Ride the Tide: The Saga of Buccaneer

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Somewhere towards the end of his time as lead guitarist for the band Primevil, Jay Wilfong began to dream of pirates. Primevil had formed in 1971 in Hancock County, Indiana, on the rural eastern outskirts of Indianapolis. When their sole LP, Smokin’ Bats at Campton’s, was released on the 700 West label in 1974, it looked for a moment like the group might be on its way to fame. The local newspaper, The Greenfield Daily Reporter, carried stories about them in March and April, and in late May The Indianapolis Star featured them in a lengthy piece in its Teen Star section. Local powerhouse rock station WNAP was giving the disc airplay that spring. Karma Records was carrying it in its stores and distributing it “at various outlets in eight states.”

When speaking to the press, the band members made no bones about their naked ambition. Responses to reporters’ questions brushed off any implication that art might be involved; this project was about commerce. “The album mainly is intended for employment. There are no deep messages or themes,” the Star quoted bassist Mark Sipe as saying. In March, The Greenfield Daily Reporter mentioned that the band was at that time working on a second album they hoped to have ready later in the summer. It’s not clear whether they actually ever entered the studio a second time. If so, nothing from these sessions seems to have seen the light of day.

In late 1980, Indianapolis’ other big rock station WFBQ began airing a curious ad. A cartoonish voiceover told the story of three pirates who had taken to the high seas in a search for Spanish gold. These pirates were named William Bonney, Madjack, and Lord Vendetta. It seemed that they were also a rock band called Buccaneer and had released an album. No doubt partly due to the volume of advertising dollars being pumped into the station, the LP was soon being given regular airplay. Someone was spending a lot of money, but it was all a bit mysterious.

As a teenager in 1967 and 1968, Jay Wilfong played lead guitar in The Poverty Programme, a band made up of high school students from New Palestine, Eastern Hancock, and Warren Central high schools. Having won a recording session in a local battle of the bands, they recorded a raga-flavored original called “Two Years Ahead of My Time.” The track was never released, but the band shopped the tape around and sent a copy to Mercury Records, which declined to pick it up. The drummer in the band was a young man named Jerry DeRome.

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The timeline is still somewhat murky, but somewhere in the 1970s Wilfong and DeRome reconnected and began to talk of pirates. It’s not clear whether the idea to form a pirate band was Wilfong’s alone, or whether he and DeRome dreamed it up together. At some point, bassist Jerry Dunn joined the pair to round out the trio. Whether the dream was individual or collective, its basic blueprint was that each member of the band would reinvent himself as a pirate character, a story would be created for these characters to inhabit, an album would be recorded, and then massive amounts of resources would be thrown into a promotional campaign unlike any the area had ever seen—all leading to a single massive, sold-out performance at a large venue. The intended result was that the world would be so dazzled by all of this that the trio would conquer the music industry without ever having to “pay its dues” as other bands did. This plan worked very well as fantasy but, as we shall see, did not allow for the unpredictable nature and harsh realities of the entertainment industry.

Eventually, the trio booked studio time at Moe Whittemore’s 700 West Recording in New Palestine, the same studio where Primevil had recorded. The resulting self-titled LP, which included two bonus 45s, was released in 1980 on the band’s own Blunderbuss label. In order to appear as if it were created by an actual band of cartoon pirates, the album is almost entirely devoid of informational liner notes. Despite this, I have long assumed the synth that can be heard on some tracks was played by Whittemore.

But none of this background information was known to the general public at the time. On October 18, 1980, Zach Dunkin of The Indianapolis News dedicated the whole of his regular “Rock Pile” column to the band and the mystery surrounding it. He had evidently attempted to do a bit of investigative reporting beforehand, but was able to discover very little new information except for the fact that the LP had been mastered by Randy Kling in Nashville. Dunkin’s article made it apparent that the promotional blast behind Buccaneer was much more sophisticated than just a bit of airplay and a radio ad, however: “Meanwhile, surrounding the album has been a massive publicity push of radio, television and full-page ads, record store display contests, t-shirts, bumper stickers, eye patches, posters, a trip to Florida and even a treasure hunt. The band allegedly has buried gold somewhere on the East Coast. Clues revealed on the album and in some of the printed advertisements will lead a good detective to the gold.” He went on to add that according to a survey of local record stores performed by WFBQ, Buccaneer’s LP was currently the nineteenth best-selling album in the city. It was also the ninth most requested by listeners. Perhaps stretching a bit for social relevance, near the end of the article Wilfong (speaking as William Bonney) explained the idea behind the pirate concept: “A lot of people out there are really suppressing a lot of feelings about the way things are right now and they can really relate to us because pirates pretty much did what they wanted to do.”

The entire concept was obviously well funded, which led to Dunkin’s suspicion that a “sugar daddy” promoter intending to reap a large profit was behind it all. But Wilfong made it clear that this was a self-financed enterprise: “The only sugar daddy we’ve had was us going out and running PAs for bluegrass bands for seven years and sleeping in the dirt and putting whatever money we could get together into this dream of ours.” If this statement is taken literally, it means that the idea of Buccaneer existed as early as 1973, while Wilfong was still a member of Primevil.

