Wednesday, September 28, 2016

THIS IS THE GODZ' TRUTH: 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Part 1)


(This is a newly revised and expanded version of an article I originally wrote for my website THE FIRST CHURCH OF THE GODZ in 2003. It underwent an unpublished revision two years later that was to be featured in a booklet in a boxed set of the band's music which never saw full completion. The piece has undergone further changes since then and I am now proud and honored to present this greatly revised edition of my Godz bio to you here on the Brazenblog, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the recording session for the band's debut album, CONTACT HIGH WITH THE GODZ. Enjoy.)

On September 28, 1966, four young freaks from New York City entered A-1 Sound Studios with only a few very trashy acoustic instruments. They had just landed a recording contract with a New York-based record label on the sole basis of a audition in which they just banged on these cheap instruments and howled like feral cats in a streetfight. But this was no ordinary band, and they had signed with no ordinary label. And in just one single session's time, they would give birth to a whole new sound and style which has taken on many forms since then, but has come to be identified (by my old WFMU colleague Irwin Chusid) as "outsider music."

The Godz were at A-1 to record their debut album, Contact High, for Bernard Stollman's ESP Disk (ESP being an abbreviation of the "universal" Esperanto language, as opposed to "extra-sensory perception"). ESP was a pioneering independent label primarily devoted to documenting the avant-garde jazz explosion of that time (releasing several Albert Ayler and Sun Ra albums and introducing Pharoah Sanders, to name a few), and in a sense, the Godz' music was as close to free jazz as psychedelic. These days, weird bands and indie labels are a dime a dozen, and how many of them have that same underlying sincerity to them? But in 1966 the Godz, and ESP, were quite literally in a class by themselves.


The Godz existed at a time when rock music was just starting to become freaky, but they stood out among all the others as the absolute freakiest of them all. Many bands were beginning to experiment with strange sounds within song structures in the mid-1960s, but the Godz were experimenting with strange sounds as the songs themselves. The Godz deliberately stressed minimal instrumental ability in an effort to bring the raw expression of art to the forefront of their sound. Whether you could dig it or not depended upon how open your mind happened to be, either naturally or through the use of certain illicit drugs, but most often a combination of both. And you can't help but wonder how many folks bought into the serious, pensive looks of four lads looking just like any other group on the cover of Godz 2 in 1967, and took the record home, only to be shocked out of their unsuspecting minds when the strains of "Squeek" or "Crusade" hit their ears!

Now the Godz' truth can be told: it was all sort of an accident. These guys never thought they would become a band when they first met. They were just good friends who happened to meet on the job in New York City. In a recent telephone conversation with this writer, Larry Kessler recalled to me how he met Jim McCarthy and Paul Thornton when they all took jobs in the 49th Street location of Sam Goody's, which may be the McDonald's of record stores today, but in the '60s and '70s was a serious music lover's emporium. It was while working at Goody's that Larry caught word of a more unique career opportunity: "Bernard Stollman needed a salesman for ESP and he told one of the guys who was doing stock work in the basement -- I guess this was in '65. And he told Jimmy about it, but he didn't want it because he wasn't really the salesman type. So he asked me if I wanted it and I said 'yeah, I'll go talk to the guy.' I talked to Bernard and we seemed to hit it off pretty good, so I started working for him." Larry would eventually work himself all the way up to ESP's general sales manager position.


All three had previous recording experience under their belts. Larry had released a single in 1961 called "Wonderful Days" under the alias of Miles Standish, and Paul had two 45s of his own in 1964, "I'm No Rebel" (an answer record to "Hes a Rebel") and "Baby Be My Girl" (which was issued with two different B-sides, "Where's My Baby" and "Walk In Outer Space"). He and Jim were also members of the Dick Watson Five, who released one album, Baker Street, a rock interpretation of a Sherlock Holmes-themed Broadway musical. The two at first seemed content with their place in the NYC rock scene, until the fateful evening they ventured out to see an outrageous new local outfit calling themselves the Fugs. In a mid-90s interview with the fanzine 200 Lb. Underground, Jim recalled the lasting impression the Godz' future labelmates left on him: "The reality of their music caught me, and I thought, why am I fucking around singing other people's songs when I should be expressing my own feelings?"

