JPMS Online: POP/IASPM-US Sounds of the City Issue, Ken Tucker

by justindburton on December 17, 2012

 LA Eccentricity in the 1970s: Thomas Jefferson Kaye, Hirth Martinez, and Moon Martin

Ken Tucker

After last March’s POP/IASPM-US joint conference, Sounds of the City, a collaborative project was hatched to feature the work presented at that conference in both print and online versions. This collaboration pulls in the Journal of Popular Music Studies (Karen Tongson and Gustavus Stadler), the EMP Museum (Eric Weisbard, also on the IASPM-US executive committee), and IASPM-US (Anthony Kwame Harrison, also on the JPMS editorial collective, and Justin D Burton). A print version of JPMS appearing in Fall 2012 (24:3) features eight essays from the conference, and we’ve selected several more to publish on the IASPM-US website this fall. So enjoy the reverberations of a spectacular March weekend in New York, and don’t forget about the 2013 conferences for IASPM-US and EMP’s POP.

Eccentricity in an industry town like Los Angeles can either be rewarded or consigned to obscurity in ways that are different than in other parts of the country, and this was particularly true during the mid 1970s and early 1980s. This was a period in which the record industry was still reasonably robust, still able to bankroll its fair share of gambles and to subsidize quirky artists who might turn a profit. After all, if this era could accommodate what was Fleetwood Mac’s most self-indulgent, bloated, and yet highly accomplished, tuneful, and imaginative collection, Tusk—a double album in which Lindsay Buckingham served as producer, performer, and a kind of rock critic deconstructing his own band’s sound—then who knew what other, cheaper-to-finance acts the industry might, with a comparatively small amount of coin, come up with, nurture, and exploit?

I’m using the term “eccentricity” in the sense of deviating from the customary character of things, of the pursuit of new ways to express familiar ideas, in styles that can seem strange or humorous or excessively roundabout, and informed by a personal vision that most often precludes any extensive mass outreach at a time when pop culture was still primarily about becoming mass culture. Furthermore, I have chosen to focus on eccentric musicians who never “made it” in the sense that such varied major-league eccentrics such as George Clinton or Randy Newman or Captain Beefheart or Jonathan Richman did, sustaining commercial careers for as long as they chose to do so, before they withdrew from the arena of the hurly-burly by choice. The people I am writing about here would most likely have been very pleased indeed to make as many albums as Beefheart or Richman have; yet for reasons related to their time and place, they did not.

Another significant aspect of eccentricity in L.A. is that it’s a quality often prized by comfortably mainstream artists and business-people looking to get out of their comfort zone, or to subsidize younger or odder or more stubborn musicians than themselves—to function, in short, as old-world art patrons. They did it out of largesse, to feel as though they hadn’t “gone corporate,” to prove their own adventurous taste, or, in some cases, to thieve a few ideas for themselves that could be massaged into the mainstream.

Take, as a first example, Thomas Jefferson Kaye, brought to you by the people who gave you Steely Dan. Kaye’s 1974 album First Grade is a near-great lost artifact of the L.A. singer-songwriter era, and as vivid a statement about a certain kind of Los Angeles state of mind as Randy Newman’s Trouble in Paradise, the Eagles’ Hotel California, and NWA’s Straight Outta Compton. That it sprang, laboriously, from a musician with a penchant for the canorous and the self-mythologizing only adds now to its lustrous melancholy. First Grade was produced, as was Kaye’s self-titled debut album, by Gary Katz, at the time most commonly identified as Steely Dan’s producer. Kaye had a modest gift for networking, or perhaps just hanging out and/or leeching; he himself had produced the 1973 album Triumverate, whose title core was Mike Bloomfield, John Hammond, and Dr. John. A former A&R man for Scepter Records who got his name on records by the Shirells, no fewer than four solo albums by wounded Byrd Gene Clark, and the post-hits incarnation of Jay and the Americans, Kaye is also credited in nearly everything I’ve read about him as the producer of ? and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears,” which I found hard to believe. I sent an e-mail to Dave Marsh, who knows a thing or two about the history of singles and one-hit wonders and asked whether he thought Kaye was the producer of “96 Tears.” Marsh’s response, in its entirety, was, “Good god, no!” I assume that “96 Tears”’s writer and singer Rudy Martinez produced, and that Kaye was a bullshitter sufficient unto the internet.

