Sunday, February 16, 2020

Nurse the Hate: The Cincinnati Hasil Adkins Gig

I had received an email seeking information about a Hasil Adkins gig I had booked in Cincinnati at the Southgate in what seems like a thousand years ago.  Billy Catfish asked me about details about how the show came together.  It was like trying to remember a disconcerting dream that leaves you off-kilter the entire next morning after waking.  The pieces started to fall into place, but I will admit some sizeable gaps.  This is what I remember, but don’t hold me feet to the fire on this…

It was Summer.  That I can remember.  At least I think I do.  I had put together a record for Hasil on Shake It Records from cassette tapes of songs Hasil had sent me.  The tapes were crazy.  A song from the late 1950s would be immediately followed by one he recorded two nights earlier which would go straight into something from the 1970s.  There were two types of songs:  Fast Songs and Slow Songs.  He was adamant that the record be synced to go fast song/slow song/fast song/slow song.  I preferred almost all the fast songs which captured the insanity and reckless spirit of the man himself.  However, he was the artist.  Who was I to argue?  Eventually we titled it “Drinking My Life Away” and I believe it stands as one of the best records of his later period after he had been “discovered” by Fat Possum well after the landmark Norton reissues.

I can’t remember if the show was a “record release” show or not.  Trying to work things out with Hasil was never easy.  I would have late night conversations with him which would almost end up with him asking me for money.  “Greg!  Can you send me an advance!”  I think he was under the impression I was a big time record executive as opposed to a guy in a pair of shorts in his living room.  We had a history of playing shows together in West Virginia, but he could never seem to make the connection that I was the same guy from The Cowslingers.  Thus, each time I called him I had to reintroduce myself.  It was never easy.  If I asked him if he wanted to play on show May 6th for example, I would hear a response like this…  “Oh yeaaahhh I am going to be in Canada, New York, they love me in New York, and Dallas and they keep asking for me over the water so I got to get over there and…”  That’s great Hasil, but what about May 6th?  Repeat.

It was a difficult feat to get Hasil on the road.  He could forget about the gig, refuse to go, disappear, or just not feel like playing when you went to pick him up.  There was no way he could drive himself as he had lost his license decades ago over countless DUIs.  If you got lucky, he would climb in the car to go to the gig.  The problem was that as soon as he got in the car, he would start drinking.  If the gig was 30 minutes away at The Empty Glass, that was no problem.  If it was four hours away at the Grog Shop, that was a sticky wicket.  John Steele told me the trick was to water down vodka to keep him on the rails.  It was a technique that was at least functional.  To think that Fat Possum records put Hasil and T-Model Ford together on a bus tour still blows my mind.   

For the Cincinnati show, I gave the Southgate the complete caveat emptor.  I will book him, figure out how to get him there but I can’t guarantee any of it would happen as he could refuse to leave his trailer.  I gave my usual backup plan of two Cowslinger sets with a Hasil no-show.  “Sorry everybody, no Hasil!  Here’s a deep cut from Boot N Rally!”  (general murmur of disappointment)  The problem on my end was I didn’t want to have to drive to his trailer in Boone County WV just to ply him with alcohol to then immediately drive to Cincinnati.  I would need to dupe someone into it.

I want to apologize now for not remembering the man’s name that volunteered to get Hasil for us.  I think it was Jason.  This was one of the most heroic acts of all time agreeing to make this suicide run.   It makes firefighters look like cowards.  He should get priority boarding for all airplanes for life.  “Thank you for your service sir.”  I can’t recall how we got him to agree to it.  Someone volunteering for this mission must have had a Leo tie-in somewhere.  This was all pre-Google maps so I had to draw out directions complete with the tips on how to handle Hasil.  “OK, so when you pass the third guard rail you’ll notice a small dirt road.  DO NOT drive down it as you’ll bottom out your car, so park just down the road and walk until you see the City Bus on blocks in a clearing.  I would call about 45 minutes and again 15 minutes before you get there because if he forgets you’re coming he might shoot you.”  These were just some of the actual directions.  It was a real production.

