By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
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IN 1967, THE least popular band in Houston was a group called The Red Crayola. Playing a wild-eyed, free-rock cross between Ornette Coleman and Country Joe and the Fish, the RC almost immediately had no following outside of the Familiar Ugly, a gaggle of stoners that trouped along to the band's every show, and joined them onstage for "mass freak-outs." Confined to the Lone Star State, the band decided to head West to play the Berkeley Folk Festival, where they assumed the hippie nation might expand their consciousness enough to try and get what they were doing, or, at the very least, meet it halfway. The hippies didn't. Instead, their ignorance kicked off a longstanding dysfunctional relationship between The Red Krayola (aka Red Crayola) and rock & roll history.
There is no cozy niche in that history for a guy like Mayo Thompson, The Red Crayola's only constant member. Among other things, he's played in one of the most radical psychedelic-rock group of the '60s (The Red Crayola, incarnation one); spent time as an assistant to legendary conceptual artist and John Cage buddy Robert Rauschenberg; worked in England with members of the Raincoats and X-Ray Spex in the heady days of late-'70s post-punk (The Red Krayola, incarnation two); played in Pere Ubu (on The Art of Walking); and is, as of this month, set to release his third very good record for Chicago's ultra-indie label Drag City as the front man for The Red Krayola version three, a 15-member post-rock band that includes members of indie-experimental/modern classical guitar bands Gastr Del Sol and Tortoise.
There are as many as 50 or so Thompson-related records in all: Some are great, some aren't so great; some are just out of print forever. Yet through his high watermarks of this vast and varied body of work--1968's God Bless the Red Crayola and All Who Sail With Her, his beautifully bent 1970 solo album Corky's Debt to His Father, Soldier-Talk (1979), and the Language and Amor EP (1995)--you can hear something special that ties together what he does.
Naturally, Thompson takes a roundabout route in helping to define what that special thing is. Speaking over the phone from California, where, at age 52, he teaches classes in art and politics at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, he describes his music by invoking everything from the Beach Boys to William Carlos Williams to Sam Walton to the implicit provincialism in Richard Rorty's pragmatist critique of Derrida. I follow some of it, fake the rest, and grunt affirmatively whenever he makes a joke.
"I think we're entertaining, and I think we're engaging. How's that?" he says. Thompson insists, despite its strangeness, The Red Krayola's art does indeed fit into both the literature of everyday experience, and of American rock & roll. "In the course of life, in days and days and years and years, people get exposed to what is going on, and to what people are thinking. Red Krayola music is a synthesis of all of that."
Right. Put another way, The Red Krayola's synthesis is a radical's response to a cold cruel world. Dislocating post-punk noise (grating guitars, rhythmic seizures, odd lyrics) toys with classic punk targets (urban alienation, suburban boredom, et. al.) in art-pop that's catchily chaotic
and strangely poetic. At its best, Thompson's music transforms everyday dullness into off-kilter magic.
His most magical moment to date may be his latest CD, Hazel, a linguist/pop fan's potluck of Babel where language and art and melody and chaos, get jumbled up, lost, and recreated. It's a lovely mess. As the guys from Gastr Del Sol tastefully take apart their guitars in the background, Thompson's comely warble unveils uncouth imagery. "I see a couple of kids/ And guess he's fucking her/ And she's taking pills... I know this is paradise," he chirps in "Larking." This harsh realism supplies context as Thompson sways from the gentle instrumentals "Falls" and "Hollywood" into the loopy folk-pop optimism of "I Feel Fine" and the sweet soul discharge of "Another Song, Another Satan."
Thompson seems acutely aware of his music's ability to transfigure everyday dross. "I can enjoy the mundane sphere of pleasures people take in getting into something like Melrose Place," he says. "I sympathize; life is boring." Red Krayola's funned-up, fucked-up music may not be a mass-market antidote to that boredom. But Thompson believes in the accessability of his work. "Anyone can hear it," he says. "All you have to do is listen."