Gary Fields was gracious enough to create this pitch for a future Scram cover, not realizing the print magazine is on indefinite hiatus. The design was too nifty not to share, so here 'tis.
Go visit Gary's blog to see more of his work.
Nick Tosches, Photo by Michelle Talich
The first work of Nick Tosches's that I ever read was just this last year. Yeah, I know what you're thinking. How could I be in my late thirties and never had read anything by Tosches? Scram readers are an erudite bunch when it comes to all things rock-'n'roll, so you've all probably been fans since his early Creem days, and have no doubt read his books like Hellfire: The Jerry Lewis Story. For the completely pop culture set, you will recognize Tosches from his work as a Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair, where his stories have included the meticulously researched origins of a screen saver, "Autumn and the Plot Against Me: The Mysterious Origins of a Windows Desktop Image."
How did it all begin? I was at the Strand Bookstore searching through the medical section, as I'm currently going to technical school at Bellevue Hospital, when I saw a darkly stylish silhouette on the cover of a book called King of the Jews. I noticed the author was Nick Tosches and remembered the author's name being mentioned by bassist and Dictators founder, Andy Shernoff. After spending my summer vacation reading this uniquely styled biography of Arnold Rothstein, I was hooked. The work delved deeply into subjects ranging from the preternaturally magickal beings known in Judaism as the Elohim, to several translations of Caesar's famous expression as he crossed the rubicon, "The Die is Cast." These may seem like tangential elements of style, but when you examine Rothstein, the Godfather of the Jewish mafia, then you should pray for a whole lot of angels ready to answer your call for help, and a shit load of luck because "the fix" is definitely in.
Afterward, I sought Nick out as a "friend" on MySpace and happily found he had a page. However, at the time it was being managed by a "fan" instead of the man himself. One night after some Jesus Juice I wrote a nice little nasty message (my favorite kind) to this fan, accusing him of masquerading as Tosches and being a fraud. The next morning I got a reply indicating I should pay more attention and look a little closer. Turns out the man himself had recently taken over control of the page, and so began my true friendship with St. Nick.
Deciding to work my way backwards through his catalog I then tackled In the Hand of Dante. This novel is a Great Work, and on Tosches's MySpace page you can hear an audio clip of Johnny Depp reading from the first chapter. Shortly thereafter Nick posted a blog seeking someone to help out with his MySpace page in exchange for "all the beer you can drink." I won the prize, and a day or two later found myself in his Tribeca apartment listening to "That Smell" by Lynyrd Skynrd and talking about everything from the slogan above the entrance to Auschwitz to the Gnostic Gospels. I brought along a copy of The Bellevue Literary Review as an offering, and left with, as he called it, a "bum-sized bottle" of scotch whiskey.
So now, after hoarding my favorite pen-pal for almost a year, it occurred to me that before either he or I get hit by cement truck (or a bicycle messenger), that you faithful Scram readers deserve a little Q & A. So here we go…
MB: The first book of yours I read was King of the Jews, about Arnold Rothstein, which featured the heady days of horseracing at Saratoga and the infamous "fixing" of the World Series. How can good-hearted sports gamblers get a fair shake if so many of these games/races may be fixed, and what sports do you get satisfaction from watching?
NT: Chariot races were probably fixed. It's just another aspect that needs to be factored into gambling when the bet goes down. It's sometimes intrinsic to the aleatory process. Mathematicians talk about the stochastic nature of gambling, the random-probability distributions or patterns inherent in it. But it's not always a stochastic helix. For the gambler it can be a double helix, a double stochastic helix: the random-probability-pattern helix and the helix of the fix, which cancels out the other helix for the very, very few who are aware of it, but which only compounds the stochastic quandary for the vaster many, the outside-dope gamblers. It's as they say, "fair" is where the hicks go to see the pigs race.
I sometimes get satisfaction from watching professional football, both the NFL and soccer, and sometimes from watching a good horse-race.
MB: Is sobriety the new drug? My relatives take presciption drugs like oxycontin and percoset. Am I an idiot for not shaving a few pills off the top? What gives you satisfaction?
NT: If you define sobriety as a state of calm and clarity, I don't see too many people out there who are sober. The world's on speed. I'm not necessarily talking about meth. Sure, there are people out there shooting, snorting, and popping speed, washing it down with Red Bull or whatever. But even those who aren't seem to be spun out on some sort of culturally and cerebrally induced adrenalin overload. All these people jittering blindly down the street jabbering into cellphones. If a drunken, drug-addicted fool gets off the booze and the shit, he or she is still a fool, a sober fool maybe, but still a fool.
No, you're not a fool for not shaving a few of those pills off the top. Though, even if you didn't put them down your own gullet, you could probably make a few bucks off them.
Through the years I have been called both an alcoholic and a drug-abuser by various characters, both doctors and people who didn't try to pick up members of the target sex by sticking stethoscopes in their breast pockets like foulards. Whatever. The truth is I get the most satisfaction from being clear and lucid--what I've defined as sober--and alcohol and hard drugs can never be a part of that. Never. But I also derive satisfaction from getting fucked-up, wading in oblivion, getting drunk and maybe snorting a little smack every once in a while, maybe a few times a year. There's a price to pay for that, however, and I'm not talking in terms of dollars but in terms of physical and psychic after-effects. Calm and clarity are free, and if you can lead yourself to them, they in turn lead to further freedom, true freedom. I also enjoy one or two glasses of good wine now and then, a glass or two of really good wine, which doesn't interfere with the calm and the clarity. Cheval Blanc. Margaux. Haut-Brion. If you want to get in my good graces, give me a bottle of any of those. I enjoy reefer sometimes, but I smoke it only very rarely. Lately my favorite cocktail, taken in solitude when circumstances grant me some time to relax, is a glass of cold milk and a Valium. My favorite drug is opium--real opium, good opium--but you can't get it, not in this part of the world. So, yeah, I get my greatest satisfaction from calm and clarity, which, like opium, are hard to come by.
Nick Tosches with Opium Master Chiang
MB: What music gives you satisfaction from listening to these days?
NT: I listen to Bach cello suites. Only his cello suites. The rest of his shit: fuck it. A little Arvo Part. A lot of rock 'n' roll, mostly old stuff. I've got a playlist of sixty-five of my favorite rock-'n'-roll songs, Nick's Picks, on my computer. Another playlist of thirty-five Stones songs. Another of twenty-six Dylan songs. I listen to whatever I want to hear at any given moment, whatever the breezes lead me to, whatever the demons demand.
MB: Who are your literary influences? Can you touch on your relationships with other journalists as well, e.g. Hunter Thompson, Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer.
NT: My literary influences are, off the top of my head and in no particular order, Hesiod, Sappho, Christopher Marlowe, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, Charles Olson, and God knows who else.
I never really knew Hunter.
Lester was a lost soul. If he wasn't such a pain in the ass, I would have felt more sorry for him than I did. De mortuis nil nisi bonum…
Richard is one of the most brilliant characters around. We haven't spoken much in the last few years, but that's only because he now lives far away and I've become increasingly telephonophobic. Whether we talk or not, he's still like a brother to me, and I love him. We went through a lot together: the best of it, the worst of it, and everything in between.
MB: You like Obama, but don't you think that in the down and dirty world of politics that a two-faced hypocrite like Hillary Clinton is the best one to handle the snakes of Washington considering she is one? Which socio-political philosophy gives you the most satisfaction?
NT: "Like" is maybe too strong a word, but, yeah, O.K., let's go with it. That said, I like Obama only because I so dislike the other two lying assholes. We need some new lying-asshole blood. Not that it will do much good: this country's had it. But, speaking of old songs, don't start me talking. And no, Hillary Clinton is not my hypocrite of choice. She is indeed one of the snakes, but she will not "handle" them in any way that is beneficial to anyone but her and them. But people are so fucking stupid that the whole situation is hopeless. Working-class flotskies in the sticks actually believe she's on their side, one of them. I don't know who should be shot first, her or them. Fuck it.
MB: I originally believed your name was pronounced TOE-sches until we met and learned it is pronounced TAH-sches. What is the origin of your name?
NT: The name is Italian, with distant roots in ancient Albania, across the Adriatic from Puglia, the only place in the world--in particular the village of Casalvecchio di Puglia--where my family name is common. My grandfather came to New York from that village in the late nineteenth century. In Italy the name is pronounced TAH-skes, because in Italian "ch" is a "k" sound. Here, though, yeah, it sort of rhymes with "washes," or with the last two syllables of "galoshes." That's how I've always pronounced it, anyway. Some people who have known me for thirty years still fuck it up. I think I would sell more books if I had a more easily pronounceable name.
