Originally published in Arthur No. 34 (April, 2013)
Note from the Editor
Let’s have a happy hurrah for Byron Coley, this publication’s longest-term continuous contributor, and as of right now its first and only Senior Writer. Coley earned this title the hard way, not just knocking out hundreds of column inches’ worth of learned music-art-poetry-film-comics-whatsit reviewage over the last ten years with Bull Tongue partner Thurston Moore on deadline for no pay, but also pinch-hitting on other stuff when ye young editor had yet again foolishly over-extended himself. (Plus there was that Yoko Ono feature that shoulda been a cover, back in 2007…) No one has flown the freak flag higher or for longer at Arthur than Byron…or done a better job of explaining why exactly that old flag was still worth checking out.
From what I can tell, Byron has always been like this. I first knew him by his editor/writer byline first, as co-prime mover with Jimmy Johnson of Forced Exposure, an irregularly published magazine that somehow covered almost all that was great and interesting in the ‘80s/’90s in a style/format that didn’t exist before and hasn’t existed since: a sweet combo of smart riffs, ribald japery, ecstatic poetics, subcultural scholarship and two bits of the old hairy shockola. The breadth of coverage, the depth of thought-feel about the subjects at hand, the high quality of the radar in choosing what was worthy of ink, the guts to run ridiculously long pieces regardless of overt commercial appeal, the relentlessly inventive wordspiel that flowed across page after black-and-white page…it all made each issue of FE a necessary acquisition. It was a lotta words to the wise from wise guides.
These are very different times than the ‘80s/’90s. No single independent entity today—certainly not this humble rag—could hope to cover the same cultural terrain as FE did with the same authority or insight, given the overwhelming glut of artistic production unleashed upon us all by our misguided computer nerd lords. You can’t keep tabs on it all. But what the hell. For the advocate journalist-scholar, there’s still the Basic Practice: find good stuff, tell other people about it. And don’t waste effort—try to be of positive use in times that aren’t so great. I know I’m embarrassing him into a startling new shade of pink-purple when I write this, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a more personally inspiring figure in America in this regard than Byron.
And there couldn’t be a much worthier, more overdue subject for an extended Arthur cover feature by Byron than Matt Valentine. In a way, I’m glad it’s taken ‘til 2013 to get round to covering MV, because now we get to view such a rich, extended life/art/career trajectory—that is, how his move from college to urban to rural locale has played out, and how a musician with such a singular vision, rooted in so many intriguing aesthetics, has found a way to persist, on his own terms, for so long, in such a trying period for working artists. In short: Matt’s cracked a lot of codes, and Byron has shared them with us with 202 footnotes that only he could write.
For over two decades, musician/head MATT VALENTINE has navigated strange, inspiring trips across myriad underground psychedelic terrains, joined by a revolving cast of fellow free travelers. Byron Coley crosses the bridge to get MV’s side of the story.
Matt Valentine aka Matthew Dell aka LunarMV, etc., is one of the more righteous freaks of our age. As a writer, guitarist, vocalist, label head, whiskey fan, and whatever else he might happen to be, Matt is one of those rare guys who is always ready to go “all in.” He is neither shy about his many accomplishments, nor unwilling to speak about them, but he is so flat-out committed to his own sci-fi-damaged version of personal history the way he’d like it to be known that he can be a tough person to interview. He loves the elliptical, the mysterious, the vaguely legendary secrets that underpin all true history, and he seems more than happy to offer wild and theoretical answers to most dull and specific questions that come his way. For this reason, among others, there are few places you can turn for objective facts about the musical/historical trajectory of Matt Valentine.
And the man clearly deserves a thorough overview.
This isn’t exactly it, but it’s a first step. Matt and I have been friends for a couple of decades. We’ve done various projects together over the years—tapes, shows, albums, tours, books, etc.—and he well knows in what high esteem I hold all of his work. To my mind, much of the popularity of the acid-folk revival was instigated by Matt and his cohort—hardcore record collectors and fans who were capable of hearing things no one else had noticed, and were eager to translate their discoveries into post-punk tongues. Few people have been as tireless in their work expanding and documenting the boundaries of underground culture over the past years, and Matt has created a vast web of friends, recordings and memories documenting his aesthetic peregrinations as well as those of his fellow travelers.
