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In Praise of Drummers: Goodbye Arthur Hays

In Praise of Drummers: Goodbye Arthur Hays
Arthur Hays, Cactus Music, 2014, by David Ensminger

Arthur Hays, Cactus Music, 2014, by David Ensminger
In this season of death caused by Covid-19, sometimes we miss the other suffering and loss that occur, just as tragically. This is the case of noted drummer Arthur Hays, an irreplaceable figure in underground music scenes that included San Antonio, Austin, and most recently Houston. He died in his home, literally minutes after being behind his drum kit, last Saturday. He may be gone, but his sheer skills, endless exuberance, and bountiful storytelling will endure, like a stone under even the most roiling skies.

A Texas native son born who graduated from high school in the early 1970s in San Antonio, Hays was a rock'n'roll drum legend whose titanic pounding, flexing rhythmic force, and sheer velocity filled records by The Next, The Ideals, Mystery Dates, Bang Gang, Hickoids, Screech of Death, and more. Also, in recent years, his super-sized Teddy Roosevelt moustache, trademark dark glasses, and shiny head made him easily stand out among the masses.

First, to be honest, most people often associate drummers with simplistic notions. They are the rhythm makers, the backbone of the band, but also the replaceable ones, even interchangeable with drum machines. Yet, all great drummers are actually defined by idiosyncrasies that cannot be easily mimicked. They leave a distinct, telltale aural signature as singular as a fingerprint.

Arthur Hays may not have been Jon Bonham (Led Zeppelin), Elvin Jones (John Coltrane), or Neil Peart (Rush). Yet, his style, made possible by his flailing, enormous, ropey arms was as unique as any Texas punk in the 1970s. Now, the genre has often become full of copycat clones, each degrees removed from the original sources of first-wave contagion and disruption.

As Hays explained to me, “I loved Jerry Nolan, drummer for the New York Dolls. But I tried not to relate any new music to the past. That creates more inspiration for the new. Drumming was a prank for me. Not to make fun of anyone. Just to create fun for everyone. If they said that music had rules, I would break them. Crank the case that holds you back. Don't linger on criticism. Exploit it. Don't follow trends, create them. If you are an artist, please be a character. Not saying I follow you. Only saying I love you. That’s the problem with artists. Nobody notices you until you’re gone.”

And now, he is.

Hays was a template maker that helped shape the sound of The Next, one of the seminal acts in Austin that crowded clubs like Raul’s. Their music oozes gusto, swagger, and sneers. Helmed by gyrating, svelte singer Ty Gavin, who grew up selling papers on the streets of New York City, the band became punk rock icons for gritty youth tired of cosmic cowboys and heavy metal pyrotechnics. Their tunes felt savage, lo-fi, and rank with attitude.

“Monotony,” with its slight jazzy beat at the beginning, seems to harness both a bit of Cheap Trick and Richard Hell and Voidoids, but with bare-knuckle aggression. It is a tale of being sick of everything, including stupid lies, old acquaintances, and same-samey everyday life. Hays propels it forward with thundering insistency, each beat like a deft sledgehammer.

But their greatest achievement might be “Cheap Rewards,” with its syncopated hi-hat patterns, drum fills galore, and glaring abandon. One time at Cactus Music, when I gathered a group of Austin punk veterans on-stage to wax about the past, I mentioned this tune’s anger and message. Off-stage, amid the record bins, Arthur chimed in – “It was a class war type of thing.” It was about the working poor, collecting bottle caps to survive, not eating right, and always being on the bottom rung of the ladder. Hence, “Cheap rewards keep you alive.”

Arthur Hays, Cactus Music, 2014, by David Ensminger

The band eventually made its way to the temple of New York City counterculture: Max’s Kansas City. “Some dude named Peter, which I think was the owner, was telling our manager Will Sharp that The Next would play first. I shot my mouth off and told him that we weren't an opening act. Will told me to get somewhere. He was making arrangements to have The Next movie shown before we played. Our pal Mark Rublee had made a movie, The Next Film, and had gotten a scholarship to the film college in N.Y.C. and was helping with our stay in N.Y.C. As planned, the night started with that film.”

