Heat Stroke

Pulpit-pounding with the Reverend Horton Heat

The Reverend Horton Heat is rifling through his suitcase, looking for a little list he's stashed inside. Minutes pass by, the silence on the phone broken only by the sound of rustling papers, then — hot diggity! — pay dirt. “Listen to this, here goes,” the rockabilly cat hacks in a whiskeyed Texas drawl. “The Cramps, Johnny Cash, Soundgarden, Social Distortion, Edgar Winter, Leon Russell, Smashing Pumpkins, B.J. Thomas, Iggy Pop, Dwight Yoakam, White Zombie, Stray Cats, Jerry Jeff Walker, Sandra Bernhard, Nine Inch Nails, Porno for Pyros, Violent Femmes, Frank Black, Asleep at the Wheel, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”

Pausing to catch his breath, the motor-mouthed Reverend (aka one Jim Heath, sworn roots-rock booster and ex-teen truant/pool shark) explains that this is only a partial rundown of all the acts with whom his trio has appeared. “I started remembering all the crazy gigs we've done in the past, and decided to write it all down,” he laughs.

“It's interesting when you're opening up for Nine Inch Nails one night, and two weeks later you're opening for Johnny Cash,” marvels Heat, who ranks his semirecent Fillmore performance with Cash and the late Ted Hawkins as “a night I'll remember forever.” He adds, “But you kinda stop and go, 'Whoa — this is pretty cool!' So, without blowing our own horn too much, I've got to say that I'm really proud of what we've done. And we used to be even more diverse — we'd go from playing a punk rock-style show straight to a bar mitzvah, and then the next thing you knew, we'd be onstage with Marty Stuart.”

To anyone who's ever caught one of the Reverend's heated performances, the list makes perfect sense. Everybody loves a party, and that's exactly what this ferocious little combo has been providing since its Presley-purist beginnings back in 1987. The band takes you back to yesteryear, when reverb was king, DAs and pegged slacks were the norm, and couples actually danced together in faddish moves that required both split-second timing and a good deal of gymnastic skill. All of this is alive and well at a Horton Heat show — grease monkeys cut the rug with their Betty Page dates, to the trebly hyperspeed twang of drummer Taz, slap 'n' pluck bassist Jimbo, and, of course, Heat's commingled lead/rhythm Gretschwork. Besides, how could you expect anything less than ribald entertainment from a guy who dubbed his last disc Liquor in the Front (Poker in the Rear)?

He's got no great trade secret, Heat claims, except a sense of humor. “That's the underlying theme to just about everything we do. We can get serious, we can do the romantic thing, and we can do the dark, scary thing,” he says. He promises that the upcoming fourth release — working title: A Tribute to the Reverend Horton Heat — will be funnier than the somewhat subdued Liquor. “I've got a song about suing Jack Daniel's for what he did to my face last night … and a number called “That's Show Biz” which is my entry into the spoken-word field,” he explains.

The Reverend plans to christen this new material on New Year's Eve at the Warfield. He's very partial to San Francisco, he points out, since his gal-pal lived here for two years before rejoining him in Texas and there's a pretty vibrant rockabilly scene. A few of the Rev's favorite Bay Area things: tiki drinks at the Tonga Room (naturally) and “going to the DeLuxe Club in the Haight and getting Vise Grip to make martinis — he makes some amazing martinis.”

Throughout the interview, Heat repeatedly worries that his band will be written off in the future as some wacky novelty act. But he admits he did make one obvious concession to “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah”-dom with the band's rollicking covers of the theme songs to Jonny Quest and “Dastardly and Muttley” on MCA's new Saturday Morning Cartoons Greatest Hits anthology. When set conceptualist/producer Ralph Sall invited Heat to rework the music to the sci-fi classic Quest, he jumped at the chance. Six frustrating hours after entering the studio, he realized he had to update a complicated “orchestral arrangement with horns, which changed keys six times and switched time signatures in several bars. It had all these lines that I had to figure out how to do and then make work with our guitar, so I ended up learning horn parts on six-string electric.”

Behind the kitsch, the Al Jourgensen-produced Liquor features the same commitment to serious musicianship in locomotive retro-rock instrumentals (“Big Sky”), odes to James Dean coolness (“Five-O Ford,” “Cruisin' for a Bruisin' “), and the inevitable tacky hat-tips to female pulchritude (the hey-can-I-watch anthem “One Time for Me”). The good Reverend feels strongly about his sermons, and he swears there's no salvation in today's false rock gods. Like Walter Brennan discovering a mechanical bull, he harrumphs, “Used to be for centuries we had poets. But our modern-day poets are all rock stars who've never had to have a real job, because they've been in their bands since they were 19. And now that they're 24, they're heroin addicts.”

But can't a fairly intelligent music fan discern between, say, the faux-Nirvana cheesiness of Bush and the sweaty, down-on-their-knees testifying of Horton Heat? Not when national magazines are telling the kids otherwise, snarls the Reverend, launching into a real pulpit-pounder: “It's ridiculous, and what it reminds me of is when you're a little kid, and the big kids come around and start telling you about sex. Your eyes are wide open and you go, 'Oh, my God! I can't believe people do that! You're kidding!' And they're going, 'Oh yeah! We've done it 100 times!' But once you get older and look back on it, you realize that those older kids did not have the slightest idea what they were talking about. They were all talk.”

The Reverend Horton Heat opens for Brian Setzer Orchestra Sun, Dec. 31, at the Warfield in S.F.; call 775-7722.

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