Punk Rock Literati: Wells Tower and Hellbender

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In June 1964 Hunter S. Thompson wrote a, for lack of a better word, gonzo letter to President Lyndon Johnson from the Holiday Inn in Pierre, South Dakota, where he was staying on a reporting trip. He offered his services as governor of American Samoa, then an appointed office. “My position at this time is in flux enough to allow my consideration of such a move,” he wrote. After listing his credentials as a “roving correspondent for the National Observer, a sporadic contributor to The Reporter, and a fiction writer of no mean merit,” he noted that he needed “an orderly existence in a pacific place, in order to complete a novel of overwhelming importance to the sanity of this era.”

By August 1996 Pierre had lost its Holiday Inn franchise, and the motel had become the Iron Horse Inn. The bar where Thompson likely procured the liquid inspiration for his letter had split from the inn and become the local Elks Lodge, which had in turn become the venue (rented for $75) for roughly bimonthly punk rock shows. I played bass in Stickman, one of two bands (along with a grindcore band, Diseased) that made up the underground music scene in Pierre. Any time a touring band in a cramped Econoline happened upon us as a solution to “where to make gas money between Minneapolis and Rapid City” or “how to kill a day between Sioux Falls and Missoula,” we would open for them, charge $4 at the door, and give them the extra $65 after we paid the Elks. Plus we’d buy merch and give them food and a place to stay.

Hellbender (Wells Tower on the right).

I have a small library of seven-inch records from those years: Shielbound from Cleveland, the Dynamoz from Pennsylvania, Johnny Pantsless from Duluth. All decent bands. But the highlight—both at the time and in retrospect—was Hellbender, from Chapel Hill. Thanks to our little DIY hive, the Iron Horse hosted a second Southern writer of no mean merit: Wells Tower, author of the hearty, acclaimed short story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, which was published last year and has just come out in paperback.

Few people I’ve met have heard of Hellbender, but in a punk way they were almost like the Yardbirds, the mostly forgotten ’60s British band whose guitarists included Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. Al Burian, Hellbender’s bass player, later played in the cynical, futurist hardcore band Milemarker and wrote the zine and comic Burn Collector, a literary slacker diary. (Both efforts seem outdated now: the sci-fi endgame Milemarker imagined looks quaint as we start to see the banality of the apocalypse, and Burn Collector’s style has been copped and diluted by the blogosphere.) Harrison Haynes, the drummer, plays in the Brooklyn performance-rock band Les Savy Fav. Wells Tower played guitar.

I first saw Hellbender when they came through South Dakota in 1994 and I happened to be in Rapid City (180 miles west of Pierre) the night of their show there. Al and Wells wore bright pink and bright green hair—I can’t remember who had which. After the first song, Al asked the audience, “Does everything sound OK? Are the levels OK?” and somebody yelled, “The guitarist needs to turn up his hair!”

I was blown away by their music. I had been listening to pop punk and ska punk, and Hellbender evinced a sophistication that suited my own as a newly minted ninth grader. Geographically and culturally isolated, I had little concept of the various currents in the underground scene, so I was oblivious to their place in it as descendants of the literate post-hardcore/emo of Jawbreaker, Cap’n Jazz, and Fugazi and as contemporaries of Braid and Native Nod. It was just, Whoa, this is different, and smart. They use more than one type of beat and write their lyrics out in paragraphs. Not long after I got home I wrote them a letter via Al’s dad’s address in Carrboro, North Carolina (they were all still in college at this point, I’m sure). Al wrote back and included some zines.

The first zine he sent was Foodbox, which included tour diaries from both Al Burian and Wells Tower. My mouth watered with this zine and the ones that followed as I kept up my correspondence with Al: the fifty-cent words, the vagabond adventures, the wry post-righteousness of grown-up punk. I guess the underlying flavor I sensed was art.

Wells’s writing was a reach for me at times as I pieced together dictionary definitions. In an account of Al’s father shelling out one last $100 to his broke, bohemian son, Wells referred to the reluctant benefactor as, I believe, Al’s “hirsute progenitor.” Now this comes across as a little forced, but at fourteen I was able to see his writing purely as embroidering a funny anecdote into something a bit magical, a brocade of guitar strings and peed-in bread bags.

Al wrote all the lyrics on the first Hellbender album, but on the second, The Footprint of the American Chicken, Wells wrote several songs. His lyrics were impressionistic and pungent: “I still can feel hot water on the backs of my legs/ I’ll take your word that I need to be taken down/ But in good faith, right?” A song called “Pissant’s Retrospective” had the feel of a short story: “I stashed a cup in the garage; my father took a sip./ It stung his throat before I had a chance to stop him./ ‘This looks like apple juice,’ he said. He raised it to his lips/ And I don’t think I’ve ever stopped laughing.”

In June 1996 I precociously invited myself to hang out with Al while I was visiting my mom in Portland, Oregon. We went to Kinko’s in the Hellbender tour van, Lely. Then I watched Hellbender play in a basement with the New Jersey band Rye Coalition. Miraculously, when I returned to South Dakota in August my friend Matt told me he had booked Hellbender to play the Elks the night before school started. Such was the attainability of dreams in DIY punk: At sixteen, I was going to open for my heroes.

I have only a few memories of that night. One is of Hellbender shooting pool in that carpeted bar through which Hunter S. Thompson had sloshed thirty years earlier. I was smitten, too shy to even tell them I was in the opening band until I had to go set up my bass amp. The most striking image is of a few of us standing outside between bands, the orange sun streaming at us like a cinema projector from the far side of the Missouri River. Two local kids are smoking cigarettes, sitting on top of a huge, pill-shaped propane tank. Wells Tower’s eyes widen at this tableau, and he says, “Everyone’s immortal when they’re fifteen.”

Tower’s success as a writer is a token I can finger in my pocket from time to time, the small pleasure of knowing we were all onto something back there at the Elks. It’s even better than when I got the final Hellbender album, Con Limón, after leaving for college and heard his lyric “Lips cracked, heart chapped/ I’m stuck in South Dakota.” I’m not a fiction expert, but Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is pretty much perfect. Most of the stories take place in humble American locales not unlike Pierre, among big-limbed white people whose blemished lives have a lot more dignity than they might seem to. Throughout, grace notes of un-showy but breathtaking imagery ring: a chess hustler’s chipped front tooth “a tiny gray guillotine”; a creek’s “algae-sueded rocks”; a New Orleans building’s downspout “pretty beat up, bent and crimped like a stubbed cigarette.” Combined with novel plots and dialogue that’s almost imperceptibly stylized, the stories strike a balance of haiku and vérité.

Really the only thing to criticize about the book is that there’s nothing to criticize. That is, thinking about the Iron Horse Inn and Hunter S. Thompson (who later described the American Samoa governorship affair as a job offer that arrived in Pierre by telegram, inspiring him to buy six white sharkskin suits—with a Sinclair Oil card at a dry-goods store in small-town South Dakota?! ha!—before it was cruelly rescinded through the two-faced machinations of party politics); thinking about this, I realize the irascible lumpiness and imperfection that make a writer like Thompson so infectious do not abide in Tower’s stories. I almost wish Tower were a little more like his characters, a little less balanced, less scrupulous in avoiding cliché, less finely crafted in a range of points of view, etc.

But this seems like a pretty lame objection, like claiming to like the four-track demo version better than the studio album. I used to say crap like that too.

***

All patches from the author’s shirt.


Josh Garrett-Davis is a writer and musician living in New York City. He has written for High Country News, the Denver Post, and South Dakota History, and plays bass in the punk rock band Krylls. He is writing a book about the Great Plains. More from this author →