If you stop and think about it, 10 good rock 'n' roll records released in a single year is about all you can expect. And if you're lucky, if it's been an above-average year, a few of those records might even be great. Considering the hundreds of thousands of releases that are burped forth in a 365-day stretch, 10 just seems rather pathetic, don't you think?
We're more than halfway through 2000, and a few recently released records have that air of greatness -- that weighty permanence, a usefulness. Records you can take home, and with each listen they offer something new. There's the Jayhawks' latest, Tsar's debut, Warren Zevon's comeback, and this, Speedbuggy USA's Cowboys and Aliens.
What's funny is at the outset, Cowboys and Aliens appeared to be just another 12-song batch of unabashedly backward-looking hick punk that reeked of shtick. Stuff played by guys from some smoggy metropolis who took to cowboy hats after ogling old X album jackets, adopting bad, unintentionally condescending Georgia drawls copped from Dukes of Hazzard reruns.
You know the type: dudes pompous in pompadours, with tats of pinup chicks and dice, calling places like Seattle or San Diego home, wishing upon themselves bad white-trash heredity and romanticizing states they've never set foot in, like Texas and Arizona. I thought Cowboys and Aliens was made by a bunch no less reprehensible than Mötley Crüe or the mooks that make up Limp Bizkit.
So the trendy and cynical tack here would've have been to malign the band for outfitting themselves in retro duds and adopting a by-the-numbers cowpunk posture.
But, as we all know, musical rewards are often found in the unlikeliest places. Once again, I learned never to become so jaded and bitter that I toss a record into the trade pile based on a preconceived notion drawn from a bad publicity photo or something somebody else said. As we get on in years, we grow harder to impress, our skin gets a bit thicker, our skepticism comes more from experience than pose.
Which is why I derive a more than a small sense of gratification and appreciation for this new Speedbuggy record. I mean, I'm grateful as all hell for any record that can give me the goose bumps.
Yet, Cowboys and Aliens manages to recycle nearly every punk rock and cowpoke trend to cycle through in the years immediately leading up to the demise of Jason and The Scorchers. Sure, Speedbuggy cribs shamelessly from its record collection, but it does so with a genuine consideration, with a genuine respect. The results are anything but shameful. The disc is littered with self-deprecating trash-talkin' and lovely revved-up tales of woe; and there's that necessary twist placed just at the precise moment you suspect the tune will lapse into the predictable and banal. Cowboys and Aliens is unfailingly droll and a thing of wretched, drunken splendor. A Southern twang here, pedal steel hook there, melody everywhere.
And Speedbuggy makes it all sound so easy. Good songwriting is all about making it sound easy. Picture the Supersuckers with a melody; Social D minus the AA dogma and spineless posturing; Reverend Horton Heat with a fatter grin.
You get the sense that these songs are from guys harboring an uneasy alliance with rural underbellies. It'd be no leap of imagination to picture them tipping cows under big cobalt skies, swilling draft beer from tainted taps and leaning from pickup truck windows using ivory-handled pistols to shoot out mailboxes on two-lane country highways. Guys who wouldn't think twice about using their boot heels to rudely grind out cigarettes on your front porch. It's a record made by dudes not yet done with -- or dead from -- drinking.
"Our music is extremely alcohol-fueled," chortles Speedbuggy singer/lyricist Timbo over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. He's in the process of packing for a two-week jaunt through Arizona, Texas, Louisiana and Florida. "Without alcohol, this band wouldn't be around. Believe me, I've been hunched over a toilet many days in my life."
Besides the booze, the band manages to replicate everything from obscure country records to Orange County and U.K. punk on Cowboys and Aliens -- yet they've got the songs to pull it off. Timbo refers to the style as a collision of George Jones and Motörhead.
"There's a lot of bases to our music," he says. "A lot of artists like Kris Kristofferson, George Jones and Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson -- that whole outlaw thing that came around. I think we owe equally to a lot of punk rock bands. Anything from Stiv Bators to Johnny Thunders to Hüsker Dü to the Clash. All the old stuff. I'm really not into any new punk. Or so-called 'cowpunk' bands that take a 1-4-5 song and speed it up. Most of this country kind of hick shit is just stuff that I have kind of seen and lived and done. It's actually cool because we like to think that we didn't try to do what everybody else was doing just to get a deal. We just said, 'Fuck it, let's play what we want to play.'"
