Too Dumb to Die
The Uranium Savages
They're not looking to get signed at South by Southwest 2000. They're too old for MTV. They don't have a new album out. Hell, they don't even have a Web site. Yet after 25 years of music and mayhem, the Uranium Savages have eked out a seemingly permanent place in the ever-shifting Austin club scene. They are the only local band more dedicated to fun than to music, and claim outright they're "too dumb to die." They just might be right. A quarter-century of skewering every musical genre from country to hip-hop has been no easy feat. Born the Sons of Uranium Savage in the mid-Seventies, circa 1999 they're a nine-, 10-, or 11-piece band, including auxiliary members the Shrovinovers, but not counting the three Eddy Sisters. Over 100 musicians have played in the Savages since their inception; the band has outlived trends such as progressive country, punk, New Wave, New Sincerity, grunge, and neo-lounge music. Nevertheless, they continue booking gigs and luring clubgoers into paying cover. And they are personally responsible for why you walk in circles around Sixth Street on Halloween.
Such vital statistics can only lead to one conclusion: What hath parody wrought? It started as a joke in December 1974.
"I was an original investor in the Ritz. I gave [poster artist] Jim Franklin $1,000 to help open it. What a mistake," smirks Kerry Fitzgerald, aka Kerry Awn, himself a noted poster artist and current Esther's Follies star, talking about the Sixth Street theatre's first incarnation as a music venue. "I was an investor and I worked there, so I hung out there too. The plumbers working there had a blues band called the Marsh Mongrels, and we were joking around and decided to do a Battle of the Bands, like in high school."
Franklin upped the ante by announcing that the winning band could open for his band Ramon Ramon & the Four Daddy-Os at the Ritz on New Year's Eve. The gauntlet having been thrown down, Awn and roommate Sonny Carl Davis from the Sons of Coyote joined forces with Pat Reynolds and Dave Arnsberger of the Uranium Clods and some friends called the Gypsy Savages. The amalgam band was called the Sons of Uranium Savage, and the record-breaking 14 guitars plugged in onstage during their deafening debut were no accident.
"We went all-out -- had a bartender onstage, girl singers, showed surf movies -- a friend brought in some kind of smoke machine with a hose," Awn recalls. "He'd crammed a bunch of pot into it and when he turned it on pot smoke shot all over the place. In the middle of our act, he pulled up a truck into the alley, brought it into the Ritz, set it up, and whooosh! Smoked everyone out for about two minutes. Then he ran out with it and hauled ass. That smoke was thick."
"We had volunteered to go first, and the Marsh Mongrels fell for it," he continues. "So here's all this stuff happening onstage and then all of a sudden we're through and the blues band gets up there. Four pieces. Doot-duh-doot-duh-doot. People started leaving. We won."
Even without the ensuing legacy of the Savages, the evening's bill was memorable.
"The bass player for the Marsh Mongrels was Clifford Antone," cackles Awn good-naturedly. "Look what happened to him."
That evening's success was palpable to many of the band's members, who turned gigging with the Savages into a part-time pursuit with regular results. They trimmed the name to the Uranium Savages and were hired as the house band at the Soap Creek Saloon from 1975 to 1985, surviving the club's three location changes. Those were golden years for Austin, just then making its musical name with redneck rock and cosmic cowboys. Not far behind were the local blues brothers, folkies of every stripe, and punk. The Savages were in good company.
Soap Creek Saloon was the first club in Austin to venture into zydeco and Cajun music on a regular basis, bringing in Clifton Chenier and Queen Ida as well as Link Davis and other Louisiana legends. For the Savages, being the house band in a burgeoning music scene was no small task. They quickly won a reputation as the rudest, crudest, and funniest band in Texas, and could headline two-night weekends at the club while Marcia Ball, Paul Ray & the Cobras, Doug Sahm, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds filled the others.
