Sunday, October 31, 2004

B.D. Trail

I had an unexpected visitor at the house a few weeks ago.

I got home from work and found a box waiting on the dining room table, sent by a man in Florida named John Moore. Inside were the collected works of the soldier-teacher-poet B.D. Trail -- Benard Doss Trail -- the man who taught me how to write, 20 years ago when I was a young Air Force enlistee and took a couple of composition courses offered on base by what was then called Tarrant County Junior College. I sat up with Kat that night and read her most of them aloud, and laughed, and cried. I could hear his voice in them -- the stock phrases and allusions to Eliot and Sophocles that he used to reveal himself, or at least the bits he wanted to reveal. She and I resolved to read "Growing Old Together" every year, on the anniversary of our meeting.

Over the years, I've met a few of Ben's other students and we all have the same impression of him: He was the best teacher we ever had. Ben was the only member of the TCJC Northwest faculty who actually liked coming out to the base to work with us GIs. He was an Air Force brat, an Aggie who'd done two tours of duty in Vietnam as a military intelligence officer with advisory units. The war informed his poetry. (His other big themes were love and suicide.) There were four or five images that had made such an indelible mark on his consciousness that they appeared again and again in his work like recurring nightmares: "The Face," "The Mining," "The Grenading." Probably his best known poem is "The Grenading," which appears online a couple of places -- in Viet Generation Journal and the "continuing anthology" Poets on the Line. (The latter site includes a few of Ben's other war poems, as well as an obituary by the custodian of his legacy, Dock Burke.) John Moore has also posted some of Ben's poems and a brief biographical sketch at the Vietnam Veterans Home Page.

The impression I had of Ben was of a man who felt things deeply but wasn't always able to find words to express them -- in person, anyway. He spoke of them quite eloquently in his poems. He was a wiry little bastard, grey-bearded. He wore small round glasses and smoked little aromatic cigars. His whole life had prepared him to be a soldier. What he witnessed in Nam inspired his muse and, ultimately, destroyed him. He was a big recreational shooter who still had his Army officer's .45. On a Monday, when asked what he'd done over the weekend, he'd invariably say, "I went out to the range and busted some caps" -- soldier's slang. We used to talk a lot about Hemingway and "the coward's way out." When he finally decided to cash in, though, he did it peacefully: in a garage, on New Year's Day, plugging up the exhaust, starting the car and quietly drifting off into oblivion.

Another former student of his told me there was a woman that Ben wanted to marry who refused him. Perhaps it was the one he wrote about in "Dating Your Ex-Wife." (I never knew he'd been married; we didn't have that kind of relationship. He apparently had a son, too, and two daughters. I never would have guessed.) I often wondered if he'd realized how much he meant to all of us. Reading his poems "A Lesson," "My Dunbar Students" (about his days teaching English in a "historically African-American" Fort Worth high school), and "Father-Professor," I realized that he had -- it just wasn't enough to sustain him.

One day when I was taking his Comp 1 class, he approached me with "an offer you can't refuse." Instead of attending his regular class, I'd meet with him at the base library after duty hours. (Later I realized that this was the same library where he'd spent countless hours as a dependent kid. The white-haired lady behind the desk was the same one who'd been there in those days.) I'd write twice as many papers as his other students, on different topics -- mainly explicating literature. In this way, not only was I able to receive the first real feedback I'd ever had on my writing, but I was immersed in a world of words and ideas that, up to that point, had passed me by.

I'd slithered through the public education system in New York like a wet turd on verbal ability that was partly innate, partly stimulated by a mother who used to watch the Brit shows on PBS and practice sounding her vowels like the people in them as a way of diluting her Hawaii pidgin accent, and buy books that were nothing more than lists of books to leave lying around the house for my sister and I to discover. In my high school days, the educational flavor-of-the-month was "relevance," so I never had to endure Beowulf or Chaucer. Instead, we read Richard Wright, Bernard Malamud, Piri Thomas, Malcolm X, Edward Albee. One of the abiding regrets of my life is that I sat out three semesters at TCJC while awaiting orders to follow the B-1 bomber to Abilene and by doing so, missed out on the chance to experience Ben's great love, British literature, with him as my guide. (He also taught comparative religions.)

But I did receive my first exposure to a lot of mostly American writers I'd missed, through him. "You have a really big vocabulary," he said. "It is not, however, necessary to use all of those words in every sentence." He handed me Look Homeward, Angel and I was astonished to read a sentence a page long that made sense. Next, for contrast, he introduced me to Hemingway and the simple power of short, declarative sentences: "I woke up. I took a shit. It felt good." Then it was Steinbeck, who remains maybe my favorite of the '30s American clan. At the end of my first semester with him, Ben presented me with a hardcover copy of Salinger's Nine Stories which I have since passed on to my middle daughter. (All three of my daughters write, but she's the only one who lets me read her stuff. She's a fine writer, but says her younger sister is better. Perhaps someday I'll find out.)

Ben taught me that if you need to explain your point to a reader, you haven't done your job as a writer. And that writing is a craft to be mastered. I still have all of the papers I wrote for him. Occasionally, I'll take them out and marvel at how much cleaner and more elegant my prose was then than it is now -- because I was doing it for him. I spent the first half of my life waiting for something to happen to me that was worth writing about. (When that didn't eventuate, I started writing anyway.) I'll spend the rest of my time here trying to write something that's worthy of him.

I want to find out where he's buried, so that someday I can pay him a visit. I imagine that I'll leave him a package of cherry sours and some little aromatic cigars, and say to him (as he does to a deceased academic in "In Memoriam: Professor Maenchen-Helfen"), "Rest easy in your grave, for you rode with Attila."

ADDENDUM (1.18.2012): Received these photos today from Tom Kellam of the TCC Library.

ADDENDUM (11.2.2012): I received an email from Dock Burke that included the location (in Bryan) and a photo of Ben's gravesite.

Friday, October 29, 2004


all morning long, i've been thinking about an idea for a broadway musical: "sheatlemania!"it's about the greatest band in the world, only they're shitty. and all of their music kind of parallels the beatles', so you'd have to rewrite all of the beatles' music so it's shitty (except for 'love me do,' which is already perfect). f'rinstance, you could have them singing 'she loves you, woo-woo-woo' instead of 'yeah-yeah-yeah,' or maybe they could just peter out in the middle. all of the songs could end that way. i dunno, i haven't thought it through yet. then you could have different touring companies. or, you could just hire people who can't play or sing in every town and do it that way. then you could have knock-offs like this band from canada called insane clown posse (not really) who put backwards msgs on their albums that say 'it's us, it's us, the sheatles!' sigh. i guess i need to get back to work.

