Under the influence: Gene Ruley
With new band Silverbell, this 70s-80s rocker goes country
Gene Ruley, stalwart of Tucson's music scene for decades, died overnight. Here's a glance back at some of his work, courtesy of this 2010 profile. —ed.
New Orleans native and longtime Tucson scene fixture Gene Ruley was a member of The Johnnies, the River Roses, The Phantom Limbs, Vegas Kids ( a "supergroup" with members of the Sidewinders and the River Roses), The Drakes (later known as the New Drakes), the Zsa Zsas and Little Sisters of the Poor.
Recently, he has launched a new endeavor with singer/songwriter Betsy Scarinzi, bassist Jason Steed (Creosote) and drummer Alan Anderson (Greyhound Soul, The Jits). Saturday, the new band, dubbed Silverbell after much Facebook discussion, will kick off the Club Crawl on the Hotel Congress outdoor stage at 8 p.m.
Ruley and I played together back in the late '80s and early '90s. His sense of melody and rhythm, his ability to turn a chord progression sideways and his tendency to augment song structure in innovative, though unobtrusive, ways makes him one of Tucson's finest guitarists and music writers.
Because he is far from a typical rock lead guitar player, opting to serve the song rather than to show off his considerable chops, Ruley has been able to forge strong partnerships with a diverse group of singers and songwriters. Silverbell is the latest such partnership, and represents a departure for Ruley, as it is his first real foray into the world of "y'allternative."
Silverbell played their first show earlier this spring at Club Congress. Unlike most of Ruley's projects, Scarinzi's songs lend themselves best to a more country-based style of lead. Armed with a new guitar and a new take on the 1-4-5 chord progression, Ruley also hopes to do more co-writing with Scarinzi.
What are some songs that you can't stop listening to lately?
Well, I have to say a couple of Muse songs from the new record ["The Resistance"] that I hear on KFMA. They are using a Gary Glitter glam rock beat, and the lyrics are kind of this us-against-the-world, [David Bowie's] "Heroes" type of thing. There are two songs that they play, "Uprising" and "The Resistance."
I love the Gary Glitter beat in any song. There's a great Fall song called "Glam Racket" that uses it, and Morrissey uses it a lot.
And the lyrics have a lot of artifice to them. Like "Heroes," the lyrics are very dramatic and very sweeping and almost embarrassingly cinematic, but I like it.
I used to not like them at all, and to think they were so overblown, but something has happened recently where I think they have reined in something. The lyrics are still overblown, but that's refreshing. It's not just some guy with his feelings; it's more like a David Lean movie.
What other new artists are you into?
I really like that MGMT, and also Deerhoof and Ghostland Observatory.
When did you start playing music?
I started playing music, but not on any particular instrument, when I was seven or eight. I had this band with a kid across the street named Carl, and we would put on ponchos — this was the 70s — because we thought that we would look like hippies or something, that we were cool.
And we played baby food jars. I had a huge family, so we had tons of baby food jars around. We played baby food jars with pencils. I'm not sure if it was a rhythm instrument or a melody instrument, but we played them, and we put on shows for the neighborhood kids. We had a song that went "How to get to heaven is pretty hard/If you don't get there you'd better watch out." That was like our hit.
At what point did you actually get your hands on a guitar?
When I was 13, I decided I wanted to play guitar. I had decided a year before to play drums, but I decided that I wanted to play guitar, and I really wanted a Gibson guitar because that's what Ace Frehley [Kiss] played. It's true. On the back of "Kiss Alive" it says that Kiss plays Gibson Guitars because they want the best, or whatever.
So I wanted a Gibson, and I wanted it for Christmas. And on Christmas, everyone was getting everything they wanted, and I was sitting there all glum for at least a half hour when I looked underneath the coffee table, and there was a guitar case.
I got a Gibson SG, and one of the Supersuckers still has it in his basement. He says I'll get it back someday.
What do you think of the SG now? Les Paul refused to endorse it; he found it radically inferior to his Gibson model.
I wish I had that SG. The SG is really cool right now. Gary Louris of the Jayhawks played one for a long time, and [ACDC's] Angus Young.
What is your setup like? Any secrets to getting that Ruley guitar sound?
I just got a new electric guitar. I have a Telecaster with a Humbucker pickup, and it's awesome. That's an incredible guitar.
And a Telecaster would seem the perfect choice for Silverbell's twangy sound.
Totally, but there's one thing that's missing from my Telecaster, and that's a Bigsby [vibrato unit]. My favorite guitar of all time was a red Ventura Gibson ES335 copy that had the Bigsby. It got stolen.
Do you name your guitars?
No, that's stupid. And I don't call them "she" either.
And now I have a new guitar, Guild's version of a Les Paul they call a Blues Bird. I just bought it off of Craigslist and drove to Phoenix for it. It has a Bigsby, and it's red, and it has Humbuckers. It is an awesome guitar.
What about your setup?
I play through a Fender Blues Jr. amp. I love that amp. I modified it with a tube tremolo, so it's like an old Deluxe. I run through a Danelectro Wasabi distortion/boost pedal, so you can mix in the clean sound with the distorion. And I have an analog delay.
I also have a Gibson ES135 that has a Bigsby on it. Semi-hollow body, single cutaway. It doesn't sound as good as the Telecaster, but it looks really cool. I got it because I saw a picture of Alex Chilton playing a guitar almost exactly like it.
Was Alex Chilton a big influence on you? [Chilton died suddenly of a heart attack last month.]
Like most people I know, I am a huge fan of those Big Star albums. I love "The Ballad of El Goodo," "Back of a Car," I'm in Love with a Girl" and "Thirteen." "Radio City" was my favorite Big Star record, because it's a mixture of the rock and roll and the quieter, more acoustic stuff.
