Days before hitting the road, the Lazy Cowgirls are singing the pre-tour blues. The T-shirts aren't printed up. Drummer Bob Deagle has fallen off a ladder and cracked three ribs. The Cowgirls' online tour itinerary (lazycowgirls.com) still reads "Minneapolis/St. Paul TBA" after weeks of phone calls to local venues. They eventually land a gig on April 11 with the help of Twin Cities pals the Dirty Robbers, but that date is tentative when I speak to the band over the phone. From Los Angeles, lead singer-songwriter Pat Todd sighs, "I'm too old for this shit."
Perish the thought. The Cowgirls are more enthusiastic in their pursuit of what Todd calls "gritty music, human music" than most punk bands half their age (which most punk bands are these days). The band's live shows are genuinely energizing, fueled by the compact and follicularly-challenged Todd, who bounces off speaker cabinets, drum risers, bassist Leonard Kerriger, and anything else nearby during his frenzied odes to the commonplace. Stagnant love affairs, backstabbing acquaintances, and go-nowhere day jobs take on a pissy dignity when set to the sped-up Chuck Berry riffs of guitarist Mike Leigh or belted in Todd's torn-up howl. That voice isn't all gravel: Todd can sing a Ronettes cover or Gogi Grant's "The Wayward Wind" and not make them sound like campy Killdozer outtakes.
If these covers don't carry the cachet of the Can songbook, that probably doesn't bother this band too much. After 18 years the Lazy Cowgirls are still indifferent to fashion. "I think people should come to terms with getting older," Todd says. "I happen to be a gigantic Rolling Stones fan, and I think one of the worst things about them is that they try to be contemporary, to be popular, to be 'now.' I always thought that was a silly idea, even when I was a teenager."
Having spent an adolescence together in rural Indiana, Todd, original guitarist Doug Phillips (a.k.a. D.D. Weekday), drummer Allen Clark, and bassist Keith Telighman formed the Lazy Cowgirls in Los Angeles in 1983. With a name that brought to mind some all-female Western outfit, the band spent the next two years playing their nonpurist Stooges skank to "no one, and people from work," according to Todd. They at least found a fan in Chris D., frontman/poet for the Flesh Eaters and the Divine Horseman, who produced the Cowgirls' self-titled debut in 1985 for Restless Records. The sound was too tidy and flat, maybe, but there was energy bubbling underneath the cleanliness. "Work" and "Drugs" had a keenly observed gallows humor, and Phillips's riffing worked the MC5-13th Floor Elevators sound. Still, most folks not yet privy to the band's full-bore live show (this writer included) dismissed the LP as "pretty good" and didn't think of it much again. Restless dropped them soon afterward.
Rock journalist-impresario Greg Shaw was impressed enough with the Cowgirls' mania to put out 1987's Tapping the Source on his Bomp! imprint, unleashing what is perhaps their definitive recording. The opening line of "Can't You Do Anything Right?" sets the tone: "Do I have to draw you pictures?/Do I have to show you how it's done?" What follows is a pants-on-fire demonstration of how roots-rock should be done. Where the Ramones loved bubblegum and the early Saints loved Stax/Volt, the Cowgirls nurtured a yen for honky-tonk and Fifties R&B that now manifested itself in covers of Don & Dewey's "Justine" and Jim Reeves's "Heartache." The lyrics on the band's originals were slices of life gone sour--paeans to relationships that never quite conclude ("Reoccurring Thang") and swipes at their adopted hometown ("Bullshit Summer Song"), while the performances delivered a rawness that their debut had only suggested.
Coupled with a hyperkinetic live show, Tapping the Source set a minilegend in motion for the next couple of years. The band inaugurated the fledgling Sympathy for the Record Industry imprint with 1988's Radio Cowgirl, an amazing live recording at a Santa Barbara radio station. Another LP on Sympathy followed, How It Looks: How It Is in 1990.
The rhythm section split shortly thereafter, and at least two rock reference books of the period pronounced the Lazy Cowgirls defunct. They weren't dead, but the next four years weren't easy. Phillips and Todd survived on live gigs and a handful of recordings amid day jobs and frequent lineup changes and another release.
Ten years and nearly 600 releases after putting out the Lazy Cowgirls' first record, Sympathy for the Record Industry re-signed the band with a new lineup last year, including guitarist Michael Leigh. (Phillips left in the dark years and hasn't been heard from since.) The band has since released two albums (and three singles) in the past six months--late 1999's Rank Outsider, and the forthcoming Somewhere Down the Line, with two more albums' worth of songs ready to go. Todd says this late spurt of productivity is a result of a lineup that actually enjoys hanging out together off the clock.
With Leigh around, the band is crunching into slower Stones-style blues numbers and more overt country twangers to leaven their usual program of thrashers. And the lyrics seem to be taking on more, not less, urgency as band members advance through middle age. "The end will come sooner than you think/No time to bitch or even blink," growls Todd on Rank Outsider's "Sylvia." "This might be your only chance!"
If the long, twisted history of the Lazy Cowgirls is any indication, don't bet on it.