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Knocking Harder

It's October and the Paybacks are on stage, blowing half drunkenly through a rattle-tat set of should-be hits and the occasional miss with the aplomb of a major rock 'n' roll band. There are a hundred true believers crammed to the front of the small stage. We're at the Blind Pig, a rock 'n' roll venue in the heart of Ann Arbor, Michigan, a moneyed college town where the Stooges and the MC5 once rode shotgun.

The assembled is as disparate as you might find in a downtown old-man bar filled with grizzled regulars and slumming suburban hipsters: Neo glitter chicks and beer-bellied gray-hairs, lawyer types and spliff-addled Ann Arbor hippies, tatted metal heads and mass-produced college kids with skin so perfect you can picture them populating Real World audition lines. An elated, roly-poly black woman mouths the lyrics to "Just You Wait," her head rotating like a sunflower in wind. There's a biker presence.

Understand that this is a Paybacks show, one filled with people of all sizes, ages and shapes. How such factions hear about the band is anyone's guess. Up to now, their draw's been strictly been word-of-mouth—hard-won street buzz—generated by the band's incessant, eatshit touring schedule that finds them playing every Podunk piss-hole between Portlands.

After two thinly budgeted but throat-throttling albums on indie Get Hip (Knock Loud and Harder and Harder), the mainstream press has, finally, caught Payback wind; Rolling Stone and Spin have given the band much-deserved, if not belated, nods. The Carson Daly Show snagged the quartet as house-band for two nights this month after Daly caught their recent, sold-out CMJ fest performance in Manhattan. And Little Steven, who adores the band, has been spinning their shit with regularity. (By most accounts, the Paybacks stole the show at Little Steven's Underground Garage Festival in August.) All of this with no major label record deal. If anything, the Paybacks are a fuck-you to the mechanics of the record business –- they're hauling their strain of din around the old fashioned way. The Paybacks are seizing, one fan at a time, America's attention.

Live, Wendy Case is the consummate frontwoman—a Chrissie Hynde-meets-Keef-meets-Janis collage of sexual bombast and asexual discord, a chick as hooked on '70s Cheap Trick-style refrains and dilapidated R&B as the need—not the want—to be heard. She and the band reek of the evanescent stuff that makes them better than they should be. Because, at their core, they are, as Case once said, "a scrappy little rock band."

Tonight the rangy guitarist-singer is wearing black medium-heeled go-go boots, sheer stockings and slinky black thrift store cocktail dress. Case carries the show with seasoned élan; as a performer she's arrived at a place where every stage nuance appears effortless, if not slightly seedy. Her right hand is a fleshy blur of Telecaster down-strokes. She swoops and bends on out-scissored legs. She straddles vocal monitors. She throws her head back and her coffee-tipped blonde power shag fans the air above her. Gives the impression of electric discharge.

The band rips through the hits, "Scotch Love," "Black Girl and "Bright Side." Skinsman Mike Latulippe (Carnaby hair and good-looks almost worthy of Abercrombie) bashes with the exuberance of a basement-dwelling tot on his first Christmas kit. Constant touring in the last two years has seen him improve exponentially.

Guitarist Danny "Muggs" Methric spins, leaps and kicks; his grin is undeviating—it's all self-belief and celebration—to watch him is to witness unabashed joy—it's as if there's nothing else in life for him. Flared jeans, unsculpted burns and dirt-colored facial hair render him a Humble Pie flashback.

The floppy-fringed John Syzmanski—in denim and filthy sneakers—strums (yes, strums) the bass with bored indifference, Bill Wyman style, offering intermittent grins.

"This song is not really about a place," Case intones between songs. Her voice is hoarse. Her voice is always hoarse, like Faces Rod. It's manly like that. "It's really all about a blowjob … Was I giving or receiving? That would be giving it way, wouldn't it?" The band whips into a scabby version of the hooky "Hollywood" (a song used in 2004's Oscar Awards telecast).

