By Eleni P. Austin
If it were possible for The Clash and The Replacements to produce a musical love-child, it may have sounded a lot like The Bootheels. For one brief shining moment, in the otherwise abysmal year of 1988, The Bootheels raged and woodshedded in a Hollywood garage, eager to take on the world. But their reign was over before it began.
Originally from Los Angeles, Luther Russell’s family relocated to Carmel, Big Sur area. Obsessed with music from an early age, he came by it naturally, his grandad Bob Russell, and Great Uncle, Bud Green were both revered songwriters, who had co-written classics like “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me,” “Frenesi,” “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” “Flat Foot Floogie” and “Sentimental Journey.” He was playing drums by the time he started kindergarten, writing his own songs at age seven. By his teens he was playing with friends and trying to put together bands. Following the fatal motorbike crash of his pal and mentor, Oliver Wildschut, Luther returned to L.A. as a way of coping with his grief. As he tells it, “I was at Guitar Center buying strings, when some kid pulled up in a station wagon full of bullet holes and asked me if I’m a bass player, ‘Yes,’ I replied. He asked if I liked the Replacements ‘Hell yeah’ I replied.” That kid was Tobi Miller. They bonded rather quickly, recognizing that they were kindred spirits. Tobi helped him relocate permanently to L.A. Not long after, he accompanied Tobi to the airport to pick up a friend, that friend was Jakob Dylan.
Turns out Tobi and Jakob had been playing guitar together since 7th grade. They had become pretty adept at integrating their guitar styles. Jakob’s skill with his ’53 Telecaster was truly preternatural, coupled with Tobi’s Stratocaster, they knew they were a force to be reckoned with. A talented bass player, Luther also displayed a facility for songwriting. Their sound was beginning to coalesce. When drummer Aaron A. Brooks joined the fold, the last piece of the puzzle fell into place.
Luther and Aaron’s moms had been life-long friends, they’d even attended the Monterey Pop Festival together. Aaron’s Mom let Luther rent out her garage. The guys practiced relentlessly, as if possessed. They would hone their sound all week, then on Friday and Saturday nights, they’d invite friends to come watch them play. Friends would tell their friends, who in turn would tell more friends. Suddenly they were playing for a sea of people. Invariably, neighbors complained and the cops would shut it down. But come Monday, they’d be back at it.
Packing in two and three sets a night, the guys were fueled by ambition, angst and hormones. All in all, they only secured two paying shows, playing bottom-of-the-bill Tuesday night gigs at Madame Wong’s West and the Troubadour. That probably had less to do with their musical acumen and more to do with the fact that they were all just 17. Of course, late ‘80s Los Angeles was in the grip of Hair Metal Mania. The pay-to-play ethos of the clubs that dotted the Sunset Strip were less interested in underage kids under the spell of Dinosaur Jr., Elvis Costello, Husker Du, Minutemen R.E.M., Big Star and The Jam. But The Bootheels were armed with an arsenal of killer songs, and pretty soon they hunkered down to record a surfeit of demos.
Unfortunately, the band was over almost before it began. They broke up when Jakob left for Art School in New York. Recently, he conceded “The Bootheels was really Luther’s band, and I knew I’d eventually need one of my own.” A few years later he and Tobi formed the Apples, which eventually became The Wallflowers, and he was definitely in the driver’s seat (in fact he still is, The Wallflowers recently released their strongest album in 25 years). While Jakob was attending art school, Luther and Tobi became The 45’s and then Luther went solo. He has since toggled between fronting bands like The Freewheelers and Federale, working as a producer and playing with legendary musicians like Arthur Lee, Robyn Hitchcock, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Wilco and Los Lobos. In 2015 he formed Those Pretty Wrongs with ex-Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, he’s also recorded several critically acclaimed solo albums. Meanwhile, Aaron ended up keeping time for heavy-hitters like Moby and Lana Del Rey.
Although it seemed as if those original demos were lost to the mists of time, the cool kids at Omnivore Recordings, along with Luther, managed to clean up these unvarnished songs and release the 16-song collection as 1988; The Original Demos.
