By Kevin Borke & Max Dropout
Pulling up stakes can let up some mighty mean vampires. However, socking yearfuls into boxes the size of two months, finding pilferings that offer evidence of your mental deterioration over the last several dozen months, and running across artifacts from your lame ex that radiate that intestine boiling vibe is probably something you should force yourself to do every two years or so, even if you aren’t moving. You should remember where you’ve been, since it’ll obviously keep you from a step backward.
Grim reminders are underrated. They keep you conscious of where standing, remind you of how you got there in the first place, and they might just keep you out of a hard time somewhere down the line. The principle behind the severed head on the pike is to detour those from traveling down the path it marks… but there’s also a halo of gruesome attraction around the whole mess. Hard times have all the colorful appeal of cautionary tape. If you look at a hard time you can see intensity peeling from it like vapor off summer asphalt. You can huff it and get a kind of pitch black high. Most of the records we love and revisit with frequency aren’t real bright balls of Disney fun — they probably stink like a hard time.
Pain is relative, but is also the most relatable and common experience bonding people together.
The essence of hard times permeates the recordings of the defunct garage punk nova that was Blacktop. Beyond the petri-dish of feedback-doused rhythm-and-punk clusterfucks that is I Got A Baaad Feelin’ About This, a release of their complete recordings, there’s more than just creative chemistry brewing. Sure, the songs are great, but the title sums up the nature of this collection perfectly. There’s enough soul and feeling of the miserable persuasion going on all over these sessions to leave a vicious psychic impression on your bedroom walls after even half a listen. These are some powerful recordings – not surprisingly the result of some mighty intense and tumultuous times for those involved.
Fronted by Mick Collins (recording in a full-time band for the first time since the Gories), with Dallas’ redemption Alex Cuervo on bass (Gospel Swingers and Feast of Snakes), Darin Lin Wood (’68 Comeback and Fireworks) on additional vocals and guitar, and spiked backbone Janet Walker (Fireworks) on drums, this outfit was bursting at the seams with torrents of ability and imagination.
Spend some time with a creative artistically inclined mind, and you’ll realize one thing: The varying degree by which most artists are fucked in the head usually coincides with just how expressive they are. The more prolific and ingenius an artist tends to be, the more insane they usually are, which explains the at-times sinister and self-destructive behavior that plague most artists and musicians. The most revered art tends to incise the mind with a psychotic edge and provide visage into an illness that doesn’t touch most of us, but still fascinates us anyway. When you consider every ounce of genius associated with Blacktop, and you apply these principals, you begin to understand just how volatile a collective this was.
Blacktop’s initial development can be tracked back to 1994, when Mick was driving away in the white-collar arena of some major corporation. He had met Darin some months earlier at a ’68 Comeback show hosted at Dan Kroha’s house and spoke casually with Darin about his band Fireworks. Months later, a phone call came from Darin, asking Mick if he wanted to fly down to Dallas to record. Now, to completely understand the weight of Mick’s decision one thing has to be noted: Mick had recently received a juicy job offer from a major corporation to convert all their systems over to UNIX. This means solid salary, medical benefits, security-basically the exact opposite of what you get by playing in a band full-time. For the common straight the choice would have been obvious. However, if you’re the kind of person who reads about Blacktop, the crossroads might have been a lot murkier. For Mick, things were probably a bit more clear. In Collins’ own words: “Basically, I realized that if I took the UNIX job, I wouldn’t get to do much traveling, which is one of my favorite things in life (made more difficult these days, unfortunately). I’d never been to Texas, and I figured I might not ever GET to Texas. So I went to Texas.”
Enter Alex Cuervo, back then the bassist of a little known Dallas surf/drag/instrumental combo the Oval-Teens. Alex: “I knew Darin and Janet from this coffee shop I used to run. Darin would DJ there sometimes. The Oval-Teens were a big part of why I was asked to join Blacktop – we played with Fireworks a bunch, and Darin and Chris (Merlick, from Fireworks – and later the Gospel Swingers) had recorded us at one point. I’d never actually played with either of them [Darin and Janet] until Mick got into town and we started Blacktop rehearsals. Darin asked me and I said ‘fuck yeah.’ I guess Darin liked the songs I’d written in the Oval-Teens, and he and Mick both wanted bass since neither the Gories nor Fireworks had it.”
