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.

The rumor is that Bowen had much more dirty laundry--especially on Garth--to air, but decided not to. Indeed, while Garth and his people were trying to oust him from Liberty Records, Bowen says, he'd spent quite a lot of time gathering information to be used in his defense. As it is, he paints the pudgy singer as a quiet, soft-spoken, but unusually intense young man surrounded by sycophants. In Bowen's estimation, Brooks was emotionally immature, prone to megalomania, and made several critical errors early in his career that cost him much popular support. Brooks also was unrealistic about the business, refusing to accept sales of three or four million after the runaway 10-million-plus sales of huge successes like Ropin' the Wind or the effect his mega-bucks deal had on Liberty's cash flow, Bowen says.

If there's any part of the book that's common knowledge, it's this. But it's surprising to find out that Bowen--born in New Mexico in 1937, raised in West Texas--was a rocker, getting with some Dumas homeboys and forming the Rhythm Orchids. Essentially hapless, the Orchids did manage to have some commercial success (as Buddy Knox, the group's vocalist and guitarist) with "Party Doll," which reached No. 4 on the pop singles chart in April 1957. In October of the same year, "Hula Love" made it to 13. Buddy Knox and his band played on Alan Freed's legendary shows at Times Square's Paramount Theater and traveled the country with some of Freed's package tours, rubbing elbows with artists like Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Clyde McPhatter, and Buddy Holly. The boys even made it to the Grand Ole Opry, where they ran afoul of the Opry's "no drums" rule.

Represented by the predatory Morris Levy, the boys never saw much of the money they made, a fact that may have contributed to the maverick streak that Bowen was later to display--never again would he not be at the wheel. The band broke up, and Bowen married, drifting off to work first in radio, then as a songwriter for Glen Campbell in California. Connections he had made on the road helped him, and he wiggled his way deeper and deeper into the music business in L.A. His big break came when he engineered Frank Sinatra's mid-'60s revival, choosing songs for the Chairman like "Strangers in the Night."

"Strangers" was a study in Bowen's no-nonsense manner of kicking ass. Immediately before the song was to be recorded, Bowen found out that Jack Jones was planning on doing the same song and in fact was set to release it in a couple of days. Bowen hustled into the studio and cut the song, then spent the whole night lining up his strategy: Although there was no way the vinyl could beat Jones' version to the marketplace, Bowen had dozens of acetates cut, then dispatched runners to get the discs into the hands of important radio people across the nation. Acetates wear out after just a handful of plays, but the drama behind the distribution--Frank's new single is coming to you direct from the studio by special courier on the 5:30 p.m. flight from Los Angeles--caught everybody's eye; DJs taped the acetates and played the single nonstop. By the time the single hit the market on vinyl, the cut had heavy national play; Jack Jones never had a chance.

Good work for Sinatra led to Bowen's engineering similar revivals for Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Soon he was working with Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, Bing Crosby, and Nancy Sinatra, and moved up to running his own label, where he had J.D. Souther and Glenn Frey on his roster; he then picked up a band called Shiloh that featured a young man named Don Henley. Unfortunately, that was several years before these youngsters would develop into the SoCal music mafia that would include Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and Warren Zevon.

The book contains many telling little nuances that are obviously coming from one who was there--Sinatra's terseness, Hank Jr.'s habit of firing a .38 loaded with blanks in the studio--but no real D-I-R-T. Bowen tells his tale with honest self-interest, emerging as a not-entirely likable guy who got the job done. A self-confessed workaholic--18-hour days were the norm for Bowen--other facts behind his four marriages go relatively unexplored. Bowen is, however, up-front about his hardball tactics (he once stole tubes from a competitor's recording equipment in order to beat his record to the public), and Rough Mix is an illuminating look into the Machiavellian world of making music.

By the time he got to Nashville, he was the label head as itinerant samurai, going from one company to the next, taking on challenges, trimming rosters, streamlining staffs, and generally turning things around. Always an outsider to Nashville, his no-nonsense approach earned him few extra friends, a fact that seems to bother him little. His diagnosis with cancer in 1994 and his ongoing battle with Brooks finally led to his retirement to Hawaii a year later, where he seems to have found a measure of peace.

Nashville now bears Bowen's mark--state-of-the-art facilities, big-time stage shows, fully realized and effectively marketed albums--but it'll be up to the individual reader to decide if that's altogether a good thing; it's hard, at times, to keep from blaming Mutt Lange and Shania Twain on Bowen. Nashville has caught up with the bicoastal pop centers--in fact, its music is often indistinguishable from theirs. Bowen is justifiably proud of his work in purifying the sound of recorded country music--his explanation of how and why the "honk" of many early country cuts kept people away is fascinating--but it's interesting to note that one of country's more interesting movements is dedicated to putting the "honk" back in.

Still, at the end of Rough Mix, one doesn't doubt that change of some kind had to come. Jimmy Bowen has done a good--if not startling or shocking--job of relaying to us why it turned out the way it did, and what his part in it was.

Scene, heard
Musical wild man Paul Slavens has opened yet another stylistic door with Absolute, a collection of what the irrepressible Slavens calls his "classical style" piano compositions. The release party will be Wednesday, June 18, at Club Dada, where Slavens usually holds court on Wednesday nights with his Freak Show and/or trio. "It's something I've been working on a long time," Slavens says of the album. "I wanted to create something that's just to be listened to and enjoyed, something that obviously wasn't designed to get a record contract." On other Slavens-related fronts, the Green Romance Orchestra has an album--very similar to the hard-to-find disc GRO was giving away in the area last year--slated for upcoming Japanese release...

Hunter Sullivan unveils his King for a Day debut album at The Joint this Thursday, June 12...the Bathhouse Cultural Center will feature jazz saxman Joseph Vincelli in a Saturday-evening show June 14...Birch County is looking for a bass player...

Street Beat welcomes your input, help, thoughts and feedback at Matt_Weitz@dallasobserver.com.

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