Southern Rock Road Trip: Punk, Parties, Pins and Pee From Nashville to Nola

Bands are always complaining about the non-glamorous realities of driving long distances, crashing on floors, and getting up and doing it all again the next day, but I’ve always felt a little jealous that that’s not usually part of a journalist’s job these days (Rihanna plane notwithstanding). I mean, meeting new people and seeing cool shit and the constant Kerouacian impulse to go, go, go? Count me in. With that in mind, my partner-in-crime Debbie Allen and I made our New Year’s Eve jaunt to New Orleans a musical road trip, with stops in Nashville and Memphis. As no road trip would be complete without a scrapbook of memories, we collected mementos from our new friends along the way. [Illustrations by Debbie Allen]

The Great Stalacpipe

The first live musical performance happened ahead of schedule when, beckoned by various signs on the side of the highway, we made an unplanned stop in Luray, Virginia to “discover the wonder” of Luray Caverns. In addition to some very black metal rock formations, the caverns contained something called “The Great Stalacpipe Organ” which claims to be the world’s largest musical instrument. Created by the awesomely named composer Leland W. Sprinkle in the mid-’50s, it utilizes 37 tiny rubber mallets and 37 tiny microphones to pick up tones from 37 custom-sanded stalactites throughout the caverns. When the tour guide pushed a button, some hidden robot mind struck the right keys to play “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” This is ostensibly a Christian song, but the deep, clear, ringing sounds that issued forth from those ancient minerals made me think dark, pre-Christian, cave-dwelling thoughts. Miss Pussycat’s puppet world at the center of the Earth loomed especially large in my mind.

Robert’s Western World

After two days of driving we reached Nashville, where members of the garage punk band D Watusi (two of whom work at Third Man Records) and friends showed us to a part of downtown known as “Music Row,” a stretch of Broadway where various clubs compete with one another in sound and flashiness like some sort of eternal, all-country SXSW. We settled upon Robert’s Western World, a well-known honky tonk packed to the gills with pictures of country stars, endless rows of cowboy boots, and other colorful Americana with live music seven nights a week.

As I tucked into my dinner of French fries and fried pickles, a tattooed babe with Bettie Page hair named Sarah Gayle Meech took her place in front of the band that had been playing, the instruments of which included an upright bass and a steel pedal. While hers is a look more generally associated with various iterations of psychobilly, the voice that issued forth from her was as lovely and polished as anyone on country radio’s, and various covers (Wanda Jackson! Patsy Cline!) and originals made it clear her heart bleeds pure country. At several points, Meech made jokes about how we should buy her record because she needs money for tattoos, and exhorted the men in attendance to “get up and dance with the pretty girls.” And people did!

When I approached Sarah after her last set, she was incredibly friendly despite having just performed for four hours. Was she on a label or operating independently? “No record label, no manager, none of that bullshit … I’m doing it all myself,” she said proudly. “If someone came along with the right offer … until then, I’ll just keep doin’ it myself. I’m not waitin’ for it,” she replied. Good attitude.

“Debbie and I were easily the oldest people there. This was not because we are old, but because the Nashville scene is young, and those kids are just bursting with weird, wild energy.

And what did she like to do when she wasn’t playing country music? “I’m out at some creek running with my dog or hiking, you know? I like being out in the wilderness. I like being outdoors…I lived in LA for 15 years, and it wasn’t so easy there.”

She smooched one of her cards to personalize it.

Later, while walking to the underage-drinker-admitting karaoke bar in the cheerfully sketchy Printer’s Alley (where Jello shots were taken and “The Thong Song” sung), someone stuck their head out of a car and shouted “Third Man rules!,” giving me my first inkling that the easygoing, ginger-haired Dillon Watson might be a local celebrity.

Los Amigos Salon Fiesta

Friday night brought a different, but no less Nashville-ian experience: D. Watusi’s free record release shindig at a party hall normally used for quinceañeras and the like. There was a disco ball, two kegs of free beer, three piñatas full of candy, and one handsome cut-out of George Clooney taped to the bass drum. They found the place, bassist Ben Todd explained, because several members of the band live two doors down, and “[drummer] Cam speaks really good Spanish.”

