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Photos by bev davies, not to be re-used without permission
One of the most reliably entertaining stage shows out there at is that of Texas psychobilly champs the Reverend Horton Heat. Frontman Jim Heath strikes you as a consummate professional, someone who knows his audience, knows his music, knows every inch of his beautiful Gretsch guitar, and knows his way around the music business to boot. All of which is as it should be: he’s been touring with his trio (also known as the Reverend Horton Heat) for close to 30 years now, sharing bills with bands as diverse and impressive as the Cramps, the Sex Pistols, the Real McKenzies and Motörhead. I was privileged to talk to him prior to his May 22nd Vancouver show at the Rickshaw Theatre in Vancouver – which, despite the somewhat scuzzy East Van locale, is the best all-round live music venue in Vancouver at present, particularly in terms of the acts that get booked. Better, I got to bring veteran Vancouver punk photographer bev davies to take some fresh photos…
People who have seen the Rev before (I’ve caught him four times now) sort of know what to expect – “here’s where the Rev and Jimbo stand back-to-back as they play,” “here’s where the Rev stands on Jimbo’s bass”… there are, kinda, “stations of the Rev” that he tends to go through each gig. The Rickshaw show, however, was probably the most enjoyable and most varied show of Heath’s that I’ve seen thus far, including a few surprising song selections (like an awesome, expanded version of one of his slowest songs, his blues number “Loaded Gun,” from his classic second LP, The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat). He offered what felt like considerably extended solos for songs like “The Devil’s Chasing Me” and “Marijuana” and amusingly wry, self-deprecating stage patter, for instance calling Space Heater the consensus vote for their “worst album ever”, calling “Zombie Dumb” the “dumbest song off our new album,” and joking – before switching instruments with Jimbo for “Johnny B. Goode” – that it was the “most obvious cover in the history of rock music” (or words to that effect). There was even a Scott Churilla drum solo and Jimbo Wallace bass solo, both taking place during the encore, “Galaxie 500,” which was expanded to include a full cover of Merle Haggard’s “Honky Tonk Night Time Man” in the middle. There were also plenty of songs off REV, the band’s new album, including “Smell of Gasoline,” “Let Me Teach You How To Eat,” “Never Gonna Stop It,” and, of course, “Longest Gonest Man,” which originally appeared on the band’s first demo tape, from near 30 years ago.
The following conversation took place a couple of weeks before the show, with Jim Heath on the phone from his home outside Dallas.
So the “Horton” in your name, at least according to Wikipedia – comes from Johnny Horton – right?
Well, not exactly. I love Johnny Horton, y’know – “Honky Tonk Man,” “Battle of New Orleans,” “North to Alaska,” he’s one of the greats of country music, obviously, and that’s my era of music. I love Johnny Horton. But I was workin’ as a sound guy at a club that had – the guy that owned the club had nicknames for everybody, and out of the blue he just started calling me Horton. And I’m not sure why, really. I don’t even think he remembers why. And so everybody called me Horton. I’m not sure why that happened. Anyway, he heard me play and sing and he said he’d give me a gig, and he said, “I’m opening up a new place, I want you to play in a couple of weeks.” And I was setting up my amp, before the gig, and no one was there, and he came up on stage to talk to me and he said, “your stage name is gonna be Reverend Horton Heat,” okay. And I said, “Whhat?” And he said, “Reverend…” And I said no. Little did I know, he’d already made flyers that were already listed in the papers, and after I finished my first set, there were actually people there. There were 30 or 40 people, at my very first gig. It was just me – it wasn’t a band, it was just me playin’ my guitar and singing. And people were coming up to me going, “Reverend, that’s really good! We really enjoyed you!” It’s like… when you’re desperate, living in a warehouse with rats and roaches… y’know, my stock thing I tell people is, I’m just glad he didn’t say, “your stage name is dog dookey.” I’ d be walking around telling people – “hi, my name is dog dookey.”
