It was the unquiet dead, whispering in the dark, who set John Cobbett on his path.
In December 2001, Cobbett a longtime Mission District rocker and guitar hero with such notably heavy outfits as Slough Feg, Ludicra, and Hammers of Misfortune was on the East Coast visiting his identical twin brother, Aaron, a photographer living in Brooklyn, just across the East River from the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center.
"I visited the site. It was at night and freezing cold," Cobbett notes. "I remember the sounds of the cranes and demolition machinery wrenching huge slabs of twisted metal and concrete from the wreckage. All through the night these eerie, mournful sounds reverberated off the surrounding towers. It was an incredibly haunted place."
The wound at that time was still so fresh, you see. But the grief, fear, and uncertainty were being transformed, alchemically, inexorably, into something very different: a television spectacle and a justification for war far removed from the dust, the heat, and the stench of burning corpses that Cobbett says lingered in his brother’s neighborhood for months.
As the tragedy played out the dead painstakingly named and numbered, the TV newscasters falling easily into the cadence of wartime rhetoric Cobbett realized he had to respond. But the methods of political rock seemed far too self-righteous, and even patronizing, given the scale of bloodletting and demagoguery.
The way forward was finally revealed one month later, during the 2002 Super Bowl halftime show, which included a performance by U2 and a remarkable moment of patriotic kitsch: at the show’s climax, Bono, with the names of the 9/11 victims scrolling overhead on a huge banner, opened his leather jacket to reveal the Stars and Stripes beneath.
The crowd went wild, but for Cobbett it was shameless propaganda. The phrase "trot out the dead" leaped into his head, and music and lyrics quickly followed.
"I got so fucking pissed," Cobbett says. "These victims are rolling over in the superheated rubble below Ground Zero. It was so cheap and so tawdry. I decided, ‘I’m going to take these motherfuckers to task.’ "
Gloriously rocking and extraordinarily angry, "Trot Out the Dead" would become one of several jaw-dropping centerpieces of The Locust Years (Cruz del Sur Music), a record that took five more years and several new band members to complete and may well be one of the most urgent and affecting works of rock ‘n’ roll not to mention protest music produced by a band in San Francisco or anywhere else. It is the soundtrack to the George W. Bush years, a musical wail of sorrow and fury all the more overwhelming for its mythic metal lyrics and its seamless blend of prog rock ambition, hard and heavy bombast, and massively killer riffage.
If this sounds over the top, well, it is, a fact to which Cobbett gleefully cops.
"No matter how ridiculous we are, no way can we get more stupid and ridiculous than the real thing," he says. "No matter how grandiose I can get with a metal song, there’s no way I can go to Iraq and start a war. No matter how sanctimonious I get, there’s no way I could match what was coming out of Rumsfeld’s mouth. The shit coming out of those people’s mouths it was gold."
HAMMERS COME AND GO
One of five siblings born to a middle-class Rochester, NY, family ultimately sundered by divorce, the teenage Cobbett wound up in Washington, DC, in the 1980s and quickly fell in with the breakthrough hardcore scene of the era. Minor Threat, Bad Brains, and the Obsessed were his bread and butter, but with the emergence of Revolution Summer’s early emo bands in 1986, the music became, in his words, "specious and cloying."
Taking his cue from a friend who said he’d like San Francisco, Cobbett spontaneously packed his gear and hit the road. "Within a week I was living in the Mission District," he says, "and still do."
Before too long he had fallen in with Chewy Marzolo, a drummer with the heavy and hardcore outfit Osgood Slaughter. That carried them both into the 1990s, at which point the musical chairs began in earnest. Cobbett joined the Lord Weird Slough Feg, a band packing equal parts Celtic folk mythos and old-school metal pomp. There he connected with vocalist Mike Scalzi, who would later help define Hammers’ sound with a manly, operatic holler that would do Rob Halford proud.
Marzolo, meanwhile, was busily following what he calls a "one-band-to-the-next continuum" all the way to Cobbett’s first incarnation of Hammers of Misfortune in 1998. Along the way he founded Poverty Records, a vital imprint that documented the Mission’s explosion of grimy and creatively unfettered rock ‘n’ punk with a slew of 7-inch records and CDs from such essential bands as Fuckface, Lost Goat, Towel, and Hickey.
After an initial outing as Unholy Cadaver a devil-voiced combo that congealed around San Francisco’s cultish homegrown black metal scene, along with such peers as Weakling and Ludicra Hammers’ lineup was refined and completed with the addition of vocalist-bassist Janis Tanaka, late of L7 and Stone Fox. Black metal became not an end in itself but a subordinate element in a larger musical palette that came together on Hammers’ full-throttle debut, The Bastard (tUMULt, 2001). Despite its acoustic flourishes, spooky harmonies, medievalist illustrations, and Joseph Campbellinspired lyrics, it ain’t no teenage Dungeons and Dragons fantasy adventure rewarding its heroes with heaps of treasure and experience points. The Bastard turns out to be an ecological revenge fantasy, in which the "trolls of wood and stone" storm the village to "slay the ones who chop and cut / Slay them in the their wooden huts." It’s a wicked metaphor for the fate awaiting those mortals who dare abuse the blessings of nature.