MB: The Pope was recently here and briefly apologized for the pedophile debacle. Recently 400+ children were taken from a religious compound in Texas under suspicion of sexual abuse. From Babylon to Boston humans don't ever seem able to get enough satisfaction from sex to just call it a day. Can you talk about what satisfaction you've derived from sex and about humanity's inability to get sexual satisfaction?
NT: Fuck the pope and fuck the rest of humanity. I have derived great and beautiful satisfaction from sex in my life. Lately, I'm getting old, and there's not so much of it in my days or nights. My prick has moods of it own and goes on strike whenever it wants. And I've tired of the obligatory conversational preludes, and grown sort of jaded with the whole routine. These days, I'd rather have sex with a pretty girl's legs, and even then only if the legs are exceptional, rather than the usual stuff. As the spirit of Aphrodite once whispered to me: gams are the one true god.
I wrote a song called "I'm in Love with Your Knees." I remember unsettling some girl one night, telling her over dinner, "I prefer not to make love to the whole woman." Sometimes I have more fun fucking with people than fucking them.
The other day I collided with a messenger in Times Square because we had both turned to stare at the same pair of legs while continuing to walk across the street.
What kinds of food and what beverages do you get satisfaction from consuming?
NT: Any food that tastes good and doesn't make me feel bad afterward. No: simply any food that tastes good. Water is my favorite drink, then wine, the wine I was talking about before. I derive the most satisfaction from pork. I cook pork better than anybody else in the world. Pork beats all meat. I like a good steak. All sorts of fish. Everything. I'm an omnivore. You have to eat the flesh of your lessers.
MB: George Carlin once said the meaning of life was Plastic. Robert Anton Wilson said that the meaning of life was for the Universe to be able and see itself. What is your belief or beliefs about the meaning of life? What is the meaning of life and where/how/when do you get the most satisfaction out of life?
Nick Tosches, Coney Island, Photo by Frank Fortunato.
NT: It is human arrogance to feel that there can be any great depth of meaning in something as finite and fleeting as life. But if they're into this shit, I would suggest that people look to the original teachings of Ch'an Buddhism, and, maybe even more so, to those lines in the Gospel of Thomas: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." When we figure out what this "what" is, we're there, we're free.
As to where, how, and when I get the most satisfaction out of life, man, the list is too long. When I'm right with it, it's right with me. Sitting on the couch with a smoke and a cup of coffee. Lost in a storm in an unknown distant land. Loving. Being loved. Sitting on a busted fucking bench watching a bunch of stupid fucking pigeons. Colliding with that guy in Times Square the other day and ending up laughing. Walking down the street, seeing the sky subtly change. Feeling the immense blessing, the great gift, of every fucking breath. Pork chops with sauteed onions and potatoes. Everything. When I'm right, it's right. To wait for it to work the other way around is a sucker's racket.
Psyched Out: The Technicolor Web's Online Sound Revolution
by Tony Sclafani
What is it about the psychedelic music of the 1960s that continues to intrigue new generations of people?
Maybe it's because psychedelic music was a genre where almost anything went, and all possibilities seemed endless. Artists under the spell of psychedelia seemed blissfully unaware of commercial conventions, and were the first rockers to make full use of extra-long songs, nonsensical lyrics, massive distortion and sound effects.
Another reason for psychedelic music's appeal is that it allows you to "travel with your mind," as the Seeds put it on their psych-rock opus "Future." During the psychedelic era, artists created their own little worlds for listeners to explore. Formula love lyrics gave way to songs about everything from jolly little dwarves to 30-year-olds who still played with toys.
Psychedelic music essentially offers a vision of a make-believe world that often seems a heck of a lot more fun than the real one. In the Psychedelic World, cyclists whiz by on white bicycles at midnight, you can hear the grass grow and the skies change from orange to marmalade (some women even have marmalade hair!).
No other music delved into the fantastic like psychedelia, and the genre couldn't be less timely. The trend in lyrics today (especially in the country and rap genres) is to reflect goings on in the real world, not to create an idiosyncratic fantasyland. How can today's teens get any escape from the often-harsh real world if even their music fails to provide that? True, there are video games, but their dog-eat-dog ethos is reflective of real-world strife. If you were looking for escape circa 1967, all you had to do was turn on the black light, stare at your day-glo posters and groove to the sounds of Clear Light or The Blues Magoos. Voila! A new world. Like, why go out at all?
Laugh at psychedelic music if you will. But it's instructive to remember that when artists of any post-1960s era have looked to make big statements and take their careers to a new level, it's psychedelia they usually tap into, for instance Prince's "Around the World in a Day," Robert Fripp's "Exposure" and Madonna's "Like a Prayer" and "Beautiful Stranger" (directly referencing Love's "She Comes in Colors").
Psychedelic music is crawling all over the media landscape again these days, since this summer marks the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love and the Monterey International Pop Festival. And while it's hard sometimes to know exactly where to start to get into this music (Blossomtoes? Ultimate Spinach?), there is a 24/7 source for psychedelic sounds, thanks to Internet radio.
The Technicolor Web of Sound (www.techwebsound.com) is an online station that serves up a non-stop selection of songs of vintage psychedelic origin. The station, which is powered by Shoutcast streaming technology, is run by Wisconsin native and music buff Paul Moews. Moews, whose name is pronounced as "maze," was doing Internet radio back before most people even knew what it was.
"I started the station around 2000," says Moews by cell phone while commuting to his job as an electrical engineer. "with one or two listeners max on a dial-up modem. I was excited when I'd get over three people listening at a time. Now I've got hundreds on there."
Moews' site stands out not just because of his micro-niche focus, but because his station has a Web site that provides details on the artists he plays (most Shoutcast Internet stations don't have Web sites, much less intricately-designed ones). There are no disc jockeys, except when the station broadcasts a programmed show called "The Pop Shoppe," put together by Oregon disc jockey Gregarious. What Moews has done is created a lengthy playlist that intersperses obscure tracks with vintage radio commercials.
"The playlist has been manually designed," Moews explains. "There's no randomness to it. It's such a long playlist that when even I listen a lot of the time I still won't remember what song is coming up next. One of the keys to its success, I think, is the transitions between the songs, and having the ads in there. If you were to do a random playlist, the ads wouldn't work at all -- you wouldn't have good transitions. With the ads, you need to have three or four in a row to mimic an original or authentic FM station
What can you expect to hear on The Technicolor Web of Sound? Here's a sampling of the Web site's "most recent tracks played" list as of June 19, 10:30 a.m.: John's Children's "Desdemona," Pink Floyd's "Arnold Layne," Bear's "So Loose and So Slow," Stone Country's "Life Stands Daring Me," Ill Wind's "People of The Night," Steppenwolf's "The Ostrich," The Charlatans' "32-20," Cosmic Brotherhood's "Sunshine World," Painted Faces' "Black Hearted Susan," Neon Pearl's "Forever" and a Jefferson Airplane Levis Ad done by Spencer Dryden.
Moews' music choices sometimes fall beyond the boundaries of psychedelia, which waters down the station's appeal (for example, why is Led Zeppelin played at all?). But for the most part, most of what he plays is unheard anywhere else, especially on terrestrial radio stations. Even Satellite Radio is starting to shy away from potentially uncommercial formulas. Moews says he's able to earn enough money to keep the station running free from any commercial considerations. If there's anyone Moews takes his musical cues from, it's his listeners.
"I gradually ended up getting a fan base that started sending me more and more music," Moews notes. "My audience actually exposed me to a good percentage of what I play now. Plus, bands contacted me as well. I've received CDs from various bands, and not just obscure ones, some of the mid-level bands. And that's exposed me to some music I probably would not have been exposed to if I didn't have the station."
Moews says he gets listeners as young as 16 who e-mail him and say "I love your station!" Moews himself also missed the first flowering of psychedelia, having been born in 1968.
"I wasn't there, but I still like the music," he says. "I've liked that type of music since I was in grade school -- I heard it from a buddy that lived a couple of doors down from me who had a lot of older brothers (with psychedelic albums)."
As for the issue of the proposed royalty rate hike for Internet radio stations (set to take place July 15, 2007), Moews says he's "riding it out to see what happens." As countless news outlets have reported, there is still a chance Congress could step in and prevent the US Copyright Royalty Board from making Internet radio stations have to pay more in royalty fees (including retroactive fees) to the collection entity SoundExchange.
