Reed Easterwood woke one morning last fall to a vision: A colossal gold angel--wreath in one hand, staff in the other--spreading her wings over a Romanesque structure wrapped in white cloth. Easterwood was the guitarist on the MC 900 Ft. Jesus tour that had arrived in Berlin the weekend of the wrapping of the Reichstag by modern artist Cristo. The event would be the inspiration for the song "Siegessaule," named after the angel statue: "Something to believe in/anything to believe in/maybe a 60-ft. angel...wrapping up the Reichstag."
Easterwood's muse seems as incongruous as the Siegessaule and Cristo's art, bestowing talent with one hand and invisibility with the other, his career thus far one of accomplishment kept under wraps. The new local label Parallax is promoting the Easterwood-led band Junky Southern with this year's release of Pawn Shop from Heaven.
The CD is rife with mystical symbols like the Siegessaule. Faith is the sole remedy for alienation in "Whisper Religion": "Rugged faces surround me downtown/Inside her she lets me hide there...Whisper religion in my ear." The devil mocks wasted life in the chorus to the anthemlike "Paradise Lost": "Ah, such a precious gift/so why do you abuse it?"
"I have a religious preoccupation," Easterwood explains, "even though I'm not very religious. I constantly have these images in my head. I think [religion] is fascinating, because everyone has to deal with it."
The instrumental accompaniment of Junky Southern is equally sophisticated, punctuated by Easterwood's fluid, polyrhythmic guitar-playing. Odd time and semitonal shifts resonate with thoughtful poetry delivered in his distinctive (reedy, if you will) voice. Recorded with numerous musicians during a span of almost two years, Pawn Shop nevertheless is cohesive.
The artist's struggle also is thematic. "Pay mom, I'm starving on the streets," Easterwood sings during the chorus to the upbeat title track, then "hey, Dad, the ends don't really meat on my bones." The album is dedicated to "poverty-stricken musicians."
"I really haven't had a career as a musician," says Easterwood, who has been performing and releasing material to lukewarm response in Dallas for nearly a decade. "That's been frustrating, 'cause I think the potential is there. I think I write well conceptually, [and] my songs have a style."
That frustration has engendered in Easterwood some bitterness about the music industry, he says. "I saw a kid with a shirt on the other day...that said, 'It doesn't matter how good you are, it's how bad you want it.' That sums up America: It doesn't matter if it's worth a shit or not, you just gotta press it and force it down people's throats. That might sound cynical, but more than not, the concept and the quality of the work doesn't matter as much as if you bust ass as far as business."
An accomplished guitarist who often simultaneously picks and plays slide on his Gretsch Tennessee Rose hollow body, Easterwood spent several years here fronting bands including POWWOW and the Young Cynics, frequently guesting with other outfits that "paid the bills," he says. He played guitar and banjo with Jack Ingram's new-country band, and now often collaborates with folkie Meredith Miller and occasionally plays pedal steel with former Fever in the Funkhouse members in Pluto, which has a development deal with Parallax. Easterwood also appears on several recordings by Dallas rapper Decadent Dub Team-turned-L.A. hip-hop word-speaker cottonmouth, texas (a.k.a. Jeff Liles) and by MC 900 (a.k.a. Mark Griffin), and recently completed tracks for an upcoming MC 900 CD.
Easterwood and Young Cynics bass player R.J. Harrison had already recorded some of the material that would later appear on Pawn Shop when, in April 1994, they relocated to San Francisco to form a band with fellow Texpatriate, drummer Ken Hutchison. "It was just like, 'Man, I need to try to really do this,'" Easterwood says.
After two weeks in California, "I ended up losing my right testicle," he says, "seriously." Easterwood now often jokes about it--"How'd you like to be a rock guy," he mimics the song about misfit toys in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, "with one ball?!"--but then was suffering from a potentially life-threatening condition, testicular torsion. Rare, especially among adults, the vas deferens, when subjected to extreme physical stress, "basically strangulates itself," he says. "I was in severe pain. My right nut swelled to, like, the size of a grapefruit." Northern California hospitals were booked, so Easterwood was placed on a flight back to Dallas for surgery.
