Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Great Lost Albums: Two

Last month, under the rubric The Great Lost Albums: One, I wrote about John Simon’s first album, John Simon’s Album (1970), arguing that it is one of those “great lost albums” in the history of rock music (others that come to mind would include the Beach Boys' Smile, for instance, or Big Star's #1 Record, although John Simon's album is by no means that famous). I found John Simon’s Album to be an amazing, unaccountably neglected but grand record, and an essential piece of Americana. (I recently purchased his second solo album, Journey [1972], in vinyl format on eBay, but it only just arrived in today's mail and I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet.) While I have no intention of beginning a semi-regular column on “great lost albums” (I didn’t use the subtitle “One” in the earlier post to indicate the first in a series, but simply to say, “here’s one”), I couldn’t resist the temptation to write about a second "great lost album" that I'm quite sure is obscure, so obscure, in fact, that is virtually unheard of: Tim Dawe’s Penrod (1969).

I cannot say that the idea of a “great lost albums” column does not appeal to me, because in fact I think there are a great many “lost”--in the sense of unaccountably neglected--albums in the history of popular music that I'd love to write about. But I have a strong hesitation to create a “great lost albums” column, primarily because of a deeply held conviction that such a column requires a grand informing myth, a myth in the sense of fiction. This myth can be conveniently stated in a rather succinct form: initial rejection is the sign of worth, and I can't say that I'm entirely inured of the idea's appeal. As Robert Ray has observed about the first true artistic avant-garde, Impressionism—initially reviled and rejected by the critical establishment—eventually gained credibility because “rejection and incomprehensibility” were transformed into signs of “ultimate value” (82). In other words, the initial rejection and neglect of a work is a sign of artistic greatness. Ray writes:

In initiating this move, Impressionism prefigures postmodernism’s diminished concern for the work of art itself, as opposed to the contexts in which such work might occur. With the rise of what Gerard Genette has called “the paratext,” meaning and value become highly negotiable, just like commodities, just like the paintings themselves. And theory and publicity turn out to be the principal tools for influencing the ways in which art will acquire meaning. (82)

And publicity, observes Simon Frith in his essay “Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music,” is one of rock’s “ideological effects.” Discussing the role of myth in rock criticism, Frith observes:

Rock criticism depends on myth—the myth of the youth community, the myth of the creative artist. The reality is that rock, like all twentieth-century pop musics, is a commercial form, music produced as a commodity, for a profit, distributed through mass media as mass culture. It is in practice very difficult to say exactly who or what it is that rock expresses or who, from the listener’s point of view, are the authentically creative performers. The myth of authenticity is, indeed, one of rock’s own ideological effects, an aspect of its sales process: rock stars can be marketed as artists, and their particular sounds marketed as a means of identity. Rock criticism is a means of legitimating tastes, justifying value judgments, but it does not fully explain how those judgments came to be made in the first place. . . . the question becomes how we are able to judge some sounds as more authentic than others: what are we actually listening for in making our judgments? (136-37)

All of this discussion has served as a sort of preamble to my actual discussion of Tim Dawe’s Penrod, improbably re-issued on CD in March of this year by Collector’s Choice Music. My preamble, I hope, explains why the very idea of writing about a “great lost album” carries with it any number of problems, the primary one being, as I've previously indicated, that it depends upon the myth that neglect guarantees greatness. Ironically, the album's scarcity on vinyl, the relatively few copies of it in an actual material sense, has guaranteed that it will fetch a premium price on eBay (on the rare occasions it shows up for sale), especially since it was originally issued on Frank Zappa’s highly collectible Straight Records label, which also issued Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica and Alice Cooper’s first three albums, among others. These albums went on to great success--in the case of Trout Mask Replica, achieving "classic album" status--although its "classic" status may be an effect of the myth mentioned above. Why do I think so? Because one strategy of modernist art (the twentieth-century term for Romanticism, what Frith refers to above as the myth of the artist) was to protect artistic works from mass appropriation by appealing to their aesthetics—by using their difficulty—as an essential category determining their artistic supremacy. Stated another way, this idea means that any really great work of art should be difficult—that is, it should stubbornly resist mass appropriation (resist being enjoyed by the masses). For the cognoscenti, the more difficult to listen to the music is, the better it must be. There's a great scene in Elvis's Jailhouse Rock which enacts in dramatic form this very idea, when Vince Everett (Elvis) visits Peggy Van Alden's (Judy Tyler's) parent's house, during a discussion about "atonality" in jazz music (I'm not going to describe the scene--see the movie).

