Friday, June 08, 2007

The Hentchmen and the Strange Case of Revisionist History...

The story behind the Hentchmen’s mini-Lp Hentch-Forth and its CD reissue as Hentch-Forth.Five is an intriguing microcosm of the Detroit rock scene as a whole, both upon the initial release in 1998 and upon its re-release now in 2007.

What began as an unassuming live collaboration at the Magic Bag on February 6th, 1998 soon developed into much more enterprising endeavors. At that show (a bill that included Rocket 455 and the Wildbunch) White joined the Hentchmen for a rather spirited take on the MC5’s “Looking At You” segueing straight into a cover of the Brit-Invasion classic “Some Other Guy” penned by Barrett/Leiber/Stoller.

Sometime after that the combo agreed to record a single together, most likely drunkenly decided at a Pin-Ups bowling league night or a Keep on Trash John Syzmanski/Dave Italy DJ night, either of which would’ve been at the Garden Bowl, the nascent nexus of Detroit’s then-burgeoning garage rock scene. It would be the first time the Hentchmen would be joined with an extra player on record and only their second waxing without the trusty Farfisa organ.

The single was recorded later that February by Jeff Meier at White’s Southwest Detroit house located at 1203 Ferdinand. Using a piano salvaged from a local Catholic school, the quartet banged through “Some Other Guy” and the Jeff Beck and the Yardbirds’ “Psycho Daisies”.

The choice of “Some Other Guy” stems from White’s then-current obsession with the Beatles BBC version of the track. At 2 minutes and 50 seconds, the Hentchmen’s version would be the longest song they’d released at that point

“Psycho Daisies” stems from the brief five-month period in 1966 where both Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck were members of the Yardbirds. While accounts differ as to who plays what on the recording, the centerpiece of the song is a back-and-forth dueling guitar match that White and Hentch stringsman Tim Purrier recreated with admirable intensity and aplomb. The CD version eliminates a cruel fade-out on the 7” that robbed the listener of some prime riffage real estate.

The song’s lyrics are a geographical hop-scotch across the United States explaining why one wouldn’t want to stay in places like Mississippi or Pennsylvania. As the song modulates into its chorus, it’s made clear that California is the place to be, if only for the fact one Mary Hughes is there.

Hughes herself was a featured actress in Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine and was romantically linked to Jeff Beck (hence her inclusion in the songs lyrics). The endearing thing about this is that the Hentch version of the song sings the lyrics as “Mary Lou” It’s cute and funny and a prime example how songs can change meaning upon re-interpretation.

The problem is the Hentch-Forth.Five version has vocals John Syzmanski re-did some eight years after the fact. It’s clearly audible when the song modulates into the pseudo-chorus and there’s suddenly double-tracked vocals where, for it’s entire existence until this point, there’d been John alone and monotone.

And that’s not it. A majority of the songs originally featured on Hentch-Forth have been tweaked or overdubbed to the point where anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the original will notice the difference.

While clearly a matter of opinion, I take these overdubs as an affront. Chalk it up in the same column as Steven Speilberg’s decades-after-the-fact digital erasure of guns in law-enforcement hands in E.T. or the abominably pointless “Greedo shoots first” kerfluffle of the redone version of Star Wars.

One can argue a piece of art is never finished, always in a constant state of flux open to reinterpretations and edits. And I can agree with this. But what we’re left with now is a revisionist history where the version of “Psycho Daisies” preserved for posterity, digitally burned into tens-of-thousands of compact discs is not the same one presented to people years ago, the version that provoked the reaction and status that made these recordings worth reissuing in the first place.

That being said, I prefer Iggy Pop’s remix of Raw Power. As my Stooges CD buying days started at a time where one could make the choice between the original ball-less Bowie mix or Ig’s needle-burying testament to ferocity, I chose Iggy. And so as the remix version is established as the one I’ve grown-up listening to, I develop an affinity and attachment to it.

So too will the scads of kids out there hearing these songs for the first time, no clue or warning as to the original presentation of the music. And that’s the shame, because the vocals on “Psycho Daisies” stick out like a sore dick. It’s CLEARLY not of the era. And so I ask: What was gained?

“A lot of it is just me doing it for myself” says Syzmanski of the overdubs. And that’s all music should be for. Once you start figuring in what the audience wants to hear or what some punk blogging kid’s gonna write, you’ve tainted your inspiration and your output. So while I completely disagree with the finished product, I wholeheartedly agree with John Syzmanski’s principle.

The single’s artwork was meant to conjure images of Liverpool in the 60’s…the smokestacks in the background and the somewhat out-of-place chain on the front cover conveying the feeling of an industrial town. The “Featuring Jack White” tag was tongue-in-cheek, as at that time, no one had ever even heard of the guy.

In August of 1998, under the working title Gawker Delay, the band decamped to record in an old auto factory in Pontiac, MI with Jeff Meier at the knobs. Owned by Gerald Shohan (member of Detroit punk patsies Coldcock and later Bootsey X and the Lovemasters) Room 222 was stocked with a Hammond B3 organ and piano that would prove crucial in the album’s dynamic. And only being occupied for a weekend in, the band was in and out without bother. Coincidentally, it would be the same weekend White shuttered his Third Man Upholstery business.

A live version of this song, complete with the “garbage, junk” lyrics as well, can be found on both the Ghettoblaster Volume 1 compilation and the Motorvatin’ Hentchmen full-length on Norton. The (as John calls it) Rolling Stones-like “ooh-ooh” backing vocals were inaudible on the original mix. Pointed out by Tim Purrier during the ‘98 mixing process, it was possibly a lengthy procedure to go back and re-do the mix to DAT. So as was their attitude at the time, they demurred “fuck it” and soldiered on.

With hindsight and a handful more albums under his belt, Syzmanski now admits they should have spent the extra twenty minutes at the time to go back and do it right. Further explaining his reason for re-doing parts on the record, John explains, “This is the only record of ours we own. It’s the only record we can do this on, whether we want to or not. Our first two albums, to show you how punk we were, were done on cassette four-track. When we were done with the songs, we’d record over the mastertapes. I wish we still had that stuff around so I could remix it.”

“LA.M.F.” is an abbreviation of “late model Ford” and a nod to a Johnny Thunders album with the same initials with differing punctuation (supposedly co-opted from NYC gang graffiti). The words invoke the metaphor of a poorly performing automobile toward having faith in a higher being

I’m three quarts down and it’s black all around

And I’m halfway pissed cause I don’t deserve this

This lyric is immediately followed by a wordless backing vocal accompaniment reminiscent of a church choir. It could just as well be a keyboard, but I like to imagine it as vocals, majestic and angelic, recalling a happy-go-lucky 1950’s television show theme song. This moment is one of those Hentch intangibles that’s so hard to explain the importance or significance of. You either get it or you don’t.

White’s bass on the song is as fresh an interpretation of a standard walking blues progression as you’ll find. Each verse plucked slightly different than the preceding one, not taking center stage, but providing the punch and balls that the band knew they were getting when they enlisted White’s services.

“Automatic” sticks out bad. The redone parts are out of place, from an airy organ that appears nowhere else on the record and wouldn’t show up in Syzmanski’s arsenal until years after the initial waxing of this song. Still, lyrics like

One on my left

And one on my right

One in my hand

And one out of sight

are a witty and original stance on as mundane a topic as manual versus automatic gear-shift in your automobile. While I will tire quicker than most of lyrics about cars, hot rods and that whole subculture, the Hentchmen have always managed to be innovative and imaginative when incorporating the subject into their songs. See also “LeSabre Radar” and “Cars on Film” for further reference.

“Gawker Delay” is un-retouched here and is the absolute pinnacle in the Hentchmen recorded canon. As always, it’s a Hentch instrumental with a brilliant title (see also “Naked Sister”, “Casmere and Campau” and “Creep of the Year”) that captivates.

This is, without a doubt, my favorite Hentchmen song of all-time. With the repetitive bassline conjuring the monotony of being stuck in traffic, Tim’s guitar buzzing with feedback-laced bounce and drummer Mike Latullipe’s metronomic pounding punctuated with apropos accents are all perfect. But it holds nothing to Syzmanski’s organ playing.

