Nashville is not a town of rock stars. It's a town of musicians — working-class craftspeople for whom experiences that would shock and amaze most folks are part of the daily grind. Sure, entertainment meccas like L.A. or New York have their share of artisans on the periphery of stardom and celebrity. But neither of those cities can truly call themselves a community the way Nashville can.
This is, after all, the only place in the world where the guy standing behind you in line at the supermarket might've spent years sharing the stage with David Bowie. Or maybe he once comforted an industrial-Goth overlord frightened by his own tchotchkes. Maybe he once tricked The Flaming Lips into smelling his dirty underwear, or knows what it's like to be on the receiving end of a blunt passed by Snoop Dogg.
After talking to more than 20 of this city's resident music pros — from club owners to sidemen —the Scene takes a glimpse into this exclusive world of mishaps, transgressions and calamities, known only by those blessed, cursed and audacious enough to work in the community's best-known industry.
Participating sources were asked to cull their memory banks for the oddest, most unique and — ultimately — entertaining chestnuts they'd willingly reveal in print. From funny faux pas to nefarious tales of rock 'n' roll debauchery, their stories run the gamut from the absurd to the salacious. One-sided and hazily recollected, each is rife with details unsubstantiated beyond their sources and impossible to verify definitively. But when it comes to the sordid world of tour buses and backstage passes, where none dares enter unless they're carrying a deli tray, isn't that part of the fun?
Socially and professionally, if you live or work in this city, you're seldom more than two or three degrees of separation from any given Nashvillian. In a town so incestuously close-knit, there are reputations to protect and privacy to respect. Since the stories people take to the bar (or the grave) will always trump those they'll take on the record, what you'll find in these pages is by no means a comprehensive anthology — just evocative slivers of oral history from some of Music City's finest.
Is there any act of debauchery that ranks higher on the archetypal party animal's bucket list than smoking weed with Snoop Dogg? While recording at New York's Electric Ladyland Studios, former Pink Spiders frontman Matt Friction — and another member of the band, who shall remain unnamed — realized such a dream when they were shepherded by then Geffen President Jordan Schur to a neighboring studio to hold court with labelmate Snoop Dogg and his minions.
Atop a kinglike throne, the Willie Nelson of hip-hop entertained the Nashville power-punkers with his Doggy-style brand of esprit de corps. For hours, the guys pinched themselves as they were seduced into a surreal haze of constantly revolving blunts and trademark Snoopisms. Apparently he can rhyme just about anything with "-izzle."
"I'd never been that stoned before in my life," Friction says. "It was the ultimate peer pressure. When Snoop's passing you the blunt, you don't say no."
Unfortunately for their maligned overlord Schur, Snoop was rather displeased by how the label was handling the promotion of his current record. With the exec in his lion's den, he felt it a good time to vent myriad frustrations. While the disoriented Spiders tried to rediscover their bearings, they watched as Snoop sarcastically berated Schur while the rapper's strapped entourage surrounded him.
"It was a hostile environment," Friction says. "There were definitely guns there." As a funny side note, this all transpired in a studio where, according to Friction, members of '90s hip-hop cutouts Bone Thugs-n-Harmony once reacted to an unsatisfactory playback by pulling a Phil Spector and shooting up a mixing console. Friction's moment of Zen came when Snoop finished dressing down Schur by saying: "Maybe I should dye my hair pink and tour with The Pink Spiders."
Family Wash fixture Reeves Gabrels wasn't always one of the dukes of East Nashville. As guitarist for David Bowie, he spent 13 years traversing the globe and racking up a backlog of adventurous tales that likely trump the fantasies of any aspiring rock star. One particular standout was how he struck terror in the heart of one of rock's most revered sonic innovators.
The story goes something like this: While working on Bowie's 1995 industrial concept album Outside, legendary producer Brian Eno took a liking to a comely checkout clerk at the studio's neighboring pharmacy. Eno — long known for his mischievous tendencies to "tweak people a bit" — took a novel approach in trying to elicit a response from the lovely lass: Every day or two, he would stop by the drugstore on his way into the studio and purchase a box of 12 condoms, hoping the girl would eventually ask what he was using them for.
Before long, Gabrels and Bowie decided to give Eno a taste of his own medicine. They commissioned an actor to pose as the clerk's biker boyfriend, then watched as the raving brute barged into the studio to confront the wily producer. Terrified by threats of having his ass kicked and his work visa revoked, Eno hastily concocted the most implausible of bogus explanations: He wore the condoms on his fingers while playing piano, to protect his calluses. Making matters worse, a camera crew he and Bowie brought in to document the recording process managed to catch the entire altercation on film.
