No doubt you have seen the bus. Periodically that uniquely decorated greyhound, the Ozone Express, the terrestrial mode of transportation for Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, passes through Ann Arbor, bringing it all back home. Ann Arbor, of course, is the old stomping grounds for a large proportion of the Airrnen, and a return visit brings back memories of the past, not just for the fans of the band, but also for the band themselves.
The Commander himself came down to the SUN offices one afternoon to bestow his memories on the populace of Ann Arbor. and plied with beer, opened his mouth to speak of not just the history of Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen, but also to talk about that unique brand of music which the band plays, Country and Western, Under the wise (and equally blasted) direction of the SUN interviewers, Cody also talked about the audiences which come to hear Country and Western. Cody was, as always, full of his usual sarcasm and wit, and the incredible experiences which he relates below speak for themselves.
SUN: Most of your fans here know that you are from Ann Arbor, but very few people know the history of the band how the whole thing came together. What about that?
CC: Well, the whole thing was just a cosmic accident, just a whole bunch of accidents. John Tichy, our rhythm guitar player, had this band called The Amblers. He played lead guitar in that band and they decided they wanted to have an organ player so I went out and bought a Wurlitzer and I joined his band and couldn't play for shit.
SUN: Do you know what year that was?
CC: Yes I know what year that was, it was 1963. The fall of '63 when we started doing that shit. We were making a lot of dough - making $125 a week playing two TG's or a Saturday afternoon sorority party and Friday and Saturday frat parties.
SUN: What kind of band was it?
CC: Horrible man, it was just terrible. Steve Davis played I bass for a while. Tichy played lead -we played a couple of I country tunes, and mostly we played "Money" with all the dirty lyrics and all that. We used to have to drink at least a fifth of booze before we could go down and play that horrible shit. I was working my way through college you know, I wasn't selling encyclopedias, I was playing bullshit to people who didn't know shit and they were paying good bread. We had the best TG band on campus for 6 years though- it was one of the first bands in Ann Arbor.
But it became a drag and I went to grad school in sculpture. When I graduated l taught at Oshkosh State University for one year, and it was such a drag that I used to drive 750 miles every weekend and back to come to Ann Arbor just so I could play some music. In other words, I had got the music jones by that time, and I had to come back and play with the band.
SUN: Still the same band?
CC: Oh no, we had started Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen as a last ditch effort by which me and Tichy could get some more bread so we could drink some more beer and put ourselves through school. We needed a new band, a new way to make some dough because we were really short. And then after a while, we started to add- Billy C. had started to jam, Billy C.'s brother was in the band, everybody was in the band. What we're talking about now. This is when I'm in Oshkosh.
SUN: When you were coming back for weekends?
CC: Yeah, Billy C's got his own band sometimes. I'm coming back, Kirchen's split for California. Danny Erlewine was playing with us for a while.
SUN: What about Andy Stein? He's a very charismatic member of the band. How is it that he...?
CC: Andy literally fell into us, we were sitting in front of the fabulous Foxcraft Apartments, me and Steve Davis, the West Virginia Creeper, drinking beer about 8 o'clock at night. digging the action around Campus Corners. The night was really thrilling, we were having a good time. And here comes this real freek walking down the street with this violin case, he's got a trench coat on. I thought "He's gotta be good" so I asked him if he could play it. He goes, "sure, I can play it." So I invited him to come down to gig. He came down to the gig with tuxedo and sandals, eating a roast beef sandwich. He was fiddling and eating a roast beef sandwich at the same time, and stole the show that was at Canterbury House.
While I was teaching at Oshkosh, Kirchen calls from California and says hey man, come out to California. And I said, well, teaching sucked & I wanted to play music. It just took the balls to get it together to jump in the van, say "fuck the regular income" taking the chance of taking a ride on another scam because you're gonna be broke, that's the way it's gonna be. So things were real dull; I wanted some cake. So I went out to California and got real poor in a hurry and it was a lot of fucking laughs. Four of us, me, Billy C, John, and Creeper jump in a van, drive to California, and meet Kirchen, Andy stayed for a while, and we looked for a rhythm section. We found Lance and Bruce who had been on the road for 6 months and really needed a gig. We're talking about fall of '69 now when things were rough. Things were so rough we were too poor to get food stamps-took us ten months to make enough money so we could qualify for food stamps.
SUN: How do you explain these nice little bars in Berkeley where everyone in town was sayíng "They're a cult, they're a cult." You played all up and down the coast in those little bars in California. Right away you got very popular in California?
GC: After six months of being there.
SUN: You sure had the raves from everybody that came in from California.
CC: Well. we were really funky at the time and we put a lot of energy because at the time I was 25 years old and had a lot more energy and the rest Billy C. was like 18 years old. So everybody was really hopping around a lot. That's why they dug it so much.
SUN: Even though you were popular in California it still hadn't paid off?
CC: Paid off? It still hasn't paid off. What are you talking about paid off? We're talking about just barely on the edge of -making it at that time, if not starving to death-P and J sandwiches.
