The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – Bad Vibe: Head Explosion Part II [2800 Word Feature] (PRESS, US)

1993 Bad Vibe #2
Article on The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion from Bad Vibe magazine by Herb Hitts (whose writing was used as the sleeve notes for Extra Width).

Photo Captions:
Page 1: with the jon spencer blues explosion once is never enough

Page 2: Jon Spencer leads a lively roundtable discussion with the rest of the Explosion, Whitey the Man (right) and Herb Hitts of Bad Vibe (left). The relaxed outdoor setting is in marked contrast to the scene inside the Pig fifteen minutes later, where Spencer and Co. are subjecting the locals to an onslaught of musical mayhem.

Page 3: Jon’s moanin’ and wailin’ and shit as he’s got a sweaty ‘Feeling of Love’.

Page 4: Men or beasts?

Page 5a: Here it is, folks. The legendary ’78-style Chevy van, with wood panellin’. That’s crazy.
Page 5b: After blowing off the legendary ’78-style Chevy tour van for the luxury of the rental rice-burner with A/C, quadraphonic sound and four good tires, Judah catches a few Z’s at Bad Vibe North Chicago headquarters. Ever the journalist, Hitts goes to bed with C-Span on the tube, having trained himself to sleep with his glasses on so he misses nothing should he suddenly awaken.

Page 7: Curious locals want to know more about the funny men with the white skin. Thirty seconds later a projectile landed in our midst.

Page 8: The Explosion does Lounge Ax: ‘Handshake with thin air’ (top), ‘Vacuum of Love’ (bottom) and ‘Thankyuhveruhmush.’

Thanks to Skeleton Boy for the scans.

Head Explosion Part II

by Herb Hitts
photos by David Salvia

The Blues Explosion arrives in my town and I’ll be a motherfuck if I’m not involved in another sleep depravation experiment. This time, I’ve slept about six hours in the last three days, including the 20 or so minutes I just grabbed before steering my fumemobile into the twin cities (Champaign-Urbana). Dazed and numb, I popped into La Bamba for some greasy tacos to make like a sponge in my guy and help absorb all the gop that was sure to come down that way.

Preparations are key on a night like this, and I had been prepping since April, when I first learned that these NYC badasses, these glorious racketeers, would be out amongst the corn, in the part of the world that I call home.

So I waltz into the Pig where the fellas are putting the wraps on a mechanical soundcheck. No life at all, just a bunch of 20-second song fragments, executed with cold imprecision, whatever that means.

Salvo’s the long soldier inside – working on that buzz with a crazed glint in his eye. He had just done the ball-bust 9-5 on Michigan Ave. Then, he hopped directly into a rented white Lexus (luxury as a result of some rental snafu) and he hauled dong into town. It was an admirable effort, more admirable if you consider his having to be back and chipper for work in about 12 hours.

But the Blues Explosion commands that kind of effort. It was rock ‘n’ roll duty callin’, and Salvo answered that call. he rose to the occasion, and I knew then that it would be a historic show cuz some “help” to make sure we’d be sharp when the shit hit the fan in about four hours.

Pre-Show Festivities

After the sound check, it was off to kill the time that stood between us and the show. Two-thirds of the Blues Explosion (Judah and Russell) joined us for a shit-shoot at the Esquire. Whitey the Sound Technician/roadie joined us and got his feathers ruffled when we started making fun of the Jesus Lizard. But we settled him down with peanuts and beer. Spencer stopped by our table for about 20 minutes, but he didn’t seem to be into the idea of being in a bar filled with drunken NBA fans. (Game IV of the Bulls/Suns championship series). We tried to loosen him up a bit, but he appeared to have a weighty matter on his mind.

Later, the Blues Explosion and Bad Vibe held a roundtable discussion outisde the Pig. It was a resplendent summer night: warm and humid, with just a hint of the flatland breeze that feels good on yer face. Mercy Rule warmed up the crowd inside and the panel of malcontents outside agreed that they sounded like “Fly By Nightie”-era Rush.

Salvo and I were really beginning to lose it at this point – all the beer was loosening our tongues just enough for us to blurt out whatever thought fragment flashed however momentarily in the mind’s eye. Spencer laughed occasionally, but he spent most of his time studying the ice in his plastic cip. He looked like he wanted to get to work.

Russell, on the other hand, was a loud mother, and he argued baseball with Salvo. As I recall, Russell is a big NY Yankees fan. I just sat and smiled and laughed and squeezed the shit out of the arms on my chair. Judah said more than once that he had picked up a contact high from spending the good part of three sodden hours with us.

