Committed to the Asylum

How I learned to stop worrying and love the Spankers.

For Christina Marrs, the chanteuse (and only female member) of Austin's Asylum Street Spankers, modern music has a lot to answer for. Although her husband has an up-to-date collection, Marrs herself has little interest. "It just amazes me on a daily basis how non-musical, and awful, and how low the bar has gotten," she says. "It's just remarkable."

Reflecting on a recent listen to some early Meat Puppets records, she was reminded of how much more depth there was to rock music of but a decade ago. "The only explanation I can come up with is the homogenization of everything," she says, citing Disney as one of the more deplorable factors in this unfortunate trend. "As a result, most of the music I listen to is at least 50 years old."

But disdain for much contemporary music is only one of the myriad factors that make Marrs and the Spankers the wholly unique group of performers they are. When playing live, the group throws elements of vaudeville, sing-along, musical chairs and just about every important roots music idiom into their anarchic cauldron of beer-hall style fun (complete with an occasional German-mocking skit).

This is not to say, however, that since they indulge the styles of another time they're some kind of retro act, because they very ably avoid the feeling of nostalgia-tripping. And they do it without any amplification whatsoever. This of course requires a degree of respectfulness on the part of the audience, something the Spankers seem to have little trouble eliciting. Typically, they win people over from the word go.

The group's name is derived from a combination of the former name of Austin's Guadalupe Street, and spanker, which is a descriptive term for a style of acoustic playing, and an allusion to the birthday spankings they've been known to give to audience members. It formed when Christina and other founding members Guy Forsyth (no longer with the band) and slam-poet Wammo (no affiliation with the makers of Frisbee) all met at an eclectic performers' weekend at a hotel in Llano, Texas. Wammo and Guy had the concept for the Spankers, and recruited Christina. As Wammo tells it in another interview, it was some kind of crazy bacchanal/orgy, making the whole story seem apocryphal. But Christina confirms a less titillating version.

From that point, they've cycled through nearly 35 different members and/or guest members, usually touring with an Earth, Wind and Fire-sized contingent, which is down to a manageable seven (give or take) members these days.

Their recorded output has been steady, from Spanks for the Memories in 1996 to last year's Spanker Madness, an album on which the guest artist was Mexico's biggest export, weed. The record is an ode to relaxing when it's not acerbically political. It features the great lyrical turn, "Well, if you want to know honey / what I like the best / I like to sit on down / and take a rest / and roll a big doobie / watching Scooby Dooby and Shaggy make the rounds." That's on, what else, "Getting' High."

Madness was a rather daring wearing of the heart on the sleeve, in a country where the demonization of drugs is the operative mainstream political attitude. Marrs is hopeful that at some point, those in the position to do something will wake up to the incredible folly of the drug war. "There's a part of me that wants to stay hopeful ... especially when it comes to marijuana ... because it seems to be pretty tolerated," she says. "You notice things in places like Time magazine," to which Marrs and her husband subscribe so as to keep a watchful eye on the Pinks, "where there are all kinds of goofy references and asides. You see something like that, in Time, and you realize there's this level of tolerance, and it just makes you wonder why nothing ever gets done."

This comment is especially germane to those of us in a state that has passed two medical marijuana ballot initiatives only to have the gendarmes at all levels of government hold hostage the will of the people.

So what is left to do but dance and sing and revel? The Asylum Street Spankers will be providing the fiddling soundtrack as Rome burns, in the cozy confines of Solar Culture this Friday. They'll be playing, according to Marrs, from two as-yet-unrecorded albums' worth of material, plus novelty songs, and maybe even an audience-participation number about Wammo's, ah, how to put this delicately ... sac. If you're yet to be converted, attend and be saved, no preaching necessary. The Spankers will demonstrate what putting on a goddamn show is all about.

The Asylum Street Spankers will play this Friday night at Solar Culture, 31 E. Toole Ave. Admission is $10 at the door. Call 884-0874 for more information.