Jeff Walls, Part 1
Jeff Walls, the multifaceted Marietta-born musician best known as the lead guitarist for eclectic 1980s band Guadalcanal Diary, campy ‘90s concern Hillbilly Frankenstein and, most recently, garage rock combo The Woggles, died on May 29 surrounded by family members at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina, following a two-month medical merry-go-round marked by mystifying symptoms and speculative prognoses. Throughout it all, Jeff chronicled his circumstances with a series of bluntly honest but ultimately hopeful posts on Facebook.
Deeply moved by his unexpected, dire situation – and the outpouring of sincere love, accolades and concern directed toward Jeff and his family during his hospitalization and upon his passing – I elected to reach out to many of those who knew him best, including longtime friends, colleagues, bandmates and Jeff’s devastated wife Phyllis, to have them share their own personal accounts, memories, anecdotes and legends about the man humorously nicknamed Flesh Hammer. Whittled down into an “oral history” format from hours of interviews (plus a handful of Facebook posts and archived material), the resulting story is at once funny, touching, enlightening and heartbreaking. Note that there were many more individuals that, had time permitted, I could have approached, and several parties that I reached out to did not respond.
The following “long” version of this piece is not meant to represent anything close to a complete overview of Jeff’s pursuits, passions and personality. Better to consider it a series of little peepholes into one life lived to its fullest, and the impact and genuine inspiration it generated.
John Ottley (childhood friend): “Jeff’s dad, Kermit, was a Lockheed guy. He was an engineer, he was super smart, and a little bit like Mr. Magoo. A little bit absent-minded, but certainly a congenial guy. I remember Jeff and I laughing in the backseat because he would forget to turn the windshield wipers off… Jeff’s mother, Betty, was just effervescent, and a quintessential mother in the late ‘50s. Just a beautiful home, lovely smile, beautiful spirit, so friendly and kind. She was just a dear, and very pleasant to be around.”
Carol Hayes (childhood friend): “I’ve known Jeff since I was a toddler. My parents moved to Marietta in, I think, 1954, and our parents lived on the same street in these little tiny bungalows that had been built after the war for people who were working at Lockheed. They were neighbors, and that’s how we became good friends.”
Ottley: “Jeff was really into Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, and the coonskin hat, and moccasins. He loved F Troop, and he liked Johnny Horton’s song ‘Battle of New Orleans.’ He loved the rhythm of it, and the culture of it, I guess – that backwoodsman-y culture.”
Murray Attaway (Guadalcanal Diary): “We were, as kids, into all those TV shows like The Avengers, all the Bond films, and just all the hoo-ha that came out around the mid to late ‘60s, and then the hippie stuff, some of that. And pop art. Everything had such definable style. All the styles that were touted as futuristic back in the ’50s – yeah, they looked incredible. You really wish you had that car. Or you really wish that you could wear those clothes. So that was the root of that.”
Jim Glover (childhood friend): “We stayed in trouble, I’ll just put it that way. We always tried to outdo each other. We were holy terrors our entire childhood. Jeff and I, from infants on, our mothers were good friends. They were both new brides in Marietta. So at like six months of age, we knew each other. We went to two different schools. So we would each do stuff at school and then report back to each other at the end of the day what we had done. By the time we came together in seventh grade, and went to the same junior high and were able to join forces, it was just all out. We didn’t wanna do stuff that all the other kids were doing, so we’d do something different. We went into the boys’ bathroom and just tore down the bathroom ceiling one day. Just for the heck of it. For which we got paddled soundly.
“We weren’t like normal kids. We didn’t go swim, we didn’t play ball. We just wanted to be terrors. And we wanted to outdo each other. We’d get on the phone with each other – he’d be at his home and I’d be at my home. And we’d be talking, and then I’d say, ‘I’m gonna run next door and cut their telephone wire!’ So I’d run and go do that, and Jeff’s still on the phone waiting on me to come back and report back that I’d cut the telephone wire. I cut the phone line, the TV, everything that went in there. And then he’s like, ‘My mother’s got these ladies over here for lunch. I’m gonna go unscrew the salt and pepper tops.’ Hahaha! So next thing you know, one of them is screamin’ that the salt just dumped out all over her lunch. We liked to do things where we saw results.”