The Show

The show began and I watched from the bar as the Pig crowd meekly kept its distance. There were maybe 100 people and only two or three dared stand within ten feet of the stage. The first one or two songs were unspectacular. Round about “Afro,” I felt this urge to head off to my car and grab my Sony microcassette recorder. This show demanded to be documented, and I wasn’t about to spend the next few weeks kicking myself for not retrieving the M-405 mid-show. The car was a block away, but I was there and back in the wink of an eye. Then it was inside and past all the dirties to my own little spot about four feet back from the stage.

By now, the band had found its focus. Millieseconds separated songs, and the three now were one, tuned to the same crazed frequency. The locomotive-style jam in “Soul Typecast” was followed by a speedy “Bent” that the boys raced to finish.

The crowd was onboard, and so was I. The goods were being delivered in ferocious fashion. I hooted and hollered crazily between and during songs, and it was all captured on the M-405.

Everything was played so fucking fast at the Pig that night, “The Feeling of Love” was hyper-frenzied with Judah blowin’, Russell stompin’ and Jon moaning and wailing and shit.

“Backslider” was a lesson in rock dynamics, as mountains of fuzzy guitars and “Shit, mans!!!” returned the song from its ominous break.

Savage. Awesome. Like nothing I’ve seen or heard before.

Me: WHOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!
Spencer: “Thankyuveruhmushh.”

Mo’ Random Notes on the Show

Spencer writhes about, possessed by Presley during the amazing “Vacuum of Loneliness” – his tortured soul dragged over shards o’ glass for all to see. The wailin’ theremin spits out sound and adds to the cathartic confusion. If this is real and not theatre, I’m disturbed. He mumbles something about mashed potatoes and italian dressing and then plunges into the netherworld that is the inside the world of the Blues Explosion. “Turn your radio uppppp!!!” (screamed maniacally), Jon and Judah yell “inside” at each other. People are numbed by Russell’s relentless baseball-bat-on-a-car-hood snare. Then, with everyone in a trance, the band stops for a second, and Spencer-the master of knowing where sound (or the lack of it) belongs-does a little theremin burp and it blows the minds of a couple of concert-goers who go: “yeah!” after his handshake with the thin air. Spencer yells “inside” a bunch more times, and then he goes: “Hunnhhh” and Russell screams “Innsyyddeeee” real fucking loud (sans mike) a buncha times and then the set is over.

The crowd goes wild, just a lot of clappin’ from people who were hardly breathing about thirty minutes ago. They’re all energized now, and they want more. The clapping goes on and on and Merritt (local record mogul) runs over to me and says something to the effect of: “That was the best fucking show I’ve ever seen.” And I smiled knowingly and kinda cockily nodded in the direction of the M-405, which would confirm again and again (down the road, of course) just how uncontrolled the past 40 or so minutes had been.

Usually, Blind Pig crowds stop clapping about 23 seconds after a band leaves the stage:

A: because it’s too demanding to clap for a long period of time and B: because the band they’ve just seen is not really worth bring back for an encore.

But that small crowd kept an appreciative and determined applause thing goin’, and that in itself justified an encore. So the boyz milked it for a bit and that was good cuz it allowed me and Salvo to get our heads in order.

Reflections while Waitin’ for the Encore

Russell truly established himself Wednesday as a big, bad motherfucker who beats the shit out of his drums like a wild man. Previously, I had been too focused on Jon and Judah to note the wanton precision of Russell Simins, whose navy Blue Converse shirt (surrounded by a lotta mobile hair) acted as my visual epicentre.

Judah looked lean and mean and downright scuzzy in his black jeans and sweaty Helios Creed t-shirt. It became clear to me tonight that while Spencer may be the man calling the number of shots, Judah carries the band at times. Spencer will tangle the mike, guitar hangin’ unstrummed, and Judah will be there, nobly filling up space with sound. Many people wonder how the three members of the Blues Explosion create all that sound by themselves. It sounds like there should be more poeple onstage, they say. Well consider the fact that Spencer sends some of his time flailing around without touching his guitar, and then you may see why Judah Bauer is one serious badass.

And what can be said about Jon Spencer? It seems like he hears this shit in his head. Whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know. But he keeps crankin’ this shit out, and he has a knack for finding people who can execute with unbelievable precision. Bless his battered soul.

The Encore

They come back with “Support a Man” and it’s faster than I’ve ever heard it before. A fucking blur of chords and skull-crushing drum-spank. It’s over in about 1:10. No shit. A sixth of a second elapses and they’re into the most savage “Watermain” of all time, eve more blurred, a crazed rockin’ racket-sound just explodin’ out of everywhere. Tighter than tight, and abbreviated. They actually end it after one of the fake endings (soo-prize) and then Spencer does one of his: “Duh Bloooozzze Ecksploshunnn” i.d.’s just to remind everyone who’s on stage, rockin’, earnin’ some dough and most definitely in the house. Judah fucks around a bit and then Spencer decides to end it. “That’s it ladies and gentlemen, thankyuhveruhmush.” On the boot, one guy groans audibly when he realizes there will be no more.

