Henry & June: Maumee's Infamous Sons Return

Listen Up Toledo  |  04/07/2010 7:00 am

 "All the best Detroit bands come from Maumee, everyone knows that," Todd Swalla
[Necros, Laughing Hyenas, Muschi, Boogaloosa Prayer]


A Brief History of the Blues

All the best rock n roll stories begin in high school. That is certainly the case with Henry & June, the most unknown of Toledo's largest musical exports.

In the early '90s, while most kids were fooling around dumbly with the last spurt of '80s cock rock, or learning to play ill power chords a la the rising, and short-lived "grunge movement," a couple of kids from Maumee, Ohio were trying something different, looking deeper into the dirty well of rock's history.

There are four identifiable "generations" of the blues, four time periods to this point where America's folk music has risen to unmatched popularity. Why it continues to resurface? That answer's simple - because its the base. Because its real. Because it is what everything else is built on, totally original, and because you can't fake it.

Blues music was born in the American south, mainly in the Mississippi Delta, where it became the folk and bar music of Black America beginning in the early '20s and taking prominence into the early '40s. This period is best exemplified by the likes of Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Son House, and Blind Willie McTell. But like most of the south, the blues moved north during The Great Migration looking for work. It moved to Cleveland, Detroit, Toledo, Pittsburgh, and other northern industrial cities, but it flourished no where else as it did in Chicago.

By the mid-forties, strips like Chicago's Maxwell Street were established and known as places where southern musicians could find refuge. Newly competing with the noise of the city, the south's sultry slide guitar suddenly found itself amplified. The sound grew, the bands grew, the boldness grew. The second wave grew. Born were bigger than life men with names like Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Bo Diddley.

Over the next twenty years, the blues remained a predominately black audience music, played sexy and sweaty in the rough corners of America's segregated neighborhoods. But, in the 1960s, these records were were making their way to England, where working class kids discovered the raw magic of the music contained within them. This gave rise to the third generation of the blues, as bands like The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, and John Mayall's Blues Breakers brought the music overseas back to its home with a fresh face. After 40 years, America was finally embracing its own music, and American acts like The Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Steve Miller Band, Big Brother and The Holding Company, Parliament and the MC5 took the sound (with a good dose of lysergic) and catapulted it over on its head.

Life and trends wax and wane, and soon, America found itself immersed in the aforementioned obnoxiousness of insincere and disconnected '80s arena rock bands and the beginnings of corporate pop molesting the pre-pubescent musical interest of tween ears with the likes of Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, and New Kids on the Block. These were sad days for American music.

But the blues is nature's music, and like nature's most fascinatingly transcendent creature, the butterfly, it has to wither into an ugly cocoon before it can sprout and become beautiful again. As "grunge" - in reality, an offshoot of the underground punk scene that'd been building since the mid-'70s - knocked down the doors to reality again, bringing rock music back to the roots of poor kids in garages where it belongs, the blues began again to bubble in the continually deteriorating towns of former industrial prosperity. By the end of the decade, the blues would surface again in a punked-up, raw new garage form via bands like Detroit's White Stripes and Soledad Brothers, Akron's Black Keys, and Cincinnati's Greenhornes and Heartless Bastards.

These are the social-musical conditions in which we find our heroes in this tale.

Basement Beginnings

To the handful of kids paying attention in Maumee, Ohio in the late-80s/early 90s, the "success" of The Necros was a wake up call. Four kids from a town that seemingly shouldn't have a place on the rock music map became an iconic underground DIY punk band whose records and leavings-behind are more coveted today across the globe than they ever were, or than most bands could ever hope their catalogue would ever become.  "Those guys were a little bit older than us, and they were our heroes," says Jim Forshey, a.k.a. Jimmy Danger, lead singer and guitarist for Henry & June.

In high school, Danger became aware of a quiet weird kid who could play the guitar better than most grown men as a mere teenager, a long-haired honors student named C.J. Forgey, later known better as Dooley Wilson. "We were both in bands and his was awesome, mine was horrible," Danger recalls.

