It started one night with repeated fistfuls of Rolling Rocks and two years later it led to me sitting in a conference room in a tall NYC building, staring at a bunch of guys from a distribution arm of Warner Brothers Records. We had landed a deal for Warner to distribute Tar Hut Records! There was even a story about me and the label in the Boston Phoenix that week. I can’t recall for sure, but something tells me I had extra beers that night.

For now, the beginning:

I spent much of 1995 exploring in so many different ways. My year started as a video production assistant at a gargantuan computer company, pulling in ok money – certainly enough to enjoy myself. But something was missing there. I was a 24 year old kid looking for a spark and I wasn’t finding it in Boxborough, Massachusetts enclosed in a room with soundproofing and video cameras. So in March, a friend of mine from college and I both quit our corporate jobs, put all our cassettes in a plastic bag and started driving. Anywhere.

We stayed out there for nearly seven weeks, ending up largely driving a complete circle around the perimeter of the U.S., excluding Florida, of course. Nobody needs to go there. That circle will cost a car 11,000 miles total, in case you were wondering.

It was during that trip I decided that music would be my next step. I don’t know what triggered it. Was it the repeated listenings of some lost early-1970s Bruce Springsteen demos, which provided the perfect soundtrack for long days on endless strips of white-lined pavement? Maybe. Was it the furious pace that we were both finding and consuming new music? Perhaps. All told, it was pure excitement and I thought the idea of working in the music industry was enthralling.

One month later my, ahem, “dream” came true. I found myself standing on the concrete floor of the warehouse at Rounder Records. Wage: $5 per hour. No shit! How I made it through that year is still something I ponder today. I only lasted in the warehouse for a couple of months, getting bumped up into promotions in “the offices” shortly after I started.

Anyway, most of my weekends that year were spent with various friends at Ralph’s Chadwick Square Diner in Worcester, MA, and it was there where I first saw and heard Angry Johnny & The Killbillies. The first time, a oppressively hot summer night, my friends and I stood in a small circle bullshitting and I would occasionally give the band a cursory glance and a brief listen, eyebrows up.

It was two or three shows later, on a late Friday night in October of 1995 when I really started paying attention. I stood front-and-center and watched that band sweat and pound their way through a set, absolutely full of piss and/or desperation. They were just roaring like a freight train rumbling back and forth on the tracks, barely holding on.

That was the night I decided I was going to start a record label and I already had my first band. I spent an hour after that show talking to the guys, who were truly caricatures whose personalities matched the onstage persona – blue collar, smart, suspicious, incredibly humorous and very much interested in a guy telling them he might just put out their record.

I would find out later just how much of the “real deal” the singer was. The story of Johnny, however, undoubtedly deserves its own blog post and arguably an entire book. Anyone reading this who knows him will certainly agree with that.

The band’s music itself is, well, a complicated story. Some referred to it as “psycho country” or “county-punk.” Some said it was jokey, a band of made-up names (true), cartoonish lyrics (not so true), a lead singer whose voice sounded like a cheap whiskey overdose (true) and a group of musicians who only knew C, D and G chords (not true – I think they knew E). That’s a lot stacked up against you, but as I recall, bands like The Sex Pistols drew similar comments.

Ah, but there were two important things that band had on their side: passion and no bullshit. They may have written songs about dead animals, death by chainsaw, getting dumped, being in prison, drag racing the devil, or being leveled by alcohol, but those guys, particularly Johnny, backed it all up. He was as complicated, honest and fascinating a person as I have ever met. Johnny was writing about the things he was interested in. You’re interested in cars? Johnny was interested in what goes through the mind of a serial killer. That was just him. He couldn’t care less if people thought his music and lyrics weren’t “true.” But you know what? They were and he was as close to true as any human being out there. No agenda.

And for the most part, critics, even well-known publications like Entertainment Weekly, Billboard, The Village Voice, Stereo Review and Magnet all praised Johnny and the band for thier originality and intensity.

My favorite quote? Perhaps this one, from Entertainment Weekly: “Angry Johnny delivers the ’90s equivalent of old Appalachian murder ballads. In 50 years, academics will ponder this stuff, drawing conclusions about the dark side of the American soul. Will Johnny snicker at their gullibility, or nod in assent? Only he knows.”

That, my friends, is how it all started. That October night in Worcester, MA remains one of the best pure rock and roll shows I have ever seen. Not necessarily for the virtuoso performances or anything, either. It still sticks in my gut because that show was just a raging fire of energy, packed with passion, intensity and hunger. It was, truly, just the beginning.

Listen to “202” – a real love song – by clicking here. To save it, just right click and select “save.” This was from Tar Hut’s very first release. It sold enough to allow us to put out more records, too. Nice.

“202” – Angry Johnny & The Killbillies
I was driving my car down 202
I was trying really hard to forget about you
I had the radio on and the windows down
I was doing 75 I was covering ground
You see, I had a plan, but I lost my nerve
But then I lost control on a nasty curve
For a second it felt just like I could fly
But then a second is all that it takes
All that it takes to die…
bye bye.
Well, they scraped me off of that telephone pole
Threw my carcass in the hearse,
and we started to roll
I couldn’t feel no pain although
I was torn right in two
The only thing I could do was think about you
So tell me darling, what else is new?
Now I can see me lying in my plush new bed
I don’t remember dying but I sure do look dead
They gotta close the lid because I’m mangled
up so bad
I wish everyone around here wasn’t so sad
And I can see you standing with my dad and mom
You’re back together but I’m all gone
Before they give me to them graveyard guys
I want one last look into your eyes,
into those eyes
I was driving my car down 202
I was trying really hard to forget about you
I was driving my car down 202
I should have never left you
I should have never gone