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Skullz in the Desert: Music, Memories, and Ratz

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:

Sittin’ Here… Oblivious

“London again, showered again.  Sat next to Steve Winwood in United business class; pretty cool.  I was too lame to bother him. On way Kuwait again (sic)… snow in WDC delayed flight out two hours, cut into my lounge time here in jolly old England and I’m pissed.”

— VotF email to a friend, January 6, 2003

I am still amazed that my spouse was able to find a dentist in Brasilia willing to do a Christmas Eve root canal on such short notice.  I can’t imagine the discomfort I would have suffered over the next four months were it not for her resolute search and the benevolent oral tormentor it turned up.  Despite the four-plus hours of drilling and scraping, I counted myself blessed to have been able to spend a few days back with wife and kids over Christmas, especially given the uncertainty at the time about what the coming period would bring.  Even the over 20 hours of travel on either side of the visit home were a net positive in extending my temporary reprieve from the skulking desert.

As I slipped into my window seat for the second of the three legs of my return flight, I noticed the gentleman in the aisle seat next to me was reading Stupid White Men …and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation! by filmmaker Michael Moore.  I was curious about the book, which had garnered much attention and been a New York Times best seller throughout most of 2002, and briefly considered asking about it.  Instead, I gave in to my introverted, socially anxious nature and opted to quickly erect a protective bubble of feigned self-absorption carefully designed to discourage attempts at engagement.  Sensing a welcome, similar lack of interest in intercourse from my seatmate, I settled in for a relaxing journey.

Some hours into the flight, I found myself requiring a visit to the lavatory.  With each of us now quite entrenched in our individual determinations to get through the row-sharing encounter acknowledgement-free, and given the extra area of maneuver available thanks to our placement in business class, I stepped from window into aisle without need to request pardon or passage.

Biological necessities sorted, I figured to simply reverse my unobtrusive path back to my seat.  What I failed to notice however was that, fussy flight attendants apparently having chosen in my absence to offer beverage service, there was now a quarter-filled cup of clear water sitting on the armrest table I would squeeze by to reach my assigned station.  Cosmically preordained to cause embarrassment, my blue blazer contorted itself as I maneuvered to catch on the armrest in such a way as to ensure the unseen plastic cup would spill its contents as my momentum toward the seat snapped the disloyal garment loose.  Dropping into place, I was mortified to see water dripping down both sides of the armrest.

My first response to the horrifying debacle was a clear recognition of the need to offer effusive apology and express a willingness to immediately undertake the self-flagellation of my victim’s choice in hopes of bringing the nightmare to an end as rapidly as possible. In the seconds between becoming aware of my blazer’s treacherous action and the screwing of my maxillofacial muscles into an expression of utmost regret in order to begin the intended homily of shame however, I noticed my neighbor seeming to make a concerted effort to avoid eye contact with me as he dabbed at the moisture on his side with a napkin and mumbled something unintelligible but possibly relating to the correspondence between me and the title of the book he was reading.  Witnessing his impressive dedication to our established policy of non-acknowledgement, I flipped my mental “Fuck It” switch before sound could escape my lips and wordlessly reentered my bubble.

“Are you really him?” asked the young flight attendant of my seatmate about 15 minutes before our touchdown at Heathrow.  “Am I really who?” came the answer.  “You know… Steve Winwood,” clarified the attendant.  With a slight air of impatience but without falling over into rudeness, my fellow traveler began to question the attendant as to whether she could not simply check the manifest to obtain her answer before, seeming to think better of that tack, admitting that he was indeed whom she suspected.  As this interaction occurred and through the remainder of the descent, I chose to maintain an air of disinterest.

In the years since dumping water on Steve, I have variously fantasized about how different things might have been had I managed to see through the haze of my own inward focus early in that flight.  I have run through myriad imagined might-have-beens in which I casually recognized my opportunity and crafted just the right opening line to signal a discerning interest in Mr. Winwood’s art and experience worthy of extended mutual exploration.  Other times, I’ve pictured hours of ‘unaware’ flowing, multi-themed conversation – possibly steered via a run-through of my iPod library – culminating in a “surprise” reveal and invitation to future personal correspondence and regular pop-ins whenever schedules/locations intersect.

Being realistic, it is likely better that I wetted Steve with purified bottled water rather than with fanboy slobber, this especially given my relatively limited immersion in his sea of joyful output.  As things turned out, I can still purport immunity to the temptation toward undignified swooning over celebrity often exhibited by others.


