The Red Krayola

(from The Oxford American)

The Red Krayola (originally Crayola) is a peculiar phenomenon, a profoundly cryptic anti-rock band that is still becoming, under the steady hand of Mayo Thompson, one of the quirkiest and longest running freak shows in American alternative music. The story begins in Houston, Texas, in 1966, in a low, ranch-style, brick house on a weedy lot in a weedy subdivision out past Sharpstown and Bellaire, somewhere just short of Jackrabbit Road.

The Red Krayola was formed in the late summer of 1966, when Mayo returned from a college trip to Europe. We had been hanging out since we ran into each other at an art-film series at the University of St. Thomas the previous spring. He was enrolled there; I had been kicked out of the architecture school at the University of Houston, or was about to be, and was busy being a young painter. The movies were all French, except the Italian ones. There was an art theater in town, too, which we frequented. The Alray? Something like that.

Anyway, in hallowed response to our own moment in human history, we decided to form the band. Mayo recruited Steve Cunningham, a younger St. Thomas student, to play bass, and we declared ourselves a heady rock trio. We played “House of the Rising Sun” and “Louie, Louie,” and later “Hey Joe” and others. We were a lousy cover band, deeply devoted to the noise, the sound, the ethos, but remarkably incompetent. Plus, there were entirely competent cover bands in town at that time, further deterring us. But  being a cover band was about as interesting to us as Sunday-painting, so we made up our own songs—“Transparent Radiation,” “Concrete Block,” “Hurricane Fighter Plane,” “Former Reflections Enduring Doubt,” “War Sucks,” “Mother.” We practiced at Mayo’s mother’s house way out west of town (Hazel Thompson was a legendary high school teacher at Bellaire. She was exceedingly tolerant and encouraging, and she treated us to many hamburgers). Steve got a bass shaped like Paul McCartney’s, and Mayo and I went to some grotesque music store where I acquired red glitter-finish drums on the installment plan. Or maybe some kind art patron gave me the money, or bought a painting. I cannot now remember. The drums were very red and sparkly, very pretty, very loud when struck with authority. Alas, they did not play themselves. My left foot did not know what my right foot was doing. Keeping time was the last thing on my mind.

Later, I bought many belts and wore them all at the same time, adopting the nickname “Belto,” a cruel parody of another drummer of that moment.

Because we couldn’t play all that well, we had to do something else, something more interesting, and since we were art-inclined, we went that route, leaning on every possible art idea at every turn. Soon we were making “free music,” playing long improvised pieces heavily invested in feedback, random acts of auditory aggression, utterances of all kinds. We began to have big ideas about ways to listen to music, and what “music” was.

As players, some of us were better than others. Mayo could play a little guitar and already had that odd touch on the instrument that he has today—his playing was wonderful and startling, very spare, full of asides and quotations, and always giving you the impression he was about to screw the pooch, musically speaking. Steve Cunningham could play a bit of bass, and did so, fearlessly. As a drummer, I was like the last guy selected for the dodge-ball  team—no time, no coordination, no nothing. So I was spectacular on drums. And all this worked fine because in the larger scheme of things, we didn’t really want to play well. Playing well was what we were against. It was what everybody else did. Much later, in the second (and little known) band that Mayo and I put together, the Rocking Blue Diamonds, playing well became an issue, so we solicited the talent—coerced it, is probably more accurate. But in the mid-’60s, with the Red Krayola, that wasn’t the deal. The deal was to participate in the party and do something surprising while you were at it. So we drank, did the drugs in the style of the time, and we thought well, or thought we did, which we understood was more important than playing well. Of course, there is some debate about this matter still.

We were not exactly hippies, but we were the natural allies of the hippies. We disliked what the hippies disliked and liked what they liked. There was That Idiot War, for example, which we still seem to be having, though many leagues away. And marijuana. And…other stuff. Hair. Breasts. Fellow-feeling. So we were sort of elitist pseudo-hippies, art kids who spent a lot of time at galleries and museums and films and hung out with Jim Love, Fredericka Hunter, Ian Glennie, and sundry others in the Houston art circle of those days. The previous generation of Houston artists like Dick Wray, Jack Boynton, Roy Fridge, who was a friend of Jim’s, was still around, too. Sometimes I worked for Jim hanging shows for various galleries and museums. In some sense, though, everything centered on Fredericka Hunter, a young woman from Galveston with whom everyone was utterly bewitched. She was late of Wellesley and had come to Houston to finish her degree in art history at St. Thomas. She had a nice apartment where we hung out and where I lived for a time, beneficiary of her kindness. Her suitors were many, every hat for miles around hurled into the ring, and she eventually took up with Ian Glennie, a talented architecture student from Rice who was also an avid collector of practically everything, and was well ahead of us in the matter of knowing what was going on in the music scene in California, not to mention England. He was from California, so every time he went home he brought back all the new music. He was also a book collector, poetry mostly, lots of small-press materials.

