The ghost of Xmas passes

Landmark local band packs it in

They've been around so long, you probably thought it would ever be thus, but Lithium Xmas--first founded in 1985 and one of the few acts that remain from that era--has decided to call it quits with a pair of shows over the next few weeks.

"It's all so sprawling that it's hard to pin any kind of label on it," Lithium Xmas founder and leader Mark Ridlin said recently over a plate of shrimp enchiladas. Indeed, in its 12-year history, Lithium Xmas has appeared on or put out 17 releases and had 18 members pass through--including Mark Griffin, Kim Pendleton, and Tex Edwards--and gone through several changes in character.

"We started out as kind of a satirical thing," Ridlin says, recalling a long-ago inaugural gig at the old, non-Rodman Starck Club. "Not exactly like Spinal Tap, but along the same lines--we wore wigs, stuff like that." In the end, the band's final form--members growing distracted as domesticity took over their lives--was the least pleasing to Ridlin, who made the decision to break things up. "It was all a little too comfortable," he explains. "I just wanted to move on. We've come full circle so many times, there wasn't anywhere else to go, and with the release of Bad Karma [a reissue of 1986's Aneurism, plus some other stuff], we'd come full circle again."

Lithium Xmas will be missed. Although they've gigged infrequently lately ("Everybody I've talked to lately seems to think we broke up years ago," Ridlin says with a slightly exasperated smile), the band in all its forms was a refreshing, innovative group that could still connect with an audience. LX's forte was the cover song, a form many attempt but few master. LX could do it right, bringing their own sense to a tune, but in the service of another, higher point: Witness the covers of Nilsson's "Jump into the Fire," the Lemon Pipers' "Green Tambourine," or the Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs" off of Bad Karma, or any of their countless live Alice Cooper covers.

Currently a trio consisting of Ridlin on bass and vocals, Greg Synodis on guitar and vocals, and Chris Merlick on drums, Lithium Xmas has "proven that things can happen in a vacuum," Ridlin says, referring not only to the lack of attention LX received even in the sign-anything '90s, but to the band's own ambivalent approach to self-promotion.

Although this month's shows will be the band's last, there is still material to be released, including a full-length LX album tentatively titled Star Trouble, slated for release at the end of the summer or early autumn. Ridlin himself--known as DJ Rid at the myriad local clubs at which he spins music--has solo plans, too: a solo 7" with Earl Harvin on drums titled "Ecola," to appear soon, and an entire album, with band, scheduled for later.

The first farewell show will be Saturday, June 21, at the Bar of Soap. "That'll be the one to see," Ridlin advises. "We've invited all our old members and friends and are going to do all the songs you remember, really get into it." The second show, on Sunday, June 29, will be at a benefit for the Dallas Video Association. "We'll probably take it a bit easier, jam more and experiment," Ridlin says, pausing. "You should probably just see both shows."

The messiah of Nashville
Many, if not most, who study the music biz credit producer and label executive Jimmy Bowen with dragging Nashville--kicking and screaming--into the twentieth century. He tells his own story with Rough Mix, subtitled An unapologetic look at the music business and how it got that way, available from Simon and Schuster. When Bowen came to the heart of country music in the early '70s, Nashville was a singles-driven industry still hiding behind a deeply entrenched good ol' boy network. It was not unusual for producers to have a proprietary interest in the entire recording process, from the studio where the work was done to the song publishing, and recording facilities in that town were 20 years behind what Bowen had grown accustomed to on the West Coast.

He was a driving force behind Nashville going digital, and he fought to help artists recover control of their music, reasoning that C&W wouldn't be able to compete with pop until the records sounded like pop records. He worked with Hank Williams Jr., Mel Tillis (who was astounded at the astronomical--by Nashville standards--bill that Bowen ran up making his first album with the stuttering country star: $36,000), Merle Haggard, George Strait, and Reba McEntire, producing for them what would in time be regarded as essential albums. It was Bowen who--remembering past difficulties with a young Tanya Tucker--passed on picking up LeAnn Rimes when the youngster was looking for a major label, but the artist most people associate with him is the man who in many ways became the embodiment of changes in country: Garth Brooks.

Brooks understood the necessity of what Bowen was pushing for: albums that were more than just a collection of singles, but had a beginning and an end and a dramatic flow between, big-time production values both in the studio and on stage, and relentless marketing. Bowen was on hand for Brooks' first two albums, multi-platinum monsters that announced the vindication of Bowen and his ideas. Bowen and Brooks, however, never really trusted each other, and as soon as the star got enough muscle, he forced Bowen out.

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