Soon, the two kids found themselves driving around in Jim's parent's car smoking pot and turning each other on to music. "C.J. hadn't listened to the Stones much before, he was listening to a lot of older blues and that kind of stuff that he's into. I remember listening to Sticky Fingers and seeing his moment of clarity," he said.

"I was learning a lot about music from Jim, he was getting me to really know about the Stones, not just the stuff you hear on the radio, but to really know about them," recalls Dooley Wilson, "But I remember the thing that really set it off, that really made us a band was Jim had discovered The Gories, and he said, 'We have to become a shitty blues band.' So that was it, there was me kind of trying to play legitimate blues with these kind of anarchic band mates, that's what we wanted to do, we wanted to be a blues band with something very anarchical about it."

After a while of fooling around as two guitarists, trying to come up with songs, Danger and Wilson came to the conclusion that they needed a drummer, so they recruited Jim's childhood friend and schoolmate, Ben Smith, soon to be known as Ben Swank. Three kids, all self taught - and still learning - they did their best to tighten themselves up and become some sort of proper band, though as Danger puts it, "We were young, we didn't know what the hell we were doing. We just knew we wanted to sound like the Stones." Swank recalls this as the foundation for his unique drumming style," I was well aware that I wasn't a very good drummer, so I just tried to hit as hard as I could." Despite their youthful lack of prowess, Danger says he was aware of their potential, which centered around the honed chops of young Wilson, "Dooley was just light years ahead of where anyone else was. He was amazing, even then," he said.

Playing covers and dabbling in songwriting, the trio toyed with a few names before settling on the Dooley Wilson suggestion of Henry & June, after the biopic of the same name chronicling the time renegade American writer and Beat-forefather Henry Miller spent in Paris in the 1930s, leading to the writing of his iconic novel Tropic of Cancer.

Making the Scene

Danger is delightfully deft in his sarcasm, honesty, and apathetic recollection of Henry & June's brief career, he conveys his pride in the accomplishments of the band through seemingly indifferent slander and annoyance. It is his most charming quality, and perhaps a large part of what has made the mysterious legend of Henry & June so engaging.

"We played our first show at the Main Event - I used this homemade theremin my friend made that you had to use a lighter and move it around and wave your hand in front of it. It was ridiculous - and then we played around Toledo as a three piece for a while. No one cared," he said.

Somewhere in these shows, and dabbling in side projects, Wilson buckled to the historical peer pressure of his long-gone Delta blues idols and picked up a slide. "We were three white kids from the suburbs playing the blues. Awesome," Danger recalls with deadpan sarcasm, but he lightens up, "At the time, though, no one was doing this."

"I was just getting into open tunings and finger-picking - the stuff that I now principally do - we had two or three songs that we called the 'arch-top songs,' because I played them on this massive arch-top guitar that this guy at a guitar shop had made for me. That's what I started learning the stuff on, it was Son House, Big Joe Williams, Fred McDowell. I was getting obsessed with that shit," Wilson said, "After Henry & June I went more traditional, but it started with that band."

What began as innocent enough fun-having paying/playing homage to the Rolling Stones had evolved into a struggle between Wilson's pulling toward putting together a proper blues band, and Danger's fascination with punk aesthetics a la The Stooges, Gories, et al. There was no contention, just the oblivious building of something raw, new, and genuinely different. Of course, innovation is best viewed in hindsight.  "The more we played, the more we learned about the music we were playing," Swank says of Henry & June's blues-channenling spirit.

The next phase of the band came after another show at the Main Event where another act on the bill featured another Maumee-based guitar player, albeit one a tad older than the trio. "Johnny [Wirick, a.k.a. Johnny Walker] just came up to us after the show and said 'I'm going to play bass in your band.' We just sort of said okay," Danger said, "Johnny was very direct, and he's a very motivated individual." In fact, it was Walker's motivation that took Henry & June to the next phase of its short-lived career.

Critical Acclaim and Falling Short of Fame

"Johnny got us shows out of town. We'd been playing in Toledo and no one gave a shit. Then, Johnny got us a show in Detroit and people just ate the shit up, it was amazing," Danger continued, "I think its still that way: in Toledo, no one cares, in Detroit people actually care about the music." Soon, Henry & June found themselves sharing the stage with other of their underground heroes, including The Laughing Hyenas (featuring former-Necros drummer Todd Swalla), the Chrome Cranks, and the Demolition Doll Rods, among others. "We started hanging out with Todd and playing shows, going on little tours," Danger said.