The record springs to life with the staticky opener, “See It In Your Eyes.” Amps switch on, guitars are plugged in, followed by a “1-2-3-4” count-off. Immediately, strafing guitar riffs and angular bass see-saw atop a locomotive beat. Luther leaps in with a strangulated howl. His protean vocals land somewhere between Joe Strummer’s feral growl and Paul Westerberg’s whisky-soaked rasp. But there’s a hint of melodic nuance in his voice that eluded both of those front-men and belies his tender age. Surprisingly straightforward lyrics like “You’re so beautiful, I’m so stuck on you,” leave little room for ambiguity. As the song rounds the bend on the home stretch it accelerates for one final burst of speed before stopping on a dime.
The thing is, by its very definition a “demo” is the process of “recording (a song or piece of music) to demonstrate the capabilities of a musical group or performer, or as preparation for a full recording.” There’s nothing half-hearted or rudimentary about The Bootheels’ songs. They arrive fully-formed. Take “Thing Called Love.” The song’s opening guitar salvo blurs the lines between Punk and Country before locking into a tilt-a-whirl groove propelled by vroom-y bass lines and a tick-tock beat. Not too many 17 year-olds are able to cobble together a cohesive narrative that references the Stones’ “Paint It Black,” “Gloria” by Them and tortured author Virginia Woolf, while resisting the charms of a femme fatale; “I try so hard not to buy a thrill, but she’s the only girl who can break my will.” Guitars shapeshift from astringent riffs to shang-a-lang licks before unspooling a finger-picked Spanglish solo on the break.
Then there’s “Queen Of Hearts” which employs a pogo-riffic beat, boinging bass and rapid-fire guitar riffs. The combustible arrangement and instrumentation mirror the jittery frisson of new love; “All five senses are alive, put the pedal to the metal and I’ll drive.” On the break, spiraling guitar interplay between Jakob and Tobi thrust, parry and feint. An elastic little Rocker, the song is impossibly catchy.
“Wasted Dime” opens with a volley of squinchy guitars anchored by tensile bass lines and a caffeinated back-beat. The hooky, ‘Mats-inspired melody provides something of an anodyne for angsty lyrics that just can’t seem to make a connection; “Called you, called you, called you on Thursday, if you’re answering machine says that you’re home, cause every night I hit my head, remembering the things you might have said, well, I can see you’re not alone/All I ever want is you, all I ever need is you, so I call you tonight, I call you tonight, it’s just one more wasted dime.” Sci-Fi-centric feedback ricochets through the mix, before the arrangement rocks back on its heels and then roars back to life with a stunning crescendo.
Meanwhile, the piledriving beat that signals the beginnings of “Glad It All Worked Out” is quickly supplanted by spidery bass and a fusillade of guitars. Luther’s blasé mien matches the lyrics’ glib lip-service; “I’m glad it all worked out, we don’t have a thing to worry about, I’m so glad it ain’t so bad.” A Waspish solo hopscotches through the break with a petulance that controverts the lyrical bonhomie. For the last 100 years, musicians have met with the Devil at the Crossroads, or whenever he makes it down to Georgia, in “The Deal,” The Bootheel boys encounter him in a Hollywood back alley. Tobi and Jakob’s twangy guitars jangle and strum, leaning closer to Country than Punk. Aaron checks in from behind the kit with a walloping kick. Luther sketches out a Faustian bargain; “Mephistopheles came to me and he hissed ‘You ran down a one-way street, ya did,’ I shrugged and sighed and coughed and lied, ‘Just trying to hide on the other side,’ ‘Now you’ll pay,’ he cried, cried.” Sidewinder guitars slither through the break, circumventing the spiritual abyss.
Finally, “Halfway There” offers up an embarrassment of riches. From the rat-a-tat-tat rhythm, to the thrumming Attractions-style bass, to the muscular authority of the synergistic guitars. Beginning with the defiant opening couplet, Luther makes it clear that he’s happy to let his Freak Flag fly high; “Well, people laugh about the things I do and wear, and I don’t care, Baby, I don’t care, they can sing and dance about my underwear, and I don’t care, I just don’t care/I’m asking you what kind of fool you think I am, do you think like them?” Equal parts frisky, punctilious and ramshackle, The melody and arrangement is a fusion of cheerful, chiming Power Pop and raucous, rebellious Rockabilly. Prickly guitars pivot and ping-pong through the echo and sway, and the song careens to a close.
