Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Cold Fork of Naked Reality

The big news this week was the repeated use of The N-Word by Michael Richards. According to an article I read, his publicist said that Richards wants to "heal the tremendous wound that he's inflicted on the American public." That must be why he won't stop apologizing to everyone.

The truth, of course, is that the only one hurt by what Richards said was Michael Richards. Sure, a lot of people were probably offended, and a lot more people probably shook their heads in disgust at yet another celebrity acting like a nut on a rampage, but I don't think anyone was really hurt by his remarks. And even if they were, I think it's somewhat of an exaggeration to call it a "tremendous wound," especially since the use of The N-Word has become so common these days. Listen to just about any rap song, or any black comedian, or any Quentin Tarantino movie, and you'll hear the word about a million times.

Things were much different in 1968, when late at night I happened to be listening to what I suppose we could call an "underground radio station" and I heard the song Johnny Pissoff Meets the Red Angel by The Fugs. It was the first time I'd ever heard the song -- it was the first time I'd even heard of The Fugs -- but even though the song was an obvious parody of how a stereotypical redneck might feel about minorities, draft resisters, and just about everyone else, the use of The N-Word was still shocking to my tender 14-year-old ears.

Of course, that didn't stop me from buying the album. The only trouble, as you may be able to guess, is that the album wasn't exactly carried in most record stores. But I knew where to look, so I found it somewhere and bought the one copy in the store.

Within a year or two, I bought a copy of every other Fugs album that was ever released.

It seems like a lot of people who know anything about The Fugs have a pretty strong opinion about what happened to their music when they moved from the virtually unknown ESP Disk record label to the much bigger Reprise label. Their early stuff on ESP Disk was raw and unpolished. Some of it didn't even sound like it was ever rehearsed. The Reprise stuff, on the other hand, often featured backup singers and was sometimes heavily orchestrated. So, people who heard the early stuff first complained that the later stuff was over-produced, and people who heard the later stuff first complained that the early stuff was amateurish.

I heard the later stuff first. As a matter of fact, what I heard first is widely recognized to be their greatest musical accomplishment: the album It crawled into my hand, honest. So every other album after that was initially sort of a letdown for me, although it didn't take long for me to learn to like most of them.

Even at their most popular, The Fugs were nowhere near as well known as, say, The Beatles, so I pretty much expected them to fade into obscurity. I never expected to see all their records re-released on CD, but they have been. The ESP Disk records were individually re-released over the years, but all the Reprise stuff was collected into a three-CD set (four albums and a bunch of previously-unreleased stuff), which means that if you want to buy one of the CDs, you have to buy them all, including the live album Golden Filth, which I could have probably done without. Ever since I first bought the LP in 1970, I always thought that the best thing about Golden Filth was the cover art.

It's not that the music was so bad -- it's just that Ed Sanders insisted on being as obscene as possible. Again, it was a shock to my tender young ears, which were 16 years old at the time. So I played the album a few times and then buried it away in my record collection.

There it sat until a couple years later, when I went off to college. One day, a few people were in my dorm room, and somebody was sifting through my records. He'd never heard of most of the stuff, since my musical tastes never ran particularly close to the mainstream, but for some reason, Golden Filth caught his eye. (Perhaps it was the cover art by Cal Schenkel. It really is a pretty good painting.) I told him it wasn't very good, that it was just profanity for the sake of profanity, but that only made him more interested. It also made everyone else in the room more interested. I warned them that they wouldn't like it, but they ignored me and made me play it.

So we took the record down the hall, into the room of someone who had a stereo, and put the record on the turntable. I don't remember how long it took, maybe a couple of minutes, but before too long, one of the women said she didn't want to hear any more and then asked me, "How can you stand to listen to this?" I didn't have an immediate answer, but it didn't matter anyway -- she was out of earshot within seconds. Everyone else was gone as well, so I put the record back in the cover and brought it back to my room.

Throughout most of my college career, I guess I never really knew anyone who shared my musical tastes, but I did meet someone in my senior year whose tastes overlapped with mine pretty well. One of the stories I remember him telling me was that he once brought some of his records to a party, and a few minutes after putting his copy of Trout Mask Replica on the turntable, not only was he asked to remove it, he was asked to leave the party as well. He may have been exaggerating -- he was somewhat prone to that -- or he may have omitted a crucial element of the story, such as him becoming obnoxious and insufferable -- he was also somewhat prone to that. But it's still a pretty good story. And by the way, if I'm not mistaken, Cal Schenkel had something to do with the cover art for Trout Mask Replica as well, not that that's particularly relevant.

Anyway, I ordered the Reprise collection and it arrived in the mail a few days ago. I wasn't particularly looking forward to listening to the Golden Filth tracks, but when I did, I realized that they're not quite as filthy as I remember them being. They're filthy -- make no mistake -- but not as shocking as they were when I was a teenager. Of course, times have changed a little since then, and my ears are now 52 years old, which probably accounts for part of it. Still, I doubt if I'll ever play that particular CD again, and if anyone ever asks me to, I'll probably refuse. You never know how people will react. It might scar someone for life. And I wouldn't want to be accused of inflicting a tremendous wound on anybody.