Friday, 20 November 2009

The Bumnotes/drum circle/Skronkadelic: 1990 - 1994

When I returned from my second stay in Japan in late summer 1990, I was thinner than when I left and had a pretty full beard, which I had insisted on growing in my second year on the JET Programme, mainly to piss off some of the conservative ideologues in the local office which had hired me. We're not talking ZZ Top, but nevertheless a respectable beard. I think I had only been back in Memphis a day or two when I went to see a band, I believe it was K9 Arts, at The Pyramid Club on Madison downtown. The Pyramid was a venue which had sprung up in my absence, about which I had heard varying reports, and my sense of displacement when I got there was heightened by the fact that my beard seemed to make me unrecognizable to a large number of people I had known for years. I decided to just roll with it, as a kind of experiment, and for most of that night, I felt like I was in some sort of parallel universe where I did not exist. Like George Bailey, or some sort of ghost.

It had never previously occurred to me that only two years away from Memphis would make re-entry such a strange experience. Time may flow slowly in Memphis, but it flows nevertheless, much like the Mississippi, which appears placid at the surface, but deceptively hides violent churning currents beneath. When you take yourself out of it, you may think that you can return to the place you left and dive back in, but it doesn't work that way. At least not for me, it didn't. As an older man, I now take all this for granted, but the younger me found it all a bit jarring.

Familiar music venues had gone, and new ones sprung up. There was the scene taking shape around Shangri-La and its emerging aspirations as a record label. The trio A Band Called Bud, which I had seen at Skateland Summer during my summer visit in 1989, had been threatened with legal action by Anheuser-Busch and had since become a quartet known as The Grifters. There was a definite sense of momentum building in the music scene, of ferment of some sort taking place. New bands, new people, a different vibe. Most of the musical projects I had been connected with were either on hold, defunct, or only required sporadic input from me. I would have to explore something different.

The Grundies and the revitalized Linda Heck phase was yet to come, and I started hanging out with my old friends Jack Adcock and Amy Blumenthal (now Adcock), who at that time lived in an oddly shaped building in an oddly shaped part of town - the forlorn virtual no-man's land between Union and Madison west of Forrest Park downtown. This area had seen widespread property accumulation in the 1970s and 1980s by some of Memphis' most prominent real estate speculators, in anticipation of some sort of boom which never materialized.

Jack and Amy lived on Marshall, around the corner from both Sun and Phillips Studios, and just down the street from the Bluff City Body Shop where the early Hell on Earth events took place. The body shop itself was adjacent to another locus of music making and band formation, Mark Gooch's loft space, also known by many as "The Sad Pad." Mark was the guitarist in legendary 1980s Memphis band The Odd Jobs, and also in the fantastic, but far too short-lived early 1990's band Bob's Lead Hyena, the drummer of which was Sad Pad resident Roy Berry, now of Lucero, and certainly one of the most interesting and refined drummers I have ever had the pleasure of hearing and playing with.

Mark Gooch also had one of the greatest guitar anecdotes I have ever heard. As I recall it, he had, as a teenager, owned a Gibson SG, which was stolen sometime in the 1970s in a burglary. Sometime in the early 1990s, he had walked past a pawn shop and seen an SG hanging on the wall through the window. Feeling nostalgic, he went in and had a look at it. Realizing that it was, in fact, his long lost guitar, he informed the pawn shop owner, went home to find the original purchase receipt with serial number, involved the police, returned to the shop, and reclaimed his guitar.

Anyway, back to Jack and Amy. I had known Amy since my university days, and I had met Jack back during the early days of Linda Heck and The Train Wreck. They had gotten together personally and musically, and their oddly-shaped apartment on Marshall had a sizable rehearsal room for the various things they were involved in. One of these was The Bumnotes, which had formed some time earlier, I don't know exactly when, how or why. However, the lineup during my involvement with the band was usually Jack on percussion and occasional drums, Amy on bass, Randy Uhlig also on bass, the incredible Bob Elbrecht on guitar, Wally Hall on vocals, slide guitar, and keyboards, Joey Pegram on drums, Brian Collins (who had played with Jack in 611, the first band to release a single on Shangri-La Records) on guitar and vocals, and me on tenor sax, percussion, guitar, or drums.

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The mention of Randy Uhlig indirectly brings to mind another amusing anecdote. Randy, who has been involved in the production of many Memphis films, also played the A&R man in the Roy Barnes film "Gone Down South," which features the Hellcats. Besides contributing an awful faux speed metal song to the soundtrack, which Randy's A&R man character plays for the Hellcats as an example of the kind of music he produces, I also contributed some sound effects for the film. These included a radio DJ voiceover used in the film, featuring WEVL announcer Catman, a German rockabilly enthusiast and tour promoter who was married to Barbara Pittman. (I never knew Catman's real name, but in writing this piece I have discovered it is/was Willie Gutt.) Catman was to come to my apartment on Forrest one evening to record the voiceover, and Roy arrived earlier to work on some sound effects with me first. My downstairs neighbor at the time was a very straight-laced and highly strung young woman, and unfortunately, Catman had gotten the apartment number wrong and knocked on her door first. She opened her door to find a fairly muscular German with greased-back hair, leather jacket, and motorcycle boots, whose first words to her were, "I'm looking for a guy named Barnes. He's makin' a movie." She apparently said, "Leave now or I'll call the police." God knows what she thought was about to take place upstairs, but it was nothing more exotic than Catman standing in my closet while he recited his DJ rap into a mic.

