In an age dominated by faceless indie rock bands, the Lanternjack emerged from Rockwood, Michigan, playing a brand of tough, no-holds-barred rock ’n’ roll that hasn’t been heard in the Motor City since the 1970s. Their raucous sound could almost be called Detroit Roots music, hearkening back to the glory days when Iggy Pop, Wayne Kramer, and Mitch Ryder were packing them into the Grande Ballroom in downtown Detroit. There’s something for everyone in the Lanternjack music. “Their music,” wrote Shannon McCarthy in Real Detroit Weekly, “runs the gamut from stoner rock to 70s classic rock to the doom and gloom of ’80s eyeliner rock.” The Lanternjack’s music brings out the best and the worst in its audience, from fanatic devotion to beer bottles smashed on the lead singer’s face. But it’s all part of the fun of Motown raunch music.
Singer Flying Johnny Flash is the genius—at least one of them—behind the Lanternjack. Born and raised in the grimy blue-collar suburbs of downriver Detroit, Flash came of age at a time when the second wave of American punk bands were making their presence felt, groups like Hüsker Dü, the Minutemen, the Circle Jerks, and Suicidal Tendencies. Like many another blue-blooded American youth, Johnny looked at the rock life, liked what he saw, and decided to become a star himself. He got himself a bass, and eventually switched over to guitar, all the while writing songs and singing them. When he got together with three other musicians to form a band called Yellow No. 5, a perverse kind of chemistry took over. The band released at least one five-song cassette. The band self-destructed, however, ditched by its guitarist, Vivian Cámaro, who headed off for Chicago.
Following the break-up, Flash was left sitting alone in his living room, wondering what to do next. “I wanted to keep playing,” he told Contemporary Musicians, “’cause I don’t have anything else. I wasn’t going to school or anything. So I started writing songs. Then the Holy Goat came over, started playing drums … and it went from there.” The Holy Goat is the Lanternjack enigma. It would be easy to describe him simply as a drummer who wears a rubber goat mask. But the question then arises: How could any musician play show after show with such abandon while wearing a stifling rubber mask? And why would he choose to? When asked about the Goat, Flash refused to say anything more than: “We can’t tell you who he is.”
Larry Lava rounded out the Lanternjack’s first lineup. “He’s the quiet one, the freaky one,” Flash said. Lava’s previous music experience was minimal. He had never played in a rock band before he joined the Lanternjack. In fact, the band had to teach him how to play bass. He proved a quick enough learner though—he was a guitarist—and before long the band was playing bars and parties, taunting audiences with their excessive style. Their name was something they found in an old dictionary from the 1800s. “Lanternjack” was defined as a mysterious swamp light that deceives a person into thinking he or she is seeing a ghost.
A year or so after the band was formed, in 1999, it released Little Beast on Electric Gate Records. The record’s 12 songs presented a mix of speed metal, punk, and indie rock. The album was made up of short and sweet songs, punctuated by guitar solos, and things usually seemed to end just as they were getting going, which was not at all a bad thing. Flash called the album “an experiment in two-minute songs” and was not entirely satisfied with the results. He feels there was a little too much filler on the record, and that all too often the poor mix overwhelmed some of his vocals. The work was well-received by Detroit music reviewers. “These guys follow in the footsteps of fellow Detroiters… who just want to rock out without the use of synthesizers, sensitivity or melody,” said Mike DaRanco of the Detroit Metro Times, “The debut of the Lanternjack’s Little Beast… represents] the attitude of being raw and trashy with the accompanied presence of a middle finger.”
Little Beast was a kind of stop-off for the band. Although Flash still retains a fondness for tunes such as “Circuit 8,” “Little Beast,” and “Broken Arm,” the Lanternjack now rarely performs songs from the CD. Part of the reason may be that the young band experienced a sort of growth spurt not long after the record was released. Flash decided he had had enough of guitar playing. He wanted to pour all of his manic energy into his vocals. “That’s actually why I started singing,” he explained to Contemporary Musicians,
Members include Vivian Cámaro, guitar; Flying Johnny Flash, vocals; Holy Goat, drums; Larry Lava, bass.
