SPENCER P JONES AND THE ESCAPE COMMITTEE
The Squatters and Forresters' Arms, Adelaide
Saturday, September 22, 2012
By ROBERT BROKENMOUTH
Spooky Records still have a few of Spencer's CDs available and each, to my mind, is indispensable. "The Last Gasp" is a great place to start, and I love Fugitive Songs. But ... just go to Spooky Records and buy them. Don't be stingy, get the lot.
As I may have mentioned before, downloading music for free is easy - and it insults the musician, and the insult becomes theft when the musician deserves to make a decent living from their art. Hell, brickies and mail-room drones earn more than most musicians. You'd give more to a bum on the street than you would a struggling musician? Yeah, I love Australians. We're so ... fucking cosmopolitan.
Spencer's last album, "Sobering Thoughts" (Doghouse/ Aztec Music), came out in 2010 and I never even noticed, such was the success of the publicity blitz. They're apparently available from bang-records.net or Aztec Music.
And Spencer has another THREE out soon. Don't try to rationalise this or do your budget. Just ... buy 'em. With money. Starve yourself for once you self-satisfied monkey, it'll do you good.
Alright. We couldn't make Friday's Tuxedo Cat gig. Support acts - well, I only caught the last one, Hellbound and Proud I think. They can play, and quite good, but - as a band - they appear trapped by their own style. What they're doing is fun, generic but - crucially - the spark's not there. That said, the crowd liked it and one of the guitarists looked like he could give serious trouble if only - it's the old story, I suspect - he wasn't thousands of miles from the real world. Like us, here in Sadelaide. It's our own fault; the world should beat a path to our door... instead, we stay here and wonder why line-ups at the Big Day Out are so full of ... mmm, well.
You can't blame the BDO, Ken West has to make a living, and by default he's done so much for the Australian music industry (more by far than Ian 'Dogface' Meldrum - go to youtube and watch Iggy Pop's appearance - and 'interview' on Countdown) but ... gah. What I want to see would be The Australian Big Day Out World Tour. Australians only. No Ramsteins, Franz Ferdinands, no Killers. Would I buy Hellbound's cd? Not unless I'd heard it first and I'd have to be mightily impressed. Would I buy that guitarist's cd? Yeah, just for the adventure.
So, Adelaide is a bit of a dump with a raft of wonderful bands and no-one wanting to go to see them unless they're on at Festival Specky Fuck-knuckle ™. Young folk crowd the city streets on Friday and Saturday, pissed as donkey's dicks, no idea what to do or where to go; wouldn't know what was good unless they'd read it on Fackbook and it was free and didn't threaten to involve them. Mind you, they've been doing that for decades, stupid buggers.
Which is why it's so damn wonderful that Spencer was persuaded to tour Adelaide. He's better than ever, the gig I saw was (apart from the sound) the best I've seen him, and he has a new guitar which adds so much more to his sound and capability I'm still dizzy. However, a bit of background first.
Spencer P. Jones is known for a lot of things - I know friends who still talk about The North 2 Alaskans tour of Adelaide. Wigs, stupidity and guitars. Some of those people saw this and realised - if these guys can do this, so can I - and took that as a starting point. For example, 'Bad' Bob Lehermayr's performances in a slew of bands remain influential in themselves.
Spencer reiterated his legend (as in, a real, ever-present legend, spoken of in whispers around campfires) with The Johnnys - one gig at the Richmond Hotel in 86 appeared to go for two and a half hours, a blizzarding, overlapping series of songs, deadpan humour and smart, clever hooks - never mind 'the audience didn't want to let the band go', the band didn't let us go. So many of us dancing (not moshing or crowd surfing). By gum, that was a good night, young feller, you mark my words (nods off, drooling). In many ways, The Johnnys were Australia's Ramones, but you don't see tshirts of the Johnnys on the young folk these days, oh, no. Catch them wearing a Born to be Punched tshirt, either. Someone would take them up on it.
However, I may have digressed.
When the (first) Beasts of Bourbon album came out (was it 1983?) it seemed to crystallize so much - the one-day recording, the mash of Salmon, the Johnnys and there was Tex playing a sort of trash-sinatra image via a certain Mr Cave. Again, I know people who were inspired to form bands by the apparently casual ease with which this magical lp came together.
