Graded on a Curve: Fred Lane and his Disheveled Monkeybiters, Icepick to the Moon

As previously reported in this column, Fred Lane was the name attached to a few of the 20th century underground’s more craftily out-there musical experiences, encompassing swinging Dadaist lounge big-band, a tuxedoed handlebar mustachioed “stripmine crooner” with a face covered in band aids, cracked noir atmosphere, and moldy French toast in a sock. The good news is that a new batch of Fred Lane recordings, Icepick to the Moon, has emerged through Feeding Tube, this time with the Disheveled Monkeybiters as his band. The edition of 400, released last November, will already be difficult to obtain, but on a positive note, Lane will give his first publicized performance since 1976 on January 31 at the Saturn venue in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s sure to be a twisted treat.

Along with the performance by Lane with the Disheveled Monkeybiters, there will also be a screening of Skizz Cyzyk’s documentary on the man, also titled Icepick to the Moon, along with a DVD release of the film. Please note that the LP is not a soundtrack to the movie, which Cyzyk has been working on since 1999. The album has been in on-off development (more off than on) for a decade longer. It was announced as imminent after the release of Lane and His Hittite Hot Shots’ Car Radio Jerome in 1986.

Car Radio Jerome was issued on Mark Kramer’s NYC-based label Shimmy-Disc, then riding a wave of u-ground scene notoriety through the work of Bongwater, King Missile, and B.A.L.L. (to name but three), which boosted the profile of Lane and his musical associates. This gang of Southern misfits was originally known as Raudelunas, with their activities spanning back to the mid-’70s at the University of Alabama.

They even cut an album, the Raudelunas ‘Pataphysical Revue (an undisguised nod to the French Dadaist writer Alfred Jarry) a live recording where Fred Lane, the character creation of Tim Reed, made his debut alongside Ron ‘Pate’s Debonairs (‘Pate’s real name being Craig Nutt). The first release on Say Day-Bew Records, it created something considerably less than a stir, though it did make it across the Atlantic to England somehow, where Steven Stapleton put the Debonairs and two of the group’s members, violinist/ violist LaDonna Smith and guitarist Davey Williams, on the legendary Nurse with Wound list.

From the One That Cut You, credited to Lane and the Debonairs, followed on Say-Day Bew in 1983, though it was reissued by Shimmy-Disc in 1989, where along with Car Radio Jerome (the two were later combined on one CD), it surely reached a higher number of receptive ears, including those of this writer. From the One That Cut You let Reed run rampant with the Lane persona, at this point essentially a misanthropic lounge singer with a touch of menace fronting a big band with tendencies equally Vegas and free jazz.

Although there was definitely thematic continuity as Lane became more identifiably Sinatra-like, Car Radio Jerome delved deeper into warped noir alongside lounged-out takes on early R&R and additional surreal character portraiture; “French Toast Man” is like something created in a cartoon workshop attended exclusively by Tex Avery, John Waters, and David Lynch.

If long-delayed, Icepick to the Moon picks up pretty nicely where Car Radio Jerome left off. It might even be a little more instrumentally refined, though it’s no less of a strange and at times borderline transgressive excursion, with the opening title track presenting Lane in Sinatra-esque mode, though Frank never spewed lyrical imagery as colorfully off-kilter as what’s here.

Overall, the band dishes out some sharp swing jazz circa the heyday of the TV talk show (a la Carson and Merv Griffin), but with a brief hunk of screaming out-jazz sax  from J. Cromp-Tunney and a longer plunge into avant slide guitar courtesy of Davey Williams (under the guise of Cyd Cherise), an important underground guitarist who passed last year.

The mention of the transgressive above surely applies to the title of “Fried Yellow Women,” though the incorrectness delved into by Reed as Lane, which is largely tied up in the evocation of period (right down to the fucked mindsets of the time), isn’t overdone. Instead, the song delivers more Sinatra-style crooning but noir-tinged and possibly arranged and conducted by Juan Garcia Esquivel.

The Space Aged Bachelor Pad sensibility gets considerably increased in “Get Out of My Gal,” with its femme backing vocals and Latin rhythms. But “Twist, Leathernecks Twist,” shifts the album’s gears into Elvis movie soundtrack territory, like a song knocked off for a flick where Presley joins the Marines but subversively spiked at the end to acknowledge Vietnam War-style atrocities.

“Cinderblock Man” is a fictional conjuring similar to Car Radio Jerome’s “French Toast Man,” except that this track spills over more fully into an utterly bizarre children’s story narrative, momentarily leaving song trappings behind. From there, “Call Me Wayne” moves into a zone halfway between the theme to Peter Gunn and Tiny Bradshaw’s “Train Kept a Rollin’” as sung by Elvis, though the highlight is Williams’ crazed solo.

“Buttocks of the Spartan Dead” taps into the Lane character’s penchant for violence, here expressed through the desire to kick victims in the stomach, and in doing so strengthens ties to From the One That Cut You, the record where Reed’s persona is at his most psychopathic. “Little Sinner” brings to mind the Angelo Badalamenti of Twin Peaks with what sounds like a deft variation upon a tune by Otis Blackwell.

Closer “I’m Gonna Go to Hell (When I Die)” takes southern gospel into some very dark places, but with humor, an element that’s the deepest constant in the work of Fred Lane and the bands that back him. With Icepick to the Moon, that oeuvre has unexpectedly expanded by one album, and with an accompanying documentary film that will clarify the madness for generations to come.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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