Easily the most poster-documented band in Austin thanks to Kerry Awn, a Uranium Savages gig in the Seventies was a veritable bacchanalia of music, satire, and parody. A typical mid- to late-Seventies lineup included Pat Hargadon on drums, Stone Savage or Trace Ordiway on bass, guitarists Kent Temple and Pat Reynolds, Tom Colwell and David Perkoff on sax, and frontmen Kerry Awn, Bill Ellison, Sonny Carl Davis, and Dave Arnsberger. There was also an auxiliary performing unit called the Shriners with Rick Turner, Artly Snuff, and Tom Bauman. To suggest the stage was crowded is an understatement.
The legend grew, due in large part to the Savages themselves. They adopted an icon named "Eddy" who appeared on the posters and T-shirts that seemingly popped up for every gig. They revered the number 709 for the most arcane of reasons. They even sported a motto, "Trust Us." As if.
"We were already using the name "Eddie' as a joke, but changed it to "Eddy' after Deep Eddy," remembers Awn. "If you look up "eddy' in the dictionary, it says exactly what we are -- going in a circular motion against the current. In other words, we were walking around in circles in a downward spiral.
"We used it from Day One and called ourselves Kerry Eddy, Dave Eddy, and so on. This was before the Ramones. Then my sister in Houston found this drawing in an attic and said, "Here's Eddy.' And we said, "It is him.' It's the one we display onstage at the Eddy Awards.
"The number has its origin in Houston, from surfers at the beach. I picked it up and used it on the posters, and after a while it came to mean something even though it meant nothing. We created mythology with it, the name Eddy, 709 -- how many bands have their own number? Or a motto? Sometimes you can create something out of nothing -- that's basically what the Savages did."
What the Savages really did was play their asses off. Soap Creek's Carlyne Majer and her husband George Majewski hired the Savages for special events, but the band was so anxious to perform that they started to invent their own celebrations. In 1975, the Eddy Awards were born; Spamarama came along in 1977. The moves were as smart as they were calculated.
""Let's have the Eddy Awards!' we said," chuckles Awn. "That way it wasn't just a gig on a Friday night, it was an event. Like Spamarama or the George Majewski lookalike contest; one year a real bull was entered in the contest. It took a shit on the floor. Someone wiped it with a towel and the towel with shit on it won first place. The bull came in second."
Savage saxophone player Tom Colwell introduced flute and sax player David Perkoff to the band in 1975. Perkoff was of the Yippie persuasion, noting that Yippies "believed in absurdity, not crying and protesting like the SDS." Absurdity was key to the Savages.
"The first time I saw the Savages, Pat Reynolds was playing on the floor behind the amp because he couldn't get up, and a watermelon was on Ed Guinn's big organ -- the instrument, I mean," says Perkoff "And all these costumed Savages were running on and off the stage -- it was the most over-the-edge thing I had ever seen.
"No matter who you followed in Austin back then, you could love the Savages," he continues. "Marcia had her fans, Paul Ray had his fans, Delbert with his -- all these different groups. But when it came time for an event -- a birthday, Mother's Day, April Fools, New Year's Eve, Halloween -- any important occasion -- you went to the Savages gig because everyone got hung out. Waaaaaay out."
Waaaaaay out was right. Mexican restaurants got it from "Why Don't They Bring Me My Taco?" Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line" turned into "I Snort the Line." Bob Dylan's "If Not for You" became "If Not for Jews." "The Great Pretender" was changed to "The Sex Offender."
But the original songs grew stronger too. The genuinely moving singalong "(Give Me Those) Texas Skies" was a show stopper. "Redneck Rap" took on the Bubba mentality, and "Fit to Be Tied" took them into serious punk territory. "Massage Parlor Blues" and "Tit Bars" celebrated favorite boys club sports.
If anything illustrated the absurdity Perkoff found in the Savages, it was when their own Beach Boys parody of "Be True to Your School" morphed from "Be Rude to Your School" to "Be Crude at Raul's," spoofing the reigning punk club of the day.
And Perkoff is right. The Uranium Savages promote equal-opportunity spoofing.
"We don't just tease Republicans, we'll tease Democrats," he says. "We don't just tease men, we tease women too."