Upon Mick’s arrival about a month of daily rehearsals began. Initially Mick had envisioned a sound reminiscent of the early recordings of Test Dept, which had him hunting around Texas with Darin for oil drums and other industrial equipment that would make for interesting sounds. The most they found was a steel trashcan lid riddled with nails, which is actually pictured on the album sleeve. Day in and day out the band would practice, rehearse, and toil through the material. Mick recalls, “There was about six weeks of noodling around in a rehearsal space before we actually recorded anything.” The developmental process seems to be a compound of previous remnants from other projects, accidental riffs, and experimentation. Accounts from both Alex and Mick allude to a diverse stream on involvement by all parties. According to Alex, “We wrote by committee. Mick always finessed and arranged everything (for the most part) based on initial ideas and riffs that Darin and I had come up with. That is, with the exception of the songs he wrote entirely by himself (‘I Think It’s Going To Rain,’ for example). I was always pretty excited about what he would do with a riff or set of riffs I’d come up with.” Mick: “‘Blazing Streets’ was the only song I can recall that was kinda made up on the spot; Darin played this riff while tuning his guitar, and I said, ‘Hey, play that again! And again!’ All of the rest of them, to my memory, were worked up from things Alex or Darin or I came up with.”
These initial sessions produced a rough four-track demo that ended up in Larry Hardy’s paws at In The Red Records, and producer David Katznelson (from Warner Bros.) was subsequently dispatched to begin work on the album. The band reconvened at Sam McCall’s studio to begin work on what would become I Got A Baaad Feelin’ About This. It was here that some of the issues that would herrang the band through its short tenure, and eventually end Blacktop, began to emerge.
All of the money sent from the label to Darin for such essential items as strings, drumsticks, tape, studio time, etc. was missing. No real explanation at the time was given by Darin. But through recording, touring and label deal it would become apparent that the resources, equipment and money the band had was being pilfered to feed Darin’s heroin habit. At the time it was a sort of unanswered mystery that didn’t seem to affect their performance in the studio. This theme of unanswered questions, missing money and general thievery and deception would haunt the band through the first recording sessions and touring, and would climax amid their final recording session in California.
The final recording, mixing and mastering was completed in about three days, working track by track as they would appear on the album. Lyrics were written on the spot by Mick, who would draw song titles from conversations as well as from alterations on titles from other bands. Mick: “A quick trip through my song catalogue reveals songs about lost love, allergies, dandruff, getting sprayed by a skunk, heart murmurs, knuckle-headed geopolitics, growing old and obsessive-compulsive disorders.” In all, twenty-two tracks were completed during this session in August of ’94. Fourteen of them would be released as I Got A Baaad Feelin’ About This. This album is a rusted-out zoo of sly power. Almost right out of the gate is the driving “Tornado Love,” which Alex says, “was the result of an Otis Redding overdose.” Cuervo serves up some definitive bass — rather than mimicking someone else’s leads or filling in holes with a spackle of sonic menace, Alex actually writes some great lines here, and redeems an instrument that has otherwise been dispossessed of value.
With the album completed, the question of touring came up. After Mick’s disastrous European tour with the Gories, there were reservations on his part about hitting the road again. Mick: “I hated touring, thanks to the Gories, and I wasn’t at all interested in doing it, which is why I demanded the then-exorbitant fee of a laptop computer in order to go through with it.” Shockingly enough, the money forwarded to Darin for Mick’s laptop never made it to him. It was vaguely addressed at the time through some deceitful half-answering from Darin.
The band’s tour, a six-week jaunt coast to coast across the US, was a hectic hodgepodge of instances that had all the clarity and menace of a fastball grazing your cheek bone. The band was met by a disparate collection of opening bands: the Cheater Slicks, the Demolition Doll Rods, the Drags and the Red Aunts, featuring Terri Wahls, Kerry Davis and Leslie “Lesley Ishino” Noelle who would later form the Screws with Mick. Alex: “The tour had its ups and downs. It was a great experience overall and I have some pretty cool memories from it, but it also was the beginning of the end for that band. Darin is an incredibly difficult person to get along with when he’s straight and the whole drug problem exacerbated this immensely.” Mick does attribute his worst show ever to this tour and briefly recounted, “Santa Barbara is full of over-monied toffee-nosed gits. We had to play a sandwich shop there. I’m sure there are nice people in Santa Barbara. None of them were at that show.” The pinnacle event that would cut deep occurred during a stop in Washington DC. Having been dropped off at the hotel the band parted ways, with Darin in possession of the van and all the gear. Neither the van nor any of the band’s equipment were seen again. Alex: “It was on this tour that we figured out he’d been ripping us off by keeping money that was supposed to go to the band.” Mick: “Blacktop basically shaped my resolve to never get involved with a band I didn’t create (except as producer), and to not tour with anybody I can’t sit through a video night with.”
Oddly enough the band managed to meet up for their second and final recording session at Entourage Studios in California in June of 1995. “I can’t remember us even talking to each other before meeting up in LA for that session,” says Mick. Alex remembers, “The second session was weird and we were already starting to dislike each other to some degree, but I think it turned out pretty good.” Only four songs would end up being recorded before Mick basically walked out due to the underlying environment . The two-part “Hide and Go Seek,” “Self Destruct Sequence” and “Baby,” along with the remaining unreleased songs from the first session in Dallas, would pop up as the We Desist EP. Their sound at this point still maintains its edge despite–and probably even crediting–Darin’s actions. Alex: “I think from a musical standpoint, the tension was what made that stuff what it is. We were always functional as musicians… inept at times, I freely admit, but capable of executing exactly what we set out to do.” A European tour was proposed in support of the EP, but promptly rejected.
