John Wesley Coleman's compulsion
"Do you have any scary music? Like, Halloween?"
The local record store clerk points to a back wall, where there's an LP by the German metal band Helloween. John Wesley Coleman makes a beeline, Foster's tall boy in hand, thick tangle of curly black-and-gray hair adding a few inches to his frame. He then darts to the country section, then to the punk 45s. It's like watching a human pinball.
We've just left the pizza place where Coleman has worked since it opened and arrive down the street at Antone's Records, looking for Gary Stewart albums. He's been listening to the late Kentucky oracle a lot lately. You may remember his 1975 No. 1 hit, "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)." Some of Coleman's eternal favorites come up in conversation: Exile on Main St., the Stooges' Raw Power, Bob Dylan, George Jones, the Velvet Underground, the Minutemen.
"[The Minutemen] got me thinking differently about music," he adds. "They went for it. There were no rules. They did a lot of different songs and were considered punk, but they weren't punk."
That's a fitting description for the singer/guitarist of Austin rock & punk outlaws the Golden Boys (rifle "Caught 'Em in Autumn," Nov. 9, 2007), Coleman having released his second proper solo disc and Goner Records debut, Bad Lady Goes to Jail. He's a junkyard aficionado of rudimentary stylizing, chopping up blues, country, folk, and punk. He mentions having had easily 100 jobs in his lifetime, which explains his manic approach to playing live and writing. No money, no car, trouble with the law – his life sounds like a country-western boilermaker, but his work ethic has resulted in a dizzying array of performances.
In July, Coleman marathoned a weeklong residency at Beerland with different bands every night. This Saturday, he's playing no less than three times during his 12-hour album release at Beerland, and is possibly emceeing. Is it compulsion? A test of endurance?
"In a way," he concedes. "It's like going to school. It makes me smarter every time I do it. It also proves that it can be done. That week I played Beerland, I also worked every day. By Sunday, I went to Wheatsville and just stared at products for two hours. I was like Ozzy Osbourne – just gone. But, a few years ago it was hard for me to even get in to Beerland to play a show.
"The Beatles played the same club in Hamburg every night. I think of it like punk rock songwriter boot camp."
Music education on a shoestring budget – that's what Coleman thrives on. For his tour last month, Memphis indie label Goner gave him money to buy a used van, which promptly broke down on the New Jersey turnpike before a show in Brooklyn. He and his local backing band still attempted to play roughly 30 shows in three weeks. He asks if he can give a shout-out to a couple of Canadians who drove seven hours to see him play a show in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Tonight in Texas, it's dark and stormy, so we sneak into a graveyard where Coleman says his grandfather is buried. Gary Stewart's still on the mind. Coleman likes that old breed of singer-songwriters, the honky-tonkers and storytellers. Like Townes Van Zandt and Roky Erickson, the dreamers stuck in the gutter.
"When I write, it's things I know about," he says. "I can't make it up."
Coleman grew up in Irving, where his dad ran his own custom-framing business and did other odd jobs. "My grandfather was John Wesley Coleman the first," he explains. "I'm the third. He was a boot-maker, and his wife played the violin. My dad framed gold and platinum records for CBS and Sony, so we'd have a lot of artists come by. He framed Michael Jackson records, Rolling Stones stuff. Old blues guys would come by, and I'd try to talk to them, ya know, be cool.
"I'm kind of a bad guitar player though – I just bang on it and make it happen."
That's essentially his approach to other art forms as well, like attempts at stand-up comedy over the last few years: "It's different than rehearsing. I just go out there and say whatever's in my brain at the moment."
"Did you bomb?"
"I don't know. There was one time I was waiting to go on. One of my first times. They draw numbers and out of like 34 numbers I was 33. So I'm waiting all night, and a friend offers me a drink, and after I drink it, he tells me he put 'shrooms in there.
"So I get up there, and I made fun of the place and all the comedians in the same joke. I was just making observations about the head shots on the back wall, how they looked like photos you see in the grocery store – employees of the month. You know, I'm tripping.
"So people got mad. I had this napkin I was trying to make a bird out of, doing bird sounds. So yeah, I guess I bombed."
"You like getting reactions out of people."
"Hell yeah. I mean, I don't want to make people upset, but a reaction, yeah. Like on the new record, that song 'Christians Drive Like Shit.' Every time I'm on the highway and someone cuts me off, they've always got that Jesus fish sticker on their car. I wrote that song in 30 seconds. I guess I have a reputation for doing crazy things. Or maybe crazy people are just attracted to me and know that if they push my buttons I'll get crazy too."
Coleman says sometimes it's when the "brain's lonely" that good writing happens.
"I can't stop writing. I always sleep with my guitar. I heard that NPR interview with Keith Richards, and he sleeps with his guitar. It makes sense."
A few rustling sounds come from behind a headstone.
"The first song I tried was something on the piano in elementary school. It was 'Yankee Doodle' – easy song. I get up there, wrong notes immediately."
Crickets soundtrack Coleman's pause.
"And I say: 'Fuck it! I give up!'
"Parents are yelling, 'Get him off the stage!'"
That last part might still happen, but he has a few more fans now. Bad Lady and his previous solo effort, Steal My Mind, both revel in first-draft charm, the idea of wrong notes making a nice sound, of powering through and not caring about theory or hyperbole. Steal My Mind was recorded in one night, live with friends, and if you listen to it from start to finish, you can hear the whiskey-fueled progression of the party.
Local wunderkind Orville Bateman Neeley III, who plays in the Bad Sports and recorded the Strange Boys' debut, produced Bad Lady as well, and his knack for vintage skuzz is right on. Coleman's compositions are pretty straightforward: "Come on Cops" recounts a night getting harassed by the police outside Emo's; "Ooh Basketball" is four lines about basketball; "Get High Babe," well ... you get the point. The LP closes with a splendid cover of Nikki Sudden's "New York," a nice balance to his previous covers of Warren Zevon and Lester Bangs.
Like Bangs, his talent is jamming psychotic reactions into pop culture. The cover of American Trashcan, Coleman's 2008 book of writings for Austin's Monofonus Press, features a crude pen and ink drawing of Coleman smoking, a perfect introduction to the crackheads and wastoids of his capital city stories. Then there's a gem like "Handclapping": "Handclapping sounds better to me than a coffee pot running out of coffee. Sounds better than the sound of popcorn being chewed around you in a crowded movie theater."
Currently, he's also writing a book about Jim Morrison for Daggerman Records. Tentatively titled Jim Now, it projects the Doors frontman as if he were alive today.
"He lives in a shitty apartment in L.A., and he's crazy. He's down and out, rides the bus around, doesn't play in band ...."
There's a part about a weed-smoking eagle named Freedom and a jingle for a restaurant called Mr. Bacon, but let's not spoil it. In addition, Coleman's working with Bay Area DIY prodigy Greg Ashley on a new project called the Last Donkey Show, and now that some legal charges have cleared up, the Golden Boys will be trekking to Europe in December for the first time.
"I was born on Thanksgiving in '75," Coleman says, taking a swig of whiskey and leaning back on a grave. "I'm about to be 35 on Thanksgiving this year. Maybe if I was 25 it'd be easier on the bones, but I think I got it down all right."
Bad Lady Goes to Jail gets a full release Friday, Nov. 12, 7pm, at Trailer Space and all day Saturday, Nov. 13, at Beerland.