By the end of the Seventies, a certain pressure to perform came with the Savages' local success. It was the classic Certs-is-a-breath-mint/Certs-is-a-candy-mint debate: Were the Savages a parody band or a satire band? The rhythm section was changing names and faces; guitarist Pat Reynolds left, as did frontmen Bill Ellison and Sonny Carl Davis. Davis went on to pursue a career in films as a character actor, achieving modest success; his best-known role came in Fast Times at Ridgemont High as the unhappy fast-food customer who causes Judge Reinhold's character to lose his job.
Hot Smoke and Satire
There were no sacred cows for the Uranium Savages, not in rock & roll, not on television, not locally. ZZ Top became ZZ Mop. Elvis was lampooned as Edvis Pressler and Buddy Holly as Eddy Holly. Eddy Carson and sidekick Ed Bud-Can with the Parrot Lounge Orchestra parodied The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and lounge music well before the late-night host retired and "lounge" got its own Austin Music Awards category. They shamelessly stuffed the Austin Sun's music poll, winning the 1976 "Landslide Lyndon Award." Even the Austin American-Statesman got the joke, writing, "the [Savages] may have started as hams, but they practically invented Texas punk."
Sentiments like that were not popular throughout the entire band. Dave Arnsberger had spent his years honing an off-the-cuff improvisational style that went well with his various sendups, but his most popular routine was playing Sweathog Moron in the hysterical "Regressive Country Glitter Show." His least popular routine was naysayer to some of the Savages' new directions. Perkoff hedges about Arnsberger's problem was with changes.
"Let me see, I wrote it down so I wouldn't get in trouble," says Perkoff. ""David [Arnsberger] is a brilliant, creative, misunderstood genius.' There. How's that?"
Cute, but no banana. The crux of the dispute seems to have stemmed from the punk/New Wave influence that seeped into the band. Awn was for it; Arnsberger wasn't. Awn wanted to write more original songs; Arnsberger wanted to continue the parodies. Perkoff saw both sides.
"Dave loved to improvise," he says. "He loved to do Edvis. He loved to do the Booze Brothers. He loved to do Barely Mananuff. He loved to do the "Regressive Country Glitter Show.' He was happy doing the old songs that we were good at and popular for. He liked a lot of chatter in between and goofing around and could do that forever."
"But," Kerry Awn counters with a straight face. "There was that art-school influence, like in Talking Heads. That was always the nut with Arnsberger. He wanted to be Weird Al and I wanted to be David Byrne. I thought it was better to do original songs that were funny, because parodies, to me, are the lowest form of humor there is -- like puns. But the parodies are what people like. I wanted a mix so it wasn't all parody like Weird Al. Arnsberger split between the first album and the second, and there was only about a year between them. He was kicked out for various reasons, went away and got humble again, and came back around 1984, then left again."
Still, Arnsberger had been one of the most recognized and talented members of the original lineup, as well as the founder of Spamarama. The sense of improvisation Perkoff admired in Arnsberger had been a cornerstone of Savage humor, and his bigger-than-life stage presence was missed. Awn is pragmatic about their sporadic reunions: "We go through this every few years with him. But I hear we're going to be invited back to the Spamarama in 2000 so he can use the name."
Occasionally, there were legal reasons to avoid parodies and pursue originals. There are no parody songs on any Savage album until "Future's So Bleak (I Think I've Got AIDS)" on their 1987 single. However, the original pressing of 1979's Trust Us contained "On the Bayou," their send-up of Hank Williams' "Jambalaya" about the drowning/murder of Mexican national Jose Campos Torres by a few Houston policemen. "Goodbye Joe, you gotta go, off the bayou" and the gleeful "police" chorus of, "son of a gun, gonna have good fun" didn't amuse Williams' publisher, Acuff-Rose Music. The Nashville company slapped a cease-and-desist order on the Savages, who agreed to scrap the recording on the advice of drummer/attorney Pat Hargadon.
"We had to re-press the whole album and put "Stranded in the Sixties' in place of "On the Bayou,'" sighs Awn with regret. "We took the albums, slit the shrink wrap, took out the old records, put the new ones in, shrink-wrapped 'em back up. I remember sitting around doing it to 1,000 records. "On the Bayou' was our most popular song of 1979."
