Learn to Hate Stick Men With Ray Guns All Over Again
The landscape of Texas punk in the 1980s is a thing of legend. From the abject lunacy of Culturcide and Butthole Surfers to the iconic anthems of the Dicks and the Big Boys, something in the cultural make-up of the Lone Star State made the place a fertile breeding ground for some of the most challenging, unhinged music in recorded history. This was not the Texas of J.R. Ewing by a long shot; instead, it was a land populated by a unique brand of misanthropic lunatics who were equally suited for the stage and the psych ward.
Chief among these individuals was a man named Bobby Glenn Calverley, better known by the moniker Bobby Soxx. Calverley appeared on the Dallas scene towards the late 1970s, and quickly gained notoriety for his malevolent attitude and behavior. Looking and acting like some bizarre amalgam of Buddy Holly and Jack the Ripper, he briefly performed with the Skuds and Teenage Queers before starting one of the area’s best and most infamous bands, Stick Men With Ray Guns.
Stick Men With Ray Guns existed between 1981 and 1988. They recorded very little and never played a show outside of Texas. Still, they are noted as being one of the single most caustic, volatile punk bands of a notably ugly decade. They deliberately antagonized their audiences with tactics like hostile noise and overbearing lighting. With Calverley at the helm, their sets would often devolve into abject violence towards the crowd. They existed as an embodiment of pure spite and hideous beauty. No band has quite come close to matching their vitriol since.
Although the band dissolved in the late '80s, the Richard Hell / Thurston Moore side project Dim Stars covered the Stick Men With Ray Guns song “Christian Rat Attack” in 1991, posthumously exposing the band to a new national audience.
After Stick Men With Ray Guns split up, Calverley did a good deal of time in prisons and institutions before winding up homeless. Sadly, he passed away due to complications from alcoholism in October of 2000. Just a few months beforehand, guitarist Clarke Blacker released a number of rare Stick Men With Ray Guns tracks on a compilation called Some People Deserve to Suffer. In 2003, the album was expanded and re-released on Emperor Jones.
Thus began a scattered renaissance of sorts for Stick Men With Ray Guns. Some People Deserve to Suffer was well-received in the music press, and the attention brought about a renewed interest in the band. Over a decade later, their song “Hate in the '80s (Learn To)” appeared on the AMC television show Halt and Catch Fire.
Stick Men With Ray Guns recorded infrequently during their lifetime. Their studio output only appeared on a handful of compilations, which had long since fallen into a world of near total unavailability. In 2015, End of an Ear unearthed and remastered all of these tracks and released them as Grave City, to the joy of collectors and the curious everywhere.
As 2016 slowly comes to a close, 12XU are treating us to the first ever vinyl releases of two Stick Men With Ray Guns live albums. Recorded in 1984 and 1987 respectively, Property of Jesus Christ and 1,000 Lives to Die highlight the hateful prowess of one of the greatest punk bands to ever come out of Texas (or anywhere else, for that matter).
I caught up with Blacker and bassist Bob Beeman to talk a bit about the band and its enduring legacy.
Can you guys tell me a bit about how punk in Texas was changing from the late '70s going into the '80s? I know that Clarke was in the Nervebreakers for a while, which was a band that played a much different brand of punk than the Stick Men. Given the time period and your physical proximity to bands like the Hugh Beaumont Experience, Butthole Surfers, Scratch Acid and countless others, from the outside looking in, it appears like a cultural upheaval that was somewhat unique to Texas was taking place. I was wondering if you could tell us a little about that. Was this a matter of personal change, a shift in the scene, or something else entirely?
Clarke Blacker: The Nervebreakers actually predated the punk thing a bit. The core of the group really grew out of glam in the early 1970s, and over a few years morphed into something like what would later become punk. I came along sometime around late 1976. By then, the Nervebreakers were more complex than a lot of early punk, but still relied heavily on their Troggs and Kinks influences. The advent of the Sex Pistols and others just dovetailed neatly into what they were already doing. I can’t say much about any special aspects of the scene in Texas, other than to say it was Texas. Innumerable famous musicians have come from Texas, but most had to leave Texas to become famous. No one in the country gave a damn about Texas in the middle 1970s, so it was its own little artistic island. The disorganized scene gave us all a lot of freedom. There were few conventions that we had to conform to.
