No More Hot Dogs
Hasil Adkins’ Last Recording
by John Dylan Keith
available only by mail order from a tiny Kentucky label, Hasil Adkins’ final album was released this February, almost a year after he died in his West Virginia home at the age of sixty-seven. To anyone familiar with the haze of lore surrounding ‘the Haze’ (as he was known to fans), the most remarkable of these benign facts is probably that Adkins managed to make it to the other side of fifty. If half the stories are true, Adkins used up all nine lives decades ago. Night Life is hardly Adkins’ best music, but it is more than the last gasp of a would-have-been.
Creeps Records bills it as a long-awaited “lost” album, for unexplained reasons, but again, with someone like Hasil Adkins, it’s sort of a pointless question, and it’s more impressive that the thing was done at all. In one sense it is the continuation of a frustrating struggle to be noticed and taken seriously. In another, it is a final conceptual twist for a lifelong contortionist, namely, an attempt to straighten long-kinked and knotted limbs.
The idea for Night Life came from Kentucky artist and musician Jeffrey Scott Holland, who’d met Adkins after organizing shows for him in Kentucky starting back in 2001. Holland suggested that he provide Adkins a platform to showcase his vocal talents on more jazz and blues-oriented material, for Holland’s label, Creeps Records, a Louisville-based label with the mission of promoting “low-budget, low-.delity, lowbrow art and culture, held together with glue, cardboard, duct tape, and fervor.”
Such a recording project has some poignancy coming at the end of an overlooked outsider artist’s career, but is it a good idea to remove the keystone of a pyramid of tin cans like Adkins? His unique sound owed everything to his unique approach. Adkins always played all his own instruments—guitar, drums, harmonica, vocals—all at the same time. As a kid, he heard Hank Williams announced on the radio, and by “That was Hank Willliams,” he misunderstood the DJ to mean that all of the sounds were coming from Hank, so he taught himself to do what he thought he was hearing.
The result was something like Jerry Lee Lewis backed up by the Shaggs, falling down a staircase or willfully careening down it on a motorized wheelchair. Between lyrics in many of his songs, Adkins shrieks, wheezes, laughs in rhythm—all to chilling effect, making him sound as though he’s sitting on a hot stove while he sings. As horrifying as it was exciting, Adkins’ act built a small but rabid following, with fans like Jon Spencer, Thurston Moore, and the Cramps, who cited him as a major influence on their punk-psychobilly sound and covered his best known song, “She Said.”
Later on, Adkins would explain playing alone as borne of necessity: “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 ... ” Apart from a few attempts, Adkins rocked it alone. Playing as a one-man-band, as it turns out, served his raw id persona quite nicely, with nobody hindering Adkins’ ranting jams with limiting concerns like meter, song structure, or playing at the same tempo throughout. Beyond the musical reasons, one suspects Adkins might not have been the easiest man to work with.
Often mispronounced as a homophone of “hazel,” Adkins’ name actually sounds like “hassle”—something which cannot help but carry import for a child whose mother reputedly had to pin his shirt to the grass with a rock to anchor the flailing, hassling baby while freeing her hands to hang laundry. A documentary film, The Wild World of Hasil Adkins, languished for years while the filmmaker endured the erratic behavior of his subject, including a death threat. Despite this, Adkins comes off as an affable eccentric, suggesting that associates sense that in dealing with Hasil, it’s best not to take him too seriously, either as a threat or as a reliable character.
An interesting side note: There’s a bar scene in the documentary in which a jovial dance party splits with little warning into a sprawling cat fight across the dance floor, around the pool tables, and out into the street. Adkins’ next song seems a natural mirror for the context, bopping along in Saturday night good-time style, until with a convulsive turn, Adkins bails out of the song, letting the guitar tumble down the drum set onto the floor, while he walks offstage wearing a nonchalant smile like a parachute.
At the recording session for Night Life, Holland found immediately that the original goal of documenting Adkins the singer would be a problem, not so much because he couldn’t follow Adkins’ swoops and sudden turns, but because Adkins couldn’t really perform outside his awkward comfort zone: “Hasil found himself uncomfortable singing without a guitar in his hand, and found himself unable to refrain from playing it once it was in his hands.” Adkins had also turned up at the studio with a banjo he had just bought, which Holland was to find Adkins could play quite well in a strummed, country blues style, of course with a typically cockeyed flair. Holland said in retrospect that if he’d known it would be the last recording, he’d have concentrated on Hasil’s banjo playing, but Night Life must stand as the only evidence of his ability.
So, with a supporting cast of Louisville musicians, Holland settled for a combination of Adkins-as-usual, Adkins-on-banjo, and Adkins propping himself up on several songs with electric piano. Unsurprisingly, his piano playing has a peculiar hunt-and-peck style, but it has a musical charm, and is a welcome respite from his drumming, which doesn’t really benefit from clear recording. Adkins’ sounds are best experienced in soft focus, not examined in the fine detail that good microphones afford. There are still some quaintly odd mixing decisions, like panning all the drums to one side, or bathing his voice in a thick molasses of reverb, but these are flaws that draw attention to Adkins’ own flaws, rather than augment them with complementary grit.
It wouldn’t be a Hasil Adkins album if it weren’t riddled with problems. Billy Miller, co-founder of Norton Records, one of Adkins’ earlier outlets, said in one interview that he would receive reel-to-reel master tapes coated in Cheez Whiz, cracker crumbs, and dirt. And they sound like it, in the best possible sense. The problem with Night Life is that it’s neither cheesy nor crummy enough to approach the shocking low-fi greatness of his early home recordings.
Lack of self-editing is the double-edged sword that supplies much of Adkins’ thrill on the downstroke, and many of his liabilities on the upstroke. He claimed to have written 7,000 songs, and there’s no money in doubting him. (For perspective: the prolific, often-published and often-recorded Willie Nelson’s self-estimated catalogue hovers at about 3,000 songs.) While Night Life has some good songs, Adkins’ attempts to be serious generally suffer more from the ADD of his overall musicality than do his more raucous numbers.
Adkins makes the title track (originally by the great Ray Price) into his own rambling, circular lament: “The night life ain’t no good life ...” It is tempting to read this as Adkins’ reflections on his own life as he adds the wry qualifier, “Unless you can hunch,” referencing an idiolectal concept that came from an early Adkins song, “The Hunch.” Like the Hustle, the Goodfoot, the Camel Walk, the Hunch is a song named for a dance which morphed into a catch-all verb. For Adkins, it appears in countless songs and albums, most often to mean sex, with generalized miscreant behavior a close second. It also seems eventually to come to signify perseverance in life. A for effort on exhibiting a softer side, but Hasil Adkins’ strength was always scaring people.
The taut, crazy tenor of his younger voice has sagged into a not-unappealing smoky bass, doubtless aided by his exhausting lifestyle and his diet. He was a strict adherent to what you might call the original “Adkins Diet,” which, like its homophonic counterpart, was low in carbohydrates and high in protein. Hasil’s variation was much stricter, and motivated by taste, not health: it consisted mainly of two gallons of black coffee a day, liquor, and meat, lots of it. Billy Miller said Adkins usually had a pocketful of Vienna sausages, and would order simply ‘meat’ in restaurants, repeating himself when pressed to specify.
So naturally, meat is a prominent lyrical trope. In an early song, “No More Hot Dogs,” meat mostly provides the, uh, texture, for one of his many numbers about decapitation:
I’m gonna put your head on my wall
Just like I told you, baby
You can’t talk no more
Can’t eat no more hot dogs
Eat no more ho’ot dogs,
I’m gonna put your head, a-put it on my wall
By contrast, Night Life’s two songs about meat, “Raw Meat” and “KFC,” are goofy college radio fare, trading in the Ed Gein persona for something a bit more clownish—minus the black van and bloodstains. (Don’t get me wrong; If KFC used “KFC’ in their ads in place of “Sweet Home Alabama,” I’d consider eating their chicken-related product.) But generally, I prefer the young Adkins, with his barely detectable distinction between fact and fiction. Certainly, Adkins mellowed with age, but some of his songs seem to have turned inward to silly self-reference, away from what was a kind of true crime reportage. He often used to write about real events and people, directly addressing county sheriffs from past dust-ups, and placing himself in some of the more extreme criminal roles he only witnessed.
Over the years, Adkins sent out thousands of tapes in his quest for recognition, including a copy of every record he ever made to the sitting president—somehow he managed to get Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) to hand-deliver one to Richard Nixon, the only president ever to reply with a note reading, “I am very pleased by your thoughtfulness in bringing these particular selections to my attention.”
I never thought I’d find occasion to cite Tricky Dick, but thirty-odd years hence, this response seems about the most apt appraisal for Night Life. It’s a fan’s album, and is certainly worth a listen for its glimmering moments, but it is ultimately missing the critically ineffable element, the one which makes you not only ask, “What the hell is this awful noise?” but also, “Where can I get more of it?”
Unsurprisingly, Adkins made a lot of deals, so a lot of his early material exists in more than one package. Good places to start are:
Out to Hunch (Norton Records, 1986)
Chicken Walk (Dee Jay, 1995)
Night Life (Creeps Records, 2006)
The Wild World of Hasil Adkins (1993, dir. Julien Nitzberg, Appalshop Video)
And hear Hasil’s imprint of havoc on other creative voices:
The Cramps’ Smell of Female (Ace Records, 1983)
The Reverend Horton Heat, Smoke ‘em if You Got ’em (Sub Pop, 1992)
Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper, Mojo and Skid (IRS Records, 1985)
John Dylan Keith is a writer and musician living in Brooklyn, New York. You'll find his portfolio online at www.jdkeith.com.