Just for Laughs (?)
There are readers who have been encouraging my to write some "topical" and "political" commentary but I have to admit that I just can't. The constant bombardment of news is debilitating (for me) and I'm kind of on hiatus from all that. In its stead, I ran across a piece of writing that I "kind of" posted back in November, 2017 --- but didn't provide a good link to it (it's in the "New Writing" tab on the website) so I've decided to post it this last weekend in July, hoping folks will get a few chuckles from the whole adventure.
This "essay" was inspired by the publication of Joe Hagen's biography of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone late last year. Remembering that publication "back in the day" made me want to write something that captured the energy and borderline insanity of the period. So, with that in mind, have fun and enjoy the waning days of July & the August to come.
A Piece of History?
Following the recent publication of Joe Hagen’s authorized biography of Jann Wenner, Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine some “lost stories” from the magazine have been uncovered. One such story, written by journalist Carlton Terlizzi (a Hunter Thompson-like comet of a writer), was a study of the early ‘70’s band, Stumble Bums. Terlizzi’s account is a piece of rock and roll history that had been lost 44 years ago and is now, finally, available for the public. For the Stumble Bums fans who may still be out there, Terlizzi’s story should evoke memories of a band that was revelatory, poetic, garish, and fun.
For those who don’t remember Terlizzi, that’s understandable. Even though he was a contemporary of Thompson and Joe Eszterhas in the early years of Rolling Stone, he never produced books (Thompson’s Fear and Loathing) or screenplays (Eszterhas’s Basic Instinct, Showgirls) like those two but he certainly raised as much hell. In fact, not long after filing the story presented here, Terlizzi jumped on his motorcycle, after an evening “carousing” with Thompson and Eszterhas all over San Francisco, and was never seen or heard from again. Did he fly off a Pacific Coast Highway cliff? Was he abducted by the Symbionese Liberation Army? Did he decide to “retire” to a quieter (and more sane) life somewhere else in the U.S., like a witness protection program client? We’ll never know, but we do have his writing to reflect on. His last piece, then, is what we’ve now uncovered for your reading pleasure.
Getting the Band Together:
The Half-Life of Stumble Bums
Angus McPuffin, Waldo Gropingles, and Oslo Dunkleklass are an unlikely trio. Each has a singular, distractingly unattractive feature. Angus’s nose is remarkably thin and, halfway down, makes a sharp right. Waldo’s left eye seems to have a life of its own and evokes an aura of Quasimodo. Oslo has the teeth of an Englishman (though he isn’t), only worse. A composite sketch of the three would probably resemble a child’s drawing of a clown --- or a “monster.” Yet all three have voices that are so sweet and ethereal the term “celestial” often accompanies critical reviews of their band, Stumble Bums.
It was the late ‘60’s when Angus, Waldo, and Oslo met in art school, as so many band mates did in those years. None was a particularly good artist --- Angus sculpted, Waldo painted, and Oslo was a photographer --- but they were extremely earnest students who had hit it off well in a freshman year Theories of Art course (which each barely received a passing grade for). In the fall of 1969 they were 20 years old and discussing the recent Woodstock Festival over coffee at a diner along 12th Avenue on the Lower West Side overlooking Jersey City. Their studies, over the years, had not gone well. Waldo’s had been classified “in abeyance,” the school’s odd parlance for “one foot out the door.” The other two were spending more time at their jobs --- Angus at a record store and Oslo as an elevator operator in an Upper East Side high rise --- than they were on their studies. It was over those cups of coffee that the boys were deciding their future --- even if they weren’t aware of it at the time. As they describe it:
“I’m not sure I really see much in sculpting, moving forward, you know?” Angus confessed.
Waldo nodded. ”Yeah, I’m startin’ to feel the same way about the whole painting thing. I mean, where’m I goin’, really.”
“I love taking pictures --- but it’s really competitive out there. But you never know, right?” the always upbeat Oslo offered, looking back and forth at his friends.
“I think we need to honestly look at where we’re going, y’know, and maybe consider some other ‘options?’” Angus, leaning forward now, had furrowed his brow as he addressed his friends.
“Other ‘options?’” Waldo, as per, looked clueless.
Oslo stood up, framing his face with his hands, clutching at his watch cap, grinning broadly: “Why don’t we start a band!”
Angus stared, hard, at Oslo. “Get the fuck outta here,” waving a dismissive hand.
“No, really,” Oslo persisted, “hear me out on this.”
Waldo’s crazy eye rolled around, trying to focus on Oslo as he revealed his idea.
“Know how we always sing along with songs we like on the radio?” He didn’t wait for a response. “Have you actually listened to our voices together?”