Easterwood recounts his in-flight fever-induced hallucinations in "Untitled," the most complex groove on the CD, the tension created by its dizzying 13/8 verse--"On a plane/my guts hanging out/she would come to me in a dream/and lay them out"--resolved by its steady 4/4 chorus: "Pungent pagan priestess...bloody ballerina." Fantastical , even turgid without explanation, the song is a tableau of "orgiastic visions," says Easterwood, "where people get disemboweled, drink lots of wine, and fuck...and [there is] an angel that's also sort of an evil thing--the blur between pleasure and pain, which I was definitely thinking about during that whole year."
By the time Easterwood returned to San Francisco that June, Harrison had joined another band, the still-extant Pop Gun. Easterwood worked at Hyde Street Studios. (He now is the dub engineer at Goodnight Dallas.) "It was cool," he says, "but I wasn't making bread doing that." He also taught guitar lessons at Haight Ashbury Music Center and worked at a deli. "It was kind of depressing," he says.
After the MC 900 tour, Easterwood last year returned to Dallas "with half a recording," he says. The Pawn Shop sessions that followed incorporated tracks from a laundry list of local musicians: bass player Mike Daane, who engineered the entire project at his home studio; drummer Earl Harvin; Milo Deering, who plays pedal steel on "Cry Like a Baby"; Lee Cedino on backup vocals; and the current members of Junky Southern--bass player Dave Monsey, who also had toured with MC 900; guitarist Doug Neil; and drummer Gerald Iragorri, who also plays with Leroy Shakespeare's Ship of Vibes.
Parallax owner Gust Kepler says he was reluctant to support Junky Southern when originally introduced to the band by the company's talent scout, Pluto singer Nick Brisco. After hearing Pawn Shop, Kepler decided to fund its pressing well before the label's official start-up June 1. "I wanted to hear it on my CD player," he says. Several cuts from Pawn Shop are on the most-recent deep 6 Deep Ellum compilation-documentary cassette, and the album is getting local radio play and selling well at area stores. It also is being distributed and aired in South Texas, Atlanta, and Los Angeles.
The banjo bluegrass song "Thanks Giving Dinner" will appear along with tracks by Cowboys and Indians and by Mark Griffin with the Lucky Pierres on the all-local soundtrack to the independent film Dog, shot in Dallas and directed by Mary Hestand (He Once Was).
"Sometimes things just flow and everything works," Easterwood says. Following an atypically engaging opening set at Trees, the conversation among Junky Southern players and friends on the back patio at Club Dada swiftly deviates from germane considerations--why the band sometimes sounds as good as it did this summer evening and other times "just sucks," according to Easterwood--to more esoteric matters: the relative merits of vegetables and flesh; the ecstasy of consuming tuna cheeks; and finally that cannibalism is preferable to starvation. "When you're down to base survival and you have to eat each other," says Easterwood, "Trees and Dada become meaningless."
Clubs, club owners, sound engineers, and even fans also mean little to Easterwood when he is performing. Recently "a bunch of drunk people" joined the band on stage and helped themselves to some of the musicians' instruments. Ignoring appeals from Dada management, Junky Southern refused to continue.
Easterwood says the on-stage lamps that indirectly illuminate most Junky Southern performances "make it more like my living room [and] cast that same light so I can relax more and forget I'm at a club." When a heckler at another recent show complained about the dimness, Easterwood stopped midsong and barked, "I'm doing this for the lamp! If you don't like it, leave!"
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Easterwood's goal clearly is not entertaining the masses, and a summer of Junky Southern shows has been inconsistent, individually adept players often delivering disparate performances. (One show featured an abysmal version of "Sweet Home Alabama.")
"A lot of people think we're assholes," says Easterwood. "The whole 'You gotta put on a show'--I've just never been into that. Sometimes, I guess, that comes off. I think I'm not totally into playing live, so it's easy for me to get dark on it real fast."
The jaded anti-showman nevertheless remains optimistic about his musicianship. "I like playing...trying to get better as a musician, and writing," Easterwood says, "but it'd be cool if it wasn't so ridiculous...and people would get into it because they like the music. Still, when you do have the experience of writing something and recording it, or just having it come into being, it's a great feeling. That's one thing I'm not bitter about...I feel I've grown during the past few years as a writer. I'm hoping that within all of this, regardless of whether it's supported or not, I can continue to get better as a musician...Just paint me as the misunderstood underground songwriter."
Junky Southern performs Friday, October 11, at the Cockeyed Parrot.