“As it ended, the screen was lifted, and we kicked it off with the last song of the film "Teenage Frankensteins." Needless to say, we stole that show. Definitely the highlight of the tour. Two nights later we played a place called Tier 3 with a punk band from D.C., Bad Brains. Max's was packed, and there were all kinds of people. I did have an opportunity to split with a cute punk. I told her, tho, that I was sticking with the band. She gave me a matchbook with her address, the Chelsea Hotel. Dave Spriggs kept pushing me to go. Even drove me there. I walked inside, stood there for five minutes, walked back out to the car, and told him she wasn't there. New York had been freaky enough. I could only imagine what could of happened.”

Then, they also invaded the West Coast as well. “L.A. was a trip. I stayed at the Hollywood Bowl motel. Most of The Next was hanging with The Plugz. One day I took a walk with my girlfriend and was looking at all the corner newspaper coin machines. I bought a copy of Black Mistress, which proclaimed, in text, "A Black Hand On A White Ass." Well, my girl was out running around with one of her girlfriends who lived there, and the band came to pick me up. I was in the shower when they got there, and while they were waiting for me they found the B.M. zine on the table. Of course, when I came out of the bathroom I was hit with a barrage of questions. ‘What have you been doing today? Did they leave hand prints?’ And of course, when I figured it out, I told them that I bought it for them.”

One of his greatest stories involved drumming for the lauded psych-rock maverick Roky Erickson, which was recounted in my Houston Press tribute to the singer from June 7, 2019. “In 1979, a friend of mine, Bert Crews, who played in the Re*Cords told me that he had ran into Roky and his mom on the drag, Guadalupe Street. Roky was on furlough from the state hospital that weekend. Bert also told me that he was going to book Roky at Raul’s several months out from that meeting on his next furlough. His mom had agreed to help with the event. Well, it happened, and it was great.”

“Davy Jones was there and made friends with Roky and his mom,” Hays continues. “She was such a beautiful person. Anyway, this was just after Davy had started his band The Ideals with my brother Dick Hays before they became members of The Next. It was six months to a year before Davy got a show with Roky, and they had asked me to drum. I wasn't an Ideal then. Davy picked Roky up at his mom's on the day of the show.”

“At Raul’s, me and Roky went out to the parking lot to smoke. We talked about the set list. Roky seemed distracted in his train of thought, and I was feeling that things might be tough on stage. Some hippies spotted and us and were ecstatic to make contact with him. During the jubilant chaos, Roky snatched up and swallowed four hits of acid. Of course, my heart just hit the floor.”

“The first band was playing when we entered Raul’s, and I told Davy what had happened. He freaked! We made plans to play through the set regardless. We had practiced the album without Roky, and we would stick to it. When we got on stage, Roky had mellowed out and wasn't talking. On the first note, Roky came alive on guitar. When he stepped up to sing, his voice was perfect and loud. Jones, Dick, and I went from shock to full blown rock. It was fantastic. Roky was having a blast and put on a great show. Several times he turned to face me with a huge smile and would lean over the drums and yell, ‘That acids a motherfucker!’"

Arthur always seemed to skirt danger as well, including a debacle after a raucous Next gig in Killeen, TX. “I got a tire shot out by a cop during a fight I was in with some bikers there. They shot out my front tire on my 69 Cougar.” So, whether reaching the limits of musical abandon with Roky, or taking on Texas bikers in a midnight prowl, Arthur survived and thrived.

In 1980, Arthur supplied the whomping backbeat for the Ideals “High Art,” recorded live at Raul’s, which cut a propelling, rhythmic groove that seemed to mix traditional, rollicking rock’n’roll with a barely concealed Texas stomp.