Friday, October 22, 2004


I'm drifting into unknown space
Falling back towards the Earth
And landing on my face
- Bindle, "10,000 Miles"

Bindle was a rock band from Fort Worth, Texas, that existed for just over three years, between 1998 and 2002. They were never anything but a local phenomenon (although they ranged as far from their home turf as Austin and San Angelo). They never released any recordings (although they made plenty -- demos, live shows, and a series of sessions for an aborted CD that took place as the wheels were coming off the band). With the exception of the drummer, they've all remained active (some extremely so) in popular local bands like Goodwin and Pablo and the Hemphill 7, to whose fans Bindle must seem a mere footnote -- if that.

Why, then, is Bindle worthy of your awareness? (Why, you ask, should I read this lengthy screed?)

OK: If you accept the dual premises that 1) music, art, indeed life its own damn self is nothing more than a collection of Moments that are by their very nature ephemeral and fleeting, and 2) that mass marketing and promotion are not necessarily indicators of quality, then sooner or later, you must realize that unless you're willing to expend the time, energy, and effort it takes to stay engaged in what's going on in your town, maybe even right down the street, you could be missing out on something uniquely special and worthwhile. Hardly a tragedy, but still regrettable if you care about good music/art/life and want to foster it where you live.

The biggest reason for the ephemeral nature of these musical Moments is so simple it shouldn't even need to be stated, but here it is: every band is hard-wired to self-destruct. Ex-SST Records figurehead Joe Carducci nailed it (and much else) in his out-of-print book Rock and the Pop Narcotic, attributing "the difficulty of keeping a band together" to "the fact that [a band] must be a commune of sorts and most Americans aren't culturally prepared for this reality." To put it another way, "plays well with others" remains important long after we leave the schoolyard. In this respect, Bindle was archetypal. When I first approached Matt Hembree, Bindle's bassplayer/manager, about writing this story, he was incredulous. "Why would you want to write about Bindle? We were just a bunch of really creative musicians who, every time we were on the verge of accomplishing something, always managed to sabotage it through our personalities and egos. Oh, wait a minute -- I see." Singer Tony Diaz put it this way: "We were always breaking each other's heart."

It's a classic rock'n'roll story, elevated (in my mind, at least) by the quality of the music they made and what they could have been: if not successful on a mass-ass MTV VH-1 level, at least supported in their hometown. "People are always coming up and telling me, 'Oh, you were in Bindle. You guys were really great,' " said Hembree. "And I feel like asking them, 'If you felt that way, why didn't you come to any of the shows?' " Guitarist Steffin Ratliff agrees. "Everyone in the Metroplex must have seen Bindle -- once," he said. "Prophet without honor" is not a badge of distinction that anybody wants to wear, but one that Bindle could definitely claim, and not just in retrospect.

Muffinheads and Drunken Monkeys

To begin with, Bindle got together when three quarters of Drunken Monkey -- Hembree, Diaz, and drummer Kevin Geist -- decided to break up and reform without guitarist Jim Palmer.

Hembree had grown up in rural Tennessee, playing in a family bluegrass band (a background he shares with Ornette Coleman's bassist Charlie Haden), and came to Fort Worth via the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He remembers attending a college football game in Knoxville and realizing that "there were five times as many people in the stadium as there were in the town where I grew up." Early in his college career, he got his first exposure to Rawk in the form of the Ramones. "It was like bluegrass," he recalls, "all I-IV-V progressions, but it rocked." It was the heyday of Amerindie rock and Hembree jumped in head first, spending his weekends hanging out at Vic and Bill's Deli, a popular music venue in Knoxville.

Moving to Fort Worth in 1986 to work for General Dynamics, he pulled tight with guitarist Daniel Gomez, a self-described "fat Mexican Satriani wannabe" who piqued Hembree's interest by feigning inability to play standard cover tunes. Together with teenage drummer Dave Karnes, they formed the comic metal-funk power trio Muffinhead, playing four nights a week at the Aardvark on West Berry Street near Texas Christian University. When Karnes left to attend the Berklee School of Music in Boston, Hembree and Gomez moved on to Uncle Pete's Parade, a unit Gomez dismissively characterizes as "a really horrible Steely Dan as R&B-based alt-rock band," with the crisply polyrhythmic drummer Geist, who'd first met Gomez and Hembree while he was playing in a short-lived teenage band called Fresh Coffee, and singer Tony Williams. No sooner had they completed a demo recording than Gomez announced that he was leaving.

According to Gomez, Tony Williams was "a great singer, but he never wrote any lyrics down. We were getting ready to record and Matt and I were going to sing harmonies, so I asked [Williams] for lyrics and he said, 'Oh, I just make that shit up every night.' " Around that time, Gomez saw Tony Diaz singing at Club Dada with a band called Deep Domain. "The band was terrible and the music was terrible," said Gomez, "but [Diaz] was great -- a powerful singer who believed every word he sang. I thought, 'I want that.' "

So, establishing a precedent for the Drunken Monkey split, Gomez, Hembree, and Geist all tendered their resignations to Uncle Pete's Parade and, after timely pause, reformed as Big Mouth Buzz with Diaz on vocals. The band only lasted long enough to record a few demos (one of which, "NYC," found its way onto a compilation released by the Arlington club J. Gilligan's) and to play live once -- sitting in on a cover band's set at a Mexican restaurant -- before Gomez decamped for Portland, Oregon.

Hembree vowed never to play with Gomez again, but he and Geist stuck together in Drunken Monkey. Together with Palmer (whose previous band, Dead King's Pillow, was known for extreme behavior that included picketing their own shows and cutting up plaster lawn angels with a chainsaw onstage) and Diaz (who developed his bruised choirboy voice singing in his high school chorus before he quit because "I was getting laid more by playing football"), they played music that was deliberately challenging and obtuse.

Geist, who sounds like an East Coast native although he was born in Dallas and grew up in Arlington, characterized Palmer as "a phenomenal musician, but hard to work with -- he really knew how to make you feel crappy. He'd come to rehearsal and play the whole set with his back to us; not one word was said. It was like a bad acid trip." Frustrated at the guitarist's apparent lack of interest in promoting the band, his collaborators decided to make a move. But first, they needed to find another guitarist.

Enter Steffin Ratliff, a native of the Hurst-Euless-Bedford area to the north and east of Fort Worth. A quiet, reserved individual who speaks most eloquently through his instrument, he'd been a "closet guitarist" for years before signing up for the band wars at age 20, playing in metal bands and backing former Brad Thompson's Undulating Band singer Hillary Tipps. The three ex-Drunken Monkeys approached Ratliff at the suggestion of Daddy's Soul Donut bassist Neil Schnell, and by the fall of 1998, the guitar-slinger was writing and rehearsing with them.

Around this time, Hembree received a phone call from Gomez, who'd recently returned from Portland. "He said, 'Hi, Matt,' " Hembree recalled in his best charming-Daniel-Gomez phone voice. " 'Are you in a band? I want to play in your band!' " A wary Hembree told his friend that he could come over to audition, but Gomez responded, "Fuck that! I'm coming over to join your band." Thus, the first incarnation of Bindle was born, taking their name from either a hobo's pack or a bag of heroin (although Hembree swears they were unaware of the name's meaning in druggie parlance).

From heart to head

From the get-go, it was a band with a lot of strengths. "It was the first band Matt and I were in where we weren't calling all the shots," said Gomez. Both he and Ratliff were highly melodic players with solid rhythm chops, and they managed to allow each other enough space to work comfortably together. Reformed shredder Gomez had toned down and edited his style and now voiced chords like a jazz guitarist, while Ratliff, an admirer of singer Jeff Buckley, had a penchant for mixing bluesy lines with Near Eastern-sounding scales. "It was the first time I'd ever been in a band with people that were better than me," said Ratliff, "and I was learning a lot. Before that, I mostly played with douchebags."

In the rhythm section, Hembree had musical tastes broad enough to encompass the Replacements, the Buena Vista Social Club, and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and sufficient technique to play on the first CD by the internationally-acclaimed-but-locally-obscure prog rock outfit the Underground Railroad. He'd developed near-telepathic communication with Geist, as well as an enduring respect for his sectionmate: "Kevin didn't just keep time, he played music through the medium of drums," he said. Meanwhile, up front, Tony Diaz, a fan of emo-ish alt-rockers like Weezer and Jimmy Eat World, was an ebullient and extroverted performer with a resonant, passionate voice that was equal parts bray, roar, and sob.

There's an artificial separation in a lot of people's minds (including some musicians') between technique and feeling, a phony dichotomy between head and heart. It's the kind of thinking that says, "Either you're a soulless automaton or an 'authentic' artist." If you like, you can trace it back to punk's "If you wait until you're good enough, you'll never do it" aesthetic. But while it's true that loads of musos who were barely competent have made valid statements, the problem with "rock'n'roll's an attitude, maaaan" is that it's resulted in a lot of music with only one emotion, and real people are much more complex than that.

Therein lies the secret: the more you know about your craft, the more expressive you can be. It's like having more words in your vocabulary or more colors in your palette. And while it's true that sophisto musos have sometimes failed by letting their chops rather than their sensibilities guide their art, the real irony is that as levels of musicianship have risen higher and higher, the lowest common denominator of mass audience taste seems to have commensurately fallen. Myself, I'd say the rot settled in sometime in the '90s, when young people with no historical awareness became the decisionmakers of the mainstream music industry. The result of that pattern and the stultifying groupthink of consultant-programmed radio has been a large number of listeners who, in Frank Zappa's words, "wouldn't know good music if it bit them on the ass." (And if great music happens but nobody hears it, did it ever really exist at all?)

Worse, in recent years, it seems as though many musicians have internalized the marketer's tendency to classify and categorize music, and lots of bands seem to have only one idea by design -- this one sounds like Radiohead, that one sounds like Whiskeytown, this other one sounds like the Stooges. Bindle was more eclectic and original than that. "We all listened to different stuff," said Ratliff, and Diaz added, "When we were writing, if we came up with something that sounded like something else that was popular, we'd discard it."

Viewed in the context of their time, it's possible that Bindle's varied sound, shaped by a variety of diverse influences, was an impediment to its success: their audience didn't know what pigeonhole to put them in. Sure, musicians who saw them uniformly dug 'em, but who cares what musicians like? The boys in Bindle weren't hippified enough to appeal to a jam-band audience, and they were too, uh, seasoned and mature for the pop-rock kids. (The youngest bandmembers were already in their mid-20s by the time Bindle got together.) More detrimental to the band's longevity was its personnel instability. "Members were always joining and leaving," said Hembree. "We never had a lineup that lasted more than six or nine months."

"Safe jazz for white people"

Early demos, recorded at the Echo Lab in Denton with engineer Dave Willingham, demonstrate the "Mk 1" Bindle's range. "Princess" was as close as they ever came to a conventional post-grunge alt-rock song, replete with Hendrixoid arpeggios and a rather subdued feedback solo from Gomez. "Pop Tart" was a sprightly pop-punk tune, transformed by an ultra-distorted mix into a claustrophobic slab of grinding white noise worthy of Nine Inch Nails, obscuring the already-cryptic line "I've broken a covenant / With my toaster oven." "Sunrise," uncharitably described on as "safe jazz for white people" -- an example of Rawk people's puzzling tendency to automatically label any song that employs major seventh and minor seventh chords as "jazz" -- was in fact a leisurely-paced vignette of city life, reminiscent of something off Innervisions. Diaz even duetted with his overdubbed self a la Stevie Wonder.

Recordings of some early live Bindle shows also survive. "5 Days Gone" has a loose-limbed, loping jam-band feel and a modal melody that blends Indian spice with Diaz' Iberian soul. "Clean" starts out as an ominous, brooding number in 7/8 time, giving way to a lighter 3/4 section where Gomez and Ratliff intertwine snaky lines, sounding for all the world like the Tom Verlaine-Richard Lloyd guitar tandem in NYC art-punks Television. For "Hand," Ratliff plays a vibrato-laden bassline while Hembree creates a bed of "white noise guitar" for Gomez' jangling rhythm. "Luckiest Day" grooves like an alt-rock version of Steely Dan, with the rhythm section playing elastic funk underneath guitars that alternately chatter and sing.

The original Bindle lineup made a single foray into a "real" studio, recording "The View" as a project for a friend who was studying recording technology at Dallas Sound Labs. "The student engineer sat behind the board and had some things set up," Hembree recalled. "There was this older engineer who'd walk through the control room from time to time, listen, say something like 'Take 3dB off here,' and it'd sound fantastic. That guy must have had the greatest ears in the world." Diaz gave the others a scare when he left the studio to pick up a djembe drum he was planning to play on the session at precisely the moment when they were ready to record his vocals. "Even though we weren't paying for the session, Daniel couldn't wait to tell on me," Diaz laughed. The result of the day's work is a slice of funky rock that features Hembree locking it in the pocket with Geist's deft hi-hat work, Gomez picking a syncopated line on acoustic while harmonizing vocally with Diaz, and Ratliff playing shimmering chords on a tremelo-heavy electric.

Not long after recording "The View," Daniel Gomez unexpectedly bowed out of Bindle. None of his bandmates can recall a particular incident that led to his departure, but Geist said, "[Gomez] had just got married, he had a kid in Oregon, and he was having trouble with his carpal tunnel." Gomez simply told Hembree, "Oh, by the way, I'm not going to be playing in the band anymore."

Perversely, Gomez then turned around and started engineering demos for the edition of Bindle -- Diaz, Ratliff, Hembree, and Giest -- that he says is his favorite. "I was tired of the jam-band aspects of Bindle," said Gomez. "The level of musicianship was high, but that just meant that if there was ever a space in the music, someone would have to fill it. I wanted to do something a little more focused and accessible. So I quit playing for awhile to concentrate on writing and learning how to record a band." Gomez is nothing if not intentional, and he'd grown tired of working in the studio with unsympathetic engineers. So, in the best DIY fashion, he started accumulating recording gear and building a home studio. The Bindle demos he recorded, besides documenting the band at a peak of creativity, also served as a laboratory for him to learn the technical aspects of recording.

