Somebody [the Commander himself, I would later learn] went to considerable effort to stitch together all these images to tell the story behind Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen‘s “Truck Stop Rock” from 1972’s Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Trucker Favorites album — the least you can do is watch:
“Truck Stop Rock” Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen 1972
Five of the band members – Billy C. Farlow, “Buffalo” Bruce Barlow, Andy Stein, Bill Kirchen, and the Commander himself – would get credit for penning this two-minute blast of truckabilly bop from their second album.
Front side Flip side
Years later, an impressionable yours truly would find himself in the same metropolitan area as Kirchen, who helped inaugurate a series of free summertime public performances, “Silver Spring Swings” – along with Jack O’Dell & Johnny Castle i.e., Too Much Fun. Kirchen and company would also tear the root off Silver Spring’s Half Moon BBQ [RIP], a shotgun shack of a venue with a teeny little stage and almost certainly the world’s smallest balcony (check out this shot of Dagmar & the Seductones photographed from same). Kirchen would confer between sets with this young dieselbilly scholar and once even direct him/me to a fairly obscure (and gruesome) truckin’ tragedy by Johnny Bond, 1967’s “Gears” from Starday’s Man Behind the Wheel album.
Kirchen and his trusty Telecaster serve as the world’s ambassadors for the gloriously satisfying deep, twangin’ sound of truck driving country music. Kirchen himself is to blame for the contagion that directly fueled Zero to 180’s obsession with the whole truckin’ musical subgenre.
2001’s Tied to the Wheel
Kirchen would relocate to Austin, Texas in 2011 but return to Montgomery County, Maryland at the end of that year to perform at Germantown’s Black Rock Center for the Arts — shortly after Zero to 180’s third all-truck driving radio show at WKHS (with host, Martin Q. Blank, son of the late, great Charlie Coleman). After the show, the ‘Dieselbilly Kid’ would get a chance to tell Kirchen directly that his guitar work had graced three of the 50+ songs that were broadcast on WKHS’s airwaves to the good folks in the Chesapeake Bay area on November 11, 2011 (11/11/11, for real): (1) “Truck Stop Rock” by Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen; (2) “Semi Truck” (from 1996 truck driver tribute album, Rig Rock Deluxe) and (3) this harrowing bit of science fiction from 2001 album Tied to the Wheel, that was written by Cody and Kirchen (backed by Johnny and Jack on this track):
“Truck Stop at the End of the World” Bill Kirchen & Too Much Fun 2001
Link to Zero to 180’s previous (and epic) piece about the performance art troupe – The Galactic Twist Queens – that accompanied Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen during their earliest years in Ann Arbor.
One of my mom’s neighbors and good friends was present at the founding of Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen and served as part of an accompanying group of renegade (redundant?) performance artists — agents of history who helped to generate the band’s initial buzz. Yet, their story remains largely undocumented.
Maggie – Twist Queen Emeritus
Maggie, my mom’s friend in Ann Arbor, was part of an ensemble irreverently known as The Galactic Twist Queens and gracious enough to share a few memories of her unique contributions to the band’s stage presence:
“George [Frayne, a.k.a., ‘Commander Cody’] was working on his Masters in painting at the time of the inception of Commander Cody. He asked his friends at art school if anyone wanted to be in the band. Who could resist? I was one of 3 or 4 ‘Galactic Twist Queens’ one being Pat Oleszko, a performance artist of some renown in NYC.
Unfortunately, the slides are long gone, but what they were was oil and a dab of color squished between two glass slides! I think we also showed a few home movies of 8-year-olds tap dancing on top of the ‘psycho-dulic’ color slides.
Nobody had much musical talent at the time, but we had fun. We were asked to open for Canned Heat at the Grande Ballroom on Grand River in Detroit. George and the musicians were beginning to move in the direction of rockabilly, so most of the performers showed up in cowboy hats, boots and plaid cowboy shirts. One of the Queens showed up in a pink cowgirl costume, I wore a dress made out of flag bunting, and Pat, I can’t remember what she wore, but I remember she had a whip!
The audience, stoked on [hemp], ready for Canned Heat, couldn’t quite figure out the rockabilly band, I think it is safe to say we were ahead of our time!”
Pat Oleszko – Twist Queen who later turned pro
Former Twist Queen and aforementioned performance artist of renown, Pat Oleszko, was kind enough to chime in from the road, having just finished a residency at the Women’s Studies Workshop in Rosendale, New York:
“Boy oh buoy that was a long time ago. A minor point but it was the Inter-Galactic Twist Queens. We were community minded you know.
Well, of course the tape, the mess and bluster of the performance, which inspired a full-out brawl at one fraternity house when they realized they had hired some at least temporary anarchists to perform, was not there. The band was a theater piece which ranged from 7 to 25, and that doesn’t get on tape. I remember Andy Stein who play[ed] with Guy’s All Star Shoe Band on Garrison Keillor’s show one time on the show, a re-onion of snorts, introducing them as the best live band in the country. Might i say, candidly, and without attribution, that so many years later, broken up into other musical entities, it was awful.
