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Listen Up Rufus: Lone Justice – Lone Justice

OK Rufus, today I am going to talk to you about the first Lone Justice record.

Yes, I am aware you are a dog. You’re my dog, which means you should be well versed in awesome music and this album qualifies as awesome.

A long time ago, I had three recreational activities, driving, listening to music and smoking weed. Kinda sad if I spend too much time reflecting on it, but this was the Reagan era and it was Centerville Ohio…sooo, not really a whole lot of other things going on.

Often, I did all three at the same time.

Yes Rufus, I am aware of how dangerous that is.

Now, I was far from the embodiment of cool back then (not that I am now) so I didn’t have a muscle car or a fancy car. I drove a shitty maroon Chevy Chevette, a solid 4 horsepower of awesome. I once raced the Chevette against one of those wind up Evel Knievel motorcycle toys…and lost. The ONLY benefit of this car was that it had a passenger seat that reclined pretty far back. A handy luxury as a hormonal teen.

It being Ohio, and the Mid-West, the acceptance of anything too new or challenging was anathema to the music the radio stations played. Our local AOR radio station, WTUE, would play the standard fare (Van Halen, Bob Seger, CCR, Styx, Kansas, John Mellencamp, etc) and would periodically slip in something interesting, new or unique and every once and awhile, a band would make its way into the fly over states.

As a rule though, the average rotation of Mid-Western radio in the 80’s would have made the music literati in NYC or LA cringe.

Back then, I used to sling pizza to support my poor decision making and recreational activity. I worked at The Flying PIzza, a NY Style pizza place. This was long before NY Style Pizza became a genre of food. And this place was actually run by Italians…from Queens (who I am convinced were connected, but I was a mafioso nerd). Nonetheless, to this day it’s still the best pizza I have tasted (which may have had more to do with the amount of weed I smoked than actual quality of pizza…but it was good).

One Saturday on my way to work after smoking a little…Yes Rufus, I KNOW how dangerous that is, I heard this song:

You know that feeling you get when you eat a piece of candy or gum and your salivary glands start working on overdrive and your ears, nose and throat tingle? That was the feeling I had as I listened to this song. I was literally salivating. It was so insanely unique and…that voice!

I was smitten and had to know who sang that song. So I drove around for a bit after the song ended waiting for the DJ to come on and tell me who it was. Just as I got close enough to work, he came on and said it was a band from Los Angeles, Lone Justice. I committed the name to memory…or what remained of it after that much time smoking pot.

Fortunately, Saturday was pay day. And my record store was in the same strip mall as the Flying Pizza. AND it was open late on Saturdays.

I don’t wanna be that guy who prattles on about “back in my day” but that was the joy of discovering music back then; if you heard something you liked, you had to pay attention. You HAD to know in order to seek it out. Was the music actually better back then? I don’t know. I know the process of discovering new music and artists required a little more work which meant maybe the payoff was higher.

This much I know, 30 years on, I still think the Lone Justice debut album is probably one of the few flawless records from the 1980’s. I am not alone, at the time Rolling Stone critic Jimmy Guterman claimed the Lone Justice debut to be “one of the best albums every made”. I am not entirely sure I disagree.

When I went in to the record store after work, I asked the clerk if they had the Lone Justice album and he walked over. He nodded his tacit approval and walked me over the the “L” section, picked it up and handed it to me. I then caught my first glimpse of Maria McKee. If I was smitten with her voice, I fell in love when I saw her on the album cover. All that was left was to see who produced it, so I turned it over.

Why does that matter Rufus?

Well, a producer can give depth and texture to the sound of the artist. They can also pollute and ruin it. Luckily, the guy who produced the Lone Justice album was a producer who popped up on literally every album I had been listening to at that point in my life (Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Dire Straits, Stevie Nicks, Bob Seger, U2, etc). It was a name that would become the definitive seal of approval for a sound I liked. Jimmy Iovine (also the Lone Justice manager).

The album was also on a record label I had been reading a lot about and had begun to trust, Geffen Records.

I dropped the money and bought that album and went out to smoke a celebratory bowl. I had to make sure I was in the right frame of mind when I got home to listen.

Yes Rufus, I am acutely aware of how dangerous that is!

Once I had ensconced myself in my bedroom and my beanbag chair, I wrapped my headphones on and dropped the needle on Side One, Track One.

Yes, Rufus, it was really a needle. CD’s had not yet pulverized the vinyl business and mP3’s didn’t exist.

And this was the first thing I heard:

Maria Mckee sang like a woman possessed. I was hearing the ghost of Janis Joplin…set at 45rpm!

As I looked through the credits, in addition to Jimmy Iovine, I saw more names that I knew and who would become legends in American music over the coming years. Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Little Steven, recently departed E Street Band and current Disciple of Soul. I immersed myself in my beanbag luxury knowing I was in the hands of rock and roll artisans. There was no way I was going to dislike this record.

Leonardo da Vinci said “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

I’ve always been more attracted to simple rock music. And the Lone Justice debut was brilliantly uncomplicated (or did they just made the complicated appear uncomplicated). The band itself was four members, Maria McKee, vocals and guitar; Ryan Hedgecock, guitar and backing vocals; Marvin Etzioni, bass; Don Heffington, bass with the rock stars playing on a few tracks here and there.

As I listened to Side One spin from “East of Eden” to “Working Late” I had officially declared my love for the album and the band (and yea, I DID find Maria McKee attractive, but you’ll recall that I was smitten before I knew what she looked like).

I dropped the needle on Side Two and there was the song I had heard seven hours before “Sweet Sweet Baby (I’m Falling)” (I always liked that parenthetical addition to the title).

Back then albums were albums. They were complete works & complete statements. Artists gave you 10-12 songs of almost all good music and very little filler. Albums weren’t what they would become as the 1990’s dawned, overblown with 12-17 songs, mostly filler. Take heed, just because you CAN record 70 minutes of music in no way means you SHOULD record 70 minutes of music.

Side Two ends with a beautiful song that, should I ever get married, will be ONE of the wedding songs, “You Are The Light”:

I often think labels for bands or artists were created by marketing people and rock critics. As such, Lone Justice were labeled Cow-punk, rockabilly, LA Rock, etc. but to me they were just a great old-fashioned American rock and roll band, but then I suppose that is too broad a genre for most people.

And as great as this album is, the band would never be this good again.

By the time they released their second album “Shelter” the “band” was pretty much just McKee. Even though the album was created by the same core group (the “band”, Iovine, Little Steven) you can hear that they had lost direction. It sounded like there were too many cooks in the kitchen and that they were trying too hard for a hit. While I owned “Shelter” I probably only listened to it a handful of times. It just lacked the spark of the debut.

Lone Justice also was opening for U2. Logic would dictate that opening for a band that was reaching its apogee of popularity would be a good career move. History tells us that it’s really not. And the band, such as it was, imploded.

But alas all was not lost because this debut album still exists and it still remains amazing. The fact that it still sounds as fresh as it did that Saturday afternoon 30 years ago is a testament. And it sounds just as good WITHOUT the chemical enhancement. It’s also worth noting that over the 30 years I have the Lone Justice debut album on every imaginable media (vinyl, tape, cd, mP3) AND even as I write this, it’s in current rotation on my iPhone.

This is good music Rufus my friend, take note.

Lone Justice – Lone Justice