Sure, anyone who saw Tex Perkins' Bumhead Orchestra in, um, (cudgels brain cells to work) 1985 would have ... uh-oh. Alright, I'll say this: over the years I have been in close proximity to far too many men's naked arseholes, and I have never once been politely asked: "Can I show you my bum?" Now, I realise that some people would pay jolly good money to view Mr Perkins' bumhole, but I am not one of them, and the sight was not inspirational. However, Tex had a huge impact on the flailing scene here in Sadelaide; when he brought Salamander Jim here in January 1984 (Martin, Lachlan and Stuart), many of us were taking mental notes (BDO or ATP take note: a Salamander Jim reunion, please).
Now, although the Beasts' fame and legend is duly deserved, we all know they produce gear of high quality individually. Tex, of course, is a Big Star, which those of us who saw his bum in 1985 could never have predicted, but we are glad for him because thankfully talent, not bums, always come out.
A Big Star is no bad thing, but for me it implies a certain distance from the immediacy of communication with the audience. They still wow you, but they don't touch you inside, in the fearful place; Big Stars can only make you cry because you're so overawed to be in their presence. Keef, Bowie, Iggy, Lou ... (although not, I suspect, Marc or Yussif Islam).
Spencer P. Jones, however, is not a Big Star, couldn't really be a Big Star if his life depended on it (no bad thing) but ... like the late Renestair EJ (of whom more later) and Rowland S. Howard, Spencer is a star like Kim Salmon is a star; like Garry Gray is a star (from Sacred Cowboys, the band Meldrum described as 'the worst I've ever seen' on Countdown, probably because Garry had accidentally-on-purpose bumped him - hard); like Dave Graney is a star (a friend saw DG in a Melbourne office recently and recognised him instantly, because who the hell else would walk around like that in public, in daylight, as if it's normal?) is a star. These people, these stars, are unique, tangible, vulnerable, emotional and have a presence which still surprises them, they're still not used to it ... which can be scary on some occasions (while jubilatory on others).
Australia boasts other stars as well, people who effortlessly bare their souls without intending to, and often without realising they're doing so. And now I must confess that, at various times, I have cried at gigs by Rowland S. Howard (solo at a communal toilet pretending to be a venue in Melbourne); Dave Graney (the Moodists in 1984, if you must know, at the Tivoli, torn between watching Dave's hypnotic wriggle and croon and Chris Walsh's apocalyptic, captivating and brutally simple bass lines); Ed Kuepper (a version of Collapse Board, also at the Tivoli); Kim Salmon (must've been his last gig at the Tivoli where he started with a short solo set and we wouldn't let him go ... at the end of two very long sets bolted onto each other, he muttered, 'You bastards better buy this fuckin' cd'. I did so, knowing it was my last money for several days; I duly went hungry and wouldn't have cared much if it had been another two days longer although I was a bit thinner by the time I got paid) ... and last night, when Spencer started up Execution Day, when, um ... I just lost it for a while.
Yeah, alright, so I'm pathetic. Go vote for Julia or Tony. See if the world's watching. It isn't.
To finish the background, Spencer hasn't been to Adelaide in at least five years; the last time was at a long thin excuse for a venue where this joyous scallywag was finally heaved onstage to deliver a blistering, raw, emotive set - his guitarist and drummer were leaving and he was seriously bereft - and, after several encores the band quickly broke the gear down, placed Spencer carefully into a car at two thirty am and, with us all waving hankies and squealing, roared away into the night ... back to Melbourne where they had another gig scheduled for midday.
Tonight's setlist? Um, well, it bears no resemblance to the songs played or their order on the rather worn and grubby setlist (with the keys to the songs) at his feet. All his lps were there, really. Most of the set I recognised, some I didn't. He did a rather wonderful song called Between the Raindrops.
What is Spencer's talent? Apart from some of the most effective artistic communication you will ever experience, he raises your bar (no, not in a rude-men-in-underpants way). Look: a few years back Spencer was booked to play a solo set at the Grace Emily. However, in the late afternoon he met 'these two guys' at the bar; not only did Spencer have them backing him that night; they were bloody good.
