The Last Laugh
Guy Forsyth signs off on God's Favorite Band
By Austin Powell,
9:00AM, Thu. Apr. 21, 2011
In honor of the Asylum Street Spankers' Farewell Tour of Austin, kicking off tonight at the Cactus Cafe, OTR reached out via email to Guy Forsyth for help with compiling the timeline in this week's column. What came back was an epic, personal remembrance of God's Favorite Band and an appreciation of the acoustic troupe's ringers.
"The Spankers started back when I saw John Hammond play back in 1988. I just couldn't get in on stage ‘til 1994.
"Christina I met while she was a long red-headed, dreadlocked bike-punk working as a barista at Quakenbush's on the Drag in '92, I think. I was busking on the street and would come in for coffee and she would sing Bessie Smith tunes with me while she bussed tables.
"I met Wammo in '93 while he was working as a cabby and struck up a conversation with him at Music Makers while he was trying out harmonica mics, and I was grandstanding on some out-of-my-price-range guitar. The three of us hung out in Llano at the Dabbs Hotel and had a great time singing together so I put them on the gig. Wammo was already in a band (WORM, Wammo's Organic Rubber Machine) but knew lots about country-blues and Fats Waller-style swing. He talked about playing washboard while I was on break at Headliners East during a multi-year stand playing Tuesday nights, and we eyed the one on the wall. It was signed by Jim Dandy. I ripped it from its screws and snuck it out the back.
"My mom had an antique store in Clear Lake, just outside of Houston, and I would go with her when she went to auctions. I ended up with a bunch of old string instruments, banjos, ukes, and the like. I gave a mess of them to Pops. I knew Pops Bayless (who was Greg, way back then) threw a mix of theater, music, and a shared love of Samurai films. He was in an art band called Big Ed, played guitar, mandolin, and a fretted dulcimer called a sweet stick and already had a deep love of viper jazz. "
His roommate was John Dodson, who I named Mysterious John as he looked like a CIA agent, dressing up in black suits and sunglasses. John didn't play music but had a great voice and took to the kazoo like it was an E ticket at Disneyland in '75. The two of them brought a sense of theater to the show, John playing MC in the traditional, non-turntable sort of way, holding up placards with sayings like 'Tip the Band,' 'Quiet Please,' and 'Ladies Spanked Free.'
"One of the original line-up [members] was Bill Thomson, aka the Original Snakeboy, a slide guitar player/used car salesman, who had come to Austin in the 1980s and was a great friend to me. He was a real strange guy but had a huge heart. Sometime in '95 he freaked Christina out while I was out of town on tour, and that was the end of that. He was the one who came up with the "Ladies Spanked, Free" line at the first Cafe Brasil gig. The first time he said it during the tip spiel, two girls in the audience (of about 10 people) stood up, turned around and dropped their pants. About a year later we were playing the Austin Music Awards.
"JJ Johnson played harmonica, a real badass with the true 1950s Chicago sound. He only lasted a couple of gigs, but I hear he is still in town. He played with Jimmy Dean (Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, the Sausage King) an excellent drummer who understood the gig perfectly, finding a cocktail drum kit and swinging on brushes all night long. Jimmy outlasted me in the band.
"Kevin Smith was the first member of the Spankers I ever played with, busking on Sixth Street in front of the Ritz with his rockabilly band High Noon. He was also the first bass player in my blues band at Joe's in '90. They don't make folks like him anymore, best of all of us. When the Spankers started, clustered around a cassette player spinning mixtapes at Pop's apartment on Congress, we knew we loved the music but we had no idea how to play it. No one told us no, so we grabbed what ever we could get our hands on, instruments and musical ideas, phrases and hit it as hard as we could. Kevin made it all make sense.
"I had seen Stan Smith play with the Jazz Pharaohs for years and listened to their cassettes all the time. Getting to play with him will always be one of the great pleasures of my life, his laid back approach so foreign to me, so soulful, so right. The Zen Master of Austin music.
