The Black Lips are total white trash. Find them pissing on stage with song titles like “Everybody Loves a Cocksucker” and it’s sure enough to offend even the most liberal supporters of the arts. Strangely enough, they are complete country gentlemen at the same time, all charm and grace and complete sincerity. It is a band like this, full of paradoxes and contradictions and sheer unexplainables that makes rock music exciting and dangerous and unpredictable and all those lies it has always promised us it could be.
Cole is a dead ringer for Paul McCartney on the gatefold of Sgt. Pepper’s… complete with push-broom mustache and endearing dark hair helmet. Onstage he’s like a child imitating Jimi Hendrix…all the so-called parlor tricks, playing with his teeth, lunging microphone forward with his feet, bending at the knees and extending the guitar out like an over-sized phallus screaming out fuzz from it’s urethra pickups.
Jared is the cutest of the bunch (they all kinda have those faces you just wanna make out with). Bred from a long line of prominent Southern preachers, Tammy Faye Baker used to baby-sit him and he was the main objector to the working title for Let it Bloom, a reappropriation of a Lester Bangs claim, “Last of the White Niggers”. The Swilley’s were big supporters of the civil rights movement in the American South, and an album with that title pretty much meant he’d never be able to talk to his family again. If you’re adventurous, search out recordings by the Swilley Family, proper country-gospel from the 60’s and 70’s that Jared describes as “not half-bad”.
Ian is the missing link. As the band’s fourth guitarist, it’s clear he’s the one who should’ve been there all along. He’s the Brian Jones in the rock solid Mick/Keef dichotomy of Cole and Jared. He’s arguable also the most skilled musician of the bunch (arguably because Joe is a classically trained pianist, but I get the feeling he likes to stay behind the drums just for the challenge.)
Ian joined the band the day before the start of a tour opening for Sky Saxon and the Seeds. Cole taught him most of the songs in the back of the van…
“This song is E, D, A,” Cole would say. And then “this song is a little different, it’s E, A, D.” All Ian could say to himself was “these guys are fucking brilliant.”
Ian is also known for the removable gold caps or “grill” he puts over his teeth. It’s such a confusing merging of dirty Southern garage rock and still tippin’ screwed up Southern hip hop that I can’t help but be enamored by the audacity and absurdity of it. Oh yeah, and he supposedly bought the grill with aid money he got after Hurricane Katrina.
But before I can get all up in arms, I hear one of the Lips latest compositions “Oh Katrina” whose entire lyrics are as follows:
Oh Katrina, why you gotta be mean?
You stole my heart way down in New Orleans
I can’t believe what I saw on the TV screen
Oh Katrina why can’t you be serene?
The song is all clumsy drums and whirling fuzz lines. It is by far the most accurate approximation of a modern day Back From the Grave-style since the Gories busted out “Drowning” in 1992. The Black Lips hope to release the song on a New Orleans label and to donate any profits from its sale to charity.
Joe is the organized one. He drives the van, deals with promoters and basically makes sure everything works as smoothly as possible. Up until not too long ago he could be found tuning Cole’s guitar in the middle of a set…if only because Cole had no idea how to do so. His drummer face looks like he’s undergoing electroshock treatment. He writes more songs and is responsible for the band’s sound more than any other drummer I’ve ever met. But he’s decidedly in the background.
The Black Lips have their roots in a high school band called the Renegades that all the current members were in at one point or another. There’s a posthumous 7” that gives you the entire unexciting stereotypical teenage punk rock riff rehash. The only relevant story about the Renegades I can pull out of them is that both Cole and Jared sprayed Binaca on their dicks and set them on fire during one performance. Cole made the mistake of covering his dick with Gak (children’s goo part Silly Putty and part calf liver) and it quickly turned into a melting mess.
And there also begins the most relayed legend about the Black Lips…their insane onstage antics find Cole vomiting, pissing into his own mouth, spitting in the air and catching it on his face and sometimes using his cock as a guitar pick. While it’s so easy to get caught up in the outrageousness of it all, more often than not this becomes the focus of people’s attention. And it’s a damn shame because there’s so much more.
Cole is the first to admit “It’s so fucking stupid,” regarding the pissing, “it’s lame and I hate it but it gets SUCH a reaction from the crowd.”
When the Black Lips get drunk at a Best Western in Denver after a 13-hour drive through a blizzard that’s essentially shutdown the state of Kansas, (and even then, only to play two songs) they’re overly excited to watch their limited-edition tour DVD. Filmed while the band was on the West Coast in 2005 recording Let it Bloom it finds them in the van and in the studio and captures all the general shenanigans one can expect from a bunch of kids in their early twenties with a never-ending supply of beer.