Henry & June was gaining notoriety around the Midwest, garnering rave reviews from critics in the heart of the rock scene, they'd even managed to come up with a stand-out crowd-pleasing favorite, an original song they'd been working on since their basement days as a twosome, "Going Back to Memphis." It was around this time that the filthy blues quartet was offered a seat on the Holy Grail of punk stages, CBGB. Unfortunately, it was the beginning of the end for Henry & June. "We lost that spot to Goober & The Peas," said Danger, hinting at some unpleasantness of how it went down, "Months later, I was at a show at The Shelter in Detroit, and this tall guy comes up to me and apologized for stealing the gig. It was Jack White [then-drummer for Goober & The Peas]."

Through the magic of the music and some leg work on Johnny's end, Henry & June were approached by a small Michigan Label called Human Fly Records, the label was working on a series of 45 RPM recordings of local bands. Human Fly brought its recording equipment down to the basement of an apartment on the corner of Winthrop and Parkwood in Toledo's Old West End. The session yielded a 45 featuring "Going Back to Memphis" and "Lowdown Streamline." Things were looking up. People were taking notice. And then the band broke up.

"Human Fly had 300 of these 45s pressed up, and then we had to tell them we weren't a band anymore. We agreed to play a few shows to help sell the record, but that was pretty much it," said Danger. Why they broke up? "I don't know, it was stupid, we just didn't want to do that anymore. Looking back, I guess we should have handled it differently," he says.

"I was bummed," Swank recalled, "But I understood. We were pretty young, and it was on such a small scale, why make a big deal of it? I was just surprised we got to travel and play at all, and being able to release a 45 was beyond anything I ever imagined."

In total, it was about two and half years that Henry & June made small waves for Toledo, from roughly 1993 to sometime in 1996. They played their last show at Detroit's Magic Stick with the Chrome Cranks in that later year.

For a short time, Maumee was quiet.

The Big Come Up

After the demise of Henry & June, its members split into two factions. Danger and Wilson took to the Toledo rock circuit as The Young Lords, and obscene, obnoxious, buck-wild homage to The Stooges which took Wilson off the side of the stage and put him at the helm. "Dooley thought he had carpel tunnel and he was having a hard time playing, so, we decided he'd just be Iggy and sing and be crazy," Danger says with a smile. Meanwhile, Swank and Walker formed a two-piece named after a notorious group of murderous imprisoned Black Panthers, the Soledad Brothers. "I didn't expect to play with Johnny again, but I started sitting in with him after a few years, and it just became permanent," Swank said.

The fate of this story relies on a chance meeting at Frankie's Inner City, Toledo's own CBGB, the heart of the local music scene over the past two decades. "The Young Lords were playing a show with Two Star Tabernacle, which Jack White was in, then they started getting shows in Toledo, The White Stripes. We started talking, we were both in two-piece outfits and we just developed a friendship based on music," Swank said.

Soon, the Soledad Brothers moved up to Detroit, with Swank rooming with White. The timing couldn't have been better, slowly, Detroit was becoming the new Seattle, and all the right people were looking in the city's direction. "It felt like living in Toledo, but on a much larger scale," Swank says of those early days in the Detroit scene, "It felt special. I remember thinking 'There's no where else in America like this,' it was just all these working class kids playing rock n roll and supporting one another. It felt like a special time and place and brotherhood."  

Like a select handful of Detroit bands from the late 90s, White produced the Soledad Brother's debut, then they added former Greenhornes member Brian Olive (a.k.a. Oliver Henry) and Detroit took off, with The White Stripes leading the charge. "I just sort of fell into it," Swank says of his time as a bonafide rock star, "We were extremely lucky. Personally, I was happy to take advantage of it. That's all I wanted out of music was to be able to support myself for a time playing it."

