Friday, January 19, 2018

Finding Uncle Wiggly, more Charlie Parker obsessions

Tuesday afternoon was a golden day at the mailbox. Not one, but two records arrived in the mail for me. One was a copy of Mary Halvorson's Illusionary Sea, which I've already written about here. (Click here to read it or just see the cover.) The other was a record for which I've pined for many years, never able to find it and when I did, never able to quite afford it.

The record in question is the debut album by Uncle Wiggly, He Went There So Why Don't We Go. The title is such an oddity that I still don't have it accurately committed to memory and had to grab the cover to make sure I got it right.

I discovered Uncle Wiggly during college when I was deeply obsessed with everything on the Shimmy-Disc label, who released their sophomore Across the Room and Into Your Lap in 1992. The trio had a thing for dreamy psychedelic pop songs that might lope along at Spacemen 3 tempos before kicking into a double-time wig out. (This often happened in the same song.) Sometimes they'd play three chords for eight minutes, occasionally adding a lead guitar melody and the vocal phrase which gave the song its title: "Ba Ba Ba." Kramer gave the album the echoey sheen in much the same way he did for Galaxie 500.

Turns our the band didn't dig that. A few years later, I interviewed them for my zine Discourse. By that time, they were through with him and while they didn't trash the infamous indie recorder, I have a feeling they probably didn't like being in Discourse's Kramer issue, which focused on bands that were affiliated with him. (For the cover we doctored a picture of the sunrise and superimposed a pic of Kramer looming over the mountain side.)

When getting in touch with Wiggly bassist Michael Anzalone for the interview, he said He Went There was only released in Austria, but they had a few copies to sell.... for $30 each. In 1994, pre-eBay and pre-Discogs, that was a lot of scratch for an indie rock album, especially for a poor recent college graduate. The good news is, the album has stayed about the same price in the ensuing years. The bad news is, $30 is still $30.

I've been following copies of it on Discogs, waiting for the best looking version and the right time to feel that I can plunk down the money. A few weeks ago, one popped up that was in good shape and it also came from the collection of late Wiggly guitarist Wm. "Bill" Berger, who passed away last fall. Many more people might know his name due to his affiliation with WFMU-FM, where he hosted a show there for several years. I actually found out he died due to a Facebook post by a friend whose band had been played by Berger on the radio. To my friend, it was the equivalent of being played by John Peel.

With the connection to Berger, and a price tag that was just under $30, it was time to jump. The seller was a great guy who had a few exchanges with me as we were making the transaction. It needed to be cleaned once I got it, but it was everything I hoped it would be.

With a slightly more primitive production than their other albums, it's full of cleanly strummed power chords, stop-start rhythms and a simple-but-solid attack that reminds me of New Zealand bands just prior to that same time period (late '80s/early '90s). James Kavoussi (who alternated drums and guitar with Berger) was also a member of the New York band Fly Ashtray who had a similar mutant pop aesthetic. (Anzalone had also been in Fly Ashtray but bowed out before their first album). The connection seems a little clearer here. Both bands were into long titles (in addition to the album title, they also have songs like "The King's Loyal Moustache Clippings" and "Oatmeal Goddess") and the fast-to-slow shifts in tempo. I think I'll be playing this one for a while.

Furthermore, Fly Ashtray is still together and seems to have released an album in the past year or so. I sent Kavoussi a friend request on FB. (We actually met at CMJ back in the '80s on a night when both of his bands were playing at different clubs in New York. Doubt he'll remember me, though.) I think I need to comment on his page and inquire about the record. Though I worry a little because Fly Ashtray also had a thing for sampler/noise pieces on their albums too. But I'm still curious enough to ask.

And then....... the Charlie Parker obsession continues! The Penn Hills library had this copy of the Dean Benedetti box! For those who don't know, Benedetti was an aspiring saxophone player who, for a few months, recorded Charlie Parker in concert. And I mean just Charlie Parker. Armed with a 78 record cutter and later a paper-based reel-to-reel tape player, Benedetti recorded while Bird was soloing, and turned the machine off when he wasn't.

This seven-CD set is a collection of lo-fi Charlie Parker solos. It begins right after the saxophonist's release from Camarillo Hospital, when he was getting back on his feet again in Los Angeles, and then picks up a few months later back in New York in a quintet with young Miles Davis and Max Roach. It's obsessive, it's sometimes hard to listen to, it's a lot of the same songs over and over again - but if you're fascinated by history and the early development of bebop, you have to hear it.

Not only that, being a Mosaic set, it has a deluxe book with a bio on Benedetti, a breakdown of each set of recordings (which don't run chronologically but by a system devised by producer Phil Schaap) and an analysis of Parker's approach to the horn, via detailed descriptions of the music.

I borrowed this beast from the library about 20 years ago, but I guess I didn't have the obsessive desire to dig through all of this at that time. I have a feeling I didn't even make it through the whole set, because I never recall hearing Bird play "Well You Needn't" with Thelonious Monk sitting in with the band. If I had, the history of the moment might have impacted me more. It might only be a couple choruses of it, but you have to wonder - how many times in life did those two ever play that song?

Uh-oh, I'm feeling the urge to grab Robin D. G. Kelley's Monk biography and see if there's an answer for the question. Or even some reference to the night in 1948 when it happened. (I often pick up that book and just skim it for fun.)

Before I do that, I want to add that I also found an affordable copy of the Parker Savoy/Dial box that had been stolen from my car, as mentioned in the last post. I was hoping to just dub it from a friend who had it, but I'm happy to be getting the real thing again.

No comments: