City Paper is not for tourists
Summer 1953 Memphis truck driver Elvis Presley makes his first record, “That’s What Heartaches Are Made Of,” telling the Sun receptionist that it’s a birthday present for his mother. It’s a liehe wants to find out if he sounds like his idol, Dean Martin.
Late 1950s Pop crooner Presley moves into his customized mansion, Graceland, on the edge of Memphis. Begins to produce experimental home recordingswhat he calls “real gone garage music.” The tapes have never been released.
November 1963 “Louie, Louie” launches a thousand bands, and garage music sweeps America. Elvis has Fun in Acapulco.
Summer 1969 Two Memphis teenagers, going by Xavier Tarpit and Wally Mothinspired by local bluesmen, pro wrestling, and Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replicastart their own garage act. As the Unhatched Ostrich Egg, they make their first recordings in the basement of Moth’s black and orange house in the Whitehaven suburb, a mile from Graceland. Later that year, the Egg submits a crude cassette of its experimental music for a science fair project, receiving an A. Encouraged, the duo forges on with its career.
Fall 1969 The Egg, joined by an ever-expanding cast of locals, accidentally discovers the technique of overdubbing. Under the influence of Dr. Pepper, nicotine, and Chips Ahoys, home taping continues for the next year. Presley leaves Memphis for Las Vegas.
October 1970 Egg tapes are submitted to Memphis progressive-rock station FM-100 for airplay on its “local groups” show. Complaining that “the words don’t rhyme,” the program director refuses to play the music, calling it “too avant-garde,” with “no commercial potential.” Frustrated, Tarpit and Moth urinate on the front lawn of Graceland.
Spring 1971 During an after-school recording session, fellow classmate and guitarist Jackass Thompson joins the group. At the end of this historic get-together, Moth plays a bass riff that sounds like the music heard whenever Alice the Goon appears in Popeye cartoons. The Memphis Goons are born.
Fall 1972-Spring 1973 The Goons go to college, but continue recording during school breaks and summers.
Spring 1973 The Memphis Goons play an outdoor show in the parking lot of the Southland Mall on Elvis Presley Boulevard; angry onlookers pelt the band with rocks and debris. First and last live performance. Back to the basement for good.
Summer 1973 Tarpit returns from college for the last Goons recording session, later titled Living Dead in Memphis.
Aug. 16, 1977 “Ladies and Gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.”
Spring 1995 Goons tapes discovered in an attic. Tarpit, now living in the Washington, D.C., area, listens to the pile of aging reel-to-reels. Sounds like teen spirit.
Christmas Day 1995 Dean Martin dies of terminal heartache at a desert golf course; Presley remains missing.
October 1996 First Goons CD, Teenage BBQ, released on Shangri-La label. In the age of lo-fi, the Memphis Goons invade the marketplace.
“The past hasn’t passed out,” says Xavier Tarpit. “The past isn’t even past.”
Even though he alludes to his favorite author, William Faulkner, Tarpit is referring not to the shattered South but to his band’s first CD, Teenage BBQ, now finally released nearly a quarter-century after it was recorded. Tarpit has just polished off a plate of roast duck in a Vietnamese restaurant in Falls Church, where he has lived for the past decade. He gleefully rips off the end of a Camel offered him, explaining, “Smoking a filtered cigarette’s like using a condom.”
BBQ is a bizarre, unprecedented sampler of 20 songs culled from hundreds recorded from 1970 to ’73 in self-imposed seclusion, not only from parents and neighbors but from American society itself. The only apparent link to the outside world was the underground vinyl the Goons devoured like junk food: Beefheart, the Fugs, VU, the Godz, the Stooges, and countless others. Tarpit describes the band’s soundan anarchic, barbaric yawp from Elvis’ very back yardas “the missing link between the Summer of Love and the Sex Pistols.”
Like his band (about which little is known other than the sketchy details outlined in the time line above), Tarpit remains cloaked in mystery: He and the other Goons are fiercely protective of their privacy, even after foisting their band’s legacy on an unsuspecting public. Today, Tarpit is a producer for a direct-marketing record reissue company in Northern Virginia, repackaging rock’s history for aging baby-boomer consumers, Moth toils in Borgesian silence as a librarian in Arkansas, and Thompson will retire next year from the municipal sewage treatment plant in Memphis. As far as the band’s current bios go, that’s about it.
In person, Tarpit is polite, self-effacing, and Southern to the core: He displays a touch of evangelical fervor natural for a minister’s sonespecially when he speaks of the Goons. But even more important is the fact that Tarpit’s mother is a middle-school music teacher. It was the multi-instrumental talents of Tarpitnot to mention his abduction of the family pianothat helped give the band its extraordinary range (cf. the inverted, slo-mo whorehouse piano roll on the surreal “San Antonio Desert”). Even so, Tarpit is quick to point out that he considers Thompson to be the band’s real genius, with his sui generis guitar and guttural vocals inspired by the howls of stray dogs and Captain Beefheart.
