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Rodd Keith - My Pipe Yellow Dream

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Artist: Rodd Keith

Album: My Pipe Yellow Dream

Label: Roaratorio

Review date: Nov. 4, 2011

The next time that you say your job makes you want to die, consider the plight of Rodney Keith Eskelin. A gifted multi-instrumentalist with a thing for Stan Kenton, he swapped a relatively respectful Midwestern life as a church musician and family life for what his son, saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, characterized as an “avante-garde lifestyle” in California. He supported his drug-gobbling, scene-making ways by working for companies that solicited poems from magazine and comic book readers with the promise of turning them into potential hit singles. The man who could play any instrument he ever picked up paid his rent arranging and recording any scrap of verse that came attached to a $200 check, under the most extreme time pressures imaginable; the musicians who practiced “song-sharking” (as they called it; aficionados prefer to call this stuff “song-poems”) often knocked out 20 or 30 of these things in a day. The products of their efforts were generally pressed on 45s or compilation LPs that went to either the writer’s mailbox and or a bin in a thrift store. Rodd Keith (not his only alias — he also recorded as Rod Rogers and the MRS Singers) owned a broad command of popular and sacred styles, a gift for creating ingenious arrangements, and an expressive singing voice at the service of people who thought that the word “alibi” is a verb and that the phrase “my pipe yellow dream” should be the climax of a chorus. No one knows for sure whether his death — an early-morning plunge from an overpass onto a Hollywood freeway — was accidental or intentional, but one can easily imagine that a man who applied great sound-sewing skills to an onslaught of tattered sow’s ears might lose hope.

Some of My Pipe Yellow Dream’s tracks betray their breakneck production with loose performances. The band on “O Jesus My Savior” sounds more like it’s winding down a very hard Saturday night than testifying on Sunday morning. But even when the band stumbles, Rodd’s deeply felt vocal performance astonishes. The song gains poignancy when you suppose that it was performed by a handful of guys who were counting down how many more songs they’d have to arrange and play on the fly before they could get out of the studio and make their personal scene.

Many of the album’s tracks sound like they could have been on the radio in the 1960s and ‘70s. “Baby I’ll Give It To You” sets the graceless and borderline creepy come-on of its lyrics to a catchy bubblegum melody with a rollicking organ solo; with its tart guitar and billowing backing vocals, “Surfing Along” would nestle quite comfortably between The Beach Boys and The Surfaris on an AM radio, provided you don’t listen to the lyrics. Its chorus, which assures that the singer will make it over the sea so blue unless they make a big boo-boo, exemplifies the inability of song-poem scribes to realize that some words or sentences just don’t belong in a hit. The tension between Rodd’s skills and the rank amateurism of most of his material is just one of the things that makes My Pipe Yellow Dream compelling.

Mind you, professionalism is no guarantee of quality. “Choo Choo Train” was a bonafide hit for the Box Tops, charting at 26 on the American Hot 100 and making it to 18 in Canada. Rodd recorded it for another music-biz bottom-feeding phenomenon — a sound-alike record. However Donnie Fritts and Eddie Hinton’s slavishly alliterative verses sound like they’re straight out of a rhyme dictionary, and the point where Rodd directly addresses his vehicle, acknowledges that it isn’t a jet, then begs for more acceleration utterly fails to live up to the high standards of contemporary soul songwriting. But his twangy country-soul arrangement sounds like something Jim Ford would have liked to call his own.

“America The Not So Beautiful”

Every good song-poem collection has an utterly mind-boggling moment, and it comes here on “America the Not So Beautiful.” It’s an endless rant that takes on school bussing, hot dog vendor harassment, and a highly specific grievance about a company man who hasn’t been promoted to foreman because he has too many friends on the line. Despite the lyric’s antisocial spin and all-around awfulness, Rodd gives it his all. He doesn’t even try to sing it; instead, he delivers a fervent oration over some movie-music strings, giving one Johnny McCray his chance to put his beefs on record. It’s an astonishing performance, full of empathy and invention. But it’s probably not what Rodd wanted to do, that day or any day. The album’s liner notes are a remembrance penned by a fellow studio rat in which he recalls that Rodd thought he was prostituting himself by doing song-poems. The persuasiveness of his performance leaves one with the impression that he was a really fine whore; the way he died hints at what it took out of him to be that good.

By Bill Meyer

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