An Appointment with the Past: Sunburst Finish

The robbery took place in the front seat of my truck circa 1981, although neither victim nor thief knew at the time that a crime was being committed.  In the moment it seemed a fair exchange; Kyle would get temporary possession of my Sunburst Finish cassette and all the joy of discovery that went with it and, in return, I would bask in glory as influencer and guide.  Kyle, a new friend, had earned the gift of Be Bop Deluxe through to his recent turn providing understated acoustic guitar accompaniment to an earnest young woman’s vocal performance of Rush’s ‘Madrigal’ at the annual high school talent show.  The friendship would prove fleeting however and, at some blurred point during the ensuing four decades, our “noble loan” story transformed into a tale of selfish misappropriation.  Many years would pass before I would be made whole.

Having settled naïve and comfortable onto the shiny CD train with the onset of the 90s, I occasionally thumbed the racks for any Be Bop Deluxe but only ever lucked upon one compilation, Raiding the Divine Archive, in a Tower Records in San Antonio, Texas.  My beloved and I had traveled there one weekend in the fall of 1991 so she could recite the three branches of government for the federal bureaucrat who would subsequently judge her worthy of U.S. citizenship.  I was pleased with the find but had to make do with just four songs out of the Sunburst Finish ten.

Be Bop Deluxe: Raiding the Divine Archive

In the summer of 1996, work friend, mentor and fellow tunes enthusiast Dave-O approached me with news of his entry into the murky world of ‘internet’ and his discovery there of a mysterious marketplace from which one could purportedly order hard-to-find CDs from ‘anywhere in the world.’  Be Bop Deluxe: Sunburst Finish (CD)He offered to act as proxy should I wish to test the dial-up waters and asked what my first pursuit might be.  Suspecting probable folly, I nonetheless offered up Sunburst Finish as acid test.  A mere seven weeks later, Dave-O appeared at the office sporting an envelope and a doubt-dismissing grin.  He handed over my treasure, noting having kept it in the “CDNow” packaging to avoid the ‘naughty’ album art offending his missus.  My prolonged time of lacking ended, and I once again owned.

Be Bop Deluxe: Sunburst Finish (LPs; 1976 / 1986)In the new millennium and to alleviate a dull but lingering anxiety left over from the post-Kyle fallow years, I have made a few additions to my Sunburst holdings, to include two vinyl copies, an original US EMI release from 1976 and a 1986 Revolver Records UK reissue.  Most recently I have further soothed myself with Cherry Red’s amazing 3CD/1DVD Sunburst Finish 2018 box set, containing the original plus new stereo and surround sound mixes of the album and an assortment of contemporaneous live and bonus material from 1976.

Be Bop Deluxe: Sunburst Finish Box Set (2018)

An aside:  For any unaware, Be Bop Deluxe was a distinctive 1970s English glam/rock/pop band built around and by guitar hero-cum-musical explorer Bill Nelson.  Sunburst Finish was the band’s third album and ranks as my personal favorite. My review of the album is that it is freaking awesome, laden to bursting with heaps of head-bopping groove, hard-rocking chug, memorable words, and soaring guitar. Recommendation:  Buy this under-recognized masterpiece if you enjoy good things.  

I still hold out hope that a guilt-ridden Kyle will leverage modern-day digital tracking opportunities to find me and return the pilfered cassette, although this reflects more a concern for his eternal soul than any continuing need of personal healing.  In the meantime, I take solace in the knowledge of my important, if unintended, role in what I imagine has been the creation of a strong community of Be Bop partisans among Kyle’s progeny.

[And before you ask about that cassette copy of Panorama by The Cars in my stacks, know that I in no way rate innocent possession of material stolen by others as felonious, let alone the equivalent of the vile crime described herein.]

The Utter Senselessness of Taste

“Well, it’s rather difficult to define. Perhaps I’m just projecting my own concern about it. I know I’ve never completely freed myself from the suspicion that there are some extremely odd things about this mission. I’m sure you agree there’s some truth in what I say.”- HAL 9000; 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968 AD)

Personal taste is a magnificent thing.  It is part of what makes us humans such a beautiful kaleidoscope of individuality and wonder.

Maddeningly however, personal taste can also give rise to infuriating, illogical rejections of self-evident fact.

How this post – and more specifically the song it illuminates – can fail to immediately go viral is an irreconcilable mystery.  Simple logic would suggest that, were just one person to become enlightened here, the resulting spontaneous, reflexive ‘sharing’ would initiate a logarithmically-expanding chain of subsequent shares that would end only at global saturation.

From the warm, swaddling delivery of meme-ready words by vocalist extraordinaire Davey Pattison, to Robin Trower’s soul-enriching extended guitar poem, which begins at the 4:25 mark, this is profound, eternal truth made palpable.  This exists now!  How can all humankind not already be swept up in a universal embrace of mutual love and understanding?  That we aren’t is just so damn hell enraging.

