to Make It Stop! the whole way through.
Ross: Oh my god! I think I’ve done that twice and it made me shiver both times.
Ryan: There’s a guy I work with who’s not a major fan of music but loves “Wet Bar.”
Ross: Yeah, the record certainly appeals to people who don’t like music. It’s almost a comedy record. It’s certainly a novelty record. That song is about a girlfriend I was dating. I thought she was pregnant and I was worried the baby was going to be born with six arms because she had done so much acid. “Wet Bar” was recorded at Rick Ivy’s house. Rick played in The Panther Burns and was on that Marge Thrasher show. Rick’s an interesting guy. He was born in ‘52, the year before the polio vaccine was distributed. He had a rather terrible case of polio. He has a very withered upper body. We went to the same high school for a while. Rick wore this really restrictive polio brace to school. But Rick got all the girls.
Ryan: You call it a novelty record but those tracks had to come out. Andria and the other people at Sugar Ditch put out some great stuff.
Ross: Andria has been a good fried to me. Those records came out at time when I was feeling forgotten and just about to become a father for the first time. I was so desperate to have any connection to anything musical and Andria was kind enough to put out my first single out. She’d also book me on shows.
Ryan: You had that column in the Vinyl District where you talk about Vanity Records—albums that otherwise shouldn’t have come out but needed to and did. A lot of the tracks on Make It Stop! shouldn’t have come out but thankfully did.
Ross: Yeah, they’d come out periodically. “Baron of Love, Pt. II” was sort of a one-off. But somewhere in the early ’80s—likely on a sad, drunken night where I was feeling sorry for myself—I remember thinking, “Maybe I can do a spoken-word, Baron-type thing. Nah, that’d be a bunch of shit. No one would want to hear that.” I see it all as the same piece of music. My themes and obsessions never change. Just turn on the mic, get the tape rolling, and whatever muse or chemicals are in my system—they’re going to come out. I always likened my music to porn: the actors in porn might not like watching their videos later, but they enjoy making them. It’s hard for me to listen to my music because a lot of it is based on fact. Not as much on Vanity Session but certainly so for the earlier releases. It’s a way for me to express my excessive jealousy, hurt and vice.
Ryan: Vanity Session was recorded a little before Jim (Dickinson) passed away. How did that recording come to fruition?
Ross: I have to give credit to Greg Roberson, from Reigning Sound and the last version of Love. I had been doing some sessions with Greg and Jim every year or two with Ron Franklin and some other projects. Greg and I have known each other for twenty-five years. He asked Jim if we could book something at Zebra Ranch. We asked Jim if he could give us a good rate to use his studio; Jim replied, “I’ll do you one better than that: I’ll waive the fees.” So I paid the engineer and Greg, but not Jim. Jim never asked for anything. But I had helped Jim get some ’80s indie bands into his studio. I had picked a bunch of covers I liked, obscure and otherwise. The real reason for the session, though, was that I wanted to redo “I’ve Had It.” It was a Klitz staple and my favorite song on Like Flies On Sherbert. I asked Jim to play on it and he did. That’s Jim playing Jeffrey Evans’ guitar and doing that solo. It was something that Greg set up and that Arthur Lee’s weed enhanced. Of course, Adam Woodward, Greg Roberson, Jeremy Scott, John Paul Keith, Kevin Houston and Jim Dickinson were wonderful and helped out a lot. It had been a long time since I had played in a studio that sounded that good. Liam Watson at Toe Rag had built this drum cave a couple of years earlier. It was not a drum booth, but a literal cave with rocks and cement. I had never seen anything like it before but the drums sounded great. Vanity Session was a different record for me. Most of the material on Make It Stop! features me on drums, singing at the same time. On Vanity Session, Roberson played drums and I sang. That helped me get into my trance state easier.
Ryan: You’re playing with Mike McCarthy’s daughter Hanna right now, correct?
Ross: Yeah. I’d say her songs sounds most like Dead Dog’s Eyeball, the Kathy McCarty record where she covers Daniel Johnston songs. Hanna’s songs are often as emotionally affecting as Kathy’s are on that record. Her songs are different.