"It was so awkward, and went so wrong, that we didn't tell Brian until after we were done recording," Gabrels says. "He said he thought it was funny, but David didn't think he actually saw any humor in it."
To the naked eye, the young punks of explosive quartet Be Your Own Pet — now defunct — may have looked merely like a bunch of scraggly teenagers. But appearances can be deceiving. For any vulnerable performing artist needing a how-to in dealing with hecklers, the Scene suggests taking a page from the BYOP playbook.
While performing at Belgium's Pukkelpop Festival in 2006, guitarist Jonas Stein found himself on the receiving end of constant jeers, stare-downs and provocations from an unruly trio of French rabble-rousers. As his level of agitation grew, Stein went over to bassist Nathan Vasquez and told him, "If I jump off the stage, you follow me." When one of the Napoleonic instigators crossed the line by grabbing Stein's guitar, he'd decided he'd had enough.
"I saw the red mist at that point," Stein says, "so I threw down my guitar and just dove in head-first straight for this guy." Now embedded in the audience, Stein began scrapping with the hooligan as his bandmates heaved themselves offstage after him — bringing the whole performance to a grinding halt.
What ensued was a saloon-style brawl between band and bandits that made its way through the crowd like a riptide. "It was pretty fun," Stein says. "It was so quick that no one really got a good one off" — that is, until the end, when cooler-headed audience members managed to separate the quarreling parties. Stein used the moment to grab a breakaway and deliver a full-on nose-breaker to his opponent.
"I heard a pop when I hit [him]," Stein says. "Thank God I got pulled back again, because who knows what would've happened." In an ending fit for Hollywood, security removed the bloodied scalawag as the crowd cleared a path for the band, who climbed back onstage and finished their set.
A torrent of Haterade splashed the blogosphere last year when, during an interview with Rolling Stone, Raffi-like Flaming Lips singer Wayne Coyne chastised Canadian indie stars The Arcade Fire for being prima donnas. "They treated everybody in their vicinity like shit," he said of sharing a bill with the band. "They have good tunes, but they're pricks, so fuck 'em."
Well, it turns out his own band — long lauded as an affable and altruistic bunch — weren't always so hospitable to their opening bands either. At least that's what longtime Lambchop guitarist William Tyler says. Once, when billed with the band on a German music festival, Lips bassist Michael Ivins threw a hissy-fit when 'Chop singer Kurt Wagner presumptuously borrowed his chair during sound check. (Both rockers perform while seated.) When confronted by Ivins, Wagner asked if he could buy him a beer in exchange for using the chair. No deal: Ivins doesn't drink. Wagner then asked if he could just pay him. "How 'bout $100?" Ivins reportedly responded, thus ending the negotiation.
But our local heroes would have the last word. According to Tyler, on the final show of their tour, they realized that their newly acquired nemeses were slated to play the same venue the next night. Seizing a perfect payback opportunity, Wagner and bassist Marc Trovillion persuaded the other band members to stuff a bag with a tour's worth of dirty underwear, which they then addressed to their adversaries. A venue representative clinched their victory by profusely assuring that, yes, he would personally deliver the package to the unwary Lips.
Considering some of the hell-raising rockers who participated in this piece, it comes as a bit of a surprise that the most blasphemous contribution would come courtesy of Nashville neo-traditionalist country ensemble BR549. The act of onstage heresy in question was an elaborate prank at the expense of folk-rockers The Avett Brothers.
Not long before they broke through as a headliner, the Avetts toured as a support act for BR549. At the time BR549 drummer "Hawk" Shaw Wilson had cultivated a Christ-like coiffure, growing out the hair on his head and face. A light bulb went off among the band members. Soon Wilson was going the full nine and getting a white robe and crown of thorns. The band, in turn, went to a costume shop and stocked up on Roman garb. While passing through Nashville, en route to Atlanta — where the tour was to wrap up — the band stopped by soundman Cowboy Keith's house to collect a large cross that was inexplicably languishing in his basement.
During a delicate moment in the Avetts' set, the guys decided to debut their amateur passion play. As singer/guitarist Chris Scruggs recalls: "While they're playing this gospel song at the front of the stage, Shaw walks [behind them] wearing a white robe, bloody crown of thorns and dragging a cross, with the rest of [the band] dressed as Roman centurions whipping him while carrying spears and swords." Unaware of the mock-up under way behind them, the Avetts were dumbstruck by the audience's collective gut-laugh. "Anytime you dress up like Jesus south of the Mason-Dixon Line, you stand the chance of offending somebody," Scruggs says, "but it was lighthearted."