Steve Berry (childhood friend): “We met because our parents tried to start a church of some sort. And I don’t know how much his father was involved with starting it, but I’m almost positive he was in it from the beginning, though. They had it built. My mom was the keyboard player, and my father was a song leader. And his father was just like a deacon or something like that. So we grew up in that environment, where we’d see each other on Sunday. And there were times where we’d be in a youth group kinda thing. It was called Marietta Bible Chapel. It wasn’t a very big church. It was non-denominational, they called it Plymouth Brethren.”
Glover: “It was a weird little church. We didn’t like it, and we did everything we could to disrupt it. So we gathered Jeff’s sister and all of her little friends – all the little girls her age, they were all very young – and we called ’em ‘The Baby Army.’ And every Sunday we gave them an ‘assignment,’ a long list of things to do, and we told ’em we would reward ’em when they got done with everything. And it was everything from ‘Go to the women’s bathroom and put all the toilet rolls in the toilet,’ to ‘Go into the church sanctuary and pull all of the hymn books out of the racks and scatter them all over the pews and the floor.’ And the church people would never suspect these sweet little young girls were doin’ all this destructive stuff, hahaha! But they were so happy to do it! There were about four or five of ’em, and I think it made them feel cool, ’cause we were much older, dispatchin’ ’em on doin’ dirty deeds that ordinarily we would be doing!
“And prank phone calls, oh my God. We would spend all day doing prank phone calls. This was before the days of Caller ID. And our favorite characters were Clara KickKick, and Stanley Lehman. Jeff and I would call the minister [of our church], his name was Jack. And Jeff had a great ‘old man voice.’ He’d call and say, ‘Jack… this is Stanley Lehman.’ And Jack would go, ‘Who? I don’t believe I know you.’ ‘Yes you do know me! This is Stanley Lehman!’ Hahaha! And he’d talk like he’d been in the service in World War II, and he had this tragic thing happen where people were killed because he couldn’t get his engines started in the plane. And he would be talking to him about it, and Jack the minister thought he really had this psychotic case, this man wanting to come clean. And Jeff would be talking about the plane, and then he starts yelling, ‘START THE ENGINES!’ Like he’s having this flashback. We did that on a regular basis, called that poor minister about once a week as Stanley Lehman, and each time he would try and council him on the phone. ‘Well, Stanley, have you been to a doctor about this?’ and all this stuff. And Jeff would start in with ‘START THE ENGINES!!!’”
Ottley: “All that hot-rod [culture], and Don Garlits’ drag racing, and the Rat Finks, you know, some giant hairy hand gripping a gear shift. And mag wheels, and giant dragster engines. He was into all of that bigtime as we were emerging into adolescence. He was really cool, man!”
Attaway: “He would really, really drill down into all that pop culture stuff, and find out about it. Jeff knew everything you could know about Big Daddy Ed Roth unless you lived in Southern California, and we didn’t. And he knew where all that Rat Fink business came from. So much of it’s ‘retro mainstream’ now, but back then it was not. It was really outlaw stuff. He was the first guy I ever knew that took cult films really seriously. To this day, I haven’t seen Shanty Tramp, but he claims it’s great. His big thing was, when he was into a style, he was seriously into it, and would find out everything he could possibly find out about it. He’d find something he loved, and he’d own it.”
Phyllis Walls (Hillbilly Frankenstein/Jeff’s third wife): “I think Jeff’s first show was Paul Revere & the Raiders. How perfect.”
Manfred Jones (The Woggles): “It was very, very early on, and it’s rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s a stage show. [The Raiders] have all their choreography – it’s Fang and the classic members, where they flip the guitar over and the guy’s name is on the back side of the guitar, so you know who exactly it is. It was in Marietta, like a shopping center opening or a movie theater opening. And Jeff was ten. And he was like, ‘That was the rock ‘n’ roll epiphany. This is what I want to do with my life.’ And, weirdly coming full circle, The Woggles are sort of an approximation of that. Which I take as a positive, myself, hahaha!”