Among the outlying hippies we hung out with were F. Cavett Sharp and his wife, Claude (her name returns in a mist), and their two attractive traveling companions, Linda Linda and somebody else. Linda Linda was never known by anything but Linda Linda, a bit of intrigue we all appreciated. She gave the appearance of a sexy high-school dropout. Her friend, who had a more conventional name, Paulette, maybe, was even sexier and more dropped-out. F. Cavett Sharp, who liked to be called F., styled himself a photographer and took some band pictures for us. They were typical of the time and hopelessly pedestrian. He and the other three were traveling through Houston from New York, or so they said, but they had been in town a year or two when we met them, so they weren’t traveling all that fast. And there were others: the legendary Danny Schacht, who, as Mayo has previously reported, counted the band “ontologically unsound”; the semi-legendary Ira Something, piano genius who never left his house, friend of the painter John Gilchrist; the wholly-legendary Frank Davis, folk singer and local hero, rebuilder of Jaguars, and personage of somewhat dour personality, especially if he thought you were less marvelous than you thought you were, and he usually did. There was also a fellow named George X who was a great follower of the band and a key player in the development of the Familiar Ugly, more about which later, who did the cover art for our first LP, The Parable of Arable Land. And there were many more, including F.R.B. Rapho (aka Mike Metyko) (R.I.P.), a grand fellow and artist, and Tinker, Pluto, and Bloom, about whom nobody remembers anything. And Mark Froman, who owned the club Love where we played all the time. The greater list is too long for replication, but accept as a given that there was a small but vigorous “scene” in Houston in those days. We became one with it.

So there we were in the Red Krayola, a name we took as a sort of parody of the clever California band names of that moment, a name that had come to us while trailing down Main Street in my roofless (courtesy of the sculptor Jim Love) blue Fiat, shooting 16mm film for a movie we were making at the time (because, before we were a band we were filmmakers, you see). I do not remember what the movie was called; I do not know what became of the evidence. It had burned film, hand-tinted frames, stop-action stuff, cartoons, action scenes, recreations of Godard and Truffaut and much more. It was an amalgam. We had seen Cleo from 5 to 7 and dozens of other fine films, and we were 16mm. There was talk of an Eclair, the camera, not the pastry.

Since we were taken with art it was natural that our idea of music included John Cage and La Monte Young and Albert Ayler and anyone else who made music that didn’t sound like traditional music. Harry Partch. The Fugs. Mayo had, I believe, a fondness for blues stuff, but it was a little bit of a bracketed fondness, in the sense that we were not really able to play it without tongue in cheek. Still, we tried. Sometimes we almost got away with it. I had done some “happenings,” performance-art exhibitions after Allan Kaprow and Claes Oldenburg, and the rude and disconnected soundtracks these events sometimes employed or produced were tasty additions to our repertoire. I’d already done a strange two-hour tape (sadly now lost to the pan) based on the Kennedy assassination—morbid, dirgeful, hypnotic. And we went to clubs to hear Lightnin’ Hopkins, made the acquaintance of Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, went to Cage concerts at the Music Hall, and, of course, our fellow traveler Ian Glennie kept bringing in the California EPs and LPs. He was right on top of everything, from John Mayall to John Fahey, the Spencer Davis Group, the Godz—whatever was out there, Ian had it first.

Owing to a range of impairing influences, whatever rudimentary skills I had as a drummer always escaped me somewhere in the first set of any evening. I could still play loud, and I did, but often I would jump off the drums in later sets, allowing other (always better) drummers to sit in. Sometime they shoved me off, saying “Kid, you’re awful.” “Exactly!” I countered, but by that time they were blissfully rocking on. So it happened that during the late fall of 1966 and the spring of 1967 we played loud and long and had a lot of queer ideas about music that we asserted in one public venue after another. Astonishingly, we developed a following in this manner and eventually went to California and played festivals out there during the summer of 1967. This trip was arranged by Kurt von Meier, an L.A. art critic who, in the fog of my memory, caught our act at a local club while visiting Houston to see some show or other, but perhaps that’s more fog than memory. In L.A., at Kurt’s house, where we were staying, we encountered some or all of the Doors. Who remembers? Just like in the TV movies, there was acid in the punch. By this time we’d put aside almost all pretense of being a rock band, and were bent on making the toughest music we could, more and more of which was derived from art musicians and run through both a rock grinder and a can’t-play-all-that-well grinder. Noise music. We were fond of Cage’s “chance music,” too, and figured out we could accomplish some of the excitement and freedom and happy accident of that kind of aleatory work by encouraging fans and hangers-around (sometimes a few, sometimes scores) to get up on stage and “play” with us. We provided them with microphones and electronics and miscellaneous noisemakers, sometimes instruments, asking only that they do something audible, a request that not everyone respected, and which we came to accept as part of the drill. The guy who kept striking kitchen matches right up in the microphone’s face really was never heard until the recordings we did at Walt Andrus’s studio, for example, whereas the guy who “played” motorcycle, well, you could almost always hear him. All these folks were pleased to be invited onstage to perform in the “free” portions of our shows, and it became routine that half the audience would end up on stage with us, bleating and haranguing the microphones and instruments in long, exhausting “free pieces” that often had some sort of rhythmic beginning, and more often than not devolved into a lovely cacophony—squealing and banging and scratching and smacking and hollering and rattling and so on. People brought pre-recorded tapes and played them into microphones. There was a feedback of every imaginable sort. Feedback was, at that time, where you always started if you were interested in noise. We all did whatever we wanted without regard for any of the conventions of rock music, or any other music, and the performances became squeak and blister fests—a raucous attack of unordered and unlicensed aural disturbances from a disconnected bunch (sometimes three, sometimes one hundred and three ) of, well, hippies. You’d have to say that the fans were hippies, and they were our fans, I guess, part of the culture we were living in during those days, so we were kind of hippies, too, though as I’ve already said, our commitment was something both less and more profound. At heart we were as elitist as could be, but these folks came to our shows and some we knew and most we did not know, but whenever we played, there they were, ready to mount the stage and screech until the last plug was pulled, and there we were, ready to invite them—the Familiar Ugly, we dubbed ’em. We liked what this process produced, in the aural way, because it was (and remains) interesting to hear, a kind of raspberry aimed at almost everybody and everything, which is more or less what we intended, all things considered. In short, the Red Crayola was both a mockery of the California bands and the hippie culture, and an alternative to it, though of course, being as the audience was made up of hippies, nobody really noticed, and that was okay, too, because all we wanted to do was play the crack-ball stuff, be heard, attack whatever conventions were around, and have a good time doing it.

