Of Roaring Engines, Screaming Amps, And Grand Young Champs...
Wednesday 05 November @ 09:58:52
by Tom Hallett
One of the loudest non-musical places in the world has to be the below-deck engine room on a 150-foot-plus Alaskan fishing tender. The experience is probably about as close to actually scrunching up and sliding inside of Pete Townshend’s amp during that show where beachcombers in France could hear the Who’s concert on the shores of Merry Olde — you know, the one that got ‘em in the Guiness Book Of World Records — as a guy could get. At least without getting arrested.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “No one who IS an artist gives a shit about BEING an artist. They want to make a little money and have a little peace. BE an artist, indeed.”
—William S. Burroughs
SONG OF THE WEEK: “I Repeat Myself #1”
—The Rank Strangers
Grand Champeen in all their ragged glory.
During the summer I spent as a combination deckhand, store clerk, and peddler of morally questionable wares out on the ever-rolling, dark green waves off of Igegik (a tiny village tucked in on the far side of the Aleutian Islands that was most notable for sporting an ancient graveyard that was slowly slipping off the edge of a 200-foot cliff into the sea; corpses and rotted caskets were easily visible from offshore), I’m sure my eardrums were punished at least as much, if not more than ol’ Pete’s. And not just from those engines, although they must share some of the blame, but also from every possible point around me, including my own music collection.
One of my many tasks was to check various gauges, dials, and knobs to make sure the massive diesels were running at top form, and not about to explode beneath the order-barking skipper and frantically scurrying crew, who were busy off-loading thousands of pounds of fresh Alaskan salmon from smaller crafts, filling our below-deck freezer storage holds with pure, stinking gold. Constantly barraged by the ungodly roar of the Big Twins, I took to wearing my Walkman headphones when below deck, vainly attempting to drown out the dragon’s shriek with an endless stream of bad ‘70s and ‘80s hard rock. When I wasn’t checking engines and damaging my brain, my role in the whole schmear was to run the scale up near the bow, weighing the fish by the load and documenting said figures in a bible-sized ledger.
Between loads, I ran the ship’s PX, selling food, beer, pop, and other skipper-sanctioned items (“hip” customers could always find certain magazines, hard liquor, and other accoutrements of finer living were they to ask) to the weary crews of fishermen who’d brought their loads to us. This allowed the smaller crafts to continually load up and unload their catch of salmon without ever returning to shore, constantly throwing out nets the minute the fish & game wonks allowed it. Our much larger boat would, in turn, take all she could hold until we cruised a ways off to unload on an even bigger floating factory called a processor, which was essentially a cannery in the middle of the ocean.
Our skipper was a nice enough sort, given to loud tantrums and red-faced rantings at certain times, of course, but that was the norm out on the water. It’s no place for the weak of character, the politically correct, or the easily offended. When the cap’n bellowed out, “What the FUCK do you think yer doin’, ya dumbass?!” you took comfort in knowing that you were but one of eight dumbasses he’d ripped into that day on deck. But then, ya knew that’s how it would be goin’ in, or ya just didn’t make it. This cat at least paid on time, allowed us reasonable downtime to pilfer the pallets of beer the cannery had given us to last the summer, and, at, least where I was concerned, crank my tunes loud and proud out on the deck whilst we all toiled amid the scales and stench.
Sure, my taste in music was pure-dee reprehensible at the time—my cassette case was filled to the brim with such sonic embarrassments as The Scorpions’ Love Drive, April Wine’s The Nature Of The Beast (“all I wanna do is rock an’ roll/all I wanna do is rock, rock some more...don’t waste my money drivin’ round in a car/save my money fer a electric gitar...wanna rock!), Red Rider’s As Far As Siam, and, if memory serves me correct, a homemade tape of songs like “Switch Into Glide” by The Kings, “Ah, Leah” by Donnie Iris, and “Turning Japanese” by The Vapors, all of which I’d recorded off of Anchorage’s BEST ROCK!! KWHL (K-Whale, geddit?) on my boombox. Ah, what a great foundation for a future in music writing, eh?
