Velvet Ditch Blues: Goner Records And The History of Memphis Punk

Jay Reatard performing with the band Angry Angles, circa 2005. Photo by Mark Murmann.
Jay Reatard performing with the band Angry Angles, circa 2005. Photo by Mark Murmann.
Jay Reatard performing with the band Angry Angles, circa 2005. Photo by Mark Murmann.

THE BACKROOMS

To understand how Goner Records made an international name for southern-tinged garage rock, you have to understand a couple things about Memphis. Memphis is a river town. We are implicated in the usual cliche about river towns: Things move through here easily, but it can feel like nothing ever really changes. It is a city where people live in drafty bungalows with overgrown backyards, where you can still smoke in bars, and where white and black are as impressed into the streets and the schools as they were a half-century ago. I once heard someone describe Memphis as a “velvet ditch” — a mud pit lined with the cheap glamour of an earlier era.

Like Philadelphia or Detroit or St. Louis or any America’s other left-behind places, Memphis may not have much in the way of opportunity, but it’s always been a good town for grassroots music. There’s space and time and decently cheap rent. And there’s a lot to get angry about around here. Thus, Goner Records: the uglified, fuzzed out, dumb-as-a-means-of-survival scene that has sheltered punk legends like Jay Reatard, Ty Segall, and Guitar Wolf. Goner Records is a storefront shop, a label, and, once a year, a punk festival that draws beer-fueled discontents from around the world. Goner is local even when it’s not. If the bands don’t come from the overlooked backrooms of Memphis, they come from the backrooms of somewhere.

To say that Goner is “artist-run” in the age of Tidal might be misleading, so, for clarity: The guy who started Goner out of his closet, Eric Friedl (punk appellation: Eric Oblivian), still mans the counter of the record store. His band with Greg Cartwright and Jack Yarber, The Oblivians, is the kind of band you call stupid as a compliment. They’ve been together since the early 1990s, when Goner also got its start. The two happened at once: without Oblivians, there’s no Goner; without Goner, there’s basically no garage rock revival. Eric has floppy brown hair and an open face, which work together to make him look improbably boyish. He grew up in Hawaii, but found Memphis in his twenties, and has been here ever since.

Friedl co-owns the label with his friend and fellow musician Zac Ives. The two met when Ives was in college and Friedl was playing grimy sets in a downtown alley bar called Barrister’s. Of the two, Ives seems like the one more likely to wear a collared shirt, but both men are far from buttoned-up. Nor do they seem like they are ever going to professionalize. The handshake deals and off-the-cuff friendship network that defined the label in the early ’90s still do today. Goner doesn’t sign contracts, and to be a long-term Goner-associated act doesn’t necessarily mean that they put out your music. It just means that you crossed through their doorway at some point. When asked how they choose their artists, both Ives and Friedl look a little incredulous. They both answer that they pick people they’re friends with whose music they like, as if that was the only possible way to do it.

FREAK SHOW

Over the last two decades of releasing music, Goner has not so much grown as they have doubled down. Ives came on board in 2003 and they opened the store around the same time in a storefront in the Cooper Young area of Midtown. The shop is plastered with band stickers and posters and lined, wall-to-wall, with the musical contents of Friedl and Ives’ collective brains. It is one of those rare places where browsing feels like an education, and where it’s easy to find the unexpected. It’s also a good spot to hear a few dive bar war stories. Midtown Memphis has a small constellation of cancerous dives, the debatable health of which is at least partially owed to Goner shows.

The show stories are apocryphal. People party and fight. Most people around Midtown have heard about Jay Reatard pissing on his band and on the audience in the middle of his last Gonerfest, in 2009. That was months before the punk prodigy’s death of an overdose in January of 2010. Years before, Reatard, who was born Jay Lindsey and left a difficult home life at 15, gained notoriety for a Youtube video of his fighting a fan. To quote Chris McCoy, director of Antenna, a documentary about Memphis’ punk history: “Imagine what that does to a person: Your passion is the music, but you’re rewarded for putting on a freak show every night.” Reatard had the reputation for pushing performances to the edge and sometimes jumping off.

But the walls can come down for good, too: The Barbaras’ 2008 set at Gonerfest was legendary bacchanal, as were Harlan T. Bobo’s holiday shows, which looked like they were art directed by a crew of Valhalla-bound archangels. Quintron and Mrs. Pussycat use puppets and a synth organ in their set. Nobunny performs nude with — what else? — a bunny mask. There was the one Gonerfest when a local dive owner promised to bring a dunk tank but instead brought a kiddie pool full of live eels. Or the time that Natalie Hoffman, now of NOTS but formerly the bassist of Ex-Cult, got hit in the face with a full tallboy, thrown by an anonymous audience member. It hit her forehead but she didn’t miss a note. After the song finished, she turned to her band like “Did anybody fucking see that?” No one had.

As much as Goner has excited the local music scene, it has done an equal amount for the appreciation of garage rock around the world. Goner’s first release was the Japanese band Guitar Wolf’s “Wolf Rock.” Wolf Rock is loud and rough, retro but with a difference. (The difference being that some combination of the Vietnam War and Reaganomics and Hello Kitty had happened, and nothing made any sense anymore, culturally speaking.) On the album’s Wikipedia page under “Recorded” it says, simply, “Seiji’s basement.”