Whether it's getting embroiled in a lurid scandal or simply getting trapped in the closet, R&B icon R. Kelly is the stuff of legend. Especially his reputed sex life, which apparently he takes rather seriously. Longtime Nashville resident Duane Denison, guitarist for The Jesus Lizard, learned that the hard way.
Denison's seminal noise-rock alma mater recorded their classic Touch & Go releases during cut-rate graveyard sessions at Chicago's CRC Studios, which just so happened to function by day as R. Kelly's creative headquarters. The studio had no nighttime receptionist, so the band's sessions were fraught with constant interruptions from Kelly's burgeoning harem of mistresses, who would call the studio lookin' for a little late-night bump and grind.
Frustrated, the band decided to get a little creative: "We started making things up about [him]," telling the curious concubines things like "he went to China or he's at a gospel thing ... we didn't realize that one of the women was actually R. Kelly himself [disguising] his voice, in his own words, 'like a bitch,' " Denison tells the Scene.
When the livid singer and his goons came to the studio to confront the crank yankers, Denison emerged from the control room to find himself challenged by the posse. "Norman Bates motherfucka is trying to start somethin'," Kelly said to Denison, as he and his ruffians belly-bumped the astonished guitarist. "It almost went off there. In a way I sort of wished it did [so] we could've sued him for everything he had." As a result, the studio was forced to staff a receptionist at all hours, for the sole purpose of fielding Kelly's booty calls.
"I look at the time John Bruton was booking 12th & Porter as some of the most fun times in Nashville," Basement co-proprietor Mike Grimes tells the Scene. Before helping establish The Mercy Lounge as local rock's pre-eminent music venue, Bruton — the lanky luminary with the grizzled smirk, familiar to all who haunt Cannery Row — spent years as the face of 12th & Porter.
It was an era in which he bore witness to many a local and/or famous musician's less than stellar indecencies. Between recollections of watching local songwriter Daniel Tashian do a naked cage dance at a fetish ball, to hoodwinking Lucinda Williams into getting drunk off some hangover-from-hell inducing bottom-shelf house wine, are accounts of behavior so salacious that Bruton would face torches and pitchforks if he ever divulged their details.
Like the time a now astronomically successful country star dropped by the club's weekly talent showcase to take a part in a covert business transaction (which did not involve Bruton). When made aware of the singer's presence, the showcase's host began pestering him to come onstage and perform. As soon as this unnamed artist prevailed in his primary objective — scoring some dirty — he found the courage to go onstage and completely suck the air out of the room.
"He walked up to the mic and said, 'You know, we're all here for the same reasons: to get high, to get drunk, to meet people, to get laid, to have a great time,' " Bruton recalls. Without further ado, the singer strummed a chord and said, "This is a song about my dad dying."
Touring life started at the ripe age of 20 for now-decorated Nashville guitarist William Tyler. Between early jaunts with Lambchop and Tennessee power-pop kingpins Superdrag — each with members older and far more seasoned in the ways of the road — his introduction to the traveling musician's life was a crash course in calamity. "I always felt really naive and young around those guys," he says of the Superdrag set, "like something was gonna go wrong, in a sort of Hunter S. Thompson way."
Since then he's endured 10 years of travels that have taken him from crashing on cluttered floors to playing the Royal Albert Hall. Of all his stories, the harrowing tale that follows is the one that most unfolds like an outtake from A Hard Day's Night.
After a show in one of America's most godforsaken cities, Worcester, Mass. (pronounced Wuh-stah), Superdrag was followed back to their hotel by a gaggle of post-adolescent fanboys. Being polite Southerners, they let the kids hang out and watch them pound beers in their room 'til sunrise, at which point they gave them the boot and passed out.
No more than an hour later, the guys — still drunk — got an unsolicited wake-up call from the front desk. Apparently one of the young hellions ("in some anemic punk gesture," Tyler says) commandeered a fire extinguisher and sprayed the cars in the hotel parking lot with chemical foam.
Hotel personnel quickly deduced that the touring rock band was more likely guilty than the other registered group, a convention of Korean War vets — especially since the vets' cars were the ones vandalized. Suffice to say, the battle-scarred vets blamed the band for what they took as a slap in the face.