Arthur Hays and Lisafer/Lisa Pifer, Cactus Music, 2014, by David Ensminger

By the time Arthur joined Bang Gang in 1982, who toured and played venues as far flung as notable CBGB, New York City’s hardcore haven, Hay’s style sped-up into a mad rush. This is especially true on the manic and murky “The Fun,” sung by thin-as-a-rail, sawdust kickin', high-energy Jeff Smith, who was a decade younger than Hays. Similar in style, the churning, velocity-infused, and caffeinated “Dickhead” ended up on the compilation Cottage Cheese From the Lips of Death: A Texas Hardcore Compilation, which remains a time vault of the state's manic ones.

In 1982, Hays also delivered another gem with Mystery Dates, led by the soulful garage-rock barker Joe Pugliese. Their “World War III is Calling Me” is a total mastercraft punk cut replete with Cold War references to El Salvador and Lebanon, and dictators Khomeini and Gaddafi. It’s a limber tune with skittering guitar, ductile bass, and drums that are both fast as hell, fluid, and in perfect continuous counterpart to the stop-start guitar blasts.

By 1985, Arthur also anchored the ribald, “corn-core” demons known as Hickoids, a truly Texas aberration. They forged an unruly hybrid of spastic psych, country jukebox twang, and sloppy beer-foam thrash on tunes like “Hee Haw” and “Corntaminated.”

“I was raised on country. My parents would have shindigs or hootenannies once a month,” Hays recalled. “My mother was an artist and sometimes played piano at the church. We had a rehearsal room. She taught piano from our house. As far as the Hickoids. It was very spontaneous. I rehearsed with them twice. Played live with them once. Recorded the album with them on the fourth encounter. Me and Jukebox got along great. He was the only one in the band that I had never jammed with. Yes, they told me to play whatever I felt. That made all the difference. I mocked country and exploited punk. At the same time it was art from the heart. It's like it wasn't planned. It revolves around a spiritual love for music. You don't think much about it. You follow your heart.”

Flash forward decades, and jump over Hays’ drug usage and bouts in prison, including the oldest, darkest holes in Huntsville units that had been around since the Civil War. He loathed to revisit those periods. Hence, the band Screech of Death, an old-school, local, snotty punk outfit anchored by the love of his life Lisafer/Lisa Pifer remains pertinent. That joint effort helped him steer away from the tumult of his rocky past. She was a product of Southern California’s longtime punk legacy, a girl raised on horses and stretches of postcard California, but she is also a tattooed, shotgun-wielding hellion whose work with Snap-Her, D.I., 45 Grave, Nina Hagen, and more make her a towering figure.

click to enlarge THE NEXT, RAUL'S, AUSTIN, 1979, BY KEN HOGE
The Next, Raul's, Austin, 1979, by Ken Hoge

Together they cut a 45 single and a seedy, tough, self-titled album full of tunes like “Warm Hands Cold Heart” and “Black Widow,” which found an eager audience in Houston. In the end, he reached a state of quirky grace through his music community and punk family values. He was a genuine figure: always honest to the core, a wellspring of memories and anecdotes, a constant laugher of huge volume, and a person that could fix anything from a lawnmower and motorcycle to a rad drumset and rooms in the house.

In the end, perhaps Dave Dictor of MDC, one of the longest running hardcore punks bands in the country, who also started in Austin, best summarizes Hays.

“He was one most down to earth people on that class of 1979. Just friendly and available in an easy way. So many others were practicing their pose. Not bad folks but limited in generosity and spirit. Not Arthur. He was generous and not full of guardedness. His death is a real loss. I remember he drove me and Lisa from a book reading I was doing at Vinal Edge to the local club where MDC gigged. He was so unabashed about sharing his life. We planned for an MDC/Next get together. He sorta represented a kind of a blend of me and MDC drummer Al Shvitz’s personality. Rest well, Arthur Hayes.”

A memorial service has yet to be announced, but a Go Fund Me account has been established to help Lisa Pifer cover all expenses related to the death of Hayes. Please visit here.
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David Ensminger