Diaz responded to Gomez' departure by penning "Before," the lyrics to which concluded, "No parting words for a friend / So does he know that we've put an end / To walking out and coming in again?" Ironically, the lineup change led to a sound more in line with what Gomez was envisioning -- more streamlined, more emotionally direct, more overtly melodic.

"He always said that less is more"

Post-Gomez, Bindle began venturing out from its normal stomping grounds -- the Wreck Room and the Aardvark in Fort Worth, Club Dada in Dallas, J. Gilligan's in Arlington -- and making road trips to Austin and San Angelo. At J. Gilligan's, they'd play three-hour shows that mixed their originals with covers of Ben Folds, the Beastie Boys, Cake, and other popular artists of the day. (It's surprising how few "modern rock" bands play more than a single 45-minute set anymore. Not long ago, I was reminiscing with David "Kid" Daniel, bassist for the punk-era band the Fort Worth Cats, about a late-'70s club that paid bands $150 to play until 4 AM. Those days, perhaps thankfully, are long gone.)

At San Angelo's Steel Penny Pub, Ratliff would spend time talking music and trading CDs with a sympathetic fellow musician, whom Geist would invariably refer to as "Steffin's boyfriend" on the trip home. The night before one San Angelo trip, Geist had his car broken into and his drums stolen, necessitating a quick trip to a music store to buy a replacement set. Not surprisingly, Bindle never made money on the road. Reception was good, but crowds were small.

A show recorded at the Wreck Room in late November 2000 reveals that the "Mk 2" lineup had a remarkably full live sound for just three instruments. Hembree was a rhythmically solid and melodically inventive bassist who provided the music's center. Reduced to a single guitar, Ratliff was free to up the band's Rawk quotient, playing more aggressively on tunes like "Revengeance" and "Anonymity." On "Spinning," inspired by Diaz' experience dealing with diabetes, the band was particularly intense, conjuring a sense of dread akin to that evoked by Reggie Rueffer's Hochimen at their darkest. The sci-fi theme of "Robot" (and Ratliff's tortuously melodic solo) masked some metaphorical Diaz social comment. Of the new tunes, only the Caribbean-flavored "Blink" (unfortunately saddled with some rather pedestrian lyrics) and the galloping riff tune "Mosca" retained the funk-rock feel of earlier Bindle.

The Gomez-recorded demos include what all the bandmembers agree are some of their finest moments. Diaz' lyrics to "Yusuf," rich with lovely lines like "Standing in the market of moon and star ... Voices like stones break this heart," were inspired by the story of Brit folk-rocker Cat Stevens' spiritual awakening. The band's arrangement complements the song's soaring melody, the rhythm section's supple groove providing a platform for arcing flights of Ratliff guitar that underline the lyric's sense of longing.

When performed live, "10,000 Miles" proved to be an audience favorite, and it contains a line that neatly encapsulates the Bindle experience, in a way: "I'm drifting into unknown space, falling back towards the Earth and landing on my face." On the demo version, Diaz wears his heart on his sleeve, as was becoming his wont, while the music washes over the listener like a bath of melody, with Ratliff's guitar effectively functioning as a second lead voice and sounding, oddly enough, not unlike Daniel Gomez'.

In sharp contrast to the lyricism of those songs stands the churning vat of angst that is "Helicopter," with Diaz lyrics "about following your dreams, even if it kills you." Most surprising of all, in light of all the Bindle music that had preceded it, was "State of Girl," a full-on, pumping rocker (albeit one with a chorus in 7/8 time) inspired by a friend of Ratliff's -- "one of those girls that calls you whenever she needs help or fun or is in trouble," according to Hembree, whose bass on the track, in dropped-D tuning, rumbles like a locomotive while Geist's snare hits ring like rifle shots.

"I'm not going to be here next year"

The members of Bindle had a number of connections to Fort Worth's theater community. In fact, Diaz, Ratliff, and Hembree had appeared onstage in a Fort Worth Theatre production of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, for which they performed traditional Mexican music as well as songs by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Ratliff was also friends with some members of an improvisational comedy troupe called Fuzzy Logic that appeared at the Ridglea Theater and employed a 22-year-old musician named Justin Pate to accompany their performances.

Pate was a stage kid who grew up singing, acting, and tapdancing at Fort Worth's Casa Manana Theatre. In high school, he'd drummed and sung with a Weezer-ish band called the Visitors, who shared stages with pint-sized Dallas post-grunge contenders Radish. He'd learned piano fundamentals through childhood lessons and had a natural ear for intervals, which aided him greatly in coming up with extemporaneous scores for Fuzzy Logic's spur-of-the-moment creations. Hembree and Ratliff were sufficiently impressed to want to draft him into Bindle as a keyboardist -- even though he didn't own an instrument and had to use Hembree's "shitty Yamaha PSR540" for most of his tenure in the band. Pate jumped at the opportunity: a fan of Drunken Monkey as well as the Beatles and Phish, he felt "honored to be playing with some of my idols." "Even before he knew all the songs, he'd join in on percussion," said Geist. "Or he'd play drums on one song while I played keyboards. It was fun. Then we heard him sing some of his own songs and thought, 'Hmm, here's another voice.' "

Together, this "Mk 3" version of Bindle composed two songs that are as good as anything the band ever wrote. "Red Hair," with tag-team lead vocals by Diaz and Pate, follows the trajectory of a flirtation, from its beginning as infatuation to its inevitable end in disillusionment tempered with hope, which only makes the final "I think I found the one" more poignant. Musically, it was Bindle's poppiest statement yet and the band's most straight-ahead rocker since "Pop Tart." Diaz wrote "Automatic" as a sequel to "Robot" and in some ways, the music the band plays behind his words is the culmination of Bindle -- a stately architectonic construction of heart-rending melody.

All was not well within the ranks, however. "I hadn't felt like I really belonged in Bindle for a few months," said Diaz. Plagued by relationship problems, he was on edge emotionally and becoming unreliable. There were also musical differences between the singer and Ratliff and Geist. "His vocal style was really busy," said Geist. "I thought the music should have more space." Things reached critical mass during a rehearsal at Geist's house, while Diaz was visiting family in south Texas. The musicians were fine-tuning material in preparation for the recording of their debut CD (at First Street Audio with engineer Bart Rose) when the guitarist and drummer expressed reluctance to record with Diaz and pushed to have Pate front the band. Hembree was shocked. "We almost broke up," he said. "Hindsight being 20/20, I should have let it go and not tried to keep the band going at that point." When Diaz returned from south Texas, Hembree fired him from Bindle. "Everyone was tired of Tony," said Hembree. "I drew the short straw."

