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John S. Hall, leader of the music/spoken-word project King Missile III, and George W. Bush, president of the United States, have at least one thing in common: their habit of prominently displaying their middle initials. But as demonstrated by "Mr. President," a willfully absurd cut on The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, the mondo-eccentric Missile disc recently issued by Instinct Records, any kinship ends there. Consider these sample lyrics, which Hall, who is soft-voiced and deferential in conversation, mostly shouts:
"You fucking piece of shit!/Scumbag, asshole, fucking retard!/Scumbag, scumbag, you fucking piece of shit!/Little fucking piece of shit!/Fuck you, you little fucking eat-shit scumbag!/Eat my shit, fuckwad, fuckface" and so on, for nearly three minutes -- long enough, depending upon one's political proclivities, for this splenetic rant to go from funny to redundant to really funny several times over.
Clearly, Hall's feelings about Dubya are rather strong. Yet "The President" didn't start out as a diatribe against the leader of the self-proclaimed Greatest Nation on Earth. "It was originally called 'The Mayor,' and it was written about [Rudolph] Giuliani," notes Hall, speaking from his New York City home. "I wrote it because he was running for the Senate, and I was really upset that he might go from mayor to senator. Then he dropped out of the Senate race [in April 2000] because he had prostate cancer, and I felt bad about the cancer, so I retired the poem. But basically, it was a generic poem of anger at a politician, and I realized that with a little bit of tinkering, I could call this poem 'The President' and it would work.
"We recorded it before 9/11," he goes on, "and 9/11 didn't do much to change my opinion, but I did stop performing it for a while. For a few months afterward, there were other things to say, and it took me a while to realize how cynically the president was using 9/11. So there was, I think, a month where I was giving him the benefit of the doubt, and then another month where I was starting to come to my senses but not necessarily wanting to say anything about him directly. And after that, I did."
Making his opinions heard outside NYC has gotten more complicated for Hall in recent years. In the early '90s, King Missile had a major-label platform thanks to a contract with Atlantic Records, and the collective received plenty of airplay for "Detachable Penis," a deadpan tune that explores the pros and cons of that timeliest of topics, temporary emasculation. After Atlantic jettisoned the Missile a few years later, Hall was in demand on the poetry circuit, but keeping a band visible and working was a struggle -- so much so that he decided to supplement his artistic pursuits by becoming, of all things, a lawyer. He and his law partner, Quinn M. Heraty, have their own firm, Heraty Hall.
For Hall, legal work is satisfying in and of itself -- and as a bonus, the income he derives from doing it is keeping King Missile III alive. In his view, "The only reason for me to stop making records would be lack of inspiration. So I think I'll continue to make records as long as ideas come to me."
He has a rich past from which to draw. Born in Brooklyn, Hall is one of four children of an Army chemist who later moved to Greenwich Village, in part because of his fondness for the work of comic Lenny Bruce, who often appeared there during the '50s and early '60s. Hall's father had a small but eclectic record collection -- the Clancy Brothers, Johnny Cash, John Coltrane -- that fired young John's imagination, as did a timid foray on stage during a show by his favorite local band, the Student Teachers. "It was really, really thrilling," Hall says, "and shortly after that, I thought I would start a band." Because he didn't view himself as especially gifted, he says, "I called the band You Suck and centered it around the idea of talentlessness. We basically did bad covers of bad songs by Barry Manilow and the Carpenters and stuff like that. Those songs don't sound as bad to me now as they did then, but my idea at the time was to do a version of anything shmaltzy that came on the radio, like [Bonnie Tyler's] 'Total Eclipse of the Heart.' And we used to do [John Denver's] 'Sunshine on My Shoulders,' too."
Hall's own words were the foundation of his gigs at the Fort, a New York space that helped spawn the anti-folk movement and gave artists like Beck and Michelle Shocked early exposure. The Fort, named in tribute to the Akira Kurosawa film The Hidden Fortress (a key inspiration for Star Wars), was, and still is, run by a Village personality known simply as Lach, whom Hall met during a mid-'80s open-mike poetry reading at a different venue. "He said, 'You should come down to the Fort,'" Hall remembers. "I said, 'I don't play an instrument,' but he said, 'Please come down anyway.' So I started going there, and I'd read a poem or two in between all the guitarists."