By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
When you listen to a large stack of local demo tapes for review every month, you don't forget an opening icebreaker like that one, especially when it's delivered in a deep 'n' dull speaking voice that turns into a high-pitched nasal harangue whenever actual singing is supposed to be taking place.
In the February 9, 1995, review of Teenage Volleyballers that appeared in New Times' "Tapes in the Mail" column, we likened John Wright's vocal quality to "an evil hybrid of political satirist Mark Russell, Leon Redbone, Jim Backus, Bert from Sesame Street and most common varieties of sheep." And that was just his high register. In the lower regions, we agreed his murmurs sounded as if infamous comedy drunk Foster Brooks had swallowed a burp.
The mysterious black cassette bearing this puzzling collection of songs arrived with no accompanying letter, just a typewritten label with the singer-songwriter's name, phone number and the title of his proposed "rock video opera."
The number turned out to belong to some bewildered old woman who knew nothing about Wright or his obsession with teenage volleyballers, which led us to hypothesize that the recording was not sent to us by Mr. John Wright at all. More likely it was someone who happened upon the offending tape, played it and felt compelled to ditch it like some cursed monkey's paw.
In hindsight, we should've rung up every John Wright listed in the phone book until we hit upon his distinctive drone on the other end of the line. Five years later, the trail to find Wright has grown even colder. There are a dozen John Wrights in the current Valley White Pages. Some Johns are married, some have a Roman numeral at the end of their name and some are just represented by an initial. But, alas, none were the John Wright.
Who knows, maybe the real guy met a nice gal, moved to Peoria and forgot all about this "rock video opera" business.
One person who hasn't forgotten the Teenage Volleyballers experience is Terry Garvin, of Tempe power-poppers the Zen Lunatics. Coincidentally, in the issue we reviewed Wright's demo, we also ran a favorable notice of the Lunatics' three-song demo. A few weeks after it appeared, Garvin called New Times. We assumed it was to thank us for comparing his then-fledgling group to the Shoes and Let's Active. But no, he wanted a copy of Teenage Volleyballers.
Just like the troubled cop who keeps pulling out the files of an unsolved case, Garvin periodically consults this uproariously funny and inept tape to try to solve its ever-widening musical mystery. Who is John Wright? Was he cognizant of his musical deficiencies? Or was he somehow convinced he was onto the greatest American opera since Porgy and Bess?
"I thought either he was a lunatic or it was a joke," Garvin recalls of his first reaction to the Wright tape. "'Is this someone trying to pull something over on me?' Because I've heard crazy people make music before. I mean, I have Charles Manson's album. Happen to like him. Syd Barrett, the same thing. You can tell when he had good days and when he had bad days. So people can do these things and be completely out of it. But with John Wright, I keep going back and forth. I still don't know whether it's real or not."
Wright's musical endeavors quickly made the rounds in local music circles, much the same way a videotape of Canadian Kevin Dabbs playing air drums to a Metallica record unwittingly made him a public-domain amusement to countless folks across the Internet.
Actually, Teenage Volleyballers is more like that Alien Autopsy tape, with everyone trying to figure out whether Wright's crazed ineptitude was genuine or part of some prank. Surely, it had to be a gag -- nobody could sing this badly for this long without doing it intentionally.
Because no one has clocked more hours listening to Teenage Volleyballers than Garvin, we invited the foremost John Wright expert to join us in our track-by-track analysis. In a bizarre twist to the story, Garvin is set to perform the entire tape as part of the John Wright Tribute show being held at Long Wong's on Mill during the upcoming pre-Halloween weekend.
"Singing like John Wright is very freeing," Garvin says. "You don't have to worry about pitch. It's not really about the music. He's trying to create an illusion. It doesn't matter if it isn't real, or if he's a nut or some misguided person. Either way, I still like it."
Countless others most assuredly won't "like it," which is why Garvin thinks he'll only be able to make it through a couple of songs without being physically attacked.
"'Teenage Volleyballers' tests everyone's patience. It's not one of those songs that puts its arm around you and hugs you," says Garvin. "I'm thinking I should cut my losses, just do that one and 'Company Town' and head for the hills."
Track 1: "Teenage Volleyballers" (8:24)
Having figured out the inner workings of these songs and transcribed and analyzed the lyrics, Garvin believes Wright has a deceptively clever sense of songcraft, even if that knowledge often yields frightening results.
Consider the moment (5:10 into the song) when Wright's electric guitar accidentally shuts off -- which could be interpreted as a dynamic dropout to highlight his confessional lyric "messing around with the wife of my best friend," or it could just be him accidentally pulling his cord out of the amp.
"John Wright presents all of his tricks in this song. All the other numbers are just variations of this one. I don't really know what the song is about other than him wanting to ball a 'Teenage Volleyballer' because it would be 'so outasite.' He claims to be 'The king that rules the tide of teenage volleyballing stuff.' But I don't even believe the term 'volleyballer' is used by people who play the game. So who knows?"
