To commemorate the 39th anniversary, I did something I haven't done in over 30 years -- played a live show with Dr. Demento himself! On Friday August 1, 2008, the Doc brought his live show to a sold-out Triple Door in Seattle. Great old movie and audio clips of everyone from Spike Jones to Monty Python. Clay Eals showed up with a never-before-seen video of the late Steve Goodman, sitting in the empty stands at Wrigley Field, singing "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request." Dana Lyons came down from Bellingham to lead us all in "Cows With Guns" and "Ride the Lawn."
And, of course, I gave everyone My Really Big Hit, along with a newbie called "The Slut of the Santa Maria." Throw us in jail for having too much fun!
For the occasion, I performed the three original Narco Agent verses, the added three verses of the '80s and '90s, and a brand new one I was still writing just before going on stage. Based on an actual occurence. Like to hear it? Goes like this:
Couple weeks ago right here in town
The cops took the local pot shop down
Medical marijuana, a real terrorist threat
They confiscated the files and dope
Confiscated a lot of people's hope
Then gave it all back and said, "No harm, no foul, you bet!"
But determined to rid the world of sin
The Feds stuck their noses in
Thinking, "How can we make suffering people's lives a whole lot worse?"
That's life in Bush's final year
He's desparate to make it clear
That his legacy will soon be leaving here in a looooong black hearse!
With his Friendly Neighborhood Narco Agents
Friendly Neighborhoos Narco Men
And all his slimey pals at DOJ
It's common knowledge, doncha know
In college this guy was face down in blow
That must have been what ate his brain away.
The original version of Narco Agent was penned in August, 1966. My original notes show it completed as of August 26th. That's right, the song itself is over 42 years old! I was in the midst of a cross-country hitch-hiking/ rail-riding/busted-for-long-hair-after-midnight-in-Oklahoma City odyssey when much of the writing was done. A primary inspiration, though, came from a botched pot sting at Pepe's Pizza in Berkeley. Several flatfoots (flatfeet?) were hoodwinked by a dealer who was tipped off by their appearance...crew cuts, dark clothing, flat feet. He sold them a kilo of jasmine tea for a sizable sum, then ran out the back door of Pepe's into (ahem) a grassy field. (The field later became People's Park.) The cops made the TV news that night, combing
the field for traces of anything...the dealer, some real pot or the $300 they'd just blown. (Back when a kilo of smoke went retail for $50.)
Narco Agent started out with just two verses. A third, the helicopter verse, was added some months later, and debuted in a live show on KPFA in 1967. Since 1982, three more verses have been added.
WHERE DID YOU RECORD?
At Sierra Sound Labs on Alcatraz Street in Berkeley. I chose that facility because Country Joe and the Fish had used it for several of their pre-Vanguard EP projects. In fact, my original EP hard cover jacket was patterned after the Fish's packaging, too. I liked the idea of a hard cover because it felt like an LP when you picked it up, not like those wimpy paper covers. This turned out to be an excellent decision when it came to marketing the EP. I gave a copy to Bill Graham one night, and 20 minutes later he was still wandering around the Carousel, reading the elaborate back liner. Not too many upstart folkies can say they got Bill Graham's attention for 20 minutes. :)
The recording session for the original Cantbustem Records EP took place on October 13, 1969. It was engineered by Brent Dangerfield and took about three hours, frequently interrupted by outside noise. Sierra was located 1/2 block the from the Grove Street BART line, which was under construction at the time. There's nothing quite like the sound of pile drivers in your headphones. I suppose if I'd really been on the stick I could have invented Industrial Rock, but once again I would have been 20 years ahead of my time.
WHO PLAYED ON THE SESSION?
Session? Well, yah, I guess you could call it that. It was me, my 1967 Guild F-30 (which I still play), and some back-up harmony on one of the flip side tunes ("It's Ragtime") by ubiquitous Marin County pixie Cheryl Hatch.
There was another attempt to record Narco Agent, at Fred Catero's studio in San Francisco (musta been about 1971, when Studio 10 Records in SF was trying to get Ampex Records in Canada to release it). I hired a couple back-up musicians to play cornet and clarinet, in a shot at a more dixieland/ragtime pop sound ala Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The session went directly into the tank when one of the guys puffed a bit too much weed during a break, and couldn't find his way back to A-440. If memory serves correctly (and believe me, I've been trying to verify this for decades), the horn player was Greg Adams, later of Tower of Power.
