Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Lost Hunter S. Thompson Sleeve Notes

I made a remarkable discovery last week: a lost essay by Hunter S. Thompson. It’s not so much an essay as some liner notes for a folk band from the sixties. And it may not be “lost” so much as not currently indexed by Google. Regardless, the discovery is something and I’m quite proud of it.

Thompson wrote a piece that appeared on the back of the Big Sky Singers debut album. The Singers do not appear to have gained wide spread appeal but they did catch the attention of my father-in-law back in the mid-60s. He purchased the album and it became part of a vinyl collection that eventually migrated to the family’s summer cottage near Port Severn, Ontario. It was a favourite of my wife and her two brothers. As children they were particularly fond of its “naughty” folk songs like The Ballad of Sidney Kleenex (“When little Annie Fannie’s old enough to be your granny, I’ll be reading my magazines!”) and My Girl’s a Dud.

For years the album languished along with its eight-track brethren in a crate under the stereo. Consider my surprise when I actually read the sleeve notes and discovered that they were written by a pre-Fear-and-Loathing Hunter S. Thompson.

It’s possible that a different Hunter S. Thompson wrote the notes but the uncommon nature of “Hunter” as a given name certainly makes this hypothesis statistically dubious. And besides, how many people could write a paragraph like:

“There are two sides to that world. One side is the big rock candy mountain, where musician hand out their records like calling cards. Where all the audiences are standing-room-only and booking agents for big-time night clubs always say 'please.' The other side is where you feel lucky to get $25 for a one-night stand at the Elks Club in Lewiston, Idaho, and where you have $6 to last until the next 'gig' 1,000 miles away and your agent calls to say it's been cancelled and you're out of work until further notice.”

I’ve included some photos of the album, and a transcription of the notes, below. I’m not sure what the legal status of this thing is. I prefer to think of the work as orphaned and deserving of academic study.

Without further ado:
Blue Sky Singers (Front)
Blue Sky Singers (Back)

The sleeve notes read:

A couple of months ago in Big Sur, Calif., the Big Sky Singers went up on a hill above the Pacific surf and posed for the photo that appears on the cover of their first record album. They were dead broke, chafing under the strain of apparently getting nowhere, and their act at Big Sur's Redwood Lodge was getting flatter every night. Emotionally and financially, they seemed at the nadir of a short, promising, and manic-depressive professional career of jazz-folk singing.

Today, the singers--a sort of latterday Kingston Trio with a big, swinging sound that comes from three guitars, three voices, and a bass in the background--are on much firmer emotional and economic footing. Their record is due any day; they're asking $1,000 a week; the "big sound" has returned with a vengeance, and they've played or are booked in at such reputable Western clubs as the Exodus in Denver, the Red Fox in Spokane, the Red Onion in Aspen, Colorado, and the Troubador in Los Angeles.

What happened? What caused this promising group, which won't be a year old until December, to fall apart? And what made them return to climb up the night-club pecking order to the big-time? The answers are not alone the Big Sky Singers'--the name comes from Montana, the "Big Sky Country"--but are those of every group that has ever sought success in the crazy world of commercial folk music.

There are two sides to that world. One side is the big rock candy mountain, where musicians hand out their records like calling cards. Where all the audiences are standing-room-only and booking agents for big-time night clubs always say "please." The other side is where you feel lucky to get $25 for a one-night stand at the Elks Club in Lewiston, Idaho, and where you have $6 to last until the next "gig" 1,000 miles away and your agent calls to say it's been cancelled and you're out of work until further notice.

That's the side every young group begins on, and the Big Sky Singers were no exception. Things were easy when they were students at Montana State University in Missoula, playing campus parties and local night clubs. But when they turned pro and went on the road, money became a constant crisis; they had to take what they could get, or not work at all.

But with improvements came a crack at bigger towns and better clubs, like the Gun Room of the Finlen Hotel in Butte, Mont.

They went to California, and followed Nat King Cole at the plush Hacienda in Fresno, then had an audition at the hungry i.

The audition was encouraging, but "the i" was booked for many months ahead and the management was in no hurry to sign a contract. The Fresno job was a winner, though; the group was getting $650 a week, spending the afternoons by the swimming pool, and playing to a packed house nearly every night.

They were just getting used to palm trees and the hot sun when the Fresno job ended and they faced another crisis: Whether to return to the Northwest, where they had several offers at the same old prices, or go out on a limb by staying in California and hoping for a break in either San Francisco or Los Angeles. They decided to stay in California, and were booked at the Redwood Lodge.

