Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Fun With Downloads: Special Tales From the Crypt Edition



Ladies and gentlemen...from the genuinely psychedelic 1967 album The Parable of Arable Land by legendary Texas rockers The Red Crayola, we give you the epochal anti-war classic "Hurricane Fighter Plane."

Take a moment to download it here, won't you?

And now, from the November 1992 issue of The Magazine Formerly Known as Stereo Review, here's the backstory.

NOISE IN THE ATTIC

"EVERYBODY'S in a band/They can't get enough of it," Pere Ubu once sang, and our more politically astute readers are no doubt aware that recent proof of this proposition has emerged during the current election campaign. I refer, of course, to the startling news that Tipper Gore, wife of the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee but better known for getting record companies to slap Parental Advisory labels on naughty rock and rap albums, played the drums in an all-girl garage band in the mid-Sixties. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

Or maybe not. Actually, it's occurred to me that wanting to be a rock star is pretty much the universal fantasy of our age. In fact, when I researched the subject back in 1989, I was able to locate lots of nonmusical celebrities with rock bands in their closets. Some were willing to speak to me about it, among them Chevy Chase (a godawful group called the Chameleon Church, with a 1968 album on MGM) and Saturday Night Live's Kevin Nealon (several mid-Sixties garage bands with names like the Hallucinations and the Atomic Bombs). Others were less forthcoming, like Diane Keaton (who sang with a New York City band called the Roadrunners circa 1966) and the former Bush Administration drug czar William J. Bennett (who played guitar and sang with an Animal House-style frat-rock outfit at Williams College back in 1961).

My favorite celeb with a past rock life, however, is unquestionably Frederick Barthelme. These days Barthelme is a highly regarded member of the so-called minimalist school of fiction, and his work appears in tony outlets like The New Yorker. But few readers of his story collections Moon Deluxe and Chroma know that back in the acid-drenched Sixties he pounded the drums as a member of a band called the Red Crayola, or that he co-wrote such unforgettable songs as "Pink Stainless Tail" and "War Sucks."



The Red Crayola backstage at the Berkeley Folk Festival, 1967: From left, Steve Cunningham, Mayo Thompson, and Rick Bartheleme



"What happened," Barthelme told me in a not-at-all minimalist manner, "was [that] I had already been booted from architecture school [University of Houston, 1966] for a kind of too-wicked treatment of an architectural problem. So I was making pictures, and Mayo Thompson was a friend who had been in Europe for a year. And when he came back he decided we ought to have a rock-and-roll band.

"He and I and a guy named Steve Cunningham, who was a year or two younger, got together and started playing 'Hey Joe' and all that. And we sort of developed at the same time the psychedelic stuff was going on, and we used to play for hours and hours."

Once christened the Red Crayola, Barthelme and his fellow arty hippies began to garner a local reputation. Eventually, they got to do an album "because we won some kind of idiotic mall Battle of the Bands. It doesn't occur to me now that we won, actually, but we played in it and were heard by Lelan Rogers, who was a small-time producer and Kenny Rogers's brother-in-law."

The album, The Parable of Arable Land, on the Texas-based International Artists label [home to the better known LSD pioneers the 13th Floor Elevators], sold fitfully at best, perhaps because "the guy who did the recording recorded it in mono," Barthelme recalled. "We thought it was a good idea at the time."

Undaunted, the Crayolas went out to California in the summer of 1967, where one performance, at the Berkeley Folk Festival, has become almost legendary. "That's where Cunningham played the famous block of ice," Bartheleme explained. "He brought a block of ice on stage, put it on a stand with some aluminium foil under it, and miked the foil. It was an outdoor concert, and it melted attractively."

After their California trip, the Crayolas went back to Texas and "just broke up after that season." Mayo continued with another album called God Bless the Red Crayola, and later reappeared in Europe in the Eighties with, of all people, members of Pere Ubu.

