This is the second of three interviews Grave City is doing with former members of Dallas cult punk band Stick Men with Ray Guns. (As I write this, I’m working on getting drummer Scott Elam for the third and final interview.) The first interview, posted yesterday, was with bassist Bobby Beeman and is here. Three new collections of Stick Men with Ray Guns material have come out in the past year and that’s the direct impetus for my wanting to do this.
Clarke Blacker was the guitarist for Stick Men with Ray Guns and performed a vital function for the band as its oldest and maybe most musically accomplished member, with a broad appreciation for various styles of music coupled with an intellectual understanding of punk’s place in modern music history. (And as I mentioned in the previous post, I also interviewed Clarke over a decade ago for my old radio show and podcast, Radio Schizo, after Some People Deserve to Suffer had come out.)
Clarke’s presence helped tie the Stick Men — a band often lumped in with the 80s hardcore punk movement — to the ’77 punk era: Clarke was in the Nervebreakers, and performed with that band when they played with the Sex Pistols at the infamous Longhorn Ballroom show in Dallas in January, 1978. Of course, that show has been detailed in The Filth and the Fury documentary and elsewhere.
Additionally, Clarke has played a major role in stewarding the Stick Men legacy over the past twenty years (or more), setting up the official website for the band — http://www.stickmenwithrayguns.com/ — that serves as a treasure trove of information, interviews, photos, flyers, etc. for not just Stick Men with Ray Guns but also all related acts. A lot of the photos and flyers here on this post are, in fact, from that site. He produced the well-received, omnibus Some People Deserve to Suffer CD in 2002, which until the recent release of Grave City was the most definitive collection of Stick Men with Ray Guns material out there.
Clarke’s band between the Nervebreakers and Stick Men with Ray Guns, Bag of Wire, employed a visual and aesthetic approach that is startlingly modern; the flyers for Bag of Wire resemble the sort used nowadays for postpunk revivalist bands or acts like The Chromatics and Glass Candy. To outsiders, Clarke’s move from the forward-thinking and aesthetically sophisticated Bag of Wire into the untrammeled chaos of Stick Men with Ray Guns may in retrospect seem like a career misstep, but Clarke has explained the transition in interviews before:
“Bag of Wire is the Jamaican slang term for betrayer. […] Bag of Wire consisted of ex-Nervebreakers Mike Haskins on lead guitar, Bob Childress on bass, and me, Clarke Blacker on rhythm guitar, with ex-Vomit Pigs Russell Flemming on drums, and Curtis Hawkins on vocals. Few people know that when Bag of Wire started, Mike and I seriously considered Bobby Soxx as lead singer because he was one of the most interesting people they knew. Mike was, unfortunately, a bit concerned about Bobby’s violent reputation and eventually Mike suggested his friend Curtis Hawkins, who ran the collector record store, Stacks O’ Tracks.” (from stickmenwithrayguns.com)
On an MTV.com (!) profile of the Stick Men, Clarke added:
Stick Men with Ray Guns were under no illusions about our commercial potential when we started the band. Possibly because I was older than most others on the scene, I never looked at SMWRG as a career, and frankly Bobby’s personal problems were so severe that we couldn’t seriously consider touring. It actually made all our decisions easier because we never had to make any of the difficult creative compromises that bands are often forced to make.
What you hear with SMWRG is exactly what we wanted to do together. We could not have cared less if it was popular or if it ever made any money. While Bobby liked getting paid to play, he also knew that with SMWRG he had both creative freedom and a more powerful vehicle than he had ever worked with. I wish that more bands felt that way — maybe their music would be more interesting. Don’t get me started on that.
