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Jim Reed of the Magic Rocks

Little Debbie Christmas tree cakes, obscure cult films, and walking tours

Jim Reed has been an important voice in Savannah’s entertainment scene for years now. In addition to performing with the Magic Rocks and other Savannah bands, Reed is also a contributor for the Savannah Connect, and runs the Savannah Psychotronic Film Society. Here, he talks about his passion for music and obscure cult films, his walking tour, the Savannah Confidential Walking Tour, and much more.

Who are some of your biggest musical influences?

I was extremely lucky, in that I grew up as the first child in a household with a father who was not only a “budget audiophile,” but an ardent record collector with omnivorous interests in most any genre of music one could imagine, and unusually good taste in such things. I had no other siblings until I was seven years old and kept mostly to myself for a variety of reasons, so until then, I spent an inordinate amount of time being introduced to many of my dad’s favorite albums – complete with his own background info on the artists, the styles of music and the manner in which they were recorded.

Even after my younger brothers were born, my dad was trusting and generous enough to let me borrow any of his records I wanted, and play them on my own stereo system in my room, provided of course that I treated them gingerly and respectfully like the precious cargo they were! He owned probably between 4,000 and 5,000 LPs, so it was like having an entire record store or library at my disposal, 24-7. Plus, I started to buy my own records as well, when there was something I was interested in that he did not already have on hand.

With all that in mind, I would say that my most formative musical influences before I moved to Savannah at age 17 were (in no particular order): Bob Dylan, James Brown, Television, Albert Ayler, Frank Zappa, Lou Reed & The Velvet Underground, Webb Wilder & The Beatnecks, Ramones, Sun Ra, Patti Smith, Brian & The Nightmares, Booker T & The MGs, Yusef Lateef, The Swimming Pool Q’s, Tom Waits, Shakti, Husker Du, Captain Beefheart, Miles Davis, X, Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, Firehose, Richard Hell & The Voidoids, David Bowie and the holy trinity of Big Star/Alex Chilton/Chris Bell.

After I moved to Savannah, my most formative musical influences came to include: Camper Van Beethoven, Pixies, Brian Eno, Matthew Sweet, Trio, Metalflake Mother, The Feelies, Can, Chuck Prophet & The Mission Express, Elvis Costello and Monks of Doom.

City of Lindas was the first Savannah-area band playing original, “alternative-rock” music to emerge as a viable commercial act

Tell us a bit about your first band, City of Lindas?

City of Lindas was not my first band, but it was the first band I played in which received any significant notoriety in this area. It was a truly wonderful quintet of two electric guitars, electric bass, drums and a dedicated male vocalist. We wrote and played original, eclectic songs (described by one magazine critic as “futuristic art-pop”) that blended elements of classic rock tropes with aggressive, angular post-punk energy and jangly, interlocking melodic lines.

That band formed from the ashes of an earlier group known as Mr. Green Genes. COL existed from 1988 till spring of 1994. In that time, we recorded and released a cassette-only debut album (which has since become surprisingly collectible), contributed a featured track to the first-ever international multi-artist compilation album (a 2-LP vinyl set) to serve as a fundraiser for AIDS research, and completed a second full-length, 48-track analog LP and a 16-track analog EP of demos for what would have been our third record, had we not disbanded.

Both that second LP and the EP of demos were pressed on CD a few years later, but due to a legal dispute with one of the record’s producers, we were prevented from releasing it. And so, hardly anyone has ever heard those tracks, other than the untold numbers of shoppers who repeatedly heard the two songs which were taken without our permission and put into heavy rotation as background music in a number of U.S. retail shops in the mid 2000s, for which we never received payment.

City of Lindas was the first Savannah-area band playing original, “alternative-rock” music to emerge as a viable commercial act, and our following eventually grew to the point that we played road dates as far north as Virginia and as far west as Texas, and regularly sold upwards of 300 tickets to our local shows.

