Damien Taylor brings together the four decades musical history of DAVE PERKINS
Whilst his 2009 album 'Pistol City Holiness' was described as a "blues rock masterpiece" by the critics, Dave Perkins is the first to admit that he has found neither fame nor fortune in his four decades of music making. What the Tennessee-based singer/guitarist has achieved though is a loyal clique of admirers who still fondly remember his contributions to the '80s rock band Chagall Guevara while his fine guitar work has in the pas been compared with such giants as Ry Cooder and Phil Keaggy. Yet throughout the ups and downs of life the veteran muso has remained spiritually focussed, once commenting, "As artists we must reach high musically but we must learn to put Jesus even higher than that."
Dave grew up in New York City before later studying at college within the metropolis. In between he headed west to Pennsylvania and made an early choice in his teenage years about the direction he wanted to take. The veteran recalled, "When I was 13 I put down $35 at a pawnshop on Philadelphia's South Street and took home a Harmony arch-top guitar (painted sparkle gold). When I bought the guitar it was not with aspirations of becoming a great player. It was more about self-expression and trying to write songs."
It would take the best part of a decade for Perkins to realise his dream of being a professional musician in his own right, during which time he left his job (working for CBS as a staff-writer) in New York to work in Nashville, Tennessee at the end of the 1970s. Once in Nashville he supplemented his income through playing backing guitar for a variety of artists. One of the first he worked for was fiddler Vasser Clements, with whom he would tour. "It was a heavy touring job," began Dave, "so I got to meet lots of people on the road. That began a succession of playing opportunities." The contacts he built up led him to supporting Jerry Garcia, the Allman Brothers and also cameo in Robert Altman's film Nashville. He worked as a producer on the Christian music scene for such luminaries as Rick Cua, Servant and Randy Stonehill, whilst also supporting secular artists on tour like Emmylou Harris and Carole King.
In the early 1980s Perkins was a prolific songwriter, recording songs such as "Keep On Climbing", "My Father's Home", "Pilate's Song" and "Keep The Big Wheels Turning" to name but a random selection. They were classed as country/rock records but seemed to fall between the two musical schools, leaving Perkins without the recording contract he so desperately wanted. Shortly afterwards Perkins returned to touring the New York City circuit as the frontman for The Dave Perkins Band. This required making lengthy commutes from Nashville to play regular gigs in the Greenwich Village and Soho areas of the city. Described as "acid country", Perkins' band released a live album appropriately called 'Live Still Alive'. Part of the album was recorded at a place called Kenny's Castaways, while other cuts came from Austin, Texas, where Perkins was also recording with the likes of Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Guy Clark.
Despite these tours and meeting with music biz movers and shakers, Perkins almost gave in to despair after several recording contract opportunities fell through. Rather than become bitter and haunt the bars of Nashville with stories about what could have been though, Perkins took stock of his life and realised that there was one major component missing. "I realised that this wasn't what God wanted for me. I saw that I had never yielded one area of my life to Jesus Christ - my music; and that's funny because the creative gift is the gift that's closest to the heart of God, the original creator." Although he took time out to study at University of Georgia, Dave soon returned to touring but this time with Christian musicians such as Rick Cua, the Lifesavers and Jerusalem.
Perkins opted to relocate permanently to Nashville in order to raise his young family. It was there that the talented singer/songwriter finally had an opportunity to make some headway. A friend let him have keys to his recording studio, which allowed Perkins to begin recording his first solo album, 1987's 'The Innocence'. Speaking about what was different at that time compared to his earlier musical efforts, Perkins said, "If you'll forgive the cliché, it really was the right time and place. I worked very hard with my old band in the New York area. We did everything humanly possible and maybe even beyond to get a deal and doors would just not open. With this group of musicians and this batch of songs the timing was perfect. By the grace of God all the doors opened." Perkins described 'The Innocence' as being an outlet where he could channel his religious, social and political beliefs. He commented, "I had to allow myself to become sensitised to the fact that there are people dying and starving, not only in Asia and Northern Africa but also on the streets of New York. I put my children in the place of those children and it made that anguish real for the first time."
The album was picked up for national release by Word Records who, with a tie-up with A&M Records, had started What! Records with a bold plan to take some Christian acts and market them in the mainstream marketplace. 'The Innocence' drew influences from British 1960s rock 'n' roll records such as The Kinks and The Yardbirds as well as punk and new wave. Looking back at the recordings after 25 years Perkins said, "I think it still sounds good. That record was made after I had spent several years in New York, and a little bit of time over there [the UK] as well - absorbed a lot of punk and new wave influences that I combined with my southern blues and country influences. I think, stylistically, that's where that record comes from: it's half Tennessee and half Anglophile." Tracks on the album take the listener on a voyage of discovery around the mindset of Perkins. "Revolution" discusses Perkins' religious journey from a social point of view; "Harvest Home" highlights the plight of modernity set against the hope espoused by the Bible; whilst "Every New Day" was taken from Scripture. "My hope comes directly from God and that hope really forms the core of my life. I trust in God and in that trust, I find a way to look forward in life without overwhelming dismay."
