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Heathen Angel 

The gospel according to Simon Stokes

Wednesday, May 23 2001
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In pop music, obscurity descends either as the price of mediocrity or as punishment for defying prevailing tastes. Rock & roll veteran Simon Stokes knows all about the latter: ”I‘ve had quite a few people come up to me and say, ’When I was a kid, in my school, they burned your records,‘“ he says. ”I always considered that to be a terrific tribute, that I reached people enough that they would go to that extreme.“ In 1973, when the Incredible Simon Stokes & the Black Whip Thrill Band’s debut album hit the retail bins, outrage and disgust accompanied it. Apart from the grubby verite of Stokes‘ lyrics, the album cover’s eye-popping S&M depiction of a leering Stokes and a bound and welt-striped babe-in-the-torture-chamber created a furor. Forget the art-imitates-life fantasy of Smell the Glove, the Black Whip Thrill Band was a sick, brutal and genuine hard-rock reality, one so disturbing that its very existence almost demanded it be expunged.

One of outlaw rock & roll‘s consummate gravel-throated shit-stirrers, the 63-year-old Stokes is a weirdly poetic thug as well. His only friend is ”an old black cat holding a losing hand“; he ”looks at the world through eyes of stone“; his ”skin is fitting too goddamn tight.“ His blues-based, country-influenced biker rock featured wild, innovative lyrics that twisted from squirm-inducing candor to surreal humor in a flash, all framed by a chaotic electric crunch best described as a slick and greasy LSD nightmarewet-dream meltdown. Stokes’ total lack of comity with rock‘s commercial standards was a valuable one that, while clearly anticipating the punk-toughened landscape that followed, always maintained a populist thrust that wed it to working-class grunts, not bored middle-class teenagers.

Despite recent collaborations with such counterculture big shots as Timothy Leary and Russell Means, Stokes is almost forgotten today; his sole recognition comes from the appropriately dubbed Confederacy of Scum, a loose-knit tribe of Midwestern and Southeastern post-punk, Stokes-worshipping ruffians. While Stokes has maintained himself by contributing songs to more than 30 motion-picture soundtracks, he hasn’t recorded for over 20 years, but, with assistance from fellow renegade Wayne Kramer, recently completed his first album since the mid-‘70s Buzzard of Love. The new set, Honky (out next month on Uppercut Records), a strange, provocative mix of black humor and underworld philosophy, may finally reach an audience capable of a reaction other than panicked confusion.

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Stokes’ journey from teenage big-beat fan to major-league shocker was a curious one. Raised by his grandparents in Reading, Massachusetts, even as a prepubescent he was restless, troubled. ”I was alone a lot,“ he says. ”When I was less than 10 years old, I became a sleepwalker. A lot of times I‘d end up late at night, 1 or 2 o’clock, outside the house, and have to get back home somehow. My grandparents were very cool; Grandfather was a great guy who led the Harry D. Stokes Orchestra. After a while they decided I should go with them, so when he was playing a gig, they‘d bring me to a motion-picture theater and then pick me up afterward. I was a kid, by myself, and they were playing Frankenstein and Dracula. At first I was petrified, but soon I loved horror movies. I loved Bela Lugosi.“

By his teenage years, Stokes was a blues fiend. ”Reading was basically an all-white suburb. I was the only one that I knew of listening to R&B; we had a DJ named Symphony Sid who was great, and I used to go to a place called the Revere Beach Roll-Away -- it opened every Friday night at 1 o’clock in the morning and went till 6, and they had the best music. It was a roller rink, and they‘d bring in the traveling acts, and I saw the best of them -- Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, Big Mama Thornton, the list goes on. It was finally shut down after they had two killings there in one night.

“I used to do record hops, since nobody else would play the records, and I was called Count Cool Breeze, the Baron of Bop -- that’s how I thought of myself.” He entered a tune in a local radio-station songwriting contest, “and then I forgot about the whole thing. I was driving down the street, and they announced that they were going to play the winning song, and it hit me, ‘Jeez, that’s the song I wrote!‘ I stopped the car right there in the middle of the road -- I was in shock, it was like the greatest thing in the world.”

Thus emboldened, Stokes left Massachusetts and, after a long stretch of Kerouac-inspired drifting, arrived in Los Angeles. Just don’t ask him when: “I‘m very bad with time frames. I don’t remember things, particularly the teenage years. I got out here when I was 21 or 22.” In L.A., he hooked up with blues talent like the Penguins and Alonzo B. Willis (“The Roach,” used in John Waters‘ Hairspray), and for a time he seemed to cover all points of the music-business compass: He worked the door for Buck Owens’ road show, instinctively soaking up both the subtleties and extremities Owens‘ Buckaroos excelled in. He hung out with Jimmy Bowen when the producer’s home was, as Bowen wrote in his autobiography, “ground zero to a wild ‘young Hollywood’ party that never seemed to stop.” He made the scene with singer Keely Smith and “the wildest guy I‘ve ever met,” cowpoke actor Chill Wills.

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