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Instant Decadence - Just Add Cornbread Mafia
Text by Tim Roberts
Photos by James Moses
The elevator's descent slowly glided to a stop. Thin music drizzled like liquid tin from a speaker in the ceiling. The man stood against the back wall near the corner. Two bells chimed in a clumsy succession. The door slid open smoothly. In stepped a slender-legged blonde in a dark suit, who abruptly turned her back to him, glanced to see which floor button was pressed, then gently shifted her body weight to her left side. The doors closed and the elevator resumed its slow slide downward.
He glanced at the security camera in the elevator's upper left corner and sidled away from the young woman. He thought himself to be enough of a gentleman to give her some space and less of a fool to be caught doing something that the eyes on the other side of the camera would misinterpret. Besides, stepping away from her gave him a better chance to roam his eyes up and down her body.
The straps of her black, thick-soled shoes embraced her slim ankles. Her right leg was cocked slightly so that her calf and thigh formed a soft "7," the sum of balance (3) and completion (4) - the number of perfection. Her long hair was pulled up and pinned on top of her head. Strands of it curved down to her neck and along her jawline. Her glasses had narrow rectangular frames. Her gray eyes gleamed behind them. Her pale yellow shirt was open at the collar. The gem of a thin necklace glowed in the hollow of her throat. Perfume from her sun-warmed skin floated in the air.
He bent his head down and scratched the underside of his nose with one finger, keeping his eyes locked on the young woman. Hers were watching the floor numbers glow as the elevator descended. She might be too young for him, he thought, but age should never be a barrier between consenting adults. He had been trying to keep a youthful look about him. He had gotten used to the small golden hoop dangling from his left earlobe. Plus he still had the tan from last month's vacation to Daytona. He made an attempt to clear his throat and get ready to speak. It came out as a small grunt. His face flushed as his eyes darted back up to the camera.
She exhaled a wet sigh through her full lips. Then a thick volcanic heat spilled over from somewhere inside his gut and spread across his hips and loins. Warm tingles flowed across his shoulders and down to his fingertips, then they blazed raw and bright from the heat that exploded and churned its way into his chest. His heart hammered. Steam rose from somewhere behind his eyes.
The drizzly music that had slipped into his ears exploded into pounding guitar chords and drums. The single note on a harmonica pierced through them. All fell together into a rhythm that had the drive of a semi slamming down an Interstate highway. His dark suit and white shirt fell away like dead tree bark. Thin, dark fibers slithered down his arms and back, burning into his skin, leaving patterns of serpents, polygonal talismans, skulls leaking blood, a rectangle with thirteen stars filling a large X that spread from its center to its corners. A halo of fire crackled around his head and shaped into a hat with the sides of its brim pulled to the top of the crown. He stood bare-chested, tattooed, and sweaty in jeans torn at the knees, his body juiced with lust.
The young woman still faced the door of the elevator, unaware that the body behind her had been transfigured into someone who lives life with few apologies to anyone, who has the skills to boost a set of Cragars off a Camaro and light wooden matches off his front teeth. Who knows how to scrape up enough loose change to pay the utility bill with minutes to spare on the due date of the shutoff notice. Whose feet will always walk on the clay from which he was raised, but whose life is always spent three steps behind everyone else's.
He's her Dirty White Boy. Ready to make his claim.
It's a decadent world. Anyone who has lived through a Derby Eve on Central Avenue, the Mardi Gras, or the celebration that follows when a city welcomes home its Super Bowl/World Series/Stanley Cup/NBA Championship team knows that decadence knows no place. Anyone who has studied a set of paintings by the early Renaissance Dutch artist Hieronymous Bosch (each jammed to the canvas edges with details such as bird-faced demons swallowing people whole, imps defecating coins into holes, lovers copulating on giant fishes) sees that decadence knows no era. Anyone who has read The Great Gatsby can attest that decadence knows no social class.
Anyone who has seen or heard Louisville's Cornbread Mafia is convinced that decadence knows no muse.
In the Cornbread Mafia's realm of decadence, the southern rock of Lynyrd Skynyrd has married his busty punk underground cousin from the northeast, all snarls and sadism. The two now blast through the land in an orange 1970s Plymouth, tricked out with an oversized engine and the doors welded shut, on an eternal honeymoon of corn-liquor bliss. The new music they've spawned brings them converts to their sound in about half the audiences they play for, whether they're in a rib joint in the South End of Louisville or in a small tavern in Connecticut loaded with Tommy Hilfigerites.
"Boy, you wouldn't believe those people up there," said lead guitarist Big Ed K. "They really like the chicken-fried bull____. It's novel."
Lead vocalist Adonis S. Mertz added, in a voice that sounds like it was scrubbed by steel wool, "They live vicariously through our existence when we're up there playing. They don't get to see it."
