"I am speaking, my boy, of the circus!" Jimminey Cricket
Ever since the early nineteen-sixties, a young man who had a certain talent as an entertainer, but who was fed up with things — fed up with the useless advice he had received from his elders, fed up with school, fed up with his girlfriend and his job, fed up with life in general had a career option available to him other than joining a circus. He could create, and star in, a highly stylized and concept-driven rock 'n' roll band. Music in costume, this would be. Music with a spin on it. Music, yes, with a purposebehind it.
And, purposes there were aplenty in the sixties. Nothing seemed right in the world. There were wars that needed to be ended, leaders who deserved only to be deposed, educators who needed a fast, deep taste of life outside the ivory tower (or a tab of acid slid surreptitiously into their afternoon tea), countless businessmen in grey flannel suits who needed to be shocked into jeans attire, legions of establishment women who needed to entirely undress themselves, of their own volition, and harmonize.
You don't address worldly woes such as these by signing on with Ringling Brothers. Not in the nineteen sixties, or in the nineteen-seventies. Particularly if you can carry a tune, or can play a mean tambourine. There's a much better idea: you make a rock 'n' roll band for yourself instead, apply a bit of mascara, dress very strangely, cobble together a book of concept-defining verses, and make a long-playing record.
Definitely. A long-playing record. An LP. You've got to have the LP. First of all, you get to personally design the cover. The weirder the better. Something that people have never seen before. And the cover doesn't even have to be particularly descriptive of the "concept," or of the music inside, on the record. The music inside will speak for itself, particularly if you can get a good recording studio to help you out. All you really need to do is to keep your head together, dwell absolutely on the "concept," and try to sing on key when it comes your turn. The rest will take care of itself.
I will go out on a limb, and say that, during the first ten years of its existence as a rock 'n' roll recording studio, Long View Farm hosted mainly concept-oriented circus acts, such as are described above. These were serious, sometimes brooding sorts who, possessed of a "concept," were prepared to do their part in changing the world for the better. Only, they needed the long-playing record. They had read their own press, these artists did, and loved it. To the extent, that — believe it or not — they insisted on making the record in concept drag. Wearing the mascara in the control room, I mean. Never eating at the table without the turban on. Using the put-on, false accent when talking to the horses in the barn. Taking a sauna in the obligatory leather and chains. Except for sometimes,when they thought they were absolutely alone, or in the presence of someone they trusted. Then, on these rare but touching occasions, one would hear the unreformed ethnic speech of a black man from the South Bronx, or see eyes behind mascara blinking back tears, or espy through an open fly zipper the white Robert Hall jockey shorts of a man who otherwise dressed only in black. These were the moments that made it all worthwhile for the studio owner.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. There was also the most common and most compelling circus getup of all — that of the inscrutable, big, bad and mean rock 'n' roller. This costume apparel would do very well in the absence of a more eclectic, concept-based thematic, such as end-the-war-now, Flamenco-as-a-portal-to-enlightenment, save-the-trees, black's best, or French Impressionism, and would in effect stand for and support all of these urgent causes — just as long as nothing got said. The big, bad rock 'n' roller was a quiet man, taciturn in presentation — a man of few words. He responded to queries with grunts and monosyllables, never attempting to complete a well-formed sentence. He has rejected verbal niceties, and the useless schooling that make them possible. It's the feel instead that the rock 'n' roller embraced — raw affect. Affect. He'd tell you what was on his mind using a Stratocaster electric guitar hooked up to a tower of stadium-grade loudspeakers, and not even crack a smile as the lights dimmed in time to the music. For him, that's what all the tree-hugging and do-gooder causes were really about — the feel — the need to get down and let it all hang out and (thereby) make the world a better place.
Robert "Bobby" Callender was not a big, bad rock 'n' roller. Far from it. Bobby wore one of the more eclectic costumes. It was maybe the best costume I saw during all those years. It was that of a peace-loving guru who "saw the light" in the points and dots and flashes of color of the French Impressionist painters. And he was here to sing about it.
Bobby didn't call to say he was coming, or send us a fax as was common in those days, long before there were emails. Instead, a young woman in a long, flowing calico hippie dress arrived on our doorstep one morning. Let's call her "Linda," since I forget her name. Linda bowed gently with her hands folded together pointing upwards towards her forehead, on which a "peace" logo was tattooed. She had nothing on under the flowing calico hippie dress. She explained that she represented an African man named "Zolo-Robert," or something like that, and that Zolo was a recording artist who would like to use Long View Farm to make a long-playing record. Only, she cautioned, Zolo preferred to speak in French, and she was concerned lest that present any problems. I spoke up at that point, boasting that I was fluent in the French language, having defended a doctoral dissertation in Paris only a few years ago, and that of course we would welcome Zolo at the studio, provided that we could agree on schedule, the financial terms of engagement, and so forth.