Waldo, focused for the moment, looked at Angus, who shrugged and sheepishly admitted: “No.”
“Well,” Oslo continued, “we sound good --- damn good. And we each play instruments, right?”
Waldo chimed in: “We’d have to practice --- a lot. A lot a lot, you know?”
It was true. All three had early musical training: Angus on classical guitar; Waldo on piano; and Oslo played drums, starting in Cub Scout marching bands. Each still “practiced” occasionally but they had never tried playing anything together. And there was the daunting challenge of writing original material.
Maybe it was because they were 20 and didn’t know any better. Maybe they actually had “gifts” that had never been tapped. Maybe the stars were aligned just right. And maybe the addition of Josh Ben Soto to the “band” was a particular godsend.
Ben Soto’s father was a highly regarded music producer in New York City. An Israeli émigré in the early ‘50’s, Sol Ben Soturian was a multi-instrumentalist who started out as a session musician and a Tin Pin Alley stalwart. As the music business expanded in the early Sixties, Sol changed his last name to make it a little more “Latin/exotica,” in his words, as he moved into the control room becoming a producer, turning out some doo-wop hits and girl group ballads. After Beatlemania he was “making a living” turning out albums and 45’s, honing his skills and breaking even. His son, Josh, was a prodigy on the upright bass, starting to play it by 4th grade and making the natural shift to the electric bass, sometimes sitting in for sessions his Dad produced. Josh had befriended Waldo early on in art school and continued to help him stay in school. When Waldo pitched “the band” idea to Josh he basically said, “Why not?”
And that was the beginning.
Josh was the natural leader of the group but “the boys,” as they became known, took to being a “band” naturally and their progress was rapid. With coaching from Josh and Sol, they turned out being better musicians than they imagined and their dormant skills emerged overnight. And Oslo had been right on the money about their voices! They naturally voiced harmonies and could mimic the latest Crosby, Stills, and Nash songs with startling accuracy. Each could not only “carry a tune” but could also sing lead on a song --- and they began “matching” tunes to the “best” singer. Josh had a voice that was compared to Don Henley of the breaking new group, Eagles, adding another dimension to the group's sound.
In the early months of practice they naturally “covered” popular songs but quickly realized they would have to start writing their own material and, unlike their half-hearted efforts at art school, “the boys” threw themselves into the work. Here’s where some classic characteristics of the band emerged. Oslo, who informed everyone he should be referred to as “Oslo Flintland” from this day forward, was a lover of rock music “on the fringe.” He listened to Frank Zappa and Capt. Beefheart as well as Dr. John and a raft of old blues guys. Waldo, eye flying here and there, was a “Top 40” guy and loved listening to “Top 20 Singles” from groups like Tommy James and the Shondells (Crimson & Clover, Crystal Blue Persuasion) as well as Sly and the Family Stone (Everyday People, Hot Fun in the Summertime). He would sometimes break into “Build Me Up Buttercup” (The Foundations) at a least expected moment. Waldo also announced a new moniker: Waco Montana. “Pretty cool, eh?” eyebrow arched (while the eyeball rolled), Waldo clearly had put a lot of thought into his Stage Name.
Angus told them he was considering being called Angus McAngus, but never made the switch. His musical taste was a lot like Josh’s and ran toward the popular albums and their artists, an eclectic sampling of rock and roll that included The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Stooges, Led Zeppelin, and Blind Faith. They all loved the Beatles, Stones, and Motown, of course, so there were many “influences” pouring into their musical cauldron --- and all kinds of songs came out.
By the spring of 1970, the band, calling itself Poots and Ladders, had Sol Ben Soto’s agent pal, Mickey Zielinski, book them gigs at the Room Room, Vicarious Café, and What’s On Second? nightclub. Not big venues, for sure, but places to learn how to publicly perform and perfect their chops. All the while they were writing songs furiously and testing them out on audiences. Through some happy accidents they actually opened for The Velvet Underground on the Lower East Side and The Stooges in New Brunswick, New Jersey. That was the gig where “Waco” (Waldo) first saw Iggy Pop “stage dive” into a crowd. Several weeks later “Waco” tried it himself, as he wrapped up his song, “Breathing Through My Mouth,” and discovered the crowd had never seen a stage dive before. He broke two ribs and lost a tooth. At that point the group decided to call themselves Stumble Bums.
Stumble Bums were a meteor on the rock and roll scene from late 1970 through early 1972, flashing then crashing, leaving embers of their music here and there on the landscape of rock and roll history. They produced two albums over that time, with talk about a few “Live” discs produced posthumously (after the “band” died, not “the boys”). There’s still hope that some “hidden tapes” will be discovered somewhere along the line.
