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."
As Hall's reputation as a wordsmith spread, he began receiving invitations to do featured readings -- the poetry equivalent of a headlining set. Not wanting audiences to be subjected to, in his words, "twenty minutes of uninterrupted me," he began asking musician friends to back him up. These sessions evolved into a full-fledged band dubbed King Missile Dog Fly Religion on 1987's Fluting on the Hump and 1988's They, two albums rolled out by the independent Shimmy Disc imprint.
With 1990's Mystical Shit, also on Shimmy Disc (and credited to the more succinctly monikered King Missile), guitarist Dave Rick and multi-instrumentalist Chris Xefos entered the picture, helping to solidify a sound that juxtaposed Hall's skewed observations with sometimes noisy accompaniment that had a nodding relationship with evolving modern-rock stylings. Still, "Jesus Was Way Cool," a less distorted, keyboard-driven offering that appears in a "Millennium Edition" on Psychopathology, proved to be the package's breakout ditty, thanks to lyrics that helped a generation of future slackers relate to America's favorite savior. As Hall pointed out, "He turned water into wine/And if He wanted to/He could have turned oregano into marijuana/Or sugar into cocaine/Or vitamin pills into amphetamines.../No wonder there are so many Christians."
Programmers at college-radio stations embraced "Jesus" at the very moment that record labels realized students like these could be used as talent scouts. King Missile had never really toured outside the five boroughs of New York when it was signed by Atlantic, but given the musical upheaval that took place in the early '90s, such considerations didn't really matter. "Atlantic was saying to itself, 'We've got to sign alternative bands immediately!'" Hall allows. "At that time, we had the number-one song on the CMJ [College Music Journal] charts, so we were extremely lucky." He adds, "They weren't really looking for us. What they were looking for was Stone Temple Pilots, and Hootie and the Blowfish, and Tori Amos. They just didn't know it yet."
The Way to Salvation, King Missile's 1991 bow for Atlantic, stirred curiosity among scenesters, but Happy Hour, put out the next year, did considerably more. The disc was overflowing with grabby ditties like Hall's tribute to "Martin Scorsese" ("If I ever meet him/I'm gonna grab his fucking neck and just shake him and say/'Thank you. Thank you for making such excellent fucking movies'"). But it was "Detachable Penis," in which Hall has to repurchase his misplaced organ from a sidewalk vendor ("He wanted 22 bucks, but I talked him down to 17"), that fixed King Missile in the public consciousness. Today Hall claims not to mind how closely associated he is with the song, but he admits that he and his fellows seldom perform it unless they're outside of New York -- "and if we do, we'll play it fourth or fifth, so the rest of the music can be heard."
The best way to overcome a hit is to write another one, which Hall concedes he never did. Atlantic responded by dropping the band when its 1994 effort, King Missile, was a sales non-starter. After musical differences split the Hall-Rick-Xefos axis, Hall assembled a solo CD, Body Has a Head, that was released only in Germany. In Body's wake, he retreated musically until he was contacted by a car company -- he says he can't remember which one -- that wanted to use some King Missile material in an advertisement. When securing the rights for the desired number proved difficult, Hall assembled a handful of musicians to record something new. That went well, and he christened these comrades King Missile III, a handle intended to denote the lineup change, and he set them to work on material not intended to promote automobiles.
The fruit of this labor, a 1998 disc for the Knitting Factory indie called Failure, belied its title artistically but echoed it commercially. No wonder becoming an attorney looked so attractive to Hall. A cum laude graduate of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, a branch of New York's Yeshiva University, he received licenses to operate in New Jersey and New York in 2002.
On the surface, Hall's dueling careers might seem contradictory, but they're actually quite compatible. According to Heraty Hall's Web site, www.heratyhall.com, the company specializes "in serving the needs of small businesses, artists and professionals in the entertainment industry." The company's client list includes musicians, record labels, poets and other folks whose concerns Hall understands. "When I see a contract or I have to draft a contract, I know what should and shouldn't be there, generally speaking," he notes. "I can say, 'In my fifteen years of music-business crap, I've never seen this in a contract.' And that's meaningful. Plus, some of my clients ask me questions that don't have a lot to do with the law, but have more to do with the business itself. And having the experiences I've had, I can pass that along as well."
These observations are hardly based on ancient history. A couple of years back, Hall was cheered to discover that pockets of King Missile aficionados remain in existence, particularly on the East Coast. When an opportunity arose to reward these fans with a six-date King Missile III tour, he hooked up with cohorts Sasha Forte and Bradford Reed, who is serving as the opening act on the band's current outing. Together they created Psychopathology, a blend of fresh ditties and cuts made for a defunct Internet company, so they'd have something to sell at gigs. Instinct, which is affiliated with Knitting Factory, liked the results so much that the firm put the disc out earlier this year, with the primary change being a nicer CD sleeve.
Much of Psychopathology consists of flat-out humor, such as a "Pain Series" that finds Hall reacting profanely to a hot coffee spill, a hammered thumb, a paper cut and a dive into a cold pool. But amid the laughs, there's also off-kilter social commentary of the sort found in "The Miracle of Childbirth," which demythologizes the moment of conception ("Face it: Your father fucked your mother, and the next time you're fucking somebody, just try to keep that in mind"). Hall also satirizes the eagerness of famous people to pipe up at times of national disaster in "JLH," an ode that recognizes pneumatic actress Jennifer Love Hewitt for her "brave and steadfast silence" after 9/11.
As for Hall, whose pad had a view of the World Trade Center, he says, "Two types of people seemed to feel they could address 9/11 right after it happened, which were people who had genuinely experienced it, and assholes who'll talk about anything. I probably fit in both categories, so for me it wasn't a problem."
"JLH" is also significant for connecting the dots between Rudolph Giuliani and George W. Bush via the lines "A lot of people have said Giuliani did a great job with the crisis/And I guess so/And a lot of people are saying that Bush is doing a good job/And I really don't think so." Nonetheless, Hall has no interest in becoming an exclusive Bush-basher.
"There have been a lot of terrible things that have happened and that moved me that I wasn't able to make art out of," he says. "But for some reason, I was able to do it in these cases. And I'm sure there will be more terrible things I can make art out of in the future."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.