The Psychobilly Freakout of Hasil Adkins

I started work on Lorihajitura in 2016 because I needed to answer a bunch of why based questions. My mind works like that. Why do people write, sing, act, or play like they do? I needed to know all of this, and so I set up a magazine to answer those queries.

The Psychobilly Freakout of Hasil Adkins

But I confess that I hit something of a major roadblock when it came to the legend of Hasil Adkins, the undisputed King of Psychobilly. As I began to delve in, he turned into a weird kind of Zen puzzle and raised more why questions than he answered.

Sex

He was born in 1937 in a tar paper shack in West Virginia, and died there in 2005, three days after someone ran him over with their car. That’s as close to any kind of “this happened because of that” statement that you’ll ever find when you write about Adkins, and even that comes with conspiracies, misdirections, and mysteries.

Hasil Adkins 01He started playing guitar at some tender age, began stamping his feet on the floor because he couldn’t afford drums, and took to learning and playing as many instruments as possible because he didn’t understand that a record credited to Hank Williams denoted star status rather than “he’s the only person on the record”.

I tried to watch the sole documentary about Adkins, The Wild World of Hasil Adkins, but gave up seven minutes in, a – because the sound and the visuals have a sync delay of about a year, and b – because people born in tar paper shacks in West Virginia during the Great Depression are not the easiest people to understand.

So, without any sense of immodesty, I came back to me.

Many years ago in college, a talented illustrator friend of mine drafted a grainy cartoon film with the proceeds of a scholarship grant. Set in jittery black and white, it depicted a predatory rockabilly wolf in somewhat murderous pursuit of a doll-like 50s cutie, and I underneath I heard for the very first time Hasil Adkins – No More Hot Dogs to be precise.

Well, I’m gonna put your head on my wall
Just like I told you baby
You can’t hide no more
You can’t eat no more, no more hot dogs
I’m gonna put your head, I put it on my wall

I’d heard The Cramps. I’d heard The Misfits. I’d never heard anyone go right down into the heart of a twisted beat, smash a guitar into their own mind, threaten to decapitate someone, and then laugh about it – all in the space of two minutes and six seconds.

“Who the hell is that?” I said. “And where can I hear some more?”

Chickens

It turns out that pretty much no one ever said that in the 1950s when Adkins started gigging and recording. They didn’t say it either in the 1960s when he continued to take his frenzied and obsessive one-man band on the road. They didn’t even say it in the 1970s when he made a temporary sidestep into a more plain vanilla style of country music.

Hasil Adkins 04They started to say it – a lot – in the 1980s – when the twin pillars of Goth and Rock looked at the heart of darkness, found this weird little guy in a tar paper shack, founded an entire record company, Norton Records, so that they could release his records, and the legend took off.

In those days you could drive up to his house – the same tar paper one he was born in – and watch him perform on top of the nearest car in his front yard. He chain-smoked, drank to excess, consumed two gallons of coffee a day, cited Colonel Sanders as an influence, and had more sex than several porn studios combined. He once drove a car off a 70-foot cliff.

His obsessions included:

  • chickens
  • sex
  • decapitation
  • cars
  • guitars

He was, quite simply, completely fucking insane.

But, because of him, we have Southern Culture on the Skids, and Los Straitjackets, and The Cramps, and The Misfits, The Reverend Horton Heat, and everyone else who replaced the rock with psycho in front of the billy, and we now know that Elvis wasn’t as lewd as the 1950s got and that there was definitely something gold in them thar hills.

He never became a superstar like Elvis, and never actually left them thar hills, but he was almost certainly the grit in the oyster that made an enduring pearl. There were artists with as poor beginnings. There were artists who were wild. They were even some as weird and with their own set of obsessions. Yet somehow Adkins combined his own cocktail of chicken-fuelled, coffee-brewed, wild, weird, dirt poor, obsessed rock and roll and left a unique mark.

And yet I still struggled with knowing why.

Decapitation

In the summer of 2004, I visited North Carolina and took a road trip to Tennessee. Along the way, I saw beautiful country, met interesting, kind, and sometimes very strange people, and got lost in the Great Smoky Mountains after dark with only a quarter of a tank of gas in the car.

Hasil Adkins 03As I sat in the famous Smoky mists in the pitch black, five thousand feet above sea level, and tried not to cry when I realised that I was on the set of The Evil Dead a thought occurred to me.

In England, we have Eccentrics – those odd and colourful Bohemian characters who march to the beat of their own fragrant drums, who gambol through forests and stroll through Carnaby Street and make life bearable and sometimes overturn the system a bit.

In America, they have Outsiders – writ large. People who live five thousand feet above sea level in the pitch black, who stamp on the floor because they can’t even afford the different drum in the first place, who could drive for an hour without seeing another human face, and who go on to invent psychobilly.

Quark, strangeness, and charm relate to the landscape.

Big, bold, dark landscapes produce big, bold, dark characters. On the road to Tennessee I turned to my travelling companion and remarked: “Back in the city under the Big Sky of America, I got why Americans have religion. Out here in the mountain forests, I get why you also have mystery, magic, and voodoo.”

Mystery, Magic, and Voodoo – I give you Hasil Adkins, the King of Psychobilly.

Also!

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