The Truth About The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
By Jim DeRogatis
The year is 2047, and while it may not be akin to probing the mystery of what really happened to Robert Johnson at the crossroads--or why Madonna shifted gears from Sex to Broadway schmaltz--I have been pondering one of the great questions that lingers from the rock n roll of the 1990s: Was the now-legendary Jon Spencer Blues Explosion genuine in its attempt to merge punk and various genres of black music, or was it all just a joke or a big "fuck you"?
Nine long, frustrating months of sorting through yellowed newspaper clippings, interviewing broken-down old men in seedy bars and skid-row soup kitchens, and stubbornly following one false trail after another has finally led to my elusive quarry. Spencer lives in Miami now under an assumed name, the better to avoid the documentarians who would immortalize him, the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame which would induct him, and the IRS which would indict him. In his early 80s, his jet-black mane and sideburns have turned a stark white, but he is still easily recognizable as the thin, wiry rocker brimming with nervous energy so often seen in vintage photos. His primary tool for distancing himself from his musical past is a stone-cold demeanor that rudely says, "Dont pry." In fact, Id been warned that hed probably greet me with a shotgun in hand.
Instead, Spencer answers the door of his townhouse wearing baggy plaid golf pants, a sun hat, and cleats. He postpones his afternoon on the links and politely invites me in for a chat over tuna melts and lemonade prepared by his adoring wife, Cristina. Convinced that Ill keep his new identity a secret, he regales me for hours with tales of a youth spent crossing America in a rusted old van, playing a schizophrenic mixture of art-rock noise, hip-hop rhythms, and warped blues howling. Im thrilled just to listen to him talk, but I know that I must eventually ask the question thats gone unanswered for more than five decades--the one thats on the mind of many musicologists, cultural historians, and students of those crazy postmodern 90s.
"Mr. Spencer," I hesitantly begin, "If you really loved black music as much as you said you did, how come you could never get beyond making fun of it?"
We may have to wait 50 years for the answer, because in the present, Spencer is sitting backstage in the headliners dressing room at First Avenue in Minneapolis--the rock club where Prince hung out in Purple Rain--and while hes not exactly avoiding the question, neither is he addressing it. Spencer is touring in support of Now I Got Worry, the fourth album by his bass-less two-guitars-and-drums trio, and the critics are more divided than ever. To some, the Blues Explosion is the great white hope of indie rock. By revisiting the blues from a thoroughly postmodern perspective, its members are proving that theres still some life left in the rotting corpse of rock n roll. To others, the band members are a bunch of bohemian poseurs putting on a modern-day minstrel show. Real bluesmen could kick their asses from the Mississippi Delta all the way back to C.B.G.B.s.
"Were certainly getting stuck with some shit on this record," says Spencer, somewhat a master at understatement. Quiet, reflective, and notoriously shy when he isnt performing, the singer and songwriter is barely audible over the sounds of guitarist Judah Bauer, who is checking his equipment at full volume onstage. "Maybe thats something that was bound to happen if we kept working. The thing that I dont get is, its not O.K. for white American kids to play blues-influenced music? I realize that there is an over-the-top element in what we do, but still "
Here, the boss is interrupted by drummer Russell Simins, the most boisterous, least thoughtful member of the band. "Its all because were named the Blues Explosion," he bellows over the din from outside. "If we werent called the Blues Explosion, wed never hear this sort of crap. The only reason we get any shit is because of the name, period."
The point is debatable: Spencers music was controversial long before he formed the Blues Explosion. The son of a Dartmouth chemistry professor, Spencer grew up in upper-middle-class comfort in the small town of Hanover, New Hampshire. In high school, he was a self-confessed "New Wave geek" who listened to Kraftwerk and Devo, and he was elected student council president. During his freshman year at Brown University, he studied semiotics and discovered avant garde noise-rock (Test Department, the Birthday Party, Einsturzende Neubauten) as well as vintage punk (the Stooges, the Ramones, and the obscure 60s groups collected on the Back from the Grave anthologies). But college didnt hold his interest for long, and in 1985, he quit and moved to Washington, D.C., to form a band with his friend, Julia Cafritz. Six months later, they relocated to New Yorks Lower East Side, and Spencer has been a fixture there ever since.
Spencer and Cafritz chose the name Pussy Galore from the James Bond villainess, but it had the added appeal of being extremely offensive to feminists and other P.C. types. The bands goal was to push peoples buttons--with its angry, abrasive sounds (the most familiar lineup featured four guitarists who couldnt play and a drummer who pounded on a metal gas tank), confrontational lyrics (among its more popular numbers were "Cunt Tease," "You Look Like A Jew," "Asshole," and "Fuck You, Man"), and a philosophy that said, "Rock n roll is dead, lets party at the wake." Unable to escape the burdens of history, Spencer didnt worry about originality. Instead, he concentrated on inside jokes and sarcastic commentary: The bands most celebrated move was releasing a chaotic song-for-song deconstruction of the Rolling Stones epic double album, Exile On Main St.
