Saturday, March 17, 2007
I've just received the terrible news that Tupper Saussy, one of the only people I've ever known who truly deserved the description "larger than life," died unexpectedly at his home in Nashville earlier this weekend. Tupper wore a lot of different hats, and I'll leave the epic story of his life and times to the obit writers and biographers, but I came to know him through the music he made in the late 60's and early 70's under the guise of the Neon Philharmonic.
When I first became aware of his records, they had more or less been completely forgotten (even his best-known song "Morning Girl," which had been a hit single, had vanished). I couldn't understand why; I thought they contained some of the most iconoclastic and literate songs ever written, and I made it my mission to tell people about them. Eventually, years of pestering various people in the music business paid off, and Rhino allowed me to assemble a definitive Neon Philharmonic anthology, which was released in 2003.
The process of putting that package together had two very wonderful consequences. First, it enabled me to meet and become friends with Tupper, who was as extraordinary and delightful in person as his music had always suggested he would be. Second, having someone around (i.e. me) to tell him that his work had great value inspired Tupper to return to music with a vengeance. He wrote a heap of new songs, dusted off old ones, and with the help of producer Warren Pash (who'd been clobbered by Tupper's music in much the same way I had been some years earlier) he made his first album in 36 years, "The Chocolate Orchid Piano Bar." He played a triumphant comeback gig at Grimey's Basement in Nashville last April to a packed crowd of listeners who couldn't quite believe their good fortune (the photo above by Lisa Jane Persky shows him in action that night). The official release party for the new CD was supposed to be this Saturday...
I loved his music and I loved the man and I will miss him ferociously.
This week's Archives of Oblivion show will be a tribute to him.
The following is the introduction I wrote four years ago for the Neon Philharmonic anthology:
The New Life In Here
Bringing the anthology you're holding in your hands into the world is one of the only things I've ever really wanted to do in the music business, which is kind of terrifying, considering that I've been here for the last decade. I was still a toddler when the Neon Philharmonic had its brief moment in the AM radio sunlight, but I've been mildly (okay, more than mildly) obsessed with this music ever since the moment 15 years ago when a friend pulled a battered 45 out of a pile of old singles in a used record store and handed it to me, saying "this looks like something you'd want."
I spent a big chunk of the 1990's doing work for Warner Bros. Records. At the time, there were still quite a few people at the label who'd been there for 20 or 30 years, and, as I got to know them, I’d eventually wind up sliding our conversations toward the topic of Those Fabulous 60's. A lot of these people were pretty good tale-spinners--I was hardly the only younger person hanging around the building who was hungry to know what it was like back in the good old days--and they were only too happy to tell me about Jimi and Joni and Van and Van Dyke and Neil and Randy and--
"What about the Neon Philharmonic?" I'd ask.
The response was always the same: A blank stare. A look of mild confusion. A long pause. "Uh...I remember the name. They had a hit or something, right? Anyway, lemme tell you about the time I had to take Tiny Tim to a radio station..."
Everyone I talked to had the same fuzzy, borderline-amnesiac response. None of them could figure out why I was so interested in a group they could barely even recall.
I believed then (and now) that the output of the Neon Philharmonic has a genuine and enduring value that has steadily become more obvious in the years since it was recorded. Here's why: the music contained on these two CD's was created in a unique historical moment--the late 60's and early 70's--when the lines that had long divided "serious" from "popular" music had begun to dissolve. In its ambition and eclecticism, the Neon Philharmonic's work compares favorably to that of such contemporaries as Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb and the Beatles--all of whom viewed pop songforms as vehicles for more than just two-and-a-half minutes of verse/chorus/verse. The cultural mainstream of 1969 even proved sufficiently porous to admit the Neon Philharmonic into the Billboard charts not once but twice ("Morning Girl" soared to a glorious No. 17; "Heighdy-Ho Princess" reached a somewhat-less-glorious No. 94).
But...while this may have been music of its era, it wasn't really music for its era. I'm not talking about the fact that, "Morning Girl" aside, the Neon Philharmonic didn't sell in large quantities; the music business is littered with those kind of could'ves and should'ves and if-onlys. Rather, I think this music failed to find its audience three decades ago largely because an audience that could really hear it didn’t exist yet. The sound of these records must have seemed more than a bit confusing, even in those anything-goes times: Classical musicians duking it out with Nashville cats and Tijuana brass with a harpsichord-wielding composer serving as ringmaster and referee? What on earth were they thinking? Turn-of-the-millennium audiences take these sort of jump-cut genre-shifts in stride; listeners in the more linear climate of the 1960's must have found themselves hopelessly lost.
In an era in which most of the finest popular music evoked the sensibilities and worldview of youth, the Neon Philharmonic's work was decidedly adult. There's not a lot of flower-power euphoria in this music, despite its brilliant colors; instead, there's a palpable sense of loss, of time running out, of possibilities diminishing. The 60's were defined in large measure by songs of innocence, but Neon Philharmonic songs are all about experience. The group's first album is a self-styled "phonograph opera" whose songs express varying degrees of dislocation, guilt, unrequited yearning and regret. That's not even including "Morning Girl" and its sequel ("Morning Girl, Later"), in which the narrator coolly advises the object of his dwindling affections to grow up and then get lost. The second album tackles the horrors of history and the perils of nostalgia, while serving up a high-seas fairytale in which no one lives happily ever after and an obsessive love song creepily entitled "No One Is Going To Hurt You."
It was the late Don Gant who sang the Neon Philharmonic's songs so beautifully (his storied career as a producer and music publishing executive deserves a far more comprehensive accounting than I can give it here), but the auteur of this music was a restless polymath named Tupper Saussy. At the time he wrote these songs, Saussy was an aesthete in his early 30's whose resume included stints as a jazz prodigy, an advertising man, an actor, a playwright, a session musician, a classical composer and a staff songwriter at the venerable Nashville firm of Acuff-Rose. As I write these words nearly 35 years later, Saussy remains as active and hard to categorize as ever. He's a painter and photographer of some renown. He's working on plays and movie scripts and videos and documentaries. He's written several books that have established him as a maverick political figure of no small controversy. And he's still writing and playing music. His new songs are phenomenal; maybe the world will get to hear them one of these days.
In the meantime, there's the present anthology, which contains everything the Neon Philharmonic recorded for Warner Bros. between 1968 and 1971. Included are both of the group's albums and the long sequence of non-LP singles which followed, as well as three songs committed to tape in late 1970 and left unreleased until now. It's been an honor and a privilege to help this music find a new(er) life out there. Now read your box of Cheerios and listen...
photos of Tupper Saussy by Lisa Jane Persky