There are certain performers and bands from your youth that leave an indelible mark. They have a profound influence in shaping your musical aesthetic and become the barometer, against which, all others will be judged. For some it is generally accepted “Godheads” like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. For others, it may be a band from your hometown only a handful saw perform. Often, these lesser-known acts disappear into the ether of your mind-only to come back in a rush of memories, triggered by a song or a friend recounting a time you hadn’t thought about in years.
One of those bands for me was Thelonious Monster, especially their dynamic, conflicted and, I assumed, dead singer/songwriter Bob Forrest. I say this because Forrest and some of his fellow band mates’ drug addictions were hardly a secret. Those lucky enough to have seen Thelonious Monster perform, often witnessed erratic performances, that oscillated between inspired and disastrous-sometimes within the stretch of a few songs. At the center of this storm was the transcendent, boho punk; Forrest.
Forrest was like a raw, exposed nerve. His reedy voice aching with the passion of a life spent living off the rails. I remember him walking out on stage, after the band had just abandoned it in a hail of finger pointing over who was responsible for that night’s meltdown. Forrest, hunched over, eyes obscured by dark sunglasses, began stomping his feet in 4/4 time. He delivered “Mercedes Benz” a capella as if he was channeling Janis Joplin. The words spilled over his lips. They sounded desperate, lonely and cathartic. When he finished, he asked for anyone with heroin to meet him at the end of the bar.
Thelonious Monster formed in Los Angeles in 1986, their name, a play on jazz great Thelonious Monk. They featured a revolving door of LA musicians over the course of seven years, releasing four albums on Epitaph, Relativity, and Capitol. The sound of these records was often as schizophrenic as the band itself. Psychedelic jams giving way to well-crafted pop or acoustic confessionals alongside “bar rock” were not uncommon. All were done with earnestness, highlighted by Forrest’s brutally honest lyrical self-examinations.
The band’s recordings featured music industry notables on both the production and performance side. X’s John Doe produced their third record Stormy Weather and Beautiful Mess contained a duet between Forrest and Tom Waits. Flea, Al Kooper, Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner and Dan Murphy, Benmont Tench, and others contributed over the years.