Ryan: You’ve got a Like Flies On Sherbert show planned soon (December 28, 2013, at the Hi-Tone).
Ross: Yes. Richard Rosebrough—the other drummer on the album—and Lesa Aldridge will perform. Four of the nine people who played on Flies have died. I think we’re going to have three or four of the five people still living participating. Steve Selvidge and Adam Woodward will be there. Jeremy Scott will be playing bass. Kip Ulhorn from Cloudland Canyon will be on synth. Alex Greene of The Panther Burns and Marcella Simien will perform as well. Marcella’s a good kid from Lafayette. She’s doing “Boogie Shoes” and “Alligator Man”—keeping with the Cajun theme. It should be cool. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Ross Johnson Interview, Part One
To borrow a phrase from Jeffrey Evans: Ross Johnson has lived a rich life. Ross was a founding member of the Panther Burns and a rock writer for Creem. Alex Chilton was at times a good friend. (Ross drummed for Alex too.) Johnson is probably best known as “The Baron”—the character he adopted for the opening track of Alex Chilton’s seminal debut Like Flies on Sherbert. After being fired from The Panther Burns for drunkenness in ‘79—quite a feat if you think about it—Johnson rejoined Tav Falco and Alex Chilton for Panther Burns sessions and shows throughout the ’80s. A pragmatist, Ross kept his job as a librarian for more than three decades, never relying on the peanuts working musicians were (and still are) forced to subsist on. Ross started fronting his own short-lived bands in the ’90s. He found his foil in the legendary Jeffrey Evans (ex-Gibson Bros. and ‘68 Comeback) and the two have played as a duo for nearly a decade now. (Ross started working with Jeffrey way back in ‘91 when he drummed on one side of The Gibson Bros.’ The Man Who Loved Couch Dancing record.)
In 2007, Goner put out Johnson’s (anti)-career retrospective Make It Stop! The Most of Ross Johnson. I immediately considered it a great collection—albeit one that likely should have never been released (Johnson doesn’t even like his own music. That Make It Stop! could only have come out on Goner simply added to my appreciation.) I ordered the Sugar Ditch 7” (“It Never Happened”) immediately thereafter. Ross is brutally honest. Self-deprecating, he often delves into embarrassing situations he’s found himself in for subject matter. What’s often lost is how incredible Johnson’s stream-of-consciousness is. Through decades of drunken practice, Ross has developed the gift of gab like few others. His adlibbing never loses steam, whether it’s his drunken fixation on Bobby Lee Trammell or simply venting on struggles with women. It’s Johnson’s erudition that props his adlibbing up. Ross is one of the most well-read and knowledgeable people you’re bound to encounter; his knowledge of Memphis music is encyclopedic.
Spacecase Records put out Vanity Session recently, a record Ross and Jeffrey Evans cut back in 2008 with the legendary Jim Dickinson. Rounded out by a heavy support band, I think I agreed to put it out before I even heard it. It’s an LP Mor and I are really proud of. An ancillary benefit: I now speak with Ross fairly regularly. The stories are often incredible, always funny.
Interview by Ryan Leach
Photo by BullyRook
Ross: I’m having women trouble right now. I’m sixty years old. Why didn’t this happen to me when I was twenty?
Ryan: If you had nothing going on right now this interview wouldn’t be appropriate. It needs that environment.
Ross: That’s right. I need chaos and unnecessary suffering. I always say I want to be a harmless old man but it never works out that way. What’s a sixty-year-old, broke-ass retiree worth? My market value seems to go up as my fortunes dwindle.
Ryan: I think it’s the notoriety you’ve obtained from the Big Star documentary.
Ross: I have gotten some plays from that. People told me they cried throughout the film. I just thought I looked fat as shit. The frame was aimed right at my protruding gut. I’ve lost about twenty pounds since then. I saw the film with my three kids and ex-wife three months ago. At the end of it my ex-wife commented, “You know, Ross, plaid always makes you look fatter.”
