Forewarning: This week’s SoTW is long, even by my shaggy dog standards. What can you do? It’s a long story, spanning 45 years. It was sparked by the recent death of an obscure rock artist with a significant cult following, but quickly moves back to the strange tale of a much more obscure artist, his music, J. Spider Barbour and his band Chrysalis. The story as I tell it is full of detours, tangents, and irrelevencies, so don’t expect a “well-made” dramatic storyline here. Only a bizarre chain of events in which real life and fantasy intertwine in their ironic and inextricable way.
SoTW: Chrysalis, Summer in Your Savage Eyes
There’s been a lot of talk recently about the sad and curious career of Alex Chilton and his band Big Star. At the age of 16 in 1966, Alex fronted The Boxtops’ “The Letter” (‘Gimme a ticket for an ai-ro-rplane’, at 1:50, the shortest #1 hit ever). He formed Big Star in the early 70s, modeled on the British invasion sound, a band whose talent was exceeded only by their absolute commercial failure. There are enough romantic ingredients in the story to spark the morbid imaginations of a critical mass of rock obsessives large enough form around Big Star a cult following which justified the issuing in 2009 a comprehensive 4-CD box was released containing every scrap of music they ever recorded. And then last month Chilton died. So there’s a lot of talk about them, naturally.
Well, I confess, I’d never heard of Big Star, and only marginally of Chilton. But there’s another band whose leader I’d like to talk about this week–a band much more obscure and I think much more talented than Big Star. Much more talented than just about anyone, actually. In fact, Chrysalis is the greatest band no one has ever heard of.
* * *
It all started in 1966. I was a very early devotee of Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, in the days when that was a dubious distinction certain to evoke the concern of parents, the disgust of the respectable citizenry of Cincinnati, and the utter disdain of girls who bathed. Somewhere, probably in a microscopic footnote in a Mothers album liner notes, Zappa called Chrysalis “a group that has yet to destroy your mind”. That was enough to send yours truly scrounging through record bins in remote shopping centers till the LP was found.
Chrysalis was formed in 1967, led by J. Spider Barbour, made one marvelous album and broke up. It sold many dozens of copies throughout the Western hemisphere, mostly to the band member’s families and friends (the close ones, anyway), and to me.
1967, the year of Sgt Pepper, John Wesley Harding, and Jeff is listening to Chrysalis’s ‘Definition’, an album filled with wit and passion and clever arrangements and indelible memories and stunningly sharp performances and just about any superlative I can think of. If we had to categorize it, it would be witty, melodic acid rock. I guess the closest thing would be The Zombies ‘Odessey & Oracle’ or Traffic’s ‘Mr Fantasy’. But Chrysalis has their own unique and unforgettable sound and vision. And they sold many dozens of records.
The very obscurity of the band elevated them to some sort of a symbol for me, though of what I’m not really sure. The curve which approaches the line but never intersects with it. The unattained and the unattainable. The Grail. That which is always slip-sliding away. ‘I opened (the door) for my beloved, but my beloved had slipped away; his speaking had taken my breath away–I sought him, but could not find him, I called him but he didn’t answer.’ (Song of Songs, 5:6, my translation).
I somehow convinced David H. and his girlfriend (the goofy rich one from NY) to travel across state to some small college town to see them. He said they were really excellent, and that the Arab drummer, Daoud Shaar really was my carbon copy. I showed the album cover to my father, who really thought it was me.
I wrote music reviews for the university paper back then. I wrote an extensive, imaginary interview with Daoud, and published it. What was I thinking?