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The band’s “world debut” finally came on Wednesday, February 26, 1981, in the first of two shows at the Indianapolis Convention Center. After an opening set by local band Dutch, the lights were lowered and the sound of ocean waves could be heard over the sound system, followed by “a boastful pirate laugh.” A voice with a decidedly Hoosier twang began telling the tale of this little band of pirates. Because of bad sound, however, it was extremely difficult for the audience to make out the words in order to follow the plot. The lights then came up to reveal that the stage had been set up like the deck of a ship, with cannons, barrels, netting, ropes, and a red-eyed skull atop a single mast. Standing on the deck of this theatrical ship were not three, but four pirates, dressed in elaborate costumes like the villains in an Elizabethan morality play. Though not credited on the album, the band had added vocalist Nathan Crook to the line up for the live shows. It’s not clear whether this was his real or his “pirate” name.

Reading his review of the show in the next day’s Indianapolis News, you can almost visualize Zach Dunkin straining over his typewriter trying to put the best spin on what was obviously a total fiasco. According to Dunkin, the band performed perfectly well, but the technical aspects of the show were so badly executed that it destroyed the whole effect. Like the album, the show was designed as a concept piece—the tale of a group of pirates trying to capture a legendary Spanish ship carrying a fortune in gold—with a taped narration advancing the story between the band’s songs. But the narration sounded muddy and was hard to understand, the band’s live sound was poorly mixed with frequent feedback, Madjack’s drums were “not much stronger than the noise of a man pounding on pillows,” and special effects such as cannons and flash pots misfired or didn’t go off at all. Dunkin reasonably concluded that when a band chooses to present itself in such a theatrical manner relying on complex technical effects, that the whole package must be critiqued, not just the band’s performance. But he still held out hope that the band could overcome its technical challenges. “After all,” he opined, “Columbus’ voyage in 1492 was a failure, too, when one considers his destination was the West Indies.”

Garry Finley, the manager (and later owner) of the Karma Records branch in Greenwood, was present at the first show. He was backstage and remembers the band sitting around in their pirate finery, seemingly despondent. Besides the problems with the performance itself, there was also the fact that only 2,000 tickets were sold for the initial performance, less than one third what the venue could hold. The band had hoped to sell out both nights, or at the very least to play to very full houses.

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Mike Crowder, at the time a junior at Southport High School and later a long-term employee at Karma Greenwood, was also in the audience. He recently told me that witnessing Buccaneer’s performance was one of the weirdest experiences of his life. He jokingly added that, “Christopher Guest had to be in the audience, because Buccaneer was the inspiration and template for Spinal Tap.” The band performed its second show the next night and then hung up its doublets and ostrich plumes forever.

Because private press records emerge not from corporate boardrooms but from the rank and file, each one carries a story of real people trying to communicate a vision to the world. But what happens when that vision is more concerned with creative ways to achieve commercial success than with creativity itself? Had the members of the band been a bit more realistic in their ambitions and put their resources into first touring regional night clubs with a scaled down version of their epic, they might have worked out the kinks, become confident in both the musical and technical presentation of the act, gained a few fans along the way, and grown the concept from there. The band’s strategy to put all its resources on one turn of the roulette wheel became its downfall. But had Wilfong and his bandmates been less ambitious in how they executed their colorful plan, the resulting story would be watered down, or might not exist at all. For the tale to endure, Icarus can only make one attempt at flight. Had he succeeded, there would be little to tell. The story only intrigues us because he flew too close to the sun.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Photos of Primevil, circa 1974

Buccaneer: “Introduction” & “Ride the Tide”

 

Private Press Vinyl, Chaos, & the Sublime

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Edmund Burke: Early theoretician of private press vinyl collecting.

I first began buying records in Indianapolis thrift stores at the very end of the 1970s, just after I learned to drive. In most of these places, 45s were a nickel or a dime and LPs were a quarter or fifty cents. I would pick up anything that seemed offbeat, anything that transgressed the boundaries of “normal.” I had no model for this, I knew no one else who went out on their own looking for obscure vinyl. Later on, I began to meet others, but none of us thought of ourselves as collectors. Few of the records we found had any real commercial value at the time, so they were traded, discarded, or sometimes donated back to the places they were purchased. There was little fetishism in my crowd. We were sonic explorers.

By the early 1980s my aesthetic had been seriously influenced by punk and post-punk, especially the more experimental fringes of that scene: bands like Throbbing Gristle, James Chance, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Suicide, or DNA. This ignited my appreciation of dissonance and atonality. Trying to find examples of these qualities, I began to look for records that I called “primitive,” but others might call “amateurish.” On these discs, lack of technical ability often led to the suspension of the usual rules of musical composition and performance, resulting in idiosyncrasy. These were not novelty records. They were not to be laughed at. I took them seriously.

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700 West ad. The Daily Reporter, Greenfield, Indiana, May 27, 1972.

I knew that these discs were most always either self-released or put out by local labels so tiny that they may as well have been, but it wasn’t until the publication of the late Patrick Lundborg’s Acid Archives in 2006 that I began to think of them as “private press.” Looking through the volume, I came across records that I had owned over the years, now selling for four or five hundred times what I had paid for them. Between my earliest days of thrifting and the mid-2000s, it was obvious that an army of taxonomists had been at work. Stories had been pieced together, narrative connections made, labels, artists, and producers well researched. Labels like Justice, 700 West, or RPC were now “legendary.” Not only had “private press” become a category, but a fully formed subculture of collectors had developed around it.

