Graded on a Curve: Cactus,
Rhino HiFive

A while back, I decided to take a drive through the desert. There were birds and plants and rocks and things—Maria Muldaur putting her camel to bed; a hostelry called the Hotel California, where I almost spent the night until I espied the repulsive Don Henley in the lobby; and one delirious-from-the-heat member of the band America, whom I picked up on the verge of the highway and who kept mumbling about a horse with no name, and how Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man he didn’t already have, and how if he hadn’t been so hungry he would never have killed and eaten his band mates, to say nothing of the nameless horse.

Later I took a long hike in the killing heat and suppose I grew a bit delirious myself, because as I was passing a quartet of cacti one of them spoke. It said, “Do you know who we are? We could have been the biggest band ever! The superest of the supergroups! Forget CSN&Y! Forget Blind Faith! Forget Asia and ELP! Forget The Firm even!” And that cactus was still ranting (about Steampacket, I think) when I awoke on my bathroom floor, and realized the whole thing had been a very weird but realistic dream.

Or had it? If so, how to explain the cactus spines sticking out of my back? Or the painful case of sunburn? Or the sole surviving member of America crouched defensively in a corner of my living room, mumbling about how the horse with no name might well have had a name but simply didn’t care to divulge it, it was a horse thing, they could be very close-mouthed that way. What’s more, a quick Google search revealed there REALLY was a band called Cactus, formed way back in 1969 by bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice, both formerly of Vanilla Fudge.

The duo had big plans, Hitler-sized plans, to conquer the music world, namely by bringing that Guitarnold Schwarzenegger known as Jeff Beck and rooster-cropped Rod Stewart (“Hot Legs” slowly gestating inside him like some alien spore in a horror movie) into the fold. And it would have come to pass, had fate not intervened in the form of an auto accident that put Beck out of commission for over a year, during which time the antsy Stewart opted to join The Small Faces, or just plain Faces as they came to be called following a group stay at a high-priced clinic for face enlargement surgery.

So goodbye supergroup. But rather than give up on their dream, Bogert and Appice improvised, bringing in former Detroit Wheels/Buddy Miles Express guitarist Jim McCarty and ex-Amboy Dukes singer Rusty Day to fill Beck and Stewart’s shoes. And it worked, to the extent that the band produced some great blooz-and-boogie-inflected hard rock that got them labeled “the American Led Zeppelin.” Meanwhile, McCarty’s guitar playing won him effusive praise from the loin-cloth-wearing Ted Nugent, who said, “Remember the name Jimmy McCarty. He is as important as Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry and Les Paul… a god on guitar.”

Unfortunately Cactus—American Led Zeppelin or not—never put much of a dent in the charts, and wound up releasing three underappreciated studio LPs in 1970-71 as well as 1972’s live ‘Ot ‘N’ Sweaty (which featured ringers for McCarty, who had quit, and Day, who had been fired) before deciding to call it a day. But if Cactus’ origins were ill-starred and its career a case study in the arbitrary nature of stardom—why did they fail when Grand Funk Railroad, who wasn’t fit to lick Cactus’ boots, filled arenas? Which isn’t to say that Cactus didn’t record some great music, music that has inspired bands ranging from Aerosmith to Lynyrd Skynyrd to The Black Keys.

As for the tunes on Rhino Record’s HiFive—which I chose to review instead of one of Cactus’ studio LPs for reasons I’ll divulge later—they’re all excellent, although the bluesy “Not to Worry” isn’t exactly my cup of boogie. The EP opens with Cactus’s adaptation of the Bukka White (and later Mose Allison) classic “Parchman Farm”—in which White recounts his stay at Mississippi’s infamous State Penitentiary–into a hard-boogieing flash fire of a tune. McCarty’s savage playing lives up to the Nuge’s encomiums, while Day’s vocals grow increasingly frenetic and punchy as the song goes on. And Day tosses in a cool harmonica solo while he’s at it. Appice’s drumming is explosive, and he and Bogert are the ball and chain that keep this baby from escaping Parchman Farm altogether. Believe me when I say “Parchman Farm” is the bona fide shit and a great contribution to the rock farm tradition. It may not be the equal of B. Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” but it whups the Faces’ “Miss Judy’s Farm,” Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Junior’s Farm,” and even Spın̈al Tap’s great “Sex Farm.” Have I omitted any farms? Oh, yeah, Old MacDonald had a farm, E-I-E-fucking- O.

