Caustic Heaven

On Songs for a Caustic Guitar, St. Louis popster Geoff Kessell delivers witty lyrics wrapped in good guitar work

This city has its share of hacks who call themselves pop songwriters, those who maliciously rhyme "bad" with "sad" and "love" with "above" (when they should be rhyming it with "shove"). It's sad, and it makes us feel bad. But others understand and appreciate a good rhyme-turn, and one of the best hasn't gotten nearly his due, mainly because he seldom plays out anywhere other than Borders and, until last year, was saddled with an all-consuming job as co-owner of Whiz Bam! video. His name is Geoff Kessell, and over the course of three full-lengths, he's gradually blossomed.

Those who frequented Whiz Bam! knew Geoff as the grumpy one with an encyclopedic knowledge of video, and those who ended up talking to him at any length soon learned that his mental encyclopedia contained an equally vast music section; his understanding and appreciation of guitar pop is amazing and refined (on his list of classics, according to his press packet, are the Zombies' Odessey & Oracle, Love's Forever Changes, the Byrds' Younger than Yesterday and the Who's great early pinnacle, Sell Out). You can hear it on all three of his releases: Pop-Gun, Instant Karma Sutra and the recent, fantastic Songs for a Caustic Guitar.

Kessell combines the raw energy of early Elvis Costello with the bitter wit of late-'70s Graham Parker and the patience of classic John Hiatt. On A Caustic Guitar, a four-track recorded release featuring Kessell on acoustic guitar with augmented overdubs, he shines, especially on the remarkable "Landlocked," a song that captures the essence of St. Louis; its tone is grumpy middle-of-the-summer why-the-hell-is-it-so-humid?: "Landlocked in every direction/drydocked with no protection/Mother Nature's unwilling slaves/riding the crest of the crashing heatwaves." The other gem (among many) is the should-be classic "The Big Apology." On it, Kessell proves that he can fiddle with structure and style and understands how to turn a cookie-cutter sentiment into something unique.

Last week Kessell opened for Darden Smith at Generations. His next gig will be at Borders Books & Music-Clayton on Saturday, Nov. 4. For all information on his comings and goings, check his Web site,

NELLY NIXED: If the incident wasn't so sad from start to finish, it would just be laughable: Two camps, woefully out of touch with the other, butt heads, and a third reports it, offering unintentionally comic relief. Last week, Nelly's handlers requested an official proclamation from Mayor Clarence Harmon in celebration of the rapper's triple-platinum Country Grammar. The mayor balked, citing Nelly's potty-mouth.

Now, we all know that Mayor Harmon's not the most ghetto of the city's politicians, but we figured that by now he would have at least heard of Nelly: the local news stories, the Post's features, the RFT's naming him "St. Louisan of the Year." You'd think someone at City Hall would have a clue as to who this Nelly cat is. A conversation with Tom Keller, Harmon's director of communications, though, reveals the truth: When the request from Nelly's people arrived, no one knew Nelly from Garth Brooks. "Unfortunately, we didn't have anybody on the staff who was literate about rap music," says Keller. "So we're running around trying to -- who's Nelly? We had literally no knowledge of him, and so it's not a question of making a commission of, 'Oh, we deliberately denied ...' It was more an omission, where we don't have any information here."

For their part, though, Nelly's management staff should shoulder some of the blame; they wanted the proclamation to be issued while the rapper was in town for the Gateway Classic football game a few weeks back but made the request a mere 48 hours before his scheduled appearance. Even the punctuality-challenged rapper, who's always at least two hours late for any event, should realize 48 hours is a mere millisecond in Central Bureaucratic Time. The mayor's office received the request, and then, continues Keller, "They called the next day and said, 'We gotta have it by 5 o'clock.' Well, it just could not be done. We just can't do it that fast." (Calls to Nelly's management went unreturned.)

The third leg of the tripod was there from the get-go, providing equally absurd play-by-play: the Post. A Monday editorial supported the mayor's decision; aside from quoting the chorus to Nelly's "St. Louie" and acknowledging that "grown-ups just don't understand," though, it offered little in the way of thoughtful analysis, other than "Good for him." The paper's oblique references to the offensive song, "Country Grammar (Hot Sh*t)," were ridiculous; the first stated that "one of Nelly's songs on his Country Grammar CD referred to fecal matter." In another, they explain that the title is a "common barnyard epithet." Wha? Don't any of you know what "hot shit" means?

Ultimately, it was the mayor's ultraconservative rationale that took the prize; he came off sounding not like the mayor of an urban center where rap is the soundtrack but a backwards-assed John Ashcroft; he told the Post, "Just because you're platinum ought not to get you some recognition if what you say is offensive. I couldn't really provide the city's blessing on something like that." Sure, if you take the message literally, but if he'd actually listen to the record, which he apparently hasn't, he'd see that one of the overarching themes of Country Grammar is steering clear of the temptations of the street in favor of earning an honest living ("Makin' money with my brain instead of 'caine, now"). Not that Nelly deserves a proclamation -- who cares about an empty city honorarium anyway? But in this city, that message, delivered in a language his followers understand, deserves one.

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