We opened for big-name artists like Bob Dylan and Concrete Blonde, but ultimately, one of our guitar players became frustrated with our inability to secure a major record contract and quit the band to move to Seattle at the height of the grunge movement – ironically to get OUT of the music business. (Laughs) Members of COL who stayed here in town went on to help form such well-received locally-based groups as GAM and Superhorse.

I think that on a good night, COL was a very good and intense live band, and that it’s a shame those songs we wrote have essentially been lost since 1994. I hold out hope that someday the stars might align in such a way that we can all make music together again. I feel there is unfinished artistic business there.

How were the Magic Rocks formed?

The Magic Rocks is a three-piece cover band. We are a power trio that exists to play our own arrangements of both well-known and relatively obscure rock, pop, soul and Americana tunes that all the members like. The group is comprised of myself on drums and vocals, Craig Johansen (formerly of Hot Pink Interior, And Sometimes Why, Devil-Oh-Seven and Splitfinger) on guitar and vocals and Ronny Kersey (of GAM and formerly of Truck Drivin’ Son of a Gun, 5150 and Versa Vice) on bass and vocals.

We began as a four-piece band called the 8-Tracks, which also included keyboardist and vocalist Jason Anderson (formerly of The Judge & The Jury and currently a member of local Rolling Stones tribute band Monkey Man). I wanted to put together a group that could best be described as “a wedding band for people who hate wedding bands,” and as each of those guys were some of the most talented players in town, I invited them all to join. Thankfully, they said yes, and that began several years of us playing public events, private parties, nightclub dates and outdoor festivals.

When Jason’s scheduling conflicts began to make it difficult to book enough dates to keep the quartet as tightly rehearsed as it needed to be, the remaining three of us began performing trio shows under a new name and eventually the 8-Tracks ceased to exist. I really wanted to call the trio “The 4-Tracks,” which I thought was a funny de-volution, but somehow we wound up as the Magic Rocks (named after that 1970s children’s underwater science project toy).

We currently play six to eight shows a month, throughout the area, and people seem to dig what we do, which makes us all very happy. I am extremely proud to be associated with Ronny and Craig. They are two of the nicest and most amazing musicians and singers I have ever had the opportunity to work with, and I hope we continue to perform together until the universe conspires to make us stop.

I moved to Savannah in 1986, and by mid-2003 I was fed up with the almost complete lack of independent, foreign, cult, experimental or classic movies which came through our local theaters.

Have you been a member of any other Savannah bands?

A few. I suppose most notably, I am the drummer and co-founder of Superhorse (a proto-punk septet with something of a loyal cult following that only rarely performs live, but which has released two CDs of original music). I have also taken part in a few tribute bands over the years, including drumming for Cheap Chick (a Cheap Trick tribute with a female lead vocalist), Debaserhead (a Pixies tribute), the Dangerous Type (a Cars tribute), and the Lovesick, which served as backup band for the late, great West Virginia/Texas singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston.

Is there any Savannah artist or musician you have not collaborated with but have always wanted to?

Anders Thomsen.

What are some of your favorite Savannah and regional venues to perform in?

As far as what physical spaces I enjoy playing drums in, I would say (in no particular order, and for different reasons) the Lucas Theatre, the Bayou Café, the Jinx, Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse and Athens’ 40 Watt Club.

The Savannah Confidential Walking Tour is meant to feel like one of those conversations with an old friend that happens late at night over drinks …

How did the Psychotronic Film Society come to be?

I moved to Savannah in 1986, and by mid-2003 I was fed up with the almost complete lack of independent, foreign, cult, experimental or classic movies which came through our local theaters. Since I knew a good bit about how to legally license and book feature films from studios and distributors – as well as how to promote live concerts, I merged those two passions and started the PFS of SAV. The idea was to put on special, public screenings of films which would otherwise never be shown in this area. These could be brand-new or extremely old, and they could be very good or very bad, and they could be well known or incredibly obscure.