I was not allowed to complete my speech. Instead, Linda put two fingers into her mouth and let out a ferociously loud whistle which startled us all, simultaneously clearing a flock of starlings out of the big tree on the other side of the driveway. Then, far away at the bottom of the long hill, out of sight, came the rumbling sound of an automobile starting. Varoom, varoom! Then, the sound of another car starting. Then, to our amazement, the sound of a third automobile starting up. Varoom, varoom, varoom!
It was only a few seconds later that the three automobiles rumbled up onto the driveway, with Linda directing them to parking places in front of the big red barn. One of them was dragging its muffler on the ground, and was noisy. The other two were just noisy. There was evidently an arrival protocol of some sort in place, since only the doors of the first car opened. First of all the driver got out, then two people who were sharing the passenger seat, then one, two, three, four, five, six (!) people who were somehow crammed into the back of the vehicle, each of them carrying a backpack, or a bandana full of personal effects, or a tambourine. Just like the clowns in the back of the tiny midget car in the middle of the center ring at the circus, when you were a kid. And then, as though on signal, the doors of the second automobile swung open, and another mob of people was disgorged, including a kind-looking old man, and several infants. The pea-stone drive was now full of folks — all giving each other "high fives" and roaming about and piling their packs and satchels onto the white bench. Two of the children ran up the cement drive and into the barn, squealing and squeaking.
That left the third of the three cars, a Plymouth, which sat motionless on the driveway. In this car there were not a lot of people. "It's Monsieur Callender," Linda said, who was now at my side, nudging me through her flimsy calico dress. "He's in that car!" The driver's door opened, and a young man exited, attending immediately to the back door of the car, which he opened. "Watch!" Linda said to me. Nothing happened for a few seconds, with the young man standing stiffly at attention, holding the door open and looking straight ahead. And then, a person slowly emerged from the car. He was a dark-skinned man, some several years my junior as I imagined at the time, dressed in sandals and a long African robe, which was trimmed with dark fur. He wore a red bandana, tied at the back of his head. "That's Monsieur Callender," Linda said again.
Monsieur Callender did not make eye contact with anyone, including those in his entourage. Instead, he did a slow gradual turn, surveying his surroundings, eventually fixing his gaze not on the towering red barn, or the freshly-painted white farmhouse, but out over the valley on the vista that stretched to the east, towards Boston. He stood silently in that posture for a moment, and then raised his robed arms up towards to the sky. The sleeves of the Dashiki fell down around his elbows, and his black arms were seen to shake against the blue sky. He was then heard to shout "Ça commence! Ça commence!"
"Did you hear that?" Linda said to me, breathlessly. "He said that it's beginning!"
"I know what he said, Linda. Why don't you introduce us?"
"Well," she said, "he has to take his time at times like this. Such a man. Such a man!"
We didn't have much longer to wait. The man in the sandals and the robe gave one last look across the valley, turned slowly, did a sign of some sort with both hands moving across his chest, and started towards us.
"Zolo," she shouted, "ici!" And a moment later Monsieur Callender was standing in front of us. "Geel," Linda said, "J'ai l'honneur de vous presenter... Monsieur Robert Callender!
"Enchanté, Monsieur Callender" I said.
"Enchanté," Callender said, eyes twinkling. "Mais, ce voyage... ces déménagements... c'est trop. Il me faut un certain... un certain repos. How you say, a bit of...rest. Quelques instants de repos. Où, Leenda? Où?"
Linda turns to me and asks "Où? He's so tired, you know." I gesture towards the white cottage beside the barn and say "there, I guess," and the two of them move off towards the cottage, where they would be staying if they stay. She opens the glass door for him and they disappear inside. Once he's inside, I see Monsieur Callender strip off his red bandana and his fur-trimmed Dashiki and throw them harshly onto the floor.
