Attacked by Lesbians
Honky Ponders the Musical Question, W.W.T.D.?
In the shadows of the futuristic, phallus-laden Houston skyline, there is rock. Band after band of scruffed-up malcontents climb a stage at the corner of Bell and Austin and blast conflagrations of family-unfriendly noise deep into the humid spring air. Sporting seven stages with more than 100 acts playing everything from hip-hop and reggae to good-time oldies, Houston's new Downtown Street Festival features only one stage that really assaults the senses, and Texas' loudest Big Dumb Rock bands do just that on the 420Radio.com stage. There is Gerth, there is Voltage, there is Drunken Thunder. And then there's Honky. Plying meaty brown heaps of Southern-fried growling aggravation that could easily hold its own against the deafening roar of a NASCAR event, Honky's most endearing trait is a nut-tight funky backbeat borrowed from ZZ Top that makes the booty sway even as the head bangs. Visions of the Top's Barbecue and Barn Dance, which drew 80,000 fans to UT's Memorial Stadium back in 1974, suddenly come to mind. The only thing Honky is missing on this first weekend of May is a crowd.
Much like Austin, Houston is what civic-minded types like to call a "City on the Move." Its downtown and inner-city neighborhoods are rapidly filling up with affluent professionals who can't stand long commutes. As a result, many of the marginal-but-affordable, deviant-coddling enclaves like Montrose have transformed into communities whose increasingly workaday ways don't necessarily jibe with garage bands, house parties, and giant street festivals which draw large crowds of youthful steam-blowers. This perhaps explains the city of Houston's refusal to allow the 27-year-old Westheimer Street Festival to take place in its traditional Montrose location. The Downtown Street Festival, therefore, is one of two events held on different ends of downtown Houston to pick up the slack.
As the relatively sparse crowd of 40-50 people gathered at the 420Radio.com stage can attest, moving the festival from Westheimer and balkanizing it into two events scotches the festival's status as a can't-miss gathering of the freaks. No longer are SUVs full of high-school kids from the vast suburban wastelands of FM 1960 and Dairy Ashford trekking inside Loop 610 for a vicarious daylong romp through the heart of Montrose. Apart from the music, there's just not much to do down in this part of Houston besides watch hippie vendors trying to hawk tie-dyed jockstraps and sandal-toe incense sticks while drinking a $3 cup of foamy Lite beer.
As mid-Eighties teens back on Westheimer, some friends and I always looked forward to quaffing two-for-$1 16-ounce cans of Busch from Stop & Go bought by girls with fake I.D.s who were younger but looked older than us. If we weren't in the mood for live music, we could feed from a free vegetarian buffet set up by the Hare Krishnas, watch drag queens perform on the roofs of gay bars, or thumb through used vinyl on the sidewalk in front of Infinite Records. The festival gave us locals a brief peek at the life that awaited us once we reached the age of majority (or legal drinking age) at a time when puberty seemed like a life sentence.
Most of the wild oats we sowed back then sans severe punishment would get today's youth thrown in jail. Why, back then, things like getting busted drinking malt liquor in a Baptist church parking lot on Easter Sunday just got you a stern warning. Hell, as late as 1987, we had a student smoking area at our high school; get caught buying a pack of smokes today and they take away your freakin' driver's license. To think I was jealous of the Seventies kids who grew up when the drinking age was 18...
Unlike most contemporary bands attempting to revive the Seventies, the men of Honky were there when the drinking age was 18 and coliseum rock bacchanalia ruled the day. When bassist Jeff Pinkus and drummer Lance Farley were growing up, referring to yourself in all seriousness as a "rock & roller" would garner high-fives instead of raised eyebrows. Decades down the line, the band's passion for Seventies rock remains unabated, even when it comes to acts that have not necessarily withstood the test of time. Out of thousands of bands criss-crossing the country in vans at any given time, Austin's Honky is probably the only one listening to the Marshall Tucker Band on the disc deck.
"All these bands like Fu Manchu and Nebula are getting tagged with this Seventies thing now," relates Farley, "and they're great bands, but it seems to me like they're doing the Seventies filtered through something. I'm old enough to where I actually lived it. I play that way because I was sitting there in my bedroom playing along with some Led Zeppelin album that had just come out. I don't have that retro sort of thing going."