But there’s also a terribly heartwarming scene in the DVD that has Black Lips performing in a small apartment in San Francisco. All of the attendees are underage kids who couldn’t get into the Lips 21+ bar show. The band holler lyrics without microphones, Joe plays with towels covering his drums, and the room is packed tight with frantic teenagers reveling in the excitement and generally losing their shit. The gig seems so totally uncharacteristic of how these guys are perceived, so for them to pull it off makes me wanna crawl up and give them a collective hug, tell them they’re doing everything right, to fuckin’ forget those assholes who focus on their onstage tomfoolery, to just follow their instincts as they’ve proven to be spot on so far.
Ian, Joe, Cole and Jared all agree that it was easily the best and most fun show they ever played.
After some brew Cole and Jared are quick to name their idols…and this night would find at least these mentioned: Billy Miller and Miriam Linna both of A-Bones/Norton Records fame. Los Saicos, relatively unknown South American garage punk that the Black Lips have taken LOADS of inspiration from, Darin Raeffelli, frontman for long-forgotten nineties acts Supercharger and the Brentwoods (better known for penning songs for the Donnas) and some dude from Seattle punk-scuzzers the Spits (prominently featured in the DVD).
But all members would say that their initial infatuation with the Sixties punk sound was via Van Morrison’s Them. From there, a logical progression came about…slowly being turned onto things like the Back From the Grave compilation series on Crypt Records, an eight volume collection of pure outta tune, untalented 1960’s teen punk howling that is the most accurate blueprint of how the Black Lips came to sound the way they do.
But other styles creep in unexpectedly…songs like “Born to Be a Man” and “Make It” are good ‘ole hillbilly country style a la Buck Owens or an obscure Carl Perkins b-side on Sun. And with “Hippy Hippie Hooray”, the disarmingly brilliant cover of the Jacques Dutronc song where the decidedly austere arrangement proves these degenerates can actually transform a song and turn it into their own. And don’t forget the crowd-favorite “Dirty Hands” a Spector-ish romp that apes on the Beatles and asks, bordering on sheer dumbfounded from the narrator’s point-of-view, “Do you really want to hold my dirty hands?”
Their most recent tour ends with an unexpected spot opening for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak. The Lips boys are beyond excited and Cole’s take on the whole situation is simply, “I’m viewing this show purely as a publicity stunt.”
So the Black Lips hop on stage a half-hour after doors open and are facing a fairly empty room (capacity is roughly 4500) of a couple hundred day-glo clad suburban Karen O wannabes squished up to the front barrier plaintively waiting for Yeahs. It is still the biggest crowd they’ve ever faced.
What those hipster teenagers get is twenty minutes of pure distilled brilliance.
The Lips cut any dead weight from the set. Surprisingly, all three of the YYY’s are sitting stage right and fully taking in the spectacle. Ending the set with the quintessential Black Lips song “Freakout” finds Ian lighting a pack of Black Cats as they dangle from his mouth, only to get looks of pure horror from the unexpecting teens. He spits up some blood and then crosses the stage to lock tongues with Cole. This act of pure homophobe baiting seems to draw the most ire from the crowd. And like that the show is over. In a show of irony, self-deprecation, giving the finger or whatever you want call it, the Lips boys venture out back on stage with white towels around their necks, holding one another’s hands. And they bow. The classic arena-rock goodbye.
The YYY’s are all totally blown away…dispensing many hugs and loads of praise. Their tour manager and assorted higher-up’s from the venue are none-too-pleased. The band is immediately kicked out of the club, their gear quickly loaded outside by the union grunts. The tour manager even takes to lecturing the guys (“What made you think you could do this?” “You ever ask permission?” “Heard of a fire code?”) to which they just shrug their shoulders in a Dennis the Menace “sorry mister” sort of way. But they mean no apology.
In a fit of sheer ingenuity, the Lips sneak back into the club (by lying to security and saying they were Blood on the Wall, the other opening band) and are able to witness Karen O wear a Black Lips sticker on her chest during the entire YYY’s performance. These boys are content. Everything was worthwhile.
The Black Lips had again found themselves in front of a room of teenagers, but their performance was the complete polar opposite. And yet, it worked. The Black Lips made sense. In their world this is something to behold. The Black Lips have learned to both transcend and embrace their contradictions. It is now time for everyone else to transcend their own reservations and embrace the Black Lips.