The 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia, is a hallowed place in indie-rock lore. More than twenty years ago, R.E.M., Pylon and the B-52's got their start at the self-described "premiere music club in the Southeast," helping to create the notion that American regional music scenes had indigenous sounds. But it ain't the same in the new millennium, according to Joe Bradley, drummer for Atlanta garage-punk delinquents the Black Lips. Last year around this time, the Black Lips were winding up their label showcase set at the 40 Watt when all hell broke loose. Bradley was minding his own business, methodically applying lighter fluid to his drum kit, when two bouncers grabbed the five-foot-ten, 135-pound musician, slapping the lighter out of his hand.
"Zippo fluid only burns for a few seconds, and I moved the mics out of the way," Bradley says. "I don't know what they were so upset about. I had to do something, so I kicked all my drums over. After the chaos onstage was over, the two guys picked me up, threw me outside and tried to get me arrested." That didn't work, so they hauled Bradley in before the manager, who stiffed the band out of $300.
The 40 Watt may have ripped them off, but the Black Lips got the last laugh by catching two of the bouncer buffoons on tape and using the dialogue to kick off their début CD:
Buffoon Number One: "You come to a real rock club, you don't fuck it up."
Buffoon Number Two: "Exactly! They should be over 21 to do that shit."
Buffoon Number One: "No fire in the 40 Watt, motherfucker!"
One year later, the incident remains a perfect example of what's wrong with music today: Rock & roll has always been about drunken teenagers fucking shit up. If there's no place for that, rock might as well roll over and die. But as the Black Lips' very existence proves, going back to basics can breathe life into the old gray mare. Their hybrid of British-invasion rock, lo-fi psychedelic blues and first-wave punk resembles that of more popular bands like the White Stripes and countless neo-garage rock acts. But the similarities end when the Black Lips walk onstage. "When you play music, you gotta be passionate!" Bradley exclaims. "I hate bands just standing around. Why bother playing if you're going to just stand there? It's so boring! We'll do anything but stand still."
And when Bradley says anything, he means anything. Singer/guitarist Cole Alexander is known for pulling his pants down and smacking the guitar strings with his penis. If that doesn't kindle enough of a reaction, he transforms himself into a perverted fountain by pointing his unit upward and aiming for his mouth. A couple of months ago in Columbus, Ohio, bassist Jared Swilley suddenly threw down his bass and jump-kicked guitarist Jack Hines across the stage and down the stairs. Hines responded by tackling Swilley and kicking him in the head. "If the audience is standing there, it's harder to get worked up," Bradley explains. "If they're dancing, we draw off that." In addition to dancing, the band encourages friends and fans to throw lighted firecrackers and full beer cans at them. "Why not?" Bradley asks. "They don't hurt much."
Much of the Black Lips' appetite for destruction can be traced to their residency at "Die Slaughterhaus," the seven-bedroom, ex-Georgia-Tech frat residence they rented after graduating from high school two years ago. Die Slaughterhaus had a sloped roof that doubled as a skateboard ramp. The place also was the site for punk-rock house parties that featured bands from all over the country. Admission was free for local shows, three bucks for national acts. Obviously, this didn't leave much in the budget for cleaning supplies. "It was really dirty," Bradley recalls. "You couldn't walk barefoot. There was broken glass and filth everywhere. I wouldn't even sleep on the couch -- it was that disgusting."
After a year, the building was condemned. "We had a destroy-the-house party," he says. "People were smashing beer bottles into the wall. There was a person-sized hole by the staircase. Someone ran right through it, like on Tom & Jerry."
After their property was condemned, the band moved into "Die Slaughterhaus II," which featured a boxing ring in the backyard. On a lark, the band sent a copy of a self-pressed single to small Los Angeles label BOMP, which signed them immediately.
With their début disc (Black Lips!) in the can and a planned winter tour, everything seemed to be going the Black Lips' way. Then this past December, two days before the tour was to begin, a drunken driver struck their guitarist, Ben Eberbaugh. "Some bitch was driving the wrong way without her lights on and killed him instantly," Bradley recounts. "There were so many people at the funeral. We were the pallbearers. It was like that movie Suburbia when all the punk-rock kids came up the aisle."
With heavy hearts, the Black Lips pressed on. The day after the funeral, they left on tour as a three-piece, taking childhood friend Hines (who turned down their guitar job back in high school) along for the ride. By the time the tour got to Hines' home in New York City, the band had convinced him to join and move back to Georgia. But the lads in the Lips are hardly ever in Hotlanta these days. Their album is winning rave reviews, and they're busier than one-legged men in a butt-kicking contest. Die Slaughterhaus II is on the verge of extinction as the Black Lips are becoming a global phenomenon. "Only two of us live there anymore, and we're never home," Bradley says.
With any luck, another group of miscreants will maintain the house while the Black Lips conquer the world; after all, it's not condemned -- yet.