Memphis Creeps

After four years of inspired nonsense, the Oblivians remain desperate but not serious

Anybody can be dumb. Stupidity requires vision.
In rock 'n' roll, the distinction means everything. Journey was just plain dumb, but the Ramones were gloriously stoopid. Today, as always, we're overrun by dumb bands that think they're smart, earthbound in their attempts to prove their seriousness, their literary weight and their oh-so-precious angst. We all recognize these depressingly dull blades when we see 'em: matchbox 20, the Verve Pipe, Tonic, Bush, etc. Despite the best efforts of radio to drum them into your psyche, their tunes are forgotten by the time they make the voyage from one ear to the other.

But stupidity is a different kind of beast. It can be a liability when operating heavy machinery, but in rock 'n' roll, it means transcendence, freedom from responsibility and an untamed disregard for good taste. In other words, the very essence of the music.

As much as any band on the planet, the Oblivians understand that it takes a special kind of smarts to be profoundly stupid. Self-described nerds and Memphis creeps, this trio rose out of the ashes of the Compulsive Gamblers, one of the great unrecognized bands of the '90s. During the course of three albums, various singles and dozens of chaotic live shows, the Oblivians have done everything within their limited power to push rock out of the penthouse, and stick it back in the outhouse, where it belongs. In true Ramonesy fashion, they even pretend to share the same last name, even though they're clearly not related. Eric Oblivian, who shares vocal, drumming and guitar duties with his comrades Jack and Greg Oblivian, sees the band's dedication to simplicity as a direction borne of both necessity and choice.

"I think it's harder to do things simply than to add a lot of ornamentation to things," Eric says from his Memphis home. "It's a built-in limitation for us. It's not like we can sit there and play Steve Vai solos over everything. If it gets too far away from the original idea of the song, or the song gets too complicated, we don't really have too much fun playing it."

Eric adds that if he or his bandmates come in with an overly complicated song, they'll usually end up deciding to "edit it down to the main riff and yell something over and over again."

Without sounding quite like any other Memphis band, the Oblivians uncannily capture the existential desperation that comes from living in a decaying river city far removed from any cosmopolitan action. A place where you get liquored up just 'cause you can't think of anything else to do. As Eric's former boss, Shangri-La Record Store owner Sherman Willmott, once said, "You will never lose money selling alcohol in Memphis."

While the Oblivians' music is wild and urgent, it's not exactly fun in the typical sense. When they scream, "I'm not a sicko, there's a plate in my head" or invert the old Crystals tune "Then He Kissed Me" into their own furious "And Then I Fucked Her," the effect is more frightening than festive.

But what really makes the Oblivians special is their complete understanding of raw, elemental American music and how to apply it to whatever they're feeling at the moment, without stopping to intellectualize it. When they get an urge to pay tribute to their photographer, they crank out a song with the shouted refrain, "Jim Cole's got too much soul/I can't staaand it." In their own sick way, they're taking the feel of the simple Delta blues still played in juke joints near Memphis, but they give it their own trashy twist, because--unlike the Eric Claptons of the world--they love it too much to want to copy it.

"It's definitely something that you would want to aspire to, even though nobody's gonna play that stuff like those guys," Eric says. "When you go see R.L. Burnside or Junior Kimbrough, they just have this kind of timeless, supernatural groove thing that you don't get anywhere else. It's real music, rather than this indie-rock whining that's pretty disposable. It makes an impression, even if you can't try to go out and be an authentic bluesman yourself. It's real simple. It's just done right."

Much the same could be said of the Oblivians' own work, but, brilliant as they are, they can't prevent Compulsive Gamblers fans from continuing to mourn that band's demise four years ago. Jack and Greg formed the Gamblers, and dominated their sound from the beginning. If anything, the Gamblers were more desperate and nihilistic than the Oblivians, but they dressed up their malaise in some fancy settings: Booker T.-inspired soul, baroque waltzes, surf rock, and the pure-pop alchemy of their classic "Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right." At times they evoked the cabaret surrealism of Tom Waits (whose "Down in the Hole" they covered), but their offhand virtuosity--and gallows humor--was incomparable. They split up in 1993 before earning their due, but 20 of their best tracks are available on an essential Sympathy for the Record Industry album called Gambling Days Are Over.

Eric met Jack and Greg during his days working at Shangri-La, and while Greg was out touring with the notoriously raunchy '68 Comeback, Eric and Jack put together some new songs, switching off on guitar and drums from song to song. When Greg got back to town, he quickly realized they had the basis of a new, though somewhat more primitive, lineup.

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