Saturday, April 30, 2016

Ramblings, Insight and Admission That I Was Never Legally Old Enough to Enter the Gold Dollar...

This was originally posted behind a paywall regarding the 3 x LP set I helped compile of Jack White and the Bricks, the Go and Two Star Tabernacle. It makes the most sense if you're actually looking at the package while reading this, but if you don't have one, you can always imagine. 

I’m pretty sure this Vault package was my idea. I don’t know if that means I’m taking the blame or the praise, probably little bits of both. But in light of the White Stripes at the Gold Dollar package (#26), it seemed like the time was right to focus on a grip of the other recordings we’d obtained from Neil Yee, the owner/soundman/brains behind the Gold Dollar. We’ve got the Cass Corridor TMR shop up-and-running and a continued focus on the neighborhood and the history there is important to us. The timing felt right.

The easiest part about this package was the Jack White and the Bricks record. As this was never a real band beyond a half-dozen performances in the summer of 1999, there was very little that need to be obtained in terms of opinions and permissions and things of that nature. While an audience recording of this show has existed in tape trading circles since the performance, this multi-track soundboard recording proved revelatory in what had been unheard to my ears since the performance. The opening of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” shined through with Brendan Benson’s striking countermelodies on guitar, all but nonexistent on the audience tape. When the opening lyrics came through I was confused…”Why is Brendan singing?” The delivery is unmistakably him, though through years and years of listening on a lo-fi tape I’d never noticed Brendan sang the first two lines…

Dead leaves and the dirty ground when I know you’re not around
Shiny tops and soda pops when i hear your lips make a sound…

Only to have Jack jump in, with gusto, guts, glory and the response to Brendan’s call..

When I hear your lips make a sound!

I’m not exaggerating here…when I first heard this, clear as daylight, I choked up a bit. I think it’s beautiful and feels like a truly wonderful moment just accidentally happened to be caught on tape that night.

Speaking of that night, although I play drums here, I have very few memories of what happened. Royal Trux, the headliners, were late to arrive. I believe they showed up after we’d finished our set. My mom was there. It was a school night. I was seventeen years old. That’s about it. My entire time in the band I was just making a very poor attempt to play drums like Patrick Keeler. Why I thought I could approximate his style is beyond me, and I often compare myself to Billy Yule playing drums in the last-gasp iteration of the Velvet Underground. I really shouldn’t have been onstage or in this band, but am forever grateful and happy that I was.

The setlist features a couple of songs that aren’t on the Bricks live recording from the Garden Bowl three months prior (Vault #15). “One and Two” is an original Jack White song that never ended up being used or recorded anywhere else, which is odd for him. I particularly enjoy the slippery bass playing of Kevin Peyok on this song and feel like he may well have been the glue that held this band together. “Candy Cane Children” feels odd outside of the context of the White Stripes, especially as they never really performed the song live. “Ooh My Soul” is sloppy sloppy sloppy and in my opinion, the first two chords presage what would come later via “Fell in Love With a Girl."

In terms of ephemera, I dug up the original setlist from paper dungeon in my basement and Jack had the flyer, listing Jack White Band, in his archives. Perfect accompaniment for a band that barely existed. The fact we left behind anything is surprising, the fact that there are two live recordings and a couple of flyers is odd. The fact that we only became known as Jack White and the Bricks AFTER we’d stopped playing is funny. And how that happened…I don’t really know. 

What doesn’t exist of the Bricks is a photo of all of us together. So the pic on the cover here is of myself and Jack from August of that year, onstage at the Gold Dollar as part of the White-Walker Trio. Johnny Walker was the third part of that band. Photo was shot by Monte Dickinson, a more solid dude you will never find, who also played bass in one of the most-overlooked Detroit bands of the era, Poopy Time. They slayed. Maybe someday TMR can do a live album of them at the Gold Dollar.

One of Poopy Time’s honored traditions was their annual Thanksgiving Eve performance at the Gold Dollar. There were recreations of Native Americans exacting revenge on Pilgrims, shadow play behind white sheets set around the stage…pretty high-quality exciting stuff for a club who’s legal capacity was just a shade over 100. One of those Thanksgiving Eve performances also included a performance by the Go. 