“There are usually quinceañeras with balloons everywhere and little kids running around in the parking lot,” he said. Not that this party was much of a departure — with the exception of the woman who turned on the lights at the beginning and came back looking pissed at the end, Debbie and I were easily the oldest people there. This was not because we are old, but because the Nashville scene is young, and those kids are just bursting with weird, wild energy. While I was waiting in line for the bathroom, a girl sporting a Budweiser sweater who could not have been over the age of 18 turned to me abruptly and asked “Wanna play follow the leader?” I said okay, and copied her motions in a dance I nicknamed “wavy gravy” until it was my turn to pee. This was our only interaction.

JARG

Nashville’s teens aren’t content to merely dance, either; every member of opening band JARG (a fleeting supergroup containing members of local power pop groups Fox Fun and OGG) was still in high school. “They’re basically a better version of us when we were younger,” explained Jonas Stein of Turbofruits, an elder statesman of the scene at 25, as he chilled in back with fellow rocker Cy Barkley.

Maybe Jonas was being too modest, but I saw what he was getting at when JARG took the stage for a fast and loud set of punk rock much angrier than what they usually play. Cover songs included “Job” (as in “I don’t want a”) by the Nubs and “Fascist Cop” by the Kids, cool songs for anyone to know, let alone high school kids, and cooler yet to play while a bunch of folks mosh, crowdsurf and spray beer at you.

Drummer Asher Horton (who usually plays guitar) was somewhat shyer offstage than on, or maybe just a man of few words. “This band JARG, it was kind of a joke band, we have a couple other bands that are more real,” he explained. I told him it didn’t seem like a joke. “This is just a one time thing,” he replied. “But thank you. Maybe at some point in the future we’ll do it again.” Why had they decided to go old school punk? “It’s just different from the other bands we had. It’s just like, a fun thing to do.”

His souvenir for me? A breast cancer awareness guitar pick. “I just found it on the ground. You can say that I have a thing for breast cancer awareness or something … I don’t know!”

The Paperhead

Next, the Paperhead grew things up slightly with a long, jammy set of ’60s-style garage-psych that made me picture paisley patterns to infinity. Unlike some psych-inflected bands, they retain loads of pop sensibility–check out Pictures Of Her Demise, for example. Their playful, free-flowing quality has at least something to do with Ryan, Peter, Matt and Walker’s closeness as a group; they all grew up right down the street from one another in Nashville.

And speaking of Nashville, why was that guy giving out Tennessee pins at the show?

“I don’t know, I think he just had a lot of pins,” said singer/guitarist Ryan Jennings when I found him after. But didn’t Tennessee have a lot of pride in general? “Oh yeah, we’re a very proud state. You also see a lot of tattoos.”

Had they gotten into music by virtue of growing up in Music City?

“Not really…there’s some bad music down here,” replied Ryan. “If you go downtown, there’s a speaker on the street corner, they just play pop country radio.” “Country’s great,” added Peter, quickly. “There’s a lot of great country music that gets played here.”

And what should I do with my remaining time in Nashville? “Get some food at Arnold’s,” said Ryan. He took it back after I told him I’m vegan, since even the green beans have bacon fat in them.

The boys generously donated a copy of their latest LP to our scrapbook/record collection, upping the ante significantly.

D. Watusi

Like their famous boss at Third Man, Dillon, bassist Ben, Christina (on the wurlitzer) and Cam the drummer have nothing but awe for rock and roll greats of past eras, but that doesn’t mean they’re fussy or doctrinaire about it—that would defeat the point. From the Sonics to Black Flag, D. Watusi loves all of it, imbuing everything with a dirty but cheerful young person energy. As the set bled into an encore, members switched instruments and things descended to punky messiness, Nashville scenester emeritus (and current New Yorker) David Stein jumped onstage for a couple of songs, including a Black Flag cover, which he attacked with a Rollins-esque insanity until it was hard to tell where the crowd ended and the band began. “My dad’s here again, shit!” said Dillon, gesturing to some smiling people in the back who looked convincingly like his parents.

After the show, we retired to Ben and Cam’s nearby house, which was impressively clean and nice for a place inhabited by young male musicians.

As the afterparty raged around us, I asked Ben about the name “Dark Party.” Was that like when you do too many drugs by mistake and the party isn’t fun anymore?

