by Joe Tepperman
From Cool and Strange Music #28
If jazz is dead it’s because Fred Lane personally killed it. Ran it over with one of them old-timey lawnmowers. Bludgeoned it to death on Dean Martin’s cinderblock cufflinks, he did. Placed the hit from the payphone across the street from the Max Ernst exhibit.
“The local fuzz can’t finger him because they’re convinced Rev. Dr. Fred Lane’s just a psychopathic Big Band singer from Tuscaloosa, Alabama,” says Detective Bope-a-dope, reading his cue cards. “Released a couple hilarious albums on the Shimmy-Disc label in the mid-eighties, that’s all they know.”
He reveals a file photo of a man dressed in a tuxedo top with no pants, goofy sunglasses, fake facial hair, and gratuitous band-aids. “I don’t normally take cases like this anymore,” Bope-a-dope mumbles with an air of disgust, “but then last month my secretary got a call from the Marsalis Brothers. Still owe them a favor from way back.”
Okay, maybe Fred Lane didn’t actually kill jazz (a little late for that). That is, if by “jazz” you mean college graduates and/or former session men with good haircuts who know all their scales. Fred Lane wouldn’t blow his nose on them (unless he was in a hurry).
But he at least reminded the rest of us about jazz’s real roots: racism, crime (both organized and otherwise), and generic American lowlife “civilization.” There’s a reason why the Johnny Fontane character in “The Godfather” bears more than a little resemblance to Old Blue Eyes. Same reason why Mickey Mouse originally looked like a blackfaced minstrel singer with rodent features. Reverend Lane’s “stripmine crooning” and disjointed, belligerent Big Band style satirizes it all for those quick on the surrealist draw. According to Abdul “Ben” Camel, bassist for Fred Lane’s Hittite Hot Shots, the whole venture is “Lane’s take on (and foot put on) the ‘Music & Entertainment Capital of the World’ (our culture) after having put it through his own Epicurean food-processor.”
The music itself is mostly swing but draws upon ridiculous modern country, fifties rock, hokey children’s records, and Mancini “spy” music, too – all sprinkled with some of the wildest free improvisation ever preserved on tape. In this case it’s a weirder combination than usual considering most serious disciples of the freer stuff (which applies for members of the Hotshots and Lane’s former backup band, Ron ‘Pate and the Debonairs) are typically rooted in bebop and the European avant-garde, maybe even rock, but they don’t normally go for swing. It’s too cheesy, too sleazy and schmaltzy compared to the sincere spiritual journeys of a John Coltrane or an Albert Ayler. Perfect for Fred Lane, though, and that’s why his songs are so original anyway. “I like to think of them as something I stained my shirt with,” Lane said. You stick to what’s acceptable listening in your scene, what you’re told to like by critic jerks like me, and you end up making the same old (new) music. Obeying the conventions of Free Jazz – imagine that!
So it’s not like America doesn’t have this sort of archaeological source material as well. In fact that’s partly what Fred Lane is all about: digging up the humor and music of a regionalized Americana that’s been all but eclipsed by nationally syndicated radio and TV, franchise stores and restaurants, and other homogenized junk, but at the same time celebrating all that. In Lane’s wit you can hear straight-up vaudeville joke telling, archaic radio show banter, Merrie Melodies slapstick, Vegas between-song routines, obsolete Broadway, and probably like a million other comedies and comedians from before music was even amplified that nobody except Fred Lane remembers anymore. “There’s no tomorrow,” he mock-weeps on the closing track to his final album, 1986’s Car Radio Jerome, “there’s only . . .” and then we hear an explosion as the song and album and Lane’s whole world effectively ends, at least for a while.
Just who is this Fred Lane guy anyway? Depends who you ask. There are those who willingly buy the whole Lane mythology like the snake oil it is.
“I once spoke with the mysterious and elusive Fred Lane,” said John Klopp, who used to host a Fred Lane fan web page and somehow tracked down Lane’s home phone number. “F.L.'s mom answered. The guy is completely nuts . . . He wouldn't shut up, just kept going on and on. Eventually I had to hang up on him.”
Skizz Cyzyk, a filmmaker who’s been working on a Fred Lane documentary for the last 3 years and has spoken to Lane on the phone several times, begged to differ. “I guess he might be a little eccentric but I don't think he's insane. He's very funny and he jokes constantly. His jokes are often a little weird, but that's just his sense of humor.”
But current Lane fan site curator Stewart C. Russell got it best when he warned, “Fred Lane is the tip of a very large, very strange iceberg.” What is he, the Titanic-sinking variety? Short answer: Fred Lane is stage persona and real-life art project of T.R. Reed. But then who’s T.R. Reed? A professional whirligig craftsman who now resides in Atlanta.
We gotta go back, way back circa 1974. College-age Tim Reed was playing flute in an Alabama-subsidized free improv group called Transcendprovisation (later just Trans) with Davey Williams (guitar), LaDonna Smith (viola), Theodore Bowen (bass), Anne LeBaron (harp), Adrian Dye (organ), and various other local musical misfits.
