Sum of Their Parts
In the widely anthologized short story "Good Country People," Flannery O'Conner tells the tale of an overeducated spinster with an artificial leg who tries to seduce a traveling Bible salesman. A self-declared atheist, she coaxes the seemingly innocent faith peddler up into a hayloft -- only to discover that his childlike fascination with her prosthetic limb exceeds any desire to get her into the missionary position. Then he steals her leg. Before descending the ladder, the slick charlatan proudly proclaims, "One time I got a woman's glass eye this way."
Christ on a crutch!
As antique collectors of the strange and grotesque, Reverend Glasseye and His Wooden Legs embody the O'Connor-esque essence of an American Gothic potboiler. Skillfully combining Southern gospel, German cabaret, Jewish klezmer, jump jazz, country music -- everything and the kitchen sink -- into a dark and violent carnival ride, the Boston-based septet conjures the bygone spirit of the circus midway. The sound is a somnambulist's nightmare populated by hermaphrodites, scorpion swallowers and unlicensed practitioners of bloodless surgery. Bandleader Reverend Ignatius Glasseye (who keeps his off-stage identity confidential) not only sees the value in theatrics but in spreading colorful -- and deliberate -- falsehoods.
"Misinformation is a beautiful, beautiful thing," the 24-year-old huckster says. "There's something romantic about shamming people. There's also something very influential about corruption that generally makes the best music: the turn of the century with the great bamboozling salesmen; the franticness that came with the Great Depression. Time periods with the most social downfall usually lead to the best musical commentary. The trash days of London in the '70s brought about punk rock. I'm looking forward to what we're about to get into now. We're headed toward a period of some sort of change in music, I imagine."
For the time being, Glasseye and company plunder the past, turning an amalgamation of ethnic styles into a buzzing hive of American junkyard music. Black River Falls, the band's recent debut on Coo-Coo Bird Records, erupts with the unrestrained hysteria of no fewer than eighteen percussive devices manned by drummer Timothy Maher and the clatter-happy Richard Cuneo; bassist Dennis Maher and guitarist Deacon Piet Blaise Masone steer the melodic hurly-burly through a cartoonish landscape punctuated by trumpeter Jon O'than Wobesky's hard-charging brass. All of the members either simultaneously play more than one instrument, shout or yodel at any given moment; when not pounding the figurative pulpit and blustering like a loon, Glasseye strums an acoustic guitar, mandolin or banjo. Altogether, the players more than live up to Coo-Coo Bird's curious motto -- "The tree or the forest fire" -- which, according to Glasseye, simply means "roots music or the farthest thing from it."
"I call what we do vaudeville," he says. "I picked up a theremin to replace the saw, live, because the saw is excruciating to mike and have the audience hear it. But then I can't really play the theremin and sing at the same time. It's a quandary."
Glasseye, a Boulder native, has broadened the appeal of his band's sound by swapping spit with some of the most talented acts from across the Front Range. "I was impressed with the Denver Post, who called us the devil's spawn of 16 Horsepower and Slim Cessna," Glasseye says (though Post writer John Moore actually referred to the band as a "love child"). "I had to congratulate Slim on having a son," he adds, laughing.
Inducted earlier this month as a full-time pedal-steel player and thereminist for the Rhode Island-based Auto Club, Glasseye has tangled his bloodline even more with that of an already incestuous mountain clan: Clarinet player Paul Fonfera and violinist Tom Hagerman -- both once and future members of DeVotchKa who also occasionally moonlight as Denver Gentlemen -- can now call themselves Wooden Legs.
"I set up a show [in Boston] for the Denver Gentleman, and in return, Paul and Tom played on the album," Glasseye says. "Paul is actually a full-time member of the band now. He left DeVotchKa, went on tour with Woven Hand and is joining up with us."
Despite whatever form his band's lineup takes, Glasseye has crafted a world inside his songs that's consistent with their patchwork quilt of styles. Voices speak from beyond the grave in Black River Falls -- like those from Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology -- spanning time, place and common logic. In varying bits of revisionist history, Glasseye resurrects some of mankind's more notorious characters: George Custer, Jesse James, Ho Chi Minh, Cain, Abel and John Wilkes Booth, among others. Even Aliester Crowley drops by for a game of Pick Up sticks in the county jail ("Paddywagon Turban"). During the album's title cut, a nameless fisherman's daughter collapses in church while Glasseye spews the album's grimmest batch of lyrics: "The funeral was filled with grief/Her mother made not a sound/No one could hear her bite her fingers off/Buried alive underground." And the murder ballad "Seven Little Girls" borrows from one of Colorado's most horrific sagas to date -- that of a golden-haired child beauty queen and whatever monster took her from her loving parents: "Tell little Jon Benét/It's almost Christmas Day/And the chimney needs a sweeping/Before the dear can play."
"When I was living in Boulder, J.T. Colfax was one of my heroes," Glasseye says, recalling the local celebrity less known for his cadaver-based art shows than for stealing Jon Benét's autopsy report -- and for stuffing burning paper through a mail slot into the Ramseys' foyer. "He was a shit-stirrer. He's got balls. Or a lack of sanity.