Jim quit the Dick Watson Five right then and there, and so began the chain of events leading to the formation of his next band. Soon thereafter, his girlfriend dumped him and threw him out of the pad they'd been sharing, so he moved into Larry's apartment on East 11th Street for a short while. One day Paul came over to visit them, and the three gathered in Larry's living room to smoke a joint. What happened next was purely accidental, according to Jim: "There were all these percussive instruments lying around and out of total frustration, I got up and started shaking a tambourine or something like that, and that's how it all started. We all started to get up and make noise like a bunch of maniacs, expressing our frustration." It was an exhilarating moment for all three of them. But immediately afterward, Larry made a suggestion that had both Jim and Paul questioning his sanity: that the three audition this impromptu "band" for ESP. According to Jim, "He said 'Oh, Bernard Stollman would love this,' and I thought he was crazy!" But Larry was indeed serious, and went on to persuade ESP's art director, Jay Dillon, to round out the quartet, thus ensuring that John Sebastian could not claim the title of rock's only autoharp (psaltery) stylist.

Stollman remembered his first Godz encounter thusly: "They were all in my office, and Larry said 'Well, we're recording tomorrow.' I said, 'WE are recording?' 'Yeah,' he said, 'my group. The Godz.' I said, 'A group called the Godz?' 'Yeah. We're going into Herb Abramson's studio to record.' 'Who are the Godz?' 'Well, there's Jimmy over there, and there's Jay and me and Paul.' I said 'wow. Would you like me to hear it before you go record it in the studio?' 'Yeah,' he said, 'we're rehearsing at Natasha's tonight.' Natasha, my personal assistant! They were rehearsing at her apartment on the south side of Tompkins Square Park. So I went there, it was sweltering warm, it was hot, so we turned off the lights so it was cooler. And they did their song for me ("White Cat Heat"). I heard that, and that's all I had to hear. It was a ridiculous basis on which to give them a record session, but I couldn't say no. I figured, somehow they're into something. And I think it was because they were such rank individualists, that there was no danger of them doing anything conventional."


Larry claims his involvement in the Godz actually caused some friction with his new boss: "When Stollman found out I was in a band, he was really pissed at me personally, because I never told him I had anything to do with music, I had just told him I was a salesman. I was doing great as a salesman -- I got the Fugs' records into Korvettes and Alexander's (two now-defunct NY-metro-area department store giants of the time). I had long hair, I was freaky, and I was talking to people all over the country on the phone -- and I was doing a great job for him, he really liked me. But he wanted me to stay with ESP and not go off on the tangent of being a musician, 'cuz he knew how that was gonna end up."

THIS IS THE GODZ' TRUTH: 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Part 2)



The Godz recorded Contact High just after Jim's recovery from a bout with hepatitis (during which time he shared a hospital room with none other than Lou Reed) at A-1 Sound, owned and operated by the aforementioned Herb Abramson, the very same guy who founded Atco Records. (Abramson in fact was very open minded to the Godz' strange ideas, and even appeared on their third album as a sideman of sorts.) Stollman wanted to release a 45, but the Godz wanted more, so they took it upon themselves: "He told us we could go in and do a single with two songs," says Larry, "but we really had eight or nine songs. Most of these songs were, like, skeleton songs, and we were one of the first bands to ever do a Hank Williams song ("May You Never Be Alone"). We went in and instead of doing the single, we just did one song after another. The engineer, Andrew (Burliner) even played on it, he got all excited and he loved us." By the time they were finished, the two-hour session ESP had set up for them had stretched to six hours, and they had recorded seven songs more than was expected of them. But when Stollman heard the results, he liked it all so much he finally gave in and agreed to release a full album, and Contact High was born.

ESP put Jay Dillon to work designing the album cover. He portrayed the Godz as serious, mysterious, and a bit spooky, with its photographic depiction of Jay being "lynched" by the other band members, using liner notes and photos taken of the group in front of a fireplace by Marc Crawford, a local photographer and black activist who "didn't like white people, but liked us for some reason," according to Paul. But Jim McCarthy wanted to design his own cover and portray the band as just a bunch of fun-loving freaks, putting studio shots on the front cover in which he appears to be holding a joint. In the best diplomatic interests of the band, they had a cover contest, with Stollman as the judge. When he couldn't decide which cover he liked best, he decided to release both simultaneously, giving the listener the unique option of choosing whether to view the Godz as serious or humorous.