With a CD to record and a show to play a week later, Pate quickly learned the lyrics to 20 songs -- a feat that's become the subject of local legend. "He was nervous, but he did a great job and got good audience response," said Geist. The band recorded seven songs from their existing repertoire -- "10,000 Miles," "Automatic," "Blink," "Helicopter," "Pop Tart," "Red Hair," and "Yusuf" -- as well as a Visitors-era Pate composition, "Next Year." (A vocals-only mix of "Pop Tart" was intended for use as a "hidden track" on the CD.) In the studio, Hembree said, Pate sang all of the backing vocals because "we'd run out of money at that point, and getting a decent harmony track out of me or Steffin was not in the budget any more." Only four of the tracks were mastered before the band's demise (for a demo that was never used), and another song from the sessions -- "Yusuf" -- holds the distinction of being the only Bindle tune to see an "official" release (on the First Street Sessions Vol. 2 compilation, credited to "Bindle, lyrics by Tony Diaz").

The result of this last-ditch effort is both the best local CD you've never heard and less than it might have been. The tunes are strong and fully realized, and the instrumental work is uniformly brilliant, but Pate's singing, while pleasant, competent, and arguably more commercial than Diaz', falls short in emotional depth and range on intensely personal lyrics like "10,000 Miles," "Automatic," "Helicopter," and "Yusuf." His wry, Ben Folds-ian delivery is most effective on the lighter, poppier items like "Pop Tart" (with Hembree injecting a couple of bars of Tejano polka at the end of one verse) and "Red Hair." Pate's finest recorded moment comes on the self-composed confessional ditty "Next Year," with its anthemic bridge leading into a rousing Ratliff solo. But the spark had gone out of the band. According to Hembree, "We were finished before we ever went into the studio." Whether or not he realized it, when he sang "I'm not going to be here next year," Pate was telling the truth.

By the time of the Bindle First Street sessions, Pate and Ratliff were already performing with a newly-formed reggae outfit, Pablo and the Hemphill 7. Pablo frontman Joe Vano had recruited them with some trepidation. "Bindle was [Pablo bassist] Marcus [Lawyer]'s favorite band, and I loved them, too," Vano said. "We were afraid -- we didn't want to be the reason they broke up. But those guys told us that it wasn't about that; they'd been heading that way for awhile." When Hembree announced to the local music press in late January 2002 that the band was folding the tent, it seemed like a formality.

Bindle played their last show ever on February 7, 2002, in the lounge at the Ridglea Theater, opening for Midlake. In the audience were Tony Diaz and Daniel Gomez, who recalls, "It was a little awkward being there, because I was the guy who quit and Tony was the guy who got fired. But we said, 'What the hell, it's their last show.' We got there, and Tony said, 'Wow, I think this is the most people that have ever come out to see Bindle.' At the end, though , the audience started drifting away. It was kinda sad, but at the same time, it seemed fitting."


A week later, Pablo and the Hemphill 7 opened a show at the Ridglea for reggae icon Bob Marley's band, the Wailers. By that time, Geist had returned to school to finish a computer science degree, while Gomez and Diaz had begun writing and recording demos together in the band that would evolve into Goodwin. Their original intent was to perform with a revolving cast of bass players and drummers. (They even had Kevin Geist back on board for one show at Club Dada.) Finding a bassist for their first show proved to be problematic, however. One day, Diaz received a phone call at work. "I knew it was going to be Daniel," he said. "Matt's name was never spoken. Daniel just said, 'Um, I haven't had any luck finding a bass player.' I said, 'Oh, no...not him.' " And so, once again, Hembree, Gomez, and Diaz were in a band together.

Goodwin made a CD that I've called "the best rock record I've heard in five years." Through the wonder of e-commerce, they've sold copies to fans as far away as Finland and Australia. (The internet has opened up unprecedented opportunities for independent distribution to those savvy enough to exploit them.) Among other things, they're the embodiment of the vision Daniel Gomez had when he left Bindle.

Pablo and the Hemphill 7 are one of the most popular bands in Fort Worth. They spent a year playing four-hour gigs of mostly cover tunes in any venue that would have them, then retrenched to concentrate on developing their original music. You can hear echoes of Bindle in their Beatlesque song "Picture This," sung by Pate. When Pablo's not working, Steffin Ratliff lends his guitar (and bass) to the moody alt-rockers Sleepy Atlantis (for whom Pate occasionally drums) and arty Dentonites the Shining Time. For his part, Pate is also a regular member of the free-form jazzy funkateers Confusatron and the "indie-soul" outfit Horses. He says that one day, he wants to have his own band. When he does, he'll find a long line of local musicians waiting to sign on.

Some people will tell you that to survive the long haul, a band has to be like a family -- perhaps a very dysfunctional one, but a family nonetheless. There are bonds of friendship between musicians that can survive years of musical and personal differences. The six men who made up Bindle continue to hold each other in high regard. (The first time I talked to Daniel Gomez, he told me, "Steffin Ratliff is the most underrated guitarist in the Metroplex.") When I started contacting the principals about this story, almost every one of them told me that one or the other of their former bandmates wouldn't want to talk about Bindle. But get a few of them together and their pride in what they accomplished as a band is palpable. Sitting in the corner of a club over many beers, they'll recall details of shows they played together years ago -- the alchemy that takes place in the interstices between intention and execution, when musicians know each other well enough to perform with abandon.

Listen: It's happening out there somewhere, tonight. It's your favorite music -- you just haven't heard it yet. You might not know the name of the band, and you might never hear of them again. But if you're lucky enough to be there, you'll be part of the Moment.

ADDENDUM (9.16.2015): Apparently, Uncle Pete's Parade singer Tony Williams (aka The World Famous Tony Williams) is Kanye West's first cousin and backup singer. Which probably means he's made more money off music than everyone else mentioned in this story. Who'd a thunk it?

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Dave and Daver

In what must surely be one of the most bizarre recent developments in the political economy of Clubland, it seems that straightahead jazz has become an underground music.

Dave Karnes is talking: "I played a gig with this piano player who also books the bands for five Sambucca's all over Texas. I figured it'd be an opportunity to book the band." (That'd be Dave and Daver -- the sterling outfit, co-led by drummer's drummer Karnes and tenorman Dave Williams, that recently relinquished the Wednesday night slot at The Moon on West Berry in favor of the more jazz-friendly environs of the Black Dog Tavern.) "When I suggested that, he asked what kind of music we played. I told him it sounded like '60s stuff. He went 'Oh -- so you're traditional. We aren't really booking anything like that right now."

Dave Williams chimes in: "A trumpet player I know had a gig at Sambucca's in Dallas. When they started setting up, the manager came up to him and said, 'I'm sorry, but this isn't a trumpet room.' " One wonders what instruments might be deemed acceptable by the Sambucca management. (No doubt those operated by the members of the Yellowjackets. Or, uh, Spyrogyra.)

