RECORD ONE: Lost & Found
SUMMER 1985. Max Headroom, the smart-assed, intentionally disjointed animated/live Canadian with the plastic hair, appeared on Saturdays at 6pm on the still-young Channel 4 on a broadcast I'm not sure much of anybody ever watched.
Chances are high there was a squat green bottle of continental beer and a Little Juan microwave cheese and bean burrito in front of me, as that was the menu of choice that summer between my second and third years at university. I was a military brat on furlough from the States for three months and earning far less than minimum wage working the gas pumps on a US air force base in England, where my father was serving as a front-line Cold War commander.
Exact memories of the seminal musical moment are imprecise but the feelings that strike me – even now – are of discovery and excitement and noise. Of reconnecting with something from the splintered redneck roots of my childhood that had been hidden inside a box labelled 'do not open' in big Sharpie-pen capitals and relegated into a spare room of my consciousness during my early teenage years.
Jason & the Scorchers were performing Broken Whiskey Glass, perhaps just to a backing track as was the way of the world at that time, but: the energy, the attitude, the honesty. It was cowboy hats and fringes and long-tailed coats, it was high-lonesome hyperbole and, at that transition point between slow and fast at 1.25 or so of the 3.50 running time, driving fuzzy dirty guitars accompanied by honkytonk piano. Lyrics of regret and sorrow shifting into anger and resignation ahead of the killer line: 'Here lies Jason, strangled by a love that wouldn't breathe.'
They may have played a second song, I do not remember and there seems no way to check. According to the entry for Max Headroom in film and television database IMDb: 'The first season produced in the UK is lost.' The usual online searches, because why take anybody else's word for it, have to date only confirmed that conclusion. Hell, maybe it wasn't even Max Headroom.
I sourced the album Lost & Found a few days later at a local record store, put down some of my gas station pay and when the needle hit the vinyl discovered the joys of Last Time Around, White Lies, Shop It Around, the most energetic cover of the Hank Williams classic Lost Highway ever recorded, and the rest. Twelve magical tracks, nearly perfect. Actually hell, Iet's just go the whole hog and say: absolutely perfect, a sublime combination of country continuity and long overdue rebellion.
It was the summer of Live Aid and the entire planet was talking about the 13 July performance on both sides of the Atlantic. But I had discovered something different, something that gnawed at me in a way nothing else did. Those aware of Jason & the Scorchers at that time – and there were some, it turns out – more often than not categorised the band as cowpunk. They were probably closer to what would eventually be known as alt-country, that blend of roots, tradition, electrics and independent thinking that would arrive in 1990 as an antidote to the dominance of mainstream Nashville country.
By their own reckoning, Jason & the Scorchers changed lives: singing a country song while sporting a mohawk or shaved head just hadn't happened before. It was simply inconceivable that a band could support REM and the Circle Jerks while also playing the Bluegrass Inn. A few dared voice the magic words 'best band on the planet'.
Lost & Found travelled well; it became the soundtrack to a summer that culminated with a journey into the arid August high plateau between the Rockies and the Sierras in the US Pacific Northwest. An RV parked outside of my grandfather's house was temporarily home, there not being enough bedrooms inside for mom and the three of us kids. I worked towards a driving licence. 'He'll never pass,' said my grandad as we repeatedly frightened burrow owls and roadrunners, parallel parked the stretched station wagon between two trash cans, checked the mirrors at regular intervals. 'He's too distracted, he's not paying any attention.'
In the evenings and very early mornings, when the temperature dropped below 100 degrees Fahrenheit, my grandfather told fantastical, ridiculously entertaining and all but unbelievable stories about his life in Alaska as an eye doctor, bush pilot and sometime gold prospector. Otherwise there was little else to do besides cans of watery mass-produced beer, pre-season football on an old portable Trinitron, and the Sony Walkman – often all at the same time. Lost & Found had been imprinted onto a blank TDK SA-90 cassette tape and was rarely out of the player; the driving licence was secured at the first time of asking, for the record.
The dust and the isolation of the high desert further cemented what was a growing musical revolution; I returned to third-year life at a state university on the outer fringe of New England a somewhat changed young man. My post-dorms apartment was in an area of town few students dared to venture, I was sharing two bedrooms carved out of a larger, architecturally unsound house with someone I did not know very well, and the process by which undergraduates become individuals, which is to say they start to separate from the homogeneous pack that tends to dominate the first two years of higher education, had started to accelerate.
What that meant in practice was that I was growing a beard. And listening to country music.
To be accurate the facial hair was an extension to the moustache I'd supported since I was 18 in large part to hide a conspicuously tiny mouth; and it was a pretty good beard as first beards go although not the 'Viking in Valhalla' look I was expecting, more 'heroin addict in the corner'. The country music, which dovetailed with Jason et al, was of the pure AM radio 1970s variety and came courtesy of my new housemate. His collection was on vinyl and on cassette. It played on the retrofit system in a Pontiac Grand Prix: Waylon, DAC, Hank Jr. Mixed with lots of bourbon, like the music of the unfashionable variety and far from the mainstream heavy hitters: Evan Williams, Early Times, Old Crow, Wild Turkey. Local rather than college bars, bad live gigs comprised of MTV hair band covers and the occasional Skynyrd number.
Like many, I had done the metal thing in high school in a big way before diversifying: 'grown up' college radio, synthesisers and alternative/pre-grunge, classic Neil Young and the local punk scene (Screaming Broccoli, if you really want to know). Turntable regulars at the start of that third year included debut efforts from Run-DMC and Big Audio Dynamite, Reckoning from REM and, for reasons that remain a mystery looking back, ABC with Lexicon of Love (rescued, I think, from a discount bin).
However it was Jason & the Scorchers that dominated, particularly since on my return to relative civilization and courtesy of a basement record store I managed to bolster Lost & Found with Fervor, a seven-track EP from 1983. Michael Stipe of REM was on backing tracks at one point, by the by, and got half a songwriting credit on another song. There was even a Bob Dylan cover; not that you would know, it was utterly transformed.
The key word, although it had yet to enter my vocabulary, was twang. It was equal parts sound and feeling; it would redefine everything.
All text © 2020 by Todd Westbrook. May not be reproduced without express written permission of the author.