But alas, I once again digress. The Bumnotes used to rehearse at Jack and Amy's place every Monday evening, which made a nice start to the week after a first day back at work. We played gigs mostly at The Loose End/Epicenter Lounge, Antenna, and Barristers, and our material consisted of a roughly equal split between improvised psychedelic/ambient instrumental jams and psychedelic and blues covers. I recall we also once played a gig in the heat of the midday sun during the summer, on Mud Island (beside the River Walk model, not in the amphitheater, sadly). Jack, who is originally from Louisiana and has a wide range of unusual sayings, was suffering in the heat, and in a quiet moment blurted out, "I'm sweatin' like a whore in church!"

Most of the band's material escapes my recall, but I remember we had a great version of Albert King's "Born Under a Bad Sign" which featured Bob's scintillating guitar playing and Wally on vocals. There is also recorded evidence in the form of a number of live recordings I have on cassette but have not listened to recently, as well as two tracks recorded at Easley-McCain for the Loverly Records compilation: a Yoko Ono song called "Move on Fast," with vocals by Brian Collins, on which I play sax; and Butch Hancock's "Boxcars," with vocals by Wally Hall, on which I for some mysterious reason ended up playing Hammond organ, and it sounds surprisingly good.

I think it was sometime around 1992 that Jack and Amy moved to a house on South Cox in the pre-gentrification Cooper-Young neighborhood, and I began joining in with their Sunday afternoon percussion group, which typically featured them, Joey Pegram, Amy's brother Mike, Memphis artist David Hall, and sometimes the amazing Richard Graham, who in addition to being a very talented percussionist, is also a serious scholar of Latin percussion traditions. We played a variety of traditional African, Asian and Latin instruments, but Jack, who was always a very enthusiastic and energetic experimenter, had also made a variety of instruments, including berimbau, spike fiddles with gourd resonators, slit drums, a diddly bow, a kora, and a peculiar instrument called The Hell Harp, which consisted of the gas tank from a pickup truck with a metal arch welded on, from which a number of guitar strings were strung and anchored in the gas can resonator. It was played with a bow, and genuinely sounded like something from the bowels of Hades. Joey Pegram and I had both learned to throat sing around the same time, and I have some recordings made at the house which feature this along with the unusual mix of instruments on hand at the time.

The drum circle, which never had a proper name, played a number of public shows, all of which were organized by Richard Graham. One was during the dinner hour at the refectory at Rhodes College, wherein we marched around tables of very unimpressed frat boys and sorority girls playing our miniature version of a Brazilian batucada ensemble. This lineup was also featured in a performance in Handy Park on Beale Street, during the Memphis in May festival in 1994, when we accompanied a large steel band from Trinidad on a version of "Brazil." We also played at the Overton Park Shell opening for a children's percussion and dance ensemble called "Watoto d'Afrique."

In early 1991, I decided to create a free-jazz big band for one performance. I had for some time thought about this, and had earmarked the name Skronkadelic for such an event - a combination of Funkadelic and the word "skronk," which I had heard Robert Palmer use to describe the less melodic sounds produced by wind instruments. I managed to convince about 20 people to join me in this enterprise - most of them amateur or non-horn players, but with John McClure on bass and I think both Ross Johnson and Keith Padgett on drums, Jack and Amy on percussion, and accomplished alto sax player John Ingle joining as well. I came up with some suggestive titles and general instructions to give the players, and we just played, with me playing tenor and attempting to guide/conduct them. Some of the horn players thought the point was to play as cacophonously as possible throughout, but the others got the idea as we went along. It was fairly chaotic, as I had expected, but there were moments of beauty.

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As the flier states, our performance of February 2, 1991 was to be a debut/farewell performance, which was my intention and recollection. However, I recently came across a second flier, from an apparent second show in April of that year, of which I have no recollection. It could be that what I recall as the single show is an amalgamation of memories from both. If anyone out there took part in either and can clarify what went on and who else was there, I will amend the post accordingly. (UPDATE: Jill Johnson has pinged me to remind me that a scaled down version of Skronkadelic played with the drum circle at her apartment during a Cheap Art event. I think the lineup was me, John Ingle and Fields Trimble on horns, with Jack, Amy, Joey and David Hall (?) on percussion.)

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Jack and Amy remain good friends across the Atlantic in coastal Virginia. I always highly valued their companionship and generosity during my time back in Memphis, and our various musical adventures and misadventures. They also turned me on to some great music along the way.

2 comments:

JIll said...

Jimmy--

Some version of Skronkadelic & the drum circle played at cheap art 4--in my empty apartment on Poplar, right before I moved to Key West. I remember my mother being moved to do some sort of spinny interprative paganish dance, and someone-possibly Amy saying incredulously "that was your MOTHER?".

Just as the sound sculpture was completed the cops arrived.

I also recall a friend of Crosby's (whose name I can't remember) did a performance piece by putting small round stickers on the floor and declaring "this spot is sacred".

PixieCorpse said...

Wow. Gooch and Bob's Lead Hyena in the same post? My nostalgia gland has secreted all it can secrete...