"I love his use of repetition, his incredible ability to repeat himself yet perform it differently every time so that it confuses the listener and quiets the mind. How many times does he say, 'Teen-age, teen-age volley-ballers' -- it's like a mantra! It lulls you into sedation. And when he hits that Bert from Sesame Street range and he's shaking, you can just hear him trembling. The level of emotion is amazing."
Track 2: "Company Town" (4:50)
This is a song Wright claims to have written for a female voice, and features him testing the limits of his range against a cheesy church organ. "He does actually hit the notes," says Garvin in Wright's defense. "It doesn't sound like he does, but eventually he drifts up to the right notes."
Garvin's favorite part is the dramatic last verse: "Fling all your errors in the wind/A fresh flock of terrors will crawl under your skin/Once you precognize the situation you're in/As soon as you realize you're playing for your skin/It's your skin that you're playing for, your skin that they'll nail to the wall/When you fail to escape from the jail."
"That's pretty paranoid. There's not a song here that isn't paranoid," notes Garvin.
Paranoia seems to be the only narrative thread in this "rock video opera," which on "Company Town" seems as far removed from the beaches of Hawaii as Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. "Yeah, in that sense, it's probably not the most well-thought-out 'rock video opera' ever made," he admits.
Recently, Garvin recorded full band arrangements of "Teenage Volleyballers" and "Company Town" with the other Zen Lunatics subbing as the Wright Tones. He claims the combo's sound is patterned after the Mosquitoes, the Beatle-esque band featured in a 1965 episode of Gilligan's Island. "I never realized what a big influence they were on me," he says.
As an added bonus, a CD single of Garvin's new interpretations of the songs will be available for sale in a limited quantity at the tribute show.
Track 3: "Summer's Fantasies" (8:30)
The song Garvin is having the most trouble re-creating is not-so-coincidentally the same one Wright had the most difficulty playing. Here's an excerpt from the original 1995 review: "Testing listeners' endurance is this tape's masterpiece, 'Summer's Fantasies,' a sprawling love sonnet about a beach baby that makes 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' seem like an exercise in brevity. What's really slowing this song down is that Wright is incapable of playing and remembering the chord changes he wrote; you're forced to hear the struggle each and every time it comes around on the nylon-stringed guitar."
Indeed, it actually sounds as if his fingers are getting caught in the strings with each lugubrious chorus, and because it's John Wright, it comes around about 10 times: "She's so near and yet so far, and yet/She still seems near to me/So far and yet so near and yet/She still seems far from me." Again, we find the patented repetition, possibly even more oppressive than on the opener.
Going back to the beach again, we hear Wright beginning each of his many verses with the phrase "Swimming in the water." Like the lead track, there are at least 20 instances when you think the song will mercifully end -- but like déjà vu, it backs up on you. This is also where Wright's low timbre comes to the fore, singing, "skies so pearly bloooo," and then stretching that last note in a direction 90 degrees from where it oughta be.
Track 4: "The Risk Taker" (5:19)
Wright uses this opportunity to fashion a musical courtroom melodrama. During the trial that takes place in the song, we find our volleyball-obsessed protagonist in trouble with the law.
"Some of his most paranoid vocals where you can hear him shaking with fear are on this one," says Garvin, still enamored of Wright's emotive singing.
But there's something more. "Like George Benson, Wright sings and plays the notes at the same time." Actually, the staccato rhythm in which both are executed is less like Benson's "On Broadway" and more like an abusive parent continuing a conversation as he's knocking his child about the head.
If Wright did indeed pen this number in 1985, he predicted a decade early the rise of militia groups, the Branch Davidian standoff and the troubles the ATF would endure. Note the references to "100 federal agents on the street" and "being in good with the agency."
It's also this song that has inspired Garvin's interpretation of the "John Wright look."
"I think he's sort of got a hint of the Unabomber in him. He's gotta have a lumberjack shirt and a full beard. For some reason, I got hooked on that picture of the Soft Boys from 1976 or so, when Alan Davies was in the band and he had a beard, sunglasses, a flannel button-up and a tee shirt underneath that says 'Give It to the Soft Boys.' I'm hoping I can get the whole thing ready in time for Halloween."
Track 5: Untitled, a.k.a. "I Feel Something Tearing Us Apart" (3:34)
The only song not to have a John Wright spoken intro at the beginning or end, since the tape gets cut off just as he sings, "I sense disaster waiting in the wi . . ."
Garvin, too, senses "disaster waiting in the wi . . ." but is determined to follow through regardless. He concedes that this may be the first and possibly last tribute to John Wright ever staged.
"All I want to do is get to the bottom of this Eddie and the Cruisers-style mystery and bring John Wright out into the open, get him out of hiding or wherever he is," he says. "If the Zen Lunatics cult of fans come, they'll get into it. Who knows? It could catch on. Or it could die an ugly death. But isn't death what Halloween's really all about?"
Sound clips of Teenage Volleyballers