"It's a shame that when internet radio stations â€¦ introduce thousands of people to music they have never heard before and actually generate more record sales, that the Record Industry still wants to charge us even more for our efforts," Moews writes via e-mail when asked about the royalty situation. "It almost seems that they're trying to suppress certain types of music."
The Technicolor Web of Sound also helped spawn another radio station that's probably its only competitor in terms of Web radio programming.
That station is called Beyond the Beat Generation (www.beyondthebeatgeneration.com) and it plays an array of 1960s garage bands so obscure they makes Moews' playlist look like the Billboard top ten. It also has an exhaustive Web site with artist interviews, photos and even videos.
"I helped (Hans Kesteloo) set up that station," Moews says. "He's from Germany and he's an avid collector. In fact he turned me onto some stuff."
Like the Technicolor Web of Sound, Beyond the Beat Generation's site has a rotating "song history" listing. On the Technicolor site, you can click on the name of the artist in the song history and get a biography. On the Beat Generation site, the song history listing tells you the label, serial number and release year for each record and also tells the hometown of the artist. And you thought you were obsessive about records.
Here's a segment of the Beyond the Beat Generation's playlist as of June 20, 2:37 p.m.: Jarvo Runga's "Long Walk Home," Phyllis Brown's "Dead," The Syndicate of Sound's "Get Outta My Life," The K Otics' "Double Shot," The Dawn 5's "A Necessary Evil," The Yardleys' "Your Love" and Moving Sidewalks' "Stay Away."
If you don't want to be relegated to listening to all this music on your computer speakers, you can send the audio signal to your stereo via a $20 device called the DynexÂ®-Portable Wireless FM Transmitter (which you can order online at Best Buy). For serious music fans, all of the above technology has pretty much made commercial radio stations irrelevant.
You can also take the MP3 streams from both these stations, dump them into your Winamp player, toggle between them, and never hear a familiar 1960s song for hours on end. It's, like, a total alternate reality, man.
Rock Gods & Famous Monsters
Gary Lucas interviewed by Michael Bloom
On Friday March 23rd, guitar virtuoso Gary Lucas brings his band Gods & Monsters, including Jerry Harrison on keyboards, to Safari Sam's in Hollywood. I only become aware of Lucas back in January while attending a book release on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, for Steven Lee Beeber's The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk. Gary was on a panel with Beeber, punk auteur Legs McNeil (Please Kill Me) and writer/professor Vivien Goldman (The Book of Exodus). Lucas mentioned his love of Famous Monsters magazine on the one hand, and his nuevo soundtrack for the 1920 silent film classic The Golem. Since the panel was about Jewish punk, my question concerning Richard Meltzer's influence on the era sparked his interest. When I got home and went to his website, garylucas.com, I discovered the immense latitude of this artist, and realized Scram readers would enjoy a full-length interview. Little did I know it would include stories about his experiences with everyone from Lester Bangs to Aleister Crowley. Here it is.
Gary Lucas with Yale Marching Band 1972, Photo by Jeff Johnson
You studied at Yale. Did you major in music?
Actually I studied English literature at Yale: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Victorian novels, stuff like that. I took one music theory course there for exactly one class, before quitting: when the professor played a recording of what is essentially the pop schmaltz tune "Love is Blue" (derived from a portion of Prokofiev's "Lt. Kije Suite," which is what he actually played), and asked us to write out the chords and bassline by ear, I knew a formal study of Music there certainly wasn't for me--especially when one keyboard virtuoso jumped up front of the class, sat down at the piano, and proceeded to play it back perfectly to the class, by ear...I can read and write music okay, but prefer not to....it gets in the way for me, and I generally don't need to for what I like to do with it...as Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) used to say: "Music is just black ants crawling across white paper..."
Captain Beefheart was one of your musical influences, and you later became his friend and bandmate. What specifically about Beefheart's music 'inspired' you?
I think the moment I became "possessed" was when I really listened to Trout Mask Replica a couple times...and having first drawn a blank on it outside the obvious spoken-wordjazz of "The Dust Blows Forward" and "Orange Claw Hammer," couldn't really get a handle on it. But gradually the structural beauty and sheer awesome "overwhelming technique" on display sank in, probably around my third listen to "Ella Guru", which was the closest thing to a "pop song" with a hook I could readily grab onto...and I was smitten. This was after my initial sheer bewilderment/first acquaintance with the $1.98 cut- out of Strictly Personal which was just too grungy sounding to my ears after the surface prettiness of polished studio psychedelia like Sgt. Pepper, Traffic, "Good Vibrations," Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle and other classics of the era I was enjoying...just sounded kinda amateurish and muddled on my first coupla listens, so I filed it away quickly, not to replay it till after cracking the code to Trout Mask. After that everything by Beefheart was sheer gravy, especially Safe as Milk and Lick My Decals Off, Baby, which I inhaled next (at the same time!) up there in New Haven in 1971...
You were a musician and "writer", as well as Radio Station Manager at Yale. Can you talk about the early rock criticism that may have also influenced you...Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer and/or others? Did you ever get to meet these early pioneers? Any experiences you can share?
Actually, I was the Music Director at WYBC, Yale's radio station, following in the footsteps of Mitch Kapor (early computer geek/visionary who invented the Lotus Spreadsheet and promptly retired at an obscenely young age)...and yep, I wrote music criticism while still in high school for Cogito, the Nottingham High underground paper, which was banned from being sold on the school premises by the reactionary administration. I remember reviewing Jeff Beck's Truth and the Incredible String Band's Hangman's Beautiful Daughter albums for them...later at Yale I wrote for the Yale Daily News about Family, an English band I loved, and also wrote for Zoo World, a tabloid-sized newspaper rock mag out of Florida trying to take on Rolling Stone, a few articles/ reviews about Beefheart, about my experiences playing electric guitar with the Yale Symphony Orchestra in Vienna in '73 performing Leonard Bernstein's "Mass," a review of King Crimson's Lark's Tongue in Aspic, said review of which was reprinted in the booklet accompanying their Young Person's Guide to King Crimson and is the only negative review in there!
My favorite music writers of my youth were definitely Sandy Pearlman and Richard Meltzer, they really blew my teenage mind with their outrageous and hilariously abstruse over-intellectualized analysis of what is essentially something as basic as the air one breathes (what music really is, or rather, its primary constituent). Richard was definitely much more tongue in cheek, Sandy more formally clinical in his approach, but together they represented a new NYC Jewish-intellectual driven (piss)take on what was hitherto considered to be, basically, packaged goods one consumed without too much thought beyond the fanboy enthusiastic gush of Crawdaddy editor Paul Williams (who I also liked, don't get me wrong)...Lester, when he appeared on the scene, I instantly pegged as a sub-Meltzer derivative/disciple, but he quickly took up the cudgels on behalf of the music the Man can't bust sincerely and with much brio, and exponentially expanded in stature, in my eyes, when Richard and Sandy more or less bagged it from the diurnal (diurinal?) grind of reviewing-- Richard evolving into a general across the board cultural pundit once he got bored with what he saw as an essentially played-out medium (rockaroll) by the mid-'70s, Sandy morphing into a hip and witty lyricist/producer/Svengali for the Blue Oyster Cult and later the Dictators (Richard of course was along for the occasional lyrical ride with him). Those two were the best, in my book, and still remain so in the Golden Age of Rockwrite (Nick Tosches is up there too, there were a few more I dug also like John Mendelsohn...
I encountered both Richard and Sandy personally at different times, on different occasions--strangely enough, never together at the same time-- Richard first, when he came up to Yale in my sophomore year there for some stoopid symposium on rock criticism (or something like that). We bonded and I later crashed at his pad on Perry Street (actually right down the street here in the West Village where I've lived for about 30 years now) a couple times when I'd come down to NYC for some r and r, he and his girlfriend at the time Roni Hoffman were always gracious that way in letting me stay at their place. I remember him keeping small dead animals in aspic (well, Jello) in his fridge as part of his overall avant- aesthetic, and a squawking nastyass parrot that, uncaged, used to flap and fly all around their apartment and occasionally excrete multicoloured, multitudinous parrot shit which streamed down a large mirror he had propped up against one wall in his front parlor and congealed into long colorful bas-relief Crayola-like streaks and strips on that mirror...their tv was on constantly, and the toilet didn't flush too good there...