Their first album, released in late 1970, was You, Again? and featured a startled young woman turning toward a doorway where several guys with gig bags were crashing in. What made You, Again? distinctive was that one side of the album was blatantly commercial --- with most of the songs written by “Waco” (with help from Josh). Side Two, however, was an Angus and Oslo production, with songs ranging over a gamut of styles, time signatures, and sounds. There was one single (“Hold the Mayo”) released separately, to “Prime the pump” Sol and Mickey told “the boys.”
“Waco’s” commercial songs on Side One were:
Needless to say, people had some trouble figuring out what the band was about. That was only complicated by “Hold the Mayo,” “Waco’s” teen angst love song (with a dynamite hook!). Here are the first few verses, as well as the chorus with the catchy bass hook (courtesy of Josh Ben Soto):
I was workin’ in the Deli, when she walked in . ..
Yeah, just right, not fat or thin,
A BLT was on her mind
I told her, “oh, yeah, that’s fine ….”
And as I built up all three decks,
I was thinkin’, “Hey, what the heck,
Maybe she would be my baby,
If I asked the right way, maybe.”
Just before I turned around,
That’s when I could hear the sound….
Her eyes were big, her hand was up
“Hold the Mayo on my Stuff!”
Hold the Mayo, that’s what she said,
Hold the Mayo, or I was dead,
Hold the Mayo, before you slice,
Hold that mayo, she was cold as ice!
Angus and Oslo were not thrilled that “Hold the Mayo” was the first “hit” for the band but thought that once people heard their Side Two, they’d expand their audience. And it did, even though they never got higher than #47 on the BillBoard charts. Still, not bad for a first album.
“The boys” went back into the studio with new resolve after a short tour of East Coast venues in the summer of 1971. The “tour” featured events like the extremely inebriated Oslo somehow missing the band’s bus back to NYC from the Hamptons and walking (and hitchhiking) back to his Lower East Side apartment by late the next evening. They also learned that, in Washington, D.C., you can be finedfor passing gas in a club after curfew --- costing the club $500 after Angus directed a microphone at Waco’s butt. After they got back home Oslo mentioned he was disappointed they hadn’t stayed at any place with a swimming pool, telling the band he wanted to emulate the Rolling Stones, filling a kiddie pool with Cap’n Crunch and KY Jelly. Beyond that, the tour went swimmingly and “the boys” were ready to crank out their second studio album.
Angus and Waco wanted to call the new album “Number Two” and put a picture of a pile of dog shit on the cover --- but that was quickly voted down (by everyone!). There were lots of stories about drug and alcohol abuse, as well as arguments between “the boys” and the final product --- called Sunset at the Carbdboard Factory --- was clearly four blocs of three songs, each written by a different member of the band.
“Waco’s” contribution was:
Simple Man, Simple Song
All of these were catchy, “Top 20” type songs and “Simple Man” was a hit single, reaching #22 on the “pop” charts.
Oslo’s songs were:
Barkin’ for Dinner
These were hummable, if a bit sophomoric, tunes that the band’s younger fans particularly loved and “Sizzlin’ Summer” made it to #29 on the charts.
Angus’s writing produced:
You Talkin’ to Me?
What’re You Lookin’ At?
Stick Up the Butt
These songs were a radical departure from anything the band had done up to that point ---- driving rhythms, bass leads on some songs, and vocals that “attacked” the audience, even more than Stage Diving.
Finally, Josh added the songs:
War Ain’t Good
Lost My Job Again
These were “social issue” songs and became very popular with the politically oriented fans the band had engendered. There was a segment of the listening public that seemed to love the anarchy “the boys” represented. While none of Josh’s songs rocketed up the charts, they are probably the songs that will have the longest shelf life.
Stumble Bums never went on tour with Sunset at the Cardboard Factory and the band broke up shortly after the album was released. While Josh Ben Soto remained a notable presence on the New York music scene “the boys” disappeared from public view. Oslo went back to art school, “Waco” became Waldo again and took a job in the family construction firm and Angus moved to the West Coast to become a plumber in Berkeley. Despite their record label’s attempt at coaxing them into touring, “the boys” seem to have “turned the page.”
So, Stumble Bums was like that flash of light in the night that sears our retina and then explodes, shattering into shrapnel spread across the landscape of our memory. They were a moment in this early history of rock and roll and their final legacy is yet to be recorded. Hold the mayo!
Carlton Terlizzi was 27 when he disappeared in 1973. The same age as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimmy Hendrix when they left us, too. While he may not share a place on rock and roll’s Mount Rushmore, as those three would, he was a writer of considerable talent who captured the energy and vitality of a particular and special time in history. Who knows what else he may have accomplished with his writing? If you’re out there, Carlton, and reading this: come back.