ODES TO OBSCURITY
Mojo Nixon gets worked up when he recalls his introduction to the Sonics. It was back, back somewhere before he became Mojo.
"I must have been ten," he remembers, "but I knew then that here was something ugly. A bunch of guys out gettin' big boners on rock 'n' roll. And I knew then what I had to do. Get uglier."
Not surprisingly, Mojo jumped at the chance to repay his debt to the Puget Sound grunge masters a couple of years back. Two tiny Seattle labels were putting together their Here Ain't the Sonics tribute record, and Mojo immediately agreed to cover a song for the project.
"When they asked me to be on it, I thought, `Sure, I can go over the top rope. I can get psycho.'"
Thanks to this kind of rabid devotion on the part of other acts who worked on the project, the Sonics emerged as a funky alternative to the usual fare in the dangerously overpopulated tribute album industry. There were no superstars, celebrated cause to promote or obligatory tie-in TV special. Just a bunch of bands covering a song apiece by an act that's seldom heard, but has influenced everyone along the way.
And because of a growing interest by alternative-music movers and shakers in paying homage to obscure acts, a growing number of albums similar to the Sonics tribute has surfaced on the underground scene.
While consumers have been bombarded during the past two years by high-profile tributes to everyone from Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly to Led Zeppelin and Cole Porter, there's a wealth of musical toasts to lesser-known lights hanging out in the shadows. Yoko Ono, Japanese cult trio Shonen Knife and psychedelic pioneer Roky Erickson are just three of the demideities who've been honored. Due out soon is Shimmy-disc's musical obelisk to those Beatles parodists the Rutles. Rumor has it that Todd Rundgren got so excited over that one that he called and demanded to be on it. Another classic-in-waiting is Bogus Records' soon-to-be-paroled tribute to Sonny Bono, Bonograph.
It would seem that most of these tributes are simply an extension of the bratty punk mentality that once led the Circle Jerks to record a medley of nauseating Seventies hits. But the worship of these submainstream acts is anything but silly or meanspirited. In fact, they're all distinguished by their serious, almost solemn tone. In other words, anyone hoping for an Ornette Coleman version of Roky Erickson's "I Walked With a Zombie" is in for a letdown.
Even Yoko Ono is taken seriously. Redd Kross, operating under its alter ego the Tater Totz, has recorded no less than two tributes to the widow, Alien Sleestacks From Brazil (unfinished music volume 3) and Mono Stereo.
"I look at her music as really early industrial roots-rock albums," says Redd Kross front man Jeff McDonald, who's also found time to organize a Shonen Knife tribute record. "There wouldn't be a B-52's or a Butthole Surfers without her. It's time to be honest. Not to give credit to Yoko while jacking off over bands like Camel or Hawkwind is a joke. She made godlike records--as close as you can get to God in a rock 'n' roll situation."
McDonald discusses the impetus for the albums with the intensity of a missionary.
"We did it to expose people to their music," he says. "It was done with respect, and I think it was inspirational for all the bands that got involved. Ours are honest tributes in its purest form."
For listeners, these discs offer an earful. They're a way to become familiar with a seminal artist whose work may be unknown or out of print. Done right, they can also be an artform unto themselves. Like a house of mirrors, these records become a collage in which each participant's quirks and ideas play off each other in a way that expands and adds to the original material. Even with the work of someone as overexposed as Bruce Springsteen, tribute records can bring out new resonances.
For musicians, the albums are strictly labors of love. With an average of twenty bands doing one cut on each record, no one makes any money.
Indeed, even Sire Records couldn't have had the bottom line in mind when the major label decided to release Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, a tribute to the mad lost genius of Lone Star vibes, Roky Erickson.
The songwriter and mondo front man for the incendiary Sixties psychedelic mashers 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson was busted on a marijuana possession charge in 1968. Jail changed him forever. Extraterrestrials and horror-film images began to populate his songwriting. He had a notary officialize a document saying that he was a Martian. Although he continued to make records, the intensity he found with the Elevators never returned. The last straw came when he was convicted of mail theft in 1989. He now lives in a halfway house near Austin.
