Rockabilly savant Reverend Horton Heat has an eye on the moral corruption damning the music industry. To wit:
"It needs repairing. But it's not the music," he says. "I just think there are a lot of mediocre bands that get hyped and somehow end up on MTV. All these unproven bands--they get a manager, a big label, put in a bunch of money and get on MTV."
The Rev's formula for success boils down to a solid Puritan work ethic and a spare tire.
"The real way to do it is to have a very reliable Chevrolet van," he says, adding, "or a Ford van. I really think the new Ford vans will change the face of modern music.
"Look, if you're gonna be successful on a major label, you're gonna be touring all your life anyway. Might as well do the groundbreaking now. We tour all the time. We don't have people telling us, 'Tour!' We have people telling us, 'Don't tour!'"
If road-weariness is next to godliness, then the Reverend and his partners--bassist Jimbo Wallace and drummer Taz Bentley--must be sprouting big, white wings. For the past seven years, they've traveled more than 120,000 miles while taking their songs of sin, sex, substances and salvation to club audiences across the land.
Legend tells us that prior to being "ordained," plain old Jim Heath was a "guitar-playing orphan prodigy" who spent "most of his teen years in an eastern Texas juvenile correctional facility." Young Jim eventually wound up on the Dallas streets, busking and hustling pool. It was in those smoky, boozy dens of iniquity that he hustled Jimbo and Taz, two reprobates with a greater talent for music than billiards, into getting the hell outta town to see what was down the road a piece. Along the way, Jim Heath turned into Reverend Horton Heat, courtesy of a club owner fond of alliteration. Sub Pop Records saluted. The moniker stuck and an attitude became a persona.
As the Rev tried to explain to a British interviewer, "I'm fascinated by that whole thing between good and evil and rock ' roll. [There is] temptation in every corner. Every bypass. Folks just don't appreciate what I go through! Every little piece of hallway in front of a woman's rest room is temptation calling out to me . . . And I don't understand bands that don't drink. In Arizona, there's a law that says you can't drink onstage, so the last show we played there we stopped for five minutes, guzzled a pitcher of beer each and got back up. I know I shouldn't do it, but I've got my own demons to deal with. Some day, I just know I'm gonna walk right with the Lord."
Riff, if you will, on this music-as-religion angle. What do you make of a guy who dresses up in white pulpit finery, his bassist and drummer in red satin choir robes, then poses, baptismal-style, in the middle of river for the cover of his second record? Or who regularly harangues his audiences for their moral transgressions? (And hints that he may start tossing Bibles at them. Shades of Stryper.) He probably mines this shtick for personal gain, right? To sway the affections of sweet, young things for the apräs-gig laying on of hands. Amen!
Just ask your local teevee evangelist, the Rev's trip is as red, white and blue as commie-bashing. Americans get caught up in that contradictory vortex of sacred and profane emotions, especially where music's concerned. Robert Johnson moaned about hellhounds and Faustian bargains in one breath, swooned from the textures of female flesh in the next. Jerry Lee Lewis never quite reconciled his mortal status. Would our heritage have been as rich if he'd pounded out, say, "Great Bells of Heaven" with his wingtips?
Copyright 1993, from the Rev's latest, The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat:
"Sunset lights the sky/But there's shadow over me/Black clouds in the east/And there's twisters underneath/Long, white limousine/And there's evil at the wheel/Satan's in the back/Says he wants to make a deal" (from "The Devil's Chasing Me").
The accompanying music is also a study in detail. A 50s shuffle prodded by jazzy snare-and-cymbal hugging from Taz. Fat, bass plucking from Jimbo so low-down you can practically see him twirl his upright ax on its spike. Psychotic bursts of string-bending reverbmanship from the Rev. It's an archetypal sound that reeks with atmosphere. Smells like brimstone.
Now on his second album--Smoke em If You Got em was released in 1990--Reverend Horton Heat is witnessing 365 days a year. He takes the daily concerns of an itinerant musician and elevates them to tragic status, whether professing the joys of being a politically incorrect carnivore (Eat Steak"), a hooch-swillin' dope fiend (Marijuana," "Beer: 30"), or an incurable satyr (Wiggle Stick," "Big Little Baby," "Bad Reputation").
