Let It Blast
There are two kinds of cool. First, we have conventional cool -- the preening, pouting and posturing that's more show biz than rock 'n' roll. Say what you like about the Rat Pack, Elvis and the Strokes, but this affected cool has as much to do with their schtick as anything else. On the other hand, there's outsider cool. Groucho cool, Jerry Lee Lewis cool, Ramones cool -- with an open heart, a sense of humor and, rather than studied indifference, a true fuck-it-all attitude.
By this standard, the members of Columbus, Ohio's New Bomb Turks are just about the coolest people in the solar system -- in fact, they're such outsiders that they're barely in orbit.
Geography plays a part in this band's particular kind of cool. Singer Eric Davidson, guitarist Jim Weber and bassist Matt Reber all grew up in Cleveland (which at least had the Dead Boys to call its own), worshipping Minneapolis bands such as the Replacements and Hüsker Du. After enrolling at Ohio State University, the three later moved to Columbus, a city that isn't exactly easy to spot on the rock 'n' roll map.
"From an early point in my life, I understood that being from Ohio, most people aren't gonna give a fuck," says Davidson, who yaks with nearly as much speed and gusto as he sings. "So we all kinda knew early on to not worry about fame -- just have fun with it."
Having fun is what made the band practically revolutionary. When the Turks formed in the early '90s, punk was beginning to resemble the musical sterility found in ubiquitous acts like Rush. And the fans weren't much more exciting. Hardcore co-op houses were full of canvas-clad future-professionals hiding their vices from each other, training their cats to go vegan, and debating the complex etiquette and socially redeeming value of the mosh pit. Sound like fun? Into this Stalinist nightmare crashed four born comedians with blazing Cro-Magnon riffs, a heavy dose of '50s-style kitsch, unforgivably pun-filled lyrics and song titles such as "Bullish on Bullshit."
"At the time, punk' had all these kind of serious political connotations," says Davidson, "I like Fugazi, but Fugazi was definitely the Nirvana of those bands: They're really good, but everything they ever influenced just sucks."
The Turks' compound marginality didn't make for the friendliest audiences. "A lot of the kids that would go to the shows were just kind of confused," Davidson recalls. "I'm like, What are you confused about?' I don't understand -- music is supposed to be uplifting. It should get you charged up."
A fourth-wall smashing front man in the tradition of Iggy Pop, Davidson definitely has his own way of doing just that. "Sometimes I take guys' baseball hats and shove 'em down my pants," he says. "I don't know why." Once, in Houston, he reached out from the stage and messed up the wrong pompadour, and some rockabilly guy ended up bludgeoning him in the face with his own mike. "I've always had, I think, a fairly decent sixth sense about it," he says. "You can tell by looks in people's eyes, like if you kind of shmuff their hair up a little and they look at you weird. But if you're a little too drunk, your sixth sense goes by the wayside."
While the Turks' live show has kept its giddy abandon, the band's albums have transcended garage punk altogether. Though the unsung, diamond-tough Nightmare Scenario, released in 2000, should have topped critics' lists as the hard-rock album of the year, it was too heavy to sail the prevailing pop-punk winds. The new The Night Before the Day the Earth Stood Still takes bigger risks, adding horns, organs, a theremin and -- of all things -- a touch of introspection.
The album's swinging, almost New Orleans-style title track was inspired by Davidson's explosive final argument with a longtime girlfriend. The song, however, is hardly your typical romantic lament. Written a few days after Davidson had caught a TV showing of the campy 1951 movie that the song's title references, it satirizes his breakup by reimagining it as a sci-fi apocalypse. "I was trying to imagine a more interesting outcome," he says. "So I made it that aliens took me away, which would have been a lot easier than me moving all my shit out of the house the next day."
While that song has Davidson screaming about anal probes in a Mick Jagger-meets-Joey Ramone psychotic drawl, the album's 11th track, "Like Ghosts," is a true departure from his usual shenanigans. It's a dark folk-rock number that recalls the Plimsouls and the Smithereens in their prime, and Davidson sings it with a passionate, crackling croon.
In between, the album is packed with the rapid, Stonesy gems that have been the Turks' stock-in-trade. Over the years, that approach has caught more and more people by the ears and created a trend of its own. "I don't wanna claim any sort of responsibility for this," says Davidson with characteristic self-deprecation, "but it seems like, through the years, more bands kind of understand the sense of humor thing again."
Well, more or less. Hang out in punk clubs in 2002, and you'll find a different universe than the one the Turks were born into. These days, nothing is less fashionable than macho, straight-edge Puritanism. The Stones and the Stooges are back in the pantheon, along with lesser-known punk godfathers such as NYC's Dictators, who are still kicking and, arguably, one of the few American bands that could do any damage in a battle with the Turks.
But the return of silliness and scruff is hardly all it's cracked up to be. In fact, the paradigm shift has created an aesthetic of motor oil and obnoxiousness to rival the rigidity of soy milk and moping intensity.
But like Groucho Marx, the New Bomb Turks would never join a club that would have them as members. As Davidson spits in Nightmare Scenario's "Point A to Point Blank": "I never worked on a car, but I sure know how to screw/You can keep playing dress-up white trash/I'll stick to being nude, urbane and lewd."
Now that's cool.
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