That's when they almost fell apart, where their vibrant sound seemingly lost all its punch o[n th]e threshold of the big time.

The only thing that looked promising was the chance of a contract with Dot Records in Los Angeles. A fellow who knew a Dot executive had heard them in Big Sur and set up a recording session, taken the results to Dot, and thought the chances were good. He was confident enough to hire a photographer at some $40 an hour to get a cover for the prospective album. The singers cooperated, despite their pessimism. They put on their pin-striped jackets and their black shoes, combed their hair, and hauled their instruments up to the hill.

When the shutter clicked, they were smiling. To look at the photos that came out of that session, you would never know that any one of them had any worries beyond the possibility of a chest cold or a broken guitar string. Six months in the musical bush leagues had taught them that much: When the chips go down, you smile like the jolly green giant, turn on the big sound, and come on strong.

The Big Sky Singers did "come on strong," and, as a listen to this entertaining album will confirm, are still coming on strong: loud, clear, with the "big sound" as big as the Big Sky in the state of their origin, Montana. From the traditional favorites such as "Darlin' Corey" and "Railroad Bill," to their spoofs of contemporary groups, as in "My Girl's A Dud" and "Sidney Kleenex" (their own material), that's the sound you'll year, firmly establishing the appropriateness of their name, The Big Sky Singers.

Hunter S. Thompson

UPDATE: I heard from Bruce Innes, founder of the Big Sky Singers and song writer/performer/producer extrordaire. He provided some backstory on Mr. Thompson's liner notes:

"I started the Big Sky Singers in college at the University of Montana. Hunter's liner notes were a fairly true account of events leading up to recording the album. We met when he was writing a feature for the Wall Street Journal about the mine in Butte Montana and we were singing in the Gun Room, at the Finlen Hotel in Butte. We became great friends and had some fun times together when in subsequent years I worked in Aspen at the Red Onion with my group, The Original Caste and later when I performed in Aspen by myself (Personal communication, June 2 2006)."

UPDATE 2: I realize that Thompson mentions Bruce Innis in chapter 12 of Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas:

"Suddenly the phone was ringing, jerking me out of my fantasy stupor. I looked at it. Riiiinnnnnnggggggg... Jesus, what now? Is this it? I could almost hear the shrill voice of the Manager, Mr. Heem, saying the police were on their way up to my room and would I please not shoot through the door when they began kicking it down.

"Riinnnngggg... No, they wouldn't call first. Once they decided to take me, they would probably set an ambush in the elevator: first Mace, then a gang-swarm. It would come with no warning.

"So I picked up the phone. It was my friend Bruce Innes, calling from the Circus-Cirus. He had located the man who wanted to sell the ape I'd been inquiring about. The price was $750."

They never actually get the ape. We do, however, learn some more about Innes. Thompson also recounts another anecdote:

"Several months later, in Aspen, Bruce sang the same songs in a club jammed with tourists and a former Astronaut* [Name deleted at insistence of publisher's lawyer]... and when the last set was over, ----- came over to our table and began yelling all kinds of drunken, super-patriot gibberish, hitting on Bruce about 'What kind of nerve does a god-damn Canadian have to come down here and insult this country?'

"'Say man,' I said. 'I'm an American. I live here, and I agree with every fucking word he says.'"

UPDATE 3: Okay. So there's more to this story. According to Calgary: The Unknown City by James Martin, Thompson mentioned Bruce Innes in a few letters. In one from 1970 (and apparently included in Fear and Loathing in America), Thompson writes:

"Dear Mom... Sorry to be so late getting back. Bruce Innes and his band have been here for 2 weeks and the chaos has been worse than usual."

The next day, Thompson sent a letter to Mitch Greenhill:

"Right now I'm having a sort of weird go-round with Bruce Innes. Remember the little Canadian who had his guitar up at the house in Big Sur that night? He's playing in Aspen with a new group (The Original Caste--a god-awful name) at the Red Onion for something like 3 grand a week...

"Bruce is into a strange gig. Have you heard a single called 'One Tin Soldier'? That's his. And now they have an album coming out, but it's fucked by horrible arrangements--all kinds of horns and strings and organs in the background... Bruce has two really first-class songs on it--'Country Song' and 'Sweet Chicago Blues'--but they're screwed by the hyped-up Fifth Dimension style arrangements. They wanted me to write some bullshit for the liner notes, but I said I couldn't tolerate all that background noise." (pg. 182)

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