Still, on a Wednesday in October, the small house at the Black Dog included a disproportionately high number of drummers, on hand to check out Karnes' impressive chops and swing. On a break, Goodwin/Pablo and the Hemphill 7 stickman Damien Stewart was schooling Karnes on some of his crowd-pleasing stick-twirling techniques in exchange for a demonstration of a particularly tricky hi-hat flourish. Justin Pate (who plays drums for Sleepy Atlantis, although he's better known for the keyboards he contributes to Pablo, Confusatron, and Horses) hovered nearby, taking it all in, while teenage firebrand Cooper Heffley sat at a table talking to Williams. When Heffley took over the drum throne during the next set, an audience member snidely commented, "A lot of drummers can groove, but only a few can swing."

"He'll get it by the time he's my age," said Karnes, who just turned 30. "As long as he keeps listening."

At the Jazz By the Boulevard festival back in September, which managed to redress last year's oversight by booking pianist Johnny Case with a quintet but was unable to offer a payday sufficient to lure the legendary and elusive drummer and composer Ronald Shannon Jackson out of his Northside abode, Dave and Daver were just about the only straightahead item (besides Case) on a bill headlined by the Yellowjackets and a Latin jazz orchestra. In the event, their set was called because of rain -- the only 15 minutes of inclement weather in the whole two days -- and although the festival organizers at least had the decency to pay the band, it was still a disappointment.

It was nothing new to Karnes, who used to receive thunderous applause everytime he'd ask the crowd at the Moon, "Who likes rock'n'roll?" -- at least in comparison with the lukewarm response he'd get to his follow-up question: "Who likes the jazz?" That has to be a tough pill to swallow for Karnes, who still plays rock for the bucks and fast times, but whose innermost heart really belongs to the jazz that he studied at Boston's prestigious Berklee School of Music. Some guys are just gluttons for punishment.

Since taking over Wednesday nights at the Black Dog, Dave and Daver, whose engagement there is billed as a "jam," have started a new policy: their first set consists entirely of original material which evokes the dark, cerebral mystery of classic early '60s artists like Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson. They have a full-length CD in the can, tentatively titled More Daver Than Dave, since Williams picked the tunes. (A Williams-penned feature for Karnes goes by the handle "More Dave Than Daver." Myself, I'm holding out for Davest.)

Besides the new emphasis on originals, the shift from the Moon to the Black Dog has brought some other changes to Dave and Daver. Longtime bassist Brandon Nelson has been replaced by Jonathan Fisher, a fiery improviser who seems to dance behind the bass. Also, guitarist Keith Wingate is also gone from the lineup. Without a harmonic instrument, the spaciousness of the sound makes it easier to hear the contours of the compositions and the extended improvisations by Williams and trumpeter-flutist Chris White. With no disrespect to Johnny Case or Joey Carter (who's been holding forth on Thursday nights at Ron's Cafe on Pennsylvania), it's the freshest jazz show in town. If anybody cares.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Chatterton's Prescription #1

This is my favorite record right now, and it's not even a record yet.

See, last weekend, Kevin Aldridge and his new band Chatterton were at First Street Audio over on Bluebonnet Circle in Fort Worth with Jordan Richardson behind the controls, cutting three songs -- "Decisions," "Loving You Is Giving Up" (a song that destroys me every time I hear Kevin singing "There's a touch of love in everyone, where is yours"), and "A Good Place To Start" -- for major label shoppage. Next week, they'll be up at the Echo Lab in Denton with Matt Barnhart (the dude who did the duty on Brasco's swan song EP Sings Tunes the Young People Will Enjoy) recording three more, with the same idea in mind. To these feedback-scorched ears, the results of the First Street sessions sound like finished work, and Kevin himself allows that they're "the best thing I've ever done." And remember: These guys have only been a band since August.

When I paid a visit to the studio, Kevin was crashed out on the couch while his dog, Trapper, who had just arrived from California, was checking things out. (And don't worry, Bart -- Trap was a perfect gentleman.) Chris Edmiston -- the only guitarist on Earth whom you have to tell to turn up -- was adding his part to "Decisions," which includes a hook that's key to the song. Things were going incredibly smoothly so far; the rhythm section of Joshua Loewen (formerly, apologies to his ex-bandmates, the Talent in Voigt) on bass and Kenny Smith on drums had recorded rhythm beds for three songs on Thursday, then utility musician extraordinaire Scott Davis laid down his lap steel and piano parts before taking off for the hill country with his wife. "You guys finish it," he said. (In this context, he and his Woodeye bandmate Kenny are merely applying the ample experience they've acquired in making Carey Wolff's songs sound good to a new situation where they have more creative input.) Kevin was expecting his guitar parts to go slowly, but he managed to squeeze out good takes in just a couple of hours.

Chris was having trouble with some volume pedal swells that lead into the song's intense outro, but he got a lot of help from his bandmates (and make no mistake, Chatterton is a band in the best sense of the word, most definitely more than just "Kevin Aldridge with backing musicians"). In the live Chatterton shows I've seen, something -- maybe the "self-service" sound systems at the Black Dog Tavern and the Moon, more likely his own self-effacing nature -- has always made it hard to hear Chris, but at First Street, Jordan made sure that wasn't a problem. The sound filtering from Chris' hollowbody instrument through the speakers into the control booth was full and harmonic-rich, always teetering on the brink of a feedback abyss. And Kenny's drums sounded HUGE. His playing on the track is spare but powerful, much more so than it'd be if he played a busier part. Finally Chris nailed the effect -- he said he'd been holding back because his guitar was so loud in the headphone mix, but he finally understood what was needed after Jordan went into the studio to confer with him. Later, he confided, "I love doing this -- seeing something develop in the studio. If I could, I'd do this all the time and never play live. After you're done, though, you always have to learn how to play the song live again, based on all the things you learned."

Next, Kenny added some percussion overdubs -- a tambourine part to "Good Place," some dramatic cymbal washes to "Giving Up" -- before it was time for Kevin's vocals. On "Decisions," the band spent the first half of the tune building an ever-increasing sense of dread and menace (with Joshua's tremelo-swathed bass sounding almost like a person breathing) as Kevin sang "Someone makes decisions, someone makes decisions for me." They paused in the middle, like the calm before a storm, before reaching a climax that sounded more like the world (or the singer's tenuous grip on sanity) flying apart than any mere release of tension -- a precisely controlled apocalypse, which gave it that much more impact than your stereotypical tuneless shrieking and thrashing would've had. Kevin's voice is supernaturally high and clear, like a less-operatic Roy Orbison or a more beaten-down Raul Malo, and on the outro, he pushed it way over the top, practically screaming the repeated refrain "I'll never learn" as Chris' feedback approximated the sound of an EKG monitor flatlining: hair-raising, goosebump-on-arm stuff. Listening to Kevin nail his vocal, Jordan grinned from ear to ear and enthused, "I love good singers." When the take was over, Kenny the drummer looked up from his magazine and deadpanned, "Well, I guess he'll never learn."

