Ringo 023: Talking Backward

or, an easy prey for nostalgia

Hi, friends! I'm Michael Donaldson, and this is my weekly newsletter about music-listening, music-making, and whatever the voices in my head tell me to write about. Thanks for subscribing a being a part of our Ringo team.

Last weekend's break was lovely. I did end up writing an article for my blog — I had some opinions on the future of music's middle class and those contentious comments by Spotify's Daniel Ek. No heavy topics this weekend, though. I thought I'd go the other direction in this episode. You see, a long interview I read — coupled with lockdown-induced pining for my concert-going years — inspired the main topic and last night's tweet:

As Pedro Almodovar said at the beginning of The Strange Times, "It’s the downside of being stranded at home, one is easy prey for nostalgia."

I'd also like to introduce this episode's theme song. I've taken on a guest band to deliver our theme, the brotherly duo named Gemini Revolution. This song is named "Pure Air" and it does sound like the theme song to something ominous but hopeful. A winning combination, I think. I'll tell you more about Gemini Revolution at the end of this email but first, have a listen to "Pure Air." And then let's get into a couple of tales about the most mind-bending band I ever saw.

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I encountered Kramer through his band Bongwater, and his production work with Galaxie 500, Low, Daniel Johnston, and many others, all recorded at his Noise New York and Noise New Jersey studios. Kramer’s label Shimmy Disc was a trove of curiosities and, yes, treasures — a label as distinctive as Factory and early 4AD but perhaps even more surprising. The identifiable sound of Kramer’s production (those drums, that reverb) balanced an unpredictable and eccentric A&R taste. Shimmy Disc was a paradox because, when buying one of the releases blind, you sorta knew what it would sound like without having any idea what you were getting into. The genre or style of each record was a mystery until the needle touched the vinyl.

I’ve been fascinated by Kramer’s activities for a long time. Perhaps even more now that he’s living Florida and has established his Noise Miami studio. If I had a band, I would totally take advantage of the fact that Kramer is a four-hour drive away.

I was excited to discover an interview with Kramer, conducted by the writer Rick Moody, on the Believer Magazine site. Then I was disappointed to find out the interview is only three questions long. But that disappointment was short-lived once I realized Kramer answered those three questions with over 10,000 words covering his music story’s early years. And what a story it is — Kramer is an excellent writer, and almost every paragraph is gripping. I’m in for one of the top pledge tiers on Kickstarter if he ever decides to self-publish a memoir.

Kramer’s long answers to the first two questions are terrific and filled with entertaining stories. He talks about his early touring band experience with psychedelic trooper Daevid Allen and the band Gong, and then his entrance into the avant-garde, rubbing shoulders with the likes of John Zorn, Karl Berger, Tom Cora, and (hilariously) Ornette Coleman. In a previous episode of this newsletter, I discussed a long-form interview with Jim O’Rourke. This second part of Kramer’s interview is like that — it’s ridiculously rich in recommendations and rabbit holes. There’s also lots of folksy wisdom, such as this nugget: 

Never expect your heroes to be fine people. It’s far better to expect the exact opposite. Then you can be thrilled to death when you meet someone who treats you just as you would treat them. Hang on. Hang on just a little bit longer. You’ll meet good people. Eventually.

Kramer is such a great storyteller. Reading this piece had that feeling of a novel you can’t put down. Mesmerized under Kramer’s spell by the first two sections, the third question shook me back to consciousness. Rick Moody asks, “How did you meet Butthole Surfers, and what was it like touring with them?” No doubt, this ride was about to become a roller coaster. 

I find it challenging to explain the Butthole Surfers to anyone who didn’t see them in the ’80s. I saw them twice in 1988, and the effect — especially that first show, with Flaming Lips opening no less — was life-changing. They weren’t the same band for me once they went from two drummers to one, which is a hipster-y “before they were cool” thing to say, but that really did change their sound. During the time I saw the Butthole Surfers, there wasn’t any comparable band. Maybe that video of Throbbing Gristle doing their last concert at Kezar Stadium comes close, at least in intensity. But it’s still a different animal.

