Slap and twang. You can say both. You can do both. And if your love lies in American roots music, you dig hearing both.
Slap and twang. Two organic tones and approaches essential to rock music's expressive sound. Where lyrics fall short in painting an accurate mood, the less-specific grunts and wails from an instrument pick up the brush.
Upright bassist extraordinaire Lee Rocker, and roots rocker Teddy Morgan are each rolling through town next week. And they'll be bringing the slap and twang.
The slap: Lee Rocker
No matter how greasy the hair. No matter how low the ride. No matter how cool you think you are, if you dig rockabilly, chances are you didn't learn at the feet of the masters, or from some dusty old 45s, as you would have some believe. You were hipped to it by listening to The Stray Cats, a Long Island "new wave" band that broke big in England and then the world with music that included songs about fast cars and fast girls, twangin', Echoplexed guitar, a simple back-beat, and a galloping slap bass. Lee Rocker's slap bass.
That was 25 years ago. Rocker, now in his early 40s, still burns up the road playing the music that made The Stray Cats great, the music he still loves.
"It's what comes naturally to me and what I feel best playing," he says from his Laguna Beach home. On past solo projects, Rocker tinkered around with bluesy roadhouse sounds and even a little pop. But on his new platter, Bulletproof, it's pure rockabilly.
Though Rocker is a recognizable world talent, the genre he helped resuscitate and perpetuate through the sale of over 7-million records is still relatively obscure. And that's just fine with him.
"Rockabilly is alive and well, living in the underground," he says. "There's a great scene all over the world. You just gotta know where to look. It's obviously not on commercial radio, or MTV. I think it's a lot like punk rock --- real punk rock. Things look pretty good to me at the moment."
The Stray Cats may have re-introduced an unsuspecting generation to the otherwise obscure style. But it was Rocker's execution of traditional rockabilly's unorthodox approach to the stand-up bass that really made the group stand out. The instrument was beaten or slapped percussively, frequently spun and mounted like a drunken dance partner.
"The Stray Cats crossed over to such a degree that a large part of that audience had no idea," Rocker says. "'Rockabilly, what's that? What's that? A cello?'"
Rocker doesn't downplay his role in the group or swing around the weight it has afforded him. Lee Rocker, Stray Cat or not, loves rockabilly. He doesn't care how the fans got clued in, either. "It's something I'm really proud of," he says of his time with The Stray Cats. "It was a big part of my life. There's some people now, I can't tell if they're really aware of The Stray Cats or not, and they just got hip to what I'm doing the last couple of years."
Touring with a dynamite new album, a slick quartet, and a certain degree of wisdom, Rocker lives the spirit of the bold music he plays.
"I really feel like I've hit a point in my life where I'm enjoying it more than I ever have before," he says, laughing. "And I don't knowwhat that's about."
The twang: Teddy Morgan
Tucson's Teddy Morgan smoked the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que the last time he played there. At one point, looking a little road-weary in faded dungarees, Teddy bowed his Stetsoned head, leaned into his blue Tele, and began to repeatedly yank the low E string about a foot and a half off the fingerboard. The resulting throaty twang rattled anything that was loose in the room.
"I love that sound!" he shouts into the phone like an excited 9-year-old. "It's just some simple old blues thing you know? And it's punk." OK, so the fury and energy are there, telecasted with Morgan's mighty twang, but his music goes considerably deeper. He conjures that big-sky lonely ache and longing we all try to avoid and makes it beautiful. If Morgan were dead before his time and were of that bygone, driftin' cowboy era, we might have referred to him as "Lonesome Teddy." Lyrically, the Dylan comparisons, though perhaps a little lazy, are inevitable.
"Yeah, Bob Dylan was a big influence early on in my late teens. Then I got heavy into the blues thing for a while. Then about six years ago I was at a party, gettin' real drunk, and someone put some Bob Dylan on and I was like 'Why haven't I been listening to this stuff?'" He's been keeping his mind and ears open since.
"I'm into whatever," he says. "I've got this 100-disc CD player I listen to around the house, and I don't know if Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters or Coldplay is gonna show up. Or the Clash or Los Lobos. I'm up for anything."
Morgan's new album, Freight,is laid back and a little more strummed out and ethereal than his earlier work. It came right out and said it. Freight sonically meanders, offering hints, speculation, and innuendo. It sounds like the outdoors: big, beautiful, lonely.
"With this one I experimented more with ambient sounds and textures," he says. This experimentation includes some rather trippy Rainbow Bridge-type backwards stuff and some spaced-out tricks Morgan developed live. "It's me and the guitar, beatin' the shit out of it along with some ambient stuff with delay and compression and feedback."
Morgan never wanders too far from the twang, though.
"I still love to just crank that amp up and, you know, no apologies, twang out."
Teddy Morgan plays Tuesday, April 22, at The Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, 99 Court Street, at 10 p.m. Free. 325-7090. Lee Rocker plays on Wednesday, April 23, at The Montage Grille, 50 Chestnut Street. Tix: $14-$16. 232-8380.