The Legendary Porch Pounders (courtesy of myspace.com/thelegendaryporchpounders)
The last night of SXSW, on Saturday, Angela and I went to see a Bill Kirchen show with Bad Brad at this cool wooden cafe on the other side of the bridge from downtown Austin. Bill Kirchen, if you’ve been reading the SLUG SXSW BLOG, is a well-known blues musician who played with the Legendary Porch Pounders during their show at Hard Rock Cafe in Austin. We sat on the cafe’s porch under an arbor with Christmas lights on it, dry from the slight drizzle outside, and chatted with Bad Brad Wheeler, booker extraordinaire for Brewskies in Ogden and member of the Legendary Porch Pounders. Almost this entire interview will be in his words because his great storytelling skills just kind of flow into one another. They barely need any introduction.
Bad Brad’s father was in the Air Force so he moved around a lot growing up. He was born in England, then his family moved to Iowa when he was four, and then they moved to Hawaii and then they moved to Utah. Every summer, he’d go back to his uncle’s farm in Iowa for character development or a break from Utah or a break for his parents from Brad, he isn’t really sure. Those days on the farm really made an impression on him.
“There’s a lot more to the world than Iowa,” says Brad, “But there are lessons you learn on the farm that you don’t learn anywhere else. You learn what a really fucking honest days’ work is. Lessons of the land, lessons of the seasons, lessons of how to improvise. My uncle has to be a veterinarian, an agriculturalist, a plumber, a mechanic, an accountant, a stockbroker, a cook; farmers have to watch the market to know when to sell their shit. Not only that, but they have to be meteorologists. There’s a whole bunch of shit it takes to be a farmer. Some people look at a farmer as being the lowest job there is, but it’s one of the hardest jobs there is, and it affects everybody.
“One time when I was 13, maybe 12, we had these two farmhands on the farm, Big Eddie and Little Eddie. Big Eddie was Little Eddie's dad. That's how they got “Big Eddie” and “Little Eddie.” Big Eddie used to work on my grandpa's farm, and I never knew him; he died out in the field. Anyway, Little Eddie only had four teeth in his whole mouth and he had a pot gut and had his hat always on crooked. One day we had to go check the hogs and will their water containers. On the farm were electric wires that you had to climb over. One day we went outside and Eddie was smoking a cigarette, and he asked if I wanted one. I was like, "Sure." I was 13. So I took a cigarette from him and started to act tough and cool.
“He was kind of surprised, and then he said, ‘Go over there and check those hogs.’"
“There were these electric fences bounding the fields, and I go over there to the wire around the hog’s pen and it turns out that the night before, it had rained, and the ground was soft. So I go over wire, and the electric wire touches the inside of my leg and balls and shit. Have you ever been on an electric wire? It makes you feel like you're having a heart attack. Electricity gets shot through your body and it makes every muscle in your body seize, you know, so you're like [Brad makes jerking motions]. So I'm trying to get off this wire, and I can't move. And Eddie's just laughing his ass off. Eddie came over and he fucking pushed me off the fence, and he's laughing.
“My Uncle Larry was worried about Little Eddie and Big Eddie; all they had was each other, so we would have dinner together and we'd take turns making dinner. So that day that Eddie had me straddled on the electric fence was my night to make dinner. So I went and I hid every piece of silverware we had in the house. And then all I cooked was corn on the cob for dinner. Eddie showed up and he was so pissed because he only had four teeth in his whole mouth.
“When little pigs are growing up, you've gotta go in and clip their teeth out of their mouth. It hurts the hell out of them, but you have to do it because pigs are vicious animals. Pigs can consume the human body and leave no trace. That's what all the blues guys say. The Mafia does it too. ‘Is it true they'll feed their bodies to the pigs?’ Because pigs will fucking eat everything, the clothes and everything. So anyway, we literally had 2,000 pigs. My uncle was sitting on the other side of the divider in the barn and I was supposed to hand him these pigs headfirst. But after a couple hundred pigs, you’re gonna fuck it. You’re gonna pick it up and hand it up backwards. So I handed up one backwards and it started squealing. So I squeezed it and this big explosion of shit went all over my uncle’s overalls, all over his arms and his legs, and he said, “You did that on purpose!” So he grabbed a pig and squeezed it and got shit all over me and he starts laughing. “That’s not cool!” I said, and I grabbed a pig ...
