Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hamell On Trial

I have been lucky enough in the life of rock & roll that I have led since I was 13 years old to have known personally and befriended four people I would consider geniuses – Dave Blackburn in 1968, Willie Phoenix in 1978, Ed Hamell (aka Hamell On Trial) in 1997 and Joe Peppercorn in 2001. ("Hey Ricki," some of you might ask, "you single out Joe Peppercorn? What about your buddies Colin Gawel and Joe Oestreich from Watershed?" My answer to that: Colin and Joe are extremely talented, really hard-working rock & roll guys who write great songs, but I have had conversations with Joe Peppercorn that I imagine are like speaking to a young Brian Wilson, circa "Good Vibrations," before Brian went off the rails and train ‘round the bend.)

I served as road manager for Hamell On Trial for 10 years, 2000-2010, before knee surgery for a torn ligament sidelined me and made it infinitely more difficult to traipse around the U.S.A. hauling amps and making nine and ten hour drives between gigs. But have not one doubt, dear readers, for those ten years I worked every night in the presence of greatness.

Rock & Roll Geniuses I Have Known, part 1 / Hamell On Trial

I first encountered the phenomenon that is Hamell On Trial at the South By Southwest Music Convention in Austin, Texas, March 1996, at a huge outdoor Mercury Records showcase (10,000 people in the street on a gorgeously warm Texas afternoon/evening). Ed was signed to Mercury then, Big As Life had just been released, and they were using him to keep the crowd occupied between the other performers' sets (God Street Wine, The Refreshments, and Joan Osborne - for those of you scoring at home). While roadies scurried around changing out amps, drums, etc. Ed would play from the very front of the stage, maybe five songs at a time, three sets in all.

From the very first dive bomber kamikaze guitar strums and the staccato spitting delivery of the best lyrics I had heard in years it was rock & roll love at first sight. The next day I lucked into seeing him at a really, really small coffeehouse in his allotted South By Southwest slot. I was there to see the act following him and had arrived early to snag a good seat. While Ed was setting up I thought to myself, "Cool, this is the guy I saw yesterday at the outdoor show, but how the hell is he going to play this tiny coffeehouse? He'll have to tone the act down so far it won't work."

Only he didn't tone it down. He played a fifty-seat coffeehouse at exactly the same manic intensity and nearly the same volume he played the huge outdoor show. People walked out of the place holding their ears during the first song. I, of course, was in six-string sonic heaven. This was everything I had been looking for since I quit playing in bands and started doing solo acoustic shows: extreme volume and attitude, great lyrics, a sense of humor. This was fiercely intelligent rock & roll played on an acoustic guitar with no hint of lingering folkie kum-ba-yah-ism.

He played for about a half-hour at that breakneck go-for-broke pace, doing a lot of the same songs he had played the previous day. And just when I was almost ready to write him off as really, really good but as something of a punk novelty act, Ed paused, looked at the audience and said very simply, "This is a song for my mother." He strummed into "Open Up The Gates," one of the warmest, most beautiful sentiments I have ever heard anytime, anywhere from any songwriter, let alone from this bald, sweating punk madman.

I was floored. I looked at the total stranger next to me whom I had been talking to a little before the show and his mouth was literally hanging open. I said, "Can you believe this song from this guy?" and he just shook his head no, he couldn't even speak. Then after the song (which, kinda typically for Ed, manages to threaten God in the midst of a heartfelt tribute to his mother) he roared into "The Meeting" and it was over. I tell you all of this just to point out that, as transfixed as I was by the music, I was cringingly afraid to go up to the guy to tell him how much I had enjoyed his set. The Hamell On Trial stage act is that of a madman and Ed plays that part well.

I saw him again in March 1997 at South By Southwest and he had a whole set of new songs potentially even better than the ones I saw him play just a year earlier (including "The Vines," the song that ended my 20-year career of warehouse work and sent me into music full-time.) In August of '97 he played Columbus and I cadged my way onto the bill as the opening act. I got to the club early, watched his soundcheck, screwed up my courage and walked up to him as he was packing up his guitar. I held up my CD covers to Big As Life and The Chord Is Mightier Than The Sword and said, "Hi, I'm your opening act and I just wanted to get the gushing fan stuff out of the way. Could you autograph these for me?"

I was fully poised, balanced back on my heels, ready to take off if he growled, "Motherfucker, do you think I don't have anything better to do than sign your little CD's?" Instead he smiled and said, "Ah, you got my CD's. Do people know who I am here?" I said, "Yeah, you get airplay on our local NPR station, I think it'll be a good crowd." I thanked him and started to walk away after he signed and he said, "Hey, come on back to the dressing room and we'll talk." I replied, "No, I don't wanna bother you." (First rule of opening acts: Never ever, under any circumstances, bother the headliner.) Ed said, "I'm in that car eight hours a day, every day, by myself, I never get to talk to anybody, come on back." I looked around. "Don't you have a roadie?" I asked. Ed replied, "Do I look like I can afford a roadie?"

It turned out we had bought all the same records in all the same years (Lou Reed, MC5, The Stooges, Mott The Hoople, The New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Jim Carroll). We'd both witnessed nature’s most perfect rock & roll organism – The Who in 1969 – fifteen days apart, November 1st (me) and November 16th (him) when Keith Moon ruled the universe. We lived very similar rock & roll existences, i.e. played in bands for years, then went solo acoustic. We had the same kind of working class reprobate rocker friends; him in Syracuse, New York, me in Columbus, Ohio. It was like we were brothers who grew up in different zip codes.

When he was going onstage that night I said, "Hey, I've seen you play before, I know you're gonna break strings. Why don't you show me where your extra strings and tuner are and I'll switch them out for you if anything goes wrong." He just stared back at me and said, "Really?" I said, "Yeah, doesn’t your opening act offer that wherever you go?" Ed said, "No, nobody ever offers anything, anywhere, anytime."

