Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How I Caught the Hillbilly Fever and Found Out That Everything I Knew Was Wrong - Part 1

It all started with my uncle’s record.

My uncle, Thomas Fox, was a part time guitar player and singer for most of his life.  His one shot at country music stardom came around 1964 when he cut a single for the independent label K-Ark in Nashville. According to the story my dad tells, Uncle Thomas’ agent persuaded him that “Tom Fox” wasn’t a good name for a country singer, and for one of those crazy-hillbilly-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time-but-what-the-heck-were-they-thinkin’ reasons he adopted the stage name of “Toby Rose.” He was apparently trying to impress Wesley Rose, the head of Acuff-Rose publishing and son of legendary songwriter Fred Rose, as if stealing the family name was a good way to do so. (But I’ve already been through that with the hyphenated adjective.)

 The record I learned to bop to, daddy-o!

In any case, the record failed to go anywhere in the country music market of the time, despite being a fun novelty record in the vein of George Jones’ country rockers of the early sixties like “White Lightning.” It was cheaply produced record for sure, but it was a great showcase for my uncle’s voice and hot guitar pickin’. Side A was his version (complete with maniacal canned laughter) of “The Burglar and the Old Maid” a joke song that already had miles of whiskers when it was recorded by “Mr. John Terrell” in 1901, but had achieved a bit of a revival thanks to a version by The Big Bopper a few years before.  Side B was a hot, twangy version of Hank Williams’ “Howlin at the Moon.”

While Toby Rose may not have gotten many spins on the turntables of radio stations, one place he did get a LOT of play was in our house. Uncle Thomas naturally gave copies of the record to all his relatives, and since I only about a year old when the record was pressed, I grew up hearing it regularly. And of course, once I was old enough and big enough to operate my dad’s hulking turntable myself it got even more play. Because, after all, what’s cooler than having a record by your very own uncle?

Of course this wasn’t the only place I was exposed to country music. Neither my mom or dad were big music fans, but they did like their share of country music.  My dad, back in the early fifties when he had been living in Nashville and before he had married my mom, had played at being a country singer for a short while, and had even appeared on a few local radio shows. And he had known a few country music folks, most notably Randy Hughes, a singer, guitar player and talent agent. My Dad and Hughes had become friends through the Masonic Lodge they were both members of, and when Hughes died in March of 1963 - in the same plane crash that killed Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, and Hawkshaw Hawkins - dad decided to name me after his lost friend.

My dad, Frank Jewell Fox, hammin' it up in the early fifties.

In regards to music, early on I fixated on country tales of bloody death. My mom says my favorite lullaby was always “The Streets of Laredo,” the country western updating of an ancient British ballad of gambling, whoring and death. And when the song “The Green, Green Grass of Home,” the story of a condemned man’s imaginary last trip home in the minutes before his execution, hit in 1966 for Porter Wagoner, I quickly became obsessed with it. The guy dies at the end – how awesome!

But I was not to be a country music fan – yet.

As the seventies rumbled on the occasional country music hit would catch my fancy, but for the most part I was not a big music fan and that went for just about any genre. Oh sure, there were individual songs that I liked or bands that I dug, but my big obsession with music wouldn’t start until my last couple of years of high school, and then kick into high gear my first year of college.  When the bug finally did bite me, I started devouring all the histories of rock music I could put my hands on. Rolling Stone magazine supplied much of my introduction to the history of American pop music through The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, The Rolling Stone Record Guide, and The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll. Three books that I read over and over again. 

But there was a problem – I was being a handed a load of horse manure. Which we will dig into in detail in Part 2.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Charlie Louvin Meets Jello!

In February of 2007, country music legend Charlie Louvin released a new solo album on Thompkins Square Records. It would be the first of several new releases leading right up to his death in January 2011 from pancreatic cancer, and the start of Charlie’s official “re-discovery” by the Americana crowd.

One lucky result (for me, anyway) of the promotion for the new album was getting Charlie as an in-studio guest for my radio show, The Hipbilly Jamboree, on the now sadly deceased WRVU  91.1 FM. 

But it got even better.

No.1 on Jello's want list!
My co-host on the show, Kels Koch, was working for the local record store The Great Escape at the time. A few years earlier, he had met punk rock icon and former lead man of The Dead Kennedys, Jello Biafra. Jello was in town and looking for Louvin Brothers albums, in particular the 1959 classic Satan is Real. He left Kels his telephone number in case a copy of Satan is Real did turn up, and a few months later, one did. Kels hooked Jello up with an original Capital pressing of the Louvin’s harrowing tales of sin and salvation and all was right.