Sandy I met at the first (and only) Rock Writers of the World Convention in Memphis in '73, basically a gigantic freebie gig for every dissolute no-account rock critic who could muster some kind of critical rep to get themselves on the Stax Records invite list. This was also where I first met Lester-- Sandy blew into Memphis one night there on the heels of some BOC gig somewhere in the general vicinity and we had cheeseburgers and talked to the wee hours. He impressed me mightily with his intellectual acumen and world-historical overview, totally brilliant and slightly crackpot conspiracy theories on everything under the sun and then some, I liked him a lot...both were as intellectually challenging/intriguing to chat with as reading their writings..
Lester later became a friend when I moved to NYC, and my best tale about Lester is when I had him and a bunch of folks like John Morthland over to listen to a first pressing of Beefheart's Doc at the Radar Station album which I was helping to promote as Don V.V.'s erstwhile manager/guitarist--after hearing me perform my solo tour de force "Flavor Bud Living" on side two, Lester asked benignly: "So, which part were you playing, Gary, the top or the bottom?" "That was all me, Lester, in real time," I replied...confounding the ear of the great Lester Bangs was one of the best testimonials I ever received to my guitar playing.
Jeff Buckley was a member of the earliest version of Gods & Monsters. You also co-wrote a few songs with him on his album Grace. Can you talk a little about your experience writing with him?
Jeff Buckley with Gary Lucas, 1992, photo by Chris Buck
Sure, it was profoundly easy, in a way...much easier than a line by line thrash-out with another collaborator-- I would first come up with fully realized instrumental compositions ...motifs, chord structures, rhythms intact, all there...mail them or play them directly to Jeff...he'd go away, sometimes for months, usually just weeks...and damned if he didn't always come back with PERFECT lyrics and a PERFECT melody line that sinuously entwined/enshrined itself inSIDE the matrix of my instrumental, for all time...only once or twice did he offer any modification at all to the basic underlying music, such as asking me to repeat one section of "Mojo Pin" to stretch it out to double verse length because he had more lyrics that he wanted to fit in that section...and he added a vocalese section over the bridge to "Grace" when he came to ultimately record it for his one and only official Columbia studio album (which, incidentally, was named the #1 Modern Rock Album in Mojo last year, their criterion being any album released since they began publication in '92... Number One, my honeys-- over Radiohead, U2, Dylan, Bright Eyes, Arcade Fire, Outkast --over any other artist/album you might care to name...and yep, I co-wrote 2 songs on that album, the title track and the opening track--actually I wrote about a dozen songs with Jeff Buckley--and five of them still haven't officially been released...several of them as good, if not better, than those hits of his that I'm known for...
Jerry Harrison produced the latest Gods & Monsters album Coming Clean and appears with you in your upcoming show in LA. Can you talk about what it is like to work with him?
Jerry's a cool customer, very diligent, a bit of a technocrat-- and a good guy to have in your corner, another renegade Ivy Leaguer (he and my bass player Ernie Brooks were roommates at Harvard before joining the Modern Lovers)--he has a way with sound I totally respect...also a way with a keyboard that treats the sounds he produces more like sonic architecture than music per se..
How many different instruments do you know how to play? What do you think about "odd" instruments like the theremin? Are there other "extraordinary" instruments you know about?
Basically I can play the guitar really well... and also several different brass instruments not so well (my primary brass instrument was French horn, which I was more or less forced into playing having scored a perfect score on a musical aptitude test that our fascist band leader had all the kids take in order to winnow out those with enough inclination to fill the ranks of the school band and orchestra...French horn was hard enough, as if you look at a photo of me closely it will become apparent that I barely have enough upper lip for a really good embouchure! I can also play a little trumpet, baritone horn, Euphonium...also bass, a bit of rudimentary piano, harmonica, percussion, vibes...you know, if I had some of these instruments lying around my place and had lots of free time I could get much more proficient on many of them I'm sure, as I have a really good ear and am naturally "musical" by nature...but due to lack of space and general boredom with the rote mechanics of "practicing" I choose/chose not too, would much rather read, for instance...or waste hours on the computer...the guitar pretty much says it all for me, a virtual orchestra at your fingertips.
Theremin--I actually had a brainiac/certifiable genius friend attempt to build one for me in high school after getting fired up to possess one after reading about Lothar and the Hand People in the pages of Hit Parader (the ur-Crawdaddy, and the only music mag worth reading before that , and later, Rolling Stone, in the mid-'60s...at once both laughable and fantastically "wrong" lyrics throughout its pages, which was the primary reason most people bought it for!...but actually, for me, it boasted spot-on reportage of early progressive/psychedelic weirdness a'sproutin' in the music biz courtesy of editor/writers Don Paulsen and Jim Delehant....anyway this genius friend (a Harvard boy, natch) never got my theremin really working, it basically squawked and made uncontrollable rude noises, waving your hands in front of the antennae basically made the cacophony worse (this mad scientist is now an ordained minister and high mucky-muck in the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church--he was actually married in a mass Moonie wedding ceremony at Madison Square Garden in the mid-'70s).
Extraordinary instruments--Percy Grainger, whose music I like alot and have covered in the past (a solo guitar arrangement of "Children's March" a/k/a "Over the Hills and Far Away", on my compilation album Operators Are Standing By) reportedly invented an electronic gizmo in the '50s which produced sliding glissando tones--which sounds like a proto-theremin to me...
Your side project the Golem is quite interesting. The Golem, or a humunculus, is a creature born out of the mythology of Jewish mysticism; and is steeped in both kabbalistic and alchemical traditions. Do you have any interests in these areas of magick? Do you have much knowledge of Aleister Crowley, and other mystics who have influenced musicians such as Jimmy Page and Carlos Santana? Are there any mystics you think are worth exploring?
Gary Lucas plays his live score to The Golem at 2003 Venice Biennalle, photo by Riccardo Schwamenthal
Yep, I have read a bit of Gershon Scholem and a smattering of the classic texts, but find them pretty unreadably dense and, well, boring, to tell you the truth--as I do alot of overtly religious texts of any persusaion...I'm sure Madonna and Britney and Paris know alot more about Kaballa hthan I do!...I'm interested in the concept but in a much more culturally curious way, rather than as an actual practitioner--the way I heard it, Kabbalah was an area of Jewish philosophy reserved for elderly tzadik-types who could only be entrusted or could only handle the discipline of studying it thoughtfully after years of preparation (that's what my brother the Orthodox rabbinical student told me anyway)...not something for the casual browsing bourgeoisie...but hey if watered-down Kabbalah ushers in an era of world peace, I'm all for it...alchemy too-- yes I like looking at alchemical art and reading stories about Paracelsus and such,and have perused texts in the past-- but not to the point of obsession...Crowley of course I find fascinating, having read several biographies, piqued by Colin Wilson's classic account in his book The Occult...I loved Crowley's Diary of a Drug Fiend which I read coming down from acid in Taipei after fireworks and a wild motorcycle ride the night of the actual Bicentennial...I certainly am aware of Jimmy Page's interest in Crowley regalia/property. This could have further propelled me to investigate him as I used to dig Jimmy Page alot as a player/producer/composer (I've been called "the anti-Page" by Roy Trakin in Hits--hey, I am NOT anti- Jimmy Page!)...
Mystics I like? Wyndham Lewis would have abhorred that appellation...but check out his book The Wild Body, esp. the essay "Inferior Religions;" also his novels Tarr (the original version), The Apes of God, Self Condemned and The Childermass--critical philosophy such as "Time and Western Man," "Men Without Art", and "The Diabolical Principle and the Dithyrambic Spectator"--plays like Enemy of the Stars and The Ideal Giant--magazines like his Blast and The Tyro--and all of his paintings and drawings, which are fucking unbelievably beautiful--and tell me Lewis is not a mystic genius, and a prodigious one, right alongside James Joyce and other seminal 20th century modernists (Joyce was a peer and a friend of his actually)-- shamefully unsung...Don Van Vliet is another one, for sure, and I have the distinction of turning Don into a rabid Wyndham Lewis fan and partisan...in music, Arthur Russell was pretty damn intuitively on the mystic wavelength...there are very few others...
What is the last really good book you read, and who are some of your favorite authors?
A Terrible Love of War by the Jungian scholar James Hillman--essential reading to make sense of our current precarious teeter-totter on the lip of the abyss... Isaac Bashevis Singer my favorite author, Ulysses my favorite book...I also like Knut Hamsun, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jim Thompson, Phillip K. Dick, Saul Bellow, Lewis of course, Isaac Babel, Apollinaire, Nabokov.... I'm sure I'm leaving some out here...