Today, from his teaching post at the University of Southern Mississippi, Barthelme looks back at his brush with rock stardom. "It was pretty interesting," he recalled. "Of course, the idea that I was a rock star -- or even a qualified performer -- is, I think, a stretch. You understand I was the world's worst drummer...very far ahead of my time, but the world's worst drummer."

Still, history plays odd tricks, and after the first Red Crayola album was reissued in the late Seventies, some rock theoreticians actually hailed the band as unsung Godfathers of Punk.

"Mayo said something about that when he was in Europe," Barthelme told me, "that in England we were a proto-punk band, and people had heard of us and had the record." He reflected for a moment.

"I don't know if that's true," he said finally. "But wouldn't it be lovely to think so?" -- Steve Simels

A couple of brief notes by way of a postscript:

I originally wrote the above for Rolling Stone as part of a larger piece about celebrities with rock bands in the woodwork; I interviewed a bunch of interesting people for the story, including pre-rehab Insider host Pat O'Brien and the late Republican strategist/devil incarnate Lee Atwater, but the piece ultimately never ran because Jann Wenner thought the premise was somehow insulting. I got paid five grand up front, though, so I didn't really care what Wenner thought, and I was able later to recycle several of the interviews at outlets including Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times, so the whole thing ended up being both quite wonderfully lucrative and marginally rep enhancing.

Also, since I wrote the piece, Arable Land has emerged on CD in stereo (despite Barthelme's mono-only claim); improved sonics notwithstanding, I hasten to add that it retains its period charm, and you can order it at Amazon if the downloadable song above piqued your curiosity. I really like it, myself.

Finally, some time in the 90s, somebody put out an actual, quite well-recorded, live album of the Crayola's 1967 appearance at the Berkeley Folk Festival, featuring the aforementioned melting block of ice. I had a copy briefly and seem to recall it's actually a double CD; you can order it here if you have a little disposable income and a fondness for acid-infused Dada-ish art gestures.

6 comments:

David said...

Hey, this is a fascinating and neglected area of the rock firmament; thanks for exploring it. God, Kevin Nealon huh? These days it's less notable if a celeb had been in a band of some note, but in the '60s it definitely feels much more arcane. Did you know that Mayo Thompson produced the sublime Chills album "Brave Words"? People complained about the mix, but it is just a fantastic collection of songs from this sadly short-lived NZ band. I would be happy to send you a few tracks if you'd like to take a listen.

steve simels said...

David -- You're right, these days it would be unusual if a celebrity DIDN'T have a band in his past. When I wrote the piece, though, it was intriguing.

I'm trying to think of some of the other people I interviewed.

I know I talked to Bobcat Goldthwaite...also, John LeBoutillier III, a crazy wingnut who briefly got elected to Congress in 1980 as part of the Reagan revolution.

And I'm not familiar with Chills, I'm afraid. Love to hear them, though...

Noam Sane said...

I dunno. You bust on other writers for championing crap music*, and yet you refer to "Hurricane Fighter Plane" as a 'classic'?

Possibly you're joking. If so, haha.

Otherwise, huh? It suggests the sound of a pile driver heard through a window at Abu Graib after it was moved to the bottom of the ocean.

*Bonus! WaPo's David Malitz on Morrisey's recent DC mope-show: The best moments...showcased a vitality that most veteran performers can only dream of.

Yes, whenever I think of Morrisey, I think: Vitality!

steve simels said...

Noam:

I was being ironic, but not completely.

David said...

"the sound of a pile driver heard through a window at Abu Graib after it was moved to the bottom of the ocean."
There are many different takes on noisy lo-fi production...to some it's unlistenable, other people dig the rawness. The dirty production doesn't impede the enjoyment of this listener, and compared to the proliferation of post-My Bloody Valentine-style distortion, its even rather quaint.

Noam Sane said...

I was being ironic, but not completely.

In that case, 3/8ths of an apology!

David, indeed, it's all subjective. I apologize to Rush Limbaugh.