Ed Hamell isn’t much of a bandleader on record, or tunesmith either. Nor are his lyrics perfect—as a distant supporter turned flat-out fan, I still cringe at the forced rhymes of the uxorious “I’m Gonna Watch You Sleep.” (“There’s a door, you cannot latch it/Do you dream I find your Dad and chop him with a hatchet”? Not good.) These failings don’t just vanish onstage, either. Visiting the Knitting Factory Old Office for two sold-out Hamell on Trial shows earlier this month—featuring just Hamell, live he’s always solo—I lost track of several songs the first night, one of them the fan favorite “Hail,” about Brandon Teena and Matthew Shepard in heaven.
And I’m a convert nevertheless. Replaying Hamell on Trial’s six albums, I found I’d underrated every one. On the Mercurys—Big as Life (1995) and The Chord Is Mightier Than the Sword (1997)—the songs divvy up 50-50, and most of the keepers stick big-time. But neither Hamell nor his major label was ready to accept his musical originality and limitations, so the production, while never overbearing, lacks identity, and the vocals are cleaner than need be. The self-released Choochtown (1999) and Ed’s Not Dead—Hamell Comes Alive (2001) are stronger—as records, his best, though he’s kept growing. Both leave extra room for his storytelling, and for all its backing musicians Choochtown evokes the sound manifest on the live album, where Hamell performs the oft reported, seldom observed miracle first falsely attributed to Billy Bragg: getting punk clamor and intensity out of nothing but a well-amped, hard-strummed acoustic guitar. Ed’s Not Dead is a board tape from one of the Ani DiFranco concerts Hamell opened in 2000. DiFranco gave it to him so he could make some dough after a near-fatal car wreck put him in an upper-body cast, and has since produced, and released on her Righteous Babe label, Tough Love (2003) and the new Songs for Parents Who Enjoy Drugs. Both do a defter job of showcasing songs that are evolving discernibly toward universality—”Hail” (named for what happens to Shepard’s spit as it falls to earth), an angrier message from heaven called “Don’t Kill” (” ‘I thought I etched this in stone!’ “), and the jaw-dropping “Father’s Advice,” about how Hamell’s dad killed Hamell’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted mom and then himself. It’s hard to imagine a cover of that one, actually. But the others somebody should pick up on.
It would be obtuse, however, to reduce this singer-songwriter to singing and songs. The Miracle of Billy Bragg is part of it—Hamell’s 1937 Gibson is so loud that I was surprised his right hand didn’t feel like a claw. But it isn’t just the noise that’s punk—it’s the intensity. Downing Red Bulls, Hamell is as hyperactive as a two-year-old at nap time, sometimes emitting lyrics you know at a speed so hardcore you can’t make them out. This matters because the words are the point. Hamell on Trial could pass for “performance art,” or a revised Tom Lehrer. At a show back in 1996 there was a shaggy dog story about a snail that I’ve been trying to remember ever since and a one-liner that I never forgot: “Skeleton walks up to a bar, says, ‘Give me a drink and a mop.’ ” Gradually the straight-up jokes, a legacy of his parts-buying father, gave way to yarns, routines, comedy. Hamell has always talked-and-strummed story songs like 1997’s “John Lennon,” about a 1971 encounter with his hero, and “The Vines,” a description of brute physical labor he told me is a metaphor for a job he once had processing food stamps. But these days his show leans on spoken-word material that sounds rough but is rehearsed down to the last expletive. At the Knit there was a long tale (followed by a meta-account of telling the same story to a metal crowd) about delivering pizza for a 19-year-old boss in Austin. “He didn’t know the first rule: ‘I know how to do my job. Leave me alone.’ And he didn’t know the second rule either: ‘I know how to do my fucking job. Leave me the fuck alone.’ ”
As befits someone who literally bumped into John Lennon in 1971 (“Fuck off!” Lennon snapped), Hamell is 51. He is bald and round and has worn glasses since he was a kid, though not onstage—they’d fall off. Half Catholic, half Jewish, he got an accounting B.A. from a Jesuit college in his hometown of Syracuse and never looked back. He held countless temp jobs as he led countless bands, most prominently an Ian Dury–style unit called the Works, and unveiled the Hamell on Trial moniker in 1989, a year after he quit alcohol and cocaine and married a woman who is now a college dean. He is so passionately monogamous that his big love song is “Jerkin’ ” about masturbating on the road to images of his wife, and he has a three-year-old son he never leaves fatherless in Ossining for more than two weeks. He makes “a good living” gigging up to 200 nights a year, he told me, volunteering a figure that definitely wasn’t bad. He knows his music history and loves Chandler, Leonard, and Bukowski, who became less relevant to his art once the Bushies focused his rage. Hamell long chronicled the Runyonesque lowlifes he knew in Syracuse and jaws with at AA meetings, to uncommonly comic, loving, and moral effect—though sober, he still sings to parents who enjoy drugs. But recently he’s also put his class consciousness into songs like the scabrous satellite radio special “Coulter’s Snatch.” Having landed his first record contract at 40 and nearly gotten killed touring, he believes his career is just beginning and wants his music to last. He wonders whether his form might not be the DVD.
I hope not. Having reassessed his records before witnessing the Knit residency I wish I’d pumped harder, I believe they grab and hold. But I’m enjoying the new CD’s “Apartment
4″ more now that I’ve heard him explain each episodic verse after he sings it. And I suspect Ian Dury would have imparted more delicacy to “Jerkin’ ” ‘s tender counterpart, “Socializing.” Hamell has dough to make among the loyalists he’s accrued in the U.S. and Europe and won’t return to New York until June or later. Catch him before he goes to DVD.