West Virginia Wild Man
Hasil Adkins became a one-man band because he thought he had to. The first time Adkins heard Hank Williams on the radio, he assumed that since the song was credited to one man, it meant that Williams had not only sung on the track but also played all the instruments.
Welcome to the unhinged world of Hasil (rhymes with "basil") Adkins, a man who sees nothing unusual about his habit of eating raw meat, his obsession with writing chicken songs or his stab at fashion design that consisted of cutting women's dresses shorter -- while they were wearing them.
Although Adkins's music resists categorization, his recorded output is commonly lumped into the rockabilly bins. Even so, don't expect to hear anything remotely similar to the Stray Cats; Adkins has more in common with the man in the moon. Instead, the Adkins repertoire ranges from caveman country and warped Seconal blues to rocklike chicken-pickin' stomps -- all of it with distorted backwoods vocals that come across like Jimmie Rodgers on Special K.
If you insist on a direct comparison, the only performer whose galaxy remotely collides with the Haze is the equally off-kilter and ineffable Legendary Stardust Cowboy, the West Texas native who partially inspired and lent one-third of his name to David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust persona.
Asked to describe his music, Adkins, speaking from his home (usually described as a tar-paper shack) in the West Virginia mountains, admits that words fail him, too. "The only way I can really tell it is they just have to come out and see for themselves," he says. "There's no way you can explain it. What it is is that I just play with what I started with, way back with what's in my mind. I don't play to no beat music, no one-two-three-four beat or six beat and all that, I just change chords when I get ready or when I feel like it. I just like playing that way, you know? Maybe that's one reason why no one can play with me."
Billy Miller, co-owner of the New York label Norton Records, which since 1986 has included Adkins in its stable (along with Link Wray, the Dictators and the Flaming Groovies), seconds Adkins's self-assessment. "He's got his own unique way of playing and singing. It's not too many people that have their own kind of music. You really can't pinpoint much that happened before him or after him."
Adkins's latest Norton release, Poultry in Motion, is, as the title suggests, a collection of chicken songs culled from his expositions on the theme dating from the 1950s to the present. A whole CD of chicken songs? It's par for the course in Hasil's coop, and the critically acclaimed record has even been compared favorably to the Who's rock opera Tommy.
While that evaluation may seem a little over-the-top, there's something about Adkins that makes people get in his corner and stay there. Mere novelties are known for eliciting brief, shallow appeal, but the steady sales of Adkins's back catalog attest to something more enduring. And the passionate responses his music has inspired exhibit fierce attachment.
Legendary psychobilly band the Cramps worshiped at the altar of Adkins by covering his song "She Said," and Chicago trash-rockers New Duncan Imperials picked up his "Boo Boo the Cat" on their 1993 album, Loserville. In 1987, Adkins found himself at the center of a transatlantic rock furor. Village Voice writer Howard Hampton offered up Adkins as the antidote to what he called Sting's "plasticity." "If Sting is the disease, then Adkins is the cure," he wrote. On reading the article, Sting fired off a scathing letter to the editor, prefaced with a quote from Oscar Wilde: "The school of criticism wherein the worst is championed as the best, and the best as the worst, is merely a form of autobiography." Next he put his argument in less general terms. "You patronize Hasil Adkins because he is inept," Sting wrote, before going on to call Hampton, among other things, a "dipshit fascist simpleton."
The 67-year-old Adkins paid little attention, and continued doing what he still does today: touring by himself and recording all of his music at home alone. Although he doesn't listen to the radio or keep up with current music, he does have a list of favorites. "Most of mine are from way back yonder, like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Carter Family," he says. "My main one is Jimmie Rodgers." About his inspiration, he says that most of it is what he lives. "You see people and what they do -- it just comes to me. I get to thinking back through my life and it pops off."
A glance through some of his CD titles (Achy Breaky Ha Ha Ha, Peanut Butter Rock and Roll, Look at that Caveman Go) and his song catalog ("Gonna Have Me a Yard Sale," "No More Hot Dogs," "I Need Your Head") could leave the mistaken impression that his house trailer is a few cinder blocks short of being level. Not so, says Houston DJ and record collector Ron Rejmaniak. "He's the real genuine article. He's not fabricating a persona. He's Hasil all the time," Rejmaniak says. "He's been playing around since the 1950s, just knocking it out his own way."
Take "I Need Your Head," for example. The song is not the raving of a homicidal maniac but a ballad of sorts. "I thought it was just some original concept he cooked up, but it turned out to be a true story," says Norton co-owner Miriam Linna in an interview on Adkins's Web site. "I found this 1957 detective magazine with an article titled 'I Need Your Head.' Sure enough it happened right in West Virginia: A guy had escaped from Moundsville Prison, kidnapped a family and sent a note to the warden saying, 'I kidnapped these people and won't release them unless you send me my cellmate's head on a platter.' He's just re-telling what he knows."
"They's only a handful of true 'American Experience' left in this world," says Continental Club co-owner Pete Gray, who regularly hosts another example in Little Joe Washington. "Hasil is the real deal. He is not your run-of-the-mill 'we like to sing about trailer parks at night' kind of guy."
Gray says to expect the unexpected at this gig. "Hasil is a true live experience. He never does the same show twice. I've heard people say that he was the most amazing live performer they've ever witnessed, and I've heard people say that he was the most unlistenable, bizarre show they've ever seen."
Whichever Hasil Adkins shows up, odds are that after the show you'll agree with Don King's refrain: Only in America.
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