In briefly talking to just about anyone hailing from a Midwestern city, there’s a sense that accomplishments have been achieved through serendipitous occurrences, as opposed to being based on authentic talent. For those raised here, that’s the norm. Grandstanding isn’t good for too much apart from seeming like an ass. And even if it was, the act of collecting attention for attention’s sake is still deemed a misstep. It’s obnoxious.
And while Detroit’s The Gories (Dan Kroha, Mick Collins, Peg O’Neill) are obnoxious, there’s still an artfulness to the group’s garage-based caterwauling.
Music and fine art can’t be considered in exactly the same manner. But it’s unquestionable that Midwestern musicians, painters, sculptors, and their ilk aren’t understood in the same way creative types are perceived on the coasts. They’re from the provinces. Commenting on a Chicago Imagist-painter’s death, New York Times critic Roberta Smith goes so far as to figure, “Mr. Paschke was an artist whose contribution to the art of his time was somewhat obscured by his distance from New York.”
During the mid-1980s, The Gories busied themselves mining a similar musical milieu as New York’s The Chesterfield Kings or even London’s Bow Wow Wow, whose “I Want Candy” is built on the same Bo Diddley beat The Gories staked their entire career on. Coupling the band’s Detroit occupancy and its proclivity for music fraught with the right wrong-notes Kroha, Collins and O’Neill knew not to expect the same kind of pay-off as those other ensembles. They didn’t get it, either.
Taking the time to dig up any substantial writing on The Gories isn’t going to yield much more than re-purposed band bios with a bit of added-in garage historicity. Beyond none of that prose being engaging, reducing the band to a place holder in music history disallows the trio from being embraced by a culture that, for whatever reason, has finally realized stripped down rock music isn’t for dullards, perverts, and the unemployable. It’s for anyone with a pulse and a desire to get the bad ju-ju out.
For Bands Only
“Bands Only” is scrawled across a shoddy door in Chicago’s Empty Bottle, leading to a steep flight of steps down to a concrete room (perhaps the site of some bootlegging in decade’s past) and requisite nasty couches. Being a part of underground rock stuffs for the better part of three separate decades, Kroha and Collins seem perfectly at home down there. The bucket of beer probably isn’t a hindrance to the pair’s convivial attitudes. Someone’s bag sits opened on a coffee table with a pair of boxers just laying there, hinting at the fact that there’s no reason to take anything very seriously.
Subsequent to the proper bullshit session, Collins offers up a litany of perspectives pertaining to the art world. He paints (or painted in the past) in addition to performing with an endless procession of bands and producing recordings – there was even talk of his being involved with a Rocket from the Tombs session at some point. But from his candor springs the jovial attitude of a mind supremely engaged with culture on every level. He’s a computer nerd, a comics enthusiast, and aspiring novelist, in addition to interpreting the history of blues-based American music. Theoretical backing for any of that, though, doesn’t seem relevant to him. Nor should it.
The (Supposed) Cultural Vacuum
There wasn’t a tremendous sucking sound resounding from underground music in Reagan’s America. Instead, his presidency overlapped with independent labels in the States and abroad figuring out how to maintain a valid business model while still issuing music detached from Living Colour, the Traveling Wilburys, and INXS. It’s during this time The Gories and a huge number of other groups not centered in Los Angeles or New York were cranking out music some considered unadulterated noise, but still moves listener physically – and mentally? – today.
Publishing We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988–2001, New Bomb Turks’ singer Eric Davidson details his time around garage and punk related acts a decade and change back. If there’s been negative notice shackling the book’s dissemination, it’s scarce. Unfortunately, even a guy from a relatively well regarded, currently non-existent band, doesn’t possess the cultural clout necessary to dispel previously written music histories. Steven Blush’s American Hardcore may have dented the understanding of 1980s music which figures Prince as its towering figure. But there’s still a pervasive description of popular music which moves from punk happening to Nirvana a decade later – both cultural events which unquestionably changed the direction of popular music, but ostensibly serve to neglect the slew of low-key, low-rent bands working between 1984 (the onset of hardcore’s death wheeze) and 1990 (a year before “Punk Broke”).
