Ain't nothing quite like a wild-eyed Southern boy hell-bent for destruction. And so it was that a scrappy band of redneck Floridians tore it up in the name of a rebel yell and no damn good. "Flirtin' With Disaster," "Beatin' The Odds," "Whiskey Man," "Gator Country." They were named for a whore who hacked up her customers, and were everything my parents warned me about.
Molly Hatchet, whiskey-snortin', stage-pawin', corner-on-two-wheelin' Southern rawkers -- in the full "R-A-W-with-a-K" sense, were the haywire, total voltage pay-off on the die that Skynyrd cast. Loud guitars, blazing singer, swagger like a dagger, they were full-tilt bravado wrapped in Confederate bars.
Blaring out of the smoked'n'tinted windows of Camaros, Mustangs and various muscle cars. They were for girls with feathered hair, looking more like Cherie Currie -- the too-fast, glossy-lipped lead singer of the Runaways -- than Cheryl Ladd, and sweaty boys with greasy hair, sweat-stained t's and tires squealing through dead end lives.
WSHE in Miami -- "She's Only Rock & Roll" for those who remember the great Southern rock stations -- rotated them like a daily special, alongside Zeppelin, AC/DC, Mott the Hoople and Aerosmith. A veritable jewel in the slightly askew, dinged and dented crown of Southern rock, Molly Hatchet didn't necessarily get their props with the hipsters, but they ruled the summer concert sheds.
For many, it wasn't life-altering, remember-where-you-were-when-you-heard news that Danny Joe Brown, the tempest with the buzz saw in his larynx aimed straight for the core of the song, was leaving the band. Perhaps only the true believers cared when he came back. Me, I was somewhere in the middle -- a college kid, nose to the grindstone, trying to eke out a name as a writer who might matter, recognizing proximity and the REAL second oldest deal on the books:
who ya know.
Seems Molly Hatchet used to make their records in a little studio outside Orlando called Bee Jay. Seems the man who owned it -- a blindingly stunning Adonis named Eric Schabacher -- used to listen to my radio show on WPRK, the year I spent stranded amongst the rich kids killing time at Rollins. Seems when it was time for the big reunion, the warm-up gigs were gonna happen at the Hallandale Agora, a mere 35 minutes from the University of Miami, where I was toiling to get that degree.
And so a call to my old friend, who called his old friend, who let the tour manager know that the kid should be cared for. And so, an afternoon of cut classes, decamping in the seedy bar of the Holiday Inn adjacent, carpet reeking of mildew and spilled drinks, probably unintentionally spilled bodily fluids and sweat. It was anything but glamorous. It was also the last place to leave Lois Lane in full-rut on a quest for her critical bones.
When forty minutes turned to an hour-thirty, the little girl turned into the baby cheetah - hacked off has never been a look I wear particularly well. Marching to the house phone, sure that circumstances were conspiring against me, the tour manager's room both politely and sweetly requested. The almost irritated tone suggested interruptus of some manner, but my patience was gone.
"Look, you said 40. it's more than double that. you figure this out NOW."
The response was the typical dismissive, "Well, things change. You'll have to."
Before the word "Wait." could escape, it was countered with the equally thrusting, "Let me tell you, pal. You obviously don't know how I came to be in the lobby of this shithole, but let me drop a name on you: Eric Schabacher. KNOW it? Good! 'Cause he's my next call. My guess is his next call is Pat Armstrong, and it's all down hill from there. "Now, what exactly do you need to tell me?" There was a pause you could drive a double wide through. "Good. I'll just stand right here for a few moments, and let the desk know you'll be calling me back."
Receiver to cradle, eyes blinking in shock. Nothing like the rage of a black Irish woman convinced she's been affronted. Yet? What if the grandstand play didn't work? And yet, what was being gained by playing it safe?
Just then, the phone rang. It was tour manager-in-full-quake. Was it drugs? Fear of the home office? Recognition of what a jerk he was being? Didn't matter. The next utterance was a big chunk of what I'd come to hear.
"Dave Hlubeck, the lead guitarist [I knew who that was, for the record] will be down in a few minutes. Danny just jumped in the shower."
"My name's Holly."
"Right. Uhm, do me a favor. Don't get into this with them."
It wasn't. Revenge is for the weak, not the winners. Getting what one needs is more than enough, taking down the people who get in the way of that is a waste of energy. Even then, I knew that much.
Not much longer than my return to the barstool, where a ginger ale, light ice, lay flaccid and dying, a long haired, thick-waisted guy in a black tank top demi-waddled up. He'd brought a baseball cap, an offering to calm the foot-stomping brat he must've been told I was.. I just looked at it.
"Don't know what you said to our tour manager, but you lit a real fire under him," he said with an uncertain laugh, extending his hand. "I'm Dave Hlubeck."
