Madison Madman: Hasil Adkins
(First published in Planet Magazine, Aug. 1, 1995)
"An American original"—the appellation is an overused one, but Hasil "The Haze" Adkins could have occurred nowhere other than the dark woods of West Virginia. It's impossible to imagine Adkins' screaming vocals, frantic guitar style, and freewheeling approach to rhythm emanating from any other corner of the world. The wonder of the Adkins sound—preserved for future generations in the form of rough recordings made at his Madison, West Virginia home during the 50s and 60s— becomes even more amazing when you learn that Adkins plays all the instruments on his recordings—all at the same time.
Perhaps only The Legendary Stardust Cowboy—another one-man band- -approaches Hasil's manic style, but Adkins is so altogether unique as to comprise a backwoods genre unto himself: sooey generis, you might say. When The Cramps covered Adkins' best known song, "She Said," Lux Interior reportedly had to stuff styrofoam cups into his mouth to get anywhere near Adkins' vocal sound. (Sometimes, Adkins says, people pay him not to play "She Said.")
Not that Hasil (rhymes with "hassle," not "hazel") is always wild; some of his best stuff is contained on the Norton LP Moon Over Madison, a collection of mostly melancholy songs sung with passionate sincerity.
Adkins' act has constituted one-half of some of the strangest double-bills in rock and roll history. One of the strangest (yet most appropriate) was when Hasil opened for Public Image, Ltd. I asked what John Lydon had thought of him. "He liked me. He seemed to like everything." That's Hasil Adkins—not an unkind word about anyone—not even Johnny Rotten. (And not even when personally and viciously attacked—by, for example, shlockmeister Sting.)
A documentary film, The Wild and Wacky World of Hasil Adkins, is due for release this fall, one of two upcoming films to feature the inventor of the Slop, the Hunch, and the Chicken Walk.
Deuce of Clubs: How did you come up with your sound? It's so different from anything else I've ever heard.
Hasil Adkins: What I done, I learnt to play, you know, by myself and everything, and I just, you know...well, what I'm doin is, you know, what's in my mind and stuff. I don't—what it is, I don't play to no beat, you know, like 2-, 4-beat, or 6-, 8-, or 12 & all that. You know. Ain't nobody can play with me. You know, I just play what's in my mind, you know. Change when I get ready, go up and down. I've tried a lot of bands, but you know, I can't do—well, in other words, if I go up they go down or somethin, if I go down they go up, so...
Sometimes I listen to your records and I think, How is he doing all that? So you're working the drums with your feet?
Do what now?
You're working the drums with your feet, then?
Yeah, I play drums, bass, & lead, & rhythm, harp—you know, harmonica—around your neck. I can play organ & piano with my elbows. I'm riggin' that up now. I can play about anything, but I gotta get it all rigged where I could get to it, you know, so I can play it all at the same time.
That's the thing I find hard to understand. For example, the song "The Slop"—
Do what now?
Your song, "The Slop."
You can hear the guitar playing, and then there's drums, and then there's also, sounds like, what is that—spoons? You're playing the spoons?
How do you have that rigged so you can do that all at one time?
Well, I just get it all, get it all close where I can get to all of it & everything, you know, at the same time. Put the harp around my neck, you know, then I play the lead. What I do, I play lead, rhythm, & I don't know how many different things on the guitar, and I play the drums, hi-hat—& I play 'em with my hands, too, at times, you know.
I read in Kicks magazine that there's a documentary film you're in.
Do you know what the name of that is?
It's The Wild and Wacky World of Hasil Adkins. They're gettin ready to start distributin' now. We worked on that, I don't know, they got a whole bunch they're comin out with, you know. The first one they're comin out with, I got some of it here now, but I guess it'll come out some time this Fall.
Who exactly is making that film?
Well, I think it was the whole [unintelligible] shop, one of the main ones. There's a whole bunch of 'em, on out in L.A. & Kentucky, uh, just different ones. But the main doin's of it is out in Kentucky. They're havin a time with distributin it, now. Course the ones wantin to distribute it, you know, are wantin too much money. But I think they got it worked out now, got it worked out where...it's out in Chicago, I can't think of the name, but there's a big distributor out there. They seen it & they wanna, you know, distribute it across the world & everything, get it out there where people can buy it & everything. If it would sell. They been workin on it for a while. But I think they got it straightened out now.
