Life In, and After, Lone Justice: Maria McKee and Company Look Back

Maria McKee is warming up to the subject of this band she used to be in… a few decades ago. “I guess sometimes the reason why I can be a little churlish around the whole Lone Justice thing is because it was so bloody long ago. It makes me feel like I’m 500,000 years old!” she laughs. Fortunately, for anyone actually doing the math, “I just started so young” — as in the very tender age of 18, which is how old McKee was when This is Lone Justice: The Vaught Tapes was recorded.

That these sessions are finally being released after 30 years on the shelf is reason to make “tired hearts sing in jubilation,” to quote “Soap, Soup and Salvation,” one of the long-defunct group’s most beloved songs. In the first part of our chat with the key Lone Justice alumni, we focused on the formation of the group and the making of the blissfully rambunctious Vaught Tapes in late 1983, while they were still in a primal and purist state of mind, right around the time they signed with Geffen Records. Of course, those demo sessions that make up the new Omnivore release were just the beginning of the Lone Justice saga, which we pick up in this second part.

“It took us two days to make the record that’s out right now,” recalls guitarist/co-founder Ryan Hedgecock. “We’d do the song two or three times, sing it as good as we could, and move onto the next one. It was super-loose, super-fun, kind of the way it’s supposed to be. And then it took us a year to make the actual Geffen debut,” he adds, less fondly. “I liked about 50 percent of that record – the stuff that really felt like us. We went in and recorded the first part of that album in two or three weeks at the Power Station in New York, and we were all really happy with it. We came back to L.A. and (producer/manager Jimmy) Iovine was like, ‘I don’t like this. We’re not there.’ From that point on, it was probably another 10 months, and it was pure torture at that point.”

The stakes were seen as being even higher than they were for any other major-label signing in the ‘80s. “It was a heady time,” says Hedgecock. “They got songs for our first record from Springsteen, Petty and Dylan! That won’t ever exist in our lifetime like that again. I think we’re the only band that Dylan has ever written a song specifically for, unless it was for the Band. He wrote a song for us, and I mean, that’s just frickin’ bizarre.” The wonderfully frisky Dylan tune in question, “Go Away Little Boy,” was inexplicably cut from the album along with at least a half-dozen great original songs, but at least that one got some exposure as a B-side. Their recording of Springsteen’s “The Way,” meanwhile, remains unreleased, having gotten bogged down in complicated permissions. As for the third tune mentioned, anyone who was around in ’85 remembers their first single and modest MTV hit was Petty’s “Ways to Be Wicked.” The Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench even joined up as a sideman for the better part of two years, as the new songs being recorded shifted toward heartland rock.

The superstar connections got headier still. While the album was still a work-in-progress, Lone Justice appeared on MTV’s Cutting Edge program — first singing their cover of George Jones’ “Nothing Can Stop” on a pickup truck amid hay bales, then going into the studio to show their more hard-rocking side with the original “Cactus Rose.” Says bassist Marvin Etzioni, “That was the tape that Bono saw that made him say, ‘You guys sound like Dolly Parton meets the Who. Sign up and come on tour.’”

Lone Justice was ecstatically received upon its release in 1985, especially in the context of the Flock of Seagulls synth-pop era into which it was birthed. There were those who’d followed the band on the club circuit and were disappointed that most of their country-er songs hadn’t made the record… a feeling shared by some of the band members themselves. But looking at the debut from a non-purist perspective, Iovine appeared to have done a deft job of balancing the original cowpunk with mainstream rock, genres that didn’t necessarily augur for a natural betrothal.

Hedgecock is clear about the hierarchy of Lone Justice albums in his mind. “You could stack those records next to each other — The Vaught Tapes, the (self-titled) Lone Justice album, and then (1986’s) Shelter — and you could see Lone Justice, and then Lone Justice being kind of f---ed with by Geffen and Iovine, and then the final one being Lone Justice as Iovine sees it.”

Hedgecock couldn’t understand why Geffen and Iovine were not in love with the sound the band was forging when they were signed amid a flurry of attention and accolades from the Los Angeles Times and other tastemakers. “Looking back on it now as a 52-year-old man, when I was 22 or 23, I would look at them and say, ‘Hey, you guys do this for a living. Okay, I’ll take your advice.’ Iovine made Easter for Patti Smith and Damn the Torpedoes for Tom Petty. I’m from Torrance High; I’m gonna listen to him! Look, if you’re going out and you’re building widgets, you’re gonna talk to somebody who’s made the best widget and want to learn from them. But that’s the real world. Things don’t work that way in the record business.”

