Round the Dial
Wednesday 26 March @ 10:50:52
by Tom Hallett
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Maybe there is no Heaven. Or maybe this is all pure gibberish- a product of the demented imagination of a lazy drunken hillbilly...who has found out a way to live out there where the real winds blow- to sleep late, have fun, get wild, drink whiskey and drive fast on empty streets with nothing in mind except falling in love and not getting arrested...”
—Hunter S. Thompson
SONG OF THE WEEK: “There’s A Wall In Washington”
I remember back in fourth or fifth grade, this kid named Tony Mantor found a whole barrel full of ancient lead toy soldiers out in the woods over by Mickey’s Market. Man, were we jealous—he brought ‘em to school a few at a time, each batch of three or four representing different warriors from different wars the tiny representatives of death and destruction had clashed in. Roman Centurions brandished tiny shields and spears, wore light armor and were crafted in such exquisite detail that every fold and wrinkle and facial crease was immediately visible to the naked eye. Medieval knights frozen in mid-swing with wicked-looking maces, blades, axes, poles and daggers. Revolutionary War troops; lobster-colored British cavalry and infantry and gunners, cannon and flags and wagons and miniscule supplies; American rebels, dressed in impossibly natty blue uniforms; hulking, mohawk-bedecked Native Americans carrying great stone tomahawks, crude war clubs, and fistfuls of what looked a lot like sopping, wilted scalps. Civil War-era grays and blues, turn-of-the-century U.S. Navy deck swabbers and Spanish foot soldiers, and a slew of somber officers from across the centuries—long, wicked blades stabbing the sky like sharp, metallic phalluses—astride furious, frothing steeds of white, gray, brown, and black.
The World War I-era figurines included more artillery, crude tanks, trucks, and ratty-looking biplanes, their pilot’s dinky little heads and wind-whipped scarves jutting out like itsy-bitsy, teeny-weenie targets. And there’s where it ended. Either the collector had lost interest after the 1920s or, more likely, toy companies just stopped making really cool lead soldiers when, (A) plastic was discovered or (B) children began contracting lead poisoning from chewing on the toy soldier’s heads. Either way, that was about where my own collection started when I was a kid. Right after World War II, when detail still mattered, and imagination was still the key to enjoying life—no cable TV, no video games, no mind-rotting X-box. My uncle had started collecting the plastic fighting men when he was a kid in the late ’50s, and I’d inherited his battalions and gathered quite a passel myself by the end of the ’60s.
And though I was only 6 years old when 1970 rolled around, I already had Vietnam War toy soldiers—dark green, bayonet-wielding U.S. Army grunts, light brown, squint-eyed, cloth-cap-wearin’ sandal-foots representin’ the Viet Cong. There were choppers, jets, tanks, jeeps, trucks, ships, life rafts, tents, walled POW camps, and even tiny communications officers with massive radios strapped to their backs, near-microscopic phones held to their ears. I’d play for hours outdoors with my mismatched, chewed-up armies, pitting Nazis against the Viet Cong, Americans against Japanese, Civil War cavalry against all of ‘em. Regardless of who fought, there was never any question in my head that the good guys won. That’s just the way we were raised. Back then, John Wayne never lost, Hogan was always smarter than Klink, and the only time Alan Alda ever thought of Korea was when he ordered take-out.
I don’t remember what day it happened, but it was probably in the late fall of ’70, when the weather took a turn for the worse and the cold drove me and my plastic warriors indoors, into the living room, in front of the television set. As I set the stage around the couches, chairs, footstools, and rugs for a massive, monstrous, nonsensical battle, I noticed the news on television showing (barely) living models of my tiny troops on the screen. But instead of getting knocked over, scrambled in a pile, or tossed heedlessly, harmlessly into the air to land willy-nilly amongst old slippers, sleeping dogs, and piled stacks of Time and Life magazines to fight another day, they were lying on stretchers, blood-stained bandages wrapped around oozing holes in their chests, heads, and guts, mouths agape in endless, silent screams of agony as some wild-eyed reporter voiced-over a report on “casualties,” “cease fire,” “ordnance,” and “peace process.”