Much of her dialog would be sexist drivel if uttered by a man; from Case it's unironic honesty. Her stage raps come easy, are bereft of arrogance or flippant rock star poses; rather, self-deprecation ("Monday's my birthday … I'm as old as dirt!") and a hearty respect for the 150 that paid to get in, and the others who shared the stage.

Beaming faces (men, mostly) are gathered before Case, muggy in the otherwise chilly bar air. Mid-song, Case bends over and smooches the sweat-streaked head of an older, glabrous guy in a Twin Peaks tee. He looks up at her with childish glee, his fisted beer punches the air, his mouth opens and he lets out an indecipherable howl.

In Detroit, bands hit levels of success and they don't care; success is but a shoulder shrug on a barstool among friends. It's a classic Motor City blue-collar ethic built on low expectations.

For a band on a small indie label (or were, the Paybacks are now free of their contract with Get Hip), they are successful. The band has done everything, big tours (they did Southern Culture on the Skids tour this year), European excursions (they're in Spain this month), and countless U.S. club jaunts, all for chump change. They've learned everything the hard way. And now they know what they don't want.

"I've learned not to get my hopes up," Latulippe says. "You can only continue at this [low paying] level for long. For godsake, I'm a grown up, I've paid my dues."  Latulippe packs auto parts and does wire fabrication—your basic blue-collar grunt work—when he's not on tour. Methric picks up bartending gigs. Szymanski is a plumber, the only Payback with steady work. Case is surviving on an inheritance from her grandfather that won't last. And they're not spring chickens; the Paybacks are all over 30.

There are other hindrances: Guitarist Methric fronts the Muggs, a blues-steeped classic rock trio who recently finished recording their debut for local indie Times Beach, which is also home to the Detroit-classic garage-pop trio the Hentchmen, Szymanski's and Latulippe's other band. The Hentchmen have recorded and toured in the trenches for a decade. The latter's new album (Form Follows Function) hits store shelves this month. (Between the Paybacks and these two bands, you're looking at three of the best things going in Detroit.) And work commitments occasionally keep Szymanski from touring —the Paybacks compensate with pickup bassists.

Still, it's understandable why people are slowly picking up on the Paybacks. Their appeal is simple: those old enough to remember T. Rex, the Pretenders and early Cheap Trick records are drawn to them because they're familiar. Kids are jumping their scene because rock 'n' roll in broad media terms is back, and they see a band doing it with passion, which is almost shocking to them. What's more shocking is, even with the buzz and the press and the eat-shit touring, major label suits are slow to come around (a few have suggested that the band may be a bit long-in-tooth.) But now that's changing.

The poppy virility of the Paybacks is, on the surface, an easy sell. But there's a deeper undercurrent of thoughtfulness and sensitivity lurking in many of Case's songs that lift them above the Jets and the Datsuns of the world.

Too, Case is a rock star in the classic, margin-dwelling sense. She's persuasive and droll. Her outward confidence—a hard-earned cache of cool that isn't self-serious—masks inner uncertainty. She's very aware of how she's perceived. And she's interesting enough looking that people instantly want to know more about her (one writer accurately said Case looks like Laura Dern's evil twin.) She could be black or white, yellow or brown, whichever way she doesn't fit in.

She's a woman with a past, with a back-story of experience that shows, among other things, that she's no stranger to uncontrollable impulses. That's where the living came in. She should be telling stories, and her stories should be heard. And finally, after 25 years of toil in song, she's getting heard.

Wendy Case is in the living room of her home resting on her knees. She's wearing tight black jeans and a simple sweater, and she's working on a beer. 

The interior of her house—which sits just outside of Detroit in Ferndale—is telling: elegant rock 'n' roll, Mediterranean-style. Mexican, Asian and African folk art objects placed about, acoustic and electric guitars, hardwood floors, area rugs, antiquated pieces; some of Case's own oils hang. A few albums leaning against a stereo console might raise an eyebrow: Ravi Shankar, Crosby, Stills Nash and Young, and the Anthology of American Folk Music.

What's funny is Case is afraid to strum a tune, campfire-style, to an audience of one. Acoustic sets were never her bag. So, to present a new song, she picks up a cheap hand-held cassette recorder and pushes the play button.

