Frank Gutch Jr: My Six Degrees— Brushes With Greatness and Life, Featuring Brian Cullman and a Cast of Thousands… Plus Notes
I received an email this morning from Brian Cullman. He claims he is writing a book. For the past number of years— in fact since I “met” him in May of 2011— I have been pushing him to write a book. My exact words over the years have been, “Brian, you should write a book,” to which he inevitably would reply, “I’ve thought about it but I don’t think there is enough there” or something to that effect. I prodded him again this morning and, lo and behold, he said he is doing it. Or going to do it. Or is thinking about maybe doing it. You can never tell what the guy is thinking. Sometimes I think he thinks too much.
There have been moments where I wanted to grab him by his jug-handle ears and bang his head on the edge of a desk and scream, “Less thinking! More doing!” but I’m not sure it would do any good. Shortly after the imagined outburst, Orson Welles appears in my addled brain and says, in a parody of his wine ads, “Everything in its own time.” It is my mantra. When it is time, it will happen. Or I will die still waiting.
You see, Cullman has this legacy of memories like you cannot believe. He has posted some of them in The Paris Review, personal and poignant and sometimes laugh out loud remembrances of people and times past. Giorgio Gomelsky (What do you want? Kansas Fucking Eagles? This is the way I make fucking records! In crisis! Music is chaos, asshole! It’s big tits and the landlord chasing your fucking tail! No money, and it’s dark and three big black boogies coming out the alley! You want Kansas Fucking Eagles go to fucking California, eat pussy, fuck you! I need smell of fear all over studio floor, maybe we all gonna die, maybe we all gonna live, but it has to smell of now!). Nick Drake (The figure came into focus. It rose, and stretched, and where before it had looked like a small child that had folded itself into a ball, now I could see it was someone fairly tall with the physique of a tennis player, all arms and legs and elbows. A curtain of dark and uncombed hair hung around his face, hiding everything but his eyes. It looked like he was stoned. It looked like he was asleep. It looked like he was the most wide-awake person in the history of the world. All of the above. Each time I replay the scene in my mind, it’s different. And each time it’s true. He was wearing a frayed white shirt and jeans and boots and a black corduroy jacket that seemed a size too large. I don’t usually pay much attention to clothes, but my first thought was … where can I get a black corduroy jacket?). John Martyn (Martyn could be competitive and fractious, especially if he’d been drinking, and if I’d been raving about Bert Jansch or Richard Thompson, I’d have been bounced out on my ear. But when it came to Nick, different rules applied. John was fiercely protective of him, provided safe haven and no questions asked. Nick could leave his shadow behind; John would roll it up, put it in the hall closet, and it would be there safe when he returned.). You don’t have to guess who the “Nick” was. George Martin (…I stood up to put my guitar away. As I did, a few coins fell out of my pocket and clattered to the floor. I bent down to pick them up. “Wait,” George Martin smiled. It was the first time I had seen him smile. “Listen. You can still hear it.” A light metallic sound was hanging in the air. “See? The record isn’t over yet,” he smiled. And then he walked out of the room.).
If I really wanted to be a writer, this would be the kind of writer I would want to be. The writer who covers the flip of a coin at the football game and writes about the sound of the coin. The writer who witnesses a wildfire and makes it sound like nature’s art. The writer whose wife of 23 years just left him and writes about her clothes or her shoes. Who knows that the peripheral increases the focus. I mean, who wants to read the mere details of a car crash? Better to make the car human. In your minds eye you see the same things but in the mind itself…
I spend too much time on details. People tell me that all the time. “It doesn’t matter,” they say. “People don’t care about those things.” And in my mind I think that that’s a strange way to think about things. To myself, it all matters— maybe not equally, but… I read about the Gomelsky Cullman presents and I want to know that guy. I don’t necessarily want to be involved with him but I want to see him in action, you know? I want to see Nick Drake unfold like a blowup raft. I want to hear what John Martyn really thinks, not just what he says in mixed company.
I wish it was raining right now. I feel like writing and the rain helps me think— or maybe the more apt term would be daydream. I started writing when I lived in Eugene after I was released from the Army and I think it was the rain which gave me impetus. The sound, the texture, the cool (and sometimes chilling). It loosed the memories— even the ones I did not have. Of course, there was wind. Eugene that year was always windy and when it rained, whew! I ran into a parked car riding my bike from the west side of Eugene to the University of Oregon campus one night to see a girl. The wind was blowing the rain horizontal and straight into my face and I closed my eyes for just a second, officer, to get the rain out, when… I hit it straight on and the bike flipped straight over the car lengthwise and landed in the street, I myself preferring the softer landing on the hood. It took me a few seconds to gather myself and I half expected to find a dented and unusable front tire. Picking it up, I set it down and walked it a few paces, then checked for a flat. Not a scratch, tire solid. I got on and kept going, thinking that Schwinn’s were indestructible. But I limped for a few days. I guess I am not.
