Friday, October 24, 2008

Hamell on Trial by Fire

Images from the Internet

This is the third part of a series of articles or interviews that have been published before in magazines that no longer exist. This one was originally published in
Oculus Magazine, December/January 1997/1998; an update follows.

Hamell on Trial by Fire

Ed Hamell is a likeable guy. He’s very energetic and a bit frenetic, has a shaved head, a solid yet wiry body, a quick wit and a total lack of fear to speak his mind at any time. His act is a powerhouse of autobiography, stunning observation and humor, and his songs tell tales of his varied life, including growing up in Syracuse, NY, temporarily settling in Austin, TX, and crisscrossing the country numerous times. Hamell mixes a hybrid of rock’n’roll, punk, and singer/songwriter styles; he is alone on the stage, playing an acoustic guitar and dealing with personal subjects, usually in story form; and yet the music is rockin’.

Conviction, 1989
Faced with this contradiction, he replied, “Be an artist. Patti Smith is an artist. I aspire to be of that caliber. What kind of artist? In the medium in which I work: rock’n’roll. When people say, ‘What do you do?’ I answer, ‘I play solo rock’n’roll.’ Period. I mean, Professor Longhair certainly did it. One guy and a piano can be rock’n’roll. Jerry Lee Lewis can rock this room infinitely more than 9 billion bands. We don’t need any more bands.”

Big As Life, 1996
On Hamell on Trial’s third CD, The Chord is Mightier Than the Sword (Mercury), he is accompanied by the standard guitar/bass/drums setup rather than just paying solo, as on his first release, Big As Life. Yet people’s misconceptions about Hamell’s style come from public expectations about the popular, standardized image of the singer/songwriter form Hamell adapts to his own needs. As always, Hamell faces the issue head on: “The folk community thought I was way too high testosterone, and as for the rock community, I was almost tempted to hire a drummer and bass player to sit on stage and not do anything, just so I could say, ‘They’re there.’ And if you’re seeing me, with the harmonic structure of my guitar and the rhythmic of what I’m doing, close your eyes, and I’ll bet you you’ll hear drums and bass.”

The Chord Is Mighter Than the Sword, 1997
One of the more telling songs of his life on The Chord, related through a frenzied, spoken piece, is about physically colliding with John Lennon when Hamell was in his early teens. “When that happened,” Hamell explained, “I was young; I didn’t understand the mechanism. I really loved and respected him, and he definitely changed my life. I felt really bad that he thought I ran into him. And all my friends were there, and they thought I ran into him, when in reality, I was pushed into him. And for years, I never said anything to anybody about it. I was embarrassed. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that this was a really cool thing that happened; much better than if I had gotten his autograph. I mean, he told me to fuck off. And quite frankly, so many people now tell me to fuck off that I can honestly say, ‘Better men have told me to fuck off than you, pal.’”

Ed's Not Dead: Hamell Comes Alive, 2001
Hamell, who grew up in lower-class Syracuse, said his view of the hard factory life drew him to the rock and punk of Jerry Lee Lewis, the Stooges and the Ramones with an open mind, while turning his back on the folk music with which he is associated. “I need rock. I don’t listen to any folk music at all, despite that I’m considered a folk guy. I gravitate, invariably, back to all them ‘70s bands. I listened to the Ramones today; just a lot of fun. The one thing about the grunge thing is it’s aggressive and rockin’, and it’s very fuckin’ serious shit. Punk never really took off in the U.S., because kids in the suburbs – and I lived in the suburbs – they were listening to Skynyrd; they were very threatened but didn’t know it. ‘I’m a little threatened by this,’ they would say, ‘I think these guys stink,’ and ‘They’re only playing three chords.’ Now when you listen to the Ramones stuff – whether ore not they did it instinctively, since I can’t imagine DeeDee was there with a drafting pencil or anything – it’s brilliant shit.”

Songs For Parents Who Enjoy Drugs, 2003
Hamell showcases his songwriting and performing power on songs like “Red Marty,” about the suicide of a crackhead friend, and “The Vines,” dealing with the monotony of society-approved manual labor. “There’s a lot of guys my age that went into factory work right out of high school. I’m hardly vindictive, because I think it’s sad. By the time they’re 30, they sort of look at me and say, ‘When are you going to get a real job, and when are you gonna quit entertaining this stream.’ But then, at the age of 35, they were laid off, and at 35 it’s tough to compete, especially if you have no other vocational training.” He does admit, however, that “I wish I wrote poppy little rock songs that sold millions of records, and everybody went ‘Oh, that’s totally rock’n’roll.’ My life would be a lot easier. But organically, what comes out of me are these stories with this bullshit in the background. I know it’s a difficult sell. I understand that, so in many respects, my music needs to be seen live.

Tough Love, 2003
As with any artist, the gruff sound hides the blue collar, struggling artist insecurities. “When I started writing songs,” Hamell admits, “I’m thinking, is this a song? It’s more prose with me fuckin’ around in the background. And yet, it was what came naturally to me. And my wife, who’s a writer, would say to me, ‘No, it’s a song,’ and I respect my wife’s opinion 100 percent, but I’m still thinking, ‘I don’t know.’ And the response from the crowd, they would say, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s a song,’ and I’d think, “I don’t know.’ It took a guy who had written for the Austin Chronicle who said “Blood of the Wolf” is the most daring song that an Austin songwriter had written in 10 years,’ and I said, ‘Right!’ Then I started writing.”

Choochtown, 2008
I interviewed Ed in his publicist’s office off Union Square, and had such a fun time talking to him. After a horrific traffic accident and an extended period of recovery that occurred after my interview, Ed Hamell/Hamel on Trial signed to Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label out of Buffalo. He has been recording and releasing CDs, which have met with wide critical praise. And he is right, that as good as his CDs are, it’s the live show that makes him and his material sparkle the most. I’ve seen him perform a few times pre-accident, and look forward to the next time I get to see him.

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