How a Punk Rocker Found Hank

It started with Def Leppard, Michael Jackson, and the J. Geils Band.

Like every other thirteen-year-old circa 1984, I wanted to be liked by the pretty girls and admired by boys my age.  I listened to top 40 radio and liked all the bubble gum pop and slop because that’s what everyone else liked.

Then, during an eighth-grade study hall, a cute girl showed off her new cassette – Def Leppard’s Pyromania.  Everyone ooh’ed and aah’ed over it.  This cassette, along with Michael Jackson’s Thriller, were the two must-have items at my school if you wanted to be cool.  I bought them as soon as I saved enough money.  I also took it a step further and also bought the 45rpm single of “Centerfold” by the J. Geils Band.  It was the hottest single at the time and I had to have it.  My brother, a Kiss fan, instantly decried me for buying it, knowing the song was actually out of favor among the older kids by the time I’d discovered it.

I never could have imagined those three purchases would have led me to a love of Hank Williams’ music.

Def Leppard led me to a brief love of hair metal, including an appreciation for Judas Priest, but my musical tastes were turned inside out by a pal’s big brother.  He introduced me to Billy Idol, Devo, and Oingo Boingo.  I knew “Whip It” from its brief stint on the top 40, and Idol’s “Rebel Yell” was getting a bit of radio play, but no one was playing Oingo Boingo – a weird California band who sang songs about death, bugs, sex in the workplace, and samurai warriors.

I became obsessed with “alternative music” (a term which has since become meaningless) and, thanks to a cool record store in Fort Wayne, Indiana, discovered such bands as Wall of Voodoo (a quirky keyboard-heavy new wave band who later turned into a noir guitar band), The The (literary and sexy British rock), and the Screaming Blue Messiahs (an English power rock trio led by a weird, bald guitarist who would often walk on his guitar).  One of my favorite songs on the Screaming Blue Messiahs’ debut album, Wild Blue Yonder, was a track entitled “You’re Gonna Change.”  It was the only track that didn’t include its lyrics in the liner notes of the imported cassette.  I read it was written by some Hank Williams guy, so I figured they didn’t get permission to reprint the lyrics.

The Screaming Blue Messiahs and Billy Idol led me to punk rock.  I found the Sex Pistols first, then the Dead Kennedys, and then the Clash.  I became a full-fledged punk rocker: dyed hair, anarchy symbol patches on a torn army jacket, antagonist buttons, hair shaved into a checkerboard pattern, and freaking out the teachers and administrators in our high school just by walking down the hall.

The Dead Kennedys (once described by one of my high school English teachers as “The band who made it a mission to offend everyone”) got me to explore other wild bands like Agent Orange (California surf punks) and the Cramps (creepy punk rockers who worshipped monster movies), and delve into 1980’s industrial gothic rock bands like Ministry and Skinny Puppy.

I still harbored a secret love for funk and hip hop.  Michael Jackson (and his partner-in-funk Quincy Jones) and the J. Geils Band led me to Ray Charles.  My parents bought me a box set of Charles’ Atlantic Records recordings.  I taught myself to play harmonica by playing along to it for months.  Jackson opened by ears to Chaka Kahn, and thus Prince (who wrote “I Feel For You,” her biggest hit).  Prince led me to the Beastie Boys, who led me to Public Enemy, and they (and Quincy Jones) took me back to Ray Charles.  Mr. Charles, along with Chuck D and Flavor Flav, led me to some of the great blues masters – Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Sonny Boy Williamson.  They would all later lead me to Hank.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  The Seattle grunge scene was in full swing by the time I got to college.  My love for power rock (spawned by the Screaming Blue Messiahs) made me a natural to like Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden.  My love for the Cramps turned me on to the Reverend Horton Heat and the whole underground psychobilly scene.  The Reverend Horton Heat, and his amazing guitar work (undeniably flavored with classic country picking and blues chords) got me interested in a guy named Junior Brown, especially after I heard “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead” on the radio.  Junior Brown got me interested in classic country with his phenomenal guitar playing and his crooning.  I didn’t jump to Hank right away.  I went to Johnny Cash first, since he seemed to be the most punk rock of all the classic country artists.

It was about that time I discovered Sons and Daughters – a Scottish band I got to also via the Reverend Horton Heat.  Sons and Daughters sounded like they were bastard children Johnny Cash had sired in Scotland.  They took me to the New Pornographers – a Canadian supergroup who makes great power pop.  Among their members is the lovely Neko Case, a lovely “alternative country” singer whom I learned started in a punk rock band.

What was going on here?  I found myself discovering links to classic country music in all my favorite bands.  Once I started digging deeper, the links were stunning.

The blues masters I loved (Waters, Hopkins, Williamson) all owed massive debt to Hank Williams and his country blues.  Neko Case, of course, had her own distinct style of crooning (and lyrics) that owe to Mr. Williams.  Neko Case also led me to Cat Power, another lovely singer-songwriter, who’s since covered Mr. Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man.”

Johnny Cash covered both Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage.” Both of those bands revealed Cash and Williams were huge influences on them.  Huh?  These face-melting rockers enjoyed classic country?

Joe Strummer, co-leader of the Clash, expressed his love for classic country when he went solo and formed Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros.  Now my punk idols were coming out of the country closet!  “Dark as a Dungeon” on Wall of Voodoo’s Seven Days in Sammystown album wasn’t their song at all.  It was a Johnny Cash tune!  The The recorded Hanky Panky – an entire album of Hank Williams covers.  Rob Halford, lead singer of Judas Priest, expressed his love for Hank Williams on NPR’s Fresh Air, saying he loved the purity of Hank’s singing and lyrics, especially in “A Mansion on the Hill.”  And then I remembered the Screaming Blue Messiahs had been covering Hank for years!

It was high time to check out this Hank dude.  I found a “Legendary Country Singers” collection in a used CD bin for four bucks.  I figured I wasn’t out too much if it turned out to be too “twangy” for me.

They were right.  Every one of them.  Hank had been there.  He’d lived these songs.  They weren’t written by someone who’d never set foot in a honky tonk, been in a fight, lost a love, blacked out from too much booze, or worried every choice might only lead to more suffering.

I realized what all my favorite punk rockers, hip hoppers, blues masters, guitar wizards, and new wavers had known.  Hank Williams was true.  Without him, there wouldn’t have been the versions of Wall of Voodoo, The The, Nine Inch Nails, Public Enemy, and the Reverend Horton Heat I know.

Hank Williams’ truth and honesty created my tastes in music without me knowing it.  I am often asked what music I like.  My response is always “Anything good,” but I’ve realized that this isn’t accurate.  The correct response is “Anything true.”  All my favorite bands are true to themselves, their lyrics, and their visions.

Hank Williams still is.

~Nik Havert

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Nik Havert is a writer, DJ, harmonica player, martial arts instructor, comic book publisher, crime fighter,music lover, cult movie enthusiast, and modern day Renaissance man.  He hopes to shark cage dive sometime in the next few years and enjoys travel and good natural root beer.

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