Exhuming the Holy Grail

“Leper” (1998) by Bedhead.

There’s a lot of lost Holy Grails in pop music. Some are real but unreleased for whatever reason: Bruce Springsteen’s backlog of songs from those 1970s and early-1980s recording sessions that he still hasn’t unleashed, damnit, fall into this category. So do the full Basement Tapes sessions made by Bob Dylan and the Band in 1967. Portions of each have appeared in various incarnations, but we probably won’t get the full picture until each artist dies.

Other Grails are unfinished or abandoned–Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys’s Smile being the most famous of this sort, though Springsteen’s (again!) The Ties that Bind also applies.

Some Grails are chimeras. My favorite is the lost, late-night jam session between Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, which is probably apocryphal in the first place and almost certainly wasn’t recorded.

My favorite category are the rediscoveries of older material–like recently uncovered tapes of jazz concerts featuring Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, and Louis Armstrong’s early radio broadcasts and home recordings–that upend traditionally held notions about advances within musical genres and styles. In this category, you also have to include the goofy one-offs–such as Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, and Tony Rice’s Pizza Tapes–that show the musicians in a more relaxed setting that may be better and more revealing than the artists’ studio sessions.

(For further review, the Onion’s A.V. Club lists eleven “intriguing” lost albums.)

Honestly, I’m not quite sure which Grail category Bedhead’s album of jazz standards falls into. Longtime readers will know that I’ve discussed the Dallas rock quintet before, and consider it to be one of the greatest and most distinctive groups to emerge from the 1990s. But it’s hardly revered or even well-known outside of Texas or in obscure indie-rock circles.

Still, it’s legendary enough that a Holy Grail has sprung up around the band. In the mid-1990s, Dallas Observer music critic Robert Wilonsky has made passing mention of the band’s instrumental jazz recordings on more than one occasion. Ernesto, who loves Bedhead as much as I do, floated the idea to me first, though he probably read it in the pages of the Dallas Observer as well. After live shows at the Galaxy Club and the Argo, ecstatic fans–still vibrating from Bedhead’s spooky sound an hour after the set–would trade rumors. I was one of them.

I never heard about the jazz album from anyone close to the source. A high school acquaintance, who took guitar lessons from the band’s co-leader Bubba Kadane and considered the man a friend, never mentioned it. When I rang up Bubba’s groceries over the summer of 1997 at Whole Foods Market, he would mention the band’s forthcoming album but never brought up the jazz masters.

Because the set was never released nor heard, it’s tough to separate myth from reality here. It may have been recorded in 1995 by Mark Elliott, proprietor of Leaning House Records, the late and lamented Dallas jazz label that released the first three albums by Quietbubble-approved Earl Harvin Trio/Quartet. It includes, possibly, a version of Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso.” Elliott may have also put band-written instrumentals on tape along with the jazz songs. Nobody knew then. Nobody knows now.

Elliott’s production–on albums by Joey DeFrancesco, Marchel Ivery, the aforementioned Earl Harvin group–is warm and velvety, with a hint of vinyl crackle and acute awareness of breath intake and brush strokes. He beautifully recorded the group’s 1994 4-SongEP19:10, done in a community church in one live take to a single microphone, so I had confidence in the sound quality.

Bedhead broke up in 1998. Leaning House went belly-up two years later. As both waned, mentions of the Bedhead jazz album declined as well. What we’re left with, finally, is frustratingly unfulfilled promise. That’s the trouble with loving Holy Grails. They can remain sacred in the mind precisely because they haven’t been heard but, with each passing year, they gnaw at us even more for being unattainable.

Perhaps it’s better to concentrate on what I’ve got—three albums and two EPs, all splendid and absorbing—rather than a “lost” classic. After all, maybe Matt and Bubba Kadane listened to it in the morning light and decided that some music is best buried and forgotten. Or maybe the tape was fuzzy.

In seven years of activity, though, Bedhead produced 40 songs. Not one of them was a dud, or even mediocre. In particular, two songs make me wonder what an improvised set of jazz would sound like in their hands.

The first is “Leper,” literally the last song Bedhead ever released. Recorded by Elliott but in a proper studio setting, the song is an inversion of “Lepidoptera” from Transaction de Novo (1998). “Leper” appears as the b-side to the “Lepidoptera” 12-inch single that appeared after the band called it quits. Matt Kadane explains in the liner notes:

The only song anyone in our band has ever written in musical notation is “Lepidoptera,” the seventh song on Transaction de Novo. A few months ago, in a rare, serendipitous moment, I turned the pages of this music upside down—the bass clef became the treble clef, the treble became the bass—and played on a keyboard the new formation of notes that appeared on the page. It instantly made sense. It didn’t sound backwards, but it sounded reversed, turned inside out and over all at once. As the reverse of a song lyrically based on perspective, it also seemed musically to be telling the other side of the story: in “Lepidoptera,” the speaker is a person, the object is a moth; in the song that became “Leper,” especially because the music appeared by accident, the speaker seemed to be the moth and the object the former subject. We finished the song based on this idea of reversal, lyrically and musically carrying it to its logical conclusion, and then began to think about another logical conclusion: a song that forms a mirror image of another song is, literally, the perfect b-side, the record turned upside-down.

“Leper” is haunting and spare. It’s longer than its source and takes its time building up steam.

The second song, “Inhume,” is an instrumental that begins with a low-tuned guitar playing a simple refrain. Gradually, the other two guitars chime in, sometimes plinking and sometimes slurring. Feedback, echoes, and oscillation wash in. The drums whisper until they’re roaring, and it’s hard to tell when one becomes the other. The bass churns. By the three-minute mark, the song sounds like an ocean wave swelling and crashing, over and over. By the sixth minute, “Inhume” has submerged back into near-silence. This swell, from silence to deafening power and back again, is mesmerizing because the effect is clear but the means by which the effect is achieved are not.

Best of all, it sounds unhurried and natural, as if “Inhume” is being made up by the band as they play it. It’s structured but playful in its somberness.

40 songs and a distinct, instantly identifiable sound—that’s pretty damn good for a little band. “Leper” and “Inhume,” however, make me pine for more, and wonder what else Bedhead had (or maybe has) in store for the world.

“Inhume” (1996), by Bedhead.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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One Response to Exhuming the Holy Grail

  1. Just in case you were wondering, the Armstrong-Beiderbecke jam session was in no way apocryphal (though it wasn’t recorded). Read all about it in my book!

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