"Olivier Giraud came a little later, although I had seen him play down on Sixth at the 311 Club and Black Cat in the 47 Indians. The first time he sat in with the band (Electric Lounge, I think) Christina was like a kid begging for a puppy, 'Can I keep him?' He was the first in the band to pick up the saw. I had brought a percussionist, who had played with the 13 Floor Elevators (whose name I cannot recall), to sit in with us who played the saw a little, just making weird noise on it and about two weeks later Olivier was playing achingly beautiful melodies. He eventually left to do the 8 1/2 Souvenirs so I picked it up. When I left Christina took the saw chair.
"Christina and I disagree about the first show, but it was either the Green Mesquite for a Mance Libscomb birthday show or a little restaurant on Riverside next to Chewy's called Cafe Brazil. At the Mesquite we used mics, but at Brazil we didn't, and it was much more fun. I had spent so much time geeking out on pre-War blues stuff, old gospel, Jimmy Rodgers, old time shouters, that most of my favorites were musicians whose whole approach and sound came from the limitations of the sounds they could put out over a club with no PA. And that was what I wanted to do. Think about the difference between Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, both wonderful but Billie had a good mic and knew how to use it. Bessie never missed it.
"It started as a side project for me. I was already making a living playing and was working on the first of three records with Antone's but wanted an acoustic gig, a way to work on the Delta stuff – music that didn't fit with my band. But Antone's went bankrupt (the first time) the week before my first CD came out, and my band blew apart because of failed expectations. I was still gigging but now the contract (in my name) was a liability; the Spankers was much more fun. Eventually the Spankers started to make a bit of dough, enough that it stopped being a blissful throwaway and started to look like a way out of the real world to some of the players. Money changes everything.
"And we did a good job creating out of nothing. Trying to work every possible gig in the week I came up with the Gospel Brunch, sticking the Spankers in La Zone Rosa on Sunday morning after late night gigs in Dallas and Houston, the band red-eyed and hung-over, self-medicating with Bloody Marys, hiding behind the darkest sunglasses we could find, mixing old and new songs to two seatings in a row. Now I see Gospel Brunches everywhere...
"Eventually it became hard to do both my band and the Spankers. I was working all the time, and the Spankers were not working when my band was. They did some gigs without me but were worried about how it came off. I came back from Europe in 1997 and was handed an ultimatum: quit gigging with my band or the Spankers. Really stung too, after I had canceled a trip to Cuba because I had told Christina I would do a gig that paid tens of dollars. But it was time. By that time the Spankers had eight singers, we each did three-to-four songs a night, but I was writing lots of songs. Christina was coming into her own and needed the space.
"The vibe was crystallizing. It was good but different than the insanity of the Outhouse shows on Wednesday nights, when anything could and did happen. It was like saying goodbye to a child, and I chose to do it as much like that as I could. I started the band, gave it a name, gave it a push, but it has done the hard work on its own and spawned a dozen careers. I still record with them, and have been told I will one day be paid for my work, and still play with everybody (now, everybody has their own bands).
"Conspicuously absent from the last show is Wammo, who is in the midst of a legal battle with John Riedie, general manager of Spanks-a-Lot Records and husband to Christina (I performed the ceremony on the stage at Antone's). I am very sorry that it looks to be headed to court. I have seen more courtrooms than any musician should and am convinced that it never goes well, as it seems the settlement for the New West buying of the Antone's catalog will mainly go to pay for the lawyers on the other side from the artists, the artists' lawyers working for free, and that's the way the law works. I can't imagine that it will go well for either of them or that there will be anything left after King Solomon cuts the baby in two.
"I will meet up with Wammo in a few weeks for a tour out to the West Coast and am sure I will play with Christina soon after this Last Spank, as she (and Wammo) re-tool for the next round of creative mayhem. Nevada Newman has been a Spanker for longer than I ever was, owning the resonator guitar chair and one of the best I have ever seen. I expect big things from him. Charlie King is a sick man who makes the world a healthier place just by being sick in it. And while I'm on the subject of sick, Sick is one of the hardest working players in Austin and New Orleans at the same time. Col. Josh Arnson, Korey Simeone, Scott Marcus, Mike Henry, Jonathan Doyle, Leroy Biller, Reese Gray, Westen Borghesi, Eamon McLaughlin, and many more, all bare the reddened hand print."