Listening to the opening track of Ed Sanders' recently reissued solo album, Sanders Truckstop (Collectors' Choice Music), I couldn't help thinking about time's passage. A satirically mawkish country narrative in the manner of Hank Williams' "Luke the Drifter" cuts or Red Sovine, "Jimmy Joe, the Hippybilly Boy" tells the story of an Ozark Mountains hippie who loses his life after rescuing two car passengers from a raging big blue river. (His long hair gets entangled in the rear-view mirror.) These days, the very word "hippie" has become so degraded that the idea of a comic pastiche saluting the freak flag doesn't have the same charge that it did back in 1970. More's the pity.
But before we look too closely at Sanders debut solo album and its follow-up – 1972's Beer Cans on the Moon — we should probably backtrack to the man's career as a once and future Fug. The most underground of underground group, the Fugs were a poets' band; both Sanders and fellow songwriter Tuli Kupferberg were fixtures in the New York beat scene and their first releases as the Fugs appeared on a label primarily known for avant-jazz releases. Though they eventually graduated to a major label, Reprise, they still remained known as a cult group, primarily because of their anarchically satirical political songs and their explicitly sexual lyrics.
In terms of subject matter, the Fugs' closest peers were the Mothers of Invention, but where big Mother Frank Zappa generally approached his sexual themes with a dollop of puritanical distaste, the Fugs were more openly hedonistic. Too, while Zappa once famously proclaimed that his lyrics were primarily in the service of his music – a means of getting us musical illiterates to pay attention to his bizarre compositional creativity – Sanders and Kupferberg's first loyalty remained to the spoken word.
You can see this creative dynamic at play in Truckstop, Sanders' first album after his group's big break-up. A mocking country album, the disc – despite the presence of musical smarties like David Bromberg and Bill Keith – feels musically half-realized. You hear it in a track like "The Maple Court Trajedy," (sic) with its laborious tempo changes or the indifferently played "Heartbreak Crash Pad." Both sound like they could've benefited from another week of studio play.
But, as the song titles hint, Sanders' lyrics are frequently quite risible in a stick-to-the-straights kinda way. A cut like "Crash Pad," which details the fall back into hippiedom of a straight-arrow family man, is the lyrical equivalent to Zap! Comix. When Sanders sings in his exaggerated twang that he's never "going back to Honkville again," you can visualize it coming out of the mouth of one of Gilbert Shelton's furry comic dopers. And in what has to be the album's signature piece, "The Iliad," Sanders amusingly talk/sings in the persona of a homophobic hippie basher named Johnny Pissoff. Subtle, this ain't, but it's definitely true to its era.
Perhaps in the hands of a more musically focused artist, Truckstop might've been a minor satiric masterwork, instead of just an interesting sixties artifact. But Sanders' decision to give all the songs a faux country treatment ultimately works against the record, which grows flat over eleven tracks – sounding in the end like a snarkier version of Ringo Starr's weak Nashville tribute, Beaucoups of Blues. The only overtly political track, "The Abm Machine," gleefully slaps at Nixon's then-Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird ("Are you caught in the Transylvanian transvestite timetrap, Melvin Laird?" Sanders asks, three years before Dr. Frank-n-Furter proclaimed his sexual proclivities), though those who weren't around at the time might wonder what all the snipe is about. Those seeking a bit of the Fugs' old sexual outrageousness have to make due with "The Plaster Song," a mild tale of a country musician's encounter with a "plaster-casting girl" that would've probably come across funnier in a more diverse musical setting. (source)