There’s no way The Gories considered themselves torchbearers of a spirit, helped along by Kim Fowley’s degenerate status, or continued by Cleveland bands dating to the 1970s. So, raving up a garage purposefully sidestepping the Paisley Underground and Pebbles compilations, the occasionally inept trio spurt-out a few chords, worked up some covers, wrote a handful of original songs, and played in front of meager audiences.
It’s The Gories reworking of Suicide’s “Ghost Rider,” the first song on the New York band’s 1977 album, accidentally making these Midwesterners more than even what they collectively realize. In 1986, as Kroha, Collins, and O’Neill were sussing out a sound impacting the next two decades of garage, various underground musics broke off into stoic enclaves, enamored of a narrow period of time. That obviously persists today – when was the last time you saw a local funk band play on the same bill as whatever punkers are kicking around? But for the anonymous trio of Detroiters including a song they enjoyed from some weirdo NY band lauding synthesizers and attitude over guitars wasn’t a statement on the nonsensical cordoning off of music, it was just a good tune to cover.
“It was Mick’s idea to do Suicide – he actually picked a lot of the covers we do,” Kroha says, sitting on a dingy sofa cushion while fiddling with his iPhone, taking its cover off and cleaning the screen. “We were really conscious of not just being garage.”
“I auditioned for the Necros,” Collins pitches in, further cementing The Gories’ weird fence sitting act, as related to hardcore, punk, and its beloved garage. Apparently, during 1983 (or 1984, memories are fuzzy at this point), the Maumee based Touch and Go band were doing a bit on Detroit’s local NPR station, WDET. Collins, up past the point his parents found acceptable, called the station and “started screaming and rambling over the phone.” The Necros were impressed, but due to Collins’ age and it precluding extensive touring, he was turned down for a spot on the mic. That was probably for the best, though.
A few years on, in 1986 as The Gories were soldering together garage stomp, R&B, and punk fervor, C/Z Records released Deep Six, another argument against 1980s music being vapid, Madonna-centric tripe. Chris Hanzsek and Tina Casale, founders of the imprint, drew contributions from an as-of-yet famous Soundgarden, the Melvins, the U-Men, and the ever important Green River. Each of the aforementioned groups can stake some claim on being an extension of punk. But for the most part, there are neither garagey antics present, nor overt nods to a painfully artsy side of the underground. The Gories took care of all that during the three-minute “Ghost Rider.” Of course, that didn’t mean anyone cared.
A Piece of Europe
As with any sort of artistic endeavor not jiving with current trends, The Gories didn’t rack up a huge list of supporters over the few years they were initially in existence. Byron Coley, Forced Exposure honcho and liner-note-writer extraordinaire, commented positively on the band, Kroha and Collins say. Outside of the off-handed mention, though, The Gories were relegated to playing in a musical landscape not yet prepared for troupes of well meaning, if not professional, musicians roving the country’s highway system.
“There was no network for what we were doing,” says Collins. The carved out tour routes that exist today, enabling bands no one needs witness to remain on the road for huge portions of the year, were still being established. Greg Ginn and Black Flag began to figure it out prior to folding in 1986. As an extension of that, Mike Watt jamming econo and his spiritual brethren in rusted out vans solidified approaches to making coast-to-coast musical sojourns. The Gories just didn’t benefit, only performing outside of Detroit a handful of times during the band’s initial run.
Home wasn’t that much better. “There was a scene in Detroit, we just weren’t a part of it,” Collins recalls without dashing anything like emotion on the statement. But if Houseparty, a live document from 1987, ever winds up on a tape deck within earshot, sensing a handful of enthusiastic show-goers along for the band’s set isn’t difficult. “It’s easy to get 20 friends into a house and have it sound crowded,” Kroha says.
With nothing approaching inordinate success at home, The Gories were still able to issue material through France’s New Rose, as well as Germany’s Crypt Records. Meant to work as a tour supporting Outta Here, the trio headed out on a European trip during 1992.
