Generally labels do reissues to make some easy money, either by pouncing on a buzz band’s little-heard back catalog or by whipping up a “special edition” of a beloved classic for fans who can be suckered into buying it again. But every so often somebody reissues a record that sank into obscurity when it first came out in hopes that a second go will help connect it with the audience it deserves. This is a nobler undertaking, but also a dicier one: not only is the label putting money on a proven loser, it’s also dealing with an artist who’s probably burned out, disenchanted with the music biz, or dead.
Drag City has already scored with its reissue of Gary Higgins’s lone album, 1973’s Red Hash, which transformed an aging hippie with a minuscule cult following into a critics’ darling. The label has also tried its hand with previously unreleased material of a similar vintage: this summer it issued a rehearsal tape from the Children of the Sixth Root Race, a psych band formed in the early 70s by members of a California commune called the Source Family (guitarist Djin Aquarian is sitting in with the Plastic Crimewave Sound on Thursday at the Hideout), and later this month it’s releasing an album of early-80s recordings by Appalachian folk singer Nimrod Workman.
But of all the acts Drag City is trying to rescue from the edge of oblivion, the most fascinating and obscure has to be John Henry Timmis IV, aka J.T. IV, a glam-punk savant who died in 2002, almost 15 years after his last single. On November 18 the label will release a ten-track collection of Timmis’s music called Cosmic Lightning through the Galactic Zoo Disk imprint run by Steve Krakow, aka Plastic Crimewave—who last winter featured J.T. IV in the Secret History of Chicago Music strip he does for the Reader.
Before word of this project got out, it’s safe to say Timmis’s fans numbered in the low hundreds, and most of them had probably heard him only on an obscure 2004 punk comp called Staring Down the Barrel. Timmis self-released four singles and one LP while living in and around Chicago in the 80s, all in small pressings, and very few have survived—Cosmic Lightning curator Robert Manis says there are only two known copies of the first seven-inch. A fifth, recorded in ’83, was never even pressed, but Timmis included the tracks that would’ve been on it when he put together his 1987 compilation LP, also called Cosmic Lightning.
Manis heard Staring Down the Barrel about three years ago while living in Portland, Oregon, and decided that its one J.T. IV track, “Death Trip,” wasn’t enough. Aided by an online network of similarly obsessive punk collectors and abetted by his wife, who’d been born in Chicago and wanted to go back, Manis moved here in June 2007 and has spent the past year tracking down Timmis’s music and piecing together his story.
According to Manis, Timmis was born in 1961 in Warren, Pennsylvania, and spent part of his childhood in Athens, Ohio, where his father taught at Ohio University. In his meandering, sarcastic, self-serving memoir, From the Inside—it’s still unpublished, but Manis gave me a copy of the first 40 pages—Timmis describes an abusive home life. His parents separated and his mother brought him to Chicago, but Timmis’s problems weren’t over. He’d run away several times before his mother committed him to the Menninger Clinic in 1976—as far as Manis can tell, she thought he might be schizophrenic.
Between leaving Menninger a year or so later and ditching Chicago for good, Timmis moved around a lot—Evanston, Winnetka, Harwood Heights, Northbrook, East Rogers Park—and for a time even studied psychology at Ohio U. He worked on several projects that combined insanity and accessibility in varying ratios, including the 85-hour film The Cure for Insomnia, according to Guinness the world’s longest—the excerpt I watched jumps from professional-looking action scenes to newsreel footage of Hitler to Timmis talking at the camera. But his greatest passion seems to have been music.
Drag City’s Cosmic Lightning opens with the one-two punch of Timmis’s first single: “Waiting for the CTA,” a wiggy, sax-crazy rewrite of the Velvets’ “I’m Waiting for the Man,” and “Death Trip,” a reverbed-out dose of punky, paranoid garage that shares more than its title with a Stooges number. Timmis’s “destructo rock,” as he called his style, mostly falls between these two poles—he seems to have been trying to bend sounds lifted from idols like Lou Reed and Alice Cooper to fit his own psychedelic vision.
Timmis liked to act as though he were already a star: he’d videotape himself singing along to his own songs and hire musicians to play live shows with him and film them for concert movies. But he never seems to have made a sustained attempt to win an audience larger than a few friends, and even when he recorded in a proper studio his music had a rough-around-the-edges feel. Often he simply gave his records away.
“He was an antisocial megalomaniac,” says Manis. “He wanted to be this legend but he didn’t have the balls to pursue that. He never wanted to get onstage. Those performances were just parties, self-promotions that he put on himself. I doubt that there was anyone in the audience. He probably just had a group of friends film him and clap.” And Manis has talked to some of Timmis’s old buddies who say he had to get “incredibly fucked up” in order to play even then. “He was an abuser of everything,” Manis adds: booze, weed, coke, heroin. Late in his life he also struggled with anorexia and bulimia.
Timmis’s few stabs at self-promotion seem more like an extension of his theatrical bent than a publicity campaign. Toward the end of his time in Chicago he sent an announcement to local newspapers saying he’d been disfigured in a car accident (or a motorcycle accident—the story has mutated in the telling) and would henceforth be performing in masks under the name Frankenstein. According to Timmis’s friend and collaborator Lee Groban, there never was a crash—the whole stunt seems to have been some sort of homage to David Carradine’s character in Death Race 2000.
Timmis left town in the late 80s, moving first to Athens and then to rural Pennsylvania, but nobody seems to know much about those years. Manis says Timmis’s brother-in-law saw some J.T. IV CDs at Timmis’s home in Pennsylvania, but they might’ve been burns of his old records, not new material. Timmis died in 2002, at the age of 40, from complications related to alcoholism.
Cosmic Lightning is available through Drag City only as an LP and comes with a DVD of live, studio, and home footage, mostly from a videotape that one of Timmis’s drummers, John Sudler, recently found behind some hay in his barn. (You can also buy the album on iTunes without the DVD.) The packaging includes reproductions of promo materials, the VHS cover for a porno Timmis made called The Love Quest, and a few photocopied blurbs about The Cure for Insomnia. To maintain the music’s homemade sound, Manis and engineer Bob Weston transferred it from the original vinyl—the master tapes are long lost—with no additional EQ or compression. And for the cover, instead of using an image of Timmis from one of his concert shoots—decked out in medallions and a double-necked guitar in full-on crazy-rocker mode—Manis chose a yearbook photo from New Trier, where he looks sad but still innocent, oblivious to his future.v
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