Then my life took me very far away from that scene, from all the great music, famous and obscure alike. At one point, I met a young man, OD, who at the time was I believe in the 9th grade. He was a tall, emaciated, brilliant musician )composer, pianist), obnoxious, non-communicative, anti-social. His talent was widely praised, his personality widely scorned. He was doing some sort of project on the Beatles and was sent to me as a reputed expert. And by the by, we discussed a little music. Over the next 10 years, I taught him everything I knew. Not almost, but everything. We went through the entire repertoire, Buddy Holly to Van Dyke Parks. From the Association to the Zombies, from Eli & the 13th to Astral Weeks, from the Sounds of Silence to — well, Chrysalis. And you know what? Chrysalis sparkled. It still sounded that good, in comparison to all the great music of that era, both to my ears and to his.
We hung out some together, OD and I. Our conversations were something along the line of: “I listened to JWHarding and early Stones yesterday.” “Wow, weird day.” He internalized the entire repertoire. He would sit down and play the slow songs from Pet Sounds on the piano with the real harmonies. Off the cuff. And he started playing with a friend, ET, a guitarist. By this time OD was playing as much guitar as piano. And ET also osmosed all the music I grew up on, all the icons and legends as well. On occasion, he would come over and fondle the record sleeves of The Band or the JT Apple album or Randy Newman’s first. And they would play this music, the two of them, sometimes with friends. Including pretty much the entire Chrysalis album. They were very, very good.
After three years in the army, they went to NYC to try to make their fortune. Then they went to some town in Saskatchewan where grizzlies roamed the streets at night, to play in a bar. Then they split. OD came home, ET continued travelling around America on his own, guitar slung over his shoulder.
We’ll turn the microphone over to ET now to continue the narrative, via a letter he wrote to me in 1996 (my translation from Hebrew):
…A few days ago I went to Woodstock. A few days earlier I got the idea of going to see Big Pink, after I read the book Across the Great Divide. The address was written there, so the lightbulb went on over my head. So I went there, and even though it’s gotten pretty establishment and yuppyized, the area is as beautiful as always, especially in the fall.
So, early in the morning I started to walk out to 2188 Stoll Rd. Map, walkman and harmonica in hand, I walked along a dirt road till I finally got there, deep in the Catskills forest (even saw a deer on the way). Excitedly, I knocked on the door of that legendary basement. But no one was home. So I played my harp for a while and took a long walk, and when I came back a bearded guy, about 50, answered. I told him my story, and that I was from Israel. He was very nice, to my great pleasure, but he had to go out. So I caught a ride with him to town (Saugerties) and he told me to come back the next day and ‘I’ll give you the regular tour’. I asked him how many people made the pilgrimage to this Mecca, if there were a lot of fans pestering him. He said, not too bad, one every 2-3 months… I went back anxiously the next morning, and I felt bad disturbing him in the middle of work (he’s a record collector), but he didn’t seem to mind. His company worked out of the basement, and he showed me where the recording equipment had been when The Band made the Basement Tapes with Dylan. Then we went upstairs, where he lived, and showed me the kitchen, the living room, the bedrooms. On a visit to the house, Rick Danko had told him [details about who slept where, girls, parties].
When the visit was over, and he was showing me out, I suddenly remembered the key question which was usually the first thing I asked any record collector–if he’s heard of Chrysalis. I had done so several times before in Canada and the US, and they had all heard the name only because the album had some market value, but none of them had taken the trouble to pay attention to its content. But Leslie said he had not only heard it, but loved it, and was even opening a small record company which was making a record of dog songs with– Spider Barbour. He told me that Spider lived not too far away. Needless to say, I took the address and flew there, walking, a couple of rides, till I saw the house he had described.
There were a lot of old boxes and cartons outside. The porch was old and neglected. The whole house looked like it was going to fall apart. I stopped by the door for a few moments and just stood there, still.
When I knocked on the door my hands started shaking. You have to understand that ever since I got to know the record through OD, who had known it for a long time through you, 8 years now, I had developed an overwhelming curiosity, maybe even an obsession about this mysterious band. Ever since, I’ve always dreamt about getting another piece of information about them, just a little something more, somehow to put together the pieces of the puzzle and to get the whole picture. The very little I knew was from you.
