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**CURRENT PRINT: FRIENDS FROM CINCINNATI: Installment 24 features this part coming-of-age short by Chicago's Patrick Somerville, author of the Trouble collection of shorts out in 2006.
**WEB: UNDER THE VULCAN Pitchfork Battalion
A NOTE TO PRES. BUSH David Gianatasio

Pitchfork Battalion (Jim Murphy, Todd Dills)

The Birmingham Screams: Amer. Rock Group, formed 1963. Orig. members: Wheeler Dunlop (1941-), rg, v; Max Levelor (1943-1970), lg, v; Dave Low (1943- ), bg, v; Mark "Shines" Bright (1944-), d. Other members: Tommy McKnickers (1950-), lg (from 1969); Albert Moretta (1952-), k, v (from 1974).

Perhaps no other American rock band has done as much to influence subsequent generations of musicians, dee-jays, and detractors as the Birmingham Screams. It has often been said that anyone who ever heard the Screams in the 1960s either started a band or established an auto parts supply shop. The group's relentless pursuit of compression, distortion, and twisted blues botchery matches perfectly the social climate in which they arose as high school friends in the early 60s. Their journey from obscurity to fame to absurdity to iconography stands as both a Southern fable and an American tragedy.


Dunlop and Levelor met on a Birmingham bus in 1961. "He had all these great records under his arm," Levelor recalled in 1967. "Muddy, Buddy... who else? 'A-Train,' Coltrane... you know, the low and high ends." The two first played together at a Baptist Church social and were forcibly removed from the premises for their irreverent take on Gospel standards. "Even then," Dunlop remembers, "we felt that different kinds of music could work together. You know, like Easter bonnets and tight trousers."

By early 1963, the group had added Low on bass and backing vocals. In the midst of the racial unrest that catapulted the city to national infamy that spring, Dunlop and Levelor wrote their first original song, "(It's a) Magic City Mistake," and began auditioning drummers. Bright was eventually hired. "Solid but slippery, cool but cracked. I could barely keep up with him, but then I had to pull him along. One weird dude," is how Low recalls the rhythm section's early efforts to jell.

The mid-60s were perhaps the highest point of visibility for the Screams. One top 40 hit followed another, including "Tuscaloosa (K)nights," "Girl from Mobile," "Don't Wanna Go to Auburn No More," and the risqué "Redstone Arsenal Bent Missile Blues." The band played many an infield on the stock car racing circuit, but retired from touring suddenly after a disastrous free concert at Talladega went terribly wrong. No one knows how the altercation began, but by the time it was finished, four chickens, two fat, befeathered house cats and a polo ostrich lay dead before the stage. For many, this tragedy signaled the end of the Bama summer of love. It also proved to be a harbinger of disaster for the Birmingham Screams.

Years of experimentation, then dependence, and then dark hilarity on mind-altering chemicals had a profound effect on the two principal Screams. The decision to sack Levelor in 1969 was a difficult one, summed up by Dunlop this way: "Screams minus Max equals more money for me. Plus, I knew where the music was going. We were always ahead of the curve." The following year, after announcing his plans to lead a band based on a "new, heavy blues" basis, Levelor died tragically in an inebriated attempt to swim the Black Warrior River. Pressing on, Dunlop's musical instincts proved partially correct, though the ambitious concept project dubbed "Outhouse" had to be shelved in early 1971. Parts of this magnum opus resurfaced throughout the mid- to late 1970s on the Lowndes County Calling and Really, Really Simple Man albums. Both were critical successes, despite staggeringly abysmal sales.

By the early 1980s, the band's fortunes were at a low point. Through most of the decade, they sustained themselves by appearing at auto dealerships and semi-ironic anti-right wing agenda rallies on the West Coast. It was there that punk rock icons turned spoken word edutainters like Jello Biafara and Henry Rollins began spread the mantra of "Kudzu Cool." The utterly simplistic chords and cretinesque lyrics of the Screams' songs were now "anti-art" statements, and their anti-musical achievements soon gained wide respect among a whole new generation of quasi-hip, dope smoking, Nietzsche-will-change-your-life-talking, English major-with-pride-can't-balance-checkbook-declaring, white-but-very-open-to-black-music-as-long-as-singing-in-English-and-playing-guitars-believing, not-a-tool-of-the-man-because-of-this-Che Guevara-poster-displaying college students, culminating in the group's presence outside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions in 1995, where Dunlop was heard to say, "Springsteen, you hack! I taught you every beard you've ever had!"

"Noise is the new punk," Will told me. We were wasting time by the East River. "Or the punk that never was."

Will likes to say things like, "When I see climate change in the local news, in the plants growing in my little patch of Brooklyn earth, I think the only solution is for meteorologists to become politicized."

Will's also a fan of the notion that no pop culture phenomenon to rise between 1950 and the present day has been even a shred genuine.

"But noise is for real," he said. "The kids are dressed in rags and tearing shit apart. Performers and audience as one, man. I poured a 16-ouncer down this guy's throat in one shot the other day and he thanked me for it later."

I didn't know quite what to make of the last, but in Chicago where I'd lived for a time a few years back, my great friend Ben had been the progenitor of a record label that hocked CD-Rs of some of the most bizarre stuff you've ever heard. Look up Greased Monkey, Chicago, sometime. One of their acts was a bunch of dudes in bunny suits alternately banging on five-gallon buckets and clicking the mouse and rattling the keys on laptops.

"Birmingham has a noise scene," Will said.

That was the important part. I quit half ignoring him.

He told of a dude known at the "Birmingham Scream," sort of a self-styled superhero who ran around Fairfield or Hueytown or someplace west -- Will didn't know from B-ham -- with a record player outfitted with this massive speaker horn, he said, from which the self-proclaimed Scream could wrench devil-tone intervals and various grades of squelch and squeal and glitch, as they might say in the noise press.

"I don't get over that way too much," I said.

"You need to,"Will said.

When I got back in town, I wouldn't meet the Scream for weeks, and when I did, at a hole-in-the-wall club in Southside known more frequently to host punk shows, perhaps confirming Will's idea, the first thing the guy said to me was, "Birmingham screams love, man." Not something you'd expect from a noise artist.

I was disappointed.

I shot a few turkeys with him while we talk about meteorologists. The Scream accused Will, though he didn't have any recollection of my Brooklyn friend, of stealing his own idea. "I've been to the NBC affiliate over the fucking hill," he said. He described arriving in a bunny suit and holding a giant piece of poster board on which was the legend: "Jerry Tracey Knows the Score -- Who's REALLY Warming the Planet?"

"Who do you think?" I asked, but he didn't answer. I left the bar soon after.

In the weeks following I forgot about the whole thing, but lately I'm a little starved of excitement. Man, in the summer, this city can be oppressive -- the heat, the roaches, everybody groggy.

I sorta wish he'd read this and give me a call.