To be fair, the Godz were a little of both, but they were never above making fun of themselves. Jim's self-penned liner notes proclaimed them "four New York freaks who can't play their instruments," and their only non-LP track, "I Want A Word With You" (the B-side of their first 45, "Lay In The Sun"), ends with the voice of one member suggesting they "should practice more." But even the Godz were subject to an earful of artistic advice from a label like ESP, particularly in regards to the wall of wailing cat sounds which would become Contact High's most notorious track, and which Stollman originally wanted to release as their single. Says Larry, "We had called that song 'Meow' and he said, 'Oh, you've gotta call that song 'White Cat Heat,' cuz you're white cats and you sound like you're in heat!'" Stollman also took it upon himself to name the album, and wanted the Godz to assist him in his championing of the so-called "universal language" which had given the label its name, according to Jim: "Bernard wanted us to sing in Esperanto! One time he brought us into his office and he had this old geezer in there, and he spoke with this Eastern European accent, and he tried to teach us Esperanto and we couldn't have cared less!"

Having an album in the stores meant an easier time getting gigs for the Godz -- never mind the fact that theirs was no ordinary album. Says Larry, "Nobody ever listened to it first, they just figured that since we had an album, we were just like everyone else!" This would probably best explain the band's participation in a benefit for Pete Townshend's favorite guru, Meher Baba, or an even more bizarre booking Larry remembers: "We played the Miss Greenwich Village Pageant! They were trying to get us off the stage and we wouldn't leave!" Adds Paul, "That was at the New York Coliseum. It was sponsored by a ski shop and they wouldn't let us onstage unless we wore ski sweaters, so we had to get in a taxi and go to their shop on the east side to get ski sweaters. And then, after our first song, one of the go-go girls went over to the manager and said, 'We can't dance to this!'" Jim recalls the Meher Baba gig: "We played the Civic Center in Durham, North Carolina, and it was a great show. There was a pretty good local blues band that opened up for us and they were baffled out of their minds that we had top billing over them!"

As you would expect, the Godz live were as free and freaky as they were on vinyl. "We were so outrageous for our time," Larry says. "We were pre-punk. Even the Fugs had some type of show, but we were just total anarchy onstage. We used to argue with the audience. They thought we were kidding when we came out with a psaltery and plastic flute and acoustic guitar and big drum sticks, and we would just tune up for half an hour! And these people would be yelling! The freaky people liked us, but the regular people who were going down to Greenwich Village from Brooklyn or wherever were looking for some kind of folk singer, and we would come out!"

"We certainly let mistakes work in our favor," says Jim. "Art is about taking things that occur and letting them go and seeing what happens, and that goes for any art form. All we did was try to express our feelings honestly. We wanted to show that you didn't have to be a music student to express yourself."

They played at the Scene, Café Wha, Gerde's Folk City (their live debut, which ended with a more-than-fairly inebriated Larry falling off the tiny stage), and Café-A-Go-Go (a gig Jim remembers primarily "because we were thrown out of there for smoking grass in the dressing room"), in addition to various "open mikes." They wreaked havoc on the WBAI airwaves and recruited the hosts of the show as their soundmen. When they played in New Jersey, someone called the police. They opened for the Fugs at the Bridge Theatre on St. Mark's Place (until just recently home to the pricey "punk boutique" Trash & Vaudeville), and were halfway to the stage when Larry realized he had forgotten his violin -- one which he had managed to persuade his reluctant grandmother to lend him. The instrument wound up in splinters when Jim accidentally kicked it down a flight of stairs in the midst of the resulting mad rush to retrieve it.

Somewhere in the midst of all this activity, the then-up-and-coming experimental filmmaker and visual artist, Jud Yalkut, who at the time was working at Sam Goody with the rest of them, made the Godz subjects of a nine-and-a-half-minute, eight-millimeter film short. Yalkut shot a couple of live performances and gathered them at Larry's apartment one evening to film them just hanging out and acting silly. You see Jay playing his autoharp and Jim strumming the very same acoustic he used on Contact High, perhaps the cheapest one ever built in guitar history, and the boys getting stoned and watching a football game on Larry's TV. Accompanying this silent footage is a long medley of "Lay in the Sun" and "Come On Girl Turn On," interspersed with plenty of improvisation, actually owing more to the overall feel of the second album than of the first. Today, this film can be viewed in its entirety on Youtube, complete with its soundtrack which to this day remains unreleased on vinyl or CD.


