Celebrating the Music of Dave Kusworth

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The scrapheap of rock & roll history is littered with the twisted corpses of legendary lost bands who, once they were discovered, turned out to be warmed-over imitators or under-cooked posers. Far fewer have possessed even a little of the elusive magical qualities that the bands who did make it out of rehearsal rooms, dingy stages, and private pressings had. The Hawks are one of the exceptions to the rule – they are a brilliant discovery, and their long-awaited first album Obviously Five Believers is one of the best collections of totally unheard music to ever be released.

The band was formed in 1979 by ex-members of the Stooges-loving group TV Eye, who poached two disgruntled members of the first incarnation of Duran Duran to fill out the line-up. The music they made, first under the name Obviously Five Believers, then the Subterranean Hawks, then just the Hawks, didn’t owe much to the heavy riffing of the former group or the arty pop of the latter. Instead, they came up with a brilliant mixture of post-Stones rock & roll, deeply romantic punk a la the Only Ones or Saints, and energetic post-punk. They dressed in leather, had big hair, smoked a million cigarettes, and were deemed too rock to be signed by any of the independent labels, most notably Rough Trade. Stephen Duffy sang the songs, Dave Kusworth provided guitar and attitude, guitarist Simon Colley and drummer Dave Twist kept it loose, and bassist Paul Adams was there for some of it too. The songs on the compilation are a little rough around the edges, but charmingly so. Cleaned up just a bit, this would be one of the great albums of the era. Maybe it is anyway…

Check out “Bullfighter” for an example of what could have been.

The release of the album seemed like a good time to take a minute and talk about Dave Kusworth. He passed in late 2020 and it was truly a loss for his devoted fans and rock & roll in general. He was a true rocker who seemed to ooze it out of every pore; equal parts Johnny Thunders, Keef and Ronnie Lane, but a true original at the same time. In the original incarnation of the Jacobites with Nikki Sudden, he was a scarf-encased, tousle-haired troubadour who bled his romantic heart into the mic and helped create some of the best music of the ’80s. When he went solo with the Bounty Hunters, he delved into New York Dolls-style riffing and classic rock thunder, sounding almost like a British Black Crowes, but way looser. And better. The rest of his long, fruitful career mixed tender, painfully fragile ballads with strutting, amps-cranked rock & roll, and while he may have dropped off the radar a bit, his talent never did. Later records still held the same teardrop treasures and stack-heeled jams, they were just harder to find for all but the most devoted of fans.

I first discovered the Jacobites in the mid-to-late ’80s thanks to the import section at Schoolkids Records in Ann Arbor. The geniuses who stocked it always had the latest in jangle pop, loads of Creation releases, and the finest weird imports. I knew that Jacobites were going to be my thing as soon as I saw one of their record sleeves, and when I heard “Pin Your Heart to Me,” I became a fan for life. A blinding rush of strummed acoustic guitars, Epic Soundtracks‘ heartbeat drums, and Dave’s yearning vocals, it didn’t sound like anything I had heard, and it still sounds like a song out of time. The band at their best, as they are here or on “Shame for the Angels” and “Heart of Hearts,” were inventing something new and thrilling. That they couldn’t keep it together is a shame, but at least they reached the mountaintop for a little while.

We asked a few more Dave Kusworth fans to chime in with their favorite songs and some memories…

Game recognize game, Bobby Gillespie is also a true believer in the transcendent joy and crushing sadness of rock & roll, guiding Primal Scream through decades of records that transmit those dual feelings with a daredevil flair. He recently teamed with Jenny Beth of Savages on Utopian Ashes, a devastating set of songs that shares a fair bit of DNA with the kind of heartbreak ballads Kusworth sang. His pick for a favorite song of Dave’s is “I Am Just a Broken Heart.”

The songs “I Am Just a Broken Heart” & “Hearts are Like Flowers” both conjure vivid images in my mind of the songwriter Dave Kusworth, a rock and roll poet who specialized in beautiful, wounded ballads of dying love and melancholic nostalgia. Dave dressed and lived like the outlaw troubadour he was — lost in a sea of scarves and black leather pants. His stiletto knife silhouette once seen never forgotten. His spirit unbowed until the end as befitting the last of the Jacobites. A wonderful soul and a helluva songwriter. He is missed. — Bobby Gillespie

Dave Twist was the drummer in the Hawks, did artwork for Jacobites albums, and returned to play drums with Dave in the 2000s, both in the Tenderhooks and the Dave Kusworth Group. His favorite song of Dave’s is one from later in his career, “Dandelion Boy” from the 2003 album Dave Kusworth and the Tenderhooks.

