Monday, July 29, 2013

Me and my effin' buddy, Phil Lee, Mighty King of Love, talk of knives, lobstermen and Johnny Cash

A month or so ago, my tale of Phil Lee, the Mighty King of Love, and a guy who I consider a friend, ran in Oxford American's web stuff. And while they did a good job of working with me on the cuts, they did edit out about half my original version. If you like me or Phil Lee (or both of us), you may want to read the full version. Course if you like us both, you may need treatment.

“I’m old. I say things,” says Phil Lee.
He is and he does.

Rhythmically bouncing his black-over-black Converse All-Stars against the hardwood floor of his music room, the musician with “the metabolism of a hummingbird” sings along as Johnny Cash’s voice fills the home that once was inhabited by aliens.

“I’ve never heard him sound this good,” says Lee of the disc of outtakes he calls “Marty, Doc and Johnny.”  “They found this in some dumpster over on Music Row. I think it must have been from them just playing at Cowboy Jack’s.”
“One more ride,” Lee sings along to the recasting of a 1959 recording by Cash, only this one a free and easy version featuring Marty Stuart and Doc Watson made in the early 1970s. “Can you believe someone just threw this out?” 

He almost squeals at his own good fortune of owning this bootleg, but he doesn’t, of course.  This isn’t a guy who squeals. His delight is more obvious in his glistening eyes and the reverential Cash-like voice he uses when trying to keep up with the Man in Black as he sings about the clickety-clack of a seemingly endless railroad ride through life.

  “I long for the trip I don’t need no grip, I’m takin’ one more ride,” he sings along in the deep, serious “Cash voice,” a marked  -- and much lower – departure from his own husky yelp of a guy calling for his fourth beer at the bar.
It’s a song Lee can relate to in that, while he isn’t much of a train guy, the long and lonesome highways leading from nightclub to living room to seedy bar are where he’s spent much of a life, whose Nashville chapter is winding down.

“We bought this place out in Cayucos, Calif., right on the ocean. You can look out and see whales,” he says, adding that he and his wife, Maggie, will move sometime in the near future. “I keep hearing May from her.”
Fans of this one-man band of bawdy laughs, rock ’n’ roll, knife-throwing and choreography needn’t worry that his move will change his lifestyle.

 “I’ll just be coming at it in a different direction,” he says, noting that instead of working his way westbound  through the foothills and badlands to his bandstands, he’ll be reversing field and working eastbound.
Besides that, he vows to keep the tidy little home in Nashville’s Sylvan Heights neighborhood.  “This is the best place in the world to record,” he says of Music City. “If you are recording and say ‘I’d like to get something like the beginning of ‘Telstar’ (the old Tornados and Ventures hit) here, there’s a good chance that not only can you find someone who can play it, you probably can find the guy who played it in the first place.”  

And then there is this house with its E.T. (the cute little space guy, not the Texas Troubadour) history that few folks could appreciate as much as Lee.      

 “Guy we bought it from was sure aliens had been here,” he says, hopping to the window that looks out on a West Nashville railroad spur.
“He moved out of the house.  Had a hobo jungle. Had a Gypsy trailer and lived outside right there,” he says, pointing toward the back edge or the property. “You can still see where he had his fires.”

It doesn’t seem surreal that the self-described “teeny musician” in the red jeans – “I get all my clothes at Leprechauns ‘R’ Us,” he proclaims -- would buy a home where aliens dwelled. 
Lee is simply not the kind of fellow who would say the alien stuff is pure nonsense. It would suit him fine if it was true.  If one dropped in, he’d likely hand him one of the eight guitars in his music room and ask if he knows any Scotty Moore licks.       

The 5-foot-4, 119-pound musician is a gentle and open-minded guy, the kind who would ask iconic songstress Emmylou Harris to “sit on Grampee Lee’s knee.” He did just that during a show at Nashville landmark Bluebird Café, known for tame, four-headed musical teamwork before an audience prone to “shushing” those less-polite rather than for the raucous applause and profanity-laced hoorahs one would expect at a Lee show.
“You ever see the show ‘Nashville’ on TV?” he asks. “Whenever they are at The Bluebird (a stock location for the TV soaper), I’m on it.”  He points to a photograph for the cover of his “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You” album of a couple years ago. 

“People always sell more records when they are dead,” he says, by way of reasoning out his title choice for the album that was promoted in typical coast-to-coast, sleep-on-a-couch-if-you-gotta fashion during his unfabled “I Saw Him Before He Died” tour in 2010-11.
Fans now are getting at least one more chance to see this merry prankster before he dies as he tours with a trunk filled with the masterful new “The Fall & Further Decline of The Mighty King of Love” album. 

The Mighty King of Love” fits neatly alongside Lee’s albums in that if not autobiographical it’s perhaps nonsensical, a batch of through-the-glass-darkly-and-satirically tales by a guy looking backward at six-plus decades he knows he can’t recapture.  “Once you hit 60, you’re not THAT guy anymore,” he says, commenting on the natural progressions of his age and music.
 While his rootsier influences are on full display throughout, so is his long-time appreciation of Captain Beefheart, The Mothers of Invention and others who never found a boundary they weren’t willing to shred.