A curious thing about this area of collecting is that it covers such a wide variety of genres. In one of the larger areas of the field, any disc featuring traits that could possibly be called “psych” is heavily sought after and often carries a hefty price tag. But connoisseurs of hard rock, southern rock, Christian prog, loner folk, and other hybrid genres are also well represented. Although these collectors tend to be more open-minded than their major-label-collecting counterparts simply because of their attraction to this obscure material, many of them are still entering the fray looking for something whose boundaries are roughly predetermined. This is also the zone usually inhabited by the collector willing to fork over four figures for a “holy grail” disc.

Sympathetic with the psych collector, but operating in what often seems a parallel universe, is the sonic explorer who is less concerned with the boundaries of genre or rarity. This sort of collector is searching for new information, new experiences, and is seeking a personal connection to the music, regardless of what other collectors think. He or she is likely to get excited about an unknown lounge record with close to zero resale value simply because the female vocalist sings a very flawed, but mesmerizing, cover version of the Captain & Tennille’s “Muskrat Love.” This zone is the one I inhabit, and in my opinion is much closer to the spirit of serendipitous discovery that made the early days of searching for unknown vinyl so much fun.

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Mystic Zephyrs 4, 1974.

The aesthetic shift required to develop a true appreciation of much of what these records contain is considerable. Once reached, it can be a lonely place. Few, if any of your friends will understand it, much less share it. But what is actually happening when this material is regarded not as novelty, but seriously and with true appreciation? How can an individual seriously enjoy both the Zombies and the Mystic Zephyrs 4?

If Acid Archives was the introduction to the most collectible of private press discs, then 2012’s Enjoy the Experience was in part a celebration of the other end of the private press spectrum: the maybe-or-maybe-not-collectible. In his introduction to the book, Johan Kugelberg hits the nail on the head when he says that to approach this material is to meet the sublime, in the sense that Edmund Burke meant it. In essence, Burke challenged the classical notion that pleasurable experiences are always the result of beauty, the picturesque. In his view, pleasure could also be derived from an encounter with darkness, the horrific, or chaos.

The music on private press records does not always follow the rules of form that in the classical mind were synonymous with those of beauty. Being unconcerned with those rules, it is by definition chaotic. Burke provided us with a theoretical foundation in which this encounter with chaos can also be an encounter with the beautiful. He called this the sublime. Whenever a private press collector begins a dig through a cache of unexplored vinyl, it is an attempt at communion with chaos, with the abyss. It is a search for beauty outside the usual norms, outside one’s zone of comfort, a search for the sublime.

—Stephen Canner

 

The Folk Process at 45rpm

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James “Iron Head” Baker, June, 1934. Photo: Library of Congress

In December 1933, John Lomax and his son Alan arrived at the Central State Prison Farm in Sugar Land, Texas. Their mission was to record a pair of traditional African-American singers, James “Iron Head” Baker and Moses “Clear Rock” Platt, whom they had also recorded the previous summer. Probably the best known song to come out of this session was Iron Head’s version of the traditional “Black Betty,” which rose to fame in 1977 as the sole hit single by the New York City band Ram Jam. Also recorded during the session was Iron Head’s version of a tune called “Shorty George.”

Shorty George, he ain’t no friend of mine
He taken all the women and left the men behind.

Somehow a legend grew up around the song that Shorty George was the name of a train that brought convicts’ wives to the prison for conjugal visits. If this is indeed true, it might point to a Mississippi origin for the song, as Parchman Farm had reportedly implemented a conjugal visit program as early as World War I, and was even earlier reported to have brought in prostitutes to reward “hardworking inmates” and to encourage further hard work. When Bruce Jackson was doing the research for his 1972 book Wake Up Dead Man: Afro-American Worksongs from Texas Prisons, an inmate at the Ramsey unit in Brazoria County, Texas, told him that Shorty George was a short train made up of only two or three cars, completely unconnected with the prison, that passed by there everyday precisely at 3:35pm. It’s likely that this association was a local development, and the train was linked to the song simply because it, like its folkloric namesake, was short.

During the folk boom of the 1950s and early ’60s, it was common practice for artists to mine any available source for folk material that had not yet reached a wide audience. It was during one such excavation at the Library of Congress that folk singer Eric von Schmidt came across one of Lomax’s later recordings of the song—Smith Casey’s version, recorded in 1939 at the Clemens State Farm in Brazoria County, Texas—and reworked the tune into something quite different than the original. With a new title, “He Was a Friend of Mine,” it became the final track on the influential 1961 Folkways LP he recorded with Rolf Cahn. Bob Dylan learned this version and added the tune to his repertoire after making his own modifications. He recorded it during the sessions for his first album in 1961, but it did not make the final cut for the LP. It did appear on various bootlegs, though, and he was apparently performing the song live during this period. Dave Van Ronk picked up Dylan’s version of the song and recorded it in 1962 for his fourth album, Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger, erroneously crediting the tune to Dylan.

 

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By 1965, the musical and political landscape was practically unrecognizable from that of the early ’60s. When the Byrds decided to feature the tune on their second LP, Turn! Turn! Turn!, they not only worked up a version that better fit the sound of the times—both in terms of melody and arrangement—but also changed the lyrics to make it politically relevant. The song became a lament for John F. Kennedy, and perhaps for the lost hope and innocence of the first few years of the decade. The Byrds’ version spawned a number of cover versions. These appeared both on major labels, such as The Reasonable Facsimile’s interpretation of the tune on Verve Folkways, and on smaller local labels such as versions by The Bad Omens of Fridley, Minnesota, on Twin Town, and former surf-band-gone-folk-rockers Dave & The Customs of Pomona, California, on DAC.

