Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Anson Williams Reality

The titles for the songs on the Le Bonx album were pulled out of the air by either me or Steve, usually immediately after recording them. Steve came up with the deathless "All Men Are Brothers (All Sisters Are Women), "Cosmic Anarchy" and "Punk Jazz Opus One" and I was responsible for "How Great Thou Aren't" - my favorite -  "Have You Seen the Seen" and "The Anson Williams Reality". Some of the titles were nonsense but some, like this one, have an actual story.

In '77, '78 and most of '79 I was employed as a delivery driver for Kerry's Stationers, an office supply retailer in downtown Oakland. These days everything is mega super huge discount and there's only one or two suppliers of whatever you're looking for but back then there were lots of little businesses specializing in various retail endeavors. When I worked at Kerry's there were at least 3 other office supply stores in walking distance. If Kerry's didn't have the particular pen you wanted you could simply walk around the corner to Flapdoodles or whatever and get it there. Kerry's was the only one that delivered. A lot of the local law firms bought from us - there were TONS of them - because if they ordered early enough in the morning they'd get their stuff that same afternoon. (Those were the days before the big discount warehouses and profit margins were huge. Most people paid list price for stuff. Kerry's biggest customers got a 20% discount!).

I've written about this before - I had a lot of freedom when I delivered for Kerry's. No one knew exactly how long it took to make my rounds and some days, if I played my cards right, I could have 2 or 3 hours of free time in the middle of the day to do whatever - or as it was usually in my case, whoever - I wanted to.  Nothing was electronic. There were no computers. The only way they kept track of me was with a list I made up each morning of the day's deliveries - and I had fun with that. It didn't take me long to get bored with writing out the names of the companies I was delivering to and I soon started to amuse myself by altering them. The law firm Crosby, Heafey, Roach and May became Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Gifted and Black. Stuff like that. I got away with it because no one ever checked my list. There was a realtor's office in Castro Valley that was something-something Williams Realty and it morphed into The Anson Williams Reality on my list. Anson Williams was the actor who portrayed the character "Potsie" on the (quite undeservedly) hugely popular TV show Happy Days - the show responsible for giving the world "The Fonz". I think he went on to be a producer or director or something - his name always seemed slightly absurd to me. Who names their kid "Anson"? Anyway, when it came time to name this particular improvisation his name popped into my head.

As I've said, there were 3 sessions for Le Bonx. The original cassette release contained recordings from the first session in the summer of '77 when Arlene was playing the Wurlitzer and the last (the "covers" session - more about that later). For the second and third sessions - Winter '77 and early '78, the Wurly had been replaced with a Fender Rhodes. When the time came to put the final sequence together for the release I didn't feel that the material in the second session was as inspired as the first and third. Interestingly enough, when Mike Cogan and I were remastering the tapes for the CD release in '04, I completely changed my mind. The second session had a different feel - the songs were longer, slower and had a darker feel but they were just as interesting. That's why the Le Bonx CD has several extra songs, among them "The Anson Williams Reality".

("The Anson Williams Reality" was released on the CD Le Bonx in 2003)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Have You Seen the Seen

In keeping with the original idea that "Le(s) Bonx" was a French punk jazz band, this song was to be titled "Have You Seen the Seine?" but I couldn't spell the name of the river so I changed it to the more esoteric "Seen" and removed the question mark.

Le Bonx may never have been released in any form had it not been for Bill Bergstrom. In 1981 Arlene and I moved into an old apartment complex in Oakland that we dubbed "Weedhaven" - not for the obvious reason, although there was a lot of that going on, but because the front yard was overrun with gigantic weeds. We had a cozy little one bedroom on the second floor in the back of the building. Bill and his wife, Andrea, were our downstairs neighbors. At the time we were working on songs for the album that became FSGBOC a couple of years later. We were working during the day and playing music until late at night. One night we were working on a song and there was a knock at the door. When we answered it, there stood Bill with a guitar and bottle of wine. "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em", he said. That was the birth of The Rummies (more about that later).

Bill was a construction contractor and a very skilled graphic artist. His musical tastes were more left-of-center than mine and he introduced me to a lot of musicians and groups that I would otherwise have never picked up on. He was a fan of Tom Waits, Laurie Anderson and other more obscure oddballs who I came to appreciate. In fact, my musical partnership with Bill was the catalyst for Rodent to Rodent.

