Naked war dance
Lee Bob Watson, a.k.a. Santa Cruz Gospel Choir, tells the truth and shames the devil
From the opening notes, the listener’s expectations have already been shattered. Perhaps they’ve seen the artist around town, playing any number of solo singer-songwriter sets, accompanied by his acoustic guitar and a drawling, quiet voice that intones a sense of sadness even in the most upbeat songs. But this is something different: a distorted drum kit and wailing guitars. A voice says, simply, “I’m naked. I’m getting naked.” And then, the singer’s voice, sounding as if it is cranked through an old Fender Twin with a ripped speaker, begins to sing: “I wanna crawl inside your head / I wanna make your skin quiver / I wanna send in the biggest payload I can deliver / Now you know / Now you know …”
Welcome to the heart and mind of Lee Bob Watson. The CD, War Danzon, is Watson’s second solo release, yet you won’t find it listed under his name. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find it at all. Those who are lucky enough to get their hands on a copy (I am told The Beat still has a few in its “local artists” section) will be greeted with packaging as enigmatic as the CD’s content: a photocopied sleeve indicating that War Danzon is a release by some group called Santa Cruz Gospel Choir. Inside there’s a home-recorded CD with a photocopied lyric sheet (decorated with U.S. State Department telegrams). It’s the kind of sleeve that one might have found in a self-released punk 7-inch in the early 1980s, and one that speaks volumes about the process and method of the album’s creation.
Completely self-recorded by Watson and drummer Mitch Slater (with guest spots by Rusty Miller and others), the album features a consistently lo-fi, distorted quality, a quality which led to the Santa Cruz Gospel Choir moniker. “This album had more of a band-type feeling,” Watson explained, “whether or not that was actually a band on the record. It felt more like a band, and I thought it would be more representative as a band.”
Indeed the album is much different from Watson’s previous solo effort, The Sun Years, an album that sounded like a strange amalgam of Tom Petty and Miles Davis. “[War Danzon] is completely different,” Watson said. “It’s a completely different style. I was calling it punk-rock gospel music for a long time, but that doesn’t really describe it. I think of it as kind of like Dylan and the Band, or like solo John Lennon, if those guys had been able to listen to the early Clash, early U2 and stuff like that.”
The influence of the Clash certainly weighs heavily on War Danzon. There is a punk-rock urgency here and a sense of political activism every bit as direct as that of the Clash. “They Caught Me Spinning,” for example, begins with, “They want robots to do the hard work / They want to sit around and push the button.” This sense of automation and the fear entailed in having such automation derail your otherwise human existence, is coupled here with a sense of foreboding. “I would say that it’s a political album and anti-war,” said Watson, “but a lot of the songs were written before [the invasion of Iraq]. It’s political but also very personal—a personal statement rather than a grand political statement.” As an example, one might take “Air Strike Remedy,” a song that begins, “Cool out, cool out / Everybody’s saying to cool out / Safety first, safety first / Don’t throw the baby out with the water.”
Watson will be cooling out in a rare solo appearance at True Love Coffeehouse this weekend. One hopes he’ll have a few copies of War Danzon available at the show. If not, perhaps you can borrow one from his FBI file.