In 1996, Alex and Mick formed the King Sound Quartet, replacing Darin and Janet with Tim Kerr (Big Boys, Poison 13, Lord High Fixers) and Stephanie Paige Friedman (Lord High Fixers, Big Foot Chester, the Sugar Shacks). Alex: “Originally, Mick and I intended to continue as Blacktop with Tim and Stephanie replacing Darin and Janet, but the whole sound and dynamic of the band was SO different that it seemed pointless. It was obvious to us that this was a brand new band and needed a new name and new direction.” The band only released the Annihilate This Week 7″ and the Getdown Imperative LP. The sound is a hybrid of hardcore punk, avant-garde jazz, soul and garage rock roots, highlighted by a twenty-minute version of Sun-Ra’s “Space Is The Place.” We find the last remnant of any Blacktop material as well. Mick: “‘I Want To’, the Joe Tex song we covered in the King Sound Quartet, is the only holdover from the stuff I was working on [in Blactkop].” A second session was planned in 2000 with Matt Verta Ray, of Speedball Baby and the Oubliettes, who would later work with Mick and the Voltaire Brothers. The project had the tentative title of the Odd Balls (not to be confused with the German trash blues Oddballs Band) and was never released.
A later result of Blacktop is the Now Time Delegation. Comprised of Alex Cuervo, Kari Luna, Steve Adkins (who would both join Alex in the Gospel Swingers and the newly formed This Damn Town), Tim Kerr, and the soulful Lisa Kekaula from the BellRays on vocals. However, an earlier incarnation featured Mick on vocals. According to Mick: “Well, it was supposed to be the second King Sound LP, but my voice was kinda fragile at the time, and I was worried about losing it permanently (I had lost it again after recording ‘I Want To’ on the first LP), so I opted for a ‘no screaming’ rule during recording. This made Tim very unhappy, and he basically kicked me out, and did the record without me.”
Despite initial aspirations for each resulting act to exist as a continuation of an earlier project, Now Time Delegation resulted in a drastic departure from both King Sound Quartet and Blacktop. Alex: “I dunno about Now Time really being part of the “Blacktop Legacy” since I was the only member of Blacktop in the band. Now Time was originally going to be the second King Sound Quartet record, but Tim and I had somewhat of a falling out with Mick. We moved some stuff around, recorded some other songs and enlisted Lisa Kekaula from the BellRays to sing on it (actually, Larry Hardy from In the Red made that happen). About half of it was KSQ shit, the other half we wrote or learned (the covers, that is) with Lisa in mind. I’m very happy with how that record came out – so despite the problems we had making it, I’m quite pleased with the result. Plus Lisa and Bob (Lisa’s husband from the BellRays who played guitar with us on a short tour) are really great people and it was a pleasure playing with them.”
Mick Collins, as many well know, went on to form the Screws, as well as a variety of other eclectic projects before eventually settling down with the Dirtbombs. Alex Cuervo is currently playing with This Damn Town along with Dillon Strange and Jeremy Diaz, and has a slew of other projects in the works, including a collaboration with members of the New Fangs and the Winks called the Brotherhood of Electricity. Kari, aside from involvement in the Now Time Delegation, also worked with Alex in the Gospel Swingers, Feast of Snakes, and This Damn Town, which she has recently departed due to a shoulder ailment. We hope her hiatus is only a brief one, as her recordings with This Damn Time showed great promise. Both Darin and Janet seem to have disappeared following the Blacktop debacle. After the last recording session the both of them seemed to bow out of the music scene altogether, though according to Alex, Janet is back in Dallas, and doing alright. “I’ve run into her a couple times and we’ve been able to catch up. She’s not playing with anybody right now, but it’s been good to see her again, she’s a really sweet person who’s made some unfortunate decisions, but I hold no grudge toward her.”
Looking back, both Mick and Alex ultimately have positive outlooks on the period surrounding the Blacktop experience. Even when recounting the most gruesome details, Cuervo’s bitterness only underlines that boyish whimsy and ten grand grin. After everything, the fury and grief behind the hands that made these recordings lent an intensity to the mess that makes it what it is. Alex on the experience: “I learned a LOT and Mick and I have stayed friends (despite other difficulties we’ve had since Blacktop, which are pretty much water under the bridge at this point). Fuck, it’s the only reason people take anything I’ve done since then seriously – so I guess in that sense it was a valuable experience. The whole ‘getting-ripped-off-by-a-junkie’ thing still stings a little to this day though.” On the other hand, Mick, who expectedly seemed the most burnt by the experience, states plainly: “I made a lasting friendship in Alex, and Texas is fun. That’s about as far as I’m willing to go with it.”
All Photos provided by Skeleton Boy. Thanks!