Saturday, June 14, 2008

Mondegreen Pt. 5: Time of the Season to Trace

Some months ago I embarked upon an ambitious, if somewhat self-indulgent project of listening to all the rock and R&B albums released during the year of 1968, in the order, as closely as I could determine, in which originally they were released. Of course, such a project is riddled with problems: release dates are difficult to determine and many sources are hopelessly inaccurate, many of the albums released in the early months of 1968 were recorded in some cases over many months and different times in 1967 so that the release dates don't match the order in which the records were recorded (not that I assumed this would be the case), and there is the additional problem of different release dates of albums in the US and the UK. However, this project happily has led me to make a discovery that I had to include under my ongoing series of blogs on the mondegreen.

To fully explain to those who may have only recently begun reading my blog, I also, a few months ago, began to explore the mondegreen, the unintentional mishearing of a verbal utterance enabled by homophonic ambiguity. The first venture, "Dead Ants Are My Friends, A-Blowin’ in the Wind," was followed by a second entry, "Betty and the Jets." The third, which I wrote on Easter Sunday exploring the implications of the Biblical mondegreen, I titled "Melon Calling Baby." My fourth entry on the subject was about John Fred & His Playboy Band's wonderful #1 hit of early 1968, "Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)," in which I argued that this particular song is one instance that we can definitively point to as a song actually invented or created through mondegreen deformation (John Fred misheard the Beatles' lyric "Lucy in the sky with diamonds" as "Lucy in disguise with diamonds"). So... as part of my self-imposed listening regime, a couple of months ago, in April (April being the release date of the album in the UK) I began listening to The Zombies' Odessey & Oracle, and on that album I discovered a second instance of a song created through mondegreen deformation--"Time of the Season." I say "began listening" because in fact I haven't stopped listening to it, and I have to say it is not only one of the best albums of 1968, but may in fact be one of the best albums of the 1960s. It was precisely this sort of renewed appreciation for records that I hadn't listened to in a long time that was, in large part, the motive for my year-long listening project.

I have insisted throughout my discussions of the mondegreen that I'm not so much interested in it as a form of "error" as I am in the way it is a sort of creative interaction with the song's actual lyrics. In my “Betty and the Jets” entry, for instance (on the mishearing of Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets"), I’d suggested the existence of the mondegreen, at least insofar as lyrics are concerned, is a consequence of a message being deformed once it is subject to electronic transmission, a technology which emphasizes the received nature of messages.

Some years ago I happened to purchase the excellent 4-CD import box set titled Zombie Heaven (Big Beat), and having found myself returning to Odessey & Oracle over and over again the past couple of months, I pulled out the box set in order to study its rather detailed liner notes written by Alec Palao. Subsequently I found a second instance of the mondegreen leading to the invention of a new song, this time with Rod Argent's "Time of the Season."

Apparently the Zombies for some time had performed Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' song, "The Tracks of My Tears" (1965) as part of their live act. In "The Tracks of My Tears," Smokey Robinson sings, "If you look closer, it's easy to trace/The tracks of my tears." In the liner notes to Zombie Heaven Rod Argent says:

With my faulty hearing, for years where Smokey sings 'if you look closer it's easy to trace' in 'Tracks of My Tears', I thought was 'it's the time of the season to trace'. I felt cheated when I found out the real words, but I thought I'd use that phrase. Then you've got the weird choral part, the 'loving' bit, so the song has a weird hybrid of influences.

It's interesting to speculate about the meaning Rod Argent gave to "The Tracks of My Tears" given he thought the lyric was, "it's the time of the season to trace." Here are the partial lyrics to "The Tracks of My Tears," with the mondegreen substituted for the proper lyric:

People say I'm the life of the party
Cause I tell a joke or two
Although I might be laughing loud and hearty
Deep inside I'm blue

So take a good look at my face
You'll see my smile looks out of place
It's the time of the season to trace
The tracks of my tears

I need you, need you

Since you left me if you see me with another girl
eeming like I'm having fun
lthough she may be cute she's just a substitute
Because you're the permanent one

