Frank Gutch Jr: On Writing About Music
It isn’t easy. To most of you it must look that way. Six, eight paragraphs about a band or an album, a few videos picked up off the Net. Two hours, tops. On the columns which didn’t go so well, maybe fifteen minutes (and a six pack of beer, after re-reading a few of them). But it isn’t easy and it takes me a lot longer than you might think. There have been times I’ve written five drafts and finally submitted the sixth out of pure frustration. Three, four days and not a thing to show for it. And then there have been the three hour jobs—- the ones in which I elucidate about the days of transistor radios and Fender amps (they were king when I was young). Unfortunately, those are few and far between.
When I hit a roadblock I will sometimes grab a stack of CDs and head out on the road, usually toward the Coast (living in Oregon, I have miles of highway from which to choose). If it is sunny, which happens more often than not during the summer in this day of climate change, I roll down the windows and turn up the player. Inevitably, I will find music to fit the mood which makes for a more interesting take on music or epiphanies usable in reviews. Never have I made the trek without coming back with something worth investigating or writing about. Of course, if I wait too late, there is no time for the Coast. There is a big white screen daring me to attempt making words come together in some form, be they entertaining or not. As a last resort, I revisit the columns of my peers here at DBAWIS for I find what they write, on the whole, inspiring.
Right now, I am writing. It is a good sign, though you may never see a word of this. All good writers, writers better than myself say, tough it out. They drive through the hard places to the end. That’s what they say. I suppose they are right. But sometimes the end result leaves me feeling a bit nauseous— not that I have ever submitted a really lousy column, but…..
Subject matter is key, I find. And the subject matter I find intriguing most others do not. So I get angry and that is not good. There are things to say and music to hear and people to write about beyond the superstars or flavors of the moment. But sometimes, things come along…..
David Bullock, for instance, is opening up. I was introduced to David through attorney John Reagan who lives somewhere in the wilds of Oklahoma (it is all wild as far as I am concerned) who had read a piece I had written on rock band Cargoe, a Memphis by-way-of Tulsa band and who produced the first album on the Ardent Records label. I think his first email went something like “Nice piece. Would you be interested in writing something along the same lines about Space Opera?” The Cargoe piece had taken me over a year to write and I was not looking forward to the amount of work it would take to do it again, but I said “If they want me to” and left it at that, thinking maybe they didn’t. Reagan sent me a note a week or so later saying that he had talked with David and that David was checking with the guys. The hard nut to crack was going to be Scott Fraser, he said, who had been misquoted enough times to make him leery of talking with anyone about the band (and his own music). Phil White was in, he said, but I had missed the boat on Brett Wilson, the drummer, who had unfortunately passed away. A month or so later, Reagan sent me the email addresses of all three remaining band members.
It took a good three years to compile the information and get it right. Scott was ill, struggling with cancer, and we traded a few emails. I could sense his reluctance in his writing. I promised all three that I would not print anything they did not want in print, that it was their story and not mine. Scott seemed okay with that but our time was short. He died shortly after we started. I talked with Phil on the phone twice but he was struggling with his health too. Two interviews and he passed on. Brett’s wife, Claudia, gave me what information she could, and it was applicable and very good info.
Now, David… David spent almost three years answering every question I gave him through emails and went way beyond that, checking my work and rearranging things chronologically, not an easy task. I was going over a few of those emails this afternoon and was floored by how much work he had done, editing and filling in holes and explaining situations. While it was happening, it seemed I was doing the work but by the time it was ready to post, it was David who had pulled yeoman’s duty.
I posted it on my own web pages but could never get the html down, so it suffered, style-wise. Recently, I moved it to No Depression to give the story a wider audience and reworked it a bit. If you are interested, you can read it by clicking here. I titled it Lost In Space: The Epic Saga of Fort Worth’s Space Opera. I know. Too cute. But it made the point.
