You think ‘Viking metal’ and ‘post-Takoma guitar soli’ are niche markets? Let’s talk about Ed Bankston, a veteran of the US Navy and former combat pilot who, in 1983, wrote, recorded and released a record about his experiences in Vietnam and sold it via an ad placed in the perennially batshit mercenary magazine Soldier of Fortune. No distros, no reviews, no name-check on the Nurse With Wound list, just a transmission sent from one combat survivor to his brethren and the handful of one-percenters and sympathizers constituting said magazine’s readership. Reissued earlier this year by Paradise of Bachelors, Over There…and Over Here, the lone release by Bankston’s Red Rippers, merits a place at the top of a short list of crucial reissues of 2013.
Superficial listeners may not, at first, hear anything especially unusual about some of the album’s country-boogie churns. Bankston’s robust, full-throated singing style owes a considerable debt to Waylon Jennings, and many of the full band arrangements here stick fairly close to the outlaw country playbook. But listen close and the myriad peculiarities of Over There…and Over Here reveal themselves. For one thing, the overarching mood of the album is far more melancholy than macho, more wistful than warlike. Bankston is a sensitive and astute writer, as comfortable with irony and ambiguity as he is with bellicose boasts. He’s as likely to criticize the unscrupulous government that sentenced him to die as he is to lament the loss of his girl to a ‘hippie’ while away at war. Like William Devane’s character in the 1977 film Rolling Thunder, Bankston’s protagonists arrive home to a hero’s unwelcome and a grim immersion back into a civilian life they no longer understand or relate to. While there is no shortage of rock and roll peaceniks from Phil Ochs to Neil Young to Thom Yorke lamenting the futility and horror of war, Bankston’s eyewitness accounts make those appeals to peace seem facile – even tacky – in comparison.
But it’s not just lyrical content that sets Over There…and Over Here apart from hundreds of other Bakersfield-fried country rock obscurities: the nearly irreconcilable influence of punk belies the album’s 80s origins and invites many fascinating questions. “Firefight,” for instance, contains an anthemic chorus worthy of the Ramones or the Misfits, while “Who Remembers” recalls nothing so much as the Meat Puppets. Songs like “Soldier of Fortune” and “Firefight” eschew outlaw country’s conspicuous ‘cocaine chorus’ guitar effects for thick, fuzzy overdrive and solid-state amp distortion. While it’s fun to imagine Bankston poring over an SST catalog between Black Label benders and gun cleanings, the album’s stylistic commonalities with punk are likely more a result of coincidence than osmosis. Then again, framing the album in historical context, Over There…and Over Here was released in 1983, a year in which both The Clash and Golden Earring were on the charts, so who knows?
The playing is raw but capable, and Bankston is a talented, expressive singer whose voice adequately captures both the resignation and the experience of a veteran – of combat, and of more than a few last calls at the honky tonk. No tune on the album better expresses the alienation and turmoil of war than the beautifully burned-out “Body Bag,” which appears in sequence after two of the album’s more hopped-up, comparatively trifling numbers. With its 70s rock flourishes, it splits the difference between Lindsey-era Fleetwood Mac and Blue Oyster Cult, while soft electric piano and spaced-out lead lines underscore the song’s dark, harrowing lyrics. Similarly, “Over The Edge” ends the album on an uneasy, unnerving note, with Bankston describing a nameless ‘great darkness’ over a mournful chug that imagines the Velvets covering “Suicide Is Painless (Theme From M*A*S*H).” You can almost see the helicopters.
Thankfully, Over There…and Over Here is no ‘real people’ curio; when you get right down to it, there’s not much ‘incredibly strange’ about the album despite its provenance. Unlikely? Sure. Unique? Absolutely. But Over There…and Over Here is, like Rodriguez’s Cold Fact, Val Stoecklin’s Grey Life and Bobb Trimble’s Harvest Of Dreams, the rare album that transcends its status as a tantalizing obscurity. It is a record of prescience, beauty, and wisdom, a would-be hellraiser’s dispatch from the furthest reaches of hell. If you got any closer, you’d be dodging mortar fire. words/ j jackson toth