So take a good look at my face
You'll see my smile looks out of place

It's the time of the season to trace
The tracks of my tears

For the man who wrote the Zombies' two biggest hits, "She's Not There" and "Tell Her No," both songs about an unnamed femme fatale, the mondegreen deformation of "The Tracks of My Tears" transforms the singer's life into an interminable hell, suggesting years have gone by since his break up. The song consequently is all about his morbid obsession with his lost beloved--just as are, interestingly, the songs "She's Not There" and "Tell Her No." I'd always imagined the time frame of the Miracles' song as referring to a recent break up ("My smile is my make up/I wear since my break up with you"), but by transforming "If you look closer, it's easy to trace" into "It's the time of the season to trace," the break up was apparently years and years ago, and seemingly his life has been destroyed. Hence the song suggests the singer is caught in the circularity ("time of the [cyclical] season") of an overwhelming obsession.

Having come across this recent instance of a mondegreen, it's become impossible for me to listen to Odessey & Oracle in the same way as I did before. Songs such as "Care of Cell 44" and "Maybe After He's Gone" now seem more sinister (in the former case) and morbidly obsessive (in the latter). Indeed, the album has a great deal more gravitas than I at first imagined. I've come to realize that the mondegreen not only represents a creative interaction with the original song, but also, inevitably, transforms how we subsequently hear it.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Trip

In my last blog entry I noted the fact that 1966 saw four LPs released bearing the word "psychedelic": Timothy Leary et al.'s LP recording The Psychedelic Experience (a spoken-word condensation of passages from his co-authored 1964 book of the same title), the Deep's Psychedelic Moods (perhaps the first rock album released with the word "psychedelic" in the title), The Blues Magoos' Psychedelic Lollipop, and the 13th Floor Elevators' The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators. Serendipitously, later that day, after posting my blog on the subject, I took a little time to watch Warner's latest DVD issue of Elvis Presley's 22nd film, Spinout (MGM, 1966; 92m 43s), the soundtrack to which I realized was released in October of that year, that is, about the same time as the aforementioned "psychedelic" rock albums. I was struck by the odd juxtaposition it might have made, the soundtrack to Spinout sitting side-by-side in the record bins with albums bearing titles such as Psychedelic Lollipop and Psychedelic Moods. And yet, the more I've thought about it, the less odd it has become. I've concluded that the juxtaposition is not so much odd or strange as it is an illustration of one of those proverbial moments in history when one world was not yet dead and the other not yet born.

I happen to be reading Thomas Hine's very interesting book Populuxe (Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), a study of the unprecedented decade of mass consumption in America--for mass-produced houses, furniture, and machines--that occurred during the decade 1954-1964. Elvis, of course, first recorded for Sun Records in 1954, and 1964 was the year the Beatles "invaded" America, Elvis and the Beatles serving as bookends for that watershed decade. For Thomas Hine, one of the key moments that defined the end of the Populuxe era was the assassination of President Kennedy on 22 November 1963; the Beatles arrived in New York on 7 February 1964, seventy-seven days later--the one event signaled the end of American optimism, the other the end of American cultural dominance in the world. By the time the New York World's Fair opened in April 1964--which "should have been a Populuxe extravaganza" according to Hine--"the feeling of bland self-satisfaction with material comfort that had been so characteristic of the Populuxe era was gone" (167). He writes:

In 1959 Nixon could use a washing machine to symbolize America and it was a masterstroke, but in 1964 it would have been ridiculous.... In its story on the opening of the 1964 World's Fair, Life, that perennial cheerleader for the future and celebrator of the promise of America, called the fair "all candy-bright and gay in a world that is in fact harsh." This was a drastic piece of revisionism, asserted with such casualness that whole hierarchies of editors must have assumed its truth. Although the World's Fair planners could never have anticipated it, the fair came during a period of national atonement. (169)

Elvis can be considered the supreme symbol of America's Populuxe era, moribund by 1966. A highly visible public figure, Elvis in some sense was the very epitome of the American consumer of that era, avidly accumulating material things, including those two things so essential to American life, cars and homes. A movie such as Spinout, so obsessed as it is with the symbol of the fast car, money, and the trappings of privilege, seems more ideally suited to the Populuxe era, not the mid-60s era characterized by foreign "invasions," represented (for instance) by the Beatles and the Volkswagen. Elvis was sexually provocative, erotic, vigorous and energetic, but most importantly, American. In contrast, the Beatles were cute, nice (but not serious), ironic--and foreign. I tend to agree with Hine that 1964 marks the end of one era and the beginning of another; I wouldn't necessarily call the post-Populuxe era the psychedelic era, although it is a remarkable historical coincidence that on 14 June 1964, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters--among them Timothy Leary and Beat figure Neal Cassady--embarked in the bus named "Furthur" (a portmanteau containing the words "further" and "future") on a cross-country journey headed for the New York World's Fair.

As the supreme symbol of the Populuxe era, it is therefore perhaps not coincidental that Elvis starred in It Happened at the World's Fair (released in April 1963, near the end of that era), that used as a setting the Seattle World’s Fair, otherwise known as the Seattle Century 21 Exposition, held 21 April-21 October 1962, the unofficial symbol of which became the Space Needle. Nor is it entirely coincidental that the Merry Pranksters, in the early days of the psychedelic era, took off on a trip in June 1964 in a bus painted in Day-Glo colors headed toward the New York World's Fair, an event that, while not a total bust, did not have "the kind of overwhelming enthusiasm for such a grand excursion into the future that might have been found only a few years before" (Hine, 168). Writes Hine: "Americans seemed to be getting a bit jaded about the future; it had been around for too long a time" (168). Hence it is a mistake to see a film such as Spinout as a sort of quaint, "innocent" museum piece from the 1960s: it was an anachronism even when it was made.

As for the film that Ken Kesey started making at the time (that remains unfinished), to have been titled The Merry Pranksters Search for the Kool Place, Katie Mills thinks it quite possibly influenced the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour in 1967 and perhaps even, later, Easy Rider (1969). I'll explore that in a future blog.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Psychedelic Psounds

Yesterday's blog entry on late guitarist Jerry Cole prompted me to revisit the issue of the popularization of psychedelic music. I say psychedelic music because to be perfectly accurate I think the word "psychedelia" names a larger movement than simply a musical one, that is, "psychedelia" would refer to trends not only in music but in the popular arts (such as poster-making), live concert performance (synaethesia), and so on. Since posting yesterday's blog, my thoughts have been preoccupied not only with how we have gone about defining psychedelic music but with how and in what way it came to be recognized as a distinctive kind of (serious) music in the first place. I've come to the conclusion that our own desires have much to do in forming the musical form we have come to call "psychedelic."

I raise these questions because in yesterday's blog I mentioned that Jerry Cole's MySpace page indicates that the musician was "an architect of psychedelia," citing his "proto-psych albums" The Inner Sounds of the Id and The Animated Egg as indications of his contributions to the popularization of this form of music. But the more I have thought about it, the less satisfied I am with this claim, not because I wish to diminish his contributions to popular music, but because to my knowledge these albums were not recognized as seminal contributions at the time of their release. The problem is that we tend to piece together a history comprised of figures and works which largely reflect our own desires--and little else. Numerous websites exist extolling the virtues of rock albums--perhaps unfairly--that have been neglected in popular musical history, but we should remind ourselves that when we write our own history as a "corrective," we do not resurrect a "pure" past, but a past composed of imperfect memories, both on an individual level and on a collective level. Rewriting history to fit our own desires does not, alas, correct what is already an imperfectly written history.

Surely there must be something more distinctive and more singular about what we call "psychedelic music" than the kinds of sounds resulting from "non-linear amplification," meaning that the sounds that come out of the speaker are not the sounds that go in. I'd suggested that Jerry Cole represented an important link between the West Coast surf/hot rod "reverb" guitar and the distorted (“fuzz”) guitar characteristic of early psychedelic music, but surely, I thought, there must be more to it than the role of the guitar. Obviously, developments in non-linear amplification contributed to the development of psychedelic music--the Leslie speaker and the ring modulator being examples of such technology--but there has to be more to its invention in the 1960s than the role of technology. Personally, I often find it hard to distinguish between what some enthusiasts name "garage band" music and what some name "psychedelic"; if "garage" and "psychedelic" both refer to a sort of recording engineered in a particular fashion, containing lots of guitar feedback, fuzz tones, and reverb, then we're inexorably entangled in a daunting language game in which our words are, literally, meaningless.

