Jonee Earthquake is a veteran of the ‘77 wave of punk, a long-time gigger who’s habitually driving straight from late-night shows to early-morning shifts at the post office. His first ’45, the power-pop love letter to record-collecting titled “Black Plastic,” came out in 1979. Since then, Jonee Earthquake sets have amassed a handful of now-classic covers. I gave him a call to hear about his thoughts behind the songs.
Full playlist here.
JEQ: “Fire” I guess was our first cover song. Originally I didn’t want to to do any cover songs, but it became apparent that we probably should. I said, “Well if we’re going to do a cover song I want to totally make it our own, make it almost unrecognizable.” I just decided––well it’s slow, I’ll do it fast. Didn’t really change the chords too much, it just has a totally different feel.
JEQ: I tried to pick things which were roots-oriented, not just popular songs. More or less things people may have heard but didn’t necessarily know.
“16 Tons” is a Merle Travis song from a 1930s album of coal-mining songs. Albums back then were released as a series of 78s glued in the same book. They were like photo albums, a hard cover and a back with a series of little jackets.
The song got popular in the 50s when Tennessee Ernie Ford did a cover that made it to the top 10. The original Merle Travis––unless you’re into folk music––was probably unknown to most people. After that it fell into obscurity again, but I always thought it was a neat song, a song I grew up with.
JEQ: People were saying, “You should do a Ramones song.” I figured I don’t want to do a Ramones song straight like The Ramones do. Everyone else does that.
Unlike “Fire,” I figured “Sedated” is fast, I’ll do it slow. I’m not sure how I ended up putting “White Rabbit” in the middle of it. They’re both drug songs–I guess that was the connection. And since White Rabbit was slow I figured, “Let’s bring this up to punk speed.”
I just wanted to have something that was our own. When people said “Hey! play something from The Ramones.” I could say “Okay,” but then kind of… not. It’s an homage to The Ramones, and to psychedelic music from the ’60s.
SMOKE SMOKE SMOKE
JEQ: Probably our most famous cover is this Merle Travis song, “Smoke Smoke Smoke that Cigarette.” That’s another obscure song. I grew up with it, really comes from 1949. It was a hit for country singer Tex Williams, then several people have done cover versions that didn’t really become hits. Bobby Boris Pickett, the guy who did “The Monster Mash,” did a Boris Karloff version of this song in the mid-60s when he was trying to revive his career.
I felt the original lyrics didn’t relate to kids. There’s a verse in there about a card game, “heavy-petting,” which is obsolete as far as kids are concerned. I had to totally update the lyrics, but keep it along the same lines. I changed the country-feel to rockabilly.
ROWDY BEER DRINKIN’ NIGHT
JEQ: GG Allin did this song on his solo album, which is also called his country album–just him and an acoustic guitar. We played with his long-time back-up band The Murder Junkies and they did a more rock-and-roll, country-rock version of the song. I modeled our version closer to theirs than the solo version that GG did.
JEQ: This was a song off the first GG Allin and the Jabbers album. We did this for a GG tribute. Again I didn’t want to just copy their song and make a crappier version of the original. I changed the chord progression and made it more like a sea-shanty, playing in a minor key whereas the original is major. The lyrics are pretty much GG’s and the music is pretty much mine.
Back when we started we did three or four shows where we opened up for GG. This was all back when it was GG Allin and the Jabbers. I think one was in Boston, the others were local in NH.
S&F: Any particularly crazy things happen at those shows?
Compared to the latter shows… no. They were outrageous for the time and he usually always managed to get the shows shut down. But it was so mild compared to what people know, what they’ve seen on videotape from the latter shows. He used to get shut down just for pretending to jerk off with a beer bottle, which was considered obscene back then in ’79. Later on he would do the real thing.
S&F: And you knew him a bit right?
JEQ: He lived in Manchester and we used to hang out. Me and the guitarist Robby worked together at a cable factory so every lunch we’d talk about music and our careers. And our bass player, Jeff, worked with the bass player for The Jabbers. Rob and GG would come over after work and play records.
GG would give me advice about DIY. We were doing things totally the wrong way because we just didn’t know. We would go into bars and say “Hey you should hire us” and we were constantly told “you’ll never work here again.” He would say just put on your own show, rent a hall. You don’t have to go to those places because those places will never get it.
S&F: As his shows were getting crazier and crazier do you remember what your take on that was personally? Did you feel worried or like he was making the right decision?
JEQ: Well for GG… I think he always wanted to be famous. I think he achieved it in some way. He didn’t become U2 famous but he did at least get his obituary in Rolling Stone. That’s not the same as being on the Rolling Stone cover but I think that was important to him–not necessarily Rolling Stone, but to become famous for being a rebel.
I do recall when he announced he was going to kill himself on stage at a show in New York–we were seriously thinking, “Well should we go or shouldn’t we go?” It’s a heavy thing to think about–a friend of yours is going to commit suicide… do you want to see that or not? And he also threatened to take out some members of the audience. So it was like, “Is this worth it?”
But a GG Allin show was like an event, you always went.
S&F: Knowing him from the earlier days did it make sense what he turned into?
JEQ: Well.. having known GG from the beginning things happened gradually. What might have put him over the edge was his going to jail. I never physically saw him after he went to jail but friends who did said “He’s not the same guy.” So if I had seen him I don’t know if he would have been the same, whether he’d have been friendly to me or if I showed up in an audience if he would have attacked me.
I know GG wanted fame and I think he was okay with biting the bullet if it gave him fame, so I guess I can only be happy that he got what he wanted.
S&F: You’ve never struck me as someone who needs or wants to be famous–did you ever?
JEQ: Well–we’d send our recordings to record labels and stuff because it’s a nice job if you can get it. But I never visioned myself as being what they want. They want somebody that’s good-looking… I’ve never really felt that I fit the bill of the average pop-star. It’s more that I enjoy music and want to play music. To me it doesn’t matter, not becoming famous. It’s such a small percentage of people who get to be famous anyway… should they be the only ones that get to enjoy music?
S&F: I know there’s at least one CD out of bands covering your songs…
JEQ: I’m honored that Pete Walsh of The Gobshites did that. He produced the album, got the bands together, did the recordings.
My personal favorite is Fiona, who is my great-godchild performed with an instrumental surf-band called The Mosquitoes. They did a song off my green album Tongue in Check called
I CAN’T SLEEP AT NIGHT
S&F: Did you say great-god-child?
JEQ: Gretchen from The Knock-Ups is my god-child and Fiona is her kid. Fiona was maybe about 9 years old when she did this recording. It’s wholly inappropriate for a 9 year old girl to sing but she chose that song. It kind of comes full-circle because Gretchen herself when she was 9 years old sang a duet with me on the green album.