Harvest Those Dreams That Had Failed to Grow
by Kris Thompson
I have to say, first of all, that I initially questioned the invitation to do this piece for the Terrascope. Don’t get me wrong: the subject matter is of great interest to me – it’s just that I felt way too close to it. I've known Bobb since 1980, safeguarded his master tapes, brought the reissue idea to Secretly Canadian, worked closely on the various phases of the reissues' production, and even shared the stage with him recently at his first show in ten years. The editors assured me, though, that this would be just the kind of "inside glimpse" that they were looking for. (And I stand by that wholeheartedly - who could possibly be better qualified to write this story? - Phil)
I've got a lot of info to set forth here. It's not the complete saga, but I'll touch on a lot of aspects, and it'll be by far the most exhaustive article on Bobb published to date.
The Terrascope's interest in Mr. Trimble goes back several years, but it was brought to a resurgent head late last year by the reissue of Bobb's two self-released albums, Iron Curtain Innocence (1980, reissued Nov. 2007 by Secretly Canadian) and Harvest of Dreams (1982, reissued Nov. 2007, also by Secretly Canadian). Both are available on CD/MP3/vinyl, and with three quite worthy bonus tracks apiece. These were released just in time for the 25th anniversary of 'Harvest' – an impending milestone that was on my mind when I first contacted Secretly Canadian with the idea of the reissues. More on that in a bit, though.
What about Bobb's sound? It does definitely "need to be heard to be explained", as Thurston Moore noted in Arthur Magazine (Jan. 2003). "Outsider psychedelic singer-songwriter" is a worthy stab, but it fails to fully account for the fragility and the moments of transcendent beauty and unique expression present – the highest points of which leave fans both new and old blissfully agog on a daily basis.
Why does Bobb elicit this kind of reaction? Well, it's not just his voice, but that's the first element that needs to be mentioned. Nearly everyone who hears Bobb's music cold for the first time assumes that a woman is singing. His voice on the early recordings is high, smooth, sweet, and aching with expression.
More to the point, though, fans are drawn in because Bobb's is that rare kind of music that engages both the head and heart, and each to a dizzyingly high degree. He does this with a seemingly effortless approach that shows this was music that he had to make – to help make sense of the world around him, and certainly not for any premeditated pose.
Also, since the recording process was "therapeutic" for him, there's the natural tendency that people have to be drawn to the trials and tribulations of others. Certainly much of Bobb's music does seem troubled, encompassing a range of emotions from rejection to desperate longing to confusion to alienation – and yet still, somehow, shot through with enough rays of optimism and hope to maintain an equilibrium of sorts. This is "psychedelic" music that is fortified with the psychology of life experience – simultaneously "out there" and "in here" – and it's all the more realistically dreamlike for it.
Many of Bobb's recorded songs also feature highly experimental sound layering and effects, inspired by those used on Beatles tracks such as "I Am the Walrus" and "Tomorrow Never Knows". These effects only deepen the dimension of head/heart axis in his music.
BEGINNINGS & MEETING
Bobb was born in Marlborough and raised in Northborough, both in central Massachusetts. He began playing and recording in the mid-to-late 70s, inspired by all things Beatles, including traces of the Fab Four legacy that he heard in bands like The Monkees, Badfinger, Cheap Trick, and ELO. He also had a lot of admiration for Bowie and Queen – and later, The Ramones, Elvis Costello, Devo, and The B-52's.
If you haven't actually heard Bobb yet, it needs to be said that he doesn't really sound much at all like any of his heroes – except in fleeting traces and strands of his music. People are much more likely to compare his sound to that of Comus, Linda Perhacs, Michael Yonkers, Tim Buckley, D.R. Hooker, or maybe even Antony & the Johnsons a bit. It's a testament to his unique sensibilities that filtered his influences into the wholly reconstituted thing that is Bobb's music.
I first met Bobb in December 1980, on the night he showed up at WCUW-FM in Worcester MA for an interview with Brian Goslow, director of the station's nightly underground block "Wormtown on the Rocks". Bobb was there at the station that night to talk about the LP ('Iron Curtain Innocence') that he'd just recorded and self-released. An outtake from the sessions which led to the cover photo is shown below.
