“I’ve got a great idea,” he says.
“Ok,” I bat back.
“A punk band.”
“That is a great idea,” I say. “Chuck…”
“They’ve already thought of them.”
“No, fuckhead, we start one.”
“We can’t play any, you know, musical instruments.”
“Right,” Chuck says in that over-confident way he has that’s sometimes endearing and sometimes grating. “That’s punk.”
“Ok,” I say.
“You sing,” he thinks to add.
“I can’t carry a tune in, what, a raku?”
“I don’t know what that is, but, that’s my point. You’re our word guy. The poet of the obscene.”
“I’m gonna play bass.”
“Have you ever even seen a bass?”
“Sure. On TV.”
“Hey, Sid Vicious did it.”
“Somehow I thought we’d get around to that.”
“You’re dubious; you mock.”
“We’re a little old for this.”
“This is gonna keep us young. Out there. Cutting edge.”
“Hey, I just flashed on a great name for the band.”
“See, I knew you’d get aboard. Fucking Jeb, I told Whit. He’ll get aboard.”
“He wants to play drums. He’s the only one with money enough to buy a set.”
Our first practice is at Whit’s. I think this was because, once assembled, he was unsure if he could take his drum kit apart and put it together again.
Joining us is Larrivee on guitar. Larrivee is his last name but it’s all he wants to be called. He actually knows how to play the guitar. And someone I didn’t know—on marimba, cowbell and cardboard box—who calls himself Norm du Plume. I’m sure this wasn’t his real name.
And, finally, Garland Draper, who is lovely. And that is her real name.
“Who’s the woman?” I pull Chuck aside.
“I know her name. I heard her say her name. What does she play?”
“Nothing,” Chuck says, in that way.
“Well, she’s going to add assorted vocalizings.”
“Then I am not the singer. Thank God.”
“You’re the singer,” Chuck says as if this is still obvious.
“Will add miscellaneous grunts and squeals and whistles and hums and backup. Wait till you hear her. She can do amazing things in her throat.”
This is beginning to sound like quite the avant garde group. Is this punk? I really have no idea.
“Just a quick jam to loosen up?” Larrivee asks.
“Great,” Whit says from behind his colossal cymbals.
“How about “I Fought the Law,” Larrivee asks.
“Great,” Whit says.
“You know that?” Chuck asks me.
“I can’t sing,” I say.
“Right,” he says.
“I know the words,” I think to add.
“Great,” says Whit.
Whit clicks his drumsticks together three times. I’m sure he saw this on TV.
Larrivee launches into a fluid guitar intro and Whit and Chuck stumble behind him. It sounds vaguely like “I Fought the Law.”
Norm du Plume is banging away on his marimba and cardboard box. A marimba doesn’t seem right for a punk band—he says he found it at the dump—but, to his credit, Norm du Plume plays a mean cardboard box.
The result is like a thunderstorm in the middle of the Beatles’ dissolution. Raw. Like meat left on the sink overnight.
I don’t know where to jump in. Larrivee nods his head toward me.
“Breaking rocks in the hot sun,” I speak into the microphone. I’m standing back from it and leaning forward as if I expect the microphone to strike like a cobra.
I speak a few more verses and suddenly Garland Draper is next to me saying something like “doodling-doo-doodling—ooo” into my mike. She smells like milkbath.
After about four chaotic minutes we stop.
“Great,” says Whit.
After about two months we actually are starting to sound like a punk band. Or, what we thin punk bands sound like.
I grow more comfortable in front of the mike and my spoken singing style is somewhere between Rex Harrison’s and Frank Zappa’s. Larrivee tells me to put more grit into my voice. It works.
And, with Larrivee’s help, we begin to forge our own songs using my words as the lyrics we gargle into the din.
My early attempts at songwriting are pitiful. But I’m making headway.
One afternoon Garland Draper appears on my doorstep.
My girlfriend, Page, is away. She is almost always away. She is almost not my girlfriend.
“Larrivee said maybe I should help with the songwriting.”
“Come in,” I answer.
“And Chuck said since I was sort of the backup singer that maybe I should know more about the words.”