Matt, among other things, has been a tireless documentarian of his passage through space and time. The number of recordings he has released is not easily discerned, but let’s just say they are legion. What continues to mystify listeners is the fact that Matt’s sonic trajectory is constantly evolving. Unlike the many artists who bogusly claim “my latest release is by far my favorite,” Matt’s new records generally incorporate a new form-innovation/renovation/reconsideration. The guy is acutely aware of where he has been and seems dedicated to Heraclitus’s dictum about not stepping in the same river twice. Because of this, Matt’s albums (the major ones, anyway) often represent a true progression in terms of technique, interpretation and vision. That said, the new LP, Fuzzweed (Three Lobed) is a monster of sweetly-stoned tongue-form. It boils many elements of the essential, ineffable MVEE whatsis into a kind of floating vocal/way-post-Dead instrumental-puddle that will absolutely sear your brain. The first batch of copies also come with a CD that culls the best moments of the new 7-CD Zebulon residency set COM just issued. It’s weird. There are only a handful of people whose recordings I choose to follow with something like fervor. Matt is one of them. Hopefully this talk will help you to understand why.
I had hoped that Erika Elder, Matt’s partner in all things, would attend the interview as well. But she played possum at work, leaving us to blab untended from the light of afternoon into the dark of night. Hopefully, this interview will give you some idea of the depth and width of Matt Valentine’s work. It’s a vast weird place. Hello.
B: Let’s start with some basics. Where did you grow up?
M: The Hudson Valley region. I was born in Mount Kisco, NY. Lived in several towns around there, including Yonkers for a bit when I was super young.
B: Did you play music when you were a kid?
M: Yeah, but I wasn’t really in a lot of bands or anything. I started a bit when I was in high school. I was kicked out of the school band. I played alto sax. But I got booted out pretty early because I think, without really knowing anything about it yet, that I wanted to play like Ayler. I would take the melody of “When the Saints Come Marching In” and transmogrify it.
B: Was it a marching band?
M: At first, yeah. Then it became more of a concert recital band, and you had to choose whether you wanted to be in the jazz band or one of the other standard school things. The school I went to was pretty interesting because it was fairly liberal. Like, there weren’t any walls in the school. So when you didn’t have a class there was a big open space called The Commons. It was grades 9-12, and the cafeteria and the smoking section and all that stuff was in the middle. When you didn’t have a class it was a regular thing to hang out in The Common with an acoustic guitar and just play and meet people. So that’s where I first started to get hip to the idea of social communication through music. I did weird recordings at home, then the first serious band I was in was a relatively professional band.
B: Who was that?
M: That was a band I played with right out of high school called the Werefrogs. I played with two guys who were older than me, from the same school. They had graduated the year before me and had played in bands for a while. One was a drummer, the other a guitarist. They were both from the same scene at the school and they wanted a bass player. So I said, “Oh, I’ll play bass.” I think they wanted me in the band because I could hang out and I was into kinda cool music.
B: What era was this?
M: Around late ’88. We did a couple of singles.
B: What kinda stuff was it?
M: Psychedelic rock.
B: What were your models?
M: We were probably most like dudes who wanted to play like Joni Mitchell or something. It was kinda weird chords like that, but these two guys were more advanced musically and into jazz voicings and things like that. It was a trio, so of course there were obvious things like Hendrix. I was listening to WNYU a lot then. They had a program called The New Afternoon Show. I would get off this mail room job I had, and the show was on from 4:00 to 7:30 in the afternoons in the tri-state area. I would listen to that driving home, and they’d play stuff like the Road Pizza 12” and all these crazy bands who made one single and then disappeared. It was the most crazoid music I’d ever heard. It made some of the college radio stuff of that era seem incredibly straight. I really dug the stuff I heard, so I’m sure some of that stuff was in the mix as well. This was around the time when Nirvana played on that tour with the Cows at the Pyramid. I’d be going into NY to see gigs like that. And Galaxie 500 was playing at CB’s Canteen a lot, so that was in there. Of course Sonic Youth, and to some degree things like Bern Nix. I’d go see him a lot when he’d play at Roulette and the old Knitting Factory. I was starting to get into that stuff when I was in high school. Then there were some weird record stores popping up, so I’d spend time in those and pick up stuff. So the influences were classic rock, along with a few underground things.