"I'm gonna sing the song over the tape," she says, smiling timidly, her blonde bangs dipping into her eyes. The tape's audio is rough—an old-school songwriter work tape—and contains acoustic guitar chords colored with a singsong vocal melody, her latest called "Love Letter." She begins to sing, a bit shaky at first, but soon catches the melody. Even in hushed tones, her voice is tinged with that rake-across-gravel timbre that's so explosive live, one that in this context gives the impression of longing —an emotion nearly impossible to pull-off with sincerity in rock 'n' roll anymore.

The song is a melancholic confessional to her live-in boyfriend of a few years, with whom she's going through a painful split. The tune outlines vaguely her quixotic adoration of the man—and that need to be needed—but the subtext is about self-respect. The chords are pure Paybacks, a riff that's easily imagined bashing and popping, its chorus rich in potential to ping-pong between ears for days. It's a vulnerable ditty borne of wisdom gained from hard experience, one that says much about the woman, and about her songs. Songs that, she says, don't come all too often.

"That was the moment when I really became a songwriter was when I started writing the things that were real and made sense and that were coming from an honest and emotional and vulnerable perspective," Case says, now sitting in the enclosed back patio of her home. "You hear all these chest-beating country songs by these women who sing 'I don't need no man in my life, I can do just fine by myself .' That's a bunch of shit. If you're a heterosexual woman and going on about not needing a man than you are a liar. Everybody needs someone to love them… if you're a lesbian you need a woman. Otherwise what is it?" She pauses, then laughs, "a dildo? Maybe."

In person, Case conveys a certain defenselessness, though there are some in Detroit who are actually afraid of her; that is, her persona. The biggest misconception about the woman is that her confidence is misconstrued as something viciously aggressive. 

"Anybody who knows me at all knows that I am a really gentle person and sensitive. I drink a lot," she laughs, "which makes me louder than many of the people you know."

Fronting a rock 'n' roll band is the ultimate plea for attention and adulation; it's the perfect Scooby snack for the fucked-up kid who grew up on the sour side of playground derision.

As an adolescent, the Akron-born Case was ridiculed. She was tall, skinny and awkward, an attention starved tomboy. When she hit puberty she got chubby and stayed awkward. Much of what Case does—what drew her into rock 'n' roll in the first place—was motivated by a fear of not getting attention. It became intrinsic in her personality, and she's grateful because it made her "adaptable."

Her family moved frequently, spent a lot of time in the Carolinas. Her mother (a commercial airline pilot) and father (a telephone executive) divorced early on. Case and her younger brother were left to their own devices.

"My mother was never home," Case says. "My whole business was trying to find some way to be accepted. Like a lot of people who didn't fit in, humor was my way into everything."

The singer relates a story as told by her aunt: "She used to baby-sit me as a little kid. I had these go-go boots and I'd dance on a picnic table. She said when I'd get done I'd look at her and say, 'OK, now clap.'" Case pauses, her voice rises to a throaty laugh, and she says, "That's pretty much what I do today."

Upon graduating high school in Dexter, Michigan, Case (who had begun playing guitar by plucking bluegrass in North Carolina years earlier) bailed for California and caught the San Francisco punk scene as it was fizzing out.

There, Case cut her teeth playing in garage punk bands' Blow Up and Boss Hoss. She attended art school school.

But it was a newly acquired drug habit that pinned her down. It would last 15 years through college, bands and periods of destitution.

Case graduated in 1988 with a bachelor of fine arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute, high most of the time. She moved to Ann Arbor to clear her head and body of California. She got out in time: all but one from her circle of San Francisco friends is now dead, including a boyfriend of six years who later died of AIDS. (Today, Case has a clean bill of health.)

A run of Ann Arbor bands ensued and dissolved—including the Faith Healers and later, Ten High, a band of some renown who did one album, 1994's Party Store (which included a Kim Fowley co-write) on Total Alive/Bomp.

