The phone rings. It's Porch Ghoul number one: Eldorado Del Rey. He's calling from Oklahoma City, where he's on tour opening for Kiss and Aerosmith. He's calling with a few minor requests.
"It's Eldorado," he says seriously. "I was just wondering if maybe you could just use our stage names in your story? I know that writers like to use our real names, but I'd prefer that you use our stage names."
As much as I'd like to play along with this little rock-and-roll swindle, it's a promise I can't make. Mr. Del Rey is not entirely cool with my position.
"I just don't understand," he laments. His exasperation is apparent and genuine. "What is it about Memphis [music] writers? Why do they always want to use our real names? It's like they refuse to use our stage names or something."
He lists my colleagues one by one, notes their stubborn refusal to use his band's cleverly crafted aliases, and he asks if I know the underlying motivations behind this conspiracy to rob him of his ultra-hip nom de rock. I assume the questions are all rhetorical and withhold comment.
"Everybody calls Sting 'Sting,'" Del Rey continues. "Nobody calls him Gordon Sumner."
"Point taken," I say, and ask what else is on his mind.
"Our next-to-last show is the L.A. Forum," Del Rey says, slipping into the role of shameless self-promoter. "And I was wondering if maybe you might be able to get that into the story somewhere."
"Sure," I tell him. "Why not? I'll put it right up front in the lead."
Something about Del Rey's voice has begun to change. It sounds needier than it did a year ago when the Porch Ghouls were just another unsigned garage band from Memphis. It sounds less confident. It's not surprising. He's got the break of a lifetime. The dice he's rolling are big ones. The Porch Ghouls were hand-picked by Aerosmith's storied guitar player Joe Perry to be the first band signed to his Sony imprint, Roman Records. The group's CD, Bluff City Ruckus, is the first child of this union. Del Rey has gone from playing half-full mid-sized clubs in Memphis to playing packed arenas, literally overnight. He's gotten a little taste of the one thing he's always wanted, and there's no way he can go back now.
I'm late getting into Louisville, and I miss the Porch Ghouls' set. Kiss is already on, playing "Lick It Up," and the crowd is doing exactly that. I find the least loud corner of the arena and call Del Rey so he can bring me backstage and tell me all about the show. I can't reach him. I ask a group of girls -- each one built like a stripper dipped in liquid denim and made up like their favorite member of Kiss -- if they had seen the Porch Ghouls. I want to know what they thought. Vacant stares ensue. I might as well have asked if they had seen the Easter Bunny. I ask a middle-aged couple if they had seen the opening act. They think they did but can't really remember. After asking several more people I begin to wonder if the Porch Ghouls had even played. I try Del Rey again. Nothing. So I go in and watch the show.
Even after 30 years, Kiss can still put it on. Paul Stanley starts to sing the opening words of "Black Diamond," and the crowd drowns him out with its screaming. The drum stage detaches itself and takes off like a spaceship, spewing steam. It hovers over the crowd while columns of pink sparks shoot into the air.
"How in the world can the Porch Ghouls share a stage with this kind of spectacle," I wonder. The Ghouls' drummer bangs on suitcases, for goodness' sake. They don't even have a full kit, let alone one that can fly.
Kiss begins their encore and I return to the lobby. There is Del Rey, grinning ear to ear, and chatting it up with his fans. He looks a little more like a rock star these days, in his black suit, black shirt, and black Converse All Stars. He's wearing an aviator scarf that hangs to his knees. His award-winning mutton-chops are hidden in a mess of hair. He's wearing his sunglasses at night. A teen-age kid with a Mohawk begs Del Rey for an autograph, which he happily provides. Another fan, mistaking me for the Porch Ghouls' guitar player Slim Electro, asks if I'll sign his arm. I say, "No." He says he drove down from Ohio just to see the Ghouls and promises that if I put one of my bottleneck slides up for sale on e-Bay, he'll buy it for a lot of money. I keep telling him, "I'm not Slim," and he keeps winking and saying, "Right."