We did a few singles and then we got signed, really quickly by this English label. I think they thought we were gonna be a grunge group or something. But they were cool. They were an independent label and had some good bands like Levitation. It was called Ultimate Records, a weird label in Camden Town. We did three EPs with them and one LP. We did a couple of Peel Sessions. So I was kinda cutting my teeth early. We did big tours early on. We did gigs with Yo La Tengo and with Radiohead in the States. It seemed like it was a big noise pretty quickly, and I never turned back from that really. I met a lot of people through that, and then I started playing a lot more seriously after that band dissolved.
by Byron Coley (with thanks for help from Mike Gangloff & Glenn Jones)
Hung Far Low, Portland Oregon (Klang CDR, 2001) Doctor Ragtime (Tequila Sunrise CDR, 2002) Red Horse White Mule (Eclipse ECL-012 LP, 2002) “Red Horse II” on Wooden Guitar (Locust Music 33 CD, 2003; 2LP, 2008) Raag Manifestos (VHF #85 CD, 2003; Eclipse ECL-039 LP, 2004) Opium Musick (Eclipse ECL-026 LP, 2003) “White Mule” on Golden Apples of the Sun (Bastet BAST-0001, 2004) Kensington Blues (VHF #92 CD; Tequila Sunrise TS-12001 LP, 2005) “White Mule III” on Imaginational Anthem (Tompkins Square TSQ0531 CD, 2005) “Box of Pine” on This Side Up (UK Ptolemaic Terrascope POT-35 CD, 2005) “Sun Dogs” & “Now That I’m a Man Full Grown” on By The Fruits You Shall Know The Roots (Time-Lag/Eclipse 3LP, 2005) “Hey Fuck You Rag” on Two Million Tongues Festival (Bastet BAST-0006 CD, 2005) “Variations on Fleur de Lis/Be The Name of the Lord” on Dream Magazine #5 comp (SWE Dream Magazine CD, 2005) “Untitled (Parts I & II)” (Tequila Sunrise TS-7002 7”, 2006) “Cross the North Fork II” on Imaginational Anthem Volume Two (Tompkins Square TSQ1424 CD, 2006) “Amp” on Less Self Is More Self (A Benefit Compilation for Tarantula Hill) (Ecstatic Peace E#107 2CD, 2006) Jack Rose (aRCHIVE 28 CD, 2006; Tequila Sunrise TS-12006 LP, 2007) “How Green Was My Valley/Buckdancer’s Choice” (split with Silverster Anfang) (BEL Funeral Folk ff015 7”, 2007) “Since I’ve Been a Man Full Grown” on The Great Koonaklaster Speaks: A John Fahey Celebration (Table of the Elements TOE-CD-91 CD, 2007) “Revolt” on Mind the Gap Volume 68 (BEL Gonzo Circus GC084, 2007) I Do Play Rock and Roll (Three Lobed TLR-049 CD/LP, 2008) Dr. Ragtime & His Pals (Tequila Sunrise TS-12007R, 2008) “Mr. Rose Visits Washington DC” on Meet the Philly Eilte (BEL K-raa-k 7”, 2009) The Black Dirt Sessions (Three Lobed TLR-066 LP, 2009) Luck in the Valley (Thrill Jockey 229 LP, 2010) “Moon in the Gutter” on Rough Trade Shops – Psych Folk 10 (UK Rough Trade COOPR250 CD, 2010) Unrock Series – 12.11.2009 (GER Unsound UNR-009 CDR, 2010)
As Dr. Ragtime: “Buckdancer’s Choice/Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” (Sacred Harp Library 7”, 2005) “Alap/Flirting with the Undertaker” (Tequila Sunrise TSR-6, 10” 78, 2005) (compiler) Dr. Ragtime Presents Nice and Nasty (Ecstatic Yod CDR, 2008)
Jack Rose & Jason Bill: Via St. Louis (Drunken Fish dfr-36 CD, 1996)
Jack Rose & Glenn Jones: “Linden Avenue Stomp” on The Wire Tapper 17 (UK Wire Magazine CD, 2007) The Things We Used to Do DVD (Strange Attractors Audio House SAAH058 DVD, 2010)
Jack Rose & the Black Twig Pickers: Jack Rose & The Black Twig Pickers (Klang Industries 008 LP; VHF #116 CD, 2009) “Revolt/Soft Steel Prison” (UK Great Pop Supplement GPS28 7”, 2008) “Shooting Creek/Rappanhannock River Rag” (UK Great Pop Supplement GPS49 7”, 2009)
Jack Rose with D. Charles Speer & Helix: Ragged and Right (Thrill Jockey 12.42 mini-LP, 2010)
