Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Tales From the Cracker Box - Hanging with Johnny Hickman

I had a chance to do some catching up with Johnny Hickman of Cracker after the band's performance as part of the "Last Summer on Earth" tour. After giving the rest of the bill (Barenaked Ladies, Blues Traveler, and Big Head Todd & The Monsters) a tough act to follow with a set full of classic Cracker hits, we snuck Johnny off to the cozy confines of a local wings and beer joint for a couple hours of civilized conviviality and laughs (laughs mostly courtesy of the hilarious Joe Kroger - a pal of ours who maybe knows more about rock and roll than any of us).   

I still remember picking up the first Cracker record back in 1992 at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. What sold me was one name in the liner notes - Jim Keltner. If Jim Keltner was playing on a band's debut record, it had to be a helluva good band, and a helluva good record. In fact, it's a great record. When I told Johnny Hickman last night that it was one of the best debut records I had ever heard, he smiled a big smile. When he told me the story of how it came to pass that The Jim Keltner had played on the record, I smiled.

"That was our producer, Don Smith's doing," Hickman said. "We were recording just up the road from where Little Village was making their album. Don said that Jim might be willing to play on a few songs if he dug them."

That's why I had bought the Cracker record - I knew that if Keltner's name was on it, it couldn't suck. Actually, that's Hickman and Cracker co-founder David Lowery's mantra - "The only real rule in music is 'don't suck.'" Keltner's name is like the Rock and Roll Seal of Approval, if he's on it, it generally doesn't suck.

"Don took the demos and let Jim have a listen. He came back saying that Jim would play on the record, but only on the songs he chose. He chose three - and it worked out perfectly, because he picked one of my tunes, one of David's, and one that we co-wrote. Mr. Wrong, Happy Birthday to Me, and This Is Cracker Soul." Hickman continues, "Cracker Soul was first, and it was just me and Jim playing that long intro before the bass comes in. I kind of just took a deep breath, and he counted us in. We started playing it together - just over and over trying to find the right groove.

Photo by Joe Kroger
"All of a sudden, I just felt it come together (he brings his hands together in a swoop towards the heavens), and right then, Keltner just looks towards the control room and makes a circular motion with one hand, as in 'role tape.' We nailed it in one take. We recorded the entire thing together, and then we just added everyone else's parts around what Keltner and I had recorded."

If you have the first Cracker record, this would be a good time to throw it on, and listen to this of piece rock and roll come Bakersfield via Motown. Davey Faragher's bass walks in like John Wayne wearing Jamerson's bass, and it's off to the races. Cracker Soul? You're damned right - this song perfectly encapsulates the essence of the sound that led the band to selling tons of records and selling out tons of shows over the years. It defines Cracker soul.

"You know," Hickman says when ex-Cracker bassist Davey Faragher is brought up, "Dave is just such a huge talent. He arranged all the background vocals, and plays bass so well. He kind of upped our game, he was the local boy from Redlands 'made good,' - you know he played on The Pointer Sisters's I'm So Excited back in the early '80s."

This Is Cracker Soul is also a grand example of the musical marriage of punk/pop/country/soul created when Lowery and Hickman finally joined forces after years of circling around one another in local bands since they were kids.

"When we got together, I think David and I realized that there would be some give and take, a little pushing and shoving between us, creative tension - just because we both feel strongly about our own ideas. But over the years it's worked out better than we ever would have guessed (at this point Johnny intertwines his fingers to make one large fist, and that maybe makes the point better than words).

"When we were both just in local bands, every so often, I'd walk up to David, and say, 'Hey, did you write that?' or he'd walk up to me and ask the same thing, and after an acknowledgement, the other guy would kind of walk away with steam coming out of his ears, knowing he had to go write something just as cool."

It's nice to sit and listen to Hickman speak with such reverence and respect for his bandmate of over twenty years. He waxes enthusiastically about Lowery's amazing ability to combine his love for everything from Bakersfield country to Captain Beefheart to give birth to such perfectly unique tunes such as Kerosene Hat, or the tale of the band's incredible, but unfortunately unheard cover of Led Zeppelin's When The Levee Breaks. If you look for Internet references of Cracker covering this tune, you'll find that every source you locate says that Cracker recorded and submitted the tune, Good Times, Bad Times, after their take on the aforementioned 'Levee' was deemed, 'too weird.' Turns out the Internet isn't always right. Here's the real story.

Photo by Joe Kroger
Johnny Hickman, "We recorded Good Times, Bad Times because there was a legal issue with When The Levee Breaks - Zeppelin was in a lawsuit with the publishing company who owned the rights to the Memphis Minnie classic (the song was originally written by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy in 1927 after the Great Mississippi Flood killed hundreds of African-American levee workers - often referred to as 'Katrina One'), so they couldn't give us permission to use When The Levee Breaks. Of course, they only told us we couldn't use it after we had already recorded it. It's a shame we couldn't put it out, it was such a great version - there are loads of dark and mysterious harmonica all over it, just layers of overdubs - it really sounds amazing!"