This sounds better.
“Um, sure,” I say. “You want a soda?”
“You got any tequila?” she hums.
“Uh, no, no tequila. Do people keep tequila in their homes?”
“I don’t know,” she answers. “I don’t.”
“You wanna see some of the lyrics I’m working on?”
“Yeah,” she shrugs. She says everything as if it’s a shrug.
I show her about a dozen songs I’m either finished with or in the middle of. These include “Shark Snack”, “For Kim Because it Went by so Fast”, “Goddamned Past Full of Sex”, “Jeopardous Heart”, “Hogmagundy”, “An Afternoon with Godard”, “Helen Across Time”, “Vertiginous Waves of Murmuring Need”, and, what is to become our signature tune, “Sleep, Silence, Death”.
“These are wonderful,” Garland Draper says, looking up. Her eyes are the color of loam. She smells like milkbath.
“Thanks,” I say. “I have no idea how to write a song.”
“Nonsense,” she says. “You’re our poet of the obscene.”
It is startling to me when we actually start getting gigs. I feel foolish—I still feel foolish—using the word “gigs.” Who was I kidding?
Our first public appearance is outdoors in Overton Park, in an afternoon concert at the Shell, which also featured Neon Wheels and Tav Falco. How Chuck ever got us on this bill is beyond me. We open.
Neon Wheels and Tav Falco are waiting in the wings and, surprisingly, very kind to us naives. They help us by telling where to put our equipment and where to stand and how to use the microphone so that I didn’t sound like a high school thespian. I’m uncomfortable being pointed out as the singer.
Of course, we have to take another name for the advertisements for this triple billing. Chuck comes up with Ginger and the Minnow Crew. Garland is now called Ginger on stage. I hate Chuck’s new name, so twee, so Chuck.
And we begin what becomes a tradition. At the opening of every concert Chuck intones, “Our real name is Jism but they wouldn’t let us put that on the posters.”
This generally gets a good laugh.
And we always begin with “I Fought the Law.” I admit this is a good choice. A rollicking good song and a statement of purpose. And Garland and I had form a sort of intertwining singing/talking style that sounds weird and off-center and just right for the times.
We begin playing around town. Small clubs, often at The Antenna, which is a hellhole and hence the center of punkdom in Memphis. Black Flag played there. I think REM did. We are still clumsy on stage but getting better.
One night at The Antenna we’re in the middle of “Secretly All Women are Named Suzie,” an original that started out as “The Agoraphobic’s Pandiculations,” but through alchemy and tired, late-hour rehearsals became one of our better songs. There is a buzz in the crowd. Alex Chilton is in attendance.
And, suddenly, I see him, off to the left of the stage, almost in shadow, small, wiry man, arms crossed, appraising us. Garland is oblivious and I sure don’t want to clue her in. I’m as nervous as Macbeth before the ghost of Banquo.
I botch some of the lyrics, fluff a whole verse, repeat another. Instead of “She’s off her rock, I got a tip about those kind of women,” I sing, “She’s off like a rocket, tipped, a kind woman.” Garland thinks I’m adlibbing, scatting to my own disheveled lyrics. She begins to grunt and howl with renewed enthusiasm. Her hand goes to my lower back as she leans into the mike; she almost caresses my right buttock.
Really, most of my earnestly wrought lyrics are lost in the pandemonium of Whit’s pounding and Norm’s boxing. Still, it makes me panicky and I want to impress Garland. She smells like milkbath and sweat.
Her soft caress helps me through. A sort of symbiosis is forming between us.
We finish the number. We count to ten and launched into “Blunge.” When I steal a glance at where Alex Chilton had been he was gone, like smoke. Was he really there? I think. Somehow we make it through our set.
And, afterwards, we’re all at the back, near the bar, near the frightening hall, which seems to be an entranceway to Gehenna but only leads to the bathrooms. On it’s walls is written every kind of obscenity. Love is dead.
Suddenly, Mr. Chilton is standing next to me. I’m a good head taller than him. Or a bad head. I smile a tight smile, almost an apology.
“You guys kick ass,” he says.
Whit whispers, “Great.”
Chuck stumbles over the feet around him to reach us. “Alex,” he says, as if they are old compadres. “Chuck Kom.”
They shake hands. Alex Chilton looks like he’s almost asleep.
“We’re looking for studio time,” Chuck says, overly anxious. I feel for him. Fucking Chuck.
The stillness of a sepulcher surrounds us. I turn to take a swig of my beer before remembering I hadn’t ordered one, nor do I drink beer.
Garland slips her arm through mine.
“Gimme your number. I’ll call you,” Alex Chilton says.
We are sanctified. We are validated.
You know a lot of the rest, if you listen to this kind of cacophony. We recorded our first album at Ardent with Alex Chilton producing. “Suck it Up” by Chism (our compromise) became something of a local cause célèbre and, nationally, actually charted somewhere in the high 90s.
This was before compact discs. Like many musicians in our chosen genre we would have eschewed the new and committed solely to vinyl, because we were pure, but it wasn’t an issue until later. It is only through the love and persistence of some of our supporters (thanks always, Alex, Jim) that our work now exists on CD.
Here is the song list from “Suck it Up” for those who never picked up a copy:
That was our first studio effort. In retrospect it’s not a bad endeavor. It has a certain energy to it, missing perhaps on our later LPs. I still pull it out occasionally and give it a listen. It makes me smile to hear that cardboard percussion or Larrivee’s smooth-as-a-river guitar. Even Chuck’s ridiculous thumping on bass guitar has an élan that more polished groups missed. But it makes me cry to hear Garland’s voice, as sinuous as a serpent, as smoky as night-swollen mushrooms.
My own “singing” still embarrasses me: like the shouting of a backstay in a gale, as Kipling said.
From there it was more live playing, more money and the offer of a second record deal. The good folks at Ardent treated us like rock stars and damned if we didn’t try to act like we were. Bless our hearts.
Page left me somewhere between our first and second albums. I hardly noticed.
Our second album, “Vertiginous Waves of Murmuring Need,” should have collapsed under the weight of its pretentious title. But this was 1979 and such affectations were not only accepted they were rewarded.
Alex didn’t produce this one. It is listed as “Produced by Chism, Engineered by John Kilzer,” but, really, without John we would have been whistling in the wind. John also contributed one track to the album, the beautiful “Figs,” on which Garland took her one and only solo singing credit. She should have fronted the band. I felt that then and I sure as hell feel it now.
Even the list of songs on our sophomore album seems to me now, precious, affected, and weighted with self-importance. From the opening “Story of Chism” to the closing “Goddamned Past Full of Sex,” the whole thing is wordy, silly, fraught with a “look at me” sensibility. In a way, given the posturing of the time it was recorded, it is a perfect album. The 80s were fixing to implode the whole punk movement and we stood at the cusp of that collapse. Forgive us. Pity us.
Hell, we made a lot of money. Where is it now?
We made one more album, in 1981, the forgettable,
“Vanity’s Sister.” It was one long track and features the worst writing I have ever done in my life. I still like a line here and there:
“In Niagara Falls once I slept with a rock star’s
But such concreteness was, for the most part, missing from that 48-minute exercise in self-indulgence. It should be said that Chuck’s departure from the band right before recording hurt our group-gestalt, but the addition of Renny White on bass was a real plus. What could we have done if we had stayed together? Here’s my ideal line-up: Larrivee, Whit (yes, his drumming became more than competent, it became distinctive), Renny White, and the lovely Garland Draper on vocals. And, humbly, me in the murky dimness, listed only as “lyricist.” Procol Harum got away with it.
What dulcet sounds could that group have accomplished?
One can only speculate.
And, here’s the wrap-up, like at the end of the movie where they tell you what happened to each character:
I turned my attention to writing full time, produced
Whit Whitaker drummed with The Elastic Jug
Norm du Plume, whoever he was, disappeared.
Larrivee, you know, plays with Taint, whose
Garland, whom I miss with an ache like “the day let
Though I never touched her.
Though I never said a single romantic word to her.
She smelled, listeners, like milkbath.
And last, Chuck, who sells cars out on Covington