I didn't get his current drummer's name - he's built like a bloody bull but plays drums with a precision: Spencer will never need to hire a bouncer with this bloke about. Helen Cattanach still plays the bass: she's light and heavy, tight and loose, focussed, preoccupied, big, big, big. There's a rare camaraderie between her and Spencer; toward the end he playfully leant his back up against her back, amusing, the beast with two backs and two guitars staggering about. At one point Spencer accepted some jerky from a punter, carrying on several bits of badinage while playing. The audience, it has to be said, were involved. Particularly when Spencer later revealed that the stuff had tasted awful and that he was a vegetarian.
The sound could've been better, but since I was at the front you kinda expect that anyway. I could hear Spencer as he sung into the mike rather than through the speakers, and seeing his face as he sings ... his world enters yours. It's an incredibly generous gift, especially when you consider the damage the road must have done to him. I mean, twenty years ago this wonderful bloke could have said, 'screw the lot of ya, you're a bunch of bastards, I'm going back to finish my accountancy degree'; by now he could've transformed into a piece of shit, repossessed your house, car and holiday shack and sold them to the Chinese Republican Army. But Spencer doesn't have such moral pragmatism (which equates to sustained contempt for the human race).
Michael (I didn't get his last name), Spencer's 'new' guitarist was an education as he and Spencer did not politely swap rhythm and lead roles (many bands seem to think this is the only thing that makes a good performance: this is wrong, dumb and lazy). Spencer is an inspiration, he brings stuff out of people they didn't know they had in them; their twin guitars surfed and crashed in and out of each other: the solid structure of Spencer's songs become, in a very jazz way, a sort of maypole around which pagan guitars dance. I doubt Spencer will agree (and he may even be angry) but this Thelonious Monk-like method is something only real virtuosos manage. And I've seen Spencer enough times to know he can do this night after night, altering, tinkering, improving his songs; their structure can withstand so much, they're stretched and tossed about like paper boats down a gutter, and still they float, still they sail, bravely off down the street into the distance.
What else? Ah, yes, he did a version of "Queen Bitch". Significant 'cause 1) I always suspected he got started on guitar by banging away to old Bowie and Alice Cooper records and now we know for sure, and 2) Queen Bitch was revealed as inferior to Spencer's songs. How so? Well, the structure is, I think, a bit too rigid. Not enough give in it. He could've pushed it a trifle more, I think, but why? It's a really good song, a minor beacon from the era but ... no, Spencer's stuff is way groovier.
What? Nah, look, sure Bowie was inspirational then, at a particular purply-gold point for a few blurry, flashy years - but c'mon, when did Bowie last inspire, musically? This is 2012! I mean, if wishes were fishes Spencer's monetary wealth would make Bowie's look like a goldfish in a bowl. However, I think Spencer would be very leery of the ermine collars of wealth - they trap the unwary and have sent lesser mortals to dreadful early graves. Spencer P. Jones is, as Bob Short once said, 'the real deal'; he fulfills the criteria of a star troubadour and, as such, he is far more legendary than the likes of Keef or Bowie or even Iggy.
In fact, bugger you, I will go further. The musicians who carved a way forward in the 6ts and early 7ts ... the hippies (to use a term which I think nails them into a box) who survived mostly got lazy after their successes because to them, despite the ethos of the day, success really was material. And once they'd made it, they knew they'd never really have to work again. So they didn't. Yeah, there were exceptions (maybe Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, Neil Young - and I've been yelled at recently 'The Rolling Stones!' but I do not agree), but mostly ... they got fat and lazy, every now and then they'd go on tour, covering their songs (ruining them was not uncommon - Clapton, Dylan) and loitering in the love and wishes of their fans. Their reasons for creating had changed irrevocably. People like the New York Dolls and Alice Cooper still put on cracking shows without 'covering' their own material, releasing newLPs of high quality.
The generation I am privileged to (only just) belong to, nowadays we really don't have to conform. We don't have to invent a silly look for ourselves for each time a new lp comes out, we don't have to worry about image, commercial radio, pop charts or imbecilic hosts of tv 'rock' or lame 'talent' shows. That awful bilge can change ... or not. We're in no hurry. Keep blathering, no-one of any significance is paying attention, no-one believes Australia has any fucking talent. Meanwhile some rare few of us get better and better with age; sure, some have succumbed to overly enthusiastic indulgences around the 'magical' 50-mark, depriving not just us but themselves; but ... take Ed Kuepper. Keeps raising the bar, doesn't he?
