Mojo Nixon is talking rock 'n' roll. "Some people want English art-pop dance bands," he drawls through a wolfish, insincere grin. "But this music"--he means his music--"is more of an American
t-floor-cowboy-boot-Saturday-long-neck-beer-bottle-backseat-of-a-'57-Chevy frenzy. That's what my people want."
Nixon's "people" may not be legion yet, but here in the last outpost of Southern California culture, Nixon's hyphenated frenzy is finding an audience, zapping critics, connecting. Joined by partner Skid Roper on everything from blues harp to washboard, Nixon offers an eccentric repertoire of country, rockabilly, gospel shout and talking blues spiced with funny "stream-of-unconscious" lyrics ("I'm in love with a lady wrestler, she got me in a figure-four facelock . . . baby don't stop," he croons in "Jesus at McDonalds").
Likewise, another San Diego band, the Beat Farmers, is serving up a rootsy, risque, rockabilly-country-blues hybrid that keeps winning fans and influencing the influential. The Farmers have just released their first album, "Tales of the New West," on the Los Angeles-based independent Rhino Records, while Nixon's first--on another L.A.-based indie, Enigma--is due later this month.
Nixon (who plays Saturday at the Spirit here) bears frequent comparison to the likes of John Lee Hooker and Woody Guthrie. The Beat Farmers' sound has been likened to early Merle Haggard, even Creedence Clearwater Revival. Both acts seed their main body of originals with outside material by writers from John Stewart to Lou Reed and, most notably, some "Nebraska"-era Bruce Springsteen: For Nixon, it's a rare Springsteen flip side called "Big Payback"; for the Farmers, it's "Reason to Believe." All of which is enough to set them apart from the struggling scheme of local bands, most of which still work the punk/new wave/synth-pop side of things.
Certainly, the Beat Farmers and Mojo Nixon are atop a San Diego rustic-rock pyramid that has a very real connection to such Los Angeles-based acts as Tex & the Horseheads, Blood on the Saddle, the Blasters and others. But where bigger-city roots-rockers tend to be more rhythmic and exude more calculation, Nixon and the Farmers work their charm with a raw, loping, love-it-or-leave-it intensity that has a lot to do with San Diego's being cut off, as it were, from the music industry mainstream.
"I think one of the problems with being in L.A. or New York is that it takes quite a while till you're a big fish in a big pond," says Nixon, who won't give out his real name, age, or Deep South birthplace (other than to call it "Pigfoot, La."). A "Kerouacian" drifter and former VISTA volunteer, he settled in San Diego two years ago, "waylaid" by a love affair after a cross-country motorcycle ride that he intended to end in Los Angeles.
"Here in San Diego, you're only talking about 50 to 100 people who are the main links in the music scene--there's not a lot of money involved, but you can do what you wanna do. There's no pressure on me to be more commercial, or to sing less risque songs, or tone down my act for more 'normal' people. I mean, we can go up and play a show in L.A. and it'll be good, but then it's 'Who'd you sign with?' or 'What's your publishing deal?'--that music gossip stuff. I'm not into that."
Nixon is a wild card, certainly, but much of what he calls the roots-rock "underground" has its immediate roots in punk. This is true for bands like Blood on the Saddle and Austin's Rank and File (which, as the Dils, used to punk it up in North San Diego County), and especially for the Beat Farmers.
Vocalist-drummer Country Dick Montana spent five years as one of the Penetrators, San Diego's main entry in the late-'70s punk sweepstakes.
Two years ago, the Beat Farmers evolved from his similar ex-punk group, Country Dick & the Snugglebunnies. Farmers guitarist Jerry Raney had come to local punk prominence as the leader of the Shames, while bassist Rolle Dexter and guitarist-banjoist Buddy Blue had been with the Rockin' Roulettes.
As far as these veterans are concerned, the Beat Farmers is a last shot at success--"I'm startin' to ache," mock-moans Montana. "Lotta bone chips floatin' around." Now they're getting strong response and good reviews not only at hometown clubs but at such Los Angeles spots as the Music Machine and the Palomino.
"I don't think this band would have been formed anywhere else but in San Diego," said Montana, whose bullfrog baritone suits his hulking frame and enhances the hard-driving physicality of his stage presence. "If we were in L.A. and had gone through the frustrations there that we have down here, we would have been so incredibly jaded that it would have been impossible to approach all this in the proper frame of mind. L.A. is so full of sharks and hype, it's amazing that so many bands up there are really cool and honest and sincere."
Montana ranks such kindred acts as Los Lobos, Rank and File, the Blasters, Bangles, Long Ryders and James Harman among the Beat Farmers' Los Angeles network of support. (Various members of those bands are heard on the Farmers' album, which was co-produced by Steve Berlin, who guided Los Lobos' current LP.)
"They're a community of people who seem to be particularly inspired and inspiring, and everybody just kind of helps each other out--the competitive factor isn't there the way it used to be, for some reason," said Montana. "Still, I think we have a different approach. Those bands are a little bit more stylized, where we're more of an open bastardization of various musical forms. We're just taking everything we've grown up with and fusing it together.
"And we're not a 'cowpunk' band. We're dealing more with folk and blues and roadhouse rock, and we can even get dangerously close to heavy-metal sometimes, but that doesn't seem to bother anybody."
What seems to be connecting above all else is the rough-hewn honesty and eccentricity of what the Beat Farmers and Mojo Nixon put out. Country Dick Montana speaks of working all manner of "dirty old ditties and hobo songs" into the act, while Mojo Nixon lists such non-musical inspirers as Richard Pryor and Hunter Thompson. An archivist's love of the obscure runs through it all.
"I got a big collection of extremo records--really weirdo stuff," boasts Mojo Nixon. "One by a guy named J. B. Smith, who's in prison in Texas somewhere and all he does is sing how he's been in prison too long for the crime that he done. And Bongo George Coleman! He stands in front of the Alamo with hammer handles topped with Campbell soup cans filled with BB's, banging' on a steel drum and singin' these rambling commentaries on America, these morality tales. Yeah, now that's the kind of stuff."