In true Savage style, they turned it into an event. Part of the band's agreement with Acuff-Rose was that the albums be destroyed, so naturally, a record-burning party was born. A trash barrel was hauled into the parking lot of Soap Creek II in North Austin and filled with vinyl albums, only a few of which were actual Savage pressings.
"We burned a few of the Savage albums, but we wanted to keep them as collectors' items," Awn offers. "It made a terrible mess and smelled awful -- it was toxic! I still have a few of those original albums, too. I haven't put one on eBay yet, but after this article I will."
To no one's surprise, the Uranium Savages have a time-honored history with fire and smoke bombs, something else Awn recalls with delight.
"One time we set off a smoke bomb at the old Soap Creek. It was supposed to be just a smoke bomb, but it was powerful. It was a stink bomb, too. It filled up that place with smoke real quick. They had to open all the doors and everyone ran outside. Majewski was so pissed off: "I can't sell drinks to people outside!'
"On Sixth Street in 1982, we were doing Jim Franklin's Pumpkin Stomp, his tradition since the Sixties. He'd chant "Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater,' etc., and smash a pumpkin. So that year. we decided to throw pumpkins off the top of the Ritz marquee. It was cool -- there were like 30 people up there smoking joints, having a good time.
"Franklin took a bullhorn and started the "Peter, Peter' chant and throwing the pumpkins into the street. Well, the people started throwing them back. Then they started throwing bottles and shit at us, so to retaliate, someone in the band brought up an Army-issue smoke bomb or something powerful like that. He set it off and it was real dense. Smoke descended down into the street and got sucked into the theatre."
"Someone saw all that smoke and started yelling "fire,' and called the fire department, one block away. The fire department couldn't get through the crowd, there were so many people in the street. They had to park in front of Steamboat, and I remember them running in with their hatchets and gear. When they found out it was a smoke bomb, not a fire, they were really pissed and threatened to fine us," Awn sighs regretfully.
"The next year? Barricades and walking in circles." The colorfully named Artly Snuff has been front and center for every Savages show since the first -- as head of the Shrovinovers, the Savages' performance unit. Little did he realize when he first donned the ceremonial fez that it would become a center of controversy -- or a lifetime gig.
"[The Shrovinovers] are in charge of visuals, the crowd, choreography, and stage explosions," he explains. "Stage explosions aren't really an instrument, but the Shrovinovers can sure play the crowd. I used a chainsaw onstage every gig for 10 years, but I stopped because these days there's a $6 or $7 million lawsuit a quarter-inch away from a chainsaw.
"It's true, we were named the Shriners until we found out it's against the law to impersonate a Shriner in Texas. It's in the penal code. The Shriners have a burn hospital, and evidently people have impersonated them to collect money. So it's against the law. We became the Shrovinovers."
Another story circulates about the name change. It may be apocryphal, but word is that fiddle master Alvin Crow's father was a Shriner in Oklahoma, and when he got wind of the Savage satire, kicked up some dust. The Oklahoma chapter supposedly contacted the Austin Shriners, who supposedly contacted the Savage Shriners, and confirmed that it was indeed a crime to impersonate a Shriner.
In the universal never-ending quest to put one over on parents and teachers, it was popular in high schools and junior highs of the Sixties to develop a unique pattern of speaking to avoid detection. A sound was added before the vowel pronunciation of every syllable, rendering the language unintelligible to outsiders. One San Antonio variation used "eez" so that the word "yes" became "yeezes" and "no" became "neezo." Eezit weezas eezaseezy teezo teezalk sheezit leezike theezat. Another variation was "igg" to create "yigges" for "yes" and "niggo" for "no." Thiggat wiggas figgun tiggoo. The Savages used their Houston junior-high version with "ov," so "yes" became "yoves," "no" became "novo."Naturally, "Shriner became "Shrovinover," and therefore completely legal. Covapoviche?
