Jack & Greg, summer '91, Dunlap Apt. Building. Pre-Gamblers outside the kitchen window on the fire escape which overlooks "Jay-Wags," Memphis' raunchiest gay bar! (photo: Baco Bryles)
THEY WERE MEAN. Goddamn, the Compulsive Gamblers were mean. Mean and pissed off. The song titles on this compilation tell the story: they were sour and vicious; scared of themselves and drunk with the poison of cheap liquor and cheap women; obsessed with self-loathing and death and loneliness. They sang of dark shadows and blood, murder and sex, and slapped it all together with scraping guitars, horror-show violin, and an organ retrieved from hell's roller rink. Even when they got around to writing a song about having a good time, they sang and played it as
Jack & Greg during photo shoot for Joker EP. (photo: Sheperd Simmons)
if the possibility of having one was an absurd notion, about as likely as finding a dollar in a hot batch of dog shit.

For a short while in the early '90s, the Gamblers made Memphis rock and roll dangerous again. Over the course of two EPs, one single, and a handful of raucous shows, they obliterated the memory of nearly everything that had come before them: the art-slop rockabilly of Panther Burns; the
Jack & Greg, May 1991. We looked and sounded so ugly it was hard to get musicians to make a commitment with us. It was pretty obvious we had a drunk-minded band going nowhere but down, and I believe our songs reflect that. (photo: Baco Bryles)
Beatle-pop angst of Big Star; the rolling funk of the Stax/Volt collective; even the harrowing Sun sessions by Howlin' Wolf-- they all seemed like remnants of a long-gone era when compared to the trash-can turmoil and punk rock fury of the Gamblers' finest moments.

The group didn't pop out of nowhere, but they may as well have. Both Jack Yarber and Greg Cartwright played in various bands in Memphis and Mississippi (Jack's first high school band was the wonderfully named Johnny Vomit and the Dry Heaves) before hooking up to form the Painkillers in 1990. They would play under a variety of names before settling on the Compulsive Gamblers in 1991. By January the next year, Yarber and Cartwright were joined by violinist Greg Easterly, keyboardist Philip "Flipper" Tubb, and drummer Rod Thomas and started recording songs in the kitched of Cartwright's midtown Memphis apartment. Four months later, a four-song EP dubbed Joker was released on the band's Boiler Room label, a seven-inch chunk of white vinyl wrapped in a yellow sleeve featuring a shirtless Cartwright wearing a Lone Ranger
The Compulsive Gamblers outside of the Dunlap Apt. Building take a break from recording. Left to right: Jack Yarber, Jeff Harris, Greg Cartwright, Rod Thomas, and Greg Easterly. (photo: Sarah Peterson)
mask and jester's hat. (A second cover featured some cool cover art by Memphis artist and filmmaker Mike McCarthy).

Joker was perhaps the best thing to come out of Memphis since Al Green found God and dumped Willie Mitchell. From the opening squall of "Bad Taste" to the aching, unnerving "Walking the Balustrade," Joker roared and rocked and screamed and kicked like no other piece of punk rock junk on the planet. Cartwright's "Sour and Vicious Man" spun a tale of love and death that lived up to the title, while the band's version of Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole" shimmied like a thousand dirty garbagemen on an after-work bender. The record distilled a hodge-podge of influences-- everything from vintage blues and soul to Johnny Thunders, the Sonics and Billy Childish-- into something that kicked with instant familiarity but carved a singular niche into the foundation of trash-rock history.

The record got the Gamblers a few out-of-town gigs and found its way into the hands of a small but fanatically loyal bunch of locals. The shows that followed walked a thin line between
"Music sounds better before you have an idea of what it should sound like." --Greg Cartwright (photo: Marty Perez)
chaos and control, smashing the
Fields Trimble with the Gamblers, March 1993, at the Antenna Club, Memphis. (photo: Marty Perez)
band's soul across both sides. Live, the band wore charisma like Elvis wore sideburns. Yarber, Mr. Bad-Ass incarnate in wraparound shades and a low-slung Flying V, spitting out "Bad Taste" like the words were rotting his throat. Cartwright, eyes clinched tight, face into the make, digging deep into "Sour and Vicious Man" and pulling out a heart stained with blood, beer and ashes. Tubb beating the shit out of a shrieking keyboard; Easterly drawing mournful sounds from a battered violin; Thomas thrashing out the beat in all the right places and some well-chosen wrong ones. The shows were noisy, abrasive and intense affairs, the unforgettable stuff of legend. They made women lose their clothes
Jimmy Enck (left) and Sunrise Gervis AKA "The Bluff City Horns." (photo: Marty Perez)
and men climb from the audience and onto the stage in an alcohol and feedback trance, determined to become part of the madness.

