Wild Man Blues
Charleston, West Virginia's Yeager Airport sits atop a mountain, which is typical in a state that enforces few, if any, building codes. Request a window seat if you ever drop in; the views are spectacular. Green hills roll forever, with soft "fairways" notched into the landscape as though it were God's own country club. Charleston has golf courses and other spoils sprung by the same out-of-state interests that have come in and pillaged West Virginia's resources (coal, oil and gas), but like the Matewan miners who taunted the National Guard into action, the true treasures of West Virginia run wild and extreme by the coal fields outside city limits. That's where you'll find Hasil Adkins, anyway.
Up until last year, Adkins -- standing six-foot-two, with serial-killer-sunken yet soft-as-a-prayer blue eyes -- lived alone in a tarpaper shack tucked in the Boone County hollow where he was born. The shack caved in a few months back, so the 62-year-old now sits, strums, screeches and hollers in a 14-by-70 trailer parked on his pay-as-you-can leased property. Littered around his trailer are broken-down autos, a Jeep and an old GMC city-transit bus with "The Hunching Bus" spray-painted on its side. As a visitor approaches, Igor -- Adkins's fat, black, tire-biting shepherd mix -- lets out a welcoming, or not-so-welcoming, bark.
Then the legend steps to the trailer door and waves, a rope of shoulder-length gray-yellow hair billowing from beneath a blue baseball cap. He grins through rotting teeth, delivers a chuckle harshened by years of exposure to tar and nicotine, and drawls, "Welcome to Sanford and Son!"
Inside, rock posters from his concerts with sometime label mates, such as The Flat Duo Jets and Southern Culture on the Skids, line the interior faux-wood-paneled walls. On a partition shelf between living area and kitchen is a human skull wearing a fright wig, and some horrific rubber Halloween masks. (Adkins has been performing in wigs and costumes since the 1950s -- "way back before all that started.") His CDs and 45s are nailed to the walls around the living room, and prosthetic severed limbs and feathered talismans hang randomly from the ceiling. He walks back into the living room, bends his bones onto a ratty couch, lights the first of many generic cigarettes and holds up a Polaroid of an adorable nine-year-old neighborhood girl.
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"She took my vodka away," he says. "She inspired me to write a song called 'Drinking My Life Away.' " He sips a mysterious red liquid from a yellow plastic cup. "You ever put tomato juice in your beer? Keeps you from getting sick or drunk or anything. Some girl taught me that one time."
Some girls, liquor, meat and the Lord have given Adkins something to wake up for over the years. That, and his music: Ever since he picked up a guitar after hearing Hank Williams on the radio fortysome years ago, he's been plying some of the most primal rockabilly skronk that's ever seeped out of the backwaters. He spent the '50s, '60s and '70s performing his one-man-band freak show at whatever dives would have him and sending out tapes full of tweaked home recordings to anyone who would listen. Eventually, people did listen.
The Europeans began touting him in the early '80s, and, in 1986, a couple of U.S. rock primitivists named Billy Miller and Miriam Linna made Adkins the flagship act on their newly formed Norton Records, a label that went on to issue/reissue a series of vintage Adkins platters. The progenitor of such post-punk Luddites as the Cramps and Jon Spencer had, at last, found an outlet for his unaffected combination of urgency and lunacy. In the years since, his audience -- and his legend -- has only grown. After a bunch more records and a few aborted label deals, he hooked up with Fat Possum Records, who released the brand-new and typically raw What the Hell Was I Thinking; coupled with a nationwide tour and a recent documentary on him, 1998 looks to be Adkins's biggest year yet. And one a long time in coming.
As Adkins recounts, he was born at the tail end of the Depression, the youngest of ten kids. His papa wheezed to the ripe old age of 71, despite being handed a retirement package of black lung disease and other ailments from a coal company 30 years earlier; Hasil's mama lived in the dilapidated shack outside until she passed in '86. Hasil started singing as a preteen, accompanied by a milk can. He switched to a lard bucket, then a ten-quart water bucket, and finally got his first arch-top Gibson guitar in exchange for a particularly potent batch of home-brew.
The legend behind his one-man-band concept has him listening to Hank Williams on a tube radio for as long as the car battery it was attached to would hold out. He heard the announcer say, "And that was Hank Williams," and naively assumed Williams was the only artist playing all the instruments. To this day, though many have tried, no one can accompany him -- especially when he's deep into his own grooves.
"I been studying all my life," Adkins says with pride. "But what they [other musicians] play is the beat. It's all written six-beat, or 12-beat. But I don't play no beat. I just change when I feel like I should change beats. Ain't nobody that can play with me. I've tried it with good people, and they said, 'Man, you ain't never gonna get anybody to play with you. We don't know what you gonna do. You just take off.' And when they start playing the lead, I just jump in and they say, 'Whatcha go 'n do that for?' and I said I just felt like I should start hollering or something."
