Kieran McGee has been through some serious shit. Consider: he was born weighing 2 pounds, 3 ounces; he made his live debut, solo acoustic, at the age of 15, in front of several hundred people on the main street of Helena, AR, during the Helena Blues Festival; as a journalist, he chased the trail of a band called Penny Arcade and found that, like many casualties of the Strip in the late 60s, their legacy includes ominous episodes involving Manson, Beausoleil, Terry Melcher (and Mike Nesmith!); he started writing what will be his next record locked away in a psych ward, the result of what he calls "a four-month K hole" that followed a girlfriend's fatal overdose; he's hungover at the moment?and this kid won't even be 21 until July.
Consider also his musical pedigree. Kieran's father is David McGee, a respected music journalist and the author of Go Cat Go: The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, The King of Rockabilly; his musically inclined mother is currently married to Art Collins, who manages Kieran as well as Iggy Pop. On a recent Tuesday evening at the Living Room, McGee played guitar, piano, mandolin and harmonica, exuding rawboned cool and a snakebitten sweetness as he sang. Accompanied for a few numbers by Dobro demon Jeremiah Lockwood, these two young fellers infused Kieran's songs with more roots-rock savoir faire than a whole Silver Eagle full of Black Crowes.
McGee's been called a "prodigy" and such. I just call him the real thing. We sat down at Stingy Lulu's and shot the shit.
You were reading French Symbolist poets at 14? Where did that come from? Patti Smith didn't even read that stuff until she was outta high school.
I don't know why that happened. I just stumbled onto Rimbaud.
Through a teacher?
No, I didn't do that good in school. I basically slept my way through high school. I just was really into reading and going into bookstores and reading the books there. I stumbled onto that and this guy Lautréamont who wrote this book Maldoror and I don't know...something happened, I just went nuts over it and read those books constantly.
Maybe it was a bad thing, reading it that young, after what happened to Rimbaud. He was around the same age that I was when I was reading him when he was writing all that stuff.
In Latin, no less. You started out playing a toy drum kit, then banged on your mother's piano, and then moved to slide guitar because your fingers were too small to play chords, right?
My dad had this really tiny travel guitar that one of the guys from ZZ Top gave him for me to play.
They were called Chiquitas.
A Chiquita, yeah. It was a yellow Chiquita. I could play that but I couldn't play the acoustic. I couldn't get my hands around it, so I just played the slide 'cause I realized how cool it sounded. I was really into blues 'cause around the time I started playing drums my father gave me this Robert Johnson cassette. And even though I was into hair metal at the time, I still loved Robert Johnson's riffs. And from that I got into Woody Guthrie.
Your dad writes for Rolling Stone?
Yeah, he did, when it used to be good. I don't read it anymore. I don't even look at it for girlie pictures.
You need to whomp into that cheeseburger now.
It's damn good, too.
You seem to be one of those guys that just loves music so much that you've got an insatiable curiosity about instruments, a la Brian Jones. Is that true?
I wouldn't say that I really excel at any of the instruments that I play. I realized, especially when I started producing my own music, that I'm really interested in combining instruments that aren't usually put together for different sounds. I really like Phil Spector for that. And Brian Wilson.
How'd it happen that you record all your albums at Sun?
The guy who managed the studio back then, Mark Bell, he knew my dad and heard the recordings that I made and said he'd do it on spec, which meant I wouldn't have to pay for it. I mean it's Sun Studios, you know?
Are there ghosts in there?
Yeah, it was total magic. 'Cause last time when I recorded with Cody and Luther [Dickinson], the [North Mississippi] All Stars, we had met like the day before and they hadn't heard any of my music, had no idea what I was about, really. But then we went in there and everything happened at once. Yeah, it was definitely something you remember.
(Break, while the poor kid finishes his cheeseburger and mashed potatoes.)
So, to recap, you won't be seeing Spinmeister Mac-Gee on the ones-and-twos anytime soon. How'd you hook up with the Dickinsons?
Jim Marshall, who owns Lakeside Lounge?I was playing there a lot before I recorded the [Ash Wednesday] album?he told me when I was in Memphis that I should hook up with them. So I called them and we had a milkshake and went in the next day and recorded the album. I hung out with them for a couple days afterwards. They live in a double-wide trailer and get moonshine from Othar Turner. You probably shouldn't print that. Moonshine's illegal.
I doubt any law enforcement personnel in Mississippi will read this. You played in punk bands as well...
We'd go to talent shows upstate and get beat up...
(A woman at the big table behind us cackles like she's re-creating the intro to "Wipe Out." Words on the tape are of inadequate force to withstand her onslaught. Pity. A server approaches).
Yes'm, I'd like another Corona.
Oh, you can smoke in here? That's the best news I've heard all day.
Kieran McGee appears every Tuesday in May, 7 p.m., at the Living Room, 84 Stanton St. (Allen St.), 533-7235. Ash Wednesday, featuring Lockwood and the Dickinsons, is Kieran McGee's latest album. For CDs, records, cartridge tapes and more info visit kmcgee.com.