“One and only posed band photo” – Commander’s house – Plymouth Rd. – Oct. 1968
Chris Frayne (umbrella), Marquis du Soul, Pierre Henri Duvall de la Fontembleu,
and a cast of thousands
Andy Stein, long-time fiddler (and blower) for Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band on public radio’s Prairie Home Companion, was also good enough to respond to my query about the early days of the band’s history:
“I don’t remember a Maggie as one of the Twist queens. But The Intergalactic Twist Queens were not performing with the band that much when I joined in Fall of ‘68. I think I was first accosted by Cody & [Bill] Kirchen on State Street between Hill & Packard in Fall of ’67 or Spring of ’68. The Queens, as I understood, were the Green(e) Sisters, Bonnie and Sandy. Bonnie married a close friend and sometimes bus driver/roadie for the band, Paul Noël. Sandy first lived with Cody’s brother (deceased) and then Rick Higgenbotham, a long time roadie. He lives in the D.C. area, as well as Bill [who relocated to Austin, TX in 2011]. Bill and especially John Tichy, who was, as I understand it, the first band leader of the ‘Fantastic Surfing Beavers’ that became CC & his LPA. Tichy is also a college professor, so maybe his brain is in the best shape of all of us.”
“As to my recollections, George and I were a sort of odd couple – engineering school straight guy and art school beatnik. I vaguely recall our playing the U-M Dentistry School Ball, dental students and dates in formal wear. At that time, if engineers were straight, dental students were straighter. The general idea of course was to “blow their minds,” if you pardon the cliché of the era — mission accomplished. I was as astounded and surprised as the attendees, who were horrified. I hope their dental practices did not suffer. The show also featured Chris Frayne’s dancing happy teeth movies.”
Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen: 1st concert performance
Canterbury House – Ann Arbor – 1968
Most important of all, the good Commander himself – George Frayne – generously offered his singular take on history:
“the GTQs were anne wilson and her friend natalie whatwashernameannyway. they were augmented by pat oleszko ” the hippe strippie” and a large woman whose name I completely forget who just stood there wrapped in an american flag. in addition to the dance corps was always a number (aint she sweet) by the tap dancing green sisters sandy and bonnie. added to this was a 3-5 piece kazoo section, 4-6 guitars and a sax player named hugh. sometimes there were more people in the band than in the crowd and when we showed up at a frat house none of the ‘brothers’ would show, what with all the long hairs. we escaped with our lives a couple of times. we featured my delicate version of ‘Please dont Drop That H bomb on me’ done ala sun ra. andy stein and bill kirchen joined the band, the music got serious and the GTQs and the whole xtra crew disappeared into history.”
Interesting, too, how there seems to be more information on the web in just the year or so since I first started pulling this piece together. For instance, Ed Ward‘s interview with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen from the April 16, 1970 edition of Rolling Stone now comes up when you search “Galactic Twist Queens” and includes a few choice paragraphs about the band’s free-form Ann Arbor days, particularly this one:
“Slowly, a cult began to grow around the band. Their appearances became marked by all sorts of bizarre occurrences. For instance, there were the Galactic Twist Queens. First two of them, then seven, then ten, then twelve of them — weird females who would dance while the band played. There was Teenie Chiffon, an ex-Who groupie who is now the [?] in an American flag and do jumping jacks or get on the ground and do the breast stroke; and an aggregation called the Fabulous Greene Sisters Tapdancing Act.”
Also online now is the publishing history of the Kingman Daily Miner and its weekly companion publication, Laughlin, Nevada Entertainer, whose arts write-up used to promote a 1995 riverboat casino cruise with Commander Cody would include the following bit of band history:
“It was in that year , Frayne and his pal John Tic(h)y, a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, put together an offbeat rock band that was characterized as a ‘happening’ rather than anything else. Taking their name from the Commander Cody film character of the early ’50s and with special guests, the ‘Tap Dancing Green(e) Sisters,’ ‘Pat the Hippie Strippie’ and the ‘Galactic Twist Queens,’ Frayne and the boys were toying with the music side of things and relishing in the carnival side. But the group became serious about their music when Frayne realized he didn’t fit in the ‘actual job situation’ of becoming an assistant professor of art.”
CC & LPA: 2nd group from Berkeley to have a successful rock music career after Country Joe & the Fish — outside Cody’s Bookstore – July 4, 1969
Cody and His Airmen would, indeed, get serious about their music: “This band,” Ed Ward writes at the top of his 1970 Rolling Stone piece, “wants to do for country music what [Paul] Butterfield did for the blues.”
