Thursday, December 13, 2012

Side Four

Today this humble little blog celebrates four years online!  Quite amazing to think that when I was posting my first screed bemoaning the inconsiderate behavior of so many folks at Lancaster's historic Central Market on this date in 2008 that it would grow to 467 posts read by 14,060 unique visitors representing 117 different countries across the globe! I thank each and every one of you - whether you're a regular reader or just happened to stumble upon the site by chance - for being willing to take in my rantings, ravings and recommendations, for cheering me on in my battles against my demons, for being my road companion to many live shows, and for bearing with me through my occasional hiatuses (or, perhaps, hiati?).  You make this worth it; you give this blog purpose.  You have my gratitude.

I've been trying to determine the best way to celebrate four years in today's post, when it struck me that perhaps it might be time to provide at least a partial answer to the question I am often asked, How did I start listening to all that weird music I write about so often in the first place?  There are many factors which came together to shape my musical tastes, many of which are near impossible to truly pin down.  But there is one major influence that is easy to point to.  And what better time than Year Four of the blog to write about Side Four?

Side Four are words spoken in my family in the hushed tones reserved for Very Special Things Indeed.  While our reactions to Side Four varied then and vary now, all of the members of my family know Side Four very well. We were all, in some way, affected by it.

In the late 1960s/early 1970s, Warner Bros. Records issued a series of mail-order only compilation albums the called Loss Leaders.  The concept was a good one: folks will gamble a dollar a record to hear a selection of new music, will probably find a couple tunes they really like, and then are likely to pony up the dough for a full album or two by those artists who caught their ear. Most of these were two-record sets for $2, and my parents had several of the good ones including one that is often heralded as among the best of the bunch, 1970's The Big Ball.  Boasting excellent tracks from stalwarts like Arlo Guthrie, Neil Young and The Beach Boys; psychedlic folksters like The Pentangle and a pre-Stevie Nicks/Christine McVie Fleetwood Mac; and now-forgotten gems from The Fifth Avenue Band and Savage Grace, The Big Ball captures the turn of the decade from the groovy 60s to the far out 70s as well as any album you might name.  For three sides of its two records, that is.  Then there was Side Four.

Side Four held within its grooves a host of forbidden delights, a cornucopia of crazed cacophonies, the most geeked out stuff you ever heard.  It was wild, it was vulgar, it was rude, it was in your face.  And it changed the way I listened to music.  Warner Bros. had given Frank Zappa a sub-label of his own, Straight/Bizarre Records, to which he could sign any act he chose and let them record with relatively unrestricted artistic freedom.  Side Four collected several of these, along with some like-minded artists, in an offering of pre-punk underground anti-mainstream performances that, in hindsight, boggle the mind that they existed in the same world - on the same compilation! - with James Taylor and Joni Mitchell and Small Faces.

Side Four begins with Ed Sanders founder and leader of one of the more notorious subversive hippie bands of the era, The Fugs. Sanders warbles/shouts "The Iliad," a ironic character study of the typical insensitive intolerant good ol' boy of the day who hated those longhaired, drug-tokin', obviously queer hippies with their free love and peace and all that. Ed spits that hatred in your face and dares you to wipe it off, and in the process predates the far more "commercially acceptable" Charlie Daniels tale of "Uneasy Rider" by at least three years:

Up next, The GTOs warble giddily about "The Captain's Fat Theresa Shoes". The GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously...or Organically...or Orgasmicly...or, as they declare on their lone album, 1969's Permanent Damage, "all those other O's") were a group formed by a bunch of honest-to-goodness groupies led by the infamous Pamela des Barres.  Their childlike chanting and simplistic music would have fit in perfectly with the New Wave era:

Following that, the Captain himself!  The late Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, had recently released his yet-unequalled masterpiece Trout Mask Replica, and from it the stunning "Ella Guru" was plucked for this collection. With shifting rhythms and odd time signatures, the surprisingly catchy shoulda-been-hit inspired many, from Pere Ubu to Tom Waits.  It remains a classic:

Zappa himself shows up for a bit of a doo-wop goof with The Mothers of Invention celebrating a well known poor-man's drink of the day. "WPLJ" (white port and lemon juice) goes down just a smoothly as its namesake...and slowly eats away at your guts, again just like its namesake:

At this point, Side Four hits its crescendo, with a visit from the legendary Wild Man Fischer.  Fischer was a street singer who suffered from severe schizophrenia, who was known to hang out on Sunset Strip shouting his "songs" at the top of his lungs for anyone who would pay him a dime to hear one.  Zappa corralled Larry (Wild Man's given name) into a recording studio, put a microphone in front of him and rolled tape. Zappa found studio musicians to put a musical bed under some of the more "melodic" compositions, allowing others to stand in stark a capella harshness.  The resultant album, An Evening With Wild Man Fischer, is a stunning creation which will leave you wondering just how blurred the line between celebration and exploitation truly is. (For a truly emotion-wrenching experience, dig up the documentary on Fischer's life, Derailroaded, and then ask yourself where that line is.)  For The Big Ball, Warner Bros. created an elsewhere unavailable hybrid of two tracks from Evening, the absolutely wonderful (if lyrically inscrutable) "The Taster" and its explanatory companion track "The Story Of The Taster." Here are both as they appear in their original forms:

Finally, the tour of the bizarre ends with a remarkably straightforward little piece of folky sunshine, Pearls Before Swine's "Footnote."  Kind of like a palette cleanser after an exotic meal, "Footnote" brings you safely back to the real world after surviving Side Four:

In those six tracks, you can hear so many sounds that clearly influenced my musical choices later in life. And the most telling thing about Side Four?  There is a seventh and final song on that side, one that I seldom ever listened to then or now.  I have never been able to stomach much at all from The Grateful Dead. A few songs here and there are OK, but the endless, formless jam-band concept is one I've never been too keen on. So, for all my love of Side Four, the seven-plus minutes of "Turn On Your Love Light" that seems oddly tacked on at the end is as out of place as I would be at a Grateful Dead show.  (Apologies to my Deadhead friends - I respect your love of the band. Just never was and never will be my thing. Peace?)

So, after four years, a peek into what made me, well, me.  Stick around for the next four years, friends!