The owners of the Sentient Bean Coffeehouse appreciated my idea and enthusiasm and we struck up an arrangement which still exists to this day, and allows me to use their facility every Wednesday night of the year (and occasionally on Sunday nights) for just such a purpose. Folks can purchase vegetarian and vegan food, as well as fair-trade coffee and tea, and there are discounts on craft beer and organic wine during the shows. We black the room out and turn it into an intimate screening room, and everyone is quiet and respectful during the movies.

I try my level best to program an unbelievably varied selection of films, many of which are not available on DVD, Blu-Ray or digital streaming. These often come from the private archives of diehard collectors like myself and are taken from vintage 35mm and 16mm film prints, or old, out-of-print VHS tapes or Laserdiscs. For many folks, this is the only chance they may ever have to learn about –let alone actually watch– these forgotten gems or infamous duds.

A few times a year, I rent out a big room like the Lucas or Trustees theaters and put on some kind of mini-festival or special cinema event. I generally lose money on such things, but it’s a labor of love that makes a lot of people happy and increases the diversity of the cultural quality of life in Savannah, so I persevere. It’s also one of the cheapest, coolest pieces of evening entertainment to be found for miles around, with tickets as low as $4 each, when bought in advance. Anyone who wants to learn more about the Psychotronic Film Society and our upcoming schedule should ask to join our Private Facebook Group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2519522234807695/

How did the Savannah Confidential Walking Tour come to be?

I grew up near the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tn., and so I was raised with an appreciation for crafting and delivering entertaining tales. For decades, because of my comfort onstage and in speaking to groups, folks in Savannah would suggest that I consider becoming a tour guide. I had zero interest in doing so, until a couple of years ago when I had the idea to create my own unique tour of downtown, which, instead of focusing on Civil War-era history or ghosts and the supernatural (like 96% of all other walking tours in this city), would instead feature odd, disturbing, humorous or simply embarrassing anecdotes from my own life.

I was lucky enough to arrive in Savannah in 1986, which was just a little bit past the midway point of the Golden Age of the city’s Bohemian Counterculture. I witnessed firsthand (and often took part in) all manner of tomfoolery, balderdash, depravity and illegal behavior.

The Savannah Confidential Walking Tour is meant to feel like one of those conversations with an old friend that happens late at night over drinks, when they open up wide and share a bunch of wild tales form their misspent youth. In doing so, I am simultaneously comparing and contrasting what downtown Savannah used to be like from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s, as opposed to what it’s like now.

There aren’t many of us left from that time period who did not die, move away or simply have no interest in divulging details of such behavior. This is my way of celebrating and commemorating the people, places and aspects of Savannah that I fell in love with, and which have now been diluted or outright whitewashed over by our ever-growing tourist industry.

It’s certainly not for everyone. But, for those who like this sort of thing, it’s a blast. I am humbled to say that currently, it’s one of the highest-rated tours on Airbnb.com. If anyone would like more info on Savannah Confidential, they can find it here: https://www.airbnb.com/experiences/906835

Often, both the club owners and the artists who are caught in this unfortunate dynamic are essentially unaware of the inherent unfairness that they’re both mindlessly buying into.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the Savannah music scene?

Starting in 2003, I spent close to a decade as the Entertainment Editor of Connect Savannah newspaper, and it was, quite literally, my job to have an opinion on such things. However, these days, my time is spent programming a quirky film series, playing drums, giving oddball walking tours and occasionally independently promoting live music and comedy shows under the name Knocked Out Loaded (knockedoutloaded.com). I’m so busy that I haven’t truly had my finger on the pulse of the live music scene here for years.

That said, one thing that makes me very happy is that the city now has WAY more original bands and solo acts than it had when I first moved here. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were rarely more than one or at the most two examples of any particular genre of music in existence here in Savannah (which played out in public). In fact, there were several popular genres of music which no serious, professional acts were performing at all.

Those were different times, and in many ways, much more wild and free. There was no such thing as the “Savannah Sound,” which by the way, there still isn’t and never has been — despite what some magazines and websites claim. In those days, there were so few acts that most everyone involved knew everyone else, and you’d go see each other’s shows to support them –and the scene in general– even if you did not particularly love what they were doing. It was almost out of necessity.