HOW DID YOU PAY FOR THE PROJECT?
In blood! And you couldn't find a turnip for miles!
Actually, the whole project --recording, mastering, covers, shipping, 1000 pressings-- came in for about $500. Half of that was supplied by my meager bank account; the other half was fronted by my heart-of-gold girlfriend at the time. (Six years later she heard the song on Dr. Demento, and
excitedly called me on the phone, amazed the song was still getting airplay. Wonder how amazed she is now, when it's still getting airplay 40+ years later.) I paid Sierra in cash, so they gave me a 20% discount! Total studio cost: about $80. I put the cover and back liner artwork together myself, using paste-up techniques I'd learned in my parallel life as a staff member at the Berkeley Barb. The Helvetica cover title was done by hand with transfer type. (Yes, indeed, there were no such things as "computer fonts" back then. Honest! How come you guys don't believe me?) The cover art was printed by Berkeley Graphic Arts. The cover photo was taken by SF photographer Ben Spicer.
Trivia for fans of the EP cover:
Obviously, we were parodying the Mamas and Papas first LP cover. That's Cheryl and me in the bath tub, and an actor named George coming in the window with the handcuffs. What you can't tell from the picture is that George is perched precariously on a section of building trim while holding
on to a downspout...30 feet above the ground. Talk about a trooper.
The Weedies poster just happened to be on the wall, but it's got an element of kharmic payback to it. A year earlier I'd been playing on the street in Berkeley when a white stepvan screeched to a halt at my intersection. The driver got out, ran over and put a rolled up piece of paper in my hat. He then dashed back to the truck and took off. I'd been in mid-song, so it wasn't until he'd left that I got to unroll the paper. It was a mini-version of the Weedies poster. He must have really tripped when he saw his poster on my EP cover.
The EP was officially released on November 14, 1969. I opened up that night for The Fourth Way, Michael White's jazz group, at the New Orleans House in Berkeley. Sold a shitload of records. In fact, nearly every gig or open mike I played saw EPs flying out of my hands.
Undoubtedly the greatest sales coup occurred the next month at the Drinking Gourd, a popular folk venue on Union Street. The guys who ran the club were nice enough, but notoriously cheap when it came to paying musicians. The top pay ever received by an act in the club was $35 a night, and most people worked for $15. I'd been performing the open mikes for a couple of years, to audience raves, but I couldn't get these guys to hire me for a regular gig. In fact, they tried to appease the open mikers for a while by choosing three of us each week to share Sunday night. My Sunday night happened to be on Memorial Day weekend. The club did a record bar; the performers got $5 a piece. If I'd had a day job I wouldn't have quit it.
Secure in the fact that I'd never get a real gig there, I opted for some turnabout exploitation. I'd drop in on nights my friends were playing and ask to do a guest set. Sure, no problem! The club owners, of course, were thinking in terms of how much more beer they could sell with the additional free entertainment. It should have dawned on them -- at least by the third time -- what I was up to.
On a particularly busy Friday with a packed house, I got up and did four tunes. The last one was Narco Agent. The crowd was rolling in the aisles, and demanded an encore. Well, jeez, I guess if you insist. But first, dear friends, a word from our sponsor. I waved a handful of EPs at them from the stage, and went into one of the most outrageous pre-Christmas sales pitches you could ever hope to hear. K-Tel Records had nothing on me. By the time I was done, 33 people had ponied up a buck apiece for an EP of their very own. Autographed, of course. You gotta remember this was 1969, and a dollar was still pretty much a real 95-cent piece. A beer cost 25 cents, 50 cents during live entertainment. I sold over 125 EPs in that club in the span of six weeks, doing three tunes and Narco Agent. That's way more than they ever would have paid me to play six full night gigs. And I got free beer besides.