Dave kept in touch through that long first lockdown before he passed by messaging late-night heart emojis and links to YouTube clips. He was out there in the dark, sending me back to Mott the Hoople on some obscure Euro TV show on the night he died.

We wrote “Dandelion Boy” together — swapping oblique self-referential lines to construct our own “Ballad of…” or “Saturday Gigs”. Loosely, it’s about The Hawks, of course. We were the two most obvious of those “Obviously 5 Believers.” Two only children whose life had been saved by Rock ‘n Roll — or perhaps had just been blissfully derailed and sent off to a dreamworld where one could fantasize oneself a part of some mythical band-gang.

Unlikely as that might have seemed, hiding out from “Stars on Sunday” and “Songs of Praise” in our teenage bedrooms. It was a sureness of belief gifted only to those at rather vivid points of a yet-to-be-discovered spectrum. Dave rarely spoke of what might have been, had little thought for missed opportunity. He was Dave Kusworth and somehow, through the kindness of strangers, he’d always get to make a new record. And that, genuinely, was enough.

“Dandelion Boy” — a nod being as good as a wink — is about backing the wrong horse. Winners, losers? Isn’t it the same thing, under the sky? Some of the lyrics, of course, are placeholders that stuck. Do they all quite scan? Dave wasn’t one for the agonized re-draft, but he sang them all as though his life depended on it. As it did.

It’s not the most accomplished recording — that galloping “Pyjamarama” lift sounds a little hobbled now. It would be wonderful to have had Darrell Bath‘s guitar stylings and Terry Miles‘ Hammond there for this. Maybe I should have chosen “The Right Track” from a little later in the new millennium?

Honestly, get yourself a copy of the Monkey’s Choice compilation on Troubadour/Easy Action — both songs are on there — and pick something of your own.

— Dave Twist

After his time in the Hawks, Stephen Duffy cut a wide path through the pop music landscape, hitting the top of the charts with “Kiss Me,” recording a batch of lovely pop folk albums with the Lilac Time, and making some brilliant pop records under his own name. He never lost track of his old bandmate, though, and covered a song of Dave’s from the Jacobites’ years – “Little Bird” — for an upcoming compilation to be released by the revived Glass Records.

Having listened to him a lot last year I think he was an expression of himself. It’s something captured rather than written. “Little Bird” is slight as a song, but he could feel what it needed in performance and he did what it took. You would never think I’ll speed up here, slow down here and stay on that chord too long for the melody … but he did it all naturally and made it work. His recordings are definitive and anyone who tries to interpret them is in for a battle. It took me a week to record “Little Bird” and he probably did it once with one overdub. Fifteen minutes maybe. I wish we had recorded something together later on. I think we were opposites. — Stephen Duffy

Carlton P. Sandercock isn’t only a fan of Dave’s music, he runs the Easy Action record label and has been on a years-long mission to reissue and curate Dave’s solo releases, his band’s albums and some Jacobites too. His favorite song is of a slightly more recent vintage than many of the other picks here and dispels any notions that Dave’s skills had dropped off.

I first discovered Dave Kusworth as one half of Jacobites. A friend, Jeff Barrett of Heavenly Records, and I both ran record shops in the early ’80s and he suggested the Shame for the Angels EP as something he thought was “up my street.” I fell in love with the shambolic romantic melodies and lyrics and went out and bought the two Jacobites records — Jacobites and Robespierre’s Velvet Basement — both utterly spellbinding albums.

Fast forward to 1994, I have my own label and bump into Nikki Sudden and suggest we reissue the Jacobites albums as they were intended and maybe get the band back together. Nikki set up a meeting with Dave and we decided a new album (Howling Good Times

) would be recorded. It was the start of my long friendship with Dave Kusworth to the point where I now oversee his musical legacy – I’d much rather he was here, however!

Hard to pick one of Dave’s songs as a favourite but one that has hit single written all over it and has been hugely overlooked by the great unwashed is “For All the Perfect People” taken from The Brink album. There are so many other songs that I love, but THAT one should be blasting out of radios around the world.” — Carlton P. Sandercock

In his role as leader of the pack known as Comet Gain, David Christian has presided over loads of great records. Tough and tender, rough and smooch, each one had at least one ballad worthy of being draped in tattered scarves. This was made clear by the band’s tribute to Nikki and Epic — “The Godfrey Brothers” — on their 2019 album Fireraisers Forever! Now, Christian has a solo record coming out called For Those We Met on the Way and it’s a winner. Lots of ballads, lots of twisted nostalgia, and lots that should appeal to those who find warm solace in the kind of raw emotion Dave’s songs have. His pick is “Falling Apart,” a great song from the 1995 Jacobites album Old Scarlett.

