In John Wesley Coleman’s world, lots of things are broken. Today it’s his phone, cut off due to non-payment, and the expired tags on his car, which just netted a hefty ticket and has him worried about driving downtown for an interview. Coleman explains his predicament from a borrowed landline, offering an invite to his East Side home instead. There, everything is in shambles—a heap of records, videotapes, newspapers, notepads, half-read books, and bills blanketing every surface—and Coleman makes a futile effort at tidying up, apologizing for his busted eyeglasses, smashed on a recent tour with Coleman’s psych-country outfit Golden Boys. “The Spider Bags’ singer accidentally hit me in the face with his guitar,” Coleman explains with his characteristic laugh: a beery chuckle that says, “Whaddayagonnado?” It’s just one more broken thing in a life full of them.
But then, Coleman is cool with disrepair: A self-described “mechanic of popular culture,” the 32-year-old’s art is defined by its rough assembly, not to mention its fascination with squalor. Coleman even calls himself a “trash poet”—though he dislikes the term “poet” as much as he hates “singer-songwriter” (“It reminds me of all the cottage cheese floating around Sixth Street”)—a sobriquet that best describes his recent release on Monofonus Press, American Trashcan. The combination poetry book and CD (subtitled The Collected Trashy Recordings Of John Wesley Coleman) filters Austin through a gutter-eyed view that could make Bukowski blush. Written while living in a particularly seedy patch of Chicon, Trashcan celebrates a world populated by hopheads, hookers, and homeless schizophrenics, littered with beer bottles and smeared with shit. “It’s all stuff I thought about while waiting at the bus stop,” Coleman says. “Prostitutes and cats and basketball. Cops, rock ’n’ roll, movies. Things people do on drugs and alcohol. Fighting.”
But rather than impart redeeming social messages, Coleman’s instinct is to amuse: The autobiographical poem “X Spot” rehashes the time his dog ate the “sweet offerings” from a “crack addict’s ass” before kissing him on the lips—“so I went to Spider House and dunked my head in some sanitizer that’s supposed to kill AIDS.” The songs walk on the wild side too, alternating between a ghetto-glam strut recalling Coney Island Baby-era Lou Reed and the go-for-broke spirit of early Pavement. Lyrically, Coleman cites inspiration from balladeers like Townes Van Zandt, Scott Walker, and Woody Guthrie (“Two chords and hundreds of stories”), and refers to Lee Hazelwood chiding Leonard Cohen for “writing songs to get women, as opposed to writing songs for women to get.” Similarly, Coleman isn’t writing with fame, fortune, or females in mind: “I just like entertaining people, whether it’s with a broomstick or a drum or a movie or a good story.”
“When I was really young, I used to watch Michael Jackson videos and try to imitate him,” he says. “My family used to pay me to do performances in the yard, so I’d put on a record and jump around. I grew up around a piano, which I didn’t know how to play, so I’d make up my own compositions.” That moxie matured when, during teen years defined by punk and skateboarding, Coleman took up guitar at 14 (“I didn’t know how to tune it until I was 17”) and started creating bands because “I can write songs better than I can cover them.” (Though he has one renowned remake: A “totally fucked-up” version of George Michael’s “Faith,” just released as a 7-inch.) Since then, Coleman has maintained an intimidating creative output: Besides performing solo and with Golden Boys, he’s plotted several more books, experimented with stand-up comedy (“I get drunk and show up with zero material”), produced a “nest” of paintings, and scripted a film about a homeless songwriter, loosely based on local legend Blaze Foley. “I finally saw Last Night At The Alamo and decided it was time for me to do something like that,” he says with a shrug.
Fitting, since if Coleman resembles anyone, it’s those shaggy-dog dreamers of Eagle Pennell’s films—unflappable folks jerry-rigging big ideas from little scraps, like the notes that Coleman is always jotting down. Those scraps have created a life where “I don’t really have dry spells,” and in addition to his considerable ongoing projects, Coleman also has an upcoming Golden Boys release and European tour, a job recording bands for Monofonus, and even the Pennell-esque scheme to “walk in with a brown suit and briefcase and sell a fried chicken jingle.” Yet such larks aside, Coleman’s not looking to “sell out”—even if it means paying that phone bill.
“I got my guitar. It’s not in the pawnshop,” Coleman says, breaking out that laugh again. “Got books, got my friends, I got my dog. Things are good.” Even when it seems like everything’s broken, Coleman’s happy just to rearrange the pieces.