Dan Baird is still revving the rock & roll engine

  • "I’m the luckiest guy you’ll ever meet.”
         That’s what Dan Baird has to say about his long life in the service of ass kicking. The rowdy-voiced, telecaster-beating rock & roll torchbearer sits drinking coffee with his feet up on a crate/table in his basement man cave cum recording den, where he did everything but the drums on his new record, SoLow, which dropped Jan. 6 on the JCPL label.
         He sits there with a full head of black hair almost to his shoulders, a face full of character, and a ready smile that reveals the trademark gap in his front teeth. That luck, it’s largely because of that song: “I got a little change in my pocket goin’ jing-a-ling-a-ling.”
         With Malcolm Young and Keith Richards not the men they once were, Dan Baird is arguably the best electric rhythm guitarist in the world. He has the meaty forearms to show for it. He works out at the Y four times a week to keep his chugging rock & roll engine rumbling, and he stands with Ian Hunter and a short list of others to show how men on the back nine can keep it together and still blow people’s minds.
         Being how Baird has stridden resolutely into his seventh decade, some (not all) of the tunes on SoLow confront mortality. He looks on his life in “Say Goodbye,” and how youth is wasted on the young — “Here it comes, another December / Didn’t think it’d still hurt this bad” — he was born in December. “Used to run the streets together, dyin’ laughin’ at the inside joke / Those days were gonna last forever, loud guitars and blowin’ smoke.” In “Get Up & Go,” he sings, “Back when the future was something, I woke up feeling good / Now all them belts and hoses rattle under my hood.”
         The record opens (or rather, kicks open your door) with the automatically infectious, but ominously titled “Cemetery Train.” Driven by a Replacements-ish riff, Baird muses on oncoming dotage. “Hey Mr. Conductor, I got my ticket / Let’s drive it right into the ground / … C’mon baby let’s go singin’ along on the cemetery train!” He sounds more defiant than resigned, exactly like a man who’s stayed in the game even during the lean times, not the least because of how fortune smiled on him some 30 years ago.
         His band The Georgia Satellites rocketed into the stratosphere in 1986, and you couldn’t avoid that song on the radio even if you’d wanted to. Perhaps the last purely rock & roll hit single, “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” was Humble Pie with more horsepower, in heavy FM rotation for months on end because nothing else rocked as well. People in this town and elsewhere slave their lives away trying to write such a hit, and many have words that hiccup as nifty as “no huggy, no kissy, until I get a wedding ring!” But to have such a monster, conditions have to put you in a position to blow up the death star. Once in his life, Dan Baird got the big bullseye. The result has not meant a gated mansion, but he doesn’t have to ring up wipers at AutoZone either.
         There have been many tunes of much merit from the master’s hand since then (“Younger Face” and “I Love You Period” to name only a couple), and a slew of great albums, but no more out-of-the-parks. Anyway. Ancient history. He’s still here, sipping coffee in his basement lair, sucking on the stomach-churning high octane Swedish snus that keep the cigarettes at bay, still very much alive, and still making great rock & roll with Dan Baird & Homemade Sin, which — SoLow notwithstanding — is still very much an ongoing concern.
         SoLow is exactly that: solo. With the exception of Brad Pemberton on drums and Joe Blanton on some backing vocals, it is Dan Baird all by his lonesome. He plays the telecaster in the right channel, the Les Paul Junior in the left, and the bass and lead guitars right down the middle. Some of the songs were intended for Homemade Sin, but were dropped because Baird had written riffs that filled up so much room that there wasn’t space for a second guitar part. It’s a different rock & roll than his usual offerings, but not too different. (As The Boss once said, surprise your fans but don’t freak ’em out.)
         Many riffs harken back more to Paul Westerberg — Baird’s a big fan — or a cranked-up Tom Petty, than they do The Faces or Bad Company. The guitars ring more than roar. And it’s not all doom and gloom; there is a helping of the good time rock & roll he’s known for, such as the rockabilly tinged “Naughty Marie” and The Faces-sounding “Silver Baby.”  But even in the more fun-and-games material, Baird will sneak a line in about how a man ought to make hay while the sun shines because, just maybe, the future’s shorter than the past.
         “Dan has forgotten more about rock & roll than most people have ever learned,” says Warner Hodges, the incendiary guitarist with Jason & the Scorchers who now plays lead guitar in Dan Baird & Homemade Sin. “He’s an amazing guy. He knows more about Marshalls and Hiwatts than any human being I know. And writing songs with him is one of the coolest things that’ve ever happened to me. I’ve always respected his work.”
         Gregarious and loquacious, Baird is a dream interview. Pull his string and sit back. His liner notes are the same way — if liners can be gregarious. He goes on there to explain things in depth: “This thing started out when Homemade Sin was writing and recording Get Loud (their third and most recent album). I got a recording rig and put it in the basement of the house. Got to writing for that record and just writing for the love of it. By the time we’d picked the songs for Get Loud, I had some good songs left over. And I just kept writing.”
         “It’s been years since I was someone’s ‘guitar solo’ player,” he muses. He played that role in Will Hoge’s band for a couple of years about a decade ago, “and I really liked the challenge back then. I also like playing bass.” On all instruments, he acquits himself capitally. He was, however, prudent when it came to his own drumming skills, or lack thereof. “Drums? Nope, not for me, I called Brad Pemberton.”
         Continuing, he says, “I needed backing vocals. Some people sound great singing with themselves, not me. I called Joe Blanton. He said, ‘Sure, and you ought to let me mix it too.’ OK. We recorded the drums at his place, The (Underground) Treehouse.”
         Most of the vocals and guitars were cut in Baird’s basement, and he made a kind concession to his neighbors. Whereas most people use a small low-wattage tube amp that distorts at a lower volume and doesn’t scare the microphone to death, Baird preferred his more powerful amps that performed best at brain-searing volume. So in order to lessen the risk of having the cops called on him, he built a big heavy wooden box that fits over both his amp and the microphone and keeps things from shaking off the shelves at the Kroger three blocks away.
         Blanton, who plays in The Bluefields with Baird and Hodges (it gets a bit incestuous with these guys), figured largely in the recording and writing part of this process. “I wrote some songs with him, and one thing progressed to the next,” Blanton says. “We go back and forth. He mentors me in a lot of things EQ wise, and he has just his vast knowledge and studio experience. … He’s just got tons of information that’s helped me out over the years to be a better engineer and producer and writer. And I’ve got a few things that he was missing, new pieces of the puzzle, and so we just started working together on it that way, me kind of grading his work, and then just kind of ultimately deciding to mix it over here at my place.”
    Daniel John Baird was born in San Diego in December 1953. His father, John Gutzke, was a civilian contractor with the Navy, and when those contracts ran out, the family moved back to the ancestral homelands of Atlanta. When Baird was about 5 years old (and his brother about 2), his mother divorced Gutzke and married Bob Baird. Dan wound up taking Baird for his last name. His brother did not.
         That second marriage tanked when Baird was 11, and then it was just his mother, his brother, and himself. Personalities clashed. (Two things Baird is not are meek and retiring.) To this day, for whatever reason, there are lingering hard feelings between him and his mother. “We’re not tight,” he says. “I have a poor relationship with my mother. Getting a good one with my brother, though, which is good.”
         Baird was 10 years old when The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and the die was cast. “Yeah, that was pretty great,” he recalls, “but I think the first guy I heard that made me go, ‘Wow, I think I can maybe do that,’ is Johnny Rivers. He wasn’t the greatest singer, and he wasn’t the greatest guitar player, but he put together something with a vibe. Was his version of ‘Maybelline’ the best? No, but I remember it.  His version of ‘Memphis?’ Not the best, but I remember it. It had a swing and a slink to it. And he did ‘Secret Agent Man.’ How cool was that? That’s the first lead guitar line I ever learned to play.
         “I think I was 12 when I got my first guitar — for Christmas; a Sears Silvertone gut-string,” he recalls. “I asked for drums, got the guitar. I’m sure that was for the sake of my mom’s sanity. I remember we had a Lowery organ in the house, and I’m not much better on a keyboard now than I was then, but I learned to make chords, and I became fascinated by the power of it. I didn’t have many guitar lessons or anything like that, just ‘show me how you did that’ kind of stuff. I was always going to the music store and hanging out and being a jerk.
         “My first band was The Flying Tigers,” he remembers, “and we did ‘Live With Me’ by the Stones, so later when I got to play with (Stones saxophonist) Bobby Keys, I told him, ‘I don’t need a lyric sheet. Let me just access the rusty file.’  The Flying Tigers were enthralled with The Quicksilver Messenger Service, and wanted to try and be as experimental as The Dead on ‘Dark Star,’ but we couldn’t pull off anything with real power. We were writing our own songs, you know, 15-, 16-year-old guys just trying stuff out, being a bunch of goofballs.”
         There was a string of bands after The Flying Tigers. “Then there was Ted and The Desperate Natives (there was no Ted), and that was cover songs and stuff, but trying to write a few things. Then there was The Nasty Bucks, which was pretty much all original tunes, and that band had some real interesting human beings in it. Then The Rabbits, which was a pop song outfit, and then right around 1980 was the first incarnation of The Satellites, which was called Keith and The Satellites (and there WAS a Keith —bassist extraordinaire and monumental character Keith Christopher).
         The two guitarists, Baird holding down much of the rhythm duties and ace axeman Rick Richards on lead guitar, went through so many permutations of bass players and drummers that even Baird doesn’t know how many there were. (The consensus is roughly three drummers and seven or eight bassists.) “We went through all those incarnations and we kind of split up like bands do. And Rick Price started playing bass with Rick Richards and Mauro Magellan on drums, as The Hellhounds. Then I came and sat in one night and thought ‘This is pretty great. This is kind of where I should be!’”
         The Georgia Satellites were born.
         They signed with Electra Records, and their eponymous debut was a rock & roll gut punch: “Battleship Chains” (written with kindred spirit Terry Anderson), “Can’t Stand the Pain,” and “The Myth of Love” were standout tracks, but it was the Chuck Berry/Humble Pie hybrid — about the lady holding back the goods until vows were exchanged — that was released as the single. Wisely. Whoever made that decision probably got a raise.
         “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” was a huge hit — it went all the way to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 during a 14-week run on the chart. It took The Georgia Satellites from the club circuit to arenas in one giant jolt. It was wonderful. And it was not wonderful.
         “When you’re in a band, everybody’s in the boat, everybody’s got an oar, and you’re all rowing toward success island,” Baird says. “Hopefully you’ve got a manager and a team giving you directions, but it’s you guys in the band doing the rowing. Well, we all got in our boat, grabbed our oars, and all of a sudden somebody dropped a 450 horse power diesel in the back and like whomp — hello, Success Island!
         “Once you get there, and you’ve skipped from step three to like 11 — you’ve totally passed through the ‘grow your audience of loyal fans’ bit, and everything else you learn on those steps you skipped over,” he explains. “When we first came out, we were new and unusual. And all of a sudden when Top 40 radio’s playing us six months later, people thought, ‘Well, they’re not as cool as we thought they were; everybody likes them.’ And then country radio starts picking you up. And you’re going like, what is CMT doing playing this video of a brazen rock & roll song?”
         Differences between the members cropped up. “We had four different definitions of what success was,” Baird says. “Mauro wanted to play every night and get as many drumming endorsements as humanly possible. Rick Price wanted to make enough money where he could build a dragster. Rick Richards just wanted to be a rock & roll star. I wanted the respect of my peers. From that point, us hanging in for two more records was difficult. Because everybody’s definition of what the right thing was, was completely different, and you can’t hold that together.”
         To look at it, they hardly seem to have been deal-breaking differences; but when you’re in a van or a bus with the same three other guys for years on end, little things begin to mean a lot. They cut a sophomore release, Open All Night, that wasn’t nearly as good as the debut, and then came the third, Land of Salvation & Sin, which was a much better record, but by then they’d been kicked off Success Island and the boat was taking on water. Relegated back to the club circuit, the bloom was off the rose, and Baird “fired myself for having a bad attitude.”
         After a semi-successful 1992 solo debut, Love Songs for The Hearing Impaired, came the brilliant but commercially DOA Buffalo Nickel. With enough royalties coming in regularly because of “Keep Your Hands to Yourself,” Baird kicked back and entered into his wilderness years. He settled in Nashville, only carefully dipping his toe back into the music business and completely eschewing the studio/tour merry-go-round. He produced records for The Bottlerockets and Chris Knight, and otherwise bided his time.
         It became evident that there was a market for him in Europe. He began playing shows there, and then came The Yayhoos, with guitarist Eric Ambel from the Del Lords, Keith Christopher on bass, and Terry Anderson on drums. He also took road jobs with Will Hoge and Todd Snider — and more recently as a gunslinger in the late Bobby Keys’ Suffering Bastards.
         Then there was his relationship with the mighty Warner Hodges. Theirs is a guitar marriage made in heaven: Baird scrubbing and crunching a rhythm down low inside the sound and Warner blazing away on top of it all. They’d humped their own bands in the ’80s, sharing management, and being more colleagues than friends. Indeed, there appears to have been a bit of testosterone-fueled “my band rules, your band sucks” sort of nonsense. But time heals all, and a new century made for an increasing mutual respect and affection between the two, a full-blown rapprochement, and in 2005, Dan Baird & Homemade Sin was born. The man with the meatiest guitar tone and loudest throaty snarl in rock & roll was well and truly back in the saddle.
         Baird works constantly now. In his presence you don’t detect the barest whiff of retirement. SoLow is fresh out of the oven and a new Homemade Sin record is slated for an April release. There is a song on SoLow, “Showtime,” where he sings, “Hope we get a good crowd, hope we get to play too loud / … we’ll go till I’m outta breath, or I sweat the old man to death. It’s show time!” And at an age when other men born in 1953 are retiring to Boca, Dan Baird likely has many, many more show times to come.