A sad occasion to remember a fine singer and excellent band.
This obit goes out of its way to credit the Saints as groundbreaking because they beat the Sex Pistols and Damned to record release, but omits all of those who came before who weren’t called punks. Seems sloppy, and does not diminish what Bailey and the Saints did.
The first rock band I saw play live not in a shopping center parking lot was the Allman Brothers Band, opening up for Mountain. But the first band I went to see many times in many cities all over the country was Commander Cody and HIs Lost Planet Airmen.
I listened to a lot of music in high school (doesn’t everyone?), and I loved the Beatles and Stones and Who. I really got into those excellent Jethro Tull records, though mostly Benefit, Yes, New York Dolls, and that first Jefferson Starship album (I mean Have You Seen the Stars Tonight), but whatever, the point is the records I listened to more than the golden age of the Stones and the dawning of J. Geils (big faves too) were those of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen (who I saw open for Jefferson Starship at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium back in ’75).
What I liked about Commander Cody’s band was the way they fit together. Eight players, many instruments, many vocalists. A great guitarist, a rowdy leader, Billy C. Farlow, and most importantly, great songs.
Many of them were covers, most of them kind of obscure, but not always. But the band treated the covers with surprisingly sophisticated respect. Which meant not trying to copy the original, but also not trying to undercut the original with a smirk. List to My Window Faces the South for a bit of pone that is sonically delightful, respectful to the musical setting and yet still keeps it out of the museum. Maybe thank Virginia Creeper, the pedal steel player for that, but I think it’s bigger than that.
Originals like Lost in the Ozone and Seeds and Stems Again Blues (this version with Nicolette Larson on vocals) speak for themselves. They sounded classic the minute they were pressed into vinyl. Which is why they covered Willin’ a few years later, a song of similar majesty but not theirs.
Commander Cody was the center of all this. He got the crew together and with his boisterous pounding piano and over the top vocals on some great novelty sides created hits for a band much more into outre precincts like rockabilly and truck driver songs. Reading his obits reminded me today about how important a force can be. George Frayne was the force that made this band tick, even if it is the collaborative results that are why you should listen to them even today.
Ben Sisario has a lovely piece about Charlie’s music and place in the music world in the NY Times today. Read it here. (It’s one of my 10 monthly “gift” links, so maybe it will work for nonsubscribers.)
The Watts story is one of thwarted desire, but the fulfillment of professional duty. He’d have preferred to play with Charlie Parker, but if he had to play with the Stones? Obviously yes.
My favorite factoid. He collected cars but never learned to drive. Evidence against his supposed lack of decadence.
My favorite personal anecdote. Sometime back in the 80s I took my friend Mo to JFK. He was flying off to Germany. In the International Departures section we ended up sitting next to Charlie and his wife, Shirley, on some banquettes on a long corridor. It was hard not to look, but also embarrassing to be seen looking. Mo was a master of such moments, gave a wave of acknowledgment, and said Hi. Charlie and Shirley politely said Hi back, and then we went back to our waiting. More comfortably.
For me the magic of the Stones was the way the pieces fit together in surprising and completely agreeable ways. Charlie fit that aesthetic to the t.
I was cooking on Mardi Gras, shrimp etoufee by the way, and had a playlist of Mardi Gras songs on. Lots of good stuff I knew, but then this song came on. It’s not in any way obscure. It was written by Marshall Sehorn and Allen Toussaint and I gather it was used in a grocery store commercial at some point. It’s been covered quite a bit, too. But it was new to me.
It was just a few years ago that I regularly ran into Sylvain’s Rampage of Songs, a night of youtube clips on Facebook. They were the delightful mashup of rock, old rock, rnb, and great stuff you’d expect. His energy in that enterprise was so so Syl!
We’re on first person terms because I lived in an apartment on Mott Street near Prince back in the 70s that had some carvings in the window sill that convinced me that the previous tenant was Syl Sylvain.
It may not have been true, but the carvings were real (they said Syl Sylvain if I remember correctly) and there were plenty of musicians in that building. In those days when I walked through the village I was often mistaken for Lenny Kaye. Why wouldn’t we live in Syl’s bathtub in kitchen tenement apartment?
I hadn’t seen the Dolls back then. I was in high school when they broke up. I did see them when they got back together in the late aughts with Earl Slick playing Johnny, at Bowery Ballroom. Earlier that day I was at the dentist, and the radio was promoting an REO Speedwagon show at the Garden, an oldies show. I went to see the remainders of the Dolls and they were very fine, most notable because Syl was so committed to bringing back all they had before with them to the now. Old but not oldies.
And it worked, mostly. David is great, first name though I don’t think I’ve lived in one of his places, but Syl seemed to believe that that night mattered completely. Like a Phil Spector production.
Which doesn’t say that much about the magnificence of the Dolls who I championed in high school over the logorrheic Bruce Springsteen. But the music says all about Syl.