That made for some really unusual double and triple bills, where you routinely had groups that were fairly musically incompatible, but were simply “geographically compatible.”

You’d have completely different groups of listeners showing up at the same gig, with very little crossover in musical taste between them. Yet somehow, it all worked surprisingly well, and each act would often earn unexpected fans that way.

Another big difference between then and now that a lot of younger musicians and younger concert goers seem unaware of (and I am speaking of NATIONAL trends, both inside and outside of our area), is that right up until around 2004 or 2005, unless you were playing hardcore or speed metal music (which obviously tires both you and your audience out in the extreme), it was not only common, but essentially the norm that your “set” would run between 50 minutes and two hours.

None of this “five or six bands on the bill and everybody plays for 20 or 30 minutes” bullshit. Back then, if you did not have at least a solid hour of what most folks would likely consider “killer, A-List” material (as opposed to a solid hour of playing every single thing you halfway knew, whether it was truly your best stuff or not), you would never dream of trying to get booked in a local club or venue, let alone attempt to go “on tour” outside of your immediate surroundings.

The competition was simply too steep. And most legit clubs or bars had no interest in dealing with the headache of having more than two bands playing on the same night. The majority of acts would play for close to 90 minutes, and then, after a changeover, the next band would come up and do the same, filling up the whole evening.

While it’s great that the shift to shorter sets has allowed many more bands to get out there in front of eyes and ears, it also encourages acts that really don’t have their shit together, or don’t have more than a handful of decent songs to mistakenly feel that they’ve already “arrived.”

This results in many of them playing shows before they’re really ready to make their best impression, and more importantly it allows clubs, bars and venues to take advantage of their youth (or inexperience), by stacking these lengthy bills full of bands that can’t reasonably demand much money at all for only playing a 20 or 30 minute set. It’s become much more of a racket which saves the venues money, while simultaneously exploiting young, eager artists.

The musicians become convinced they should expect to be taken for granted by the venues. And, because many are often creatively underbaked to begin with (by starting to book dates before they really had their shit together), that makes it even more difficult for them to stick up for themselves and demand a more equitable cut of proceeds from a given show, at times when such a thing is deserved.

Often, both the club owners and the artists who are caught in this unfortunate dynamic are essentially unaware of the inherent unfairness that they’re both mindlessly buying into.

However, there are plenty of venue owners, managers and independent promoters who are completely aware of what’s going on, and how it benefits them at the expense of the artists.

Now, getting back to specifically discussing the greater Savannah area, I will tell you that, strictly from my perspective, the overwhelming majority of this town’s venues generally need to respect the acts that play there much more than they already do. That goes from the biggest rooms to the smallest.

It’s always disheartening to see venues taking advantage of bands and solo acts that put their blood, sweat and tears on the stage (or in the corner of a room that has no stage) for sometimes hours at a time, drawing in paying customers and keeping them there to buy drinks or food – only to feel grossly undervalued at the end of the night. That can of course mean financially undervalued or it can mean holistically undervalued.

There is a tendency in this town to celebrate mediocrity as though it were excellence.

That’s the difference between being “Savannah good” or “Atlanta good” when it comes to quality of musical performance or songwriting skill, but also in terms of staging, lighting, sound system quality, advertising, etc…

I, and all the people I tend to associate with reliably do their level best to be “Atlanta good” whenever we perform or put on a show. We may not always hit that mark, but we try. Too many others –many of them venues and venue owners and managers– don’t even know the difference between the two, and so they reflexively aim low, and then pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

The day that stops being the norm is the day that Savannah feels more like Austin or Athens than it does Statesboro with an art school and some swanky restaurants.

Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to mention?

Sure. In 2020, I am working on bringing a couple of major, nationally known standup comics to town for high-profile seated shows, as well as producing and performing in a couple of large-scale, multi-artist concerts featuring local and regional talent from a wide range of genres.

Before all that, though, I am going to eat some Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cakes.

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