After the interview, Bobb and I spoke for a bit, and he gave me a copy of his album - it's ironic, considering how valuable the albums eventually became, that he gave most of them away for free. I was interested in the fact that he'd gone and made a record on his own. Such an undertaking was pretty remarkable at that time, in those pre-CD, pre-Internet days when professional studios were the only game in town (and very expensive).
Bobb, as I came to learn, had declined college enrollment despite a distinguished record at Worcester Academy. Instead, he was working full-time at his dad's bicycle shop, pouring his earnings into studio sessions (and eventually, into pressing plant manufacture).
Right after my exams were over, Bobb visited my Clark University dorm (just a few blocks from WCUW) with his guitar and amp. The place had pretty much cleared out, so we had a chance to try a bit of playing together. His Peavey Deuce amp had a built-in phase shifter channel, and he had the effect turned on thick. The sound was so fully formed that I had some trouble at first putting good bass lines to it. Bobb explained that he had heard the Rolling Stones use that amp on Saturday Night Live (for "Beast of Burden" and "Shattered", I believe), and that he'd zeroed in on that phase-y sound and "just had to have it".
The following year, I helped form a band on the Clark campus called The Prefab Messiahs. The name was a reference to (as we were wont to riff on about) corporate icons and mascots like Ronald McDonald, who presented a friendly song-and-dance public face while their puppet masters greedily compounded their robber-baron plunder. The band's sound was equally informed by the weird side of the early-80s New Wave, 60s garage rock and psychedelia, and a healthy interest in Dadaism and Surrealism. Those aspects combined with our incredibly cheap equipment and loose approach (ref: Television Personalities) gave us an undeniable uniqueness, especially in the post-bohemian/preppy/dawn-of-Reagan atmosphere on campus. It follows naturally that we weren't invited to play too many multi-keg blowouts.
Although Bobb was broadly supportive of all flavors of newly-emergent local punks and new-wavers, he formed particularly close friendships with us and with The Performers (a Clash-inspired band who also shared Bobb's and our love of The Monkees). Bobb declared himself our manager, and even mentioned our b(r)and by name in his song "Armour of the Shroud":
"Well, the Rolling Stones come to town / Don't throw The Prefab Messiahs out of bounds / God save those dreamers / They're all that's left sometimes".
When The Prefabs won some free studio recording time in a local "battle of the bands" event, Bobb offered to come to the studio with us and lend us some of the experience he'd gained from his own recording adventures. From those sessions came our two songs "The 16th Track" (a mock exposé on rock stars' deal-making with the Devil), and "Desperately Happy" (an anti-conformity weird pop nugget for the then-in-full-swing Reagan era). Bobb contributed some performance to the former track, playing the tone-sweep generator in the beginning, some backwards bass playing in the middle, and some Bible verse readings at the end.
Not long after that, Prefabs singer Xeth Feinberg and I dropped in on the recording sessions for Bobb's follow-up LP 'Harvest of Dreams'. We ended up dropping some sounds on two of those songs: "Armour of the Shroud" and "Another Lonely Angel". The "release" of that album consisted of Bobb showing up for a mid-December ('82) Prefabs gig – opening for Mission of Burma – and giving away copies wrapped in Christmas paper.
THE KIDDS / THE CRIPPLED DOG BAND
In the interest of finishing this article before your humble editors give up on me, I'm going to have to touch only lightly on Bobb's "kid groups" – a topic of considerable interest to Bobb's fans. This topic is covered more fully in my liner notes for Bobb's 'Life Beyond the Doghouse', a 2002 vinyl LP of previously-unreleased material issued by Orpheus Records (Denmark). The notes used to be on that label's website, but at last glance, their only current online home is at Bobb's ARTISTdirect bio page.
Bobb had recorded 'Iron Curtain Innocence' without a band, despite the fact that "The Violent Reactions" are credited. Fred Hire played drums on side two, but most of the album's instrumentation (except for guitar) was played by studio engineers Paul Martin (drums) and Don Christie (bass).
Craving some camaraderie in songwriting (and just wanting to rock out some more), Bobb decided that he didn't want to operate band-less any more. However, he had no luck recruiting any musicians around Northborough: although Bobb liked hard rock, his own material (and high voice) seemed too "off" to the parochial tastes of his fellow 1980s suburbanites.
