Thursday, May 25, 2023

"The Cat's Meow: Cathouse is simply profound" - from the Detroit archives

"The Cat's Meow: Cathouse is simply profound"

You can listen to the Cathouse cassette only album Virtue Undone here -- for entertainment and educational purposes only, a lofi rip from my personal collection:
The Other End - arts and entertainment supplement to the South End
the Wayne State University student newspaper
Detroit, Michigan

by Andrew/Sunfrog, writing as “Ellen Carryout”

Finney’s Pub, Detroit, July 1992
Eric Walworth is creating a feedback warzone with his guitar. As I bask in this aural onslaught, I ponder the possibilities down tall glasses of beer. I watch the glassy audience's eyes animate with the knowledge of dreams.

And Elizabeth sings: “If you look inside your dreams you will find me.”

She breathes big ideas in this tiny room. The band builds bridges of sound, past pitchers of beer and into pictures of reverie and hope. 

This Corridor band is, of course, Cathouse. They’ve been receiving an abundance of praise in the press in recent days, and this cozy pub is overflowing with old friends and curious seekers. What they’ve created is actually quite simple, yet profound. Cathouse is a passionate rock-n-roll band for the people of this neighborhood.

Just when I thought the tired flesh of rock music had been trivialized and parodied beyond repair, a band like this comes along to inject a new boogie into my aching bones. I never thought something as old-fashioned as four-piece could translate rock-n-roll into a transcendent noise to transform my soul.
“Don’t believe all that shit about rock-n-roll being dead,” says Elizabeth. “That’s propaganda designed to separate you from things that help you feel alive.” 

She has become a sort of spokeswoman for forgotten ideals and the darker side of her own heart, which she wears out in her vocal verisimilitude with embarrassing honesty. With an innocent flare, she lets her music flow as any artsy-extrovert should, declaring, “I’m serving the community. I’m serving the people who see the band. I’m serving the music that comes through me.”

In Every Direction, Without A Drummer, Detroit 1989
In October 1989, Cathouse played their first gig as an uncertain 3-piece at the Paradigm Center for the Arts, a dance studio/loft in Harmonie Park. The show was a Community Concert Series benefit for the Womyn’s Own Collective and a bashfully brave beginning without a backbeat. Elizabeth had that loud, clear voice. Eric and bassist Jim Johnson made a lot of noise. 

It would be many moons and a thousand mood swings before Cathouse would get into the tight-knit, groove-giving, post-garage geniuses that they are today. Finding drummer Tim Suliman was the turning point to take them beyond the modest aspirations of only playing clubs on the Corridor circuit. 
A growing hunger and insatiable ambition have taken them on many midwest mini-tours, and it now seems only a matter of time until some van gets packed full of gear to take them places they’ve never seen before. 

A House on Commonwealth Street
Cathouse began in a townhouse with nine cats and high ceilings. Elizabeth and Eric lived there alone with the feline scent and the Fender Strat. Elizabeth used to listen to Eric practice. She’d be upstairs. He’d be downstairs. The music would bring them together. 

“He was young in it, and I’d encourage him,” Elizabeth recalled. “I’d see him doing this wild-man, sensual, crazy thing, pulling the shit out of his strings and throwing his guitar around. I’d say, “Oh my god! That’s hot. You gotta do that onstage in our band.’ He’d get all shy and everything. I can’t think of Cathouse without Eric. i just can’t. We’re very different, and the friction between us makes it mean something, that we stay together as an example of cooperation.”  

As Cathouse became a band, each member became more of a musician, and they grew together. The critical response back in those early days was rather dismal. What is now a devoted following was then just a scattering of sympathetic friends.

Elizabeth expands: “I was singing simple straight songs in a simple straight voice. As time progressed, I became more mature and free with my gift. I’ve been able to understand singing as a place where I can be tortured, be angry, be growling, be violent, be lust and be afraid. It’s been an evolution for me to understand all the places I can go with my voice and all the sensations that can emanate from my body onto an audience through my voice. My vocabulary has grown.”

Fierce, Bold and Resourceful
Much noise has been made about the gritty, grunge guitar roots of Detroit rock-n-roll as made manifest by the MC5 and the Stooges. I’ve heard critics wave that obvious flag a thousand times it seems. Elizabeth has pulled down some reason for this mythos and put it in its proper contemporary context:

“This band wouldn’t be what it is without this neighborhood. I don’t know if I can even comprehend us existing without Detroit, because we’re so much in this place. We’ve had the good fortune to learn how to perform in front of audiences that have been accepting, loving, and curious. This neighborhood, from Woodward to Trumbull, from Mack to Antoinette, is where Cathouse comes from. We are poor, fierce, and resourceful. And incestuous sometimes. The desire to commune gives us strength. Our ancestors had it. Now that communing is less possible, for people to join and unite seems like a miracle to me. But it’s an old impulse, an organic impulse.”