The song’s journey through modern American folklore was not quite over yet, though. In 1972, a single by a band called The Ages appeared on the Win label out of Indianapolis. The B-side, “Don’t Worry About Tomorrow (Everything Will Be Alright),” is a somewhat forgettable slab of lounge-country. The A-side, however, “She Was More Than a Friend of Mine,” is a reworking of The Byrds’ “He Was a Friend of Mine.” In this version, the song has been transformed from a lament for lost innocence into a longing for lost love. The performance is competent, slightly moody, and has a nice little electronic keyboard or synth flourish at the end of some lines. Until recently, I owned the only copy of this disc that I was aware of, but not long ago a German dealer posted a copy for sale, so now that it’s on the radar more may turn up in the future.

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At the moment, very little is known about The Ages. Both sides of the disc are credited to Joe Dillinger, presumably the same person who played drums with the equally obscure Indianapolis-area band The Malemen in late 1972. Dillinger served in Vietnam, worked at a bank, and was selected as Noblesville’s “Jaycee of the Month” in November 1972.

Tom Harvey is listed as the producer of the disc, and both sides are published by his Happyland Music. This suggests that the Win label may have been owned by Harvey, although so far no other releases on the label have been identified. Having relocated to Indianapolis from Texas in 1966, Harvey worked as a radio engineer, dj, and musician. In Texas he had recorded a pair of 45s for the Houston-based International Artists label, and reportedly also recorded in Florida in the early ’60s with a Western Swing band called The Kingstrings. Once in Indianapolis he released a 45 on Ace under his own name, and an LP on the same label, billed as Hardluck Harvey. In the early 70s he also performed with The Flintstones, the longstanding house band at The Emerson Club in Beech Grove.

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Indianapolis Star, May 15, 1971

Hearing The Ages’ performance of “She Was More Than a Friend of Mine” out of context, it’s easy to take it as an example of a certain folk rock sound that was prevalent in the US for a short period. Knowing that it was released in 1972, however, together with its very square flip slide, it becomes apparent that this disc is something of a throwback. The jangly Byrds sound would have come off as pretty outdated in 1972. So instead of an example of Byrds-flavored folk rock as performed by a group in the hinterlands during that sub-genre’s heyday, we have yet another example of a private press anachronism.

Over the years I’ve heard it said that by destroying the oral culture that preceded it, audio-visual culture—the phonograph, cinema, radio, and television—severely crippled the folk process. The point of such a statement is apparently to demonstrate how sterile and “un-folk” the current epoch is. It is, of course, an oversimplification, and I doubt that folklorists would agree. It is easy to forget that both the act of writing itself and the printing process were once newly emerging technologies that also radically transformed how culture was transmitted. If the printed broadside did not kill the folk process, then neither did the rise of audio-visual culture: it only changed it. The evidence is there in every thrift store record bin for all who would take the time to interpret it.

—Stephen Canner

Music on the Hippie Trail: Laos and The Third Eye, 1968

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Rue Lane Xang, Vientiane, Laos, 1966. Photo: Robert Wofford. Used by permission.

In early April 1968, Peter J. Kumpa of the Baltimore Sun was in Bangkok. In those days the city was something of a staging area for reporters covering the war in Vietnam. It was a place where journalists could find respite from the rigors of location reporting, yet still remain connected to the main flow of information. The rumor in Bangkok was that the entire Mekong Valley—including Vientiane, the capital of Laos—was under threat from an advancing column of North Vietnamese regulars. With no way to verify the rumor but to go and see for himself, Kumpa flew to Vientiane. What he found on arrival was a sleepy, provincial capital city that was unaware of any imminent threat. The passengers on his plane from Bangkok included a handful of American women and their children returning from shopping trips to the metropolis, part of the community of 1700 US officials and their dependents living there at the time.

The rumor turned out to be nothing more than exaggeration. There was fighting far to the south, but it seemed to be contained. Since he was there, however, Kumpa decided to take a look around. Besides the large number of Americans, the city also contained a delegation of Russians, representatives from both North and South Vietnam, as well as from the Pathet Lao, the native Communist faction. What made this situation particularly remarkable was that individuals from these different groups socialized at the same cocktail parties. It was reportedly not uncommon to find the chargés d’affaires for both North and South Vietnam seated next to one another at dinner, with a sprinkling of American and Russian officials around the same table. Added to this mix, Vientiane was an active hub for Air America, the CIA’s not-so-secret private airline. More curious still, the city was home to some 100 European, Australian, and American hippies—travelers who had found the most unlikely terminus to what was then called the Hippie Trail, the overland route from Istanbul to Kathmandu and beyond.

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Sheldon Cholst, Ventiane, late 1960s. Photographer unknown.