Still, credit where it is due. When Loudon Wainwright wanted to go electric on Columbia Records, he used Kaye as producer and Kaye’s on-again, off-again band, White Feather, to back him, and Kaye DID produce Wainwright’s only number-1 hit, “Dead Skunk.” Fittingly, “Skunk” became Wainwright’s albatross; Thomas Kaye had injected an eccentricity into an artist already too eccentric for his own commercial good.

There is at once a grand sweep and grandiose navel-gazing going on throughout First Grade. It’s glossy, countrified studio music which partakes heavily of the tunefulness and barely disguised sentiments of romantic hopelessness, bafflement, and hostility – qualities much like, in fact and indeed, Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic, released the same year as First Grade. Michael McDonald is quoted in Barney Hoskyns’ fine book Waiting for the Sun as saying that Becker and Fagen were “eccentric in a normal way.” As I read that remark, it was McDonald’s way of explaining how Becker and Fagen could score hit pop songs while also pursuing the East St Louis Toodle-Ooo.

Thomas Jefferson Kaye, by contrast, was eccentric in an eccentric way. His album commences with its creator’s brief song of himself—it’s a kind of compressed autobiographical note.

Kaye’s album features prominent use of pianos over guitars, a string section over drums, and female back-up singers over his vocals, which aspired toward a baleful croak. His choice of cover songs on the album is telling. From Loudon Wainwright he took “Say That You Love Me.” “Say that you love me,” Kaye sings to a potential or ex-lover, which initially sounds vulnerable before tipping its hand with the chorus, which turns the imploring into a demand: “Say that you love me, I said it to you.” Donald Fagen and Walter Becker played piano and bass on some of First Grade’s tracks and more crucially gave Kaye two of their songs to record, “American Lovers” and “Jones,” and Kaye really made the most of them. “American Lovers” is a lushly orchestrated master stroke of cynicism and alienation passing as an envoi to the possibilities of unity and connection. Robert Christgau’s Consumer Guide review described the song as a “bitter, poignant farewell to the counterculture.” Kaye himself was capable of a similar catchy dubiousness. His own “LA” is a clatteration of honky-tonk rock about false utopianism and unwarranted optimism, peaking with the declaration that he’d founded “a new religion called ‘Baby Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.’” (This song, by the way, turned up in the movie To Live and Die in LA, covered by Wang Chung.) This, even as the harrowing pace of the music and Kaye’s jaundiced tone was telling you that everything was most certainly not going to be alright. Indeed, things were going to go the way of the other Becker-Fagen song, “Jones,” as in jonesing for trouble, for depression, for an irate revenge, as well as for drugs. Kaye’s relationship to Becker/Fagen was to be even more morose, more difficult to understand, more chewy and hard to swallow: he was the mealy Dan.

All of this was baked in echt-L.A. country-rock, exploiting the tension between form and content with Dusty Springfield and former members of the Eagles singing back-up vocals. It was as close to musical heaven as Kaye would get, and also the last album he released under his own name until 1994’s Not Alone, before and after which, by all reports, Kaye devoted much of the time he did not spend on production gigs seeking out the booze and drugs that contributed to his death in 1994. Gary Katz has described Kaye as “the most talented guy I knew who didn’t make it—he did everything he could NOT to make it.” Kaye was almost literally a man who couldn’t buy a thrill, or get paid for providing one.