Her addiction chugged along in fits and starts with, of course, the occasional skirt with death. On a warm day in Ann Arbor, around 1995, Case nearly cashed it in when she accidentally injected 10 cc's of bleach into her arm. The lethal toxin—which was left in the plunger to clean the rig—snaked through her body, poisoning her blood and burning vital organs.

"I did my dose not knowing that the bleach was in there until I felt it surging through my veins and into my mouth. And I know I was going to die. So I just walked out into the bright sunny day there at First and Miller Street and lay down on the sidewalk. I remember everything, the birds were chirping. So I lay there planning on being dead thinking some final thoughts and by and by, about five minutes later, it started to subside. When the taste of the bleach started to leave my mouth I realized, 'fuck, I'm gonna live through this." Her voice lifts above its normal, cool-courteous volume, and she says, "That's amazing, I just shot straight bleach into my bloodstream. Even if you wanted to kill yourself I don't think anybody would choose that as a method—it's pretty painful."

She tells of a time when paramedics injected her with Narcan—an adrenaline used to deactivate opiates. "They laid me down on the floor because I was still kind of out of it. They immediately injected me with Narcan. So they shoot you full of speed to snap out of the opiate. I'm lying there strapped to the floor making this weird moaning sound that I couldn't control and with my legs kicking violently. And it was involuntary. I was lying there thinking 'this time I really am going to die because I'm conscious and they're trying to bring me around to consciousness. They're pumping me full of speed and it's gonna blow my heart up. But I lived through it. I lived through so much of that shit that it's unbelievable," she pauses, "normal stuff for addicts."

Was there ever a point when she figured she'd die and if she did it wouldn't have mattered anyway?

"I never wanted to destroy myself. My sense of self-preservation was so strong that I was never suicidal—I never wanted to be dead. These things are just par for the course in a drug addicts' life," she says. Every mother-fucking thing has happened to me. The things that have never happened to me; I've never been raped, I've never been bodily assaulted or mauled. And I'm damn lucky. Because when you live that life you see every kind of thing happen to everybody. I can go on and on: ODs, being chased with knives…"

Her substance abuse was born of inquisitiveness and a tender-aged search for identity, which she discovered in rock 'n' roll mythology. Johnny Thunders and Keith Richards probably did more damage to upstart guitarists by sexying-up junk than did Eddie Van Halen with his wanky, overwrought dweeedl-eee, dweedl-eee, dweedl-eee style, which give rise to a whole generation of useless doodlers.

"I didn't start doing dope because I was a sad lost mess. I started doing it because I was curious. I had to know. I wanted to know everything. If Keith Richards and Iggy Pop were doing it, well, then, I'm not satisfied to just know that they are doing it ­— I wanna know what it feels like."

Case moved to Detroit in 1997 and lived in a closet for a while. She had basically quit playing music and found work as music journalist at the Detroit News. She got popped for drugs that year, was order to a treatment center, a stay that convinced Case to kick dope. She hasn't used since. 

Case credits the Go's John Krautner for kicking her ass back into music. The Paybacks were born in 1999 when Case hooked up with Detroit drummer Pat Pantano, bassist Marc Watt, and guitarist Marco Delicato. The lineup jelled when Hentchmen drummer Mike Latulippe and bassist John Szymanski offered to take over when Pantano and Watt left. In 2001 the band's "Black Girl" led off Jack White's 2001 Detroit comp, The Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit.  Delicato shunned van-touring life and quit (he's all over the band's 2002 debut; co-wrote two songs on Harder and Harder). After some band retooling, blues guitarist Danny Methric joined in early 2003.

An easy criticism of the Paybacks is that songs are better than the recordings, all of which were done on the cheap. Case would embrace the luxury of a big label, of being able to wander into the studio at noon and stay there "'til midnight and do it for a month. Do it until you walk with something that you know is your finest effort." Still, the records have the songs that draw the attention.

When Knock Loud came out, it was obvious that the Paybacks brand of rock 'n' roll didn't exactly coordinate with Detroit's white belt brigade. They are the little band that could lurking in the shadow of the Dirtbombs, Detroit Cobras, Von Bondies and the White Stripes. By comparison, the Paybacks might as well be an arena rock band; or from Mars.