Despite getting some rave reviews 'The Innocence', like the other What! Acts Ideola (Mark Heard) and Tonio K, failed to find many buyers in the mainstream marketplace while the abrasive raw quality of the album was too troubling for safe Christian radio. Dave was dropped and the What! label experiment forgotten by the Nashville suits. One thing that did come out of 'The Innocence' sessions though was a deepening relationship between Dave and singer, songwriter, producer Steve Taylor. Perkins and Taylor had worked together on 'The Innocence''s cover of "Turn, Turn, Turn", the song that folk legend Pete Seeger had written by setting words from the book of Ecclesiastes to music and which had given The Byrds their breakthrough hit in 1963. Perkins admitted, "I do love to do covers that help the listener. It's a point of entry but at the same time it says other things about the music that I want to say that quite often don't get said, because the record marketing and promotional machinery tries to narrow it down to squeeze through a very small grid for a particular market, a particular type of buyer. I wanted people to know I came from other places. It's kind of a trail of crumbs: you say, 'Here's one place where I got part of whatever I have.' Certainly The Byrds were an important influence early on with me. That song is just one of the best uses of the Bible in a song."
Steve Taylor was becoming increasingly frustrated with the restrictive world of Nashville CCM. Christian radio hits like "This Disco (Used To Be A Cute Cathedral)" and "I Just Wanna Know" plus an electrifying stage act had made the radical songsmith a CCM star but it was an uneasy fit. The Perkins-produced 1987 album 'I Predict 1990' labelled controversial by conservative Christian radio and songs like "I Blew Up The Clinic Real Good" created a furore in many Christian circles. Steve decided to make a pitch at the mainstream.
Explaining how Chagall Guevara was created, Perkins explained that a certain amount of serendipity was involved. "I was working with Steve on his record 'I Predict 1990'. Steve was at that point in time a little frustrated with the Christian record business in terms of a low ceiling of creativity, of what was allowed. We would talk about that a lot. The thing with me is that I had come from outside, I'd come from the mainstream where I'd worked with a lot of different recording artists as a guitarist. I felt the struggle almost immediately in Christian music, so Steve and I developed this conversation about what else there might be for someone who writes with a theological intentionality, but wants to go further, go wider, than the CCM market would allow. The conversation morphed into the simple idea between Steve and I of, 'Hey, let's start a band!' We formalised that thought when I came back to California to help him with three new tracks for a best of record he was doing. Lynn [Arthur Nichols] was a friend of both of ours and someone who we had worked with at record companies. Lynn found himself out of a job right when we were putting the band together; he was just a logical partner. The three of us got together after that and began to write songs together."
Working in Los Angeles Taylor, Perkins and session guitarist Nichols met bassist Wade Jaynes and drummer Mike Mead. All five musicians were at a loose end after having completed their various individual musical projects and Perkins knew them all professionally. Lynn Nichols had produced 'The Innocence' and Mead had been the drummer on the album. Jaynes himself was an engineer who took over the bassist role in the new group after the one-time member of the Outlaws Rick Cua, having initially expressed an interest in joining the band and playing bass on the demo tracks, decided to stay with his own CCM ministry. The demo sessions were deemed a success and after playing a couple of gigs in and around Nashville, the band were signed to MCA Records, a decision which Nichols claims was taken "because they had convinced us that they were really in the midst of a change."
With Nashville as their home base, the band's next act was to decide on a name. In the end they appropriated the surnames of two of the 20th century's most influential cultural figures, Belarusian-born artist Marc Chagall and Argentinean revolutionary Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. The 1991 'Chagall Guevara' on MCA Records was not a typical album which would be played on CCM stations but strong Christian themes ran over the tracks. The most pertinent example of this was the song "Play God" which took aim against televangelists, politicians and business tycoons who tried to use their position to impart their version of religion on the masses. Commenting during his time as part of Chagall Guevara, Perkins said, "There was no religious undercurrent in our plans, possibly some spiritual ideas but no hidden agenda. We felt it would be difficult, unfair and frustrating to bring that baggage to the creative process."
The group were admired for their aggressive high adrenaline guitar-heavy rock playing style which bore resemblance to The Clash one moment but could easily switch to psychedelic pop shortly after. Their mantra was to make intelligent music and play it like mindless fools, challenging their listeners to think as the group took them on a journey through sound and image. It was not just punk or psychedelic influences which the band absorbed into the album; there were also hints of soul music, swing and inevitably gospel, showing once more that Chagall Guevara had not lost touch with their Christian roots. In fact it could be argued that Chagall Guevara were not a secular band who had lost touch with their religious side but a frustrated CCM group who were trying to push boundaries by appealing to the mainstream, something which Perkins himself touched upon when promoting the group. He said, "The most obvious thing is a wider audience. Secondly, it was just a natural evolution in allowing talent and inspiration to follow its course. I think we were looking for a higher ceiling artistically."
