Spencer Dickinson – Jon Spencer and The North Mississippi All-Stars: Oh Lord Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (PRESS, US)

26 January 2007
Article on Spencer Dickinson written by Mike Edison.
Jon Spencer is a son of a bitch. Only last week he made a room full of beer-drunk college students cry – in the middle of the afternoon. He was performing with his rockabilly band, Heavy Trash, at a dim-witted indie music to-do called the CMJ Music Marathon, and he was rapping about heartbreak and loss. He’d been hurt and he wasn’t fucking around. He spoke the truth.

More used to wanly introspective hipsters playing douche-rock with pretty choruses, the kids in the audience were gripped by his pathos. They’d never seen a man dig so deep into his own heart, and they were unprepared for Spencer’s torrent of emotion. He peeled them open like a can of sardines. Then he beat the living shit out of them with his rock ‘n’ roll.

I posit that Jon Spencer is the most misunderstood man in the game. More than anyone I have ever met, Jon Spencer believes in rock ‘n’ roll. He will not compromise his passion; he will also never be a caricature of other people’s expectations. This is what makes him so difficult for the feeble-minded press corps to grasp. With the Blues Explosion he delivered great balls of fire – in front of a crowd his rock ‘n’ roll is huge, his blues amplified to Michael-Bay-Does-Megalon proportions. He gets the frenzy. He rattles and shakes. People leave changed. But offstage he’s self-effacing, humble, shy, generous of spirit, kind, probably too earnest. Offstage, he never shouts “Blues explosion!” which always seems to disappoint the hordes of callow music writers who hover around him but can’t get past the pastiche and pyrotechnics of the spectacle. And Jon doesn’t pander. He never speaks in tongues or resorts to parlor tricks to curry favor. Like I said, he’s a son of a bitch.

The Blues Explosion has been on hiatus for a couple of years now, after a record that would have been a triumph for most groups but got faint notice from a world that thrives on children chasing trends. All of that free time must have driven Spencer nuts. This is a guy who can hardly stand a night off on a two-month tour. And so he’s been out on the road working his sickobilly and roots-rock magic with Heavy Trash, meting out twangy doses of Sun Records worship and Tales From the Dark Side in clubs smaller than the Blues Explosion has seen in years. But every night he’s still the same. It’s the James Brown work ethic, and it comes at you hard. And he seems to go deeper and get weirder all the time. People crying at three in the afternoon? That’s a new one.

This week Spencer’s getting ready to perpetrate a new shade of soul, terrorizing hippies up and down the Eastern Seaboard with his groovy hate vibe. What makes this campaign so confounding is the involvement of his friends Luther and Cody Dickinson, they of the North Mississippi All Stars, darlings of the jam-band set and heroes to blissed-out aficionados of the looooooong guitar solo. What the All Star-loving hippies will think of a flame-throwing punk like Spencer is beyond anyone’s guess, but what many of their fans do not realize is that Luther and Cody have their own punk-rock past – Luther’s always quick to point out that he started out being as influenced by Greg Ginn of Black Flag as he was by Duane Allman. There may be a lot of sunshine coming off of the stage during a NMAS set, but Luther and Cody are also capable of jabbing you straight between the eyes.

Six years ago they all hunkered down in Mississippi to make an album in Papa Jim Dickinson’s studio barn, the Zebra Ranch. Finally released in America after percolating as a Japanese import, it now bears the curious title The Man Who Lived for Love, misleading since so many of the songs are painted black. The record is a curious mix of horrifying blues, nasty psychedelia, Southern soul, and sociopathic pondering. Some of it sounds like a great lost Blues Explosion record. Some of it just sounds twisted and evil. It all sounds like they had fun making it.

I’ve known Jon for years and, let it be known, have worked behind the scenes writing propaganda for the Blues Explosion. And I know the Dickinsons, too: I wrote about them for High Times magazine a few years back and we spent some time together in New Orleans. Apparently, though, they are still miffed that I didn’t bring them enough weed.