Bob Beeman: Most people don't realize how big Texas is. It is 239 miles from Dallas to Houston. And speed limits then were 55 mph, so it was a 4.5-hour drive. That's like New York City to Washington, D.C., or Cincinnati to Cleveland. So, the sheer distance made scenes from one place to another very different. At the same time, we were all in Texas, and there is a bond just from that. Austin is closer, and we played Austin more and had a bigger following there. Actually, our band fit into the Austin scene better than the Dallas scene, and we were much more popular there, but we were definitely a Dallas band. I don't know that we took influence from those bands, but they were our friends; we hung out with them, partied with them, and then did our thing and they did theirs.
One memorable show was in Austin — the Hickoids were opening for us. It was in the basement of a bookstore, and when I walked in, the Hickoids were walking around with DayGlo face paint, and there were clotheslines all over with giant vegetables. And they played and were just on fire; they were so great. So, we were sitting there watching this, trying to think of how we were going to follow that. We went out and we are doing our set, and in it we are doing a cover of the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog." And I look over and Bobby is singing, and his girlfriend is giving him a blowjob on stage while he sings; and so I'm not sure if that would have happened if we had not been following such a great performance, but in that respect, we all pushed each other to be better at what we did.
Clarke, legend has it that Stick Men With Ray Guns started when Bobby Soxx asked you to play music with him after catching a set by your old band, Bag of Wire. What do you recall about this initial interaction? Did you already know him from around town or through Teenage Queers and the Skuds? How did the rest of the band come together?
CB: I had seen the Soxx around town and probably had not spoken to him more than once or twice when he asked [me] to start a band with him. I didn’t take it seriously at the time. He spent quite a while that night talking to my future wife, Vicky Bowles, at the bar. He had been in a version of the Teenage Queers with her sister, Valerie Bowles. It was one of our first few dates, and he — as he did always — treated her like a queen. He gallantly inscribed a copy of his tract The Flaming Gavel that he gave her with the line “Vicky is exempt!”
I do remember seeing him sing with the Skuds one night at DJ’s. Three guys all singing at once — it was pandemonium, one of the funniest things I had ever seen. I loved it. When I left Bag of Wire, I put the word out on the street for Bobby to contact me, and one day he just showed up at my door. I brought in my friend Scott Elam on drums And we looked for a bass player [with] a friend, Mark Ridlin, sitting in until we could find a permanent bassist. It took a couple of months for the core of the band to gel, and at the Soxx’s behest, Bobby Beeman joined on bass soon after. I think that he had just turned 19 and I was 30. He was perfect.
Your name was derived from a comic in Bobby’s Flaming Gavel zine called Stick Man With Ray Gun. Can you guys tell me a bit about the comic and how, if at all, the name fit with the overall ethos of the band?
CB: The Stick Man With Ray Gun comic featured this Stick Man character who patrolled his neighborhood on the lookout for anyone who offended him or defiled his rather distorted views on social propriety or racial purity. He summarily blew them away with his ray gun in a chaotic ray gun blast. Every strip was the same basic story, always ending in death and general mayhem.
I found the complete irrationality of the character very appealing, and decided to call the band Stick Men With Ray Guns as a nod to Bobby Soxx and the mayhem that often surrounded him. The general orneriness and irrationality of the Stick Man’s character soon exerted its influence, and began to quickly take over the band. As a unit, the band became what some might call “difficult.” We were only interested in what we were doing and didn’t socialize all much with other groups — particularly the touring bands, much to their surprise. We chose our own rather idiosyncratic path, and played for our own amusement.
BB: I don't think the comic had anything to do with the band other than the name.
Stick Men were often described as more of a performance art ensemble than a band, regularly going out of your way to deliberately antagonize audiences and challenge their levels of endurance. From Bobby’s antics to the use of abrasive lighting and various hostile sonic techniques, your live shows have become the thing of legend. After all of these years, do any specific memories from your performances stand out to you?