The players in Chatterton are all sympathetic accompanists, skilled at focusing on the needs of the song rather than their own egos, and the result is music with a lot more dynamic variation than Kevin ever enjoyed in Brasco, a band which employed a revolving cast of rhythm section players and tended to start shows at one (high) level and stay there. On "Giving Up," Kevin takes a song that's already at a peak of emotional intensity to a whole other level with a soaring vocal crescendo, leading into a smoldering Aldridge guitar break that's like the distilled essence of all that's best in Neil Young's style. "A Good Way to Start" finds Chatterton in more conventional indie-rock territory (Counting Crows fans will dig it), propelled by Kenny's crashing cymbals and Scott Davis' swirling organ, highlighted by a succinct solo statement from Chris. "I'm just an old script everyone wants to rewrite," sings Kevin, echoing a sentiment he's expressed in song before. At this point, though, perhaps he's ready to take control of his own destiny.

Contrary to his predictions at the band's inception, Chatterton is developing into, well, a rock band, albeit one of unusual emotional depth and expressive range. They have the potential to take the local, national, hell, planetary scene by storm. And again, they're only just beginning.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Mingus, Wilson, Watt

I don't buy many records nowadays and when I do I'm usually disappointed and wind up selling them to Half Price Books, whose employees greet my arrival in much the same way as the army of feral cats in the Fort Worth Stockyards, where I work, greets the coming of the myriad of crazy cat ladies who feed them. Just recently, though, I've scored three of 'em (records, that is, or I suppose I should say CDs to avoid sounding antique) I'm probably going to keep. One of 'em (The Great Concert of Charles Mingus) is a reissue -- much improved, of course, as these things tend to be -- of something I owned on vinyl a million years ago, which just might be my favorite record (sorry, CD) of all time. Another (Brian Wilson Presents Smile) is the legendary lost masterpiece of a demented genius that's only seeing the light of day 37 years after it was originally supposed to appear. The last (The Secondman's Middle Stand) is the long-awaited new work by a relatively younger artist (i.e., a guy who's my age): punk-era icon and hard-touring muso's muso Mike Watt. All three works are evidence of how disaster can be transformed into something transcendent and enduring.

First, the Mingus. As the title implies, it's the recording of a complete show (minus the encore) that the titanic bassist-composer played in Paris back in 1964, during a turbulent and much-bootlegged tour of Europe with a band that included the ebullient pianist Jaki Byard and doomed multi-reedman/avant-garde avatar Eric Dolphy. (Mingus' onstage patter includes a sardonic "Thanks" to promoter George Wein, who was returning to New York the following day "while we finish our 19 days or whatever." A posthumous release on Mingus' wife's label of an earlier Paris performance was entitled Revenge!) The night before this particular show, trumpeter Johnny Coles collapsed and had to be hospitalized; the concert proper (following a solo overture by Byard, the recording of which was omitted from earlier releases of this set) begins with the introduction of both the musicians and Coles' trumpet, which was placed onstage on top of its case. The show had started hours past its scheduled time, after midnight in fact, and press reports had the musicians leaving the sold-out hall to eat. No matter. Mingus was at the peak of his powers back then, meaning he was something akin to a force of nature, carrying the entire history of jazz on his back. Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Ellington, Parker, church music, blues, and what Waller called "the Spanish tinge" are just a few of the sounds you'll hear in this roiling vat of emotions, which boasts as many thematic peaks and valleys as Mingus' tumultuous 1963 masterpiece The Black Saint and Sinner Lady. Mingus was angry and politicized, too, to a greater degree than most of his jazz contemporaries; indeed, the climactic pieces of each hour of this set are "Fables of Faubus," a darkly humorous rant against the anti-integration governor of Arkansas ca. 1954 (greatly expanded from the version released on 1959's classic Mingus Ah Hum), and "Meditations on Integration," perhaps Mingus' greatest composition, an epic and ruminative tone poem inspired by the concentration camps that Dolphy told Mingus were being prepared for Civil Rights protestors.

You can hear the musicians (particularly Byard) struggling to fill in the holes left in the arrangements by Coles' absence, but it doesn't detract from their performances. Byard is as saturated with jazz tradition as Mingus, often flashing the striding left hand that many of his post-Bud Powell peers eschewed and occasionally venturing into atonality with Cecil Taylor-ish clusters. The opening number, "So Long Eric," is dedicated to Dolphy, who'd just announced his intention to stay in Europe at the end of the tour. (He'd die of heart failure in Berlin a couple of months later at age 32.) Previous releases inexplicably listed this tune as "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" and cobbled together takes of the song from two different nights, managing to omit Dolphy's solo altogether. It's available for the first time on this reissue in a marvelous, complete take complete with Dolphy's solo. Throughout the proceedings, whether he's playing alto sax, bass clarinet, or flute, Dolphy's voice is alternately playful, searching, and strident, and he sounds as vibrantly alive here as he ever did on record. (Dig him and the underrated tenorman Clifford Jordan as they comment on each other's solos during the Charlie Parker tribute "Parkeriana.") On bass, Mingus slings around great slabs of sound like an angry god, communicates near-telepathically with his longtime drummer Dannie Richmond to create a mosaic of shifting tempos and changing accompaniments, and plays a lovely solo version of Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady." Mingus' Great Concert is like an entire world compressed into just over two hours' worth of music.

Brian Wilson's Smile accomplishes much the same thing, in a very different idiom. Back in the '60s, the mythic southern California Wilson created with the Beach Boys seduced an awful lot of people, including the future Sir Paul McCartney (who spent the most interesting portion of the Beatles' trajectory chasing Wilson), and Brian did it all by himself, without any daddy George Martin to help put it together. Along with those other archetypal L.A. weirdoes Phil Spector and Frank Zappa, Wilson's pop creations have stood the test of time better than the trippy self-indulgences of the San Francisco hippies who originally dismissed them as "plastic." Like Spector and Zappa, Wilson was a pure creation of America who synthesized seemingly disparate elements -- in his case, Aaron Copland, the Four Freshmen, a bit of doo-wop, a dollop of Spectorsound, a dash of Chuck Berry -- into something quite strikingly original, and at his best (the bridge to "In My Room," the intro to "California Girls," all of "Don't Worry Baby" and Pet Sounds), he could be quite magnificent. Smile, heralded as "a teenage symphony to God," was supposed to be his masterpiece. Instead, it proved to be the high water mark of an unfulfilled talent when Wilson, always massively insecure, caved under the pressures of living up to the hype surrounding his work. Popular myth holds that during its making, Wilson lived in a tent on the floor of his bedroom, which he'd had covered with sand. For the sessions that produced the original version of "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," he'd had the assembled musicians wear red plastic fireman's helmets, but he later destroyed the master tape when he became convinced that his music had caused the outbreak of a series of fires around L.A. Truly, the kid was wound too tight. Bits and pieces of Smile trickled out over the years ("Good Vibrations," "Heroes and Villains," "Cabin Essence," "Surf's Up"), but the larger work remained unheard by the mass-ass audience while Brian suffered the ignominy of watching the Mike Love-led Beach Boys debasing his legacy at county fairs from coast to coast and he himself was duped and exploited by his therapist and wannabe Svengali, Elliott Landy.