So, he rounded up a gaggle of bored kids (average age: 11) in his neighborhood and started teaching them the ways of rock. These became members of "Bobb and The Kidds". They had a lot of fun but no public gigs, and their sole recorded output is the song "Oh Baby" on Harvest of Dreams. On that album, various voices of The Kidds can also be heard in the midst of some of Bobb's songs, like in "Take Me Home Vienna". There is one as-yet-unreleased Kidds song, “Going to a Party”, that may see the light of day at some point.
The Kidds’ activities ceased even before Harvest was finished, though, due in some part to their musical limitations, and also to parental disapproval of late nights spent in a Worcester recording studio.
Before long, Bobb gathered a slightly older crew (average age: 15), and they called themselves The Crippled Dog Band, named after a member’s dog named Boopsie, who did in fact have a limp due to an injured hind leg. Crippled Dog managed quite a few gigs over the next few years; they can be heard on the “Galilean Boy” bonus track on the reissued Harvest of Dreams. They are also heard on the entire second side of the Life Beyond the Doghouse LP.
THE SECRETLY CANADIAN REISSUES
I approached Secretly Canadian with the reissues idea for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I'd read a label profile of them in a music mag, and thought to myself "for a small operation, they really have their act together". More to the point, though, I'd also come across a review of one of their bands (The Impossible Shapes) where the writer had dropped Bobb's name in describing one of the songs.
It seemed like a good conversation starter, and it was. A couple of staffers had heard of Bobb, and openly opined among themselves "we need to jump on this!" There were a couple of other labels that I considered opening the conversation with, but for whatever reason I didn't picture the process with them being as collaborative as what SC seemed to be offering.
The remastering of the original studio tapes went down between January and March 2007 at Peerless Mastering, just outside Boston. As with many archival projects, the master tapes had to be carefully "baked" to re-activate the dried out adhesive that binds the brown iron oxide (where the music is stored) to the plastic backing that guides the tape across the play heads.
Bobb had intended to be present at these sessions, but he had a tenacious cold virus at the time and so had to listen to and approve copies that I brought to him throughout the process.
There were a couple of instances where we used alternate takes. For instance, we used a longer version of "Oh Baby", with an extended reverse section at the beginning. And for the silent track "The World I Left Behind", we used absolute "digital black" silence instead of using the blank tape from the master reel, since Bobb's intention was to have the track be as quiet as possible.
I’m not going to review the albums here per se; but you can read a lot of other assessments and responses to them on his MySpace press blog.
THE WORMTOWN ANNIVERSARY, May 2008…
One of the benefits of my having dragged my feet finishing this feature is that I’m able to relate to you the details of Bobb’s recent (3 May, 2008) return to the stage after a 10 year hiatus. Bobb performed as part of “The Prefab Messiahs (2008 franchise) with Bobb Trimble”, and this set capped the second of two nights of an event called the Wormtown 30th Anniversary Bash held at Ralph’s Chadwick Square Diner in Worcester MA.
The event drew together a number of Wormtown bands present and (mostly) past, including some from Bobb’s and The Prefabs’ early-80s heyday such as The Odds, The Performers, and The Commandos.
The cast of players came about in several twists and turns of events. When I first heard that the event was in the planning stages, I made an inquiry only on behalf of The Prefab Messiahs, since we’d already taken part in the 20th and 25th anniversaries as well. I didn’t ask for Bobb, since at that time (Fall 2007) he hadn’t yet expressed interest in playing out again.
The “yes” reply for The Prefabs from festival organizer LB Worm was a welcome one, although obstacles from our side began presenting themselves almost right away. Drummer Billy Brahm (who had flown east from Oregon for the last reunion) announced that he wouldn’t be able to make the trip this time. This in itself wasn’t a deal breaker, since other drummers had played with us and could probably be scared up for the occasion. Then, however, guitarist Mike “Doc” Michaud – who had recently moved to Memphis – realized that he had already booked a New Orleans getaway for the same weekend as the festival.
“Well, that sinks it, then”, I thought. Mike’s distinctive guitar zappery, merging Frippish accents to a roots/garage foundation, was key to The Prefabs’ sound – no way around that. A few days later, though, I recalled times when we had joked about “franchising” the band, in keeping with the McDonalds inspiration of our band name. We’d imagined (mostly humorously) authorizing bands all over the country to use our name and playing our songs all over the country – and us reaping the rewards, meager or not.