CB: Many of my fondest memories were in the early days when the clubs were small and we had a lot of freedom to experiment. We used sheer volume to bludgeon audiences quite a lot. I wanted it to hurt. We generally wanted to make the audience as uncomfortable as possible. Like I said before, the Stick Man’s personality took the band over. We never planned anything out in advance, though. We actively sabotaged our own shows however — particularly out of town, when we should have been trying to make a good impression on the clubs and audiences.
Anything that could be perceived as an insult against us, no matter how minor, would result in us digging in our heels and becoming even more combative. We could overreact to anything. We never tried to start trouble, but it often found us. My favorite memories are from the earliest days, though, of screwing with the lighting at Metamorphosis, and using intentionally irritating introductory tapes at a number of clubs. I was happiest if we managed to get the audience screaming at us to shut it off. Good times!
BB: We played a show early on at a place called Metamorphosis Concert Hall. It was adjacent to a record store, and was a small place with a low ceiling and no stage. I made a video short of a bunch of violent images from movies or TV documentaries, and it had a soundtrack that was SPK, as I recall. We put a TV on a chair and turned off all the lights. Then the only stage lighting was a thin band of white light that hit us about chest level. We played, and I could tell the crowd was getting pretty rough, but nobody could really see. When we finished and the lights came up, there was blood all over the place. I still don't know what happened.
Most of the time, we just played. Sometimes we had things planned out, but most of the time we played and nothing really happened. We rarely did anything besides that more than once, and never more than two or three times. But mostly, we all understood from the beginning that we would never go on tour. We would never sign with a label. We were not in it to try and make a living. We saw the band as a catalyst and the audience as our entertainment. We manipulated the audience for our entertainment, rather than performing to please the audience. We didn't do things to make them like us; we did things to make them react to us. We were VERY loud. Bobby's voice blew PA speakers. I think our approach was different from most bands.
You guys were notoriously trepidatious about releasing material during the lifetime of the band. In recent years, however, there has been a massive spike in activity surrounding your live and recorded output. What brought about the change of heart?
CB: Not a change of heart so much as a change in the business of making records. No one was ever very interested in putting out a SMWRG record while we were active, with the exception of the Butthole Surfers, that is. They always believed in us, and tried their best to drag us into something like popularity.
Recording is so much cheaper now than it was at that time, and we never made any money to speak of. Also, my feelings about the studio were not that positive. We were only in the studio three times, and I considered one of those to be a complete failure. It also appears that our reputation has grown over the years. We did not sound like the typical punk band at the time; even today, we are rather strikingly different than what you might expect. I like to think that that difference is one thing that makes us stand out from most of the other bands of the day.
But make no mistake about it: If Jack [Control] at Enormous Door Mastering in Austin hadn’t decided that he was going to restore our recordings and find others interested in putting the records out, it would not be happening now. His help and dedication to the projects has been what made this happen. It is all because of him.
BB: We just didn't have material to release or money to do it, and there wasn't enough interest to support it then. We weren't reticent about doing it; it just wasn't there. When Jack Control at Enormous Door remastered all our material and made it sound great and found people interested in releasing it, then it happened. Suddenly, there was material to release and interest in hearing it.
I had a dream at the time, and that was to go out to L.A. and record with Pat Burnette. He was the engineer for the Germs' GI, Misfits' Walk Among Us, X's White Girl, the first Blasters album, Flesh Eaters, Angry Samoans, Lydia Lunch and lots more. He was the engineer on many great punk albums, and the best albums those bands ever released. But that was just a dream.
Listening to Property of Jesus Christ back-to-back with 1,000 Lives to Die, one can notice a shift in tone. The performances appear to be equally caustic, but Bobby’s high-energy youthful cackle on the former has given way to a burlier, deeper vocal delivery on the latter. Do you guys attribute this shift to a natural physical development over a three-year time span, or could this have been a by-product of Bobby’s personal demons starting to catch up with him?
CB: Bobby showed up at the show very sick. He was starting to have real problems with meth at the time, worse than at earlier points in the band’s career. He was really struggling that night, but the performance was good and his vocals give it a peculiar sense of urgency.
BB: Bobby was sick for the 1,000 Lives performance. That's the only time he ever sounded like that. The Property of Jesus Christ stuff is what Bobby sounded like. Ironically, that is the best live recording we have, and so it got released. That said, it sounds interesting like that and stands out despite his voice being blown.