Throughout, the rhythm section is beyond reproach. Jimbo is schooled in the ways of riding his standup bass like a surfboard. The Rev's fat-bodied, fret-board savvy contains echoes of the masters, from Dick Dale and Duane Eddy to Charlie Burton and Johnny Burnette. Not to mention fitting in nicely with an elite squad of contemporary rockabilly, surf, Tex-Mex and blues aficionados that includes, among others, Tav Falco's Panther Burns, Evan Johns and the H-Bombs, Southern Culture on the Skids, Forbidden Pigs, Gibson Bros. and Loco Gringos.
The best summation of the Rev and his music comes from a fellow Texan, rock archivist Tim Stegall, who writes: "There's always been something profoundly, eternally satisfying about the sound of backwoods trash tanked on pills and rhythm and blues til their plaintive field hollerin' starts thumping to a manic new beat. Jim Heath knew . . . the only way rockabilly could wiggle in the modern world the way it did in Sam Phillips' world--fuck the freeze-dried, museum-showcase nature of billy revivalism and git reeeal, reeeal gone for a change!"
The Reverend himself bristles at the suggestion of studio "craftsmanship," growling, "I'll tell you buddy, albums and bands, they're different. You can make a great album, but when you see it live, you go, 'Hmmm, there's not a recording studio in the world that can duplicate that.'
"We've been living in an age where the live performance has to try to sound as good as the record. Well, they've got it backwards! In the 50s a recording was gonna be a reflection of what you sounded like live!
"I look at [recording] as kind of making a new poster for the band. Let's just get it out there and use it! We do make a special effort [when recording], but at the same time, it's kind of a tedious process that doesn't seem to be worth it. When it quits being fun, which is after about the 20th take, I'm outta there! I wanna go play pool!"
The Reverend Horton Heat wants you, dear readers, to join his nightly congregation. He suffers for your sins:
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"Last year in Cincinnati, I walked away with some serious facial disfigurement. I wrecked Social Distortion's bicycle. I was real drunk and hanging around, and one of the guys was riding around with a bicycle. So I said, 'Hey, lemme ride it.' I was on that thing for about 45 seconds. I hauled ass around the block and went up this hill. When I came down, I was trying to make this turn I couldn't make, and I managed to jump the curb and crashed right into this Lincoln Continental. It tore trim off the car and I just went flying. I came wobbling up, all bloody."
He draws down fire from the heavens:
"One time [onstage], I was getting shocked really bad. There was a very bad ground. And this girl handed me a beer, and she held it up with both hands like it was some kind of an offering.
"I had one hand on my guitar and I reached out to grab the beer, and right when I touched it, a bolt of electricity went through the bottle. Everybody saw it. It went, 'Wooaaahh!' and then, Wham, it was over."
He casts miracles:
"We play a lot of fast, drinking music. As opposed to slow, drinking music. It gets everybody's blood boiling. Some nights, you'll pull off some quirky deal that blows everybody away, and from then on, you can do no wrong.
"Like one time we were playing this really huge stage in Lawrence, Kansas. Somebody brought us tequila shots. Well, way back at the drum riser, which was 20 feet away from me in the front, there was this pitcher of beer sitting on the drum riser. I did this shot of tequila, and just looked at the crowd, and threw it over my shoulder straight back at the drum riser, and it went right in that pitcher and started spinning around. People just went nuts!"
Working wonders in the material world must surely take its toll, even on a reverend. Just listen to the bleary, D.T.-ridden ambiance of "Gin and Tonic Blues" for proof. It's the most vivid evocation of a truly loaded state of mind since Peter Fonda filmed an LSD freakout. Or is it just the Reverend's atonement for playing poker with the music biz?
Jim Heath reflects for a moment. "It's kind of a funny deal, you know? You just really got to want to do it, and you gotta sacrifice damn near everything. I used to not want to be a huge band. Only play intimate places. But now my goal is . . . to make Jimbo Wallace bigger than Guns N' Roses!