By Noah Hubbell
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Alex Distefano
By Darryl Smyers
By Jon Solomon
By Britt Chester
Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!"
So declared the manifesto of the Symbionese Liberation Army. In 1974, this group of revolutionaries -- made up of a few escaped black convicts and a dozen or so affluent white kids -- kidnapped Patty Hearst, granddaughter of Citizen Kane model and yellow-journalism pioneer William Randolph Hearst. Soon brainwashed into the SLA's ranks, Hearst changed her name to Tania as homage to a companion of Che Guevara's; a few weeks later she was photographed holding a rifle during an SLA holdup at a San Francisco bank. After a police shootout laid waste to the group, Hearst was captured and spent nearly two years in prison before having her sentence commuted by President Jimmy Carter; she was pardoned altogether by President Bill Clinton during the last weeks of his term. Over the years, she has been an actress, a housewife, a punchline and a poster child for the Stockholm syndrome.
At least, that's the official story.
"No, I don't really believe she was brainwashed," insists Seth Mahern, lead singer of the Indiana-based garage-soul sextet known as John Wilkes Booze. "A lot of people think that she wasn't even kidnapped, that it was all just a setup in the first place. They were all probably sitting around reading George Jackson and listening to some awesome psychedelic records and drinking blueberry wine, and she just got caught up in it. It probably just opened her mind."
"Tania Hearst," according to John Wilkes Booze, is one of the Five Pillars of Soul. Through 2002, the band released a handful of limited-edition homemade CDs, each one spotlighting one of the Pillars: Melvin Van Peebles, Hearst, Albert Ayler, Marc Bolan and Yoko Ono. On "Meanwhile, at the Hideout," a cut from the Hearst-themed second volume of the series, Mahern and the group sing: "Death to the fascist insects that prey on the lives of the people!/Love to the beautiful people that prey on the fascist insects!" It sounds like the Brian Jonestown Massacre yodeling "May the Circle Be Unbroken" while sitting around a campfire toasting marshmallows, swigging moonshine and humping their cousins.
The acoustic strains of "Meanwhile, at the Hideout" can be attributed to the fact that four of the group's six members -- organist Aaron Deer, guitarist Jason Groth, bassist Chris Barth and drummer Mark Rice -- moonlight in a folk-pop outfit called the Impossible Shapes. But it's Mahern, along with guitarist/saxophonist Eric Weddle, who sets the sonic tone for John Wilkes Booze. The Five Pillars series is a pit-stained, solar-plexus-punching mess of soul, garage rock, post-punk, proto-punk, gospel, jazz and folk. Mahern's shrill, maniacal yelp sounds like the mating call of Ian Svenonius of the Make-Up crossed with David Thomas of Pere Ubu; Weddle snarls up his guitar in barbs of electronic noise. "Eric and I started out doing this avant-garde rock thing, this early PiL-type [Public Image Ltd.] stuff," the singer says. "We all have pretty varied musical tastes. We all love punk rock; we all love old soul music, old R&B and psychedelic music and stuff. We just kind of fell into our sound after a while.
"I've been into garage rock for a long time now," he continues, "but I've always been really frustrated. It seems like the scene can be kind of close-minded; a lot of people want to play really dumbed-down music. I don't see why something can't rock hard and still provide you with something to think and talk about."
Naming your band after a presidential assassin could be seen as frivolous, even gimmicky. John Wilkes Booze, however, tiptoes the line between tongue-in-cheek and heart-on-sleeve. While the group's obsession with concept and rhetoric is obvious, there's no denying the spit, sweat and sincerity that ooze out of every song. "There's so much going on with the Five Pillars of Soul, sometimes it's too much for people to take in," admits Mahern. "Sometimes they just don't get it. They think it's kind of a joke, or something like 'Where do these guys get off?' Our plan is to just put it out there and try to explain to people what we're about. It's really fairly self-explanatory."
Each disc in the Five Pillars series -- on the Affirmation imprint, a label run by Paul Mahern, Seth's uncle and lead singer of the Zero Boys, hardcore legends out of Bloomington, Indiana -- comes with a booklet crammed with liner notes that read like miniature gospels. The band's in the process of condensing the five discs into one for release by an as-yet-undetermined label.
"We're going to meet with a few people on this tour and talk to them and see," says Mahern. "It's a pretty big deal to put that into somebody else's hands, so we want to make sure we're really comfortable with whoever ends up doing it." In the meantime, Kill Rock Stars will include a JWB track on an upcoming compilation, and the band is on an evangelical quest across the nation, preaching the Five Pillars of Soul.
"We made a huge list of about 200 people, and then we got together and tried to pick five that we thought we could use to share our vision with the world," says Mahern, explaining the process behind the selection of the Pillars. "Melvin Van Peebles, for example, is this really, really amazing individual. He's done everything. He's crazy." The black filmmaker is best known for his self-funded, stick-it-to-the-Man masterpiece from 1970, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. "That was something he did completely by himself," says Mahern. "Making an independent record is one thing, but making an independent movie takes so much more. What's funny is, not even that many people know him for his movies, but hardly anyone knows him as a musician. He recorded some of the best records I've ever heard -- this kind of spoken-word, avant-jazz stuff that's totally out there. I really want to spread the word, get people out there searching for his records."