“No, not really. It’s more like a ‘where you are’ kind of thing.”

I asked him to explain.

“Dark party is like a party you have when like, things are sucky. Cause you have to like, I don’t know, do other things, but then you have dark party, and dark party is like, you don’t have to do the other things. You get to do what you want.”

And what had happened with the lady who owned Salon Fiesta? She seemed mad.

“I don’t think she understood what was gonna happen in the first place. He made sure it was cool to have live music and beer, and that was it. And we had pinatas and she gave me the stick…I don’t know, she seemed pretty pissed but I didn’t talk to her.” Luckily, Cam’s sweet talking abilities had saved their deposit.

Dillon, who was hanging out in the kitchen, had a more detailed explanation of Dark Party: in high school, he and Ben made a mini-doc on their friend Daniel Pujol in which Pujol’s drummer at the time used the term to refer to “doing things you don’t necessarily want to do, or being a place you don’t necessarily want to be.” This described certain circumstances surrounding the album’s creation.

Their set list will go in our scrapbook as testament to Nashville’s hard-partying, yet very polite, ways.

New Orleans

We set off as early the next morning as hangovers would allow to nearby Memphis, where we suffered through cold and dreary weather for a tour of Graceland mansion. I’m not going to go into detail about it here, other than to say that for all his arguable shortcomings, Elvis knew how to pimp out his house, and if you have a chance to go, you should. (Even if you do not receive an orgasm from his ghost.)

We got into New Orleans around midnight, which turned out to be just the right time to catch reunited local punk outfit Sex Hunter in their first show in over 10 years, a one-off. At turns brooding and rapidfire, they attacked their sludgy material with the abandon of men who knew they might be playing each song for the last time. But while the instrumentals reminded me of noise rock from the ’90s (they rep hard for Amphetamine Reptile), I also got ’70s art punk vibes from singer John Henry, whose quavery voice and teasing demeanor reminded me of an angry David Byrne, or an even angrier Richard Hell. “This is one of our jazz songs,” he quipped before launching into a song that was not jazz. Then, at the end: “That’s it. That’s all you get. Give us our money. Thank you.”

Throughout the show, NOLA puppetmaster Miss Pussycat could be seen doing a cute thrash dance down in front, and her man Quintron was at the back ready to man the decks when Sex Hunter finished. Around 1 am, a friend who’d already been in NOLA for a bit came barreling in, introducing her new manfriend to me as “Mike.” “Hi, I’m Andre,” he said, shaking my hand. It was clear I had a lot of catching up to do.

After the show, I caught bassist Jamie Kallel outside and we spoke at length about what the New Orleans rock scene is like. (Strange. Ever changing. Dislodged by Katrina, but coming back.) And what was it like to play old songs after 10 years of everyone being apart? “When you’re ten years removed from the material, you go back and play it and you’re like ‘oh yeah, these guys wrote this music that I get to play. It’s not you anymore, it’s like, these guys.”

“Like past you wrote a song for the you of the future?”

“Yeah, past me wrote a song weirdly…they’re kinda hard to play.”

Singer John Henry was as laconic as Kallel was forthcoming, remarking of the reunion, “It was a completely retarded process and I remembered why we broke up. How ’bout that? But a lot of fun at the same time.”

Kallel generously donated a set list and posed for the above photo of two Jamies standing next to each other, combining our powers.

The Black Lips

New Orleans only got wackier from there. I don’t mean to be a one-trick pony, but this is a city that begs to be experienced through altered eyes with every lascivious voice it has, and you don’t need to play the Black Lips backwards to know they endorse the practice. So down the hatch went several staggered doses of psylocybin chocolate.

Just to give you some idea of the headspace I was in by the time 48 hours had elapsed, here are some things I did and saw between Sex Hunter and the Black Lips:

– Floated around topless in a heated pool at a gay spa called The Country Club drinking a mimosa, watching colored lights dance, and feeling the innocence return to my eyes like I was in some sort of palm tree festooned Garden of Eden. When night fell, they projected the news onto a big wall and my friend swore the newscaster had jumped in with us.

– Almost had a giggle attack in Walgreens while buying scissors with which to shorten my dress, but kept it together for fear they wouldn’t sell them to me.