When I started the project (around 2009 or so), I knew only of one album, the self-titled album on Epic Records. Right away I was gobsmacked with information that the band had a second album, also self-titled, which they had released themselves. I had been on the Net for a few years. I had searched. But I had no idea it existed. Then, not long after the story was posted, David went into the studio and put together some tapes the band had recorded and spliced together Safe At Home. That album included the original demo album they had recorded at Exit IV Studio in Dallas and some tracks they had recorded in the mid-to-late-seventies. I never thought I would hear those tapes. It has become my most listened-to Space Opera album.
Here’s the thing, and I could almost use this as an example of “why I write.” Just last week, David posted a song he had recorded at the Record Plant while he was living in NYC not too long after the Epic album fell out of the catalogue. You can hear it here. When I contacted him to ask about it, he offered to send me a few tracks from the old days that he had on his computer. He sent five. Five! I’m sorry. I am sure you don’t understand, but those five tracks are gold to a guy like me. Okay, let me put it this way. You’re scrolling through the social media and all of a sudden you notice a song never before released by Adele, or Bob Dylan, or maybe the isolated bass track by Paul McCartney on Rain. I would venture that the majority of you would click through to listen, and maybe even share the post so your friends could do the same. Well, Space Opera is my Beatles or Dylan. Sorta.
One which he included was not really a SO song at all but an oddball recording of a couple of the Sump’n Else go-go dancers. Somehow, during the band’s Whistler, Chaucer, Detroit and Greenhill phase, someone got it into their head that someone should call the girls over in Dallas and tell them to come to the studio and they would record them. They settled on Traffic’s Dear Mr. Fantasy and when David recently sent the files, he wrote this:
Here’s the version of Dear Mr. Fantasy by Lovett and Melody (Cheryl Lovett and Melody Coleman, the Sumpn Else dancers). Phil, Scott and I recorded the backing track and the ladies came over from Big D and laid on the vocals. It was released on one of Major Bill’s labels. I seem to have lost my 45rpm copy. Those sultry teen voices came out of some heartbreaking high school girls! –.. It is kinda funny. Heck, this was in the middle of the Whistler days. Probably Scott’s first recorded guitar solo, or among the first. He played lead and drums, I played acoustic and harmonica, and Phil on bass. A few years ago I shared this with Cheryl Lovett. We’re all old now, but memories help sustain 🙂
Oh, if you could only hear it. Maybe it’s not the best version but the way it came together— the FACT that it came together and with a couple of beautiful young high school go-go dancers….. Be still, my beating heart.
Of the five songs, I think the one I like the best is a live version of a track from the Whistler, Chaucer album— Ready To Move. While the album version has a certain folk/psych feel to it, the live version, recorded around 2000, weighed much more heavily into the psych, Scott having developed a real touch with sustained chords on the guitar. I wish they had recorded the whole album live that night. It would have been apples and oranges thirty years separated. Here is the original.
And if you have not heard Space Opera, here are a few videos so you get the idea.
Like I said at the beginning, writing isn’t easy. Not all the time. Not even most of the time. But when you get perks like songs very few people have, it makes it all worth the while. And there are the friends you meet, too. Not just the musicians but the other fans for what does music do but give you common ground.
David Bullock and I have never talked. All of our communication has been over the Net. But that doesn’t mean that we are not friends. Writing the Space Opera piece was an honor in a lot of ways. David, Scott and Phil opened themselves up and re-experienced certain things they had not experienced in years and some of those not all that pleasant. They had, after all, been right on the cusp of making it. The people I talk to think they should have, as I do myself. Unreleased tracks? That’s like Christmas all over again.
Let me plug David’s new EP here. It is titled In the Waking World and contains five songs, one of which is a remake of Blue Ridge Mountains from the original Epic album. You can check it out here, listen to samples and make a purchase if you should so desire. The album is top-shelf, recorded in Nashville with the best sidemen available. Oh, and another cool thing, David brought in his daughters to sing harmony on Blue Ridge Mountains. The harmonies are familial perfection.
