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 It underwent an unpublished revision two years later that was to be featured in a booklet in a boxed set of the band's music which never saw full completion.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."

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