Our metropolitan inferiority complex makes St. Louisans obsessive about competing with other cities, hoping that some big victory over our civic rivals will soothe that nagging feeling that we're still in decline. When the Cardinals, Rams or Blues are in the playoffs, it seems the populace can talk about nothing else. During Dick Gephardt's abortive, career-ending 2004 presidential run, the local media followed his travails with a level of detail out of all proportion to his eventual vote count. And every magazine survey or statistical study that purports to compare U.S. cities -- no matter how trivial, subjective or skewed -- gets saturation media coverage whether the results are favorable or not.
But this past June, as a lone St. Louis band battled through the final stages of a national search for the best garage-rock act in America, only a handful of locals were even aware it was going on. Thee Lordly Serpents, a powerful British Invasion-influenced trio who stomp out one instant R&B-punk classic after another, fell in the final rounds of Little Steven's Underground Garage Battle of the Bands. The nationwide competition was initiated by E Street Band guitarist and Sopranos regular Steve Van Zandt, whose nationally syndicated radio show brings his vision of garage rock to the FM-radio masses.
From over two hundred entries, Thee Serps were selected to be one of twenty bands to play the Midwest regional competition in Chicago. The Battle of the Bands' Web site features this priceless pledge from event sponsor Dunkin' Donuts: "Little Steven and Dunkin' Donuts stand for many of the same principles, whether you're talking rock & roll or coffee -- both are authentic, unpretentious and democratic." Was the battle itself as clueless as such blather would indicate? Thee Serps are reluctant to kiss and tell, but guitarist Mick Viper had this to say: "There was a lot of not getting it. A lot of the judges didn't really know what garage was. A lot of the bands didn't even know what garage was."
Seconds drummer Roger "Willi" Cottonmouth: "If you look at the twenty bands we played with, there were maybe two or three that I would call garage, even remotely. There was nobody that I thought was seriously revisionist garage."
Alas, celebrity judges such as Nash Kato of Urge Overkill and Gregg Kostelich of the Cynics liked Thee Serps, but not quite well enough. The band was one of five groups chosen to come back the next night to play a full set, but it didn't advance to the national finals. A last-chance bid to be voted into the finals as the "wild card" band was undercut by a decidedly tepid response from the St. Louis faithful.
For St. Louis bands, it's a common story: local band is hailed as conquering heroes on the road, then comes home to play to six people on a Saturday night.
"A lot of bands have that problem," Cottonmouth says. "We've just had it longer than anybody else."
The new self-titled CD on Pro-Vel Records shows us exactly what we're all missing. Each of the eleven tunes drips with primitive scuzz, from the distorted thump of "Not My Style" and "Gonna Get You" to the moody proto-psychedelica of "I Want You Day" and "But You'll Never Know." The band's long experience writing and playing together is evident in the variety and confidence of the songwriting. Mick Viper's guitar is a particular highlight, seething with tension even on the calmer tunes, and Cottonmouth and bassist Johnny Venom make an economical and energetic rhythm section.
Unlike most records this unabashedly retro, no two songs work the same mood, play the same angles or rehash the same hooks. The guitar leads actually add something to each song! You can actually tell the songs apart after one listen! Such attention to pop songcraft raises Thee Lordly Serpents above the gaggle of pretenders under the garage rubric these days. Tuneless volume for its own sake doesn't seem to interest them.
Maybe this is what people mean by "maturity." None of Thee Serps is younger than 40. Every one has weathered enough musical fads to be able to keep all the b.s. in perspective. When asked about inspiration, Venom cites, "Everything I've ever heard," then adds, "But punk changed my life. I started with '60s pop stuff, which my mom listened to and got me into. I never really was happy with all that, but until I heard the Ramones, nothing ever really clicked. Then I was like, 'OK, this is a hard version of that. Now I'm happy. This is giving me what I want.'"
Cottonmouth's rock & roll upbringing in Poplar Bluff was free of musical diktats and lines in the sand. "The funny thing was, when the New York Dolls came out, I really loved them," Cottonmouth recalls. "Even in Poplar Bluff, I knew about them and I loved them. I can remember seeing Creem magazine with Johnny Rotten on the cover when I was seventeen, and just looking at it and going, 'What the fuck is this, man? What does this guy think he's doing?' Then I'd go get in my car and put in my Kansas 8-track, you know? So when I heard the Sex Pistols, I was like, 'This is amazing,' because it sounds just like the New York Dolls.
"I just liked anything that was hard, whatever came down the pike," Venom continues. "I was into Alice Cooper, Grand Funk [Railroad], Deep Purple -- anything that had loud, heavy drumming. It didn't matter what it was. Back in those days, there were no divisions. You either liked rock & roll or you didn't. There weren't all these different factions saying each other weren't cool.
"Well, not in Poplar Bluff, at least," he cracks.
The same maturity and long-term perspective keeps the band going in the face of frustrating nights in front of local non-audiences. "If it frustrated you too much, you'd just stop doing it and that would be the end of it," Venom says.
"One of the nice things about playing and living here is, we seldom headline a show," jokes Viper. "So we're almost never to blame for a bad night. We always get invited back." Indeed, in a common gambit to fight audience indifference, the band now plans to only play local shows that are headlined by touring bands. "You can say you're just doing it for fun," explains Cottonmouth, "but it's a lot more fun to play to a room full of people who are totally into it."
Each Serp has at least one kid (the band's offspring total seven, all boys), each owns a piece of property, and each has a career that pays the bills. Wouldn't Keith Richards say that these rockers have lost their devil-may-care edge?
"They say that only teenagers have angst," Venom says, "but people who are older just call it stress. Fuck stress: It's angst. I've got more angst now than when I was sixteen, a whole hell of a lot more."