TERRY GROSS, HOST:
One of the great fantasies of the hippie era was that new combinations of music would emerge from the experimentation that was going on. But our rock historian Ed Ward says that in practice, all that really happened was that a few blues bands stretched out more and a few short-lived bands made weird noises. There were a few exceptions, though, and Ed is going to tell us about one of them: Insect Trust.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
THE INSECT TRUST: (Singing) Sun shines in the country, and it lights up the sky. Sun comes to the city, and it goes right on by. Everything is tall here. Nothing is high. Peel another layer, find out what's inside. I hear you walking...
ED WARD, BYLINE: They were an odd group of people: free jazzers, hippie rockers, old-timey and country-blues musicians. The guitarist, Bill Barth, had been one of the re-discoverers of Skip James, while one of the saxophonists, Robert Palmer, had grown up next door to a black kid named Ferrell Sanders, who went on to call himself Pharoah. Partially, at least, the band started in Arkansas, where, calling themselves The Primitives, they made a little splash by recording a 45 that was immediately taken off the market because Thomas Pynchon sued them. They'd taken the lyrics from his novel "V" without asking permission.
The band, such as it was - Barth, Palmer and vocalist Nancy Jeffries - drifted to Memphis after that and named themselves after a sinister group in a William Burroughs novel, "The Insect Trust." A baritone saxophonist, Trevor Koehler, joined up, as did Luke Faust, who'd made a name for himself around New York as a banjoist. Despite not having a rhythm section, the band played around town, and somehow got a recording deal with Capitol in 1968.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
THE INSECT TRUST: (Singing) Be wary of the ground you walk. Be cautious of the words you talk. There's burning coals along the way. Tread lightly, or you'll have to pay. Walking on nails will be as light as can be. Nails sharp as daggers hurt you and me.
WARD: Their album featured an odd mandala painted by Faust on its cover, and a bunch of songs that sounded like nothing else: mostly originals, with a nearly eight-minute rave-up on Skip James' "Special Rider Blues" that brought the free jazz right out front while flavoring it with some Memphis soul feeling.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPECIAL RIDER BLUES")
THE INSECT TRUST: (Singing) Hurry, sundown and see what tomorrow brings. Hurry, sundown, and see what tomorrow brings. It may bring my man, may bring most anything. Got no special rider here. Got no, no, no, no special rider here. I ain't got nobody to love and feel my care.
WARD: Predictably, the album did nothing, sales-wise, although a friend of mine who'd grown up with Robert Palmer alerted me to it, and I reviewed it in Rolling Stone. The fact that so many styles of American music could coexist so peacefully and creatively seemed to me to be a goal that musicians should be working for. It was a remarkable album, and it seemed a shame not many people got to hear it.
What was really remarkable was that, somehow or other, The Insect Trust got a second chance a year later, thanks to a new manager who got the band signed to Atco Records. By this time, the band was squatting in an apartment building in Hoboken, New Jersey, with a commanding view of the New York skyline from its roof. Barth, Jeffries and Palmer got together and wrote the album's title track, a celebration of their new home.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOBOKEN SATURDAY NIGHT")
THE INSECT TRUST: (Singing) Living down in Hoboken. I'm playing in a game I can't win. Heavy gray skies, time keeps slipping by. I'm living out and I'm trying to get in. Make it to the corner for a beer. We might as well get down as long as we're down here. Spanish music fills your ears with light. Good enough for Hoboken Saturday night.
WARD: "Hoboken Saturday Night" was even better than their first album. They were stretching out, finding new ground, and they recorded the Pynchon song again, this time with permission from its author.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE EYES OF A NEW YORK WOMAN")
THE INSECT TRUST: (Singing) The eyes of a New York woman are the twilight side of the moon. Nobody knows what goes on back there and where it's always late afternoon. Under the lights of Broadway and far from the lights of home, with a smile just as sweet as a candy cane and a heart all plated with chrome.
WARD: Robert Palmer's recorder solo in this song is his finest moment on record, in my opinion, and Nancy Jeffries gives the lyrics all she's got. The band had a bigger budget on this album, too, and among the additional players are bassist Bill Falwell, who'd recorded with Albert Ayler, and one of the greatest drummers of all time, Elvin Jones.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
THE INSECT TRUST: (Singing) To lie with you on a rolling windy hillside, peacefully watching the clouds dancing across the soft sky, I love you. Our sister the sun says it too. I love you. I love you. I do.
WARD: The band toured, and I got to see them twice - once at a disastrous concert I promoted at my college. They were even better live than they were on the record, although people still didn't get what they were trying to do. Back in Hoboken, the band quietly fell apart bit by bit.
I was able to get Robert Palmer some writing work at Rolling Stone, and he went on to become a star at The New York Times and he wrote a couple of excellent books about music before dying in 1997. Nancy Jeffries got a job at Elektra Records, where she eventually rose to vice-president.
Trevor Koehler battled drug abuse and killed himself in 1976, and Barth was living in Amsterdam when a heart attack killed him in 2000. Luke Faust continues to live quietly in Austin. To this day, though, nobody has come close to the heart of American music traveling from the direction The Insect Trust did. I wish someone would try.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in France. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new novel about a woman who can't stop eating. It's called "The Middlesteins." This is FRESH AIR.