A van chugs into the parking lot. It is one of those mid-Eighties models with dark, vertical windows and frosted piping painted on the sides--the kind of van they made for happy American families on the go, but which you usually see driven by unkempt, deadbeat types, or by serial killers in made-for-TV movies.
But this van holds neither; instead, it contains Bob Log, Thermos Malling and a caged chicken named Beth. Bob and Thermos are the two members of a thing named Doo Rag, which is, depending on your point of view, either a musical joke bordering on travesty or the only pure, authentically innovative blues band imaginable today. Beth is just along for the ride.
The side door opens, and the duo steps out. "Sorry we're late," says Log, "but Thermos got his finger caught." Apparently, it was caught in something in Tucson. That's the home of Doo Rag; the pair has driven up to Phoenix for a gig in a downtown warehouse named El Rancho de los Muertos. Log is a friendly, whip-thin guy who looks like a cross between Buddy Holly and R. Crumb. He, like Thermos, is dressed in thrift-store, white-trash chic and a feed cap, the same clothes the two will wear onstage later in the night. And maybe the next day, too; the duo spends a lot of time in this van, traveling the country, playing streets, clubs and rest rooms, and the guys probably don't worry too much about changing clothes.
They begin unloading their instruments from the van. Log, who plays slide guitar, wrenches out what looks like a standup vacuum cleaner. Well, it used to be one. Now it's augmented with a microphone stolen from a pay-phone receiver, a long hose, the bell of a trumpet and a vegetable steamer. Log sings into it, and it reads "Doo" where it once read "Hoover."
Though Malling is a percussionist, it wouldn't be right to call him a drummer. He unloads a cardboard beer box, a metal bucket and something that looks like a sonar unit for spotting fish--there's not a drum in sight.
These are the tools Doo Rag uses to make its music. That's blues, that is, but not the watered-down sop you hear spewed out by so many of today's players--musicians who have chops and licks and know all the chords, but don't possess a drop of originality or soul. The blues has gone from something primitive, frightening and raw to a soundtrack for car ads and light-beer commercials.
Doo Rag brings it back.
The band's sound is something stark and visceral; it attracts in the way certain nasty smells are repellent but intoxicating. Live or recorded (the band has a tape, two singles and an upcoming CD to its legend), Doo Rag sounds like a scratchy 78, a lot closer to Robert Johnson than Robert Cray. And you can dance to it.
"If I do listen to anything, it's something really old and kind of messed up, and they didn't use a lot to make the record with," Log says. "So that's the way I like things to sound."
"He listens to old blues stuff. I don't really listen to anything," claims Malling. "I'm just not a very musical person, really. This is the first band I've ever been in--I didn't even know I had it in me."
What he has in him is a natural ability to hit things you'd find next to a highway and produce a back, front and sideways beat that's as infectious as hell. It's a perfect match for Log's manic, distorted sliding on his nameless, brown, resonator guitar. So how does Thermos do it? "I just catch a feel on what he's doing," says the timekeeper with a shrug. "What Bob plays is very rhythmic; it's kinda natural, easy to get into. And since I worked with machinery a lot, I'm into rhythm."
That work with machinery is what brought the pair together, or so they say. As Malling launches into a tale of the early days--they've been together since the summer of 92--Log picks up the guitar and plucks something swampy. Have they been through this before?
"I designed machinery to make milk cartons. I was a part-time machinist, and he was the janitor," says Malling. "We used to play guitar in the janitor shed a lot, and we had an old beer box and the mop bucket out."
Log supplies the coda: "We just kinda started."
Malling draws on a Camel filter and leans back, his cap, advertising a fertilizer company, riding high on his head. The fake names, the cheap clothes, the questionable stories--is this just some damn act? Yes, it is, and why not? These guys are taking more than just a musical page from their heroes--guys with monikers like Leadbelly, Lightnin', Howlin' Wolf. And talk about tall tales, the greatest of them all, Robert Johnson: Legend had it that he'd made a deal with the devil to play so good.
One thing--the most important thing--that is for real with Log and Malling is their love for the music. They're taking something old and offering it in a new way; it's just that sometimes they're misunderstood. "Blues purists hate us," offers Malling. "We've had audience members in blues clubs get up and leave, going, 'Oh, I've got a headache.' They just don't get it." "We played on an all-blues radio show in New Orleans, and they turned us off to dead air," burns Log. "We don't do things as predictably as some people think things are supposed to be. But you listen to old Fred McDowell or Lightnin' Hopkins or John Lee Hooker, and those guys aren't doing 1-4-5 changes, either--they're changing whenever the hell they want. They [purists] like to know what's coming, and we don't let em have that."
The "novelty band" tag is another thing that Doo Rag has had to contend with. "That happens all the time," Log admits, "but it doesn't really bother me. Rock n' roll was a novelty, too, when it first came out. Anytime somebody does something new, that's a novelty."
"Those old-time guys, they had no musical education," offers Malling. "They were just out there experimenting. That's what we're trying to do." Suffice it to say that this is something original, something different--ergo, something the powers that be in the music biz don't always allow to enter through the front door. Yes, Bob and Thermos have stories.
"One of the best places we ever played was in Austin, in a girls' bathroom," Bob says. "Somehow, there was a scheduling mix-up, about six bands playing, so we did our ten-minute set and then told everyone we were going back to the girls' bathroom and set up in there. About 50 people crammed in." New Orleans has been a consistent location of weirdness and profit for the Rag. "We played there on the street last year. We lived in a parking lot for three days, cause it was near the corner. Three-seventy-five a day. We carried all our stuff around in a wheelchair we found in New York City, and everyone knew us at the end of three days, waving to us and stuff. We made enough to get our van fixed."
In fact, the band has just returned from a trip to the Crescent City for Mardi Gras; the town paid off again. "It was a blast," says Malling, sighing. "We got to play with a 250-pound black transvestite, and that was just a showstopper right there. Wendy was her name."
And then there was the time . . . "I used to wear a diaper on my head; it was the hat I had when we first started," waxes Log.
Malling takes up the story. "We were in San Francisco playing Market Street, and this lady watching us says to her friend [adopts pitch of excited Ethel Mertz], 'That guy's got a pull-up panty on his head!'" A pull-up panty. The blues.
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"It felt really good," says Log in earnest. "It had this kind of elastic that squeezed your head just right, and it was very soothing. I was into that for a while, but I've moved on to hats."
And now we move on to Doo Rag's Phoenix gig, opening for Crash Worship. It is nearly midnight when Bob and Thermos take the stage. Well, actually, they're performing in an elevated alcove at stage left. They are seated, as usual, and Log's face is almost obscured behind the vacuum tube he sings into. There is an oscilloscope on the side of the stage, registering his voice in quavers of horror-lab green. You can't understand any words, but Doo Rag clanks and rasps the audience into a rapt frenzy.
Is this the future of the blues or inspired performance art? To the audience on this night, it probably doesn't matter. It works--that's what's important. Mention the blues to Log, ask him why he does Doo Rag, and you get a simple answer that's as ironic as it is sublime.
"This is my favorite music, and I hate to see it get ruined." Doo Rag will perform on Saturday, February 26, at Congo in Scottsdale, with Flathead. Showtime is 9:30 p.m.