“Our Holy Triumvirat was Don Van Vliet [Beefheart], Jesus, and Elvis,” admits Tarpit, adding that Presley’s influence wasn’t musical but culturalas a trickster god in their personal mythology. “We revered him as incredible inside joke long before he got fat and went Vegas: He was simply part of the local landscape.”
What makes the Memphis Goons perhaps the quintessential garage band is thatexcept for their one, disastrous gig at the Southland Mallthe Goons never left the garage. Forsaking such extracurricular activities as sports and dating, these exiled high-schoolers became masters of their makeshift four-track studio. These weren’t teens jamming but suburban Dadaists exploring an uncharted cosmos of pure sound. According to Tarpit, the sessions were meticulous and serious events: practice and learn a new song, record it, go on to the next song. Most importantly, the band had a passion for self-preservation, even if few people outside the band knew of the Goons’ existence. “The reason the project’s gotten so far along is because Wally Moth and I are archivists at heart,” says Tarpit. “It wouldn’t have happened with a typical garage band.”
Not to say the Goons in any way resemble some polished, low-rent Steely Dan: This is, above all, the sound of wayward youth run amok with pre-computer age machinery. The song titles alone reveal the band’s obsessions: “Bring the House Down,” “Slag Slag,” “Baby, Let’s Bathe in Tang,” “Chop Chop Chop,” and “Children of Danger.” Junk-culture collagists by instinct, the Goons were influenced by everything, from comic books and wrestling mags to TV jingles: “To us, [local bluesman] Furry Lewis was as important as Alice the Goon,” says Tarpit.
Oddly, though, Teenage BBQ sounds nothing like the music that made their hometown famous: the Memphis Sound of such legendary studios as Sun, Stax, and Hi. The band does, however, share in the rebellious punk spirit of the underground Memphis music scene of Alex Chilton and Jim Dickinson celebrated in Robert Gordon’s It Came From Memphis. Indeed, the submerged saga of the Goons is that book’s missing chapter, and the Goons’ unfettered eccentricity makes them blood brothers with Chilton and Co.
“They’ve got the ‘Memphis stew’ thing going,” agrees Sherman Willmott, head of the Memphis-based Shangri-La label that released Teenage BBQ. “Nothing in Memphis really fits in anywhere. People here always get in their garages and do their own thing ’cause they’re so bored.”
Even as Teenage BBQ echoes with the weirdness of some backwoods field recording, it fits right in with the lo-fi revolution of the ’90s. After hearing the lost Goons tapes for the first time in years, Tarpit realized his band was really a precursor of basement noisemongers like Guided by Voices, which had become all the rage. “It’s largely…the lo-fi culture that made all this possible,” he says. “That really opened the door to things like the Goons finally getting released.”
Tarpit considers the Washington areawith its ever-surging indie scenea conducive place from which to relaunch the Goons’ interrupted career. In fact, Tarpit’s favorite record this year is The Feminine Complex, previously unreleased music by a Nashville girl group from the late ’60s; the record was released by Mark Robinson’s Arlington-based TeenBeat label.
Nevertheless, Tarpit opted for a Memphis label for the band’s first release. Shangri-La is home to such alt-rock acts as Strapping Fieldhands, the Simple Ones, and, formerly, the Grifters. Willmott was astounded when he began plowing through the Goons’ recorded output: “Usually, when someone hands me a tape or demo, I just cringe because I know it’s going to be really mediocre, but this stuff turned out to be great, so I was really shocked.”
After Willmott whittled the Goons’ vast catalog down to a couple dozen favorite tunes, Tarpit took the aging, damaged reel-to-reels to a neighbor, Scott Shuman, who runs a studio out of his house in Falls Church that is a haven for Washington’s primitive fringe-music culture. “The tapes were in terrible shape; they really had to be cleaned up,” says Tarpit. After transferring the chosen tracks to DAT, final engineering took place at Dave Glaser’s Airshow studios
“This is the most pop-oriented stuff,” says Tarpit. “These are the songs we thought were the most commercial. The really far-out stuff is still on reel-to-reel, probably enough for about 10 CDs.”
Indeed, Teenage BBQ is just the first in an ongoing resurrection of the Goons’ entire legacy: A second CD is already scheduled for release on another label. A religious album, tentatively titled Contemporary Custodian, is also in the works: “It will be a rock opera of Christian songs, sort of the Goons’ version of Jesus Christ Superstar,” says Tarpit.
“I really feel like it’s just starting,” says Tarpit. “We’re even going into the studio again. I want to get the Memphis Goons in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.” CP