"I know who you are. Creatures of the road understand each other. He underestimated me is all. You wanna do this here? Or go to a table?" All business. All the time. It's the only way a 19, 20-year old girl can keep the natives respecting.
He took the bar-stool and we took off in dizzying conversation. The serrated edge of a brutal guitar, the bias against Southerners and typecasting as a unifying weapon, the fear about and power of the much-vaunted reunion, the songs on the upcoming record, the new band members, the meaning and complicity of rebellion, the strength in numbers, The Bible, especially Revelations -- and the classic reality-breaker: the conflict between Heaven'n'Hell, which starts at home, is fueled in holy rollin' churches and is fanned by Friday night juke joint fever. He was humble in a way that belied his pompousness, yet he also believed much of what he was peddling -- inhaling the self-aggrandizement for so long, it became a self-sold truth.
When the hour had turned well into the second, the guitar player with hair almost to his butt needed to take his leave of me. What had started out as a shut-that-kid-up play had turned into something that challenged his perceptions, opened his world -- and mine. To see how hard someone like this believed spoke volumes about the power of delusion and the will to never be hungry again. For someone who easily teetered on the high wire of loathsome, there was something utterly human and therefore admirable about him.
His high-flying singer, the one and only part Cherokee, soul patch glistening as a landing light for the tequila'n'Jim Beam swillin' ORWs - or in more modern Gretchen Wilson speak 'Original Redneck Women' -- was another story. In his room a bit later, white bed linens wadded up around old blue jeans at the base of tired looking bare feet, Danny Joe Brown was a melancholy soul of the road, not quite surrendered, but reflective about all that had led him to that point.
He believed in this band. It was why he was back After leaving -- ostensibly because of his chronic and severe diabetes, but the down low back when was a power-struggle with Hlubeck that more than demonstrated the power of their tension, the sizzling current of showmanship, oneupsmanship and just plain resentment -- it was obvious, the flint and spark came from the sum of the parts, the alchemy of raw want against revenge against stereotypes and the will to explode any chance proffered.
Danny Joe Brown, the quiet man. Pensive, reflective. Not willing to say his time away was lost, not ready to throw his arms around what would be a compromise. "I believe in what we made," he said thoughtfully. "I believed in these songs. and this band. I want to do this." A simple benediction. A clear explanation. A reason to believe that would hold water in the rain.
Exhaling deeply, I considered the scene. Rock warrior. Groupie quarry. Possessed banshee. Caged lion. Quiet storm.
He was forthcoming. Considerate of his answers. Not one to overstate. Not one to talk the big talk. Yet, he seemed to understand that while they never had the hoist of Skynyrd, or the cred of the Allman boys, they were in many ways the white hot center for white trash roughnecks and romeos, jacked up and ready to "fuck-or-fight" as the beer joint parlance so tactfully put it. It wasn't necessarily an army he'd've convened by choice, but they saw something in the music -- and he recognized the raised fist in them all.
Danny Joe Brown, smoldering mystery and mayhem, had come to play -- in every sense of the word. With a Pentecostal bone and a rage that simmered so deep within, one could hardly sense it beneath the almost zen placidity, this was an exhortational front man preaching a gospel of ne'er-do-well, not-quite-enough,busted-chances, moments-shattered, loves found, faithless women, reckless men, Hell-Yeah's, Hell-Nos, kicking in the stall and every Southern cliché known to man.
John Prine once said "Cliches become clichés because they're true."
John Prine is a wise man.
When the conversation was done, I headed back to my dorm room. Head buzzing with everything that was shared, wondering where the lines were, the common reality separate from the truth. I would return that night, backstage pass waiting. I would stand by the far side of the stage -- watching the steam and combustion rise.
For the collected audience, it was kerosene and grain alcohol hurled against a wall of sparks. It was hot. It was heavy in the way only loud chords can be. It was speeding like a freight train downhill, no brakes. It was the rush and gush of an almost rapidfire drumbeat -- and the throbbing bass that kills, echoing a more rural Johnny Thunders.
There was hair and beer swinging. There were big speeches and quickened tempos. There were bodies pressing forward, shoving to get closer to the keepers of the renegade flame. They took no prisoners; they rode hard; they mostly believed -- and believed in gutty kids who showed up, looking for something that made them proud to be swamp crackers, short on prospects, long on "oh, yeah."
The big bravura ballad was a new song. one that culminated Hlubeck and my conversation, one that included the Pope and Kissinger and Arafat, the Middle East, the end of the world as we know it (long before r.e.m. ever embraced that reality). and it's meaning went over most everyone's heads. Watching the lighters raise, wondering if they might've even missed the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King in their express lane to fallen Southern rockers Duane Allman, Berry Oakley, Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines.
