To guitarist Dave Alvin, the Pleasure Barons mean a brush with a deadly, communicable disease.
"During the first Pleasure Barons tour in 1989, I drank out of somebody else's beer bottle at an after party," Alvin says from Village Recorders, where he is working on his next solo recording. "Next thing you know, I'm in the hospital with bacterial meningitis."
"We thought the fucker was just whining louder than normal," Country Dick Montana explains, from his home in San Diego. "Turns out he was almost dead."
To Country Dick, the Pleasure Barons mean a new lease on life.
"I didn't even know I had a problem until somebody asked, 'Do those things hurt?' I said, 'What things?'" Montana murmurs, his voice in its normal, below-bullfrog register. "I had a bunch of stuff growing all over my neck. Golf-ball-size things on my thyroid. Throat cancer.
"I had to have a radical throat dissection. Then they made me drink this radioactive liquid. For 36 hours, I glowed. Everything I touched had to be destroyed. They put radioactive stickers on the walls around my bed. They shoved my food under the door. No one could come near me. I had to drink about 40 gallons of water to flush the damn stuff through me. But it worked."
To the last member of the twisted triumvirate that fronts this unholy ensemble, the Pleasure Barons are just another opportunity to run amok.
"Yes, friends, I'm the healthy one in the band," says Mojo Nixon, who is best known for his sensitive rendering of "Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant (With My Two-Headed Love Child)." "That tells you all you need to know about the Pleasure Barons, doesn't it?"
Four years ago, booming Beat Farmer Country Dick Montana lured pals Mojo Nixon, ex-Blaster Dave Alvin and a host of equally talented L.A. studio musicians on an all-star, all-bar tour. Tuxedos were required for every performance. Each show closed with Country Dick croaking out a medley of hits by his idol: Tom Jones. Like nickel beers, the tour packed houses. The overwhelming response convinced Montana that a live recording might be a good idea. Held up by years of legal friction, Live in Las Vegas has finally been released on Hightone Records. Filled with breakneck, party-down, horn-heavy rock n' roll, it is an immediate classic. Overall, the Pleasure Barons are the most self-destructive, disorganized, delightful mass of musical potential to come down the pike in a very long time. As Country Dick states in his outrageous liner notes, "We knew going in that we'd come out either as ticker-tape-parade riders of personal reward and penis envy or as footnotes in a short Rolling Stone piece on career suicide."
The Barons' project could also carry as a subtitle "the between-the-cracks revue." While all the Barons have had tussles with major labels, all have found their measure of success outside the musical mainstream. This group of talented outsiders first came together in 1988.
"It was all Country Dick's idea. He's the granddaddy of all Pleasure Barons," Nixon says at his usual howling volume. "It's just one of his many musical projects, you know. Country Dick's always got five or six side projects oozing life somewhere on the edge of town." Montana says: "I figured teaming up with Mojo would be good for a little squirrel-cage action. To balance it with something legitimate, I called Dave and told him a bunch of lies about how serious we were."
Now that the album is out, the Barons have paid up their health-insurance premiums and are embarking on a reunion tour. This version of the band is even tastier than the original. On bass will be John Doe of L.A.'s recently revived X.
"I started badgering Doe in December," Montana says. "I sent him a tape of the record and then started calling him. Bit by bit, he got into it. Now he's even grown a cheesy pencil mustache for the gig."
More surprising than Doe, though, are the tour's two back-up singers, Rosie Flores and Katy Moffatt. What kind of brain fever could have convinced two successful, reasonably well-adjusted women to spend three banzai weeks on a bus with Mojo and Country Dick?
"Rosie and Katy don't know what they're getting into," Nixon says. "They're going to end up on Oprah telling their story: 'Mojo had a chain saw and he split a hole in the side of the bus. I don't know why.'"