Despite the record’s subcultural acclaim from magazines such as Terrorizer and Lamentations of the Flame Princess and the admiration heaped on its follow-up, The August Engine (Cruz del Sur Music, 2003), a hard rock parable of cliquish music-scene self-destruction Hammers of Misfortune had chosen a road that was neither wide nor easy. What kind of metal was this anyway? True? Black? Epic? These fine points of genre fidelity may seem irrelevant to a die-hard music fan, but for labels the difference is a record they can sell or not. "I loved Hammers the first time I heard them, and it never occurred to me to question or examine their sound, which was this gloriously confusional, amazing, and intricate chunk of mind-blowing music, metal or otherwise," says Andee Connors, who put out The Bastard on his tUMULt imprint. "It might be confusing for folks who are very strict with their genre divisions."
There is only so much small labels can do, however, and Tanaka’s departure to play with pop vocalist Pink was another monkey wrench. The addition of Jamie Myers on bass and vocals carried Hammers through The Locust Years‘ recording sessions until she too took a bow, moving to Texas to raise her first child. Scalzi, disinclined to divide his time between two bands, also departed, to focus his attention entirely on Slough Feg.
ANTHEMS FOR DARK DAYS
Today Hammers are touring with a refreshed and potent lineup, teaming Marzolo and Cobbett with bassist Ron Nichols; vocalist and second guitarist Patrick Goodwin of retro muscle rockers Dirty Power; and the musically omnivorous vocalist Jessie Quattro, who was raised on Doc Watson and the hymns and "occasional barking" of Pentecostal Christianity. Sigrid Sheie, a classically trained pianist, has been a constant on the last two records, bringing musical formality and some of the most boss Hammond B-3 and Leslie keyboards heard in rock since the ’70s heyday of Deep Purple particularly notable on "Election Day," the penultimate track on The Locust Years. The tune is a whirlwind instrumental workout that recalls such classics as Focus’s "Hocus Pocus" and Edgar Winter’s "Frankenstein."
The song is a joy to hear simply as rock ‘n’ roll and exemplifies the real musical exuberance Hammers bring to what is otherwise grim and woeful fare. The whole record leavens its bleak social commentary with what Cobbett describes as "little-kid enthusiasm" for rocking out in high style. The lyrics, while not necessarily dactylic hexameter, are still richly allusive as metalhead poetry, inviting listeners to suspend their disbelief, find their own meaning, and let the emotional sweep of the music fill in the blanks. Anything unstated by, for example, "Chastity Rides," a harmonically gorgeous paean to the Platonic ideal of politically conservative virtue, is made ever so explicit by the snarling, minor-key instrumental bridge. The same technique is also applied to great effect in "War Anthem," a stirring call to arms that blatantly steals its sentimental grandeur from "The Star-Spangled Banner" then yanks the veil aside to reveal the bald-faced rapacity of the masters of the war on terror be they Islamofascists, Christian supremacists, or military-industrial profiteers.
From the record’s opening moments, with Cobbett’s guitar wailing like a thousand 9/11 banshees, to the dreadful prophecy of "Famine’s Lamp" certainly one of the great rock ‘n’ roll dirges clear through to the gleaming, high-tech, satellite-guided apocalypse of the album-closing "Widow’s Wall," The Locust Years appeals to me as a ferocious summation of all the shameless hypocrisy, betrayal, and avarice of the last six years. It is tremendously cathartic but not necessarily hopeful. The album’s title borrowed from Winston Churchill, who coined the phrase in reference to the declines and compromises of the 1930s and their resolution in the gas chambers and killing fields of World War II is an embittered indictment of the flag-waving, churchgoing citizen-consumer. Good Germans all, dutifully following their leader as the abyss yawns ever wider.
LITTLE USE FOR ILLUSION
No one in the band has any delusions that their underground heavy metal record is going to change the world and not one of them seems willing to suck up to a music industry that would only turn it into focus-group approved, prechewed rage against the generic machine. Hammers is truly a Mission District group, deeply rooted in a seething community of fiercely even dysfunctionally independent musicians, labels, and fans with roots dating back at least 20 years.
But Hammers of Misfortune are also a band with a mission and a message and a whole of good rockin’ to come. Sheie modestly hopes for at least a European tour and enough earnings to not have to worry about covering practice-space fees then confesses she thinks the record deserves a Grammy. Quattro is in a similar mood, daydreaming of playing to an arena of "30,000 screaming fans." I hope it all comes true in spades.
As for Cobbett, he’s been touring with Ludicra and, fresh from exhibiting Hammers at South by Southwest, has a new concept album germinating in his mind. Something to do with a perfect storm known as Hurricane Katrina and the drowned city of New Orleans. Another victim of the locust years, to be immortalized in song.
The gods of metal are angry and sharpening their swords. *
HAMMERS OF MISFORTUNE
With Genghis Tron and Kylesa
Sun/25, 9 p.m., $10, all ages
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th St., SF