with Ugly Head: Spoon Knife Fuck (Transparanoia 7” , 1994) A Bowl of Fever (Transparanoia 7”, 1994) “These Drugs Aren’t Working” & “Throttled Sleep” on Dixie Flatline (Radioactive Rat CD, 1994) Silence Is the Mystery of the Future Age (Transparanoia CD, 1997)
with Pelt: Brown Cyclopedia (Radioactve Rat 333 LP, 1995) “Big Stick and Little Sweet Play ‘In the Pocket’” (possibly) on With Pure Hell Raying From Our Sacs (no label MC, 1995) Burning / Filament / Rockets (Econogold Ego-002 CD, 1995) Snake to Snake (Klang Industries LP, 1996) Woove Issue Five split with Soma 77 (WUVT-FM 7”, 1996) Max Meadows (VHF #28 CD, 1996) Techeod (VHF #36 CD, 1997) For Michael Hannahs (no label CDR, 1997; VHF #38 CDR, 1998) Black Florida split with Harry Pussy (Klang Part 3 7”, 1998) “Zinc Mine” on untitle comp (UK Ptolemaic Terrascope POT-24 7”, 1998) “Tibetan Ass Hash” on Umlauted Roman Numeral Five (Klang Industries Fifth Anniversary) (Klang 2CDR, 1999) Empty Bell Ringing in theSky (VHF #43 2LP, 1999) Rob’s Choice (VHF #54 CD, 1999) two untitled tracks on Pelt/Pengo/Andy Gilmore Live At The Vilage Gate Carbon CR33 CDR, 2000) Keyhole (w/Keenan Lawler, Eric Clark) (Eclipse ECL-006 LP, 2000) Ayahuasca (VHF #62 2CD, 2001) Houston 2001 (Klang CDR, 2001) Six of Cups (Klang CDR, 2001) “The Signal Tower at Murraysville, Pennsylvania” on The Invisible Pyramid (Last Visible Dog 2CD, 2003) Keyhole II (w/Keenan Lawler, Eric Clark) (Eclipse ECL-017 LP, 2003) Pearls from the River (VHF #76 CD, 2003) A Capsized Moment/Paris 3.5.04 (Klang CDR, 2004) Untitled (VHF #90 CD, 2005) Skullfuck/Bestio Tergum Degero (VHF #98 CD, 2006) “Sunflower River Blues” on I Am the Resurrection: A Tribute to John Fahey (Vanguard 79789-2 CD, 2006) Heraldic Beasts (Eclipse ECL-050 2LP, 2006)
with Pelt/Rake: United Supreme Council/Oastem! Vibe Orchestra (Eclipse ECL-009 LP, 2001)
with Dredd Foole & the Din: The Whys of Fire (Ecstatic Yod #49C/FYPC20 CD, 2003)
with Glenn Jones: “Linden Avenue Stomp” (unique version) on This is the Wind That Blows It Out (Strange Attractors Audio House SAAH024 CD, 2004)
the easiest heroes are consistent but the ones who really shape us are random maniacs whose work we stumble across at times in our lives we desperately need misdirection
and so it was i met the music of lou reed through a guy named buzz who’d bought the first velvets album but didn’t like it just the way he hadn’t liked the first mothers album a month earlier which meant i got each for a buck
there is literally no way to describe the way that record hit me i was a ten year old seventh grader and the first time i played the album i was transformed into someone else someone who knew more than my contemporaries even if i couldn’t quite shake it all out
lou and john and sterling and moe gave me much more info than i could understand but they did it in a way i loved so intuitively with music exploding in such amazing directions it made sense on a molecular level
and through the years i followed lou good scenes, bad scenes, he put us through it all but we kinda paid attention because, after all this motherfucker this lou reed
this electroshocked cocksucking bastard who put out many more lousy records than good was the father of everyone i’ve ever known and i never thought he’d die and i really miss him
Wily folkplayer MICHAEL HURLEY (aka Elwood Snock) has charmed hip audiences for over fifty years now with his timeless surrealist tunes and sweetly weird comics, all the while maintaining a certain ornery, outsider mystique. Longtime Snockhead BYRON COLEY investigates this Wild American treasure.