Important to point out – especially to any youngsters reading this piece – the bravery involved in the band’s embrace of the ‘country’ side of rock ‘n’ roll’s roots before it was respectable, long before Willie Nelson and his brethren helped forge a brotherhood between the “hippies” and the “rednecks” (to paraphrase from Jan Reid’s The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock from 1974). It is not an exaggeration to say that one risked derision and even violence for playing “country roots” music at that time, as attests London’s noted counterculture publication, The International Times, who would document the early Lost Planet Airmen era and reference the (Inter) Galactic Twist Queens in this piece from 1973:
“Bit by bit the first Commander Cody band came together, with strange outriders and musicians, like the ‘West Virginia Creeper’ who played Pedal Steel and a troupe of women calling themselves the Galactic Twist Queens who would show up to up to writhe around the stage and a terrible singer called the Marquis De Soul and a drummer with a pronounced taste for Jazz and Soul. It was the frothy mad times of 1967, there was a lot of Ozone about. John Sinclair was a preaching the gospel of revolution, the Guitar Army thing was a gathering, the MC5 were hovering and about to land. The promoters in the big halls around Detroit weren’t keen on bands who kept playing for free, and the audiences wanted the psychedelic drone at full volume. The appearance of a band that played country music as well as rock and roll was greeted with hoots of outrage. The fifties were still too close and the reaction against ‘greasy kids stuff’ was strong.”
Guitarist Bill Kirchen would leave Ann Arbor’s respected “rock and raga” ensemble The Seventh Seal in 1967 to help form Commander Cody with Frayne and Tichy. This excerpt from an Ann Arbor News review of the ‘infamous’ 1967 “love in” at Belle Isle does an effective job of conveying the heavy musical vibes in force in Detroit and its environs, as it describes the sounds that went down at The Seventh Seal’s earlier free live shows in Ann Arbor:
Seventh Seal at West Park – photo that accompanied article excerpted below
“Based on ragas, the standard form of music in India, modal and dorian scales interlaced with blues and contemporary rock and roll, the music wafts from the West Park band shell with an icy chill of glittering waters sluicing from chasms in the Himalayas. Six speakers aid in pouring out the concoction with a flexibility that allows the group to infuse ‘My Favorite Thing(s),’ a pop number from the score of The Sound of Music, with a reedy resonance, then turn on an old English ballad, ‘The Jack of Diamonds,’ with Bill Kirchen, guitarist who works for the University’s Institute for Social Research, giving the lyrics everything he’s got vocally.”
As Pat Oleszko has already observed, no recording (even The Early Years) is be able to capture the multimedia/performance art aspects of the band’s 1967 Ann Arbor era. Nevertheless, the kick-off track from the band’s debut album, Lost in the Ozone, in which Commander Cody fantasizes about forcibly commandeering a jet in his quest to flee Detroit and get back to his woman in good ol’ Tennessee, does a splendid job of conveying the group’s original absurdist bop and boogie underpinnings:
Joel Selvin would rightly include Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen in his “Top 100 Bay-Area Bands of the 1970s” – published in the December 19, 1999 edition of The San Francisco Chronicle:
“Bringing a blend of barrelhouse C&W and Southern rockabilly to the San Francisco scene, Cody and cohorts were a lovable, oddball bunch — from goofy Bill Kirchen on guitar to friendly Andy Stein on sax and violin to the cigar-chomping Commander himself. Always underrated, Cody and company opened the door for country and western in the rock underground, and were an obvious inspiration to the whole Austin, Texas, scene. Special mention for the holiday record ‘Daddy’s Drinking Up All Our Christmas.'”
Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen: Mid-to-Late Early Years
We will likely never know just how many people were lured to the truck driving profession as a result of the romantic and freewheeling images fueled by truck driving country music during its 1960s & 70s heyday. Fortunately, we can all thank Alan MacEwen of veteran DC band, The Grandsons, for painting a considerably more balanced and forthright portrait of life on the road in his truck driving cautionary tale, “Smoke and Mirrors”:
Smoke And Mirrors – The Grandsons
[Pssst: Click the triangle above to play “Smoke and Mirrors” by The Grandsons.]
This witty and wise track from 1999’s delightfully eclectic release, Pan American Shindig, features Alan MacEwen on vocals & guitar, Chris Watling on saxes & accordion, and Matt Sedgley on drums. If you’re thinking to yourself, “That sounds like Bill Kirchen ripping some classic dieselbilly riffs on this track,” well, that’s pretty spooky … because he is! Alan and Chris would return the favor soon after by laying down some horn and vocal lines on a couple tracks from Kirchen’s Dieselbilly Road Trip on the Cracker Barrel label. “Smoke and Mirrors” was co-written with Susan Lowell – all songs were recorded at DC’s Groovetown USA studios.
Parody: Protected by Free Speech – If You’ve Got the Dough
Back in the early 90s when my good buddy, Karl, introduced me to the band, the boys enjoyed a more elongated name, The Grandsons of the Pioneers. No doubt many folks assume the band shortened the name to The Grandsons to save time, but the shocking truth is that the band was a victim of humorlessness – with deep pockets. As the boys explain on their website:
“After eight years of plying their pop sound around the country as Grandsons of the Pioneers, the group’s increasing notoriety resulted in a high-noon showdown with singing cowboys, Sons of the Pioneers, who balked at the idea of acknowledging paternity to a low down, trumpet-toting, sax-blowing rock and roll band. Counseled by their team of cut-throat lawyers to keep on playing rather than pause to litigate, the band shortened its name to The Grandsons and has been going full throttle ever since.”