See, the two Hentchmen and Case had already pulled out of the garage.

"I can never complain, not for a minute about how Detroit has treated me or this band," Case says. "It's not just the sort of the Detroit hype, it's the fact that we've been here with our feet planted in the soil for so long. Each member of this band—the Hentch guys and myself—we were pivotal members of the garage punk scene before there was one, before anybody even knew what it was. In fact, when this whole garage thing started we turned our noses up because we were like 'that's not real garage, that's not the Sonics, that's not the Chocolate Watchband, ya know. To us it was funny, 'who do these whippersnappers think they are?' Eventually you come around, you're like 'well, fuck-it, if that's what they want to call it, fine.' I think the reason why we're seeing some longevity here is we were never part of that pack. We had already gone through that. For us that was 10 years ago. Nobody believes us when we say this but we always did it for the right reasons."

Case says that she's learned more working with the guys in her band than had she hired the finest players on the planet. You can only believe her. "They really taught me about the value of integrity and loyalty and being committed. They are the hardest working people and the most genuine human beings you could ever hope to know."

There's something queerly asexual about Case the singer, and it's not rooted in the tired notion that a woman playing loud rock 'n' roll should simulate a macho facade. Her deep rasp lets you forget as a listener, as a watcher, that this a woman delivering the goods. It's part of what makes her desirable. With Case, it's straight from the gut.

"It is asexual," Case says, flatly. "I always felt better and more confident that way because I was never a girly-girl.

"I don't deny or eschew that fact that I'm a woman," she continues. "That does make me unique to the machismo element. By the same token I grew up with great role models who sort of showed all of us that if you really wanted to have it all than you had you had to be appealing to men and women. Once you detach yourself from that element—from saying look at my tits, look at my ass or look at my cock—you are able to focus on something that's a lot more interesting and ferocious and mythic. You're not saying to people, 'look at this, this is what I am,' you're saying 'don't you want to know what it is that I am?'"

The greats have taught us that rock 'n' roll should challenge your sexuality. The Paybacks can do that; there's non-gender specific sexual themes hidden beneath hooks and power chords in their songs. 

"I'm a huge, huge, huge Warhol fan so all the things going on there with all the androgyny, bisexuality and the gender switching that happened at the Factory is just massively compelling to me because I thought 'these are my people.' These freaks that don't want to go one way or the other and don't want to commit to anything beyond just being sexual. I feel like I'm a very sexual person. It turns me on that girls get excited and they make it clear that they think I'm sexy. Guys like it to because I think every guy sort of would like to sleep with a guy," she laughs. "This way they can admire someone who sort of entertains that fantasy for them but they still have a vagina so they don't have to freak out. That's who I am."

"My sexuality is the one thing that I never questioned because I know that I'm attracted to women; I like their lips and their tits but I don't want to have sex with them 'cause I don't know what to do with a vagina," Case laughs. "And I love men, I love everything about 'em. I love they way they're put together and the way they smell. To me sex is a very visceral that in a perfect world doesn't have any rules. If you had to lay down the law with every lover that you were with you wouldn't be having much fun or learning anything, would you?"

TV shows like America's Top Model present this version of women as superficial drones and preening narcissists; "reality" shows that zero in on a woman's worst qualities and exploit the worst elements. It's true all across the board in pop—from Jenna Jameson to Ashlee Simpson and Paris Hilton to Lil' Kim.

Case sees this trend as another cycle of feminism backlash. The topic gets her going. "We're setting up this dynamic where we're telling young women 'if you want to be sexually competitive in this modern culture and if you want to be an entertainer—if you want to do anything beyond setting behind a desk—than you better have some nice fat tits and you better show 'em to everybody or else you're cutting yourself out of the game," I can't live like that. It's an impossible standard. I think it's a real sickness in this country and it's tragic.

If rock 'n' roll is back, than where are the women heroes? The smart, bigger-than-life rock 'n' roll stars? Courtney Love had the right idea before the treacherous facelifts and self-immolation.

