Brother Russell Miles is 32 years old, and the only thing he does, day after day, is make prank phone calls. He has done this for years, since he was a child growing up in the suburbs of Dallas, making amateur comedy tapes with his older brother. The pair would sit in their room, one of them pretending to be a radio talk-show host, the other a fictitious caller. They worked out intricate pranks, including one where Miles' older brother masqueraded as an elderly woman who would admit to the host that his show was the only thing she lived for. After she had reeled the host in, her ceiling fan would come crashing down on top of her, "killing" her on live radio.
More than two decades later, Miles is still doing the same thing. Now though, it's his job.
It has been a strange trip. A decade ago, Miles (his "rock-and-roll pseudonym," he says, not wanting to reveal his real name) was a devout fundamentalist Christian, a devoted disciple with the kind of religious fervor rarely seen outside of a tent revival or a parole hearing. He was one of the flock, a believer. As a vulnerable 19-year-old, he was saved and jumped into Christianity with both feet, beating the Bible so hard he bruised Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the process. At the time, Miles was just another confused kid trying to find meaning in his life, trying to find his way. He thought religion was the answer, and in a way, it was. It just wasn't the answer he expected.
"Instead of dabbling around the edges, I went into it so intensely that I was able to get where Oz was and see him behind the curtain working the controls, basically," says Miles, as he sits in a nearly empty Cafe Brazil, picking at a plate of chicken crepes. "I had a lot of really disillusioning experiences. I'm not an atheist now, but I don't consider myself a fundamentalist by any stretch. Obviously."
Miles laughs at this remark, an understatement of biblical proportions. To many people--especially right-wing and religious talk show hosts--he is the Antichrist. Shortly after leaving the church after a brief, three-year fling, Miles redirected his religious ardor into what he calls his "renegade ministry," a record label (Trance Formation Records) and online mail-order business (located at www.fringeware.com/~melba) based on the time-honored practice of prank phone calls. Through six years and twice as many guises (most often, an elderly woman with a salty vocabulary named Melba Jackson), Miles has made thousands of crank calls, each driving a thorn a little deeper into the side of the religious entertainment industry.
But talk shows aren't his only targets. Trance Formation's latest release, this year's Here is Melba!, is a disc of calls Miles has made to various home-shopping channels over the past few years. As Melba, Miles frustrates operators with inaccurate credit card numbers, momentary bouts of Tourette's syndrome, and profanity-laced diatribes against Mormons, but somehow, rarely gets cut off.
"I think most of the time--especially on home shopping channels--they may suspect something wrong, but they probably get so many weirdos calling, I mean, genuine weirdos that really want to buy something, they can't just dump you," Miles says. "Same thing with the religious talk shows. When you're sitting around waiting to get on those shows, you end up listening to them over and over. We noticed that some of the real callers were just as weird as we were. I used that to kind of harass [Austin talk show host] Mike East one time. I said, 'Mike, your listeners are so weird that you can't even tell the cranks from real callers.' And what happened, he started getting gun-shy and cutting off sincere callers. Anyone who was sincerely weird or had speech impediments. He'd get trigger-happy."
Sitting here, Russell Miles blends in better than a BMW in Highland Park. Dressed in jeans and a white "Lewinsky Cigars" T-shirt, he looks like anyone and everyone. He talks in a gee-isn't-that-something manner that tends to make you forget he's the one making the calls. That is, until he slips into one of his characters.
It all began rather innocuously six years ago, when Miles moved to Austin. He had left Dallas to escape the city's conservative environment and grow his hair out, literally and figuratively. But what he found when he arrived--at least on radio talk shows--was a climate every bit as stuffy as the one he thought he had finally freed himself from. Bill Clinton had just been elected president, and shock waves of moral outrages were spreading across the country. Conservative pundits were having a field day on talk radio. And that's when the calls started.
"Right after Clinton got elected, I was sort of amused by the reaction on some of the Christian talk shows, conservative talk shows, to Clinton getting elected," Miles recalls. "They were apoplectic. They were in shock. The first tape I put together was a collection of calls I made around that time, sort of capitalizing on the hysteria."
On that first tape--Brother Russell's Radio Jihad--Miles used the hosts' own rhetoric against them. On one call, radio healer Steve Solomon supposedly heals Miles' back over the phone. Miles ends the call by crying out in pain, "Shit, that hurts! I think you fucked me up!" Solomon promises the next caller her pain will be transferred onto Miles. Miles pops up again later, in a slightly altered voice, claiming he and his friends are practicing voodoo curses to help transfer the woman's pain, as per Solomon's directive. As Solomon stammers a reply, it's clear Miles' point has been made.
The tape began circulating in Austin, even landing in the hands of the talk shows he was continuing to call. Miles had only made the tape for his friends' enjoyment, but eventually, a copy made its way to the West Coast, where it received several favorable reviews. Unwittingly, Miles had stumbled onto a career.