It was raining the night I wrote my first published piece for Fusion Magazine. Somehow I had this phrase going through my head— “for those who don’t bite bubbles in the bathtub”— and I was listening to Cargoe over and over and the frustration and then the rage took over and I pounded out a page, practically denting the keys, stuffed the one page into an envelope (no one had ever told me about double-spacing), slapped a stamp on it and walked to the corner mailbox three blocks away to mail it. A month later I received a note from Barry asking if I had anything else, so began my short and not so illustrious career. I wrote about Magma. I wrote about Capability Brown. I wrote about bands few had heard or would ever hear. Barry published them. He developed a section he termed “Not Overlook” because I was not the only frustrated vinyl junkie wanting to plug “my” music. There were a number of us— probably all white and male and girl-less with lots of time on our hands and an unending love of music. My favorite piece on Big Star was published by Fusion, written by Jon Tiven. I was crushed when the mag folded. I found some of my favorite unsuccessful bands in those pages.
One day a lady came into the Peaches record store I worked at and asked for The Monroes. I told her it was not available. But, she pointed out, they played it on the radio. Yes, I commented, but the label folded. She bowed her head for a second and turned to walk away. Wait a minute, I said. I have a copy. You can have it. She smiled and asked if I had a cassette. No. but I could tape it for you. She gave me her card— the first card I had ever been given by a lady. Did I mention she was knockdown beautiful? And she smelled wonderful? I didn’t have a chance to call her. She came in a few days later and asked if I had had the chance. I handed her the cassette and she left, in my mind with me following and sniffing the air all the way to the door. The next day, she appeared again, this time with a bottle of wine in her hand. I didn’t know what you drank, she said, handing me the bottle. While I wanted to say “Beer,” I just stood there dumbfounded and, once again in my mind, walked her to the door. I remember that lady as much as I remember anyone. She went to a lot of trouble to get that Monroes’ EP. The mark of a true music fan.
Eddie Money is one of the smartest musicians I ever met. I was working the floor one day and this guy comes up to me and sticks out his hand and says, “I’m Eddie Money. I was wondering how my record was doing?” I shook his hand and said, “It’s doing pretty well, Eddie,” because the record he was talking about was Two Tickets to Paradise and was climbing the charts. He had a Rising Star concert coming up, made sure everyone in the store had tickets and left us all astounded. I don’t know who attended the concert but I sure did. Guy goes to that much trouble, you owe him.
Sometimes fictitious people are more real than the real. Like Elroy Berdahl, a character in a book I am reading now (The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien). My sister gave it to me and I immediately thought of Tim O’Brien the musician (Hot Rize and Red Knuckles & The Trail Blazers own a specia. place in my heart). It is about a guy who spent time in Viet Nam and the struggles he had before and after. Just remembrances but remembrances so unassuming that they take on a bigger than life persona. I was not sent— indeed, I was frozen at Ft. Lewis, a political dissident. I hated the war like you cannot believe and through it I learned to hate all wars. O’Brien lays out his life in short scenes and trails of thoughts. He paints people and pictures so clearly that I can see myself in them. He was no hero and no coward but somewhere between— trapped in a world he never made, like Howard the Duck. One scene places him close to the Canadian border and ready to cross but… but for everything. The decision to go into the Army was not an easy one for most of us. It was war, after all. O’Brien found himself on the Rainy River with an old guy, Elroy Berdahl, who ran a camp, a cabins-on-the-river kind of thing. It was off-season and O’Brien just happened upon Berdahl and ended up staying six days. Every time he looked across the river was a struggle. Canada was the way out, he knew, and he was close enough to throw a rock and hit a beaver or knock a maple leaf off a tree, but in the end he couldn’t do it. It was the ghosts. We all have ghosts— ghosts from the past and from the future— and O’Brien saw his in technicolor. He turned back. The thing is, we all had that river to cross. I couldn’t cross mine either. I accepted the draft because of my family. Momma told me that if I didn’t go, it would kill Dad. I knew she was right. Sometimes what we do is choose a lesser evil. I could not do that to my father. I stayed. So my ghosts are not of the Cong or Viet Nam. My ghosts are of the handful I met returning from the field of battle, mentally scarred beyond recognition of who they once were. They may have comprised a very small percentage of the soldiers I met but they were giants and took up more space than a stadium of those of us not haunted by the War. I saw a bit of blood— the blood of attempted suicides and bleeding ulcers— and I saw anguish I could not even begin to imagine. And that wasn’t even war. I was myself but I was every one of the soldiers I knew— scared shitless some of the time, bored as hell most of the time. Like the people in O’Brien’s book. Today, it seems like a dream. When it was happening, it was all too real.
