Ed Hamell is often referred to as a one-man punk band. But what he does for a living isn't exactly easy to categorize. He's not quite a pundit, not quite a comic, and definitely not a touchy-feely singer-songwriter mope.
"I'm at a loss of what to call it," says Hamell, sounding surprisingly energetic after a 23-hour flight from Kodiak, Alaska, to his home in Ossining, New York. "And I know it's a tough sell. If you were to say to me, 'Let's go see this guy, he plays acoustic guitar, he's bald, and he tells the audience to fuck off, but he's funny; he does political stuff, he calls himself "acoustic punk"' -- I don't know if I'd go, either. But if I saw it once, I'd keep comin' back. It's just getting 'em in there the first time."
An engaging raconteur with a chain-smoker's baritone, Hamell grew up in a blue-collar Italian-Polish neighborhood. His dad, who worked for an air-conditioning company, would tell salesman jokes. Like his father, the 44-year-old Hamell has a way of telling stories, whether they involve drunks, criminals or even his own unpleasant childhood brush with John Lennon.
"He was in Syracuse for a week," he recalls. "Yoko threw an exhibit in a museum there for him. Some friends of mine skipped school, and I got hired to do odd jobs for her. They snuck me into this party. And I went down a hallway, and he came -- his entourage, him and Yoko Ono -- from behind me. A bunch of rubes from Syracuse rushed him and pushed me into him. And my chest hit his chest, and he told me to fuck off.
"I was a kid, man, like twelve years old. I was devastated."
Even so, the grumpy Beatle didn't discourage Hamell from pursuing a career in music. Influenced by Graham Parker, Brinsley Schwarz and Jonathan Richman, Hamell was soon fronting a pub rock band called the Works -- that is, until he discovered the beauty of traveling light.
"I was coerced into doing a charity concert for a guy who was dying in upstate New York," Hamell recalls. "I did it solo, calling it Hamell on Trial -- because a lot of bands in town would be there -- as a joke. I thought they'd be scrutinizing my performance. But I got a little indie deal that first time. No one was more surprised than me."
Freed from the financial burdens of a full band, Hamell released Conviction in 1989 on Blue Wave. A steady Wednesday-night gig in Albany's Half Moon Cafe allowed him to experiment with jokier elements.
"I was watching a lot of Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce standup and trying to add that to the other stuff," Hamell reveals. "There was something incredibly liberating about being able to write something in the morning and perform it that night without having to go through a board of directors."
Feeling autonomous, Hamell took his unique story-songs and explosive strumming style to Austin. Following a showcase at South by Southwest, Hamell signed to Mercury Records, which produced 1996's Big as Life and 1997's The Chord Is Mightier Than the Sword. A few years later he returned home and established Such-A-Punch Media, which released Choochtown, an album based on some of the colorful losers and crooks from his old stamping grounds.
"I tended bar in upstate New York, where everybody in the city basically scored coke and crack at night," Hamell says. "I was checking guns and they were smoking crack, and they would do these robberies. It was insane. I'm not romanticizing this. Some of those guys are dead. A lot of 'em are in jail. But at the time, it was a tough place to work. Plus, I was getting sober. But in retrospect, it has provided a wealth of my material."
Like his songwriting, "Letter From New York City," a monthly column Hamell writes for Uncut magazine, draws its strength from raw and humorous first-person accounts. Hamell earned the columnist position after Choochtown caught fire in the U.K. and moved over 20,000 units. But not everything he writes about is funny: In 2000, a near-fatal car accident provided grist for some of those pulp-inspired musings.
"I was on my way to a gig in Pittsburgh, and a guy came across two lanes of traffic and pushed me off the road," Hamell recalls. "The car flipped twice. When I woke up, I had broken three vertebrae. Broke my wrist. Broke my ankle. And there was a sunroof on the car, so my head was split open. I had to have 52 staples in my head.
"They thought my neck was broken," Hamell continues. "As a matter of fact, when the cop came, he freaked because I couldn't turn my head. He said to me, ŒHow you doin'?' I said, ŒGreat. Can you see in the back seat? Are my guitars okay?' And he freaked out about that. He said, 'Yeah, they look like they're all right.' I said, 'Gee, don't leave 'em in the car. They're collector's items, and I gotta have 'em.'"
After promising to secure the instruments, an emergency crew cut the roof off the car, helicoptered Hamell to an emergency room and told him he might never walk again. "For some reason, I wasn't buying it," Hamell says. "I was in intensive care for a week, then sent home. I recuperated for nine months after that. I'm kind of in pain all the time. But not on stage; I get that adrenaline going through me, so that's pretty good."
Hamell's ordeal is immortalized in an ode to painkillers called "Downs," one of the many highlights on last year's Tough Love, released on Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe imprint. Other standouts include a colorful road-trip entry ("95 South"), a caustic tune written from God's point of view ("Don't Kill"), and "Hail," a tender ballad in which slain cross-dresser Teena Brandon, punk martyr Brian Deneke and hate-crime victim Matthew Shepard all meet happily in the afterlife. DiFranco, a longtime supporter, not only guests on Tough Love, but introduced Hamell to a new fan base.
"You're in a good situation with Ani, because she picks her openers," Hamell points out. "And her fans love her and trust her. Her crowd isn't just all lesbians. There's also this kind of weird hybrid now that's like this political punk-hippie. They're almost like what the MC5 fans were in Detroit in '68."
Motor City madness takes a back seat on Hamell's upcoming batch of songs -- though, like his one-man play, The Payoff, the result won't be officially unveiled until spring 2005.
"The last record, I almost died. Then 9/11 happened, and then my son was born," Hamell says. "So there were all these variables of mortality, and it became much heavier than it started out to be. I'm trying to make the next one a little lighter. I've been telling my wife, ŒHey, I'm making a techno record,' and she doesn't hear it. But there's some beats and some loops like the Clash's Combat Rock, you know? It's my German art phase."
Spoken like a true one-man-acoustic-punk-kraut-rock something-or-other.
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