Del Rey gives me an "Artist's Guest" laminate to wear. "This isn't the right pass," he says conspiratorially, "so flash it fast and stay close to me." We make our way through the crowd. Several people call out to Del Rey, and voice their approval of his band. I wonder where all these guys were earlier. Clearly the Porch Ghouls had played Louisville. And even in the shadow of Kiss and Aerosmith, they had made an impression.
In the van, nobody is sure what to make of the set. There had apparently been equipment problems, and nobody was satisfied.
"We played all of our Christmas songs," jokes Electro. "And the rest of the songs were all Oblivians covers. The crowd loved us." He's lying, of course. They played songs from Bluff City Ruckus, a rough-around-the-edges fusion of hill-country blues and Memphis garage-rock -- with maracas thrown in for good measure. To hear the boys tell it, they had been on a winning streak and couldn't play a bad show. But that had all changed a few days ago when an amp blew, and they were still trying to get their momentum back.
We go to the Holiday Inn, where the band is staying. Beers are consumed. Road stories are told, mostly about the Ghouls' driver Bunny, who has extraordinary luck with the ladies. Del Rey shares his diary with me:
"It's freezing cold. We unload our stuff and find out once again we don't have a dressing room. The Porch Ghouls aren't primadonnas by any stretch of the imagination, but this means we have to hang out in the loading docks. There's nothing more pathetic than a bunch of guys huddled up, sitting on their amplifiers by the forklift. We played a great set tonight. It still blows my mind a bit. I don't understand what classic rock fans could possibly see in our brand of punk-rock blues. I happily accepted their applause though."
It's barely past midnight when the Ghouls finally call it a night. Lobby call is at 11 a.m. They are on a mission to eat every famous sandwich at the restaurant that invented it. We're in Louisville, so tomorrow we'll be sampling the Hot Brown at the Brown Hotel before heading to Lexington for a club date.
When Electro gets back to Memphis, he's going into business with his wife, Holland. In the Memphis Underground Rap Alliance, Holland is known as Chopper Girl, and in a short time this skinny white chick with the gangsta beats has earned the respect of local hip-hop pioneer Al Kapone, among others. Electro (AKA former Grifter Scott Taylor) and wife have accordingly bought a recording studio on Faxon Avenue where they plan to live and work. They want to put out Chopper Girl's music and be a one-stop studio for local rappers looking to make a CD.
"We'll record. We'll do the cover art and the distribution," Electro says over a steaming Hot Brown sandwich smothered in turkey, bacon, and Mornay sauce. "We'll do everything," he says. Then he adds, "But it's kind of hard getting it together when you are out on the road like this. Not that I'm complaining."
Suddenly everything stops. The table talk turns into a collective rumble of "Hi, Gene." Kiss' Gene Simmons has entered the room, dressed head-to-toe in black. He says he's on his way to a book signing and asks what the boys are up to. "Hot Brown" is about all that makes it out of their collective mouths. Simmons seems confused.
"Oh," he says at length. "The sandwich." And then he leaves.
The ride to Lexington is short and sweet. The Ghouls' harmonica player and maraca shaker Randy Valentine decides to forgo the van, with its DVD player and PlayStation, to ride with me. A few months ago, after getting off the Ghouls' first tour with Aerosmith and Kiss, Valentine told me he had some serious doubts about life on the road. They had been playing side stages back then. Another Memphis band, Saliva, who had already proven themselves national hit makers, were opening on the main stage. Travel had not been so comfortable. Accommodations had not been quite as accommodating.
"How could I not be excited about this," Valentine says, explaining that his whole attitude has changed now that they are playing the main stage. "I mean, we're opening for Aerosmith and Kiss. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Hell, yes, I'm digging it." But, in spite of all the rock and roll, he gets especially excited when he talks about opening up a sports bar in Midtown. He and Bunny have been planning to open something they call "The Sports Basement."
"It will be just like watching sports in your basement," he explains. "There will be couches, a pool table. A washer and dryer."
Sound check at the Dame, a mid-sized club in downtown Lexington, goes pretty smoothly. Still, everyone is a little disappointed with the level of promotion the show (a pick-up date between arena gigs) has received. The handbills aren't particularly enticing, and except for an ad, there is no mention of the Ghouls' show in Ace, Lexington's alternative weekly. It's a Tuesday night to boot, and that's never good.