"I don't feel like it's my job or my purpose but I feel really glad that I can present something to kids who are interested in rock 'n' roll that goes beyond this tits-and-ass bullshit that they are really being forced to consume because it's so profitable.

All of Case's heroes and role models were basically men, and she quickly rattles of those who made sense to her:  Jagger, Bowie, Iggy and Patti Smith.  

She also grew up on pre-sellout Heart, and adores Chrissie Hynde. She respects Suzi Quatro but admits that she can't name three of their records.

One of Case's "babe heroes" was Stones in-house goddess Anita Pallenberg for being the "closest you could be to being a female Rolling Stone."

"She wasn't playing an instrument but she was fucking them all. And she had the look and the attitude and she had an enormous amount of influence over the individuals that comprised that band. She had a teenage boy blowin' brains out on her bed! Now that's rock 'n' roll, man," she says, letting out an enormous laugh. "That was a rock 'n' roll woman I could look up to."

Wasn't that subterfuge and manipulation?

The singer disagrees. "She never underestimated the power of the pussy. But she got her ass kicked to. Like Tina-style getting beat up."

Case moves from her chair to the refrigerator for another beer saying, "there's a woman if you really want a woman—Tina Turner."

She returns, settles in, and continues on the ass kicking string. "There have always been ass-kicking women out there. I think that they are out there but there's not a big drive to unearth them because the focus is on something else entirely … if these women were out exploiting themselves as hot woman guitar players than they wouldn't be relevant in their job anymore. They'd be out there grabbing headlines, which shouldn't be your purpose."

Does she herself as an ass-kicking woman?

"Yeah," she says, not missing a beat. "Absolutely. But I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that I am a woman because it's not really relevant to what I do. It informs it to some degree, but not where it counts."

The Paybacks and band manager Rich Hanson are loading their frayed and road-weary gear off the Blind Pig stage, through the club, and into a rust-bucket Ford van parked in the street. With the exception of singer Wendy Case, their shoulders are slack, faces blank. It's a tired crew.

With all the equipment arranged chaotically in the back, Methric and Latulippe climb into the beat "tour coach"—the official Hentchmen vehicle. Syzmanski, with a beer tucked between his thighs, mans the wheel.

Case is last seen in the club encircled by friends and sycophants, including a couple of eager-faced tubby guys who obviously want a piece of her. She towers over them, beer in hand, back crooked, obliging whatever request, with a wide grin on her face. 

Latulippe and Syzmanski are hell bent on making a bachelor party in Detroit (Italy records' Dave Buick; he got hitched to Fonda Julie Benjamin). Anyway, Syzmanski hates the contrived cool of Ann Arbor; he jokes aloud about mowing down a few college students as we drive out of town. The notion is well-received inside the van.

As the nighttime trees rush past the windows, there's talk of muggings and house break-ins (Syzmanski tells of a time he was held up at gas station near his home in Detroit) and the joys of Detroit living.

They talk of their respective bands' records and about Methic's Italian/Czech heritage and inherent Mafia ties. There's camaraderie. For having spent so much time together, hungry, tired and in broke situations, they actually get along. Weird.

Methric, who brackets his every comment with agreeing head nods and laughs, is the obvious in-house spliff-burner; and he's an anomaly—a blues-based guitarist who can actually play pop. You sense that he's along for the ride, this ride, any ride, no matter what. He tells me come spring he'll have to figure a way to balance his band with the Paybacks.

These three have dedicated much of their time to Wendy Case. And the feeling is that whatever happens, happens. They (particularly the Hentchmen) have been playing music so far out the mainstream for so long that anything good that comes along will be taken with that barstool shoulder shrug of indifference. In the last year they've logged tens of thousands of touring miles, and the idea of getting back in the van to sleep on floors and play to paltry crowds for no money now seems pointless.

"We've done all that we can," Latulippe says, "we'll see what happens next."

Which brings to mind something Wendy Case said backstage at the Blind Pig earlier: "What's going to happen next will be our finest hour."

Brian Smith
November 2004
Photo by Doug Coombe