Concert preview: Debauched rockers Barbed Wire Dolls reform for one night to pay tribute to fallen drummer
From the beginning, Barbed Wire Dolls wasn't built to last.
"Coming into [the group] we were already steeped in trouble," said singer Johnny Weills, who will join bandmates Joe Maple (bass) and Jeffery Alan Dutton (guitar), along with drummer Zach Shriner stepping in for the late Johnny Bernardo, for a one-off reunion show at Ace of Cups on Friday, Oct. 23. "All of us drank heavily and imbibed other substances heavily. And aside from the whole intoxication element of it, we were always the guys that would go out and start trouble. A lot of it was intended to be good-hearted mischief, but it didn't always end up that way. There were a lot of people in town who were like, 'Man those guys are fucking scary.'"
The rowdy rock 'n' rollers' early '90s concerts, in turn, tended to be riotous, debauched affairs that frequently left both the venue and the musicians themselves battered and streaked in blood.
"The bar owners dreaded us playing," said Weills, who had a habit of smashing bottles onstage and rolling in the broken glass, giving venues like Stache's and Apollo's the appearance of a particularly brutal crime scene. "There was one time we played Stache's … and I'm knocking back shots and just slamming the glasses on the ground. On the third song everything went dark, and when I came out of it I remember looking out and seeing … people [in the audience] doing the most heinous shit. One guy had his tongue down this girl's throat, and in the back there were people on the pool table practically getting it on while there's a fight going on in the other corner."
This reckless attitude spilled over into ferocious songs like "Pissing Out the Poison," recorded by Afghan Whigs bassist John Curley in 1990 and later adopted by New Bomb Turks, which adapted the name for the title of its 1995 compilation album Pissing Out the Poison: Singles & Other Swill. "I've been bleeding out the poison," Weills growls on the track as Bernardo mimics a weirdly organized stampede and Dutton threatens to reduce his guitar to kindling.
"They were definitely loud and fast and high-energy," said Curley, who witnessed a handful of the group's shows at Cincinnati venues like Bogart's (the Dolls also opened for Afghan Whigs on at least one occasion). "It wasn't like watching a band in a bar; those guys were always playing to a much bigger room."
This rock 'n' roll attitude extended into everything from the band's appearance - the musicians all had long hair and typically dressed in leather, tattered denim and assorted ratty T-shirts - to the way the members carried themselves around town.
"We established this essence almost like we were a mini-gang," Weills said. "We were not to be fucked with, and we were going to do what we were going to do, whether people liked it or not."
"They were like real fucking rock stars, even though no one knew who they were except for a few of us," said New Bomb Turks bassist Matt Reber, who was still a teenager when he first encountered Dutton at a houseparty in the late '80s. ("The first thing he says is, 'LSD got a hold on me,' and I was like, 'Fuck. Who is this guy?'"). Sometime later, Reber witnessed the guitarist walking down High Street with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a woman on each arm - or so he believes. "Maybe I made that image in my mind," he said of the scene, which plays like a vignette from an early Guns N' Roses video.
True or not, it certainly fits the band's image, and the debauchery in Barbed Wire Dolls' music had a tendency to mirror the turmoil in the members' lives.
"I had the attitude, 'I'm not going to make it to 21,' and I definitely didn't think I'd end up here at 47," said Weills. "Some of us went through stints in rehab because the drug thing got to the point where it was a full-blown heroin addiction."
"There certainly was [that element of danger] in the music, but not in a bad way. It was just very chaotic and rock 'n' roll," Curley said. "You sort of got the vibe from them that someone might just wander off and not come back."
In a sense, this is precisely what happened. With major labels starting to express an interest in the band, the members parted ways sometime in the mid-'90s and scattered across the states, with Dutton and Maple logging time in Chicago before arriving in Memphis and Minneapolis, respectively, and Weills venturing from Tucson to San Francisco to Los Angeles before returning to Columbus in 2005. Bernardo, for his part, settled in Pickerington, which remained his home until his 2010 death at the age of 50.
"I think a lot of us never got to say a proper goodbye to him, and that's one of the big reasons I want to do the show," Weills said.
Despite the heavy hearts, expect this reunion gig to serve as a freewheeling celebration, and a reminder of the chaos Barbed Wire Dolls could conjure onstage.
"They were the shit for whatever that small amount of time was [in the early '90s]," said Reber, noting the influence the band's music had on New Bomb Turks ("You could say some of our early songs were sped-up Barbed Wire Dolls riffs"). "They were just a pure rock 'n' roll band, for better or worse."
Ace of Cups
9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 23
2619 N. High St., Old North
ALSO PLAYING: Betty Machete & the Angry Cougars, The Whiteouts