Theodore Bowen, a friend of Reed’s since middle school, describes the future Rev. as a shy, straight-A student with a gift for cartooning and an unnatural sense of humor. “Being the youngest of five kids left him surrounded by a huge variety of musical taste,” said Bowen. “Visiting his home was like being in an entertainment center designed to be sent into space, representing the best selection of eclectic, diverse music and comedy of the mid-twentieth century.”
Reed and Davey Williams had played together in a high school cover band called Wally du Gumba. They sometimes opened with the theme from TV’s “Bonanza,” and did a version of Procol Harum’s “Crucifiction Lane” that was prophetic of things to come after graduation.
Back to 1974, or even a couple years earlier, fellow U of Alabama students Craig Nutt, Roger Hagerty, Nolan Hatcher, and Jim Willett had started an art collective (originally independent of the Trans crowd) called Raudelunas. With instruments borrowed from the University band department, they staged jam sessions and group paintings at the house Hatcher, Hagerty, and Nutt rented near campus, and gigged as either The Raudelunas Marching Vegetable Band or The Blue Denim Deals Without the Arms. The latter once opened an outdoor University rock concert with John Coltrane’s “Selflessness.”
“To say that our performances were not well-received would be an understatement,” Nutt said. “Musically, I think we were trying to break out of the clichés we had learned playing rock, etc., and to think of music more in the way you might approach painting. Experimentation was not only encouraged but championed. It was about as free and creative an atmosphere as we could imagine.”
Tim Reed must have seen much of his own aesthetic in Raudelunas’ highly visualized and whimsical musical environment. Both factions soon discovered one another and merged in time for 1975’s Second Raudelunas Exposition, the Raudelunas ‘Pataphysical Revue (inspired by French playwright Alfred Jarry’s ’pataphysics, “the science of imaginary solutions”).
“The concept for the show was a variety show,” said Craig Nutt. “We would make up a bunch of different groups, and we needed a Master of Ceremonies to front the show. Someone suggested that Tim Reed could pull it off. I remember Mitchell Cashion, I think, saying that he would do anything on stage . . . I thought of Tim mostly as a flutist. I knew nothing of this side of him.”
Reed chose the stage name Fred Lane from two of his favorite icons, Frankie Laine and Fred Astaire, and renamed everyone else in Raudelunas for the ‘Pataphysical Revue’s fake Big Band, Ron ‘Pate’s Debonairs. Davey Williams became Cyd Cherise, LaDonna Smith became Don “Pretty Boy” Smith, Theodore Bowen became Abdul “Ben” Camel, Roger Hagerty became Dick Foote, Craig Nutt became, of course, bandleader Ron ‘Pate, and so on.
The Debonairs opened and closed the Revue with frenzied, butt-kicking versions of swing standards “My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)” and “Volare,” both barely recognizable aside from Cyd Cherise’s guitar and Fred Lane’s singing. The bill also included a great performance of “Concerto for Active Frogs” by “serious composer” Anne LeBaron, a group improvisation by the Blue Denim Deals Without the Arms, and a “traditional” piece of hardware store noise by The Captains of Industry. There were door prize giveaways – four used tires and “Raudelunas face powder” – and, best of all, pre-recorded applause (stolen from the Woodstock album) that no doubt baffled the real audience.
“No ulterior motive here, we just did it for the hell of the experience,” Anne LeBaron explained. “Performing in Captains of Industry and playing percussion in ‘Frogs,’ with the purity of a demented creative spirit permeating the conservative Alabama air, was incredibly liberating.”
Faced with similar circumstances, Alabamy native Herman Blount changed his name to Sun Ra and started telling everybody he was actually from Saturn. Can you blame him?
“Had it been in NY or SF there would be textbooks written about it by now,” Skizz Cyzyk pointed out, astutely. Turns out Raudelunas’ reaction to the whole post-psychedelic burnout of the early seventies was part of an international improv and tape experimentation movement that included The Residents in San Francisco, the Instant Composers Pool in Holland, John Zorn and Eugene Chadbourne in New York, and the Los Angeles Free Music Society you-know-where.
“I don't think any of us had any illusions that a big audience existed for what we were doing,” Craig Nutt said. “I certainly hadn’t thought much about doing records – it seemed so far-fetched. However, we made a tape of the Raudelunas ‘Pataphysical Revue so those of us who were playing could hear what we had done. It wasn't until listening to the tape that it occurred to me that it could be a record.” And so it did, on Nutt’s Say Day-Bew label, effectively putting Tuscaloosa on the map. England’s Alcohol Records plans to reissue the album on CD sometime soon.
Anyway, the irreverent Reverend Fred Lane character – who teased the Debonairs and told horrible, rambling jokes between Revue numbers – emerged fully-formed from inception. Tim Reed certainly had the voice and quick wit for it. In fact, the persona seemed to fit Reed a little too naturally. He began to publish The Rev. Fred Lane Newsletter, later called Naked Women Overthrow the Government Quarterly and eventually Liquid Basketball. And it wasn’t long after the ‘Pataphysical Revue that he started working on what would become the first proper Fred Lane album.
