In the widely anthologized short story "Good Country People," Flannery O'Connor tells the tale of an overeducated spinster with an artificial leg who tries to seduce a traveling Bible salesman. A self-declared atheist, she coaxes the seemingly innocent faith-peddler up into a hayloft -- only to discover that his childlike fascination with her prosthetic limb exceeds any desire to get her into the missionary position. Then he steals her leg. Before descending the ladder, the slick charlatan proudly proclaims, "One time I got a woman's glass eye this way." Christ on a crutch!
As antique-collectors of the strange and grotesque, Reverend Glasseye and His Wooden Legs embody the O'Connoresque essence of an American-gothic potboiler. Skillfully combining Southern gospel, German cabaret, Jewish klezmer, jump jazz, country music -- everything and the kitchen sink -- into a dark and violent carnival ride, the Boston-based group conjures the bygone spirit of the circus midway. The sound is a somnambulist's nightmare populated by hermaphrodites, scorpion-swallowers and unlicensed practitioners of bloodless surgery. Bandleader Reverend Adam F. Glasseye (who used to call himself "Ignatius" and prefers to keep his offstage identity confidential) sees the value not only in theatrics but in colorful -- and deliberate -- falsehoods.
"Misinformation is a beautiful, beautiful thing," the twentysomething huckster says. "There's something romantic about shamming people. There's also something very influential about corruption that generally makes the best music: the turn of the century, with the great bamboozling salesmen; the franticness that came with the Great Depression. Time periods with the most social downfall usually lead to the best musical commentary. The trash days of London in the '70s brought about punk rock. I'm looking forward to what we're about to get into now. We're headed toward a period of some sort of change in music, I imagine."
For the time being, Glasseye and company plunder the past, turning an amalgamation of ethnic styles into a buzzing hive of American junkyard music. Black River Falls, the band's 2001 debut on Coo-Coo Bird Records, erupts with the unrestrained hysteria of no fewer than eighteen percussive devices manned by drummer Timothy Maher and the clatter-happy Richard Cuneo; bassist Dennis Maher and guitarist Deacon Piet Blaise Masone steer the melodic hurlyburly through a cartoonish landscape punctuated by trumpeter Jon O'Than Wobesky's hard-charging brass. At any given moment, all of the members are playing more than one instrument, shouting or yodeling; when not pounding the figurative pulpit and blustering like a loon, Glasseye strums an acoustic guitar, mandolin or banjo. As a collective, the players more than live up to Coo-Coo Bird's curious motto -- "The tree or the forest fire," which, according to Glasseye, simply means "roots music or the furthest thing from it."
"I call what we do vaudeville," he says. "I picked up a theremin to replace the saw, live, because the saw is excruciating to mike and have the audience hear it -- but, then, I can't really play the theremin and sing at the same time. It's a quandary."
Whatever form his band's lineup takes, Glasseye has crafted a world inside his songs that's consistent with their patchwork quilt of styles. Voices speak from beyond the grave in Black River Falls -- like those from Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology -- spanning time, place and common logic. In varying bits of revisionist history, Glasseye resurrects some of mankind's more notorious characters: George Custer, Jesse James, Ho Chi Minh, Cain, Abel and John Wilkes Booth, among others. Even Aleister Crowley drops by for a game of Pick Up Sticks in the county jail ("Paddywagon Turban"). On the album's title cut, a nameless fisherman's daughter collapses in church while Glasseye spews the album's grimmest batch of lyrics: "The funeral was filled with grief/Her mother made not a sound/No one could hear her bite her fingers off/Buried alive underground." And the murder ballad "Seven Little Girls" borrows from one of tabloid history's most horrific sagas to date -- that of a golden-haired child beauty queen and whatever monster took her from her loving parents: "Tell little JonBenét/It's almost Christmas Day/And the chimney needs a sweeping/Before the dear can play."