So Detroit gives bands a “heat-hunger-bare bones-no bullshit-intensity” that Elizabeth has noticed in other groups such as Mick Vranich and Wordban’d. This energy is most palatable when bands leave Detroit to gig in other places. You can feel the difference.

From singing to painting and back again
As an actress, songstress, painter, and poet, Elizabeth is clearly a multi-dimensional artist. The canvas and the song seem to inspire her the most as they come from one body.

“I have a personal vision almost all the time. Singing is the place I give voice to those pictures in words. Painting is where I give voice to those pictures in paint. Painting helps me be quiet, it helps me be still. Being in the band is a more social experiential thing. I’m in a sea of people and a sea of noise.”
As Elizabeth sings about big ideas in her shameless uninhibited manner, she runs the risk of having her sincerity overshadowed by its own grandiosity, no matter how genuine it may be. How does she feel about that challenge?

“I feel uncomfortable speaking in a language that doesn’t feel appropriate to me. That makes me feel icky. I don’t want to project an image of myself onto the world, I just want to be myself in the world.”
In contrast to our collective urban backdrop of “abandonment, desolation, waste, and fear,” we have voice, which Rico Africa called the “siren of industrial noir,” crying out, shouting out, singing out loud:
“I’ve got this eerie feeling coming over me . . ."

Cathouse, “Don’t give it up.”  

Cathouse's album - from the Detroit archives


“Cathouse’s album”

The South End

the Wayne State University student newspaper

Detroit, Michigan

1992 (?)

by Andrew/Sunfrog, writing as “Ellen Carryout”

Virtue Undone is the first full-length musical offering from the Corridor rock band Cathouse. These are ten searing songs of characteristically crunchy bass and guitars from Jim Johnson and Eric Walworth, pulsating beats from Tim Suliman, and gutsy lyricism and latent emotion from Elizabeth Underwood’s versatile vocal range.   

Recorded in a homemade Detroit neighborhood studio, mixed downtown, and pressed down south, this cassette chronicles the aural evolution of an energetic idea, born, appropriately enough, from house full of cats in 1989.

At first exposure to this female-fronted four-piece, audiences are tempted to conjure up vocalist images and irresistible icons from the historical fabric of women in rock. Listeners will serve their reception of Cathouse well if they leave all those Janis Joplin and Pretenders comparisons behind.

Elizabeth’s soulful vocal spattering hits like paint splashed on canvas. She’s here “to teach you how to love,” as she carves out a mythic place between transience and grounded mystery which eludes description the moment one thinks it can be pinned down. 

On this visceral yet visionary level, Virtue Undone shall always seem virtually done. Ten songs slither to your heart like a great unfinished novel or a spiritual ascendance which never attains nirvana. Something sought after is always missing as each song lingers, poised on the ephemeral void of vocalized consciousness.

We can sense this unnamed place as Elizabeth sings, frequently sliding out of articulated words into passionately uttered tones which defy placement on intellectual and musical scales alike. Perhaps this is what Elizabeth means when she says she has no place in the world. Or when she sings, “I’m a woman trapped inside, the things they said, I should be.” These songs can heal, or momentarily transform, that universal sense of displacement.

Cathouse touches a groove laid down by Eric’s gritty guitar and rides straight into your heart. Maybe they don’t have a place in the world -- at least the world which inhibits the soul liberation and intimate passion their music portrays. They have a place in the crucial cacophony which reinvents rock n roll every time they take the stage.
Listen to the album -- a lofi rip from my personal collection, shared for educational and entertainment purposes only -- here:

Friday, May 12, 2023

Hey Jack Kerouac - in honor of Natalie Merchant & all music superfans - from 1987


Finally transcribed this to share, in honor of a new Natalie Merchant album & tour. 

I had just turned 20-years-old, was about to drop out of college & end my brief stint at Antioch.

I had just started writing under the name Sunfrog for a fledgling fanzine. 

Hey Jack Kerouac

Originally published in Babyfish (lost its momma) #1, late 1987

October 1987 - Yellow Springs, Ohio and Bloomington, Indiana

I had just seen 10,000 Maniacs the Saturday before. They opened for R.E.M. in Columbus. I was in the balcony, and Natalie and her music were just too far away. The set was much too short. I asked Natalie about their tour plans on their own. When would they be playing Detroit. They wouldn’t be. That had a gig on Wednesday in Bloomington, Indiana, on their own.

I asked around campus for the next few days, hoping to find someone who wanted to drive to the show. I could find no one. At about four or five in the afternoon on that Wednesday, I had some friends drop me off at Interstate 70. My sign said “Indiana Please” in red paint. Bloomington was 200 miles away.

My first ride was with a trucker. His polyester print shirt was all full of energy and stories. He had a neat silver case full of cigarettes. His metal handcrafted work of art watchband was made by an Apache Indian. It got dark as we drove down the highway. I had about three dollars in my pocket and my mind on the Maniacs show.

