Monday, April 14, 2008

Making Cottage Cheese Out of the Air

You never know what’s going to turn up at a Goodwill Store. While running a few quick errands late yesterday morning I thought I’d stop by and check out the Goodwill store’s music bins, a weekly habit of mine (more or less) for the past several years, just to see if by chance anything interesting might have shown up since the last time I visited. While browsing through the vinyl records—an antiquated form of musical storage in this digital age, most always in terrible shape and not worth buying, even for the price of $1—I happened across a well-preserved copy of the soundtrack to the AIP release Hell’s Angels ’69 (Capitol Records) actually autographed on the front cover by Sonny Barger, at the time of the film head of the Oakland chapter of the Hell’s Angels and later a key player in the Rolling Stones’ infamous concert at Altamont Speedway in December 1969.

I’ve never seen Hell’s Angels ‘69, although I’ve read a few on-line reviews of Media Blasters’ 2004 DVD release of the film (none of which compelled me to purchase the DVD). Having listened, now, to the soundtrack (about 28 minutes or so in length), I’m still not inclined to see the film, although as a result of the inevitable process of mental association, I began thinking about so-called “biker music” and, consequently, the band Blue Cheer (initially formed by Bruce Stephens, Dickie Peterson, and Paul Whaley).

Certainly Blue Cheer--perhaps best known for its riotous metal version of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” a Top 20 hit in 1968--has to be considered the biker band, not necessarily because they played louder than everybody else (although the band’s volume is legendary), but because early on, at least, their manager was a Hell’s Angel nicknamed “Gut,” mentioned several times throughout Hunter S. Thompson’s book, Hell’s Angels (1966):

At that time [1965], Gut was not technically a Hell’s Angel. Several years earlier he had been one of the charter members of the Sacramento chapter—which like the Frisco chapter, began with a distinctly bohemian flavor. (127)

Thompson also notes that Gut had completed a year of junior college and “wanted to be a commercial artist.” Apparently he got the chance by hooking up with Blue Cheer sometime in 1967. He received co-credit for the artwork of Blue Cheer’s first album, Vincebus Eruptum (1968, pictured above), along with John Van Hamersveld (Van Hamersveld took the cover photograph, but the now famous cover design is Gut’s). Gut is also credited with the LP album cover design (not cover painting) for Blue Cheer’s second album, Outsideinside (1968), which opens into an “L” shape when fully unfolded. He is not explicitly connected with any album artwork on the third or subsequent albums, so I assume by that time his relationship with the band had ended. (The group itself subsequently disbanded around 1971, but re-formed in the late 1980s.) Gut is also credited with some producing some poster art in connection with Blue Cheer concerts as well.

Donald Clarke’s The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music (Penguin paperback, 1990), contains a quotation by Gut that I’m compelled to reproduce here. Gut said of Blue Cheer: "They play so hard and heavy they make cottage cheese out of the air" (124). I take this as a psychedelicized form of compliment, but clearly Blue Cheer’s appeal was more than the fact that they simply played loud. Although the band members had hippie credentials--the band was supposedly named in homage to a form of LSD, plus they had long hair, bell bottoms, in short, all the appropriate attire--the association of Blue Cheer with “biker music” has to have its origins in that curious, improbable relationship the Hell's Angels had with the hippie counterculture. In his autobiography, Hell's Angel, Sonny Barger says that "The sixties were the best thing that ever happened to the Hell's Angels" (p. 130). The Hell's Angels liked hippies (in contrast to Berkeley radicals), he says, because it was understood that women were always to be the means of exchange: he claims that a hippie would let him screw his girlfriend in return for a ride on his motorcycle (130). Moreover, some members of the Hell's Angels, such as Gut, weaved their lives "into the hippie scene." Certainly both groups saw themselves in the broadest sense as rebels, and both groups saw themselves as unsuited to the demands of a conventional, middle-class life, and held deep disdain for genteel, bourgeoisie sexual morality. Interviewed in 2006, Dickie Peterson tends to confirm what Sonny Barger wrote in his autobiography:

Gut liked our band and came on as our manager. Now through Gut we played a lot of the earlier Hell's Angels parties, along with Big Brother and the Holding Company. There would be Angels coming over to our house, we always had plenty of chicks around and we were always in a party mode, and at the time that's basically what the Angels were. We didn't have a big affiliation with the club, we just knew some of these guys that were friends of Gut's and they would come over to the house and we would party around. These people were all very nice to us, they were the ones that first put me on a Harley. To me it was sort of a childhood dream come true, because when I was growing up in San Francisco sometimes I would cut school to get down to Frederick's street by two o'clock in the afternoon, because these guys would come roaring by on their way out to Playland by the ocean where they hung out at the funhouse. Me and my friends didn't want to miss this, and I wanted to grow up to be like that. So how this all tied in and how it all came together was always a mystery to me, but I'm glad it did. Gut, the Angel that was managing us then, he was a mentor to me.

But how did the music of a power trio serve as the common ground between these groups? Perhaps the lyrics of "Summertime Blues" provide a clue:

I'm gonna raise a fuss, I'm gonna raise a holler
About a-workin' all summer just to try to earn a dollar
Every time I call my baby, and ask to get a date
My boss says, "No dice son, you gotta work late"
Sometimes I wonder what I'm a gonna do
But there ain't no cure for the summertime blues

Well my mom and pop told me, "Son you gotta make some money"
If you want to use the car to go ridin' next Sunday
Well I didn't go to work, told the boss I was sick
"Well you can't use the car 'cause you didn't work a lick"
Sometimes I wonder what I'm a gonna do
But there ain't no cure for the summertime blues

In retrospect, these lyrics suggest a countercultural sensibility avant le lettre, a deep frustration with the prospect of a banal, middle-class existence. But what, precisely, was Blue Cheer's particular innovation? The band made this (by 1968) decade-old song sound new and contemporary; the band brought it "up to date," not simply by covering its lyrics but by altering its sound. The thunderous roar of a heavy metal guitar mimics not only the roar of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with the exhaust mufflers removed; it also mimics the drone of the factory. It represents not the polished technique of a trained professional, but instead the rough playing of an inspired amateur: it is a blue collar, working class sound, one that is perceived by its listeners as authentic, "hard" as in "hard-working," but equally important, visceral. Regarding Gut's comment about Blue Cheer's sound making "cottage cheese out of the air," Peterson said:

At the time when we first started music was solely an audio sensation that you got with your ears. After standing in front our our amps and feeling the vibration from the speakers, we said, "Wait a minute. This is what people gotta feel, this is what they gotta experience, they gotta experience the air, the wind, the waves hitting them from these speakers. That's what they've gotta experience in order to really experience music." This is what prompted us to keep crankin' it up! That's why he used the term "they turn the air into cottage cheese." Because we would, we would make the air thick with the vibration of those cabinets to where it was quite a physical experience.

Which band took the same approach as Blue Cheer but had far greater success? Grand Funk Railroad. They were also loud, long-haired, sweaty, and shirtless, with a working-class sensibility (We're An American Band"). What happened to Grand Funk once they dropped their metal edge and became more "pop" sounding ("Some Kind of Wonderful")? They were dropped by their constituency, and didn't survive the 1970s, either.


Tim Lucas said...

Yet another accomplishment to list for Mr. Gut: he had some involvement with Jefferson Airplane's 1969 album VOLUNTEERS. He had something to do with the album's humorous gatefold image of two pieces of bread, one slathered with chunky peanut butter and the other with jelly and margarine. (By closing the gatefold, you make a sandwich, get it?) I can't recall at the moment whether he was credited with designing the gatefold or merely with eating it, but I think the latter.

Anonymous said...

In response, Tim, I met "Gut" in 2000 and had the pleasure of working with him for 2 summers. He did, in fact, design the gatefold. But then, I'm sure he ate it too!

IPAC-MERC said...

Tim - Where did you last see Gut in 2000? Do you think he's still on the planet? I've lost tract of him in about 89' or so.

His wife Nancy got the money from her parents to produce Blue Cheers' first album. It's not that "he had something to do with" taking a picture of his favorite lunch, a peanut butter & jelly sandwich, that's what he did before eating his lunch. He also carved a beautiful exotic wooden seat for the head on Dave Crosby's schooner. I went with him to drop it off one day. He is/was a craftsmen on many levels. The Blue Cheer Outside Inside jacket was painted by Arab, the grandson of poet Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet.

So if you've got any lead on Gut pleace advice.