I’d like revise history here and jive ya’ll that my fellow deckhands didn’t mind mah screechin’, wankin’, psuedo-metal assaults, but I’m afraid time hasn’t dimmed the memory of Eckankar-obsessed Peter, the ship’s first mate (and a rabid Cat Stevens fan) screaming in abject horror as I cranked The Scorps’ “Another Piece Of Meat” for the umpteenth time. Or the night I caught his hippie girlfriend, Maria (she who reeked forever of patchouli and clove cigarettes, and who later became quite an avid purchaser of some of my “back room” store items—but that’s another story), as she was going through my tape case and trying to replace April Wine with a tape of The Roches’ Nurds album. As far as I was concerned, that was tantamount to rock n’ roll mutiny on the high seas, and deserving of a serious lashing, if not the plank. Then o’ course there was Sunny Jim—I’ve tole ya about him—that ole dumpster-divin’ Okie who jes’ loved de shit outta the Marshall Tucker Band. He was never exactly thrilled when I kicked out with a Rainbow or Ozzy tune, either, but he did kinda groove to .38 Special—go figger.
Unfortunately, the rest of the crew were pretty much in agreement with those two new-age dorkuses about my taste in music, which in retrospect I kin dig but the prollem wuz dat de rest of de crew din’t e’en have ANY taste in music, unless you count playing Mel Tillis’ “Coca-Cola Cowboy” 32 times in a row on a bar jukebox or worshipping The Marshall Tucker Band’s Toy Caldwell with the same holier-than-the-holiest-muthafucka sycophantism most people accord actual musical geniuses like, say, Howlin’ Wolf or Captain Beefheart or Dizzy Gillespie, as TASTE in music. Ugh. Hey, yew wanna be a snob ‘bout music, yew best at least have better taste than me — that was my theory, anyway.
How was I to know I’d go on and discover bands like The Clash and The Mothers and The Velvet Underground and artists WITH BRAINS like Tom Waits and Randy Newman and Laura Nyro and cool/doofy indie rockers like Ween an’ Mojo Nixon an’ Hayseed Dixie an’ killer Twin Cities acts like Ol’ Yeller an’ The Soviettes an’ Frances Gumm and—OH, YEAHHHH—balls-to-the-wall Texas tornadoes like Grand Champeen, who just released a new album that blows the livin’ shit outta anything ANY of my circa-1982 musical faves ever did in their whole, long, blow-hard careers? (pant pant) I ask you...HOW WAS I TO KNOW??
Anyway, that’s all in the past now. The skipper went on to get his Class AAA or whatever sea captain’s license, and now he runs gigantic tug boats and doesn’t have to scream at a bunch of mop-topped, ganja-crazed loonies at each other’s throats over the musical merits of Sammy Hagar vs. Cat Stevens, Blackfoot vs. The Marshall Tucker Band, or April Wine vs. The Roches. Cranky ole first mate Peter is probably the guy behind all those sorta sinister ads you see in the back of newspapers like this one, coaxing you to come on in and check out ECK—it just might be for you!! Maria, I imagine, is still living the hippie dream somewhere in the frozen North, ritually bathing in great ponds of patchouli and suckin’ down clove ciggies like ta save her life, man.
The others—I dunno. ‘Ceptin’ fer Sunny Jim, the Marshall Tucker fan—he was lost at sea and never found, and just might be sittin’ at the feet of deceased Tucker axeman Tommy Caldwell right this minute, still reekin’ of salmon and dumpster juice, hollerin’ for ‘im to play “Fire On The Mountain” JUST ONCE MORE!—who knows? Me, I guess I made out alright, neither the skipper’s screamin’, nor that infernal engine room, nor the keening whine of—er—April Wine caused me any recognizable hearing loss. That came much later, when I began standing too close to local stages, listening to local bands play at local bars.
And nowadays my tape case sports a whole new look and sound, yessir it does. Ain’t no mo’ Scorpions lurkin’ in there, at least.
