Thursday, January 29, 2009
Cheeseburger & Fries, I Recollect
How did it all start? I ask myself this question about a great many things. When I apply it to the subject of Cheeseburger & Fries, I think of the mid-nineties. I even think of the late-nineties. Speak, memory. Good dog. But be forewarned: my own memories don't even necessarily accord with JSH's.
Edward Hireronymus, with whom I grew up with in Jackson County, met JSH first. The Lexington radio station WRFL, on the University of Kentucky's campus, was the converging point. Ed moved to Lex (from Richmond) in '93. I showed up in town the following year. Although I'm certain that I had at least met JSH in passing, most likely at this booth at the Water Street Mall (an indoor flea market) in Richmond. I know that we had printed an excerpt from JSH's novel, 714, in one of the issues of mine and Ed's zine, Abortion Stories.
Bumming around campus, what I recall, is running into JSH, getting to know him better. While he would hang out in Lex and maintain a presence at the radio station, his home-base, at that time, was Richmond. I was in possession of wheels, my old '84 Mercury Topaz, which, for all practical purposes, would become the "Cheeseburger & Fries Express," JSH would require rides back to Richmond, and we would barter, either for a bit of cash money or or old records, in exchange for the gas money of the transport. It was on these road jaunts that our conversations cemented the fact that we had a certain shared old timey primitive space age reality principle.
I don't remember if our very first street performance was in Lexington or Richmond. We would just hit spots around, whether it be in Lex, Richmond, Berea, or parts unknown, sometimes chosen for the location specifically to go for the tip money of passers by, and sometimes chosen for the spiritual isolation, the alchemically correct spot, hanging in a doorway, the right graveyard on the right night, or walking down the railroad tracks, often performing just for the tape recorder, sometimes just for the ether itself, sometimes, if not always, for both. Ed Hieronymus would later call it what Goethe once called it, "the music of the spheres."
I don't know who said it first; it might have been a back and forth, call and response moment. Anyway, the routine went, "We'll play a song for anything...a dollar, ten cents, compliments on our singing voices, hand-me-down clothes, we'll even play a song for a cheeseburger, maybe some fries...who are we? Ain't it obvious? This here's Cheeseburger. This here's Fries. We're Cheeseburger & Fries."
As this moniker attached itself to us, so did, in various stream of consciousness sessions, the first songs that would establish our repertoire of originals and covers began to emerge. We were there to entertain the great outdoors of central and eastern Kentucky...there to entertain bums...college students...to woo women. Mostly, we entertained ourselves.
In the parking lot behind a Baptist Church in Richmond. The tape recorder is propped on the hood. I'm using the Topaz itself as percussion instrument. JSH beats out a jazzy/bluesy walking bass line on the acoustic guitar. This invokes in me a talking blues in a gruff, Tom Waits-esque voice. Rather than going with some urban hard boiled tale, my brain flashes on the idea to juxtapose the elements, to do in world-weary tones something childish and mundane. I end up spontaneously telling the story of losing my first dog, Freckles, due to the discovery that I was allergic to the dog. The song, "Never Saw That Dog Again," evolved into a staple of the CH&FR set.
Drinking whiskey in Lexington. JSH and I are hanging out with our half-Mexican writer pal, who will be referred to here as N. The tape recorder is on, we're singing songs in the living room of my first floor apartment. "Don't worry about germs," I hear someone, I think N, say about a dirty drinking glass, "the whiskey'll sterilize it." I sing "Night Owl Screechin'," which is the same basic riff, but with my lyrics, as JSH's "Creeps In My Head," which is the same song as Billy Childish's "Child's Death Letter," which is really just a cover of Son House's "Death Letter Blues." We embrace, rather than deny, these strands of influence and regurgitation. I think this session might have ended up on an officially released tape recording, but I'm not clear on that (later, parenthetically, after following that train of thought, I remember that I released on my own Hanging Dog Productions imprint a cassette entitled Night Owl Screechin' which included the whiskey session and a particularly rowdy literary reading by N and myself, from Kaldi's in Cincy, OH). I think I might have ended up driving blind drunk, but I'm not sure about that. This was not an a-typical night.
JSH and are doing our thing out on North Limestone. This day we get an audience of the older, craggy bums who tend to congregate sometimes in this zone. There's one particular lady, of whom the sun light really shows her age, and she repeatedly requests at every juncture, "Your Cheating Heart." I'm sure we played it at least three or four, or more, times. One of the bums takes my pack of Camels, relieves it of its thin plastic outer-wrapper, and joins in with improvised kazoo stylings. It was a good way to spend an afternoon.
"Practicing" in Richmond at Water Street Mall after-hours (JSH had keys to the joint). As with many of our practices, we're performing for the tape recorder and going off on improv tangents as much as if not rather than nailing down some prescribed set-list. Jeff's explaining to me that he wants to sing in harmony. He exhibits how I should sing my part, and he, his own. I, like a character in the movie Spinal Tap, seem wholly incapable of doing this. JSH gives up on the music lesson, letting me go my own inept monkey-hype-man way.
Never much for monotheism, our gods were masters of hokum, show people, songsters. Louis Prima and his bad gleeby self. Blind Willie McTell. Homer & Jethro. Sinatra, Martin, Davis, the Rat Pack. The indomitable Memphis Jug Band. The list goes on and on. And on (for a couple of louts who hate and rebel against much, we also love much). As Dino put it, "Don't worry about me, I never sing serious." As we can't spend all of our time in the public eye, we spend many an afternoon marking time by listening to our gods speak in the tongues of the ages.
Our Phil friend Phil Francis walks by, as JSH and myself lounge at the picnic tables in front of what was called Paisley Peacock in Lexington, on North Limestone. With a mixture of scorn and humor he says, "You guys need to get jobs." JSH quips incredulously, "What? And quit show business?"