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The Neckbones

Hmm...Tyler Keith. How much time do you have?

I was introduced to Tyler by his friend, future Wilco bassist John Stirratt, at Lafayette's, one of those vast, piss-and-vomit spaces that are typical in college towns, although it was the venue for some of Oxford's most epic early music shows. (We saw Warren Zevon play there once to about ten people.) Tyler was way young; I'm guessing about nineteen, and way cute: He was wearing a little striped Picasso tee and the de rigueur Chuck Taylor low-tops. Even then he had a bald head.

It was too loud for John to give me the scoop on him, but I have to disclose that I thought he was, well, challenged in some way. In this town, home to what used to be called the North Mississippi Retardation Center with its halfway houses in the neighborhood around The Square, and possibly because of the precedent set by Faulkner's heroic characters Benjy Compson, Ike Snopes, and Jim Bond, we're not uncomfortable with such folks. You can't always tell. I'm sure Tyler wasn't himself that evening, and it wasn't long before I realized that he was actually the most intelligent, wildly talented guy around.

Next time I saw him, he was playing with The Neckbones at Ireland's, a late, great bar that featured a mural of crossed swords and snakes, a giant skull wearing a Confederate cavalry cap, and the legend, death before dishonor. It was there that I got it. The Neckbones—Forrest Hewes on drums, Robbie Alexander on bass, Dave Boyer on lead guitar—were playing some of the best stuff I'd heard from white people since about 1979. The music was a little Ramones (after all, kick-ass, faux teenage-angst songs should only last about two minutes, max), a little Iggy Pop (sex, drugs, and ridiculousness are necessary ingredients), with a little Sputnik Monroe chimpishness mixed in. But it was music made wholly their own with goofy, endearing showmanship, accomplished playing, and outrageous original songs that mocked and exposed themselves and life in Oxford:

Don't give her no money
Before you fuck
She'll leave you stiff
And you'll be shit out of luck
I know why she do what she do
It's the crack whore blues.

In between songs, the guys embraced Old School punk behavior: They scuffled, told everybody to fuck off, knocked the mic down a lot, and, by making sweaty body contact with one another on a poorly grounded stage with its far-from-code wiring, shocked the crap out of themselves. The crowd was crazy for them, the dancing was solo and dangerous, and beer flew everywhere on everyone. It was wonderful. I can only compare it to hearing "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" for the first time at about fourteen and feeling like I had jumper cables clamped onto my nipples. Not erotic exactly, but so electrically clarifying: Oh, duh, to hear and dance to this is why we were put on this Earth! In short, rock & roll. With Tyler singing and whaling on his Les Paul Junior (purportedly pre-owned by Gram Parsons), the band's sound was primal, relying on basic chord patterns, banging, and maximum volume, which could make them seem like just another garage band. But Neckbones songs are so simple and, at the same time, so rich with emotional rawness and raunch, with lyrics so funny and so genuinely in the Southern vernacular that their music and act feel closer to Jerry Lee Lewis or Skynyrd than to The Sex Pistols.

At some point, someone told Tyler that I had spent a good deal of time in Ann Arbor in 1969 and had seen The Stooges and MC5 play several times in The Quad. After that, it was like that infamous Little Rascals episode—Tyler was the wild man from Borneo and I was Stymie with the sack of candy. Whenever Tyler saw me around, he grilled me endlessly about old music and the shows I'd seen back in the day. His knowledge of American music is eclectic and encyclopedic—he knows the music, lyrics, and backstories in rock, country, bluegrass, blues, gospel, and popular songs. I've heard him talk jazz and Hendrix with Barry Hannah, and Tennessee Ernie Ford and The Louvin Brothers with Larry Brown. He knows who Mr. Excitement is, and all Albert E. Brumley's songs, and he plays harmonica, a little piano, and upright bass. As for me, he quickly saw that there were huge lacunae in what I knew, especially about music that happened the decade I was on Planet Meemaw: pregnant and with kids hanging off me. For my edification, Tyler made me a mixtape of what he thought were songs and groups an educated person needed to know. I still listen to this tape all the time in my Jeep. For the edification of other geezers, I list most of them here: "Sometimes" (The Flamin' Groovies), "French Guy" and "Shy Boy" (Rocket From the Crypt), "Shark" and "She Blows Blasts of Static" (Grifters), "Kool Thing" (Sonic Youth), "Bad Days" (The Flaming Lips), "Within Your Reach" (The Replacements), "Summer Babe" and "Loretta's Scars" (Pavement), and one of the best songs ever recorded, Gun Club's "Jack on Fire." Also on the tape are some mutual favorites: Alex Chilton's "Free Again" and "Take Me Home and Make Me Like It," MC5's cover of "Tutti Frutti," The Stooges' "Penetration," and The Velvet Underground's "Foggy Notion," "Train Round the Bend," and "Head Held High." Like yummy gummi vitamins, wholesome stuff like "Bits and Pieces" by The Dave Clark Five and The Beach Boys' "In My Room" (oh, those first seventh-grade slow dances!) also show up on the tape. At late-nights, sometimes Tyler would spin records (yes, those) till daylight, putting on one astonishing album after another that you've never heard or that you'd forgotten. Also a voracious reader, Tyler loved to talk books, and I thank him for turning me on to Jim Thompson, Nick Tosches's biography of Dean Martin, and Please Kill Me. He knows film, and, somewhere in his head, he'd tell you, he's mapped out plays and scripts that are, in the telling, anyway, brilliant.