Strange Times

Meanwhile, Danger and Wilson were still slugging it out in Toledo. "Who could have ever known that was going to happen?" Danger said, "It was a weird time. We saw The White Stripes at Frankie's on like a Wednesday night or something and it was awful. There is no way anyone could have know then that they were going to get famous. We didn't really go up to Detroit then, we were removed from that whole thing - my conversations with Jack were mostly limited to me calling on the phone and saying, 'Hi, is Ben there?' - I don't know if it was because of the break up, or because we just didn't care. The Young Lords probably would have gone over great up there, but that's the choice we made then."  At that point though, it was inevitable, The White Stripes blew up, put the Midwest back on the map, and successfully revived the blues, becoming kingpins of its fourth reincarnation. They took the Soledad Brothers with them.

Danger recalls a moment that began a new phase in Toledo rock history, "I remember sitting in my living room, holding my daughter, feeding her, watching the White Stripes on Conan O'Brien playing "Going Back to Memphis." That was a weird moment. I didn't really know what to think. I knew Jack was a fan, and I was glad my song was being played, but I thought, 'Well fuck, why aren't I just playing it?' The Soledad Brothers played our songs, but it was weird. I'm not mad or anything, it was just weird."

In a slightly different situation, Swank is still amused by the cover, "I didn't see it, so Jack sent me a YouTube link via email. I was surprised. I knew he always liked that song, and they played it a lot, but I didn't expect that," he said with a chuckle.

Danger did his best to keep it all in perspective. "To me, music wasn't anything I ever took super serious. If it wasn't fun, I was done. It's hard to make it in rock n roll with that attitude, it's always going to be hard at some point," but, with that attitude in mind, he spoke with Wilson, "It was stupid to be too pissed about anything, first and foremost, we were all friends. I just said, 'Hey, these are our songs and we like 'em, let's play 'em. Who cares? Fuck it.' So, we talked with Todd [Swalla] and formed Boogaloosa Prayer. I think it was good, I think it's more the band that Dooley always wanted to have."

Wilson recalls that time fondly, "I remember standing in the middle of my living room in the shack that I live in now, and I had this wire connected to the TV so I could even get any reception at all. I was watching Conan and it blew my mind. I thought it was fucking great! I was jumping up and down, that's me and Jim's song and The White Stripes are playing it on Conan in front of who knows how many people." He added, "I don't have any bad feelings about how well everyone did, because I reaped some pretty cool benefits from it. You have to understand that the Soledad's were always bigger in Europe than here, so they took me on two tours as an opening act there, because they could get away with convincing the stage manager or whoever into letting this American blues guy play an opening set."

Settling Down

Life breathes, and like the chest in a breath, life rises and falls. Ten years after the world went wild for the new blues, things have settled, and so have its players. Dooley Wilson has firmly secured a place as a Toledo legend, and earned a reputation as one of the best slide blues players north of the Mason-Dixon. Boogaloosa Prayer is slowly climbing the ranks of national acknowledgement. Danger is a mainstay on the Toledo rock circuit, despite being married with two kids, he still plays in more bands than most carefree college kids have time for. Walker has built a new following with his latest project, The Cut in the Hill Gang, and Swank, after a stint in London where he played tirelessly, has relocated to Nashville, were he (happily) plays infrequently, and enjoys a quieter life co-running the former Detroit-based label Third Man Records.

In the years that have passed since "Going Back to Memphis" was written in a Maumee basement, it has enjoyed a cult status, thanks to props from The White Stripes on the Conan show, as well as being famously covered on the DVD Under Blackpool Lights ("This song was written by a band from Toledo, Ohio, and they live in my house!" Jack White screams before tearing into the opening riff). The hard to find Human Fly 45 is a collectors item and Henry & June have become a unicorn to die hard garage rock fans in the know, an act with almost no recorded catalogue, and even less information available about them. Until now.

Danger just returned from a vacation to indie rock's biggest showcase, South By Southwest Festival. "It was weird, a few people, when they found out I was in Henry & June, lost their minds. I don't understand it, but its pretty cool," he said. Swank is proud of its humble rank. "It's cool that it has this little cult status. It seems like a modern day Nuggets kind of thing." Why? He can't really explain that either, but he speculates anyway. "I think what we were doing was a little bit beyond our ability. When that's the case, you just go for it really hard and it comes across as really honest, I think that's what people are attracted to."  