The rest of the band is made up of Beat Farmers guitarist Joey Harris, drummer Jerry Angel, keyboardist Rick Solem, sax man Jonny "Fucking" Viau and trombone-steel guitar master Tim "Steelbone" Cook. As all-star bands go, this one's a monster. Even better than the band's players is its ocean of material. Between them, the members can pick and choose from the song catalogues of the Beat Farmers, the Blasters, X and Mojo Nixon. Best of all are the songs from Doe's 1990 solo album and Alvin's two releases, Romeo's Escape and Blue Blvd. According to the three main conspirators, everyone, including Doe, Moffatt and Flores, will also get a chance to play new material. The highlight of the Barons' "act" will be Country Dick's reverent salute to Tom Jones. It's an otherworldly, out-of-body experience to hear Montana's subterranean bass wending through an unnaturally fast take of Jones' old showstopper "It's Not Unusual." Calling himself a "huge fan," Dick swears his admiration of Jones is real. "I've always said that I'm equal parts Tom Jones, Johnny Rotten and Johnny Cash," he deadpans. Whether he's serious or not--serious" not being a big priority--there is a photograph of a beaming Montana and a baffled but toothy Jones in the CD booklet. Labeled "Gettin' Right With God," it is reason enough to own the disc.
"There are lots of different things to enjoy about Tom," Montana begins. "Sometimes the guy doesn't know when he's over the top, when he's gone too far. And those moments are just as entertaining as when he's just shit hot. To see Tom Jones do 'Hey Jude' will blow your head off. He whips himself into a frenzy."
Although he, too, regularly reaches frenzy onstage--chandeliers, PA systems and small children have all been known to fall prey to one of his fits--Montana's offstage existence is less frenetic. For example, there was a four-year lag between the time the Pleasure Barons album was recorded and released, because Montana backed into signing the wrong piece of paper. Needing money to bankroll the live recording, Montana signed away half the rights to the resulting tapes an hour before the tape began rolling at Calamity Jane's in Las Vegas. Unbeknown to him, that document ended up becoming the property of Triple XXX Records. When Montana, who never let the tapes out of his sight, sold them to Hightone last year, a lawyer came knocking. "I sent one tape out to Dave Alvin's label, Hightone, and they went for it right away, so that torture was over with pretty quick. Except they ended up buying a tape that I didn't actually own," Montana says.
Mojospeak is more to the point.
"It's the Country Dick way. He felt that spiritually he owned the Pleasure Barons record. So who cares about some piece of paper he signed when he was drunk? Fuck the lawyers."
Whether the Barons have a future beyond this tour is still in doubt. All the Barons have other commitments. Alvin is in the midst of making his next recording for Hightone. Doe is set to begin recording a new X album in May. Always a killer live act, Country Dick and the Beat Farmers are still searching for a label. Country Dick's not losing sleep over it. "Record labels have us pegged as being too old and too hip," he growls wearily.
Mojo has a plethora of projects in the fire, the most intriguing of which is a straight country album that he and fellow madman Jello Biafra might collaborate on. He also has two new Mojo-penned singles coming out. The first, with the World Famous Blue Jays, is called "UFOs, Big Rigs and BBQ (The Untold Story)." The other features the New Duncan Imperials doing Mojo's "I'm Drunk," backed with Dean Martin's "Hey, Brother, Pour the Wine," a chestnut that Nixon calls "the most demented thing I've ever done."
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Nixon is also a record-label owner. His Triple Nixxxon label has just released Lookin' Good . . . Who's Your Embalmer?, the debut album by the Valley's geriatric-punk phenomenon, One Foot in the Grave. Calling it "a true novelty act--a novelty, novelty act," Mojo has particularly vivid memories of lead singer JoDina. "She maintains the form and the style of a middle-class, respectable housewife, when in fact she's flip city."
Excited about the Barons' upcoming tour and the chance to top Country Dick and Alvin "by getting something really bad and dying," Mojo says he's excited about the moral problems Live in Las Vegas is causing.
"Christians are against it. Of course, Christians also have that guy in Texas to account for these days. Actually, I'm hoping that someday I can play that guy in a Sunday Night Movie of the Week. You know, run around heaving grenades, screaming, 'God's coming to punish you fuckers.'