For more than 20 years, Ed Reynolds has written features, profiles, news articles, and book reviews, as well as conducting interviews with the likes of Lily Tomlin, Al Franken, and a host of other celebrities. After developing his writing chops at a monthly publication called Fun & Stuff beginning in 1992 (where Reynolds eventually became editor), he was hired as a staff writer in 1997 at Black & White, Birmingham’s primary alternative paper for news and in-depth stories on southern culture. By 2013, Black & White had shut down — as did so many print outlets around the country. In his 16 years as a writer for the publication, he traveled the southeast covering everything from space shuttle launches to NASCAR races to funerals for American icons including soul brother number one brother, James Brown, and the great short-story writer Eudora Welty. In 2010, the nationally-acclaimed magazine The Oxford American hired Reynolds to reflect on the arrival of punk rock in the state in the publication’s only issue ever devoted to Alabama music. He continues to pen book reviews for Alabama literary arts publication First Draft. His work can be browsed by category via the links above or a selection of them can be read by scrolling down.
Rockin’ The Boat With New Waves
By Ed Reynolds
At Southern clubs in the late ’70s, bands played three sets a night, four nights a week. Most were dishing out versions of The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, and The Eagles, among other dinosaur acts. Meanwhile, a Birmingham actor from Sweden named Mats (pronounced “Mots”) Roden was studying theater at New York University when he attended a show at Irving Plaza — a performance by a campy rock combo from Athens, Georgia, called The B-52s. “It was a really mind-blowing for me because I realized that you didn’t have to be from New York to play the city,” he recalls. “I had been working for the Wooster Group [an experimental theater company] in New York with Willem Dafoe and Spalding Gray, so I was really serious about the theater in those days. But I was always torn between music and acting. So I called Matt [Kimbrell] a couple of days after The B-52s show, and we talked about me coming back to Birmingham to start a band called Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits.”
Roden, Matt Kimbrell, and Leif Bondarenko had been friends since high school while attending the Alabama School of Fine Arts (where Roden was legendary for wearing his bathrobe to class). As teens, Kimbrell and Bondarenko were already working as professional drummers at various highbrow cocktail lounges in Birmingham, Alabama. By 1979, Roden had returned to Alabama to form the Leisure Suits, where they rehearsed at his parents’ house, much to the consternation of neighbors (“just keep on playing that white trash rock/you can hear us practicing for blocks,” Kimbrell sings in “White Trash Rock”). They recruited local attorney Craig Izard (rhymes with “lizard”) as second guitarist and third songwriter. Jim Bob & The Leisure Suits soon began playing the same clubs that were booking cover bands four nights a week, though they concentrated on original songs with rearrangements of tasty covers of Franki Valli & The Four Seasons’ “Walk Like a Man,” a Ramones-style version of The Eagles “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” and a scorching “Burning Love” (featuring front man Kimbrell as a sensual but vulgar Elvis Presley, shaking his hips and caressing his body as he sang).
The band’s inaugural release was a five-song EP, 1980’s First Time, which reflected the Leisure Suits original vision: fast songs with a punk rock aesthetic, each clocking in at under three minutes. Though there was no college radio station in town to promote First Time, their unpredictable, energetic live shows created enough excitement to to earn them a following in Northern Alabama. The EP’s “White Trash Rock” best defined the Leisure Suits’ frustration seeking recognition outside of the South with the classic line: “They don’t make stars out of bar bands in Birmingham….” Eventually, the club scene in Birmingham evolved when venues such at The Nick and Old Town Music Hall began to focus on presenting a different act nightly. Birmingham groups such as The Mortals, The Invaders, and The Colas as well as The Rakes from nearby Auburn, began getting jobs playing original music. “What I think Jim Bob really did was tap into this underground scene,” says Mats Roden. “There was a wanting of new, original music in the scene. We were not going to do covers; Craig and I were totally opposed to doing covers, which Matt and Leif were not. So that caused a little friction in the band. I wanted it to be totally original.” In 1981, the Leisure Suits released a 45 rpm single, featuring “Panama City Bleach” and “This World Is Killing Me”. The single did not have the rapid- fire punk-rock ammo of First Time; rather the band’s sound had evolved into something slightly more sophisticated, especially the slow, introspective “This World Is Killing Me”. Continue reading