“Another traumatic day is when you have to cut their balls off. Thousands of little pig balls all over the place with flies everywhere, fuck, it’s horrible. They’re all screaming … Doc cuts a smiley face, pulls the balls out, grabs a brush with some Vaseline on it, wipes it on. Pigs are your investment, but you come to hate them after awhile, because pigs are fucking mean. If you don’t watch your back, a pig will come rip your fucking leg off. There’s little kids that fall down in hog pens and get trampled to death. I’ve seen pigs rip apart other dead pigs. That’s why they say, “you’re a pig.” That’s why they call cops pigs.
Bad Brad ran the Dead Goat from 1996-1997 and helped to “bring it out of the red into the black” by “selling blues.” Now Brad is the main booker for Brewskies.
“I used to go to Catholic High School in Ogden, at the top of 25th Street, and I would look out this window, in our religion-slash-math class, and I used to look down 25th Street when I was 16, 17, 18 and you could see all the way down the street, and see the lower end,” says Brad. “And I used to daydream and wonder what was going on down there, and little did I realize that I was staring at my future."
“When I turned 21, I went down 25th Street and met Robby Kapp, and he kind of adopted me, and I started playing gigs with him up and down 25th Street. As I was going to school and taking some art classes, I learned about Robert Frank who took some pictures of Ogden, and I saw the pictures with some writings by Jack Kerouc."
“After I got offered that job at Brewskies, I took it–I didn’t know what kid wouldn’t want to run a bar on 25th Street. But it’s also a massive pain in the ass. You have to please the owners, the customers, the employees, the musicians. I please myself by being able to book blues. We used to be the place after the Dead Goat, now we’re the place to see blues in Utah. A lot of that has to do with John Paul Brophy, the old owner of the Dead Goat who used to book the Monday blues shows there, setting up the circuit with the Dead Goat and him teaching me how to treat artists while I was at the Dead Goat, what the right motives were to be in a bar. You’re not going to make a lot of money making the blues, but you will be forever rich in experience."
“John Paul taught me that musicians are people, and that musicians need gigs, and it’s almost our responsibility to give gigs to good musicians, because with the blues, a lot of these musicians, you don’t know when their last dying day will be. My job is to give them an opportunity to increase their self-dignity and their profile in society, and help them get recognition for their achievements and accomplishments in society and give them the most financial assistance that I can. I give them the most I can give them.
“I think there should be a panel called ‘Old Black Men’ at SXSW. They’ve dealt with every issue in music: racial issues, contractual issue, housing issues, transportation issues. I’ve had guys show me how to cook stew in a sink. Leave it for an hour and a half under the running hot water and it’ll be cooked. I’ve had them show me how to cook a grilled cheese sandwich on a lamp. You take a coat hanger and an aluminum foil thing and put butter on it, turn it over and cook the other side. At one time, black musicians couldn’t go out to restaurants to eat, so they’d make food in their hotel rooms while they were on tour.
“I’d like to do a TV show called Bad Brad’s Blues Cribs. I’d feature T-Model Ford’s house. I’m sure there’s not a white couch in the whole place. Once I went to Eddie King’s house to stay with him for a week [in Peoria, Illinois]; he used to be Koko Taylor’s guitarist. He lived in the ghetto. I was the only white guy I saw for a week. When you went in the door, he’d have one of those little ducks that if you break the beam, it will start quacking. And he’d say, ‘That’s my little security system. When someone comes in the house, you hear the duck quack. The duck don’t lie.’
“I thought about moving to Mississippi once, but I was told by some people that they didn’t think I should, that some stuff hasn’t really changed down there. The only thing worse than a nigger in Mississippi is a nigger-lover. I hate to use those words, but that’s how it is. I feel like every American should go to the South because it’s American history. I really had no idea what it was to be white in America until I went to Mississippi. That I’m afforded opportunities that blacks aren’t afforded. In the black community in the South, I saw a group of people who had a history of all different types of oppression; social, economic, mental, physical. As brutal as the South is on one level, on another level, almost everything that has cultural significance in America came from the South. Country music: Tennessee; rock n’ roll: Memphis; jazz: Louisiana; blues: Arkansas and Mississippi.