Charlie was scheduled to appear on our show for February 20, 2007 and it just so happened that Jello would be appearing at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville on the same night. That morning, Kels received a phone call from Jello to let him know about the show and that he had put Kels on the guest list. When Kels mentioned to Jello that Charlie would be appearing on our show that evening Jello got really excited and asked if he could drop by the station.

Like we were going to say no…

And so about 50 minutes into the show Jello showed up at the door and the meeting between one of the men responsible for Satan is Real and one of the men responsible for Frankenchrist began. Jello had stopped off at a record store and snagged a couple of Louvin Borthers LPs for Charlie to sign. No copy of Satan is Real, but Jello was still mighty happy.

My favorite off-air moment was when Jello asked Charlie to inscribe the records to him, and Charlie said, “I’m sorry, what’s your name again?”


“Jello!  You mean like the dessert?”

Here's a clip of the on-air portion of the meeting.  Things were pretty chaotic in the studio as you can tell, not only from Jello showing up, but also the various other WRVU DJs that had stopped by to meet Charlie. The “one line story” that Jello mentions is a off-color joke that Charlie told him that he didn’t want to repeat on the air, and that unfortunately, I have forgotten.

And to hear more about Satan is Real check out the audio archive of my story for Nashville Public Radio about the new reissue of the LP on Light in the Attic Records.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Of Rippers and Creapes!

I'm honored to be the guest writer?, captioner?, weirdo?, on this week's "Dilation Exercise" over at Alan M. Clark's supremely cool Imagination Fully Dilated Blog. And while you're there, be sure to follow the links to Alan's website and check out his new novel, Of Thimble and Threat: The Life of a Ripper Victim.

And while I'm here let me go ahead and plug my latest story for Nashville Public Radio, which aired on Halloween -- Sir Cecil Creape: Nashville's Hometown Ghoul!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

12 Hours of Terror – 119 Syllables of Horror Haikus!

For those of you coming in late, every October I watch horror films and write haikus about them. Just got back from the 12 Hours of Terror at the Belcourt Theater – so away we go!

Night of the Creeps – 1986
Directed by Fred Dekker
Frat party tonight!
With slugs’n’blood and formal,
Flamethrowers – thrill me!

Abby – 1974
Director by William Girdler
She got extra soul!
Big bass voice battle, who wins?
Whup that demon ass!

Anguish – 1987 (aka  Angustia)
Directed by Bigas Luna
Eyeball collector,
For mommy. is it real, girl?
Kino comes to life!

Zombie – 1979 (aka Zombi 2)
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Zombie bait, big fish!
Wifey gets a woody,
Doh! There goes New York!

Squirm – 1976
Directed by Jeff Lieberman
Zapity Zap worms!
Not from around here are ya?
Dig that worm face, y’all.

Lady Terminator – 1989 (aka Pembalasan ratu pantai selatan)
Directed by H. Tjut Djalil

Need a thesis got,
An eel! Shoot that bitch, boys!
Bring in the mullets!

Return of the Living Dead - 1984
Directed by Dan O’Bannon

Canned goods - out of date,
Leg warmers warm no more for
Trash and party dead.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Horror Haikus 2011 - Part 5

Here's a quick one for a movie I hadn't seen since it's original release.

Fright Night - 1985
Directed by Tom Holland
Say howdy, neighbor!
Give my girlfriend a big grin.
Roast Bat for Breakfast!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Horror Haikus 2011 - Part 4

Two great ones this time! (The movies, that is, not necessarily the haikus...)

Dr. Phibes Rises Again - 1972
Directed by Robert Fuest

Off to Egypt, Phibes!
Boy, does he have toys and a,
Babe to row the boat!

I've been wanting to see this one since I saw a still from it in Famous Monsters nearly forty years ago. It was worth the wait!

It! – 1966
Directed by Herbert J. Leder

Pimm’s got a golem,
A dead mama, a hot blonde,
And an A-bomb – BOOM!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Mystery of the Muhlenberg County Masks!

Like just about any kid obsessed with the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland in the sixties or seventies, the ads for Warren Publication’s merchandising arm, the Captain Company, held about an equal attraction to me as the articles and photos in each issue. The Captain Company sold everything the well-heeled monster kid could want and certainly far more than one could afford on an allowance of two bucks every two weeks.