Ryan: You were born in Little Rock, Arkansas. Your dad was a journalist.
Ross: Yeah, my father was a newspaperman. He was the bureau chief for the Commercial Appeal, which is the Memphis daily paper. He was based out of their Little Rock office. As I wrote in the liner notes to Make It Stop, he called Little Rock a redneck riot. People were going out and beating up (African American) maids at bus stops. They’d piss on people. My father had to cover a Klan rally in ‘57 or ‘58. The memory isn’t clear because I was so young, but I did check with my mother and father before they died a few years back and they confirmed it: we went to some Klan rally outside of Little Rock where they burned a cross. Little Rock was a very racist environment. My mother and father were careful not to say the N-Word. There were different levels of racism. There still are. Not to get too philosophical about it, but things did change and they didn’t change. Economic racism is the reason Memphis looks the way it does today.
I wasn’t thinking of economic racism when I lived in Little Rock. I loved monster movies and rock ‘n’ roll. I became aware of rock ‘n’ roll when I was three or four years old. I would start jumping up and down in the backseat of my parents’ car when they turned on the radio and rock ‘n’ roll was playing. It was playing a lot back then in ‘57. I didn’t care for sports. Little Rock was an interesting, pretty place. It was hilly; it’s at the foot of the Ozarks. I liked nudie magazines: Stag and the occasional Playboy. Nudity was on my mind even then. Females have always been an obsession.
Ryan: You have that song “Nudist Camp” about nudity from that period—right when you were leaving Little Rock (1965).
Ross: That was a major point of debate among my peers at that time: “Would you walk around naked at a nudist camp?” “Yeah, yeah I would.” I don’t know why that was so important but it was a scenario we talked about a lot.
Ryan: You liked Memphis wrestling a lot too.
Ross: I was thinking about Memphis wrestling today. There were so many great moments. Gorgeous George Jr. was on television—this was before they had the ten or twenty-second live feed delay—and he said to the announcer during an interview: “So-and-so is such a chicken shit! Oh, I’m so sorry!” Another wrestler named Jos LeDuc—a strange French-Canadian guy—came on one day and said, “I used to work at a logging camp. And when we were going out to do some work, we’d do something called taking a mark.” LeDuc carried a logger’s axe with him; he cut a mark into his body with it and blood started dripping out. This was on live television. He went on: “I’m going to destroy Jerry Lawler!” Of course they were all friends who drank together. But that was a real Iggy-type thing.
Ryan: I was talking with Larry Hardy recently and he mentioned having the Jerry Lawler record he cut with Jim Dickinson. He said it was really good.
Ross: Jerry is an interesting person.
Ryan: In Make It Stop, you write about catching the second wave of great music in Memphis when you moved there in ‘65. Did you see The Jynx or The Devilles?
Ross: I saw them (The Devilles) on Talent Party. It was hosted by George Klein on Saturday afternoons. The Gants and Tommy Burk and the Counts were very popular in Memphis at that time. The Gants played “(You Can’t Blow) Smoke Rings” like it was a major radio hit. Every band in Memphis did “(You Can’t Blow) Smoke Rings” and “Come On Up” by The Young Rascals.
Roland Janes recorded nearly all the garage bands from that period at Sonic Studio over on Madison. I asked Roland a few months before he died—”What happened to all those tapes of the Talent Party bands? Roland said, “Oh, we just rolled over them and reused them. I gave what remained to WHBQ.” WHBQ threw them in the garbage thirty years ago. There was a guy (at WHBQ) who saved some of them. There would have been a double album of great stuff had Roland kept those tapes.
Ryan: It’s amazing how little master tapes were valued back then. You come across so many similar stories.
Ross: Yeah. As far as recording, John Fry and Roland Janes really did create the sound of Memphis garage rock. John Fry never gets the credit he deserves for being a great engineer. He sort of gave up after Radio City (1974). Years ago I heard a test-press acetate of the first mix of Radio City. The released version is great, but the version I heard was even better. It was more compressed.
Ryan: John Fry comes off as really reserved in interviews. He doesn’t appear to be one to toot his own horn.