* * *
Callender and his troupe of twenty postulants decided to stay on at Long View Farm, taking advantage of an artificially low daily rate that we were able to offer, this being mainly because things were slow and, if the truth be known, we had never hosted a "residential" client before. Callender was the first one. As I think back on it now, some 35 years later, we should have paid him for the learning experience that he and his followers were shortly to bestow upon us. At the end of three weeks living with Bobby Callender, we would be surprised by nothing else in the world of rock 'n' roll, having been successfully indoctrinated by him into a generous, patient, accepting and basically well-humored frame of mind which would stand us in very good stead for the next two decades.
Take the mornings, for example. In rock 'n' roll, the mornings belong not to the artists — to the performers — but to their sycophant supporters. To the helpmates, the roadies, the girlfriends, and the children. (In this respect, the mornings we spent with the Bobby Callender crowd were structurally identical to the mornings we would spend ten years later with the crowd surrounding The Rolling Stones.) They would generally begin with the visit of an alpha female who, leaving her significant other snoring in a master bedroom somewhere, would make her way over to the farmhouse, where studio staff could be found, cleaning things up, and where the kitchen could be found, always in preparation of delicacies for that day in the life. In this case, natural delicacies. Hippie food. Green things. Freshly-squeezed orange juice shaken up with dollops of wheat germ. Bobby Callender's people ate no meat. Nor did they eat any fish, or eggs. Coffee was out of the question. Mate (a healthy, Brazilian distillate), was the beverage of choice.
Linda (or her sister-in-charge, also a white woman) would arrive to inspect the Mate, and to make small talk. Could she use the phone? (Yes.) Might we obtain some yellow squash for the afternoon meal? (Yes.) Do we know of a dry cleaner who could be trusted with a slightly soiled Dashiki, and how long would it take him to clean the thing? (Yes. Maybe a couple of hours only, if we got it to him right away.) "All right. Wait a minute. I'll be right back."
The next event of significance would occur a few moments before Monsieur Callender made his first appearance of the day, and that would be the arrival of the two eight-year-old girls, dressed in what appeared to be white, communion dresses ordinarily seen in Catholic churches. They wore their hair in braids, black, patent-leather Mary Jane shoes with white ankle socks, and carried little wicker baskets in their hands which contained "today's rose petals." Smiling, they would dip into their baskets, grab a handful of rose petals and then, ever so carefully, spread them onto the floor. First to the left; then to the right. Smiling. This was the floor that had just been swept, and mopped. Now it had today's rose petals on it.
"He's on his way now," we would hear from Linda. "Look, here he comes now!"
And, sure enough, the kitchen door would lurch open and in would walk Monsieur Callender. No eye contact with anyone. He would contemplate the barnboard ceiling instead, make a sign of some sort with his hands and, standing in a small circle of rose petals, give the greeting with which the day would officially begin.
"Bonjour," Bobby Callender would say.
* * *
A bit later in the day, the music would begin. These were "basic tracks" they were doing. No singing yet. Just the musical instruments. It was the music that got us scratching our heads. We knew what African rhythms sounded like, and we heard none of these. We knew the sort of music that current French artists like Edith Piaf and Johnny Halliday were making, but we heard none of this, either. Instead it sounded like good ol' mainstream R&B. East Coast funk. Good stuff. It sounded terrific, but like nothing we could make any sense out of. After all, this was supposed to be an album about French Impressionist painters. But, close your eyes, and you could be in an upper East Side nightclub in New York City. More than once I would see Jesse Henderson, our chief engineer, come out of the control room for a smoke, rolling his eyes and shrugging his shoulders. "You figure it out," he would say to me.
And, figure it out I tried to do. There came a day when Jesse wasn't there, and a time early in the afternoon when the snare drum lost its "snap." The sound of a snare drum is very important in rock 'n' roll. It has to go "snap." This snare drum was going "flab," and people were becoming very upset. The recording studio emptied out, leaving only the drummer with a drumstick in one hand, and a small chrome key-wrench in the other, which he was using to tighten or loosen the lugs around the rim of the snare drum. "Squeek, squeek," he would go with the key-wrench, and then he would hit the drum with the drumstick. "Flab," the drum would go, resisting all attempts to make it go "snap" instead. The drummer didn't seem to know what he was doing.
Concerned, and since Jesse wasn't there, I made my way into the control room, where Monsieur Callender was sitting, all alone in his bandana and his robe with the fur around the edges. The studio monitors were playing at a very high volume, and the snare drum was within range of eight, very "hot" condenser microphones. The sound level in the control room was deafening.
"FLAB! FLAB! FLAB! squeek, squeek, squeek" we would hear. Then again,
"FLUB! FLUB! FLUB! squeek, squeek, squeek" Things were going from bad to worse.