The dramatic and thundering string of notes the Hammond B3 hits at the 1:05 mark of the song are so rife with emotion and full with being that I feel my efforts to describe it will be fruitless. And this feeling struck me the first time I heard the song, July 25th at St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit. My immediate reaction was something like “What the fuck was that?” feeling entirely struck and overwhelmed at the power with which an instrumental song could move me on first listen.

And after almost nine years, hitting the repeat button over and over as I A-B the LP versus the CD I am still in awe of this song. If you get stuck in this wordy, self-important overwrought review or are just fed-up by this point, I will leave you with this simple advice: the song “Gawker Delay” is reason enough to purchase Hentch-Fourth.Five.

(side note: White joined the Hentchmen for this St. Andrew’s gig. Syzmanski recalls him playing the entire show while I remember otherwise. John also claims Jack played guitar on one song while Tim played bass…this I do not remember. There were probably no more than 50 people in attendance.)

“Me and My Monotone” is where side 2 would begin. Here we have Syzmanski’s insightful lyrics:

You know

nobody moves

they all just sit there

They think they’re going places

But they don’t know how to get there

And I feel so all alone

Just me and my monotone

This personally feels like an indictment of the state of affairs in this town, both in 1998 and 2007. Some things never change. Same as it ever was. People speak big and act little and the wise ones are left only to observe it all. White would oftentimes cover this song during solo live performances, appropriating his Hentch-Forth bass part to a Kinks-styled guitar stab. I thought I had a recording of this to share, but a long trawl through the archives proves otherwise.

I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen Syzmanski given credit as a gifted lyricist and that’s a shame. Where the “Monotone” lyrics above are studied and attacking, he’s just as capable of being charmingly juvenile and aloof. A song like “Perpetuate the Continuance” from FormFollowsFunction is the perfect example as to how a painfully obvious self-observation can carry unforeseen weight and meaning.

“Big Screen Lover” is a Purrier tune about a cineaste-turned-shizo, off to Hollywood in search of the glitterati. Tim’s driving punk guitar augmented by Syzmanski’s harmonica and brilliantly ends with the line “All the stars are old or dead.”

Tim songs are almost perfectly analogous to Lee Ranaldo’s songs in Sonic Youth. Never more than one or two a record, they are perfectly written to the point of perfection and are a welcome momentary departure from the singular voice of the band’s front-person.

“Little No More” is reminiscence turned wow as a high school sweetie is seen all-growned-up. The mention of a seeing her at the “civic fair” could point to a reality-inspired track as Syzmanski spent some of his youth in St. Clair Shores and I vaguely recall attending a fair in that city that was neither state, county, church or vanity…no, it could only be described as civic. Which is odd, because I can’t think of any other instance of a fair I would consider “civic”.

While weak only in comparison to its surroundings, “Carry Me Home” is similar to “Little No More” in blurring the divide between what could possibly be a drunkard’s plea (the song’s title) or a sweet-hearted request for some quality time spent snuggling. The pre-solo drum fill is actually White and Latullipe playing matching parts on opposing drums (a tom and snare, respectively, I believe).

“R&R Cancer” also suffers from unseemly organ additions and vocal re-dos. While the original piano arrangement was pounding, the organ doubled over Syzmanski’s vocals, while slightly charming, ruins the stripped-down early Chuck Berry vibe the initial version had. The cribbing of Darby Crash’s “gimme gimme your heart” lyric from “Lexicon Devil” is an appreciated re-appropriation and the idea of a “rock and roll cancer” itself can be a humorous hypothetical…is Syzmanski implying a diseased music scene? A tired and tread genre? Something that needs to be cut off with a scalpel and tossed into a pile of medical waste? Or am I reading too much into this?

John says, “After we recorded ‘R&R Cancer’ I immediately started doing the vocals differently live. And that always bugged me. So I changed them.”

I always thought this collection of Hentchmen songs had a fair amount of weird stops and starts. Things like the punctuating blasts before the lyric “rock and roll cancer” or the ping-ponging guitar/organ on “Little No More” always struck me as odd little slashes. With hindsight it doesn’t feel so pronounced, but maybe a bit of their Devo infatuation poking through, coupled with a knack for making independent song structures and parts gel with a dose of ingenuity.

According to Syzmanski, there’s even silent film footage of the band in the studio.