So is it pronounced hassle or hazel?
Oh, I thought it was Hazel, 'cos you're The Haze.
I know, everybody... nah, it's "hassel," what it is. Everybody call me—well, not everybody—most of 'em call me "Hazel," but I mean, you know, after they get to know me or seen me or somethin, why, you know, [I] tell 'em....
Ah. Cos you've got a brother named Basil—or is it "bassle"?
Do what now?
Your brother's named Basil or Bazel?
Uh, well, they call him both things, Basil & Bazel, but his real name's Basil. But they call him Bazel.
Okay. Now I also read somewhere that you had lectured at a college—where was that?
Do what now?
That you had given a lecture at a college.
Yeah, uh, in Louisville, Kentucky.
How did that come about?
That's when we was makin this video stuff. They went all over the place makin it. And they was wantin to know, at the college, how I got started playin and how do I do everything—you know, all that.
Was that a lot of fun?
Oh yeah, yeah. Kids wanna know everything, they did.
Do you still play live much?
Yeah. Well, I been workin here at home for a while now, I got a lot of [ ] stuff to do & everything. I could be workin 'bout eight nights, if I wanted to, but it gets old, you know, like that. I'm gonna play Charleston, I guess, Saturday night. Could be Friday Night. Friday or Saturday night, one of the two.
Wow, I wish I was out there! I'd like to see you play. So you going to be touring around any more, you think?
Oh yeah, yeah.
Think you're ever going to get out Arizona way again?
I just got back from Chicago ... huh?
You think you'll ever get out Arizona way?
Wow, I wish I'd have known that.
Yeah. And I'm goin off of that, uh—well, this record'll be out pretty soon. I don't know what they're gonna call it yet. I.R.S. Records—you hearda them, ain'tcha? Miles Copeland?
I cut about two albums for them.
Oh really? I only have your albums that were on Norton. Also a Dutch import.
Yeah. Well, I don't know, Capitol's gonna be—A&M Records, I know you know of them—them & I.R.S. Records, they all know each other, and get together, so they're gonna get—they'll put it over when they get it out. They been workin on it. So I went out there almost a year ago or somethin, cut, I mean, two or three albums' worth. So they been workin on it, you know, gettin it all...
Do you keep in touch with Miriam and Billy [from Kicks Magazine and Norton Records] at all?
Oh yeah, yeah, I talked to 'em, oh, I don't know, 'bout a week & a half ago, somethin like that.
How many songs have you written?
I got over 7,000 all the way written. I don't know just what now, 7,000-&-somethin. I got it marked down out to the house out there.
If you had to pick a favorite, what would it be?
It'd be hard. Well, they're gettin ready to come out with this one—well, it's been out, but it was, you know, way back, on a small label—a love song, "She's Gone," one of the first songs I ever wrote. The number six song I ever wrote, I wrote it way back when I was young. And if I had to pick, I would pick that. There's been so many. I like that "She Said," but ... there's so many to pick from.
Besides The Cramps, do you know of other bands who have recorded your songs?
Yeah, well there's been—I can't think of all of 'em, but I know you know of The Cramps.
And Percolators—you ever hear of them, outta Germany?
The Percolators, yeah.
They recorded "Chicken Walk." It's doin good, what they told me. They just come out with it. And there's been ... if I had all the names here, I don't know how many, there've been all kinds of groups, you know. Now there's another group, I don't know who they belong to, I can't think of their name. I know it but I can't, you know, it's hard...
What kind of guitar are you playing these days?
How many guitars have you had over the years?
You mean how many I've got?
How many have you had altogether, do you think?
Oh Lord, I ... it'd be up in the thousands. I've got about forty now, forty-five, something like that.
What kind of equipment do you use to record yourself when you're playing at home?