Having undergone many line-up changes over the years and enjoying the deluxe 92-song, 5 xcassette box set as released by Burger Records in 2012, the Go is a band that is still criminally underrated. The line-up featured here existed for a few brief months in 1998-99…Bobby Harlow, John Krautner, Marc Fellis, Jack White and Dave Buick. Bobby, John and Marc would be the only real consistent members in the band’s time, Buick would join them on-and-off for years and White played approximately six shows with the band, had writing contributions to three songs and appears on their debut LP “Whatcha Doin.” 

There are other live recordings of this line-up out there, but as audience recordings they leave a lot to be desired. More so than any band in my memory, this line-up of the Go is a prime example of live and studio being two completely separate, somewhat unrelated beasts. To anyone in attendance, the Go show at Motor Lounge in Hamtramck on March 12, 1999 was one of the best live performances ever seen. As a mere sixteen-year-old pup, the visuals of that night are still burned into my retinas and the electric hum of the stage still rings in my eardrum. 

While not as mind-blowing as the Motor show, this recording from the Gold Dollar is an undeniable document of how powerful this band/lineup were. I’d put them up against any other band of that time, I truly think the Go was that explosive. This version of “Meet Me at the Movies” is proof positive. The perfect set-opener. There’s an unreleased studio version of this tune too that absolutely melts. Maybe someday folks will get to hear it. “Long is the Tongue” is a gem that went unreleased until the cassette box and the lyric “long is the tongue for the year twenty-one” has weirdly impressed me since I first heard it. Starting side two is “Turn Your Little Light Bulb On”, the only song 100% written by Jack White for the Go. A studio recording of this, with different lyrics, is featured on the box set, with this live take riffing on the lyrics to Donovan’s “Hey Gyp.” The stinging guitar breakdown here is a showpiece and memory tells me it was particularly well-received by live crowds. Ending with a ballsy take on the Sonic’s “Psycho” it seems like most folks in the band forgot they ever covered this song. I remember at the time Jack saying he wish they played the song more like the Swamp Rats’ version. 

The cover photo here is a masterful live shot by the wonderful Doug Coombe. Shot at the very performance from the recording, Doug only took a few frames of the Go that night and Dave Buick has jokingly (or seriously?) given me shit for not choosing a photo where he’s featured. Unfortunately…Doug failed to get a pic that properly framed all band members in the shot. I’m sure he never thought there’d be a conversation about it fifteen years after the fact.
I don’t have much Go ephemera laying around, but i did have an weird questionnaire they filled out (and never retuned) for a “Local Bands” feature that Liz Copeland was writing for Orbit Magazine back then, so we made a high-quality reproduction of that…particularly hilarious is the band saying “upcoming releases on Flying Bomb and Italy Records” both of which never ended up happening. In a pile of various Go song lyrics, Jack White was in possession of Bobby’s hand-written scribbling of “Long is the Tongue” written on the reverse of Italy Records letterhead. Also scribbled in the corner, in White’s hand, is the then-address for photographer/Dirtbomber Patrick Pantano. 

Bobby Harlow said it best, upon reviewing the recording, “That band sounds good. I’d go see that band."

With Two Star Tabernacle, Third Man had by far the most material to work with. From flyers, to setlists, to photos, to actual performances…figuring out what the present of Two Star was definitely a challenge. First off, Two Star was the only band we had two performances to choose from. We ultimately decided to go with the performance from January 16th, 1998, opening for a local band called Fez. This show was mixed by Neil Yee back then and disseminated to a handful of folks around town…I distinctly remember hearing this version of “Who’s to Say" emanate from the radio during one of Willy Wilson’s Friday midnight to 5am sets on WDET, all groggy and confused how this song by one of my favorite bands that hadn’t released or even recorded anything was somehow being played on the radio.

This version from Neil is quite masterful in its edit, but we had the opportunity to improve on some things and with the approval of the entire band, we did. We included some stage banter that had been previously removed, tightened up the mix, gave the whole thing a little bit of a spit-shine for it’s proper public unveiling.

