PERU, IN - No matter your profession or financial circumstances, it's hard not to get excited about Christmas. Kids from one to ninety-two, as Nat King Cole crooned about a half-century ago, all find the holiday season bright, even the ones who appear to the average observer as if they would just as soon slit Santa's throat as to await his arrival with childhood giddiness on Christmas Eve.
It came as a complete surprise to thousands who enjoy the ear-piercing vocal harmonizations and superb mastery of the electric guitars and drums of Jock Itch, one of the country's premier heavy metal screamer bands, that they too find it quite easy to get into the holiday spirit.
From humble origins in a quaint little town in central Indiana, this fearsome foursome looks more likely to be standing in front of a firing squad than a Christmas tree. Tatoos from head to toe, body piercings in and around every visible orafice, greasy hair down to their waists, and the tell-tale signs of a group of folks who love their distractions from daily life almost as much as their music...these guys stick out like a sore thumb in the conservative heartland of America.
"I know we look like we don't give a shit about nice things like the holidays and giving of one's self, but we really do." admits Thud, the lead screamer of Jock Itch. "That's why we always come back to Indiana each year and give a couple free concerts out at the Duke County Fairgrounds. It raises money for local charities to buy gifts for underpriveleged kids in the area. One year, we raised 850 bucks. Plus, we never have trouble getting laid in our hometown 'cause everybody knows us...yeah!" Thud grins, giving two thumbs up.
It wasn't always designer drugs and solid gold teeth for these guys. There was a time not so long ago when they were all poor as church mice and drank warm malt liquor past its sell-by date to get a cheap buzz. Thud laments about their life before fate stepped in. "When we were just starting out, all of us were still living in our parents' basements and trying to break into the business by doing small local gigs that we could get to by scooter...store grand openings, carnivals, and birthday parties."
Thud recalls a particular gig that nearly stopped them dead in their tracks before they really broke out as a legitimate talent, and it makes the whole band giggle in unison. "One day, we get a call from a dude who had heard of us through the grapevine and assumed from the name we were going by back then, Bustanut, that we would be pretty harmless entertainment for his son's Eagle Scout Court of Honor. He had no idea what we played or what we even looked like, so he was a little more than shocked when we showed up, dressed pretty much the same as we do today."
Slammer, the band's drummer, chimes in with a smile as golden as a brick at Fort Knox. "Yeah, we didn't turn down anything back then..not sure if it would be our last gig. Well, anyway, we started setting up our equipment onstage in front of all those Boy Scouts and their guests. You could hear a pin drop, and then the snickering started. We ignored it and continued to get ready to go on." Slammer lights up a Virginia Slim, his first and favorite smoke, no joke.
"We opened with our own cover version of "Sweet Child O' Mine", in D Minor," Slammer remembers. "The place was deafening, and people all through the joint were covering their ears. Some were walking out before the first number was over. It was really disheartening and insulting." Gash, the bassist of the group, weighs in now, pulling his long braids back over his shoulders and out of his bloodshot eyes. "Then came the pyrotechnics."
"In those days, we used a couple second-hand blowtorches, a gallon of acetone, and some bottlerockets we swiped from a fireworks stand the previous Fourth of July. All this put together created a dazzling effect, but it unexpectedly caught the drapes on fire, setting off the sprinkler system and turning the place into a lake while we were belting out "Light Me Up, Let Me Drown"...kind of appropo."
Slammer recalls what happened next. "When we finally put out the fire, we carried on into our third number, which required us to use props to accentuate the mood. We used aluminum baseball bats to trash the tables in front of the stage." Taking a draw off his cigarette, Slammer goes on. "We not only trashed them, we tore the hell out of them. No table was left standing in the whole buffet area. Food was everywhere, and the boy who was being honored that night was nearly trampled to death by the audience splitting all at once. It was mayhem, but so cool!!"
"Needless to say, we didn't get paid for our time that night, but it was a good learning experience." Gash summarizes. "The band learned never to overestimate the amount of violence an audience can tolerate in a given performance, and the guy who hired us learned he must always do his homework before hiring somebody."