Kumpa’s article was probably the first mention in the US press of the Third Eye, a “psychedelic night club” started by Sheldon Cholst, an American psychiatrist in his mid-40s who had been part of the traveling counterculture since the days of the beatniks. Cholst was famous in Vientiane as the founder of the Free USA Government-in-Exile, an alternative, imaginary government whose proposed constitution included the abolition of all laws against narcotics, birth control, abortion, and polygamy. His home, only 100 yards or so from the US embassy, was a tourist attraction for visiting Russians who would stroll by to view the black and white US flag flying over the compound. Its presence was reportedly also something of an embarrassment to the Lao government, which relied heavily on US aid.

Like other psychedelic nightclubs around the world, The Third Eye’s goal seems to have been to create a space conducive to the psychedelic experience in both its major forms: musical and chemical. The ceiling was covered with tattered parasols and scarves, with dim colored lights shining through them so as to give the room an eerie, shadow-haunted glow. Laos at the time was one of the few countries that had not yet banned marijuana, and joints were sold in the club for only a few cents each. In 1967 Terry Wofford, a British artist and designer, was working in Bangkok. In the early 60s she had performed in a folk music duo with a young Christine Perfect, later to go on to fame in Fleetwood Mac as Christine McVie, but Terry had since given up music for art. She initially traveled to Vientiane in order to renew her Thai visa, but fell in love with the country. She accepted a teaching job at the International School and soon met her future husband, Robert, at the Third Eye. Terry and Robert’s photos from this period are a priceless source of visual documentation of the era and are now part of the University of Wisconsin Digital Collection. In a letter home from the late 60s, Terry described the Third Eye:

The decor is tremendous. I think I have already described the umbrellas and lights and local bamboo and head scarf effects, simple, cheap and sophisticated. It’s not only the best and most respectable bar in town with a tremendously good folk and rock group but they cook good food in the primitive kitchen in the back. On Saturdays the place gets swamped with [straight] Americans. One young man that worked there bitterly complained that the low, long table they monopolize was their own “scene” (with a long candle in a huge glass bottle) and these . . . Americans started to actually come and sit between them and stare at their furry faces!  Still, their money is needed. The drinks are quite expensive. However for people with little money they provide free iced tea, often free food and even a place to stay for those who are really broke. They are apparently not making a profit. Just about surviving in fact. They work there as they like for a dollar a day. In the back they have a small room where they print and paint. They’ve invited me to use it if I want. It’s amazing the talent among them. They are even opening an art gallery next door. [Terry tells me that she does not believe the art gallery ever opened.]

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Psychedelic art at the Third Eye, 1968. Photo: Terry Wofford. Used by permission.

Vientiane in 1968 seems an unlikely place for a group of hippies to end up. At the time, it was about as close as a civilian could safely get to the Vietnam War, which was raging not only in Vietnam, but in the southern and eastern parts of Laos as well. Though the majority of the travelers undoubtedly opposed the war, when John Riddick of the Tucson Daily Citizen visited the city in September of that year, one of the them told him that the group tended to keep its opinions about the war to itself, and, in general, to not be “antagonistic about anything.” This “under the radar” attitude may well have been the result of events earlier in the year.

On May 16, 1968, the New York Times ran a small piece sourced from the United Press reporting that Laos had ordered 22 hippies to leave the country. It stated that as part of this action, “two of their 5-cent marijuana bars” were closed. One of these was the Third Eye; what the second bar may have been is not currently known. The deportees were scheduled to be bused to the Mekong River ferry east of town and sent downriver to Thailand. This was problematic as Thailand had recently barred “hippie” travelers, but it was thought that the Thai government would allow the deportees to travel to Bangkok in order to find transportation out of the country. In another letter home, Wofford explains the reason for the expulsion:

Did you hear about the fuss made during a Lao festival? The hippies joined in a procession of Buddhists which everyone found hilarious except local officialdom who closed the Eye for one night and started to run some of them out of town. 

Luckily for the traveler community, it had an ally in the prime minister’s Harvard-educated son, Prince Panya Souvanna Phouma. Panya interceded on behalf of the deportees, and the order was revoked. In order for the Third Eye to reopen, however, Panya became half owner of the club. One source says that no money was actually exchanged, so Cholst effectively had part of his business confiscated, but through Panya’s intervention a vital center for the alternative Western community was saved. As conditions for the reprieve, the travelers were ordered to practice better grooming habits, to tone down their “hippie” appearance, and to be less conspicuous in their use of drugs. Panya also introduced three new rules for the Third Eye: no politics (resulting in the removal of posters celebrating Mao and Cholst’s government-in-exile), no drugs, and that the club would begin proper bookkeeping.

Very little research into the musical culture along the Hippie Trail has been done. By the late 1960s, at the western end of the trail, Turkey and Iran had very well developed western-influenced contemporary music scenes. And though the groups in those countries showed clear evidence of the influence of American and British psychedelic bands, the result was more a distinct local hybrid than a case of East copying West. Even the juggernaut that was the Indian scene was not immune to this influence, as evidenced by the Tamla Beat band contests of the 60s and early 70s, artists such as Usha Iyer’s late 60s output, and the 1971 hippie-themed Bollywood film Hare Rama Hare Krishna.

