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Monday, January 29, 2007

Episode 28 - Psycho Killer, Qu'est que C'est?

Detail from back cover of the Psychobilly compilation, God Less America.


Episode 28 - Psycho killer, Qu'est que C'est?

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"Eddie Noack, a singer and a songwriter, originally from Houston, Texas, who recorded for the Starday record label. He wanted to be a journalist. But we have enough journalists, but not enough people who could sing and write like Eddie Noack.

Eddie recorded the song called "Psycho," written by Leon Payne, a song about a serial killer and, quite understandably, it never got a lot of airplay, but has become quite a bit of a cult favorite, as is Eddie Noack himself..." - Bob Dylan on Eddie Noack, Theme Time Radio Hour, "Luck." Originally broadcast January 24, 2007
With a few sentences, Dylan would send me off on a journey that would lead me to Texas snipers, blind singers, 100 proof honky-tonkers, and a country subgenre I never knew existed - Psychobilly.

And people ask why I like Theme Time.

On August 1, 19 and 66, Charles Whitman, an architectural engineering major at the University of Texas in Austin, barricaded himself in the observation deck of the tower of the school's main building with a sniper rifle and various other weapons.

In a 96-minute shooting spree, Whitman killed 14 people and wounded over 30 more. In a note Whitman had left behind at his home, together with the bodies of his mother and wife, Whitman wrote...
"I don't quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I don't really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can't recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts."
Although he made no mention of what was coming next, Whitman apparently knew he wouldn't survive it, asking in the note that his body be autopsied for evidence that there had a physical reason behind his madness. He also left instructions for the care of his puppy.

The first shot came from the Tower at 11:48 the next morning.

Doctors discovered a tumor in Whitman's brain during the autopsy.

Leon Payne was a blind songwriter and singer based in San Antonio. Among old-time country fans, Payne is probably best remembered for the classics "I Love You Because" and "You've Still Got A Place In My Heart," as well as two songs recorded by Hank Williams Sr., "They'll Never Take Her Love From Me" and "Lost Highway."

Payne wrote hundreds of other songs too during his 30-odd year career, which included a stint with Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys in 19 and 38. But he never wrote anything else like "Psycho." Apparently deeply affected by the shootings*, Payne penned a four-minute song with the refrain...
"You think I'm psycho don't you mama?
You better let 'em lock me up."

... until the final, chilling, slightly changed, last line.
* Note - As mentioned in the comments below, Leon Payne's daughter has corrected the story that Psycho was inspired by the Whitman killings. Instead the song sprung from the movie of the same name... which, when you think about it and read the lyrics, makes better sense. Myrtie Le Payne has finished a book on her father which she notes will be published soon. It should be of interest to any Leon Payne fan and, as one, I look forward to reading it - fhb 3/30/08
There's no evidence that Payne ever recorded "Psycho." Maybe just writing the song got whatever demons the Whitman killings had stirred up out of his head. In three years time, Leon Payne would be dead of a heart attack, and "Psycho" would first be recorded by Eddie Noack in 19 and 68.

["Psycho" - Eddie Noack]

Eddie Noack (pictured to your left) was a Houston-born musician who was once described as being "100-proof Texas honky-tonk." Born Armond A. Noack Jr. in 19 and 30 in Houston, Texas, Noack would drink himself to his death 47 years later.

Though he originally set out to be a reporter, graduating from Baylor University with a B.A. in journalism, Eddie Noack became a country singer after he won a talent contest in 1947.

Better known as a radio performer and songwriter than as a recording artist during the first years of his career, Noack finally had a minor hit in 1949 with a cover of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," which, as Theme Time Constant Listeners will remember, was played on the "Hair" episode.

But always a second-tier performer and tiring of the business and his lack of success, Noack retired in the late ‘50s to concentrate on songwriting.

Noack attempted a comeback - in fact, several comebacks - during the `60s and `70s, but except for a small, devoted following of rockabilly fans, Bob Dylan numbered among them, he remained largely unknown.

Noack and Payne both recorded for the Starday label at one time and may have known each other through that connection. One way or the other, "Psycho" came into Noack's hands, and he recorded the song on the K-ARK label in 1968.

As well as "Psycho," some other bizarre songs recorded by Noack during that late `60s comeback included "Dolores," and "Beer Drinking Blues," making a virtual Psychobilly trilogy for fans of the genre.