SUN: What about up to the time that record companies started making bids when people started getting seriously interested in signing contracts?
CC: That was when we came back and did the Dead and Youngblood concerts at the closing of the second Family Dog in San Francisco. We did a couple of good gigs, and all of a sudden there was a Rolling Stone article and then there was some hype. but nothing ever happened. We expected a hundred grand to come in, you know, a check was gonna come flying in with my name on it. In 1970 when we came back to play Ann Arbor the most we'd made up till then was 300 bucks.
SUN: How is it that Creeper (the first steel guitar player with the band) got phased out of the operation.
CC: In 1970 we played a gig at Canterbury house and it was pretty good. And then we came back again, a year after that, but it wasn't called Canterbury House, it was something else.
SUN: The Alley?
CC: Yeah, the Alley. We did five days there and in that time Creeper insisted that he sing "Kansas City" and I said no, so he quit.
SUN: How did you manage to come up with Bobby Blue Black to replace the Creeper?
CC: When we were starting in California Andy used to go down to this place called Cowtown in San José, 45 miles south of San Francisco. There was a contest on Wednesday, the Hillbilly Talent Contest, which awards $50 to the most talented hillbilly of the evening. And usually, about 20 chomps would show up. So Andy Stein went down there, and they all went ha-ha, and he played Orange Blossom Special, and met the band and turned everybody on, and jammed all night and blew everybody away, and came back with 50 bucks. So we were going like... MM HMMM. At that time 50 bucks was like yowza! Sent Tichy down and he won 50 bucks. Sent Kirchen down the following week-we had taken over this operation, we had virtually discovered a new scam. They spotted Kirchen as a ringer he was too graphic for them. He couldn't pass for a hillbilly at all. We realized that this was a bad time to perpetrate a hoax. But we got to meet the band-Bobby was in the band and he quit and joined us.
SUN: What's the next album to be like? Have you talked about that at all?
CC: Well we want the kids to go out and buy more of the one that's out now! We've been on the road so much and we've been breaking in Steel Guitar players so that at this point I I couldn't possibly plan for one. I don't even have any tunes, I haven't had time to write any. We could do a bunch of Merle Haggard songs or a salute Bob Willis or some bullshit but that would cheap shit just to get a product out. I want to put out a real good commercial but real tasty music to sell more records to turn more kids on to that sound of country music.
SUN: Could you fill some of the local people in on the direction that country music is going, like the stuff you hear on the radio, countrypolitan music- and how the music you guys play is different from that.
CC: You bet your buns I will. OK, look, in Nashville they got, they call I it M.O.R.-middle of the road. Certain companies put out products I where they -let me put it this way-first time they saw us, "We've been trying to give country music some class for 20 years and look at this." That was their reaction the first time we played Nashville.
SUN: Meaning what, you weren't classy?
CC: Meaning, if you haven't made it in Las Vegas, you haven't made it. That's -- why they have their port-o-wagon and all those guys with-the la est thing is bell-bottomed cowboy nudie suits, with hats and bigwheeís, trying to send these acts to Las Vegas. The new wave of us underground guys say you throw in Willie Nelson and Wheylen Jennings-guys who are obviously funky- making no pretensions to being slick whatsoever, and still getting down, cause basically country people are funky. They've been hyped by all that radio crap to think that being a star means wearing a big ten-gallon hat and a four hundred million dollar nudie suit. Every one of their producers and A & R people and all that shit try to push them into a Las Vegas groove. And the Grand Old Opry right now is just disgusting. There are very few funky cats really left. except for this quote-unquote new underground thing. We've got four albums out-that's not underground.
SUN: How does Bakersfield work into that whole thing?
CC: A little background -Bakersfield California is where Buck Owens and Merle Haggard are from. It provided the first competition for Nashville in the early 60"s in terms of country-western music, and it looked like they were gonna have some good shit come out of there. It took some money from Nashville, and the people of Nashville were pissed about that, but what happened was they both got together and got into an amalgamation of the same old lame shit. Buck Owens films his show in Nashville, so the Bakersfield versus Nashville thing is not happening like it was when it first started. Matter of fact, if anything else, Bakersfield produced the Glen Campbell thing, which really pushed the country people into wanting to go to Las Vegas. They've integrated, become one sort of vast LA to Nashville thing. Look at Charlie Rich. There's a perfect example of product personality-he's been hanging around for years and years, right?
SUN: And always been good.
CC: And he's always been good, and see, he's a piano player, dig, and he doesn't play piano on his current records, because even though he's one of the best piano players in the country, they won't let him play piano because it's not his image.
SUN: Somebody else plays the piano on Charlie Rich's records?
CC: Right now. But whereas when he was funky he played his own piano, just like Jerry Lee Lewis doesn't play piano on his own records anymore. These guys are stars, all they do is sing.
SUN: What about the reaction from straight country and western audiences when you play?