I have never seen a movie set in Viet Nam during the War. Not even Good Morning, Viet Nam. I have no idea why. No need to, I guess… That and the fact that I just don’t want to. Living through the experience once was not fun. Why would I want to do it again?
Listening to Bobcat this morning, the band Joe Norman put together with Paul Gonsoulin after he left Research Turtles after the first album. Back in 2012 when the album was released Joe promised he would send a copy and then the Northern Lights cut off all communications or something. Recently, I mentioned it to his father, Rick, to whom I was talking about his killer trilogy of books revolving around baseball and the South during WWII and shortly thereafter. (They are a combination of Ring Lardner and W.P. Kinsella and every bit as enjoyable) I asked whatever happened to Bobcat and Rick said I should talk with Joe. Even gave me his number. Before I could make contact, I get this email from Joe saying he would talk anytime. We made arrangements for today. Why is this important? For the same reason talking with members of Notary Sojac is— history. In Bobcat’s case, it is more than history. I have been spinning the CD since I got it and wish I had heard it four years ago because it would have been a great companion series to the pieces I wrote about Research Turtles. It has a bit more of a punch than the RTs, louder and more in-your-face, but still with the attention to melody and hook. I am hoping to learn why Joe left the RTs and what exactly happened with him after the fact. When I watch the series of videos filmed at the casino when the band was in its infancy, I cannot imagine it not having been a real rush. From the info I have, they had played only one or two gigs before. Oh, the pressure. Here is what they looked like then. Joe is the guitarist on the left, facing the band— the dude with the white guitar.
Joe sent me a video of a gig with The Yams. Of him singing Harry Nilsson’s Without You. We had been talking about his days with The Flamethrowers and Research Turtles and the differences bwteen the two bands. Joe had signed on with The Flamethrowers. That is what he wanted to do— play covers, have fun. When the RTs edged their way in, it did not feel right, he said. The striving for perfection, the intensity, the restrictions. Playing originals took his freedom away. It was a struggle. So he left the band, he said, because he felt out of place. He enjoyed playing with The Yams and with Bobcat, which also started out as a cover band. The difference was that Bobcat had no real goal, at least not one that got in the way of the fun.
I watched the RTs video above a few times because Joe said he could not play guitar, or at least he could not sit down with an acoustic and play something all the way through. He had never learned to play guitar. His life with bands was one of faking his way through— picking up chord changes and short riffs and covering his inability to play. By the time Bobcat came around, he was looking at a completely different template. They wrote the songs together— all of them. It was a hobby. It was fun.
Joe is an interesting guy. He has always kept a distance from the music he played. And he still struggles with others perceptions of his role in any of his bands. Only he knows what happens when he plays, live and in rehearsal. Only he knows what a struggle it is for him to be onstage. The thing is, I would not have had a clue if he hadn’t told me. He’s a natural.
I finally finished Rick Norman’s book, Fielder’s Choice. The second half of the book took me totally by surprise. Whereas the childhood of Goose Fielder through his major league “career,” there were chuckles and belly laughs galore, the second section was dramatic and gripping. I won’t tell you exactly what happens other than to say that Goose ends up in a POW camp in Japan and it ain’t pretty. I loved the first section and couldn’t wait for the laughs each time I picked the book up, but I had trouble putting it down at all toward the last. Maybe it did not have the intensity of what I feel is fifty of the best pages ever written (those being a section of Herman Wouk‘s The Caine Mutiny), but I turned the lights out a couple of nights and had to roll over and turn them back on to read a little further. Next up will be Cross Body Block, wherein Goose returns as a baseball coach 25 years later and is recruited to coach football as well, then Bat Day, which from its graphics alone makes me think maybe Goose is once again finding himself in the deep end of the swimming pool. If you’re looking for a stocking stuffer and know someone who loves the older days of baseball, I heartily recommend these. And judging by the excellence of Fielder’s Choice, I can’t help but wonder how many other lost classics are out there virtually undiscovered. You can check out Rick’s books by clicking here.