Argh. Sorry to make you repeat that story – you must have told it a million times. I hadn’t intended to make you go there!
I have told that story a gazillion times.
I just thought there was a Johnny Horton connection – and he grew up in Rusk, Texas, too, right? I’m getting that from Wikipedia too, but…
Rusk is kinda over west of us… Texas is so spread out, and there’s so many little towns, it’s kinda hard… I think that’s out there, I think Rusk is out there kinda near Amarillo or something…
I just know it was kind of famous because Roky Erickson was incarcerated at Rusk, and I talked to Gary Floyd of the Dicks, and when he was a conscientious objector, during the Vietnam war, he was a janitor at Rusk! Not at the same time Roky was there. So I thought there might be a Rusk story. Anyhow. You went to the U of T at Austin, right?
Well, for awhile, until I just could not take it anymore.
Did you go to shows back then? There was quite a scene in Austin – Dicks, Big Boys, and M.D.C.?
Yes, but really when that started hitting, I had kind of moved off… They used to have this club called Raul’s, and I saw the Big Boys and the Dicks there, but I ended up in Dallas, and Dallas had a place called the Hot Club. And those bands played the Hot Club in Dallas. A lot of people don’t realize that Austin wouldn’t have had as good a music scene as it had without Dallas, because Dallas was a big city, and – in the late 70’s, I was in a rock band, and they were based out of a college town, called Bryan – a college station. And we decided to move to Dallas, because Dallas had seven rock’n’roll clubs, and Austin had one or two. But Texas in general has a lot of good music, there’s a lot of stuff going on in other cities, in Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth… a lot of the Austin music scene that was happening were people from Fort Worth and Dallas and the hill country towns from in between those two. And Rusk… Rusk… Oh, no, no, it’s down there in East Texas, it’s South of Tyler. Yeah, yeah, that’s in a real pretty area.
Did you play mostly around Dallas before you started out touring elsewhere?
Yeah, but pretty much right off the bat, we started playing the region. We would go down to Denton – that’s another thing too that people don’t realize, because Denton has North Texas State, which is one of the best music schools in the world, it’s unbelievably good. So Denton has a great music scene. We’d play Denton and Fort Worth, and then we’d go down to Austin, and the Houston, Oklahoma City, New Orleans, and eventually they let us go up into Memphis… our first region outside of that four state region, we went up to Chicago and the Midwest: Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis… And then not long after that man, we started going out to California, and the haul up and down the west coast, up to Seattle and all around the Rocky Mountains and all that stuff. We been traveling a long time!
Before you started playing music, did you identify as a punk, or were you into rockabilly from the outset, or…?
Well… starting out, I kind of went through phases, trying to find what I wanted to do. The way I learned to play guitar was listening to blues records: Freddie King, and BB King, and Buddy Guy. I really liked the Chess Records blues guys, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter and Muddy Waters, that kind of stuff. That was kinda my thing, and y’know, I learned to play guitar, and the next thing you know, I’m in rock bands that are playin’ the cover songs of the day. It was Led Zeppelin all the way to the Eagles, Blondie, the Ramones, and all that stuff. I was good enough to make money playing cover songs, that was almost kind of a downside, but then I really started focusing on the rockabilly. Because the rockabilly thing, it was really part of the ‘50’s blues thing. My first band was a 50’s band. So I started focusing on that in the early 80’s and really, rockabillies like us didn’t really fit in anywhere except a punk rock room. So we worked a lot at the Twilight Room in Dallas, and the Hot Club, and punk rock type places…
You saw the Cramps back then, too, right? And realized that there was a big connection between punk and 50’s music?