The late-'90s resurgence of interest in all the cooler parts of the '60s (The Zombies! Garage punk! Soul music!) led inevitably to a Brian Wilson revival and thankfully, he had recovered enough of his faculties to capitalize on it. A Pet Sounds box set was duly issued and he even toured behind it, performing the complete album with a full orchestra. Perhaps his handlers had noted the example of Pete Townshend, who continued to generate income throughout the last decade by periodically retooling one of his larger works (Tommy, Quadrophenia, Lifehouse) and incidentally found that, relieved of the responsibility of having to create new material, he was able to enjoy playing live again. Wilson, who'd ceased performing with the Beach Boys four decades previously, had a lot more demons to overcome than Townshend and surprised a lot of people when he teamed up with a relatively young L.A. band called the Wondermints to re-record Smile and take it on the road as well. Myself, I avoided the show when it came to Dallas -- I'd had a creepy-weird encounter with an arenaful of Who fans in their 50s and 60s a few years back, and didn't want to repeat the experience. But I was curious about the CD. Could it really be worth all the fuss?

The short answer is yes. We can only guess what this music would have meant if it had been released in 1967, but it stands up well today, absent any expectations of earthshaking Significance. The previously unreleased material isn't filler, and the three suites that comprise the album hang together well. Van Dyke Parks' lyrics are pretty much impenetrable, but that's fine. The music glistens and sparkles, and the harmonies are lush, all capped with Wilson's still-distinctive falsetto (a little worn, but in a good way). An unexpected discovery: notwithstanding its veneer of positivity and spirituality, this is the saddest music I can imagine, everywhere tinged with regret and actually disturbing in places ("Vega-Tables," which is as cracked as anything Pink Floyd's founding acid casualty Syd Barrett ever produced, and the "fire music" of "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow"). The kids from Omaha with the bad haircuts have nothing on this weird old guy from L.A. Having recently reached a point myself where I realize on a visceral level that I have fewer years in front of me than I have behind and accept the fact that there isn't going to be some future event that's going to make everything better; this is it -- I find it oddly comforting and reassuring that a man can endure all manner of trials and tribulations, including the disintegration of his personality, and survive to not only put back together the pieces of his life, but complete his masterpiece, even if it's nearly 40 years late. It's enough to give a person -- well, hope.

Hope and affirmation are not qualities most people associate with punk-rock, but maybe that just shows the limits of their imagination. Since his days in the Minutemen, Mike Watt has never hewed to anybody's idea of punk orthodoxy; indeed, the Minutemen's creed was "Punk-rock is whatever we make it." They meant it, too. Exploding out of the seaport town of San Pedro onto the incipient L.A. hardcore scene, they played music that was more agile and funkier than any of their peers', declaiming political messages while proudly claiming John Fogerty and Blue Oyster Cult as inspirations. Since recovering from the death of his best friend and bandleader D. Boon in a 1985 highway accident, Watt has toured relentlessly with a series of bands including fIREHOSE (essentially the Minutemen with a different frontman), Porno for Pyros, the bass duo Dos, the free improv outfit Banyan, and his own solo outfits. Until he was laid low by a near-fatal illness in 2000, he's never stopped or even slowed down. In some ways he has the best of both worlds, recording for a major label while continuing to "jam econo," touring by van, crashing with friends and fans in each city he visits in true DIY style. The tour diaries on his website , written in the engaging amalgam of beatnik jive, Spanglish, and sailor's slang he calls "Pedrospeak" after his hometown, are a must-read.

Watt's solo records (1995's all-star Ball-Hog or Tugboat? and 1997's "punk opera" Contemplating the Engine Room preceded this one) are admittedly an acquired taste, largely due to his idiosyncratic vocal quality. In person, he comes across like a character from Cannery Row or one of Harry Partch's hobos from "Barstow" -- possessed of a sense of wonder unusual in a middle-aged man and an attitude of gratitude that lots of other musos could beneficially emulate -- and he sings that way, too: technically limited but almost painfully genuine and sincere. The Secondman's Middle Stand tells the story of "that illness": an internal abscess of the perineum that was misdiagnosed as the flu and nearly killed Watt before he was saved by emergency surgery. (During his lengthy convalescence, Watt reacquainted himself with the bass by playing Stooges songs. Since then, he's played Stooge music in a variety of contexts, several of them with original Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton. For his trouble, Iggy Pop picked him to play bass on the road with the reformed Stooges last year. Lucky Watt.)

Another Watt inspiration: Dante's Divine Comedy. Like that work and Wilson's Smile, Watt's new piece is divided into three sections that roughly correspond to Dante's Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Each of those sections consists of three songs that conclude with a self-portrait of Watt at different points in his ordeal. There are three men in his band, too: himself, organist Pete Mazich, and drummer Jerry Trebotic (replaced on tour by young Pedroite Raul Morales). In civilian life, Pete and Jerry are longshoremen in Pedro. Sho nuff, the band is an organ trio, but it's closer sonically to Deep Purple than Jimmy Smith or MMW -- and that's not a slam. At times, Watt uses a whole array of devices to shape his sound and play "lead bass," kinda like he did on the Minutemen's cover of BOC's "The Red and the Black" (still a Watt live staple). The interplay between the musos is more important than any one solo voice, though. The music is alternately dramatic and intense ("Burstedman," "The Angels Gate"), trippy and ethereal ("Beltsandedman," "Pelicanman"), even gentle and whimsical ("Pluckin', Pedalin' and Paddlin'") and sounds like it'll be a gas to see live (which we plan to do when Watt and his crew hit the Gypsy Tea Room in Deep Ellum in November).

These days, like (I suspect) a lot of folks who cheered when we heard Neil Young singing "It's better to burn out than it is to rust" in the aftermath of punk, I'm starting to have second thoughts re: the relative merits of checking out early versus sticking around long enough to decay naturally. Like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation and Richard Serra's giant sculpture Vortex, 2002 that sits outside the Modern Art Museum here in Fort Worth, Mike Watt and Brian Wilson are finding some interesting ways to rust -- same way Charles Mingus did before he checked out from Lou Gehrig's disease, first week of 1979. I should also add that as much shit as I like to talk about major labels, it's nice to see that at least a couple of 'em (Verve, Nonesuch, and Columbia released these discs) are still willing, on occasion, to, uh, subsidize the arts.