Innovation and originality often go unrecognized and unrewarded in their time. From Van Gogh to the Velvet Underground, those bold enough to break new ground have frequently incurred the indifference (if not outright wrath) of their peers — only to achieve significant fame years later.
Granted, the creation of “Starry Night” or “Venus in Furs” might not register as high on the historical-relevance meter as, say, the assassination of JFK — but you can bet people were kicking themselves for having missed out on these pivotal works when they later surfaced to greatness.
Where is all this hyperbole leading? To Neil Michael Hagerty — who, after more than 15 years of making records, is celebrating the release of his first, self-titled solo record. Hagerty’s been booked for an exclusive two-night engagement at Vincent’s Ear this week — the first time he’s ever performed under his own name, anywhere.
To Hagerty fans this is indeed a big deal, so much so that Drag City (Hagerty’s record company) has sent flyers from New York to Memphis and numerous points in between alerting the musician’s cult following about these shows. Right now I’m hearing some of you ask, “Who is this Neil Hagerty and why haven’t I heard of him?” Well, you probably have, in a manner of speaking. His own name has long been submerged in the bands whose names he helped make — namely, Pussy Galore and Royal Trux.
In the mid-’80s, Hagerty joined the noise-rock aggregate known as Pussy Galore, honing their sound to a wrecked approximation of blues-based punk the likes of which has seldom been heard. PG’s albums are now acknowledged classics and are probably selling better in current re-issues than they did originally. (It has often been stated, in reference to the Velvet Underground’s moderate record sales but undeniable influence, that everyone who bought one of that band’s albums started their own band. The same could be said of Pussy Galore.)
It was also during this time that Hagerty met kindred spirit Jennifer Herrema and formed Royal Trux. Working both by themselves and with a constantly changing group of musicians, Hagerty and Herrema have, over more than a decade, produced a body of work as varied as any band in the business. From skewed blues to pop gems to avant-collage to straight-on rock ‘n’ roll, Royal Trux has managed to achieve a style that, while constantly changing, maintains a sound as instantly recognizable as that of AC/DC or The Ramones.
Their LPs have made appearances on numerous hundred-best and most-influential-of-the-decade record lists, in magazines ranging from Spin to The Wire, and even won the group a lucrative — if brief — deal with Virgin Records (not to mention adulation from bands like Sonic Youth and Nirvana).
Last year, Royal Trux’s music was centrally featured in the John Cusack film High Fidelity, presented as the work of the band that Cusack’s character manages. Hagerty, who has yet to see the film, was happy to be involved with it and said doing the soundtrack was a “dream come true” that allowed Royal Trux to keep company with the likes of the Velvet Underground, Thirteenth Floor Elevators and the Sir Douglas Quintet.
But due to scheduling conflicts and internal troubles, the fate of Royal Trux remains a mystery. When I asked Hagerty if it was over, I got no definite reply, just a vague response and a serious acknowledgment of his desire to continue the solo work he’s begun with his new record. He’d also like to divorce himself from certain drug-related stigmas that attached themselves to the Royal Trux name early on.
“I’ve been clean for a long time. … With my solo record, I want to leave all that behind, ignore it, not even respond to it … no bulls••t involved.”
Finalizing the break, Hagerty played all his own instruments on the new album, which features his virtuosic fretwork backed by the hypnotic sound of a double-tiered Conn church organ; the result is a kind of trance-induced country gospel.
Hagerty’s guitar playing, refined over many years of touring and recording, is now so good as to make him the god of guitar geeks everywhere. He mentions influences such as Brian Jones, Charlie Christian, Link Wray, Robert Fripp and Tom Verlaine, but isn’t musically chained to any of them. His own style is distinct, moving from choppy to angular to fluid without hesitation.
With the rhythm and much of the low end programmed, you might think the record’s soul would be sacrificed. Not so: throughout, it retains the organic nature vital to all truly personal artifacts.