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Skullz in the Desert: Music, Memories, and Ratz

September 25, 2020

Rank Bill was either from or had gone to school somewhere in Florida.  I know the place had a ‘ville’ at the end, like Gainesville or Jacksonville, but back when we were together at grad school I thought of Florida as just one big Miami.  It never occurred to me then that he was from the “South” and over the ensuing years I have failed to update my sense of his origins.  So, when I clicked on the link to his first album in the email he sent in late 2019, I was a little taken aback to hear the honky-tonk.

What did fit my expectations however was the self-assuredness in the songs.  I have always carried a vision of Bill as brave, confident, and surreptitiously kind.  The last time I saw him was in the spring of 1992 when I dropped him off at an interstate highway offramp west of Ogden, Utah, so he could hitchhike from there up into the Pacific Northwest somewhere.  He had ridden to Utah with me from College Station, Texas, from where I had just bailed with the second of two master’s degrees and to where he would subsequently return to finish the first of two doctorates.  Being too timid, afraid, and married-with-child back then to dare hitchhike, I was more than a little in awe of Bill and his audacity.

Bill is now Skullz in the Desert and the album is unmarked graves.  Bill says it is on “pretty much all the streaming services;” I listen to it on Spotify.  Bill wrote the songs and sings and plays rhythm and lead guitar on all of them.  He also played bass on all but three.  The album is a mix of late 60s garage, International Submarine Band, and medium-twang vocals.  The melancholy drift of the song ‘Skullz in the Desert’ calls to mind Red House Painters’ cover of ‘Silly Love Songs,’ a good thing.  ‘Running Out of Time’ is an American Keith Richards-as-lounge-singer offering up a Lou Reed outtake.  ‘Oldsmobile’ is deep-cut David Allen Coe, in which a clever metaphor is pushed beyond its manufacturer-recommended lyrical capacity, another good thing.

Others will hear this album as spirited 21st century Americana and imagine themselves sitting in a sparsely-populated Texas roadside bar while a smirking, middle-aged hippie sings, strums, and avoids eye contact.  For me though, it is impossible to set aside the “I knew this dude” factor as the songs play.  I don’t know if Bill’s stories of pot busts, beers drunk, loves lost or found, and not giving two fucks are autobiographical or pulled out of a pre-selected bin of approved topics for sardonic singer/songwriters with just-under-the-surface sensitive sides.  It is easy for me to connect the joyful cynicism of the album with the buddy I remember, harder to do so with the somewhat rote lapsed-believer references to the good Lord, Jesus, and sinners.  It makes me wonder just how much the pony-tailed loner that is the Rank Bill of my memories has in common with his actual living counterpart of today.

Bill introduced me to The Minutemen and Meat Puppets, two bands I still revere today and for which I am deeply grateful to him.  The homespun sound of unmarked graves calls to mind those bands.  Bill is also responsible for the sense of failure that has gnawed at me since he suggested I read Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow; I’ve been carrying the fucking thing around for better than three decades now, never having made it beyond about 40 pages despite multiple tries.  Unlike that brick of a book however, there is nothing difficult to suss in Bill’s lyrics.  If the album has an overarching message, I think it is that life is a series of common, unexceptional experiences that only take on weight and meaning via the unique way each of us accumulates and files them away over time.

Overall, the Bill of unmarked graves seems more assertively rural and gruffly individualistic than the eclectic and trippy youth I remember.  I do recognize in many of the tunes however the gentle compassion and empathy of the fellow student who was the most moved by the arrival of my newborn son and who, much later, penned a poignant paragraph explaining why he felt compelled to take part in a charity run honoring the memory of Joey Ramone.  These contrasting versions recall the author John Barth, my introduction to whom was another gift from Bill.  While no book has caused me to laugh out loud as repeatedly as did Barth’s beast of a novel The Sot-Weed Factor, little I’ve read has left me as disturbed and uncomfortable as did Barth’s choice of how to bring The End of the Road to a close. ((I mean, what the hell!?))

I’d be thrilled if this memoir-as-review gets unmarked graves a well-deserved extra listen or two.  I’d consider it to be partial payback to Bill for having hooked me up with a job that helped pay the bills in grad school.  As an assistant to (and later co-author of) Texas A&M University’s late cutting-edge experimental economist Ray Battalio, Bill got me a sweet gig moving white rats from cage to cage so they could make major rat choices of whether to slurp root beer or bitter water.  Repositioning rats for a couple hours a day in a tight, empty lab while listening to talk radio on an old Walkman remains one of my best grad school memories.  Thanks to Star Trek: The Next Generation, the accompanying uncomfortable memory of the psychology department’s rats in the adjoining cages with their skulls (skullz?) carefully exposed so a metal half-helmet mechanism could be attached that allowed direct injection of cocaine into their rat brains has been overwritten.  Happily, I now recall them as hive-mind Borg rats that were being resisted non-futilely by hero researchers.

Suggested title for the Skullz in the Desert sophomore album: Rats and Root Beer

((For any interested, here’s a link to a brief description of the import of an early version of the rats and root beer “rational choice” experiment:  http://theamateurecon.blogspot.com/2011/03/beer-rats-and-giffen-goods.html))

From → Music

2 Comments
  1. That was a very interesting read, thanks for sharing. I thought the song was pretty good too.

  2. I enjoyed the reverb drenched, spacious, mondo western vibe of this song. Sounds like a lovingly made demo. Like the cover painting, too. Bill’s, I wonder? The replacement of an s with a z is a crime too far for this language retentive; though I reckon Desert Skulls would be a good band name.

    As for “another gift” from Rank Bill. I still shudder slightly at the end of that novel too. Thanks for the memories, Vic.

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