The sordid tale of rock’s must gleefully offensive band and its provocative leader.
Until recently, it’s likely that if you The Mentors at all, it was through the appearance of their eccentric leader El Duce in Nick Broomfield’s Kurt and Courtney documentary, where the portly punk cheerfully fesses up that he had been offered $50,000 by Courtney Love to kill Kurt Cobain. he peddled this story around the media, even passing a lie detector test in the process (not that that means anything), claiming that while he didn’t whack Cobain himself, he knew who did. Then, just eight days after the Broomfield interview, El Duce was decapitated by a freight train as he crossed railway tracks. Such are the coincidences – if coincidences they are – that conspiracy theories are made of. It should be pointed out – if only for legal reasons – that there is no evidence that the claims are true (and there’s plenty of evidence pointing towards it being a publicity stunt) or that there are sinister elements (at least, no more sinister than being decapitated by a train) to El Duce’s demise. Still. Eerie, eh?
After decades of wallowing in obscurity, known only to fans of the fringe elements of the punk and metal scenes, The Mentors and El Duce are having a bit of a moment right now. April Jone’s 2017 documentary about the band, The Kings of Sleaze, has turned up on Amazon Prime, and another movie, The El Duce Tapes – made by Room 237 director Ron Ascher – is now also getting a push through Arrow Films, being available on their channel and as a VHS special edition, which makes a certain artistic sense given that (almost) all the material in it was shot on videotape between 1990 and 1991 when the Mentors were at the peak of their notoriety.
The Mentors formed in 1976, and spent the next two decades honing their act as the first – and perhaps only – purveyors of ‘rape rock’. Essentially, they were a wholesome version of GG Allin – obnoxious, rude, lurid and offensive, but notably lacking in the blood, shit and fighting members of the audience that Allin specialised in. Allin was the Real Deal – living his version of punk rock purity 24/7 because he believed it. The Mentors, by their own admission, evolved into a gleefully offensive band because their original plan – to be a jazz-fusion act – was woefully mistimed and failed to secure gig bookings, let alone an audience. And so a much cruder musical act that mixed hyper-sexual and offensive song lyrics with proto-punk, grungy heavy metal was born, the band all wearing black executioner hoods (white hoods might have been more provocative, but somewhere along the line, a modicum of restraint was shown) as drummer/singer El Duce – born Eldon Hoke – sang about golden showers and rape. Inevitably, the very people that they wanted to upset were upset, even though it was clearly obvious that the band were simply poking the assorted family values and feminist bears to get a reaction. For all their swagger, the band were – thank goodness – all talk and little walk, it seems. Though the lines do remain blurred, especially in the case of El Duce, who was a full-blown alcoholic and rarely sober enough to give a serious account of who he really was as a person. Perhaps, after two decades of playing El Duce on stage, he wasn’t too sure himself. But where the shock tactics ended and real life began is not always clear when you watch the interviews with him. Perhaps he was simply always El Duce and never Eldron when the camera was on.
The Mentors were problematic – ahh, that word! – for many people because their songs seemed to celebrate rape and sexual abuse, their attitudes towards women seemed unreconstructed, to say the least, and El Duce liked to flirt with Nazism. But to take any of this at face value from a band that is obviously trying to cause a reaction is ludicrous – actions speak louder than words, and there is no one out there who is actually accusing El Duce of either rape or racism (it sounds a clichéd excuse, but the band did have black members and no women interviewed have anything bad to say about him) and watching him on video, he seems a pathetic but harmless drunk rather than a malicious one. At times, he has a dangerous Ollie Reed look in his eyes, but even then, there seems little actual threat from the man. He’s a sad figure with a terrible family background that he only briefly seems to want to deal with and fans who understandably bought into the persona and were often enablers, sometimes dreadful exploiters… but he’s not a bad person. Of course, we can cringe as he asks a fellow guest on the Jerry Springer Show – a child-rape victim – if it was possible that he was her rapist, but we should remember that she decided to turn up to that show – not exactly a forum for civilised discussion – specifically to attack the band for what they did. It could be argued that she made herself fair game for verbal abuse under those circumstances. In any case, El Duce clearly revelled in upsetting people, and those who were upset just played into his game. The band even had the lyrics to Golden Shower (“It’s getting near the hour /For a golden shower/I’ve got the righteous power/All through my excrements you shall roam/Open your mouth and taste the foam/Bend up and smell my anal vapour/Your face is my toilet paper”) read out during the PMRC hearings. As the poster for The El Duce Tapes suggests, he was a troll before trolls had a name.
Jone’s film is a retrospective history of the band, who – of course – have carried on without their deceased leader but seem a shadow of their former selves, with new interviews mixed with archive footage. if you want a straight-forward history of The Mentors, this is probably the place to begin. The El Duce Tapes is more specific and perhaps falls into the category of supplementary viewing. It’s made up entirely of videotaped interviews that actor Ryan Sexton carried out with El Duce, other band members and those around them (including an unmasked Gwar). Sexton apparently became friends with El Duce after finding him passed out in his front garden, as you do, and was labouring furiously on this documentary project for these two years before it all fell apart and contacts were lost. I feel for you, Ryan, we’ve all been there. Ascher obtained the tapes, alongside some material from a few years later, and has edited it into a documentary that is both bleak and hilarious – more the former as it goes on and the sheer awfulness of El Duce’s drunken, homeless, pathetic life becomes clearer. In a sense, El Duce became as authentic as GG Allin in the end, just by sheer bad luck and bad lifestyle choices, his addictions rendering him a societal outsider. At times, he’s a funny drunk, with a sharp-witted ability to provoke his detractors and cause outrage, but mostly he’s just a sad character who seemed to be throwing it all away. Even a band as determinedly shambolic and crude as The Mentors might have stood a chance – they put albums out on actual record labels, after all – if they weren’t being led by a drunk who often could barely perform.
If you can take anything from Ascher’s film – and as with all documentaries, we have to be aware that this is an authored piece that selectively chooses what to show us – it is that El Duce was increasingly full of self-loathing at himself, and so drank more, which increased the self-loathing and dragged him into a circular decline. A shame, because The Mentors, when on form, looked damned entertaining, and their records are oddly fantastic slices of bad taste. It strikes me that if you subscribe to an outsider punk rock ethos but then object to the lyrics on a Mentors track, you are probably very, very straight and boring behind your public persona. Just as GG Allin pushed the very idea of anarchic, rebellious, anti-social rock ‘n’ roll to its very limits, so El Duce went to the extremes in his own way. And his death, at least, was as outrageous and ludicrous as you could as for – a fitting way to go for a man who upped the ante on outrageousness.
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