"You know, I once upon a time served Patsy Ramsey coffee," Glasseye adds. "And in retrospect, I should probably cherish that moment."
Not that growing up in the People's Republic was all fun and games.
"When I was born, my eyes were so crossed you could only see the whites of them," Glasseye says, his voice growing quiet. "I had to have surgery, so my childhood was spent wearing eye patches. Scrutiny came in abundance. Kids were mean, and names ranged from the crude 'One Eye' to the more sophisticated 'Glasseye'. Somewhere along the line, I started to like being called that."
Taking cues from folks like Jello Biafra, Glasseye discovered the pros and cons of performing loud music.
"I played in a lot of punk bands while going through puberty," he continues, "and it had some damaging effects. I'm trying to fix my voice so I have something to sing with by the time I'm in my forties. I've been working on it by trying to sing in a higher range, to get away from the Tom Waits comparisons. Being compared to Tom Waits is one of the worst things that can ever happen to you. It's too much of a pigeonhole. If you play country, you're called country. If you play punk rock, you're called punk rock. If you play anything strange and have a gravelly voice, you're called Tom Waits. Being called genres of music is quickly ignorable, but being compared to a human being directly is somewhat defacing. I'd rather be compared to Tiny Tim."
More mock preacher than gutter poet, Glasseye does revisit well-trod territory anytime he screams about Armageddon or having deadly intent with a thirty-ought six. Truly, songs like "50% Murder" and "3 Ton Chain" -- both from Falls -- sound cliched when compared with material from Waits's 1992 Bone Machine release. But with a softer rasp and a wider, more operatic vocal range (plus occasional ululations that recall Jeffrey-Paul Norlander's high-pitched billy-goat phase in the early days of the Denver Gents), the Rev maintains an aura of distinction in the subculture of modern freak-show barkers.
"[Waits] didn't invent this music," Glasseye insists. "If you look back, there's Blind Willie Johnson, who was a huge influence on what I'm doing. There's Dr. Souchon, who was Tom Waits before Tom Waits -- with the snake-oil salesman pitches and the kind of junk Dixieland jazz and what have you. And his music -- if you can find it -- is brilliant. He was actually a real doctor, living in New Orleans in the '20s. But everything is derivative. There is no originality in music anymore. It just depends on what you do with it and where it comes from and what your intents are. If you intend to sound like someone, then you're particularly derivative. If you don't, you may be derivative of a style of music. It's all about matters of the heart, not to sound too cheesy."
Matters of the soul, Glasseye has discovered, are less complicated.
"I found God a couple years back," he says. "And not having the patience to go through seminary and being married, I decided to do it the cheap and easy way." Through the Universal Life Church -- a worldwide ministry based in Modesto, California, since 1959 -- Glasseye received his free online ordination in less than five minutes. Legally certified, he's able to perform weddings and assist at baptisms and funerals (but not circumcisions). "They actually sell something called 'Ministry in a Box' that I've been wanting to get," he says. "But to tell you the truth, I'm not very religious. There's always the power of God in music. Religion creates earnestness in music without it having to be particularly earnest. There's a fundamental power in what you're saying, regardless of how serious you are as a person. That sounds like mad rambling, but there's beauty in Southern religious music that probably had nothing to do with the religion, but in the fervor in which they're singing. I find that to be beautiful."
Given the band's willingness to toy with gimmickry -- the vintage clothing, the hyperbole and the frontman's handlebar mustache -- the more subtle beauty that Glasseye refers to often plays second fiddle to glaring shenanigans. But fun is fun, consarnit.
"I've been looking for some circus stilts so I can be the nine-foot-tall Reverend," he says, laughing. "I love the absurdity, the humorless jokes. I'd love to bring animals on stage. Goats! That would be awesome." Past performances have included roller girls and puppet shows; the band also sells tonics -- curious elixirs for pattern baldness or fungal toes -- demonstrating its perpetual knack for mischief.
"I actually dress this way on a day-to-day basis," Glasseye says of his turn-of-the-century ensemble, which includes a candy-striped vest, pocket watch and spats. "I'm really short. I'm 5' 5". Modern clothing doesn't fit me. It makes me look like a latchkey kid. So I got into the Victorian stuff because I can find clothing that fits me that I don't need custom tailored. But I also have a real big head, so I can't find hats."
Full of ideas, Glasseye aims to record new material with the band following its current tour. "Our first album cost about the same as a year in college, so I'm guessing I have three more of them before I have to get a real job," he says. "We've been getting into more harmonies. Not in the Beach Boys sense, but in a Kurt Weil operatic sense. We're moving into vibraphone and pizzicato strings. Bells and whistles. Orchestration. Reverend Glasseye and the Boston Pops. I hope it comes out like I have it storming around in my brain."
Until then, step right up, folks. The funny little man in the pulpit just might hold the keys to your salvation. Or maybe that Bible that he's brandishing contains nothing more than a flask of whiskey. You pay and take your chance. But like the Good Book says: "If thine own eye offends, pluck it out!"
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