Friday, December 7, 2012

Redlands California,1979: How I met David Lowery.

The lead singer / lead guitarist relationship is the classic core for myriad rock bands throughout history. David’s and my first encounter was probably not all too different from that of countless other bands, but in our case, the actual partnership did not begin for another decade or so.

Around the time of our first casual meeting, I was attending haircutting school by day (I'd heard Chuck Berry started that way) and tending bar at night for subsistence money, while living in a storage room at the back of my girlfriend's grandmother's house. I had begrudgingly concluded that I needed the proverbial "real job"…at least for a bit while I continued trying to wedge my foot into the doorway of the music world. I had heard through a friend that there was a guy named Ricky who was starting a "new wave" band. I was amazed that there was anyone else in the Inland Empire (the vast cluster of formerly thriving yet now decaying industrial cities east of Los Angeles) vaguely interested in punk and new wave. This was the era of Judas Priest and Journey. I went to suss it out, arriving at a small older house with music equipment dominating the entryway and front room. It became clear as we hung out that Ricky was looking to have some fun playing new wave covers. At this point I was more interested in writing and playing original music, but I stuck around for a bit that day anyway. At one point that afternoon, a tall slender kid with longish red hair came in with a big Fender bass. He had on a long, green military parka like the mods in England wore which made him instantly cool in my book. We shook hands and he said "Hey man, I'm David". Like me, he seemed to be walking the line between rock and roll and punk, trying to figure it all out and likely also realizing that we were a very tiny minority in The Inland Empire at that time. The three of us jammed a bit, hung out and talked about the cool music coming from the UK, punk, ska, new wave, noise rock, early goth etc. A band did not form, but I remembered that David guy. Although a few years younger than me, he was easily the hippest, most musically aware dude that I had met by that time.

Over the next year I went on to form The Dangers with Chris LeRoy, Bob Kjorvestad and an ever-changing cast of local punks on bass and drums. (Dangers blog post coming soon...) Running in the same circles of musical misfits and weirdos, David and I would occasionally cross paths. He enrolled at U.C. Santa Cruz in Northern California but came back down to Redlands on breaks, his fledgling bands like Sitting Duck sometimes playing at parties with The Dangers. He and some friends once came over to my place for a small party. David had brought a nice stack of vinyl from England where he had recently visited his mom's side of the family. I had a decent collection of American punk vinyl like Fear, The Ramones, The Germs and The Dead Kennedys, but I was impressed with Lowery's stack….many of them records that were relatively unknown and as yet unavailable stateside. We all sat around on the carpet sipping gin and limeade and listening to great bands from both sides of the Atlantic….. The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Talking Heads,The Damned, Adam and The Ants, and our beloved Buzzcocks who still influence us to this day. There were only a handful of our kind--musicians with a interest in new sounds--around Redlands then; David, Chris LeRoy, Bill "Shakespeare" McDonald (of "Where The Hell Is Bill?") fame, and me. By this time we had also met and hung out with the teenaged Victor Krummanacher and his posse of kid punks from nearby Riverside. There was also a band called The Reactors featuring Tony Fate on guitar, Mike Gonzalas on bass, and a tough-as-nails, 5-foot-tall female singer named Dash…arguably they were one of the very first punk bands in the Inland Empire, if not in all of Southern California.

In that era it was “us” against “them” ... “them" referring to the long-haired, heavy metal loving "dirt heads" as we called them. They drove by in their muscle cars jeering at us with our short spiky hair, boots and trench coats. They threw rocks at us, called us DEVO (huh?!), tried to crash our parties and kick our asses.

Despite all of this, The Dangers were writing our own songs and consistently selling out The Barn (the on-campus rock club at The University of Riverside). The anecdotal TV news stories from England about “booted hooligans” causing riots had the local PD a little amped up at the very sight of anybody dressed like us. Between the dirt heads and the party-busting cops we persevered and loved our scene all the more for the opposition. I was also playing with a hard core punk band who never could decide on a name (and who were actually billy clubbed once for not leaving our party gig fast enough once the Redlands P.D. had had enough complaints). Lucky 7 and I were popping up all over the I.E. music scene, for better or worse.

