Sometimes you imagine a sound in your head, and there
doesn't seem to be any music in the world that can satisfy it. You can
dream up your own menu, but mine demanded the Beach Boys' harmonies and
Brian Wilson's idiosyncratic melodies coupled with a Dylanesque lyrical
vision and the poetic passion of Patti Smith. If the result could somehow
be witty, romantic and half-crazy as well, so much the better.
Somebody else had the same dream, and the ability and daring to pull it off. Cindy Lee Berryhill's 'Garage Orchestra' from 1994 was the result, the third in an occasional series of visionary albums from the Californian singer-songwriter that has now been extended by her new- record on Demon, "Straight Outta Marysville'.
That's four albums in a little under a decade on a bewildering variety of indie labels, touched by an equally startling mix of connections - production from garage-punk veteran Lenny Kaye, dream-inspiration from Brian Wilson, a song borrowed from Donovan, mythology stolen from Elvis and Niggaz With Attitude. It's the quintessential stuff of an underground cult, the kind of career that demands puppy-like devotion from those in the know, and which will spawn the kind of word-of-mouth reputation that will last for years. When fans are trading her albums for a fistful of dollars sometime early in the next century, don't come complaining that you were never told about her ...
So who is this woman? She's a Californian who's survived Punk, the Great Folk Scare, and then four years of being ignored by the entire music industry. 'I grew up on novels," Berryhill explained back in 1988. She traced her development from sci-fi through the romantic beat wanderings of Jack Kerouac to the heroics of Ernest Hemingway and the clear-eyed delineation of human frailty found in the books of Vladimir Nabokov. But there was another strand to her personality, which led her from her Ramona, California home into a San Diego vaudeville troupe, and then into the legendary Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in Los Angeles.
"I went there for about a year," she recalls today, "and that concept of Method Acting - building up an emotional library that you can call on later - was really valuable for me. I was brought up with the idea that you had to hide your emotions at all costs, so it was a way for me to explore parts of myself that had been closed off.'
At the same time, Berryhill was drawn to a musical genre that prized the violent expression of emotions: "I was in a punk band in the early 80s, called the Stoopids. When I tell people that, they always say, 'Yeah, I've heard of them', but they haven't heard of our Stoopids, believe me. That was another band. We were in L.A. around '80 and '81. We made some tapes that were floating around, but nothing was ever released.'
Like London three years earlier, Los Angeles in 1980 was a cauldron of punk activity, with bands like Black Flag and X injecting adrenalin into the sleepy, self- satisfied corpse of corporate Hollywood rock. 'I felt like I was a fan rather than a participant in that scene," Cindy admits. "I was younger than the real punk bands. I tried to fool myself that I was part of what was happening, but I missed it really."
The Stoopids survived for a year or so, but that halcyon period has fuelled a disproportionately large percentage of the songs on Berryhill's four albums. The debut album had the self-explanatory 'Ballad Of A Garage Band', with its stark tale of how "San Fernando in '79 weighed heavy with the sounds of punk/It hung over L.A. like an unloaded double-barrel gun". Almost a decade later, her new "Straight Outta Marysville' recreates characters from the Stoopids' milieu on 'Diane' and the ambiguous "Jane And John", which contains with the telling line: "The trick is to be holy and remain sane'.
"That was a really bad time for me," Cindy explains, "so I've found that writing all these songs has been a way to continue to heal that wound. I pretty much had a breakdown back then. When I got out of the Stoopids, I lived with my parents for a couple of years, hanging out on the couch watching TV, until they finally kicked me out again. I threw away everything I owned that had anything to do with punk rock, or with the band. I didn't even want to hear any music that had references to punk rock, because I was afraid that it had contributed to my breakdown. But about four years later, when I finally got my nerve up to start playing again and was feeling a little better about myself, then I wanted to write about it. Then it was cathartic to write about something I'd closed the door on. They were like my Eastern bloc countries."
Tentatively, Cindy Lee Berryhill stepped out into the new California underground: the acoustic, (anti)folk scene. "I listened to the Violent Femmes a lot back then," she remembers,, 'and some friends turned me on to the Velvet Underground and Bob Dylan. But in the mid-80s, I was encouraged in an entirely different direction. Around 1985, a friend invited me over and asked if I was into Brian Wilson. That night he told me the whole Brian story, and played me all these amazing records - not just 'Pet Sounds', but all the oddball songs that most people didn't know. I heard Kate Bush for the first time that night as well, and I fell in love with both artists."