With Hank Williams, Jimmy Rodgers, Roy Acuff and the Carter Family fueling him, he went to Los Angeles for a brief period in 1956. Tired of playing house parties in Pasadena for a sandwich and maybe a beer over several fruitless months, he up and headed home in the middle of one night, missing his shot at teen stardom by a few hours. A record-business bounty hunter came calling the next morning. Without a trace of remorse, Adkins says, "I woulda made it. Tommy Sands, Fabian and Frankie Valens did. Some producer was looking for me with a contract. He handled Tommy Sands. He was looking around asking, 'Where's Hasil Adkins at?' And the people said, 'Oh, he's gone back to West Virginia.' I woulda made it."
But not the way the teen dreams made it. More like the way Jerry Lee Lewis did.
"Yeah," agrees Adkins, "and Johnny Dollar. He was from Nashville -- died of a heart attack about 20 years ago. He used to tell me, 'This one-man band stuff ... If you keep on with this, I'm sure one of these days your name is gonna be in lights. I can't really understand what you do, but if you keep on it, you'll make it.' He said that right before he died."
When he got back from the West Coast, Adkins settled into a routine that sustained him for more than 20 years: The young man with no telephone spent his time laying down tracks on a Webcor reel-to-reel sometimes for days straight. It was during this period that most of Adkins's best-known nuggets were recorded. There's "She Said," later recorded by the Cramps, featuring lyrics about a woman he once woke up with who "looked over at him like a dying can of that commodity meat." ("Pity about that poisoning scare some years back," Adkins laments. "Otherwise, I'd still be eating that hamburger raw.") There are the whacked-out would-be dance numbers ("The Hunch," "Chicken Walk"). And there's "No More Hot Dogs," on which Adkins spits out such lyrics as, "I wanna put your head / On my wall / Then you won't eat / No more hot dogs" over a primitive rockabilly track.
Almost two decades passed before Adkins sold a legitimate record he didn't have to pay to put out. Finally, in 1983, the German label Jamboree put out a slew of Adkins songs (including "The Hunch" and "Big Fat Momma") on vinyl; to date, he claims he's received only $2,600 in advances and royalties from their release. Adkins has his own way of doing business. When asked if the German label still owns those songs, he replies deadpan, "They don't own them, 'cause I sent them a letter saying they don't." So there.
Stateside, Linna (a onetime drummer for the Cramps) and husband Miller had featured Adkins and reviews of his "lost recordings" in their erstwhile fanzine Kicks. Recognizing that Adkins already had a huge following in Europe from bootleg records pressed from tapes he'd been sending out since 1953, he became the debut artist on their record label in 1986. Such records as Out to Hunch, Peanut Butter Rock and Roll and the comparatively sedate Moon over Madison followed; Adkins also made new recordings, issued as The Wild Man and his mid-'90s country foray Achy Breaky Ha Ha Ha. An early '90s deal with Miles Copeland and I.R.S. Records fell through. ("I made a publishing deal with him, but, see, he broke all his deals," Adkins insists. "Now, he's trying to claim all the older songs. So, now we [Fat Possum and Norton] just gonna cut all new songs, and he won't have nothing to do with it.")
All messy paperwork aside, What the Hell Was I Thinking remains true to the single-handed garage rock he recorded on a dusty reel-to-reel in the '50s, yet the emphasis is more on ballads. Charleston journalist Michael Lipton, a longtime friend and champion of Adkins, says the tone reflects a more "workmanlike" approach to his music -- a George Jones quality. Lipton takes issue with Possum producer Matthew Johnson's liner notes that concentrate more on the rocker's "exploitable exploits" than on the depth and emotional content of his music. Still, Lipton himself has no shortage of wild-man stories. Like the time he drove Adkins to Chicago to record the Live In Chicago album.
"He was really plowed," Lipton recalls. "Part of the showman stuff is him hitting the cymbals with his hands, or throwing his guitar up in the air. And that particular time, he threw it, and it went out instead of up, and hit some guy in the head. I mean, literally, we had to go out and buy some Elmer's glue the next day and tape the whole thing back together." He's referring to the guitar, not the guy's head, which required six stitches.
Billy Miller relates war stories of touring with Adkins when he was on parole for a weapons violation involving a typical backwoods shoot-out over a girl, in which the offending parties were too drunk to hit each other with sawed-off shotguns. The first piece of Norton Records stationery ever issued was a note pleading with a judge in West Virginia to allow Adkins to keep working and practicing. The judge fired back a note that read, "Oh, Hasil don't need no practice."
The judge was probably right, because practice might well spoil his improvisatory style of play. While Lipton stresses that Adkins is a romantic at heart, recently ripened for the mood behind his latest record, Miller believes the change in Adkins's mood and music was left to chance.
"He changes from day to day," Miller says. "And I think they managed to get him at a good time. We've done six albums with him. Hasil is always able to come up with great songs, and he can always do them great. You just gotta get him at the right time. When we did the Achy Breaky Ha Ha Ha album, we booked four days in the studio. The first day he did 20 songs, and we thought, 'Oh, this is great.' The second and third day we came in with boxes and boxes of blank tape, and we didn't get anything usable for two days."