CC: Well, you know, the real country people, if they get a chance to hear it and they go "boo, find a rock concert! take a bath!" they get that out of their system and then they listen to us. Like we had to go on in 1971 in front of Merle Haggard at the Oakland Coliseum for 6000 people when Okie From Muskogee was the number one hit. The chump that was booking us at the time put us on that gig, you want to talk about slaughter, you know-and they booed and all that shit, and then we started to play. At the end of it there were a lot fewer boos, because we do play country music.
SUN: They were booing just from looking at you?
CC: Yeah, you know, ucch, boo. Understand, because at the time they were real scared of hippies. They're not scared of hippies no more. They don't think we're revolutionary bomb-throwers that are gonna blow up the world. They don't think that. But when we first came out, as hippies quote-unquote, straight people of the world just didn't know what to do: "drug-taking freaks. Good God!". But now they realize I do think they realize that the country stars take more drugs than we do. Because of black speed pill is equal to a lot more heavy drugs than a reefer of marijuana.
Anyway, back at the gig with Merle, I'm out in the audience and trying to hide more or less out in this sea of chomps, and this 6'6" trucker comes over to me and recognized me and says, "You were in that band, weren't you?" Looks me right in the eye, and I just thought, "Oh boy." I look around for my friends, but there wasn't a Hells Angel in the crowd and I had no place to turn to. I thought this was it. And he starts sayin, he SINGS it at me, to my face. and he's about an inch and a half away, and he's been drinking--he SINGS Okie from Muskogee at me with real bad breath. And I like start singing it back, and we sing along together, and the song ends and he goes, "Har har, I got a kid that looks like you, and l love 'im. I think he's great, get a fucking haircut. ya creep." and he walks off. I thought it was gonna be my flash with death.
SUN: ís it true that Merle smokes dope?
CC: It's true that Merle Haggard was smoking dope when he wrote "Okie from Muskogee" as a matter of fact. But don't quote me on that....it's just a rumor.
SUN: What about within the trade do they dig you in Nashville?
CC: Every fall we go to the country music association official convention in Nashville. And they see us, they're freaked out because we go "Truckin" and Fuckin'" on that one side. It was great man, the record company sticker on the jacket said "Do not play side one, track two" which is the only gospel song on the album. Like side one, track five is 'Truckin' and Fuckin", a dirty song. So all the country disc jockeys, the underground guys, they wanted to give us a break and played the album all the way through except for the gospel tune, and got in trouble wlth the program directors just like that. So our name was shit the last time we were there. They said, "Look, you're not gonna do that song, are you?" We go, "Oh no. we wouldn't do that dirty song." Aid then "You're not gonna play any rock n roll or anything like that?" "No no," which is jive, so we go up and play a couple of country tunes and everyone goes yay, clap clap they can play country. And we're becoming more and more accepted, we're not as freaky looking, because everybody's got long hair and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was down there this year, and Johnny Cash has got....And meanwhile, the chomps from Dot Records, which is the biggest MOR middle of the road country and label in the world, they get Donna Fargo, their guy Joe Stamply comes out and does old R & B material with this lame country back up band. In other words, the idea is, as long as you do lame, bland, in-offensive-just do it so that no one could possibly be offended. Country and Western is the new Muzak. We go out and do 'Tryin' Time" which is the straightest country-western tune in the world and they think it's rock 'n' roll.
SUN: Well, how do they separate the rockabilly stuff that Billy C does from...
CC: They don't. The people that are hip to us, and the pop market where people are aware of identities and stuff like that, they understand the difference in what we're doing when the various of the three or four lead singers sings, but a country audience just categorizes us, boo, as the band, the bunch of ugly hippies, and it doesn't make any difference that when Billy C stops singing and Tichy starts singing the rock ends and the country begins they don't know that. It's the same band, it must be rock and roll.
SUN: What about the truck driving music that you do, like 'Mama Hated Diesels?"
CC: Well, the truck drivers officially love us. Mama Hated Diesels is on every jukebox from here to California on Route 70. We've checked it out several times witli nasty looking truckers we've played it. These truck drivers, they can dig it, cause they're working-class people, you know? That's where it's at, they work for a living, they work their asses off and they can dig it. They don't like those lazy motherfuckers with silk suits on the cats told me that at the truck stops. Like "Hey man, you look like a regular guy, your hair's a little long, but so is my son 's." That's where the point is two years ago they would have kicked my ass.
SUN: When are you coming back to Ann Arbor, to play an official gig here instead of Detroit?
CC: Well, I'm hip to that. But the powers that be block it-sold out, so to speak. There are certain things I can do, like I can say, "Look, I'm not going to play the Schwabin Inn again, I don't care what they call it, I'm not gonna play. What I'd like to do is play for free in the summer. That's what I'd like to do- just come in and play for free, and then split. In the middle of a tour, just deal with it like that. If possible that would be the best thing. And it is possible too.
-interviewed by Chris Frayne and David Fenton; edited by Lauren Jones