Originally published in print in Arthur No. 35 (2013)
The best American musical inventors (Harry Partch, John Coltrane, John Fahey, Albert Ayler, et al.) have consistently possessed an odd blend of traditional and avant garde elements inside their work. I would suggest that Michael Hurley deserves a place among this pantheon; although, since his primary avant garde technique is surrealist lyric-writing, the radicalism of his work can be easy to overlook. Championed by outsiders, loners, stoners, eggheads, and marginal-culture nuts of all stripes, Hurley still seems to imagine himself as working inside the general blues/folk continuum, but that’s mainly because he’s so deep into his own weirdly personal universe he can’t see the forest for the trees. I’ve been listening to the guy closely now for better than 40 years, and it is clear that a deep connection to avant garde themology (whether intentional or subliminal) suffuses his work to such a degree that it begins to explain why his songs—so simple on their surface—have long drawn their most devoted fans from people who eschew “standard” folk traditions.
The first time I ever heard about Michael Hurley I was sitting in my mother’s 1968 Chrysler 300 in the Fall of 1971. She and my sister were playing a round of miniature golf in Parsipanny, NJ, but I had opted to stay in the car to read the new issue of Rolling Stone. In it was a review of an album called Armchair Boogie by Michael Hurley and His Pals that sounded intriguing as hell. I made my way out to the Sam Goody’s store in Paramus (the very shop where Glenn Jones bought his first Fahey LP) and found a copy. The cover was a brightly colored cartoon of a wolf snoozing in an armchair. I was not a folk fan at all, but the thing looked so great I bought it, took it home and slapped it on the box. There was a black & white comic book insert as well—Boone and Jocko in the Barren, Choking Land—and I looked through it as the album began to play. The opening track was ‘The Werewolf’ and it just nailed me. Acoustic guitar, violin and a tired sounding voice that flew into falsetto without notice, telling a tale about the travails of being a misunderstood monster. The comic book was weird and funny as shit in a non sequitur kind of way. And by the time Hurley started singing the song ‘English Nobleman’ in a truly rotten British accent, I was utterly won over. But this story ain’t about me. It’s about Michael Hurley, aka Elwood Snock, one of the purest fonts of true American beauty and orneriness to have yet graced our planet. And man, he pretty much defines what it means to be a “lifer.” He’s a guy who has lived by his own rules for a long time, in a universe where most people are willing to bend themselves into pretzels just to get by. It’s an inspirational tale. Hope you can dig it.
Michael Hurley was born a rounder. He entered the planet in 1941, via Northern Bucks County, Pennsylvania. His dad was a producer of musicals and, while the area around New Hope remained the family’s base, they also spent time in Florida and California, before returning to Bucks County to stay in the middle ’50s. This travel touched young Michael profoundly. For the last half-century it has been anyone’s guess where the hell he’ll pop up next. His first extended solo trip was in the Summer between 9th and 10th grades. Having secured a letter from his father, assuring any authorities that he was not a runaway, Michael took off, hitchhiking to New Orleans, then on to Mexico. He spent some time in Matamoros, and a night in the jail in New Iberia, LA (“They decided to lock me up to give me a place to stay,” he says. “Just for safe keeping.”), but made it back in time to start school. After another year or two, he dropped out of high school and turned his focus towards the lights of Manhattan beckoning in the night sky just over the hills from New Hope.