Southeast Asia also partook of the musical changes happening in the West. Thailand, Cambodia, and South Vietnam all had vibrant music scenes whose recorded output in the late 60s and early 70s included reworkings of Western tunes and the sound of fuzz-laden guitars. Like their Turkish and Persian contemporaries, these were hybrid sounds, managing to sound distinctively Asian while adhering to a roughly Western structure. But these examples only show the influence going one way: from West to East. It is hard to imagine that among the thousands of Western hippies who trekked the Trail, that at least some of them did not engage with the local music scenes they encountered. Christopher Titmuss, a British traveler who spent time in Vientiane in the late 60s and is now a Buddhist teacher in southwest England, remembers seeing Lao musicians on the streets and hearing local music coming out of loudspeakers in the city. He does not recall any particular interest in Lao music from the international community, however. It seems that the guitar reigned supreme in the musical consciousness of the expats, and what interest there was in the music of the East was in the “sitar, drums and tabla” of India.

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Chanthara Outhensackda

Laos seems to have existed under the musical shadow of its neighbors during this period. There is very little mention of a Laotian recording industry in any of the expected sources. The references that do exist are usually either to Lao artists recording in Thailand, or to the molam genre of music performed by the closely linguistically and ethnically related population of northeast Thailand. Laos did have its own scene, though, however small. Recording artist Chanthara Outhensackda was head of the studio for Lao National Radio from 1968 to 1975 and recorded a number of 45s. In 2010, he confirmed to the Radiodiffusion Internasionaal Annexe blog that these records were recorded in Laos, not Thailand. It is curious when compared to Cambodia—whose recording industry is relatively well documented despite the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror that resulted in the massacre of most of the country’s recording artists—that so little information exists on the Laotian industry. This could be due to the very small size of its actual output or to the fact that the records when found are often mistakenly thought to be Thai. Also, there are very few researchers doing any active work in this area, and among them even fewer have the linguistic skills to make the slightest sense out of the records they find.

The Third Eye seems to have been one of the very few venues on the Hippie Trail that regularly booked Western musicians for a primarily Western audience. At the other end of the Trail, Istanbul’s Pudding Shop is known to have played contemporary western rock music in the background as customers dined, and its back garden was the occasional site of impromptu jam sessions, but there is no evidence that it was a venue in the formal sense. Even the Third Eye was not a venue in the sense of bringing in talent from afar, but relied on the musicians who drifted into town on their own steam. So far, the only Third Eye musicians who have been identified are two members of a combo the Associated Press referred to as The Voyagers: Mark Rankin, a 23-year-old “conscientious objector” from Berkeley, and Tom Hinkle, 25, an ex-soldier from Lexington, North Carolina, who had received his discharge in Europe and simply continued traveling east. An Associated Press photo of this duo exists showing them playing their guitars while riding a water buffalo. It was taken by Eddie Adams, the photographer responsible for the famous image of South Vietnamese National Police chief Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner. Peter Kumpa also reported seeing fliers for a show at the Third Eye featuring a “new Australian guitarist” in April 1968. Another source from a few months later refers to the house band as “Australian-American.” Besides the scene at the Third Eye, Terry Wofford also remembers that there was a Thai FM station that broadcast Western music in the evenings, and on weekends Filipino bands played Western pop music at the Hotel Lang Xang and Seltha Palace, with their “postage stamp dance floors.”

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Western musicians on stage at the Third Eye, 1968. Note the reel-to-reel tape player at right, often used as makeshift amplifiers in the 1960s. Photo: Terry Wofford. Used by permission.

Despite the paucity of information on the local native music scene and its associated recording industry, a good amount is known about the Western scene in Vientiane during this period, especially when compared to other gathering points along the Hippie Trail. This is in great part due to the presence of the Third Eye and the unlikelihood of a hippie community existing there. The situation was enough of a curiosity at the time to attract US newspaper coverage. These accounts provide documentary information as well as colorful narratives of life in the city at the time. Of course, this information is invariably from the Western point of view. The full story of the Hippie Trail is not only that of a group of international travelers, but also of every community it moved through and every individual it encountered, directly or indirectly. If the Hippie Trail is ever to be “mapped” with any depth, it is important that the voices of the local communities affected by this great migration are brought into the conversation.

Had Graham Greene been looking towards Indochina for inspiration in the 1960s as he had in the 1950s, the motley community of spies, secret operatives, diplomats, dependents, communists, opportunists, artists, outcasts, musicians, and international hippies living in Vientiane would have made a perfect setting for one of his novels. Terry Wofford is currently working on a memoir of her time in the country, but in the meantime the story of Vientiane in the late 1960s is only documented in fragments, on blogs and in old newspaper articles. The Lao voice is still largely silent in these sources, however. With the recent interest in the Southeast Asian recording scene of the 60s and 70s, especially that of Cambodia, researchers have begun piecing together the history of popular music in the region. Laos is still a shadowy landscape in this narrative, but in time, piece by piece, the full story will hopefully emerge. It appears, though, that if it does, it may well be a story of Western and Lao musicians existing in the same city at the same time, each group being largely unaware of the other’s activity.

—Stephen Canner

Special thanks to Terry Wofford and Christopher Titmuss for taking the time to share their memories with me for this article, and also to Terry for permission to use her priceless photographs.

Resources

Terry & Robert Wofford Laotian Image Collection

AP Photo of Rankin, Hinkle, & Water Buffalo

AP Photo of Hinkle with Ann Burge

Richie and the Acid Casualty

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Michael Burns as Benjy “Blue Boy” Carver, 1967.

