Austin Brown (Parquet Courts) Talks the Baptist Generals’ Jackleg Devotional to the Heart

In the March of my 23rd year, I was laid up at my parents' house in southeast Texas, on a liquid diet consisting mostly of Vicodin. I couldn't...

In the March of my 23rd year, I was laid up at my parents’ house in southeast Texas, on a liquid diet consisting mostly of Vicodin.  I couldn’t tell you how many times I listened to the Baptist Generals’ 2003 album No Silver/No Gold during those weeks, because I honestly don’t remember much.  I was recovering from stomach surgery.  I probably heard the record several dozen times in my stupor, and to this day can sing the whole thing start to finish, imitating the often unintelligible lyrics.

At the beginning of my twenties, it was of several medical opinions that I was dealing with severe acid reflux. I spent most nights coughing myself awake until I vomited undigested food, and most mornings and afternoons sleeping off the nausea, headaches, and physical trauma from all the barfing.  On evenings when I would be out drinking beer, I would take several trips to the restroom to cough up into the urinals a foam that came from the pints swigging around just past my throat.  I self-prescribed a remedy of Prilosec in the morning, and Tanqueray and Nyquil to sleep at night. Finally, after a couple of years, x-rays, and the steady degradation of my quality of life, it was discovered I had a rare disorder called achalasia. In short, it’s one of those “one-in-a-million” type of disorders, where food would take literally weeks to get from my esophagus to my stomach.  I was manic, miserable, clinically depressed, and living in Denton, Texas, which is where I saw the Baptist Generals for the first time.

It was in the living room of my friend Kerm’s house where I caught one and a half songs, the latter of which was “Going Back Song,” from  No Silver/No Gold.  The song is a real gem.  At this point, I had just moved to Denton — it must have been 2004.  The performance was exciting and it sounded new to me.  I came from a small, nowhere town, so seeing a band with a record on Sub Pop in a living room filled with yet-to-be-known young people, it was thrilling.  House shows were one of those things I knew happened but didn’t fully understand until this time.  I still think about these early moments whenever I find myself entertaining rowdy drunk kids in living rooms throughout middle America.  At this point, it’s nearly routine for me.  But the audience, a renewable resource of drunk college students, is never weary of the luster.  This is where the Baptist Generals thrived, literally as well as in my nostalgia.

Years later, I saw the Baptist Generals play in my friend Christina’s living room, with battery-powered amps, and with new songs for a new record which, at least in this community, was highly anticipated, considering their only other release was five years prior. (Norah Jones was there; she’s much shorter than you would think.)  The new songs were great to my memory, and I recognized the core of a few of them on their new album Jackleg Devotional to the Heart (such as “Clitorpis Christi,” “Oblivion,” and “Broken Glass”). Yet hearing them now, the backbone feels removed, with a musical epicurism surrounding a frail center.

The only other Generals performance I saw was before I left town, in another one of Kerm’s living rooms. However, this time, I was used to bandleader Chris Flemmons’ curmudgeonly presence.  I sat on the floor.  The way I remember it, everyone was sitting, the band was subjected to drunken heckling, then they ended the show mid-set, frustrated with loud talking from the room next door.  But who knows.  By this time the act was up, or it was boring.  A younger version of myself who may have sat next to me would have felt something, but I wasn’t feeling anything anymore.  I had served my time in that town and had burned some bridges.  And I was vomiting all night.

Since then, in my times back in Denton, I’ve only seen Chris Flemmons drinking pints at Dan’s Silver Leaf. I was an outsider to his Denton scene, the one that stayed.  His Denton scene was going to city council meetings and organizing music festivals.  Mine was trying to finish up school, dropping out, or skipping town.

In the time I spent in Denton, I heard rumors many times removed from their source that answered why the Baptist Generals hadn’t put out a new record, most of which revolved around a mythology of a mad genius sometimes at odds with a major indie label. Those were both exciting things to me as a young person: both the gossip and the uncompromising, self-destructive intellect — the madman, if you will. It added a depth to a record that I was in a courtship with. I imagined I could hear it his voice.

Now it’s 2013, and I’m sitting in my Brooklyn apartment, listening to Jackleg Devotional to the Heart on headphones, a record I never expected to hear, released so long after the band’s debut.  If Baptist Generals’ two records were brothers, Jackleg… would have been the accident, left to be reared by its siblings.

I don’t know much about the characters now surrounding Flemmons, besides Ryan Williams, who played in the earlier incarnation of Baptist Generals. He and I once played a board game called Chug-A-Lug at my friend Lauren’s apartment.  From their new press photo, it looks like Paul Slaven joined the band; he had a residency at Dan’s Silver Leaf that consisted of people writing topics on a sheet of paper and then he would write a song about it right then and there. According to a press statement, it was these guys, plus some others who I don’t know by name, who were in charge of producing Jackleg… after Flemmons abandoned the idea of ever finishing it.  What that could mean in relation to this record, I have only conjecture.  The first attempt at this record was reportedly scrapped by Flemmons in favor a less “indie” flavor, and who could blame him?  The result is theatrical like a long play, overstuffed with dynamics, and not a soundbite to draw from.  What I hear is an attempt, at what is often lost on contemporary music makers, to make the big statement.

In December 2012, I was on tour and driving from Brooklyn to Detroit, which usually is about a ten-hour drive.  However, this particular trip was through an unrelenting blizzard.  Max, my friend and drummer, drove almost the entire way at 35 miles an hour with barely a few feet of visibility.  Every few miles we passed overturned 18-wheeler trucks, and we would watch cars in front of us drift off into the snow bank.  All four of us in the van had resigned ourselves to certain death, and I’m still not sure to this day that I didn’t actually die on that trip and everything else afterwards has been just a dream.  Regardless, we arrived in Detroit 18 anxiety-filled hours later, with just enough time to walk into Jumbo’s, plug into amps and deliver a show. The strangest part of getting out of the van was realizing that I had become totally desensitized to the fear of impending death, and had completely accepted that I would never actually arrive anywhere. So when we actually got to Detroit, it was hard to even know how to feel. An unexpected luxury to be alive, yes, but I was nowhere that I hadn’t planned to be the day before.  The renewed sense of vitality didn’t even make the show better.

Listening to this long-awaited Baptist Generals record, I wonder if contemporary audiences have enough of an attention span for it.  Or if those who do have resigned themselves to never hearing it, have made peace with that, and are no longer seeking it out.  The ones who will hear it now, like me, will certainly find it challenging to avoid the nostalgia of their time spent with the Generals, and accept the songs as new in this decade, because they are most certainly a band that exists outside of a timeline.

Austin Brown is an artist living in Brooklyn, New York. He is a writer and known member of Parquet Courts.