I have other “gift” recordings in my collection too. A two-disc live Skyboys recording from 1979 which proved to me that they deserved those lines around the block at various venues they played around Seattle. Son of Man demos which may or may not be available from Pothead‘s website (Pothead’s guitarist was Son of Man’s back in the day). Demos from Attillio, who worked with the last vestiges of Portland band Sand (with some Sand demos included). Notary Sojac recordings, both studio and live. I am hoping the Skyboys discs will be made available because even though all but one song is a cover, it was a night I wish I had been there, it is so good.
A Remembrance of Pokey, the Best Bodyguard and Backup Vocalist a Band Ever Had…..
This piece was originally written and posted back in 2012. I ran across it when I was looking for old columns written by the writers here at DBAWIS, some of which are among the best I have ever read. But it struck me that I have not given Pokey his just due recently, so if you haven’t, meet one of the coolest dogs I have ever known.
Yesterday was rough. What should have been a fantastic day, one heralding the release of the long-awaited Research Turtles‘ Mankiller Pt. 2 EP, turned incredibly somber when I stumbled upon a post by Hymn For Her‘s Lucy Tight that Pokey had tripped off this mortal coil, and if that sounds a bit flippant, I assure you that it’s not. Pokey was a dog, mind you, but not just any dog. A very human dog. Though I had only met him twice and only for short periods, we were friends.
We emailed one another (and I am not so delusional that I did not know that it was Maggi Jane doing the typing, but it was Pokey’s spirit dictating), mainly about the status of the band he was part of (Maggi Pierce & EJ). We made jokes, each ending in woof!, and tried like hell to figure out a way to make those hapless humans hapless rock stars, but for all of our communications came up with nothing. With all of the opportunities missed, the unsuccess of the MPEband (as they were wont to call themselves) loomed large to us both. They could have made it. They should have made it, damn it! But in the end, they didn’t, and for all of the could haves and should haves, in the end it didn’t really matter. I didn’t realize that until yesterday.
Pokey’s real name is Pocahontas Illinois Cloud and I write that in the present because his spirit lives on. He was not born that way, though, and in fact was a late addition to the MPEband, a lonely waif hiding behind a dumpster in a back alley in Pocahontas, Illinois (hence, the name). He was a puppy, abandoned and alone and in need of a band. It was prophetic that one should come along. I laugh when I envision him, young and tail wagging to beat the band, trying to convince them that he was one of them, that he too was a musician. He was, you know. He sang backup. He was also an inspiration.
He earned his keep as roadie, security and backup vocalist. Yep, he sang on more than one of the band’s tracks. He was subject of one song, too— perhaps more— and I have been playing that song this morning with tears in my eyes. Pocahontas, Illinois is not only a classic rocker but one that only MPEband could have written and played. It was on the album which made me an MPE fan for life— the silver one. See, MPE had this thing for colors for some reason and named their first numbers of albums after, erm, colors. The first was white, the second (I believe) black and they went from there. By the time they got to silver, I pulled up alongside and introduced myself. See, when I first started writing for the Folk and Acoustic Music Exchange, I developed this aversion to their system which was, basically, here are the albums offered for review. You have six months, then they’re history. Too many put in their six months only to slip through to the other side and disappear, so I made it my mission go all the way to the bottom of the list, peruse those ready to fall through the cracks and order up the dusty ones, as it were. Silver was one of those.
Silver almost changed my life. In a way, it did. Few albums caught me the way it did. I became obsessed. I listened incessantly and pounded out a review in a fever (read it here) and probably got everything wrong, but I didn’t care. If I got it wrong, they didn’t and that was all that mattered. I became the consummate MPE fan. I wasn’t the only one. There were plenty before me but not enough to make them household names and that is what they deserved.
The cool thing, though, was that through that album, I met Pokey. I began corresponding with Maggi and before long she let Pokey hammer out a few messages. Emails which discussed the band and the music. They began with “sniff” and ended in “woof!”. I laughed whenever I got one because they were usually funny and occasionally hilarious and addressed not the trials and tribulations of a struggling band but the humorous foibles which should brighten each day. Sure, we occasionally touched upon subjects germane to the band’s situation, but only when necessary. I struggled to stay focused on the supposedly important matters at hand, like finding a way to spread the MPE joy and making them millionaires (how delusional was I?), because Pokey insisted on focusing upon the joys of life.
