James Toth aka Wooden Wand is the finest songwriter of his generation and one who has simultaneously managed to transcend the seemingly in-built limitations of a genre – that of singer/songwriter - that seemed all but dead on its post-punk feet while further bolstering it by drawing deep on a host of influences (cultic jams, free jazz, biker rock, avant garde art fuck) not usually associated with a focus on one man and his guitar. He has long been a major player in the post-Tower Recordings cultus, firstly with his free/space/avant/blues collective Golden Calves and then as the leader of Wooden Wand & The Vanishing Voice, a group that works to beautifully reconcile the twin poles of his muse, the freeform freakout of The Red Krayola, Amon Düül, Siloah and NNCK and the tradition of the loner balladeer as transmitted by Dylan, Cohen, Young, Spence and Chilton. His recent records with the Omen Bones Band and The Sky-High Band represent the absolute peak of his alchemical songwriting abilities and alongside the work of Matthew Valentine and Josephine Foster represent the apex of the unadulterated New Weird America/free folk sound even as it makes mincemeat of such puny critical shorthand. Recent side-swipes via his Hassara and Zodiacs/Zodiac Mountain offshoots have seen him sink another fist into the stream of private American motorpsycho nitemare sound and look set to launch a thousand future satellites while his curatorship of such key imprints as Polyamory and the righteously vinyl-only Mad Monk helps to further articulate his retro-futurist vision. We are proud as fuck to welcome him as a Volcanic Tongue contributor and especially touched by his beautifully personal recollections of the formative influence of Matthew Valentine on his overall career arc and the personal resonance of the duo’s latest masterwork, Green Blues.
When I was around 19 or so, Tower Recordings were my favorite band. I was lucky enough to be living in Westchester – a recent transplant to nearby Purchase College – when TR was just getting going. Within weeks of moving in to our dorms, Tovah immediately got a job at the local record store in stones-throw-away Port Chester, The Vinyl Solution (R.I.P), and that’s where we met MV. MV co-managed the store with a hard and imposing fellow named Jeff Loh, who’s love for The Rezillos was only matched by his taste for fine wine. (I later got a job at ‘sister store’ Exile On Main Street, where I would meet many names familiar to the VT catalog, but that’s another story). MV, Jeff Loh, and a guy named Eric McCarthy were older and wiser than us, and, since Tovah and I fancied ourselves connoisseurs of underground music, they would quiz us / drill us on things the way older types delight in doing when they wanna take you down a notch, tough love style. First they’d ask us easy questions that bordered on the insulting (MV once held up Wire’s Pink Flag – you know, the one with the damn pink flag on the cover - and asked us “what’s this record called?”) but the questions began to grow more difficult (“Have you guys ever heard Dando Shaft?”), and following these brief lessons under their collective tutelage, Tovah and I would return to Purchase with our noses higher, our circle of friends smaller, our grip on the counterculture ever tighter. We’d take what we learned from MV and our other new record store friends and report these findings to the indifferent university at large via our radio show, Last Train To Cool, where we’d act like if you couldn’t answer our call-in trivia questions about The Dead C, Faust and Albert Ayler, well, you were just lame. No one ever called in. One day Tovah brought over a tape of what was going to be Tower Recordings’ seminal (in my opinion) record, The Fraternity of Moonwalkers. “It’s really cool,” she said, “but it’s weird to hear my boss singing about jerking off and shit.” I became obsessed with the album, playing it over and over again. I had never heard anything like it. I bought up all the unique-looking Tower Recordings singles that were collecting dust at the store, and even got hip to MV’s great Superlux label (R.I.P), checking out killer releases by The Hat City Intuitive, Memphis Luxure, and Pacebreaker. I even remember the day copies of Fraternity of Moonwalkers came in to the store – Jeff Loh commenting sardonically on the photo of MV on the back cover. “Not his finest hour,” he chuckled. I was inclined to agree. Soon I started going to a shitty club in the meat packing district of New York City called The Cooler (R.I.P). It seemed for a while that every other Monday night Tower Recordings would play a gig there, usually with openers Hall of Fame, who I also liked a lot and became friends with, and I made it a point to be there whenever I could convince someone – usually Tovah - to drive. These were historic shows. This early incarnation of Tower Recordings, made up of MV, Helen Rush, S Freyer Esq, PG Six, and the sorely missed Spanish Wolfman, consistently blew my mind. The band all seemed like