"You could say "fovuck yovou' anywhere to anyone," winks Snuff.
This sort of monkey business is precisely why the Savages' wives and girlfriends throughout the years shrug them off as "the boys club," a phrase more than one spouse/significant other has used. For each one that found the band to be too much, others wouldn't dream of missing a show. Awn met his future wife Michele when she sat in the audience at a Savages gig. She became a regular part of the act for many years as Anita Bryant, ultimately taking her place as the only female in Shrovinovers history. It was that visual thing, too. The Savages/Shrovinovers have always been famous for their stage accessories and outrageous costumes, all of which, according to Snuff, have a logical genesis.
"Don't forget, Kerry and Rick Turner and Tom Bauman of the Shriners were artists, and that's why the visual was so predominant -- costumes and props," he says.
Perkoff is too busy playing to do much prop-wise, but is nontheless an avid fan of his band's use of them.
"Sonny Davis was one of the original propsters in the band," he explains. "He'd do "Little Red Squeaky Fromme' to "Little Red Riding Hood.' He was "The Fondler' (as in "The Wanderer'), and I'm sure he was one of the first to stuff a ladies' wig in his underpants and wear it onstage. Did you see Mike Myers as Austin Powers with that chest toupee? How tame. We were stuffing hair in our pants 20 years ago."
Here's where the penises come in. If proof was ever needed that the Savages were a boys club, it came to the fore when their oversized penises first sprang up around 1978. These were the props that gave the group its first national exposure when skin star Serena came to Austin promoting her latest adult film. The platinum-blond starlet bounced around on the dance floor with the three-foot genital monstrosities while official Savages photographer Ken Hoge snapped away. The photo ran in OUI magazine, and the Savages were famous for a few minutes.
"Penis People is my still favorite act," Snuff readily admits. "When we go from "Get Laid' to "Limbo Cock,' the women come running. If I went to a bar and saw something like that, I'd stay at the far end of the room."
Kerry Awn concurs.
"My favorite thing about the Savages is at the end of the night when we do the nasty songs. I can put my pajamas on. Hopefully, the girls are drunk by then and will dance around with the penises. That's my favorite part."
"We're on our third set of penises," confides Snuff. "We may need new ones soon.
Organ maintenance aside, being in the Savages can be the sanest part of a musician's life.
"I do all the entertainment booking for the UT president, Barton Creek, Four Seasons, Renaissance Hotel, Dell -- they're fun but under control," Perkoff says. "The best part is I play for [UT System Chancellor] Bill Cunningham one night and the Uranium Savages the next. It's the greatest job in the world."
Comedy is a tough business. Just ask a comic playing music. Or musician in a comedy band.
It Ain't Easy Being Funny
"We're in a parody period right now, because the band is driven by who's playing what," asserts Perkoff. "People bring in music, Kerry brings in some original songs, and Charles [Ray] brings in parodies. The Geezer Set is all parodies. That starts with, "We're going to Sun City, gonna have some fun. Goin' to Sun City, gonna get some gum,' and because of the Eddy Sisters, it has full Beach Boys harmonies and is strong stuff. But it's a parody. It's not going on a record anytime soon.
"[But] parodies are not my thing," he continues. "I'm a player. I mean, a lot of people write parodies. I happen to think the Savages write the best ones. Weird Al's parodies are funny, but they're safe. They can be played on the air. Ours can't. And Weird Al pursues it, proving that you can be successful with parody. The problem with the Savages is that we operate on the edge so much. This is a very original band with very original performers. But none of us want to sit in a van and travel together.
"I'm a party musician. To me, this band has the potential to find a real audience and sell records and play nifty big concerts. But potential is all it is, because it's so local. That's a mixed blessing. We don't write one style of music, and we haven't shot our wad. Yet. We're still shooting. Austin is a never-ending target."
That irreverence has inspired many to join in the fun (see sidebar) but Perkoff shoots that down, too.
"You don't want to join the Savages. The only person who ever wanted to join the Savages was our sound man Charles Ray. We tried to keep him out for years, but he was relentless. He would write songs and sit in. His songs were horrible and they got better. And he has written some of the most memorable of all of the parodies, such as "My Scrotum' ["My Sharona']."
