Local Wire

Tara Hitchcock Presents

Tara Hitchcock, host of Channel 3's Good Morning Arizona, probably had no idea what she was getting into. It was just supposed to be another band doing another in-studio promotion. But the group in question was the Zen Lunatics. Members of the always eccentric power-pop quartet decided to turn their recent appearance with the perky morning hostess into an artistically challenging version of 1980s lip-synch show Puttin' On the Hits. The broadcast high jinks began when the Lunatics were asked to appear on the program to promote the New Times Music Showcase. Chief Lunatic Terry Garvin was eager to use the opportunity to perform some new material augmented by a host of extraneous flourishes (piano, horns, organ, vibes, flutes) that would be too complex to re-create during their usual sets. So Garvin asked GMA's producers if the group could mime to prerecorded tracks.

The Channel 3 staff insisted that at least the vocals be delivered live, so the enigmatic Garvin, taking them at their word, promptly gathered the rest of the band -- singer/guitarist Chris Hansen Orf, bassist Gilbert Padilla and drummer Ric Napoli -- to record backing for a pair of new compositions, "With You" and "She's Everything," and a drastically altered rearrangement of an older piece, "Lonely Love Song."

Since Bash & Pop's rigorous regimen of beauty sleep precludes rising before noon, we missed the original broadcast, but last week Garvin was thoughtful enough to drop off a tape of the appearance. He also left a hand-written note, which suggests the few minutes of footage have been as carefully scrutinized as the Zapruder film:

THINGS TO WATCH FOR:

-- Ric's fake drumming.

-- Terry's cardboard keyboard.

-- Absence of any guitars on backing track despite Chris' faithful miming.

-- Guitar and bass both plugged into tiny prop amp.

-- Cardboard keyboard is leaned upon by and withstands (barely) the weight of affable host Tara Hitchcock.

-- Puffs of smoke from grassy knoll.

-- On fatal headshot, Gilbert's head snaps backward and to the left.

All the above, save for the last two items, are quite noticeable and fairly hilarious. (From our vantage point, it looked as though the shooter actually fired from inside the manhole.) Especially Napoli's backbeat; his drumsticks don't seem to come within four feet of his snare or cymbals. However, watching a helpless Hitchcock chat up Garvin, with his Fred Rogers/Hannibal Lecter deadpan, has to rate a close second for sheer entertainment value.

Beyond the amusing bit of guerrilla theater lies serious music. The three songs, while a departure from the Lunatics' normal noise, are actually accomplished pieces of sunny brass-fueled pop, crafted in the vein of the Buckinghams and the Association.

That sort of spur-of-the-moment brilliance only serves to illustrate the point that the Lunatics are, and have been for the better part of their decade-long run, one of the most underappreciated bands in the Valley. You can count on one hand the number of local rock bands that have endured for so long. But the Lunatics' career ambitions have been subdued compared to some of their peers. If they had made the "right" career decision and relocated to say, L.A., in the early '90s, they might have had a career similar to the Wondermints or other retro pop combos that have carved respectable indie niches.

But that was never an option for Garvin, a onetime SoCal resident.

"I went to high school in Orange County," he says. "If you can imagine being in Orange County during the early Reagan era, you know, think about it. Think if you'd ever want to go back. It was hellish then, never mind later on."

Most of the blame for the Lunatics' anonymity can be placed at their own door, mainly because there has never been a quality-sounding representation of their top-drawer material. This, despite a recently released multidisc collection, Live at the BBC. The three-record set includes more than 50 originals and covers interspersed with interviews and commentary from a "BBC interviewer" (actually Garvin doing a spot-on impersonation of Beeb DJ Brian Matthew).

While the BBC stuff has distinct charm, the music is rough-sounding, a result of recording live to four-track. Conversely, Dang!, a disc recorded by the Lunatics' country alter ego, the Cartwheels, on a borrowed eight-track, sounds as good as or better than most major studio efforts.

So why not afford the Lunatics' material the same bit of sonic respectability? The songs -- Garvin estimates the group's catalogue, which dates to his junior high days with Hansen Orf, has reached into the hundreds -- are certainly worthy.

Still, nothing has surfaced, despite repeated attempts by the band to produce a "proper" studio disc, including a 24-track nightmare in 1997.

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Bob Mehr
Contact: Bob Mehr