John, the beer-bellied doorman at The Empty Glass (one of the few live-music spots in Charleston) recalls that the first time he saw Adkins, he was washing down raw hamburger with booze. "He was just unreal," says the doorman, who adds that club owner John Steel would have to baby-sit the musician before gigs because Adkins had a tendency to wander off. Steel would also buy Adkins a half-gallon of vodka and, when he wasn't looking, dump out half the bottle and fill it with water.
One night, Adkins started complaining of chest pains from the bandstand. The doorman recalls: "We took him to the hospital, and the nurse was like 'Hasil, you been drinking?' Hasil was like, 'Yup.' 'What you have to eat today?' 'Uh, canned peppers.' 'Oh, you got heartburn.' And she wouldn't give him any Tagamet or anything until he sang her a song. The next night, she came to work, and there was a brown paper bag with two videos, a CD and a coupla 45s waiting there for her."
In his trailer, Adkins grabs his battered Harmony hollow body and launches into an improvisation of what begins as a sweet ballad:
There's a picture that I carry
One we made me some time ago
When they ask who's in the picture with me
I say just someone I used to know
Just someone I used to run around with
Just a friend from long ago
Then he abruptly shifts into his trademark black humor:
Now, honey, since the last time
you left on your own
I want to tell you this:
You come back
I'm taking this baseball bat
You ain't gonna leave on your own
'Cause I'm gonna run you off
with this baseball bat
You'll be running, screamin'
Sayin', 'Hey! You tried to kill me
With a baseball bat!'
So please, don't let me use
This baseball bat
Just stay away
That's all I ask
And let me get some rest
With this baseball bat.
"What are you going to call that song?" he's asked.
" 'Baseball Bat,' " Adkins replies matter-of-factly.
He says a copy of the Pamela Anderson-Tommy Lee sex tape, which is currently showing on his television, was a gift from some custom guitar-maker in L.A. Glancing up just in time for Tommy's money shot upon his bride's bronzed belly, Adkins insists, "If I'm watching that, I like to have a woman there watching it with me. Otherwise, it doesn't do a thing for me."
Sex has always been a drug for him.
"Oh, yeah, it's pretty powerful," he agrees. "You see, I used to pack two girls with me. Back in the '50s. And, oh, man -- shit, the way they throw that hunch was good. And people used to say, 'Hasil, where'd you get them?' I said, 'I didn't get them no place, man. I was just playing, and they got up there and started doing the hunch.' "
The "hunch?" Besides being a song title, "the hunch" is Adkins's own dirty little secret. A "dirty dance," as it's explained in Los Angeles filmmaker Julien Nitzberg's brilliant documentary The Wild World of Hasil Adkins. "Back in the '50s they didn't just wave their hands," exults Adkins. "They got up there and tried to show you that thing. Everybody was trying to outdo everybody. I don't know what it is, but it makes me feel good when they get up there. And there really ain't no danger to it."
Even with a worldwide fan base, a new rocking record out, and attendant North American tour looming, it's clear that, with his dog Igor by his side, the simpler things in life, like fussing with the motors in the cars on his lot, are what keep him content. Back in the '50s, guitar legend Kentucky Slim tried playing with Adkins. He would always complain to Hasil: "There ain't no place to get in there. You're playing everything yourself. There ain't no place for us to get in."
No place to get in seems the metaphor for Adkins's life as a romantic loner. Although he's shacked up with women in the past, he holds fast to the belief that making love only gets in the way of making music; the title of the song says it all -- "There Ain't No Woman for a Guitar Man."
"If you play music, the first thing they want you to do is pawn your guitar," Adkins says of his experience with the ladies. "They don't want you out there around the women. I lived with a woman once, and she said, 'I don't want you going out there.' And I said, 'All right, lookie here. I'll give you the guitar, drums and harmonica, and you go play. I'll be glad to stay here.' And she said, 'I can't do that.' And I said, 'Well, how you gonna eat?' 'Yeah, but I don't want you out there with all them whores,' she said. She was standing there naked, and I said, 'What the hell do you think you are?' "
Adkins asks for a lift into town to get his mail. It's raining now, and none of the cars he's noodling on is operating. We drive down the hill into Madison to the sound of wipers squeaking across the windshield. He stalks out of the post office struggling with an overflowing sack of mail from distant admirers. En route back to his holler, I ask the man who just got his first telephone if he has any ideals.
"I'd like to try and help a lot of people and stuff," he offers after a moment's hesitation. "There are a lot of poor people up here." A long silence follows until we pull up to his trailer. He climbs out of the car, thanks me for the lift, and begins to walk off. He hesitates again, turns, sticks his head in the passenger window, and asks, in all earnestness, "You ever eaten any squirrel?
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