The sound of Stick Men with Ray Guns was crushingly harsh, and while a lot of punk bands in the 80s were exploring the upper limits of tempo, Stick Men lumbered along with a churning bass line, rendering a sonic effect not unlike a Panzer tank crunching over a mountain of skulls. In retrospect, Stick Men seem like sonic kindred spirits with fellow 80s oddball bands like Flipper, Fang, Kilslug, Tales of Terror, No Trend, or current Swedish band Brainbombs — all acts that have eschewed raw speed in favor of an art-damaged, nihilistic, and jarringly dissonant approach to what’s now called noise-rock. (And these were also all bands that were the odd ones out in their respective local scenes, too.) In fact, in the interview with Stick Men’s bassist Bobby Beeman, posted yesterday here on Grave City, Flipper, Throbbing Gristle, and New York no wave acts were explicitly cited as influences. In Stick Men with Rayguns’ songs, Clarke’s guitar is happy to circle Beeman’s seething bass lines and Scott Elam’s doomy drumming — like a shark waiting to go in for the kill, sometimes assaulting with the straightforward, blunt force of power chords, other times coming in diagonally with the piercing shriek of what sounds like a dentist’s drill. The sheer, visceral force of many of Stick Men’s songs feels like a concrete slab being wedged into one’s brain, and the new releases have been mastered to capture the sheer volcanic force of their songs to devastating effect.
Clarke Blacker was interviewed by Oliver/Grave City in September, 2016.
Oliver: Congratulations on the two new collections that have been put out by 12XU. Can you give some background about these releases, what material they include, and how you came about doing them?
Clarke Blacker: A few years ago, Jack at Enormous Door Mastering in Austin had indicated that he was interested in restoring some Stick Men With Ray Guns (SMWRG) material for potential eventual release. He was a big fan and was interested in helping get our material out there for people to hear. We started looking at what we had that was potential material and decided to concentrate initially on two recorded shows that showed promise. Jack is specifically the reason that all of this is happening now. His faith in the band and his technical help is why we are talking now. We cannot thank him enough.
Clarke Blacker: 1000 Lives to Die and Property of Jesus Christ are recordings that were taken from our headlining set at the Rock Against Reagan Tour recorded in 1984 in Houston, and from our only Theater Gallery performance, recorded in January, 1987 in Dallas. The Theater Gallery show was intended to be our last show before taking a year off to explore other interests. Despite the poor state of the Soxx’s vocals (Bobby was sick) at the Theater Gallery, these were both very good performances. Although we had previously been banned from playing the Theater Gallery, the Butthole Surfers had insisted that we play with them. I assume that our controversial performances had gotten us banned from the club.
Clarke Blacker: The Theater Gallery show was originally supposed to be recorded along with the Butthole Surfers for a proposed double live album featuring the two bands, but the engineer forgot to bring enough tape for both recordings. All we got was a board mix tape. Bobby was very sick the day of the show and his vocals were very rough. Despite the significant acclaim for our performance that night, we had written the recording off as useless. After giving the tape a critical listening we agreed with Jack that it was worth restoring. As it turns out, the recording quality of the Surfers set was so poor that the entire project was shelved and to my knowledge nothing from their set was ever released.
It has always been my position that SMWRG was a really live band, and that nothing released to date had managed to effectively capture the feel of the real live show experience. Over the years, our time in the studio had been limited to just three brief sessions. One of those sessions had been a massive failure, at least in my opinion.
Oliver: I spoke to you over the phone for an interview for a podcast/web radio show I used to do, Radio Schizo, in 2004 or 2005. At that time, Some People Deserve to Suffer had come out after what had seemed like a dry spell of SMWRG material. What prompted you to get that collection out at that time?
Clarke Blacker: To be perfectly honest, the reason that Some People Deserve to Suffer was released on Emperor Jones records was that we finally succumbed to the relentless pressure from the Butthole Surfers. They have been great friends and supporters from the very early days. We had often played together, alternating between who opened for who until they began touring the US and became much more well known. They continued to push us from time to time, but we had been getting on with our lives and didn’t take it very seriously. We were also notoriously lazy.
Clarke Blacker: Sometime in the late ‘90s I had decided to try to self publish something, just to have a record of what we had done. I started to put together Some People Deserve to Suffer (SPDTS) at home from cassette recordings that my wife Vicky had made of some shows, and from some of our limited studio material. SPDTS was originally a 16 song CD that was intended to give the listener a sort of impressionistic view of a SMWRG show, how it felt to me personally.