The five members of Cornbread Mafia (a.k.a., C-Mob) don't use their real names within the band persona. Joining Adonis and Big Ed K are Boo-Boo on drums, The Claw on rhythm guitar and a bassist bluntly named Tench - four from the South End of Louisville, one from Jeffersontown. It is a strategy that temporarily removes real identities to create the appearance of something otherworldly, detached from our own daily realities, almost alien. Kind of like the Justice League of America. Or maybe like the Spice Girls, except you won't find any member of C-Mob wearing platform sandals or getting breast implants.
So they hide behind nicknames, just like members of a mob on the lamb, hunted and wanted.
"Yeah, we're wanted," Big Ed said, "until about three in the morning. Then nobody wants us."
With a band persona based on nicknames and a sound that punches the gut, Cornbread Mafia is more than vicarious redneck living for the country club set, or even reinforcement of a scorned lifeclass for the personalities they are emulating. They take Southern Rock from the musty basement closet of classic rock radio and lift it high into the realm of pagan experience.
Their stage presence is thunderstorm dark, threatening: Mertz's microphone stand is a bull spine set into a 14-inch chrome car wheel, his eyes are masked behind a pair of bug-eyed sunglasses; other band members dress in black; a Confederate flag is draped across the drum riser. Each performance is a pageant of rock played with an excessive force that's as real as blood in your mouth.
However, the video for their song "Dirty White Boy," directed by The Claw, is probably their most dramatic example of that paganism, full of pork-rind decadence and erotic subjugation: curvy blondes in stars-and-bars string bikinis deep-throating Popsicles, bathing and wallowing in milk poured from a spout, eating chunks of burst watermelons off each other's bodies. It is the extension of a sexual fantasy, book-ended by two segments involving a young professional woman, a middle-aged white man, and the short elevator ride they share. At first - as we see through the viewpoint of the elevator's security camera - the man is forcing his lust down as he glances at the woman. Then, after we have started long and hard into the man's sexual abyss during the playing of "Dirty White Boy," punctuated by a final crash of guitar chord and drums, we watch as the elevator stops, the doors open, and the young woman strides out, untouched. The ignored man just watches her walk away, left only with his pagan fantasy and a tight groin.
"I think there's some of us in everybody," Mertz said. "They just don't get the opportunity to get it out."
"They need to do a little bit of some William Hurt sensory deprivation chamber thing and let it out," said Big Ed, referring to the film version of Altered States, where Hurt's character devolved into a lethal primate after ingesting a peyotic hallucinogen and floating in a dark tank of water. So a show by C-mob in a club blanketed with cigarette smoke can potentially bring out a guy's inner dirty white boy. Or a woman's inner trailer bitch. And it wins the band a fan base that grows at each show. In turn, these fans get the best of some C-mob hospitality.
"We've done our annual free shows more than once," Boo-Boo said. "We're gonna keep trying to do something similar to that. We want to do a fan appreciation at least once or twice a year."
"Gala spec-tac-u-lar," added Big Ed.
"We appreciate our fans. They appreciate the free beer. So it works out well."
"There are only a few places in town we can still play," Mertz said. "We've been kicked out of a lot of places."
The most recent was Phoenix Hill Tavern, where the band's show and demeanor riled the management and ignited their fans.
"They couldn't handle the rock," Mertz said.
Boo-Boo, meanwhile, put it more diplomatically. "They didn't appreciate our type of entertainment. We were too much for them."
"They keep coming back, though." said Big Ed, "They're like a woman who didn't get hugged by her daddy when she was little. We keep kicking them, they keep coming back."
"Any of your psychology books would say that they're the ones with the problem," Mertz said. "They just get scared. It's not the common folk that work in there - behind the bar or the yellow jackets [the tavern's private patron control squad - Author] - it's the higher ups. They're afraid of people having fun. Whatever. We're looking for bigger and better things. That place is just a meat market anyway."
If bigger and better means playing during Bike Week at Daytona Beach, opening for The Outlaws, a reunited version of the 1970s Southern Rock powerhouse, gaining more fans from the crowds of bikers and college students spending their trust funds during spring break, then heading back up to the northeast for a dualie-load of club dates, C-Mob can't be accused of underreaching. It is how they spent the month of March. And Molly Hatchet, another skillet-fried act from 20 years ago that is also touring, has released a CD with a song titled "Cornbread Mafia," a tribute to the band that once opened a show for them.
Expanding their fan base, opening for the godfathers of the music they play and being honored as the inspiration for a song by one of them - all this from a band that, four years ago, was living in the building the Memphis Jaycees use for their Haunted House, just a block away from Sun Records.
J.W. Witten, former road manager for Jerry Lee Lewis, was representing Cornbread Mafia in early 1997 when he booked them to play two gigs in Memphis, one of them on Valentine's Day (an appropriately decadent holiday, allegedly the most profitable day in any Frederick's of Hollywood store). Back then C-Mob was another band living and working in Louisville, playing gigs, losing and firing members, and finding new ones. When the opportunities came, they looked at the gigs in Memphis as a chance to break away and scorch the south in the name of decadent rock-and-roll. So a week before the band was to leave for Memphis, Mertz and The Claw were drinking in Butchertown Pub and decided that they were not coming back to Louisville.
