Replace the Great Man theory of rock with a social history approach, and the narrative changes dramatically. Instead of Elvis, Jimi, Kurt and the Hall of Fame gang, we get an endless series of basements and garages inhabited by young people who went on to be teachers, steel workers, architects, anything but rock stars. We get Guided by Voices pressing 500 copies of albums for an audience one tenth that size in 1980s Ohio. We get Quietus and Hyperplastic, whose respective Slayer-inspired riffs and genius anthem “Smoldering Resentment” were heard by approximately no one outside LaCrescent, Minnesota (population 5,000), where I went to high school in the 1990s. And we get Time, a group of guys who graduated from college in Champaign-Urbana in 1967 and turned down Fulbright scholarships and grad school fellowships to move to Buffalo, New York and play in a rock band.
They never made it, of course. A move to the Big Apple, a name change to Think Dog!, and a few gigs later the band went kaput, as its members drifted into careers in academia, computer programming, and whatever else responsible adults do. The band left not so much as a lipstick trace on music history, releasing exactly nothing during its brief incarnation. It did, however, stare down severe snowstorms and drive into Toronto in early 1968 to record an album that has only just now been released, nearly four decades after the fact, by Shadoks, the veritable Indiana Jones of rock archeology, a label that digs not into Egyptian tombs but into mildewy garages and stacks of dusty old reels to bring us the music that time (and probably even members of Time) has forgotten.
As such, Before There Was… is a fascinating window into a specific time and place, the late ‘60s Buffalo underground (of which Time constituted exactly one half, according to member Lynn David Newton’s copious liner notes). It is not, alas, particularly distinguished music. Opening track “A Song For You” may be the album’s most interesting effort, lulling listeners into a pacific state for two and a half minutes before launching into a bizarre, recorder-driven experimental breakdown as lumpy as any gravy the Mothers of Invention had yet poured by that point, then finally returning to its dopey love sentiments at the end. This is followed-in album sequencing seemingly structured less by any musical flow than by when the acid kicked in-by “Kemp’s Jig,” a 45-second long Renaissance lute piece. Go figure.
Elsewhere, Time offers trippy hippie tales of “cornucopias full of mirrors” on “Introductory Lines”, which ends with a spoken stream-of-consciousness rant about “becoming and approaching Being” that sounds lifted from a cursory perusal of whichever Alan Watts or Ram Dass book happened to be lying around the Time house that evening. The band has no real group dynamic, but instead feels like a hodgepodge collection of three very different musicians. Liner-note curator Newton plays bass and brings the experimental ambitions, setting e.e. cummings’ “Lily Has a Rose” to a convoluted 18/16 time signature and adding electronic tape chaos to another song. Richard Stanley, a music professor at SUNY somehow roped into this amateur hour, carries the lute and adds some pleasant instrumentals, including the nifty bluegrass ditty “Ma’s Pan”. Finally, Tom McFaul contributes the beatnik poetry and actual rock, forgetting only the concept of melody in such shouted efforts as “At Shadow’s Eye”.
Every now and then Time stumble into memorable moments. “A Song for You” must have raised some eyebrows in conservative Buffalo, where Newton claims audiences wanted nothing more challenging than Young Rascals covers. “Green Fields” carries a gently persuasive melody, as does “Dover Beach”, even despite McFaul’s resolute refusal to sing instead of shout. Newton’s notes are a hoot, more engaging than much of the album. He’s somewhat pompous, discussing his own songs in great detail while giving brief, often dismissive comments to other members’ songs (one McFaul composition was intended for two vocalists, but Time never played it live because Newton couldn’t be bothered to memorize the lyrics), and his notion of masculinity is retrograde at best (“Guys don’t like to fall asleep touching each other,” he declares; “In fact, real men prefer not to sleep in the same room as another guy.” He also confesses feeling uncomfortable with the cummings line “If I let him kiss me twice”). But somehow this adds to the antiquated charm; Newton’s description of Time’s utter lack of success is a compelling story, and Shadoks affords him admirable space to tell it.
Mostly, Before There Was… works better as historical document than as art, reminding us (Like Beth Bailey’s wonderful monograph Sex in the Heartland, about the sexual revolution in Kansas) that the counterculture was not monopolized by the Sunset Strip, Haight-Ashbury, and the East Village but extended into nooks and crannies across the American landscape. Its songs give us a pretty good clue as to why Time never hit the big time, but they make for a good complement to the notes in delivering a vivid portrait of the small time that too often goes overlooked and forgotten.