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The Arts

One Man Rant

Ed Hamell Kicks Against The Pricks

...That's when Hamell reaches for his revolver

By Neil Ferguson | Posted 1/7/2009

Hamell on Trial

Talking Head, Jan. 13

Ed Hamell has image problems. Hamell--Aka Hamell On Trial, the one-man wrecking ball-cum-manic and unholy combination of Elmore Leonard, the Clash, Joey Ramone, Charles Bukowski, Jim Carroll, Street Hassle-era Lou Reed, and Hunter S. Thompson all rolled into one savagely funny, profound-yet-profane performer--is on the phone talking about the differences between his audiences at home and abroad. Specifically, he talks about the fact that he's lauded in Europe. They love him there. Can't get enough of him. But here?

"Well, yeah," he snorts. "My profile in this country is--well, it's like pissin' up a rope, quite frankly. I mean the 50 to 100 odd people who come out to see me in every city, God bless 'em, they're real zealots, they get it, they're enthusiastic. But reachin' the rest? Sometimes I stare into the abyss and just freak, but I try to remain hopeful. Y'know?"

This is a travesty compounded by the fact that Hamell is a performer who, particularly in the live arena, is reaching hitherto undreamt of peaks and he deserves to break out and reach a larger audience, particularly here in his homeland.

It's a show that he's been honing over the last year or so. ("It's constantly evolving," he says. "It's almost three shows rolled into one.") In the past, a typical Hamell set would see him pepper the gig with tirades, jokes, rants, and tall tales, but this time round the show takes a deliberate, more overtly theatrical approach than ever before.

Entitled "The Terrorism of Everyday Life," it's a performance that's seen Hamell win considerable plaudits in the UK, with critically lauded shows in London and a triumphant run at the 2007 Edinburgh International Festival, where he won a coveted Herald Angel award.

Not bad for a guy once described by Rolling Stone as looking like "a homicidal Otto Preminger" and a show that covers everything from a wide-eyed adolescent encounter with John Lennon (who told him to "fuck off"), parental suicide, crack bars, wanna-be-wise guys, and the joys of cunnilingus. Again, it's also frequently hilarious, often reminiscent of the late great Bill Hicks. Which makes sense, as not only does Hamell remain one of Hicks' greatest champions (going as far as writing a song in his honor), admiring his balls-to-the-wall candor, righteous fury and humanity, he's also handled by the same team who once managed Hicks.

In a roundabout way, that comparison leads to one of the eternal dilemmas that seems to confront American critics and punters. Namely, just how do you categorize what Ed Hamell does? Is he a folk-punk? (He's been connected to the anti-folk movement.) Old school East Village punk? A poet? A comedian? A theatrical artiste? Just what in the hell is it that he does? Attempting to pigeonhole him can be frustrating--and ultimately futile--and to an extent, the comedy element in his shows does him few favors. Mention comedy and music in the same breath to most rational human beings and the nausea-inducing likes of Barenaked Ladies or "Weird" Al Yankovic might spring to mind.

"It's frustrating for sure," Hamell admits. "In the show I talk about an epiphany I had when I was a kid. I was riding around with my father and I'm completely taken with the Beatles and the whole British Invasion, and 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' comes on the radio and my father feels inspired to tell me a joke. And there was a connection that happened right there and I thought wow! And as I was growing up my definition of what I considered rock n' roll started to alter. I mean, you're in Baltimore right? Well the films of John Waters or The Wire are way more fuckin' rock 'n' roll than, say, Bon Jovi. I mean, my definition of rock 'n' roll is defined as much by movies and literature than anything else, whether it's Burroughs or Chandler or film noir."

Not to put too fine a point on it, but that's another way of informing that what Ed Hamell does, which in his mind is extremely rock 'n' roll. There's more passion, fury, warmth, wit, and naked humanity in, say, 10 minutes of the average Hamell performance than an album's worth of material by the latest Pitchfork-anointed anemic hipster-lite drones of the moment. And yet it still remains a hard sell for Hamell.

"Look, it's like this," he says. "People ask me what I do and I tell them I'm a rock-n-roll artist and that includes music, and comedy, and movies, and literature. It's like pushing a big fuckin' rock up a big fuckin' hill sometimes. I'm pushin' it and pushin' it, sayin', 'Don't you get it? Don't you get it?' And everyone's like [affects suitably whining tones], 'Nah. We don't get it, we don't get it.'"

There's a pause and then he starts to laugh. "But I really do believe that at some point, the rock's gonna roll the other way and suddenly everyone's gonna get it and they'll all be, 'Oooooh. Hamell On Trial. Riiiiiight. Of course, it all makes sense now. He does great songs, and he tells jokes, and great stories, and he's a rock 'n' roller, too. Hmmm, that musta been easy to market.'"

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