For their second album, the Godz sought to advance their sound a bit, and took their time doing so. While Contact High had been recorded in one day, the band took four months to create Godz 2, which appeared in the fall of 1967. "After the first album," recalls Jim, "our egos were really pumped up. Larry kept on insisting we could be the American Beatles! For the second record we got decent instruments -- Jay got an electric keyboard, Paul got a set of drums, Larry had my bass and I got a nice electric guitar. We played around with those instruments and got a different feel for the second record."

Paul Thornton claims nobody told him about the Ampeg endorsement deal which provided them with the equipment used on Godz 2, and was stuck with the same old kit he'd used on Contact High. He had, however, started taking lessons from famed 1960s east coast session drummer Gary Chester, whose beats propelled such hit tunes as "My Boyfriend's Back" and "I'm a Believer," amongst a million other oldies, and who helped Paul create the primitive and infectious rhythms heard (and played while standing) on "Radar Eyes" and "Soon the Moon." For the second of two very rare white-label promo 45s, they recorded "Wiffenpoof Song," an insanely catchy, anthemic garage-chant that's one of their finest moments, and backed it with a mono remix of "Travelin' Salesman," which added overdubbed crowd hysteria swiped from the Stones' Got Live if You Want It and run backwards.


The Godz were also taken under the wing of Michael Soldan and Judy Parker, who published the legendary Eye magazine (original copies of which now fetch fairly large sums on Ebay), designed and photographed the cover of Godz 2 (and went criminally uncredited for it), and added a light show to the band's live act. Says Larry, "He was a photographer from England and she was from Rhode Island, and Jay was very close to them -- he started working at Eye magazine. We used to rehearse at their loft, and they loved us. We were really getting good by then. They had 50 or 60 of our practice tapes." "She was a very aesthetic, lovely woman, slender, tall," says Bernard Stollman, "and Michael was short and boyish and charming, and they were such an exquisite, sweet pair. I just liked them both a lot." Larry recalls that The Godz' music also had an unusual influence of sorts on Soldan's photographs of British rock stars: aiming to get the wildest facial expressions imaginable out of his subjects, "they used to play our tapes for the English bands and the guys would freak out while they took the pictures! They never heard this sort of music before, and they would act nuts!"

But tragedy struck on Memorial Day in 1968, when Soldan and Parker set out on a fateful, LSD-fueled boat ride off Long Island Sound, went missing in a flash flood and were presumed drowned, their bodies never recovered. "Their deaths were devastating to us, because they were our mentors," says Larry. Jay Dillon was especially spooked by this loss as he was originally scheduled to accompany his friends on the voyage, and his grief was a major factor in his decision to leave the Godz shortly afterward. Additionally, says Larry, "he'd grown disgusted with our lifestyle. He was much more of an intellectual than the three of us." Jim agrees: "Jay was the one who wanted us to get intellectual with the Godz. He wanted us to go to schools and teach kids how to play music!"


Without Jay, the remaining Godz released The Third Testament in late '68, inviting several friends to invade the studio and freak out on a few numbers (a concept mirroring the Red Crayola's Parable of Arable Land), then filling in the rest with solo numbers by each member. Despite the band being in its final stages by this point, Larry proclaims it his favorite Godz album: "I really liked where that one went." He broke his neck in a diving accident the following year, and that was the end of the Godz... almost.

THIS IS THE GODZ' TRUTH: 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Part 3)


Once out of the hospital, Larry successfully persuaded Bernard Stollman to give him back his salesman gig at ESP. He also started singing for a more conventional rock band called Seventh Street, while at the same time Paul was forming a new band with Leslie Fradkin and Bob Unger. In late 1971, the legendary rock journalist Lester Bangs published a major analysis of the Godz' music in Creem Magazine (later republished in the Bangs retrospective Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung). Says Jim, "Lester's was the definitive thing on the Godz. He really knew where we were coming from." (Jim was later asked to join Lester's band Birdland, but didn't like his music and so declined.) With the Creem article generating new interest in the Godz' back catalogue, Stollman suggested that Larry try to reform the Godz. The others weren't so sure they wanted to do it, so a compromise of sorts was reached.

"Godzundheit was Paul's band and some of my band members," says Larry of their rather nondescript final album. "Bernard thought it might be a good idea if we try to pull together, but we just did our stuff with our own bands. 'Whiffenpoof Song' was added (at the insistence of Bangs) to give the album some authenticity. It really wasn't us, it was just something that proved that we could sound just like any other band if we chose to." With ESP almost dead by then as well, only 500 copies of Godzundheit were pressed, on crackly, non-virgin vinyl -- perhaps just enough to go around for all the diehards.