When David came back to Redlands on school breaks, we would sometimes get together at his parents’ house and play music as a casual ensemble called The Estonian Gauchos. We would swap instruments often in The Gauchos. I played drums, and David switched from bass to guitar on a lot of songs. (Few people know that he played bass guitar first and he was in fact quite good.) The Gauchos experimented with our interpretations of ska, European folk, pop, old timey country, rub-a-dub reggae, whatever felt fun. The Lowery family dog had it in for me and used to try to bite my ass for making such a noise on the drums. Like my parents, Gene and Betty, Mr. and Mrs. Lowery were encouraging of all of our musical endeavors. David and I were both very fortunate in that regard. This loose collective included David L, original CVB multi-instrumentalist Chris Molla, David McDaniel (who later gave Camper Van Beethoven their name), Mark Phillips, and me. The Gauchos were the seed that eventually grew into Camper Van Beethoven. I remember The Gauchos playing a party one evening in the Lowery back yard (naturally drawing the Redlands police). I vividly remember David's Genuine Miller Draft being angrily set down on the patio as he proclaimed "This isn't Poland…we can make as much noise as we want until ten o'clock!" Plucky and courageous….all six feet and 130 pounds of him. Dryly witty and impressively sharp he was, even in his youth. I think that moment was when I really began to love the guy. Between the wild, high speed power pop and punk of the Dangers and the innocent yet worldly musical experimentations of The Estonian Gauchos, this would become the most pivotal year of my musical journey…and this was only the beginning.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Paying dues and don'ts: The beginnings of Lucky #7 and one rock musician's apprenticeship

Summer 1978: I was just out of my teens. My military family was leaving me behind in Southeastern California as my Dad was offered a choice last tour of duty in Hawaii. With 6 kids, it was time to kick one or two of the older ones out of the nest anyway. I'd previously left home a few times as a teenager and made a go of independence, yet was always welcomed back for a bit when things got rough. This time it was the real deal. "There is no free lunch" as my dearly departed Dad used to say. Fair enough. I soon found myself relatively broke, doing grunt construction work when I could find it to keep myself in rent, guitar strings and Top Ramen. I found lodging in a tiny, run down rental house right next to the 10 freeway in Yucaipa California. I paid rent by putting pre-fab sheet metal roofs on industrial warehouses owned by my landlord Henry. This involved a high powered drill in the 100-plus degree heat of the blazing California desert sun, for $3.00 an hour (most of which went right back to Henry). Imagine the joy. But hey, what did I care? I was young, healthy and playing guitar in a few struggling little bands at parties for beer on the weekends and flirting with pretty young girls who would buy me the occasional meal at Denny's. Ah, the resilient innocence of youth.

Just before my parents left for the tropical splendor of the 50th state they were kind enough to offer to co-sign a loan for me. They suggested a more reliable used car to replace my consistently broken down 56 VW Beetle, but of course, I had my own priorities. I'd grown tired of my first guitar and felt it was time to get a new and better one. After walking miles back and forth to the handful of music stores of nearby San Bernardino I wandered into Lopez Music. The store was down the west end of E street where my high school buddies and I had hung out on Friday and Saturday nights just a few years earlier, driving around listening to The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Uriah Heep and ZZ Top on our 8 track tape players. After I showed Mrs. Lopez a magazine photo of a then-young Keith Richards on stage, she opened a large glass case, winked through her cat eye glasses and carefully handed me my future. It was love at first sight. I was a scrawny little long haired kid and it seemed to weigh a ton. We plugged it into an amp and I began to play.

I recall the eerie feeling that one gets upon meeting someone you inexplicably feel as if you've known forever. Not only did the riffs I already had feel and sound better but new ideas began to spark in my brain and run instantly down to my fingers. I knew then and there that I would do almost anything to have this guitar. After a pleading call to Mom, who drove down from nearby Yucaipa to meet me at the store, I left with my black 1977 Gibson Les Paul Standard which I am still playing to this day. The deal was that Mom and Dad would make the down payment, but that I was responsible for the monthly ones from then on over the next few years. Since then, over many thousands of miles, through countless joys, heartbreaks, births, deaths, trials and tribulations, old Lucky Number Seven (as Cracker fans long ago dubbed it ) has rarely left my side. I vividly remember scrambling to make my guitar payments from the meager earnings of a series of temporary construction jobs. When money got really tight a few times, my brother and I figured out a scheme to make some immediate cash. Having no working car (the Beetle's transmission had fallen apart) we began regularly hitchhiking down the 10 Freeway to San Bernardino to give blood for $12.00 a pop. These being the pre-AIDS-screening days, these blood banks were often filled with homeless guys, ex-cons and the like, looking to make some fast booze cash. Then, depending on how we felt, we would sometimes hitchhike another 20 miles to the blood bank in Fontana to do the same thing. We did this once or twice a week until Mom found out and put a stop to it all the way from Hawaii. She would have rightfully thrown her shoe at our heads if it were possible to fling it over the ocean.