Of course, I'd heard of Tim Dawe prior to buying the CD issue of Penrod, the one reason why I was prompted to buy it in the first place. It was through the Bizarre/Straight promotional LP Zappéd (1969) that I first heard of Tim Dawe (“Little Boy Blue”); because it was issued on Frank Zappa's label (I was a fan of Zappa and the Mothers of Invention), I'd always been motivated to buy it. But I never ever saw Penrod in the record bins, back in 1969, the year of its issue, in 1970, ’71, '72, or any other time (until I saw it for sale on eBay decades later). And in fact, I’m still astonished that the album has been issued on compact disc, but I thank Collector’s Choice Music very much for the inspiration to do so. (Someone else must believe it to be a good album, too.) It took me almost forty years, but I finally had a chance to play and listen to Penrod. Today, I took a walk of almost sixty minutes, and I played the album on my iPod the entire time. It was a short sixty minutes.

I’ve been calling the album Penrod, although Richie Unterberger, in his excellent liner notes to the CCM CD re-issue of the album, remarks on the album cover’s basic indecisiveness: is the name of the musical artist Penrod, or Tim Dawe? Is Penrod the actual title of the album, or the name of Tim Dawe’s band? If the artist is Tim Dawe, why is his picture so small, and placed in the lower left-hand corner on the cover, while the album’s apparent title is displayed in such large print? Moreover, there’s even confusion about the actual identity of Tim Dawe: it is widely reported on the web, so I've discovered, that Tim Dawe is a supposed pseudonym of Jerry Penrod, the bassist on Iron Butterfly’s first album, Heavy (1968), and later a member of the rock band Rhinoceros. However, according to Richie Unterberger, Tim Dawe is not a pseudonym of Jerry Penrod--his name is actually Tim Dawe. In order to clarify whether Penrod is the album title or the name of the band, Unterberger (thankfully) got hold of the album’s producer, Jerry Yester, who informed him that Penrod was the name of the band fronted by Tim Dawe. Despite the clarification, which designation is correct? To refer to the album as simply Penrod, Tim Dawe's Penrod (as I have been), or the group Penrod's eponymously titled first album? I can't definitively say.

Perhaps more importantly, who are the members of the obscure band, Penrod? No one you or I have heard of, I'm afraid. Penrod was composed of:

Tim Dawe-(acoustic) guitar, vocals
Arnie Goodman-keyboards
Chris Kebeck-(electric) guitar
Claude Mathis-drums
Don Parrish-bass

But even more importantly, why, in my estimation, is Penrod a "great lost album"? How do I establish its greatness without appealing to the notion of what Frith calls "authenticity" in one of its many guises?

"Anything but the boring," Roland Barthes wrote, and I heartily agree. That's the peculiar strength of Tim Dawe's Penrod: anything but boring. Richly varied musically, it has a broad palette, featuring consistently good songwriting and excellent musicianship. As Richie Unterberger points out, it's rather obvious that an album issued on a label named Straight "would never be a 'straight' or conventional rock record." Thank goodness. He calls the album's assembly of songs "an enigmatic mixture" of tunes and styles, and that is true--that is its peculiar strength. Does the album reveal the influence of psychedelia? Yes, occasionally. Country-western? Yes. (A great single release, which could have been sent to country radio stations, would have been comprised of "No Exit (Cafe & Gallery)" b/w "Nothing At All.") Folk? Yes. Blues? Yes--the stand-out track being, by everyone's estimation (everyone who's actually heard the record, that is) "Junkie John," a dark, funereal meditation on drug addiction containing the marvelous lyric, "when he walked into a room, you got the feeling that somebody just left."

I don't wish to speculate on why the album sank like a heavy stone all those years ago, other than to point out that the proper functioning of a record label's publicity office heavily depends upon the myth Frith mentions above, the Romantic myth of the creative artist. The album's fundamental ambiguity regarding the identity of its artist--Penrod, or Tim Dawe's Penrod, or Penrod's eponymous first album (featuring Tim Dawe), violates the basic myth upon which publicity rests, and in turn operates. Roughly forty years on, perhaps its time for Tim Dawe's Penrod to find the audience it so richly deserves.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

You want the true story behind the album being titled "Penrod"? Email me claude@mathis.com