Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Ballad of Willie Phoenix part four - The True Soul Rockers & beyond, 1990-2013

I became a roadie for The True Soul Rockers quite by accident one Sunday afternoon in 1990 when Willie and the band were playing an outdoor show at Mirror Lake on the Ohio State University campus.  I was sitting in the audience with a girl I'd dated for much of the 1980's - who shall remain nameless for her various crimes & misdemeanors against the rock & roll - when Willie gestured for me to come up on the stage.  I actually looked around to see if he was signaling somebody behind me, but finally realized I was the one being beckoned.

I hadn't noticed that Willie had broken a guitar string until I met him at centerstage and he said, "Hey Ricki, can you change this for me?"  There were two young kids bustling around with the gear before the show - a girl with wildly curly hair I would later come to know as "Cheese" and work with for months, and a kid named Eric - and I couldn't figure why they didn't handle the string situation.  I put that question to Willie and he said dismissively, "Those kids don't know anything about changing strings.  Help me out."  I remember being totally taken aback and saying to Willie, "You have TWO roadies and neither one of them know how to change a guitar string?  You're slipping, Willie."

I broke up a long-term relationship to roadie for that band.  One night while driving home from a show at Ruby Tuesdays (where The True Soul Rockers maintained a residency similar to the The Flower Machine's earlier one) the girlfriend from paragraph one said, apropos of not much, "It's really kinda sad that all you guys are almost 40 years old and you're still trying to recapture your teenage glory days."  I broke up with her that very night not because the comment was necessarily inaccurate or hurtful, but because it was clear she would never understand the Essential Truth of Bruce Springsteen singing, "Some guys, they just give up living and start dying little by little, piece by piece / Some guys come home from work and wash up and go racing in the street."

We weren't trying to recapture teenage glory days, we were simply trying to keep SOMETHING for ourselves in a world that seeks daily to take everything away.  Sometimes I think we still are.

The True Soul Rockers rhythm section consisted of Kozmos - held over from the Flower Machine - on bass and Jim Johnson - brought back from The Shadowlords - on drums.  The two new recruits were Mike Parks on backing vocals & shared lead guitar duties with Willie and - for at least the first year of the band - Ralph Denny on organ.  The Rockers (as they will be henceforth referred to herein) were a truly fearsome live unit.  My roadie stint with them was one of those times in my rock & roll life where I often found myself thinking, "I'm getting PAID to see and hear rock & roll music played this well, with this much power, commitment and sheer flat-out fucking QUALITY?"

There were rock & roll moments I'll never forget with The Rockers: Mike Parks jamming the headstock of his Stratocaster into the brick wall at stage-right of Ruby's, using that wall to warp the neck of his guitar to get the desired bends of the notes he was searing out into the smoky air of the club; Willie venturing out almost nightly during third set-ending renditions of "Gloria" to inflict terror-raids onto the tabletops of unsuspecting audience members; Willie utilizing Kozmos as his onstage foil in Bruce Springsteen/Clarence Clemons-like rock & roll stage bits; Jim & Ralph seated stolidly at their instruments, anchoring the band John Enwhistle-style, keeping them from simply flying off into space.  It's no accident here that I've invoked my two favorite live bands of the 1960's and 1970's - The Who and Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, respectively - in that sentence.  On their best nights, The True Soul Rockers were one of the three best live bands I witnessed in the 1990's.  (For an full account of a workaday night from that gigging period check out Willie Phoenix & the True Soul Rockers vs. Frat Boy Friday Night from the May 30, 2012 entry of this blog.)

Unfortunately, (you could just FEEL an unfortunately coming here, couldn't you?) all that live firepower didn't translate to wax (or plastic, or whatever CD's are made of) on the Radio Simplicity album released in 1991, at the height of the band's popularity.  Radio Simplicity was certainly a solid collection of Willie tunes: ranging from quality rockers the band could knock out in their sleep ("Guys Like Me Don't Get Girls Like You," "Stick With Me," "Housewreckin'") to reggae or dance-inflected left-field numbers ("She's So Powerful," "Dancin' In Suspicion," "Suffocation") to the rock & roll ballads Willie had always been good at ("Walk You Home," "Dark Pages").  There was not one trace, however, of the incendiary twin lead guitar attack that Willie & Mike unleashed nightly in the live sets.  And, even more problematically, arguably the two best songs on the record - "Take My Advice" and "Hey Little Girl" - were brought back into the set in souped-up renditions from The Buttons repertoire of 10 years earlier.

And therein lies my Essential Quandary with the Willie Phoenix Experience.  At the same time I know in my heart and believe to my soul that if Willie gathered together all of his best material from the last 35 years into a Greatest Hits Set - "No Exits," "Artwork," "Knockout Girl" from Romantic Noise and The Buttons, "The Sketch" and "New York Is Burning" from The A&M Band, "This Is My Apartment" and "Misunderstanding" from The Shadowlords, even "Mild Tasting Tea" from the lackluster Flower Machine period - that it would be a live repertoire to truly reckon with, I also fully realize that Willie isn't interested in being a Nostalgia Act.  He's interested in moving forward with new material, new concepts, and his new band - Blues Hippy & The Soul Underground.  It would be hypocritical of me to ask Willie to draw exclusively on his past material and ignore progression while constantly badmouthing Pete Townshend for doing the same thing with The Who.