Well, I've still got—have you heard of that movie they're comin out with, Tear It Up? They got Elvis, Carl Perkins, Chet Atkins, man, you name it, they got everybody! I guess it'll be out sometime this Fall with it. Honest, they come & interviewed me about six hours' worth. "We gonna want you in it!" you know. They gotta little bit of everybody in there. Well, the first tape recorder I had—that I recorded "She Said," you know, a lot of songs on that. I've got the same thing here now. Not the same one, but the same kind. Looks just like it & everything. 3M company made it. I been gettin all kinda mail from fans all over the world wantin me to record more at home. That's what I'm tryin to get done now. I bought me a trailer to tear it all out & put a studio in it, & I'm doin pretty good with it. I got a lot more to do to it, get it all lined up the way I want it. It's about a forty by ten trailer. Forty feet long, ten feet wide.
I have to ask you this: what exactly is "commodity meat?" What does that mean?
You mean commodity meat? Well, see, way back in the place of welfare, what they call it now, or "Human Services" & all that, you know, they changed all the names, but way back there they had that what they called the DPA—that's Dependent Children of Americans—and they used to give out, well, peanut butter, commodity meat, you know, the government give it out, commodity is what it was. Surplus stuff from the Army men, or all that kinda thing when they got back [after World War II], and they would give so much of that out every month for the people that's on welfare—well, it ain't welfare, now, but what it was, same thing, only different name. And they would give 'em so much, like, powdered milk, powdered eggs, & cheese, & peanut butter, commodity meat, uh, I don't know, just a little bit of everything. But that commodity meat is good, man!
Is it beef, or what?
Uh, you eat it.
No, I mean is it beef, or pork, or what?
Oh, it was pork, and...I think they had two different cans, I think one of 'em was beef and one of 'em was pork.
Is it kind of like Spam?
Yeah, yeah. Somethin similar to that. But that beef was something like the old-timey barbecues used to buy, you know, the barbecue sandwich. It taste just like you couldn't tell it. I mean, it looked just like it & everything. To me it's just like that barbecue they used in the real stuff, they made it. It was good. Real good!
It's interesting that you bring up barbecue, because what we do in every issue of our magazine, we have some famous person give us a barbecue recipe. Do you have a barbecue recipe you could tell me?
No, I, uh...I like all kinds of barbecue stuff, you know. But I got no recipes for ya.
How about if you make one up? You know, how you fool around with human heads, and that kind of stuff?
Oh yeah. Well, I'm workin on more of them now. Like "This Ain't No Rock & Roll Show," or "I Need Your Head," or, you know, "We Got A Date." Stuff like that?
I really made them up back in the fifties for a joke, you know, kinda all us kids runnin around together, you know, girls & boys & stuff. I don't know, I just had the recording stuff set up, so I just done it, really, for, you know, just bein doin somethin, you know, have somethin to do. And then they took off, man, they loved it! I get letters, I got letters from every place in the world, man. So if they like 'em that good, you know.... Every place I go & sing 'em—I just got back from Chicago a couple weeks ago, put a show on over there, it went over great out there. I had to do one of 'em out there, & people tell, you know, what they think of it, how they like it, & any of them songs with screamin' & hollerin', all that stuff, "cut your head off"—they love that! I really done that, you know, really, just to be doin somethin, 'cos back when I was young, all us girls & boys, we'd get together at night & run around along about ten, eleven o'clock at night, until. From about four or five in the evenin. And we all played, screwy things, you know, jokes & stuff. I just picked it up, a little bit from here & there, and sat down a-doin it just to be doin it. I never meant to put 'em out or anything. But after it got to Europe & then they wanted to put 'em out, & then after the people went & buy 'em, they wanted more of 'em. I've got a lotta them I made up back then, & then I've gotta lot I made up now. From the way they're goin with them, I got stuff what's fifty times worse than what they are! So they really should like the others coming in behind 'em!
You can still get Hasil Adkins recordings from Norton Records, Box 646 Cooper Station, NY, NY 10003.
Selected Hasil Adkins recordings are also available at Amazon.
02/22/98: Now The Haze has an official place on the Web: http://members.tripod.com/~Hasil_Adkins/
04/09/98: And here's more words of the man himself http://www.yall.com/music/hasil/
Later still: Here's Wagner carousing with Hasil at the Rhythm Room.