On January 12, 1967, the 1950s television series Dragnet was revived after a hiatus of nearly eight years. As if to highlight the fact that the new version of the show was being presented in color, the first episode was called “The LSD Story.” It begins with detectives Friday and Gannon responding to a report that a young man has been spotted in a vacant lot painted “like an Indian” and chewing the bark off a tree. They arrive to find the suspect with his head buried in a pile of loose dirt. When the two officers pull him to his feet it becomes apparent that half his face has been painted blue and the other half yellow. The sugar cubes found in his pocket tell the cops all they need to know. The episode, popularly known as “Blue Boy,” is an early example of hippie exploitation, a sub-genre that would explode later the same year with films such as Hallucination Generation and The Love-Ins. The result of this cinematic disinformation was that LSD became the scapegoat for a whole range of issues affecting America’s youth. When Art Linkletter’s daughter Diane leapt to her death from the 6th floor of her West Hollywood apartment on October 4, 1969, toxicology results confirmed that there were no drugs in her system. She had reportedly used LSD in the past, however, so it only took her father’s unfounded statement at a press conference that her death “wasn’t a suicide. She was not herself. She was murdered by the people who manufacture and distribute LSD,” for Diane Linkletter to become one of history’s most famous “acid casualties.”

With the help of newspaper reports, these negative images of LSD became firmly embedded in the “official” narrative, and the acid casualty soon became something of an archetype. The idea was further strengthened at the end of the decade, when both Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd and Alexander “Skip” Spence of Moby Grape left their respective bands after having mental breakdowns. Their mental disorders were popularly attributed to LSD, despite the fact that Spence was later diagnosed as being schizophrenic and Barrett showed signs that would suggest he suffered from the same condition. The reality appears to be that in most every case the “acid casualty” label was conveniently applied to anyone with mental health issues who had also used LSD at some point. This narrative in which LSD was cast as a drug that had the power to destroy the psyche soon became so strong that even many regular users of LSD believed it.

Around 1970 Richie Nelms was in the US Navy, working as a corpsman in the psychiatric ward of the hospital at the Charleston Naval Base in South Carolina. One patient in the ward had been admitted for a several month stay after having “tripped out on LSD.” He and Nelms became friendly and soon discovered they had something in common: both men were musicians. Nelms borrowed a guitar from the Red Cross, and the pair would often play together. At some point during these sessions the patient suggested they cut a record together. Nelms “thought it was a pipe dream,” but was surprised when some time in 1971, six months after his release, the patient contacted him and asked if he was still interested in going into the studio.

In 1971 if you wanted to cut a record in a professional studio in South Carolina there were few options. The regional market at this time was dominated by Crandel “C. B.” Herndon’s United Music World Recording in West Columbia. Herndon was the owner of a local trucking company and ran the studio as a side business, staffed by professionals, some brought in from Nashville. (For another example of the unlikely relationship between the trucking and recording industries, see my earlier post “The Lutenist and the Publisher: A Trucksploitation Tale.”) The studio did mostly custom work, and its output in the very late 60s and into the 70s was rather prolific. A large number of records were released on its house labels United Music World, Music World, United, and Smoke.

Nelms and his former patient entered the studio in West Columbia armed with a couple of tunes Nelms had written. It is not known whether they brought along their own rhythm section or used local session musicians. The first tune recorded, “Now She’s Gone,” is a forgettably maudlin number with a countrypolitan crooner vibe. The flip, “The Way I Feel,” is more interesting. With a guitar player who has only been identified as an “acid casualty,” the listener might have high hopes that the track could turn out to be an unknown psychedelic masterpiece. In this case, though, one has to strain a bit to find any hint of psychedelia. The arrangement is somewhat sparse, with a single guitar playing wiry lead lines over the bass and drums. Probably the most remarkable thing about the track is that stylistically it does not even remotely sound like it was recorded in 1971. To me, it sounds like a very competent demo by a songwriter hoping to pitch a tune to Gene Pitney circa 1962. This sort of anachronism is an interesting aspect of many custom releases. Styles changed so quickly in the middle decades of the 20th century that even a delay of two or three years between writing a tune and recording it could make it seem hopelessly out of date. In this case, the record was too unself-conscious to be considered a pastiche, appeared far too early to be seen as any sort of revival of its style, and was released far too late to be relevant.

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A thousand copies of the disc were pressed by Precision Record Pressing in Nashville, and it was released on Music World MW-232 as by The Next Step. The only reason we know as much of this story as we do is because Nelms left a comment on 45cat in 2012 relating how the record was born. I attempted to contact him through the site but got no response. Nelms was only in South Carolina because he was stationed there, so the questions of his origins and his previous musical history are open ones. Perhaps more intriguing is the mystery guitarist. He seemed to know that not only was the possibility of cutting a record not a “pipe dream,” but how to make it happen. Because of this, it’s tempting to speculate that he had recorded before, but where and with whom? At the moment, he is a complete cipher. It’s important not to make too much of the guitarist’s hospitalization. It’s not hard to imagine the sorts of pressures a young man in the US military in 1970 faced. With a transfer to Vietnam as close as the anonymous stroke of an administrator’s pen, turning to drugs as an escape from stress is not a surprising choice. A breakdown, with or without drugs, is also something that could easily happen to most anyone placed in such a situation. It is only because of the pre-existing “acid casualty” narrative, one constructed from distorted media portrayals of LSD, assumptions, and folklore, that he bears this label in our story. Most likely he was a musician who was drafted and temporarily crumpled under the pressure of his situation. Perhaps someday he will emerge and tell his own story.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