When news comes over the mojo wire that plans are in the works to reunite the Spencer/Dickinson band for two weeks worth of shows, opening for the All Stars proper on an East Coast jaunt – they’ve not played together since they were locked up in the barn making this mess – I demand to be taken along.

Spencer’s not convinced. There would be just one day of rehearsals in the crusty hippie haven of Burlington, Vt., and then they’re going to start the trip, heading south to New York, and eventually Florida. In all the years I’ve known Jon I’ve never seen him nervous, but he’s clearly heading into the unknown, and it’s unsettling. Somehow he acquiesces. I wonder what he’ll think when the unwashed masses started doing the hempy two-step in front of his stage.

Chapter One: Enter the Wu-Tang

Jon picks me up in a cab on the way to the airport, wishes me good morning, and then goes back to doing his homework. He’s still trying to learn the songs he hasn’t played in six years. He’s listening to the Spencer/Dickinson record on his iPod and plowing through a sheaf of papers marked with lyrics and indecipherable scribbles that somehow indicate musical notation. Later I find out that Cody and Luther have also been walking around all week with piles of scribbled notes, most of which look like they’d been left by ancient astronauts. There’s nothing that remotely resembles “music.”

Excitement at the airport comes when the flunky from Homeland Security running the X-ray machine demands that Jon open up his bag. Something on his screen looks a lot like a bomb. Of course, it isn’t a bomb – it’s worse: much worse, a Stylophone, the world’s most annoying instrument. Resembling a transistor radio, it’s played by running a metal stylus across a metal strip running down its face, and for the effort it spurts out whiny, nasal bleeps that drive dogs to bark and hounds to howl. This is Spencer’s leitmotif; he insists on carrying it with him at all times. Jon gives them a demonstration. They don’t seem amused, but convinced that Jon has no intention of blowing up the plane, and finding nothing in the PATRIOT Act to stop him from using it to annoy unsuspecting fans, they’re forced to let him go.

We arrive at the Higher Ground club in Burlington a few hours later, where Spencer Dickinson are set to rehearse. The Higher Ground has two rooms, and for practice, they set up in the smaller room. The next night they move the gear over to the larger “ballroom.”

That Luther and Cody are brothers is obvious, but there never seems to be any familial friction, not even any of the usual snarky competition between lead guitar players and drummers. They’re preternaturally comfortable in their own spaces. They’re bonded, too, to bass player Chris Chew, although just how is more of a mystery since I can’t understand a thing he says. And at 400 lbs., Chris looks like he could pick his teeth with the Dickinsons.

“I got married and I’m all settled down now,” Luther tells me, pre-apologizing for the debauchery that he is not going to be part of.

“But my wife is gonna join us in New York. Maybe we’ll put on a show for you.”

I can’t tell if he is serious or not.

“But Cody is still wild. All sorts of shit happens on the bus.”
I see Spencer raise an eyebrow.

“We’re gonna hit some strip clubs, right?”

The Dickinsons look at him, oddly. Ditto, they can’t tell if he is joking.

“What, you’ve never been to Mary’s in Portland?” Jon goes on, incredulously. “How about the Café Risqué down in Georgia? It’s a diner with topless waitresses. Oh, you gotta go. You can have your eggs served to you by a naked woman.”

After the greetings, out come the music stands. It’s an odd sight to see Jon conducting business like a punk-rock Leonard Bernstein, maybe weirder to see the oft-stoned Dickinsons demonstrating such force, focus and discipline. There’s no question that they are virtuosos – Luther has the bottomless riff vocabulary of a master blues man and the fluidity of phrase of a bebopper, while Cody possesses a swivel-hipped swing that, despite his own overwhelming technique, is still centered on a pugilistic left hand and a funky African hunch – but left to their own devices it could easily come out sounding like side three of Eat a Peach. Under Spencer’s baton they sound positively scary, wheedling deftly between trashy jackhammers of hate, lurid swamp riffs and vindictive stomps.

“We move up to C-sharp and then we stop,” Spencer informs them easily after a minor guitar-drum collision.

“And then we just jump right back in?”

