An interview with Neil Haggerty
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Neil Haggerty ~ Play That Good Old Rock n Roll

NEIL MICHAEL HAGERTY

'Play that Tired Old Rock ‘n’ Roll' By Allan Martin Kemler. Swift change of name, swift change of direction, swift change of consciousness? Is Royal Trux member, Neil Hagerty simply just taking the Michael?

05/07/2002

NEIL HAGERTY, guitar terrorist, ex-heroin addict and one-half of the Royal Trux’s sonic deconstructionist duo, wants to be called Neil Michael Hagerty now. Anyone who’s ever relied on the addition of a middle name to lend an air of significance knows that it’s a loaded proposition: People who knew you before will make fun of you. People who didn’t know you before will get you confused with your former self. Some people will tell you that adults who use middle names are pompous, but people, like C. Everett Koop, who use a first initial, are okay. And some people will tell you the opposite. Regardless of where you stand on the middle name issue, his new album is just okay. Perhaps that’s why he’s decided to start using his middle name. Maybe it’s some kind of cover—like no one will notice it’s the same guy playing all that sideways, Burroughsian blooze. But, it is. Unfortunately, like Burroughs, Hagerty only had a few good stories in him and they are in his past.

Where once he was capable of conjuring up the raunchiest, opiated rock ‘n’ roll this side of a Detroit-area NA convention, now Neil just turns out choogling bar band riffs that sputter like a ‘69 Camaro with a faulty carburetor. Right out of the gate, 'Plays That Good Old Rock ‘n’ Roll' falls flat on its face, but for Neil it doesn’t seem to matter much because he’s finally free to do his own thing and he’s free of all Royal Trux’s baggage too.

“Yeah, well, with my own thing, I just write songs and I try to work with the musicians without any overweening concept in mind,” explained Neil. “That’s the thing that makes the difference. With Royal Trux, we would actually have to have some sort of plan, because a lot of it had to do with working things or working the system with the record companies and the people who buy records and the press.”

After a failed final tour in 1999, Hagerty jettisoned his Barbie-meets-Barbarella-on-Demerol sidekick, Jennifer Herrema, in 2000 for her inability to stay straight, and quickly went back to doing what he does best, turning out 2001’s self-titled solo release Neil Michael Hagerty on Drag City. The album was successful enough for Drag City to let him do it again in 2002. But it’s questionable if the label that put out seven of the Royal Trux’s nine full-length releases can effectively judge Neil’s output. Of course, that’s the crux of the biscuit: Can anybody effectively judge Hagerty’s music? Well-known for his ambivalent blend of outsider musical influences, lo-fi aesthetics and old-school bombast, the thing about Hagerty’s music is it’s always been hard to tell if it’s a put-on or pure genius.

“In Royal Trux we would do things like, ‘Okay, every song is going to be four minutes long.’ So we would have to extend them out and we would try to say, like, ‘Okay we’re going to write too many songs, or we’re going to make an album where there’s way too many songs to listen to, or people will hate the following songs,’ or we’d write something really stupid that we knew people would like.”

While Neil deserves a big pat on the back for having the balls, creativity and who-gives-a-fuck attitude to produce such works, with the exception of a few hipsters pretending to get the Trux’s brand of heroin-addled junk rock, most people wouldn’t walk across the street to spit on his records, let alone care about the nuances of how they were made. Of course, Hagerty did say he’s left all that behind. Nevertheless, 'Plays That Good Old Rock ‘n’ Roll' still manages to unfold like a secret message without the decoder ring. The album’s first track, “Storm Song,” for instance, is based on one long, repetitive and boring riff that just drones on and on endlessly while Hagerty, doing his best/worst impression of Dr. John, repeats the daft couplet “Only God can rescue me/Only God can make a tree.” Yikes! Despite the title’s implications, “Shaved C*nt” is kind of boring too, until Neil busts it up with one of his trademark freakout solos at about two minutes in. The only problem is the solo becomes the song and then devolves into an obtuse guitar noodling session only to eventually turn into an even more obtuse blues refrain which then ends without warning.“ Oklahoma Township” isn’t much of an improvement either. Though it gets a few points for sounding like some little-known Buddy Miles record from the 70s, with Leon Russell on vocals, again, the whole song is driven by a mindlessly hackneyed vamp that doesn’t go anywhere. However, the album does have some redeeming qualities. “Sayonara” features a wack and dirty solo that sounds like your brain achieving virtual satori after a huge bonghit. And both “Gratitude” and “Louisa La Ray” have that old-school Royal Trux dirty-boogie sound where guitars cook and shimmer with filthy innuendo—like the sound of some drunken husband leering at his wife’s 15-year-old niece distilled. But again the melodies are kind of boring and don’t go anywhere.

What listeners are left with is an album that neither beckons nor rebuffs, but mostly doesn’t do anything. It just sort of lies there waiting for you to dig it. Of course, maybe the average listener is a rube. Maybe they’re not meant to get it. Pussy Galore, Hagerty’s first band, made a name for itself playing some of the trashiest rock ‘n’ roll ever committed. Some would even hesitate to call it rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, one reviewer even remarked, “the only difference between good Pussy Galore music and bad is that the latter is boring and the former is not.”

The Royal Trux weren’t much better, so maybe it is all a joke. But talking to Neil you get the feeling it’s not. “The thing is, you can’t cheat an honest man,” Hagerty explained. “I really believe that. We like to get involved in really weird stuff and get people tangled up in their own greed and egos and then their personalities or stupidity will take over.”

The way the new album sounds, most people will never get that chance. On the other hand, since releasing the record in February, Hagerty has toured twice - once as a headliner and once opening up for Wilco - and he said the reactions to the shows have been positive. So maybe without having to sift through the subtle tricks and head games of the past, listeners will finally be able to unravel the mystery of Neil Michael Hagerty and not wonder if it’s all a lie. Still, after so many years of putting out mediocre rock records, who really cares?

“The Royal Trux was just a bunch of shit,” Neil confessed. “I mean, I know what we were thinking, but I think the benefits of Royal Trux come with the person who listens to it. But with my band, I’m not indulging any of those [tricks] at all. It’s totally take it or leave it, it’s for real.”

Great. Unfortunately, it’s a bit like the boy who cried wolf. Somewhere along the line, Hagerty jumped on the wagon and decided to get straight with his audience; however, it might be too late. After so many self-indulgent years of pushing the heroin-chic blues, Neil’s brand of doped-out noodlephonics has kind of lost the plot. Of course, that has never stopped him before. But at this stage of his career it’s kind of sad that it’s only when he plays a cover that Hagerty’s cheered.

“We played in Columbus one night and it was bizarre because we it was a little tense, and then we did a cover of “Sweet Jane” in the middle of the set and that went over really well, cuz it was, like, all kids. But I got the feeling they could have turned on us pretty soon.”


Allan Kemler for Crud Magazine© 2002


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July - August 2001
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