And Psychobilly is a genre, with devoted fans discussing the merits of such songs as Porter Wagoner's "Rubberroom," or his "The Cold Hard Facts of Life" (where a husband exacts revenge on a wife's cheatin' heart with a large knife) or Spade Cooley's "You Clobbered Me." Cooley, as you may remember Dylan mentioning in an aside, beat his wife to death as their 14-year-old daughter looked on.

Some Psychobilly collections - all apparently going out-of-print right after release - include the commercial Rebels & Outlaws: Music from the Wild Side of Life, the appropriately-titled bootleg Death Dealers, and what is generally considered to be the definitive catalog of the genre, God Less America: Country & Western fer All Ye Sinners 'n' Sufferers, featuring as one reviewer put it, "people you've never heard of singing songs you'll never forget."

"Psycho" has been recorded several more times by several more artists, most notably by Theme Time favorite Elvis Costello, who performed it live at Hollywood's Palomino Club and released it as the B-side of "Sweet Dreams" on a UK-release single, as well as on his album Almost Blue. You can also find the song on the 1998 soundtrack for Gus Van Sant's strange shot-for-shot remake of the Hitchcock classic movie, Psycho. If you go to the Amazon page, you'll see as one of the reviewers' comments a posting from Leon Payne's daughter:
"I am of course prejudice[d] to "Psycho" written by Leon Payne, because I am his daughter. But I think Teddy Thompson did a wonderful job on the song and I am sure Daddy would have been proud of his version."
Sources: Starting points for information on Charles Whitman and Leon Payne were their respective Wikipedia entries, both of which have links to additional information. Readers interested in learning more about the Texas Tower shootings while find this "Crime Library" article useful. More about Leon Payne can be found here, as well as a wonderful picture of Payne with his band, The Lone Star Buddies.

There's a paucity of information about Eddie Noack on the Web. But I did find this article, which I suspect was also the foundation for Bob Dylan's Theme Time commentary.

If you want to read more about psychobilly, a term that I coined, and which is usually termed "country-psycho" or "psycho-country," a good article to start your journey is Early Rumblings by Peter Orlov. As always, Chet Flippo's Nashville Skyline column was informative.

From a listening standpoint, good luck in finding any of the albums/CDs I cited. God Less America was apparently released on both vinyl and CD, but both versions are long out-of-print. You'll occasionally find one or the other listed on eBay. I would ah, kill, for a copy, if any of my listeners owns it. Ditto with the bootleg Death Dealers. Rebels & Outlaws: Music from the Wild Side of Life is also out-of-print, but much easier for the dedicated collector to find.


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John said...

There's at least one other song inspired by the U of Texas shootings, and that's Kinky Friedman's "The Ballad Of Charles Whitman."

Also, maybe I misunderstood your comment, but "if you want to read more about psychobilly," a term you certainly could not have coined (at least not on or around January 29, 2007) just search Google with the terms "Cramps" and "psychobilly."

Fred@Dreamtime said...

Nothing new under the sun, huh? Thanks for your comment, John!

Unknown said...


Psycho was written in 1968, after we went to an Alfred Hitchcock movie and parts of the movie was explained to Daddy. Of course, he and Mama being blind, parts had to be explained, especially if the parts scared the beejesus out of me. LOL We got home he called his friend Johnny Cash and was telling him about the movie, and when he got off the phone he wrote Psycho. The scene that got to him was when a head rolled down a staircase. I have read that Daddy wrote it after the University of Texas sniper Whitman, this is not true.

Fred@Dreamtime said...

Appreciate the comment and link, "workstuff," although I believe the Leon Payne myspace page is maintained by Payne's daughter, not son.



Anonymous said...

I've heard this song 3 times today on a Seattle radio station. The version I like best is by an Aussie band, Beasts of Bourbon, who recorded it in 1983.

I first heard it on College radio in the early 80's and was quite taken with it and hearing it today and finding this podcast has made Halloween a great day!

Anonymous said...

I would like to clear up the term Psychobilly. According to Wikipedia: "The term "psychobilly" was first used in the lyrics to the country song "One Piece at a Time", written by Wayne Kemp for Johnny Cash, which was a Top 10 hit in the United States in 1976. The lyrics describe the construction of a "psychobilly Cadillac."[2] The rock band The Cramps, who formed in Sacramento, California in 1972 and relocated to New York in 1975 where they became part of the city's thriving punk movement, appropriated the term from the Cash song and described their music as "psychobilly" and "rockabilly voodoo" on flyers advertising their concerts."