From Cool and Strange Music #28 If jazz is dead it’s because Fred Lane personally killed it. Ran it over with one of them old-timey lawnmowers. Bludgeoned it to death on Dean Martin’s cinderblock cufflinks, he did. Placed the hit from the payphone across the street from the Max Ernst exhibit.
“The local fuzz can’t finger him because they’re convinced Rev. Dr. Fred Lane’s just a psychopathic Big Band singer from Tuscaloosa, Alabama,” says Detective Bope-a-dope, reading his cue cards. “Released a couple hilarious albums on the Shimmy-Disc label in the mid-eighties, that’s all they know.” He reveals a file photo of a man dressed in a tuxedo top with no pants, goofy sunglasses, fake facial hair, and gratuitous band-aids. “I don’t normally take cases like this anymore,” Bope-a-dope mumbles with an air of disgust, “but then last month my secretary got a call from the Marsalis Brothers. Still owe them a favor from way back.” Okay, maybe Fred Lane didn’t actually kill jazz (a little late for that). That is, if by “jazz” you mean college graduates and/or former session men with good haircuts who know all their scales. Fred Lane wouldn’t blow his nose on them (unless he was in a hurry). But he at least reminded the rest of us about jazz’s real roots: racism, crime (both organized and otherwise), and generic American lowlife “civilization.” There’s a reason why the Johnny Fontane character in “The Godfather” bears more than a little resemblance to Old Blue Eyes. Same reason why Mickey Mouse originally looked like a blackfaced minstrel singer with rodent features. Reverend Lane’s “stripmine crooning” and disjointed, belligerent Big Band style satirizes it all for those quick on the surrealist draw. According to Abdul “Ben” Camel, bassist for Fred Lane’s Hittite Hot Shots, the whole venture is “Lane’s take on (and foot put on) the ‘Music & Entertainment Capital of the World’ (our culture) after having put it through his own Epicurean food-processor.” The music itself is mostly swing but draws upon ridiculous modern country, fifties rock, hokey children’s records, and Mancini “spy” music, too – all sprinkled with some of the wildest free improvisation ever preserved on tape. In this case it’s a weirder combination than usual considering most serious disciples of the freer stuff (which applies for members of the Hotshots and Lane’s former backup band, Ron ‘Pate and the Debonairs) are typically rooted in bebop and the European avant-garde, maybe even rock, but they don’t normally go for swing. It’s too cheesy, too sleazy and schmaltzy compared to the sincere spiritual journeys of a John Coltrane or an Albert Ayler. Perfect for Fred Lane, though, and that’s why his songs are so original anyway. “I like to think of them as something I stained my shirt with,” Lane said. You stick to what’s acceptable listening in your scene, what you’re told to like by critic jerks like me, and you end up making the same old (new) music. Obeying the conventions of Free Jazz – imagine that! So it’s not like America doesn’t have this sort of archaeological source material as well. In fact that’s partly what Fred Lane is all about: digging up the humor and music of a regionalized Americana that’s been all but eclipsed by nationally syndicated radio and TV, franchise stores and restaurants, and other homogenized junk, but at the same time celebrating all that. In Lane’s wit you can hear straight-up vaudeville joke telling, archaic radio show banter, Merrie Melodies slapstick, Vegas between-song routines, obsolete Broadway, and probably like a million other comedies and comedians from before music was even amplified that nobody except Fred Lane remembers anymore. “There’s no tomorrow,” he mock-weeps on the closing track to his final album, 1986’s Car Radio Jerome, “there’s only . . .” and then we hear an explosion as the song and album and Lane’s whole world effectively ends, at least for a while. Just who is this Fred Lane guy anyway? Depends who you ask. There are those who willingly buy the whole Lane mythology like the snake oil it is. “I once spoke with the mysterious and elusive Fred Lane,” said John Klopp, who used to host a Fred Lane fan web page and somehow tracked down Lane’s home phone number. “F.L.'s mom answered. The guy is completely nuts . . . He wouldn't shut up, just kept going on and on. Eventually I had to hang up on him.” Skizz Cyzyk, a filmmaker who’s been working on a Fred Lane documentary for the last 3 years and has spoken to Lane on the phone several times, begged to differ. “I guess he might be a little eccentric but I don't think he's insane. He's very funny and he jokes constantly. His jokes are often a little weird, but that's just his sense of humor.” But current Lane fan site curator Stewart C. Russell got it best when he warned, “Fred Lane is the tip of a very large, very strange iceberg.” What is he, the Titanic-sinking variety? Short answer: Fred Lane is stage persona and real-life art project of T.R. Reed. But then who’s T.R. Reed? A professional whirligig craftsman who now resides in Atlanta. We gotta go back, way back circa 1974. College-age Tim Reed was playing flute in an Alabama-subsidized free improv group called Transcendprovisation (later just Trans) with Davey Williams (guitar), LaDonna Smith (viola), Theodore Bowen (bass), Anne LeBaron (harp), Adrian Dye (organ), and various other local musical misfits. Theodore Bowen, a friend of Reed’s since middle school, describes the future Rev. as a shy, straight-A student with a gift for cartooning and an unnatural sense of humor. “Being the youngest of five kids left him surrounded by a huge variety of musical taste,” said Bowen. “Visiting his home was like being in an entertainment center designed to be sent into space, representing the best selection of eclectic, diverse music and comedy of the mid-twentieth century.” Reed and Davey Williams had played together in a high school cover band called Wally du Gumba. They sometimes opened with the theme from TV’s “Bonanza,” and did a version of Procol Harum’s “Crucifiction Lane” that was prophetic of things to come after graduation. Back to 1974, or even a couple years earlier, fellow U of Alabama students Craig Nutt, Roger Hagerty, Nolan Hatcher, and Jim Willett had started an art collective (originally independent of the Trans crowd) called Raudelunas. With instruments borrowed from the University band department, they staged jam sessions and group paintings at the house Hatcher, Hagerty, and Nutt rented near campus, and gigged as either The Raudelunas Marching Vegetable Band or The Blue Denim Deals Without the Arms. The latter once opened an outdoor University rock concert with John Coltrane’s “Selflessness.” “To say that our performances were not well-received would be an understatement,” Nutt said. “Musically, I think we were trying to break out of the clichés we had learned playing rock, etc., and to think of music more in the way you might approach painting. Experimentation was not only encouraged but championed. It was about as free and creative an atmosphere as we could imagine.” Tim Reed must have seen much of his own aesthetic in Raudelunas’ highly visualized and whimsical musical environment. Both factions soon discovered one another and merged in time for 1975’s Second Raudelunas Exposition, the Raudelunas ‘Pataphysical Revue (inspired by French playwright Alfred Jarry’s ’pataphysics, “the science of imaginary solutions”).