This brings me to some remarks that must be made about the exterior of Tyler Keith's head: it is the hardest, most indestructible one ever. Someone at NASA, or NASCAR, needs to analyze it. Ask anybody. We've all seen Tyler's head fall from speakers ten feet off the ground, we've seen him go headfirst down the stairs at City Grocery, and we've seen it bounce off walls, dance floors, fists, and other heads. At a party, he once fell fifteen feet off a deck and into a kudzu gulch filled with box springs, washing machines, and garbage. Some suspect his show accidents are pratfalls, and find his hammered, drug-gimped-punk demeanor bogus or pretentious, but there is real and audible impact, and later, visible lumps and booboos. Whatever—that's not the point. Tyler knows what he's doing: he totally understands performance, and the value of theater in a great rock show, and in pulling it off without costume or special lighting or any of that crap. I have seen The Neckbones use a fog machine, but that's the joke—mock what you are, or wish you were, or what people think you are, and there's nothing worth taking too seriously—a basic punk M.O. Tyler is a puckish prankster who you suspect has learned a few things from the gods: Mick, Pete Townshend, James Brown, The Rat Pack. He comes by his art honestly, too. His dad is a musician and lay preacher in the part of Florida that gave us the word "cracker." At some shows, Tyler falls into fire-and-brimstone mode, preaching to his flock of sinners about the evils of sex, drugs, and rock & roll and calling on the Book of Revelation. More Marjoe, or Robert Mitchum's Preacher Powell from The Night of the Hunter than Billy Graham, he nails it! Witness all this, and you will rage with the other heathens and get what a balls-out, anything-for-art performer Tyler is. The play's the thing. But don't think The Neckbones too disingenuous—there's real rage if you want it: Check out "Straw Boss," written during a management dispute.

Although The Neckbones disbanded (or as Tyler says, "We just kinda stopped playing," in 2001), the man has continued to play in bands that are Neckbones permutations or mutations: The Barking Spiders (with Boyer, and Laurie Stirratt and Frank Coutch of Blue Mountain), The Preacher's Kids, The Apostles, and, solo, as Kid Twist. Currently, he appears with an Elvisoid group called either Big E & The Latest Flames, or Big E & The Drifting Hound Dogs (they have a drummer who must be seen), depending. (Depending on what, nobody seems to know.) He also tends bar and is a documentary filmmaker. This past summer, he organized and filmed a gospel extravaganza at the Tallahatchie–Oxford M.B. Church. He's completing a documentary on some legendary bootlegging-related crimes in Florida and is hoping to find a producer for a gay-biker musical he's written. Not all former Neckbones can be accounted for, but Dave Boyer and Forrest Hewes play in Nashville as The Faves. And this just in! The Neckbones will reunite on December 9 at Yalo Studio & Gallery in Water Valley, Mississippi, and there are plans and new songs in the works for a 2012 recording (with Van Thompson on bass) followed by a possible Neckbones anthology. Check out The Neckbones on their self-released 1995 record Pay the Rentor either of their Fat Possum CDs: my favorite, Souls on Fire (1997) (for which they toured Europe and the U.S. in a short bus with T-Model Ford), orThe Lights Are Getting Dim (1999). Or, brace yourself and catch the reunion show. Hail, hail!