A quick-buck warning sign of cowpunk posturing would be the Southern twang in Timbo's singing voice. But he was actually raised in the South. The singer hails from a tiny village in Louisiana called Hammond, a burg famous for possessing the biggest alligator farm in the United States, and for being the place that made shoes for the Confederacy. Timbo left Hammond eight years ago and relocated to Los Angeles.
"I miss that town," he muses, "but there just ain't much going on there, ya know?"
Speedbuggy -- Timbo, guitarist Steve Kidwiler, drummer Pat Muzingo and bassist Brady Sloan -- came together in 1995. Muzingo did time with punk retro-vaudevillians Suckerpunch, while Kidwiler was in the celebrated NOFX. Last year, the group snagged a national tour with Bad Religion, but missed scheduled gigs in Tucson and Phoenix because of the usual indie-band no-dough nightmare.
"We were supposed to play with Bad Religion in Arizona, but our van broke down and we missed [them]."
With Speedbuggy, there's no overly earnest attempt to mask a trite lyric; instead the voice suitably defines a kind of laconic irony. Timbo can actually get away with singing a line like "She bring me sorrow/She bring me pain."
I was ripped out of my skull when I saw the band at Bar Deluxe in Hollywood a couple of years ago, but remember vividly the glorious wall of twangy noise led by the scowling coo of Timbo. And Pat Muzingo's Paul Cook-like drum slaps, Steve Kidwiler's speedy country-fried chording and Sloan's throbbing bass lines had all these greased-locked kids going up and down. There was no shortage of sweaty swagger, bodies bouncing off bodies and shambling girls with great tattoos.
Fights are a common occurrence at Speedbuggy shows. Things seem to naturally bust apart. Bottles smash and beer fizzes through the air in foamy streams. Sometimes the cops show up. The band understands it's a good thing if the cops arrive. Two months ago at a CD release bash in Los Angeles, the usual high jinks came down.
"You couldn't even move in the place," remembers Timbo. "Fights were breaking out and the club just flipped out. They cut us off after only six songs. It was great, though. Those things keep shows lively and energetic. I mean, we want people to be drinking and having a good time. The songs are all just basically songs to drink and get trashed to. Just to remind you that things really don't have to suck all the time."
Prior to Cowboys and Aliens, Speedbuggy released its 1997 debut, Hardcore Honky Tonk, followed by George Owens, a collection of punked-up George Jones and Buck Owens covers.
The new record is already getting regular spins on the radio in the northeast, an area of the country Speedbuggy has yet to discover. The disc has spurred a charge of momentum that will keep the band gigging at some of the finer shitholes throughout the USA.
"To be honest with you, I'd rather play some shithole than some so-called 'proper venue.' I think in those types of places people usually get way more drunk, they buy way more merchandise. That's perfect for us."
Knowing that washing dishes, fitting pipes, or hanging drywall is much harder work than getting drunk and playing rock 'n' roll, Timbo loathes those bands that bitch about the lifestyle. Speedbuggy funds its own tours working dreary day jobs.
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"A lot of people don't realize that when you are in an indie band, you're not getting kicked down the cash like all these major-[label] bands are getting. For me to be on the road is pretty fun. I hate it when bands complain about how tough it is. Especially major bands that have a full-on bus. They fly around and then they say, 'Oh, being on the road is so hard.' And you're just like, 'Get up in the morning and do a real labor job like most Americans,' ya know?"
Does this mean the band must occasionally depend on the good graces of generous fans for casual support? Do they find themselves sleeping on many floors and couches?
"Yeah, actually we do," he says with a rueful laugh. "It's a sad thing to admit. When we can afford it, we try to get hotels." He pauses. Then he adds finally, "Make sure you let a lot of our fans out there know that we are looking for a place to stay."
Speedbuggy USA is scheduled to perform on Saturday, July 29, at the Emerald Lounge, with Johnny Ace. Showtime is 9:30 p.m.