Many an issue of Famous Monsters would fall into my hands, and before long I’d be filling out the order form in the back for books, back issues, monster models, Super 8 horror films, and more.  And just as often those order forms would never get mailed, since my wants always exceeded my budget even after making carefully considered choices in an attempt to narrow it down to just those items that “I had to have.”

Quite certainly the holy grail of Captain Company merchandise had to be the deluxe Don Post Masks. Not only did these masks of Frankenstein!, The Creature from the Black Lagoon!, The Mole People!, The Werewolf!, and others look to be the best from their pictures and descriptions, but they even sold monster hands, and in some cases feet (!), to go with the masks. And with an astronomical price tag of $39.95 each for the masks and $19.95 for hands or feet the quality of said masks could not be doubted. In fact, while I can’t remember consciously thinking this, I’m pretty sure my assumption was that say, the Creature from the Black Lagoon mask would be virtually indistinguishable from the version in the movies. I mean, technology had advanced since the fifties, and it was forty dollars for gosh sakes!

The ads that caused thousands of kids to annoy the crap out their parents!

But while actually owning a Don Post mask remained an unattainable dream, dreaming of what I would do with them was another matter. I spent many an hour at school, home, and during church services daydreaming up ways to produce my own 8mm epic monster rallies with a legion of latex-masked monsters enacting tales of melodramatic fury.

By the late seventies, I was drifting away from reading Famous Monsters. In the wake of Star Wars, the magazine had lost its way, and a new generation of fantasy film magazines like Starlog, Fantastic Films, and then Fangoria had stolen its thunder. While the Captain Company may have been a thing of the past, Starlog knew a good idea when they saw it and started their own merchandise company that carried the Don Post Masks. Even though their ads may have lacked the superlative hyperbole of the Captain Company, they did have really nice color printing in most of their ads which showed off the masks really well. Especially the awesome new Human Fly mask and claw that Don Post introduced in the late seventies and which immediately caught my fancy in a big way.

Don Post in Color!

The masks were still tempting, and there was the fact that I was gradually coming into more income, especially when I started working part time after school at the IGA in the fall of 1978. But becoming a teenager also meant there were more varied interests and places to spend my money. So while the idea of owning a phalanx of Don Post masks, all arranged in rows on styrofoam heads in my bedroom, may have still had its appeal, it was not a  dream that I spent any real time pursuing. I mean, I had never even seen one these masks.

And then came Halloween of 1979.

The last half of 1979 was a really good time for me. I had turned sixteen in May, gotten my driver’s license as soon as possible after my birthday, and with a used 1976 Pinto in my possession, I had freedom of movement for the first time in my life. That October, word got out that the Central City Fire Department was running a really good haunted house. So one night, probably a Friday or Saturday, I and a bunch of friends headed out to see it.

Now, I had never been to a haunted house attraction before. Perhaps there had been some in Central City previously, but since it was 17 miles down the road from me, I had no easy way to go until I had my own means to get there. And that year, it was a very good haunted house. Someone with a knowledge of horror movies had obviously put a great deal of thought into its production. It was held in an old funeral home and each room presented a tableau drawn from one horror movie, including all the standards by that point – Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and more. 

But the first thing that caught my eye was the Don Post Masks. They were everywhere!  After years of lusting after tiny black & white photos, there were all the masks, right in my face – and worn by someone screaming their lungs out at me. Including the capper -- the awesome fly mask and claw that showed up in the last room of the tour.

"Help me!!!"
While my friends were all impressed with the haunted house experience, I was even more impressed with the masks, and I remember saying as we left, “Someone spent a LOT of money on this!”

The next year, when October rolled around I made sure to hightail to the Central City Haunted House as soon as it opened, mainly because I really wanted to see those masks again. But I was in for a big disappointment. Not only were Don Post masks nowhere to be seen, but the haunted house was a pale shadow of what it had been the year before. The planning and staging just wasn’t there. The mastermind behind the 1979 haunted house was obviously not involved in the 1980 offering.

I’ve often wondered just where all those Don Post masks came from. Who in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky could have had such an incredible collection? Perhaps they were rented, but from where?  I suppose if I had followed up at the time I may have found out, but it was awfully hard to stay obsessed about one thing for very long (excluding girls and being generally pissed off at the world) at the age of sixteen.

Whatever the answer to the mystery, I do know that a bunch of latex rubber and fake hair made one Halloween very special for me.