Kerry Awn is not of the same mind as Perkoff about the current parody period, but he, too, acknowledges Ray's persistence.
"He kept hanging around and working for us and bringing in songs and [being] real eager,"says Awn. "He finally got in when Arnsberger left the first time, and now I'm glad he did."
Ray's proficiency with parodies spurred Awn to continue writing songs. This is something of a challenge, since Awn plays no instruments and doesn't read music, That hasn't stopped him from composing some of the band's best-loved originals.
"I tell them, here's how I want it to go, "nuh-nuh-nuh, nuh-nuh-nuh.' When I write, I kinda have a tune in my head, because I'll think of a phrase, but the music comes before the words. I write what I think it sounds like, and they're pretty good about deciphering it since I am tone-deaf and know nothing about music.
"I wrote "Get Laid' after seeing Roxy Music play at the Armadillo," says Awn. "They did that song "Love Is the Drug' and I thought, "Why don't they just come right out and say what they want?' So I thought I would put it in more specific terms: "I wanna get laid.' Seems kinda dated now, with people singing "Pussy Fever,' but at the time it was kind of radical that we said "fuck' in a song."
And after 25 years, the shock value hasn't diminished.
"We helped close down Steamboat with the Scabs," says Perkoff, "but instead of our fans being there, the place was packed with Scaboids. These people had no idea who we were, and they took us very well. Naturally, the Penis People went right for Sandra Bullock's table. Someone told Kerry, "Gee you're a lot dirtier than the Scabs.' We took that as a compliment."
Artly Snuff, acting Savages historian, notes that the band played 118 shows at Soap Creek, 42 at Liberty Lunch, 30 at the old Texas Tavern, 27 at Sholz Garten, 18 at Steamboat, 14 at the Ritz, and 11 at the Continental Club. Another 100-odd shows have been played at various venues around Austin and Texas, but Snuff takes a more economical view with some further (unverified) statistics.
The Kids Are All Right
"In Austin, conservatively, each year 500 bands will break up. That means that after 25 years, 12,500 bands have had the good sense to break up, but I am in the one band that didn't."
Kerry Awn confesses that yes, the routines sometimes get old, and that "Jerry Jeff's Walker" is his least favorite number. "I've been doing it so long I feel like I'm him," says Awn
Their topical humor today includes a routine about Leslie, Austin's notorious indigent cross-dresser, played by current Shrovinover Marshall Davis. Artly Snuff chortles that Esther's Follies has a Leslie impersonator, too. "Two Leslie impersonators in town, and Kerry has to work with both of them."
Onstage these days, Snuff and guitarist Kent Temple back the group's three frontmen, Awn, Perkoff, and Ray. The band also includes guitarist John Haddad, bassist Tom Clarkson, and drummer Dave Novak. Then there are Kim Davis, Julie Lowery, and Beverly Robinson, better known as the Eddy Sisters.
"The Eddy Sisters were part of Esther's Traveling Follies -- comedienne-singers, as was Dave Arnsberger," remembers Perkoff. "I was the producer of Esther's Traveling Follies for many years. I think they came in because we were short a musician or two one night and worried about what we'd do for an hour.
"These girls are very Savage, and I thought, "Well, they already know some funny songs and were willing to help out.' Of course the Savages, being the strong male types that they are, took one look at those girls and were happy to make room onstage for them."
The Savages have had to make a lot of room onstage over the years. One of the ironies of celebrating a milestone like a quarter-century is that the band is now older than some of its members. Perkoff sees a certain synchronicity to it all.
"Kent Temple's boys are starting to play with the Savages," he says. "Matthew has begun to rehearse and learn the material. I gave him one of his first saxophone lessons, and now he's starting to play circles around me. To have a 16-year-old among the rest of us is cool. I really hope he'll take his place as one of the sons of Uranium Savage."
He must be kidding.
The Uranium Savages play the Continental Club tonight, Thursday, December 9.