“It’s like a verse, but we don’t do the ‘chaka chaka’ part.” “These songs are crazy,” Cody says later, showing me the reams of legal paper he’s charted the songs on.

“Most normal songs have A parts, and B parts, sometimes C parts. With Jon’s stuff it usually goes up to G. But that was painless. Man, he coulda busted my balls half a dozen times.”

After six straight hours of rehearsal, everyone is starting to feel a pounding sensation in their heads and they decide to call it a day. Jon hops in a car to visit some family who live nearby. Luther insists that he wants to go to his motel room and work on folk songs. Which leaves Cody and me to look for trouble in Burlington on a Monday night.

It turns out the pounding sensation everyone was experiencing is coming from the other side of the wall, the ballroom where they’ll play the next night. Hip-hop championship smoker Method Man is scheduled to play tonight. Hitting the stage to warm up for him is his posse: what’s left of the Wu-Tang Clan.

A few minutes later I’m backstage with Cody smoking dope, shooting tequila, and snorting cocaine while Masta Killa and Inspectah Deck do their thing onstage. It’s a good scene, and Cody tells me a story about being yelled at for smoking pot by Buddy Guy when they were on tour together in Japan. He really took them out to the woodshed, telling them all about the horrors of drugs, warning them about winding up dead like Jimi Hendrix. Coming from a guy once known to inhale a snifter of cognac between every song, the message didn’t stick.

We make our way back into the ballroom about halfway through the set. Method owns this crowd. He’s on top of the long bar that runs down the side of the club, railing against the record industry. Apparently, they are all muthafuckers. Hundreds of privileged fists pump the air in agreement. At the end of the tirade Method executes a full 270-degree stage dive into the crowd, landing on his back on a sea of dirty white hands, and surfs his way back to the stage to a thundering beat. Convinced it’s not going to get any better than that, we head behind the club to the All Stars’ bus to finish the drugs, only stopping for a minute to check out the Wu-Tang tour bus, which is parked next to the All Stars’.

“Ours is bigger,” notes Cody, stoned and satisfied. “And check it out. They’re running that filthy diesel generator. That shit costs money. We got here early so we plugged into the club. And they must have 20 people riding on that bus. Did you see his crew? We only have seven.”

“Yeah, but they don’t have any real backline. Just turntables.”

“Yeah, right. They weren’t even spinning vinyl. Just CDs. That is so lame.”

I wonder what Method would say if he heard the Wu-Tang being sliced up by a Mississippi shit-kicker with scruff on his chin.

On the bus, Cody pulls out a bag of weed and a couple of apples, which have been fashioned into primitive pipes. I keep my comments to myself.

“Every hotel has a bowl of apples,” he explains matter-of-factly, filling the bottom of the fruit with a stinky bud, torching it, and sucking smoke through a hole in the side.

“It’s important that you drill the hole in the bottom. It forms like a natural bowl, and you avoid the stem,” he advises, sagely. There’s no way to argue with that logic. I take a hit.

Outside the bus there’s some commotion, some chicks trying to get onto Method’s bus.

“I had to take a girlfriend just to keep me away from all the crazy women,” Cody confesses. “She’s only 20 years old. How often is that going to happen? But I’m thinking about breaking up with her. It’s Jon’s songs. I mean, that’s what they’re all about.”

Not bad: The tour hasn’t even started and we’re drunk, wired and stoned like a couple of bikers at a Sturgis rally talking shit around the campfire. Never mind the absurdity of snorting coke at a hip-hop concert in granola-chic Burlington, just down the road from the organic bakery and the hemp-clothing boutique. Cody gives me a piece of Xanax the size of a Zagnut bar. It’s lights out till showtime.

Chapter Two: If You Don’t Like the Apples, Don’t Shake the Tree

Q: Why do hippies wear patchouli oil?
A: So blind people can hate them, too.

Spencer/Dickinson climb onstage at the Higher Ground, and when Jon plugs in and blasts his crappy Japanese pawn-shop guitar through his preposterous fuzz box contraption, the response is visceral. Eyes are wide open. It’s like the scene in King Kong when the giant ape is premiered in front of a black-tie audience. The room shakes. Mouths go agape. Terror strikes.