I wasn’t completely shocked: I knew there was a war going on, I’d heard people talking about it, seen the news headlines in the paper, but this was the first time I’d really noticed the images of horror unfolding in front of my eyes, almost live, as I held handfuls of tiny statuettes representing the men dying on television. I used to think those images hadn’t really made that big of an impact on me, I mean, I knew mine was the first generation to watch a real war happen practically live on television, but as time went on and school, movies, music, girls, drugs, work, and the general social apathy that make up our modern world took the place of pretend war on my social agenda, I guess I put those memories on the back burner in my mind. I do know that as the years went on, I lost interest in army men, spent a little time grooving on cowboys and Indians, then around age 12 began melting, burning, blowing up, and otherwise dangerously disposing of nearly all of my decade’s worth of micro-warriors.
By the time my own son was a toddler, in the early ’90s, toy soldiers had begun to make a comeback. In the wake of the First Gulf War, bags full of green U.S. and brown Iraqi soldiers, replete with flags, HumVees, and anti-aircraft weapons began appearing on store shelves. The boy never developed my odd fixation on plastic toys, however, having the ability to fight and win entire wars on video game screens—nice, clean, tidy wars with no mess and no clean-up and bodies that disappear right after taking a round or twenty.
TV news is pretty much the same as those clinical video games these days—safe, sanitary, no mess, no fuss, no gore, no holes, no screams—and no lessons will be learned, no wisdom gained, no healthy fears instilled as long as the U.S. government censors footage of American and Iraqi losses in this frivolous waste of time, money, and life we’re calling the Second Gulf War. Do I want to see another bloody Vietnam all over the screens of the country? Hell, no. But I do want the people who thought another stupid skirmish with an ancient civilization in a far-off land was a good idea to see what the real results are. It’s too bad it took 58,000 kids coming home in boxes and black bags back in the late ’60s and early ’70s to get people up off their asses and stop the madness last time. How many will it take this time? Maybe, as Country Joe and the Fish so eloquently put it back in the day, until you’re the first one on your block to see your boy (or girl, these days) come home in a box. Let’s hope not.
Me, I’ve got six tiny plastic soldiers left from my childhood; a red cowboy fannin’ a six-shooter and a proud blue Native American brandishing a spear surrounding three U.S. troops—one WWII colonel with a pistol and a pair of binoculars, a Korean War sarge sporting a huge .45 and grenades hanging from his belt, a Vietnam-era Marine holding his bayonet-outfitted M-16 over his head in the death-stab pose—and one lone, grey Nazi Lieutenant with a submachine gun and a wicked grin. I don’t know why I chose to pose ‘em on a shelf with the cowboy and the Indian in the victorious position, but I guess I’ve always been a sucker for the underdog. In this case, that’s me and you and everybody else in the world who’s not making a fuck-load of green on this whole farce. You wanna call me a Benedict Arnold for not goin’ along with the party line and acting like it’s OK that we’re living in some psycho modern model of an expansionist 18th century monarchy? Well, fuck you, buddy.
I’ve had family members die in every war this country has ever fought, and though I’m too old and physically fucked up to get sucked into the service, I’ll be the first crazy sonofabitch to pick up a rifle when they come whoopin’ and hollerin’ at our shores. But then, my toy soldier collection shoulda told ya that. I mean, shit, you can’t get much more patriotic than pitting a true native of American soil and a cat who spent all of his 29 years on God’s green Earth herding prime beef from Texas to St. Louis against a bunch of technologically advanced, machine-gun wielding, modern-day Imperialist dogs of war, can ya? I bet this country’s founding fathers, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Woody Guthrie, and The Lone Ranger would all agree.
On the other hand, the whole scenario kinda bores me. See, war even takes the fun out of toys, dammit. All this technology, all this power, all these blessings, and all we do is fuck shit up. Maybe that’s why I chose to review the album I did this week—I’m not a full-fledged Luddite quite yet, but man, if the shit hits the fan and the power goes out for good, at least I know I can groove on some of my favorite tunes without an amp, a cord, or a mic in sight. And now for your regularly scheduled Round The Dial...
Kiss My Grass: A Hillbilly Tribute To Kiss
Personnel: Barley Scotch (John Wheeler) - voices, guitar, fiddle, bass / Talcum Younger (Don Wayne Reno) - banjo/Enus Younger (Dale Reno) - mandolin
Track Listing: Calling Dr. Love / Detroit Rock City / Christine Sixteen / Cold Gin / Let’s Put The X In Sex / Love Gun / Lick It Up / I Love It Loud / Rock & Roll All Nite / Heaven’s On Fire.