Well, yes. But it wasn’t long after that it wasn’t just me thinkin’ that. I saw the Blasters play the Hot Club; when the rockabilly bands came through, [that’s where they played]; the only punk rock scene pretty much back then was the Hot Club, in Dallas. But yeah, the Cramps – it was 1979, they came to Dallas, and it was a punk rock show, that whole vibe, but it was at a heavy metal rock’n’roll club – because it was kind of a big place, and they were a pretty big draw. So I didn’t know who they were but we went to the show and I was thinkin’ it was gonna be a punk rock show. And it was – Lux was really wild, it was really crazy, all the stuff he was doing: rolling around on broken glass and half-naked if not fully naked, y’know, but what struck me was they did these rockabilly and 50’s and early 60’s stuff, like ‘The Way I Walk,’ by Jack Scott; that’s a rockabilly standard, and ‘Surfin’ Bird’ by the Trashmen. That’s a surf music standard.
I wanted to ask you about a few of your specific songs, but I want to go back briefly. One of the things that struck me about Austin was that there were all these gay or queer-friendly bands playing, like the Dicks, and Big Boys, and MDC. It doesn’t fit my image of Texas as all, which I imagine as a pretty conservative state. And then here you come, with this song “Cowboy Love.” It seems like it would be a bit of a button-pusher. Where did that come from?
Well… I got the idea for that when we were on a night off in Fresno California. And I didn’t go with them – it was Jimbo and our tour manager. it was a night off, and Fresno in 1990, there’s not that much to do. So they said, “well, let’s just get a taxi and ask the cab driver where we should go, because we didn’t have the slightest clue. We had just driven in. And the cab driver showed up and he said, well there’s a country bar up here, and they said, ‘that’s fine, a country bar, let’s go drink some beer.’ And they went in, and it was a country bar, and they were playing country music. They went up to the bar, and they ordered their beers, and a bunch of good ole boys are there, and Jimbo – he goes, ‘I looked over at the dance floor, and it was all guys, and there was this black cowboy French kissing a white cowboy.’ And he said, ‘at that moment I knew we were in the wrong place!’ He said he looked over and the bartender noticed that Jimbo saw that and saw the look on Jimbo and on our tour manager’s faces. So the bartender said, ‘you guys are just now figuring out that you’re in the wrong place, aren’t you?’ And they said, ‘yeeah.’ And he goes, ‘look, it doesn’t matter,” and he bought them beers and said, ‘it’s okay, y’all hang around and have fun, nobody’s going to bother you.’ They hung around, so I wrote this song about ‘Cowboy Love.’ If it’s not shocking because it’s gay cowboys, it’s shocking because it’s an interracial couple! I figured I could have a song that’s basically making fun of being a redneck. That song pretty much offends everybody.
I can’t figure out if it’s going to piss off rednecks or gays more!
Well, thanks. I have these crazy ideas, and… that’s a pretty fun song. I think we’re probably going to play that. We’ve been bringing it back. [Note: it was not on the setlist in Vancouver].
Let me ask you about a new song, too, like – what was “Smell of Gasoline” inspired by?
Yeah, there was this girl that I knew, she was kind of a hippie chick in high school. We kinda grew up going to the same schools, we weren’t really good friends or anything, but I’d walk by her house, and she had older brothers that were always working on cars and stuff. A lot of the other kids would go out there and look at whatever car they had in the front yard. They were kinda one of those families, y’know, with a lot of older boys with cars half apart in the front yard. And one time I was talkin’ to her, and she said, ‘yeah, I like the smell of gas.’ And I was – I was so young and dumb, I was goin’ like, whoa, that’s kind of a provocative thing to say. Looking back on it, I was wondering if maybe she kind of liked me, to tell me something like that. (Laughs). So anyway…
It always reminds me of a movie like Gun Crazy or something, like you expect it to be about a killer couple on the road setting fires…
Yeah, I know, that’s kind of what the title might lead you to, if you thought about it, but no, it’s just an innocent song about how young and dumb you are in high school, basically.
