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Time Trial

After nine months in a body cast and years of neglect in his home country, aging rocker Ed Hamell still aims to conquer America

So he had something of a career going when his car did the flips. Maybe too much of one.

"I was probably burning the candle at both ends touring," Hamell notes. "I had hit a ceiling. I worked as hard as I could every night, and I'd get 80 people in the club. And I'd get press and I'd have a new record out and I'd go back and there would [still] be 80 people in the club. It was really frustrating. I really thought, 'Man, I don't know if I have an audience in this country.' So it gave me time to reflect."

And maybe there is a god, at least for Hamell. Choochtown won a five-star review and record-of-the-month honors in the tastemaking English magazine Uncut. "And bingo! I had a European career." As soon as Hamell was out of the body cast, he "ended up touring Europe 13 times in about 18 months."

Ed Hamell: An electrified beat poet on a high-voltage rant about stuff that matters.
Ed Hamell: An electrified beat poet on a high-voltage rant about stuff that matters.

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After he wrapped one important piece of unfinished business, that is…"When I got out of the body brace, first thing I did was take it off, put it under the wheels of my wife's car and run it over, because I hated the thing. I said, 'Lynn, come here, I want you to see something. I'm going to kill this thing.' "

He was also offered a record deal on Righteous Babe by its owner, Ani DiFranco, for whom he opens in Houston this week. A few years back, mutual friends brought DiFranco to a Hamell gig at Manitoba's in New York's East Village. She was taken enough to start offering him opening slots, and a while later, after Hamell's accident and recovery and the birth of his overseas fame, she invited him to join the Righteous Babe stable.

Hamell doesn't want to be famous. He just wants to make a living in music, and there's a difference. He readily admits he was "tired of being unsuccessful." But the equation for him is different from that of many other climbers of the rock ladder.

"I make money to continue to play," he explains. "Most guys play so they can make money."

And why is playing so important? "That's the only time that my back pain is gone. That's the only time I'm completely free.

"I think my dreams are realistic and humble," Hamell asserts. "I look at a guy like Tom Waits and I go, 'Now there's an admirable career.' There's a guy who puts out what I think are great records. He sells a good amount of them. He tours when he wants to. He's in these great movies and he hangs out with Jim Jarmusch. He's got a fucking great career."

Hamell has already attained something close to that ballpark in Europe, where 500 people come to see each of his shows, and especially in Ireland, where double that number come out. America remains another story. "I said to Ani after she had signed me -- at three in the morning on a bus somewhere outside of Paris while on tour with her -- that there's a good possibility there may not be an audience for me in our country. Which is a weird thing to say to the president of your label. To which she responded, 'You're wrong, and I'm going to prove it to you.' Which is nice."

Nice is one thing, but right's another. In America, the jury's still out on this Trial. <

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