What kind of food and drink do you enjoy?
I love Chinese, Indian, Italian, deli, steak w/ frites--I'm easy...I love sweets and chocolate too much...I don't drink really...but occasionally like to sip liquers (Becherovka, Slivovitz, Amaretto)--my favorite Scotch is Laphroaig (10 years aged smoky single malt)
Gods & Monsters has been around for some time, in many incarnations. You developed the title before the movie with the same name, I presume.
Yep I came up with it from the same source that film derived its title from (the original Bride of Frankenstein,where fruity Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Praetorious toasts maniacal Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein with the immortal line: "To a New World of Gods and Monsters!" Used to run it as a sample in our show, right after our little "Ride of the Valkyries" heavy metal fanfare...
Gods and Monsters live at the Bowery Poetry Club 2007, photo by Eva Apple
photos courtesy Gary Lucas
Suddenly Single: When ’60s Undergrounders Made Peace with the Top 40
by Gene Sculatti
A couple of Scrams ago (#21), we looked at the ’60s phenomenon of middle-of-the-road acts trying to hip up their images by recording pop-rock material. A lesser examined but related event, it turns out, was taking place at roughly the same time, at the other end of the telescope.
It’d be hard to name a more tumultuous pop-music time frame than 1965-to-1967. Monthly, it seemed, new avenues of expression were being bulldozed across the landscape: Brit invaders, folk-rock, blues-rock, goodtime music, new Dylans, sunshine pop, acid-rock. Until late ’67-’68, when the West Coast psychedelic movement, with its establishing of the LP as the coin of the realm and the advent of “underground” FM radio, toppled the age-old hegemony of hit singles, concessions to the old machine had to be made. A band needed a 45, as a sort of aesthetic business-card and introduction to the public. This requirement led to some fascinating records, on which the new boundary-stretching artists got a chance to show their creativity in a way that still fit the commercial strictures of the day.
The earliest example of this is probably the Yardbirds. An initial handful of straight blues covers failed as singles, and the decision to cut the cool but clearly un-Chess-like “For Your Love” (no slide guitar, plenty of harpsichord) precipitated a huge rift within the band. The group’s first hit came from the pen of pop scribe Graham Gouldman (who provided Top-40 fodder to the Hollies and Hermits, later founded 10 cc and even made bubblegum records), which led directly to the departure of Muddier-than-thou guitarist Eric Clapton. GG next gave the ’birds the even poppier “Heart Full of Soul,” while Manfred Mann drummer/vibist Mike Hugg contributed the socio-spiritual “(Mister) You’re a Better Man Than I.”
It would be a while before Clapton could shred freely and fill the Fillmores with 20-minute “Spoonfuls.” While Cream’s ’66 debut album sported instrumental adventurousness and some truly unusual songwriting, it was preceded by the atypical “Wrapping Paper.” Jack Bruce’s sporty piano sortie sounds like a pleasant Sopwith Camel outtake or an entry by one of a dozen Lovin’ Spoonful sound-alikes.
Other free-formers complied with the rules of the game too. The Grateful Dead’s first album boasted a couple of extended cuts, but the bet hedge was Side 1 Track 1, the single “The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion).” The jubilant, two-minute cut features a tight, ringing Garcia solo, frequent choruses and old-time movie-serial organ on its intro and fade. The single’s flip, "Cream Puff War," which I recall the band introducing as one of their first original compositions (from the Fillmore stage in 1966), is a breakneck rocker that mashes a Dyl-lite vocal with the spirit and sound of the Animals’ “I’m Crying.” (Sadly, the disc was a stiff, as was the band’s second Warners seven-inch, a three-minute edit of their “Dark Star” opus.)
Seattle’s Daily Flash were also improvisers (a bootleg CD offers their 13-minute version of Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island”), but their debut single pairs a feedback-packed blues adaptation (“Jack of Diamonds”) with a familiar cover (“Queen Jane Approximately”). L.A.’s eclectic Kaleidoscope eschewed the often lengthy excursions of their live sets for a pair of 45’s that aimed for radio-friendliness. “Please” b/w “If the Night” was a double deck of exceptional folk-rock (a later release coupled “Please” with “Elevator Man,” which rather recalls the Stones’ “Off the Hook”), and “Why Try” was a conventional pop tune, albeit with Middle Eastern accents. Its B-side nodded to the camp predilection of the day—“Little Orphan Nannie.”
Blues bands, like their cousin psychedelicians, were obliged to pop up too. The (Barry) Goldberg- (Steve) Miller Blues Band cranked out the buzzing garage rocker “The Mother Song” in 1965 (Billy Sherrill, who recorded the Remains, produced) and appeared on Hullabaloo to promote it. Goldberg’s subsequent Barry Goldberg Blues Band issued the noisy, attitudinal Dylan homage “Blowing My Mind.” Even more interesting are the Blues Project singles. Early on, these relied on the dominant ’65-’66 folk-rock trend. The A-sides of the first two issues were written by Donovan (“Catch the Wind”) and Eric Andersen. The BP’s rendition of the latter’s crypto-Zimmy “Violets of Dawn” was one of several recorded in 1966 (others were done by the Robbs, Daily Flash and the Mitchell Trio).
Far more innovative was the Project’s next pair, both composed by keyboarder Al Kooper. The former Royal Teen, Dylan accompanist and material source for various girl groups, Gary Lewis and Gene Pitney first delivered the smoldering “Where’s There’s Smoke There’s Fire” (a collaboration with writing partners Irwin Levine and Bob Brass; the duo later penned Dawn’s first hit, “Candida”). The Tokens (of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) add vocal heft to the track, and it’s a gem, but sadly a flopped 45. The same fate befell the rockin’ “No Time Like the Right Time,” cut in December ’66. This one’s got it all: an insistent melody, Kooper’s Queens soul-patrol vocal and a mid-song instrumental breakdown (featuring AK on the spacey Ondioline keyboard), all of it perfectly in synch with the flavor of pre-Pepper psyche. The band’s post-Kooper “Gentle Dreams” b/w “Lost in the Shuffle” couples a quirkily arranged A-side (its fussy arrangement almost suggests the BS&T of “Spinning Wheel”) with an undistinguished Curtis Mayfield-derived blues.
The period, of course, subsequently saw real smashes originate from the new rock community; records like “White Rabbit,” “Light My Fire” and “Piece of My Heart” would have been unthinkable visitors to the Hot 100 in 1965 or even ’66. Eventually, the ascent of psychedelia and album-rock meant that hit singles were unnecessary, impossibly unhip and maybe even counterrevolutionary. Rather like the Byzantine contortions that govern the maintenance of indie-rock cred today, when you think about it.
All of the tracks discussed are available on CD; the Goldberg-Miller Blues Band’s Hullabaloo appearance is available on DVD.
Everybody knows Terry Jacks' 1970s tear-jerker hit, "Seasons in the Sun." But not enough people know that prior to hitting in big with "Seasons," Jacks, along with his then wife Susan, recorded some mind-bendingly innovative and infectious trippy soft rock, under the name The Poppy Family. Fewer still realize that, after the demise of The Poppy Family (and the couple's marriage) Susan Jacks released four solo albums – warm records with that 70s AM radio sound so many contemporary indie bands cultivate.
Susan Jacks is a raving beauty, with flowing blonde hair and beguiling, feline eyes. She is also a gifted vocalist, some kind of cross between Karen Carpenter, Tammy Wynette, and Dusty Springfield. Whether delivering The Poppy Family's warped pop lyrics, crooning classics, or belting out a heartfelt Country and Western number, Susan brings a combination of tenderness and strength to the mic every time.
Susan, who is currently in the process of getting back to her singing career after a long hiatus, had the following chat with me over an e-mail exchange:
SCRAM: You were singing on the radio at age 7 – did you come from a musical family?
SUSAN JACKS: I was the only one who sang at that time. Later, one of my brothers dabbled in singing but never made a career out of it. Another brother became a bass player and played with bands in the Vancouver area. He played bass in my band when I appeared at the World’s Fair in Vancouver in 1986. One other brother, in my opinion, should have pursued a career but never did…. he had a beautiful voice.
SCRAM: You had your own radio show at age 13, and were a regular on a TV show at 15. Did you feel that you were destined to be a public performer? Was there someone (family member) steering you that way? Did you ever feel that you just wanted to be a “normal” little girl or adolescent?
