CULTURAL PUNDITS TALK at length about America's untethered drift through the age of post-modernity, suggesting we are a nation without unity of vision, lost in a conceptual junkyard of past forms and half-truths. Some reactionaries lament the current state of affairs and the passage of time; they conjure wistful memories of an America united against the German menace, or else recollect how, together, we slugged our way out of the Great Depression. Others take a more active stance -- they replicate and repackage the past for our vast consumer market.
In contemporary music, a growing number of "purists" comprise the latter group. Think of the handful of "old-school" punk bands now slogging about the country -- Rancid leaps to mind -- trying to relive the punk-rock heyday of the late 1970s. Or consider the swing and rockabilly revival now underway: bands arriving at clubs in old cars to play old music on old instruments, all for a youthful yet like-minded audience. There's something too comfortable about these well-packaged renditions of bygone eras.
So what happens when you supercharge old-school rockabilly with punk-rock gas? As Tucson band James Dead is quick to point out, blending genres can lead to a whole mess of trouble. "When we get billed with rockabilly bands, we look like punk rock, and the rockabillies don't groove on our sound; when we get billed with punk rock bands, we look rockabilly," notes Dead guitarist George the Chomper. "From a band's perspective, being entrenched in the same scene -- rockabilly or whatever -- is ultimately self-defeating. It doesn't allow a band to move and grow, and you can't escape the scene without looking like a fool."
While blending genres makes it difficult for some to categorize the band, James Dead's most refreshing quality is their assault on the comfortable, tidy nostalgia now widely purveyed. They've taken a smattering of rockabilly, chucked in a pound of punk rock, thrown in a couple of heavy metal stage moves for good measure, and thereby led a blitz through the Tucson music scene that's left purist detractors in shambles.
In short, they rock.
James Dead's debut album, Revenge, exists at the nexus between diverse influences. The title track -- with the invective chorus "Now we're out for revenge! now we're out for revenge!" -- puts them a dozen decibels beyond their rockabilly cohorts, and they follow with track after track of blistering rock populated with characters somewhere between Raymond Carver and '50s pulp fiction. Women carry razor blades, men carry razor blades; bad mothers produce troubled children; cars rumble and drag; we're all going to hell, and still the suckers head to the office for a paycheck. "It ain't fuckin' poetry," Tex said of the album, and it's not meant to be -- it hits you in the guts and leaves you reeling.
If you haven't seen them live, here's the deal: Tex Caliber -- a.k.a., the Jerk from Jersey -- rides point, howling and growling the lyrics while beating up his key-lime Gretsch. An understated mechanic by day, Tex bottles up his aggression and uncorks on stage. On his flank is the Chomper, a madman with bad moves to boot. Years ago some fool gave this man a guitar; now he runs free. Victoria, a.k.a. the Ice Queen, handles bass while keeping an eye on her unruly boys, making sure they don't damage one another with their swinging, churning guitars. Together the trio chew up drummers and spit them out, like a pack of pit bulls on a pile of ham bones. It's long odds on who you'll find behind the kit on any particular night.
FOR THE EMINENT French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, Disneyland loomed as a sort of postmodern mecca, a place where simulated reality loses reference to its cultural context and becomes hyper-real. By James Dead's reckoning, Disneyland is a couple hundred miles too far to drive for Baudrillard's intellectual jazz, considering we Arizonans have The Thing just down the road. Their fascination with the quixotic museum/gift shop is immortalized in the lyrics on their most recent CD: I wouldn't say it was a good thing/I couldn't say it was a bad thing/I wouldn't recommend it/and I sure can't condemn it/I'll never pay to see the Thing again. After witnessing their wall-shaking show at the Haz-Mat gallery, the band proposed a pilgrimage to The Thing, and I readily accepted. We gather just before noon on a Sunday. Tex tinkers with the transmission on the band van, declares victory, and we're off. Our conversation turns to band history. In various manifestations, the band has been around for several years. The trio cut their teeth in the New Jersey/New York scene via a series of punk and rockabilly bands, both obvious influences of the current lineup. Ten minutes into our trip, however, George betrays his metal roots by quoting Saxon lyrics verbatim, thereby granting me a glimpse into the subtle melange at work in James Dead. These diverse influences congealed upon their relocation to Tucson, where bon vivant Al Perry took a shine to the band and produced their album. And, thanks to the support of deejay Hot-Rod Ron, James Dead can be heard at 104.1 on the FM dial.
Arriving at our ultimate destination, we pile out of the van and into the gift shop. After a quick stop at the Dairy Queen counter, we enter the hallowed halls of the museum (gratis, courtesy of the formidable James Dead charisma). The band seems at home among the cobwebs, oddly shaped pieces of wood, Hitler's limousine, medieval torture scenes and assorted bric-a-brac. Tex, Victoria and George gather around the glass coffin that is The Thing. We have found the heart of Baudrillard's hyper-real, here behind the Dairy Queen on the road to El Paso.
We depart in silence and return to the road. A resourceful van passenger navigates our way to the Old Tucson Studios Mescal site. The dusty old town -- closed to the public but open to James Dead -- is the site of countless gun-slinging Westerns and television pilots. Victoria, Tex and George careen about the Western facades, hitching posts and hanging trees. Again the band is ensconced in the illusions of semiotic postmodernity, on the streets of a town that is not a town, where trees are made of plaster and bricks are plastic. It then becomes clear that James Dead is more than just another good rock band; they are masters of recombination, using pieces of the past at their whim, and creating new configurations unfettered by context and reference.
For the time being, we in Tucson have James Dead to ourselves. Their debut CD, entitled Revenge, is chock full o' rock and available at better record stores. But students of future history owe it to themselves to catch their live explosion before it goes global.