A club brochure describes the Ghouls as playing "Good ol' American rock-and-roll mixed up with garage rock and trashabilly." It compares them to the Forty-Fives, a retro-garage outfit that takes its cues from ? and The Mysterians. The description couldn't be more off-base.
Only 30 or so turn out for the show. Many leave before it's over, some clearly annoyed because the band was not what they thought it would be. But the handful who stick around are rabid for the Porch Ghouls. One guy who played in the opening band (American Werewolf) jumps up and down, eyes wide with adoration. He reaches out his hands in a worshipful salute to the Ghouls' blues.
When Electro was a Grifter he was the king of distortion. He could work his pedals like a maestro. He was a one-man symphony of noise. He has since traded in his pedals for a bottleneck slide, but the effect is the same. His cartoon-sized riffs intertwine with Valentine's hypnotic harp playing. It's a dirty sound with Del Rey's tenor slicing through the mix. It's enough to drive away the faint of heart. It's enough to make others swear by the Porch Ghouls.
"The crowds are always better outside of Memphis," Del Rey says. He speculates that because Memphis has its share of great blues bands and its share of great garage bands, the Porch Ghouls somehow fall between the cracks.
The lead singer of American Werewolf makes it clear that he is a student of the blues. He says he'd be honored to maybe do a split single with the Ghouls someday.
After the show, the Ghouls have a special rock-and-roll moment. The Mad Hatter, a hat store next door to the club, opens up especially for them. Band members try on hats of all kinds -- fedoras in every color of the rainbow, bowlers, captain's hats, and pork-pies. Duke Baltimore, the Ghouls' drummer/suitcase player, asks about ordering custom-made top hats for his impending wedding. The constant shifting of headgear is not unlike something out of the Beatles film A Hard Day's Night.
"That's a smart man," Electro says of the Mad Hatter. "I bet he opens up for all the bands that come through."
Back at the hotel, Electro sifts through the band's e-mail. He discovers a note from someone who claims to have been the founder and promoter of the AC/DC "Let There Be Rock" video tour. He says he saw the Ghouls in Tampa and wants to make a film.
"[I] would like to help Elderado [sic] fulfill his vision," the missive reads, "of making the Ghouls a MOVEMENT that can't be stopped."
"He spelled Eldorado's name wrong," Electro notes and expresses some doubts about the request.
Del Rey rides with me to Knoxville. On the way he expresses some doubts. He's got new material and he's ready to cut a new record. But he feels a bit separated from the band. "I think they all think I'm going to do a solo project," he says. But he dismisses the idea of a solo project. He thinks the rest of the band is just nervous because he is the one who actually talks to Joe Perry the most. (Del Rey first encountered Perry while working as a tour guide at Sun Studio. The Aerosmith guitarist had come in to soak up the Sun vibe and maybe buy a few records. Before he got out the door, Del Rey slipped him a Porch Ghouls CD and said, "This is my crappy band." A few months later Perry was on the phone, making an offer the Ghouls couldn't refuse.)
"But really," Del Rey says, "we just get along." And then he makes a confession. "When you're a kid," he says, "you never imagine yourself playing in a smoky club. You see yourself on stage in an arena doing windmills. Now that I've got a taste of it, I can't go back. I've got to figure out a way to keep this going."
When the Ghouls arrive at U.T.'s Thompson-Boling Arena they are delighted to discover that they have a dressing room. Granted, it's a pipe-and-drape affair on the loading dock, but it's a dressing room. They are even more delighted to discover that there is beer on the way.
"When we opened for Godsmack," Electro says, "we used to tell people we were making $225 and 50 cents because of all the change the audience was throwing at us." He's not talking tips. He's talking projectiles. The Godsmack crowd had not cared for the Porch Ghouls. Compared to that, this is heaven.
Sound check goes well. One techie comments on how much better he thinks the suitcase sounds than a real kick drum. Then everything comes to a halt. Kiss' Paul Stanley is running late and he needs to sound check. He takes the stage with a chorus of "Lick It Up." Then he starts to play Led Zeppelin songs. When he's satisfied, the Ghouls get back to business.