Wilson's approach is more direct, "I guess what we were going for was a good idea. It's simple shit, and often good rock and good blues is pretty simple and straight ahead. I never heard the term garage blues or anything then, there weren't enough people doing it for it to be called a genre. In our youthful innocence and enthusiasm - and we were pretty particular about the kind of blues we wanted to play - we were able to make some cool sounding music."

The Reunion

More than 13 years after Henry & June disbanded, they are preparing to play a reunion show at one of the prime places where it all began, Frankie's. The show was put together by longtime local booker/promoter Broc Curry, currently housed at Frankie's.

"The credit for this reunion really goes to Broc, he's the one that's made the whole thing happen. He asked me if I'd be interested and I said if everyone else would, then sure, why not?"

"From the first time I saw them, I was floored," Curry said, "I was just getting into that kind of music, The Gories, and other bands, and I thought it was cool that someone locally was doing that." Curry has been trying to make this reunion happen for the past five years, but says that something always came up, one of the guys always didn't want to, or couldn't. Now, that its happening, he says, "It'll be interesting to see, it was four guys just out of high school making this crazy garage music, it was different. Now, garage music is mainstream, and these guys are grown men with wives and kids and jobs. I'm looking forward to seeing how they've progressed."

For the band members though, the reunion is more personal. It's not about capitalizing on their humble cult status, nor is it about inflating their egos. Swank put it best, "These are the guys I learned to play music from and with. A few months ago I was at a Falling Spikes (one of Danger's bands) show in Bowling Green and Dooley was playing with them that night, I jumped up and sat on the kit beforehand, and we just started jamming, and it just felt really good. I'm excited to play with guys that I really fit with. For me, this is about going back to see my old buddies and getting to play with them again."

How it'll go, no one seems to know. "We'll see," said Danger, a little nervous for lack of having performed as a lead singer since the break up, "I'm sure it'll be fun. Maybe it'll suck. I don't know. I hope its good. I hope everyone has a good time. It'll be interesting, because we didn't have any idea what we were doing then, we were kids. Now, we're all much better players. I don't know if that will make it better or worse."

Carefree, Swank puts the crowd expectations in perspective, "It was interesting to people then, I think, because we were young and we were playing this stuff that no one else was. Now, its not so strange, and we'll see how they feel, we'll see if its still interesting now that we're old," he laughs hard.

An Afterword

It's rare that any of us get a chance to relive the best moments of our miserable high school experiences, or get a chance to revisit a moment in our past we might wish have been handled differently. More rare, is a chance to see an iconic, mythical band you've only ever heard of, too often the footnotes of rock n roll are filled with one-off groups who become more like fairy tales than real bands. This show is a chance for Toledo to remind itself that its not the boring pit of despair it sees itself as. It is a chance to remind ourselves that the innovation and creativity and talent that grows up through our busted concrete and out of our abandoned factories is as legitimate and credible as anything happening anywhere else. And, perhaps, more importantly, it is an opportunity to remind ourselves that right here in our little armpit of the rustbelt, we are a vital part of one of America's greatest artistic contributions and traditions, that Toledo is a blues town, that as likely as anywhere, the fifth dimension, the next reincarnation of the blues will take root right here in a new light, and bloom our apathy to the world.

Others will admire it, try to recreate it. They will never succeed. Only Toledo can proclaim its unique misery in a way that rips your heart out of your chest with greasy knuckled-fists. This is your badge of honor. You can hold it or burn it in a trash can, it doesn't matter. You can try to drink it away. It's not going anywhere. It exists in a place deep within us that can only be extracted through the pulse of manic drums, through the nasty rhythm of the 12-bar, its a thing that only bleeds when cut with the screech of a slide accosting the strings of a guitar. Enjoy it.

Henry & June play their first ever reunion show at Frankie's Inner-City on Saturday, April 10. Doors are at 9 p.m. Cover is $10. Danny Kroha (formerly of The Gories and Demolition Doll Rods) and Mark Porkchop Holder (of The Black Diamond Heavies) will open. www.myspace.com/hankandjune     www.frankiesinnercity.com