It also occurred to me that psychedelic music itself was not immediately accepted (as in, "became popular overnight"); the audience for it had to be developed. Despite the great reverence we have for the music now--and the high prices some of these "historic" albums now fetch on eBay and elsewhere--early instances of so-called psychedelic music failed, largely explaining why so much early psychedelic music can only be found on obscure 45s, issued by independent labels, and budget LPs issued by Crown, Custom, and Alshire, to name a few such labels. In the 1960s, just as now, the major labels were only interested in the sort of product that adhered to the wall--the economics driving this procedure being to throw a lot of stuff at the wall and see what sticks, then package and sell the kind that sticks--and, frankly, very few early albums putatively containing psychedelic music sold very well at all. Why else are they now so hard to find and why else were they issued on minor or budget labels?

According to (by no means definitive), the first use of the word "psychedelic" in popular music was on the Holy Modal Rounders' single "Hesitation Blues" (1964), hardly a best seller. The harsh fact is, if it weren't for the soundtrack to Easy Rider (1969), the music of the Holy Modal Rounders would never have been known beyond a small coterie of enthusiasts and musicologists and students of the arcane. Of course, simply because the word "psychedelic" is used in a piece of music doesn't make the music itself "psychedelic," which is certainly the case with this song. I strongly suspect that Stampfel and Weber encountered the word as a result of the publication, earlier that year, of Timothy Leary's, Ralph Metzner's, and Richard Alpert's book, The Psychedelic Experience (New Hyde Park: University Press, 1964); whether they took its insights seriously is beside the point. A couple of years later, in 1966, excerpts from Leary et al.'s The Psychedelic Experience were issued on LP as a spoken word album by Folkways/Broadside Records (album cover pictured), which I suspect was the first use of the word "psychedelic" on an LP record. Although it is of trivial significance, the first use of the word "psychedelic" on a rock/pop record was probably on the Deep's Psychedelic Moods, apparently issued in October 1966 (according the CD re-issue's liner notes) on Cameo-Parkway, just a week or two before the Blues Magoos' Psychedelic Lollipop (Mercury), and about a month before the 13th Floor Elevators' The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators (International Artists). Mercury is perhaps the only "major" label represented here.

Gregory L. Ulmer has observed that any form of unconventional or radically new knowledge is at first perceived to be a bad joke--Freud's theory of psychoanalysis, for instance, and Darwin's theory of human beings evolving from monkeys were, in fact, both considered bad jokes. It is clear that popular music's initial appropriation of Leary et al.'s drug-enabled psychedelic experience--somewhat derisively referred to as "mind-expanding"--took the idea of a "psychedelic experience" as a joke: the deliberate mis-pronunciation of the word psychedelic as "psycho-delic" in "Hesitation Blues," for instance, or as evidenced by the titling of the Blues Magoos album as "Psychedelic Lollipop." Even referring to music as psychedelic (as in "psychedelic sounds") is a joke. Likewise, the records didn't sell well because they, too, were perceived as jokes. Indeed, the idea of the joke permeates early albums claiming to be psychedelic, for instance, Friar Tuck and His Psychedelic Guitar (1967), The Animated Egg (1967), Hal Blaine's Psychedelic Percussion (1967), and so on.

