LIANE HANSEN, host:
His real name is George Frayne. But if youre an old enough rocker, you probably know him as Commander Cody, who along with his Lost Planet Airmen, has been making music on and off for decades and decades and decades.
(Soundbite of song, "Smoke Smoke Smoke That Cigarette")
COMMANDER CODY (Musician, artist): (Singing) Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette. Puff, puff, puff and if you puff yourself to death. Tell Saint Peter at the Golden Gate that you just hate to make him wait. You just gotta have another cigarette.
HANSEN: The piano-playing Commander's work sits prominently on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the Top 100 albums of all time. But along with the boogie-woogie, swing, country and rock, there is another side to Commander Cody: George Frayne, the visual artist.
He has a master's degree in sculpture and painting from the University of Michigan, has exhibited his work from Austin to Tokyo, has a video in the Museum of Modern Art. And now, has a new book called "Art, Music and Life."
His quotation on the cover sums it up pretty well, "I have been painting for a long time. I have been rocking for almost as long. The tales of adventures in both cases run together, and in some cases, intersect. Here are the stories and the art of these moments."
George Frayne, aka Commander Cody, joins us now from member station WUSF in Tampa, Florida. Welcome to the program.
COMMANDER Cody (Artist/Author): Greetings from the sunny South.
HANSEN: And do I call you George? Do I call you Commander? Do I call you Cody? How would you want to be referred to?
COMMANDER CODY: Any one of the three. People call me all those things and more.
HANSEN: Okay. Well, we'll see what happens. This is, I mean, a really entertaining book, just thumbing through it. Youve got pop art portraits of musical legends from Willie Nelson and Jerry Garcia to Sarah Vaughan and drawing of a mammoth as a machine, an elaborately painted sculpture of a horse, lots of automobile grills. Are you inspired by a lot of things?
COMMANDER CODY: Well, yeah. There's...
(Soundbite of laughter)
COMMANDER CODY: You can say that. Yeah, its absolutely true. I've been collecting images of, you know, boy-type things when I was a kid. You know, cars, planes, trains, anything like that. For instance, if you take a look, there's a Harley Davidson and it looks like a motorcycle. And if I zero in, okay, there's the engine. You go way inside the engine and you can't tell what it is until you back up and get the perspective on it.
And that intricate little inner portrait is the kind of thing that we do. I'll take a Harley engine and concentrate on the heating vane and stuff like that.
HANSEN: You say in the book though, I'm probably the only musician who actually stayed in art school. Was there a constant tug between music and art? And how did you manage to balance both?
COMMANDER CODY: It was actually a lot easier than that for me when I was in school, 'cause I started out not really being anything more than a guy that could play a little boogie woogie piano. And we wound up playing at frat parties. We did "Wooly Bully" three times a night, "Louie, Louie" more than that, and made a couple of hundred bucks a week.
And the people from Wisconsin State University, it's now University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh, Wisconsin - called me up and said, for 25 grand a year why dont I come there and start a sculpture department. And I got there and it was freezing cold and they gave me a garage with no heat in it. A couple of months later, I said this is really ridicules. It's 20 below.
My friend Bill Kirchen, the guitar player - famous guitar player now - is out in San Francisco and he's telling me that all the bands out there are starting to become a little countrified. Jerry Garcia is learning how to play pedal steel guitar. You better go out here. And I got to California on June 4, 1969, and by August 28th, we were opening up for The Grateful Dead.
HANSEN: Oh, we want to play a little bit of your most famous song from those days. It's from your first album "Lost in the Ozone," "Hot Rod Lincoln."
COMMANDER CODY: Ah, the big hit.
HANSEN: Yeah, let's reflect a bit.
(Soundbite of song, "Hot Rod Lincoln")
COMMANDER CODY: (Singing) My Pappy said, son youre going to drive me to drinking if you don't stop driving that hot rod Lincoln. Have you heard the story of the hot rod race where the Fords and the Lincolns were setting the pace? That story is true, I'm here to say, that I was driving that Model A. Got a Lincoln motor and it's really souped up. That Model A body makes it look like a pup. It's got eight cylinders and uses them all. Got overdrive, just won't stall.
HANSEN: Ah, it's nice to have a little nostalgia.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HANSEN: Brings up your love of cars. You know, your book, you have anecdotes of this bygone era. You actually start off with a Hunter Thompson event, which opens with the line: Yes, it's true that the late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson once tossed a bomb into my hotel room.
