I am leery of reunions. I am especially leery of rock and roll reunions, those “let’s get the band back together” things. They usually mean someone needs money for a liver transplant, or wants to relive a time that was and isn’t anymore. Mainly, though, it just freaks me out seeing people age. I prefer the delusion that becoming less young is something that happens to other people.
So when I started seeing posts in my FB feed from Tommy Womack that there would be a pair of Government Cheese reunion gigs in Bowling Green and Nashville, I surprised myself by buying tickets. I think maybe the Ambien had something to do with it; the interwebs and sleepy pills are a recipe for the arrivals of all manner of shipments – both physical and virtual – on my life’s doorstep. The next morning my inbox reminded me I’d made a cash commitment. I was ambivalent.
Saturday rolled around, and I was still on the fence about going. The show was billed as one of two shows in the “25 Year Reunion Tour,” a wee bit of irony from a bunch of guys with a catalog of tunes never lacking for wit.
For readers who are saying, “Government Who?” I will offer a brief bit of unauthorized background. The Cheese was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky around 1985, and had a ten-year career playing clubs, making a few records, and living the rock and roll dream – not the one you used to see in album cover liner notes, but the real one, with drunks, destroyed bathrooms, shitty PA systems and Motel 6’s where the light was not only not on for ya, but busted out by whoever was there last night.
The late 80’s and early 90’s were a bit of a glory era in Nashville rock and roll. Reigning supreme were Jason and the Nashville Scorchers, who later dropped the “Nashville” from their name. Their gigs at the old Cantrell’s were legendary. I was there one night when the toilets in the mens’ room got all smashed up, and the floor in front of the stage was an inch deep in you-know-what.
There was also The Questionnaires, Walk The West and In Pursuit, and some others that aren’t coming to mind, not because they weren’t good (ok, some of them probably weren’t), but because I spent a lot of those years about half tanked at the Gold Rush. I was particularly a Questionnaires fan, even though Tom Littlefield of that band took delight in telling me how much I sucked because I worked at a commercial rock radio station that played Journey and REO Speedwagon records. Guilty as charged. Tom never was very subtle.
Government Cheese was a bit on the periphery of the Nashville scene. Part of it was their Kentucky roots, I think; and the other part was because Nashville club audiences didn’t quite know what to make of them. I’m not going to trot out a bunch of pseudo-rock-journalist cliches to try and describe their music. I’ll just say they were loud, fast, quirky, clever and twisted. “MaMaw Drives The Bus.” “Fish Stick Day.” “Camping on Acid.” And a cover of Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” that was 100 times better than the original. I loved them.
The gig was at The Rutledge, a fine live room and bar on 4th, about two blocks from the object of Littlefield’s hatred, WKDF, where drummer Joe King (AKA Joe Elvis) and I worked before consultants wrung all the life out of it and Journey gave way to George Strait. Over the stage was the banner from gigs of years past, the words “Government Cheese” in zeppelin-shaped letters being pulled on a string by a strung out, tongue-out freak carrying a sign reading, “I am a rock and roll fool.” Some nice 80’s era punk was blaring on the PA, and somewhere a fog machine was making the obligatory smoke in the can-lights over the stage.
I met some old cohorts from the KDF days. Most looked well and healthy. Squeegie wasn’t drunk yet, and Buddy is a chiropractor. Write your own joke. On my way in the door, I wondered if the audience for a Cheese 25-year reunion would send me screaming; I was surprised at how well everyone looked. They looked like, well, like adults, but mostly cool ones, ready for a good time. Yeah, there were plenty of bald pates and droopy boobs, but all in all, folks were upbeat, smiling and ready to rock. There was no air of decrepitude like the time I went to see The Long Players do “Revolver.”
What I didn’t know was that “well and healthy” did not extend to the linchpin of the band: Tommy Womack, who, as much as anyone “is” Government Cheese, is Government Cheese. He was somewhere offstage, hydrating. We learned that his appearance that night had been cast into doubt by a roiling stomach-flu-something-or-other and a pit stop that very afternoon at the Southern Hills ER. He relates the story here better than I can tell it.
The band walked out. There was an extra guitar player. Is that, that, Warner Hodges? Warner Fucking HODGES? I was caught halfway somewhere between incredulity and delight. Warner was (is) the guitar player for the aforementioned Scorchers. I used to drink (among other things) with him in the old Gold Rush days. Here’s what you need to know about Warner: he is a guitar god, a real one. Yes, rock and roll is full of ’em, but Warner was zapped by lightning and spanked by a fretboard from the minute he started breathing on this earth. Anybody who has ever seen the Scorchers knows how otherworldly, loud, frantic and powerful he is. The rest of you, well, shit. Go see him if ever you can.
And off they went. And off and off and off. They did the Cheese hits. Yes, by God, there were Cheese hits, even if your lame ass missed them from ’85-’95. Those songs came back to me, pop! Crack! Kick! I wasn’t the only one, not by a long shot. A look around showed the packed house still knew the words.
Tommy was still wearing his hospital wristband. He looked a little dazed at first, but with Tommy, how can you tell? And the rest of the guys… well, these were not guys trying to recapture anything. They weren’t nostalgic in the least bit. They were in the moment, the three-chord, turn-it-to-11 NOW. Tommy posted on FB that it “may have been the best Government Cheese gig ever,” and he should know. It was certainly the best one I ever saw. They are better players now, even if they had, as Tommy put it, “a few train wrecks” and Skot and Viva almost injured themselves in a frenetic crash on the stage. (For a second, it looked like Skot had broken his nose.)
The addition of Warner gave the band a whole new magnitude of kick-ass. What was even better was he’d been called in last minute, when it looked like Tommy was going to be all IV’d up and in the hospital for the night. I shook hands with Warner during a break and he said he didn’t know any of those songs; they’d called him in a panic in the afternoon, and he’d been through one soundcheck to learn what he could. The guys said as much from the stage. They smiled and laughed a lot. I told Warner, “You guys look like you’re having fun.” He said, “It’s SUPPOSED to be fun.” ‘Nuff said.
Listen, the thing, that thing? The magic and electric thing that is live rock and roll? I dunno if I can add anything to that. But I sure did feel it Saturday night. I remember thinking, “Every kid with a fucking guitar should hear this.” It wasn’t a clinic; it was just real. They were tight and they were sloppy. They screwed up and they were perfect. They distorted and they rang like iron and brass. Skot was wearing a Ramones t-shirt, and he and his bandmates did Joey proud. My ears were ringing on my way out. The radio in my car sounded like it had a blanket over the speakers; my midrange was temporarily shot, like it’s supposed to be after a good show.
Confession: I left before the end. I don’t stay out as late as I did in the 80’s (or 90’s and 00’s, for that matter). I am a rock and roll fool, but not so much past 11:30. By the door, I was standing next to the swag table, looking at the t-shirts, black with the old stenciled logo. A gruff, loud voice said, “You need to get you one o’ them.” I turned. It was Tom Littlefield. I didn’t recognize him at first. When I said so, he flipped me off and stalked off toward the room, where the Cheese and Warner wailed on into the night.
Thanks for a great night, guys. You haven’t aged well; you are well.