This was the first time that the public would hear the original studio version of “Christian Rat Attack,” which had been heavily censored on the original Cottage Cheese from the Lips of Death compilation record. The album’s producer was so freaked out about the song that he cut off the spoken word intro and remixed the song, burying the vocals in echo to obscure the lyrics. Gibby Haynes of the Surfers had engineered the recording, and he later stole the half-track master and gave it to us. When King Coffey and Craig Stewart of Emperor Jones again suggested that they release it, I agreed, thinking it as our one best opportunity to finally get the material out there. At their urging, I also agreed to add another seven songs to the project, and it was finally released in September 2002.
Oliver: What are some influences you feel fed into the SMWRG sound? On the phone you had mentioned 13th Elevators’ “Easter Everywhere” and Captain Beefheart as being among faves of yours. Did this somehow influence you and in other projects like Bag of Wire?
Clarke Blacker: There are a lot of things like the Elevators and Beefheart that I like, but I wouldn’t say that they influenced SMWRG very much, at least directly. They and others are always influencing me somehow though, probably more on Bag of Wire than SMWRG. Bag of Wire was a guitar rock band, pure and simple. When we started to put it together we were all suggesting songs from wildly different periods and genres because that is what we all liked. We played what we liked, how we wanted to.
Clarke Blacker: Stick Men with Ray Guns was a completely different thing. We had no real plan during our initial rehearsals, it was obvious that the Soxx had some limitations about what he could or would sing, and that he had a lot of really great ideas. His lyrics were outrageous and very funny. They seemed to need a presentation that was just as outrageous. Rehearsals just got more and more aggressive as we worked on getting a set together.
Oliver: For folks who may for some reason be reading about SMWRG for the first time, can you explain the origin of the name?
Clarke Blacker: The origin of the name was a comic strip that the Soxx drew called Stick Man With Ray Gun. It appeared in a weird tract that he created called The Flaming Gavel. He Xeroxed the art, pasted and stapled the pages together and sold them for a dollar in local record stores at the time. The Stick Man was a crazed racist character who patrolled his neighborhood with his ray gun, obliterating anyone he felt was somehow defiling his turf. It was so irrationally violent and racist that I thought it was perfect for the band’s name. It wasn’t that we were about violence and racism, we were all about irrationality. We gloried in the pointless self destructive nature of irrationality. We embraced it fully as a valid artistic subject to explore.
Clarke Blacker: One of the most interesting things to me was how the Stick Man character took over the band. We were all individually pretty nice guys, but as a group we became much more antagonistic to anything external to the band. We did not play nice with others, particularly if they didn’t play nice with us.
The “fuck you” attitude of the Stick Man had full reign within the band. We were fine unless provoked. God help anyone who said anything negative to us at a show, and never, ever tell us to turn down. We used the band as a weapon, pure and simple. When we were irritated about anything, we took great pleasure in being as difficult and obnoxious as possible.
Don’t get me wrong, I always wanted to put on a good show, but it was only our definition of a good show that we cared about. We were there purely for our own amusement.
(From a 2013 interview Clarke did at PunkGlobe.com:
Clarke: Privately, Scott (Elam, drummer) and I talked a lot about SMWRG and exploring the irrationality of violence and hatred. We made fun of everything and everyone. No one was safe, nothing was sacred, especially ourselves. Just look around you, the world is a cesspool. None of us are any better, no matter what we think. We all have hatred and murder inside of us and it doesn’t take too much to let it out. It isn’t something to be proud of. We aren’t any better than the monkeys. They’re better than us. At least they don’t have religion. SMWRG didn’t advocate hate, we just didn’t advocate anything. To us, everyone was a liar, including ourselves. Unfortunately, when it came time to put out the Some People Deserve to Suffer CD, Scott had had somewhat of a change of heart and he refused to allow us to use the cover picture that he had taken years before for the cover. It was a closeup of a television image of a picture taken of four emaciated children in a Nazi concentration camp at the end of WWII. Scott didn’t feel comfortable using that image any more. I wish he didn’t feel that way but that was the way it was. I guess he was afraid that people might get the wrong idea and think that we were making fun of the children’s suffering. We weren’t, we were just calling attention to the pain and suffering in the world. By the way, Scott also contributed the title of that CD.)