During this time I worked as a bartender, an ice cream truck vendor, construction site grunt, night delivery truck driver, whatever job I could find until I was invited to join the only cover band that I have EVER joined, The Tom Harper Band. There was no Tom Harper…it was a name composed of the first syllable of each of the band members’ last names. Being the last to join I, didn't even get a syllable. (Just as well, perhaps.) These were mostly older guys who liked having the flashy, hot shot kid guitarist in the band. We would play weekends at a lodge in the mountains that the bass player's girlfriend's dad owned. He fed us dinner and sometimes let us stay in a cabin where the boozed flowed and the chicks came out of hiding once we knew he had left for the night. In retrospect, this chapter of my youth was a great learning experience for me, as the elderly proprietor wanted us to start the dinner hour playing the fluffy, light duty hits of the day like "Margaritaville.” The 5-to-7 set was a snooze fest for me. It did however teach me a lot about dynamics - the importance of being able to play at a whisper volume, then work up to wailing away like a madman as the crowds got rowdier by late night. That's when the Zep and Foghat covers came roaring out to a house full of happy, howling drunks. In general, I was loving my apprenticeship…for a while anyway. I was woodshedding at home on weekdays, writing my own riffs and songs. Unlike many of my contemporaries I really had no long term plans of ever doing anything else aside from playing music. I soon tired of the cover band/human-jukebox scene which seemed fine for my band mates (who I think just wanted to hook up with divorcees and smoke a lot of weed). I wanted …needed to go as far as I could with this guitar..... Changes would come sooner than I expected....

Monday, October 22, 2012

Drunkard's Epiphany Video

We posted the video for Drunkard's last night, here it is: Sometimes in our darkest hour, we're faced with the choice of reaching out for help or becoming our own worst enemy. The protagonist in this song is one of those guys who manages to do both at the same time. That's our friend Ferd from the Hackensaw Boys as our man of mystery, along with a few other local/Colorado friends. A lot of the people looking slightly perturbed are probably actually perturbed, as they were strangers and we were disrupting their evening beverage. Our luminous, singing 'angels' really are the ladies who sang the harmonies on Drunkard's on Tilting, Laniece and Thalia from Mama Lenny and the Remedy. Taking an about-face from the styles of the Another Road and Construction Man videos, our director Tomas went for a sort of film-noir style that I think really captured the mood of the song. After the "bouncer" threw me out, when we were filming the alley shots, two policemen came by after hearing that a guy was passed out in an alley and people were taking pictures. How's that for darkly humorous? Enjoy. (The link for sharing the YouTube video directly from Facebook or email is... ).

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Blog resurrection

Dear friends...after some prodding from folks in the Crumb Nation and my band mates I've decided it's time to start putting out the occasional blog again. I’m anticipating a loose, ongoing catalog of stories and recollections that chronicle my lifer status as a musician and songwriter. Among other topics, I'll discuss some details of my 30-year-plus friendship and 20-year ongoing musical partnership with David Lowery and our formation of Cracker. I'll also try to answer questions I’ve gotten about my new 2nd solo record "Tilting", my musical side projects and more. I'll try to keep it mostly about the music, but I imagine I'll sometimes veer off into things more personal as I did when I wrote my monthly column for Scene magazine a few years ago. I'll at least try to steer clear of topics that really aren't my area of expertise. This fan base is nothing if not diverse in matters political, social and philosophical. I will try as I always do to remain respectful of all of my/our supporters. I feel honored to have your attention in the first place. I hope to shed some light on the combined creative output that resulted in all of these Cracker songs and records. I'll invite you into the vans, tour buses and backstage green rooms, rehearsal and recording studios, dimly lit hallways, 4 star hotels and squalid motels from Birmingham to Bilbao and anywhere else the ideas flowed into creative reality and/or the shenanigans ensued. I’ll try to recall the hirings, firings, the keepers and the ones who walked away. Think back to each album as I felt and experienced it and try to answer some questions you might have. With the average lifespan of a rock band spanning roughly 5 or 6 years, we've been very fortunate to say the least…Cracker have now had over two decades of thriving success and managed to stay the course on this roller coaster of a career with continued support from fans and friends like you. Thanks for your time, Johnny Hickman… (Lead guitarist, co founder, co songwriter / singer, and harmonica player for the semi-hip band of misfits known collectively as Cracker.) PS: Please make sure and click "follow" on the blog. I started setting it up months ago and then abandoned ship, so it's time to roll it back out and get my friends following. Also, to make things simpler for myself, I’ll probably disable blog comments but post each entry on Facebook. I welcome your comments on any given post and/or subject but will exercise my right to 86 you from the vicinity if you make trouble….and yes, I decide what constitutes "trouble". My blog, my party, my rules. Stay tuned for the one I’m writing right now, "Paying Dues And Don'ts.” The story of Lucky #7 and this rock musician's early seduction into this strange and wonderful career. Cheers, J