Tales from the dark side 

Hagerty’s Howling Hex joins the double LP hall of fame

Neil Michael Hagerty
The Howling Hex
Drag City

It’s tough to have compassion for the struggle of a musician who deliberately courted major label backing, but once again Neil Michael Hagerty proves to be an exception. His choices have been hazardously fruitful at most. An original member, with Jon Spencer, of ’80s art-trash-rock band Pussy Galore—bombastic, and with one too many egos—Hagerty immersed himself in his strung-out-sounding side project Royal Trux with girlfriend Jennifer Herrema. Dirty, strange and brilliant, Royal Trux received the bulk of its notoriety from the dual heroin habits that spanned the band’s prolific recording career. Soul mates, you could say, Hagerty and Herrema formed mirror images of each other. Rarely granting interviews, and rarely making sense in the ones they did grant, they finally cleaned up their act in the early ’90s, signing with the Drag City label until Virgin offered a contract in ’95. Maybe it wasn’t apparent to Virgin what Royal Trux was doing, but it was perfectly clear to those who understood the band’s method that they were an unlikely next Nirvana. Royal Trux squeezed out two lukewarm releases, and Virgin bought out their contract for somewhere in the neighborhood of seven figures. With their profits, Neil and Jennifer bought a ranch in rural Virginia, built a studio and returned to the Drag City label from which they had so dankly sprung.

Then, just a few years ago and without warning, Hagerty began releasing solo LPs. In a 2001 interview with sometime Independent writer Marcus Herring, Hagerty also stated that Jennifer, his partner of 15 years, had started using again. Not wanting to retrace those steps, Hagerty moved on. His first LP, simply called Neil Michael Hagerty, revisited the Trux days of Twin Infinitives with a more coherent version of that psych-out weirdo masterpiece. His second release, Plays That Good Old Rock and Roll, saw Hagerty doing exactly that, but not without his usual bent flair.

The Howling Hex, his third and most current release, is on par for the course but offers so much more. The 21-song double LP serves for all intents and purposes as an effective overview of what Hagerty is capable of, as well as part-confessional and part-plea to the wayward love of his life. The majority of the songs on The Howling Hex string together a little story: His lover slipping out the back door to score dope, knowing that they’re starting to lose touch with each other; she splits to follow the habit; he then hashes out old memories, later on inviting her to his performances and hoping she’ll come back. The hex might be obvious, but it’s the back cover picture that sums it up: a shorn Hagerty in a wedding tux jacket, standing in front of a bus station with a confused left-me-at-the-altar look.

So what kind of album is a man able to make under this self-inflicted pressure? Hagerty goes all-out in living up to what a classic double LP has been and should be, with ample diversity and a refreshing absence of filler. His influences have always leaned toward the classic rock-meets-free jazz genre, and that approach is still very much alive on Hex, with plenty of Stones swagger and John Coltrane/Albert Ayler solo attacks. But this time around, Hagerty leaks a lot of soul through a Stax beat that allows him to belt out his nasal rasp like some drunken pimp on tunes like “Firebase Ripcord” (which I nominate as song for the summer of ’03), the hypnotizing “Watching The Sands” and “Fat Street.” There are even three surefire hits: the sunny California sound of “The Brooklyn Battery,” the Nugent-inspired “Car Commercial” and “Out Of Reach”—possibly one of the best tunes Hagerty has ever produced. There are fervid, live re-workings of previous album cuts “Rockslide” and “Creature Catcher” that highlight Hagerty’s brilliantly dysfunctional guitar soloing. A handful of nice backwoods acoustic tunes: “Gray,” “Greasy Saint,” the tangled “Carrier Dog” and the rural “White Sex.” Along with a few typical freak-out rumblings of abrasive sound, Hagerty manages to concoct (and may be one of the few musicians who can get away with) two pieces by a string duo.

The final result is just incredible. Hagerty, being one of the best songwriters of my generation, has his forte and style honed to a recognizable force. He seems so unresponsive to the outside world and so capable of ignoring music trends, it’s as if an alien innocence infects his creativity, without the naïveté. The Howling Hex shapes up as a near-perfect experience.

Critics have their top choices for best double LPs: Exile On Main Street, London Calling, The White Album, Zen Arcade and Double Nickels On the Dime, just to name a few. And I agree wholeheartedly that those titles are some of the greatest releases ever. The problem is that the same critics might fail to see The Howling Hex in a similar light, due to the lack of a Drag City hype machine. So I’ll personally nominate The Howling Hex for the double LP hall of fame. I’ll stand amazed if there’s a better release than this set-in-stone masterpiece this year.

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