 “I don’t need to shock people,” says Lee, whose songs and stage banter do just that -- while also raising “did he really say that?” smiles and head shakes. “I’m not going at it like I’m a real-drinking, throat-slitting mother fucker.”
The eyes of the Mighty King of Love sparkle when he throws out a single word. “Spry,” he says, spending two syllables.

 “Does everybody call you spry now that you’re 61 like me? Nobody ever called me ‘spry’ before,” he says. “Now I’m spry.”

The King of Love? Yep, even at a spry 61 and in admitted decline, this nearly anonymous rock ’n’ roll superstar  does no doubt have fans, comely and lithe, girls enamored with the literate fellow with the appearance of a non-virginal Travelocity Gnome who, when required, uses profanity (and flying knives) to punctuate his songs and conversation.
 “People say to my wife, Maggie, don’t you worry about him out on the road with all the chicks? She says ‘No!’ Because she knows that if I had the choice between watching ‘Matlock’ reruns back in the hotel room and being with chicks, I’d choose ‘Matlock,’ making sure it isn’t an episode I’ve seen.”

He one-steps the conversation back to the “So Long” album cover and explains his role on “Nashville.” Take a little “Where’s Waldo” look the next time that sticky soaper visits The Bluebird.
 “When they are shooting at The Bluebird, that picture is always in the background,” says Lee, holding his right arm in the general direction of the wall where his copy of the “So Long” cover photo hangs.

Lee himself hasn’t been on that ABC show that depicts a slick city powered by music, bed-hopping and dirty politics, a metropolis vaguely similar to the city he’s going to leave in favor of a rugged stretch of California coast.
Surely it’s because he and his music are too pretty for prime time. “They pay me a lot of money to look like this,” he says, stroking his gray beard, matching hair hanging below his shoulders, a free-flowing fringe surrounding his bald dome.

While he teases his audience, particularly Baby Boomer old guys in pony-tails for forgetting that the ‘60s are long-gone, his own stage appearance is that of a grizzled prospector.
It takes plenty of maintenance to keep up this look, he says, crediting his bi-weekly visits to a barber shop to get a hot towel, straight-razor shave and delicate trim. 

“I don’t want to look like some bum in a suit,” he says, noting that he always performs in the nattiest apparel possible, suit and tie formality.
In shows this former short-term member of the Flying Burrito Brothers also wears a cowboy hat. Offstage his hats are perhaps more practical, like the Navy blue stocking cap he pulls on to run a jar of homemade hot salsa out to the car of a visiting journalist.  “This is what I paid my musicians on the last record,” he says, joking?

Truth is hats are a professional necessity.   “Cold doesn’t bother some bald guys. Me, I really feel it. I’m afraid of getting sick. Can’t work, don’t get paid.”
In the warmth of his house, the witty Leprechaun’s hair is free-flowing around his bald crown -- giving him a look that’s equal parts Dennis Hopper’s Billy the Kid and Robin Hood’s Friar Tuck -- as he mixes George and Lenny Steinbeck references with truck-driving tales and delicate guitar licks.

Walls are filled with mementoes like his late father, Jimmie Pearson’s, badge from his years as a head jailer in Durham, N.C., the town where Lee grew up as Phillip Pearson, a gentle man who sometimes disappears beneath the massive legend of the teeny guy named Phil Lee.  Well, actually Phillip Pearson’s just playing hide-and-seek.
Lee grabs a couple of snare brushes and begins nursing a soft rhythm from the single drum in the middle of the room filled with guitars, amps and skiffle washboards.  “How do you do, Ladies and gentlemen? It’s the Homer Briarhopper Show,” he says, parroting the announcer of the North Carolina TV show where he got his first professional gig … as a drummer.

“I didn’t say anything, I just did this,” he continues brushing the drumhead. “I’d do that every morning before I went into school,” he says, remembering 15-year-old Phillip’s role on a combination farm news and hillbilly variety show called “The Daybreak Show with Homer Briarhopper & The Daybreak Gang.”
“I did it two years. It was maybe the pinnacle of my musical career. I made $65 a week, $15 a night for gigs. We did mobile home openings and things like that.”   

  Almost five decades later, that drummer now is a guitarist of note and a songwriter and performer who has gained fans from small roadhouses to a quiet New Jersey estate where Bruce Springsteen is said to listen to Phil Lee’s innocently profane and always heartfelt blue-collar tales.
Guitar-slinging superstar Mark Knopfler, who lived in Nashville for awhile to worship at the altar of Chet, also is a fan.

  And then there is Lobster Pete, who travels the world with his lobster-trawling Long Island crewmates, to follow Phil.  “He’s 11 or 12 feet tall. He’ll come in with his crew…. they are all ‘Deadly Catch’  guys…. And he’ll yell ‘Phil Lee, fucking God.”
Even Lee was a bit worried when Lobster Pete’s procession showed up during a record-release gig -- with Dave Roe, Jen Gunderman, Ken Coomer, George Bradfute, Jan King, The Taryn Engle Singers and Richard Bennett  -- again at the Bluebird. “It was unbelievable,” marvels Lee, remembering the sight of these rough-and-rowdy crewmen entering the world’s most-polite concert venue.