“Jack had found some 16mm camera he was messing around with. On the way up to the studio we stopped and got some film for it. There’s probably a good 20 minutes of footage, you know, silent, of us goofing around. I’d really like to see that.”

The title Hentch-Forth came from yours truly and originally appeared on a headed-for-the-dump chair at Third Man Upholstery. I jokingly told White he should suggest it as the album title to the band, as he’d mentioned they were having trouble coming up with one. I didn’t know it was their fourth album, nor did I register they were adding a fourth member. I merely thought it sounded cool. There’s debate between White and myself as to whether the initial use of the word was as “hentchfourth” and not the hyphenated version actually used on the album.

When told that the band would be using the title, White presented the news with regret more than anything. He didn’t want to see me get a big head at the age of sixteen. Latulippe envisioned the future as such: me removing a pair of mirrored sunglasses slowly before saying, “Hentches, your new song title is….” Luckily, that never happened, though the big head is debatable. White lobbied for me to be thanked on the record but alas, it was not meant to be. With the reissue, I’m still not thanked. I think it’s better that way.

The album cover of Purrier onstage in Athens, OH on New Year’s Eve 1997 is iconic. Clad in a stylish 1960’s houndstooth dress, legs perfectly akimbo at 120 degrees from the knees, Mike just barely peeking over his left shoulder, Misfits Fiend Club pin clearly beaming from its place of distinction on the guitar strap, eyes fixated downward…it’s an image that totally doesn’t make sense if you’ve ever met the guy. He’s as straight-laced and un-crossdressing a man as you can meet.

And therein lies the beauty. The juxtaposition of this, in Dave Buick’s words, stereotypically nerdy guy, wearing a 30-year-old dress, onstage, captured in mid-rock is comparable to the juxtaposition of a 9 song mini-LP released the same day as your CD/LP full-length, of adding a bass player just for the recording and release, of doing it all so fast that your already not happy with the mixes, of coming back years after the fact to finally make proper what has become an essential cog in Detroit music history to many people the world over.

The back cover photo was taken at a local funeral home. It also spawned a creepy outtake of the session, an image of White, eyes closed, in a coffin with the Hentch boys paying their respects. In some ways it seems that the inclusion of that photo would be symbolically appropriate on this reissue, the idea that the recording has finally been put to bed.

White would join the Hentchmen onstage for the record’s release party on October 23rd, but only for a rendition of Hank Williams “Jambalaya”. Tim would don the same dress he sports on the album cover and it was generally a rollicking good time.

The next two tracks, “Club Wagon” and “Ham and Oil” were originally featured on a 7” released by Gas Records from Finland. The band was put in touch to the label through Norton Records and the request was for two instrumental tracks. They were done at the Pontiac sessions.

“Club Wagon” is most likely a reference to the Hentch van, a Ford Club Wagon bedecked with many a bawdy bumper sticker, lots of highway miles and a top-notch stereo system. Tim’s guitar makes the song. “Ham and Oil” are traditional gifts at a Hamtramck wedding and the song is ultimately forgettable.

Rounding out the CD is a previously unheard second take of “Psycho Daisies”. I find this interesting to no end. At the time, I can’t imagine any of these bands completing a usable second take. Once you had a passable recording down to tape, you were done. You mixed the thing and sent it off. And this isn’t just the Hentchmen…you will be hard-pressed to find alternate takes of any Detroit bands of this era…the White Stripes, the Dirtbombs, Bantam Rooster, Detroit Cobras. Tape and time were at such a commodity that what you hear on the finished records is, most-often, all that was laid down in the studio.

But the alternate take had no vocals (which makes sense, no reason in completing two separate vocal takes at that time). So Syzmanski was finally able to right the lyrical wrong of “Mary Lou” to “Mary Hughes”.

Despite my griping, this record is still beautiful. Syzmanski explains that many of the vocal takes were missing from the original ¼ inch 8 track tapes and so there was no choice but to redo them. He believes his original performances on “Yesterday’s Trash” and “Me and My Monotone” were worth keeping had they actually been available. ( ¼ inch 8 track is, mathematically, the same fidelity as a cassette 4 track)

He also says he’d always thought the LP was a little fast, that all the songs sounded sharp and that it’s been corrected now. Add to that an ill lacquer-mastering engineer and what you end up with is a 12” that was known to skip on many turntables and never achieved its full potential because of it. While the LP tracks spark with a force unrealized on the vinyl release, the songs originally released on 7” ultimately feel a bit flattened from the transfer.

