The Lutenist and the Publisher: A Trucksploitation Tale

I can’t remember where I picked up my copy of Norman André’s 1966 single “Big Rig Man,” but I’m certain I didn’t pay more than a dollar for it. But when confronted with a picture sleeve showing a lutenist standing inside a semi trailer, apparently serenading the cab of an adjacent Mack, what sensible person would not be tempted to take the disc home?

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In August 1966 Billboard magazine announced that a new label, Palomino Records, was “tying in with the trucking industry to promote its debut disc.” The release was Norman André’s “Big Rig Man” b/w “Gotta Keep on the Move.” The article named Michael Parkhurst as label president and also mentioned that the disc was the theme from the film Big Rig, “produced by the parent company, Hollywood Continental pictures [sic].” Billboard called the record a “public relations image builder for the trucking field, with heavy load vehicles reportedly carrying posters for the disc, and truck stops phoning local radio stations to request airplay and stocking it on their jukeboxes.” The article also mentioned that Overdrive magazine, a major trucking trade publication, was “running a DJ contest with the label, asking DJs to write and tape an editorial on the importance of trucking to their area.” First prize was a trip to Tahiti. What the article did not say was that Mike Parkhurst was also the founder and editor of Overdrive (as well as being a rabid opponent of the Teamsters union and fervent supporter of the independent trucker). So, in reality, the release was not a trucking industry tie-in, but something that emerged from inside the industry itself.

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Norman André was the pseudonym of songwriter and composer Norman Andre Anderson. The reason we remember his name today at all centers around his association with Parkhurst. The most striking thing about Anderson is that though he penned rather straightforward, mainstream country tunes, his instrument of choice—at least around 1966—was a modified lute. Pictures show him playing an instrument with a lute body, a shortened standard guitar neck, and a “straight” headstock (as opposed to the head being bent backwards as is standard on both the traditional lute and its middle eastern variations such as the oud.) The sound of the instrument on “Big Rig Man” is not ethnic or “folkloric” as one might guess, but more like a boxy, cheap acoustic guitar providing the competent chug and shuffle that drives the tune. Sonically it works, but it is a curious choice of instrument when planning to market a record to an audience of truck drivers in the mid-1960s.

It seems that when Parkhurst decided to enter the arena of trucksploitation cinema he knew that music would help sell his film. Low budget films require low budget composers, however, so he set out to find someone who could do the job without breaking the bank. It is not known how Parkhurst and Anderson first met, but Big Rig was evidently in the planning stages as early as 1965. A promo disc of “Big Rig Man,” credited to Norman André and mentioning the film, was released on the tiny Martay Records label that year. It is not clear why Parkhurst saw the need to re-release the disc on his own label the following year, but as the Martay disc seems to be pretty rare, it is likely that only a handful were pressed. Once he decided to unleash a big promotion campaign, it only made sense to go with a full release of the disc. As part of this promotion, the July 1966 issue of Overdrive carried a long article on the record and the film. The cover featured Norman André, lute in hand, superimposed over a shot of two rigs sitting in a truck stop parking lot. Given the context, this was a decidedly surreal image, and is quite likely the only time in history a lute has appeared on the cover of a major trucking magazine.

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Later in 1966 Palomino released a second Norman André single, “I Don’t Like Women With Hairy Legs” b/w “I Don’t Like You,” but it’s not clear whether this disc was intended to have any link to the film. The somewhat elaborate promotional campaign would suggest that Big Rig was originally intended to be a feature film. Whatever the original intent, the film eventually surfaced (however briefly) as a 30-minute documentary “shot on location from California to Massachusetts.” It was not until a few years later that a Parkhurst-directed trucksploitation feature film—scored by André now using his real name, Norman A. Anderson—finally did appear.

Filmed in West Texas and around Tucson in 1969 and 1970, Moonfire, the feature film that Parkhurst eventually released, had its world premiere at the Cinema Theater in Columbiana, Ohio, on May 12, 1972, with some 250 truckers reportedly in attendance. According to an article in the previous day’s Salem News, the film was being debuted in Columbiana because Parkhurst got his start in the trucking business “twenty years ago” driving for a local farm bureau there. The “G-rated adventure film about truckers” starred Charles Napier, probably best remembered from his appearances in a number of Russ Meyer films, and boxing legend Sonny Liston, who died shortly after filming. While Anderson contributed the score to the film, the soundtrack was given star power by a pair of tunes also written by Anderson but performed by Marty Robbins. These tracks, “Wheel of Life” b/w “Get You Off My Mind,” were released as a promo-only 45 on Palomino in 1972.

Trucking songs already had a long history by the time “Big Rig Man” appeared. Although there are likely earlier examples, Terry Fell’s 1954 recording of his “Truck Drivin’ Man” provided a template for later artists to build upon. The sub-genre reached its apex by the mid-1960s, with big hits by artists such as Dave Dudley and Dick Curless, as well as the appearance of interesting low-budget compilation LPs like Starday’s 1963 Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves. Truck driving as a cinematic subject has an even longer history, Raoul Walsh’s They Drive by Night (1940) and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 film version of Georges Arnaud’s novel Le salaire de la peur being a couple of classic examples. The 1970s saw something of an explosion of what would later be termed “trucksploitation cinema.” The release of these mostly low-budget films coincided with a popular obsession with both long-haul trucking and the citizen’s band radio, culminating in 1977 with the release of Smokey and the Bandit on one hand and Sorcerer (an updated take on Arnaud’s Le salaire de la peur) on the other.