A couple more songs. I’ve always wondered about performing songs like “400 Bucks,” “Galaxie 500,” “Where the Hell Did You Go with My Toothbrush” and such. All these songs about breakups and divorces. They get pretty angry sometimes and it seems like you’re in an un-enviable position, of having to summon up the anger from your divorce and these past relationships… Do you ever want to drop them off the list?
The thing about a song is, a song kind of takes on its own life. Once I write it, I guess I wouldn’t – it’s obvious I like the song or I wouldn’t have written it; but once I’ve written it, we’ve worked it up, and then it somehow gets acceptance by our fans and everything – of it it’s one of the ones that gets a little bit more than accepted… it’s a beautiful thing, so a song is kinda like, it’s its own deal, that I don’t really have any control over. And frankly, and in the music thing, you go with what you do. Because if you don’t, someone will rip you off within a matter of probably weeks or months. So it’s something that’s a little bit difficult. It’s like – on the topic of crowd rap, it’d be great if I were funny enough and smart enough to come up with different crowd rap every single night, something different, but even standup comedians have a routine. Robin Williams even had his own – he was one of the best I saw at just coming up with crazy stuff off the cuff, y’know, he was the best, I think. But he still had his stable of stuff that he did, his stable of funny shticks. So you stick with what you do. I don’t sit there and think, “well, I’m tired of ‘400 Bucks,’ I’m going to drop it. Every now and then – it’s not so much that I’m tired of songs, as much as we’ve gotta get new ones in there, and so sometimes it’s healthy letting go of even your best ones.
Is “Death Metal Guys” still on the setlist?
No, that’s not in the setlist now, that was a couple of albums ago. Maybe we’ll bring that one back, but the one from that album that’s kinda creepin’ back is one called “There Ain’t No Saguaro in Texas.”
Because that was kind of a funny little country story song. It’s funny, because – the Reverend Horton Heat, we came out of the punk rock scene, the ‘alternative’ scene, as I was telling you, but I was a 50’s blues guy, I was a rock’n’roll guy. I was in bands that played country. So we always, even though it was still our own original music, I would switch the setlist around and we’d play a punk rock place one night, for our normal alternative tour, and then get off tour and go play a country bar or play a blues bar. That really helped ends meet a lot. Or we’d play a private party for middle aged people who were more into dancin’ to rock’n’roll than fast rockabilly stuff. So we adapted. We don’t have to do that anymore, but we still do it a little bit – for instance, here in a few hours, we’re playing Plano, Texas, at Love and War in Texas, and it’s going to be a country set. So… We’ll see how we do.
What is your life like when you’re not on the road? Do you have hobbies, do you collect stuff, are you into cars, or…?
Well, you know, I would be into cars – I’ve had a lot of old cars during my life, and I’ve got one really good one right now, it’s a ’32 Ford…
A ’32 Ford, really?
A ’32 Ford, it’s a reel steel ’32 Ford, they’re quite desirable hot rods. It’s a hot rod. But I’ve become rather boring, because this takes so much work, and people don’t realize how much this takes to make this work. It’s kind of mind-boggling. Reverend Horton Heat is now a small business. So y’know, because our governments are basically trying to shut down small businesses, they make taxes so complicated that basically I spend a lot of time being a “tax complier.” So my hobby is tax compliance, I guess is the answer to that.
It really sucks. But you know man, I’m a dad. We don’t live in Dallas anymore, we live outside of Dallas, almost out in the country a little bit, and we have a nice house and a couple of dogs and a couple of chickens, and a couple of cute little girls, and I kinda had to make the decision that having outside hobbies is kinda for people that aren’t doing anything! I’m definitely doing something here, man. I work at music all the time, so you know, when we’re not on tour, and I’m not tax complying, I’m building my studio or I’m in my studio recording stuff and trying to come up with new things – new equipment and new recordings and stuff like that. I had to make the decision that this whole thing with the cars and this whole thing with golf and all of that – that’s gotta go. I gotta play music, I’m a musician.
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