News item: Felix Grande, Spanish poet and musicologist, is dead at 76.
I’m pretty sure Felix Grande was never aware of the finest piece of art that ever carried his name … which is a shame, as it would have made his eyebrows curl.
The story begins a world away from Spain, on the campus of the State University of New York at Fredonia. (Like Chekhov’s gun, this detail will become important in a moment.)
An old friend of mine, the former drummer in my high school band, went to school there in the mid-1990s. He fell in with a couple other musicians and formed a new band called Cheese Log.
Most of their output was garden-variety punk, sincere enough, but not tremendously distinguishable from countless other bands.
But, for the last song on their self-produced cassette, they shot for the moon. And unlike most people, who fall short, they went sailing right on past it.
Fredonia has a School of Music, which in turn has a program in Sound Recording Technology — a place for the prospective Phil Ramones and Glyn Johnses of the world to learn their trade.
Whoever worked the boards for Cheese Log’s session apparently got extra credit for every button he pushed, because he drowned the final song in enough echo and reverb to stone even Lee “Scratch” Perry.
While my friend laid down a straight-ahead fatback drum groove, the bass and guitar wandered in more or less the same watery key for five or six minutes, occasionally arriving at the same note the way a fast runner and a slow one will sometimes arrive on the same straightaway over the course of a lengthy race.
From the depth of the haze came a resounding voice — not an aggressive punk shout, but more of a firm declaration, the sort of voice one might use to claim new land for one’s Queen:
I am Felix Grande! (Felix Grande! Grande! Grande!) …
Andalusian penis PUP-pet! (Penis PUP-pet! … PUP-pet! … PUP-pet!)
Boa constrictor! (Boa constrictor! … Constrictor! … Constrictor!)
Beyond its outre title, “Andalusian Penis Puppet” wasn’t particularly obscene or objectionable.
It was just … well, to steal one of my favorite Lester Bangs lines, it was so far off the wall it wasn’t even in the room.
Every so often I get on my high horse about how irrationality — or surrealism, if you prefer — is a highly underrated contributing factor to great music.
Remember the movie Xanadu, where Sonny Malone, the pouty artist, goes roller-skating headlong into his mural to get to the other dimension where his muse lives?
Every so often, a band smears a random, previously unseen vision on a wall somewhere. Then it puts its collective head down like Sonny, banishes all doubt (and conscious thought) from its mind, and sprints so hard toward the wall that crashing through to another dimension and French-kissing the muse is the only possible outcome.
I usually hold up “Surfin’ Bird” as one example of this. “Rock Lobster” may be another. The Pixies’ “Debaser” might qualify as well.
And so could “Andalusian Penis Puppet.”
For five or six minutes, the members of Cheese Log stopped being an obscure college-town punk band and became three Neil Armstrongs, digging their boots into the soil of a luridly colored and highly reverberant new planet, reporting back in a series of garbled transmissions.
(Some years later I had the opportunity to exchange a few emails with the guy who wrote and sang the words. They were a ragbag of various phrases he’d encountered — like “sarcomastigophora,” a type of one-celled organism. He’d read about Felix Grande somewhere, too, and added the name to his lyrical ball of string. He seemed like worthy fodder for a song, the guy said.)
You may be wondering what this journey into the sonic ether sounded like.
Having led you this far, I am going to have to let you down. I think I still have my Cheese Log cassette; but my tapes live in two big boxes in the unheated part of my cellar, and I don’t feel like freezing my bollocks off while I paw through these boxes.
So, you’ll just have to take my word for it.
(It might be more delicious, anyway, to let you build your own mental representation of the song based on what I’ve told you. Maybe what you’re hearing in your head is even more warped and fantastical than the real thing. That ain’t necessarily bad.)
Felix Grande is gone; and so too is the unknown band who decided to bring him along on their astral sojourn.
But somewhere, as I write these words, some other band is strapping on its skates and heading kamikaze-style toward the wall.
When they get back from the other side, I hope they send me a tape.