“Let Me Swim” is pure high-octane boogie rock, and features one great guitar riff and some great bass and drums by Bogert and Cappice. True, the lyrics are nothing to write about, but McCarty’s pair of solos will flip your wig, and the ending—which features Day (with Bogert or Appice or both singing back-up) repeating “Swim, swim, swim” while Appice bashes away at the cymbals is tres cool. The slower and bluesier “One Way… Or Another” features a gigantic guitar riff that sounds like it just climbed out of the primordial ooze and is coming for you. It’s about Led Zeppish as you get, this riff, but Day’s vocals aren’t as downright kick-ass as they are on “Parchman Farm,” and at the 1:30 mark the song slows for Day to deliver a hippie lecture to his brothers and sisters on how we’re all the same, blah groovy far-out blah. Just when I was afraid the song was doomed, back comes McCarty with some crazy feedback and (Nugent wasn’t kidding) one stranglehold of a solo complete with piercing high-toned effects and lots of groovy distortion as Appice plays the fastest drums in the West. Then the song returns to that opening primordial riff, and Day repeats “One way or another” while McCarty plays it fast and with more distortion than a fun house mirror.

“No Need to Worry” is a straight ahead blues of the sort I’d typically walk a mile to avoid, but McCarty saves the day with a solo that could cause bushes to burst into flames at a thousand yards, which goes a long way to explaining the biblical story; Moses didn’t have a staff, he had an electric guitar, and he played it like Jim McCarty. McCarty opens the song with a clean guitar sound—move on, people, no distortion to see here—then Day comes in, and commences to spend the first three-and-one-half minutes moaning the blues, and not about something cool like how he shot his baby or is about to be hanged or got into a knife fight with John Denver. Instead he keeps it topical, singing things like, “It’s hard to believe the condition the world is in” (yawn) before finally saying (I think) “Blues me,” at which point McCarty launches into the aforementioned solo, which if it doesn’t wake you up after Day’s blues stylings you’re ready to be fitted for a coffin, friend.

“Rumblin’ Man”—a sludgy, monstrous, and unrecognizable reworking (or perhaps I should say ruthless deconstruction) of Link Wray’s classic “Rumble”—is one of the most amazing tunes I’ve ever heard and the reason I selected the Rhino collection in the fist place, because “Rumblin’ Man” is inexplicably missing from Cactus’ studio releases. “Rumblin’ Man” is one razor-toothed beast of a song, and opens with some unbelievably big distorted riffs by McCarty, riffs you have to hear to believe, and they continue for the duration of the song, along with lots of distortion and other mayhem-making guitar effects. And then there’s Day, who sounds positively feral, and practically like Michael Gerald of Killdozer at points, snarling and screaming about how he don’t get no money and he don’t get no sleep, but just chews “the heads off innocent sheep.” Top that, Ozzy Osbourne.

Bottom line? “Rumblin’ Man” isn’t a song; it’s a 4:21 earthquake, and play it too loud and you risk bringing your house down around your ears. And the song goes out the way it came in, that is to say in total chaos, with Day shrieking something unintelligible and seemingly apocalyptic, although he could just as soon be telling a studio lackey to hold the pickles on his delivery burger. Look, I know I’m fond of hyperbole, and risk sounding like the boy who cried Cactus when I call “Rumblin’ Man” decades ahead of its time and one of the greatest noise rock tunes ever. But there I said it, and I stand by it 101 fucking percent. These dudes could definitely show Sonic Youth a thing or three.

“Rumblin’ Man” alone makes the breakup of Cactus a tragedy, and one can’t help but wonder what they might have accomplished had they performed more songs in its vein. But break up they did, and afterwards Bogert and Appice finally got together with Jeff Beck to form Beck, Bogert, & Appice, while Day went on to reform The Band Detroit before founding another version of Cactus. This version of the band never recorded, and folded after Day was shot and killed in his own home in Longwood, Florida by drug dealers in 1982. You would think that would have been the end of Cactus, but in 2005 the band again rose from the dead, this time featuring its original line-up with ex-Savoy Brown vocalist Jimmy Kunes taking Day’s place.

And they’re out there still, and maybe they’ll even come to your town, and in conclusion I would like to say that while Oz never gave the Tin Man anything he didn’t already have, things would have been different had he given the Tin Man a Cactus album.


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