The second of the three nights of the 2012 Psychobilly Luau took place at the Bell House, a hall tucked off in an warehouse cranny in Brooklyn; plenty of parking for the drivers and close enough to the 4th-Ave stop on the F/G for straphangers. For the eastern psycho, July 2012 held such promise with Heavy Rebel Weekender just seven days prior to the festivities that kicked off at Public Assembly in Williamsburg last Friday.
The cash-strapped could have gotten a three-day pass for cheap. But each individual is outfitted with a definite amount of how much they can view Cult of the Psychic Fetus and I had achieved my quota back at Drop Dead in 2005. Any further exposure risked acute cardiac arrest or worse. I could have chanced fate but didn’t want to miss out on Saturday in case my chest burst.
Gowanus around 6pm is romantic if you’re a shithead. I showed up after having starting my night at a friend’s backyard barbecue where indie rock collected, drain water from a leaky college radio discarded back in 1997 as the band from the man who literally wrote. THE. book. on Yo La Tengo opened up for the side project of the soundman for Sonic Youth. Two beers and a handful of potato salad was all I could get in. My stomach wall is not what it used to be.
Fulfilling these social obligations meant passing up the Saturday encore performance of the Reckless Ones, who might have been wandering the venue dressed like the lovechild of both Lee Marvin and Marlon Brando’s characters ‘Rebel Without A Cause.’ Strutting, they some of the better tailored men around.
I entered the main hall just as the Othermen set was finishing, a great band that’s fronted by a gent I recognized as the one member of Labretta Suede and the Motel 6 whose legs look best in a pair of fishnets. Shortly thereafter, the Silverhounds would show off their metal-influenced flavor of psychobilly, Motorhead, Misfits and Black Flag stickers covering Danger Dan’s upright bass.
The schedule was tight. Bands were allowed about half an hour or more to play, and just as long to load up and out while a DJ spun appropriate honky tonk music to keep the energy up. No slip ups, allowed, no fuck ups tolerated. This was a night without ledges, a no. bull. shit. type situation. Nine bands, a shimmy-dance contest and a Camps trivia contest. Started at four, ended about two.
Coffin Fly was a highlight, and an unforgettable sight; three sinewy wild boys from the backwoods of Delaware, potentially rabid, potentially genius. They played with obscenity as easily and as much as they played with fire. What a blast. Mandatory crowd participation was strictly enforced for a couple of songs. We witnessed something special when the drummer leapt off stage with his snare in hand and still kept the beat.
The lineup variety mirrored the audience, who was a spectrum of the type of outcast you’d expect to appear at this type of show. Freaky kids all the way to tattooed lifers going into their second or third decade as a fan. But the atmosphere was a cordial, welcoming one. Dance if you want to. Sit if you can find a seat. Drink if such is your design.
Inclusion of Baxx Sisi, a triumvirate of garage-blues-rock, indicates that the promoted (creator and performer, Laura Rebel Angel) had in mind not a simple color-in-the-numbers idea of psychobilly but a distinct understanding of its origins, relatives and roots. I could not say that one band sounded like another on the night’s bill, nor could I point out a group that stuck out as ‘not really supposed to be there.’ Everyone had a place, on stage and in the crowd.
Rough estimates put it about thirty-three miles of inked skin on display, only if you were able to flay the bodies and line the artwork, head to tail. The most psycho looking were the ones up on the stage with Twisted In Graves, a group that had torn it up the week earlier down at the aforementioned Heavy Rebel Weekender (so spoke the host, a man named Adam, who gave me no reason to call him a liar.) They were killers and entertained.
It hasn’t been my preoccupation to keep tabs on The Arkhams, the Brooklyn ‘psycho-by’leh” band, so when they added the dancer/singer to their line-up is beyond me. Rose Arkham’s addition is a wise addition. As the Arkhams are both in attitude and in sound, having a physical representation of the kinetic energy that have made this band noteworthy is what Webster Dictionary defines as a good move. Rose’s facial expressions coordinate well with her choreography. Hints of ballet and formal training appeared and it was even better to see her dancing gleefully to the headliners. Movement isn’t just an act for her. The only real condition upon entry: sincerity required. No room for the apathetic. There’s a reason for that.
Psychobilly might be a genre whose time was up right two seconds after it started, if it was ever in a timely fashion to begin with. This British-originate fusion of fifties culture adapted with eighties attitude never had a burst of popularity like Surf music did with Dick Dale’s ‘Miserlou’ Pulp Fiction spotlight. There are no t-shirt-swarthy psychobilly icons to be made into movie-martyrs like Sid and Nancy. The slogan of ‘no religion, no politics’ keeps the music free of the typical polarizing effects of the activist and in so doing, renders it somewhat incapable of being adapted for any political purpose.
Whereas rock and hip hop have celebrated wealth and excess throughout their heyday, the culture of psychobilly has never been one to associate with grandiose displays of materialism. Yes, some of the garb and clothing is expensive–and if you get into the custom car culture, it will get costly. Talk of driving fast cars seems more of expressing attitude: driving fast, driving hard, driving while on fire.
The Tombstone Brawlers, templars of the demented aspect of this genre, came out swinging (an axe) with “Die You Zombie Bastards!” from the movie soundtrack of the same name. Their bassplayer, seven feet tall and made of car parts and iron wood, was held in esteem as one of the best upright bass players the genre has produced. I would be branded a fool if I disagreed.
It was well after midnight when the Brawlers ended their set and with an hour’s navigation of the newly-AM subway schedule ahead of me, I was making my good-byes to what friends I had there before one, an honest scholar and fully committed pillar of the local scene, convinced me to stay for Frenzy. My ignorance almost painted me out of seeing the band, not fully understanding what a treat it would be to see this rare occurrence. Frenzy, the band started by Steve Whitehouse (of The Sharks, who, along with The Meteors, were one of the original psychobilly bands.) back in ’83, had come over and despite starting close to 1am, still packed the Bell House with the faithful and the reverent. Steve had come onstage to play during The Arkhams’ set, the band he said was his favorite of the night, grabbing Matt Goldpaugh’s upright mid-song.
It wouldn’t be until “I See Red” that Whitehouse’s expertise with the instrument would come through. ‘I See Red’ is an earworm of a song that would nosh on my grey matter until finding a copy of it and the ‘Clockwork Toy’ album which birthed it, and the twenty-give year old rendition not at all capturing the vibrancy in the band’s performance that night. Even a latter ‘Live in Japan’ version failed to capture the right notes or vocals. It was that song which I attribute with my successful return home to the other side of the city, keeping my feet animated when the rest of me was dead. Better than any coffee.