Etzioni, the writer of three of the debut album’s most popular songs (“You Are the Light,” “East of Eden,” “Working Late”), has a philosophical take on what happened. “I don’t want to get into the business side of it,” he says. “But I don’t blame Jimmy. I don’t blame Geffen. When I work with artists now as a producer, I tell ‘em, ‘It’s your responsibility to make a great record. Don’t blame anybody (later), because nobody’s putting a gun to your head.’ I never saw a gun in the studio! A band has to take full responsibility. If you’re willing to give this little band that made the ’83 tapes credit, well, how about taking responsibility for what happened the day after? I don’t think an artist can have it both ways.”

If you’ve followed the many different creative courses that McKee has taken over the years — most of them leading her away from the self-consciously rootsy side of things — it may not surprise you to learn that McKee is the contrarian of this bunch when it comes to an assessment of how compromised the Geffen releases were.

“I think for me personally, I would have gone nuts if the whole album was just (country) two-beat,” she says. “My favorite song on that album is ‘Sweet, Sweet Baby’” (an R&B-flavored song she co-wrote with Steven Van Zandt and Tench). “So, you know, I like the kind of arena-rock stuff on the first Lone Justice record better!” She elaborated on this heretical stand in a recent Facebook post: “Those who know me well understand that ‘country music pioneer’ is not exactly what I would like to see on my tombstone, and I don't share Ryan and Marvin's opinion that all was lost once the suits came on board -- being biased, of course. I love Jimmy and the rock & roll, mainstream or otherwise, on the first LJ record. I even like the second ‘Lone Justice’ album better (even though it's not really Lone Justice) — sacrilege to the fans of early, pre-Geffen LJ, I know. Sorry, folks! I just think it's cool that I was involved with something that people are discussing in terms of pre- and post- and arguing this period over that in an almost academic rock & roll discourse kind of a way.” When the band was in its country purist phase, “I believed in what I was doing with my with my whole heart and soul, at that moment. But then the moment passed and I was experimenting again. As I continue to do, as my fans can attest… frustrated, elated or otherwise.”

While McKee focused on stylistic evolution, the other members were more attuned to what seemed like a “divide and conquer” mentality they believed was being fostered by the so-called suits. Etzioni bailed after the U2 tour. Soon, drummer Don Heffington, Tench, and second guitarist Tony Gilkyson were gone amid the turmoil. By 1986, Hedgecock was the only other member besides McKee who’d been in the band the year before. He too was starting to feel like “This World is Not My Home” as the reconstituted group started work on Shelter, on which he ultimately ended up only playing acoustic guitar on one track. They all agree that in everything but billing, Shelter was, as she puts it, “the first Maria McKee solo album.”

“If you want to talk about weird, talk about me playing with Shayne Fontayne!” Hedgecock says, laughing at the incongruity of how he looked alongside the flamboyant, longhaired lead guitarist who’d later join Springsteen’s Lucky Town-era band. “I remember the first show I did with that (new lineup); I sat down and cried afterwards. I was dressed in my country shirt and my blue jeans, and there’s Shayne with things around his neck. I really like him, and I had no problem with any of those guys,” but it felt like a member of the Buckaroos playing with the Motels. Quitting was still a tough call. “It felt like my only choice was to go back and work for my parents selling furniture. And after opening for U2 at Madison Square Garden, that was kind of a hard thing to swallow… And I had psychological things to deal with. After being mentally beat up by Iovine for a year and a half, my self-esteem and how I viewed myself was based on that. It’s probably just within the last five to seven years that I’ve been able to actually see what happened and recover from it.”

That’s one reason why he finds such satisfaction in the acclaim now greeting This is Lone Justice: “It’s been really nice for me to just have a little taste of like, ‘Hey, you know what, this is what happened, and it was really cool and really fun.’ I’m thrilled to have it out there.”

The seeming tragedy of Lone Justice’s premature dissipation and breakup was largely mitigated by McKee’s oft-brilliant quarter-century career as a solo artist, unbeholden to any single muse for long. In 1989, the self-titled Maria McKee proved a balladic tour de force, followed five years later by You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, which had her rejoining forces with Etzioni and Heffington for a combination of R&B, country, and late ‘60s pop that sounded like what a second Lone Justice album ideally would have been. In-between, she had a No. 1 smash in England with the Days of Thunder soundtrack tune “Show Me Heaven,” while Quentin Tarantino made “If Love is a Red Dress” a highlight of the Pulp Fiction album. And then she suddenly went art-pop with the highly theatrical, Bowiesque Life is Sweet in 1996, which ended her relationship with Geffen.

“It’s been hard for my fans, let’s put it that way,” she says. “I like to think that my career has been a smorgasbord, where there’s a little something for everybody. But it’s been really hard for me to have a commercial success because of it, because I’m constantly alienating one fan base or another. And then there are those rare people that have just been on the entire journey with me, all the way, from the earliest days all the way through to now, with the films. Those people are rare, but it’s a blessing.”

