Jeff Walls, Part 2

Attaway: “When we were young teenagers, Jeff was one of those guys that already had a rep. Because he had been playing guitar since he was a kid. He was one of the cool guys. So like, if you were me, coming from a different part of town, he was one of the guys you wanted to get to know, because you wanted some of the cool to rub off on you.”

David Freeman (high school friend): “We started playing together when I was 15 and he was thirteen. We both started practicing and playing [music] in the era of Jimi Hendrix and Santana and Eric Clapton. Lead guitar was the thing. And Jeff always favored playing songs – when I knew him – over the lead. He never wanted to be a guitar god… I don’t wanna call him a rhythm guitarist, because he was a lot more than that. But he was perfectly right for when punk and new wave came along, because that was more his style. He loved stuff from, like, 1966, and he was ten! But man, you could sit down with him 30 years later, and if he played a song once, and learned it all the way through, he could remember it 30 years later.”

Attaway: “His parents had a big basement that they sort of let him use. You’d go over there and hang out, and he was in various bands, and generally the people he played with could also kinda play – and Jeff could really play guitar. There’d be a different band every few months, it seemed like, with some goofy-ass name…They were always cover bands, to my recollection. Pretty hard rock stuff. Stuff that Jeff could really work out on guitar… They’d do these little gigs around Marietta, like teenage canteen type gigs. But what they didn’t have, none of the bands in those days ever had anybody that could sing. I couldn’t sing either, but I didn’t mind lying about it.

“I remember the very first time Jeff and I actually played together in public. And we got paid for it. Somebody that his parents knew were having some sort of soirée, and they wanted live music at it. And I guess it came up: ‘Oh, you know, our son plays guitar, he could probably do it.’ It was just somebody’s upscale house party. And I remember what we did – see, even then we had a concept: we learned the entire second side of Abbey Road. You know, it’s all those songs kind of patched together. With just me on acoustic guitar and him on electric, and he dressed in a black suit and I dressed in a white suit so we could have the Lennon and McCartney thing going. We learned that, and then we learned some Bowie, hahaha! I’ll never forget, we played ‘Cracked Actor,’ whatever album that’s on, I think it’s on Aladdin Sane. But it’s got that great line that says, ‘Suck, baby, suck/ Give me your head.’ Hahaha! They’ve got these 14-year-old boys playing this stuff at this grownups’ party, and they’re looking at us like, What the fuck is this? Who are these delinquents?”

Freeman: “When I played with him, we had terrible trouble finding a bass player. So we practiced a whole lot with just drums and guitar. We played parties. But I was the bass player when he met John Poe of Guadalcanal. It was me and Jeff and John the drummer, with a singer from Avondale. We started playing together as The Motive, that was a name I came up with.”

Attaway: “Before we did Guadalcanal, a friend of mine and I started a band called Strictly American. And Jeff originally was not part of that. He was, I think, off doing The Motive or one of those bands. Strictly American actually had Curtis Crowe in it. We were like a six-piece or something like that. At any rate, Jeff came to me and said, ‘I just got an ARP Odyssey synthesizer – why don’t you let me play synthesizer in your band?’ I was like, ‘Hell yeah. Let’s do it.’

“Rhett Crowe went to high school with us. She lived down the street from Jeff. They knew each other as kids… Rhett was my girlfriend when we started putting Guadalcanal together. She used to come to all the Strictly American practices. A friend and I rented a house out in Marietta, and we’d practice in the basement of that house, and she came to all the rehearsals, just to hang out. She wanted to play an instrument, and she would watch the guy who played bass, his name was Chuck Greenway. She kept saying to me, ‘I can do that.’ I was like, ‘Sure, you can do it, of course you can. Why not?’ Especially in the era of punk rock. There was this huge pawn shop in Atlanta, like down on Pryor Street, in those days [where] you could get really cool instruments, and we walked in there one day, and I think for like a hundred bucks we bought her a Fender Mustang bass, and that’s what she learned on. She learned to play independently, and also Jeff coached her pretty heavily. And that’s how she became the bass player.”

Phyllis Walls: “I didn’t go out to clubs a whole heckuva lot, because my daughter was born in 1985. I was sort of part of this whole parallel-blooming folk scene that was happening in Athens at the same time. You could take your kids to that shit. I played bluegrass, and upright bass. But I always loved rock, and my friend Robby McMahan, who also played in bands around town, said to me, ‘I got this record, you’ve gotta hear it!’ So I got my cassette recorder and recorded Jamboree. Which was not Guadalcanal’s first album. I had heard of them, but I had never seen them. And I remember riding out to the country to see a friend, and listening to it, listening to the music, thinking, first, ‘Goddamn, these guys are good musicians!’ and second, ‘These lyrics are killing me.’ And this never happens: I said, ‘I need to get to know these people. I get these people. I grew up with these people.’ Little did I know, right? So I became this huge Guadal fangirl.”

Attaway: “[Jeff marrying Rhett] was a little uncomfortable at the time, because we were still touring on our little small scale, which meant we were riding together and all that kind of stuff. But to be fair, Rhett and I had split up, and it was pretty natural for the two of them to get together. I mean, they saw each other all the time, and they had grown up together. They had known each other before I’d known either of them. So it made sense. And actually Jeff and I had talked about it at one point, and I remember me saying, ‘It’s cool. I’m cool. I hope y’all are happy, I hope you stay happy.’ And they did, for a long time. We were all too good of friends to let breakups or relationships spoil it.”