"With Pussy Galore, I was certainly a lot more concerned with that kind of stuff," Spencer says. "I was frustrated, and thats what that band was about. But I sort of worked through that. I realized that I really loved listening to music, and more than anything, I really love to play music."
After eight releases on five different labels, Pussy Galore broke up in 1990. Spencer did some time playing twisted roots-rock with the Gibson Brothers and backing his wife, Cristina Martinez, in the noisy Honeymoon Killers. Simins was the Honeymoon Killers drummer. The son of New York Citys public works commissioner, he grew up on Long Island, playing drums in his parents basement to records by the Ramones. A native of sleepy Appleton, Wisconsin, Bauer was Simins roommate at the time. He spent his high school years practicing guitar, dropping acid, and blasting punk rock, but his passion shifted toward the blues shortly after he moved to New York.
In 1991, Spencer, Simins, and Bauer formed the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Modeled after John Mayalls Bluesbreakers, the moniker wasnt as in-your-face as Pussy Galores, but Spencer still hoped it would get a rise out of people. "The name of the band is a ridiculous name, and its sort of a fuck you," he says. "Were not a blues band, and were not trying to be. Were not trying to make a point about the blues, or be blues musicians. Were a rock n roll band."
The singer pauses for a moment, fiddling with the tuning knobs on his hollow-body guitar. "Its probably most accurate to call us a punk band," he continues. "But I think what were doing is going after a kind of ideal of rock n roll. Rock n roll to me is coming out of something that was going on in the 50s. I think it should be wild music; bizarre music. I also think its alright to be funny--not like comedy and jokes, but funny because it makes you feel good. It should also be sexy. Rock n roll is sex."
If Pussy Galore was a rock band devoted to pissing on rock history, the Blues Explosion is a rock band dedicated to delivering warped and usually irreverent takes on hip hop, R&B, soul, and especially the blues. Recorded by not one but two legendary underground producers (Kramer and Steve Albini), 1992s self-titled Caroline debut featured amped-up blues-tinged stompers recorded live in all their noisy glory as a sort of 90s update on Alan Lomaxs Southern field recordings. A much more polished affair, 1994s Orange added lush Isaac Hayes-style strings, more hip-hop-oriented grooves, and Spencers James Brown-inspired histrionic intros and asides. ("Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. Right now Ive got to tell you about the fabulous, most groovy bell bottoms!")
An unexpected detour, 1995s Experimental Remixes EP offered Blues Explosion tracks remixed by techno avatar Moby, the Dub Narcotic Sound System, Genius of raps Wu-Tang Clan, and Beck. The recording was intended to show that the Blues Explosion is blurring genre boundaries the same way those artists are, but it didnt quite succeed. Experimental Remixes was generally perceived as a novelty, and many critics continued to question the intentions of a privileged Ivy League dropout turning black music into white noise. "Does Beck get that?" Spencer grumbles. "Hes somebody whos sampling this stuff. Is it cool for somebody to be doing it with a sampler, but its not O.K. for a real band to be doing it?"
Any semiotician or postmodernist will tell you that authenticity is an outdated concept. Rock n roll was a bastardized hybrid of an art form from the beginning. Alls fair in the age of appropriation, and if you're gonna steal, why not steal from the best? The difference between Beck and Spencer is one of attitude. Beck usually seems respectful of the music, even when hes fucking with it. He takes bits and pieces of alien genres, filters it through his own strong personality, and creates a sound that is genuinely his own. Spencer never puts himself on the line. Hes a commando who swoops in and grabs elements of black music, then rushes to safety behind a bunker constructed of irony. His vocals are exaggerated to the point of parody; his onstage screams of "Blues Explosion!" are repeated long past the point where they stop being funny, and the band recently hired famous spoofmeister Weird Al Yankovic to direct a silly video for the otherwise intense tune, "Wail."
Like James Brown, Mick Jagger, and the Ramones before him, Beck sometimes veers into camp. But Spencer almost always dishes out kitsch, and in that regard, hes in the same league as Dan Akroyd and Bruce Willis jamming on "Sweet Home, Chicago" at the House of Blues.
Throughout rock history, critics have had a difficult time dealing with any band that isnt one-hundred-percent worshipful of the black music its incorporating. Eric Clapton and the Stones were hailed because they paid lip service to their heroes, while Led Zeppelin and Vanilla Ice were pilloried for what was branded as disrespect and wholesale theft. Spencer seems genuinely puzzled by this. In his view, its all just rock n roll, and the passionate impulses that power the best blues are extremely similar if not identical to those that power the best punk rock. "Both forms are very simple," Spencer says. "My favorite kind of punk is very individual--people just kind of teaching themselves and finding their own way. The music is really just coming straight from themselves. And thats true of the blues, too. Guys like R.L. Burnside are pretty much self-taught and just kind of arriving at their own sound."