As I was in possession of the original setlist from the show (included in the package in facsimile form), I was able to discern lots of tidbits and info that had previously been lost to time and Neil’s edit.  First off, “Who’s to Say” cuts in seemingly between beats. The setlist shows that the band actually opened with their cover of Hank Williams’ “Wayfaring Stranger” which failed to be caught on tape. Next up is “Itchy” another Jack White song that never saw life past this specific outfit, full of vim and vigor and unable to be done better by any band he would later be a part of. “Worst Time of My Life” is originally part of the set, but with no one particularly in love with the performance, it was excised. “Garbage Picker” is a classic tune by Dan Miller written in response to his six-year-old next door neighbor who literally exclaimed “garbage picker! garbage picker! garbage picker!” to Dan harmlessly removing something from his rubbish bin. Finishing off side one is an incomplete version of “Heavens to Betsy”, excised from Yee’s original version but restored here as a short peek into one of Two Star’s more raucous songs with hearty drum highlights courtesy of Damian Lang.

Side two starts with “Red Head” and showcases dextrous walking basslines from Tracee Mae Miller, a later, more restrained version of which would later be performed by Dan and Tracee Mae’s outfit Blanche and featured on a compilation called America’s Newest Hitmakers that while featuring the logo of my label Cass Records, I had nothing to do with. (It was completely handled by Loose Music and if someone wants to update Discogs, I would appreciate it). In the performance from January ’98 “Zig Zag Springs” was next, but feeling a bit odd here, we cut it and put it at the beginning of the record. It was a little odd for a set to not start with “Zig Zag” anyway, so we made it more in line with the band’s performances of that time. Followed by a cover of the Minutemen’s “Jesus and Tequila”, the original version was uncomfortably out-of-tune, so we just pulled the version from the Two Star show from September 12th, 1997, also recorded at the Gold Dollar. Much better, much more in tune. Following with the Dan-penned “So Long Cruel World” and wrapping up is a stunning take on Merle Travis’ “Sixteen Tons.” All in all, a great document of this weird band that never really found its audience but who’s principals later found their audience, both through Blanche and the White Stripes, where some of these songs would later pop up.

Curiously enough there was a flyer for this show (created by headliners Fez) that while leaving a lot to be desired, is pretty special that a dedicated flyer even exists. I do not remember that commonly happening for Gold Dollar shows. Despite the best of Doug Coombe’s work, there’s no real impressive onstage pics of Two Star Tabernacle, so it was decided to use a a shot taken by Jun Pino inside the since-shuttered Kress Lounge on Detroit’s Southwest side. Vibey in all the right way to convey the feeling of this band.

The attention to detail in regards to the entirety of the Two Star portion of the collection stemmed from a comment made by Dan “This is the only thing this band will ever release” and wanting to make it strong and solid and worth the effort, mindful that there was no other recordings of the band to release in the future. While I think we accomplished the goal of making the Two Star set a cracking good LP, in the effort to compile all the band's detritus and ephemera, I did uncover some forgotten recordings of the band. Pretty good renditions and quality fidelity too. Quasi-studio even. Maybe someday we’ll dust those off and see what the public thinks of them. Until then, let these three LPs help tell the story of a heady time some sixteen years ago. I sincerely hope you enjoy them.

Ben Blackwell
Psychedelic Stooge
April 8, 2016

Post Script:

The photos of the Gold Dollar used here were taken by myself sometime in late 2007 or early 2008. After the filming of the White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights documentary, the filmmakers asked me if I could help and provide some photos of spots in Detroit that Jack and Meg talked about in the interview portion of the film. Mainly…Chung’s Chinese restaurant and the final remnants of Detroit’s Chinatown neighborhood, the house at 1203 Ferdinand (where De Stijl and many other titles were recorded) and the Gold Dollar. If memory serves, I believe that the painted Gold Dollar logo on the front and side of the building had been vandalized or graffitied since the bar had closed in August 2001. I’m not quite sure when Neil sold the building, but I’m almost positive the new owners repainted/touched-up that logo. Nevertheless, I was happy to capture pics of an empty building that had already been vacant for six years, which is considerably “brief” in terms of Detroit real estate. (Much credit to Ryon Nishimori for his masterful Photoshop job eliminating the cars in the parking lot…he’s so good that I didn’t even remember there were ever cars there to begin with!) That building is STILL empty, supposedly owned by a local pizza joint, but with the logos since painted over and a caved-in roof. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point folks to the insanely interesting LGBT history of that building, please do check it out, semi-NSFW in a wholesome 1960s sort of way...