It was Arlene who suggested that Bill might like Le Bonx, which I had compiled on to a cassette and stored away. We were sitting around talking about music and Bill was extolling the virtues of this or that experimental ensemble and Arlene said: "Sparky did something like that a couple of years ago..." I made a copy for him and he took it downstairs for  listen.

Bill and Sparky collaborate at Weedhaven
As I've said before - probably repeatedly - I'm a big fan of the tightly arranged 3 minute pop song. Bill's tastes ran in the other direction and this led to a lot of spirited discussions about the relative merits of our favorite styles and artists. We learned a lot from each in the 2 or 3 years that we were friends. By this time we'd started playing guitar together - Bill had a quirky, completely original way of playing that suited my songs perfectly....but I'm getting ahead of myself.

A few days later Bill came up and told us that he really enjoyed the Le Bonx tape. He got the joke, but insisted that the fact that it was done in fun did not detract from its artistic value. He related an amusing story: some friend of his came over while he was listening to Le Bonx and , having no idea what they were listening to, thought it was a recording by an obscure group of jazz virtuosos. We were all quite amused by that, but Bill was serious when he suggested that I should incorporate more of the free-form spirit of Le Bonx into my music. Again, this is where the idea for Rodent to Rodent born. It was also around this time that one of our neighbors, an eccentric named Robbie (who at this point in time had decided that he was rat-pack era Frank Sinatra) stopped by to tell us that he'd been listening through the wall to Le Bonx. He was very enthusiastic about it although he said: "I feel your drummer's pain".

("Have You Seen the Seen" was released in 1981 on the Le Bonx cassette and again in 2003 on the CD version)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Them Injuns

Matt came by the other day with a turntable for me. I was complaining on Christmas morning that I hadn't owned a working turntable for years and Matt promised to find me one - he has a way of getting stuff like that. So I've been playing a lot of vinyl. I started off with my old Tom T. Hall albums. I had dozens of his albums when Arlene and I were together but when we separated she kept them. I have never understood why she wanted them - probably because she knew I did. Tom T. Hall used to make an album a year back in the 70's and 80's, each with 10 songs that all sounded pretty much the same. When CDs came around his albums were quickly deleted and only his greatest hits packages crossed the digital divide. I had to go to Ebay to find the ones I remembered. It was a nice stroll down memory lane. I also listened to Pete Townshend's White City and the first  album by The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie.

After the first Le Bonx session in the summer of '77, I wanted to issue "Them Injuns" as a single or at least include it on the still-in-progress Won Out album. Arlene, who had enthusiastically participated in the recording, was dead set against it ever seeing the light of day so she voted an emphatic "no". Steve, like me, thought we were on to something but he was all for making an entire punk jazz album.

For most of the Le Bonx material I would introduce a theme or motif on the bass and the others would follow along and we'd let the song develop until it reached a logical conclusion or I figured it had gone on long enough. For "Them Injuns" I grabbed a pair of maracas that were lying around and improvised the break. Originally I was planning to recite a story about a battle between cowboys and Indians while Steve thumped away in the background, but, very much in the tradition of "Wa", I cut it short and kept it simple. The result is,  I think, one of the best songs on the album. When I pulled the song "Whatever You Want" out of mothballs for theb "Wa" single, I mixed "Them Injuns" into the track. You can hear it faintly in the background between verses.

My new turntable - it's a Dual and it's coo-al, heh heh
Matt found a box of letters I'd written to his mother, Nancy, and was kind enough to let me read them. In 1977 I was working at the Gingerbread House in Oakland. At the time it was a fledgling greeting card company - it morphed into the famous restaurant a few years later.  As the office manager, it was my job to organize the place and fend off sales reps from different suppliers. Many of the letters to Nancy are written on Gingerbread House stationary. My biggest weakness (and strength?) as a songwriter is that I can only rarely write about anything but me. My songs read like a diary of my many romantic missteps. The songs on Le Bonx gave me an opportunity to climb out of that rut - or get out of that groove. There's not a single lyric about love and no references, however obscure, to matters of the heart. The letters make it very clear that I was still very much in love with Nancy although it appears that at that particular time we were not seeing a lot of each other.

"Them Injuns" was one of the first handful of songs we recorded for Le Bonx. It's got a lot of energy - we'd just discovered this great new way of expressing ourselves and it was pretty exciting. Arlene in particular came up with some amazing stuff. Her playing up to that point had been efficient but not terribly interesting. It always amazed me that someone with as much musical training as she had could have a hard time improvising. Her parts on the records were usually dictated by me. But on Le Bonx she really cut loose - especially on the earlier tracks.