The Next Step: “The Way I Feel”

Dragnet: “The LSD Story”

 

Mystery Vinyl and the Art of Detection

There are few greater joys to the researcher-collector than acquiring a new piece of vinyl about which little or nothing is known. When an Internet search and the standard reference books fail to turn up any information, an exercise in inductive reasoning begins. After taking into account the record’s provenance, chiefly considering where and how it was found, the next step is to research the label itself. By checking Discogs or 45cat it is often possible to find other releases on the same label. This can provide hints as to geography and date, as well as give a bit of context based on what other sorts of records the label released. Looking at songwriting credits can sometimes provide the names of band members. Any information about who produced or engineered the record can also be helpful. Publishing information can be another clue, as sometimes a particular publishing imprint is known to be associated with certain individuals or a certain city. Examining the matrix numbers etched into the dead wax can be a hint as to where the record was manufactured. Since the numbering schemes of the big pressing plants of the 1960s and 70s have been heavily researched, it’s often possible to date the record this way. The last resort of the frustrated researcher is often to listen to the record for lyrical content. Does the vocalist reference a town or a local landmark that might be a clue as to where the artist was based?

AcidTestAngelus45WhatDoILove

Sometimes a record fails to provide even these most basic points of entry to the researcher. An example is a 45 on Angelus Records by a band called Acid Test. The disc, “What Do I Love?” b/w “Make Her Mine,” released as Angelus WR 4803, stubbornly refuses to give up much information. A reasonable amount is known about Angelus Records as it was relatively prolific, operating in Los Angeles from at least the early 1960s until the late 1970s. It was a custom label that primarily released forgettable gospel records, although odd gems like Stone Garden’s “Oceans Inside Me” 45 or the Moon Blood LP by Christian psych band Fraction do turn up. Besides a rough guess as to the year of release based on the catalog number—late 1960s—there is nothing else on the disc to help the researcher. No songwriting credits or other names, no publishing information, and the number inscribed in the dead wax is only a repeat of the catalog number. According to the collector grapevine, there are two known copies of the Acid Test disc, one found in Spokane and the other in northwest Montana. This hints that the band may have been from that region. Often, this sort of circumstantial information is all that is “known” about a disc.

A mystery disc in my own collection that yields a bit more information, but barely, is Cynthia Kellems’ “Sonata” b/w “Lily-Lavendar” on the Where Rainbows End label. This appears to be a vanity label created by Kellems herself. The copyright is given as “1979 Ms. Brown.” There is no publishing information except for a reference to BMI, but a search of the BMI repertoire database turns up nothing on Kellems. The numbers on the dead wax (X-5344/Sonata and X-5345/Lily-Lavendar) do not jibe with the format of any pressing plant I’m familiar with. The dealer I bought it from told me that he acquired it in San Francisco in a batch of records that had previously belonged to a radio station. There seem to be a number of people named Cynthia Kellems in the US, and I reached out to one of them, a southern California realtor. She seemed amused by the question but confirmed that she was not the same Cynthia who made the record and, despite the less- than-common surname, had no knowledge of who the mystery artist might be.

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This record is almost completely unknown, but has the potential to become something of a cult favorite, especially if it were comped along with a nice collection of similar material. Despite its relatively late copyright date, it is dark, avant-outsider folk, which gives it the feel of an earlier era. The record fits the “loner folk” category, and some might go as far as calling it “downer” or even “wristcutter folk.” It really doesn’t sound like anything else, though. To get an idea, imagine that the Fair brothers of Half Japanese had a morose little sister who decided to become a folk singer, or that one of the Wiggins sisters from The Shaggs locked herself in her room late one night with an acoustic guitar and laid her heart out into a cassette recorder. The dissonant guitar playing is inept to the point of brilliance. There’s something so primitive about it as to sound nearly ancient. The lyrics seem to be Cynthia’s poems set to music or perhaps even completely made up on the spot. There’s a free-associative vibe that makes it hard to tell whether we are in the presence of composition or improvisation. This is folk music sui generis.

One possible hint as to the geographical origin of the record is found in the lyrics. With Kellems’ odd delivery buried under layers of reverb, it’s often difficult to clearly understand what is being said. But at one point in “Lily-Lavendar” she clearly says, “Sons of Catalina shall titillate you gently.” The United Sons of Catalina was a Filipino-American fraternal mutual aid society that existed in several cities in California prior to World War Two. Is this nothing more than a coincidence, a songwriter creating a poetic image that just happens to coincide with something in the real world? Or does this line mean that she was aware of the organization, either through a family connection or by seeing the name on the sign of a decaying local lodge building? If so, this would imply that she was indeed based in California. As rickety as this sort of reasoning is, it is a good example of the very fragile framework upon which initial research into a disc like this is often built.

The dead ends can outnumber the leads, and the researcher is often left with no more firm information than existed at the beginning of the process. This is a common situation with the most obscure discs. What sometimes happens is that someone involved with the record, or a family member, discovers a blog post or a Youtube video and comments on it. More than one vinyl mystery has been solved this way. Hopefully, Cynthia or someone else with inside knowledge of this disc will see this post and help us shed light on it.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Cynthia Kellems: “Sonata” b/w “Lily-Lavendar”