The band that would become Honky first jammed together on March 24, 1996, the day after Farley's wedding reception. Pinkus had left the Butthole Surfers in late 1994 after a prolific nine-year stint, but he stayed busy by playing in Daddy Longhead as well as a new band called Skinny Lynerd. The latter featured tattoo artist-cum-lead-guitar-player Carson Vester.
"One time Carson was backstage at a Longhead show and he just picked up a guitar and started noodling around," Pinkus recalls. "I thought he was pretty damn good, so I asked him if he'd ever been in a band before. He said he was in a group back in Philly called Double Penetration."
"But he was only in Double Penetration for two weeks," laughs Farley. "That was the only time Carson was ever in a band."
At the same time, Vester was calling Farley, playing songs on his answering machine and asking him to jam. When the three musicians finally got together to do just that, the trio's chemistry was immediately apparent. Although Farley's marriage would end in divorce, Honky proved to be quite a fruitful coupling.
"I've never played with a guitar player I could play bass to that naturally," recalls Pinkus. "Every riff he did, I'd hear stuff in my head to play along with. That doesn't happen too often."
From the beginning, Honky maintained a very clear, almost businesslike focus on their goal as a band.
"We wanted to make the chicks' butts rock," Pinkus states succinctly. "'Cause if the chicks are shaking their butts at the front of the stage, then the guys'll be in the back watching the butts shake and drinking beers. Then the bars'll love us and the guys'll love us and the chicks'll love us. That's the recipe for success right there."
Honky's patented "Make the Chicks' Butts Rock" formula began winning fans in Austin almost immediately, so they took the act on the road, touring extensively throughout the country. Following this up with their recorded debut in 1997, a four-song EP on Frank Kozik's Man's Ruin label titled Ten Inches, the trio ponied up their self-titled full-length on Pinkus' Honest Abe's label in 1998. When Vester's booming tattoo business compelled him to move to Houston, Honky managed to operate successfully as a long-distance band for almost two years, but the strain of doing so finally led Vester to resign last spring. Gable Barber, a punk-schooled axe-slinger pulling double duty with the Bulemics, was tapped to replace Vester.
"We played with Gable for about eight months, I guess," says Farley. "He was starting to get really good, but then he had a major life change and he's a workin' man now. He quit both of his bands. I think he's taking a sabbatical from music."
Anyone who hangs out with musicians knows that losing a piece of the rhythm section is one of the most frequent fates to befall a band. It's not uncommon for a band to go through two or three drummers and/or bassists in a year. The reason is simple: Would-be star vocalists and guitar heroes are a dime a dozen, but rhythm players are always in high demand. Ironically, the rock-solid Honky rhythm section has now been hobbled on two different occasions by the exact opposite scenario.
"With us, the bass and drums are there, but the guitar, which is the meat of the sound, keeps leaving," says Farley. "I guess that's why it's so necessary for us to make sure we pick the right person this time. Our sound's going to be different, and we know that.
"Our sound changed when we got Gable. We have two choices here. We can either just fold the band or we can try to go on with someone else. I prefer to go on. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work, but we can't just sit around wishing things worked out differently. As my mom used to say, 'Wish in one hand, shit in the other, and see which one gets full first.'"
Enter Godzilla Motor Company guitarist Bobby Landgraf, an Austin veteran who once backed up adult party-rap pioneer Blowfly when he was playing with Dino Lee. The Downtown Music Festival is Landgraf's first show with Honky. Like both Pinkus and Farley, Landgraf is also a spawn of the Seventies, thus enabling him to relate to the foibles of working the underground rock railroad as the Big 4-0 looms just over the horizon. Pinkus has plenty to say on that front.
"I can't eat nothin' that's hard to shit out because of my hernia," he confides. "I don't even fuck with it, man. I go for the total fiber diet. I know I'm an old man and I'm fine with that. One of my fantasies is to have a rider with stuff like Grecian Formula, Preparation H, and Metamucil.
"Bobby understands all this. He's up with us. I won't have a girlfriend below the age of 25, so a bandmate has to be at least 28. There's just no other way."
As the sun goes down over the Downtown Music Festival, Austin's Voltage is tearing through "The South Will Rock Again" to a small but enthusiastic band of supporters. It's going to be a long night. Honky was supposed to start at 7pm, but the show is running hopelessly late and they'll be lucky to get on by 9. As it turns out, they don't take the stage until 9:30, just 30 minutes before officials shut the place down.