Neither influence was recognisable on her first recordings, however. Around 1987, she contributed a song to the compilation "The Radio Tokyo Tapes Vol. 3"; "it had people like Henry Rollins, the Minutemen and Phranc," she recalls, "punk artists doing something acoustic.' After that, she was signed to Rhino, who already had the overtly lesbian, wickedly witty folksinger Phranc on their roster. 'She was like a minor icon to me, Cindy admits.
Her debut album, "Who's Gonna Save The World", was effectively acoustic, but a far cry from the California singer-songwriters of the 70s. It included a re- recording of the song she'd cut on the "Radio Tokyo" LP, "Damn, Wish I Was A Man", which established her persona right away - sharp, witty, unafraid' to aim slingshots at sacred cows (in this instance Jack Nicholson's beer-gut). With its free- flowing imagery and sparse acoustic settings, it sounded like the perfect California take on Patti Smith's rock/poetry fusion: sundrenched under the palm trees rather than struggling against the New Jersey blizzards.
So it was somehow fitting that her second album, 'Naked Movie Star', should be produced by long-standing Patti sidekick Lenny Kaye: "She came to me with her songs, and I said, 'To be honest, I'm not really interested in making a folk-rock record'. She was pretty folky. But she told me she loved jazz, and it started me thinking, that we should get really jazz players, do multiple takes of the songs live, and then choose the best. And that's what we did. Then I overdubbed the guitar, under the name of Jones Beach, and we did ten live vocals. I love Cindy - she's a unique voice. And she's a wacky chick, she's fun."
The wildest track on "Naked Movie Star', the 12-minute, partly improvised 'Yippee", also came closest to the Patti Smith sound though as Lenny Kaye notes, "Any time you get a long stream of somewhat improvised words, and some weird music, you'll get that comparison. But Cindy's personality is so West Coast that I would never put the two together. I played noise guitar, impressionistic stuff, and we got about nine minutes into it and the tape ran out. So we did another take. Then when I was listening back, I wondered what would happen if I put these two random guitar tracks, one in each speaker - and it sounded great, like two Archie Shepps moving along.'
Both Berryhill's first two albums were released in Britain, though I can't recall ever seeing a copy of either - or indeed meeting anyone else who'd ever heard her music. Rhino were obviously experiencing similar problems in the States, as she was dropped soon after the release of "Naked Movie Star".
"That was pretty rough for me," Cindy says, "because I couldn't find a new place for my music to live, so I had no record company for almost four years. I moved from New York, where I'd been living for about three years, and stayed for a while in New Mexico. When I was there, I had a kind of epiphany, when I woke up one morning with this really vivid dream about Brian Wilson in my head. I figured it was an arrow pointing the way that my music should go. I'd already been aware that I needed to get a sound.
"So I headed back to San Diego. Everything I owned was in my VW bus, apart from my guitar and a couple of books -and the van got stolen. I lost everything, Rhino didn't want me anymore; and around the same time this booking agent also stopped working with me. All I had left was my guitar, so. I became intensely involved in playing music, and tried to ignore everything else. I started working with other people, leaning towards that Garage Orchestra sound, but none of the record companies who listened to my demo tapes could get a handle on what I was trying to do - or at least they couldn't see any money in it.
"I was working in this bookstore, and one day the people from Cargo came to see me at work and asked me if I wanted to make a CD. They were like the local San Diego indie label. Then I had to decide how to go about it. I'd already been experimenting with different combinations of instruments - like how would a cello sound with a saxophone, or a banjo with a vibraphone? - and so I elected to continue that approach on the record."
Like Brian Wilson 25 years earlier, Cindy had recognised that the juxtaposition of unexpected sonic partners could liberate her music. Like her band, the album was called 'Garage Orchestra', and its wash of colours-in-sound and glorious vocal harmonies instantly conjured up comparisons with Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks.