The CD running order mistakenly places “Little No More” and “Carry Me Home” up one spot each where “Big Screen Lover” is relegated down two notches. This is merely an oversight, John acknowledges, and was not intended.

There are so many reasons this re-release shouldn’t make sense. But it ultimately does. My self-implied personal attachment and involvement notwithstanding, Hentch-Forth (and its .Five companion) is the best single collection of Hentchmen material you will find, and thus, one of the best documents of Detroit garage rock in its coming-of-age phase of the late 1990s.

Image Details

-from Metro Times advert for the show
-from Metro Times general advert for the Garden Bowl, featuring Syzmanski in performing a bar handstand. Must be viewed in person to achieve full affect
-label scan of Canadian pressing of "Psycho Daisies"
-originally lyrics hand-written by Syzmanski for "Psycho Daisies" note the "Mary Lou" inclusion
-original Keep On Trash flyer. Unsure of the origin of this phrase, it would appear in the run-out groove of the "Psycho Daisies" side and eventually end-up the title of a song by the Go
-poorly photographed 16x24 poster for the St. Andrew's show. a two-color silk-screen designed by Steve Shaw. Silk-screened posters for local bands at this time were unheard of and this one is considerably rare.
-excerpt from hand-written Jack White solo show setlist, note the inclusion of "Monotone"
-perfunctory CD cover scan
-perfunctory scan of original Gas sleeve
-Hentch-van State of Michigan registration, recovered from Car City Records lost and found circa 2000. I hope his license number has changed, cause I don't know how to black that shit out.
If you've made it this far, I've got one free copy of the Hentch-Forth.Five CD to giveaway. Email with something worthwhile...a scan I should've included above, a searing critique of my opinion, a sycophantic agreement with what I wrote, whatever. Winner will be picked at my discretion. And as always, keep posting comments. That shit makes my day.


Colin said...

"Add to that an ill lacquer-mastering engineer and what you end up with is a 12” that was known to skip on many turntables"

Bought a copy of the 12". Found that it skipped. Bought a second copy. Found that it skipped too.

I thought that this was just bad luck but now I know better

Anonymous said...

'It would be the only time White would ever perform on the St. Andrew’s stage. '

Actually I recall seeing Jack drum with Goober and the Peas at St. Andrews on at least one occasion- one of them, perhaps, the last Peas show in Detroit? I remember the original lineup of Rocket 455 (with Bootsy and Dan Kroha in the band) as well as the short-lived Hot Footin' Puddin' Pie opening.
I also recall Two Star opening up for a pretty dead Southern Culture on the Skids show at St. Andrews.


Christopher said...

As always- wow. I thought I caught a lot of shows , and saved up flyers and stuff. Now it's our past / history ..and look now - it's official reference matierial. Last year I tossed out ten years of Metro Times / Orbit/Real D's - and I'm kicking myself.
I'm also surprised to hear about the "remasters" John did . When Ozzy and Sharon redid all the bass/drumm part on Bark at the Moon and so forth, it was a bout royalties. This sounds like John was after QUALITY. I'm not against it, but I'd always love an original copy. Personally, 99% of the time the only decent thing about revisionist history in films are cleaned up copies. Too bad they are normally muttered up with new scenes ( The Warriors directors cut anyone ? ) . While driving home from the Lager last winter, John hopped a ride in my TRUCK BED...the cab was full. It started RAINING, then sleeting ....all with John in the bed. Someone snapped a picture , while I was driving . It was priceless. I shouted, " All the Jack White stuff got ya this far John !"
I'm sure it was done out of respect for a better end product, and I can respect that.

Anonymous said...

It was Mrs. Peacock in the Library with the Candlestick!

Anonymous said...

...nice one John on the title order mess up! Also, I thought Dave came up with Hentch-Forth???

Anonymous said...

Hentch-sound praised to the skies by Steve Van Zandt coast-to-coast

despite all the compli(c)ations

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