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Roctober’s stubborn eccentricity

The new book Flying Saucers Rock ’n’ Roll anthologizes the under-the-radar zine and its underappreciated subjects

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I see so many press releases from bands and labels—around 300 on an average workday—that it's impossible to pay attention to them all. Fortunately there's a simple way to determine if the indie tastemakers of the Internet have blessed a piece of PR, and this tells me whether someone else will care about it (even when I don't). Within half an hour of such a release hitting my inbox, nearly identical posts relaying its contents—new tour dates for an Animal Collective side project, for instance, or details about which kind of skull the Flaming Lips will use to package their next marathon "song"—pop up on Pitchfork, Stereogum, and Brooklyn Vegan. The appearance that this phenomenon presents—of consensus, whether engineered or simply lazy—tends to engender a certain cynicism about the entire enterprise.

Roctober magazine is an antidote to that cynicism. Published since 1992 by Jake Austen—a Reader contributor who also coproduces the cable-access dance party Chic-a-Go-Go, where he's the voice of puppet cohost Ratso—it's animated by obsessive curiosity and infectious, probably irresponsible enthusiasm, especially when it comes to the kind of oddball, never-say-die outsiders who'll spend 40 years fighting for the legacies they firmly believe they've earned. Austen threw together the first issue to provide a home for an interview he and some friends had done with Sleepy LaBeef at a Chinese restaurant in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, called Chan's Eggrolls and Jazz, and since then interviews—epic, colorful, candid, wide-ranging, lovingly researched—have been the heart of the magazine. The first Roctober book, the new anthology Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll: Conversations With Unjustly Obscure Rock 'n' Soul Eccentrics (Duke University Press), collects ten of the best, conducted between 1995 and 2009. Subjects include Sam the Sham of "Wooly Bully" fame, rockabilly pioneer Billy Lee Riley, outlaw country icon David Allan Coe, alien glam band Zolar X, and Chicago songwriter, playwright, poet, and activist Oscar Brown Jr.

A key element of the Roctober creed, as Austen spells out in the intro to the book, is a "ludicrously expansive" definition of rock 'n' roll, which includes "R&B, metal, punk, rap, doo-wop, disco, noise, one-man band music, gospel, jazz, glam, country, big band, and any vaguely rhythmic audio produced by monkeys, little people, or professional baseball players." In an e-mail, he elaborates: "Basically we want to be incredibly populist even though we cover stuff that isn't popular. We are contending that this stuff isn't popular by mistake and should be, even if it's totally bizarre." Given that Roctober covers plenty of genres that haven't had mass audiences for decades, this goes past naive to quixotic. Everyone involved in the magazine knows it, and it doesn't slow any of them down.

Austen's explanation of the Roctober way sounds at times like a rebuke to mainstream music blogging, where the demand for quick turnaround and high post volume usually denies writers the time to explain why an act deserves attention in the first place. "We are really committed to not making you feel stupid if you never heard of something," he says. "Our writers are tasked with framing their interviews with obscure artists with language that is so passionate and descriptive that it clearly conveys why the writer is excited by this artist and why the reader should be too."

Of course, Roctober writers are also tasked with plumbing their subjects at a level of detail that will appease the most protective aficionado. From Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll you'll learn that Oscar Brown Jr. was a teen actor on a Studs Terkel radio drama in the early 40s, and that while in Los Angeles in 1962 to shoot episodes of Jazz Scene USA, he met future wife Jean Pace at a party at Redd Foxx's place the night of the Cuban missile crisis. Zolar X appeared on the 2007 American Idol spinoff The Next Great American Band—minus troubled front man Zory Zenith (born George William Myers), who sometimes claims to be an android called the Zorian Zormar Mediator Model 11000 and is finishing a ten-year prison term for assaulting a friend who was sleeping with his wife—and became one of the first groups eliminated. Soul singer Sugar Pie DeSanto, who's four foot eleven and stood on a phone book to reach the mike at her early sessions in the late 50s, says she was the only woman to appear in James Brown's revue who managed to fend off his advances: "I was a little too much for him." Guy Chookoorian, dubbed "the Armenian Mickey Katz" by LA cable-access host Art Fein, is believed to be one of the few U.S. airmen to shoot down a rocket-propelled Messerschmidt Me 163. Domingo Samudio, better known as Sam the Sham, remembers encountering a troupe of 40 or so Fiji islanders in grass skirts backstage on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1965, and when they learned who he was, it "went like a current through the dancers. It was like a Tarzan movie—'WOOLYBULLY! WOOLYBULLY!'"