It is clear that there are widespread misperceptions about what is often called "psychedelic music": how it was initially perceived, both by its audience and its practitioners, and about its subsequent influence. I find it strange that the psychedelic era is now popularly associated with San Francisco, even though the Deep's Psychedelic Moods was recorded in Philadelphia (and its brainchild, Rusty Evans--a pseudonym for artist Marcus Uzilevsky--was from New York), the Blues Magoos were from the Bronx, and the 13th Floor Elevators were from Texas. Moreover, I wonder if a majority of the members of the so-called "counterculture" ever perceived Timothy Leary as anything but a joke. I'm reasonably certain that "psychedelic," as a term used to described a certain type of rock music, had no credibility in 1967; in fact, at the time it was probably only used pejoratively. The word probably did not have any positive connotations in 1968 or 1969, either. Was it ever used positively at the time? Certainly not until it began to be used as a term through which individuals expressed their own desires, and began to identify themselves with the music and the culture surrounding it. In previous entries I've argued that what is called "Bubblegum" music emerged out of psychedelic music, and I think this is correct, but one has to remember that "Bubblegum" was not a term invented by those who liked and listened to the music, but those who disliked, and perhaps even despised it.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Space-Age Surf Guitar And Hot Rod Inner Id Music

Jerry Cole (born Jerry Coletta in 1939), the so-called “King of the Hot Rod Guitar” and allegedly one of most frequently recorded session guitarists in American popular music, died on Wednesday, June 4 at his home in Corona, California, at age 68. In the Sixties Cole was a highly sought-after session player, lending his talents to records by the Byrds (“Mr. Tambourine Man”), Nancy Sinatra (“Boots”), the Beach Boys (Pet Sounds; one of the Leslie'd guitars on the instrumental "Pet Sounds" track was Cole's) and Paul Revere & the Raiders (“Kicks”) among others. With his own group, the Spacemen, Cole released four albums of “space-age surf music” beginning with Outer Limits (1963). More often, though, Jerry Cole was an anonymous member of a faux band, playing on numerous hot rod, drag strip, surf, go-go, rockabilly, and psychedelic albums for Capitol and Liberty but more often for budget labels such as Crown, Cornet, Custom, and Alshire. I did a rather quick web search and apparently all of the following one-offs were either Jerry Cole using a pseudonym or Jerry Cole as a member of the band. Many of these records are instrumental albums, dating 1960-67.

The Scramblers, Cycle Psychos
Billy Boyd, Twangy Guitars
The Blasters, Sounds of the Drag
Eddy Wayne, The Ping Pong Sound of Guitars in Percussion
The Winners, Checkered Flag
The Hot Rodders, Big Hot Rod
The Deuce Coupes, The Shutdowns
Mike Adams and the Red Jackets, Surfers Beat
The Id, The Inner Sounds of the Id (RCA)
The Animated Egg
The Mustang, Organ Freakout! (apparently Jerry Cole and the Id backing keyboardist Paul Griffin aka “The Mustang”)

Cole’s Myspace page avers that he “was an architect of psychedelia with his proto-psych albums The Id and The Animated Egg." If so, he represents an important link between the West Coast surf/hot rod "reverb" guitar and the distorted (“fuzz”) guitar so characteristic of early psychedelia. According to the Acid Archives at, Jerry Cole indicated that "the original tracks [used on The Animated Egg] were laid down during sessions for the Id Inner Sounds LP on RCA in 1966, then later sold to Alshire." Collectors and musicologists have identified these tracks, and others from the same sessions, as appearing on several LPs credited to different artists: Young Sound '68; 101 Strings, Astro-Sounds From Beyond the Year 2000; Bebe Bardon & 101 Strings, The Sounds of Love; The Haircuts and The Impossibles, Call it Soul; Black Diamonds, A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix [re-titled Animated Egg album with songs re-titled in order to invoke Hendrix song titles]; The Generation Gap, Up Up and Away; The Projection Company, Give Me Some Loving; and other budget label LPs. One critic referred to these tracks as "B movie trash psych with fuzz, reverb, and cheesy go-go organ." If you're interested, “Ah Cid" (get it?) from The Animated Egg can be found here.

Sundazed has re-issued on CD the albums by Jerry Cole and the Spacemen, but according to Cole's Myspace page, Sundazed also plans to re-issue The Animated Egg, Astro-Sounds From Beyond the Year 2000, The Inner Sounds of the Id, and other recordings.