What I like most about Spencer is that he always pours himself out when he sings and plays his own material, songs which tell his story and our story together. You can see it. He can't help it, he loves it, loves our response, but I think it overwhelms him, drains him. It must be a big emotional thing, going onstage without armour. So he corrals his band to be tight but loose, fast and bulbous, they don't just rock, they swing and, concentrating on their Boss, they engage us in a human, approachable way which ... well, as I'm demonstrating, words kinda fail me, like I fear they always do. Never mind 'shredding' a venue (as the advert said), Spencer sweeps you up into the arms of his music, makes you bop, makes you laugh and makes you feel like life's worth living after all.
Afterwards, ears ringing and awash with the warm fuzzies, sipping our plastic cups of water, I listened to two guitarists remembering Spencer and Rowland S. Howard play against each other in Shotgun Wedding (erm, early 9ts) and how they lifted each other up, savage and glossy, animalesque and proud, mewling and gritty and ... just ... spectacular to behold. We discussed our friend Ren, who, in rehearsal exhorted musicians to rip it up, break it, take the maypole and cavort around it like they're bringing on the apocalypse, bring out the truth from the stultifying order (although to be honest they didn't quite use those words). The Truth is Marching In. Funhouse. Ratfucker. Suicide. Metallic KO. I learned a lot about Ren's time in the Motherfuckers, who I never got to see or hear properly - in the same way that Ren will live long in everyone who knew his music and helped him make it, Spencer deserves greater acclaim, fame, a decent income and some sort of safety net in case he gets injured - because he's here, now, has been doing this thing a lot longer and - he's actually, quite fucking seriously brilliant.
How many lps has Spencer guested on which are in your collection? Check the credits of your Nick Caves, your Paul Kellys... and so on. Now, count the number of Spencer's LPs you own. Right. Not enough, are there?
You folks in Sydney or Melbourne think you 'can see Spencer anytime'. No, you can't. And each time you miss him will be one more reason you're not living your life to the full. On top of which, every gig which has Spencer in it has some rich seam running through it; on the last Beasts tour, when the ugly lights went up I saw an entire Sydney audience of several thousand, grinning, laughing, beaming ear to ear, almost all of them describing Spencer's behaviour and commentary to each other. Clearly, Sydneysiders don't get out often enough.
Still not convinced?
Well, let's go seriously over the top. There were some big Stones fans in the crowd tonight. I mentioned Spencer's Keef influence to a guitarist chum (I mean there are other influences for sure (Alice and Lou and Bowie's guitarist), but we were talking about the Keef aspect) who took this to heart, thought about it and suddenly, in one of those fantastic moments of utter clarity, blurted out ... 'No, but look, he's better than Keef!'
A bit shocked at ourselves, we discussed this from several angles (no, I wasn't, I'd had two beers total) but we kept coming back to the same conclusion. Now, I know what you're thinking, but I didn't make this up, and I know this looks like hyperbole. My chum is a guitarist of long-standing, always determined to extend himself, knows the difference between tootling out the usual shit and creating a big world of art. In fact, I've heard him say that the only important thing is making art. Everything else - family, money, fame, is sacrificed on that altar.
Of course, truth is, Keef's somewhat beyond legendary, so you really can't crit the guy. Not anymore, anyway; there's no point. But ... I reluctantly have to agree. Like Dave Graney, like Ed Kuepper, like dozens of other focussed, determined musicians for whom Australia simply isn't big enough and the rest of the world doesn't seem to comprehend quality or resonance or power or truth anymore (much less the concept of a royalty, and why it should be important when you don't have to pay for it unless you want to), these days Big Stars don't really matter except as distant legends.
There's a gig at the Land of Promise Hotel in Adelaide on November 3 2012. Everyone playing that night has played with Ren; it's going to be a tribute. I'm looking forward to it, but I'm also dreading it. How unbalanced will it be without him?
Really, Big Stars don't matter anymore except as folk tales about little trails of breadcrumbs left to melt in the forest. It's stars like Spencer P. Jones who matter now.
Perhaps they always did.