The Blues Explosion converted everyone that night. Everyone I saw was clappin’ wildly when they walked off for good. People were smiling and laughing and shit cuz they had just had their minds worked over for 50 minutes. There was a shitload of electricity in the air, and most people In know where talking about their favorite parts. I was smiling from ear to ear and doing that head-shake thing that people do when they can’t locate the words they need to express themselves.

The band gets a laugh after the show, hearing for the first time the M-405, this bold new step in the low-fi technology. The M-405. Cheap and effective.

I-57 to Chicago

95 mph in the rented Lexus, under the stars, HEAD Explosion. Judah ridin’ shotgun and a luxuriant ride in the back for me, rocking out to tapes.

Arrival: sunrise. A Tylenol 3 and about 30 minutes of House coverage on C-Span eased me into a nicer place.

Beer and Loafing At Wrigley Field

Salvo split for work, somehow. He was gone when me and Judah pried ourselves out of our respective stupors. We grabbed quick showers and it was off to Wrigley Field for the Cubs/Cardinals’ afternoon scuffle. Judah said he was up for seein’ a game, and I knew I was. He said an afternoon in the sun would help him purge a lot of shit from the system. I laughed and agreed that it would indeed be good for the soul. But I remember thinkin’ his black jeans, long-sleeve shirt and black leather coat might not be…umm…appropriate attire for a day in the bleachers under the 90-degree sun. Do you want to borrow a pair of Salvo’s shorts? I asked on the walk to Wrigley?

“No,” he said. It was then I realized Judah Bauer probably doesn’t really wear shorts…

We found a friendly scalper and got inside for 15 bones, I think.

The wind was blowin out somethin’ fierce, and batting practice forced us to dodge all the “souvenirs” that were arriving with great frequency. We had a lot of time to kill before the game so Judah and I shot the shit and baked in the wicked-ass sun (sans protection). I remember him saying that he was asked to join Royal Trux on a tour. “They were askin’ everybody.” he said.

Salvo cut out of work early and made it to Wrigley for the anthem. Judah sat through it, thumbing his nose to ol’ glory, tradition and vocalist Wayne Messmer. Me and Salvo stood.

We stuck out like the sorest of thumbs there in the left-field bleachers, where meatheads think it’s both witty and clever to start “right field sucks” chants. We were white torsos (soon to be lobster red) in a sea of tanned bodies. Judah was getting beat up bad by the sun, and he didn’t say much after the 5th inning.

Sammy Sosa: Home-run Blast

Salvo was out of his mind. A Sosa hom-run and he made a desperate and clumsy stab at it, before plummeting down-smashing people’s heads and spilling their drunks. He came up grinning wildly-and then this man he landed on picked himself up and turned towards us, exposing a face full of exploding blood vessels.

He looked at Salvo and trembled and telled: YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE!!!” He literally trembled when he said it, and then he continued to stare us down, and I stepped up to diffuse the situation.

“He was pushed,” I said.

It was the perfect out. The guy had no idea what hit him-he just knew he was on the wrong end of a pile and now he was covered with spilt beer and peanut shells. He kinda mumbled a few more choice words and then he sat his angry ass down and simmered in his own juices.

“What could I do,” Salvo later said. “I jumped in the air and I came down on them. Deal with it, GUY!. Besides, it could have been one of the all-time great bleacher catches.”

Lounge Ax: A Woozy Explosion

Spencer took the stage wearin’ a platinum lame long sleever. I found that to be analogous to Judah goin’ to a hot and sunny Wrigley in full scuzz rocker regalia. The Lounge Ax was hotter than Ed Asner’s balls in a sauna, but Spencer went with the prop. He paid, and so did Judah, who was suffering from savage sunstroke (more debilitating than it sounds).

The band kinda lumbered along, never quite achieving the jaw-drop, mind-blow precision that dominated in Champaign. It was woozy, deliberate and sloppy, but the show had its moments.

“Crazy Man” David Yow began jumpin spastically about when the boys tore into “Watermain” and about a minute later, he was tearin’ across the stage and diving headlong into the sweaty sea of groovediggers. I laughed-smugly-as that sea parted, and Yow hit the floor face first. He was the only “stage diver” that night.

And it’s a good thing cuz anyone who ventured onto that stage was liable to be injured. Spencer, upset by the band’s lack of tautness, went off the rails mid-way through “Inside the World.” He whipped his mike stand down, and it flew off into the crowd, nearly decapitating a female groovedigger who just kinda got in the way.. Then he kinda stormed off the stage, leaving Judah and Russell to tida up the rest o’ the song. Bad vibes aplenty, to be sure.


As I boarded my 2.15 a.m. bus, I realized that I had seen the Blues Explosion in total control and totally out of control. It was an interesting contrast, I thought, before slipping into unconsciousness.