A Blind Man's Penis

John Trubee and the curious world of song-poems

Human breakdown of absurdityOccasionally people ask me what I think the best song ever written was. When I suggest "Blind Man's Penis," by Santa Rosa resident John Trubee, folks tend to scoff, coughing up one of those "B' bands instead. Then I have to explain that Trubee's tune has it all: bizarre lyrics about sex, aliens, and Stevie Wonder; slurred, echo-y vocals straight from an old-folks' home; and gorgeous, weeping steel guitar that makes everything else seem almost normal. Best of all, the version of "Blind Man's Penis" that became infamous -- played incessantly by KROQ DJs in the early '80s and on college radio ever since -- was recorded not by Trubee, but by a Nashville song-poem hack by the name of Ramsey Kearney, all for a measly $80.

The song-poem industry began more than 100 years ago, when enterprising shysters realized they could bilk people out of cash by putting ads soliciting songwriters in pulp magazines, tabloids, and Popular Mechanics. Everyday people (mostly women, it turns out) were enticed to send in lyrics, dreams, or, heck, even their Christmas lists, excited by the promise that their words would be put to music, recorded, and then promoted. Of course, all the rubes really got was a handful of 7-inches (or these days, CDs or cassettes), which usually ended up in thrift stores. And, as we've seen before, yesterday's thrift store crap becomes today's chic kitsch.

Song-poems first hit the hipster radar in the early '90s, when NRBQ drummer Tom Ardolino released four volumes of material from the now-defunct MSR label. With hepcat cartoonists like Dan Clowes and Wayno designing the LP covers, and goofy titles like "Convertibles and Headbands" and "Santa Claus Goes Modern," you might expect little more than a few ironic chuckles from the contents. But there's something oddly affecting about lyrics like "Disco disco disco/ I am going to Mount Kisco/ I am going to buy Crisco/ To bake a cake/ So I can disco, disco, disco" (from "How Long Are You Staying") sung by a lounge crooner over buoyant strings and cooing back-up singers. And there's no denying that the producer of many of the tracks, Rodd Keith (soon to be the subject of a major motion picture), was some kind of genius, the Phil Spector of the song-poem set. Eventually, indie artists like Yo La Tengo, Jon Spencer, and local lady Barbara Manning began covering song-poems; Penn Jillette and Matt Groening started collecting the originals.

The latter had previously written an article about John Trubee for the L.A. Reader in the mid-'80s. Trubee wasn't like the other poem scribes -- although he'd penned the most famous tune, he'd never expected it to be recorded.

After discovering an ad in the back of a rag called the Midnight Globe in 1976, the 19-year-old Princeton, N.J., native spent five minutes coming up with the most ridiculous lyrics possible, cobbling together an acid trip, nipple-loving warts, sexy baby Martians, and Stevie Wonder's erection. Thinking he'd get a nasty note from the song-poem company, he sent it off -- and received a contract. Skip ahead six years: The Berklee College of Music grad is living in L.A., playing bass for avant-blues freak Zoogz Rift and passing out tapes of his compositions. Hearing "Blind Man's Penis" (Ramsey Kearney had erased any mention of Mr. Wonder), Enigma Records offers to put out a 45 of it, which ends up in the hands of KROQ DJ and vampiress Elvira, who helps make the song a cult hit. Trubee records two bizarre LPs for Enigma, full of Frank Zappa-ish jazz-noise and juvenile prank phone calls, and then disappears from view.

Now, thanks to the recent Bar/None compilation The American Song-Poem Anthology: Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush and the documentary Off the Charts, song-poems -- and Trubee -- are back in the spotlight. Listening to tunes like "Human Breakdown of Absurdity" and "Little Bug Rug," it's apparent that there's something utterly American about these tunes: They're infused with both a naïve, desperate desire for fame and an unending faith in the importance of trivialities. As for Trubee, who still records today (go to www.emusic.com for samples), he's just amazed anyone remembers his song. "I did it as a silly little prank, and it's like it's grown legs and followed me around," he says. "There's this weird dynamic with creations -- they take on a life of their own." For more information on song-poems, go to www.aspma.com.

 
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