Swingin' Neckbreakers

This article originally appeared in the New York Press Music Xtra issue of February 4, 1998. Copyright © New York Press/J.R.Taylor. Permission to republish on this site granted by the author.

She's With The Band: Rock's Married Men, by J.R. Taylor

Under The Covers!
On Sept. 4, 1997, in the midst of the perpetual-adolescent rite of Cavestomp*, the Swingin' Neckbreakers took the stage of Coney Island High. Singer and bassist Tom Jorgensen looked out at the audience, opened his Muppet-sized mouth and shouted, "Today's my 10th wedding anniversary, and I'd like to see any of you fuckers try that in this day and age!"

A few blocks over and around the same time, Richard X. Heyman was finishing the liner notes to his Cornerstone album. There had already been several false starts. Beginning fresh after the failure of a few big metaphors, Heyman decided simply to write a short piece expressing his undying love and appreciation for his wife of 10 years.

Both of these events, you'll appreciate, were unprecedented.

Rock 'n' roll hasn't truly challenged its audience since ... well, frankly, ever. In fact, rock 'n' roll has built a history of indulging teenagers in their most stupid fantasies. Especially the sad, tragic fantasies of failed or aspiring romance. Yet the Swingin' Neckbreakers and Richard X. Heyman both recently released albums that do the unthinkable. They've made records that celebrate sacrifice, commitment and the concept of lasting love with one special person. And Heyman and Jorgensen have done it within their respective genres of yearning power-pop and manic garage-rock. Like all other rock 'n' roll genres, these fields traditionally treat the idea of actual marriage as something akin to a social disease.

"That was a good weekend for us," remembers Jorgensen, speaking to me by phone from his home in Newark.**  "We got to spend our anniversary in New York, and I got to take my wife to work with me. Talking about my anniversary on stage -- well, that was just me getting cocky. People think it's corny that I'm a working-class guy. But that's what I am. I get cocky because I'm trying to hold my own with anyone out there rocking and rolling, while holding down a job and being a normal blue-collar guy with a wife and a kid."

The Swingin' Neckbreakers have always been an exceptionally inspired retro-60s band of primitives. But the secret to their success was never actually revealed until last year's The Swingin' Neckbreakers Kick Your Ass (Telstar). The album combines the band's crass rhythm 'n' blues with songs about the live-action cartoon that is the life of any family man.

Richard X. Heyman is a far more traditional pop guy. As with many of Heyman's contemporaries, this has led to rave reviews and an abandoned major-label contract. Heyman's recording career began in 1978 and has run parallel to his relationship with his wife and bass player Nancy Leigh. Cornerstone (Permanent Press) is Heyman's low-budget return from a long recording exile, marked by 14 fine songs and, of course, those liner notes.

"I knew it was highly uncommon," concedes Heyman. "It was a unique case. We had an extra page after we redesigned the CD booklet, and I got carried away. But I think people find it moving. I've seen many people read the liner notes, and a little tear comes to their eye. There're cynical people, as well. You have that Linda McCartney aspect."

Please note the maintenance of the status quo as Heyman invokes McCartney. It would be left to garage-rocker Jorgensen to later bring up Lennon. Everyone knows that rock 'n' roll's biggest act pretty much created the idea of the rock 'n' roll marriage. They also helped to bury the concept. Yoko was a better artist without John, and far less of an embarrassment. The his-and-her creepiness of Paul & Linda has only served to make marriage seem as cool as, say, Frank & Kathie Lee. At least Ringo & Barbara Bach used to look like they were having decadent fun.

It's telling that there are no other important lasting marrieds in popular rock'n' roll. Thurston & Kim are back in the underground. Whitney & Bobby don't exist. Eddie Van Halen is probably too lazy to hobble down to divorce court.

It doesn't seem likely that Heyman and Jorgensen are part of a hot new trend, either. Sit down to eight hours of MTV and face the challenge of counting low enough to register all the loving wives you see. Girls aren't even allowed to sing about going to the chapel and going to get married.

