SHOENFELT FOREVER: “Live in Prague!” with Tichá Dohoda

By Thor Garcia

Phil Shoenfelt with Tichá Dohoda
“Live in Prague!”
Produced by Daniel Šustr
Humbug (1995)
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PRAGUE (CNS)—This was a pivotal record for Shoenfelt—one in which he both summed up his work of the previous five years and set a course for the future. It’s a rugged, robust, unvarnished time capsule that stands as a testament to Shoenfelt’s commitment to his craft—and to his nightmares.

Shoenfelt, after enduring a few too many near-death experiences as an addict in New York, beat a retreat to England in 1984. He sobered up somewhat, but before long, the strolls on the wild side returned with a vengeance.

It wouldn’t be until August 1988 that Shoenfelt finally kicked heroin. The step launched him on a songwriting tear and led to the recording of two timeless albums: 1990’s Backwoods Crucifixion and God Is The Other Face of the Devil, released in 1993.

These two spellbinding records, notable for their no-frills approach and the depth of Shoenfelt’s storytelling, marked a clean break with the frenetic New Wave of Shoenfelt’s New York/London band, Khmer Rouge (self-declared slogan: “Liberation Through Militant Rhythms”). Khmer Rouge persisted from 1981–1986—some of those years achingly close to a major-label breakthrough, according to witnesses—before drug mania, paranoia and chronic bouts of flaky behavior finally nixed the project for good.

The gulf between Khmer Rouge’s “Situationist” agitprop synth-disco and the punishingly sincere, and frequently severe, Shoenfelt of the subsequent solo records is nearly unbridgeable. Surrounded by the wreckage of a failed band, divorce and addiction, Shoenfelt elected to go elemental—to embrace his destiny as a warrior-poet who preys on the dark forces that drive ordinary men to betrayal and depression, to madness and murder, to apocalyptic showdowns with fate.

Shoenfelt

On those first early records, Shoenfelt established a style uniquely his own, musically and thematically, and that he has generally remained faithful to across the following decades. It’s a style that weaves together aspects of the junkie confessional, the murder ballad, mythical netherworlds and the coffeehouse hootenanny. It’s a style that enables Shoenfelt to persuasively strafe the world with gothic lightning and thunder, cinematic Spaghetti Western atmosphere, and stentorian, man-in-black, voice-of-god revelation. It’s style that gives him the freedom to let loose with a bitter blues, suicidal dirge or chugging alt-rocker. His refusal to bow to trends of any kind, sonically or politically, grants his work an ageless, enduring quality, as if it has come from nowhere but has always existed.

In the 1990s, Shoenfelt’s fortunes were improving indeed. In London, he was lucky enough to acquire a Czech girlfriend and, beginning in 1991, he began making occasional visits to Prague. During some of those trips, he left his albums with deejays at Radio One. Sure enough, he began to get airplay.

Shoenfelt’s tormented-soul themes and stripped-down sound were in stark contrast to the cynical grunge, pappy Britpop and glossy chick rock that suffocated the era. Shoenfelt’s perspective appealed to Czechs who felt unease about the smothering post-communist “democracy and free markets” delirium, who sensed a dodgy, hypocritical side to the happy talk of the EU and NATO bandits that were rapidly transforming the country into an occupied outpost of the Western monocultural regime. Shoenfelt appeared to be a gimmick-free, genuine alternative to the authoritarian, money-is-your-only-master outlook promoted nonstop by the quislings and quacks of the mainstream.

When 1994 rolled around, Shoenfelt had become well enough known on the Czech scene that semi-famous rock outfit Tichá Dohoda (Silent Agreement in Czech) was ready to do a tour. After a couple days of rehearsals and low-key gigs, “Live in Prague!” was recorded at the legendary Bunkr Klub on August 3, 1994.

Tichá Dohoda, which had formed in 1986, was taut and well-oiled, perfectly primed to set Shoenfelt’s songs ablaze. Daniel Šustr (who also produced the album) played electric and acoustic guitars and piano. Pavel Krtouš was on bass and Jarda Kvasnička played drums.

Shoenfelt, already in his early 40s, would move to Prague permanently in 1995 and start a new band, Southern Cross, with Krtouš and Kvasnička as founding members. The Blue Highway album was recorded in 1997, and four other albums and scores of live shows and tours have followed. Krtouš and Kvasnička have been holding down the rhythm section in Southern Cross for around 25 years now.

1) GARDEN OF EDEN—The band hits the gate at full speed with this electrifying version of Backwoods Crucifixion’s opening track, one of Shoenfelt’s greatest songs. Dancing colors all around / I lost my head in a web of sound / Now I don't know what to do / Like Kubla Khan in Xanadu, Shoenfelt growls in the first stanza. The mystery and tension build until the ecstatic breakthrough: And I walked right in / I walked right in / I walked right in / I said I walked right in / Into the Garden of Eden. Daniel Šustr’s blistering lead guitar lends a lethal edge to the proceedings. This is an exceptional track in the Shoenfelt canon, a cut that is both defiant and essentially optimistic, musically and lyrically—weighed down though it may be with vague, unnameable foreboding.

2) HATEFUL HEART—This track, another from Backwoods Crucifixion, spotlights the unflinchingly honest Shoenfelt, a tale of a narrator torn by resentment and guilt as hopelessness and addiction overtake him. The darting, eerie guitar riff seems to mirror the obsessive, circular logic that might drive a man to despair and the doom of drug abuse. The tune also features a lyrical reference to “ringing bells,” which, alongside candles and rain, are motifs invoked by Shoenfelt on multiple songs. Like a stranger asleep in the shadows / I've been runnin’ like Abraham’s son, Shoenfelt sings as the band steadily builds the suspense. I can feel that sword right over my head / I've been runnin' till the Kingdom comes / And I look for the eyes of some angel / To deliver me from myself / But the angel I need / She rides a white horse / Right through the gates of Hell

3) CHARLOTTE’S ROOM—Tichá Dohoda pour jet fuel all over this track, the opener to God is the Other Face of the Devil, blasting it into the realm of pulsing alt-rock. Welcome to Charlotte’s Room, where everyone goes to give up and die. Voices echo in her trance, sings Shoenfelt, And twisted strangers dance / Between the shadows / In her eyes / And every day / She fades away. Death, close and certain, has long been Shoenfelt’s favored muse, in this case represented by Charlotte, who’s nearly all the way there. You can enter Charlotte’s Room, but you probably won’t be coming out. Lay the cards / Upon the floor / She can’t see you anymore / Now she's gone so far away / Her mother weeps / She never sleeps / She just stares into the moon.

4) HOSPITAL—This elegant tune from God is the Other Face of the Devil is deceptively life-affirming. In truth, Shoenfelt is disgusted to the point of splenetic irony over the whole sad panorama of not knowing where he is or what the hell’s going on anymore. The whores and the junkies and the winos / Are all down on Park Avenue South / Oh my dear—it's a brand new year / And I just can't remember / The words or the feelings / Ah my dear—it's a brand new year. Well, and everyone is just slipping away. This is a very satisfying shard of bleak Shoenfelt grimness. Tichá Dohoda rise to the occasion, making the tune’s slow ride into nothingness pleasant and effortless. Some kind of darkness / Feeds my soul / But what it is—I just can't say / All I feel is emptiness / As you slip away.

5) WELL OF SOULS—This tune finds the narrator plunging into a pit of self-loathing and fatalism as he attempts to confront his failures and weakness. Spanish-style guitars and an anxiety-producing tempo accentuate the mournful desperation of this track from God is the Other Face of the Devil. Shoenfelt confesses: Then I crawled back to my dungeon / My jailer's arms were open wide / As I hit the ground my head was reeling / My sins were envy, jealousy and pride. The desolation becomes complete as he begs for relief, admitting all had been for naught: Oh sweet Mother of Mercy / Do not desert this Well of Souls / And for myself, I am no stranger to these terms / Gone is the fire that I stole.

6) MARTHA’S WELL—Shoenfelt and Tichá Dohoda deliver a transcendent version of this standout track from God Is the Other Face of the Devil, which also happens to be one of Shoenfelt’s finest songs. In this case, our narrator is reaching out to Martha to rescue him from a wretched, wasted life. Ah, if only it was so easy. When I look into your eyes my pretty one / I can see the battle's just begun / There’s poison flowin’ through my veins / And bitterness cloudin’ my brain / Lord, won’t you take these dreams away. Šustr’s rising and falling piano suggests the narrator is sincere but hopeless, on a rollercoaster of destruction. Shoenfelt is forced to conclude, from deep within this slough of despond: “Have mercy on me.”

7) THE KILLER INSIDE—This tune from God Is the Other Face of the Devil was inspired by 1952’s The Killer Inside Me, by U.S. pulp novelist Jim Thompson. “I have no affinity for this character,” Shoenfelt informs the crowd, not entirely convincingly. “I was just very interested in the psychology of ‘the killer inside.’” It’s a sprawling, chilling and fantastic song that showcases Shoenfelt’s ability to tell a story in a musically dynamic, rocking fashion. He looked down at the cage of her body / All covered in skin / He said, “I know a way / That I could set you free / Lie down and relax, close your eyes / An' let me come in” / Then he cut his way in. Apparently, guys like this psycho sheriff slaughter the ladies because they’re “scum-sucking whores.” And we’ve got those ringing bells again: Then the police came / And they broke down the door / They said, “Hey son, what did you do that thing for?” / He said, "The church bells were ringin’ / They were way out of tune / I was stuck in this bottomless pit / With a scum-suckin’ whore / She was just a scum-suckin' whore.”

8) PALE LIGHT SHINING—Shoenfelt’s claim not to have an “affinity” for killers suddenly rings a little hollow: Here he is with his second song in a row about such folks. This tune, the final track on God Is the Other Face of the Devil, bounces along at a jaunty, country-rock pace. Shoenfelt’s tale is of a murderer who enjoys his killing—and who’s eagerly anticipating his execution, believing that death will be an escape “into light” and “set me free.” And I stood behind the curtain / Between this world and the next / I thought I was beyond all Good and Evil / Well, I was cursed, yeah, but I was blessed / And I chose my victim / I let murder fill my soul / I laughed as I pulled the trigger / And I watched as his blood ran cold.

9) DEVIL’S HOLE—This irresistible rocker, which kicks off Side 2 of Backwoods Crucifixion, marks Shoenfelt’s third consecutive song in this show about a murderer (so much for “no affinity,” eh?). The excellent tune features a lengthy, spine-tingling crescendo at the climax. The narrator explains that his lady has run off with his best friend: I told this story to my woman / Last thing I heard she was on the run / With my best friend who was discovered / Shot through the head with his own gun. It turns out that this is another confession from the grave. One can hear the voiceover as the camera slowly pans to capture the moment: I saw them standin' by the river / A crowd of people ‘round the Hangin’ Tree / And that Laughin’ Boy, he was fairly swingin’ / He looked a lot like me.

10) THE GAMBLER—The second part of the show kicks off with a Shoenfelt acoustic version of this anguished ballad from God Is the Other Face of the Devil. Our narrator reports: I can’t forget all the sin that I done. Forgetting and sinning are two things, but raising the courage to do away with yourself is another thing altogether. I poisoned my life / Ran poison through my veins / And I pray to Jesus, Son of Heaven / To deliver up my soul / I been livin’ too long / In the Devil's ragged hole. Lacking guts, this fellow tries to weasel out by calling himself a “gamblin’ man” who’s brave enough to play a little Russian Roulette down by the river: But I'll take my chances / I put a gun against my head / Yeah, I'll take my chances / Play a little Russian Roulette / With my life / My empty wasted twisted useless stinking life. How many rounds will he play? What does he get if he wins? Well, it don’t matter much. By the end of this dirge, we’re pretty sure he’ll lose this game just he lost all the others: Take me down to the river / Put a gun in my hand / Take me down to the river / I'm a gamblin' man.

11) LETTER FROM BERLIN—This is another Shoenfelt rarity: a tune that’s almost romantic, if not quite a love song. Shoenfelt, again playing solo on the acoustic guitar, delivers a trenchant ode to “being there” for a hopeless someone who’s “working hard on your disasters” but who’s “eyes still shine with an inner light”: And I know you've thought of suicide / When your heart was breaking with despair / Your friends are dead, or dying, or insane / Sometimes it's too much for you to bear. As in his other songs, Shoenfelt declines to cast judgment on his characters, instead letting them speak for themselves. And that crooked moon is shining in the sky / You say your life is like a dream that’s passed you by / When the cruel sun is out of sight / I’ll walk you home again tonight. Excellent versions of this sweet tune would go on to appear on 1999’s Dead Letters for Alice and 2008’s Live at the House of Sin (with Pavel Cingl).

12) THE PASSENGER—Shoenfelt and Tichá Dohoda stride confidently into this anthem from Iggy Pop’s 1977 Lust for Life album, written by Pop and Ricky Gardiner (David Bowie’s guitarist on the Low album). At first glance, the song seems to embody the free-spirited hobo ethos of catching a ride and drinking in the sights (the "silent hollow sky," the "city's ripped backsides," the "winding ocean drives"). On closer examination, however, it becomes clear everything's taking place behind a screen. The Passenger is locked in: I stay under glass / I look through my window so bright. Is the Passenger a prisoner? Has he been kidnapped and is being driven to his execution? Even better, is he talking about TV? Get into the car, go the lyrics, to which the Passenger replies: We'll be the passenger / We'll ride through the city tonight. Has someone ordered the Passenger into the car? Well, it can't be excluded. The Passenger concludes near the end of the tune: So let's take a ride and see what's mine. It seems he'll just have to accept his fate—buy the ticket, take the ride—and find out what's coming to him. The song's driving energy and puzzling, somewhat sinister lyrics make this tune a fine fit for Shoenfelt and crew.

13) MARIANNE, I’M FALLING—This acoustic version by Shoenfelt lacks the marvelous gothic, spooky horror film vibe of the studio version, which appears on Backwoods Crucifixion. The tune is a love story of sorts, in which two people appear to be suffering a mutual, simultaneous collapse. In the darkness of her room, Shoenfelt explains about Marianne, She reaches for a spoon / She feeds her body dreams enough to spare / Her eyes reflect the morning light / Death was an oversight / Life was a cross she had to bear. But it seems the narrator’s plea for support will go unanswered—Marianne is no longer there, not even for herself: Oh Marianne, I’m falling / Oh Marianne, I’m falling. Yes, things seem very dismal. It seems that no one is there—if they ever were.

14) ROADHOUSE BLUES—Shoenfelt and Tichá Dohoda are up to the challenge of this hoary, incendiary classic, leaving the Bunkr crowd begging for more. When it comes to the punchline, Shoenfelt growls: The future’s uncertain, and the past is always near. Well, hold on. In the Doors’ original, Morrison sings: The future's uncertain, and the end is always near. Shoenfelt’s choice is apropos, however. In his case, at least, to judge from his earliest albums, the painful past was so close it was barely the past at all.


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Thor Garcia
Reporting on the news with Thor Garcia, journalist and author of THE NEWS CLOWN, ONLY FOOLS DIE OF HEARTBREAK, and TUND.
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