Greenwich Village had the happening folk scene at the time. Hurley had been playing and writing songs since he was 13, and so had his pals Steve Weber (founder of the Holy Modal Rounders) and Robin “Rube” Remaily (who was in a later version of that band). They put together a combo called The Three Blues Doctors as much for their own entertainment as anything else. Playing a mix of originals and covers, The Doctors did some recordings on reel-to-reel tapes, but Hurley is cagey about what these might contain. The band played one gig—as a quartet, with pal Wayne McGuinness—at the Blind Lemon in the Village. It was a pass-the-hat gig, and The Three Blues Doctors’ performance approach—with everyone playing a different song simultaneously—proved to be more than the patrons could easily handle. The Blind Lemon gig may have represented the end of the The Three Blues Doctors, but it was Hurley’s first time on a real stage, and he liked it. Michael and “Rube” headed down to New Orleans to test their luck.
“We used to play together more coherently as a duo in New Orleans, playing in bars,” he says. “We’d go into bars and start playing, ‘cause they wouldn’t throw us out. It would kind of connect things for us, to be there just playing music. We didn’t get much free beer, but we’d meet people. They’d invite us to their houses and give us things to do—party jobs.”
Eventually the pair drifted back to Bucks County, and it was around this time that Michael acquired his sobriquet—Snock, or sometimes Elwood Snock or Doc Snock. His memory of the epiphany that led to this is clear, although as is often the case in Hurley’s tales, the dates are both specific and transitory.
“It was March 16, 1961,” he says. “I heard this music, and it was very snocky. It was like what you would hear when you hit hardwood sticks together. I heard a whole symphony like that. I thought it must be me, having my vision. I’d always read about the Indians who go out and fast until they get a vision and take a new name. They go out in the hills somewhere and starve themselves until they get a vision. Might be a bear or something. I was kinda following that idea. I heard this music and I kinda saw it too, over an ocean wave, like the surf was coming in. The surf was coming in just like this snocky classical music. That was it.”
A few important MATT “MV” VALENTINE listening experiences through 2012, assembled by Dan Ireton & Byron Coley and presented in chronological order. Links are to best current (2016) retail or wholesale source for the goods. This article originally published in Arthur No. 34 (2013) as a sidebar to Byron’s interview with Matt.
TOWER RECORDINGS Furniture Music for Evening Shuttles (Siltbreeze SB54 CD + LP, 1998) Technically, the fourth Tower album, but the one where they really come together into a great stew of kosmische gushery. Someone told me if I liked German stuff I should listen to this. He was right.
TOWER RECORDINGS The Folk Scene (Shrat one-sided 12”, 2000; Communion CD, 2001) You want the expanded CD reissue version, which is much longer. The vibe here mirrors the best work of those German and Scandinavian commune bands we all loved so much.
MATT VALENTINE Space Chanteys (Fringes LP, 2002) This early solo side, released by an Italian jazz label, has always felt like MV’s version of Astral Weeks (not that you’d confuse his voice with Van Morrison’s). You can hear the door closing on Matt’s New York period. The lyrics are super-personal and the musical arrangements are loose and flowing.
MATT VALENTINE Ragantula (COM 4, 2002; reissued in the COM-Relics series) My favorite version has a small piece of printed cloth inserted, but that’s extremely rare, so let’s not mention it. This one is thematically linked to Matt’s transition to country life.The lyrics related to the move, and the music has a very rural vibe (even though some was recorded in NYC).
DREDD FOOLE Kissing the Contemporary Bliss (COM 2CDR, 2004; Family Vineyard 2CD, 2008) Although credited just to Dredd, this is equally Matt’s album. The pair push against the envelope of how free “free folk” could ever get. This also marks the beginning of the Spectra Sound experiments, and sounds a big as the whole outdoors.
MV & EE WITH THE BUMMER ROAD Green Blues (Ecstatic Peace CD, 2006) Some people love the way this connects the vocals of Skip James with the guitar of Neil Young, others think it’s just TOO MUCH. Regardless, this one is the first real rock-qua-rock record.
MV & EE WITH THE GOLDEN ROAD April FlowerTour (COM 8-CDR set, 2011) Great document of some live dates (mostly from April, 2011) representing their annual Spring Fling with UK guitarist Mick Flower. There’s a heavy ruralist rock vibe to most of the action with bursts of lightning purity. More smoke than folk.
MV & EE Country Stash (Three Lobed LP, 2011) When this one came out, I just said, “Wow.” It was the first album that really seemed to properly reconcile all of the threads Matt has chased. A favorite.