The Gamblers' next EP, Church Goin', was put out by a Memphis fan on the one-shot Lemon Peel label. Recorded in the same kitched as Joker, and featuring a new lineup which added Fields Trimble on bass, the four songs offered a freeze-frame of psychological decay and degeneracy, with cleaner fidelity that sacrificed
The Compulsive Gamblers "live in concert" at the late great "world famous" Antenna Club, Memphis, March 1993. (photo: Marty Perez)
none of the band's bite. Yarber's "Name a Drink After You" had a title worthy of George Jones but an edge that would've scared even the alcohol-drenched Possum; his "Scaring Myself" was a white-boy punk-rock blues with more balls than anything on Jon Spencer's first album.

Still, Church Goin' belonged to Cartwright, whose "Capone's Finest" and "Dead Waltz" pack the verbal wallop of Bob Dylan's scariest mid-'60s stuff and the emotional punch of a man who's just made his own coffin. If you're looking for the roots of Oblivians cuts like "No Reason to Live" or "Plate in My Head," you'll find them here.

"After carelessly leaving behind my Flying-V on the sidewald at Cleveland St. & Peabody Ave., while sifting through someone else's trash, it was clear to me the next morning to either stop the Gamblers or stop drinking." --Jack Yarber (photo: Marty Perez)
Unfortunately, Church Goin' was released just as the group began to fragment. Thomas and Easterly had been living in New Orleans for a while and grew tired of making the seven-hour trip to Memphis for gigs, and Trimble had moved to New York City. By the summer of '93, the Gamblers officially folded. Their demise was made even more painful after hearing the posthumously released single which paired "Good Time" and "Mind in the Gutter." Recorded at Easley Studios just as the band was breaking up, it should have signaled a new era. Instead, it stuffed a cork in the era that was.

"Good Time" moved to the band's toughest, tightest groove, with a squawking saxophone riding a monstrous, frat-daddy beat. But Cartwright's intense vocal made it the most disturbed party record ever released. Listen to his screams just before the band clamps down on the riff. Those aren't the screams of a man about to go out and raise hell and get drunk and screw around; it's the
THE COMPULSIVE GAMBLERS, Memphis, Tennessee, 4/93 (photo: Marty Perez)
roar of a sad son a a bitch who's lived too long without the luxury of having a good time, who's forgotten what the whole damn concept even means.

The formation of the Oblivians made the reality of a Memphis with no Gamblers easier to grasp. Of course, it helped that the Oblivians' more deranged moments ("Song Inside," "No Reason to Live," "Blew My Cool") were throwbacks to the kind of mental piledrivers the Gamblers used to whop all over Memphis club dwellers. Now we have Gambling Days Are Over, which is more than just a document of those sweat-soaked nights. Play it loud, with the lights down low and the blood-alcohol level high and you'll find the clammy hands of the Compulsive Gamblers grabbing your neck, pulling you through the wall of piercing cacophony and into the soul pure rock and roll genius.

-- John Floyd

1. Telstar (Joe Meek)
lead guitar: Greg Cartwright; rhythm guitar: Jack Yarber; drums Rod Thomas

2. Bad Taste (Bar-Kays, arr. Compulsive Gamblers)
vocal, sax: Jack Yarber; lead guitar: Greg Cartwright; drums Rod Thomas; organ: Phillip Tubb

3. Down in the Hole (Tom Waits)
guitar, vocal: Jack Yarber; organ: Greg Cartwright; drums: Rod Thomas; violin: Greg Easterly; hooter: Phill