You may already be familiar with David Allan Coe as a biker, braggart, and all-purpose badass: he was working with members of Pantera on an album called Rebel Meets Rebel when guitarist Dimebag Darrell was murdered in '04, he claims to have done time with Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and he's covered in prison tattoos, including a spider on his dick. But what you probably don't know—and what Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll will tell you—is that over the years his act has included magic tricks, ventriloquism, and a spider monkey named Panuch, which Grand Funk Railroad bought for him on the occasion of a New Orleans show they played together in 1970 (Coe remembers it roaming the stage in a diaper). The Fast, on the other hand, you probably haven't heard of at all, even though they knew everybody who was anybody in the New York punk scene—they hooked Blondie up with a keyboardist and played Max's Kansas City so regularly they had a fruity tequila drink named after them at the bar. Brothers Miki, Armand, and Paul Zone failed to break out by playing glam rock and punky power pop, but Miki and Paul had better luck making gay dance music as Man 2 Man: "Hottest of the Hot" went number one in Mexico in 1985, and though Miki Zone died of AIDS in '86, "Male Stripper" later hit number four in the UK. The brothers wrote "Comic Books" for Debbie Harry (it's on her 1989 solo record Def, Dumb & Blonde), and though this didn't make it into the book, for years Paul Zone has been half of a production duo called Blow-Up that's remixed the likes of Madonna and Yoko Ono and charted in Italy in 2007 with an infectious novelty number called "John Travolta."

As you might expect, Roctober's contributors have a special fondness for musicians who were around to witness the birth of rock 'n' roll. Ken Burke, who's responsible for the Flying Saucers chapter on Billy Lee Riley, calls him the best former Sun Records artist to never have a national hit; Riley's interview is by far the longest, and the book takes its title from one of his beloved 1957 singles. At six years old in the late 1930s, Riley picked cotton in Arkansas, earning 50 cents per 100 pounds; in the early '60s, when the bloom was off the rockabilly rose, he appeared as a session musician on the Beach Boys' "Help Me, Rhonda" and Herb Alpert's "The Lonely Bull" (for which he was paid $15). He plays a single guitar note at the end of Jerry Lee Lewis's first single, a 1956 version of Ray Price's "Crazy Arms"—the off-the-cuff performance, which wasn't part of a Lewis session, was recorded without the musicians' knowledge—and the infamous 1963 LP Surfin' With Bo Diddley is actually an album of Riley studio sessions that Diddley overdubbed onto.

The chapter on the Treniers is much briefer, but opens by calling them "one of the first self-contained, bona fide rock 'n' roll groups" and "probably the greatest living entertainers in showbiz today." ("Today" was 1997, at which point the Treniers had existed as a band for roughly 50 years.) Led by twin brothers Claude and Cliff, who were born in 1919, the group connected jump blues and rock with a recklessly physical, contagiously joyous live show. They appeared on a May 1954 episode of The Colgate Comedy Hour with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis—one of the earliest rock performances on national TV—and nearly stole the spotlight from Little Richard in the 1956 film The Girl Can't Help It. Milt Trenier, now the lone surviving brother from the band, left in '59 to pursue a solo career and in '77 opened a Chicago nightclub whose stage would help launch the likes of Bernie Mac and Kurt Elling. In the early 80s, Bill Cosby named his Cosby Show character, Heathcliff Huxtable, after Cliff Trenier.

Milt Trenier lives in the Chicago area, and though he's 81 years old he still plays a few times a month, mostly in suburban show lounges. In a coup for Roctober, he and his band will headline the Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll release party on Tue 10/25 at the Chicago Cultural Center's Claudia Cassidy Theater. Beginning at 6:30 PM, Austen will give a reading from the book, then host the premiere screening of its companion movie, Flying Saucers Rock!, which according to the PR he sent me includes footage of all ten interview subjects. (The only one I haven't mentioned is Long Island rude-rock outfit the Good Rats.) Milt also plays on Sat 10/22 at Tuscan's Italian Restaurant, 4926 River Road in Schiller Park—but I don't expect anybody will see a press release for that one.

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