A couple of days ago, Jeff “Flesh Hammer” Walls of the Woggles died of pulmonary hypertension. Readers of this blog are well aware of my fondness for the Woggles, but prior to his stint in that group, Walls played guitar in the critically acclaimed 80s band Guadalcanal Diary, formed (like the Woggles) in Athens, GA. So I was listening to one of my favorite Guadalcanal songs last night,
and I got to thinking about the radio station in Lexington where I first heard the song, and of my own semipro musical career in those days. Cue the harp glissando.
I was about a month into my first tour of graduate school when I turned 22, in 1987. In a truly spectacular display of misplaced priorities, I found a band to join in fairly short order. We called ourselves Reno Nirvana (Kurt and the lads hadn’t come onto the radar yet) and played exactly one show, at a rent party in downtown Lexington, KY, where we opened for the hardcore punks of Die Kreuzen, who were on tour from Milwaukee.
Not long after that, a guy who had seen Reno play saw me walking from campus to a local record shop (or perhaps to the sub sandwich shop in the same building) as he drove past. He stopped and asked if I wanted to jam. I said sure, and he gave me some contact info just before the traffic backed up on Euclid Avenue. We met up a couple of days later, and that was the birth of our band, the Groovy Kool. We stayed together for about three years, playing music we called “folkadelic”, but that was really the jangly stuff now known as “college rock.”
We never made it out of the second division in Lexington, because of our musical limitations and unprofessional habits — the members of the band that didn’t play drums were fond of fermented beverages and herbal jazz cigarettes, which meant that the third set of a night could get shambolic indeed. But we played at least a couple of weekends a month, with weeknight gigs on a pretty regular basis as well, and the occasional one-off gig in a city park or festival. Heck, we even played one show at the state hospital for the mentally ill — our guitarist/singer was a social worker.
This sort of thing was one of the reasons it took me five years to complete that two-year M.A. degree, but in retrospect, I’m glad I did it. And despite our flaws, being a second-tier band in Lexington in the late 80s wasn’t a disgrace either.
You see, that was a period when numerous college towns in the South (and perhaps other places as well, but I speak of what I know) had thriving local music scenes, and each hoped to follow in the footsteps of the ur-Scene in Athens, GA. Everyone was convinced that their particular stomping ground could be the “next Athens”, and Lexington was no exception. Every once in a while, one of our local bands would put out an indie record or cassette, or maybe do a regional tour. On rarer occasions, we’d hear that a label or a management company had begun to explore a development deal with one of the groups in town.
All this was fueled by the University of Kentucky’s then-new radio station, WRFL (for “Radio Free Lexington,” natch) and the presence of a few downtown clubs that were willing to book original bands and allow them to build an audience, even if it was only a small one. Places like the Wrocklage and the Jefferson Davis Inn (a/k/a The King’s Arms Pub for a while) were places to play if you weren’t doing classic rawk or top 40. The King’s Arms was something of a base of operations for the Groovy Kool; they were a regular stop for us, either as an opener or the headliner on a two-band bill.
And some of those bands were pretty good, as it turned out, even if none of them actually broke. Thanks to the wonders of technology, I can even share a few samples.
Velvet Elvis may have been the biggest of the Lexington bands — and the fact that you’ve likely never heard or heard of them is an indicator of how much the “next Athens” thing didn’t happen. But they did some pretty cool stuff. Here’s an example:
But there were other folks doing interesting stuff. A punk rock group called Vale of Tears put out a 7-incher or two around that time, and after they imploded, I sat in with their guitarist, Tootie Shipley, during the formation of a new band. I was long gone by the time they made it into the studio, but that band has achieved a measure of notoriety for its name alone.
One of my fellow Transylvania University undergrads had moved on after graduation, and Scott Luallen became the frontman for cowpunkers Nine Pound Hammer. Nine Pound may be the most heard of any of these bands, as they did the theme for the Cartoon Network/Adult Swim cartoon 12-oz. Mouse. This one is probably my favorite of theirs:
Nine Pound still gigs occasionally, but guitarist Blaine Cartwright is probably best known for his work with his next band, Atlanta sleaze-rockers Nashville Pussy.
Another Lexington-based act of that era with some staying power was guitarist Paul K. (for Kopasz) and the Weathermen. Paul K. came to Lexington on a debate scholarship, but his loves when I knew him were music and smack, not necessarily in that order. He’s a very talented player and always found solid backing musicians (hanging with Jaco Pastorius “when we were junkies together in Florida”), but the joke was that the Weathermen consisted of anyone Paul hadn’t ripped off for dope… yet. He got religion and got clean probably somewhere in the late 80s/early 90s, and has put out albums influenced by writers ranging from Jim Thompson to Borges. I allude to one of his songs in my short story “Just-So Story” (part of which takes place in Lexington), and what do you know? Thanks, internet!
But here’s a track with much higher recording quality from his 1992 album Killer in the Rain.
Of course, I moved to back to Northern KY in 1992 to begin work in the magazine biz, before taking a crack at Grad School 2: Electric Boogaloo, and I’ve only been back to Lexington a few times since then (although it’s nice to be remembered when I’m there.) But I’m still doing music all these years later, and I can still remember how excited I was when I heard my band’s music on WRFL for the first time, and I take some satisfaction in my time in a second-tier band.
Goodbye, Mr. Walls — thanks for the music.