Heyman responds to this simple truth with a truth of his own. "Well, we don't have cable. And that's for others to judge, anyway. I can't live my life by some rock'n'roll protocol."

Jorgensen considers rock's lack of marrieds to be just another challenge for a band that doesn't stand a chance anyway. "As far as people putting a bad name on marriage -- hell, I'll put a good name on it. I just like the music. I don't care about 'the rock 'n' roll lifestyle' and all that shit. My brother's in the band-it's been a family thing since day one. I want to concentrate on my family. You see people waiting around, 'Oh, I've got to find the right person and save all my money and buy a home and then we'll have kids.' And they're 40-year-olds and they can't have kids. They have to have a lab experiment. I wanted to have more kids, but God didn't bless me with that. He probably thought, 'Uh-oh, this guy better not get too many kids.' I'll probably be 45 years old and -- oops!"

Heyman brings a similarly adult viewpoint to power-pop's traditional whining over lost love. Songs like "When It Was Our Time" demonstrate how deadly serious he takes his romantic musings. Cornerstone is a demanding album of genuinely deep thought about the importance of relationships. It's also a married guy's tribute to his wife, composed of songs about other women.

Heyman's aware of the contradictions. "Cornerstone isn't a concept album, but there's a concept there about old girlfriends. But I made this major commitment to Nancy. I gave my whole life over to her. She got that, so she just has to put up with a couple of songs about the past. It's a fair trade. But I told Nancy that a song I wrote the other day is my last song about the past. I'll try to stick with that. Enough longing about hometowns and old relationships."

Unlike Heyman, Jorgensen is accustomed to relying on his family life for inspiration. "You can see that a lot of my songs have come out of my lifestyle," he says. "The good ones, the honest songs." The Swingin' Neckbreakers have a unique ability to make responsibility sound like fun. "Creation" makes marriage and/or procreation seem like a shindig. ("I wanna make a creation with you, girl!") "Daddy's Little Girl" is Jorgensen's warning to any young creeps who come after his daughter without a similar marital mindset. "I'm the Mailman" is just a tribute to Jorgensen's day job, but any young jerk might want to consider that as another threat.

Keep in mind that Heyman and Jorgensen do not have "open" marriages. ("Unless Nancy said it was okay to bring two or three women over to join us," Heyman jokes. "Then, sure.") Still, Heyman is aware that he gave up his right to sleep around just as his career took off. "All of us aging rockers started out in our teens looking to make it in our 20s. As I got older, my personal life and my professional career were on two different tracks. It just worked out that way."

Jorgensen is also comfortable giving up his swinging single years. "I think a lot of people at a certain age should be involved," says Jorgensen. "And rock'n'roll fans nowadays are a little older. But I was lucky. I met my wife when I was 19. If I hadn't met her, I might be a 40-year-old kid, too."

If Heyman and Jorgensen seem fatalistic about their marriages, it seems simply a side effect of happiness. It's very similar to the freedom they've found in being honest about their place in today's music marketplace. They both seem comfortable that their lifestyles place them well outside the rock'n' roll mainstream.

"Maybe people make fun of me behind my back," says Heyman. "Probably they do. It comes down to the morals of the society we live in. If you want to have a wild orgy-oriented sex life, you can do that. When I was younger and single, I did it as much as possible. But I always had the feeling it would stop for some reason or other. Maybe I'm just a strange person."

Jorgensen is even less repentant. "I don't know how other musicians live. But I'm not gonna hide my love away. I feel isolated because I live this life. I like it this way."

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Swingin' Neckbreakers

*[Neckmaster's note: Cave Stomp was actually a two-night event at the end of October. The show referred to here was the Telstar Saturday Afternoon Beer Bash, featuring the 5-6-7-8s, Sit 'n' Spin, Woggles, Fleshtones, and Neckbreakers.] back to article

**[Neckmaster's note: Newark?! Make that Trenton!] back to article