Deep in the heart of America, no matter what city you are in, exists this other culture, frozen in the time, before the Beatles played Ed Sullivan, where Elvis is still king. In this other America, leather jackets, motorcycles, tattoos, horror movies and pin-up girls are paramount; the men are men and the girls are girls. I recall a bar called The Motor Alley in Kenosha, Wisconsin where I played a show to group of bikers and their wives, mostly over 40, and the DJ played no music recorded past 1963. That bar was a piece of this other America, as is rockabilly. It is one area of music that sits right in the middle of the Liberal and the Conservative. It’s for rebels, but it’s also old fashioned. It is reactionary but also jingoistic. It’s a wild music, but you never have to guess what chord is coming next. At New York’s Gramercy Theatre, the rockabilly faithful gathered for one of the last big names in the genre, Reverend Horton Heat.
I arrived as Dale Watson, the Texas country singer, was finishing his set. Dressed like Johnny Cash at the Grand Ole Opry, he delivered a vaguely racist song called “Sayonara, Sucker” that he described as being about “having a Chinese girlfriend.” The crowd was awaiting Jim Heath, known as Reverend Horton Heat, which is also the name of his trio that emerged from the Texas punk scene in 1985. Their biggest hit is “Psychobilly Freakout,” which helped popularize the titular genre. The Heat serve up Rockabilly with a dose of punk rock, surf, country and even some western swing. Heath himself is a truly standout guitar player, combining Chet Atkins and Link Wray technique with Bob Quine and Billy Zoom aggression. His rhythm section swings and bops appropriately. The riff from “Ace Of Spades” by Motörhead is quoted several times.
Revivalist music, whether surf, ska, soul or swing, works best as dance music, played in places like The Motor Alley in Kenosha or Otto’s Shrunken Head in the Lower East Side. The Heat, despite the bravado of their attack, seemed to run out of good songs to play rather quickly, playing a series of boneheaded tunes called “Let Me Teach You How To Eat,” “Martini Time” and then “Jimbo,” a song about the band’s bassist, Jimbo. Heath described their new record, Rev, as “worse than (1998 album) Space Heater,” which he has described as their worst album to date.
A reprieve came with Robert Gordon, who moved to New York in the ’70s to play in early punk band Tuff Darts then moved to Rockabilly, scoring a major label contract and recording with Link Wray. He sports a deep, rich baritone like Roy Orbison or the King himself. He started with a cover of Jack Scott’s “The Way I Walk” (famously covered by the Cramps) probably the best tune of the night, as well as the Marshall Crenshaw penned titular tune of the film Walk Hard.
Despite the aesthetic limitations, I enjoyed my little vacation into Rockabilly America, where Brian Setzer is more important than Bryan Ferry, where Elvis Presley lives and Elvis Costello never existed. As far as important traditions, Heath or “The Rev” deserves credit for holding the torch for great American traditions in electric guitar playing, his chops are vicious and he looks as if he’s having the time of his life delivering each lick. There are no iPhones in Rockabilly America, the women all have cute haircuts, the electric guitar is played with vigor and glee and I can’t say I didn’t dig it.
– Jamie Frey