I first heard the psychotic neo-bluegrass ramblings of Hayseed Dixie a few years back, when a couple of members from the Georgia band The Possibilities left behind their hilarious, self-titled (OK, say it real fast with the worst Southern accent you can conjure up—Hayseed Dixie—yeah you got it now) tribute to AC/DC. That recording found Barley and company laying raunchy country waste to such city-slicker rock n’ roll anthems as “Highway To Hell,” “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” and, of course, the classic “Big Balls.” Frankly, I was a bit shocked at myself when I, a Bon Scott afficianado since I was knee-high to a fire hydrant, found myself digging the shit outta these folked-up, countrified versions of my former teenage anthems. But pumping “Dirty Deeds,” with its slam-bang lyrics and bad-ass ‘tude, out of a double-time banjo was one thing—when I saw that the outfit had released a tribute to the decidedly less-soulful music of ’70s stadium rock gods Kiss, I had serious doubts.
Sure, “Rock And Roll All Nite” and “Detroit Rock City” were cool when I was 13, (although part of that thrill may have been shocking my pure-dee country grandfather—who lived a mile away and could still hear my stereo—with the abrasive power chords the heavily made-up New York City freaky four were pumping out) but I’d never cared a whit about such later ’80s hits as “Let’s Put The X In Sex” or “Heaven’s On Fire”—and in fact had been actually embarrassed for the band—and for myself for ever liking them— when I’d caught those and other, equally moronic videos on Emptee-Vee.
Well, if there was ever a reason for Gene, Paul, Peter and Ace to throw down their custom-made, demon-blessed guitars, basses, and skins and pick up a good ole fashioned, heavenly banjo, mandolin, or washboard, it’s this album. I could go on and on about how weird it is that nowadays I dig mountain music much more than tricked-up stage rock, or how talented a band would have to be to give a throwaway song like “I Love It Loud” any musical relevance at all, or about how cool “Love Gun” sounds with dark banjo and mandolin scraping along behind Barley’s South-of-the-Mason-Dixon drawl, or about how glorious and triumphant “Rock And Roll All Nite” sounds done up acoustic backyard BBQ-style, but I think the boys in the band say it best with the little message they tacked on the inner sleeve of this record:
“In this age of digital recording, “mastering” is beyond unnecessary, and was therefore avoided in order to preserve the fidelity of the original performances as they were captured by really expensive German microphones and hand built Great River and Buzz Audio preamplifiers with output transformers. No digital limiters of any kind were used. Enjoy the sonic purity.” Too bad Gramps ain’t around anymore, because I’ve got a notion we’d finally find some common ground on the subject of Kiss once he heard this batch o’ banjo, fiddle, and mando-boosted blasters. The devil’s still gettin’ his ass kicked in Georgia, that’s for damn sure. What’s next, though—A Hillbilly Tribute To Yes? Please, Mister Barley, don’t make me start grooving on your interpretations of albums like Tormato...
For more fun with neo-bluegrass versions of rock classics, check out Luther Wright & The Wrongs’ Rebuild The Wall album (2002 Back Porch), wherein Luther and the gang lay down, turn inside-out, and gleefully decimate all 26 tracks from Pink Floyd’s most ambitious (and most over-played) release. And to hear some live, acoustic pickin’ and singin’ right here in town, come on down to Twin Cities Leather And Boot (570 N. Snelling Avenue, 651-917-8100) in St. Paul this Saturday, 3/29, from 3 to 5 p.m. for a very special in-store performance from local singer/songwriter Gini Dodds—fans of Lucinda Williams, et. al, should make it a point to discover this fine set o’ pipes right in your own back yard. If tasty, countrified electric mud with an acoustic soul is more your bag, check out local bar-rockers Hungry Horse on Friday, 4/4, at The Terminal in Minneapolis—mark your calendars, ‘cuz these guys kick serious ass.
P.S. Thanks to Matt, who wrote in to point out an error in my review in last week’s column of the Slaughter Rule soundtrack. Apparently, the Flatlanders’ version of Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown” included on the CD is from that band’s 1970 self-recorded 8-track album, More A Legend Than A Band (which is a fascinating story in and of itself, if only because the album actually only became officially available in 1990—check it out on Rounder Records), and not an updated take on the tune. The version I’d previously heard had been recut by Gilmore on his excellent 1991 solo album, After Awhile. Also, the haunting instrument in the background of that song was not a theramin, but a bowed saw, which came to us courtesy of one Steve Wesson. Thanks again for settin’ me straight on that one, Matt. Until next time—make yer own damn news.
If you have local music news/gigs/events that you’d like to see listed in this album, or you’d just like to defend Yes’s Tormato album, send replies to: TMygunn777@aol.com.