Like me, he lived in New Orleans, and I went to high school with I guy who played bass in his band for awhile. He will be missed. I wish he'd been happier, but then again, maybe that's what made him great.
What guitarists do you love the most, and how have they influenced your playing?
I am influenced by everything I hear. The thing is, I'm a little older, so the players who have influenced me, well — they're not all dead, but they are all from the 70s and 80s.
I was thinking about what got me to play guitar over drums, and I think it's a combination of Peter Frampton and Ace Frehley. I wanted to be Ace Frehley, that was it for me. And I still play a Frampton lick I do in the Zsa Zsas, and an Ace Frehley lick. I still work them into my playing when I am playing harder rock.
Later on, there was Adrian Belew playing on the Talking Heads' "Remain in Light," David Bowie — all 70s stuff. I always go back to my teenage years — '78, '79, '80.
Talk a little bit about your legendary love of XTC and their leader, Andy Partridge.
I borrowed "Black Sea" from a guy who rode on my school bus in high school, and I never gave it back.
First of all, the production by Steve Lillywhite —who also produced Peter Gabriel's third album and the Psychedelic Furs' "Talk Talk Talk" — for me, that's how rock should sound still. However many years later, I still think those albums sound amazing.
The two-guitar thing on "Black Sea," and on "Drums and Wires" is just amazing. Andy Partridge is a great songwriter with a amazing melodic and harmonic sense, but he is an underrated guitar player who can blow most people away —
Even while he's on acid in the Dukes of Stratosphere —
Yeah, he's an amazingly creative guy. But when XTC stopped playing live shows, I feel like they lost some of their originality. I think they thought "Now we're gonna be just like the Beatles, we're gonna be a studio band, and like 'Sgt. Pepper's,' everything is going to take on this technicolor glow. "Mummer" is like their "Sgt. Pepper's," and after awhile, it feels like one homage after another. They're the Beatles, they're the Beach Boys, and eventually they have lost some of their originality.
There's a song called "Books Are Burning" that recalls the Beatles trading guitar licks, and while [XTC's guitarist] Dave Gregory is great, he's more by-the-book, whereas Andy, though unschooled, runs rings around him.
I'm sure there are some guitarists in the last 20 years who are good—
Thanks for clearing that up.
And Joni Mitchell is a completely underrated guitarist. Just as a guitarist, she is so amazing. She came up with all those tunings by herself. And just thinking that at any point, the guys in Crosby, Stills and Nash or whatever were thinking of her as like, "Oh, she's just a chick, she's Nash's girlfriend" or whatever — she's so far above them. She blows them away on every level.
What do you listen to when you get sick of the three-minute rock song?
There's some classical stuff, like Chopin's "Nocturnes." I love Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" as cliched as that is. I like Gorecki's Symphony No. 3.
There's also more acoustic stuff, like [folk blues guitarist] John Fahey.
Have you heard those records released after he died? The Red Cross album and "The Great Santa Barbara Oil Slick" are incredible.
And "City of Refuge" is a great later record.
Which leads me to Tucson's Rainer Ptacek (1951-1997), who was more a mentor than a mere influence for you.
I just think he was the best slide player in the world. A very non-purist approach to the blues, which I totally appreciate. The local blues traditionalists didn't like him so much because he was doing all those things with loops and weird sounds, and they hated that, but I thought that was what made him great.
He played with the River Roses. He played a great solo on our version of "Mystery Train."
For me, in the mid-80s, he and [Giant Sand's] Howe Gelb were the be-all and end-all guitar players. Howe could get sounds that nobody else could. That first Giant Sand album is amazing. It was a great time for Tucson music.
What singers do it for you, and why?
I like singers that write their own lyrics. As good a singer as Linda Ronstadt is, she doesn't write her own songs.
What do you do with someone like Elton John, who co-wrote all his hits with lyricist Bernie Taupin?
Yeah, okay, but I'll give him a pass, because he wrote the music.
I've always approached songs more from the music side than the lyrics. I didn't even really start paying attention to lyrics until I was in my late 20s, and it ruined a lot of songs for me. Good lyrics with good music is more of a symbiotic thing, and can elevate music to be more than twice what it would be otherwise.
Patti Smith, I think, has an amazing voice. There's an amazing presence there. She can go from a whisper to a scream like nobody. She's a great rock singer, and one of the best frontmen ever. She also just happens to have a really great voice.
As far as rock singers, I really liked Alice Cooper's voice on his early records.
Anyone more current?
More recently, I really liked Carla Bozulich's work with The Geraldine Fibbers. Sweet, but like Smith, can go from a whisper to a scream. I met her once, and I told her she was my favorite singer.
I was an Adam Lambert fan on "American Idol" last year. I thought he had a great voice, and I think it's ridiculous that he didn't win.
Okay. Let's play a game. You are given a 24-hour lockout at the studio of your choice. What is it?
Well, a studio is a very specific thing. I mean, I could say Ardent, I could say Capitol, I mean — Okay. I'll say Abbey Road.
Now, you can pick the band of your choice, alive or dead. Who are the players?
On bass, I want Chris Squire from Yes. Terry Chambers from XTC on drums. I want Patti Smith to sing, and I suppose I will let Jimmy Page play rhythm guitar for me. And Elton John on piano.
What's your favorite makeout song?
I don't make out with people.
No. But if I were to make out with someone, I guess it would be David Bowie's "Can You Hear Me."
If you were a superhero, what would your theme song be?
Iggy Pop's "The Passenger."
Beatles or Stones?
Bob Dylan or Neil Young?
Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday?
Billie. She has more drama and depth, I think.
So, after all those years of fighting it, how do you like playing country music?
I never fought playing country music, I fought listening to it. A lot of it drives me up the wall, with the lyrics and all, but I love playing the music.