“I thought ‘Oh, Jeez,’” he recalls, adding he didn’t quite know what would happen.
Lobster Pete and pals didn’t observe the “shushing” requests, but no one was hurt in the making of music that night.

“Everybody was relieved,” Lee says, with a laugh, explaining he first met the lobster hunters when he was participating – as he does annually – in an animal-rescue benefit in New York. “Lobster Pete shows up and says to the crowd ‘You’re not gettin’ out of here until you buy a fuckin’ CD or two.”
Unconventional? Perhaps, but Lobster Pete doubtless raised money for the animal-rescuers, which pleases Lee, who loves dogs, especially the two Mexican hairlesses – a full-sized one (Lucy) and a miniature (King Biscuit) -- curled together in an overstuffed chair just outside the music room during the interview.

He refers to the larger, Lucy, as “Satan’s lapdog,” allowing when he and the dog are out in the back yard, the sight of this giant hairless creature and its tiny and hairy master can be particularly startling for the stray neighborhood soccer mom going for a walk in the city park across the tracks.  Perhaps that sight even perpetuates the alien legend?
“Lobster Pete’s wife asked him ‘why are all of these pictures of Phil Lee on the wall and you’ve got none of me?’ He turns around and says to her: ‘He makes me happy.’”       

“I’ve got some fans like that, but not nearly enough of them,” says Lee, rocking in his desk chair.
 While Lobster Pete definitely would “kick the ass” of anyone anti-Phil, the singer himself is the gentlest of roving rock musicians and among the most sober, though far from the most somber.

“Thirty years ago, I quit drinking and taking drugs. I was like the Otis Campbell of Hollywood,” he says of those filmy, Southern California days and nights he washed away with some of the most famous drunks the film world could offer.
“I was hanging out with some classic drunks,” he says of his life in L.A. “I got up one day and had my breakfast of Snickers and a cold, tall Budweiser and said ‘I don’t need this.’ I just stopped. I didn’t have a physical craving. I was surprised.”

There were after-effects, though: “Getting beat up, shot at or arrested, well those things stopped after I quit drinking.”
He bends down and picks up a guitar, a Republic resonator, and he begins fluidly delivering those charming and chiming tones by way of punctuating his conversation.  “It’s a small one,” he says, of the guitar. “They got larger ones, course this one suits me fine.

 “You know a musician is a guy who puts $5,000 worth of equipment in a $100 car and plays a gig where he makes $50.”
 The unsteady “take” of a musician may be a fiscal nightmare for his accountant wife, Maggie.  But Lee makes enough to keep his career afloat, keeping him from returning to his earlier trade as a long-haul trucker.

“I can’t say I won’t ever drive a truck again, but I haven’t driven in a long time. Last time I did, I went to Jackson (Tennessee) to pick up load of hazardous material.
“Toxic body parts. Probably had (Jackson rockabilly king) Carl Perkins’ leg in there. Actually it was old livers and kidneys and stuff they didn’t need any more. Brought them back here to be burned in the old incinerator downtown where no one ever saw smoke. …  They probably dumped the body parts in the river.

“My whole deal with trucking was I didn’t ask a lot of questions.”          
There is a career he’d like to add to his next chapter, after he and Maggie move to the Golden State: acting. In fact he’s featured in an independent film that’s just now being screened. “It’s called ‘The One Who Loves You,’” he says. “I play an old geezer playing a guitar in a hotel room, so you could say it wasn’t acting.”  He also oversaw the movie’s soundtrack.

Other than his wife and dogs and his grandchildren – “Unlike most grandparents who say their grandchildren are the greatest, mine really are, and beautiful, too” – his love is music-making.
And while his wife tells him “I’m famous enough,” he’d still like to add a few more fans. He’d also like it if the “hot” Nashville genre of Americana music would welcome him into the fold.

“I guess I haven’t filled out my application or something, but Iggy Pop is as welcome in Americana music as I am, but I’m not John Prine and I’m not Buddy Fuckin’ Miller.”
It’s not bitterness, but humor in is voice. Fact is, he’d probably love to see Iggy and The Stooges on an Americana stage.

“I’m now in the ‘Let’s do cool things until you’re dead’ category.  ‘The (Ed) Sullivan Show’ is out,” he says, referring to the variety show – “must-see-TV” for young Baby Boomers -- that brought The Beatles into Middle American living rooms.
So while he’s watching whales from his California digs, he won’t be anything resembling retired. He’ll be writing songs, practicing his guitar, drinking a lot of coffee, maybe doing a little yoga and knife-throwing and biding his time.

“Who knows, there may be a pandemic killing just the young people and only old guys who play guitars are left. “

(Tim Ghianni, an award-winning journalist and author who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, writes frequently about that city’s musicians. His most recent book, “When Newspapers Mattered: The News Brothers & their Shades of Glory,” about his years in smoke-filled newsrooms and barrooms, is available at and  

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