For Sire publicist Bill Bentley, a lifelong Roky fan who has been a rock critic and drummer, the idea of a tribute convinced him it was time to try producing. Seized by the idea last spring when he met Erickson in Austin, Bentley used his inside record-company connections to make it happen quickly--three months from asking bands for contributions to mastering the final tape.
Big guns like R.E.M. and ZZ Top, both longtime Roky admirers, immediately agreed to contribute a cut. Their presence created a buzz and made it easier to attract other bands that help give Pyramid the strongest line-up of artists on any of the new tributes. If that same star power translates into sales figures, Sire will give Bentley the green light to do a second volume.
But even with the advantages he had, Bentley's experience in putting together the tribute was typical. Once bands find out that one of their heroes is being honored, there's usually a mad scramble to grab a spot on the disc. Then the groups scrap for their favorite song. The producer's job is to make sure each tune matches up with the band whose style and attitude can produce the most interesting remake.
"I think everyone stayed true to Roky's spirit," says Bentley. "But if something had come in that was too way out, even by a big name, I would have junked it."
Publishing royalties from the record are going into a trust fund for Erickson, who made his last recording in 1986 and played his last club date a year later. At Pyramid's Halloween release party in an Austin record store, the honored guest made a rare public appearance.
"At the release, Roky was off in his own world, but he seemed pleased and excited that his music was being listened to again," says Bentley. "After I came back to L.A., I talked to his mother, who told me that not long after that night, he asked her for a guitar. That's the first time he's shown any interest in playing in years."
Like Roky Erickson, Shonen Knife stands to gain more than just a souvenir from the tribute record it inspired. Not satisfied with just bringing the Japanese band's music to the masses, Jeff McDonald has taken a personal interest in the group and its career.
The Redd Krosser's obsession with Shonen Knife began three years ago when a friend showed him a homemade video tape of the Japanese alternative trio. McDonald was so intrigued by the performances that he wrote to the three women in the band. A single letter grew into correspondence, which in turn led to a stateside show for the band in 1988. After seeing the group's effect on an L.A. audience, McDonald was convinced that a tribute record full of American acts like Redd Kross and Sonic Youth was the way to win the Knife a larger audience.
"Like most of the new tributes these days, this is a turn-on sort of record," says McDonald, whose band even wrote a song called "Shonen Knife" for its own new album. "They are unknown. I mean, really unknown. Other bands haven't even heard of them."
According to McDonald, the ten- year-old Shonen Knife is an outsider in its homeland's strict music community. Pop bands in Japan fit into one of two categories. The "professional" bands are allowed to play out and make records. They receive corporate support and the government's official okey-dokey. The so-called "hobby" bands can't even give up their day jobs. Shonen Knife, a band with a handful of fans and no hit records, doesn't fit either category.
Because of Shonen Knife's obscurity, it took McDonald and producer Bill Bartel almost two years to finish the tribute, titled Every Band Has a Shonen Knife That Loves Them. Translating the lyrics alone took nearly six months. The line-up of bands here is the most obscure of all the new tributes. Well-known acts including Big Dipper and Sonic Youth are outnumbered by groups like Mr. T Experience and the Reverb Motherfuckers.
Since the tribute, Shonen Knife has completed a new record that features a thank-you song titled "Redd Kross." But, perhaps fittingly, the band's cult status hasn't led it to entertain any illusions of grandeur.
"We are trying to get them to come back here to tour or make a record, but they aren't really cooperating," McDonald says with a laugh. "They're resisting fame."
"It's time to be honest. Yoko made godlike records--as close as you can get to God in a rock 'n' roll situation."
"Roky was off in his own world, but he seemed pleased and excited that his music was being listened to again.
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