A while back, before Zappa died, OD and I thought about contacting him through the internet and asking him if he knew anything. But we never did, and when he died it was too late. After that, when we got to NY, one of the first things I did was to go to MGM, Chrysalis’ company, and ask them. They said that they deal only with films, and their archives were in LA. I so I reconciled myself to never knowing more about the Chrysalis mystery. Till yesterday.
So I knock on the door of this weird, haunted house. After a few moments the door opens. I hadn’t looked at the album cover for a long time, but I immediately recognized Spider. I was in total shock. I couldn’t start talking. Then when my voice returned, I told him everything and he invited me in. There was a very strong odor, suffocating would be putting it mildly. I realized that this house hadn’t seen any visitors, or light, for a very long time. Spooky, not to say creepy. And Spider himself was wearing a filthy training outfit that looked like it had been stolen off a homeless person. He looked like another aging hippie done in by drugs. I got very sad, and full of pity, seeing this. But then it became clear, that it’s not drugs or anything else, this guy is just like that naturally. Like he was at 24, when the album was released. He’s simply one of the weirdest, most disconnected people I’ve ever met. If you talk to him about anything other than insects or music, he just doesn’t tune in. So the first few minutes were very strange and hesitant, until his wife Anita came out of the shower and showed herself to be a charming, sociable, pleasant and generous hostess. This entire situation was no less strange and surprising for them than me—how many people come from Israel to the home of the Spider and introduced themselves as avid Chrysalis fans [30 years after the release of a flop album]? Even people from the area or even NY who said they were fans over the years were very few. His wife was so happy I’d come, and began asking me all kinds of questions, showing a lot of curiosity and interest. We sat there, in this mess and darkness, their two big black dogs lying there, and I began to ask all the questions I had ever had, and got more answers than I ever dreamed:
Spider (the J. is for James) was born in Ohio and got his nickname at a very early age. He was always crazy about insects and nature. He met the band members at college in Ithaca, NY. They were quickly signed by MGM and moved to Brooklyn. They appeared in the Northeast (farthest they ever got was Detroit), but mostly Woodstock and NYC. Spider also mentioned a few bands they warmed up for—the Who, Procol Harum, MC5 and others. It was then they met Zappa and the Mothers and became friends (Spider guests on Lumpy Gravy, and is mentioned on We’re Only In It). He lived for a while in Jimmy Carl Black’s house. Very quickly there were problems with the managers and the band broke up. In 1969 he married Anita, and they’ve been together, in Woodstock, ever since.
What happened to the others? Nancy Nairn is a Marine Biologist, living in Florida. Still beautiful, according to Anita. Ralph Kokov, the keyboardist, is a doctor of Art Therapy and still plays for fun. Dahud Shaar, the drummer, is the only one who ‘made it’ in Show Biz. As you know, he played with Van Morrison and then was the regular drummer on Saturday Night Live. He still makes his living from session drumming. He changed his name to David Shaw, because a lot of Americans had a hard time with the Lebanese name. The tragedies of the band – bassist Paul Album and guitarist Jon Sabin died. I was very sad to hear this. Paul was very young, about 27, when one night coming back from his new group, a drunk truck driver hit him. Jon died from cancer recently. He had been a teacher in Brooklyn. The other four are still in contact here and there. They’ll probably be really shocked when Spider and Anita tell them about their young fan from the Holy Land…
And what about Spider himself? The usual sad story of a very talented artist lacking the tools to succeed in doing what he wants in music. For years he and Anita have lived in poverty, living off pickup jobs. He still forms the occasional local band. But this story has a better continuation. Spider was always an expert on insects and nature, and Anita was an excellent photographer. They now have a column in the local paper and even published a book together. I saw it, and was amazed by her photographs. Spider lectures about insects at all sorts of institutions, including West Point. So even though the house looks like a dump, they’re doing better…
When Chrysalis finished recording their album, they had an argument with the manager, who was a real hothead. He took a pair of scissors and cut the master tape. That’s why Summer in Your Savage Eyes ends so abruptly.