The first time I saw the Butthole Surfers was the second ‘real’ concert I ever attended. Someday I’ll tell you my first but now’s not the time. I grew up in Central Louisiana, remember, and we didn’t have many concerts. Well, there were a few — Elvis played our town a few months before he died. But I didn’t go to any live shows throughout my pre-college years. Then I got talked into a road trip to see the Surfers in Houston. That’s a five-hour drive, folks — I just double-checked as I find it hard to believe that we used to drive five hours each way for a concert. It was the first of many of these drives.

I remember not being that excited to see the Butthole Surfers. I thought they were some comedy punk rock act (years earlier I wouldn’t have been that off base). But I read about the first Flaming Lips album in The Bob, bought it, and loved it. I got in the car to see them. 

The Flaming Lips were terrific. Their now-infamous visual show was pretty low-tech back then. They turned on multiple fog machines, creating a thick white cloud on the stage. And then the band played with a bright light behind them, dark shadows within that cloud. We never actually saw the group. When they finished, I remember thinking, “That was the weirdest thing I ever saw.” I had no idea that it would move a notch down to the second weirdest thing in about 20 minutes.

Remember how I said it was difficult to explain the Butthole Surfers? I’m not going to try. There’s a bootleg recording of the concert here, but that’s only half the story. The sounds they were making were unreal — Gibby’s vocal manipulations alone, via the SPX1000 and a digital delay unit, blew my mind. Add the visual overload happening on that stage with the backward projected movies, the cymbals on fire, the eye-patched topless dancer (it’s true) — I wasn’t the same after all of that.

The audience added to the surreal scene, repeatedly climbing tall speaker stacks and jumping tens of feet into the crowd. I never saw mayhem like this before. After the band finished their encore, Gibby came back on the stage and yelled at someone in the audience to approach him. Gibby bent down and exchanged harsh words with this individual. He suddenly pulled a bottle out from behind his back, smashed it over the guy’s head, and walked away.

I’ve thought about that moment a lot. What was it about? Was that guy okay? How could the band get away with that? And then this Kramer interview revealed the secret to me over three decades later:

Gibby clamors back onstage and runs behind Paul’s guitar amp, only to emerge a few seconds later with a large plastic box which I immediately recognize as a case of breakaway bottles we’d been lugging around Europe for weeks … breakaway bottles look like real bottles, but they are actually props made of sugar to be used in theater, film, the circus, etc… you can smash them against someone’s face and no one gets hurt.

There you go. 

I saw the Butthole Surfers again in Houston less than eight months later. My friend David joined me and shot this gorgeous 8mm footage, recently digitized and uploaded to YouTube

David writes about this footage and his experience filming it here. And I’m with the YouTube commenter on the show — I’m pretty sure it’s December ’88 at Ensemble Hall, not Numbers (which is where I saw them the first time). But I digress.

When you drive five hours to see a concert you want to make the most of the experience. That’s partly the reason why we used to smuggle tape recorders and 8mm cameras into the shows. We also always tried to blag our way backstage after the concerts. My friends and I all volunteered at the college radio station, so we often used the trusty “we’re here to interview the band” ruse. It worked more often than you’d think.

And we made our way backstage at this second Butthole Surfers show. I remember Gibby towering over a flock of adoring punkers, grinning maniacally as they shouted his name: “Sign this for me, Gibby!” I wandered into a side room, and King Coffey, one half of the drumming duo, was sitting alone. I sat down and struck up a conversation. The Ensoniq EPS sampler was released that year, and we talked about that. King had purchased one, and I wanted to know all about it.

After a few minutes, I decided to do some actual radio business. I pulled out my recorder and asked King if he’d do a ‘radio ID’ for my show. That entailed King saying who he was and then ‘you’re listening to …’ followed by the station’s call letters. He asked me for the station info. “KLPI in Ruston, Louisiana” I replied. King told me to hold on for a minute, and he sat back, deep in thought.

I couldn’t figure out what King was doing as he was visibly making some sort of calculation in his head. Then he quickly leaned forward and said, “I’m ready — start the tape!” I held my recorder to his mouth, and he says, “This is King Coffey of the Butthole Surfers, and you’re listening to KLPI in Ruston, Louisiana, which backward is …” And then he spouted a couple of seconds of nonsensical gibberish.

