Agony Shorthand

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Call me a dreamer, a starry-eyed dreamer, but I've always considered Mr. Don Howland something of a "hero". It started with the GIBSON BROS, one of my favorite bands of the 80s; the foremost name in post-60s blues excavation & the penultimate name in raw roots trash (right before THE CRAMPS). Howland, along with his pal Jeff Evans, was the prime mover in this freewheeling combo, and those two turned me (and undoubtedly a few others) onto a bunch of incredible names from long ago: Furry Lewis, Charlie Feathers, Skip James (thank you!!!) and acres more. Then there's his scattered columns from decades past in the Village Voice and elsewhere touting various hep bands -- not only did I see him cover the CHEATER SLICKS, GORIES and CLAW HAMMER (like, oh my god you guys, my three favorite bands!) in the same year (1991? '92?), but his writing style was a rather cynical, snide yet gracious one, very funny and not especially serious nor self-involved. Someone whose style, such that it was, is one that many scribes could take a cue from. And then he goes -- wham -- and quickly puts out 3 killer records under the BASSHOLES moniker right after the Gibson Bros implosion: the In The Red and Sympathy 45s and the "Blue Roots" LP on In The Red. Pretty impressive! I sure was.

I've been fortunate enough to break figurative bread with the great man in an interview we did back in 1993, and we shared an adult beverage together once on the Bassholes' only swing through San Francisco -- perhaps 1995 or so. I'll come clean and admit that I haven't always been fully enamored with everything the 'Holes have put out...I'm pretty sure that "Deaf Mix Vol. 3" LP lost me for a while, but I came back with bells on when I heard the 1998 "When My Blue Moon Turns Red Again" CD, the most stripped-down, knockout punk rock blues record I've ever heard. Two man live-to-master cranial-scrape of the highest order, and the primo example of what a two man roots/garage band can do with four legs & four arms. This one, of all the ones, was especially pissed off and bitter. I know not why. But since then there've been all sorts of rumors that Howland was plotting another stab at greatness, and sure enough, here comes a new LP/CD in a matter of days. To wet the proverbial whistle, Secret Keeper Records (last seen putting out the LABIATORS 2x45 and some CHEATER SLICKS vinyl) have pulled together all those early Bassholes 45s onto one jam-packed CD, throwing in some primitive unreleased obscurities for good measure. You get those two early hell-bent-for-panic 7"EPs, "98 Degrees in the Shade" and "John Henry" kicking things off in fine style, as well as some other rawness-infused 45s scattered amongst various labels of indiedom past (even the one with the GERMS cover!). The unreleased stuff is just as uncouth and frustrated as the rest of Howland's catalog, and while none of it stands as proudly and as ringingly as the official stuff, it adds a tasty layer of blister-inducing icing just the same.

One Bassholes hallmark that's driven me away at times and yet keeps me interested still is Howland's utter unwillingness to kowtow to anyone or anything; in translation, this means he'll put out a nearly unlistenable avant-retard song like "Changes Had To Come" or "Jesus Book" -- just because it's fun. Second takes be damned. He may as well staple his actual middle finger to the sleeve sometimes (the nearest facsimile was a xeroxed flip-off on the first EP). And sexual tension and, indeed, pure relational anger runs rampant all over his oevre, making one ponder if that's what it is that makes the chords scream, the vocals snarl and the cymbals crash the way they do. I reckon it's been the lifeforce of worthwhile anti-social behavior for millenia now. Leave us not forget the percussive contributions of Rich Lilash and later, "Bim" on these early Bassholes records, either -- both guys are suited for the two-man band racket to a T. I'm really glad to have all this goodness in one neat place. This collection's surely got the raw meat for those willing to show some patience as blues-based, basement-stupid, neanderthal-primitive high intellectual art filters through the ear canals.