But goddamn, the rock & roll public hasn't had Willie Phoenix's Greatest Hits ground incessantly into pablum on classic-rock radio in mind-numbing Endless Heavy Rotation like those Who Hits, and it would be so great to hear Willie's best songs live all in one place again.

By time The True Soul Rockers split up in 1992 I had moved on from my roadie station at the side of the stage into my own solo acoustic rock & roll act.  Between that and my road manager position beginning in 2000 with Hamell On Trial and later joining Watershed's road crew in 2005 - jobs that frequently took me out of Columbus and around the U.S.A. - I kinda lost track of Willie's later bands.  (Jim Johnson played in many of those bands and would be THE authority on Willie's 21st-century output - live and on record - maybe we can get him to contribute a guest blog sometime.)

Just a few weeks ago, Colin Gawel & The Lonely Bones - Colin's side-project from Watershed - opened a show for Blues Hippy & The Soul Underground at a local Columbus club.  It's a solid rock project, with Myke Rock (of late-70's Columbus punk-rockers Screaming Urge) on bass and Johnson once again returning on drums along with new second guitarist Dan-ro James.  The effect is kinda Willie Phoenix & Crazy Horse.  The band sets up some great rough-edged rock grooves for Willie to solo over and it's a rockin' good time.  Do I wish the caliber of the material was a little bit higher?  Yeah, I do.  Do I want Willie's lyrics to reflect our reality as 60-year old Elder Statesmen Rockers a little bit more than the same old rebels & angels sentiments Willie has mined for at least the last 20 years?  Yeah, I really do. 

But outside of that petty criticism, it's just good to see Willie on a stage, wielding a Tele like a lovely sonic deadly weapon and singing his heart, soul & guts out.  It's good to see a Rock & Roll Survivor.  "Some guys, they just stop living, and start dying little by little piece by piece / Some guys come home from work and wash up and go racing in the street."

The True Soul Rockers, 1992
Left to right; Mike Parks, Kozmos, Willie Phoenix, Jim Johnson

Three sets a night, every gig.  Think kid bands could do that nowadays?  I think not.
The True Soul Rockers set list, December 23rd, 1990.

© 2013 Ricki C.


  1. Thanks Ricki C for the most detailed look at Willie Phoenix available on line, and probably anywhere else for that matter. Like you I've seen a lot of live music over the years. Willie Phoenix might not be the greatest live rock 'n' roll performer I ever saw with my own eyes, but he's definitely in the small circle (and who knows, maybe he really was the best . . . Springsteen and Strummer also up there). Funny thing is, I never saw him live with a band behind him. I worked at Bernie's Bagels in 1976 for a short spell and saw Willie play there in the basement many times. With his 100 watt grin, voice that rang sweet and rough simultaneously, and cool guitar moves he was a revelation. I'd never been that close to someone with that much talent, heart, and soul. I was in awe and followed him to campus dives just to hear him and watch him for 20 or 30 minutes. He played acoustic guitar. A lot of covers. Always opened his Bernie's evenings with "Yesterday." Plus Jimmy Cliff. Sometimes bringing a Strat for "Hear My Train A Comin'." Cool sounding originals "I Feel Like A Holiday Inn" and "Babe We Got Love" and "Broadway Broadway" also in the mix. Yeah. One man with a guitar rocking harder than any band I'd seen at that point . . . I moved to California shortly afterwards. One day I was flipping through records in a Berkeley shop and there he was looking cool and tough on the A & M release. I was really excited to get it . . . but hugely disappointed at how bad it was. Everything great about Willie not in evidence on his major label shot. That's show biz. I feel for him. He deserved better. Your analysis of him holding back his best material for the right moment (that never came), and inability to work as part of a team give me a few more key pieces of the Willie puzzle. I never saw him jump on a table, or roll on the floor, but he didn't need to do any of that for me to recognize he was beyond special.

  2. Wayne - Thank you so much for this post. I've had sketchy reports about Willie's pre-Romantic Noise solo period, but never one this lucid or informative. (A Willie Phoenix tune called "I Feel Like A Holiday Inn." That HAD to be a great song.) I was sorely tempted to bring up a Springsteen comparison in the blog, but with no audio or video evidence to support it, I decided to not reach quite that high, I'm glad you brought it up. I totally agree. Willie's charisma, energy, and flat-out commitment to great rock & roll, it was all very, very Springsteen-esque.

    It's kinda sad & amazing that not more than a couple hundred people ever really saw and appreciated just how good Willie Phoenix was back in the day. It also makes me wonder how many other rock & roll performers in small towns and mid-range cities our planetary rock & roll community was never and will never be aware of. At least we were lucky enough to claim our little corner of special.