American musicians have a pretty long history of hitting the other side of the Atlantic and garnering a bit of positive notice – Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, countless blues players, Ramblin’ Jack. At the time, though, underground garage work-outs weren’t necessarily in demand. The Gories weren’t known for gazing at the ground while single notes oscillated slightly, mounting a drone and no one looked like they were from Seattle. The trek was still worth the effort.
“We were actually pretty well received [in Europe],” Collins says. “There was a show, though, where only four people showed up.” But that, apparently, was an acceptation. If nothing else, Collins recalls Kroha eating what he believes was a pigeon. “I know a little bit of French,” says Collins. “I think the menu translated to ‘roof rabbit.’” Kroha doesn’t recall that incident, but adds, “I’m the kind of guy that’ll eat anything once.” So maybe.
Not too long after returning from their European vacation and Kroha’s eating contests, The Gories hung it up. Any number of stories can work to conclude why, but the best summation is basically that they didn’t have anything else to say using the perspective which the band was founded on.
If The Gories never issuing new material seems like a downer, at least the ensemble didn’t intend to continue on just to continue on. Of course, considering each band member has subsequently recorded and played with a laundry list of garage related acts (The Dirtbombs, Demolition Doll Roads, Blacktop, ’68 Comeback) makes the sort of logic behind cessation of a career seem forced. But who cares?
With The Gories’ scant back catalog being recycled and reissued a few times, it becomes a bit confusing to figure out what originally appeared where and how a seven-inch was released as late as 1995, if for all intents and purposes the band broke up around 1992. But it’s probably for these reasons the ensemble has been able to resurrect its career for what amounts to shits and giggles. Granted, The Gories dole out what fans want.
“We have a bunch of really good songs that we keep playing,” says Kroha. And getting the chance to perform them in-front of what counts as a new audience has to feel good considering the relative apathy meeting the band during the 1980s and early 1990s.
“It’s like visiting an old lover,” Kroha adds, while verbally feeling out the spate of shows his band’s currently engaged with. And that’s probably true. All involved seem relaxed. There’s no reason to be stressed out. If a song doesn’t work on stage, it doesn’t work. And if a show comes off as hackneyed, each of The Gories’ three members can go home and get back to whatever counts as normal life nowadays.
When asked about being revered retreads, Collins and Kroha weren’t demur – and honestly, the band deserves the broad based positive attention they receive in some shadowy corners of the rock world. It’s been figured before in regards to other acts comprised of avowed music aficionados; The Gories have eclipsed the groups they attempted to hold up as God-like templates.
Young (Salacious) Lesbians
The fervor of collectors translates into album sales, though. For every geek with two copies of the “Nitroglycerine” single, there’s a record store clerk setting up a display to feature I Know You Be Houserockin’ (Crypt, 1994) preceding the band’s local performance.
During October 2010 at The Gories’ two-night stand in Chicago, folks in attendance were as diverse as plentiful. Standing shoulder to shoulder were dudes in King Khan t- shirts, just capacious of reigning in the beer-gut underneath and a few young lesbians, barely toddlers when the first Gories’ CD was released.
Included here could be something about the power of music, The Gories’ indomitable song craft, or its choice selection of covers. But none of that’s the point. Instead, what’s probably important is shows like these count as unlikely scenarios where sport jacked dykes topped off with Doogie Howser haircuts can crash into fat guys drinking cans of High Life and it’s not grounds for a heavy situation.
On the band’s second evening at Chicago’s Empty Bottle, after working through a set of music drawing from just about ever part of its discography, The Gories were slowly pulled back onstage for an encore, summoned by insistent clapping and sundry foot stomping. Returning to the stage, the trio was regaled with a storm of screamed out requests – I’d been yelling “Hidden Charms” for the better part of 20-minutes. Closing with that Willie Dixon via Howlin’ Wolf via Link Wray cover, the band made declarations regarding new not being better or worse than old. Original isn’t always innovative. And persistence doesn’t really get anyone anywhere. It’s all just dumb luck. But when that luck finally hints at some sort of grand reason for persisting, there’s a moment of pleasure, a hidden charm itself.
Photos: Doug Coombe