Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cosmic Anarchy

In 1977 punk music bludgeoned its way into consciousness. That was the year that I finally admitted that there was other music out there worth listening to besides the the Beatles, Dylan, Neil Young, Frank Zappa, Jackson Browne, Van Dyke Parks, Joni Mitchell, Phoebe Snow and Harry Nilsson (there's few more, but you get the idea). I didn't think much of it musically, but it got me listening again, and when "New Wave", punk's more musical offspring, came along I was ready. I became a big fan of Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and Blondie. But that was later. The original concept of the Bonkeenies was basically a punk version of the Mothers of Invention - that is, complicated music played by people who couldn't play their instruments well, if at all. That idea went by the wayside as the group progressed, but it never left my mind. But in '77, when punk was in full flower, Arlene and I were recording "Trucks in the Sky" and similar songs for the still-in-progress Won Out LP.

Steve Hanamura, my only remaining musical cohort, was in New York attending Cornell University and we saw each other when he was home for holiday and summer breaks. I'd been hanging out with my cousin Nick, who'd introduced me to jazz-tinged performers like Michael Franks and Weather Report. Nick was also a big fan of Frank Zappa and had wholeheartedly embraced punk, being especially fond of Bad Brains and the Dead Kennedys. We spent many weekend afternoons drinking Coors and listening to records and tapes of our latest favorite bands while having spirited discussions about the relative quality and significance of the music

It was during one of these listening sessions that the term 'punk jazz' came up. A local musician Nick and I both enjoyed (whose name is now lost in the ether of time) had described her (for I do remember that it was a woman) music that way. I don't really even remember what the music sounded like, but I do remember Nick and I arguing over whether the music lived up to the title. We decided that it didn't.

When Steve came home for the summer, the term 'punk jazz' was still in my mind and we had a few conversations about the concept. Ultimately we decided that a band that encompassed the qualities of both Weather Report (skilled musicianship, compositional improvisation) and the Sex Pistols (bad attitude, little musical knowledge and a scorched-earth approach to musical history) would fit the bill nicely. We created a conceptual group called Sex Report and began blueprinting their first 'album'. Arlene got involved and we gave it the provisional title of Hemo Vino Profusely based on the first 3 words that came to our minds.

Things got really interesting when we decided to actually record the album.

Steve and I were great planners and organizers. I still own piles of notebooks full of details outlines of ideas for various crazy projects we came up with during out alcohol and whatever fueled evenings around my kitchen table. Once we concocted a scheme to run Peter Helgeson for mayor of Oakland with the catchphrase "He's H.O.P.!" (which meant "heard of Peter", an area in which his designated opponent, local judge and politician Lionel "Nappy" Wilson, was decidedly deficient. "Nappy" was, of course a nickname bestowed upon him by the Grinstead/Hanamura brain trust). These detailed plans and outlines usually stayed right where they were written and were never acted upon. This was not to be the case with Hemo Vino Profusely.

Steve at the kit: "drum treatments"
One evening in late July of that summer found us gathered around my TEAC A-360-S stereo cassette recorder - the same one we'd recently used to record "Trucks in the Sky", "Big Ass", "You Know Me Blues" and the first take of "No Magic", all intended for Won Out - after ingesting  a smorgasboard of inebriates. Steve sat behind a drum set, I was holding a Fender Jazz bass and Arlene was seated at her Wurlitzer 200A electric piano. Arlene was the only one of us who had more than an elemental grasp of her instrument. Steve had never played drums before and my understanding of the bass was rudimentary at best. But that didn't matter. We had decided that we were the French punk jazz group "Les Bonx" (the "s" was dropped at some point) recording our first album. We'd all taken on assumed names for the evening. Steve and Arlene's have been lost to time, but mine has stayed with me: Norman Famous made his first appearance that evening.

I turned on the tape machine and started playing a simple 2-note motif. Arlene followed along a little tentatively and then Steve came in with what we later called his "drum treatments". We simply played whatever came into our heads for 2 or 3 minutes and then I guided them to a stop. Then we listened to it back - and we all burst out out laughing. It sounded pretty good! Steve then announced the title: "Cosmic Anarchy". The project was off to a great start.

There are no chord charts for the Le Bonx songs because there are no chords!

("Cosmic Anarchy" was released on the Le Bonx cassette in 1981 and the CD of the same name in 2003)

No comments:

Post a Comment