Joe Emery (The Ugly Beats): “I was obsessed with Guadalcanal Diary in high school. When I moved to Austin to go to college in 1986, by some kind of crazy harmonic convergence, they happened to be playing here the night before my first day of school. My first ‘club’ show, and I even got to meet them before they played. They came onstage and opened with ‘Gilbert Takes the Wheel.’ Loud, ringing jangly guitars and thundering drums – it was so powerful and heavy but still melodic as hell… That night changed my life and deeply intensified an already unhealthy music obsession.”

Attaway: “[Jeff] was very conscious of imagery onstage. He couldn’t have been with a worse group for that, ’cause the rest of us [in Guadalcanal Diary] just couldn’t be bothered. My whole shtick was, I would get so hot during live performance that I started doing the layered thing, where I’d wear like a jacket and a shirt, and underneath that shirt I’d have a tank top, and underneath my pants I’d have a pair of running shorts, and I’d finally just strip down to all of that because I couldn’t take it. But Jeff, whatever sartorial splendor he had adopted for each particular show, he’d keep it on no matter how uncomfortable he got. It’s hilarious to see old pictures of us onstage, ’cause you’ve got Rhett in a pair of shorts, and me in some bike shorts or whatever, and John wearin’ a T-shirt, and here’s Jeff decked out in this England greatcoat thing with a white shirt and a black ribbon tie, looking like he’s on the wrong stage, hahaha!”

Phyllis Walls: “Sort of near the end of their tenure, they had this hobby band called Hillbilly Frankenstein that was rockabilly, which I also was really, really into. And I knew their bass player, Jonathan Hawkins, because we played upright. And I went to see them, and I was like, ‘God, they’re freakin’ good, too!’ Probably a couple of months after that, their rhythm guitar player, Nicky [Gianaris], called me up, and he says, ‘Jonathan’s moving out of town, we wanna take Hillbilly to the next level, take it out, tour a little bit, you know, and record. Why don’t you come over and audition?’ And my response was, ‘I can’t play in a band with Jeff Walls! He’s a professional!’ He was basically like, ‘Shut up and get your ass over here.’

“In my mind, it was like auditioning for Paul McCartney. But [Jeff] was so nice. He coached me, he helped me to be a better player. Everybody that Jeff Walls ever played with as a musician became better because of him. Everybody he ever produced became better. Something about his patience… it was just astounding. He had a light, and he shone it on people, and he shared that with people, and it reflected. Everyone benefited.”

Attaway: “After [Guadalcanal Diary] split up, I went off and [recorded a solo album]. Got the opportunity to play with all these world-class guitar players, and none of them – and I mean not one of them – was any better than [Jeff], and really, I can’t think of one of them that was actually as intuitive and therefore as good as he was. He’s the best guitar player I ever played with, and certainly the best all-around musician I ever played with.”

Phyllis Walls: “It morphed from rockabilly to this weird lounge/jazz kind of a thing. [Hillbilly Frankenstein] never really made it, but we looked good and had a great time. We liked dressing up and looking like nuts, to the point where we would do it when we weren’t even onstage. We did it just so we could annoy people in restaurants and stuff.”

Alice Berry (Hillbilly Frankenstein): “Jeff was kind of a genius. He did not have a four-year college degree, but he was more well-read than many – OK, most – friends of mine. And he would bring that knowledge to the band. For example, when he read about jazz lingo, he would put that into our songs… He was also so adept at writing to showcase all of our talents. His songs for me to sing were so in keeping with what I could do well – and the rest of the band, too.”

Dave Hartman (Southern Culture on the Skids): “In the early days of SCOTS, we were always running into and sharing bills all over the Southeast with Hillbilly Frankenstein. I’d never seen anyone sweat through a suit jacket every night, sleep on someone’s floor, and then arrive the next day as freshly coiffed as Elvis. We couldn’t figure out how he did it because we were more than likely to look like hobos after just a few days on the road. He seemed to pretty much know how to do everything regarding all things rock ‘n’ roll, and was always gracious in sharing that knowledge with us youngsters.”

Phyllis Walls: “What can I say – [Jeff and I] fell in love. Chemistry… My first husband is a guitar player also. So basically, [Jeff] married two bass players, and I married two guitar players. I told [Jeff], ‘You can never be in a band with a chick bass player again, ever.’ I just thought he was the neatest, coolest guy ever. That’s sort of my M.O. – I find people who are better than I am at something, and latch onto them, and that makes me better. And he was the absolute match of that.”

Alice Berry: “Jeff had the Catalog of Cool in his brain. That is, he could tell Mark Williams, our engineer at Reflection Studio in Charlotte, ‘Make the guitar sound like X song by Y band,” and Mark – another genius – would do so. This was not only for Hillbilly but for the Zontar Records bands he produced: The Woggles, Southern Culture on the Skids and Man or Astro-man? Jeff knew basically everything cool there was to know. I’m talking music, style, food, great people, history, you name it. But I never saw him lord it over anyone. He never tried to show off; he simply enjoyed life, and he enjoyed you sharing it with him.”

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Guadalcanal Diary photo by Terry Allen.