In #47 part 2 I mentioned the move Johnny Hickman and I made from California to Richmond Va. The 64 plymouth threw a rod in Arkansas stranding us in the middle of rice paddies in the middle of the night. That’s where i’m gonna pick up.
We were being eaten alive by mosquitos in the rice paddies while we were waiting for a tow. Johnny started smashing the mosquitos with a magazine on the headboard of the car. Finally aftter 2 hours a tow trucke arrived and took us to a local Uhaul facility. We had to wait several hours for the place to open up. We’d now been up all night. We rented a truck and a tow dolly and towed the station wagon all the way to Richmond. When we pulled the station wagon off the dolly in Richmond i noticed all these brownish red smudges all over the headboard of the car. I stared at them for a while trying to figure it out. Those hadn’t been there before.
Johnny leaned in the passenger window to see what I was looking at.
“It’s our blood”
I guess I gave him a confused look.
“from the mosquitos”
There were hundreds of these smudges. “We’ve already played a price in blood” I thought. I knew this was funny and overdramitic still I didn’t say it out loud. I couldn’t decide if this was an inauspicious or auspicious start for the band.
Big Dirty Yellow Demos were recorded on a machine like this.
Big dirty yellow is what we named the house at 239 S. Laurel street in Oregon Hill. Because it was well Big, Yellow and Dirty. This is also what we called the demo tape of 20 songs we turned in to Virgin Records. The house had a few distinct pluses. The first was the neighbors took an immediate liking to us, cause Johnny (always the goodwill amabassador) did an impromptu duet of Streets of Bakersfield with the neighbor lady to the right. This drew a small crowd. When Johnny flipped the last chorus to Streets of Oregon Hill the small crowd broke into pandemonium. They had to play it 2 more times before the crowd dispersed. Meanwhile I had managed to unload half the truck by myself. It was a small price to pay for the goodwill of the neighbors. We never had to lock our doors, and no one EVER complained about the noise we made recording the demos.
It also didn’t hurt that the neighbors on the left were a deaf family. Well not entirely. The oldest daughter could hear. She would play the pop radio station quite loud. On weekends we noticed that the radio would often blast all night. This was because the one hearing member of the family, the daughter, had gone away to the grandmothers for the weekend.
It was not always easy to gain the locals trust. Oregon Hill had been it’s own little city within a city for 140 years. A white some would say white trash ghetto in the heart of the city. And the neighborhood was beginning to be not exactly gentrified but filling up with artists, hipsters and especially musicians. They were drawn there by the ridiculously low rents and charm of the funky houses. Members of GWAR, The Alternatives, The Fugs, Michael Hurley, House of Freaks, Flat Duo Jets and Cowboy Junkies could be seen wandering around the neighborhood. The old locals which dominated our block were hostile to these newcomers. But never us. It was fortunate that Cracker was such a country rock roots oriented ensemble.
Big Dirty Yellow had three bedrooms and was 300 dollars a month. It was the classic Oregon Hill row house. Narrow like a shotgun shack. Each room lead into the next room till you got to the kitchen on the back of the house. It had no heat or air-conditioning. There was a hole in the floor between the kitchen and living room. You could crawl down into the basement through it. We tacked a large piece of plywood over the hole. I found an industrial strength restaurant kitchen fan at a junk store. I installed this in the uppermost window of my bedroom recording room. It basically sucked the cool air out of the basement into the upstairs of the house. Except for the hottest days it was adequate. In the winter Johnny and I each had a kerosene heater. We would actually carry these around the house with us. not lit of course. But if we had people over we would drop both of them in the living room and kitchen. If we took a bath or shower we would bring our kerosene heater with us. To this day the smell of kerosene reminds me of the poverty and the wistful hope we had for our music.
Site of the old East Coast Gas Station in Gunsmoke. Cary and Meadow Richmond VA.
In some ways this is part of the inspiration for the song Kerosene Hat. The kerosene hat was the wool hunting cap with earflaps that I would have to wear when I walked to the gas station in the middle of the night to get more kerosene. This was sometimes a scary proposition because if it was too late and the local texaco by VCU was closed, we had to walk to the East Coast station up in the neighborhood known as “Gunsmoke”. Cary and Meadow st. This is still a sketchy area today. It was really quite dangerous in 1990.
The second part of the inspiration for this song was the simple fact that Johnny Hickman and I were older than many of our peers in the alternative and indie rock scene at that time. Also we were one of the few bands that was playing what would later be called Americana. So this is exactly what i’m talking about when I sing:
How can I fly with these old doggy wings
While a magpie sings some shiny song.
Finally the main body of the song is populated by characters that are similar to the broken down houses and people who populated the neighborhood at that time. I’ll go into this more in the next post “Can I Take My Gun Up To Heaven”.
[INTRO & BREAK:]
[Em] How can I fly with these [C] old doggy wings
While a [G] magpie sings some [D(bass F#)] shiny song?
[Em] Old corn face row of teeth, she says [C] sweetly to me
In the [G] elevator [D(bass F#)]
[Em] Everything [D] seems like a [C] dream
and [A] life’s a scream.
Here come old Kerosene Hat
With his ear flaps waxed, a courting’ his girl
Come clattering in here on your old cloven skates
With that devilish spoon
Everything seems like a dream
And life’s a scream
When you’re submarine
So don’t you bother me death with your leathery ways
and your old chaise lounge (old chaise lounge)
Wickerman’s fence of leathery tyres
And the cook’s gone bad, started several fires
Everything seems like a dream
When your submarine
Head like a stream she says softly to me
from the rattling chair
Bring me a steak and my old pair of crows,
my medicine lamp
Everything seems like a dream
So life’s a scream
(life’s a scream)