Except in the movie the ape pulls itself from the chains and goes on to crush a good part of the audience and destroy the city. That would have been cool. But when the Burlington hippies realize Jon isn’t really going to hurt them, they begin the slacker shuffle. Before long the room looks like a gang of Thorazine junkies on leave from the local mental institution, except dressed in brighter colors.

Aren’t they listening to the words?

I hate my mother and dad,
I hate my country and flag
I hate Christmas and birthdays
I’m not ready, ready for love

Unfortunately, there’s some sort of technical problem with the Stylophone, and the tie-dyes in the front row won’t get blasted tonight. Still, there is plenty of blues and angst coming off of the stage.

Forty-five minutes later the set’s over. There’s a little bit of trepidation between songs, but all the elements are there to build a devastating set. And if it isn’t a boffo response, it’s certainly well received. But Spencer looks a little dazed. Like Fitzcarraldo in the jungle, it may be hard for him to get the message through to the natives. But tomorrow night is New York City, Blues Explosion territory, and they’ll be ready to ignite.

The All Stars set that follows takes off fast and hits hard. These guys, too, have spent their entire adult lives on the road, and moving a crowd of their already-converted acolytes to jubilation is like ringing a bell. They’re joyous, rollicking, rolling, a blur of slide guitarisms and wicked solos. It’s no wonder that rumors of Luther being poached by a Big Name Act are rampant. He’d blow that Derek Trucks kid clear off the stage. Must be his punk-rock roots.

I’m surprised that they still feature Cody’s electric washboard, which requires him to step out in front of the stage to play the dingus through a square yard of effects pedals. It reminds me of Little Stevie Wonder shucking and jiving on “Fingertips.” I figured they would have gotten tired of this shtick a few years into their version of the The Never-Ending Tour. But the crowd eats it up, and when Chris starts banging the bass along with him, the room erupts. What the fuck do I know?

After 90 minutes of blues and boogie explorations, sunshine-up-your-skirt solos, a featured bass part, and a drum solo that is – incredibly – not one note too long, they call Spencer back up on stage. This is the highlight of the evening. They ease into “Freedom Highway.” It’s Election Day, and this is Spencer and the Dickinsons being sincere with a civil-rights anthem, and it carries the appropriate measures of good vibes and gravitas. They follow with a long, loose jam, not exactly Spencer’s milieu, but instead of trying to keep up with Luther’s effortless stream of happy licks, he uses his piece-of-shit guitar like a Howitzer, blasting holes in the landscape. People dig it. It’s a triumph.

A little while later I’m back on the bus with Luther playing with the tequila and the apples. He’s enthusing about how overjoyed he is to work with Jon, how much he respects him, when we’re interrupted by a dull banging on the door, followed by the hydraulic squeak of the door being pulled open, and then a thump, like someone tossing a bag of potatoes into the driver’s seat. It turns out not to be a bag of spuds after all, but a young woman who, based on her lack of motor skills and frozen look of awe at her surroundings, most likely needs someone with a net to come and get her. Luther bolts.

“Uh, I gotta call my wife,” he offers nervously, and he’s off the bus in a flash, leaving me with the wild-eyed waif.

“I’m thinking about coming to New York with you guys,” she says to me. “I don’t think I can make it home tonight.”

“Uh, where do you live?” I’m just trying to gauge her craziness. Get-the-mace-out crazy, or just regular old, acid-casualty nuts…


“Uh, that’s pretty far away.”

“Yeah. I guess.”

For a while we don’t say anything. We stand there like two vultures sizing up a bear carcass. I want to encourage her off the bus, but I don’t want to make any sudden moves. You can never tell with these types. She probably has a kitchen knife stashed in her macram shoulder bag. In fact, I’m sure of it. Suddenly she gets a look at the druggy detritus on the table where we’ve been having our little party.

“You guys smoke dope out of apples?”

I’m noncommittal. She looks appalled.

