|1997 issue of magazine Vox featuring article on The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion alongside Kenickie, Fluffy, Republica and ‘the Hottest Band in Britain’ Reef.
nb. The incorrect spellings of ‘Russel’ and ‘Christina’ are as they appear in the original text.
|“Mo’ Bitter Blues
By Ian Fortnam
Pictures Jon Shard
Stung by off-beam criticism, sub-fi champs the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion are very big on doing what they do and very small on discussing it. Undaunted, VOX tiptoed into the Big Apple to meet the last disciples of pure, unadulterated rock’n’roll…
Deep in the bustling, bohemian heart of New York City’s East Village, the primal, hillbilly howl of Jerry Lee Lewis is slicing through the street sounds and screaming sirens like a switchblade. As three smouldering, steely-eyed souls stand mesmerised by the flickering image of the shakin’, quakin’ Killer on the battered TV screen, a gaggle of Union City jailbait flutter flirtatiously nearby. The whip-trim triad of loose-limbed hombres, however, remain oblivious to the rapt attentions of the local Lolitas. For a single celestial moment, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion are immune to the tawdry allure of earthly delights; they’re slack-jawed sophomores at the ‘High School Confidential’, utterly immersed in the timeless potency of untainted rock’n’roll. The Mojo Guitar Store, located on the corner of First and First, is a tiny slice of rock’n’roll heaven right here on earth. Hundreds of vintage six-stringed curios (some of which are rumoured to be bona fide victims of the Link Wray flay and the Johnny Thunders blunder) line the walls of its crammed interior, but on the sidewalk outside, alternative rock’s gutter glitterati – the Blues Explosion, Girls Against Boys, The Chrome Cranks – often gather to gaze at priceless monochrome moments from the bootleg video vaults, or pick through endless crates of careworn Shangri-Las vinyl and 16mm Liberace show-reels. It’s an East Village institution, and as much a product of the manic Manhattan environment as the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion themselves.
Despite being perpetually cast as the quintessential New York City combo, Jon Spencer (brooding Elvis glamour, bloodcurdling whoopabilly howl, string-strangling), Judah Bauer (pout, inscrutability, gee-tar) and Russel Simins (intimidating stature, unflinching glower and drums) are, in actual fact three relocated hicks from the sticks. Hailing from New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Long Island respectively, they were initially drawn to the East Village by New York City’s awesome musical tradition.
“I actually came to live in the city because the Ramones were here,” Russel recalls, “I used to come up here all the time, I lived in Long Island, and I came here to visit my brother, and I couldn’t believe that I could walk down St. Marks Place, go get some pizza at Stromboli’s and see the Ramones walking down the street. That’s all I needed to know about the place.”
“You can get away with a lot in New York,” Judah continues, “We can play the music that we do with more freedom in New York.”
“When I first came out to New York City,” Jon admits, “I was into the stuff that came after No Wave, like the Swans, Richard Kern, the East Village arts scene. But by the time I got here, it was pretty much over. Not only are we into the kind of music that’s come out of New York City, but we’re also into the physical presence of the city. You can’t escape the noise of it. I also think that New York City doesn’t stand for any bullshit, and that anybody can live here, and make it here…”
“…then they can make it (tap tap) anywhere,” interrupts the crooning Russel in the time-honoured Sinatra tradition.
Jon Spencer’s initial foray into uncompromising and cacophonous string-stropping was with infamous post-no-wave noiseniks Pussy Galore, who once memorably covered the Rolling Stones’ magnum opus ‘Exile On Main Street’ in its entirety. But shortly after Pussy Galore disbanded, Jon (whose musical leanings veered toward The Stooges and Howling Wolf) was turned onto Elvis Presley and the entire Sun Records’ stable by his wife, and Pussy Galore co-conspirator, Christina Martinez. Infused with an instantaneous passion for Sam Phillips’ finest, Jon set about reanimating the primal spirit and visceral intensity of vintage rock’n’roll. Firstly with Martinez in Boss Hog, but most tellingly with Bauer and Simins in the Blues Explosion.
Six Years on from their inception, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion have delivered their most electrifying and tumultuous testimonial to date. ‘Now I Got Worry’, last October’s raw, sub-fi celebration of sheer, unfettered rock fervour, positively bristles with blistering fretboard ferocity, overdriven vocal incoherence and skull-fracturing, breakbeat bombastics. Despite the fact that the band’s single-minded embrace of unrefined and emotive sonic fundamentalism has gleaned ecstatic reviews from almost every area of the world’s press, the Blues Explosion are loathe to explicate their single muse. To say that they are ‘difficult’ interviewees is a gross understatement.
Mosey on down Avenue A with the fellas and they’ll tirelessly recommend industrial strength pomade to discipline your hilarious hair, demand that you invest in the irretrievably scratched works of Curtis Mayfield and tearfully recollect the unequalled laponic majesty of Hound Dog Taylor’s ostentatious guitar collection. But confront them with the spectre of a hand-held tape recorder and they immediately adopt a fiercely non-cooperative stance.
They antagonise: “In England, guitars are fashion accessories. Here we play ‘em.” They challenge: “I don’t have a problem with that, do you?” They simply take the piss: “The single common factor that drew this band together was an overwhelming love for David Bowie.”
The Blues Explosion abhor academic deconstruction. They rock way beyond the accepted confines of the genre, and have no desire to defend or define their sonic passion. But broaden the conversational goalposts somewhat and an evangelical fervour prevails.
To the band’s eternal chargrin, they’ve been lazily pigeonholed, along with The Cramps, as little more than psychobilly vaudevillians. Devil-worshipping Robert Johnson acolytes on the highway to hillbilly hell.
