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Letter From a Friend



Bevis Frond

North Circular


By Rick Reger

The Bevis Frond has just released North Circular, its 15th LP in a little over a decade. Many forward-thinking musicians and critics will respond to it with an emphatic "So what?"

I can understand that. I've been there too.

The Bevis Frond is the nom de rock of English guitarist and songwriter Nick Saloman, who has been releasing records under the moniker since 1986. Each Frond opus is stuffed like a one-ounce joint with a blend of Creamy hard rock, extended psychedelic head trips, and lilting, 60s-style pop. But Saloman's music isn't the secondhand exhalation of some young hippie wannabe. Now in his mid-40s, Saloman was playing out around London with his first band, the Bevis Frond Museum, in 1968--at about the same moment Syd Barrett was slipping into vegetative legend.

He continued to toil on the periphery of British rock with a series of unsuccessful bands up through the early 80s. His bad luck maxed out one night when he took his motorcycle out for a spin on a recently paved road that had been poorly graded. A section of asphalt had caved in, but he didn't see the hole and sped right into it. He suffered permanent damage to his right arm, and in the ensuing settlement with the city of London, he received a cash compensation.

In 1985 Saloman used that money to set up a home recording studio and began laying down both songs and dark, crusty guitar freakouts for his own amusement. When he passed around some samples of his home brew in '86 (under the apt title Miasma), the response was so encouraging that he churned out two more collections, Inner Marshland and Bevis Through the Looking Glass, in 1987.

Saloman's magical mystery tours began appearing in the U.S. in 1988, which is when they first came to my attention. I've long been a sucker for the loopy color-burst delirium of 60s psychedelia, but my initial reaction to the Frond was less than enthusiastic. While an undeniable authenticity seeped like bong vapor through Saloman's shaggy lo-fi hallucinations, my shelves already sagged under the weight of albums by the Chocolate Watch Band, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the 13th Floor Elevators. What, I thought, would be the point of adding an exact replica to my collection of the real thing?

But in the fall of 1991 I happened to hear Saloman's new LP New River Head, and instantly I became a fan. New River Head is revered by many Frondophiles as Saloman's masterwork, and it's not hard to see why. Though it included several vintage forays into hard rock and psychedelia, the 80-minute LP also unveiled songcraft polished and diverse enough to convince me that Saloman was more than a bug in amber. The syncopated, jazzy electric-piano riffs of "Drowned" recalled mid-70s Traffic; "Waving" was a lively acoustic guitar-and-fiddle tune straight out of the British folk tradition; "Undertaker" was a two-minute explosion of pure punk rage.

Granted, Saloman's music had merely inched from the Paleozoic 60s into the Mesozoic 70s, but it was evolving nonetheless. In his lyrics, too, Saloman was moving on, replacing his usual Barrett-esque whimsy with a mix of moving character studies, personal anecdotes, and stinging social commentary. The beautiful, folksy ballad "Thankless Task" told the tale of an acid-damaged woman unable to let go of the 60s. And in "It Won't Come Again," Saloman unfurled a series of misty, youthful reminiscences only to confront himself in the chorus: "It won't come again / You're a fool to pretend."

Since New River Head Saloman has unfailingly issued a new LP every year, each displaying more refined songwriting than the last. They increasingly focus on life with his wife and daughter, random encounters with oddball characters, the lure of nostalgia, and the passage of time.

Still, his musical aesthetic remains solidly rooted in the sounds of the 60s and 70s. One knows what a new Bevis Frond LP will sound like with a certainty one can apply to few other contemporary artists. That being the case, I have on occasion wondered why I am still buying Bevis Frond records. As someone who has for the most part accepted the idea that music must be innovative in some way to be worthwhile, how do I account for my allegiance to an artist whose records are stylistically interchangeable with the relics stacked against my wall?

For one thing, it doesn't take a lot of reflection to see that innovation has become an increasingly dubious yardstick of originality. Some of today's most frequently lauded "innovators"--Stereolab, Olivia Tremor Control, Radiohead--simply recycle and recombine past stylistic breakthroughs. And for every time I've seen an in-the-tradition artist like the Bevis Frond scorned as anachronistic, I've read reviews praising musicians like Dale Watson or Freakwater specifically for their adherence to traditional forms and performance styles.

Until earlier this century, innovation was a by-product of musical composition rather than its main goal. Historically musicians of all types made their marks well within established forms. The imprints of certain geniuses were strong enough to shatter rules and spark new approaches, but a musician's challenge was to make something personal and aesthetically moving from common building blocks. That's exactly what Nick Saloman does. His verse-chorus-verse songs and power-trio arrangements may be the stuff of cliche, but he powerfully stamps them with his personality.

In fact, Saloman's more recent records lay bare his thoughts and feelings with a candor that's downright unusual in rock today. His 1988 collection, The Auntie Winnie Album, was named after his recently deceased aunt, and her photos were on the record jacket. On 1993's It Just Is Saloman vented a dour state of mind with a set of touching, idiosyncratic meditations on disillusionment, aging, and death. The 20-minute "Right On (Hippie Dream)," which served as the centerpiece for 1994's Sprawl, trumpeted Saloman's ideals with the sort of frankness that makes most indie rockers shudder. And on 1995's Superseeder, a self-deprecating Saloman expresses astonishment that any music fan could get carried away over "a middle-aged freak with a gut like a whale" ("Animal Tracks") and confronts the apparition of Jimi Hendrix, who declares, "You aren't fit to shine my shoes" ("Sue Me").

Saloman's records allow listeners to get to know him, warts and all, in the same way one gets to know Montaigne through his essays. And just as a casual dip into Montaigne's oeuvre isn't likely to make one a fan, a casual listen to one of Saloman's records probably won't reveal his appeal.

North Circular finds Saloman in good form. Keeping the jamming to a minimum, he scatters 26 songs across two CDs in a familiar mix of acoustic folk, pummeling hard rock, and catchy pop. It's actually a bit less intimate than other recent efforts, but Saloman still makes some distinctly Frondian swipes at trend-conscious critics ("There's Always One"), old longhairs groping for comfort in the past ("Love Is"), and his long, fruitless quest for fame ("Psychedelic Unknowns"). And though I've only recently digested the whole of it, I'm already looking forward to Saloman's next Bevis Frond missive--not because I expect a musical revelation, but simply for the pleasure of hearing what an old friend is thinking.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bevis Front photo by Charles Peterson.

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