bizzaro specialists in their own way, each member coolly holding court on stage, seeming at once intensely focused and palpably unaffected. It felt very special to me, like they were my own private Velvet Underground. I always brought packs of Purchase kids with me to these gigs, usually folks I was auditioning / feeling out for a role in my band, Golden Claves. TR soon became the barometer - if a potential recruit / prospect dug Tower, they were in. If they ‘didn’t get it,’ I wrote them off entirely. These are the same days I swore I’d never date a girl who didn’t own a decent record player. Ah, youth! Notably, a girl named Erika Elder, a friend of a friend and fellow early believer, once joined our immediate crew on one of these early jaunts. Aaron Rosenblum and Matt Krefting were regular fixtures at these gigs as well, though they were practically babies at the time! It wasn’t long before my band, Golden Calves, began being taking cues from TR the way only naïve newjack teenagers can – tastelessly, ham-fistedly, and without humility. You might say our particular brand of reverence was akin to a bulldozer plowing into a gas station. Listen to the records, hear for yourself. I cajoled Tovah into singing some songs with us, and got some of the more ‘avant garde’ players I knew to join the band, while I played acoustic guitar and sang. I was also way into Jandek, The Godz, Strapping Fieldhands, and The Shadow Ring by this point, but my geographical ties to the mighty TR made their unique influence the most formidable and obvious. We even opened for TR and Hall of Fame at the Cooler a few times. And totally sucked each time. I was studying Ulysses back at Purchase, but TR was all the esoteric mindfuck I ever needed. I sometimes wished I had an Annotated Tower Recordings to crack all the codes and decipher some of the more obscure MV-speak generously tossed off within each of the songs. I recall listening to Tower’s third album, Furniture Music For Evening Shuttles, on the bus on my way to the record store in Mount Kisco, and getting severely bummed out. No way I’d ever do anything this good. I also remember presenting a slightly inebriated MV with the Golden Calves / Hall of Fame split 7” I’d just put out. Our track was called “Closed Captioning For The Blind (Ten Dollar Bash).” MV saw the title, looked at me, smiled, and said “You oughta be paying me royalties, man.” Like I said, tough love. By pure accident, most of the Golden Calves crew eventually moved into the Port Chester loft that formerly inhabited most of Tower Recordings when many of them were attending Purchase years earlier. This huge loft – dubbed Fusion Specialists (because that’s what it said on the door) – was where a lot of the early Tower Recordings stuff was recorded, and, fittingly, it’s also where we recorded a lot of the early Golden Calves stuff. Eventually, MV began to regard Tovah and I more as friends than fans, which happened to coincide with us starting to do our own thing and not rip him off so mercilessly. That tough love shit works. I tried to keep up with MV’s output over the years, but it got increasingly difficult, as many of the VT readers surely know. Whenever I’d see MV or EE I’d buy up whatever they were selling, but as our meetings became less frequent, I relegated my MV collecting to whenever I could trade Nemo something or had a credit at VT. There have been some COM / Bummer Road sides that I love dearly, but whole chunks of the discography that I’ve missed entirely. Recently, my good pal Andew Kesin sent me a care package of some of the new Ecstatic Peace releases, including the new one by MV and EE with The Bummer Road – Green Blues. Folks, I’d never feed you any bullshit, at least not on a forum this esteemed – this is a remarkable record. Objectively, it’s probably better than Fraternity of Moonwalkers, which is itself one of my top ten favorite albums of all time, but since I’m now old and jaded, I’ll just allow that Green Blues is ‘as good,’ and let that be that. The album feels like a culmination in many ways. MV, bless him, still sings things like “I inhaled a vortex last night,” EE’s double tracked vocals are sweeter than ever, and Mo Jigg’s harp environments continue to further distinguish an already great band. This is also the first Bummer Road disc where you realize beyond a shadow of a doubt, “shit, Nemo is a pretty fucking bad ass guitar player.” All the while, MV’s intrepid vision of skewed folk-blues remains singular and inimitable. Trust me on that last bit. I owe MV a lot. He taught me why Canned Heat is one of the best bands in the history of rock. He allowed me see why The Urinals, Flux of Pink Indians and the Swell Maps were infinitely better than all the Maximum Rock and Roll / HeartattaCk horseshit we were listening to at the time. And he’s still teaching me things, with this monster of a CD, easily one of the best of this year, and a perfect ‘10’ in a vast and intimidating discography. It makes me glad to have a story to go along with it.