Oliver: Clarke, you were in the Nervebreakers, who opened for the Sex Pistols at the Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas in 1978. What was your impression of punk, and the Pistols, then? Did you meet Sid Vicious or Johnny Rotten at the show? Has your impression changed of punk since then?
Clarke Blacker: Frankly, I had a lot of mixed feelings about it, mainly the fashion aspects. I joined the Nervebreakers as a fluke after their bass player Pierre left the band. I had become interested in what they were doing when I was working at a local volunteer radio station where I had met Mike Haskins, their lead guitarist. At the time, I was about five years older than them, but loved their focus on the guitar based rock of the sixties. I was also just becoming aware of the punk movement coming out of NYC and Britain at the time. I was uncomfortable with the more theatrical aspects of punk at the time. I thought the fashions, the safety pins and such were just silly, but I liked the music I was hearing a lot. It reminded me of why I liked rock in the first place. I never fully made my peace with some of the aspects of the visuals though.
Clarke Blacker: I did then, and still do love the Sex Pistols. The Sex Pistols show in January 1978 was a rough one, at least for me. I never met any of them, and they didn’t seem at all friendly at the time. The actual show was hard because we had not been given a sound check and I could not hear my bass amp if I moved even a foot away from it. I kept checking to see if it was working. I ended up leaving the band a couple of weeks later. Barry Kooda had some words backstage with Sid Vicious, but apparently everyone backed down before it got bad. I didn’t witness it personally. Barry was not intimidated one bit by Sid.
I never was really accepted into the band personally, and I was being pressured heavily by the woman I was married to at the time to quit. I felt I was really just a placeholder, there waiting for someone more permanent to take my place. That person was to be Bob Childress, who became a better bass player than I was, and was fully accepted personally. I did maintain an on again, off again relationship with them for a number of years however, sometimes managing, sometimes acting as a sounding board for Mike Haskins. That later became the origin of Bag of Wire.
Clarke Blacker: I had started to become aware of the LA punk scene by 1980 and I was also mystified by it. At that point I was 30 and the violence surrounding it was disconcerting. I saw The Decline of Western Civilization by Penelope Spheeris in 1981 just as we were starting to put SMWRG together, and I liked it quite a lot. I was particularly impressed with X, Black Flag and Fear. Still, the violence gave me pause. I felt that parents should be very concerned about what they might be doing to cause this level of disconnection in young people. That being said, I thought it was worth paying attention to. The music was capable of a lot of power that was sorely lacking in the so-called New Wave at the time. And just forget mainstream rock.
T o me, the very best part of punk was that, for just a few years, you could present almost any kind of music to the punk audience and if it was good and real, the audience would accept it. For a time it was musically a very eclectic world, but not so much later. When the record companies finally figured out how to make money off it, the nature of the music changed. It quickly became more Balkanized, more pop, and the audiences began to listen only to what they were already familiar with. Within a few years the freedom had been left behind for more commercial success.
It has only gotten worse since then. Music fans are now largely broken up into small groups with very isolated tastes that eschew anything that doesn’t fit nicely into their area of interest. I don’t listen to much current stuff, mainly because I find most of it either too slick or too boring for me. What is called hardcore is usually pretty boring to me and always has been. The bands all sound too much alike. The few bands that I do hear seem to be making music based upon a handful of narrowly predefined punk formulas. I could care less. I still love Public Image Limited however, one of the really great bands of all time.