When “Wolf Rock” came out in 1993, the mid-century-influenced sound of garage rock was not big. The ’80s had a few garage revivalists, but by the early ’90s garage rock had been largely subbed out in the cool kid haunts for grunge. Later, they competed with nü-metal. “Everyone thought they were incompetent,” says Friedl about Guitar Wolf. Everyone except Friedl, who found merit in the all-pistons-firing, buried-under-a-collapsed-building-and-trying-to-get-out-via-guitar-riffs vibe of songs like Guitar Wolf’s “Apache Leather” and “Shooting Star Noise.” The record release, untypical in most ways, nonetheless typified the melting pot quality of Memphis’ musical history. Per McCoy: “A kid from Hawaii started a label in Memphis so he could put out a record by a band from Tokyo who sounded like a Memphis band.”

FUCK ELVIS

It’s hard to overstate how rough and wrong Goner’s early years could be. When the Oblivians started out they were inflammatory to be inflammatory in a way that is easier to pull off if you’re a white guy and the internet doesn’t exist yet. Some of the lyrics about women make you wonder if any women got within a square mile of the scene. (Women did and do, and the scene is better for it: Alija Trout of the Lost Sounds is one of the most talented musicians under that roof, while the four women who comprise NOTS tear it up.) They wanted to buy controversy — something they never quite succeeded in doing, for the best. Friedl quipped in an early interview with a sympathetic blogger that Marilyn Manson had the money to buy outrage; they never did.

You couldn’t be blamed, as a listener, for not separating the purposeful idiocy of the words from the merit of the music, but you’d at least have to acknowledge that the point was to be meritless. 1990’s Memphis garage rock is straight up nihilism. The lyrics sucked, the instruments sucked, and the shows were the weird catharsis of all that sucking.

Since the 1990s, Goner has expanded the category while staying true to form. The Oblivians went on to release maybe the only gospel-punk record in the world, Oblivians Play 9 Songs With Mister Quintron. When asked about what releases he sees as essential, Friedl has a shortlist: Harlan T. Bobo’s Too Much Love (“moody brilliance too good not to release”); Carbona’s self-titled punk album (which has such forward motion that its hard to believe it wasn’t recorded in a moving vehicle); Ty Segall’s Melted (sad, garage-y fuzz); Eddy Current Suppression Ring’s Primary Colors (“Gonerfest has showcased so many bands from Down Under that Aussies come to Memphis to see what’s going on in Australia”); Nobunny’s First Blood (“poppier and more jovial”); Ex-Cult’s hardcore-influenced and post-punk self-titled release; and NOTS weirdo synth punk on We Are NOTS.

And of course there’s Jay Reatard’s teenage album with the Reatards, aptly called Teenage Hate. It was re-released by Goner in 2011 alongside another early Reatards recording: Fuck Elvis, Here’s The Reatards. Of all the album titles in all the dive bars in all the city, “Fuck Elvis” pretty much nails it.

Elvis is the local patron saint of sorts, king of the blue-lit ’70s that the city can’t seem to shake — so if you’re goal is to shit on something, Elvis is a good place to start. At points on the album you can hear Jay singing “I don’t give a shit about anything” with an almost Elvis-y lilt, and before drowning it in fuzz and noise and shouting. Likewise, when he screams “I’ve got the Memphis Blues” in the song “Memphis Blues”, it’s both a celebration and contortion of the city’s blues-related statuary, of the Vegas afterlives and gift-shop-ification of our music history. This is Joni Mitchell decrying the death of Beale Street, only unwashed and wielding a piece of broken glass.

POUR GAS ON YOUR CAR

Despite the fact that the label casts a fairly wide net, Goner-released music is identifiable for its repetitiveness and its fuzzy insistence, but most of all, for its drive. These albums are joyrides downhill on a curvy road, where the car doors have flung open. You’ve got no choice but to hang on. Even the songs that run longer than the standard 1:30 feel this way. Quintron’s “Waterfall” on Too Thirsty To Love runs 4:09 but doesn’t ever take its time: “No more excuses,” Quintron proclaims in the song, “pour gas on your car.”

Technically speaking, the music is a bit like a broken car, too. The Goner canon is built on the working theory that you can make a surprising amount of sounds happen by misusing the cheapest equipment out there. JB Horrell, a wolfish- looking longtime rocker who plays guitar in Ex-Cult and in Aquarian Blood, told me that he plays a solid-state amp you can find in any pawn shop and uses one pedal. The pedal costs $14.99 on Amazon and, according to Horrell, is as good as anything you can find out there.

This back-to-basics mindset might have less to do with a commitment to authenticity than it does practicality because stuff gets broken. Stuff gets broken a lot. But the scene’s complicated relationship with authenticity has to do with it, as well. In a time when the lifeblood of small city arts are development deals (think: Arts Districts) or social-media-fueled-marketing schemes, Goner has the rare distinction of being owned by the artists who make it happen. A friend asked me what I thought about Goner a few months ago, and the first thing that came to mind was, “It’s not trying to be the thing. It’s the thing itself.”

Whatever your feelings about the crudeness and backwater cheer of the music, there’s at least this: they aren’t faking it. Southerners have a weakness for people who aren’t faking it. We’ll trust a wrongheaded confessor, some teenage kid keeling over and screaming “fuck the world” before we will someone who tells us it’s all gonna be all right. At its worst, Goner is pointless boys club narcissism, and in bad taste. At its best, Goner’s music is that punk confessional: they’re throwing lit matches and aerosol cans under the bus and they’ve got exactly 30 seconds to tell you what they truly, truly think — which is that they could care less.

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