“The blues are all about improvisation and surviving, emotionally and literally. Blues is often made up on the spot. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have to improvise. I think the more you learn how to improvise, the more resilient you’ll become in life.
Bad Brad is a master harmonica player. His tender heartfelt playing exerts a pull stronger than the Pied Piper of Hamlin.
“This guy in Ogden who plays harmonica can bend a note like really well,” says Brad. “He told me to think of sucking up a 100-foot spaghetti noodle that I had to suck up in one breath. If you suck too fast, you’ll run out of energy, and if you suck too slow, you’ll run out of energy. You gotta suck just right. You gotta start a song and pull that sucker in. Last night, I gave a three-hour-long harmonica lesson to the security guard of the hotel we’re staying at [in Austin], and I was like, ‘With bending, you’ve just got to think about a 100-foot-long spaghetti noodle.’
Bad Brad was homeless during his mid-20s for about a year. Here’s his tales about the whys and hows:
“I fished for food in the Ogden River, Strawberry Reservoir. I was homeless because I got this dog that Robby Kapp gave me, and my mom and dad came home one day and saw the dog. My dad said, ‘You or the dog,’ and I said, ‘See ya.’ I took that dog and tried to find a place to live, but when you’ve got a dog with a St. Bernard/Rottweiler mix, it’s like telling people that you want to open a meth lab. So eventually we ended up in this truck camper up in Ogden Canyon, with no electricity and no heat. We lived there almost a year. We kept each other warm. Sometimes I was so ashamed and so depressed and down, because I come from a family with my dad’s side being farmers and my mom’s side being business people and I knew I wasn’t supposed to be a homeless person. They had bigger expectations for me than that.
“We slept in there one night through a fire in the canyon and we woke up with ash all over us. There were a couple nights that rained so hard that there was a hole in the ceiling and the rain was just pouring in. Laying there, it was like we were sleeping under a fucking waterfall. I couldn’t get rid of that dog, either. That dog saved my and Robby’s life once in a housefire.
“We were at this street fest in Ogden; we partied all night and came home thinking we were Weber County rock stars. I built this shrine–the first I’ve built of many. We had it at the bar where Robby used to work and I had all the customers coming in and putting all this shit on the shrine. And on top of the shrine was this human plastic skull. The shrine was at Robby’s house where we were staying, and there were all these candles around the shrine and we lit the candles and had friends come over and Robby fell asleep and I fell asleep and the candles came down to the sides of the plastic human skull and soon the plastic human skull is on fire. And I wake up to my dog whining and licking my face.
“Let me tell you right now, if you’re ever in a fire, do not allow yourself to be intoxicated by the flames. It will put you in a state of awe. It moves fucking fast. You don’t have very much fucking time. It’s like when you see a fire when you’re camping and you stare into the fire mesmerized and you’re like, “Fire!” And the curtains were on fire and I was watching it go, and my friend woke up and said, “What?” and I said, “The fucking shrine’s on fire! What do I do?” And she said, “Fucking put it out!” And she grabbed the thing and threw it out the door and I got big buckets of water and started putting it out. I didn’t want Robby to know we had set his house on fire, so I had this throw carpet on the burned part and turned the lights down low so you couldn’t see all the soot on the ceiling, but you could totally smell it, the plastic. But I thought, I can hide this. And he was walking up the stairs as the fire engine was leaving and he was like, “What the hell happened?” Later though, he said that was the best thing I ever did. He got all this stuff free from the insurance company. “This was destroyed, and this was destroyed,” etc. He asked if I’d do it again sometime.
“Robby gave me the nickname Bad Brad. He gave me a lot of nicknames, but that’s the one I liked the best. We’d play gigs, and he started giving us little nicknames, and he called me ‘Jumping Spider.’ I said, ‘How am I supposed to meet any girls with a name like the “Jumping Spider?”’ He said, ‘That’s the point. I’m ruining it all for you.’
“Then I got the name from him just saying, ‘Hey, Bad Brad,’ ‘Check out Bad Brad.’ It just stuck. The name doesn’t really help me get girls better than ‘Jumping Spider,’ but at least it doesn’t sound like I’m going to give you a disease or make your skin fall off.