Oliver: The Stick Men played on the same bill with some bands that are now regarded as incredibly important bands from the early 80s hardcore punk era — Misfits, Black Flag, and others. Can you recall any impression you had of those bands? I remember you telling me you thought the Misfits’ look back then was absurd…. What are some of your memories of punk in the late 1970s versus the 80s more hardcore scene?
Clarke Blacker: Mainly, we didn’t really socialize with many of the bands very much. We had managed to become our own little clique. I had misremembered something years ago — we never played with Black Flag, although I wish that we had. Bobby Beeman did play with them with his previous band, Hole.
The Misfits, however, we did play with, and they were nice guys, even if I thought the makeup, skulls, and other accoutrements were kind of silly. Don’t read too much into that, though: I just think costumes are silly. I didn’t like the Dead Kennedys and didn’t care about them at all. I understand that in later years they have said that we were the only band that didn’t want to hang out with them. I liked X quite a lot. TSOL were nice enough people. Bad Brains were also very nice guys, and I liked them a lot, too.
Oliver: Bobby Soxx’ single “Learn the Hate in the 80s” — how does that factor into the SMWRG legacy? How is his backing band on that EP related to Stick Men?
Clarke Blacker: Other than Bobby Beeman producing the original record, there is no relation between that backing band on the single and SMWRG. It was really the Telefones that backed him on the record as the Teenage Queers. We did play the material in SMWRG with essentially the original arrangements, but I think the difference should be obvious to anyone with ears. SMWRG was much more aggressive, and stylistically more appropriate for the material itself. However, Steve and Jerry Dirkx did each write the music to each of the two songs individually, so I want to be clear and give credit where credit is due. They did a great job, and as such, they should be remembered for their contributions.
Oliver: How was the Dallas punk scene in the 1980s? How was punk regarded by people at large in Dallas, and how would you compare how punk was viewed then versus today? (I’m sure you’ve seen the old Channel 8 feature on Dallas punk and Bobby Soxx that ran on TV in the early or mid–1980s, and which is on Youtube. It’s hard to imagine a news report being made like that today.)
Clarke Blacker: The punk scene in Dallas wasn’t very large, as I suspect it was in most cities around the country. A good show would draw on average somewhere between 100-200 people — maybe. More often, it was 50-100. The fans were very dedicated though, and often traveled out of town to see us play. I preferred to play smaller clubs. I think the best moments happen in places where 100 people pack the place to the rafters. I really enjoyed being on stage, but not at the larger venues, as I had done a few times with the Nervebreakers. I like intimacy with the audience.
Oliver: What upcoming releases or activities are there regarding Stick Men With Ray Guns? Will you all be doing any more reissues, or anything like that?
Clarke Blacker: That really remains to be seen. It depends on what kind of offers we get. We would like to re-master Some People Deserve to Suffer and release it as a double vinyl album. We have some bits and pieces from rehearsals that are pretty interesting. There are a few songs that may have never been played for audiences, some that were played once or twice. Interesting to me at least, maybe to our fans.
Oliver: If you could tell readers one or two things you’d like them to know about Bobby Soxx you feel that they might not know, or something about him you’d like to clear up, or make better-known, what would you say?
Clarke Blacker: Bobby wasn’t a circus act, and neither were we. We weren’t trying to shock people. That’s easy — just throw shit at them. Despite all the often exaggerated stories about how outrageous our shows were, Bobby took his role in the band seriously and, for the most part, he was not difficult to work with. Frankly, I have worked with much more difficult band members than Bobby Soxx. We genuinely liked him, and we thought he was the funniest guy we knew. I was devastated when he went to prison and later spiraled down into homelessness. Alcoholism is a terrible thing. I miss him all the time.
Thank you Clarke !!
Part 1 of this interview series, with Stick Men with Ray Guns bassist Bobby Beeman, is here.
There have been several Stick Men with Ray Guns releases lately:
“Grave City” collection by Stick Men with Ray Guns by End of An Ear is here.
“Property of Jesus Christ” by Stick Men with Ray Guns by 12XU Records is here.
“1,000 Lives to Die” by Stick Men with Ray Guns by 12XU Records is here.