Register Monday | January 27 | 2020

Jon Spencer, Twenty-First Century Man

"Jon Spencer is a paradox: he screams for you to pay attention to him, but he doesn’t really have anything to say."

I’ve always thought that if you traced the history of Jon Spencer, you could trace the history of rock ’n’ roll. I don’t mean this in a way that places Spencer up on a pedestal; he did after all once write the lyrics: “Baby, baby, you sure like to fuck. Baby, baby, baby, oh, yeah. Fuck. Rock ’n’ roll. I’m talkin’ about rock ‘n’ roll. Blues explosion. Yeah.” Clearly he’s not trying to blow our minds with his science. And yet if his mojo works on you, Spencer manages to distill everything that rock ’n’ roll stands for into fifteen distinct words. Of course, he repeats one of those words four times, squares two words and uses a phrase twice—but it still has to count for something.

I’ve created a formula based on the lyrics to the album Orange by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion to illustrate my point. Suppose x = rock ’n’ roll. Then 3(x + Baby) + 2(x + Yeah) + 2(x + Fuck) = BLUES EXPLOSION ALL RIGHT.

Jon Spencer is a paradox: he screams for you to pay attention to him, but he doesn’t really have anything to say. Is this rock ’n’ roll, or is he just not afraid to be retarded? I see him sometimes, haunting the racks of various Manhattan comic-book shops. He’s much shorter than you’d expect. He keeps his eyes to the ground and doesn’t emit any kind of magnetic pulse. Basically, he could be any mid-thirties East Village hipster and wouldn’t be considered out of place pushing a baby carriage past Veselka on a Tuesday afternoon while wearing wraparound sunglasses. And yet, this is the guy who discovered the formula for rock ’n’ roll.
His first band, Pussy Galore, was East Village trash (by way of Washington, DC) who, despite primitive attempts at songwriting, could turn out some listenable ditties. A few years ago, I was listening to Pussy Galore’s Dial M For Motherfucker in the bedroom of my apartment. I had the album on a dubbed cassette that I played in my car whenever I was pissed off at my girlfriend, but, at this particular point in time, I had no girlfriend and was merely indulging myself on the same level as George Costanza when he sank his teeth into a block of cheese. There I was, listening to what can only be described as a horrible album at near-maximum volume, when I heard two of my neighbours enter the hallway from the stairwell. One made a comment that I didn’t hear and the other said, “Yeah, we’re in SoHo apparently.”

I still don’t know what he meant by that. I am pretty sure that it wasn’t nice. He definitely harshed my mellow. The moment stuck with me and I eventually came to the conclusion that I should put Pussy Galore back on the shelf and move onto other things.

Apparently, Jon Spencer felt the same way. Pussy Galore was kaput by 1990, and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was ready to, well, explode. When their album Now I’ve Got Worry came out in 1996, I loved it so much that I carried the Digipack around everywhere I went. I just liked having that album close to me. The cover design is so pleasing—with its raised typeset and art against a black background—that I can never resist picking it up and turning it over in my hands.

It wasn’t that hard for Spencer and his ilk to stand out from the crowd. I will agree with anyone who contends that the Blues Explosion is a frail appropriation of the blues, but if you look at the landscape of modern blues in the years between the JSBX’s eponymous first album (1992) and their sixth album, Acme (1998), you’ll see what can only be described as a very bleak scene indeed. Popular blues was so boring that it had allowed artists such as Johnny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shephard to strap on their expensive guitars and rock the house with weedly-weedly corporate approximations of the blues. These guys were just pathetic distillations of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Led Zeppelin and the Stones (and Mick Jagger had already pilfered all the good lyrics from bluesmen a generation or three before his time).

Spencer approaches rockabilly like the world’s foremost cunning linguist.

So, what’s the next step for Spencer? Why, rockabilly, of course. This is what I mean when I say that his history is the history of rock ’n’ roll. He started with the noise-punk of Pussy Galore; then he played two-minute, dirty-ass rock-blues with JSBX; then he softened the Explosion’s “blues” to a point where it could be remixed by Beck; and now he’s founded a rockabilly band, Heavy Trash, with Matt Verta-Ray. It’s like spinning back the dial. Rockabilly ← Blues ← Punk.
Spencer approaches rockabilly like the world’s foremost cunning linguist. The band’s first release, creatively titled Heavy Trash, is a filthy, filthy album. But just as easily as he can preach about having “an army of monkeys to do his every bidding,” he can take a song like “Gatorade” and turn it into a paean to the rock ’n’ roll innuendo of yore. Little Richard wrote “Tutti Frutti” about anal sex and if you don’t believe me, listen to that song while thinking about anal sex. I have, and it was a perfectly reasonable way to spend a Thursday afternoon. But where’s that song today? The only music on the radio or on MTV with any amount of cultural relevance is filled with impressed silence over all the bad words.

And all I gotta say is that Jon Spencer writes the kind of rock ’n’ roll filth that would not only make Little Richard proud, but it also gives me hope that rock is still a vibrant force in the twenty-first century. And that definitely has to count for something.

Frank Smith has written about music since sometime in the mid-nineties, when he fired off an angry letter to his local independent weekly. Since then, he’s written record reviews and essays for the likes of Newsweek, The Dayton Voice (now defunct), the L Magazine, the Black Table, Tiny Mix Tapes and, where he contributed to their Bands on Demand database. Robert Pollard from Guided by Voices once bounced an unopened can of beer off his head.