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Soul Assassins

With a bullet: John Wilkes Booze members Mark Rice (from left), Eric Weddle, Aaron Deer, Seth Mahern, Jason Groth and Chris Barth.

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."

As for free-jazz maverick Albert Ayler -- a man whom John Coltrane often cited as a major influence, yet who saw little success before his mysterious drowning in 1970 -- Mahern and company went so far as to make a pilgrimage to his place of death. "We were in New York, and we went to try to find the pier where they found his body. We were walking around Brooklyn asking everybody, and no one even knew who he was," Mahern remembers. "Besides just being a great musician, he used pretty traditional American songs, like New Orleans funeral marches, and just took them out there. He was an American treasure."

Almost conspiratorially, he adds: "I've read lots of theories that say Albert Ayler was killed by the CIA to suppress black culture. Nobody really knows what happened to him."

Marc Bolan was chosen as a Pillar "because we wanted to put in a pop star," says Mahern. Still, they couldn't have picked a more underground pop star than Bolan. As the main man behind T. Rex, he made some of the most surreal, brain-baked glam anthems to ever ascend the charts. And like Ayler, Bolan died young -- in a car crash in 1977. "He just seemed to be a real positive person for the world, somebody that people loved, especially in England," notes Mahern. "And since we were putting in all these outside musicians, we didn't want it to seem like we weren't interested in somebody who could write pop songs. He was like a spokesperson of the people."

Choosing the fifth and final Pillar of Soul was not easy. But John Wilkes Booze somehow managed to top itself with...Yoko Ono?

"For some reason, she's hated. She's a true visionary -- musically, artistically and politically -- and people hate her. I don't get it," admits Mahern. "A lot of people say, 'I don't like Yoko Ono because I'm a big John Lennon fan' -- which, to me, makes no sense at all. Yoko Ono's number-one fan in the world was John Lennon. If you love John Lennon, you should love her. She really proved to a lot of people that anyone can go out there and make it happen, make some noise. I think she's probably responsible for punk rock in general."

And Mahern has an even more subversive reason for his reverence. "We have a song called 'Yoko Saved Rock 'n' Roll,'" he says with the zeal of a true insurrectionist. "She infiltrated and broke up the most popular rock band of all time."

Besides all these far-flung and exotic heroes, John Wilkes Booze has a bumper crop of inspiration right in its own back yard. South-central Indiana -- actually, all of the American Midwest -- possesses an impressive legacy of underground culture dating back decades. "Bloomington has a really rich musical history," says Mahern. "Bill Monroe is from around there. The Gizmos, Dancing Cigarettes, the Panics -- all these great punk bands from the late '70s. It's a cool place. I don't want to brag, but I think the Midwest is where punk rock is from. The MC5, the Stooges, Pere Ubu, Rocket From the Tombs. It's about being apart from the music industry. When you're in New York or San Francisco, even if you're not trying to be in tune with the music industry, it's still around you. In the Midwest, it's a lot more simple. I mean, who do we have to impress?"

With so many influences and ideas fermenting in the still, John Wilkes Booze's music could be all over the place. But it's not: The songs are focused and immediate and, yes, balls-out rocking. Although it's only a couple of years old, the band is already renowned for its concussive, go-for-broke stage shows. "We're just really energetic," says Mahern. "I've seen so many bands over the years that just stand there, maybe look a little bored to be on stage with themselves. When we started playing, we made a vow that we wouldn't do that. We try to have enough energy within the band to kind of spread it to the audience." And they live up to that sacred vow: Live, the members of John Wilkes Booze seem to be channeling the collective fury and passion of their beloved, but otherwise quite distinct, Pillars of Soul.  

"I think that all five of them are pretty similar," Mahern explains. "I mean, they're all different, but they're all people who had limited resources in different ways and did what they could with them. I think they all had a real, true, honest message."

So how does he explain Tania Hearst eventually changing her name back to Patty and renouncing her radical past? Isn't she something of a counterrevolutionary, or, at best, a sellout?

"We chose Tania because we wanted somebody that we felt we could relate to a bit better personally. We're involved in a scene of predominantly white, middle-class people -- let's face it," Mahern says with a laugh. "But she's someone who, for even just a short amount of time, stood up and said, 'Hey, things are wrong, and I'm willing to risk it all to change that.'"

On John Wilkes Booze's tribute to Hearst, there's a song called "White Guilt." Although Minor Threat once sang about feeling guilty for being white, JWB seems to celebrate it. "I got it!/ WHITE GUILT!/I got it!/WHITE GUILT!" shouts the band in an almost Pentecostal call and response. While organ and guitars grind like the trapdoor to hell underneath him, Mahern shrieks with all the fevered rapture of a tent revivalist: "Whatever happened to H. Rap Brown?/His soul is on FIE-UHH!"

It could be pure rock pulpiteering, of course. Does Mahern really feel guilty about being white?

"Yeah, every day," he replies, without a second's hesitation. "It's not just being white; it's being an American, a person who has these great amounts of resources and kind of wastes them. We have this king -- King George Bush -- who's basically going around destroying and terrorizing the world. In my name! So, yeah, I feel really guilty about that. And I think that's why we're doing what we do. We're trying to show the world that you can live a righteous, good life."


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