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<<   "A Soul Tormented by Contemporary Music Finds a Humanizing Alchemy"   >>
cover Zerfas : Zerfas

"A Soul Tormented by Contemporary Music Finds a Humanizing Alchemy"


(1994 re-issue)

Record collecting, in one form or another, has probably been going on since the first fellow lost sleep over a missing Edison cylinder in his collection. If you wanted to trace a history of rare record collecting (the quest for the "holy grail" -- the intoxicating aura of authenticity surrounding the "impossible object") it would likely lead you from the earliest Blues 78s, past seriously rare Rockabilly and C&W sides, down a hallway lined with ethereal and beautiful doo-wop 45s, into a library of gloriously snotty psychedelic garage-punk singles, and into a room full of psychedelic oddities so large you can't tell where it ends.

Sometime in the late-70s, maybe just into the early 1980s, a collector's scene began to take shape around the loosely-defined category of "private-label" LPs. From the mid-60s on, the impact of records like "Surrealistic Pillow", "Disraeli Gears", "Axis: Bold As Love", "Revolver", "Freak Out", "Blonde On Blonde", and others upon art and culture is immeasurable. One pretty direct effect of the trend was that tens of thousands of us (maybe more) took to our basements and garages with drums and guitars, cheap mics run through tiny PA systems and made our own music. Of the five hundred people who will eventually hold a copy of this record, I'd wager half or better once made way too much noise in somebody's basement.

We played rough cover versions of "I'm So Glad", "Good Lovin'", "Hey Joe", and countless others. Most of us got over it after a while; but many of us didn't. Thousands of bands wrote original songs, influenced by the incredible records that filled the bins at the local stores. Many of these bands scraped together money from their day jobs and the gigs they'd play at local clubs and auditoriums, borrowed some money from families and friends and went into local semi-pro recording studios (or set up borrowed reel-to-reel recorders in makeshift basement studios) and recorded some combination of covers and original material. Just like a very stoned John Lennon playing the tape of "Rain" backwards, they made mistakes and incorporated their accidents into music in their own giddy stoned reverie. Some would go so far as to ship these tapes off to the nearest pressing plant with payment for the minimum number of copies you could have pressed, as few as 100, as many as 1,000. Some paid for generic covers of sunsets or clouds over the ocean, covers they would unknowingly share with local gospel quartet and high school marching band records - and some would paste up their own covers over blank covers they bought. The records were sold at gigs and local head shops, given away to friends and local radio stations, the last box or two stashed away in an attic (still waiting for somebody like me to find).

Now decades later, in a dollar bin, flea market, yard sale or a local junk shop, somebody pulls out an abandoned copy, dusty and scratched, the cover worn and ripped from old glue and water damage, and takes it home, cleans it up a bit, and drops the tone arm on the first track. Most of the time it's badly recorded, badly played cocktail lounge music at best. But every once in a while, honest-to-God magic comes rushing out of the speakers. What the earliest private-press collectors realized was that hidden in some of these records was inspired song writing, arrangements, and playing as good as anything the major labels had to offer. These collectors also took extra pleasure in the knowledge that they were the first to hear these songs in this new context. And in this manner (or one very much like it) the collector/dealer as psychedelic archaeologist was born.

In truth, the bulk of what has emerged as the U.S. private-press collector scene is comprised of records that never has the polish and production values necessary for the wider commercial appeal of the major label LPs. A good portion of the education process - and a good chunk of the pleasure therein - is in the acquisition of new ears and new eyes; the expanded senses necessary to find the treasures amid the trash in the thrift store racks, and to find the magic in the dusty grooves.

A record collector for the most of my life, I have spent some time in recent years undergoing this process of education/transformation - a gradual process of seduction I have found a source of great personal enjoyment. The title I've put at the front of this short essay is the title of scene 4 in avant-garde composer, Harry Partch's 1957 composition, "The Bewitched". I am taken with the way the phrase "a humanizing alchemy" describes with strinking accuracy those records we are all now frantically searching for. For me, this notion of a "humanizing alchemy" has something to say about the emotional sincerity, a kind of emotional authenticity, the best of these records contain. The best of these records were made by people who beleived that music was capable of saying BIG things - capabale of expressing BIG answers to BIG questions. Caught up in this then, is a struggle for articulation as these musicians, often very young and semi-professional struggled to connect the notes in ways that would shed light on, well, the meaning of life, the universe... everything.

In many ways, Zerfas is the epitome of the U.S. private-press psychedelic record. A group of 18 and 19 year-olds, heads alive and bursting with all the mythologies of the 1960s filtered through the vast flat strangeness of the American midwest and their own unique and rich creativity, finally raise the money to enter Moe Whittemore's small recording studio in January of 1973. In the six months that followed, led by David's fertile imagination, they would use every device, every recording trick and technique, every late-night accident and mistake, to finally realize their vision and deliver the closest thing Indiana would ever have to the archetype of studio psychedelic LPs, "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band".

This record presents the first two chapters of what might still yet be a work-in-progress (Dave had the first four or five chapters worked out, and if he finishes these sometime in the first decade of the new century he can still claim to have out-paced George Lucas). Starting sometime in the early 1980s, Zerfas made its earliest appearances on psych collector want lists - usually in the form of "Zerfus ?" or "Zerphus ?", more rumor than record. For a local record from central Indiana, the original 500 copies seem to have been spread by the four winds: copies have been found in a New York radio station record library, a Colorado thrift store, Marin County flea market - my own favorite is a copy, now in a Minnesota collection, marked with the stamp of the library of a state mental institution!

I first heard Zerfas some years back when a friend found a copy at a local thrift store. As the prelude to the first track slowly faded up - a wondrously thick mix of layered backwards and forward voices and sounds - I remember thinking that this might just be the best thing I'd ever heard. the greatest strength of Zerfas is in its rich mix of different techniques and approaches; and ability to work across a wide range of styles - from the opening garage sneer of "You Never Win" through the dreamy psychedelia of "The Piper" - without ever sacrificing an overall thematic and harmonic continuity. Across the two sides you can get some sense of these musicians/artists laboring for hours in the small studio to get just the right blend of harmony, guitar, drums and organ to reach for that fleeting glimpse of something larger than we are. This is a great LP that rewards repeated listening with new insights. Enjoy.

Stan Denski
Indianapolis
November 1994

 
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