This made for awful listening, and I could see that Monsieur Callender was not in the least amused, so I thought I would lighten things up with a bit of studio owner banter — asking him some things about himself, what he was doing before coming to Long View, and things like that. The fact is, we had all been mystified by this circus act for days now, and wanted to learn more about these guests of ours. Maybe this would be the time for me to do so. So I turned down the studio monitors, so we could talk. Naturalement, we would talk in French.
"Toi, Robert," I began, rolling my r's in the manner I had been taught to do in Paris, when I was so concerned to lose my then-current and dreaded accent américain. "Toi," I said again, "qu'est-ce que tu faisais avant ce boulot... avant Long View?" Monsieur Callender looked at me as though I was a visitor from outer space. I could see him rustling uncomfortably in his robe, shifting about in his chair next to mine. He took off his sun glasses, eyes sparkling. A smile spread slowly across his face.
"Geez," he said. "Geez! Murray the K in New York City. That's what I was doin'. You know all about Murray the K, dontcha? You know, the guy who was all over the Beatles?" Callender delivered these words with an accent and ethnic inflection that was well known to me. It wasn't the accent of an English-speaker from Zaire. It wasn't a French accent. It was unreformed, honest South Bronx.
My jaw dropped, and I stammered, now in English, that of course I knew all about Murray the K, and all about his radio station in New York, WINS, and all about his DJ colleague Alan Freed who played all those rock 'n' roll records before being indicted for accepting payola from the record companies.
"Well," Bobby Callender continued, "that's what I was doin'. Making radio spots for Murray theK. Got turned on; got radicalized; got crazy. Figured I could do the same thing myself, me and a couple-a bros from the 'hood. So, here I am." Bobby Callender rose to his feet, looked around a bit nervously to make sure that we were alone, the two of us, and then whipped off his bandana. He then gave a wiggle and the shed the Dashiki, which fell into a heap on the control room floor. And there stood a smiling young afro-headed American man in boots and jeans and a white T-shirt with short sleeves. Inside one of the sleeves, which had been rolled up just over the tattoo, was a half-smoked pack of Camels.
Flab... flab... flab, went the studio monitors.
"Can you deal with that snare drum?" he asked. "Sounds like hell."
I had almost made it to the tiny door which separates the control room from the recording studio, heading out towards the drum booth, when the giggles started, giving way almost immediately to deep, involuntary laughter. Gut-wrenching belly laughs. My eyes were watering.
"Hey," Bobby shouted after me, "keep all that stuff I just said to yourself, right? Gotta' think about all those people I'm travelin' with, and some of them are really into the act. Gotta' think about them."
By the time I had made it to the drum kit Bobby was already back into his robe, and had the bandana back in place.
Editor's note: Bobby Callender'sLP, Le Musée de l'Impressionisme, fell as did David Hume's Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding — stillborn from the press. It was only in Holland that you could find it, two years later, it having been vinyl-pressed by Philips in only a token quantity. For his own part, Bobby Callender seemed to have disappeared altogether. But then came the Internet twenty years later, and in due course an email buzz went out about a "lost album" attributable to an East Coast psych-funk poet who, aided by a legion of talented New York musicians, had created a masterpiece recording in the woods of Massachusetts. "Very rare," the buzz went, and suddenly there were collector shops in Amsterdam selling even used copies of the vinyl record for $150. Somehow, a small record company in California got hold of the Long View master tape, or a copy thereof, and re-issued the album as a CD in 2006. A mixed review of that CD appears below.
There are some clarifications to be made to the essay appearing above. First, it appears that Callender did not arrive at the studio completely unannounced, but that an introductory phone call had been made to Markle several days earlier by Sid Bernstein, the legendary New York City promoter, vouching for Callender's viability as a recording artist. Second, it was not a Dashiki that Callender wore while working, but a less common Persian Kaftan, together with leather pants, boots with bells on them, feathered earrings, rings, and bandanas. Third, Callender was (is) of West Indian and Native American descent. Fourth, Bobby Callender did not disappear altogether subsequent to his departure from Long View Farm, but appeared shortly thereafter on the flight manifest of one of Markle's Europe-bound charter jets, and in fact returned later to the studio to record an unpublished work (shortly clickable here in the Media Library) entitled Hollywood Musical. Finally, there has been no independent corroboration for Markle's account of the young girls' daily spreading of rose petals in the expected path of the recording artist.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.