A word here about the generosity of one Mr. Moe Moscowitz, founder of Moe's Books in Berkeley. After my first pressing sold out rather quickly, I ordered another 500. But they were waylaid by Greyhound, who wouldn't take a check for $35 worth of C.O.D. shipping. I was playing a gig one night in a coffeehouse Moe had set up in the basement of the bookstore. When Moe heard about the hostage situation with my EPs, he reached into his wallet and pulled out $35. "Here," he said. "Go get your records. You'll probably never pay me back." The day I handed him back his $35, he was so stunned he held it aloft in the middle of the bookstore and shouted, "Look, everybody! Jef Jaisun paid me back my $35!" I guess that didn't happen too often to Moe. It should have.
Another Certificate of Appreciation goes to Charlie Shaw, Russ Solomon and the gang at Tower Records on Bay and Columbus. They liked Narco Agent so much they allowed me to set up display boxes right next to the cash registers! Man, did the records fly out of there. I can only guess at how many wound up as stocking stuffers that Christmas. Largely due to Tower's support, the first pressing of 1000 EPs sold out in four weeks.
WHY DID YOU RECORD NARCO AGENT IN THE FIRST PLACE?
Because I wanted to be a rock 'n' roll star, naturally! And I knew I had a hit. I was performing the song in clubs and coffeehouses all over the Bay Area, and people were howling in laughter. I cut a homebrew version on a tape recorder and dropped off copies at KMPX and KSAN, who proceeded to play the squat out of it. Their switchboards lit up like the White House Christmas tree every time the song was played.
I went to L.A. in the summer of 1969 to try to get a major label involved. Every one of them turned me down -- all 11
of them -- including Zappa's label. The general consensus of those people was, "Gawd, it's funny! But it'll never sell." I figured either they were nuts or I was, and there was only one way to prove it.
Selling 5000 independently-produced singles (or downloads) is a big deal even now, so you can imagine the impact it made 35 years ago. Still, none of the majors would take it on.
WHERE DOES DR. DEMENTO FIT IN?
Barry Hansen, aka
Dr. Demento, found a copy of the EP in an L.A. record shop in 1970 or 1971. As soon as he began to play it on his KMET program (although it could have been earlier on his original KPPC show) he got those same old switchboard lights. In July 1974, Demento was picked up in syndication by KZOK-FM in Seattle, the first station to air the show outside of LA. (And it was four hours long in those days!) I was listening to the show one night, enjoying all those great novelty tunes, when it was "Time for Number One!" Number one was me. I just about fell off the rug this time. (Harder to do than falling off a wall, but it doesn't hurt as much when you land.)
After some frantic phone calls, I finally managed to touch base with the Doc. By mid-1975, Narco Agent was in the Top Ten/Funny Five virtually every week, usually in the Number One position. When Warner Brothers offered Barry a deal for the Dr. Demento's Delights LP, my tune was at the top of his list for inclusion.
As part of a deal for the Doc using my tune on that LP, Warner Bros agreed to pre-release FNNA as a single. In September 1975, the single came out in advance of the album, and the LP followed about a month later. If you've got one of those singles
you really have a collector's item. Look for WBS-8142.
SO WHAT HAPPENED TO THE HIT RECORD, AND HOW COME ME AND MY DEMENTED JUVENILE DELINQUENT FRIENDS ARE THE ONLY PEOPLE WHO KNOW THE SONG?
Nobody at Warner admits to what they did with the single. Somehow, the tune that had been #1 on virtually every Funny Five (or Top Ten back then) for over a year mysteriously disappeared. According to royalty statements eventually received by my publisher, only 157 singles were ever sold. Hey, I sold 5000 of my own before I turned it over to Warner, so what's wrong with that picture?
I don't know of anyone who ever purchased a Warner single. When friends of mine wrote to the label requesting it, they were told it didn't exist. Meanwhile, I managed to bootleg a box of 100 store copies (not dj promos) out of the San Francisco WB warehouse in January '76, so,
By early December, 1975, Delights had made it into Billboard's Top 200, somewhere in the 190's. Much to Warner's apparent chagrin, my tune was accounting for over 50% of the album's airplay. They freaked. The label hadn't had a hit novelty album since Allan Sherman's days. Worse for me, they didn't want one. Warner was in the process of trying to remake its image into some kind of mid-'70's "hip" thing (which, as I'm sure you know, is maybe the world's
greatest oxymoron). So, they did what comes naturally to airhead morons...they dumped the album. At least that's what they told me they did.
