Music News

A Wright Lunatic

"Hi, I'm John Wright. Uh . . . all these songs are copyrighted 1985, words and music by myself. Uh, conceptually, they form the songs for a, uh, rock video opera I have written in my mind. It's set mostly in Hawaii and the Orient. It's called Teenage Volleyballers."

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."

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic