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Riding Harv’s LA Freeway

7 Dec

I’m thinking the geographical and psychosexual proximity of Jim Morrison & THE DOORS were ultimately to blame for Harvey Kubernik and his Freeway Records.


People don’t wanna remember now, but THE DOORS once signified something more – ok, a lot more than just a cheesedick Ollie Stone flick. What exactly, well that’s for somebody else to delve into, not me. But I know this much: Jim always insisted on crooning his words ON TOP OF every damn recording he ever laid down. Whether his bandmates were behind him banging it out in time, in the next room jamming off into outer/inner space, or down the street eating burritos didn’t diminish or detract from Jim’s mission one iota. That mission being to shape, bend, and mold your entire freakin’ trip via THE WORD. And Harvey Kubernik, well, he dug that mission something fierce. And he’d eventually curate a wild series of records to prove it.  

Admittedly, Harv’s first compilation (the promo-only L.A. Radio from ’79) got bogged down by a lot of second-tier, wannabe pop-rock. Phil Spector hangers-on, bogue singer-songwriters, Kim Fowley protégées etc. – you know, the kind of dreck that’s clogged up the works out in LA for decades now.  But wordy harbingers of Harvey’s future work were already lurking in them grooves.  And it might well have been about when Harvey learned: I’m just not cut out for this NEW WAVE ROCK thing. Better just stick to what I know best: SPOKEN WORD. 

The concept for his next 3 sets went something like this: ask everybody semi-famous you know around LA to record something, ANYTHING – so long as the focus remained squarely on verbal content. And whaddaya know, but folks met his challenge, and in droves! Everyone – whether their star was waxing or waning, be they poet, author, musician, punk, hippie, freak – turned up to chat, talk, rant, yell and mumble on these records.  This created madcrazy juxtapositions, like a one-liner by Velvert Turner (2nd string Hendrix-clone during the LA glam rock daze) back-to-back with a nasty desert-bake poem from Chris D. (not long outta THE FLESH EATERS, but still a juicehead fr sure). Or ex-SURF PUNK Scott Goddard yaking about pinball (Harvey was big on guys with S.PUNK connections) right before a heavy poem about child abuse by Wanda Coleman (an actual poetess!).  It was the literary equivalent of the proverbial headfuck, but it felt good to me.

Occasionally, you’d find an actual song, like D. Boon’s acoustic “My Part” – but even these moments felt more like statements rather anything to base a rock band on.  More often, you’d find yourself drenched in a whole diverse range of beliefs, attitudes, emotions and aesthetics, all running headlong into one another at 33 1/3 rpm.  These records were fascinating precisely because they weren’t exclusive – and so what if some of it was pretentious, pompous, or just downright bad? This shit was lightyears above & beyond the drivel you’d hear on corporate TV/radio then. Even bad was AOK when it’s mixed with the startling, the vexing, the actually kinda amazing. It didn’t matter if it all stood up as poetry, or performance, or even art – cause it wasn’t specifically about THAT.  It was about a sum total of creative spoken stuff available – the collective uuummph of LA artistic wordplay and oral spell-casting available at a particular moment in time.

For what it’s worth, I reckon Neighborhood Rhythms to be the most consistently interesting listening experience of the bunch – 104 cuts over 4 album sides!  But they’re all long, winding RTD bus-journeys of the mind, guaranteed to jumpstart your LizardKing backbrain. The bits you thought you’d sold back to the used record store as a jaded teen.

Harv’s dedication to this cause certainly kickstarted the phenomena of rock-band types – Henry Rollins, Exene Cervanka, even fucking El Duce for christ’s sake – reading in front of club-goers in LA in the ’80s.  That’s something I actually miss. Would that there were this many screwball characters still wandering around LA streets/clubs interested in speaking to you and me in the context of live performance.  And if only there was still a guy like Harvey K. around, still nuts enough to record em all.

A track from each of the four Freeway Records compilations, in order of their appearance: 

PHAST PHREDDIE & THEE PRECISIONS – “Freeway Dub” from L.A. Radio 2-LP (Freeway Records, promo/no catalog number, 1979)
DENNIS COOPER – “Hello In There” from Voices of the Angels (Spoken Words) 2-LP (Freeway Records, FRWY 2-26, 1982)
D. BOON – “My Part” from English As a Second Language (Talking Package) 2-LP (Freeway Records, E-1031, 1983)
JACK BREWER – “Elysian Fields” from Neighborhood Rhythms (Patter Traffic) 2-LP (Freeway Records, FRWY 213, 1984)