"This one guy comes up to me, just straight out of Easy Rider," Tyler remembers, "and he's like, 'Do you know what I did for punks like you?' "
Trying to resolve the situation, the hotel clerk — soap and water in hand — demanded that the rockers manually scrub the soiled autos. Not to worry, bassist Sam Powers told the clerk: they had cleaning supplies in their van. "So I start walking with Sam," Tyler says, "and we're still in earshot of all these old people and I say, 'Sam, we don't have any...' And he hits me in the chest and says, 'We're gettin' the fuck outta here!' "
Taking a cue from Powers, the other band members scrambled for the van. Upon hearing the ignition, the veterans besieged the van and started pounding on it with an army's fury, angrily yelling, "Whah yah goin' boys? Yah in Wuh-stah now!" As the van careened out of the hotel lot, its Tennessee plates shining proudly in the sun, while the outraged vets ran behind shaking their fists, life once again found a way to imitate The Dukes of Hazzard.
Reeves Gabrels' tenure with David Bowie overlapped with a stint spent working with new-romantic icons The Cure. Juggling the two colossal artists' schedules became so difficult that the guitarist was often flying back and forth from country to country to keep up. It should come as no surprise that this grueling pace demanded some questionable and unwholesome means.
Budapest, 1997, 3 a.m.: At a wrap party for the European leg of Bowie's Earthling Tour, Gabrels gets a call from Cure auteur Robert Smith requesting his presence at a London recording studio. Gabrels warns Smith that he would inevitably be pretty bushed from the flight, but Smith coolly assures him that they'd "have stimulants to keep [him] awake." Soon after rendezvousing in the studio, the pair decide to, as Gabrels puts it, "consume the comestibles."
This being 1997, interactive web media were in their infancy. Unbeknownst to Gabrels, Smith and the other inebriates, they were indulging themselves in full view of a webcam streaming live on the band's official site. "I'm sure the fan-base was watching, because it was the early days of that sorta thing," Gabrels says. When asked if there was any blowback from the viral indiscretion, the quick-witted guitarist responded: "Is that a pun?"
What would this article be without a drummer story? If you recall, Superdrag didn't exactly have the best of luck with their elders. Turns out they had equal — if not greater — misfortune in their dealings with children. Around the same time as the Worcester debacle, the band was playing at a street festival in Chattanooga sponsored by Gibson. After the show — which featured the likes of Verbena and The Smithereens — the bands were asked to sign a guitar.
"We thought it was gonna be auctioned off for some corporate thing, or whatever" then-guitarist William Tyler tells the Scene. In an attempt to stick it to the man, drummer Don Coffey — "really wasted" —chose to personalize his John Hancock by simply signing "Fuck You — Don Coffey."
Unfortunately, the autographed ax was a charity donation to a disabled child.
Rock 'n' roll makes for strange bedfellows, and strange bedfellows make for strange requests. At the time Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison befriended Al Jourgensen — for years a known heroin addict — the industrial-music giant was getting clean, and as Denison says, "wanted to be around people who weren't [in] his usual junkie crowd." The two hit it off. "We actually liked a lot of the same stuff," he remembers. "We'd talk about books and [went] to plays, hockey games and stuff like that. So it wasn't that big a stretch."
As an icon of the '90s goth/industrial movement, Jourgensen — with his skull-adorned mic stands, spooky attire and dark, introspective lyrics — embodied the genre's macabre aesthetic. "In his house, he had these paintings by [serial killer] John Wayne Gacy, and it always creeped me out," Denison recalls.
Creepier still, he kept a collection of mannequins hung on clothing racks. Paranoid and delusional, the singer gradually became convinced the mannequins were moving around at night. To no avail, Denison tried to assure him he was imagining things, but his belief in the dummies' mobility only escalated.
When the terror became too much to bear, Jourgenson — who, ironically, sometimes goes under the stage name Buck Satan — called Denison in the middle of the night to come over and dispose of the bewitched items. They were keeping him awake, and he was afraid to go near them himself. To assuage his friend's irrational fears, Denison drove over and, one-by-one, removed the life-sized dolls. They didn't put up a fight.
Before co-owning and operating The Basement, local musician and record store chieftain Mike Grimes ran East Nashville's long-gone Slow Bar — where alt-country flagship artist Ryan Adams had once done a small, impromptu performance for a few dozen barflies. Months later, Adams returned to Nashville to partake in Willie Nelson's famed Stars & Guitars concert, which would later be broadcast on national television and released as a live album.
The night before the star-studded event, an erroneous rumor that the mercurial singer-songwriter would, once again, make an unannounced appearance at the bar had slowly attracted hordes of fans to 5 Points. Meanwhile, he and bassist Billy Mercer were across the river getting shit-hammered at 12th & Porter. Aware of their whereabouts, Grimes got crafty. He called Mercer and casually suggested he and Adams "come over and jam." Enticed, the pair arrived a short while later.