Kaye’s California eccentricity was distinguished by an ability to both render the sui generis of Steely Dan sound like an attitude that was easy to cop, no mean feat, and yet which also makes his music sound of a piece with everything that was happening commercially in the L.A. of this era. Only more wizened and turned in on itself.

Hirth From Earth, the 1975 debut from East L.A. singer-songwriter Hirth Martinez, was produced by Robbie Robertson and released on Warner Bros Records. The album cover was shot by Norman Seeff on an off-day from snapping Carly Simon in her teddy. It’s a murky photograph of Hirth Martinez as a slightly portly man in a black suit with dark glasses and a walking stick, standing placidly amidst waves of water from a Malibu, California, beach washing over him, leaving him formally attired with curliques of seaweed hanging off of him. A Hirth who had, perhaps, just crash-landed on Earth and landed near the Santa Monica pier. The music on the album is similarly both formal and singular. Despite his East L.A. origins, Martinez betrayed few local influences—neither Ritchie Valens nor Cannibal and the Headhunters; Thee Midniters nor El Chicano; Los Lobos nor the Bags. Martinez worked from the sounds inside his head, and that head was full of obsessions regarding interplanetary space travel, astrology, women, and the pull of the tides. On the song “I Don’t Know Why The Hell,” Martinez sings, “I don’t know what the hell you see in me…You didn’t even know the sign I was born under or that I was crazy as they came.”

There is scant cultural identity to be found in Hirth Martinez’s music, and he was not interested in integrating styles so much as transmuting them to fit his image of himself and those who might enlist to follow him. Or as he wrote in the liner notes, “In a sense we’re spacemen. In a sense we’re earthmen. We’re the spacemen living on earth. All together alone, inspired and tired, supernatural, natural, it’s all the same.” Hirth Martinez was, in this sense, a fantasist and a homebody; he specialized in writing both zonk-outs and gently swaying songs about being an alien but not alienated; love songs to the woman who made him, quote, “happy to be a pappy.” The melodies are a mixture of middle-of-the-road pop, soft rock, and what Martinez described as “Jobim-styled sambas;” it is sung by Martinez in two distinct styles: a guttural, Dr. John-style growl and a higher-pitched, earnest croon. Robbie Robertson had heard about Martinez for some work the latter had done as a back-up studio musician, and someone turned him on to Hirth’s own unearthly compositions. Robertson was intrigued enough to both arrange and produce Hirth from Earth, play lead guitar, and enlist Garth Hudson on electric piano.

In a radio interview given to Mark Guerrero, Martinez told of Bob Dylan’s involvement in Hirth’s first album. Invited by Robbie Robertson to come to the studio during the recording, Dylan expressed interest in the music. “Would you like it if I played some harmonica on a few tracks?” Martinez recalled Dylan asking. Martinez gave him an immediate yes, and Dylan left the studio. Martinez says the next time he saw Dylan was four years later; Dylan indicated no sign of recognizing Martinez.

I will toot my own horn of prescience; while researching this paper, I found a yellowed clipping, a capsule review I wrote of this album for the SoHo Weekly News, which still owes me $150 in $10 reviews. I concluded my Hirth Martinez review with this sentence, “Hereby declared the Winner of the 1975 Thomas Jefferson Kaye Award.”

For eccentricity as a 70s career move, it’s hard to top Tonio K, whose first album, Life in the Foodchain, was released in 1978 via an Eagles connection—the Full Moon vanity label distributed by Epic Records that the odious Eagles manager Irving Azoff oversaw and which until Tonio’s signing specialized in Dan Fogelberg releases. K—born Steve Krikorian, and taking his stage name from Kafka and Thomas Mann—started out at a terrifically revved-up pace. Life in the Foodchain is all yelped singing, slashed guitar chords, and sophomoric verbiage. Tonio had started his career playing with a revived version of Buddy Holly’s Crickets, yet was art-school enough to be entranced by the German collage artist Kurt Schwitters, a man himself so eccentric he alienated the Dadaists and was compelled to create his own one-man art movement complete with poetry and song, Merz. Tonio K recorded a not bad approximation of Merz music on his second album, released in1980, in what he called a “Merz Suite” of songs, “Let Us Join Together In A Song/Umore/Futt Futt Futt/Umore.” But before that, he was a self-styled angry young man who was too much of a pro-slash-hack to associate with the punks—he pushed his songs on everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Al Green to Burt Bacharach, but not before recording a song that briefly got him in top rotation alongside the Germs and the Circle Jerks on Rodney Bingenheimer’s KROQ radio show “Rodney On the ROQ”: a song called “HATRED,” which peaked with these two quatrains addressed to a lover:

I do wish O could accept all this
as simply “life” which includes pain
and act upon the actual fact
that nobody’s to blame

Yes I wish I was as mellow
As for instance Jackson Browne
But “Fountain of Sorrow” my ass, motherfucker
I hope you wind up in the ground.

Moon Martin is an L.A. eccentric by way of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they really know how to grow ’em, from Bob Wills to the second-generation New York School poets Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett. Indeed, Moon Martin’s early, exceedingly stripped-down way with melody and lyric is much in keeping with the early mannerism of Padgett, whose first book, titled Great Balls of Fire, in 1969, contained the sonnet, “Nothing In That Drawer”:

Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer
Nothing in that drawer

Just so, Moon Martin used formal constraints in idiosyncratic ways. He came out to Los Angeles from Tulsa in the early ’70s. He claims to have been invited to join the nascent Eagles but ceded his guitarist spot to Bernie Leadon. Before releasing his first album Shots from a Cold Nightmare in 1978, Martin had placed a song, “Cadillac Moon,” with a CBGB house-band, Mink DeVille, and, closer to his new home, provided the title song for Michelle Phillips’ exceedingly underrated solo album Victim of Romance.

Moon Martin himself knew how to play up a “victim of romance” image. His signature album-cover pose was to stare straight out at you, pop-eyed in cherry-red hornrims; under a helmet of blond hair, his eyebrows can often be seen arching in incredulous terror. What this overheated fantasist in thick glasses is intense about is women. It’s no surprise that Michelle Phillips and Lisa Burns (now obscure but well worth investigation) took, between the two of them, a half-dozen Moon Martin songs for their late-70s debuts, because Martin imagined women in a variety of guises and moods. On his own first album, Martin fell for everyone from disdainful snobs (“No Chance”), cool dancers (his baby did “The Cadillac Walk”), to obvious poseurs (“She’s a Pretender”).

Martin wrote clean, simple tunes, embedded the hook in the chorus most of the time, and peeled down his lyrics to a few jagged phrases. He distills an entire tough-guy novel into a two-line couplet: “Paid killer, only 25/Killin’ me alive.” Martin was a wimp with a grudge. On the song “I’ve Got A Reason,” he is obsessively dolorous and vindictive with this hardboiled quatrain: “I’ve got a reason/I’m feelin this way/I’ve got a reason/And I’m gonna make you pay.”

Where the Eagles and Jackson Browne—and, for that matter, Bruce Springsteen—packed their compositions during this period with extravagant emotions decorated with gee-gaw metaphors used once or twice and then sacrificed to the fire of their passion, Martin fed a pale fire, preferring to get his effects by ellipsis. As a guitarist as well as a lyricist, he liked to finger his misery, rubbing it into a sore rage that finds an outlet in a blood-red guitar riff. His work was neurotically heroic, and saved from self-indulgence by a calm precision of detail and mood; he was a mordantly expert taker of his own emotional pulse.

But Martin’s neuroto-rock was too barren for most listeners—he never managed to burn an album up the charts. Instead it was left to Robert Palmer to cover Martin’s song “Bad Case of Loving You” and make it a hit by opening up and exaggerating Martin’s always hemmed-in intensity. It also helped that Palmer ignored the fact that Martin’s lyric hymns a woman who likes the dominant position. As we learned from his videos, Palmer liked to keep his women behind him, wiggling.