“That’s sick,” she blurts, obviously disgusted, and hurries off the bus. Goddamn apples saved my ass. It’s more than she can handle, and we never see her again.

Chapter Three: Return of the Stylophone

Because the All Stars are playing a much-publicized New Year’s Eve gig at the Beacon Theatre, they’re technically not allowed to play another show in the New York area for two months prior, and are not advertised. It’s a tough break, and the venue is only half full. But it seems like a good crowd – half full at the Bowery Ballroom is still plenty for a rock concert. And I can see lots of Blues Explosion fans lingering at the bar. The mean IQ of the room is at least a few clicks above that of the Higher Ground.

Judah Bauer, one-third of the Blues Explosion, is standing off to the side checking out the show.

“This is Jon paying his dues for like the fifth time,” he says, surveying the crowd.

“I guess he really doesn’t dig being at home.”

After a song or two he declares, “I really like it. I’ve always liked Jon’s stuff. Some of this sounds a little like the Blues Explosion. That’s to be expected. But they don’t hate each other yet. Give them time.”

Jon pumps it out for his hometown. He’s on fire. But there’s a subtle split in the crowd. Everyone’s enjoying the show, and it’s clear that while Jon’s fans are soaking up his energy and digging the nuances and dark vibe of the songs, the hippies just don’t get it. They follow along, gleefully, with the same stupid look on their faces they have after doing a bong hit. Perhaps that’s the look of satisfaction? The Stylophone’s working tonight, but even though Jon has it set for Heavy Stun, oddly, they can’t seem to get enough of it. Every blast of avant noise seems to lead them closer to stoner nirvana. Go figure.

Despite not being officially on the bill, the All Stars come on next and do their thing. The crowd thins after a few numbers, but just a little. Hardcore Jon Spencer fans can be found at the bar mopping up the sauce and raving about Spencer/Dickinson. Everyone else is scattered in front of the stage doing the Dance of Joy.

Backstage after the show is the usual mess of reefer and liquor, but the party doesn’t last long. Jon leaves with his beautiful wife. Luther leaves with his beautiful wife. Cody disappears with a girl who’s wearing way too much eye makeup and who looks like she’s going to be a Real Good Time, leaving me to baby-sit her friend, who, I can tell by the way she keeps tugging at my elbow, is clearly deranged. She smiles at me and shows me a row of pointed teeth. Why is it always like this? Why do I always get the crazy girl? I think about it for about five seconds before making a hasty exit into the night. It’s been a good two days and I want to live to tell the story.


Spencer Dickinson, the beast with two Heads, has continued its descent south towards the Sunshine State, and tonight the show is being webcast from North Carolina’s Cat’s Cradle club. I’m safe in my Manhattan apartment watching, with relatively little chance of being accosted by a crazy girl.

Part of the trouble with the last few shows, Jon confesses, looking inside himself for a good reason why he’s unable to break through the psyche of the stoned rabble, is, “I’m trying to revive feelings from six years ago. I don’t think I have that much hate anymore.”

Why not?

“I dunno. Late puberty, maybe.”

That’s not the reason.

No matter how much they’d been bludgeoned by the bad and the boring, you could still slaughter jaded kids – at the CMJ Music Marathon, for instance – with soul power. Jon certainly does. But the hippies are another story. When they’re locked into their soporific Snoopy dance, there’s little chance of invading their hearts and minds. They’re too zoned out to tune in.

The show in North Carolina is spectacular. There’s zero hesitation. At one point the hate and sorrow subside and Jon’s bringing it all back home, professing passionately his love for pie.

“Peach cobbler! I love peach cobbler! I can eat peach cobbler all night long! And cherry pie! I love to eat that cherry pie!”

Possibly this is a grand metaphor, but whatever his intent, it’s going over gangbusters. A woman dressed in red presses herself up against the stage and holds her hand out to Jon the Revelator. Jon calls me after the show.

“I though that the Spirit was moving through her,” he explains, “So I reached down and took her hand. And she says, ˜Play some music!'” He takes a beat, and audibly shrugs. “Kind of a rough crowd sometimes.”

-Mike Edison