Opening with the anal sex paean "Good Pipe," Honky plows through their abbreviated set like well-trained groove soldiers. There is little to indicate that it's Landgraf's first performance with the band. As always, Pinkus dedicates the catchy "Don't Shoot Baby I Love You" to "all our ex-wives." Vester even sits in with the band for a few songs at set's end. The twin guitars make Honky sound especially fat. After the show, Vester gives Landgraf a few finer points on making his guitar playing more honkified.
Once the van is loaded, Honky goes to Mary Jane's on Washington Avenue to catch Squat Thrust, another twisted Austin hard rock band led by Voltage guitar antihero Jimmy Bradshaw. The fact that I'm seeing two of Bradshaw's bands in a three-hour span convinces him that I've really come to Houston to write about him, but that's another story. Squat Thrust finishes their loud and unforgiving set around 1:30am.
Food and caffeine are crucial for the all-night drive home, so we head over to La Jaliscience, a venerable taqueria on Montrose Blvd. affectionately referred to as the "Hall of Science" in honor of the long Anglo-Texan tradition of haplessly mutilating the Spanish tongue. Upon our arrival, a band sets up and plays a soothing version of the Beatles' "And I Love Her" complete with pan-flute solo. Their noise is just the yang for the yin of four straight hours of Big Dumb Rock.
Brought back to life momentarily by the combination plate, we hit I-10 listening to Cactus, a short-lived Seventies rock footnote that falls somewhere between Foghat and Trapeze in modern-day recognition. Landgraf and longtime Honky merch man Handsome Joel Svatek take shifts driving, keeping themselves awake with lots of coffee and the Rock Opera soundtrack played at high volume. The van finally pulls into Pinkus' San Marcos driveway just as the sun comes up. Everyone else still has to drive back to Austin, except Farley, who lives in Manchaca.
For their performance, Honky is reimbursed with two cups of beer (each!), potato chips, and a sackful of Jumbo Jacks. With the price of gasoline pushing $1.40 a gallon, such compensation is murder on a traveling band's bottom line. The festival's dismal attendance is another problem, but the band never lets this spoil the air of post-show joviality.
"It's funny, but I think it's much easier on me now that I'm older," Farley says later. "I'm mellower about it now."
Farley's mellow attitude was tested rigorously when Honky played at Chicago's Fireside Bowl last September. It was the next-to-last show of a two-week Midwest tour opening for L7. The sizable crowd included a number of young buzzcut lesbians grouped together a few rows back from the stage. They were obviously there to see L7, not the three strapping Texan bucks who turned it up to 11 and started their set with a browbeating cover of Van Halen's "Beautiful Girls." Nevertheless, they watched and applauded politely at the end of the song. Then Honky tore into "Badfoot" and all hell broke loose.
"Carson would lose his shoes at least twice every tour and it was horrible," says Farley, explaining the song's origin and subject matter. "We came up with the name 'Badfoot' by combining the names of two of our favorite bands, Badfinger and Blackfoot."
This was completely lost on at least one audience member who misheard the lyric, "Hey, Badfoot, don't put that thing near me," as something along the lines of, "Hey, faggot, don't put your dick in me." As word of the alleged affront made its way around the room, some of the lesbians began climbing on each other's shoulders to flip the band off. The hostility grew with each passing song, especially the breast-implant anthem "Saline Mountains," but Honky wasn't sure why.
"These two girls were trying to say something to us right as we were starting songs, and I didn't really give 'em the time of day because I knew they weren't fans of ours," Pinkus recalls. "Whatever they wanted to say, I probably didn't want to hear it.
"They'd misheard the lyrics to 'Badfoot,' but we had no clue why they were mad. I started thinking about Ted Nugent and how he does a lot of talking between songs, but never once have I heard him stop what he's doing to talk to two chicks in overalls in the front row who have a question for him and look pissed off. I asked myself, 'What would Ted do in this situation? W.W.T.D.?'
"This is a rock show, not a question-and-answer session. The Albinites [Pinkus' pet name for disciples of producer Steve Albini] have question-and-answer periods after their music, so I can understand why the confusion happened in Chicago. But it just kept escalating."
As it turned out, Pinkus did exactly what Ted Nugent likely would have. He certainly wasn't going to just sit back and endure such rampant hostility from this rather vocal section of the audience without biting back. So right after the band finished "Don't Shoot Baby I Love You," Pinkus gave them an incendiary shout-out.