A 70-year-old bluesman taught by the legendary Mississippi Fred McDowell, Spencer claims that Burnside was a major influence on the Blues Explosion. Fans of his album Too Bad Jim, the band members invited Burnside to open for them on tour. That led to a nightly jam at the end of their set--an underground version of B.B. King trading licks with U2--and eventually to the recording of the 1996 album A Ass Pocket of Whiskey in Burnsides hometown of Holly Springs, Mississippi.
"The stuff we played with R.L. was very simple, straight-ahead, soulful music," Simins says. "For me, it just made me happy to be doing what Im doing. Its not like R.L. taught us how to play the blues. But for me it was humbling, because, you know--Robert Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell and Howlin Wolf, theyre all my fucking heroes, and I never thought that I would be able to have any real direct contact with them. Being in the presence of R.L. actually makes you feel connected to that world."
The plan was to record more with Burnside on Now I Got Worry, but Spencer was concerned the group would be accused of leaning too heavily on the bluesman. The Blues Explosion turned instead to another musical legend: Stax/Volt star Rufus Thomas came into the studio, barked and crowed on "Chicken Dog," and was paid $500 for his troubles. In both collaborations, the bands distorted guitars and wailing theremin were a far cry from what Burnside and Thomas were used to. But the veterans did their best to give the younger musicians what they wanted.
Reflecting on A Ass Pocket of Whiskey for Pulse! Magazine, Burnside said, "Its so much cussin on there, man, its like playin the dozens with somebody. That stuff tickles em." Rather than Burnside and Thomas adding authenticity to the Blues Explosions sound, the band members prodded their would-be mentors into delivering shtick.
"I think there was a big influence from R.L. Burnside and his band on Now I Got Worry," Spencer maintains. "Orange was like, Weve got to make sure everything is sounding good, and we were really trying to get a powerful sound. This one was more about, O.K., lets just go. We were just going after getting a performance and kind of letting it rip. I remember we were driving around Los Angeles, going back and forth from the hotel and G-Son Studio, and somebody had a cassette of Like Flies on Sherbet by Alex Chilton. Ive heard that album before--Im a big fan of Panther Burns and some Alex Chilton stuff--and I remember listening to that and thinking, This is great. Its just so messy and so out-there."
The ideals that Spencer espouses are indeed admirable. Too much modern rock is neat, clean, and conveniently packaged for mass consumption. Its devoid of immediacy, while at the same time it has no sense of history. As Beck, P.J. Harvey, and Nick Cave have indicated, vital new sounds can be made by tracing rocks roots back to the blues. But those artists arent afraid to betray their emotions, and even the most cathartic moments on Now I Got Worry "Wail" and the raging "Fuck Shit Up" ultimately leave you wondering, "Is it real or is it Memorex?"
"When I was done with this record, I thought it was such a heavy, dark record," Spencer says. "Of course, theres songs like Chicken Dog and R.L. Got Soul that are just fun songs. But my perception of the album was shaded because Im aware of whats going on in some of the other songs." What kind of demons was Spencer purging? By all accounts, his home life is the picture of domestic bliss. After Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, he and Cristina are the most loving couple in the rock underground. Spencers vocals are usually just sputtered fragments of words and sentences, so its impossible to tell whats bugging him from his lyrics.
"People usually ask that question, and I say Id rather not talk about it," Spencer says. "If I could talk about it in a normal way, then there probably wouldnt be troubles, and why even write a song? Im probably not the most successful lyric writer or the most intelligible vocalist, but I think if someone can get kind of a general feeling from a song, thats alright. They dont need to get every single little bit. The thing that kind of scares me more than anything is people who think that there is no heart and soul in it--that its emotionless music and cold and restructured and just an exercise in whatever."
Spencer may not be aware of his own contradictions: He wants to make his audience feel heart, soul, and emotion in his music, but hes reluctant to give them "every single little bit." He longs to make music as direct and visceral as that of Thomas and Burnside, but he over-thinks every note he plays. When he takes the stage in Minneapolis before a sold-crowd of 1,700, hes sweating from the very first song, bounding about the stage and hammering away at his guitar. But his tongue-in-cheek stage patter and ham-bone vocals make you think the passion may be as much of a put-on as everything else.
The question lingers: "If Spencer really loves black music, how come he cant get beyond making fun of it?" Whether or not he ever gets around to answering it, the notion that he just doesnt feel it is as good an explanation as any.
(Originally published in Penthouse, 1997)