'Chagall Guevara' would follow a broad trajectory that seemed to characterise Dave Perkins' career. It was lauded by the critics but did not fare so well commercially. "We wanted to make a record that was wonderfully peculiar," said Perkins. "We passed on gear that became the mainstay of engineering and mixing. Our music sounds real because it is real; it's just us playing in a big old house." Co-produced by Matt Wallace, the album was noted for no digital reverbs or samples which are usually found on modern albums.
It was "Violent Blue" that was considered the lead track by MCA and chosen for the band's debut single. The song is about how cynicism and self-interest affected the idealist convictions of an old friend which led to him abandoning "his peace sign for a finger". The accompanying music video for the song was recorded in Virginia caves and aired on various music television channels. Besides "Violent Blue", Chagall Guevara also recorded new-wave songs such as the exciting "Take Me Back To The Love Canal" and the heartfelt personal paean "The Rub Of Love".
Chagall Guevara's intent was signalled from the very first track on the album, "Murder In The Big House". The band's muscular playing style complemented Taylor's eclectic and unpredictable singing. Sometimes quiet, sometimes hollering but never dull, the group seemed to be a mix of The Cult, The Cure and The Pixies. Taylor's vocals were projected across Perkins and Nichols' choppy guitars, Jaynes' thudding bass and Micky Mead's rhythmic drumming. Their motivation in tackling social issues which middle-town America would rather pretend did not exist such as a husband walking out on his family in "The Rub Of Love" marked them out as a band unafraid to write about serious issues. Meanwhile the song "Escher's World" offers another glimpse into their Christian heritage when the group sing about the drawings of Dutch artist MC Escher as a metaphor for the unpredictability of the world people live in.
Their musical tightness from years of playing together (although not always with each other at the same time) allowed Chagall Guevara to create controlled situations inside the studio where they could afford to be experimental. Songs such as "Monkey Grinder" and "The Wrong George" showcased not just the band's habit of coming up with intriguing song titles but also their ability to craft songs about the apparently banal scenarios that crop up in everyday life. The album's strength in depth combined with a UK tour supporting Squeeze for six weeks and positive reviews of their music on both sides of the Atlantic momentarily suggested that the group were on the way to a successful career. Talking of the tour, Perkins said, "That was tremendous fun for me - in some ways a benchmark. The band was having such a great time at that point, and of course we loved being in the UK. We were there almost six weeks on that tour."
Why did the critical acclaim not translate into commercial success? Looking back there are a variety of reasons as to why the band never quite made it, however at least one band member pins the blame squarely on the door of the record company. Said Lyn Nichols, "MCA didn't know what to do with the type of record that we were making. This record company had never been good at taking the alternative genre, or almost anything rock 'n' roll. A Japanese company bought them out, lots of internal shake-ups took place. We had a single worked to college radio called 'Violent Blue'. . . [but] we couldn't follow up with another one because the alternative department had been fired."
There were other extenuating circumstances which led to Chagall Guevara's downfall after their debut release. Having never toured in America, the band found that their made-for-college single "Violent Blue" was largely ignored by their intended targeted audience. Added to this was the perception that their moniker was difficult to pronounce, so few people spoke about the group for fear of looking stupid if believing they had mispronounced the group's name. Finally as Steve Taylor also discovered, the group were not as free as they thought they would be when recording for the secular market. MCA Record bosses warned the band about offering forthright opinions on topics such as abortion if interviewed. Those warnings left them feeling frustrated and the frustration was exacerbated by MCA's inertia both before and after the takeover, leaving the five group members looking for other options to pursue.
Dave Perkins was never unoccupied for long and even moonlighted as a guitarist for CCM favourites Newsboys whilst the death-throes of Chagall Guevara played themselves out to an unsatisfying conclusion. Another chance meeting with a film director led to Perkins writing a song for a film score. Having heard his effort for the film, Lynn Nichols was so impressed that he immediately requested that he be allowed to play on the record. In 1993 a new group was created out of Chagall Guevara's ashes with Perkins and Nichols becoming a grunge/industrial duo, Passafist. A self-titled album was released on small Christian independent R.E.X. who were finding a niche with Christian metal. "The Passafist record was experimental in a lot of ways," said Dave. "Listen to the record, you know it's not meant for commercial success. It was the work of dreamers and music makers who wanted to be at play in the fields of the Lord - see what came up. It started because I had been asked to produce a piece of music for a film that was being shot over there; it was a remake for a '30s noir film called Devil-Doll. They needed a track for a dance scene, and I wrote the song that's on that record called 'Christ Of The Nuclear Age'. So I had this demo that was kind of an interesting template theme - played it for this little record company R.E.X. and they said, 'Man, this is cool. Why don't you make a whole record?' So Lynn and I put our heads together for that, asked a fellow from an industrial band here in Nashville, John Elliot, to come and be our programmer. That was a fun project too."