Looking at these films chronologically, it becomes apparent that Parkhurst’s Moonfire was the first of this new wave of trucksploitation films. (Although some might include Spielberg’s 1971 TV movie, Duel, I would argue that despite the presence of a big rig in the film, it is much more a psychological thriller and has little in common with the low-brow “trucker buddy” films that followed it.) Although this may place Moonfire in an important position when studying the history of the sub-genre, artistically it was not a successful film. It opens promisingly enough with a long shot of trucks driving across an early evening desert landscape, with the voice of Marty Robbins singing the effective, Anderson-penned theme song “Wheel of Life.” The opening sequence has the gritty aesthetic of many low-budget movies of the era. But the moment the title sequence ends, the viewer is suddenly thrust into cheesy anachronism. This isn’t a trucker version of Two Lane Black Top. The best comparison I can make would be to James Landis’ 1964 The Nasty Rabbit, starring Arch Hall, Jr. The cinematography and location shots are interesting, but the film itself is one big cliché, filled with stereotypical (and somewhat offensive) Mexican villains, a missile plot, and even a renegade Nazi who must be defeated by our hero truckers. Overall the film plays like something that may have gotten mildly positive response from drive-in audiences in 1964, but not in 1972.

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The question lurking behind all of this is, why did the publisher of an industry trade magazine decide to launch a “public relations image builder for the trucking field”? Shouldn’t the companies that actually run the trucks be more concerned with how the industry is viewed by the public? Granted, the fascination with trucking that exploded in the mid-1970s may have increased the readership of Parkhurst’s magazine, but there was no way he could have foreseen this. With the previous success of trucker-themed country records, a trucking-related zeitgeist was already in the air by the mid-60s and it was only a matter of time before the film industry would respond. On one level Parkhurst’s early entry into this field can be interpreted as culturally savvy or even prescient. The cynical view, however, would be that he was simply interested in expanding his operations into film and music, fields that were seen as far “sexier” than magazine publishing, and used his industry connections to best possible advantage.

—Stephen Canner

 

The Liberation Support Movement

Josh MacPhee first encountered the Liberation Support Movement while working in a “lefty” print shop in the late 1990s. There, on top of a stack of other publications, he came across a copy of LSM’s interview with ANC leader Alfred Nzo, which was published in 1974 as part of its Interviews in Depth series. As an artist, what first struck MacPhee was the cover design. “It was all so simple, but somehow perfect,” he says. The contents were also striking, dealing with the ANC’s armed struggle against apartheid, a very different tale than the organization’s official line since becoming South Africa’s ruling party. Having discovered this first pamphlet, he began seeking out other examples of LSM’s printed output. Then, a couple of years ago, a mutual acquaintance put him in touch with several LSM members.

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The Liberation Support Movement was founded in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1969 by anthropologist Don Barnett and several of his students at Simon Fraser University. Over time others joined, expanding the organization into a number of cells scattered across the North America, but eventually the group found a home in Oakland, California, where it consolidated. Members in other areas either moved to Oakland or left the group. The LSM was one of many emerging anti-imperialist organizations during the era whose focus had shifted away from Vietnam and towards other, lesser-known struggles in areas with active liberation movements: Southern Africa, Guinea-Bissau, East Timor, Eritrea, Oman, and Palestine. During its existence from 1969 to 1982, the LSM operated not only as a small press, issuing pamphlets and other material to publicize these struggles, but was also very active in a number of other areas. During its existence members of the group conducted information tours across North America, collected and sent tons of medical supplies and clothing to the MPLA in Angola, sent several teams to southern Africa to interview freedom fighters and to record music that was later released on a pair of LPs, produced a short film, and even trained a pair of SWAPO militants from Namibia in the fine art of offset printing.

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Josh MacPhee’s Liberation Support Movement: Building Solidarity with the African Liberation Struggle was published in 2016 by the Interference Archive, a Brooklyn-based organization of which he is a founding member. The pamphlet includes extracts from interviews he conducted with three members of the LSM—Ole Gjerstad, Steve Goldfield, and Rick Sterling—followed by a preliminary (but very thorough) checklist of the group’s output. The booklet’s bright colors and simple yet striking graphics echo the design aesthetic of many radical publications of the 1970s.

The history of small radical social movements in the US is tangled and complex. Individuals moved from one group to the next frequently and fluidly. Schisms were common, often resulting in the creation of new groups or the renaming of existing ones, and many seemed to pop up and disappear overnight leaving barely a trace. The traces that do survive are often in the form of the published output these organizations left behind. The discovery of a long-forgotten pamphlet or flier may be the first hint to a researcher that a previously undocumented group ever existed.

