An obituary doesn’t always capture a life.
The one for Harry Wilton Perkins Jr., better known as “Electro,” is sparing in its details. The date and place of his death: Nov. 19 at Duke Regional Hospital. His date of birth: Sept. 5, 1947. His parents’ names: Harry Wilton and Hazel Mettie Reese Perkins. His military service: US Air Force. Survivors: Half-sister Ann Tom and close friend Donny Harris. Mention of a sister, Carolyn Messinger, who preceded him in death. The most important part of Electro’s official biography might be the fact he was a musician. Oh, and the obituary notes that the deceased was a member of Roxboro Baptist Church, where he was baptized on March 5, 1961. Age 13, if you’re doing the math.
It’s the final detail that elicits audible laughter from Rex Kirkman, who came to pay his respects at College Hill Sundries in Greensboro on Sunday afternoon.
“I can’t imagine my life without Electro,” Kirkman said.
He was 9 when he first met Electro, a journeyman musician and raconteur who partied with, made music with and crashed on the couches of at least three generations of Greensboro residents.
“He was somewhat of a fount of wisdom,” Kirkman said. “He was good at warning me about the obstacles. He played dobro and blues guitar. I played harmonica with him.”
Even that prosaic appraisal doesn’t quite capture Electro, and Kirkman paused for a moment to reach for the more mystical dimensions of the man.
Kirkman recollected the details about a time when he was living in South Dakota and had gotten into a fight with his girlfriend. He was driving across the open country when he discovered the roadside was trashed with empty bottles and cans. Being someone who can’t stand litter, he decided to clean up the mess. He turned on the radio, and couldn’t believe his ears. It was the sound of Electro’s dobro and Rich Lerner, another Greensboro musician, singing — two old friends transmitting over the airwaves from a radio station in Rapid City. Kirkman tossed the bottles and cans into the back of his pickup, before resuming his quest.
“Then I climbed up on a butte and talked to an eagle,” he recalled.
Dozens of Electro’s friends, fellow musicians, understudies and surrogate daughters who drove him to Walmart to get his medications and brought him food during the last year when he was battling cancer crowded into College Hill, sharing stories through laughter and mouthfuls of shepherd’s pie.
“He kicked cancer’s ass,” a friend, Jaime Coggins, noted. “He was getting his strength back and a sneaky little blood clot took him down.”
Old friends embraced after seeing each other for the first time in years. They admired photos, including one that showed Electro’s fingers bending the strings of his guitar under a wash of garish lighting.
“You can see the eighth notes!” Kirkman enthused.
Jim McHugh, a member of Electro’s band the Circuit Breakers, describes him as well as anyone in an essay posted with the photos as “friendly legend of my youth — and everyone’s. Originator and keeper of the deep Greensboro Motherf***er Vibe, Electro’s spirit howled somewhere inside me every time I put slide to strings for the past 15 years — and he was still kicking. So from here on out, when I slide-on, I’ll feel his noisome ghost kicking my ass into that higher gear at which he existed, and I’ll make a go at playing with something that approaches his level of HUGE-BALLS-iness.”
Electro transcended generations of musicians in Greensboro, hanging out and playing slide guitar with Bruce Piephoff in the early ’70s, rooming down the hall from guitarist Sam Frazier in the midst of the creative apex of the Tate Street scene later in that decade, and then teaching the blues to a new generation of punks when his former peers had professionalized their game and drifted from the scene.
Electro taught McHugh and his friends “open-tunings and slide guitar and the John Lennon barre chord.” He played music in a way that makes today’s indie-rock bands seem careerist in comparison. He would gather up a crowd at the bar at closing time, and relocate to a friend’s place with a fridge stocked full of beer. With Electro on slide guitar, someone else might join in on the tambourine or spoons. Or plug in an electric guitar and amp on a friend’s front porch at 10 a.m., and crank it all the way up.
McHugh’s description of a Circuit Breakers gig at College Hill Sundries almost 20 years ago captures the bridge Electro built from old-school blues to avant-garde noise.
“Judging by my bewildered beer-swollen mug in the photo here, we Circuit Breakers are nearing that confused and furious 20-minute mark of ‘Gloria’ or ‘The Thrill is Gone’ or “Funk 49’ or something like that, and right at this moment, s***’s probably sounding insane like redneck ‘Sister Ray’ or accidental early Sonic Youth,” McHugh writes, “and Electro is trucking on with us, full on — as ever.”