Thud's voice is now permanently hoarse, a result of the countless hours of screaming he does when his band belts out their many hits, such as "Drink My Caustic Bile" and "Death Can't Come Too Quick", both critically acclaimed multi-platinum records. Gash, whose voice is also irreparably damaged, claims these two songs are melodies which define their self-imposed purpose in life, "slaves to the hand of fate."
"We think alot about the morbid side of one's personality, the negative things that people do to each other that nobody wants to discuss, and we turn them into songs." Gash smokes a Swisher Sweet as he describes their biggest hit, titled "Kick Me in the Balls", a real crowdpleaser at their concerts. "It was written after I broke up with my longtime girlfriend. She left me cold after two whole weeks together because I wouldn't move out of my parents' house. The agony of that breakup felt like somebody racked me good, so I had to put it into words before the pain went away. I do my best work in torment."
It's difficult to believe that this gang could muster the fortitude to dive into a genre of music so about-face from what they are accustomed to creating. Cheerful yuletide carols sound nothing at all like sadomasichistic powerballads of torture and self-degradation, but Thud, tugging at his braided beard playfully, feels confident that their unique interpretation of traditional Christmas songs will endear audiences of all ages. "They're universal...everybody knows the classics and can sing along to them, but how many can do that with our music? I think we'll adjust to the change of pace and uplifting lyrics very well."
Jock Itch has carefully selected twelve holiday standards to "butcher", as Gash jokingly describes it, to be included on the upcoming album. Although their brand of caroling might be considered by some as disrespectful to tradition, they are definitely fresh, new renditions. Imagine "Silent Night" being played not so silently with heavy metal style electric guitars, thunderous drums, and Thud shouting the words at the top of his lungs. Others will be performed with tiny alterations to the tempo. "We don't exactly want to make them our own songs, but we do want to add our own twist to them," Slammer remarks. "That's what awesome bands do within projects like this."
If someone were to guess that Jock Itch is the first alternative rock group in history to attempt a Christmas album, he or she would be sadly mistaken. Back in 1984, the punk band Leaky Sphincter from Seattle, Washington, made an unsuccessful bid to do the same thing. It was heralded as an "unadulterated flop" by Rolling Doobies magazine, the alternative music publication focusing on punk and new wave groups out on the fringe of mainstream music. The album barely sold a thousand copies nationwide.
Too add insult to injury, The Christian Coalition, led by tele-evangelists Billy Graham and Jerry Faldwell, condemned the project, labeling it "blasphemous" and "a slap in the face of Christianity." The Coalition called on the U.S. government to step in and force record stores to pull and destroy all remaining copies and to initiate a recall of all copies already purchased. Billy Puntz, lead singer of Leaky Sphincter, was very vocal about the Coalition's motives and intentions.
"We, the band Leaky Sphincter, believe not only is this a slap in the face of the punk music scene, but to music of all types and to free speech in general." Puntz responded at the time to the perceived constitutional violations this way: "We only wanted to record our version of some really gnarly Christmas tunes, and the fact that we happened to add a few off-color phrases in place of the original lyrics was merely a way of putting our personal touch on the whole deal. If anybody doesn't appreciate our efforts, they can all bite the big one!"
The boys with Jock Itch hope that history will not repeat itself, and they are fairly confident it won't. "We have no intentions of changing any lyrics or even changing keys or anything else other than maybe the tempo." Blaster, the backup guitarist, promised. "It's a holiday project, so nobody wants to hear something unholidayish. It will be a Christmas treat, to be sure, but only if you can understand anything screamed into the mic." Blaster quips with a gravelly laugh.
Slammer, the only member of Jock Itch who still has a relatively normal voice because drumming is his only thing, agrees with Blaster about the reason for keeping with tradition. "It's certainly a holiday project, but Christmas is the primary focus. We considered slipping in a couple Hannakah songs and a Qwanza one for all our brothers and sisters out there, but we decided against it at the last minute. Nobody knew any Jewish carols, and none of us even knew what the hell Qwanza is really about, so we're sticking to good old Chrismas music done up in our very own style."
Expected release of the album, pending completion, is September 23, which happens to be Thud's birthday. "Yeah, won't that be sweet? Our latest album coming to stores on my birthday, can't beat that. Well, maybe if I heard the songs being played on the radio while I'm banging two hot chicks at once, now that would be the sweetest!"