Ross: John was never one to boast. He’s sort of an archetypal, moneyed Memphis gentleman from the mid-twentieth century. Very reserved. Alex (Chilton) used to do a great impersonation of John. It was partly based on Jimmy Stewart: “Well, you know, I don’t know.” John and Jimmy Stewart both spoke with the same cadence.
Ryan: Were you ever officially employed by Ardent to do promotion for Big Star?
Ross: Oh, no. I scammed my way into Ardent one day. I called them up in May of 1973. I had had a few reviews published in Creem by then. I ended up getting John King, Ardent’s promo guy, interested in what I had to say. He told me to come on down; we could talk about some things I might be able to do. So I go down to the studio and I meet John and the rest of the people there. It was my first trip to Ardent; they had only been opened for about a year. John (King) says, “Let’s go for lunch.” It turned out to be a liquid lunch.
Ryan: Did you write for magazines other than Creem?
Ross: I did some fanzine stuff. It put me in touch with the weird, pre-punk fanzine nation. We were all characterized by our connections to Creem and Lester Bangs. Punk started for me back in 1971 when Lester wrote “James Taylor Marked For Death.” That was in Who Put The Bomp. Creem started to get distributed nationally; you could find it in head shops. I remember getting my first copy in ‘71 and thinking, “Oh, man, this is so much better than Rolling Stone.” Punk was a literary movement first, years before its impact was felt in music. I asked Andy Shernoff a few years ago—I had been dying to ask him this question—”Who was more important to you, Andy—Lester Bangs or Richard Meltzer?” Andy didn’t miss a beat: “Richard Meltzer, of course.” I said, “Thank you very much.” Lester was important but Meltzer was the first to openly scorn bands and lower standards for everyone. Richard did not fucking care. He really came to hate music and rock ‘n’ roll.
Ryan: Meltzer was ahead of everyone. He moved to Los Angeles during the punk years and was one of the few writers to champion Nervous Gender—a band almost too extreme for punk rock. Meltzer got it.
Ross: I agree. I was thinking about Richard Hell earlier. He came through Memphis recently on his book tour. His lecture was so much a disavowal of his punk rock past yet he never leaves it. Everything Hell has done subsequently has been a reaction to it. Somehow Richard Meltzer was much more successful. He jettisoned his whole rock-writing credibility and focused on other things he liked. Nick Tosches being Meltzer’s drinking buddy, people forget that Tosches came from Creem magazine.
Ryan: Tosches is my favorite of the Noise Boys.
Ross: He’s great. I was reading The Devil and Sonny Liston a month or two ago. Even Nick’s minor books are terribly readable. They’re good. Hackwork but good hackwork.
Ryan: You met Lester at the Rock Writers Convention (1973). Did you ever meet up with him later on?
Ross: No. I exchanged a few sentences with him on Saturday. Lester was wearing shades and his mouth was puckering. He was doing one or more of his favorite drugs at the time. I did make friends with some fanzine guys there. Creem got me through that period of ‘71 to ‘76. Punk records started coming out in ‘75: “Little Johnny Jewel” on Ork and Hearthan Records—Pere Ubu.
Ryan: Did you go to school to become a librarian or did you happen to fall into the profession?
Ross: I went to school to become a DJ. That changed quickly and I tried to get into print journalism. Finally I got a degree in philosophy with a minor in library service. My mother pointed out that my cousin was the head of the Memphis Public Library System. They offered this master’s program and it was easy so I did that. I got my professional certification. I started working at Memphis State University Library—which is now University of Memphis, although it’s still a third-tier state university—in ‘74. I finished my master’s later on and got hired as a “professional librarian.” It was something I fell into. My parents sort of pushed me into it. Becoming a librarian did work out well because I never had to depend on music as a source of income.
Ryan: You’ve jokingly referred to yourself as a “Chiltonologist.” Alex Chilton was certainly an important person in your life. When did you meet him?