After Stick Men With Ray Guns broke up, most of you left Texas to pursue relationships, jobs and other passions. What are you guys up to now in terms of music, families and careers? Have you stayed in somewhat regular contact with each other over the years?
CB: We broke up finally in late summer 1988, when I moved to Florida to go ocean sailboat racing, and so Vicky could work in the tabloids. Bobby Beeman soon moved to Seattle, and Scott Elam moved to NYC to pursue the career as a photographer that he had always dreamed of. I raced catamarans of different sizes quite a bit over the years, finally stopping when we moved to the west coast of Florida. I am semi-retired, working with an exotic car dealer doing marketing and IT work after about 35 years in the graphics business. Bobby and I stay in touch, but not on any regular basis. Scott and I don’t have any contact now; my insensitive behavior over the years finally got to be too much for him. I’m sorry about that. He was a very good friend and I miss him. Scott is a quiet guy, interested in art like me, and was more influential inside the band than people might think. He has done quite well for himself as a photographer, and is currently the primary photographer for one of the major international auction companies and based in NYC. Lately, I’ve been trying to start another band, but I live in probably the bleakest place in the U.S. for music. I’m not sure I can find anyone interested in playing in the area.
BB: When Stick Men broke up, Scott moved to New York, Clarke moved to Florida, I moved to Seattle and Bobby went to prison. All of that happened in about six months. By the time I found my way back to Texas a decade later, Bobby died. Scott is a professional photographer. I talk to him usually a few times each year. He is doing well, married and seems happy. Clarke has something to do with exotic cars. We talk occasionally also, a lot more lately about band stuff. I have a music instrument retail and online sales business. We are all married and I am the only one with a child; my son is grown now and has a successful trading card store and online sales business. Somewhat surprisingly, we have all been married for years and are all successful in our careers.
Your aesthetic has been often imitated over the nearly three decades since Stick Men With Ray Guns called it quits, and many would say to only limited degrees of success. Are there any bands or performers that stick out in your minds as legitimate torchbearers? What, if anything, in the landscape of music and art in 2016 do you find interesting?
CB: I don’t think there are any. None, period. It is always too contrived, too planned out. What we did was the honest expression of certain so-called negative aspects of each of the four of our individual personalities being unleashed at once upon unsuspecting audiences. We all have different sides to us, and SMWRG gave each of us an opportunity to give the audience a look at that one rather antisocial side that most of us keep hidden, even from ourselves and tamped down in everyday life.
If you've ever seen the classic science fiction film Forbidden Planet, you know that the alien civilization of the Krell was destroyed by their unintentional unleashing of the monsters from their own id. Stick Men With Ray Guns was our id run rampant on stage. It was lots of fun. Stick Men With Ray Guns is one of the few artistic endeavors that I have taken on that was completely artistically successful. How many people can say that?
BB: The only interesting stuff I hear these days are rap and hip-hop or EDM, and especially the blending of the two. I don't listen to a lot of it, but it's where I think the most creativity in music is happening right now.
I was listening to a Hannibal Buress stand-up last night, and he was talking about a show he was doing with some bands, and he Googled them and found that the singer of one of them stuck the microphone in his ass every show. Bobby did that once, and Ben DeSoto took a great picture of it, so sometimes we see people say he did that a lot. Actually, he did that just once. If you do it every time, it's a bit. If you do it once and it's spontaneous, then it's real.
I don't know much about bands that bear that torch, but I'll say that to do that, you need to do stuff that is real. When we did stuff that was planned out beforehand, it was obvious that it was planned. We didn't do it over and over. And mostly stuff just happened that was real. It's one thing to be influenced by others. Scratch Acid formed shortly after David Yow saw the Birthday Party and loved that band. So, they were influenced by the Birthday Party, but they don't sound like the Birthday Party. They took that and did something else with it. They made their own thing, and it was a great thing. Do your own thing; don't try to be someone else. Be real. It's something we were aware of at the time and discussed from time to time. We would never be popular or have sold-out shows, but if we did it right and were lucky, we might become legendary. Not sure that our relatively small group of fans qualifies us as legendary, but 30 years later, people are still listening to it and talking about it, and I think that is more than any of us expected.