This last album touched spiritual and artistic levels of folk-rock poetry. Full of calls to social and political awareness as well as many different images of America. And then that great song about Beat Generation life and poetry and Jack Kerouac. IN MY TRIBE was easily one of my favorite albums of the year. 

As this trucker Dave and I sat in a Truckstops of America stop, he ate chicken, noodles, and gravy. He shared is life of trucker folklore. A life of CB radio jargon. Of the women who wandered truckstops. Of sleeping when he needed to and never driving too far. I drank water. I wanted to hear Natalie sing her melodies and words of the tribe. I was stuck in this temple of the trucker life. We window shopped for trucking accessories. Back on the road, back on the CB radio, my life slipped into darkness. He left me off at Highway 37, the road south to Bloomington.

I got several short rides, each time afraid that another would not come. One ride was with a man pulling a racehorse in his trailer. Finally, I was in Bloomington, standing in a phonebooth looking for the address of a place called Jake’s. I asked directions at a gas station and ended up walking the entire 2 or 3 miles through this strange hilly town. Near midnight on a Wednesday, the city slept with an almost ghost-like presence. Finally, I was walking through downtown Bloomington and found my way to Jake’s.

I walked into the club and tools the man at the door that I was on the guest list. I was not. Had Natalie forgotten that I was coming to the show? He said he’d take my ID and give me three minutes to go inside and find someone from the band who knew who I was. I gave him my driver’s license, and he told me there was no way I could go inside. “You are not 21. This club is 21 and over.” 

From the other room, I could hear the band kick into “Hey Jack Kerouac.” I walked outside, and the tears welled up in my eyes. I wanted to cry like a baby. 

I had hitch-hiked for six hours and 200 miles just to hear Natalie sing and have time to spend talking with her. She had forgotten to put my name on the list, and I was not old enough to see the show. I was standing outside in cold, dark Bloomington. This can’t be true! I walked dejected to the side-stage door and found two guys from the opening band, North Carolina’s Connells. I told these dudes my story. They were extremely sympathetic and impressed with my “rock and roll dedication.” To let me stay outside would be an injustice. They took me into their van and started giving me shots of liquor. When this kind brother felt moved enough by the spirits, he went inside to battle the bar politics. The bar people were unfriendly and cold. He came back out and drank some more. He then went back inside. 

I stood by the side door and listened. The show I had ached for was going on inside, and I stood out in the cold. Songs went by, and I remained outside. I recognized the wild Robert Buck screeching guitars of “Planned Obsolescence,” a blessed B-side from the past

Suddenly, the side door opened, and I was inside. It was warm, and the college children danced and smiled. I immediately drifted toward the stage. Natalie, dressed in black, moved in her own wild way and sang about the weather. My spirits had been lifted from lowly concrete cold chills into the majestic melodies of 10,000 Maniacs.

I caught the entire second half of the set. My heart surged with joy. I don’t remember the exact setlist of the songs they played the rest of the night. I remember how Natalie came to the side of the stage to welcome me, touch my head, and apologize for not remembering. She smiled and later asked me to sing the Michael Stipe part on “Campfire Song.” I declined but was pleased for sure with the invitation. Natalie sang with such verve and confidence, and she moved with her splendid magic. 

I felt as though I was lost in my first Maniacs show in an Ann Arbor basement, feeling like some European poets’ hideout. A bar is transformed into an art gallery. A cathedral of sound, I see flowers and pillars. My body can feel the shaking rails of the “Peace Train.” Come take this country home again. We are running with young children through the tall grass of a field in upstate New York. 

Flashing back, I was ill in bed this past summer with a fever, and when I woke, I found Natalie riding a river boat on my TV screen. With dancing children, she was talking about that peace train. I felt healed.

Swarms of ecstasy filled my soul at the notion that human beings can love. And sing. “Verdi Cries.” An angel sings. To transform the rock n roll bar into a cabaret at summer camp, a coffeehouse with candles or a gentle worship to the dancing gods. I would ride in that truck a thousand times again. I love the road. I love these songs. 

Poet, dancer, folksinger, social critic, and friend. Natalie rides the van to mecca. I get muddied with love, just trying to write this. I find it hard to put and commit it to paper, such admiration and love. It can be embarrassing to say it: The world is clearly a better place because 10,000 Maniacs make music in it. But the world is clearly a better place because 10,000 Maniacs make music. 

I was taken care of that night. I am yelping again, disgustingly alive, a howling madman. The world will never be cruel as long as she sings. I was reading ON THE ROAD by Kerouac at school. I’ve lived in Detroit with those children depicted in “What’s the Matter Here?” And I’ve stolen from my guts, the need to get out on the road with crazy tastes for the passion of America. We are a communal people, creating harmonious relationships with each other and the earth. We are fed by the buckets of rain on the road. The green grass looks  sweet by the side of the highway.