Dig a little below the surface and you’ll find in our cumulative 45 rpm output a discography of the strangest musical impulses. Rare were the financial returns great for the independently pressed 45 record but rare was its overhead, either. Its inexpensiveness has made it, since the early ‘50s, the first (and last, often) commercial frontier of America’s idiosyncratic visionaries and of its overlooked, exotic, homespun and most anti-social musical niches. I tend to rhapsodize endlessly about this relationship on Office Naps. Visionaries and musical niches, though: these are forces that redeem American culture.
Such dynamics, the subtle balance of economic and creative energies, were still going strong in the mid and late ‘60s. The 45 was still the predominant format in much of popular music, including rock ‘n’ roll – though not for much longer – and examples of unconventional 45 records were just as ample, if not more ample, in 1968 as they were in 1958. It’s simply that, of the unusual or nominally experimental records that were issued commercially, they were then more likely to be the work of rock musicians, psychedelic individualists like Syd Barrett and Roky Erickson and the Holy Modal Rounders. In the guise of psychedelia, their freakishness would even perversely capture a fleeting commercial potential.
That’s what’s different about the selections this week, all recorded and released in the mid- and late ‘60s, the psychedelic era. They are likely strange by most listeners’ standards. Nonetheless they are neither rock nor psychedelic. They seem to be from some different moment, like beatnik artifacts washed up in a later decade. Their anomaly only seems to increase the profundity of their strangeness.
1. Kali Bahlu, Lonely Teardrops (Terra)
The enigmatic Kali Bahlu was a young woman in 1967 when she released her Cosmic Remembrance LP on the then-foundering World-Pacific record label. A swirling tableau of gongs, sitars, tablas and Bahlu’s Buddhist chanting and fairy-tale ruminations, Cosmic Remembrance is an album known for its general incongruity and for testing listeners’ patience. For all of its faux-Eastern artifice and Bahlu’s voice – sometimes a feral soprano, sometimes a jarring, child-like babble – Cosmic Remembrance is nonetheless quite unique, a relic that stands apart from its era. (Hear an excerpt of the album’s “A Cosmic Telephone Call” here).
“Lonely Teardrops” – Bahlu’s first recording, I believe – is not wholly dissimilar from the otherworldly atmosphere of her Cosmic Remembrance LP. It’s just much better. It’s also Kali Bahlu singing from some grimmer place. The ominous rumblings, Bahlu’s naked, if indecipherable, emotion, the wonderfully stark gloom: those of us drawn to sunless, wintry tundras find much to love in the remarkable “Lonely Teardrops.” This is the reason bears hibernate. Brighter days lay ahead for Kali Bahlu, however – they could hardly get any bleaker.
Whether it was the Bahlu of “Lonely Teardrops” banging on a detuned guitar – or the beatific Bahlu rambling in sing-song tones about Lord Buddha and “clocks of never” on Cosmic Remembrance – this is clearly someone on a separate psychic plane. Often referred to as acid-influenced, that is perhaps a disservice to the peculiar experience of Kali Bahlu, whose Californian, pseudo-Buddhist cosmic consciousness just happened to synchronize with hippie sensibilities.
Kali Bahlu would later be involved in some capacity with a few hens-teeth-obscure ‘70s albums of Eastern-inspired singing and commune vibes by the Los Angeles hippie-rock group Lite Storm. Bizarrely, Bahlu was more recently spotted in Taiwanese filmmaker Mei-Juin Chen’s film Hollywood Hotel.
I’ve found no conclusive information on Terra Records or this selection’s producer, Michael O’Shanessey. I believe “Lonely Teardrops” was recorded in 1966 or 1967.
2. George Loa and Maui Loa (Little Brother), Polynesian Chant of Green Creation: Cosmic Climax (Green Power)
The brothers Loa, this week’s mystery artists.
This is Hawaiian cosmology reinvented for a headier moment in history. The flute and conga drum channel grooviness. Same for the sexual overtones of the selection’s spoken-word introduction and title. The haunting call-and-response chanting seems authentic enough, but whether or not it was a pre-coital dance of the Polynesian gods is anyone’s guess.
There’s nothing one can definitively point out as either a precedent or an obvious target audience for 1969’s “Cosmic Climax. “ One might have found it being sold from ads in the back of a Stag magazine or peddled to shell-bar tourists. It might have been handed to you at last summer’s gathering of the tribe. Whoa, thanks man. But let’s not mistake the 45 rpm record for a medium that demands market analysis or committed commercial vision. It can be many visions all at once. It can be a great mass of anthropologically incorrect, conflicting intentions.
“Cosmic Climax” was recorded in Hawaii or possibly Los Angeles.
3. Miriam, Catwalk (Tanqueray)
“Catwalk” is the handiwork of the Hollywood actress Miriam Byrd-Nethery and her husband Clu Gulager, an actor, too, and later an aspiring filmmaker.
Miriam Byrd-Nethery (born 1929 in Arkansas) and Clu Gulager (born a year earlier in Oklahoma) met in the theater department at Baylor University, married and found their first professional theater and television work in New York City. Relocating to Hollywood in the late ‘50s, Gulager would go on to distinguish himself as a prolific genre actor in both movies and television, including deputy sheriff Emmett Ryker in TV’s The Virginian, rig-hand-and-ladies-man Abilene in The Last Picture Show and contract killer Lee in The Killers. Starting with 1985’s Return of the Living Dead, Gulager’s work as horror movie stock character revived an acting career that continues today, albeit at a subdued pace.
Miriam, too, managed her own small-time acting career in Hollywood, but if it was Gulager who enjoyed the spotlight, theirs would first be a marriage, then family, energized above all by a spirit of collaboration and the noblest of artistic endeavors: filmmaking. Their obsession wit
h producing films – including the family’s eight years in Tulsa trying unsuccessfully to realize their grisly serial killer horror noir Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! (its saga detailed in an engrossing 1997 LA Weekly article) – put them on the brink of starvation.
None of this does anything but increase the charm of this maverick and quintessentially American couple, whose lust for creative, budget-minded expression reached early fruition on “Catwalk,” a slice of pure Sunset Strip eccentricity from 1967. Ever wonder what really goes inside the actors studio? This is it.
Miriam Byrd-Nethery passed away in 2003.