"Within just a couple of months of putting it out on tape, I had dozens of people from San Francisco sending me cash through the mail for copies of it," Miles says. "That was when I was hooked. When you're living in Austin and you're barely making it, people mailing you cash to hear something you created is pretty cool."
Radio Jihad was eventually released on CD in 1996 by the San Francisco-based Vinyl Communications Records (and re-released on Trance Formation). Since then, Miles has produced two more crank-call collections--1997's Melba Comes Alive! and Here is Melba--and appeared on several more, including the recent Melba's Phone Militia Presents Sonic Damn Nation. Miles sells all of them on his Web site, an online mini-empire that has grown to the point that Miles calls himself "the Bill Gates of weird."
Besides his own recordings, he also offers an assortment of offbeat music, including Batman A-Go-Go (a whopping 34 versions of the Batman theme), and So Groovy Inside, a compilation documenting the early beginnings of Christian rock. (This, despite the fact that he doesn't own the copyrights to any of the material or have licensing agreements with the original distributors. Of course, it's not like he'd make much money from the recordings--the quality often ranges from bad to worse--but maybe that's why he doesn't reveal his real name.) He also sells a selection of videos, including Jonathan Bell Does Dallas, a 90-minute joyride through the world of Bell, a raving-lunatic-convicted-pedophile Canadian hairdresser who had a short-lived ministry on Dallas cable access television.
One of Miles' favorite titles is Mondo Tilton, the definitive collection of clips from money-hungry televangelist Robert Tilton's television ministry. Miles has always had a soft spot for Tilton, going back to the early '90s, when he was a member of the Official Unauthorized Bob Tilton Fan Club. In fact, being a member of the club helped Miles realize there was a market out there for what he was doing.
"The Official Unauthorized Bob Tilton Fan Club had a big shindig at Club Dada somewhere around '90 or '91," he remembers. "I went down there, and I was just thrilled. I had no idea that there were that many freaks in Dallas that watched TV preachers for all the wrong reasons. Tilton was the one that really blew my mind, because he was so completely over the top. Even during my real religious phase, I didn't follow Bob Tilton. I thought he was a huckster even back then. Later, I was able to see him with a sense of humor. I was able to appreciate the entertainment value of it. To me, that's still what all that stuff is about. The whole religious question, to me, is beside the point. I would be willing to bet that a lot of those guys know that. They're just providing a service."
To those who see the unintentional entertainment value in TV preachers and oddities of all sorts, Miles is also providing a service. It's a service that has taken up most of his spare time, even forcing him to take a year-long hiatus from making calls. Lately, though, he has been on a tear, fueled by newfound inspiration. After making scores of calls over the years, there is one call he hasn't been able to connect on yet. This one isn't for business; it's for fun.
"I really wish I could get through to Dr. Laura," he says. "It's next to impossible. I've never gotten through. It's like playing the lottery to even get to the screener. Somebody told me that Dr. Laura gets something like 60,000 calls a day. Especially now that these naked pictures have surfaced. I think Melba needs to call her up and console her about her sordid past. That would make a good call."
In the interest of making you, dear reader, feel like we really do care what you have to say (we do--really), beginning this week you can go to the Dallas Observer's Web site (www.dallasobserver.com) and cast your vote for the year's best albums. You can actually rock the vote in several categories, including the best nationally released album, the best locally released record, best male and female vocalists, and so forth. The votes will be tallied--10 points given to your first choice, nine for the second, and so forth--and appear in the December 24 issue, alongside our critics' poll. When you cast your vote, you will become eligible to win copies of the top 10 locally and nationally released albums voted upon by the readers of the Observer. Who says we're self-absorbed?
Oh, yeah--we do. To that end, Scene Heard: Dallas Observer Radio is now on the air (OK, the Internet) live for one hour every Tuesday, from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. Accessible through dallasobserver.com or broadcast.com, the show's a veritable grab-bag of new rock, old rock, local rock, and everything in between. But more importantly, it offers readers a chance to call in to talk about all the rock with Zac Crain and myself. Why tell us we suck in a letter when you can just tell us to our faces? The number is available through the Web sites, and the shows are archived for your listening pleasure.
Don't believe everything you read: The Ronnie Dawson show scheduled for November 28 at the Sons of Hermann Hall ain't gonna happen. The gig was originally going to be a CD-release party for Dawson's Live at the Continental Club, which was actually released earlier this summer, featuring members of Dawson's longtime band (better known as Austin's High Noon), which appears on the disc. But scheduling conflicts with the band, which has since gone its separate ways, made it impossible to play this week. Instead, Dawson figures he won't play his hometown till next spring--by which time his next record, More Bad Habits, should be in stores. The album, which was recorded in October in Portland, Maine, will feature Dawson's new band--which includes a 19-year-old guitarist from Cleveland--and is being released on a brand-new label, Yep-Roc. Dawson, appropriately enough, will be the label's only artist...
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