Perfect Sound Forever

Play the Guitar Just Like Ringing Up Hell:
The Black Lips

Photo from In the Red Records

by Mike Wood
(September 2006)

Two of my favorite rock stories remind me of the Black Lips. One is the legend of how Hasil Adkins, isolated in the West Virginia hills in the 1950's, first heard rock & roll and the early acts on a static-filled radio. Through the distortion he heard such raw, primal music, and took it all seriously, that he felt in those songs permission to cut loose. He sensed a deeper meaning in the menace of Elvis and Jerry Lee than did the social prissies of the day: Sin had been given the green light. His music, from that time on, has been one at war with the idea that there is anything less than apocalypse on that early wax. There was a commercial side to it that doesn't seem to have registered - or seem to have been important.

Then there was the Green Fuz, a local one-hit wonder you can only find on a Pebbles compilation - but - that one song! Here also was an act that saw in the music, and predicted in its existence, every bottle and fist tossed in and out of every club since. "Green Fuz" is a preposterous song, one that announces greatness and the MORE that is to come:

"Here we come, we're comin' fast,
all the others are in the past
We're the Green Fuz!"

That the band flamed out before they left the garage is beside the point. Rock is built on such outrageous ambition and lack of respect for what has come before, which is the right given to bands even when they are still in the garage. The Black Lips have that swagger, that menace. Their music displays the crazed intent of a bunch of guys in the boonies having heard their influences wrong on a shitty radio. Does all that mean that they are for real, and can sustain? or does it mean that rock is meant for the gutsy who are supposed to flame out, their promises suddenly appear foolish when a career is built around them?

Bassist Jared Swilley has said in interviews: "We're good/bad. We're not evil." Of course, there is such a thing, but too often it has taken the form in rock of cartoon-ish excessiveness: Alice Cooper, Kiss. There has also been bad/bad in bands like Venom and Death, and more pathetic/bad than there is room to mock. Where does lead singer Cole Alexander's habit of playing his guitar with his dick during encores fit in? Their stage show also features puking and pissing on each other, which evokes the intentional outrage of Iggy and GG Allin. It also reminds me of Drunks With Guns, another band whose act was truly transgressive, assaulting the audience while offering ragged glory to those listening for it.

The thing of it is, songs like "I've Got a Knife" and the already classic, "Everybody Loves a Cocksucker," both from their debut full-length, The Black Lips! (2003; Bomp) announce a really bad intent that has to be taken seriously. Even risky incest-driven tunes like "Sweet Kin" do not sink to parody or kitsch with repeat listens. They just keep on creeping you out in a way that fascinates. Original guitarist Ben Eberbaugh died before completion, and it was thought by the band that his replacement Jack Hines did not have sufficient chops to handle the demands of the tunes: this from a band always accused of barely being able to play at all! Was their worry delusional or a hint at their intent?

That record was initially lumped in with the Garage revival that triggered all sorts of love for The White Stripes, and so all the lemmings followed suit looking for the same $ that turned on all the Green Day wanna-bes. At least in the '70's people copied bands with talent; today we have bands forming based on bands that are already pale versions of the real thing. That is what makes Black Lips intriguing - and maddening. Are they for real, or just doing a great job of conning me?

The existentialist would ask, "How would you know, and who gives a shit?" Does liking Captain Beefheart hinge on whether or not he is an outsider artist or someone who grew into the persona Zappa created for him? Does it matter Marilyn Manson's entire output-name (Alice Cooper), image (Bowie), sound (Nine Inch Nails) art (Joe Coleman, Rolling Stones in Nazi drag photos) are copied from authentic sources and mixed into a shallow, for-profit stew? How much does the authenticity of the act enhance the pleasure of listening? How much should it? Life is shitty enough: enjoy The Yes Album or American Idiot if it makes you happy. Would someone with that mindset be more fulfilled in knowing that those records are shit, and he'd be better off with Raw Power or the latest Mogwai?

Their second record, We Did Not Know the Forest Spirit Made the Flowers Grow (2004; Bomp), continued the sonic growth of the band, and placed them square in league with their influences.

"Time of the Scab" is the best Seeds song not written by them. "Nothing at All/100 Fears" and "Ghetto Cross" give the Sonics a run for the sludge, and The Who slag on the intro to "MIA" is a priceless "fuck you" to rock history. The closer, "Super X-13," beats "Revolution 9" at its own cut-up game, and without Yoko to boot.

Their latest, Let It Bloom (2006; In the Red), confirms all my delusions. They deepen their sound with sharper chops and explorations into twisted folk and psych. "Sea of Blasphemy," "Hippie, Hippie, Hooray!" and "Gentle Violence" ring and rock, dipping deep into the familiar sins, but more confidently. They, I feel, are ready to head into the mystic, with their own squalid vision of how rock is supposed to be played, where being a threat is part of the role.

Delusions ARE grandeur!

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