In Praise of the Obscure

'Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll'

by W. Scott Poole

16 October 2011

A tour of the strange world of the almost-almost famous.
cover art

Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll: Conversations with Unjustly Obscure Rock 'n' Soul Eccentrics

Jake Austen (Editor)

(Duke University Press)
US: Oct 2011

The ‘zine had its heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s. These cut and paste newsletters and comics grew out of the DIY ethic of punk and perhaps as a reaction against the juggernaut of the cultural mainstream. ‘Zines for sci-fi fans and horror movie nerds flourished alongside ‘zines for emerging third wave feminism. It was like scrapbooking for cool people, a pre-internet attempt at democratizing an increasingly routinized world of media and cultural expression.

Music nerds, wondering what to do after The Smiths broke up, also created their ‘zines about all the stuff that wasn’t being played on the radio, bands that would never come to their part of the country and that Rolling Stone would never tell them about. Grunge itself could be seen as an outgrowth of the ‘zine movement since Sub-Pop got its start as a little newsletter that subscribers received along with a cassette tape of new music.

One of the most long lasting of these ‘zines, and one that has kept its underground cred and mission, was Roctober. It was born in 1992 at the Rhode Island School of Design when Jake Austen needed a ‘zine to build around an interview and an exhaustive profile he had written about Sleepy LeBeef, a rockabilly cult figure Austen had seen when LeBeef did a show at a Chinese restaurant called “Chan’s Eggroll and Jazz” in Woonsocket, Rhode Island.

Out of these predictably odd beginnings Roctober had its first issue in October of ’92 when Austen turned to his fellow students to contribute everything from essays to comics to origami designs. While cleaned up a bit today, Roctober is still a ‘zine with the same DIY attitude and mixed-media presentation, issues built around the most in-depth writing about obscure musical figures you will ever likely come across.

Now you may think you know what Roctober is up to because you’ve accomplished the pretty impressive task of collecting every recording that John Hiatt or Tom Waits ever put out. But, sorry, those guys are way too big-time for Roctober. David Allen Coe is about as close to “mainstream” as the ‘zine has ever gotten—and even with him they focus more on his prison time, blues career and bizarre attitudes about race and sexuality than his tentative efforts toward garnering a cult country following.

Duke University Press has done a great service by publishing Flying Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll, a collection of some of Roctober’s most interesting articles culled from almost 2- years of publication. ‘Zine editor Jake Austen edited the collection and it includes an affectionate tribute from famed music producer Steve Albini.  Albini’s short preface sums up the magazines history when he says it never looks “for excuses to dismiss the easily dismissed.”  The obscure and marginal need to have their say and something said about them.

Austen has collected here about ten profiles of creators of various kinds of marginal and eccentric music. This may seem lean but you must understand that Roctober never, ever went for the short interview or the straightforward summary.

Profiles and interviews in this collection run between 30 and 60 pages. Want the most complete profile ever written on blueswoman Sugar Pie Desanto that contains a thorough examination of her relationship to James Brown and Chess records? Wondered what the whole story about David Allen Coe and prison is all about? Ever pondered the back-story of the monster 1965 hit “Wooly Bully” and the group that produced it, “Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs?” It’s here and written about so beautifully and meaningfully that even if you don’t care about these things now, you will once you start reading.

One of the most impressive elements of these profiles, other than the sheer detail, is the loving patience with which these artists are examined, analyzed and, yes, judged. This may be a celebration of the marginal and obscure, but its not a simple geek-out for the sake of the geek-out. Austen and his fellow writers ask tough questions and, at times, point out the reasons why the cult figure (or the not-quite-cult-figure) has just never attracted a large following.

So, for example, they don’t shy away from asking Coe about his infamous and bizarre statements about race and LGBTQ people.  Now, what they learn about this is no simple story and explains why Coe remains totally uncategorizable. He, for example, once wrote an utterly filthy tirade against anti-gay activist Anita Bryant that was itself filled with anti-gay slurs. 

Roctober also writes about some of Coe’s homosexual prison experiences, which Coe has himself talked rather openly about (insisting that he was in ‘the masculine role”). Whatever you make of all this, and after reading the profile you still don’t know exactly what to make of it, it’s exactly the kind of thing that would be utterly glossed in pretty much every other profile of the outlaw country & western star.

And then there’s their profile of the glam band Zolar X, done by Jonathan Poletti. The story of Zory Zenith and his band of spacemen is the strangest thing to be found in this strange compilation. Leading his band of glam rockers in the early ‘70s, a band that sometimes stopped the show to speak in an alien language of their own invention, Zory seems part showman and part madman.

Zenith, for example, remains convinced that he is an android and that a diabolical combination of The Doors and the rise of punk rock prevented Zolar X’s message of “Space Luv” from coming to fruition and reaching a larger audience. Zenith is currently doing prison time and the author’s quest to learn the Zolar X story doesn’t shy away from Zeniths’ darkest of dark sides. It turns out he’s one android with a penchant for explosive violence.

And there’s more, from an extensive profile of jazz musician Oscar Brown Jr. to a look at Armenian-language novelty artist Guy Chookoorian who’s appeared as a musician on, by his count, about 80 different television shows (including Charlies Angels).

Pick up Austen’s collection if you love to explore the strange by-ways of rock music, and to experience some outstanding rock-crit writing. Indeed, consider subscribing to Roctober. You’ll learn even more of the strange world of the almost-almost famous.

Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll: Conversations with Unjustly Obscure Rock 'n' Soul Eccentrics



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