"All right, let's hear it for all the Lesbonites out tonight in the front row!"
Right after he speaks, the recording of this show captures a collective roar of indignation from the audience. This is followed by nearly a minute of unbridled commotion peppered by various voices screaming various epithets at the band. One clever non-fan yells, "Pack up your shit and go back to Appalachia!," to which Pinkus responds, "I didn't know lesbians could pack shit." The roar after this comment is even more profound than the first.
"We called them 'Lesbonites,' because we were already in the land of the Albinites and we figured their tribe was called the Lesbonites," Pinkus says. "So we dedicated a song to 'em and they said some stuff to me and I made another comment about lesbians. I have nothing against lesbians, but I don't want to get attacked by anybody"
Honky somehow manages to make it through "Smokin' Weed With Helios Creed," but just as the song ends, a young woman grabs one of the microphones and screams, "WE WANT EVERYONE TO KNOW THAT THE SECOND LINE OF THEIR SECOND SONG SAID, 'DON'T STICK YOUR DICK IN ME, FAGGOT! HOMOPHOBIC ASSHOLES! THEY SAID, 'DON'T STICK YOUR DICK IN ME, FAGGOT!' THEY SAID, 'MY FAVORITE MOUNTAINS TO CLIMB ARE SALINE!'"
"They were extremely aggressive and militant," continues Pinkus. "They got up onstage, stood around me, and started spitting on me. I finally saw one girl who was spitting on me, and if it were a guy, I would've kicked him in the nuts or went at him with a guitar. There was security there, but they really couldn't do anything. They weren't getting paid enough to deal with that, but we didn't want to back off. So we kept playing, and I actually ended up spitting on one girl. She couldn't believe I spit back.
"Then I got hit by a bloody tampon. I got two thrown at me, but only one hit me. And I've got the bloodstain on my shirt to prove it."
Their final number, appropriately enough, was a rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man." L7 drummer Dee Plakas and bassist Janis Tanaka were called upon to get people off the stage, but you can still hear the bass and guitar intermittently drop out when someone unplugs them.
"At the end of the set, this titty dancer jumped up onstage and started grinding on me and kissing me," laughs Pinkus. "The other girls were screaming, 'What are you doing? Get the hell off the stage!'"
After "Simple Man," an angry young man commandeers the mike, explains the misheard lyric, and begins berating the people who caused a commotion.
"Y'know, obviously fuckin' L7 brought them along for a reason," he yells. "Who are the close-minded people up here in Chicago, huh? That's what I'm trying to say."
"Yes, thank you, Hitler Youth!" adds Farley.
Once word got around that "Badfoot" did not contain any homophobic invective to speak of, the crowd calmed down. Nevertheless, Farley made it a point to check the band van several times during L7's set.
"The Texas plates would've given us away," he asserts.
Honky's Chicago fracas wasn't exactly the '68 Democratic Convention, but listening to the live recording from start to finish is a vicarious, jaw-dropping experience that imbues listeners with the same sense of chaos and confusion as Iggy and the Stooges' band-versus-bikers swan song, Metallic K.O. Acknowledging the lurid souvenir value of such a document, Honky released Attacked by Lesbians in a Chicago Bowling Alley (available at www.honky.net) last week.
"I wish I could thank all those people," laughs Pinkus. "We'll probably get more people in Chicago now than if they wouldn't have been there."
In the meantime, the band will appear on the forthcoming Aerosmith tribute album Right in the Nuts (Small Stone) performing "Adam's Apple." They're also hard at work on their second full-length album. But Honky's latest (if not greatest) coup was scoring a gig with Black Oak Arkansas at a chigger-infested biker rally in the I-35 truck-stop municipality of Carl's Corner on May 20.
"Black Oak didn't show up until around 12:30am and there were only about 30 or 40 people still there to see them," reports Farley. "The promoter told me he had fronted half of the money to Black Oak because Jim Dandy had to get his teeth fixed.
"We only got half the money we'd been promised because the promoter took a bath. When he paid us, he was saying, 'This is my rent, guys.' I guess it was kind of bad from a managerial standpoint, but we played really well and got a good reception. Bobby just fits right in. This is definitely the happiest I've ever been in this band."
Just watch who you call Badfoot.