“Tim brought this neo-vaudeville play he had written over and asked me to read it,” said Craig Nutt. “I remember saying, ‘This is impossible to stage and if we do, we'll be run out of town!’”
Theodore Bowen’s clarification: “‘From The One That Cut You’ (the show), was literally inspired by a crude note scrawled on brown paper, wrapped around a Bowie knife, found in a ‘secret compartment’ in a 1952 Dodge Panel Truck, when some friends (the owners) came by my house to repaint it, in order to elude capture by the Naval Police. The ‘note,’ a sort of love/threat/confession, inspired Tim to write the song, the stage show, and create the character who performs the song, all from three crude little sentences authored by some unknown humanoid named Fuear. That's real economy, I'd say about 898 miles to the gallon.”
Fred Lane isn’t merely at the wheel. Less collaborative than any of the previous Raudelunas or Trans undertakings, From the One That Cut You was written entirely by Reed with help from Davey Williams on the arrangements. Mostly recorded live, two songs on the final album are from the never-performed subsequent musical, “I Talk to My Haircut.” The whole thing wasn’t released until 1983, eight years too late. The record is still incredible in spite of itself.
Its 1986 follow-up, though, is the more concise statement of Lane’s psychosis. Car Radio Jerome is the kind of album that jumps out of the speakers at you and goes through the motions of holding a rubber knife to your throat. “Gimme all your money” it demands, and normally you’d know better than to tell a mugger like this one that it’s a walking bumper sticker. Your assailant stops to reflect on our preconceived notions of what constitutes “armed robbery,” meanwhile giving you a chance to escape. But you decide to stay for a drink.
Lane’s final album (so far) was recorded entirely in a pro studio with just a core quintet of Debonairs that Lane dubbed the Hittite Hotshots.
“I loved Car Radio Jerome partly because I had nothing to do with its production,” Craig Nutt said. “The playing on it is tighter, and probably a lot closer to Lane's conception than the earlier material . . . I remember wondering if Tim was okay. It has some dark moments!”
Yes, like on “Dial ‘O’ For Bigelow”: In my ineptitude / I really don’t deserve to be alive . . . Everything I love just rots in my hand (Ted Bowen says this is “as close as ‘Tim Reed’ gets to singing through Fred Lane”).
But then it also has some of Lane’s silliest and most lighthearted (by comparison) tunes - “Upper Lip of a Nostril Man,” “Hittite Hotshot,” and, everyone’s favorite, “The French Toast Man,” which Stewart C. Russell describes as “the sort of thing that 1950’s children’s record orchestras might produce late at night, off the record, after ingesting all the wrong kinds of medication.”
There’s also a third, unfinished Fred Lane album called Icepick to the Moon. Tim Reed and Roger Hagerty recorded several demos for it in 1993 or ’94. The few song titles that have surfaced include “The Cinderblock Man,” “Carlos Montoya Standin’ By the Railroad Tracks,” and “We’re Going to Hell.”
“I do remember ‘We're Going to Hell,’” Hagerty said. “It’s hilarious. It’s set to kind of a Gospel/children’s song feelgood cliché thing. Like something you'd sing around a campfire.”
The rest of the Hotshots, now spread-out across the country, have been unable to participate thus far. “I have 12 new donkey tunes for that particular CD,” Lane said, “but the fundus has gotten away from me.”
“In this particular case,” said Theodore Bowen, “I think the distance between the beginning and the completion of IPTM is probably equal shares of money and coordinating the ‘talent.’” Any bigshot record producers reading?
Even if another album never happens, the Fred Lane spirit is still alive and, uh, twitching. Theodore Bowen refuses to take responsibility for last December’s Raudelunas-themed novelette/screenplay The Christmas Pageant He Would Have Wanted, But Was Afraid to Ask.
“I don't get to do anything that creative anymore,” said Roger Hagerty, now Media Director for Tuskegee University in Alabama. “I play all the time, so my ‘chops’ are better than ever, but I'm not in an art scene anymore.”
Anne LeBaron, who teaches composition at Cal Arts, still incorporates everyday noise (like vacuum cleaners) into her pieces.
LaDonna Smith and Davey Williams, now based in Birmingham, tour frequently as TransMuseq and edit the online magazine The Improvisor.
Craig Nutt builds vegetable-looking furniture and wood sculptures. On display at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport is a 10-foot-long jet-shaped ear of corn (Nutt’s “Corncorde”).
Tim Reed sculpts wind-powered “creachters” full-time as T.R. Reed (his public artist persona), and has been active on the arts fair circuit since the eighties. “Yeah, with the geegaws and finkin’ high-falutin’ crap of exceptional value,” as he calls it. “It smells like Ralph Meeker’s eye teeth.”
And as for Fred Lane himself, it’s only a matter of time before Liquid Basketball and the rest of “the Empire” is up and running again. “It's been shut down by the Health Department since Thursday,” Lane explained. “It will reopen as soon as I relocate my Curad franchise.”
Text reproduced by permission of Cool and Strange Music and the author. The magazine has lots of cool photos, so buy a copy of you can find it or order a copy from their web site!