[4 February 2009]
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.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers were early boosters with both bands emerging out of LA’s underground scene. The Chili Peppers experienced their own tumultuous years of losing members to drugs and Thelonious Monster acted like a farm system for replacement guitarists. They along with X took the band on the road with them.
Thelonious Monster flamed out sometime in the late ‘90s, with Forrest going on to form the Bicycle Thief. That band would release one critically well-received album entitled You Come and Go Like a Pop Song in 1999. The Bicycle Thief featured former members of Campfire Girls and (Red Hot Chili Pepper) John Frusciante’s band, along with guitar wunderkind Josh “Kobe” Klinghoffer. Frusciante, himself, plays on some tracks along with Ana Warnoker of That Dog. Thelonoius Monster would later reform in 2004 to play a set at Coachella and still occasionally surface to play gigs.
I, however, lost track of Bob Forrest. The occasional “T-Monster” song would pop into my head, and I would dig through my records to satisfy the itch those songs generated. The frankness of the lyrics still floored me. It was if all his demons were on display, swaddled in the hope of better days.
My friend and I saw Bob working as a busser at a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in LA’s Silverlake sometime in 2002. We were sure we were the only ones to recognize him, electing to keep our admiration to ourselves. It felt sad.
Fast-forward five years, as my wife and I settled down to watch the premiere-of our sure to be latest guilty pleasure-Celebrity Rehab on VH1. The congregation of D-list former television stars and one-hit wonders file into a room for group therapy. Dr. Drew Pinsky, host of the show, begins by introducing his staff. The camera settles on a pockmarked, horn-rimmed wraith from my past, hair buried under a familiar Panama hat; it is Bob Forrest.
Bob Forrest with Dr. Drew Pinsky and the cast of Celebrity Rehab
Dr. Drew introduces Forrest, currently the Chemical Dependency Program Director at Las Encinas Hospital in Pasadena, CA, as a wave of happiness and relief overtook me. My musical hero had emerged from the wreckage of junkie despair. He was alive. And even though we never knew one another, I felt as if I was looking at a piece of my youth that could have, so easily, been forsaken to a well-worn rock narrative. Instead, he puts the same passion and openness he committed to song; to keeping people off drugs on another VH1 show Sober House. This show follows some of the same celebs in their post treatment recovery.
Today, aside from his role as drug counselor, Bob Forrest still plays music. He contributed his version of Bob Dylan’s “Moonshiner” to director Todd Haynes film, I’m Not There. In 2006 he released a solo recording and now hosts Bob Forrest’s: Happy Hour Hootenanny at various clubs in LA (also released digitally). A documentary about Forrest entitled Unsung is in postproduction and should be released this year.