Pop Culture Gadabout
Sunday, January 06, 2008
      ( 1/06/2008 07:43:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"HE SAW SOMETHING HE CALLED A VISION OF THE GRAIL." Listening to the opening track of Ed Sanders' recently reissued solo album, Sanders Truckstop (Collectors' Choice Music), I couldn't help thinking about time's passage. A satirically mawkish country narrative in the manner of Hank Williams' Luke the Drifter cuts or Red Sovine, "Jimmy Joe, the Hippybilly Boy" tells the story of an Ozark Mountains hippie who loses his life after rescuing two car passengers from a raging big blue river. (His long hair gets entangled in the rear-view mirror.) These days, the very word "hippie" has become so degraded that the idea of a comic pastiche saluting the freak flag doesn't have the same charge that it did back in 1970. More's the pity.

But before we look too closely at Sanders debut solo album - and its follow-up, 1972's Beer Cans on the Moon - we should probably backtrack to the man's career as a once and future Fug. The most underground of underground group, the Fugs were a poets' band: both Sanders and fellow songwriter Tuli Kupferberg were fixtures in the New York beat scene, and their first releases as the Fugs appeared on a label primarily known for avant-jazz releases. Though they eventually graduated to a major label, Reprise, they still remained known as a cult group, primarily because of their anarchically satirical political songs and their explicitly sexual lyrics.

In terms of subject matter, the Fugs' closest peers were the Mothers of Invention, but where big Mother Frank Zappa generally approached his sexual themes with a dollop of puritanical distaste, the Fugs were more openly hedonistic. Too, while Zappa once famously proclaimed that his lyrics were primarily in the service of his music - a means of getting us musical illiterates to pay attention to his bizarre compositional creativity - Sanders and Kupferberg's first loyalty remained to the spoken word.

You can see this creative dynamic at play in Truckstop, Sanders' first album after his group's big break-up. A mocking country album, the disc - despite the presence of musical smarties like David Bromberg and Bill Keith - feels musically half-realized. You hear it in a track like "The Maple Court Trajedy," (sic) with its laborious tempo changes, or the indifferently played "Heartbreak Crash Pad." Both sound like they could've benefited from another week of studio play.

But, as the song titles hint, Sanders' lyrics are frequently quite risible in a stick-to-the-straights kinda way. A cut like "Crash Pad," which details the fall back into hippiedom of a straight-arrow family man, is the lyrical equivalent to Zap! Comix. When Sanders sings in his exaggerated twang that he's never "going back to Honkville again," you can visualize it coming out of the mouth of one of Gilbert Shelton's furry comic dopers. And in what has to be the album's signature piece, "The Iliad," Sanders amusingly talk/sings in the persona of a homophobic hippie basher named Johnny Pissoff. Subtle, this ain't, but it's definitely true to its era.

Perhaps in the hands of a more musically focused artist, Truckstop might've been a minor satiric masterwork, instead of just an interesting sixties artifact. But Sanders' decision to give all the songs a faux country treatment ultimately works against the record, which grows flat over eleven tracks - sounding in the end like a snarkier version of Ringo Starr's weak Nashville tribute, Beaucoups of Blues. The only overtly political track, "The Abm Machine," gleefully slaps at Nixon's then-Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird ("Are you caught in the Transylvanian transvestite timetrap, Melvin Laird?" Sanders asks, three years before Dr. Frank-n-Furter proclaimed his sexual proclivities), though those who weren't around at the time might wonder what all the snipe is about. Those seeking a bit of the Fugs' old sexual outrageousness have to make due with "The Plaster Song," a mild tale of a country musician's encounter with a "plaster-casting girl" that would've probably come across funnier in a more diverse musical setting.

Two years later, Sanders seemed to have taken Truckstop's lessons to heart. Beer Cans on the Moon displays a broader musical pallet and ups the political content, though aside from a dominatrix priestess (who wouldn't be out of place on one of Zappa's early solo albums, come to think of it) and a robot with the hots for Dolly Parton, the sexual content is minimal. Though starting out on two distressingly earnest notes - "Rock & Roll People" and "Nonviolent Direct Action" both sound more like the work of a pamphleteer than a songwriter, while the "rock & roll is here to stay" quote at the end of the first track is just embarrassing - the album quickly kicks into a stronger satiric groove. If songs about Henry Kissinger and the Watergate investigation go on too long (once you start pasting paeans to newspaper columnist Jack Anderson onto your sonic screed, you've definitely lost your focus), they both open strong, especially the jazzy Eastern-influenced "The Shredding Machine.'

The songs on Moon that sound the most thought-out turn out (per the album title) to be environmentally themed ones: "Pity the Bird," which envisions an oil-spattered blackbird in San Clemente, and the country-flavored title track, which imagines a commune of Earthlings despoiling outer space and even includes a reference to Tree Frog Beer. For a two-pronged finale, Sanders looks toward an optimistic anarchist future with "Universal Rent Strike Rag" (sounds like something Phil Ochs might've concocted) and struggles to visualize a day when there's a "Six-Pack of Happiness" for everyone. Wonder if it's Tree Frog Happiness?

If both tracks are wittier than the ones which opened Moon, though, they still sound trapped in their time in a way that the best Fugs albums aren't. "When the last computer has computed its last and the flags of fantasy fly," our man imagines in his ragging vision of utopian splendor, hearkening to the days when computers were still primarily aligned with the military industrial complex. These days, of course, Sanders edits his own online magazine entitled Woodstock Journal, a future I'd wager he sure didn't visualize back in 1972.
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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