In some decaying Belsize Park Victorian building — a derelict gang of faded dandies sipping cheap cognac, smoke whispering between cracked black varnish nails — all Stones-ed up, lost debris in their R+R dreams hiding their broken hearts — afraid to show inside the yearning overpowering romantic despair — all held together by their broken songs. He’s singing “most of my friends are falling apart/so hold on to me, don’t let me down” over a simple melody that builds to its epic crescendo echoing round the dark evening of this memory hotel as one of their own tries to put his arm round his fellow vagabonds while holding back his own tears, knowing they no longer have a place to be, knowing the damaged love will never be theirs, but knowing these songs will always hold out their comforting arms. — David Christian

One of the best indie pop bands to arrive lately is the Reds, Pinks & Purples. Their collected works are a brilliant distillation of the Sarah records esthetic of pristine melody and broken hearts, and 2021’s album Uncommon Weather is pressed on vinyl made from buckets of Glenn Donaldson‘s tears. Probably. The commonality between him and Dave is jangle and melancholy. Glenn’s choice for a favorite song is “Yesterday’s Hearts” which is Dave at his poppiest.

This is the glorious opening track to Dave’s masterpiece album Wives, Weddings & Roses. The art of Kusworth is all about the sweet and sour, almost saccharine rock balladry offset by the ragged and impassioned delivery. — Glenn Donaldson

One of 2021’s most satisfying albums was the New BumsLast Time I Saw Grace, a lovely update on the acoustic Jacobites sound filled with emotionally rough songs wrapped up in honey-sweet melodies. Just like Dave and Nikki did it. The bums are Donovan Quinn, who made his bones with Skygreen Leopards, and Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance, and it’s fascinating to hear them transform into scarf-wearing, acoustic-strumming bards. Donovan’s pick is “Next Tuesday.”

The song is perfect Kusworth; partly an extension of what the Stones did with “Angie” and Ronnie Lane achieved with “Debris,” but with such a singular feel that it couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else. The guitars create a feather bed for a voice so confident in its languid grace that it sucks you into its pace. One of his sweetest. — Donovan Quinn

Ben’s choice is the classic “Kings and Queens”…

It starts with an opening line that would crumble if anyone but Kusworth delivered it and then goes on to fold in lyrics about kings and queens in a way that reminds me of when Nikki Sudden said that all the Jacobites need for a photo shoot is a castle and a bottle of wine. — Ben Chasny

Go into any record store worth its salt and there has to be at least one person there who is a diehard Jacobites fan. There’s just something about their music that seems to resonate with the kind of person content to surround themselves with. In my local shop — the world-renowned Encore Records in Ann Arbor — Michael Burbo is that person. I thought I was a fan until I met him!

Dave Kusworth is one of my all-time favorite musicians, so picking a favorite song from his deep catalog isn’t easy. “Hearts Are Like Flowers,” from the Jacobite’s overlooked classic Robespierre’s Velvet Basement, is a standout example of Kusworth’s ability to express mixed emotions with few words. Lush, melodic, with poignant and wistful lyrics full of regret and resignation, it is simply a beautiful, aching song, and it moves with a great rhythm section. “Because you do things in your life that will change someone more than you’ll ever change yourself.” Heartbreak you can dance to. — Michael Burbo

We’ll wrap it up with a pick from Christopher Porter, musician, writer, all around good guy. We were in a band together back in the early ’90s and I think we knew it was going to work out when we realized we were both devotees of the Jacobites. Of course, it’s hard to be a troubadour like Dave or Nikki when you live in the Midwest and play a lot of basketball, but we tried. Fast forward many years and CP is still writing songs that have all the poetry and pain he learned from Dave baked right in. His choice is the devastating ballad “It’ll All End Up in Tears.”

I don’t know if this is Dave Kusworth’s best song, but it is his blueprint composition. The version on Jacobites’ 1985 album Robespierre’s Velvet Basement repeats the same four chords throughout the verses and choruses, layering 6- and 12-string acoustic guitars with all the low end rolled off them. These shimmering strings are set against a simple tambourine beat and a bass that thumbs the root notes as Kusworth’s nasally, plainspoken vocals recall the moment a woman has to say goodbye to her best friend, her lover. There is no happy ending; Kusworth says she knows—because his broken romantic heart knows—it’ll all end up in tears. Every person who has ever picked up a guitar has written a song like this, likely with the same chords and similar sentiments, but it’s the type of tune upon which Kusworth built a career: simple, seductive, and breathtakingly sad. — Christopher Porter

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