Maybe someday, when there's a Cracker box set, this gem will see the light of day. As it is, if you're pining for new product from the band, it appears that they are considering a new record for an early 2013 release. In the meantime, both Lowery and Hickman have released excellent solo albums since the band's last release, Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey, in 2009. Albums which both are filled with great writing, singing, playing, and a few songs that would have fit very well on a Cracker album.

"The Palace Guards (Lowery's 2011 solo release - was such a great record," Hickman agrees when I mention it, "But boy, there are a couple of tunes on there that I would have loved to sink my teeth into! Two of them in particular, I Sold The Arabs The Moon is such a great tune, but especially Baby, All Those Girls Meant Nothing To Me. Those would have made such great songs for the band, but that could be true of about any song David would write - it is a really cool record. I suppose there's a few like that on my solo records too - numbers where the other guy hears a song, cringes, shakes his head, and wishes that one could have been saved for the band."

 Speaking of solo albums, Hickman has just released Tilting, his second solo release, and his first as a label owner. I asked if there was any chance for some solo shows later in the year to support, and how he liked being a record mogul.

 "We've been kicking around the possibility of doing some shows. It would be great to be able to do it with a band because the tunes lend themselves to a full band treatment. I've been talking about it with Jason (Larson, the record's producer), and one of the questions is what role Jason would play in a band - he plays every instrument. We'll know more later in the summer. I've had my hands full getting ready for this tour and getting my record out there. It's a lot of work, but everything is going really well!"

We also spoke about the currant Cracker tour - I was surprised to not be seeing bassist Sal Maida up on stage, but thrilled to see his last minute replacement Bryan Howard doing a fantastic job. I asked Johnny how much rehearsal time they had with Bryan.

Johnny said, "Bryan's doing great, I'm glad you noticed. No, we didn't really get a chance to do full rehearsals at all with him. He's pretty familiar with the material though, and he's a fine musician - We're all sorry that Sal couldn't do the tour, but yeah, Bryan's a lot of fun to play with up there."

And who knew of Cracker's connection with gore rockers Gwar?

Photo by Brenda Yamen
Hickman explains, "We were neighbors. They lived right beside us when we lived in Richmond. There's a part of town called Oregon Hill, and it was filled with musicians - us, Gwar, a funk band on the corner, it was crazy, but it all kind of fit together.

"Later on, some of the crazier characters became pretty inspirational, especially around the time of Kerosene Hat, when we lived in the desert and there'd be all sorts of pretty weird characters everywhere you'd look. One day David just started singing, 'Here comes old lava lamp, here comes this, or comes old Kerosene Hat' - bingo. We called them desertbillys!"

We covered a lot of ground in those few hours over our drinks, onion rings, and cole slaw, but the funniest part of the evening came when our friend Joe had Johnny sign a Merle Haggard record. Now, you may wonder why on Earth would he have Johnny sign a Haggard album - well, here's the story.

A few days before the show, Joe and I were out for a leisurely lunch and stroll through Dayton's Oregon District - I had wanted to introduce Joe to some interesting characters in the district, such as Greg Bonnett - a rather large and imposing figure of a man (maybe 6 foot 7 or so), who happens to not just be one of the world's great guys but also runs the best used book store East of the Mississippi, Bonnett's Books (since 1939!). We were also on the hunt for some Cracker on vinyl - Joe is a memorabilia buff, and he thought a signed album cover would be a nice addition to his enormous collection. Turns out that people keep their Cracker records. After searching through the bins at Omega Records and The Record Gallery we were empty handed. As close as we came to striking gold was when we looked for a solo Hickman slab - no Hickman, but alas, we came across Merle Haggard's 1976 release, My Love Affair with Trains (title song written by Dolly Parton - make your own jokes). Well, given that Haggard had similarly rakish good looks, and Bakersfield roots - we had found our cover.

Hickman laughed, and played right along, "Is it OK if I sign it, Hag?"

We howled, and the deed was done - Joe had his prizes for the day. He had a signed album cover, a back stage pass, an autographed Cracker concert poster (by Johnny and David Lowery), and as he put it so well, "Killer show at Fraze tonight. Even better hanging out with one of my favorite guitarists/songwriters afterwards. Tonight was certainly a highlight of this life."

Telling Tales Out of School!
A splendid time was had by all. I even got to tell Johnny about a great new record by local boys Buffalo Killers, who share with Hickman the fine talents of Pavement PR's Tony Bonyata - a guy who both bands and myself agree does a fantastic job for his clients.

Johnny on Bonyata, "It's great to have someone as enthusiastic and passionate about the music as Tony on our side. He has such a rich history of knowledge and experience that it's an honor to work with him."

If you get a chance to see Cracker on this tour, check 'em out - they're on fire. Buy Johnny and David's excellent solo CDs, and keep your eyes open for a slew of new blogs from Johnny that he said were maybe heading our way - he's a great storyteller, songwriter, guitar player, and all around good fella.

Thanks to Johnny Hickman, Cracker, Tony Bonyata and Pavement PR, Joe Kroger.

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