The Konformist

Version 2.0
November 1998

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Great Moments In Rock N Roll: The Smoking Gun

Before The Beatles, before The Stones, before the entire British Invasion, an up-and-coming Texas band came THIS close to becoming the true Rock Lords of a generation. The Smoking Gun, led by vocalist Lee Oswald (known simply as Ozzie Oswald to his devoted fans), were years ahead of their time, and yet they still could connect with the naiveté of the American Graffiti-era youth. Oswald, whose combination of charisma and ambiguous sexuality some believe inspired the latter stage personas of Morrissey and REM's Michael Stipe, wrote the words, and collaborated on the music with Jack "Redrum" Ruby, the ax-wielding guitar dynamo whose frenetic style and virtuoso solos set a standard not even Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen could match. Combining the country-roots rock sound of the Longhorn State with a swamp-boogie blues (Ozzie was previously in a band from Louisiana called Gumbo), their music was an andrenalizing mix of clap-along beats, shameless riffs and tuneful harmonies, all of which were underlined by Oswald's introspective lyrics. Their first (and last) album, "God Save JFK", was released in early 1963, and was a shock to the system with its overtly political-tinged message. The most popular tracks on the platter included "Magic Bullet", "Standin' On a Grassy Knoll", "The Lone Gunman" and the ballad "Patsy" (which some believe was a tribute to country singer Patsy Cline.) Their more controversial songs, however, celebrated Oswald's embracement of Marxism-Leninism, "Hands Off! (Cuba)" and "Back in the USSR" (a title the Beatles later admittedly ripped off for their inferior version.) "When we sang 'Sandinista!' fifteen years later, it was still taboo," states Joe Strummer of The Clash. "When they sang their shit, it was suicide, man." Suicide it was. Set to appear live on Ed Sullivan the last week of November, the JFK assassination put a monkey-wrench in their plans. Due to the now inappropriate album title, the Sullivan appearance was quickly canceled, their records were pulled from the shelves by their label, and Ozzie was almost immediately arrested on a trumped-up resisting arrest charge. Then, on November 24, Ruby - already notorious for his drunken debauchery during his frequent visits to strip clubs - shot and killed Oswald, calling him a "son of a bitch" and blaming the band's sudden reversal of fortune on his former friend (in a disturbing omen, Sid Vicious was later known to idolize Ruby.) Ruby spent the remaining years of his life in prison. The other members of the band would later become session performers for the rock band Toto.

Still, though they self-destructed before they could hit it big, The Smoking Gun remains to this day one of rock's more influential artists. Mick Jagger would later admit, "We were bubble gum pop compared to them." U2, on the final show of its PopMart tour, performed their entire album, with Bono ending the set proclaiming the Gunners to be "fuckin' geniuses." And Hammer is planning to sample "Magic Bullet" for his upcoming comeback album.

Meanwhile, original copies of their album and singles are now precious rarities, and a tribute album to raise funds for the Free Tibet movement is being put together by Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys. Still, many artists unknowingly lay tribute to The Smoking Gun every time they perform. In their handful of live concerts, Ozzy started a trend in rock music which has since become a cliché: his opening line was always the rhetorical, "Are you ready to rock?" God save JFK, indeed.

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