I started thinking of who might possibly sit in for Mike. I kept coming up blank but then, in a flash of delirium, I wondered about Bobb. His style is quite different from Mike’s, and Bobb actually (despite some very creative work) doesn’t even consider himself a lead guitar player. But I decided to ask Bobb what he thought of the possibility and so, when I called him on Christmas day 2007, to my surprise he said “yeah, I can do that.”
A week or so later I bounced the possibility off lead singer Xeth Feinberg. “Will it work?” he asked, “Will it be good?”
“It’s worth a try”, I said. In my mind I was thinking that playing as part of another group would be a good low-pressure way for Bobb to test the waters of playing live again after such a long absence, and in light of his varying degrees of ambivalence and trepidation.
“Well, we should do some of Bobb’s songs too, then”, offered Xeth, “He’s kind of a big deal now, isn’t he?”
The first rehearsals were held in Bobb’s living room between just Bobb and me, as we planned out what songs from each act to do, and tried to remember how to play them. Before long we were meeting with drummer Nick Branigan, who had helped plan and host the listening party (at River Gods in Cambridge MA) for Bobb’s reissues a few months before. At the time of the listening party, Nick had told Bobb “any time you want a drummer, just ask!”
The three of us made quite a bit of progress in the next few weeks, and when Xeth came up from New York for his first rehearsal with us, he was quite impressed with how far along we’d brought both Bobb’s and The Prefabs’ songs. Shortly after that weekend, though, and with only a couple of weeks remaining before the show, Xeth was called down to his hometown for a serious family matter and regretfully informed us that he wasn’t going to be able to come back up to join us for the show.
When I relayed the bad news to Nick and Bobb, they pointed out that I’d done a decent job of singing Xeth’s songs in rehearsal. So why shouldn’t I just plan to sing them at the show? “Wow”, I thought, “with me as the only original Prefabs member in the lineup now, our franchise concept is really going to be tested!”
One significant problem at this point was the fact that Xeth also played guitar, so what were we to do about that? Since we had now started to play a good deal of Bobb’s material, I thought of Joe Mahoney, whom I play with in Concord Ballet Orchestra Players. Joe and I had always grooved on the fact that we’d each jammed with former vocalists from Can – he with Malcolm Mooney and me with Damo Suzuki. Joe had also told me to keep him in mind in case Bobb ever felt like playing again.
So, we planned to bring Joe into the fold. Before we could even rehearse with him, though, Joe wrote with some bad news. “I have to be in New Jersey that weekend for my niece’s art opening”, he lamented, “but let me know the next time Bobb needs some guitar or keyboard work”. Egad, one more setback. Were we being tested?
“Let me talk to Gary War”, Nick said. They had once comprised the group Chas. Mtn. together, and of late Gary had been playing with Ariel Pink. “Gary’s moving from LA to New York next week. He’s the one who turned me onto Bobb in the first place, so I’ll bet he’ll do it if he can.”
As it turned out, that cemented the final lineup for the show, and just in time. We squeezed in two or three final rehearsals with Gary, who had been aurally devouring Bobb and Prefabs songs on his cross-country road trip. And off to Worcester we went…
Ralph’s is a fun and funky place to play, and the Wormtown crowd was out in force to celebrate 30 years of local rock pride. Our set was a satisfying and high-energy affair, and as I’d hoped, Bobb really enjoyed himself.
Bobb songs that we played included “One Mile From Heaven”, “Oh Baby”, “Live Wire”, and “When the Raven Calls”. The Prefabs songs played were “Franz Kafka”, “Beyond All That”, “Desperately Happy”, and “Sacred Cow”. Also, I howled a cover of the 13th Floor Elevators’ “You’re Gonna Miss Me”, a Prefabs tradition from the old days.
One really enjoyable part of our show was the creative live video-mixing by ex-Abunai! drummer Joe Turner (currently of the Seven Levels and Black Fortress of Opium). I had collected lots of old images of Bobb and The Prefabs for Joe to use as source material – and Xeth Feinberg, although absent at the show, had provided us with some brilliant short animated clips that he’d made for us to mix in.
So where does this leave us? I feel immensely satisfied that Bobb's brilliant early works have been given their proper re-introduction to the music-loving world...that in itself has been worth all the effort.
But it seems that Bobb's not done with us yet, as talk of playing some more shows and trying some studio recording again has been bandied about increasingly in our recent conversations. Bobb seems newly energized following the Wormtown anniversary show, and this can only be a good thing.
– Kris Thompson, June 2008
BOBB TRIMBLE WEBLINKS