Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Mike Gentry
When D. Charles Speer walks past, you can smell the last pack of cigarettes he just smoked, each and every one of them, for they were likely taken in in succession, out of habit and out of necessity. He strikes you as a man who needs his stress releases, those methods that will keep him from losing it, from seeing his head flip into a tailspin. He seems at odds with the here and now, but more favorable to those simpler times that were ultimately riddled with worse hardships, only there were fewer of them and that works for him. "Leaving The Commonwealth," his latest record as D. Charles Speer & The Helix, is a country western album that seems to be torn from the fringe pages of the history books, a bringing to life the oddities of American history, real and non-regurgitated parts of the past, circa the Civil War time period, not unlike those chronicled by the late Howard Zinn in his classic, "A People's History Of The United States." There are appearances by Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee on the album, in recounting the Battle of the Wilderness. Speer gives a pedal steel, honkytonk treatment to the 18,000 Union casualties. It's as if the musket and Gatling gun fire is framed like a whiskey bender, courtesy of a broken heart from the latest girl to send you packing. Only here, there's the stench of cooking flesh as bodies burned out on the killing fields and there's the discussion of hundreds of thousands of sad mothers, all long dead, rotting in the ground with congealed bones, though no less forever sad.
Speer also brings other colorful (fictional, as far as we can tell) characters onto the album, those like the eccentric woodsman that he sings about in "Cumberland": "A certain Mr. Cletus O'Riley. He was a solitary man. He liked to spend a lot of time outside in nature, in solitude, but also with the multitude. He had that red, leather skin on his back, like he'd never been inside. He also had an armadillo, suffering from a bad case of death. Rigor mortis had set in. He had sort of a morbid streak in him. He tried to string up this armadillo shell with some baling wire he had down by the dock, creating the world's first armadillo-cased guitar. You've seen those tortoise shell guitars from the 16th century Spanish king, right? I'm sure you have. Just imagine it as a beautiful armadillo." The album is cased behind a cover photo from the Library of Congress' public collection that features a small crew of war clean-up workers, posing behind carts of mightily decomposed bodies -- little to no flesh, just clothes hanging from piles of bones. The cover artwork is a photo of the photo, featuring an arched crack in the frame's glass. You wonder who'd framed this for their own private study. It might be what brought Speer, who has long been a part of New York's No-Neck Blues Band, to conceptualize this very record. It's this photo that got him thinking about all of those sorry boys and mothers, all those crazies with morbid streaks, living off in the woods and it's what brings about those heavily smoked days.