I started with Brian Cullman so it is fitting I end with him. He has a new EP out, sort of a Christmas one, titled New Year’s Eve, and I say “sort of” for a reason. But why listen to me? Here is Cullman’s explanation straight off his promo blurb.
“Years ago, I washed up on a tiny island between Spain & Africa. There was no electricity, no running water, and after dark, the animals took over the island, dogs and goats and creatures you couldn’t see but could hear, snuffling and breathing by the rocks on the shore. There was a pretty girl who lived in a windmill; a doctor who had hung his rejection letter from Harvard Med School on his front door; and an architect who was compiling an encyclopedia of sand. It was that sort of place. It was late November, I’d rented a tiny house in the middle of a pine grove, and I realized it was the first year I wouldn’t spend Christmas with my parents. I felt both liberated and homesick; but excited to be on my own, finding my way in the world and anxious to leave all the trappings of pop culture behind. I wanted to stare at the moon and hear the music of time.
“I would go out under the stars, with nothing but the sound of wind and dogs and night, and there in the wilds, my mind would fill with the flotsam & jetsam of my childhood: ‘The Christmas Song,’ ‘The Little Drummer Boy,’ ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas.’ So much for the music of the spheres.
“For years, after I returned, I couldn’t set foot in a mall or step into an elevator after Thanksgiving. I still can’t. Holiday music gives me the creeps.
“So this is my revenge, my way out of no way out! Three minutes of seasonal music without a sleigh bell or reindeer or sugar plum fairy dancing in your head. It’s a song for that dark nightclub of the soul where Randy Newman, Sun Ra and Willie Dixon are the dee jays and no one really cares if you’re naughty or nice.”
The three minutes refers to one track— New Year’s Eve. The other three are— well, I don’t want to say leftovers because when I first heard The Book of Sleep a couple of years ago, I begged him to release it. That and a handful of other tracks from an earlier period.
Speaking of Christmas, Cullman has allowed me access to many songs he has recorded over the year. Every one he has passed along has been a real treat. It is like Christmas all over again. Every time.
But hey, what say we get on to what we look forward to each week— the ever-consuming…
Notes….. There is an ongoing attempt to wake up the world which at this time seems to be picking up steam. The latest I have heard of involves Jennifer Saran, Narada Michael Walden, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Carlos Santana. The message is positive and the need is evident. The world has taken a hit not only by the election of The Orange One but by all the hate being spewed by the Right throughout the world. I have always been a big believer in the power of music and even if it does not touch certain people it does touch others. Here is the story of the recording and the video which, I am sure, will be everywhere. And just so you know, all proceeds will go to charity.
I have been singing the praises of Jon Gomm since he recorded his albums in his kitchen. I was lucky enough to have found him while writing reviews for the Folk And Acoustic Music Exchange website and later found much to like not only about his music but his stance against digital streaming, mainly Spotify. It is a hell of a story but one for another time because this time around he has not only released a new video he is promoting but is introducing a new daughter to the world. Named Indigo, she already knows the way of the world, having donned the T-shirt you see in the picture. Like her dad, she has that famous Gomm sense of humor.
One look at the guitar in the video should explain.
I don’t know who’s been drinking out of the Kool-Aid jar, but it is possibly the music industry. They are promoting new artist (new to me, anyway) Polly Baker as Country Pop. What the hell does that mean? I assume it means Pop music coming out of Nashville because I have to tell you there isn’t one goddamn note of country anywhere in Wild. That said, It’s not a bad song at all and in fact a pretty good one. It’s just has nothing to do with country. Then again, Nashville promotes that hack Garth Brooks as country too. I’ll take Baker over Brooks any day.
This time, it’s the voice. Georgia Ruth.
You won’t have to remember the name Courtney Marie Andrews because she isn’t going away anytime soon. One of my picks for the year. Whereas her voice is nothing like that of Zoe Muth, who steamrolled me a few years back (and hopefully will again, soon), Andrews is on the same level. This, folks, is what Country could be again. Then again, who cares what it’s called as long as it is this good.
I think it was Dave Pyles over at FAME who first mentioned Ana Egge to me. I owe him a debt. She knocks me out. The band is The Sentimentals from Denmark. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is what Egge sounds like all the time. She is an amazingly versatile musician and singer.
It has been awhile (meaning two weeks, maybe?) since I’ve posted a Dave McGraw & Mandy Fer video, so let me correct that. Without a doubt, at the top of my you-need-to-hear-these-guys list. See them live. They put on a killer show.
And just so you know, See By Sound (formerly Lavacado) has just released their first album. Stay tuned…..
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.