I called Hasil in the nights leading up to the Cincinnati gig just to make sure A) he remembered, B) planned on still playing and C) there was no other craziness I needed to know about.  It required a delicate touch.  Hasil was in good spirits, especially so about a new fashion trend he believed he had discovered.  “It’s been so hot, I’m been sweating like a mofo.  I just made myself a shirt.  People like it!  I made it myself!  People like it!  I’m gonna wear it tomorrow!”  It sounded like things were as together as they would ever be.  It was in God’s hands now.  Jason would drive down to get him and in theory, we'd have a show.

When we got to Cincinnati the next day, I walked into the Southgate ready to absorb whatever potential catastrophe had already occurred.  Things were oddly calm.  Hasil was in the dressing room and asking for me.  I walked to the back room of the old auditorium.  This was going to happen.  I couldn’t believe it.  I walked in the dressing room and saw Hasil.  He was sitting on a weatherbeaten chair in jeans and old brown dress shoes, an old thrift store cowboy hat with drawstring up to his chin, plastic sunglasses and each finger wearing a fake gold ring.  Most notably was his homemade “shirt”, which was a yellow and blue bed sheet which he had cut a hole in the center and tied around his waist with a remnant piece of rope.  It was sort of like a mumu.  It was insane, like something a mental patient in a post apocalyptic nightmare would construct out of necessity.

I don't have any memory of our set.  Honestly, we were just there to kill time.  I think Billy Catfish played too, but once again, this is just a vague feeling.  When you took Hasil on the road, the crowd was exclusively there to see Hasil.  Half of those people were jacked up to hear him play his "hits", in a stage of semi bliss that the miracle of seeing this obscure bucket list concert would be checked off.  The other group was there to see the freak show, to observe this mythological creature which had been pulled from the West Virginia holler like Bigfoot.  I always had mixed feelings about doing these gigs, like I was potentially exploiting Hasil.  However, I genuinely loved his music and he was certainly one of the most unique individuals I would ever meet.  The stories surrounding the man are legendary.  Plus, he needed the money...

I recall Hasil's set being chaotic.  There was a woman that kept getting up on the stage and touching him.  She had to be on LSD or ecstasy as there was no rational explanation for her behavior.  Hasil was a good sport about it, but it was hard for him to get into a groove as this woman would quickly drift back onto the stage just as soon as she would be led off in the first place.  Eventually he just got tired of the entire thing and finished in his traditional manner, tossing the drum kit.

There was a question about what to do after the show.  It's not like you could just send Hasil over to the Holiday Inn.  Billy had a party at his house as I recall.  Jason drove Hasil over.  It was pretty unhinged with a weird electricity in the air.  I have an image in my mind of Hasil playing some of his slow songs illuminated by a lamp with missing lampshade.  At this point, I felt a wave of relief as the show was in the books and whatever insanity that happened now was off my watch.  I crashed out quickly planning to escape the madness at morning.  I think Jason was supposed to drive Hasil back the next day, but instead there was some sort of audible called and those guys got into some adventures.  The story is very murky to me now, but in the end Jason ended up driving to the desert after spending too much time with Hasil.  This MIA road trip may have been responsible for sending his marriage to divorce.  In the Hasil Adkins concert promotional game this is referred to as "collateral damage".

That was the last time I got involved with taking Hasil on the road.  We played with him at the Empty Glass a couple more times, but he had canceled twice as often as he played.  We had a couple failed attempts at picking him up at his trailer, one of which a zonked out hillbilly woman chain smoked cheap cigarettes and glared at us as we tried to cajole him into the van.  He told us she would drive him to the club later.  "Hasil...  I don't see a car anywhere..."  He didn't make that one either.  The last time we played together we recorded both of our sets onto a half inch tape machine.  It was one of the best sets I ever heard him play in person.  I have never heard that tape.  Hasil died in 2005.

The great gift of today's world is that we are all connected, evolving and reacting to one another in real time.  This is also a curse.  It is impossible now that a man in the woods in West Virginia could hear songs on a distant radio station by "Hank Williams" or "Elvis Presley" and think that they alone made all the sounds he heard, forcing him to improvise into a crude one man band to try and create his own music.  Hasil Adkins was a unique individual from a time that is long gone.  Doing those shows were a terrible idea.  I'd do it again in a minute.


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