McKee doesn’t have much attachment to her roots as a roots-rocker. “There have been several occasions where there’s been an absolute effort on my part to break up the brand of ‘Maria McKee, Americana artist.’ And Life is Sweet, for me, was the big smash-up. I made Sin to Get Saved because I’d been living in Ireland and was homesick and wanted to come back to the Americana roots, but while I was touring it, that Americana style just felt too boxed in for me. I was young enough to be really impacted by the death of Kurt Cobain. I remembered discovering punk-rock as a kid and I felt like I’d just gotten really far away from that feeling. That’s one of the reasons why Life is Sweet bloomed. I knew that it was going to alienate a lot of people. But it also gained a lot of new fans who weren’t into Lone Justice—or anything prior, really.”

Since the late ‘90s, she’s independently released three studio and two live albums, some leaning toward cabaret theatricality, some more acoustic. Life is Sweet and these indie follow-ups “cost me my much-touted potential for a commercial success,” she says, “but that’s okay. I’m doing it again now, even more. You only have so many years on this planet, and I don’t have kids, so this is how I leave something behind. You have to please yourself. Maybe it’s selfish, but in a way maybe it’s more selfless than the alternative, because I’m giving the fans who do appreciate my work something really from the heart.”

Over the last few years, McKee has given up the usual cycle of recording albums and touring in order to work on a pair of Fellini-esque films made by her moviemaker/musician husband, Jim Akin, creating soundtrack albums and even playing supporting roles on-screen. With 2012’s After the Triumph of Your Birth, she embarked on a short series of combo screening/gigs where the film was followed by McKee and a band taking over arthouses for an hour-long encore. She plans to do that on a wider scale when the film they’re just wrapping up, Beach Girl, is ready to screen this year.

“It’s nice to start an acting career at 48,” she laughs. “People had always wanted me to act ever since I was 15 years old, and I had meetings with every casting agent in town, but I just was never that interested. It’s almost by default now, because Jim needs an actress and I just happen to live with him. It’s exciting, because it was about my career for so long, and now he’s the one doing Q&As and getting a little cult following among young film geeks. The balance has changed, and I kind of like the idea of being the woman behind the great man a little bit… There will be a Maria McKee album that goes with this film. But the music business is kind of over. Sort of done. It’s cooked,” she chuckles. “I’ll always play gigs. But as far as making albums, I’m not gonna go sign with some indie label, because I just think it’s easier to sell ‘em out of the trunk of your car.”

The other two core members of Lone Justice have not strayed so far from roots-rock, although they’ve both strived to do it with a twist. Etzioni’s solo albums have been spaced two decades apart, with the work in between largely focused on producing young bands, the most successful of which was Toad the Wet Sprocket. Currently he’s working with a couple of artists also known for getting their first breaks in the ‘80s, Steve Barton (formerly of Translator) and Les Bohem (a screenwriter who used to be in Sparks and front Gleaming Spires). His last album, 2012’s Marvin Country, featured a guest lead vocal from McKee.

Hedgecock also hooked up with McKee again for a single track put out on the web by his latest incarnation, Rattlesnake Daddy, which combines folk and country with loops and drum machines. After Lone Justice came to a frustrating end for him, he moved to New York and took a decade off from the music business, coming back in the late ‘90s with two acclaimed releases under the band moniker of Parlor James, a collaboration with singer Amy Allison, daughter of Mose Allison. Back in L.A., he started up the Rattlesnake Daddy collective, which is now on hiatus because the club that served as their home base shut down. He’s back in the family furniture business.

But while he was still active with Rattlesnake Daddy, Hedgecock had a series of odd and serendipitous celebrity encounters. He became friends with Billy Ray Cyrus, who wanted to take Rattlesnake Daddy out on tour as an opening act. Hedgecock ended up visiting the Hannah Montana set a few times and rocking out (in an acoustic-conga kind of way) with Miley. One day he was on the Disney Channel show’s set for an episode featuring Dolly Parton. He didn’t expect she’d remember her early ‘89s love for Lone Justice, but she did, and that’s when Hedgecock got the idea to ask her to contribute liner notes for the new Vaught Tapes release.

“One of my friends went up and whispered in her ear that somebody from Lone Justice was there,” Hedgecock says. “Well, Dolly Parton stands up and starts talking to me. Even though I’m literally 50 feet away from her, in in the bleachers while they’re filming, she’s out on the stage just yelling at me for five minutes about how much she loved Lone Justice. And what can I say, but ‘thank you’? She’s just a real, live person who’s in touch. She was the reason why I wanted it to be a country band.”