The enigma that is John Wesley Coleman III … ah, never mind. Enigma, my ass. I don’t know that much about the guy, that’s all. Let’s see, he’s from Texas. He plays in a band called the Golden Boys – don’t know much about them either. He records for the Memphis mavericks at the Goner Records label and had a previous album on the label called The Bad Lady Goes to Jail. I have it. It’s pretty good. But I don’t remember all that much about it … too. Got it on the shelf, where records that I like go (unlike the ones that suck). But I’m going to remember his new record a lot better. It’s called The Last Donkey Show and I’ll remember it because I like it more. I’ve been listening to it a lot. And because I’m writing this damn review.
Coleman is a rock ‘n’ roll junkman. His mind works like a radio receiver that gets random transmissions from the last five decades of rock and country music. Recorded in Oakland, CA and Coleman’s native Texas, Donkey Show is produced by Greg Ashley of the Gris Gris, who’s worked with bands like the Impediments and is clearly Coleman’s kindred spirit.
Coleman is expressive, poetic in a junkman’s way – mostly he comes up with an idea or an image and lets it roll. It works. “There’s a woman looking for me in the dark; she won’t leave me alone” he sings on “My Grave.” It’s sung to a tune that borrows a tad from Roky Erickson’s “Starry Eyes” with an arrangement that calls to mind the Sir Douglas Quintet, Swingin’ Medallions and the Attractions. Coleman likes the sublime sounds of vintage electric keyboards like the Farfisa and Vox Continental, sounds at once majestic and cheesy. That sound predominates on the title cut and “Virgin Mary Queen.” The former kicks off with a ‘dearly beloved’ organ intro, turning into prom-rock with a Ringo back beat, Coleman singing like a charbroiled Peter Perrett; on “Virgin” Coleman engages his inner Iggy, but mixes him with a touch of Kris Kristofferson. With its Flannery O’Connor ambience “Virgin” sounds like the aural equivalent of a William Eggleston photograph, full of that mysterious mix of the banal and the incredible that characterizes the southern American psychic landscape.
“The Howling” has Iggy overtones too, but you have to imagine “Kill City” caressing “Tennessee Waltz.” “Hanging Around” evokes Alex Chilton - post-Box Tops, pre-Big Star. With an underlying ska rhythm, a (George) Harrrisonesque guitar solo, and a Libertines-like guitar blend it’s just another example of Coleman’s unselfconscious eclecticism. When Coleman puts on thrash punk airs it suits him, as the shit-kicker ghoul-rock of “She’s Like Dracula” (think Bobby Fuller after the Cramps) attests. While “Don’t Waste My Time,” with its mock Springsteenian grandeur, pure pop backing vocals, and stilted, staccato singing calls British nuevo-wave-o to mind.
The closing cut “Flower in the Dark” curiously reprises the opening track “My Grave” as the latter’s “woman in the dark” is recalled – only this time she’s in “his grave” and “she won’t let” him go home. Like the more expressly country “Misery Again” it demonstrates Coleman’s affection for post-Hank Sr. Americana. His dead on Jerry Garcia vocal take (reference “Ripple”/American Beauty) adds to his vast trove of vocal guises. As widely and wildly influenced as Coleman is, though, it all sounds seamless and like, well … him.
The inside of The Last Donkey Show’s cd booklet features a friendly trashing of Elvis Presley’s Harum Scarum album art.
To the average Elvis devotee it might well look like a defacing, scratching out the original information, replacing it with Coleman’s, and placing a black bar over the King’s eyes. I think it’s juvenile, but it's funny. And somehow it captures Coleman’s sensibilities. His art is pure influence and pastiche, but it exudes personality and irreverence that makes it pure, you know, rock ‘n’ roll.