Monday, January 23, 2017

All That's Left Is a Song - Remembering Karl Hendricks

Karl Hendricks - beloved Pittsburgh musician, former record store owner, teacher, author, family man - passed away this past Saturday, after a long battle with oral cancer. He has suffered a long time and I'm glad he won't suffer any longer. But still, it hurts knowing that he's not around.

He leaves behind a devoted wife and two daughters. And legions of friends. Legions, who rallied together to help pay his medical expenses a few years ago. And of course there were the Karl Hendricks Trio fans, who were moved by the poignancy and wit of his lyrics, as well as the visceral crunch of his guitar. I'd like to think I was in both categories.

In the summer of 1989, I was finally working as DJ at WPTS-FM, the University of Pittsburgh's radio station, doing a jazz overnight shift. Karl also did an overnight, I think on the evening before me (I did Wednesday night/Thursday morning, so he must've done Tuesday/Wednesday). He also did the 11:00pm-1:00 am shift before I came on. I'm not sure if that's where we met officially or not. But I do remember, in addition to new bands like Buffalo Tom, he'd thrown in things like Tom Waits' melancholy "Nobody" towards the very end of his shift, which made a great segue into my show. I also remember him bringing up Joe Grushecky's newest album at the time, because his mom was a Gruschecky fan and he wanted to play it for her. I immediately respected a guy who was was cool enough to buck the usual indie rock format to send one out to Mom.

There was also a promotional breaker he did for his show that I practically remember, which even Karl forgot about when I brought it up years later. In person, he was normally soft-spoken and understated, at least with people like me who were like acquaintances. In the breaker, he poured on the radio charm and the comedy. He started off by saying he gets a lot of letters at the station from people asking him what he is really like. "My life is a lone-ly, puss-spewing pit of existence. In FACT," he went to to explain, his voice cracking on that last word, the only time our poor DJ felt happy was when he was playing music on WPTS. With that, a song cued up, which I'm pretty sure was Husker Du. And he breathed a big sigh of bliss.

I found the whole thing both funny and sad, wondering if there was a grain of truth in that promo. (Of course I always felt bad when cartoon characters got sad, so what do I know?) But mostly, I thought, "What a ham."

Around that time, I noticed a cassette on the music director's desk: Jolly Doom by Karl himself. One day when the production studio was free, I popped it in, and I was blown away. He played overdriven guitar, wrote catchy songs and sang sensitive lyrics that were also deep and funny. One song started with a long spoken intro that was a lot goofier than people would later expect from him. "Mom Interrupts" was actually a Husker Du-ish take on "The Times They Are a-Changing" (sans bass and drums) that came to a halt when his mother walked in on his recording session. And she wasn't there to tell him to turn down. As the tape was shutting off, she said, "No, that's ok. Keep going." "All That's Left" (which gives up the title of this entry) was a kiss-off song in which this mellow kid from Port Vue finished things by screaming his head off, like he was being crucified. And he double-tracked it, if I recall correctly. Forget all those generic hardcore bands, this was real! Great songs and another shout-out to Mom. I loved this guy. I wanted to be in a band with him, even though I already had my own band.

I got in the habit of drunk-dialing Karl on his overnight, talking about music as he played songs. We were both really into Slovenly's We Shoot for the Moon which had just come out. Somewhere along the way, I asked if he'd like me to play drums with him. I was a bassist most of the time, but instrument-switching in my band made me fluent enough behind the kit. He liked the idea and we got together a few times at my practice space. Before the summer was over, we played a show at the Sonic Temple, a short-lived venue in Wilkinsburg. Actually, Karl played half the set by himself and I joined him on the rest. Two of the songs ended up on his second cassette, Where the Dogs Run Free, although you can't really hear my drums on either of them. For a cover of Prince's "Starfish and Coffee," we kicked on a Casio drum machine and I moved to bass.

Our music relationship was fleeting though. We got together in the fall with his friend Ian Williams, with whom he'd been collaborating for a while. Ian would later drum in the band Sludgehammer with Karl, but at this point he was playing bass. I was a stick in the mud about those tempo shifts they were into. Those two might've been okay feeling a two and a half beat rest, but ol' man Shanley wanted to count up to four. Plus it was clear that I couldn't sustain the proto-hardcore tempos they were crafting. Oh well, I needed to focus on one band, as well as a schedule that wouldn't kill my health. (I was still doing an overnight and going to class the next morning after a two-hour nap on the floor at WPTS. And feeling sick every few weeks.)

The last night we ever played together was on January 27, 1990. I know the date because it was the double release show for Bone of Contention's 48 Points of View album and Karl's Where the Dogs Run Free tape. Among the memorable Karl moments of the evening, I convinced him to sing "Honeysuckle Rose" with only a drum accompaniment. I think it was the first song he ever sang in public, at a school recital. He started to introduce the song by saying, "So you're probably thinking, 'Karl, why did you wear a tie tonight?'" And he went into the anecdotal story about singing the song.

Right as he was ready to count it off, I whispered to him, "Karl! You never explained why you're wearing the tie!"

"Oh yeah! The tie! Well, this was the same time I wore the night I sang that song for the first time."

With that, we launched into it and I'll tell you what, with just my clunky beat behind him, he sounded great. And I think of him anytime I hear that song.

Thanks, Karl. For everything.

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