The first 9,000 copies of Delights were sailing out of the stores, and the Christmas rush was just heating up. That's when the label allegedly pulled the plug. They simply stopped pressing the album. Didn't matter how high the demand, they refused to resume production. Or at least so I was told in January, 1976. This kind of decision could only come down from the highest levels of the label, since, generally speaking, people who are on the verge of making a raging profit don't usually kill off their golden goose.
I never really spoke to the Doc about any of this til a couple years ago, but I'd always assumed he wasn't pleased. This was his breakthrough project, his first firm grasp on commercial credibility, and it was flushed down the toilet by two self-aggrandizing assholes: Pete Johnson, head of Warner A&R, and Stan Cornyn, a Warner VP who I'm reasonably certain was the inspiration for Disco Duck.
As disappointing as it was to the Doc, it was devastating to me. Everything the Doc endured applied to me at least tenfold. I'd been playing, writing and performing for over 12 years, and this was my first shot at the Big Time. From the time I was 10 years old this was what I wanted to do, and Narco Agent was a legitimate hit. All it was lacking was access to a wider audience. I was sitting on close to 300 songs hardly anyone had ever heard, more than a enough for at least several good albums, even if I never wrote another tune. I also had a pregnant girlfriend at home, and was counting on the income and success of Narco Agent to pay a lot of bills that were coming due; not to mention provide a measure of financial security in a profession where such a thing rarely occurs.
Warner Bros had other plans. I had a hit song, a Number 1 tune on a show syndicated to 200+ radio stations and Armed Forces Network (!), and nobody could get their hands on it. Further, Warner had a 5-year exclusive on the release rights, and I'd dealt away 58% of the publishing rights to get the deal done. Fifteen percent went to my music attorney (who obviously botched the deal by not including a "performance" clause) and 42% to a company owned by the Doc's two managers, Larry Gordon and Tom Gamache. Gamache later went to work for Warner -- how's that for the Benedict Arnold Effect? Don't know what ever happened to the nice guy, Gordon. According to the California Secretary of State, their publishing company was dropped from the rolls in 1978.
Part of the deal for the rights to the single also included an album option. (Another attorney's mistake...the option belonged to Warner, not me.) In January of 1976, I drove all the way from Seattle to LA with my box of 300 tunes. I didn't know at the time what Johnson and Cornyn were cooking up, but I figured they weren't going to give me an album based solely on Narco Agent. So, seeing as how the option on the LP was due, I figured we'd all sit down and kick some material around. Fat chance.
I phoned Larry Gordon from Santa Barbara and told him I'd be by in a couple hours, and to set up a meeting with Johnson. I called again from Santa Monica to see what time the meeting would be. Here's what Gordon said on the phone:
"Are you sitting down?"
No, I'm standing up. What's going on?
"You know our 'good friend' Pete Johnson? Here's what he just told me on the phone. He's not interested in you, he and Cornyn hate your song, they're embarrassed to have it on their label, and they never had any intention of picking up your album option. They say don't even bother coming by."
I could tell Gordon was upset, but he wasn't nearly upset as I was. I drove in to Demento's office to talk with Gordon and Gamache. It was there Gordon gave me a few more details, like his meeting with Cornyn where Cornyn frisbeed my single across the room and sneered, "You don't expect me to push this turkey, do you?" Stan had this "thing" about barnyard animals, if you know what I mean and I think you do.
Gamache, doing his version of damage control (which, in retrospect, seemed suspiciously slick and calculated) suggested I go back to Berkeley and see a woman I'd met there several months ago. Guess the idea of my pregnant girlfriend in Seattle didn't register with him. He still had his gig, his security (such as it was), my tune, 42% of my publishing, and other deals with Warner and A&M in the fire. Not to mention his chunk of the Demento empire, a very hot commodity. Gordon either couldn't or didn't do much except express his dismay and frustration with Warner. Demento himself suddenly became scarce. As I surmised, he had no idea what was going on behind the scenes and felt betrayed by Warner.
Total LPs pressed: 82,000
Total LPs sold: Over 72,000
Somebody owes me royalties! The last check I got was in 1979, for $24.44. In November 1997, I wrote to Warner's Royalty Payments Division requesting an inquiry and back payment. I followed up with numerous phone calls. And you guessed it, I'm still waiting for a response to the obvious question,
I contacted several of the other artists whose tunes were on the Delights LP, and none of them had received royalties in at least 20 years. It's safe to assume all of the artists and/or publishers of the 11 Delights tunes have been stiffed. Do we have a good music attorney out there who wants to handle a class action on contingency? Write me, call me at the station, the lines are open 24/7.