– Full on face dove into some plants because a friend told me they were “just like us…they just want to be touched and destroyed a little.” Still unsure if this is true.

-Encountered a rowdy group of soldiers who nicknamed us “the bang gang” and hit on women via autopilot. (“I know you’re really drunk, but…” started one as I stared hard at the least mobile patch of pavement I could find. “I’m not,” I said. “I took mushrooms and feel like I might barf.” “Let me tell you a story from when I was a camp counselor,” he replied.)

– Somehow tagging along with our group one night: a real, honest-to-goodness racist who said nasty things about our cab driver, was very interested in finding out my “background,” then said “you are Jewish” when I suggested he might throw down a symbolic amount of cash for all the expensive things of ours of which he was availing himself.

– Screamed “Don’t look at me!” at a couple of people who were having sex on the floor of a bathroom I was trying to pee in.

Blame it on previous activities that by the time we found a cab and made it to One Eyed Jack’s on New Year’s Eve, the Orwells were on their last few songs. In a brief window of sobriety, I saw this group of Chicago-area teens attacking their instruments with a good deal more punk rock aggression than they do on their melodic albums, and maybe more aggression than the band they were opening for. (Which I tend to think of as “aggressively fun,” if anything.) Singer Mario Cuomo (who has already been arrested!) threw his magnificent blonde mane around, crowdsurfed, and fell down on the stage.

Just before midnight, the Black Lips led the countdown to 2013 and beer was flung, mouths smooched, bottles popped. Things really got going about two songs in with “Family Tree,” and I used the occasion of some barriers being knocked over to run up the stairs to the V.I.P. section, where I parachuted two hits of MDMA. Taking care not to get too close to the bouncer at the bottom, I ran back down the V.I.P. stairs where my old pals Quintron and Miss Pussycat (among others) were taking in a strong start to this year in music.

True fact: The Black Lips on their crappiest, most hung over day are still better than most rock bands at their best. And this location, crowd, drugs, venue, and holiday combined to make this one of the better sets of theirs I’ve witnessed. Cole conjured up numerous spells during the “magic time” part of “Veni Vidi Vici,” and they did their usual toilet paper thing during “Katrina,” which made everyone paradoxically stoked (I guess about their triumph over the storm). During the encore’s “Bad Kids” portion, a girl flashed her boobs to the crowd, then did a stage dive into a crowd surf. I might have done the same, but my body seemed to have been replaced by an avatar resembling a cartoon Disney princess. “Stay in school, listen to your parents, get a real job,” Cole admonished. “It’s 2013, we have sinned, it is now time for redemption,” added Ian. A few fan high fives and fan hugs later, that was it. I was feeling so connected to everyone at this point that I offered Jared Swilley some of my extra molly, which he accepted. Then I gave him and his cute girlfriend an unsolicited hug.

After a long journey to not-so-close bar Mimi’s during which my group kept gaining and losing people (to a car containing members of the No Limit crew who lured us in by saying “I know who killed Biggie,” for one), I found Jared once again, and had the presence of mind to ask for a memento and an interview. He gave me a comb.

“I’m trying to become a greaser now,” he explained. “You have to have a comb to maintain your hair, especially on stage if you sweat a lot. A comb is crucial. And my 20s are fading away, and as my 20s come to an end, I have to start combing my hair and tucking in my shirt. As a man, you should.” Note to men: if Jared from the Black Lips has to do this, so do you.

I noticed he was looking a bit green, and asked what was wrong. “I just need to breathe right now,” he said, then retreated outside. I was starting to feel pretty tired myself, as two days’ worth of intoxicants seemed to be wearing off all at once, so I went in the back, where I received my sole Cole quote (“I love how blasted you are!”) to sit down and drink some Redbull. When I emerged, all the Black Lips had left.

What the fuck had just happened? Had I ruined my own story by poisoning my interview subjects? Was I in trouble? Jared texted that he’d gone back to the hotel with his girlfriend and was feeling much better. Okay, good. Now, if only I could herd my friends out of there and find a cab before my eyes sealed shut …

In the end, I failed just a little, but maybe our final night could be seen as a microcosm of the whole NOLA, nay, road trip experience: heightened, hazy, and over way too fast. And isn’t that what New Year’s Eve is all about?

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