Yeah, I knew it was Maggi, but how could I not love the sidestep away from reality? To take on the persona of not just a dog but a beloved member of your family, canine though he be, can be a wonderful way to see things differently. We do it with humans every day. Animals are human, too. Especially dogs. They are the humans we should strive towards— loyal, loving and joyful. To me, Pokey was human. The best side of human.
Have you ever thought about the little details of life? How every step you take takes you in a specific direction? How butterfly wings in Africa can change the whole world? Well, had MPE not found that alley at precisely the time they did, Pokey would not have become a Cloud and MPE would have been much the lesser. Much.
Pokey gave those of us even on the very fringe of the band’s existence a lot, even if we didn’t recognize it. If nothing else, he gave us one of the best songs Maggi Pierce & EJ ever recorded. When I wrote the review of the Silver album, I had no idea what the song was about. I found out later that it was about Pokey, a lonely puppy trapped in an upstairs room while the band practiced down below. It took more than a few listens and a couple of emails from Pokey to figure it out. It goes like this:
Take me out, Don’t wanna stay in
Take me outside to play
Take me out
Don’t want to stay inside
Such a beautiful day
Can’t you hear me cry
Such a beautiful day
Let’s walk to the mountain
Climb the tower
Catch the eagle
Hide in our special place
Where no one can see me
You sit there and play her
While I sit and cry upstairs
I just want my freedom
Take me out
Don’t wanna stay inside
Such a beautiful day
Can’t you hear me cry
Such a beautiful day
Let’s walk to the water
Swim in Pogie Dam
Run thru the cornfield
Watch where you step because
It just might be your grave
It just might be your fate
Pocahontas Illinois Cloud
We touched noses once. It sealed our bond. Run through the cornfields, Pokey, and swim in Pogie Dam and be assured that you are remembered and loved. No one will ever sing backup quite like you.
And with that, it’s time for more…..
Notes….. I feel like I have been backing Brian Cullman for years but the fact is that the only album there was to back was his excellent All Fires the Fire album which had been available for a couple of years before I found it. Until now. It does my heart good to see (and hear) Brian backing a new project, The Opposite of Time, and I mean actually backing it. I cannot prove this but it always seemed to me that Brian took his older work— I don’ want to say “for granted”— let us say that he was not active on the promotion side of things. He is now. Two videos and various reviews and articles have found their inspiration in Brian’s activities and that is how it should be. Even Popdose found his latest video worth sharing. Let us take a look, shall we?
Glenn Coleman drags me back to the mid-seventies with a bullet. Crank it up and it sounds like something Capricorn or Atlantic would be pushing. Stacks of amps and an attitude. Crank it up!
My kind of band. Good music and a sense of humor. From Buffalo. Ten Cent Howl.
Mark Lindsay has a new album on the way— Summer of Love. Here is a sample.
People from L.A. might know the whole story behind The Screamers and the L.A. punk scene and I know more than a few wonder what happened to the members of the band. I have been following Paul Roessler for a handful of years and can state that he has never gone away, just changed directions. Take a listen to this little beauty.
Anyone who thinks they know something about the L.A. punk scene and hasn’t seen this might just learn something.
The three years I spent in San Diego were three really fascinating years. I left SD just when the punk rock thing was coming together, having been mildly involved in throwing the first all local punk rock concert in that fair city. I knew Gary Heffern and Jim Call and Dan McLain before The Penetrators, had a brush with Jerry Raney who was still with Glory at the time but would soon be a kingpin of The Beat Farmers. Shortly after I left, the punk scene began to coalesce and the bands you see in this documentary came about (though The Zeros had been around for a short time). I would love to see the entire film. It was a scene pretty much ignored outside of SD but one which touched me personally.
The band is Freakwater and I have only watched this once. I think I like it. Give me a few more listens and I will let you know. Interesting, at the least.
Frank’s column appears every Tuesday
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“Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”