Taking cues from Jello Biafra, among others, Glasseye discovered the pros and cons of performing loud music. "I played in a lot of punk bands while going through puberty," he says, "and it had some damaging effects. I'm trying to fix my voice so I have something to sing with by the time I'm in my forties. I've been working on it by trying to sing in a higher range, to get away from the Tom Waits comparisons. Being compared to Tom Waits is one of the worst things that can ever happen to you. It's too much of a pigeonhole. If you play country, you're called country. If you play punk rock, you're called punk rock. If you play anything strange and have a gravelly voice, you're called Tom Waits. Being called genres of music is quickly ignorable, but being compared to a human being directly is somewhat defacing. I'd rather be compared to Tiny Tim."
More mock preacher than gutter poet, Glasseye does revisit well-trod territory anytime he screams about Armageddon or having deadly intent with a 30-06. Truly songs such as "50% Murder" and "3 Ton Chain" -- both from Falls -- sound clichéd when compared with material from Waits' 1992 Bone Machine. But with a softer rasp and a wider, more operatic vocal range, the Rev maintains an aura of distinction in the subculture of modern freak-show barkers.
"[Waits] didn't invent this music," Glasseye insists. "If you look back, there's Blind Willie Johnson, who was a huge influence on what I'm doing. There's Dr. Souchon, who was Tom Waits before Tom Waits -- with the snake-oil-salesman pitches and the kind of junk Dixieland jazz and what-have-you. And his music -- if you can find it -- is brilliant. He was actually a real doctor, living in New Orleans in the '20s. But everything is derivative. There is no originality in music anymore. It just depends on what you do with it and where it comes from and what your intents are. If you intend to sound like someone, then you're particularly derivative. If you don't, you may be derivative of a style of music. It's all about matters of the heart, not to sound too cheesy."
Matters of the soul, Glasseye has discovered, are less complicated. "I found God a couple years back," he says, "and not having the patience to go through seminary and being married, I decided to do it the cheap and easy way." Through the Universal Life Church -- a worldwide ministry based in Modesto, California, since 1959 -- Glasseye received his free online ordination in less than five minutes. Legally certified, he's able to perform weddings and assist at baptisms and funerals. "They actually sell something called 'Ministry in a Box' that I've been wanting to get," he says. "But to tell you the truth, I'm not very religious. There's always the power of God in music. Religion creates earnestness in music without it having to be particularly earnest. There's a fundamental power in what you're saying, regardless of how serious you are as a person. That sounds like mad rambling, but there's beauty in Southern religious music that probably had nothing to do with the religion but with the fervor with which they're singing. I find that to be beautiful."
Given the band's willingness to toy with gimmickry -- the vintage clothing, the hyperbole and the frontman's handlebar mustache -- the more subtle beauty to which Glasseye refers often plays second fiddle to glaring shenanigans. But fun is fun, consarn it.
"I've been looking for some circus stilts so I can be the nine-foot-tall Reverend," he says, laughing. "I love the absurdity, the humorless jokes. I'd love to bring animals onstage. Goats! That would be awesome." Past performances have included roller girls and puppet shows; the band also sells tonics -- curious elixirs for pattern baldness and fungus-ridden toes -- demonstrating its perpetual knack for mischief.
"I actually dress this way on a day-to-day basis," Glasseye says of his turn-of-the-century ensemble, which includes a candy-striped vest, pocket watch and spats. "I'm really short -- I'm five-five. Modern clothing doesn't fit me. It makes me look like a latchkey kid. So I got into the Victorian stuff because I can find clothing that fits me that I don't need custom-tailored. But I also have a real big head, so I can't find hats."
Glasseye sees his next album evolving in a slightly different direction. "Our first album cost about the same as a year in college, so I'm guessing I have three more of them before I have to get a real job," he says. "We've been getting into more harmonies, not in the Beach Boys sense but in a Kurt Weill operatic sense. We're moving into vibraphone and pizzicato strings. Bells and whistles. Orchestration. Reverend Glasseye and the Boston Pops. I hope it comes out like I have it storming around in my brain."
Until then, step right up, folks. The funny little man in the pulpit just might hold the keys to your salvation. Or maybe that Bible that he's brandishing contains nothing more than a flask of whiskey. You pay and take your chances. But as the Good Book says: "If thine own eye offends, pluck it out!"