“The devil’s a boring idea,” Russel splutters, “It’s the sex in rock’n’roll that threatens, The devil’s a mere concoction. Rock’n’roll is sexuality. It gets down. It threatens establishments and conservative ways of thinking, so they consider it to be the devil’s work.”
So why do the moral majority hate rock’n’roll, and specifically the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion?
“Well,” Jon’s face darkens, “if you really want to talk about it, right now, in our own country – in America – the Blues Explosion are being labeled as racist, and I’m not sure why. I think that it may be because of the kind of music we play; true, real, raw rock’n’roll. There are a lot of people who come to see us, buy out records and get off on our music – which is definitely very sexually oriented music – but there are people out there who just don’t get it, and I think it’s frustrating for them to see a lot of people enjoying out shows and enjoying our kind of music. They try to write us off as a joke, as a kind of minstrel show, or at worst, racists, and that’s what’s going on today.
“We’re having a lot of negative and stupid things written about us, and I think it’s because people feel threatened by our music.”
Do you think there are blues purists out there who consider what you do as nothing more than a parody?
“Yes,” Jon grudgingly admits, “A lot of what we do is very extreme, and it is kind of over the top, and it is kind of funny. It’s not a joke. It’s not a comedy act. But there is a sense of humour and a sense of playfulness in what we do. And there is a great deal of joy in what we do. Maybe some of these people are getting tripped up ‘cos of the number of styles and genre cross-breeding that goes on in this kind of music.
“Maybe, if it wasn’t called the Blues Explosion, then they wouldn’t have a problem with it. But there are a few writers out here in America – I think you’ve even got some of them in England – who will review an album, or a show and just be so begrudging, you know, like ‘Yeah, I guess it was okay, I guess it was wild and exciting, I guess it was intense and sweaty and just amazing. But it was lacking in soul.’ Just the most begrudging type of reviews.
“But what we play is rock’n’roll and we do it better than pretty much anybody else out there today. And these people, I don’t know what’s wrong with them. They’re squares, they don’t get it, and it frustrates them that they can’t have a good time. But really, you know, this is rock’n’roll. It’s not really a deep kind of music, it’s the lowest of the low, but we’re the best at it.”
New York is a city where drum’n’bass and rock’n’roll sit comfortably together as unlikely bed-fellows. Fearlessly cross-cultural and genre-hopping clubs dominate the nightscape, and the Blues Explosion have wholeheartedly swan-dived into the Manhattan melting-pot. They’ve embraced the blues tradition by recording the ‘Ass Pocket Of Whiskey’ album with 70-year-old Mississippi legend R.L. Burnside. Their ‘Experimental Remixes’ EP utilised such diverse talents as Moby, U.N.K.L.E. and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Genius, and ‘Now I Got Worry’ features the keyboard talents of the Beastie Boys’ ‘Money’ Mark Ramos Nishita, Stax stalwart Rufus ‘Funky Chicken’ Thomas and Thermos Malling of Arizona duo Doo Rag (who Russel insists, are the only band currently working in a common musical arena to the Blues Explosion).
The band’s most astonishing and head-spinning collaboration of all, however, comes in their choice of ‘Weird’ Al Yankowitz as the video director for the latest single, ‘Wail’.
“Mike D and I interviewed him for (Beastie Boy zine) Grand Royale.” Russel elucidates. “During that interview I realised he was a fan of ours, and I asked him if he wanted to make a video for us, and he said he’d love to. So one thing led to another. I knew Judah liked him or at least could understand why he’s cool, so I suggested it to the rest of the band, and they thought it was a good idea.”
“It seemed like a good idea, simply because I would never have thought of it,” shrugs Jon.
“I always thought that his stuff was what MTV should be,” Russel insists, “Really well done, funny videos. I knew that he was a good director. I could just tell from his videos that he knew what the fuck he was doing.
“Right now in this country, MTV don’t play a lot of music,” Jon sighs, “It’s mostly game shows, comedy shows and stuff. So the kind of music they play is pretty safe. They wait until radio plays something first, whereas ten years ago it used to be the other way round. The only thing we’re hoping is that the programmers will be knocked out by the video and just say: ‘Wow, what a great video’ and take a chance on it. We can’t get the Blues Explosion onto commercial radio in the US. We’re okay with college radio and we tour all over to sold-out houses, but commercial radio are simply not ready for us.”
To the casual observer the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion may seem like little more than surly, self-important nihilists with an all-encompassing persecution complex. Yet their studious reserve in the face of journalistic interrogation is hardly surprising when you consider that the staunch traditionalists of the American rock media have recently branded them as racists, simply because they’ve dared to treat the blues as something other than a sacred museum piece. A situation soon to be exacerbated by the band’s forthcoming promo live album, rather incautiously titled ‘Controversial Negro’ and garishly illustrated with a day-glo Warhol print of Mick Jagger’s iconic countenance. Ultimately, Jon Spencer is playing with fire. He’s gleefully taunting the inverse-racists of so-called liberal America with incendiary images. He is, after all, a graduate of semiotics (the brand of linguistics concerned with signs and symbols), so he knows exactly what he’s doing.
‘Controversial Negro’ (named after a Flavor Flav quote) works on two distinct levels: firstly it’s a timely reminder to the journalistic ‘squares’ of far simpler times, when Jagger and his Rolling Stones (now untouchable old-guard stalwarts) were similarly decried for ‘bastardizing the blues’; secondly, it’s a forceful visual communiqué that the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion staunchly refuse to be intimidated into artistic compromise.
Cast aside convention, open up your soul and surrender to the blues. Don’t be square, be out there,