CORKY’S DEBT TO HIS FATHER
Let’s take the story of popular music to be like a drive down Main Street. Branching off from the central thoroughfare of music history are occasional culs-de-sac, blind alleys occupied by influential individual musicians, groups, and sometimes single records. One can’t exactly explain why or how these musicians fit into the scheme of things, whom they influence, how their music changes the status quo–in short, where their music goes. They create no school, no movement, no new style or fad. They simply start, make something, then stop–like a scenic road to nowhere.
What does it mean, for instance, when it is suggested that Captain Beefheart was an influential segment on the music history boulevard? The Cap’n was unquestionably a pop genius, but his oblique poetics, his mutated Howlin’ Wolf vocal style, and his experimental surgery on pop music forms were all so singularly idiosyncratic that anyone who follows up or builds on them directly has a hard time sounding like anything but an imitator. Case in point: Tom Waits, especially in his lauded triptych Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, and Frank’s Wild Years. One listen and it’s clear that by 1983 Waits’s heart was full of beef.
The reissuing of Mayo Thompson’s only solo record puts a brilliant, under-recognized cul-de-sac back on the musical map. First released in his hometown of Houston in a miniscule edition on Texas Revolution Records in 1970 (and reissued on vinyl in the mid-80s), Corky’s Debt to His Father followed Thompson’s late-60s records Parable of Arable Land and God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It, both of which included Thompson as a member of the group the Red Crayola (for the second LP they had to change the C to a K after the surprisingly attentive crayon company complained).
Where other Thompson records center on topics like politics, aesthetics, and linguistics, the basic theme of Corky’s is sex. Lewd, vivid, pungent, curious, randy, lecherous, Nabokovian, decidedly heterosexual sex. Sex as preoccupation, sex as control, sex as delectation, sex as worship, sex as sex. The record’s first lyrics establish an agenda: “I’m a student of human nature / And all my lessons I have learned for free / I held your little breast in my hand / And kept my eyes on your knee.” Thompson’s garden of earthly delights is full of wit and hokum humor, constructed with particular rhetorical savvy. Indeed writer Frederick Barthelme played drums in the original Red Crayola and coscripted the song “Black Legs” on Corky’s. On “Side Two to You” he ends a striking image with a bold-faced punch line: “Like an old shoe / You are the one / With your tongue hanging out / And your laces undone. . . . Still I’m dying to get you to come, just to be my girl.”
Thompson delivers his literate bawd in a voice unlike any other: gangly, guileless, relaxed, at times disarmingly out of tune, with an endearing and slightly boyish falsetto. On Red Crayola records, Thompson fuses elements of avant-garde with rock, but here his southern roots are showing. The music has an easy, folksy feel, the crack band laying down a down-home ambience that’s unkempt in a precise way. Perhaps the most wonderful aspect of the record is its spare orchestration–on “Around the Home” timpani and eerie background singers set an off-kilter circuslike tone, while horns and subtle little percussion sounds sneak underneath in unexpected ways. With its ripping three-chord chorus riff, “Worried Worried” is a prepunk classic, while “Oyster Thins” starts with a dodecaphonic guitar/vocal line that segues into a bluesy march, replete with brushes on snare drum. “Dear Betty Baby” is the record’s most poignant point, with a gorgeous acoustic guitar part played by Thompson himself.
The quarter century since the release of Corky’s has been productive for Thompson. In the mid-70s he moved to London, where he worked with Rough Trade Records, shaping a generation of do-it-yourselfers and producing records by folks from the Fall to James Blood Ulmer. Thompson lived in Germany for some time and recently returned to the States. After a hiatus, the Red Crayola has begun recording again with renewed vigor. Their current single, “14” backed with “Stink Program,” will be followed by Thompson’s first full-length album recorded in the U.S. in 20 years, featuring Chicago guitarist David Grubbs (Squirrel Bait, Bastro, Gastr del Sol), California guitarist Tom Watson (Overpass, Slovenly), German synthesizer artiste Albert Oehlen, and Chicago drummer John McEntire (Tortoise, the Sea and Cake).
You won’t find Mayo Thompson mentioned in nine out of ten rock ‘n’ roll history books. Neither a leader nor a disciple, he’s managed to slip off the map. And since he treats each new record as a conceptually separate project, each release is a sort of cul-de-sac of its own, separate from the others and not connecting back up with the main highway on which a band or musician’s life is usually routed. We don’t see any “growth” or “maturation” over Thompson’s career; instead, each record creates and fulfills its own conditions of existence. Park your car awhile at the end of the lane called Corky’s Debt to His Father. See, a cul-de-sac ain’t necessarily a dead-end street.