As hippie replicants, we believed in peace and love. Deeply. We played at a club called Love on the corner of Richmond and Shepherd in Houston, and later at some Houston artist’s fake-o mimicry of the Fillmore named the Love Street Light Circus, and some of us were often very drunk or stoned or both. We sometimes also played more conventional pop venues in Houston at the time, mostly the Catacombs, or something like that, behind some ditsy cover bands (the Moving Sidewalks is one I recall). We were the bad boys of Houston music for about half a minute then, and later, when we played in California in the Summer of Love, we were the evil, whack-job, what-the-fuck-are-they-doing? guys at the Berkeley Folk Festival, where the headliners were Richie Havens, Steve Miller Blues Band, Country Joe and the Fish, and the like.

To say that we did not want to play well is, of course, only true if by playing well one means what ninety-nine percent of all human beings on the planet mean when saying it. If you were addressing the other one percent, then we wanted desperately to play like perfect angels. We wanted to make noise, to crack some skulls, and make sounds that stunned, sometimes by remarkable volume, sometimes by a magical syrup of rhythms and tones, and always with noises nobody had ever heard before, at least not as rock music. By now, a thousand years later, the original Red Crayola sounds charmingly old-fashioned, since all kinds of noise music came later, from the Art Ensemble of Chicago, to the 1001 screech–and–squawk bands that are out there now, to the ambient people, to Kronos Quartet at its most aggressive and intentionally bad. The list goes on and on. The truth is that, by accident and design, we were way out ahead of our time, we were packing everything we could think of into the music and slipping it into the culture under the hippie heading, where it never once belonged, but where it nevertheless passed as part of the revolution. From our vantage out on the edge, Zappa and the Velvet Underground, and other more conventionally strange bands, were Vichy-puppet right-wingers, ordinary musicians trying to do something different and still function within the rock & roll framework. We said fuck the framework, listen to this, motherfucker. And then busted your eardrum. And we did it over and over from 1966 to 1968. The first LP, The Parable of Arable Land, which was recorded early on at the Andrus studio, is a wonder if you are wasted, and a poor example otherwise, as the nice guy who recorded it did it on two tracks instead of thirty-two, thus flattening the thing out somewhat. You had to be there? Yes. On top of that, our producer, Lelan Rogers, some relation to Kenny, had this idea to intermingle the songs with the free stuff. Fade the one into the other, you know? Wouldn’t that be cool?

The second LP by the original group, which was released about thirty years later as Coconut Hotel, was a refinement of what we were intrigued by—noise, cut up into hat-size sections. The “one-second-pieces,” where we each played single sounds at unplanned but orchestrated-by-watching-each-other intervals, were a high point, as were various other concept pieces (three minutes of organ, for example, six hands on a piano, pieces for various prepared instruments). This is what the Crayola was about in ’67. This is what we played in the clubs in Houston, and in concerts in California, and what we recorded when we recorded a (possibly still unreleased) LP with the late John Fahey in Berkeley in 1967. This is what we did at the Berkeley Folk Festival, and at the Angry Arts Festival in Venice, California, and at Joan Crystal’s Lousiana Gallery openings, and just about wherever they’d let us back then. We started with “House of the Rising Sun” and a year later were taping contact microphones to our throats, and putting big copper wires in the place as guitar strings, miking ice (Steve Cunningham’s great moment), and trying out small electric motors. The idea was that pure, saintly sound could save you from certain death and that rock & roll was—dare I say it?—fundamentally compromised. We were not entirely wrong, as history has demonstrated.