Although Luther wrote the lion’s share of songs here, he collaborated with Jakob and Tobi, separately and together on three tracks. Written with Jakob, “B-Line For You,” shares some musical DNA with The Byrds’ epochal “Feel A Whole Lot Better.” Shimmery rhythm guitar connects with sinewy bass lines, as Aaron adds a tick-tock beat. Surprisingly sweet lyrics elucidate the teenage courtship and seduction rites of the late ‘80s; “We’ll take a walk outside but it’s getting way too dark, so I’ll take you for a long ride inside my broken car/Remember that old schoolyard, it’s all laced with barbed wire, you can have the moon if that’s your desire.” Spaghetti Western-tinged lead guitar rides roughshod on the break.
Tobi is the co-writer on “Empty Wallet, Empty Bottle, Empty Heart.” Jagged guitar chords partner with marauding bass lines and a chugging beat. Lyrics drill down on that time-honored dilemma, girls or beer; “Always trying to save my time for you, always end up spending it all on beer and waste my life just sitting here.” On the break, cantilevered guitars mirror equivocation.
All three pool their resources on the Country-Punk spinout, “Interstate 68 Blues.” Raggedy guitars are buttressed by rubbery bass lines, as Aaron rides the hi-hat before dropping into a punishing beat. Deeply personal lyrics written in the chaotic aftermath Oliver’s fatal collision, find Luther reminiscing about his late friend; “One thing’s always stuck around, we drove out to the train, decided just to truck around and soon it had to rain/Well it was just five below, Ok, it was only forty-five, but I’d do it all again and again if you were still alive.” Anger, confusion, defiance, admiration and grief are explicated within a few neatly turned phrases.
Other interesting songs include the raucous “Got Me On My Knees” which is fueled by blitzkrieg guitars, angular bass and a truncheon beat. Lyrics like “Well I thought I saw ya’ last night in the moonlight with your knickers fallin’ off, I knew, I knew you were downright uptight when you tossed your Molotov” address a faithless ex. There’s also the power chord crunch of “Seven Seas.” Frustrated by the workaday malaise, the lyrical stream-of-conscious rant yearns for a more romantic existence; “I wanna sail the seven seas, I wanna be an Indian chief, I wanna steal like Robin Hood, if I could, in my own neighborhood.”
The demo set winds down with the teenage angst of “Too Many People.” The rabble-rouser melody is powered by serpentine guitars, wily bass and a kerplunk-y rhythm. Luther’s stuttery vocals echo The Who’s coming-of-age disconnect, “My Generation” The frustration feels palpable; “Too many people in this world know what they need, too many people in this world don’t know how to read the bathroom wall, who the fuck can find a bible behind the Berlin Wall/And if I could read, I’d read it to them, but I got enough trouble in Bio and Chem, and teachers are preachers and preachers are meant to change how you feel, how you feel.” See, this kid wants to affect change, but he needs to finish his homework first.
If this was the would-be 1988 album, it might end right there, but the fine folks at Omnivore Recordings have included three rehearsal tracks that feel even more polished than the 13 songs that precede them.
“Images Of You” completely kicks out the jams, displaying a prowling intensity. “All I Want Is You” is urgent and sweat-soaked in all the right ways. The record really closes on “Think Of The Time.” Distorto guitars jangle and chime, matched by search-and-destroy bass, as Aaron pounds out a triple-time tattoo. All three songs hint at a kind of greatness that sadly, never came to pass.
The Bootheels’ music is a smorgasbord of styles; by turns, primitive, quixotic, shambolic, wise and witty. Just as A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, by celebrated Irish author James Joyce chronicled his youthful transgressions and spiritual awakening, 1988: The Demos offers something of an aural snapshot. A faded peel-and-see Polaroid that captured a moment in time.