As a result of Adams briefly assuming bartending duties, he, Mercer, Grimes and drummer Brad Pemberton were all seeing double by the time they made it to the stage. What came next was an ill-fated performance Grimes describes as follows: "None of us can remember [exactly what happened]. I know there was a snippet of a Strokes song, and some blues jam or something, and then it gets hazy." After maybe 12 minutes of false starts, dropped beats, train wrecks and inharmonious caterwauling, the set came to a crashing halt when Adams made a lumbering dive into the drum kit before vanishing into thin air.
He wouldn't be seen again until his appearance on the Ryman stage the next night, where he performed alongside Willie Nelson, Keith Richards and Hank III — with his chin noticeably obscured by an unsightly bandage that "looked like a tampon." Since no one involved was even remotely lucid by night's end, there are varying theories as to how Adams roughed up his mug. Grimes believes the injury was sustained as a result of the drum-dive.
(Note: The Scene also learned that, as a member of Bare Jr., Grimes reportedly had a proclivity for naked shenanigans. But we'll leave those stories for a another time.)
Any road-worn musician knows of the juvenile prank wars that develop between bands touring together. It'll typically start with some benign shenanigan like letting the air out of a tire or hiding a dead fish in a glove box, and before you know it, your guitars are in the wood-chipper and your van is smoldering in the basin of the Grand Canyon.
"They started it," Jesus Lizard ax man Duane Denison says of the prank war between his band and their onetime roadmates Six Finger Satellite. It started with minor things, like mayonnaise on the inside of the door handle. "They shouldn't have bothered," says Denison.
In the midst of this minor road skirmish, a miraculous stroke of luck fell upon The Jesus Lizard. The two bands traveled separately in near-identical Ford Econoline vans. One night Jesus Lizard singer David Yow drunkenly ambled to what he thought was his band's van, unlocked the door and crawled inside. He realized then that he'd gotten into the wrong automobile — and more importantly, that his key worked on both vans. The stakes quickly heightened.
First they infested the van with crickets. That was quickly found out, resulting in a now-forgotten retaliation. Things came to a head, though, when Lizard's soundman came up with an ingenious yet diabolical plan that would put the kibosh on the back-and-forth with a fiery finale. He bought an arsenal of fireworks and taped the fuses to the other band's engine manifold — guaranteeing that after an hour or two on the road, the engine would get hot enough to ignite the fuses.
The scheme worked. Shock and awe transpired on the open road as, without warning, The Battle of Hamburger Hill spontaneously re-enacted itself under the hood of Six Finger Satellite's Econoline. "They thought they were exploding," Denison says, but the band managed to get off the road without reddening the asphalt. Which means it still counts as comedy!
While the previous prank story ended in danger, the following just ends in disgust. Most people in the Nashville rock scene remember how proudly The Pink Spiders carried the torch of rock 'n' roll excess. So it should come as no surprise to hear that the hedonistic trio were savage pranksters.
In 2005, the band hazed opening act Sadaharu with a one-sided prank war. But no matter how hard they tried, they just couldn't get a rise out of the well-mannered Pennsylvania post-hardcore band. That provoked the Spiders to pull what chief Spider Matt Friction calls "the worst, evilest, most diabolical, terrible shit I've ever seen in my entire life."
With the tour coming to an end, everyone involved was pretty broke. So an item such as drummer Bob Ferrari's leftover Chinese takeout was a hot commodity. "We decided that we'd offer it to [Sadaharu]," Friction says, "but someone would have to take a shit in the box before we gave it to them."
Bassist Jon Decious was amenable to the idea. After taking what Friction characterized as "the hugest, most steaming, disgusting shit [imaginable]" atop a bed of rice and noodles, Decious sealed the box and put it under the van while the rest of band waited for their hapless victims to arrive.
As Friction watched it change hands, en route to famished Sadaharu singer Jeff Briel — a vegetarian! — a realization equal parts horrible and hysterical gripped the conscience-stricken Spider. "It's dark in there," Friction thought. "He might actually eat the shit!"
Moments later, a blood-curdling scream erupted from the van. Enraged, Briel leapt out of his band's van and nailed theirs with the dreaded poo-box — which spattered a muddy goulash of noodles, rice and excrement across their windshield. Decious' stool may not have actually made it into Briel's mouth, but it came close enough for him to hold a grudge.
"He never forgave him," Friction says. "I guess when you poke someone's turd with a fork, you can never really look 'em in the eye again."
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