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Wrong Said Ed: Hamell on Trial is set to mouth off about a few of his least favorite things.

Please, Hamell, Don't Hurt 'Em

One-man punk band Hamell on Trial took on the world. At last count, he's up five to nothing.

By Mike Connor

Like a judge's gavel cracking the block, so descends Ed Hamell's furious wit on the heads of the real evildoers. Warmongering world leaders, no-talent starlets, morally bankrupt CEOs, people who talk in movie theaters--even your kids aren't safe from this native New Yorker's tongue-lashings, if the song "I Hate Your Kid" is any indication. But if there's one thing that Hamell hasn't been accused of, it's mincing words.

In a song called "Halfway," in which he makes fun of Hollywood starlets, Hamell sings, "Take the movie's name / tattoo it on your labia / spread your legs for the camera / what difference would it make? / I mean fuck it--why go halfway?"

That last bit is the same ethos that compels him to take things to their logical extremes, a sort of Kantian approach for the new millennium--an era about which this acoustic singer/songwriter/spoken word artist remains hopeful.

And therein lies the beauty of this rare and prickly beast.

Because while the nihilists are busy throwing weasels in your bathtubs and pissing on your rugs, and suburban gangstas are accelerating the decline of Western civilization with their ghetto fabulous gats and ho's, and the neopunk bands whine about how hard it is to get a date, Ed Hamell is the loving father smacking America's chubby little hand as it reaches for its 9 mm rattle. His newest release and fifth solo acoustic album Tough Love (on Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe Records) breaks it all down for everyone in terms that a child can understand.

On the album's first track, "Don't Kill," Hamell is the voice of God booming down from the heavens: "What part of 'Thou Shalt Not Kill' don't you understand?" he asks the Christians, Muslims and Jews. And like a patient kindergarten teacher, he tries to help: "Is it the 'Thou' part that threw you? / 'Thou' means 'You' / Is it the 'Shalt Not' part that confused you? / 'Shalt Not' means 'Don't!'"

Come to think of it, four out of 16 songs deal with God, death (or near it) and the afterlife.

"I'm in my existential period," quips Hamell. "Between 9/11, the birth of my son and almost dying in a car accident, it's very difficult not to gravitate towards things having to do with mortality."

But Hamell's relationship with God is difficult to nail down; if he approves of at least one of the Almighty's decrees ("Don't Kill"), he doesn't see much evidence of his existence. ("A Little Concerned, That's All"). In the parallel universe of "There is a God," Hamell shows us his vision of a just world--having realized the errors of their ways, heads of multinational corporations built schools, burned their suits and went to work in hospitals, while corrupt politicians and evil usurpers "killed themselves--it was the least they could do."

Grim, sure, but Hamell always stops just short of a Trent Reznor-ish "God is Dead!" lament. So what keeps him from going over the edge?

"That's a good question," he stalls. "Well, my mother was a Catholic and my father was Jewish, so I have enough guilt there. I'm flogging myself as we speak, you know? To blaspheme would be an eternity in Hell, so that's probably what happened."

A die-hard Bill Hicks fan, Hamell is surprised by young comedians like David Cross who, as brave and funny as they are, sometimes get a bit too big for their britches.

"[David Cross] thinks [Judaism] is a bunch of shit and the Torah's a bunch of shit, and I thought, wow, that's kinda weird that someone can be that ... arrogant, to think that the greatest minds of centuries and centuries have dealt with the idea of a deity and religion and faith, and this guy from Atlanta is going 'nananana-nanana,' you know what I mean? I never heard that from Bill Hicks, and I thought, 'I couldn't be that that smart.' That's obviously him thinking he's smarter than us."

Regarding his own sense of politically slanted humor, Hamell is more Michael Moore than Noam Chomsky, believing that "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." Or, when the mood calls for it, a bit of raunchy humor might help get the message across even better.

"My wife is always like, 'Well, if you're going to tell anal sex jokes, you might not get a lot of women out,'" he says. "But they come out."

Mean Streets

Early on, Hamell's fragile mind was shaped by the detective stories of the Raymond Chandler ilk, and later on his moral compass was directed by filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. But when it comes to the gritty stories of good-hearted criminals and 'lude-loaded underdogs that Hamell tells in his songs, it was the crack bar that provided the most material.

"That bar that I worked at was a drug bar," recalls Hamell. "It was blue-collar during the day, and then it would shift around 7, and the whole city of Syracuse would come and fuckin' score crack there and then split. But I really kinda loved those guys. I mean, they were crazy, but being a recovering drug addict myself, I'm attracted to them like Velcro ... they have that sort of 'failed dreams' thing which I think is very real. I find it to some extent organic--or if nothing else, refreshing or honest. So I gravitate toward it a lot."

From the rampaging Bonnie-and-Clyde antics of "Tough Love" to the colorful, coke-snorting heroes of "Choochtown," Hamell's subversive stories put the tyrants down and the underdogs back on top.

"I think this stuff is subversive," says Hamell, "but the most subversive thing that I can think of is The Simpsons, which has ingrained itself into the culture. Somehow that fucking thing can make fun of the Bible, the president ... and yet little kids have action figures in their house and nobody freaks out! So in order to be subversive, I think I'm going to do a children's album."

Not that he ever would, but with his gift of gab and budding paternal instincts, he could make a damn good go of it. By the sound of "Detroit Lullabye," a song for his 2-month-old son, Hamell, for once, holds back the flood of brutal honesty:

You are a baby, barely two months here.
I am your father, and I hold you near.
Someday you'll ask me 'bout the badness in this world.
I'm gonna hold out ... as long as I can.
Nothin' 'bout that stuff ... for as long as I can.

Hamell on Trial performs at Henfling's Tavern on Thursday, Jan. 29, at 8pm. Tickets are $8-$10; call 831.336.8811 to make reservations.

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From the January 28-February 4, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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