“He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” – The son of God; Mark 4:19, King James Bible (28 AD)

Robin Trower: I Want to Take You With Me (from album Living Out of Time, 2003)


Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over. – HAL 9000; 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968 AD)

Lightless and Water Black: Ethereal. Surf. Doom.


I had not previously heard of Ethereal Surf Doom, a new genre emanating out of the rain-soaked U.S. Pacific Northwest, prior to inventing it out of whole cloth for this post.  The preeminent purveyors of this new sound currently taking the room from which I write by storm are Blackwater Holylight, who hail from Portland, Oregon, the ecofriendly coffeehouse-as-city best known for its setting in the literal and figurative shadows, respectively, of snow-capped Mount Hood and better-branded Seattle, Washington.

T’were the Doom Charts first caught me into the black water.  As is my wont, sometime back I was scrolling through the site’s then latest month’s rankings, reading the descriptive blurbs and selectively adding albums to my Spotify library.  Mentions of “resounding riffs, enchanting vocals” and “dream(s) of witches” were sufficient to win Blackwater Holylight’s self-titled April 2018 debut a place in my digital listings.  Gratification was unwittingly delayed however as – once again down to my wont – I added too many albums on top of the too many albums I had added the month previous and the month before that.

In fact, my actual going into the (holy) light would not occur until March 2019 when, having scored a ticket for the 4/20 Psycho Smokeout to be held in Los Angeles, I dedicated myself to becoming acquainted with any bands on the bill not already familiar.  Blackwater Holylight then, already poised for a quick clicking, broke my research cherry.  And what a clicking it was… after the quick smoke and long nap that followed that first listen, I scarcely lifted the album from its virtual turntable for weeks.

Knowing nothing of the band, and having totally forgotten the Doom Charts blurb, I was pleasantly surprised to hear fragile female vocals as first track ‘Willow’ radiated out of the speakers.  The Ventures-like picked guitar, relaxed-but-forward-mixed bass, and spacey keyboards all surfed atop waves of doomy atmosphere seemingly spawned from the Quaalude-infused hollow emanating the music as much as from the music itself.  This, then, was the Ethereal Surf Doom of which I had so much not yet christened…

A bit of crunch is added to second track ‘Wave of Conscience’ via ponderous drums and more prominent chord-play.  Next up, the note plucking and rhythmic strumming of anti-lullaby ‘Babies” fools us into deluding, “hey, I could play that,” when in fact it is not played at all but rather exuded, while the subsequent heavy psych space noodling of ‘Paranoia’ suggests a bizarro-world “Mulholland Drive” soundtrack.

Side B opener ‘Sunrise’ (spoiler alert: I later scored the vinyl) is almost jaunty in relative terms, somehow finding the gaiety in melancholy; indeed the official video for this one fantasizes a jolly, drug-induced homicidal winter’s romp.  ‘Slow Hole” seems grounded in latter-day Earth, albeit with a few brief trips into orbit as the song evolves.  ‘Carry Her’ is, for me, the least substantial of the musical freight offered here, although it gains some heft via an unusual-for-this-album touch of dissonance and distortion.  Finally comes the cavernous dirge of ‘Jizz Witch’ in which muted-theremin keyboards create a barely-there void-scape where quiet-loud-quiet guitars traverse in elegy for I dare not guess what.

Mine own.

Which brings me to my sole complaint about this excellent debut: A dinnae unnerstaun.  I often cannot suss the lyrics, save for occasional words and phrases.  I love the mix.  I love the haunting vocals.  I would wish none of that changed.  But I do want to know of what they sing.  I mean, you can’t call a song ‘Jizz Witch’ and not tell me the words!  Hopefully for album number two, the band will opt to include a lyric sheet.

Seeing Blackwater Holylight at Psycho Smokeout was fantastic.  While I didn’t know it at time of purchase, experiencing them live turned out to be a main motivator for making the six-hour drive to attend the festival.  I situated myself right at the front of the general admission crowd and awkwardly bopped, swayed, lurched, and grooved to the music not three feet from the band and with nary a trace of self-consciousness.  Had they any reason to notice me, the BH women would have solely seen a dorky elder-dad creating a barrier between them and their coveted demographic, but in my mind I was a cosmically connected fellow traveler on their musical expedition.

Snapped by me from where I lurched, 20 April 2019

I grabbed my LP and long-sleeved tee from the merch table before the show, ignorant to the fact that bassist/vocalist Allison Faris was selling them to me.  She was quite pleasant but my obliviousness was likely a good thing; at my age a fanboy reaction might have come off more Aqualung than endearing.