Since 1990, Dr. Demento has issued several substantial box set collections of his "all-time favorite" songs. In 2000, Rhino released collection, "DEMENTIA 2000!, a two-CD set celebrating 30 years of The Dr. Demento Show, the nationally syndicated radio program of mad music and crazy comedy." I've never been contacted by anyone regarding inclusion of Narco Agent in any of those sets. I've had the same P.O. box for 30 years, I'm in the phone book, I post to rec.music.dementia and I'm long-time friends with his manager of the last 20 years, and I have four web sites. I'm not that hard to find. I mean, hey, you found me! (Heh.) But maybe this at least partly answers why you're still not able to get Narco Agent in CD format from a major commercial source. I did, however, finally yield to our next obsolete technology, and pressed up 100 CDs for the 35th anniversary party in 2004. Original artwork, plus additional liner notes. If yer desperate give me a shout. I still have a few copies. There are also t-shirt, if your swag collection needs punching up.
The 1976 girlfriend and I broke up in May of that year, a month after my son was born. The good news is I we still get along, and my son and I have a great relationship. He's a clone; a musician, songwriter, entertainer and computer geek like me and a graduate of USC School of Cinema/TV. I subsidized his college education with the admonishment, "Don't screw up! You're my retirement fund, dewd!" He's determined to be the next Spielberg, and I'm determined to retire in luxury. I'll call ya when that happens. :)
I did eventually go back and see the woman in Berkeley...romantically speaking, it still ranks as the best four week period of my life. (With apologies to my various other loves over the years, who, I'm sure, had someone like this at some point in their lives, too.)
During that month in Berkeley I wrote several tunes that eventually came out on my first LP, Brand New Rose, in 1978.
Narco Agent has never appeared on another recording, but over the years I've added four new verses.(See the new Lyrics link at the top of this page.) In November 1993, I performed the song at the Berkeley Renaissance concert, hosted by Country Joe McDonald. People who recalled the original version (first performed live on KPFA in 1967) laughed their butts off (as usual ), but they were completely unprepared for the additional material. In politically conscious Berzerkely, a stanza like:  "Who cares if the joker didn't inhale?
dare I say -- brought the house down. And the way Hillary's going these days the verse may well come true!
While Warner Bros dumped on Narco Agent, they pushed the squat out of "Junk Food Junkie," by Larry Groce. I guess it was okay to talk about junkies in the context of food. These days Larry Groce does a syndicated show on Public Radio.
Warner collated the individual master tapes for Delights, all of them existing recordings, then assessed each of the 11 artists --some of them dead!-- 1/11th of $35,000 "production costs" before they paid any royalties. My entire 1978 album project, featuring 27 musicians and singers, cost me $4200 including shrink wrap and shipping.
In 1978, Warner's quarterly promo magazine featured a cover story on the history of their label art. On the inside back flap of the mag was a reproduction of my label, to illustrate the mid-70's art. But it was not Narco Agent. They used the flip side of the store copy (which supposedly didn't exist!), a Country-Western parody called Gunrack Billy. Since WB had no interest in Country music, it's obvious they were trying to cover their butts with the Nashville crowd. Warner never obtained a signed release from me to use Gunrack Billy.
In 1971, Narco Agent, still in EP form, was picked as a hot single by Record World. Their telling blurb: "Could be the basis of an Alice's Restaurant-type cult." Shyuh. The song pre-dated Alice's Restaurant by two years. It also substantially predated another Arlo Guthrie smash, Coming In To Los Angeles, an uncompromisingly blatant tune about dope smuggling. Arlo's label was Warner Brothers.
So...you thought music was all fun and games, eh? No way, dude, it's like totally f**ked up! HAHAHA! (Trust me, you REALLY have to develop a sense of humor about this stuff!) Some years back I was sent the following quote by the now-late Chet Helms, Sixties music icon and founder of Family Dog Productions:
"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side." - Hunter S. Thompson
That would be pretty accurate.
Got questions? Send 'em in. I have a few brain cells left.
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