The show is nearly flawless. The Ghouls rip through their originals, as well as covers of R.L. Burnside's "Going Down South" and Hound Dog Taylor's "Give Me Back My Wig." The crowd is still a little sparse but enthusiastic. There are some "boos" but Del Rey steps to the mike and says, "What's that you say? 'Porch Ghouls RULE?" He tells the crowd how happy he is to be back in the South. "Those Yankees," Electro adds, "ain't got no class." The crowd licks it up.
Kiss is onstage playing when Del Rey asks if I want to meet Joe Perry. He takes me out to Perry's tour bus, which is a rock-and-roll palace on wheels, lined in leather and hardwood paneling. Perry invites us back to see a new pair of heart-shaped pillows someone has made for him that read, "Joe-fucking-Perry."
Perry has had nothing but good things to say about his Memphis discovery. He's claimed that the Porch Ghouls are doing what the Yardbirds should have done. He sees them as a kind of link between Led Zeppelin and today's garage movement. But today Perry has something else on his mind.
"You know Paul [Stanley] loaned me a pair of his boots today," Perry says, referring to the oversized stack-heels the members of Kiss wear on stage. "I've been wearing them around and they make you really tall," he says, sounding like a kid. "You know what this means?" he asks.
"You're going to play with Kiss?" Del Rey answers. Perry nods, but he doesn't say when.
"You've got to play with us sometime before the tour is over," Del Rey says.
"We'll do it," Perry answers. "Sometime before the tour is over, we'll do it. I'd like that." And then we leave so Perry can get ready for the show.
The band is tired. Del Rey wants to stay and watch Aerosmith, but everyone else is anxious to get to the room. Poker is played until 3 a.m. John Shipp, the Ghouls' tour manager, wonders why the boys are more concerned with getting beer than getting a good sound check. They read their fan e-mails, all of which are positive, a few of which teeter toward the pornographic. And then they go to bed.
Moline is a long way off and they aren't famous, not just yet.
What the Critics are Saying
Needless to say, being on Joe Perry's label and opening for Kiss and Aerosmith has brought the Porch Ghouls quite a bit of attention. Here is a sampling of what critics from around the country have to say about them:
Aerosmith and Kiss brought undisputed star power to Monday night's show, while the Porch Ghouls came armed with ambition and attitude. It was, for the most part, a potent combination and left a nearly full house satisfied -- even at upwards of $115 a ticket. Covers of R.L. Burnside songs are not what a roomful of Kiss and Aerosmith fans expected, and it would be stretching it to say that the Ghouls won them over, but they did perform with an almost careless glee that was admirable under the circumstances. -- Jeffrey Lee Puckett of the Louisville Courier-Journal
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at Sony when Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry introduced [Bluff City Ruckus] to the bigwigs and told them release it on Columbia. You can see the suits' eyes rolling back in their heads at the prospect of dedicating precious time and resources to the Porch Ghouls, a grumpy, stripped-down Memphis-based quartet that makes the White Stripes sound like, well, Aerosmith -- Hal Horowitz, Creative Loafing, Atlanta
I like the Porch Ghouls a lot [but] if I was in the market for slavishly derivative white-boy honky-tonk, I'd rent Blues Brothers 2000. -- Justin Peters, Cornell Daily Sun
[The Porch Ghouls'] volatile mix is stunning to say the least. Rich blues chords folded with searing harmonica and topped with squeaky soulful vocals lacerate the eardrum of any casual listener. -- Slug Magazine, Utah
Fans of the rollicking stomp blues and shoestring clatter of bands like Doo Rag will absolutely flip over the Porch Ghouls, who marry the physicality of Memphis garage legends the Oblivians with the dark humor of Screamin' Jay Hawkins. -- Chris Davis, Nashville Scene
The Porch Ghouls opened with a set of primitive blues-rooted rock. The young band was impressively loose and raw, belting out blues-wailing, harmonica-soaked raunch to a mostly empty arena. -- Curtis Ross, Tampa Tribune