SJ: I was never fixated on being a public performer but I was always singing and it was a very large part of who I was and my way of expressing who I was. My mother was the one who steered me into public performing. To be honest, initially I was more interested in climbing trees than becoming a professional singer. But more and more as I began to sing in front of people, as soon as I got a taste of that connection between me and the audience I knew it was what I wanted to do.
SCRAM: As a young girl and a teenager, did you expect to make a career out of singing? If so, did you see yourself as a solo performer or as a member of a band?
SJ: I had never thought of being a part of a band. When Terry and I started performing together, I had asked him to accompany me on guitar for an Elk’s Club Meeting I was to perform at. It eventually evolved into a “band” situation.
SCRAM: Please tell me your memories of the formation of the Poppy Family. Reading about the band, one gets the impression that things came together pretty quickly, but was it really that way?
SJ: It happened fairly quickly but there was a process. After initially performing with Terry as my guitarist, we appeared for a while as a duet, later bringing in a lead guitar player, Craig McCaw. We decided we should have a group name and went through a number of names but finally settled on “The Poppy Family”. Later, Craig introduced Satwant Singh to us. Sat played tablas, East Indian drums, which gave us percussion other than the tambourines and other percussion instruments I played in the group. Sat’s tablas, along with Craig’s guitar/sitar (a sitar is an East Indian “guitar-like” instrument), helped give us our unique sound.
SCRAM: The Poppy Family scored a major hit with the song, “Which Way You Going, Billy?” In his track notes to the Poppy Family’s A Good Thing Lost compilation, Terry mentions that the two of you fought over your vocal delivery on that song, and he suggests that the performance of yours that went on the record was, in part, a result of that friction. Do you remember it that way?
SJ: Unfortunately, I didn’t have control over any part of the release of the A Good Thing Lost CD, including the track notes. When I read them, I called Terry and expressed my disapproval of the “re-writing” of our history. He told me his versions made better stories… sheesh. At any rate, he is correct in that I didn’t end up recording the vocals on the day we laid down the band tracks. I believed the song was going to be very big and wanted to give it everything I had. We had gone all day, I was tired and just wasn’t nailing it. We both knew it so we decided to leave it for the night and come back fresh the next day. There was no fight.
SCRAM: After the success of “Billy,” the song and the album, a lot of odd changes took place within the band. For one, your next album, Poppy Seeds, was quite different from the debut record. The first album was psychedelic pop, and the second had more of a country feel – you did a Merle Haggard cover, and some of the originals had a country sound and style. Was this a conscious decision on you and/or Terry’s part, to change your sound and style in this way? Weren’t you afraid of losing the audience you had gained with the single and the first record?
SJ: By the second album, Terry had let Craig and Satwant go from the band. What had become our signature sound was no longer there. Terry made the decisions in terms of the songs we recorded and, although we worked closely together as far as production goes, the musical direction we took was his decision also. At the time, I had very little influence over Terry. I missed Sat and Craig immensely, as well as the musical “edge” we had developed in the formative years as a group. Nevertheless, Terry was my husband and I trusted him to do the right things for us.
I’m not sure why Terry made many of the decisions he did. I hated the fact that we weren’t touring very much. I loved it on the road, being in front of a live audience. We were asked to appear on the last Ed Sullivan Show but Terry declined. I’m still trying to figure that one out….
SCRAM: What was it like to be a female recording artist in the early ‘70’s? Did you feel discriminated against, or isolated, in any way?
SJ: I was the “chick singer”….and I was married to the “leader of the band’. Women hadn’t yet made it out of the stereo-typical role as supporter and the “weaker sex”. Nothing made that more clear to me than when I left Terry and applied for a gas credit card. I was declined because I had no husband listed on the application. By the way, I ended up getting the card because I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I don’t remember having any specific role models but that experience, along with having to face the music industry, a predominantly male driven industry, as a single and inexperienced woman, I learned quickly that it really was a “man’s world” at that time.
Being a woman in the music industry has always been a challenge but things started changing for me as time went on. I was earning respect as a songwriter and a producer. In a business that’s run predominantly by men, you learn to adapt to the rules of the game. I ultimately found it to be a fun challenge.
SCRAM: Were there other bands or artists that you and Terry felt a kinship with during the Poppy Family years, or did you feel more that you all were out on your own?
SJ: At the very beginning of the Poppy Family days, we went down to Los Angeles to try and get a record deal. We didn’t get one on that trip, but we ended up meeting the Beach Boys and became friends with some of them. Years later, we went back down to Los Angeles to produce a single for them. Al Jardine and I wrote the vocals and Terry took them into the studio. Unfortunately, it was never finished due to the lack of availability of some of the guys so we came back to Vancouver. The song was "Seasons in the Sun."
SCRAM: In 1973 you and Terry divorced, and in that same year you released your first solo album, I Thought of You Again. But Terry wrote many of the songs on the album, and he produced it – wasn’t this really just the third and last Poppy Family album?
SJ: Shortly before I left our marriage, Terry and I had recorded two separate solo albums. Mine was “I Thought of You Again” and his was “Seasons in the Sun”. After we had returned from our attempted recording session with the Beach Boys, I convinced Terry to record the song with his vocals. He was a little reluctant but we went into the studio with me producing his vocals and, as we had always done with the Poppy Family sessions, I assisted in the production and mixing of the song. In a way, nothing was different than it had always been. Terry made the decision that we would drop the group name for my releases but he had always released the songs he sang solo on under his own name.
SCRAM: Then you made the album Dream in 1975, and this time Terry was not involved at all. Was it scary to go out on your own like that? Tell me about the legal struggles you got into with Ray Pettinger, Terry’s business partner, and how it affected the distribution of the Dream record.
SJ: I was unbelievably excited to do the Dream album. I was anxious to move on as a vocalist and explore new musical territory. Terry had formed the Goldfish label with Ray Pettinger while we were still together. When I left the marriage, our two solo albums were to be released on that label. As time went on, Pettinger wanted to buy out Terry’s interest in the label and I loaned the money for him to do so. He changed the name to Casino records and began to recruit artists for the label. However, I never received the money back and my Dream album became a casualty of the lawsuit that ensued.
SCRAM: You next released an album in 1980. This was Ghosts, and here you were back to working with Terry. He wrote some of the songs, he produced the record, and you did a new version of an early Poppy Family song, “Beyond the Clouds.” How did it feel to be working with Terry again? Was there any talk of you two working together musically regularly? Any talk of reforming The Poppy Family?
SJ: Working with Terry again was interesting but rather stressful. He was never easy to work with and I now had a new life with a husband and son so my patience was definitely stretched to the limit. A few months before, he had approached me to sing a song he wrote called “All the Tea in China”. He had put another vocalist on the song and told me he wasn’t pleased with it. I agreed to sing the song and Terry later informed me that he had negotiated with CBS records to not only release the song as a single but also to have him produce an album for me. Regarding a Poppy Family reunion concert or tour, there has been talk but nothing has come of it yet.
SCRAM: Also on the Ghosts album, Ted Dushinski, a former CFL football player, is listed as your personal manager. Ted was your second husband. How did the two of you meet? Was Ted involved in the music business, or artist management, before meeting you?
SJ: I had been the victim of some pretty despicable characters in the industry and Ted and I felt it was in my best interest to be protected by a “barrier” of sorts. He had never been involved in the industry but I knew that my well being was the most important thing to him, something I had never had before. We had actually met through mutual friends in 1977 while he was still playing football.
SCRAM: What strikes me most on the Forever album, released in 1982, is how well you interpret classic songs, like “Baby, I’m Yours” and “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” Did you ever think of recording a full album of 1950s and 60s songs?
SJ: I loved doing some of the older songs. I’m in the middle of negotiating a recording contract at the moment and one of the first things we are talking about doing is an album of '60s and '70s songs.
SCRAM: What prompted your move to Nashville in 1983? Was it hard to be away from your home country?
SJ: Bruce Allen was managing me for a while and helped to sign me to a recording contract with a company in Nashville. I was excited about being in the center of the songwriting capital of the world and a part of the hottest genre in the music industry at that time. Country music was huge. I was a little concerned that I would be forced to give up my pop/soft rock roots but country music was beginning to be more influenced by mainstream pop and that prospect was very exciting. I missed home very much while I was in Nashville but my music and other business endeavors kept me pretty occupied.
SCRAM: You wrote songs for a publishing company for the next five years. This was new for you, right – you never wrote any of the songs on The Poppy Family’s records, or your own solo albums? Had you been writing songs before, but never recorded them? What was it like to write songs and have other people record them? Did you have a craving to record the songs yourself? What were some of your favorite versions of songs written by you and recorded by others?