Standing there, the dust and the smoke and the moistness of exhalation in a too hot room swirling around me, I scratched my notes into a reviewer's pad -- and I wondered. Not about the power of the performance, though never quite a fan, I understood when a band ran 40,000 volts straight into an audience's soul, but of the way things can mean such different things to so many.
When the last note was played, the encores spent, the chants finally died off, the lights started coming up. The Hallandale Agora wasn't much in limited light. Now it was a lot of black paint on two-by-fours, duct tape and chipped edges. It was the kind of place you expect to see someone with a long handled broom pushing the night's detritus into a heap in the middle of an abandoned dance floor.
It is what it was. Another hollowed-out past-midnight where the echo of what was had faded to nothing, the beat of one's own heart mocking your faith in what had passed and the notion of not-going-home, but-not-staying-there seemed daunting.
Standing with the vertigo that afflicts one who's had their world tossed into the tumble dry, not quite sure what I believed about any of what I'd just seen anymore. I knew Creem or was it Musician was correct when they reviewed the album this tromping of the troops was meant to rally called No Guts, No Glory with the tight little bromide "Wrong. All Guts, No Glory is more like it," a not-so-veiled reference to the paunch bubbling out from many waist-lines, most notably Hlubeck's bare-chested under a leather duster look.
To see people turn themselves inside out, to believe in something so bloated and dumb was miraculous. There was no irony, no knowing-eye-rolling, nudging, winking. They were of another cast and caste, proud of where they came from and what they represented. As the night verged on morning, aching and sore, they emerged from the cramped dressing room with the grammatically incorrect grafitti, the holes punched in the dry wall, furniture punctured and hemorrhaging stuffing. It was a hard-scrabble refuge between glory and stale hotel rooms, it was the ollie, ollie, income tax free zone where they weren't quite mortal, even as they weren't the golden gawds that gallivanted around that stage, either.
Soft skepticism in my eyes, I said my good nights. Head cocked. Watching their progress out the door. Some walked slowly, arms draped over too-skinny girls who weren't anorexic, but opted to put their money into meth and menthol cigarettes over nourishment. These weren't even fallen angels, just broken refugees of the night -- clinging to the fragments of a venal dream that sustained those for whom it was enough.
Danny Joe emerged about last -- with a better quality of woman. No debutante or Mother Theresa to be sure, but the singer always gets the girl. Before disappearing out the back door, he looked at me. Just held my gaze. Didn't shrug or shake his head. Didn't seem to wonder much at all.
"You be back tomorrow?" he graveled out, with what little voice wasn't shredded on the altar of those raving breakneck songs.
"Yeah," I said real quiet.
"Well then, you'll be on the list."
That was that. Now he's gone. 53. Diabetes and life beyond-lived. Demons no doubt, and yet a grace to walk the line that gave him dignity when so many would've been cowed by the crappy room, the lousy circumstances and all those people who didn't get the honor of lifting up what one was, regardless of what it was or where it came from.
Somewhere across town a friend girds up for battle for a new duo made up of old parts. Called Van Zant, it's the other brothers, one a .38 Special, one a Skynyrd. I figure he's got his work cut-out for him, but those Jacksonville boys take a hit hard, then soldier on.
Quickly I send him a note. Because, as I tried to suggest, these folks don't look back. Too damn heroic for histrionics, and yet... There is dignity where they come from, the belief in Sunday dinners and saying "Ma'am," as much as fighting for what you believe in.
The note offered a simpler truth than any I can now muster:
<<it was a by-god time back then...
faded glory, though, don't fade memories
that's the news
good & bad
give them an angel's wing for me
soft and white and downy...
& pass the essay on, too, if you think they're readers
it's in progress right now
as if you even wondered
a quiet head bowed for another lost soul headed home>>
Once upon a time I managed a girl named Mary Cutrufello, a Yale-educated black woman with dreads and androgyny, who could make a Telecaster burn. The line on her was "the future of rock & roll;" Springsteen was a believer, Mellencamp and Gregg Allman hired her, Bonnie Raitt hailed her -- 'cause it rolled through her veins.
She wrote a devastated song about a songwriter who was about consumed by consumption that was beyond her reach to help called "Good Night Dark Angel." A celebration of homicide-turned-suicide, it offers perhaps the best epitaph ever --offered to a God who doesn't try to understand, just tries to catch us when we fall "Another soldier coming home."
Tonight, he's not flirtin' with disaster, a cloud of dust whipping beneath his feet. May there be peace in Gator Country -- and anywhere a Rebel flag may fly. Tonight, a baby girl rock critic grown into a midwifer of dreams bows her head to another star twinkled, then out. Maybe the world just got a little colder. Or maybe there's another ragged, jagged soul looking to take care of his own from the other side. Somehow I think Danny Joe Brown would prefer it that way. Head high, no tears, guitars blazing. Forever and ever amen.