Sun City Girls: God, How They Sucked, 1981-2007 by Byron Coley
The Sun City Girls were one of the great bands of my lifetime. Now they’re gone and the world is both meaner for their passing and richer for their having been here. Their official end occurred on February 19, 2007. That was the day Charlie Gocher, the band’s drummer, succumbed to forces greater than his own—a concept almost unfathomable, but true nonetheless.
For 25 years, the Sun City Girls were a trio of exquisitely hermetic design. Charlie Gocher, Alan Bishop and Rick Bishop created a wildly bizarre universe in which almost anything seemed possible. It was always difficult with these guys to understand where truth ended and fiction began, but it didn’t seem to really matter. Like the LSD street-talkers of my youth, conversations with the band (in whole or in part) tended to obliterate many of the culturally-drawn distinctions that usually seem important. They were able to bend time and space to their own evil intent, which, luckily for all of us, was really not evil at all.
The Girls dropped many delightful and smelly bucketfuls of recordings over the years. Singles, videos, CDs, cassettes and LPs. These ranged from the virtually unlistenable—arch sets of covers played with enough irony to give you a soft-on for a year—to albums like Torch of the Mystics, which floated into the spaces between your atoms, instantly bonding with every available surface.
Never the touringest of bands, the Girls nonetheless remain most burned into my memory for their live shows. The earliest ones were mysto-shroud post-core jamborees of the most frenzied nature imaginable. Later ones blended shtick and strangeness and playing so brilliantly precise it was devastating. There was Charlie, assaulting his drums like a myth-gorilla trapped inside a VW bug. There was Alan, moving between jazzbo-centric bass pops and the corrosive performance art characters with which he amused himself. There was Rick, just kind of taking it all in and regurgitating splanges of guitar noise as delicate or vicious as you could imagine. Together they seemed unstoppable.
One of the last times I saw them was a two-night stand they did at the 2004 Suoni Per Il Popolo Festival. My friend Benoit had never seen them before, but he knew he was in for a treat. I explained we should be prepared to heckle the Girls with all the means at our disposal, since they thrived on intense audience interaction, no matter how negative. He was leery, but game. The first night we screamed our heads off, drawing incredible barbs from Alan’s Uncle Jim doppelganger and getting more than a few rises out of Rick when we began insulting him for being a rare book dealer. So successful was this approach, Benoit was invited onto the stage the next night to give Alan a tutorial in Quebecker cussing. It was an exquisite evening, although Charlie was clearly not feeling well before the show. He explained it as being some variation of a flu, combined with his “advanced age,” but I guess it was a little more complicated than that. Still, he played with a ferocious lop-sided intensity that belied any physical diminishment.
Live shows went back to being a rarity. They played but a single festival set in each of the last three years. There started to be sniping in some quarters regarding the band’s purported heisting of ethnic music traditions, but when I saw them the last time (at ATP in December, 2006), we had a good laugh about the idea of them as cultural imperialists. Their travels around the world had always been journeys of wide-eyed discovery. The souvenirs they bore home from these trips (whether internal or external) were things they were driven to share. Like maniacs. Which they were. To say they didn’t enrich our knowledge of different cultural traditions (particularly those of Southeast Asia), misses more than a few available boats. They were nothing if not the American underground’s cultural ambassadors to the world.
It hasn’t been long since Charlie died. Alan and Rick must still have a lot to figure out. Their varietal solo works will undoubtedly continue in all their glory, and one assumes there are oceans of unreleased material to be pumped into the cosmos. But I will miss knowing the Sun City Girls co-exist with me on this planet. They were a funny and generous group of individuals, committed to a lot of truly worthwhile things, not the least of which was a cruel and cutting humor, beautifully suited to the times in which we live.
But Charlie is no more. And the Sun City Girls are no more. And that’s just something we’ll have to live with.
Arthur readers and alike, I spoke with Jay this morning and the sad news is circulating that guitarist Jack Rose (b. February 16, 1971) has passed on to the next realm. It’s with a heavy heart that I say this, but thoughts and prayers are with family and loved ones. He had fans around the world and everyone should know about Jack and his music. His style is like no other.