"We drove down to Memphis and played those gigs," Mertz said, "then we headed south to Florida and played the Daytona Bike Week that year. How we got there was that we just loaded up our equipment, drove down, got drunk and went into places and asked if they needed a band. We slept in parking lots, in truck stops. Then when we couldn't find any more gigs in Florida we called J.W. in Memphis and said `Man, we need a gig. And a place to live.'"
Witten found both for them. The building used for the Memphis Jaycees Haunted House had no air conditioning or a shower. Band members used a hose behind the house to clean themselves. Unless there had been a hard rain, then they would bathe under a leaking gutter. Their equipment was set up in one room. They slept in the one next to it. Once they had recuperated from the night before, they only had to stagger into the next room to begin practice. The environment was appropriately gritty, sweaty, uncomfortable: perfect for creating music that expects you to be the same.
Yet despite their living conditions, Cornbread Mafia found Memphis's streets were not so mean, if you knew who could take care of you.
"The people we were in with were pretty much running the scene down there," Mertz said. "For quite a while we could go in about anyplace we wanted and eat and drink and not have to worry about the bill. That pretty much kept us alive."
The Memphis teat eventually ran dry for Cornbread Mafia, but not before they were booked to play in that year's Harvest Showcase in Louisville. But their drummer disappeared. The only one they knew to replace him was playing back home in Whatever Will.
"Boo here," Mertz said, indicating the drummer with a nod of his head, "was making steady money, playing all the time. We took him away from all that, from easy living, easy money, stuff like that, and he came over to the dark side."
"Haven't left yet," Boo-Boo noted.
"But first we had to get him drunk and talk him into playing with us. Then we had to woodshed and have him learn some songs."
In late 1999, C-Mob began working on demos with engineer Todd Smith at Distillery Sound, who introduced them to their current manager, Susan Weber. According to Mertz, the band had managed, but not very well. There was some label interest when a song of theirs made it to a high position on the WTFX playlist. "At that time," Mertz said, "we didn't really have an aggressive play on how to get from point A to point B. We were just running around in circles. Now we've got somebody else taking care of that."
Since Weber became manager, the band now has a web site that gets 20,000 hits a month (which includes downloadable and streaming files of the "Dirty White Boy" video), a regular performance schedule, and opportunities to play outside Louisville - including gigs at CBGB's, New York City's hallowed ground of music on the edge. With demos at hand and a video that can steam up a computer screen, Weber's strategy seems to give listeners just a slice of Cornbread before the full onslaught.
"We haven't started shopping [the demos] yet," Weber said. "Watch out when we do, though. We're just building a buzz and getting some feedback right now. But we'll start shopping in earnest in April."
"Just hope earnest has got some money," Boo-Boo said.
In Louisville Cornbread Mafia generates a buzz with shows in only in a few regular places. Willow Lake Tavern on La Grange Road, Rubbie's Barbecue & Brew on Southside Drive, Barretones on Barrett Avenue, and sometimes at Headliners Music Hall are the venues where the band brings its short, decadent pageants. The owners don't seem to mind and some in the audience become C-Mob converts. But others in the audience might also view them with discomfort. The C-Mob flavor of paganism tromps on a few sensitive toes, especially with their expressive use of the Confederate flag, which appears on stage and adorns the breasts of the women in the "Dirty White Boy" video.
Big Ed explained it in a calm voice that hid the edge of a whipcrack. "It's not a symbol of hatred. It's not a symbol of heritage. It's a symbol of Bo and Luke Duke's car. It's the General Lee. And when somebody gets pissed off about it, that's even more funny. If anybody that was harmed by the Confederacy wants to come up and say so, that's cool."
"The more people you can piss off," Mertz said, "that's fine. Most people are gonna get it, and the people who don't get it are gonna give you free ink more than you could possibly ever hope to have."
"And all the people that do get it are gonna get a little laugh," said Big Ed.
So Cornbread Mafia's use of the Confederate flag isn't stitched up tightly in identity politics, or even used as the sentimental ghost of a lost cause. They use it the same as it was used in The Dukes of Hazzard: a symbol's power diluted by a set of clowns, much the same way that Mel Brooks, who lost relatives in Polish death camps, used Nazism in The Producers and To Be or Not To Be.
"Don't even bring a race card or anything into it," Mertz said. "It's music, it's rock-and-roll, it's entertainment, it's a show. Our job isn't to unite the people. Our job is to drink a beer and have a good time."
"Everybody's in on it," said Big Ed. "It's not like we're doing this show behind glass. [The audience has] stock in it. They bought the beer, paid admission if they had to. It's their show, not ours."