I played roadie that night. I helped out around the Midwest after that. When the Ani Difranco tours came up in 2000 I got a tryout and made the grade. I stuck around.

   postscript; two quick Hamell On Trial road stories for ya…..

Gettysburg, PA / October 1999

It's the second night of Ed's first tour with Ani Difranco. It's a little 3-date audition of sorts that leads to longer tours with Ani and eventually culminates in Ed being signed to Ani’s label, Righteous Babe Records. (By the way, for those of you scoring at home, I've been involved in music as either a guitarist or a roadie since 1968 and have never met anyone in the music business nicer than Ani Difranco.)

We're sitting in Ed's dressing room after his opening set. Ed's toweling off sweat and I'm making a peanut butter sandwich for dinner before I head out to the merch table and I suddenly feel very unglamorous and un-rock & roll.

"Somewhere right this very minute Oasis is snorting cocaine off groupies' stomachs and I'm making a peanut butter sandwich." I say to Ed, "I'm not sure this is how big-time rock & roll tours are supposed to go."

"No, I like this." Ed replies, "We're not cool."

I'm enormously heartened. I go back to my sandwich.

Santa Barbara, CA / April 2000

(Before the next story, I'd like to explain a little about my duties on the road. On tours of theaters and auditoriums when Ed opens for another artist, like this one with Ani Difranco, I would be at the merchandise table when the doors first opened, selling Hamell On Trial CD's and t-shirts. Of course, to audiences that have never seen Ed perform, it's a little hard to move merch. However, sometimes kids are nice enough to stop and talk, maybe ask questions. (To define terms: at my advanced age, "kids" refers to anyone aged teenager to mid-20's.) This tour was when I invented my one-line explanation of the Hamell On Trial experience; "It's a four man punk band rolled into one bald, sweaty guy." The kids would laugh, somewhat condescendingly, and go into the show. After Ed's set they would return raving and I would be vindicated.

During Ed's opening sets, Ani's merch girl Heidi (the second nicest person I've ever met in the music industry) would watch our table. I would be at the side of the stage tending to technical screw-ups, broken strings, knocked-over microphone stands, etc. I would then strike Ed's equipment from the stage and head back to merch, where I would remain until the end of the night, selling fantastic amounts of product, hopefully.)

Santa Barbara is in Reagan country. The downtown area is quiet and very ritzy, Gucci shops and small exclusive jewelry stores. It's a Republican blueblood stronghold. We should have expected trouble.

The show that night is a raver. Ed's on top of his game; he's berating latecomers to the front row, there are jokes galore, and "The Meeting" is a blazing finish. I'm feeling really good back at merch and CD's are selling briskly. All of a sudden one of the ushers, an extraordinarily well-dressed woman in her mid-60's wearing more jewelry than any volunteer usher I have ever seen, actually shoves the kid I'm helping out of the way and demands, "Are you with this person?" She taps one of Ed's CD's with a bejeweled finger. I reply that I am and she launches into a highly animated tirade about how Ed's performance was, "One of the most foul-mouthed exhibitions of obscenity she's ever witnessed in the Arlington Theater." I tell her "Thank you," that I'll communicate her concerns to Ed, and go back to conversing with the nice kid she just shoved.

She muscles the kid aside again and says, "I don't think you understand me, young man, I said that is one of the most obscene displays I've ever seen. A young girl set off pepper spray in the restroom in protest." At this point I have severely lost track of the conversation, especially the pepper spray protest segment. I have to move some merchandise to the crowd before Ani comes on and they split for their seats, so I again thank the woman and tell her I'm sorry she didn't enjoy the show.

She starts right back in about obscenity and that she can't understand what I'm thanking her for. I finally cut her off with, "Ma'am, I'm thanking you because I didn't come 2000 miles from Ohio to fight with ushers. It's the nicest way I can get you to move aside and let me do my job, which is selling CD's and you're interfering." She starts back in about the pepper spray and I say, "Ma'am, I'm gonna say this the nicest way I know how, in the immortal words of Hamell On Trial, could you please just go fuck yourself?"

We've drawn quite a crowd by now and the kids start to whoop and applaud. Her eyes go wide with rage and she spins on her heel. "I'm getting the police and you're going to jail." she spits back over her shoulder. Kids are shaking my hand, high-fiving me, telling me the ushers are always a pain like that, they hate rock & roll shows in their precious theater, nobody ever stands up to them, etc. I'm a local hero. I'm selling CD's right and left.

Sure enough, the usher returns with an off-duty Santa Barbara policeman working security for the concert and tells him she wants me arrested for obscenity. She starts telling the cop the pepper spray in the bathroom story and waving her arms around and he finally breaks in and says, "Lady, what are you talking about?" She goes back to ranting about obscenity and the cop turns to me and asks, "Do you have to be here?" I reply, "Yes, this is my appointed place to sell merchandise, I have to be at this table. Tell her to go back where she belongs."

The cop asks the usher where her station is and she tells him the balcony. He tells her, and I quote, "Lady, get your ass back to the balcony and leave this guy alone." Wild applause breaks out from the assembled throng, I'm a god.

By this time somebody has told Ani's crew I'm getting arrested out in the lobby. Ed and his manager rush out from backstage to see what's happening. Ani's on by that point, the crowd has gone to see the show and Ed says, "What's up?" I tell him I almost got busted for defending his honor and he grins, "Nice job."

My credit on Ed's live CD recorded during that tour reads; "Ricki C. was my roadie, he's from the West Side of Columbus, Ohio, he takes no shit." I fully believe that credit was derived from that Santa Barbara night.

© 2012 Ricki C.

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