In Los Angeles, Martin was certainly not a punk or even a New Wave rocker, despite the thinness of his tie on the cover of his second album, which was titled—no surprise here—Escape from Domination. He refused, during this period, to accept himself as a cult artist, or as primarily a songwriter for others. He took to performing his songs—along with a few beautifully bruised Beatle covers—at punk bastions like the Hong King Café as well as the Whiskey, where he pared his music down even further than on record, and increased the beat: his performances vibrated with the compressed belligerence of someone seeking out the audience he believed he deserved, whittling away at already angular songs, aiming for the perfect ellipsis. The one time I was introduced to Martin, I burbled, with the idiotic enthusiasm of youth, “Sometimes I think I’m your only advocate!” To which he replied with a succinctness that matched his lyrics, “Don’t think that hasn’t f—ing occurred to me.”

None of these artists created a great album during a time when the concept of the great album was still the measure of pop-music artistic achievement. But Kaye came close with First Grade, Martinez sprinkled moments of wily, charming oddness throughout his two 70s albums, Tonio K reduced his pair to agit-prop artiness disguised as rock albums, and Moon Martin, well, he had the whole album-as-a-collection-of-discrete-singles-plus-filler down after Motown and country music had perfected it, and before an artist like Bobby Brown had bested him for catchiness and weirdness. Mentioning Motown and Bobby Brown reminds me: Martinez aside, these are all very white artists; their music is virtually untouched by black-music influences, which further marginalizes them as minor figures. But working within the limits both self-imposed and imposed upon them by their status as weirdo novices or pros working at least partially at the behest of their patrons, these guys rode out the end of the corporate-rock album era not exactly with their heads held high, but not with their gaze at their shoes, either. Guys like Kaye (on ABC Records) and Martinez (on Warners) and Martin (on Capitol) were not prestige signings – they were crap shoots, human vanity projects.

What does it mean to reach out to an audience, and the audience declines your offer? What does it mean to know that you’re taking your best shot and your best shot is met with indifference? When you’re working in LA in the 1970s, eccentricity is not its own reward, unless you were Wild Man Fischer or Darby Crash. The reward comes in transmuting your rum view of the world into something the industry town can sell, to have consumers buy, but also to buy into you, the image you’ve cultivated—whether you’re a seaweed covered dandy or an avenging dork.

There were other L.A. eccentrics of this era who went on to bigger things. The most obvious example is T Bone Burnett as a producer, converted from being T Bone Burnett the solo artist, the born-again scold, the portentous phrase-maker (“Science fiction and nostalgia are the same thing.” “As soon as something appears in the paper it ceases to be true.”).

These more exasperating musiciansare or were old enough to still be stung by the notion of “selling out;” they declined to engage with the audience they claimed to seek but whom they really wanted to climb aboard their wavelengths. When that audience didn’t, they retreated into isolation (Kaye), cheesier accommodation (Martinez), repetition (Martin), or mediocrity (Tonio’s T Bone Burnett-produced Notes from the Lost Civilization and the several songs he contributed to Robert Randolph’s most recent album last year). They all remain subjects for excavation and re-issue. For anyone with an interest in the intersection of Mike Davis’ City of Quartz and Ross Macdonald’s Zebra-Striped Hearse, I’d rip them a copy of Thomas Jefferson Kaye’s First Grade.

Ken Tucker is Editor-At-Large for Entertainment Weekly and reviews TV, music, and books for the magazine. He was film critic for New York Magazine in 2005. Before that, he was Entertainment Weekly’s chief TV critic and Critic-At-Large since EW’s founding, in 1989. His EW writing has won two National Magazine Awards. He is a regular weekly reviewer for National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air with Terry Gross,” NPR’s third most-popular show. He is the 2003 and 2004 recipient of an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards for essays about music.

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