Ah tell you whut though, settin’ right next to that ole April Wine tape is gon’ be a copy of that Grand Champeen album I mentioned. Mebbe a few months spent next to the fire-an-brimstone, preach-from-the-stage-that-ole-rocknroll-brotha, Who-sized amplified fucking POWER SURGE of GC will even put a fire back in the belly of AW frontman Miles Goodwyn, who hasn’t written a decent barn burner since “I Like To Rock.”
Or mebbe not. Mebbe it’ll just MELT a hole in the side of my ole fake leather tape case and BLEED out all over the streets so everybody else can finally be liberated and free from their crappy ole tape collections—think of it! Miles and miles of tape strung from trees and phone poles and cars and buildings—SKREEK! There goes LISA STANSFIELD! SKRONK! Booya! Say goodbye to THE MANHATTAN TRANSFER! SSSKRAKK! See ya, LIONEL RICHIE! BRAKKK!! So long, M-M-M-MEL TILLIS! Th-th-that’s all folks!
An’ just why, you ask, should Grand Champeen, a band of young upstarts from TEXAS of all places, slither into your ears and your tape cases and usurp your ole faves with all the ease of say, G.W. usurping the presidency a coupla years ago? Why, cuz’ they’re ALIVE!! They’re ELECTRIC!! They’re EAR-POPPIN’, SUD-SUCKIN’, FOOT-STOMPIN’, ASS-KICKIN’ ROCKINFUCKINROLLERS, that’s why. And despite all them irrelevant Replacements comparisons bein’ bandied about by the so-called indie press out there (who probably think they’d find April Wine on the shelves of their snooty uptown likker store), GC are closer in spirit to the exuberant energy of the bands that the ‘Mats liked and emulated in the first place; The Stones, The Faces, The Who, and yes, even old classic rock warhorses like Miles and April Wine.
Not that the ‘Champs sound ANYTHING like April Wine, but then again, they sure the fuck don’t sound like the Replacements, either. Yah, they’re loud, and bratty, and even bibulous, but (and don’t get me wrong, I loved the ‘Mats) these kids can PLAY! You don’t have to search for great licks, hope for decent live versions, or make any excuses here. I’d say they channel some weird combo of the rock side of the Beastie Boys, the cowboy side o’ Thin Lizzy, and prime-era The Damned more than they do them ol’ Placemats, buddy.
Their latest, The One That Brought You (with the exception of track 8, “Step Into My Heart,” which, as the album’s lone ballad, is clearly included to give your heart a moment to stop palpitating before GC jams a live wire directly into your chest again—LOUDER THAN AN ENGINE ROOM AND WE LOVE IT!!), is 40 minutes of non-stop, pummeling, from-the-gut rock. Right from the start line, the band drives their 14 songs (umm—didn’t somebody we know have an album with that title awhile back?) straight from the amp to yer skull, where they drain down into yer chest an yer belly like a stiff shot o’ rotgut whuskey—an’ though I can’t say for sure what the long-term effects are, I’m immediately overcome by a warm, friendly glow in mah brisket an’ a desire to (as Anchorage’s KWHL used to exhort me) CRANK UP THE VOLUME AND RIP OFF THE KNOB!!
O.K.—then I think I will. Right after I blast April Wine’s “Sign Of The Gypsy Queen” one more time...
An’ that’s all I’m tellin’ ya about this album cuz I wantcha to immediately go to http://www.glurp.com and BUY YOUR OWN COPY! If I still ain’t convinced ya’ll, you’ll have a chance to get the back of your skull blown off when the band plays town—MARK YER CALENDARS!—on Thu., Nov. 20, at Lee’s Liquor Lounge and Fri., Nov. 21, at the Turf Club. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.
One more thing—if ya jes’ cain’t wait ‘til Grand Champeen shimmy inta our fair city, ya can catch a slice o’ similarly soulful sound-age when local honky-drunkers Hungry Horse play The Terminal Bar on Thu., Nov. 6. 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 column, or you’d just like to (sigh) harass me for givin’ The Roches a big fat raspberry, send replies to: TMygunn777@aol.com.