Spider picked up his acoustic guitar and played What Will Become of the Morning the way he originally intended it. It was very different, of course, from the version we know, much slower. The Mediterranean rhythms were the idea of Shaar and Kotkov. Dr. Root is a real person, one of Spider’s high school teachers in Canton, Ohio.
But the best was when I asked Spider if I could play him something on his acoustic. I surprised him with the opening riff of April Grove. He joined in, and while he was lighting the oven we sang it together. Anita sat there, almost in tears from emotion. I had the feeling I was bringing them a little light after a long time…
Then I heard some newer songs Spider wrote. They’re as good as those of Chrysalis. He’s a great songwriter. Same beautiful, magic harmonies, same unique, weird lyrics. It was easy to see the disappointment and bitterness in Anita’s eyes when she told me about all the demos he had made and the attempts to sell them to the companies. They often seemed more like mother and child than husband and wife. They played some of the songs to Garth Hudson, but he didn’t like them. Anita seemed more hurt than Spider. He just sinks into his magical, child’s world of insects and music.
He recorded an EP with a band called Imago (a type of insect). Four songs, 1980. They gave me a copy as a present. They invited me for lunch, and Anita gave me a painting of hers of two apples.
We talked a lot about music, and it turns out that you (Mesh), he and I have very much the same tastes. He was amazed that a kid like me had that kind of knowledge. He and his wife are friends of Sebastian and his wife. The whole time I was there I kept mentioning you, and your connection to this whole thing. If you want, you can write to him (mention the connection with me):
Barbour J. Spider and Anita
3000 Fishcreek Rd
Saugerties NY 12477
* * *
I, of course, never wrote Spider. I would have no idea what to say to him. But I sure do like ET’s tale. And I suppose I can handle the safer, saner ground of a little stroll down my very personal, private Musical Memory Lane.
Like almost all 1967 LPs, ‘Definition’ contained 12 songs, a bizarre and charming hodgepodge of insects, love, and the weird old man next door:
Show me one song that expresses the aesthetic of the late 1960s better than this one:
Their signature pieces, first songs on Side A and Side B, baroque piano line, jagged joyous rhythms.
Dad and his day, the weird neighbor, the myths of living in the past.
Love and life.
03. Cynthia Gerome – What a beautiful, aching melody. Cynthia Gerome, it works just for a while, dragging people home by the leash of your sweet smile. Ay.
Lake Hope was calling me, October witnesses were there
So I took her with me, I knew just what would occur there.
That’s why I had to take her there.
So I called on our Michael, it was so far, and he was willing to drive us.
Gathered up her paintbrushes ran to the car. But for the squirrels it was quiet.
Lake Hope reality, seems so ethereal floating.
And the finality of her embrace left me groping–satisfied yes, but still groping…
For the secret of metaphysical joy there in her body’s caresses.
Love is but to play with a girl like a toy, yes but nobody confesses.
Lake Hope was calling me, I knew just what would occur there.
So I took her with me, only could do it with her there.
That’s why I couldn’t take you there.
Our Song of The Week, and what a pleasure it is to share it with you. Anything I could say would just detract from its unique charm and beauty. If you’ve stuck with me all the way to here, please do me one small favor – when you listen to it, tip your hat to Spider, wherever he may be.
Windy afternoon stirs dust around us with a rusty spoon
Chasing after leaves and playing catch with raindrops.
Glancing about me your eyes begin to speak of what should be.
Telling me I’m here and suddenly the pain stops.
Seems like every time I ran away from home my new life makes me feel like being born
And then the way you follow me around tells me that I’ve found the rainbow.
Love embraced diverse, uncultivated children of the earth
And sunlight seems to dance across the skies, like summer in your savage eyes.