BY JONATHAN HOULON This week’s Wire is dedicated to the memory of Bruce Langfeld, musical associate and friend of our subject, Go To Blazes. I swear that I selected Blazes (as they were sometimes called by their fans) before these incendiary, recent days. By the way, starting a fire can, indeed, be a component of anarchism. Fetishizing, coveting, and collecting commercial merchandise (is there any other kind?) is decidedly not. Not sure what — if anything — that has to do with the below but … really, folks?
In any case, when I moved up to Philly from Austin, TX, in the early nineties, I had a serious chip on my shoulder. To be sure, I had no right. All I’d “accomplished” in the Lone Star capital was living in a co-op down on The Drag, working in a bakery by day, and getting kicked out of open-mics by night. Somehow my 10 minute version of Woody Guthrie’s Tom Joad was not well received. But as far as learning how to write songs goes, I couldn’t have chosen a better place or time. I sat at the feet of Masters such as Butch Hancock (by far the best), David Halley (another member of the so-called Lubbock Mafia in distant second to Butch but still quite formidable), Ohio transplant Michael Fracasso (who had none other than Dylan’s guitar player Charlie Sexton in tow last year when he played the Dawson in Manayunk. Jeez, I hope that place survives Corona), and the late great Jimmy LaFave (who, God bless him, actually encouraged my lengthy Joad at the Chicago House where he presided over the open mic).
So coming from that scene, I presumed that Philly would not compare favorably. Boy, was I wrong! A chance encounter with Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner near 45th and Osage, outside of Sam’s Grocery, opened up a world of musical possibility that I thought I had relinquished. Based on his wearing a Richard Thompson t-shirt (I figured he couldn’t be as weird as he looked!), I struck up a conversation with Mike that resulted in my taking up residence in the Low Road house just down the street. The Low Road, which Mike fronted, were, at the time, one of the best and most popular bands in Philadelphia. I am so grateful that Mike and Low Road drummer Mark Schreiber would join me in John Train just a few years later and have accompanied me for the last quarter century (yikes!). Mike also directed me to the wonderful Rolling Hayseeds whose electric and steel guitarist Mark Tucker and bassist Mike Frank would later join John Train as well. Around the same time, I caught Bill Fergusson strumming bouzouki and mandolin for Burn Witch Burn at Fergie’s Pub where their singer, then former Milkman Rodney Anonymous, stood on a table and gulped down an entire bottle of ketchup. I was impressed … and Bill’s playing wasn’t bad either so we recruited him too! In short, the Philly music scene may not have shared Austin’s songwriter riches but, as far as bands go, I’d give it a considerable edge. Still do.
One evening, I distinctly recall Slo-Mo, with a grave, almost fatherly look on his face, saying, “Jon, you really NEED to hear Go To Blazes.” And so it was that I made my way down to Silk City (then a legitimate rock club before, like so many venues, it became a discotheque with flashing lights and dope beats) and first encountered GTB. Mike was right. I did NEED to see these guys. The first thing I noticed were the women dancing in front of Silk’s little stage with Dionysian fury but also Apollonian grace (second Nietzsche reference in two weeks. Hmmm?). I need to proceed cautiously here but let’s just say that this Philadelphia Flower Show would easily wilt any Blue Bonnet bouquet. Dig? As for the Blazes, they flat-out kicked ass. If there was ever a more powerful honest-to-the-Christ Rock’n’Roll band to blow out of Philly (yes, I know that they actually began in DC), I’m not aware. Puuuuhleease don’t send me letters regarding well-meaning acts such as War on Drugs, Kurt Vile, or Herr Doktor Dawg: they ain’t Rock’n’Roll, if you’re still on the fence, to paraphrase Jumpin’ Joe. Indie Rock is NOT the same thing.
I instantly became a Blazes devotee and actually got pissed off when others failed to follow suit. One former friend (they know who they are) announced that all of GTB’s songs sounded the same. Well, yeah! Blazes certainly had a limited harmonic vocabulary but as I mentioned in a Wire about David Allan Coe, it’s actually much harder to write a “simple” song than one with a bunch of fancy chords. Nick Lowe tells the story of how he bowed out of Costello’s Brutal Youth sessions as some of the songs had “too many Norwegians” i.e the songs were too complicated to follow. I revere Elvis Costello but the Jesus of Cool knows of what he speaks. GTB was blessed with two fine songwriters in Tom Heyman and Ted Warren, both of whom seemed to effortlessly tap into an Exile-era Stones vibe and, in Heyman’s case, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Chicago blues that kept Blazes socially and musically distanced from Norwegians, tho I understand they developed an impressive fan base in Europe. My same “friend” also claimed that GTB sounded like the Black Crowes. I suppose I can hear that but minus the awful Southern boogie-woogie cliches that rendered the Robinson brothers irrelevant and quite annoying to these ears.
So: a powerful live act, coupled with compelling recordings (I am especially fond of their last album, 1996’s Waiting Around For The Crash). So what happened? Why did Blazes go up in flames? I don’t know and, honestly, I’m not sure it matters, even to them. Perhaps it was a failure of promotion by their label, East Side Digital. Bad timing? Blazes were, indeed, just a little in front of the alt-country No Depression scare that would catapult lesser bands to fame. Uncle Tupelo: overrated. Trust me. I saw Joe Henry (or was it Jimmie Dale Gilmore?) expose them at the TLA (another venue that I hope survives Covid). Props, however, to Jay Farrar (whose UT spin-off band, Son Volt, I actually admire) telling Jeff Tweedy not to talk to the audience or smile on-stage. Now that’s Rock’n’Roll! Wilco: wimps. David Berman famously sang that “the dead do not improve.” But bands can and, I must admit, Wilco got better when Tweedy kicked out Jay Bennett whose songwriting was largely premised on Norwegians. Plus, Nels Cline is NOT a wimp. Drive By Truckers? Have you heard their attempts to write protest songs? Well, I haven’t either but I can assure you that they need to go back and study the complete works of Phil Ochs and Strummer/Jones or, at best, they’ll replicate the leaden “Living with War,” Neil Young’s well intentioned but poorly executed protest dud concerning our last Oil War. The Bottle Rockets (GTB’s stablemates on ESD before their promotion to Atlantic. What if Blazes had had a major’s muscle behind them?) are actually pretty cool but I’ve got to dock them for their jokiness. Don’t smile, man. This shit’s life or death. Or supposed to be, anyway.
Sheesh! Enough snark! The point here was to celebrate Blazes so let’s set Phawker on fire with 5 of their best>>>>
“New Morning Sun”: Tom Heyman is an ace songwriter based upon not only his work with GTB but also his post-Blazes solo career. I urge you to check that stuff out. But “New Morning Sun”, from 1996’s GTB swan song “Waiting Around for the Crash”, is definitely my favorite song of his and, as far as I’m concerned, a lost classic of the 90s. Check out Ted Warren’s keening vocal on this one, right up at the top of his register. He sings circles around those mentioned above and producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel helps Blazes achieve a country-rock sound here that is, at once, pretty AND tough. This ain’t no Poco rehash. Try this lyric on for size: “Things are great when there’s no one who knows where you are // I piss in the alley and remember where I parked the car.” These kind of “men are losers” lyrics may, in part, have been why GTB attracted a considerable group of female dancers to the front of their stage. Well, that and the deep-in-the-pocket rhythm section of Keith Donnellan on drums and Ted Pappadopoulous on bass. Teddy P’s always spot-on harmony vocals were also a highlight of GTB’s recorded and live work.
“No Mercy”: Another one from Crash which, again, is easily GTB’s best record (and makes one wonder what may have come next if they hadn’t gone to blazes). Ted Warren, who split songwriting duties with Heyman, was responsible for some of GTB’s hardest rockers and “Independence Day” from this same platter was arguably his best in that regard. But I choose Warren’s “No Mercy” because if there’s a more fitting song about the premature death of a sibling, I haven’t heard it and because of this lyric: “The thought of you alone in some hospital bed // that’s something that still haunts me today.” Great lyrics have legs, man. Warning: Warren’s description of his dying brother in the last verse is not for the faint of heart but it IS for those willing to unflinchingly confront the Reaper. Kudos, again, to Roscoe and also Joe Flood (what a name!) on fiddle for the sound here: there’s a sort of thickness that reminds me of some of Neil Young’s best work. GTB were Shakey fanatics and actually covered “Harvest” in its near entirety (they wisely skipped that awful one that Neil sez Dylan loves) on NYE at the Khyber in ’93.
“Bloody Sam”: From Blazes’ first East Side Digital lp, “any time … anywhere”. Heyman portrays Peckinpah more effectively in a four minute song than others have in four hundred page books! A rhyme and line like this should be the envy of any songwriter: “Cocaine on a switchblade that he got from Jason Robards // he left him back in Hollywood with all those other blowhards.” Again Flood’s fiddle and its placement in the mix are perfect. Joe Flood, where are you now? Greil Marcus said somewhere that the right question to ask a songwriter is not who influenced them but, rather, who inspired them? “Bloody Sam” inspired me to check out the complete works of Peckinpah and then write a song called “Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia” which is the lead-off track of John Train’s Mesopotamia Blues record. Thanks, Tom!
“Underneath the Bottle”: In between their two ESD releases, GTB knocked out an album of mostly covers called “Go To Blazes and Other Crimes” in one day! Direct to two-track, no overdubs. This one runs a close second to Crash as GTB’s best work and, again, I found inspiration in the fact that Blazes always made time in their sets for several well chosen covers. And not easily recognizable stuff either but, rather, carefully curated numbers that had fallen by the wayside. Some of their choices immediately resonated (I was delighted to discover that I wasn’t the only Gene Clark fanatic in town) but others again pointed me in directions I may not have considered. Bottle is from Lou Reed’s “Blue Mask” lp which, for reasons unknown, I had previously overlooked. Gotta once more call out Flood’s fiddle which contributes to the bitchin’ brew Blazes stirred up here. And, at the risk of heresy, I’ll say that Ted Warren actually improved Lou’s lyric. Lou sang “gimme another scotch with my beer”. Ted sings “gimme another shot” which any editor worth their salt would have caught. Scotch and beer??? I always hated when writers called music “whiskey stained.” What an awful cliche. Blazes were whiskey fueled!
“Pagan Baby”: Disclaimer: this one was not in my top five. I wanted to include GTB’s take on Gene Clark’s “Gypsy Rider” which was collected on their post-Crash roundup “Almost a Decade” (another nod to Neil!) on the Glitterhouse label out of Germany. But, alas, it is not available on you-tube and I know that it would be asking way too much of you to find it on your own. To be sure, if you don’t, we’re no longer friends. Plus, my Phawkin’ editor told me that if I DIDN’T include this cover of a semi-obscure Creedence number from GTB’s 1991 release Love, Lust & Trouble, it would go on my permanent record.
As we say around here, you decide! See you in week, friends. And PLEASE don’t tell ’em you were friends with Bloody Sam.