Suitably enough, the key piece on the album was 'Song To Brian", which told the story of that New Mexico dream about the troubled Beach Boys genius. With its chorus line of "I kissed you, Brian, last night', it must at least have taken its subject by surprise, but despite the fact that Wilson has definitely heard the song, Cindy says that "I don't know what his reaction was. When we met, Brian was wary with me: he looked at me out of the corner of his eye; but then he does that with everyone. I don't even know if he connected me with the song. Anyway getting to know him was never the point. It's his work that has inspired and influenced me. He helped me connect with my own writing, via a route that I had never expected. I get a tremendous amount of emotion from his songs, and now I know that if I don't get the same feeling from what I'm doing, then it's not working. If my first two albums were about exploring the intellect through words, then the last two have been about conjuring up feelings in music."
"Garage Orchestra' is as rich with joyous hook-lines and serendipitous collisions of sound as anything since the Beach Boys abandoned work on 'Smile" in 1967. A few days with the album, and you'll have the swirling melodies to "I Wonder Why" or "Radio Astronomy" trapped in your head for life. Or, perhaps, the mysterious tale of "Gary Handeman": "I love to hear the sound of someone's name over and over,' Cindy smiles. "After a while, you start to think, "Who is this guy?". I love the sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, who has these books like 'The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldridge', and it turns out that Eldridge is hardly in the book. There's a sense of wonder in hearing the name, like seeing a great expanse of landscape with a single house, and wondering exactly who it is who lives out there. That whole song is like a search for Gary Handeman. You never quite get to him, you only see the results of him."
It was a tough album to follow, and initially Berryhill's "Straight Outta Marysville" deflates expectations of an even more colourful pop symphony. "High Jump" and especially "Unknown Master Painter" are a return to the sparseness of her early work, but then the Garage Orchestra began to leave their mark.
Cindy explains: "My plans for the album shifted when my boyfriend [author Paul Williams, whose new book on Dylan is reviewed in this issue] suffered a serious brain injury in a bike crash last April, just before I was due to make the record. He was in intensive care for several weeks, and at first the doctors were telling me that he might not be the same person mentally if he recovered. Miraculously, he came through it intact, but I found I wanted my music to be more direct and intimate. It's a completely different record to the way it would have been if Paul hadn't been hurt."
'Straight Outta Marysville' (a gentle pisstake of the title of NWA's pioneering gangsta rap album) is still idiosyncratic, though, from the weird fable "Elvis Of Marysville', with the King, his Rival (Dylan), and the Woman caught between them (Marilyn) reliving a conflict from Welsh mythology, to the wonderful remake of Donovan's "Season Of The Witch". 'We just started jamming in rehearsals,' Cindy says, 'and midway through I started talking. Some of it was stream-of-consciousness, some of it was stuff from my journal. I'm still exploring that territory, of creating a dream-like quality from the use of words and music. Again, that's the impact that some of Brian Wilson's 'Smile' stuff has on me."
In "Unknown Master
Painter' (itself a Wilson-esque title), there's a cryptic line: "God made
obscurity for safety reasons". It could be the Cindy Lee Berryhill story:
'Sometimes there are legendary lost albums, or even lost artists, that
don't get caught up with the media, or stamped with any kind of brand,"
she explains. "They live their own life, and people can discover them on
their own terms. There's a lot more room in obscurity for an
artist to move about in.' Which is no doubt why Berryhill has moved further (and, for what it's worth, moved me further) than any dozen mainstream 90s songwriters you care to mention.
CINDY LEE BERRYHILL
Current Cat. No./Title
Awareness AWP 001
ME, STEVE, KIRK & KEITH/BABY (SHOULD I HAVE THE BABY?)
Awareness AWPX 001
ME, STEVE, KIRK & KEITH/BABY (SHOULD I HAVE THE BABY?)/
12 DOLLAR MOTEL (12", 9/89)
New Routes RUE 001 -- WHO'S GONNA SAVE THE WORLD (6/88)
Awareness AWL 1016 -- NAKED MOVIE STAR (8/89; also on CD, AWCD 1016)
Unique Gravity UGCO 5502 -- GARAGE ORCHESTRA (CD, 6/95)
Demon FIENDCD 782 -- STRAIGHT OUTTA MARYSVILLE (CD, 6/96)