SJ: I had been writing for many years but not professionally. When I moved to Nashville, I found that there was a whole system to songwriting and that if you paid attention to what artists and producers were looking for in terms of song structure and themes, you would become a better writer as far as getting your songs listened to and hopefully recorded. I went to every songwriting seminar and songwriters night to learn from the best, and even from the not so good. I ended up getting a writer’s deal with a publishing company and got some minor cuts but nothing major. I produced other artists recording my songs and it was always very exciting to hear another artist’s interpretation of one of my songs. Unfortunately, my catalog of songs ended up being tied up in the dormant company for a number of years until recently when the company graciously released the songs back to me. I’d very much like to record some of my own songs and will probably end up doing just that before too long.
SCRAM: You then went on to manage a publishing company, then you became V.P. of a computer consulting company, before becoming Executive V.P. and part owner of a telecommunications company. You were now functioning at a high level in the business world. How did it feel to be working in an area so different from music? Did you long to record and perform through those years?
SJ: My evolution into the business world is still a mystery to me but it has served me very well. I continued to do some music during the past few years but the corporate world is very demanding and I found myself doing less and less music. It wasn’t until Ted got sick that I slowed down enough to realize that it was the music I wanted to do more than anything. I’m now back into it full time and loving it.
SCRAM: You’re now back in Canada, in Vancouver. What prompted the move? Are you still involved in the telecommunications company?
SJ: I had been wanting to move back home for some time but it was hard to leave when I was the co-owner of a company in Nashville. When Ted was diagnosed with lung cancer, we knew that his prognosis was not good and we immediately started talking about the possibility of moving back. I eased out of the daily routine of the company and we made plans to move back. I’m still an owner in the company but don’t work in the telecommunications side of things.
SCRAM: What are some of the highs and lows you’ve experienced while performing in front of an audience?
SJ: I remember performing in Cyprus in a concert hall that had the Greeks on one side, the Turks on the other side and the United Nations in the middle. Terry told me it was the first time there had ever been a concert with the Greeks and Turks in one building. It was magical because you could hear a pin drop… and it was a fabulous audience! The lows would be the times when personal issues made it very difficult to go on stage.
SCRAM: Have you had any role models in your life, either in the music business or otherwise?
SJ: I’ve had many role models for many different reasons, both men and women. Probably the person I admire most for her tenacity and survival instincts is my mother. She took on the responsibility of looking after the eight of her children when the marriage ended with my father. That meant working two jobs and whatever else it took to keep us fed and a roof over our heads. She’s pretty amazing.
SCRAM: Do you know of any Poppy Family video footage in existence? I saw a clip of you and Terry doing a lip-synced version of “Billy” on a TV show, but other than that, finding video footage of the Poppy Family seems to be next to impossible.
SJ: I was actually sent some footage by someone through my website. It’s wonderful that some of these things are available. I’ve heard that there is also footage somewhere from the national TV show I was a regular performer on in Canada called “Music Hop.” I’m looking into that now.
Visit Susan Jacks online at susanjacks.com
See The Poppy Family play "Which Way You Goin', Billy?" on youtube
by Gene Sculatti
Any good student of pop-music history knows what happened in the 1970s: The broken bricks from the aesthetic street-fights of the ’60s were scooped up and mortared into a new edifice, “rock,” which housed art- and prog-rock, heavy metal, sententious singer-songwriters and gray-faced corporate music. Then, in 1976, punk arrived and blew it all up real good, reinvigorating rock ’n roll.
Well, kind of. Actually, from the dawn of the decade another force had been quietly at work, chipping away at contemporary “rock,” and its cumulative efforts may well have paved the way for punk’s paramedic arrival. This was the revival of interest in ’50s rock and pop (which, arguably, can be said to have run from 1954 to 1964). When you examine the early ’70s, a lot was going, the effect of which was to legitimize pre-Beatles rock ’n’ roll and thus challenge the notion that all the new hybrid rock forms constituted some inevitable forward motion or “growth”—which was precisely the thesis behind the Ramones-Pistols-Clash attack.
“On Oct. 18, 1969, with backing provided by an office-partition manufacturer, Richard Nader presented the first edition of his Rock ’n’ Roll Revival at New York’s Felt Forum. Headlined by Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and the Shirelles, it was a sell-out, the first of nearly a hundred since…Nader’s projection is that the Rock ’n’ Roll Revival will keep kicking along until the next direction in music arrives in 1974.” – Phonograph Record Magazine, November 1972
With hindsight we know that the first signs of a coming sea change were present in 1974 (proto-disco singles by the Hues Corporation and George McRae, the Ramones’ CBGB debut), but these weren’t apparent at the time. Back then the decade’s next direction looked more like Diamond Dogs or Tales from Topographic Oceans.
By ’74 the presence and impact of the ’50s revival was already six years old and growing. The phenomenon’s parents may well have been Frank Zappa and Dr. Demento, whose twin 1968 projects almost appear conspiratorial. Where Zappa had been goofing on gooey teen ballads as early as 1966’s Freak Out! (the Paragons’ “Let’s Start All Over Again,” he told one interviewer, “has the unmitigated audacity to have the most moronic piano section I have ever heard”), with Cruising with Ruben & the Jets he delivered a smoochy satiric valentine to early rock ’n’ roll, using his Mothers to perpetrate such send-ups as “Fountain of Love,” “Stuff Up the Cracks” and “Jelly Roll Gum Drop.” On Doo-Wop, its cover featuring a caricature of a hipster ’50s DJ, Barry Hansen (yet to become Demento) gathered a dozen vintage Specialty sides (Larry Williams’ Beatles-covered “Bad Boy,” Roy Montrell’s “Mellow Saxophone,” etc.) into the world’s first serious oldies compilation. Scholarship and humor jelled: Both albums earned a good deal of play on the then-new rock-FM radio.
Sixty-eight also brought such harbingers as Fats Domino’s acclaimed Fats Is Back LP and the Beatles’ first consciously retro moves (“Back in the USSR,” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”). Little Richard, Eddie Cochran and Huey “Piano” Smith got covered on the Flamin’ Groovies’ Supersnazz debut, and a stretched-out version of Dale Hawkins’ “Susie-Q” was the centerpiece of the first Creedence Clearwater Revival album.
Over the next four years, rekindled interest in early rock burst into a great ball of fire, one that was continuously stoked by archeological digging in Creem and Phonograph Record Magazine and, most importantly, in new history-conscious fanzines like Who Put the Bomp. United Artists Records took Barry Hansen’s comp cue, issuing exquisite, double-LP Legendary Masters anthologies on Domino, Cochran, Jan & Dean and Ricky Nelson in 1971 (Lenny Kaye’s epochal Nuggets arrived on Elektra the following year). Sha Na Na debuted (1969), Little Richard followed Fats with a pair of comeback albums, and Dave Edmunds charted with an unlikely cover of Smiley Lewis’ “I Hear You Knocking” (1970), then cut half a dozen Spectorized remakes at his Rockfield studio. (Edmunds and Andy Kim each took a crack at the Ronettes’ “Baby I Love You,” with Kim making it into the Top 10 in 1969.)
Fleetwood Mac, in its pre-pop blues-band incarnation, was a neo-’50s force of the first order. In ’69 the group masqueraded as Earl Vince & the Valiants to wax the crypto-Ted anthem “Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked in Tonite”; a year later, guitarist Jeremy delivered an eponymous solo set that flipped a finger at prevailing rock tastes by affectionately covering disparaged vanilla-teen classics by Fabian (“String A-Long”) and Johnny Restivo (“The Shape I’m In”).
By ’71 and ’72, dedicated revivalist bands had moved in from the freak fringe to deliver their own albums: Detroit’s Frut, Australia’s Daddy Cool and Michigan/California’s Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, whose’72 debut, Lost in the Ozone, threw off a hit single (a re-do of Johnny Bond’s “Hot Rod Lincoln”) and essayed a re-examination of rockabilly a full eight years before the Clash fishtailed their “Brand New Cadillac.” If 1972 saw the less than stellar return of Chuck Berry in the chart-topping “My Ding-a-Ling,” it also witnessed the rock ’n’ roll resurrection of another royal in “Burning Love.” The year produced Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock,” its central riff lifted from Pat Boone’s “Speedy Gonzales” (1962), Johnny Rivers’ smash cover of Huey Smith’s “Rockin’ Pneumonia – Boogie Woogie Flu” and the premiere of the Grease musical. Just as significantly, the mythos of early rock ’n’ roll was addressed in such disparate hits as Don McLean’s “American Pie” and B.J. Thomas’ Beach Boys-inspired “Rock and Roll Lullaby.” (Pre-Beatles elements were becoming visible in the work of more adventurous rockers too—the “primitive” riffs and modified Holly-isms of T. Rex, the stylistic nods on Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust.)