Flash, Holy Goat, and Lava formed band in Rockwood, MI, 1998; released Little Beast, 1999; Cámaro joined group, 1999; recorded Hussy, 2000.
“cause I knew I could get crazier.” Thus toward the end of 1999, Cámaro, the former Yellow No. 5 guitarist, was persuaded to return from Chicago to the Motor City and join his old bandmates.
Around the same time, the band found a new manager, a Detroit gallery owner who was taken by the band’s sense of depraved style. He arranged some studio time for the new lineup and in mid-2000 the Lantern-jack recorded its second album, Hussy. Scheduled for release at the end of the same year, Hussy shows a band hitting its stride. The Lanternjack’s Detroit roots are apparent in songs such as “X-Ray Eyes” and the title track. The echoes of Iggy and the Stooges, the MC5, and Mitch Ryder’s early 1970s bands are unmistakable. The band’s sound is heavier than ever and its playing is more abandoned.
So just where is the Lanternjack coming from?“There are so many influences,” said Flash to Contemporary Musicians. “Like anything from Kiss to Hüsker Dü, we take little things from them. But we turn it into something rockier and less socially conscious.” The Lanternjack is not content to simply play music, however loud and pulsing—these boys come dressed to the nines to put on a show. “This band was formed at the height of indie rock,” Flash explained. “You saw all these bands getting up on stage like they just got out of school, you know what I mean? In their jeans and their T-shirts and their backpacks and it just got boring. That’s pretty much what spawned it. We just wanted to keep pushing it.
“Our live shows are actually gutsier than your typical Detroit rock ’n roll band,” Flash continued. “And I totally think that what Detroit lost in the first place was guts.” No one would accuse the Lanternjack of lacking guts. When the lights dim and the band takes the stage, the crowd sees a band dressed like freaks, a goat playing drums, and an out-of-control singer, bent on pushing the envelope of decency and personal safety. “We were playing this one bar,” Flash recalled, “and apparently I got too close to this guy’s girlfriend. I wasn’t groping her or anything, I was just singing, putting on a show. So they decided to take beer bottles to me and sent me to the hospital.” Flash laughed as he related the story, savoring the memory like some would the thought of a happy childhood Christmas. No beer bottle could stop a Lanternjack show. Flash and the band played on, and only afterward did he realize “my eyebrow was hanging down past my eye [and] I needed stitches.”
Then there was the infamous St. Andrew’s Hall incident. In the middle of the performance at this downtown Detroit performance establishment, the rambunctious audience began spitting beer on Cámaro. Unwilling to remain a passive target, Cámaro let loose a mouthful of brew himself—just as one of the hall’s security people came around the speaker stack. The bouncer got it full in the face and suddenly the guys who were supposed to keep the crowd in line turned against the band. “That really turned into a fiasco,” Flash said. “It was spooky. ’Cause when you’ve got the bouncers against you, anything can happen! But it ended up getting straightened out at the end of the night.”
Flash admits that while there are those who get what the band are doing, there are those who don’t have a clue. Some laugh and others just can’t handle the Lanternjack. “It’s like a sociological experiment,” he said. “It definitely divides people. No one can walk out and go ’I thought they were alright.’ Either they’re gonna hate it or they’re gonna love it.”
When asked about the Lanternjack’s ambitions, Flash answered simply “to take over the universe.” Naturally he would also like to be able to make a living from his music. Maybe the band’s new manager can make it happen. There is talk of a tour of the Midwest. For now, however, Flash looks forward to the release of Hussy. He continues to write songs, the Lanternjack continues to learn them. The tours and the label contract will come in good time. The Universe, too.
Little Beast, Electric Gate Records, 1999.
Hussy, EVOL Records, 2000.
Detroit Metro Times, December 8, 1999.
Detroit News, September 15, 2000.
Real Detroit Weekly, September 14, 2000.
Additional information was obtained through an interview with Johnny Flash on October 1, 2000.
—Gerald E. Brennan
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