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.
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.
By the mid-’60s, Stokes had already recorded a handful of freaky one-off rock singles on a variety of a labels, using a different band name each time: the Heathen Angels, Rock Bottom & the Candy Kisses, the Flower Children (“We were anything but!” he says with a laugh) and, most notably, the Perpetual Motion Workshop, whose “Infiltrate Your Mind” is prized by collectors as one of the greatest and rarest 45s Los Angeles rock & roll ever produced. Landing a job as a staff writer at Elektra Records, he next formed the Nighthawks, whose redneck rock raver “Voodoo Woman,” co-written with guitar slinger Lonnie Mack, made the Top 100 and became a Southeastern jukebox staple. Elektra took a chance and signed the Nighthawks the same day the MC5 joined its roster.
The Nighthawks mixed Southern swamp rock with hardcore psych-rock guitars, covers of Hank Williams and Coasters songs, and a lot of screaming. They also featured, on Stokes‘ own compositions, plenty of violence, notably with the first recorded version of “Ride on Angel,” a mutant acid-rockabilly tale of barroom murder that’s possibly the first rock song to address the death penalty: “The Bible says thou shalt not killBut man, I heard that line beforeIf the Bible says thou shalt not killWhat excuse has the law?” Stokes‘ shredded, pirate-wrestler vocal delivers the song with ferocious bite, topping off a formula that perfectly mirrored the innate cultural needs of the FTW biker set, the weirdly bifurcated mentality typified by the Hell’s Angels‘ staunch rejection of square social convention and hippie-baffling eagerness to rush out and pulverize anti–Vietnam War demonstrators.
The rise of Stokes’ cachet with motorcycle clubs coincided spectacularly with the hippies‘ vociferous repudiation of his entire style: “The Nighthawks were working around as a band, doing a lot of biker clubs,” Stokes says. “We were in Seattle on a big show. The Flying Burrito Brothers were on the card, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Freddie King, a bunch of people, and the place was filled. When we played, we were really getting booed. Everything was peace and love, but they just hated us! And we had two days there, people booing the hell out of us, and we’re yelling, ‘Fuck you!’ So, the second gig, people were rushing the stage — they hated the Nighthawks! — but I didn‘t realize that it was going to come to a full-on riot. We get off the stage, and there’s a bunch of bikers and also this little guy wearing a cape named Presley Zoom, and he said, ‘This is the greatest act that we’ve ever had up in Seattle, and we came to protect you as you leave this place.‘ Because fists were flying, the police were coming down.”
The Nighthawks eventually disbanded, and when Stokes re-emerged in ’73 on the Columbia-distributed Spindizzy label with the Black Whip Thrill Band, he had clearly not profited from being force-fed the peace-and-love ethic as much as he had from the motorcycle clubs‘ approval. This was full-blooded, anthemic biker rock, screaming twin guitars pounding black-leather riffs into the brain and Stokes’ lyrics reaching a new plateau of concrete authenticity. If the cover art was a problem, one particular song, “Waltz for Jaded Lovers,” is shocking even today. A tale of extreme domestic discord, climaxed by a bloody suicide replete with children screaming, “Mommy!,” it summons loss, stupidity and venomous rage with devastating impact: “Goddamn you, she cried with tears in her eyesI hate your guts, go on get out of here . . . Her hair was a messShe spilled gin on her dressWhich was soiled with the failure of her years.” This penchant for brutal substance virtually guaranteed failure. Stokes didn‘t just write lyrics, he seemed to rip them from the foul atmosphere that surrounded him, crafting straightforward and graphic scenarios that had more in common with American realist author Frank Norris than a bell-bottomed Magical Mystery Tour aboard the Marrakesh Express.
Stokes’ chameleonlike gift for shifting from one style to another, blending straight country and heavy rock with fluid acuity, was and is striking. Lyrically, there are several thematic constants — sexual menace, a sense of being lost, murderous violence — and Stokes layers each throughout his work with a conviction that‘s both seductive and unsettling. While his musical persona’s swagger and bombast conjure an exaggerated masculinity, Stokes maintains an air of the cosmic, full of emotional nuance and a surprisingly inclusive, tender outlook that accords respect to drag queens and mental deficients. “I know it sounds corny,” Stokes says, “but I‘ve always tried to speak for the working class, who are the people I feel closest to.”
After playing out the biker circuit, the Black Whip Thrill Band imploded, and Stokes’ next effort, a solo album called Buzzard of Love, was given the Von Stroheim treatment (remixed and overdubbed into barely recognizable form), and Stokes retreated from the frontlines and concentrated on his family. His hyperperverse streak did not wane; at one point in the mid-‘70s he collaborated on a screenplay aimed at the G-rated audience, but “It was about a sex-crazed gorilla who escaped from the zoo and went around peeping into people’s windows.” With the assistance of Black Whip Thriller Harry Garfield, now an exec at Universal, Stokes contributed tunes for film soundtracks in the 1980s, but he‘d hardly mellowed; movie song titles include “Neon Slime,” “The Werewolf in Me” and “Subway to Hell.” Stokes also worked closely with Timothy Leary and Russell Means on their albums, and after the Confederacy of Scum spirited him to a 1998 Midwest rally (featuring such Stokes-inspired bands as Hellstomper and Conqueror Worm), he finally decided to make another career stab. “For years I couldn’t get anything done,” Stokes says. “When I tried to write by myself, I‘d never show up!”
With the aid of local rock beast-bassist Bruce Duff, Stokes enlisted a disparate cross section of local talent, including guitarist Wayne Kramer, country multi-instrumentalist Brantley Kearns, drummer Pete Finestone and the BellRays’ soul-punk firebrand singer Lisa Kekaula. The album is a bizarre, touching amalgam of psychedelicized fables, outlaw country and 1-percenter blues-rock that maintains the surreal, unpredictable qualities he‘s explored for over three decades. “I’m really happy with my new album,” he says. “To me, it‘s very spiritual. All the songs deal with mortality, where you’re at and who you are.” Still collaborating with Garfield (on three new songs), he‘s also not afraid to look back: “Ride on Angel” appears in its third incarnation, all strangled howling and threatening backbeat, and it’s as potent a slice of barroom mayhem as ever.
The strange tale of Simon Stokes, long buried underground, still seems almost unbelievable. His pursuit of artistic and personal identity carries a weight popularly imputed to but generally squandered by his rock & roll colleagues.
“I have tried to be true to myself — what else can I do? If I‘m not, I can’t be true to anybody. I mean, if you‘ve lost that, everything around you goes bad. So I’m really happy. I‘m just going to stay myself.”
Simon Stokes appears at the Knitting Factory, Thursday, July 5.