We laugh, I thank him, and then my friends and I get in a car and drive five hours back to Ruston. 

A couple of days later, I go to the radio station to transfer my recording to ‘cart.’ If you’ve seen WKRP In Cinncinatti, then you’ve seen Johnny Fever take what looks like an eight-track tape, stick it in a slot, and a commercial or radio ID plays. Pre-digital, that’s what radio DJs used. The cart was always cued to the beginning, playing the audio at the push of a button. And, for some reason, to get my recording on the cart, I first had to transfer it to reel-to-reel tape.

I successfully transferred King Coffey’s routine to reel-to-reel, and I readied it for the cart. His fake ‘backward’ talk got me wondering … nah, there’s no way. But the thing about reel-to-reel tape is you can flip a switch, and the tape plays backward. So I listened to the tape in reverse and — you guessed it — King actually did say the station call letters, city, and state backward. Perfectly. It sounded like I was playing it forward. That band made my mind reel even days after the show.

It was about fifteen years later that I picked up Michael Azerrad’s essential history of the US 80’s independent music scene Our Band Could Be Your Life. There’s a chapter on the Butthole Surfers, and, casually, Azerrad throws out the trivia nugget that King Coffey has the unusual ability to translate any sentence backward accurately. 

There you go.

But this is about the Kramer interview, which you should now go read. It’s kind of a love story — a love for music, adventure, and adventures in music — and Kramer closes the piece with these words about the Surfers:

I will love these people long after I am dead. And of that death, thanks in great part to my months alongside them in 1985, I will not be afraid.

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On an entirely different musical planet, the other night I watched the new documentary about The Go-Go’s. The doc shares the name of the band, and I don’t know why that apostrophe is there, but it’s there, and it drives me crazy. Another thing that drives me crazy is when bands don’t evenly share songwriting credits (and, in turn, publishing royalties) and end up acrimoniously splitting up. Yes, one person may write all the songs. But that person didn’t come up with that drum part or that bass guitar riff, and the song wouldn’t be the same without those. 

This is a prime example of long-term thinking, as bands that swallow their pride and share songwriting credits are the ones that stay together for a long time. Just ask U2 — which you might find surprising as they’re known for having a singer with a Jupiter-sized ego. But U2 splits their songwriting credits four ways.

If you need further convincing, listen to this interview with REM’s Mike Mills on Brian Koppelman’s The Moment. Mills was a principal songwriter in that band from the beginning. And he explains that it took a lot of coaxing to get him to share songwriting credits on his songs equally with his bandmates. In retrospect, he’s thankful he did as he owes this to REM’s long career and continuing friendship.

And the other side of the coin — The Police.

If I were a band manager, this would be the first thing I’d tell any new band I took on: share your songwriting credits and share your publishing. Thank me in ten years.

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Here’s some more about Gemini Revolution. I helped release their new album, Supernova Remnant, on my 8D Industries label. It came out on Friday. The brothers Dedric and Delaney — from the cool Kansas City combo Monta At Odds — lead this project. We call Gemini Revolution their ‘alternate timeline band.’ I described this album to a friend as “kosmiche-styled space jams, ambient builders, and textured dream-droppers.” I won’t back down from that description. Have a listen in the player below, and if it strikes your fancy — it should! — then please head down to Bandcamp where the album is downloadable at the special price of ‘name your price.’

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Thanks again for reading Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care and this week’s stumblings down memory lane. Will the next episode tackle more important topics? Perhaps. But I want to let you know that I may take another break as next weekend I’m helping some of our family move house. I admit that I’m tempted to make this an ‘every two weeks’ newsletter — which was the original plan if you remember — but I do like the weekly rhythm. We’ll see.

I’m the meantime, hang tight and stay focused. It’s madness out there. As James A Reeves said on his fantastic blog, “Best we can do is keep our vision clear. Do whatever it takes to stay healthy, rational, and present.” I’ll see you soon! 🚀

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btw — I'm Michael Donaldson and you can read more about who I am and what I do here.

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