Hayes: “Jeff just told me a couple of months ago that the very first album he ever bought was from my sister, and he had to go do yard work or something to earn money for it. Because she, my older sister, was their babysitter. I think he paid a dollar for it or something.”
Jeff Walls (from Facebook): “The first three LPs I bought with my own money were The Beatles’ Second Album, The Rolling Stones’ High Tide and Green Grass and Paul Revere & the Raiders’ Just Like Us. I bought all three at the same time secondhand from our teenage babysitter Kathy Hayes (Carol’s big sis) for $1 each. Probably 1966.”
Ottley: “I remember asking Jeff, ‘Who are some of your favorite guitar players?’ And I remember him referring me to Link Wray, some of these early innovators of rock ‘n’ roll, and blues guitar players. That was really a passion of his.”
Jeff Walls (2017 Stomp and Stammer interview outtake): “For me personally, it has always been about the pursuit of a sound. That is what keeps me coming back. If you strip away all of the questionable stylistic twists and turns that rock ’n’ roll has embraced over its checkered history, at the core of rock ’n’ roll there still remains a primitive impulse which goes all the way back to the first cavemen painting their faces and dancing themselves into a trance to a pounding jungle rhythm around a campfire. It is a tribal instinct to get outside of oneself, to forget who you think you are and get down on all fours like a wild animal. It is intended as a collective experience, one to be shared in a group with others. When I was young, rock ’n’ roll embodied a dream of freedom. It was a genuine threat to the status quo, not because it was some ill-formed intellectual/political conceit, but because it represented an unfiltered expression of the human spirit.”
Glover: “One of our favorite pastimes was throwin’ rocks at cars there on very busy Whitlock Avenue in Marietta. I suggested throwing rocks at cars one day, and Jeff wasn’t in the mood, and he said, ‘Let me get myself mad enough to do it.’ So he starts walking around breakin’ sticks over his knee and all this stupid stuff, hahaha, trying to get himself into the mood to go throw rocks at cars! He finally comes back and he’s like, clenching both of his fists, and he said, ‘OK, I’m ready.’ So we went and threw rocks at cars.”
Steve Berry: “As we got older, it got obvious that we were gettin’ a little bit more rebellious, per se.”
Hayes: “We were the hippies in high school. And he lived down the street, and so we rode bikes everywhere, he and Curtis Crowe – I lived across the street from the Crowes. We all grew up in the same neighborhood, we rode bikes together, we hung out, we smoked pot.”
Ottley: “One time we went to Six Flags Over Georgia together, and I think we either went there barefooted, or immediately ditched our shoes, and we had guitar straps for belts, and fringe, dark glasses. We were San Francisco freaks. It’s so hilarious thinking about walking around Six Flags like [that], but in our minds, man, we were The Grateful Dead in Haight Ashbury walkin’ around Six Flags.”
Attaway: “Jeff and I went to the same high school, more or less – Marietta High. He was a year or so older than me. In those days, Marietta High got famous because of their dress and hair code. This was in the early ‘70s, and so there were a lot of people – parents included – who didn’t hold to that, who didn’t think it mattered. There really wasn’t any reason for it. It wasn’t like Marietta had a bad reputation as a school. They actually had a really good reputation. And there was a famous walkout that made the national news when I was a freshman there.”
Hayes: “Jeff and I were organizers of that, and I got in the principal’s face and yelled at him, and I got in a lot of trouble for that.”
Ottley: “I’m sure there were close to a hundred kids that literally walked out, maybe more. I was one of them… I was not one of the long-haired boys that kind of were the catalyst for it, but I was one of the co-belligerents, or whatever, that participated. Jeff was one of the kids, at that point in time in high school, that was the catalyst for this clampdown from the school’s perspective, and rebellion from the students’ perspective. I know it made the papers, because my grandmother or somebody was like, ‘What’s your picture doing in the paper?’”
Jeff Walls photo by John Boydston.