Passafist's routes originated from the brass section of Chagall Guevara. Waco and Reno Caruso were names plucked out of thin air by Dave Perkins when Chagall Guevara pondered how to credit their brass section. The band members played all of the brass instruments themselves, partly as a cost-saving exercise but also because each had previously learnt a brass instrument when growing up and were prepared to share the skills they had learnt with each other. Calling themselves the Blind Willy Boner Brass, both Waco and Reno were also listed as part of the actual group thanks to a crediting error. The story would have ended there but for Nichols and Perkins deciding that they would resurrect Waco and Reno and give them a background story of being non-identical twins from Texas who could never be interviewed because they were looking after their sick parents or were setting off on a global tour.
'Passafist' was met by universal disinterest despite the best efforts of Perkins and Nichols to promote their experiment. One problem was that at over 40 minutes long, the seven-track album's average single-time was six minutes a-piece, making radio airplay of their records nearly impossible for such a new group, especially as commercial radio favoured shorter, snappier pop songs.
The album focuses on issues such as street violence which is depicted in "Glock", psychic hotlines or phone-sex as described in "LOV-E900" and nuclear holocaust as sung about on "The Dr Is In". Opening with the rhythmic "Emmanuel Chant", a prayer for God's grace and life set to industrial music, the album includes the songs "Appliance Alliance" and "Christ In The Nuclear Age", the latter written about what life would be like if Christ was walking the earth today. The album was poorly received and led to both Lynn Nichols and Dave Perkins opting to go their separate ways, consigning Passafist into the footnotes of musical history.
Although Passafist may have sunk without a trace, Chagall Guevara had a brief emergence of sorts at the turn of the decade. 'Chagall Guevara' had been discovered by the college students it was initially intended for. With word of mouth and limited copies available, the album was changing hands for hundreds of dollars as college students chased copies of it to listen to and then pass on to others. Perkins had turned his back on music during this period and returned to college as he sought to engage fully with his spiritual side, spending nearly 15 years away from the musical limelight he had once craved. Commenting on this Perkins said, "I had taken some years off from music. I did a professional divinity degree at Vanderbilt University then I took one year off after that, came back and did a PhD. I really had to take a break from music because for the PhD I had a fellowship, where they let you go to school for free and they paid you on top of it: you're supposed to be there."
It was then that he had to fight his biggest battle, not against record companies' incompetence or general public apathy but against ill health. It was something which in his own words helped him to revive his musical love. "[In 2006] I was diagnosed with a form of blood cancer. Times of crisis are consciousness-raising times. I realised at that point that I will never again, as long as I'm in this world, not be a music maker. That is, at the core, who I am. In 2009 I released 'Pistol City Holiness'. This record was an exercise in reclaiming my musical past. That past is very varied, but the earth-changing moment in music for me is when I first heard the blues. That has been the musical spirit that imbibed everything I've done, and I went back to it full force with this record."
'Pistol City Holiness' saw Perkins offer blues-based riffs crafted around stomping rock melodies. The result as Perkins probably expected was a critical success which failed to turn into large sales. Talking about the album Perkins said, "I wanted to make an album that brought back the excitement I felt when I first heard Muddy Waters, Cream, Fred McDowell and Peter Green." Certainly the blues' soulful nature is captured by Perkins who sings with a rawness complemented by his revving guitar chugging along throughout the album. Critics called the album "high velocity southern blues rock, a seismic mixed breed of tradition and post-mod." Stereotypical Americana blues this album certainly was not. Besides all of the compliments for the album, reviewers hoped Perkins would not leave such a long gap before releasing his next album.
As it turned out, it was a gap of three years until Perkins released the 2012 independent album 'Deadline: Music From The Movie'. 'Deadline' was a movie score which Perkins recorded after taking an interest in the storyline, that of a racially-motivated murder in Alabama. The main protagonists of the story who investigate the circumstances are from Tennessee, a state that Dave has called home for the best part of 25 years.
When interviewed for CCM magazine in 1987, Perkins stated how much his spirituality shaped his music. "My hope comes directly from God," he said. "That hope really forms the core of my life. I trust in God, and in that trust, I find a way to look forward in life without overwhelming dismay." It is a fitting comment for a man who has never enjoyed the music world's glittering prizes but has created music of depth and intelligence.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.