COMMANDER CODY: It wasnt like a bomb. It was more like a bowling ball size group of M-80s all gaffers-taped together. So the bomb didnt go off kaboom. It went off ba, ba, bam, bam, bam, bam.
HANSEN: Oh, my goodness.
(Soundbite of laughter)
COMMANDER CODY: At the time, this was a bummer. But now it makes a great story.
HANSEN: It makes a good story. You know, and I turn the page, the next thing I see is Louis Armstrong. And you were actually what, sort of providing security for...
COMMANDER CODY: Yes. At Jones Beach, you know - I dont know if everyone knows where Jones Beach is...
HANSEN: In New York.
COMMANDER CODY: But Jones Beach is in New York on the southern part of Long Island. And they gave a bunch of us the job of being security at the Jones Beach Marine Theatre, which now does rock concerts and stuff like that.
Well, they were doing "Showboat," and then after the show, Louie would do an hour and a half live show. In between shows, I was backstage and I twisted one up and I was smoking away, you know, making sure nobody saw what I was doing. And then this giant face, all of a sudden I see behind the (unintelligible), with that one and only smile, he goes, yes, yes, yes. Looks good.
I said - I go over to him and I took a toke off the joint. I went over, hand it to him, I said, listen, why dont you go back and turn the boys on to this. And he did. And he sent his manager or his valet or somebody came out and said, well, Mr. Armstrong would really like to thank you for the gauge, and told me that following story that I have in the book about Louie coming back from Africa. And every African chief in the world gave him his own personal stash, so Louie's trumpet case is full of weed.
And they're lining up to go through customs at JFK and Louie is on the end of the line. He realizes, when I get down to the end he's going to get busted. So at that same moment, the famous Richard Nixon, South American tour - we almost got killed by the mob - happens to coincide and into the customs area comes Richard Nixon, followed by all the press, click, click, click, flashbulbs, flashbulbs, hug, hug. How you doing? How you doing, Louie? Hands him the trumpet case and Richard Nixon walks the trumpet case through customs.
(Soundbite of laughter)
COMMANDER CODY: And they're out and he's home free.
HANSEN: I want to flash forward a little bit with your career. I mean, you and your Airmen, your fortunes waxed and waned over the years. You made some poor albums. The band broke up, you semi-retired from music and concentrated on painting. But then you reformed the Airmen. Last year you recorded your first album in almost 20 years on Blind Pig Records...
Mr. FRAYNE: Right.
HANSEN: ...and "Dopers, Drunks and Everyday Losers." I want everyone to hear your remake of your earlier classic "Wine Do Your Stuff."
(Soundbite of song, "Wine Do Your Stuff")
COMMANDER CODY: (Singing) Today was the last day of business for a fool. So I stopped in here like I always do before I lose my cool. I need to make my mind relax, I think I've had enough. Come on wine, wine, wine, do your stuff.
HANSEN: I have to say, in this era of clean and sober living, your songs and stories are unabashedly pro-decadence. Is that the stand you still take?
COMMANDER CODY: Yes, thank you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
COMMANDER CODY: Someone's got to carry the flag.
HANSEN: Well, is it fun to be out there playing gigs again? It sounds like it is.
COMMANDER CODY: Oh, it sure is. You know, not just playing three sets, four sets a night at sleazy bars, you know. I'm back doing the regular show bars and the comeback has been really great. I mean, who would've known that I would even live to be 65 years old, let alone be healthy and doing really well? Well, healthy except for the fact that I still walk with a little bit of a limp from the giant collision I got into. But other than that, I'm doing pretty good. And Lord knows, I'm still alive and rocking.
HANSEN: Sure. And can you separate the satisfaction you get from music from the satisfaction of making art? Or is it all part of it all?
COMMANDER CODY: Well, yeah. It's completely different.
COMMANDER CODY: Completely different. Because as soon as you finish your last note of your last set when youre playing, it's over. You know, and the only way to get back into that feeling is to come back at another time and another stage and do it again. When you do art it's there and you live with it from day-to-day, you live with it from hour-to-hour.
A lot of times I'll do a painting and it's not going very well and sometimes I'll paint that over with white and start again. Sometimes I'll put it aside and pick it up five years later.
HANSEN: George Frayne, also known as Commander Cody. His new book is called "Art, Music and Life." Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us.
COMMANDER CODY: My pleasure. My pleasure. Thanks a lot.
(Soundbite of music)
HANSEN: You can see paintings by George Frayne and hear Commander Cody's music at NPRMusic.org.