But 1973 was when the movement really exploded. Ground zero in terms of impact was American Graffiti. The power-shifting paean to early-’60s adolescence was a movie blockbuster whose soundtrack eventually sold 3 million copies. The film transformed Wolfman Jack into an American icon (the Wolfman-hosted Midnight Special concert series always featured a roots-rock act) and launched the ’50s-fixed Happy Days. (In 1976, Steve Barri-produced duo Pratt & McLain scored with the show’s faux-oldie theme song; Cyndi Greco did the same with the ersatz girl-group theme to sister show Laverne and Shirley, “Making Our Dreams Come True”.)
AmGraff and its spawn took ’50s/early-’60s nostalgia out of the “guilty pleasure” category for Boomers and introduced younger listeners to the joys of music before it got “heavy.” The same year that produced Dark Side of the Moon, Houses of the Holy and Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play also threw one of the revival movement’s more creative developments into high gear: new original music created in the oldies mode, what might be termed “nouveau-retro.” The genre’s foremost practitioner – to this day – would have to be Roy Wood. With the Move, Wood had covered everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Jackie Wilson and cut ’50s-styled rockers like “California Man,” but in ’73 he unleashed his inner JD, declaring unabashed love for the rowdy/pretty old stuff on such singles as “Angel Fingers” and the extravagant Spector homages “See My Baby Jive” and “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day.” Robert Plant revisited his Rosie & the Originals roots in Led Zep’s “D’yer Mak’er.”
In the wake of Sha Na Na’s success, hundreds of neo-’50s groups strolled onto the scene – none, however, as imaginative as Colorado’s Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids, whose 1973 debut LP revealed them as promising adherents of nouveau-retro. The Cochran-esque “Betty Lou” was a typical FlashCad original: “Betty Lou, Betty Lou, won’t you dance with me, so I can dance with you.”
Seventy-three also returned Jerry Lee Lewis to the charts (“Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O’-Dee” from The London Sessions scraped the Top 40), put Ringo atop the Hot 100 with a remake of Johnny Burnette’s 1960 hit “You’re Sixteen” (the following year he’d almost do it again with the Platters’ “Only You”) and saw the Osmonds corner the cuddly end of the market. Donny racked up hits covering Johnny Mathis (“Twelfth of Never”), Sonny James (“Young Love”) and Jimmy Charles (“A Million to One”), while Marie grabbed gold redoing Anita Bryant’s 1960 ballad “Paper Roses.”
But the real measure of just how far the revival had advanced may have been the Carpenters’ Now & Then album. The platinum LP, which hung around Billboard’s album listings almost a year, devoted a whole side to songs, all from 1962 to 1964, by the Beach Boys, Chiffons, Crystals, Bobby Vee and others. “Yesterday Once More,” the album’s hit single, didn’t merely eulogize the bygone era as Don McLean or B.J. Thomas had; it celebrated the very revival movement itself:
Every wo-wo-wo still shines
That they’re starting to sing so fine
The next two years saw early rock more deeply saturate the mainstream. Grand Funk notched a No. 1 record with Goffin-King’s “Loco-Motion,” John Lennon released Rock ’N’ Roll, and Linda Ronstadt began a 1975-78 covers streak that posted more than seven Top-30 singles with tunes previously cut by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Betty Everett and others. Nouveau-retro prospered: First Class aped California pop on “Beach Baby,” and Flash Cadillac turned in Sons of the Beaches, an entire album of surf-and-summer sounds (thus inventing the Barracudas). Billy Swan went early-’60s on “I Can Help,” Carly Simon & James Taylor flew with Inez & Charlie Foxx’s 1963 duet “Mockingbird,” and Art Garfunkel further etherealized the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Kiss made its singles-chart debut with a reprise of Bobby Rydell’s 1959 “Kissin’ Time.” Across the pond, Pete Wingfield did mock doowop on “Eighteen with a Bullet,” and Mud saluted post-army Elvis with “The Secrets That You Keep.” Roy Wood scaled new heights with the powerfully wimpy “This Is the Story of My Love” and his full nouveau-retro set, Eddie & the Falcons.
By 1975 and 1976, ’50s/early-’60s revivalism had become, if not the dominant trend, a powerful presence in pop. John Denver, Fleetwood Mac and Physical GraffitiBorn to Run (at No. 3) sold 4 million copies. Its sound was pure Spector, its subject the loss of innocence and its second single, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” built in part upon the Orlons’ “Wah-Watusi.” The Four Seasons returned (after a seven-year hit drought), with the chart-topping “December 1963 (Oh What a Night).” So did the Beach Boys, whose cover of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” anchored a new album, 15 Big Ones, which sported covers of songs made famous by Freddy Cannon, the Five Satins, Dixie Cups and others. Long before the 70s’ ’50s revival – specifically 1964 on All Summer Long – the Beach Boys had honored their forefathers, in “Do You Remember (the guys that gave us rock and roll),” a song that stood solidly in line with such heroic defenses of the music as Danny & the Juniors’ “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay” and the Showmen’s “It Will Stand” and may well have inspired the Ramones’ “Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio.” took top albums honors, but
When they arrived in 1976, first-generation punk-rockers – as well as the pub-rockers who preceded them – were even more attuned to the essential charms of early rock ’n’ roll, though the mid-’60s exerted an even stronger influence. Significantly, one of the Ramones and Pistols’ main inspirations was the New York Dolls, whose 1973 and ’74 albums showed considerable affection for Bo Diddley, the Cadets (“Stranded in the Jungle”) and girl groups, as well as ’65 Stones. And, of course, the Ramones covered Bobby Freeman and the Trashmen, and the Pistols worked over Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry in their formative period. And, once punk happened, it sparked all sorts of offshoots – not just electro-punk and the dance hybrids but numerous revivals of earlier forms, most notably rockabilly, ska, Brit R&B and, later, psychedelic and garage rock.
Although the revival had peaked, the remainder of the ’70s showed the movement’s continuing strength as a repertoire source. With his 1977 interpretation of Jimmy Jones’ 1959 “Handy Man,” James Taylor began a side career in oldies covers, redoing Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World” (with Simon and Garfunkel), the Drifters’ “Up on the Roof” and, with Carly Simon, the Everlys’ “Devoted to You.” Blondie did some gender transformation on a re-do of Randy & the Rainbows’ “Denise” in 1977, the same year Shaun Cassidy took his re-do of “Da Doo Ron Ron” to No. 1, and Jackson Browne sang Maurice Williams’ immortal “Stay” (1978). Around the corner in a new decade: the Stray Cats, the Pointer Sisters’ girl-group redux “He’s So Shy,” Ronstadt’s take on Little Anthony’s “Hurt So Bad” and on and on…
Flash Cadillac’s Sons of the Beaches is available on CD, though, sadly not their eponymous debut or the even better sophomore set, No Face Like Chrome. Roy Wood’s solo, Wizzard and Eddie and the Falcons (which features the perfectly swinging “You Got Me Runnin’”) are all on CD, but Jeremy Spencer’s first LP is not. Daddy Cool’s Eagle Rock is a worthwhile Australian import. The Guess Who’s So Long Bannatyne features Burton Cummings’ nouveau-retro doowop classic “Life in the Bloodstream,” and 2005’s soundtrack to Stubbs the Zombie has some surprisingly cool covers by, among others, Death Cab for Cutie (the Penguins’ “Earth Angel”), Ben Kweller (the Chordettes’ “Lollipop”) and the Walkmen (on the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby,” singer Walter Martin sounds like Ian Hunter doing mock-Dylan on those early Mott records). Fleetwood Mac’s Earl Vince & the Valiants record can be found on The Immediate Singles Collection.
Intrepid wax-hunters will want to check out two delicious pop singles, Sha Na Na’s “Maybe I’m Old Fashioned” (Kama Sutra, 1974, written by Alan Gordon of Bonner & fame), from the band’s The Hot Box album, and “If I Could Only Be Your Love Again” (Mercury, 1973), written and produced by Frank Zappa for Ruben and the Jets (an actual band, not the Mothers), which also led off the group’s For Real LP.