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Rock Like a Man 

The Paybacks' Wendy Case makes up for lost time.

Wendy Case:  It's Payback time for the onetime Akronite.
  • Wendy Case: It's Payback time for the onetime Akronite.
Singer-guitarist Wendy Case is at home onstage. The Telecaster slung across her long shoulders jabs the air, and her downstroking arm and lanky torso set off the flash of limbs and hard edges. Her mouth is cracked as if caught in mid-sneer; a shock of bowl-cut hair falls about her face. It's Iggy Pop as portrayed by Laura Dern.

Case's band, the Paybacks, unleash a scabrous racket of overcharged R&B, glam strut, and hook-heavy riffage that blends Thin Lizzy, T. Rex, and Cheap Trick into one furious, liquor-keyed throwdown. Astride the mic stand, Case stalks the edge of the stage, lips pursed, unleashing a feral rasp of barbed wire and glass doused in whiskey.

Her hoarse, wizened growl is well suited to the band's full-throated rock. She doesn't welcome the spotlight, she attacks it. As the title of the Paybacks' forthcoming third album suggests, it's about Love, Not Reason.

"There's no half-stepping for us. If we're going to bother to put our carcasses in the van, we're going to blow it out," Case says. "You reach a point where, if you're not doing this because you love it, you really should find something else to do with your time."

For Case, the love began when she was a child, growing up in Akron and, later, in the foothills of North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. A tall, skinny tomboy, she found a way to relate to the world through rock. For an awkward, attention-starved kid, the stage was the most socially acceptable way to scream Look at me! Look at me!

"I discovered not only could I do this, but the better I got at it, the more people paid attention," she says. "It's the one time where I feel completely at ease. When I'm on that stage, I know what I'm doing. That's really the only time when I know 100 percent."

Case proudly proclaims that she's never done things the easy way -- though she admits that was pretty much unavoidable, given her stubborn nature.

"I'm one of those people absolutely unwilling to take anyone else's word for it. I'm not going to believe that heroin is a bad idea until I've spent 13 years trying to unlearn how to do it."

She finally got clean in 1998, after years of drifting in and out of addiction and enduring every kind of junkie disgrace imaginable; she even shot up bleach once. By 1999, she started the Paybacks. Their first two albums were good but not great, failing to capture the band's furious live presence. In the studio, something was always missing. Case doesn't know whether they discovered it on Love, Not Reason, but she believes it's the best thing the band has ever recorded. Due out in November, the album, born of a painful breakup, traces a relationship's entire trajectory and palette of emotions.

"The ups and downs, the perils and pleasures of love, and what it means. It's kind of fully encompassing, down to trying to forget about somebody and just fuck the pain away," Case says. "A guy who was playing in the band for a while told me that a lot of it was heartbreaking, but overall his feeling about the record was that it's triumphant. That's the way I feel about it."

It's as adventurous as anything the Paybacks have attempted, from the chunky, garage-psych of "Bring It Back" to the bluesy, rocket-fueled rave-up "Like a Man." Case says the progression is their attempt to grow up as a band as well as individuals. In either case, the alternative ain't pretty.

"There was a certain rocker of some status around here, who had been around since the '60s," Case recalls. "My old band, Ten High, played a couple shows with this guy, and he was still wearing the leather pants, with a big slurve lopping out over his belt. So he was stuffing his fat stomach way down into the pants so it looked like he had elephant cock. It was grotesque. My band dubbed him 'The Leather Sausage.' And it stuck."

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