Oxford Punks

It must be something in the water. Oxford, Mississippi, is where intellectualism, art and life's more banal pursuits (e.g., sex, drugs, sex) mix. It's where William Faulkner was born, wrote, drank himself silly and died. And where pulp novelist John Grisham edits

The Oxford American

, the Great South's answer to

The New Yorker

but which actually features stories about the city from which it takes its name. Oxford also is where Fat Possum Records gives most of the 99-year-old bluesmen in the neighborhood and its one punk rock band, the Neckbones, something to do when they're not shooting people ($agrave; la R.L. Burnside), stabbing people ($agrave; la T-Model Ford) or, in the case of the four guys from the Neckbones, flipping pizzas.

"Yeah, I guess that's why we all work kitchen jobs," says Forrest Hewes, Neckbones drummer/sometime lead singer and manager at Memphis Pizza Cafe in nearby Graceland-land. "We got lucky working for really cool people who let us come back to work after touring for a month."

The band started its tour days ago and, after hitting Houston this weekend, will finish up the end of this month in Boston. It is hoped that when the band members return to their Southern kitchens it's to say good-bye, not "deep-dish or thin crust?"

The band came together naturally, just a bunch of guys with similar tastes in music, gravitating toward each other. When Hewes was a senior at Gulfport High School in 1989, a mutual friend introduced him to a junior named Robbie Alexander. Hewes and Alexander liked some of the same bands and started jamming together. The following year Hewes left for Mississippi University, about 300 miles away, where he met David Boyer and Tyler Keith. Hewes and Keith lived together over the summer, and by the next year Alexander had followed Hewes to Ole Miss. After each future Neckbone had his spells with various other Oxford-centered bands, and Alexander returned to Gulfport for a while, the Neckbones -- Hewes, Alexander on bass, Boyer on guitar and vocals, Keith on guitar and vocals -- was the band it is today by the fall of 1994.

As simple luck would have it, playing greasy spoons in one of the last places one would expect to find quality punk (Mississippi) turned out to be an advantage. Over the course of only a couple years, the band had developed a decent-size local following and a reputation to match. The quartet was known for its aggressive punk shows and attitude. Which may sound redundant, unless you consider the fact that the guys in the Neckbones saw themselves as just one group of local guys in an ocean full of groups of local guys. The band was largely uninterested in its fellow Oxford-based musicians. Friends were scarce.

Except for one. Bruce Watson was doing his thing, producing and engineering records for local talent, when one of his flyers advertising engineering work for $10 an hour caught Hewes's attention. Watson produced the Neckbones' first recording, Pay the Rent, on Zee Bin Records, in '94 at his barn-cum-studio and has been working with the band since. He eventually joined Fat Possum himself, and the band joined the label about two years after meeting Watson.

The Neckbones' Souls On Fire was recorded for Fat Possum in 1996 but wasn't released until about a year later, after Fat Possum cleared itself of the legal imbroglio in which it was involved with Capricorn Records. A little Fat Possum background: The brainchild of Matthew Johnson, a 30-year-old Oxford native whose working debt rivals the GNP and whose teeth are reportedly shot through with more cavities (14) than the local stray, Fat Possum was intended to be the home of the never-recorded-yet-still-performing bluesman. Which it was. In the early 1990s Johnson got some old-timers such as Burnside, T-Model and Junior Kimbrough on tape, signed Fat Possum up for a licensing and distribution deal with Capricorn in 1994 and was in court with Capricorn the following year. But while bills went unpaid, artists never did. Johnson worked construction jobs and begged for cash to cover his ass. Since Johnson also dealt with roughnecks like Burnside and Ford -- who are generally older, old-fashioned and steadfast in their ways (and who can't even make gigs on time, if at all) -- he required the divine intervention of Epitaph Records, which mostly distributes heavy metal, to keep his label and his head afloat. Dabbling in a superficially un-bluesy act like the Neckbones might have seemed another good way for Johnson to keep Fat Possum alive.

The band does have major crossover potential. Its music is punkish in arrangement and delivery yet poppish enough to rekindle an interest in punk from anyone who once loved the New York Dolls or the Ramones. The Neckbones' latest record, The Lights Are Getting Dim, is stuffed with solid tunes, most notably, "Vice Lord," "Good Bye Ramona" and, the best track and soon-to-be classic, "Cardiac Suture."

Written and sung by Keith, "Cardiac Suture" is one of those punk anthems that every "punk" band worth its weight in tattoos creates and uses as its calling card. The New York Dolls had "Personality Crisis." The Ramones had "I Wanna Be Sedated." And the Sex Pistols had "God Save the Queen." Well, "Cardiac Suture" is what all music fans will use to connect the Neckbones to its sound. The song is Big Time.

The drums are straightforward. The one-chord riff is relentless. And the lyrics are agonizing yet funny. The song goes: "I like the way you cut," duh-duh, dah-dah, "I like the way you stitch," duh-duh, dah-dah, "I got a new future," duh-duh, dah-dah, "Since my cardiac sooch-jah!" Keith sings the lines with such fervor, and the entire song is in such a continual state of acceleration, that it makes you believe only a band this desperate could create something so humorous and hyperactive. After all, says Hewes, it is make-or-break time for the Neckbones.

Which is also why the band is touring so much, getting its name out through live shows. Hewes says the band performs its songs live a bit faster and more intensely than it does in the studio, though the band does record all of its material "live." No overdubs or outtakes are used at any time. Boyer says one band member will bring a song in the day of the recording, play it for the rest of the band to hear, then ask the others for input. Kind of like how old bluesmen used to do it.

What's frustrating to the guys from the Neckbones is that they play some songs better now than when they recorded them. ("Ya wanna do it all over, ya know," says Boyer.) And they're all so much better live.

"We have fun," says Boyer of the band's live shows. "After fucking riding around in a van for 23 hours just so you can play one hour, ya know. Everything comes out in that one crazed rush."

And impetuousness, as any Fat Possum "exec" or bluesman will tell you, is what the blues is all about. Who says the Neckbones doesn't belong where it is? These boys are Miss-uh-sippah at its finest.

The Neckbones will perform Friday, October 15, at Mary Jane's, 4216 Washington. Call (713)869-JANE for more information.

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