When researching small presses from this era, bibliographers are often frustrated by the lack of information available regarding the actual printing process. In the interview section, MacPhee helpfully includes a statement from Rick Sterling explaining that the LSM ran its own print shop, equipped with a Multilith 1250 offset press. The shop was originally located in Richmond, British Columbia, but was later moved to Oakland. Eventually the group formed a relationship with a politically sympathetic shop in Ithaca, New York, called Glad Day Press. Glad Day had larger presses and so printed posters and other jobs the group thought too large for its own shop. This sort of information might seem peripheral to the cultural historian, but is essential for the bibliographer.

Through collating the information he has collected over the years and publishing it in what is basically a very simple format, MacPhee has not only created a major resource for anyone interested in the LSM, but has also provided an excellent model that other researchers could use to present their own work. Very little bibliographical research has been done on the printed output of the huge number of radical leftist organizations of the 70s and 80s so MacPhee’s work fills a gap. I can envision this gap being further filled by a series of pamphlets (or their digital equivalents) on other imprints of the era using MacPhee’s model: a narrative of the organization’s history, wherever possible from the mouths of the people involved, followed by a checklist of all known output from the group. With each pamphlet detailing a single group or imprint, these publications could serve as entry points to wider and deeper studies. In the meantime, MacPhee’s pamphlet is essential for anyone interested in the topic (as well as for any institution collecting in this area.)

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Interference Archive: Publications

Liberation Support Movement from MSU’s African Activist Archive

 

This is Memorial Device: An Hallucinated Remembrance of Things Past

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On the surface, David Keenan’s This is Memorial Device is a clever, offbeat novel about the underground music scene in a small Scottish town from the late 70s into the first half of the 80s. The scene is a swirling vortex with a very local, but hugely influential, band called Memorial Device at its center. Keenan writes as someone who was there, vividly detailing the subtleties of taste and fashion that informed the era. He has created something of a 21st century epistolary novel, with various participants of the scene recounting their memories via letters, transcribed interviews, or e-mails.

One can’t help being a bit suspicious, though, that the novel is also something of an hallucinated roman a clef. Just a few pages into the book Ross Raymond, a character who might just be Keenan’s alter ego, grounds us in the scene’s musical aesthetic, “Every Saturday I would meet Johnny and we would travel to Glasgow and buy two LPs each: the first Ramones album, The Sonics’ Boom, Easter Everywhere by The 13th Floor Elevators, which is still the greatest psychedelic record ever made, Can’s Tago Mago, Metal Box by Public Image Ltd, the first Roxy album, This Heat, Nurse With Wound, So Alone by Johnny Thunders—in fact anything by Johnny Thunders, everyone in Airdrie was obsessed with Johnny Thunders.” Other characters voice other influences, the Only Ones, Suicide, or Throbbing Gristle (and in fact this novel is likely one of the few ever published to carry a blurb from Cosey Fanni Tutti on its cover.)

This is a culture where the record geek is king. This idea is strengthened by a section in which the character Bobby Foster recounts his experiences with Teddy Ohm, an older, biker type who “looked like Johnny Winter crossed with Frank Zappa crossed with Cher in the 1970s, effeminate but tough and kind of scarier for it.” Besides being the local drug connection, Teddy was also a dealer of the rarest vinyl, specializing in “weirdo private-press” discs, “like the Fraction LP, Circuit Rider, D. R. Hooker, garage stuff like the Bachs and Index” as well as the folkier end of things like Relatively Clean Rivers and Hickory Wind. As the private-press label collecting scene was still in its infancy even in the later 1980s—and was a very American phenomenon in its earliest days—this section feels like a fantasy of how things should have been. But it’s exactly this sort of savvy anachronism that makes the book endearing. There’s a certain type of reader who won’t have to look up any of the obscure band names mentioned and for whom the adventures of Keenan’s motley cast of characters will bring back memories of his or her own local scene. It is this reader-as-insider who may just find This is Memorial Device a warm, fuzzy read despite the dysfunction it honestly portrays.

In recent years the theme of memory has been very influential in literature, film, and music. This is evidenced by the spike in interest in the works of W. G. Sebald over the last decade or so, as well as the emergence of the not-exactly-parody blog Scarfolk Council and the nostalgia-haunted sounds of the bands on the Ghost Box label. For me, if This is Memorial Device has an overarching theme it has to do with what and how we remember. Lucas, the singer in Memorial Device, has a vaguely defined condition in which he has no long- and very little short-term memory. Like the notebook he carries in order to keep his world in order, the very name of the band seems to imply that the group functions as a tool to help him remember. Perhaps the band took its name from this notebook in the same way that other bands in the scene took their names from unlikely, random objects, incidents, or ideas. The format of the novel in which each chapter of the book is told by a different individual recounting his or her personal memories helps emphasize this theme of slippery remembrance. Sometimes the voices contradict one another. Sometimes they recount the same incidents painted with a different brush. This is not an exploration of multiple realities a la Rashomon, but simply what happens when different people try to remember the events of several decades past. For me, This is Memorial Device demonstrates that there is no single narrative that constitutes an objective musical history. The history of a genre, a local scene, or an individual band can only be pulled from a field on which multiple narratives interplay, driven by the always subjective, ever-flawed engine of memory.

—Stephen Canner