Ross: I think I stalked Alex into a friendship. I can remember calling him in ‘75. I looked through the phonebook and found Sidney Chilton on Montgomery St. I wondered if that was Alex’s father. I called and got his mother Mary, who I later came to know, and asked, “Does Alex Chilton live at this address?” She answered in an irritated voice, “Yeah! I’ll get him.” Alex got on the line and I said to him, “I just want to tell you how much I like #1 Record.” Alex replied, “Well thank you very much. That’s really kind of you to say that.” Alex sounded like an average guy, very friendly. I was kind of taken aback by it. A few months later he played a gig at Southwestern—now Rhodes College—with Lesa Aldrige and Karen Chatham. They’re the two in the William Eggleston photo They Needed To Talk. Alex said at the end of the show, “I’m going to be at Procape Gardens.” So I went and met him. Alex was terribly friendly, very open and interested in me. Of course Alex asked me straight away, “When were you born?” It’s the question he asked people most throughout his life. Alex’s key to understanding life was astrology. People used to laugh at him in New York about it. Alex learned it from some hippie astrologist girl in the late ’60s. Alex was curious about people. He never adopted a rock-star persona. He may come to dislike you later on but he was very social.
Ryan: The generation before you—people like William Eggleston and Jim Dickinson—mentioned meeting Alex through his parents, Sidney and Mary. There isn’t too much information out there on Sidney and Mary, outside of Sidney being an amateur jazz musician and Mary hosting a sort of salon at the Chilton house. Did you get to know Sidney and Mary?
Ross: I did. Sidney and Mary would have a Saturday night music and art salon at their house. I can remember going over in ‘76 a few times. Alex would sing, sitting on the piano. Sidney would say, “Well, I’m not the best pianist in town but I know the changes.” Sidney owned a lighting business. Sidney came up to Memphis from Mississippi. So many of those people are fourth or fifth cousins. William Eggleston is Lesa Aldridge’s second cousin, I think. They came from Greenwood and Greenville, Mississippi. Sidney and Mary were very arty. As Jim (Dickinson) said, Alex was something of an art brat. He had a bohemian upbringing. A lot of alcohol and drugs were around—not that Mary approved of it. Mary was a real pistol and a presence. Sidney was a bit more resigned.
Ryan: Moving onto your career…
Ross: (laughs) Yes, my career!
Ryan: (laughs) Or your anti-career.
Ross: That’s more like it.
Ryan: Andria Lisle wrote that The Malverns was the first punk band in Memphis, predating The Klitz.
Ross: No, that’s not true. The Malverns was Eric Hill—who later went on to play synth in the Panther Burns—Gail Clifton (of The Klitz), me and Matt Diana. Matt had the best collection of punk rock 45s in town, back in ‘77. We decided that we were going to play over at Eric’s house one night. We just made noise for an hour and taped it. It’s similar to what The Germs and other punk bands did at the time. It was nothing identifiable as music although it was thrilling and exhilarating. David Johansen said in an interview that, “The best thing The New York Dolls did was lower standards for everyone.” Punk rock did that. It was very democratic. It opened up portals for people who otherwise would not have been welcomed onto a stage or into a recording studio. This was especially true for people in Memphis after the demise of the recording industry in ‘75 when STAX closed. The Klitz was the first official Memphis punk rock band that played out. The Klitz formed months before The Panther Burns. That’s a plain fact.
Ryan: You played with Alex Chilton in a group called The Yard Dogs. Was that your first band?
Ross: Yes, although I don’t really know what to call The Yard Dogs. I guess we were a street band. The Yard Dogs formed in April or May of 1978. We’d go to Downtown to what was once Main Street—it had turned into this place called The Mid-America Mall which completely killed Downtown. The Yard Dogs was me on snare, Alex on acoustic guitar and a guy named Chris Thompson—a friend to Tav Falco and Randall Lyon—who played a National Steel. The Yard Dogs mostly played R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. We’d go down at lunchtime, open up the guitar case, and play for spare change. We setup across from Graceland. Our last show was at the Midtown Saloon. That was the same summer that The Klitz played there. The Midtown Saloon was the only place to play and it was a dive bar below a dive bar. Some hardcore drinking went down there.