And with the singer-songwriter formula being all the rage in the early '70s, Stollman finally gave in to Jim's solo aspirations and invited him to follow Godzundheit with a somewhat underrated (though still distinctly un-Godz-like) effort of his own, Alien, in 1973. Meanwhile, Paul joined forces with Godzundheit's producer Leslie Fradkin, veteran East Village eccentric David Peel, and (supposedly) even Paul & Linda McCartney to record the Pass On This Side album, on which "Walking Guitar Blues" from The Third Testament reappeared in a new, more polished version. Paul then joined Peel's Lower East Side and appeared on several of their mid-seventies albums on the Orange label, including Bring Back the Beatles, whose sessions were witnessed by a young studio apprentice named George Thorogood, years before he became a classic-rock icon. ESP stopped producing records in the mid-seventies (though it had been unofficially "out of business" since '68), and Stollman gave Larry the original master tapes of all four Godz albums. Some of these tapes were later sourced for Kessler's own 2015 retrospective, The Godz Remastered.

But we're still not quite finished with our story. In 1992, Stollman, after several years spent outside the music business as New York's assistant attorney general, resurfaced in Europe through the ZYX label in Germany. Suddenly the entire ESP catalogue began reappearing in CD form, though in poorly-remastered-from-vinyl editions. At this point, Leslie Fradkin stepped into the picture again and suggested that the Godz capitalize on the new interest generated by the reissues by attempting a reformation. He put Paul and Jim back together, and the three of them played a reunion show at New York's famous Bitter End. Jim left immediately afterward and thus ended the reunion.

Some time later, Larry registered The Godz as a trademark in his own name, then released a 5-track EP called Godz Revival in 1996. It included a heavy-metal remake of "Radar Eyes" as well as a 5-minute "Godz Techno Mix" incorporating samples from their first three albums. A few years later, Leslie and Paul managed to talk Larry into joining them for a new CD. Larry flew to California, tried to get something going with them, and bailed out as quickly as Jim had from the earlier reunion, leaving Fradkin and Thornton to finish it without him and release it as Godzology in 2000.

Jim McCarthy still lives in New York and has won acclaim for his music photography, which has appeared everywhere from the New York Times to Bob Dylan boxed sets. (In fact, his first experiences involved shooting publicity photos of some of ESP's jazz artists while he was still in the Godz.) Paul Thornton also calls NYC home to this day, and has made his mark as an TV and movie actor in recent years. Larry Kessler still lives in Baltimore, where he drives a cab and runs a used record store; he and Paul have played live together recently with a new Godz lineup, and more new recordings under the name have surfaced on the Manta Ray record label.

Sadly, Jay Dillon, who never spoke to the other members again after leaving the band in '68, passed away in 2002 after a quiet life in South Plainfield, New Jersey as a painter and graphic designer. So reclusive had he become that no one even knew of his death until I investigated his whereabouts while in the process of reuniting the Godz three years later.


In 2005, ESP finally relaunched independently in NYC after several overseas licensing deals went bust. Stollman's quest to reissue the label's entire catalogue included plans for a boxed set of all the Godz' albums with a bonus DVD of Jud Yalkut's forementioned 1967 promo film. To this end, the label called on none other than myself  to act as assistant project coordinator, after seeing my Godz fansite and learning I'd recently been in personal contact with Larry Kessler. Although many legal and personal battles ultimately canceled the boxed set, I nonetheless was more than happy to meet with the original members of the group, which in time did bring about a more proper Godz reunion which involved some new recordings and a settlement of their longstanding differences with Stollman, who died in 2015 of cancer. It was a dream come true to meet the Godz and I would like to thank Larry, Jim and Paul for their kindness and congratulate them on the 50th anniversary of a band that has greatly influenced me and many outsider musicians around the world.

Larry Kessler has the final word on what the Godz meant to him, and many others as well. "The Godz were just about being there for the time and we were being as honest as we could be. It might not have been pretty, but it was art. I knew that we were doing something artistically correct because there were so many people who didn't understand us, and if they would have understood us, then I would've felt that we were wrong. The music needs to grow in people's minds. There are so many things we did that broke new ground, and I'm proud of it."