One of my favorite comics of recent years is Criminal, by Ed Brubaker and an artist whose name doesn’t leap to mind. It’s boiled down from the paperback crime novels of the Forties thru the Seventies; if you’ve ever made the effort to read that stuff (after having it brought to your attention, without a doubt, by lurid cover art), it’s more of the same, but faster. And more intense. It’s great if you’ve been embroiled in Dad Business for years, which somehow ate up all the time you used to spend going to bookstores just looking for strange, alien things to grab your attention — Criminal will scratch that itch to completion in fifteen minutes. Now you can go back to making sure the kids don’t stick forks in electrical outlets, or be somewhere nearby when they make hamburger of themselves on their bikes. Verily, the neighbors won’t gossip about how you ignore your bloodied, bruised brood because you wallow in a pulpy underworld. ‘Mercy day!’ they’ll no longer be heard to remark, ‘that Rock really ought to pull his nose out of that vulgar trash long enough to spatulate his kids off the driveway. I’ve gotta get to Target!’
ANYWAY, Criminal is set in an industrial city — I can’t remember whether or not it has a name — one that has a lot of buildings of four stories and taller, where the cellar dive bars aren’t seen by normal people who keep their noses clean. All the criminals in this town hang out in a place appropriately named ‘The Undertow.’ A common trope for characters in the Criminal world is to walk away from the underworld, only to have to go back to it for one more score! They have to go down the steps, to descend, to meet up with the plot elements at ‘The Undertow,’ which keeps pulling them back in, to get their stories going.
‘The Undertow’ seems to take it’s inspiration from a classic, much reprinted Will Eisner Spirit story called ‘The Vortex.’ ‘The Vortex’ has it’s first page of eight devoted to a drawing of a whirlpool; it’s loaded with text setting up a mood of dread for another small-time Central City crook who can’t escape his past. The prose on the first page of ‘The Vortex’ seems to have also informed a little-regarded Johnny Cash song called ‘The Whirl and Suck,’ which I personally have never heard, but I’ve seen the sheet music in the various folios my dad collected when he was a kid, so it’s more of the same, filtered thru John R.’s weird pill guilt/churchy funny business. ‘The Vortex’ and ‘The Whirl and Suck’ must have come from the prologues to old radio dramas; episodic television seems to have given up on shabby dive bars after Starsky and Hutch. An argument could be made for ‘Undertow’-type dumps making a brief comeback in The Wire and Treme, but the bars in The Wire are segregated for cops and criminals, and the joints in Treme are there to show how pointless it is to keep the party going for a living. The defining characteristic of places like ‘The Undertow’ is that it acts as a neutral zone for the ‘above-ground people’ to meet with ‘the underground people.’
So this past Sunday night, my band Hilljack Suicide played an ‘Undertow’-type place in Frederick. I got excited about Frederick eight years ago when I took a side job building a deck out there; I drove a load of lumber from the west side thru town to a suburb on the east. I did this at dusk in the early spring; the ‘nice’ interior of Frederick reminded me favorably of Birmingham, a town of which I am probably overly fond. I saw the ‘nice’ parts of downtown — sad to say, that’s not where the live music is. Or, more to the point, where any place that has live music and would also have me provide it is. Frederick’s downtown is like a drain that flows north; it gets seedier and also more open to weirdos like me as you head to the outskirts. I’d never seen ‘honky tonk Fredneck’ in the daylight before; there’s a class of struggler that disappears when the sun goes down. I’m sure they’re out there when I’m normally there — well after dark — but they make themselves invisible by sundown. While I’m glad to have a more realistic appraisal of Frederick now, I’m also sad to see that it’s got a class of Hagerstown-grade creeps. Oh, why can’t the world provide me with a mythical city that’s more like a hipper Starkville, or a Montevallo that’s easier to drive in and out of?
So I get to the hole-in-the-wall; I like the particular block it’s on as it’s right next door to a rowhouse fire station, and that always reminds me of my first gig there, which happened when my son was small and he was still ‘into’ firefighters and all that, and how I wished he could be part of my adventures. I don’t think that way any more, of course; while I love music — it still really turns my crank — I hate looking out at a bunch of people who are basically, just by being in the kind of craphole that’s so lowdown that it would hire me, throwing their lives away. I’ve really gotta stifle the urge to berate barflies with ‘Drain that bottle and go home! YOU HAVE TOO MUCH TO LIVE FOR!’ They can’t all be the Bob Cummings Block Party.
AS I WAS SAYING, I pass the ‘national touring band’s’ van on my way in and I’m immediately thankful my ‘music career’ never took off when I was younger. Those guys could not have looked more miserable. I guess it’s a matter of perspective. When I was much younger, it was An Awfully Big Adventure to spend the day with a touring band like the Gumdrop Soaps, Jack Slacks, or the Frankly Flapped-Tops — who were probably as miserable hanging out in their van in Tuscaloosa as Those Darned Gallows were in Fredneck — because those guys seemed to Living the Dream, Doing Something They Love. I know now that those bands made as much money in a week as a single (one) low-skilled factory worker. And that was three or four guys trying to live on that, AND having to fill a giant tank of gas every day. AND NOW, there aren’t even any factory jobs to be had.
But to blazes with that, that’s Those Darned Gallows’ hard cheese. Hey, you drop out from society, get your face (and other places visible to a judge) tattooed, you’re actually pretty lucky to be penniless and bored silly on a Fredneck side street. You could be in a correctional facility, working in surveying, or roofing. We did our show, and we were mostly out of there by ten. First one to slip out was our drummer, then the boss. I like shooting the shit with the bass player, and I was STILL on the road by 9:45. The band’s trying to evade the Undertow.
I only feel I was a little hasty in leaving when I found out an old high school friend was at the show; the room we played in is roughly the size of a Home Depot ‘Homer Bucket’ and it’s hard to miss anybody in there. Apparently, he went back to the bar for some ‘good’ beer and there wasn’t room for him when he came back, and I never saw him. A million years ago, he got a red electric guitar from Sears and an old Montgomery Ward amp with a psychedelic speaker cover (after, of course, the obligatory 5 watt Gorilla practice amp) and I had to get in on the action too. I bought a cromulent P-Bass copy for 60 bucks — my dad said I got burned — so I could be part of the electric music thing, too. My dad eventually told me he’d buy me an electric guitar and amp if I’d get rid of that damned bass. I gave the bass to another friend, and got a pointy-headed Charvel Charvette and a 10-watt Gorilla amp. I think Dad got the guitar ’cause he needed an excuse to give lectures on the Ventures and Luther Perkins.
The band really needed to play, never mind the inconvenient day of the week. We’ve been recording an album, and while we got the basic tracks done within the deadline we’d set, we’d had second thoughts about what we’d done in comparison to our demos. It’s a pain in the nuts figuring out how to record stuff in isolation for max cleanliness. We were in recording mode for a while; we had an opportunity to play the week previous, so we made an effort to put some Hamburger Helper in the set in the form of Easily Recognized Covers. And then we went back into Record Mode, and then real quick had to switch back to Learn Mode for this past gig. We demo’ed Judas Priest’s Breaking The Law for reference purposes; last week this time I was overdubbing a twelve-string via GarageBand to make another YouTube video. I loved the drums on the demo, which both rocked pretty hard without drowning the guitars — which are just acoustic flattops with D’Addario drop-in pickups — and sounded like completely commercial folk-rock drums. I put the 12-string on just because I’m a nerd for Billy Strange’s cash-in folk music. I think it’s a gas, man.