On paper, it's a tired concept. Get four or five musicians or rock 'n' roll stars who've been gigging under various names with various bands for decades and throw them in a bar band together. Have them play songs from their combined pasts ... and claim that they're not, in fact, a bar band at all.
Such is the case with the Hell Drivers, the ranks of which include the underrated guitarist Jim McCarty (the Detroit Wheels, Cactus, the Rockets, Mystery Train), drummer Johnny "Bee" Badanjek (the Detroit Wheels, Detroit, Alice Cooper, the Rockets, the Howlin' Diablos), bassist Marvin Conrad (Mystery Train) and frontman Jim Edwards (See Dick Run).
McCarty and Badanjek are justifiably celebrated musicians in their own right with a rich and illustrious résumé. It wouldn't be unkind, though, to call them journeymen — both have spent their careers moving from band to band without ever anchoring themselves to one group that went forth to conquer the world, though the Rockets came close. Whether it be the death of the Rockets' singer Dave Gilbert or the mainstream's stubborn refusal to acknowledge Mitch Ryder's Detroit or Cactus, disaster and disappointment have followed this pair around like a fart in spandex pants.
Then there's Jim Edwards, a lifelong Rockets fan who is delighted to be playing with two of his heroes.
"It's absolutely a dream come true for me," says Edwards, with more than a hint of childlike glee. "I worked at a musical equipment store back when I was 19 years old. It was toward the end of the Rockets' career, and they would occasionally come into the store for gear. The Rockets, for me, were always just a great band. When Bob Seger started doing things like Night Moves in the late '70s and softening his approach to songwriting, the Rockets were just the shit, Detroit-wise — a blue-collar, straight-up rock 'n' roll band. I loved them then, and so did all of the kids my age."
Edwards, although younger than his bandmates, has had his own close shaves with success.
"I played with a band called See Dick Run, and we hit it hard from 1988 until around 1996," he recalls, with no small amount of nostalgic joy. "We did all the DIY things that the alternative bands were doing in the '80s and '90s. We got our own tour bus. Started our own label. Put out our own records on vinyl — all of that kind of stuff. That's where I learned rock 'n' roll."
Alas, See Dick Run disappeared into the rock 'n' roll void after eight years of toil.
Back in 2002, Metro Times published a superb retrospective cover story on the Rockets, mostly the life of its singer Gilbert, written by Brian Smith. Badanjek was disappointingly unavailable to be interviewed for that piece — a feature that helped the renewed interest in the band that led to some of its back catalogue being reissued.
Through no fault of his own, Badanjek was also unavailable to speak with us for this feature, due to family illness. McCarty, however, could. The notoriously sedate guitarist, it turned out, was in the mood to talk. And the man Ted Nugent once called "as important as Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Les Paul" is full of praise when talk turns to his new singer.
"We couldn't do this without Jimmy," McCarty says, beaming. "We now have the singer who enables Badanjek and myself to actually do Rockets songs. Down through the years, we've been approached time and again to do a Rockets reunion and I've always been the one to say, 'Thanks, but no thanks.' Gilbert died — what? 15 years ago?"
In fact, there have been rumblings about a Rockets' reunion tour this coming summer, with the Hell Drivers hitting the road and performing nothing but that much-lamented local band's catalog. Nothing has been officially confirmed as of yet, though.
"With Jim, when we do the Rockets songs, it's like he's channelling Gilbert," the guitarist continues. "He gets all the nuances. When we do the Mitch Ryder stuff, it's literally uncanny. Listen to the beginning of [Lou Reed's] 'Rock 'n' Roll' [which Mitch Ryder & Detroit famously covered, bringing a Motor City spin to it, in the early '70s]. I wouldn't be surprised if Jimmy gets a call from Mitch's attorney! That's how close he is. It's just amazing. And it's a conscious thing that he did to pay tribute. When we do the Iggy thing, he gets Iggy's personality. He's tremendous at doing that."
Of course, McCarty is biased. Edwards, while more than a competent blues-rock singer, is no Iggy Pop, Mitch Ryder or Dave Gilbert. But then, the Hell Drivers are a long way from being the Detroit Wheels, the Stooges or the Rockets. Despite their protests, they are a bar band, albeit a damned good one.
Their debut CD, Live From Detroit, includes tunes from all of the aforementioned bands, although their version of the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" should really be forgotten. Much better, of course, are the songs that Badanjek and McCarty originally played on — including the Rockets' "Desire" or Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels' "Jenny Take a Ride."
Right now, though, the Hell Drivers are a very good covers band, even if they are playing actual songs from the members' pasts. According to Edwards though, there are some original songs on the horizon.
"We're starting to add more original material to the set," he says. "It's dynamite stuff too. John Badanjek is one of the most prolific writers I've ever been around. When he said he had hundreds of songs, I thought he was bullshitting. But I went over to his apartment and he has reams of scraps of paper with lyrics. He'll grab a piece of paper that he was working on in 1972."
Perhaps the jury should stay out on the Hell Drivers while they ready their own material. Until then, though, Detroit music fans can hear classic songs connected with this city played by a few musicians who created them. If nothing else, it makes for a good night of drunken sing-alongs.
The whole thing may reek to some of being put out to pasture, although McCarty strongly disagrees. "The band is hot," the guitarist says. "When you hear those songs, one after the other, if you're from this area, there's no way that it can't move you. It's a lot of fun. It's obvious the band is having a ball. The audience can see that and it translates."
Edwards believes that his older band mates are as fired up as he is. "That's what's incredible about it," he says. "I'm the only one with a day job but I have sufficient vacation time that I can take to go on tour. Everyone but me plays for a living."
Considering the tender vintage of some of Edwards' colleagues, though, a writer has to wonder about the level of success that the Hell Drivers can hit.
Edwards considers his words carefully. "With these things, you take it as far as you can."
How far they can go remains to be seen but the combination worked really well when the Hell Drivers supported a sold-out Alice Cooper show here last summer. The most likely scenario, however, is that this band will remain in Detroit, play the bar scene and please fist-pumping punters keen to rock out to songs that they know well, from the albums and radio. Frankly, there's something to be said for a band playing "the hits" in a city hurting for this kind of rock 'n' roll band.
Brett Callwood writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
The Hell Drivers play Friday, March 19, at Callahan's Music Hall, 2105 South Blvd., Auburn Hills; 248-858-9508. The Live in Detroit CD is out now and available at their shows.