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Offbeat: Hidden Charms > Dr. Spec’s Optical Illusion: Music To Mess Your MindHidden Charms
Dr. Spec’s Optical Illusion: Music To Mess Your Mind
By Michael Hurtt
Every fan of New Orleans garage punk has a dream. Chances are, if you polled this admittedly miniscule—but extremely rabid—group of music fanatics, they’d reveal without hesitation that that dream has long been a unified one: to witness that most elusive of all ‘60s Crescent City teen combos, Dr. Spec’s Optical Illusion, live on stage. One British Spec’s devotee recently remarked, "Just to see the guys that made that noise would be worth the trip!"
They may have only cut one record, but when that record, er "noise," is a double-sided cauldron of crunch as powerful as "Tryin’ To Mess My Mind" backed with "She’s The One" the usual rules not only do not apply, they’re thrown out the window in a frenzy of pounding drums, wild guitar riffs, impossibly dexterous bass runs and crazed organ-driven screams that would have most musicians committed to the mental institution.
Cut at Cosimo Matassa’s Jazz City Studio in 1967, it is the epitome of the garage band curse/ miracle. Hideously rare, 37 years down the line it stands at the forefront of a genre that produced thousands of outstanding 45s by bands clamoring away in garages, basements (and in the case of Spec’s, car ports), worldwide. It’s just that good. Recently reissued by Crypt Records—who did an A-1 job not only reproducing the original label (Flambeau!), but pressing it on deeply grooved wax with amazing sound, a full color photo-packed sleeve and killer liner notes courtesy of Spec’s Maniac Andrew Brown—it is now possible for every rock ‘n’ roll home to have one.
Meanwhile, buy the plane tickets, because it’s official: on October 1st the boys behind the noise will take the stage at the Rock ‘n’ Bowl as one of the featured acts at the two day Tryin’ To Mess My Mind Festival named in their honor. Other acts include Sky Saxon and the Seeds, Question Mark and the Mysterions (they of "Pushin’ Too Hard" and "96 Tears" fame, respectively), previous Hidden Charms subjects the Bad Roads, another sought-after New Orleans garage combo of mysterious origins, the Souls Of The Slain, and an army of the pioneers responsible for laying the raunch ‘n’ roll foundation in the first place, including Lady Bo, Billy Boy Arnold, Henry Gray, Jody Williams and original Bo Diddley drummer Clifton James.
Originally called the Illusions, the pride of Gentilly Woods swung into action in 1965 when the Sherman brothers—guitarist Kris and drummer Scott—teamed up with childhood friend Marshall Clyburn, adding bassist Brice "Pinky" Hatchett and organist Rick Stelma to the line up soon afterwards.
"My parents were friends with Scott and Chris’s parents," remembers Clyburn. "We lived on the same block. I got in the band when I was almost twelve. I was the youngest, I was still in grammar school. It was before my twelfth birthday I know, because I didn’t even own a guitar yet! I got one for my twelfth birthday."
Then, as always, the teenage social strata of New Orleans was roughly divided into two groups: "Greasers"—also known as "Cats" or "Pits"—who listened to R&B and soul music, slicked back their hair and dressed in shark skin and ban-lon and "Frats," who favored longer hair, ivy league clothes and the British Invasion.
"The Greasers’ big thing was like, ‘Let’s beat up the band after the gig!’" says Sherman. "Fortunately, Kris was kind of like a greaser with frat clothes and we a had a lot of friends who were greasers too, so we were saved a lot of times. We also surrounded ourselves with a lot of roadies."
Gentilly Woods wasn’t far from the notorious Forest Park neighborhood, a white ghetto said to be so treacherous that you literally took your life into your hands by crossing its boundaries without knowing someone who lived there.
"A lot of the real hoodlum types lived in Forest Park," reflects Clyburn. "Why that kind of person lived there—and so many of them—I don’t know. But to come home from Junior High School, Scott and Kris and I would have to walk right on the border of Forest Park. If you wanted to you could walk through it but no one did; you might not make it out of there. But our first bass player, John Fayard, lived in Forest Park. He played bass on a regular guitar, a six string Gibson Firebird. He did have a brother who was bad, B-A-D bad. But John wasn’t, he was a real nice guy."
While their guitar-dominated sound and mod clothes immediately pegged them as a Frat band, the Illusions’ set list was a musical microcosm that walked both sides of the fence.
Scott Sherman: "Since we were going to Capdau Junior High which was, like, mostly greasers, we were trying to cater to them as well, otherwise we’d get the hell beat out of us. So we did ‘I’ll Go Crazy’ by James Brown and ‘Soul Train’ by Curly Moore.
"We grew up listening to that stuff because we lived right around the Mardi Gras Bowling Alley," he continues. "We’d go over there and we were under age so we’d stand out in the parking lot. When they’d open the doors to let the smoke out we’d see people like Bobby Reno and the Infernos and Irma Thomas."
Mardi Gras Lanes was run by James Migliaccio, who was then married to local R&B singer Joyce Harris and dabbled in the music business himself via his Flambeau and Inferno labels. "Jimmy saw us hanging outside and we told him we had a band. He invited us up to play just to hear what we sounded like and then he said, ‘If you get some originals, get back with me.’"
The Illusions quickly penned four of them and Migliaccio booked time at Cosimo’s. He also told them that if they were gong to make a record, they had to "beef up" their name. "He thought about Rigor Mortis and the Headstones," says Sherman, "and getting a hearse to drive our equipment around in, but we said, ‘Aaahhh, that might be a little too tacky...’ So Jimmy’s wife came up with Dr. Spec’s.
"Cosimo’s was a funky joint, man. We were sayin,’ ‘God, how are we gonna record here?’ We were little kids, we didn’t know nothing, we didn’t even know about the history of that place. We brought our equipment up in there and bricks were fallin’ out of the wall, half the bricks were on the floor. It was like playing in Beirut or something. When you sang you were in what looked like a telephone booth, a plastic cubicle. But Cosimo, he did a hell of a job. As high as my voice was when I was a kid, he had that wall of sound for that record. He did a really masterful job with that."
Stelma agrees. "The recording gear looked like something from an old science fiction movie. Big knobs and big VU meters for the levels, it was really stripped down compared with the way things are today. I don’t think we were up there for more than four or five hours, each song was like one or two takes."
Stelma and Clyburn remember Joyce Harris standing outside of the vocal booth making faces at Scott to egg him on as he sang. Despite the fact that they had never set foot in a recording studio before, the resulting clamor was some of the most snarling rock ‘n’ roll ever committed to tape. The record’s inception was encouraging: the WNOE Go Survey for the week ending September 15, 1967, found "Tryin’ To Mess My Mind" holding strong at # 56.
"I had a ’58 Chevy back then but the radio was busted," says Stelma, "and I remember keeping a little transistor radio on the dashboard in case they played it when I was ridin’ around."
Dr. Spec’s gained notoriety as the loudest band in town when the New Orleans States-Item reported that the director of the city’s Speech And Hearing Center had clocked the roar of their amps at 140 decibels, just ten decibels less than the after-burners of a jet airplane. They also appeared on John Pela’s Saturday Hop TV show, which Scott reveals as more of a debacle of garage geeketry than a showcase of rock ‘n’ roll prowess. "I kicked the drum stool over to try to be cool but from the angle that the cameraman shot it from it didn’t have the effect at all, it looked really kind of dumb. And then I think Pinky was chasing me around with his bass guitar or something."
Although it got off to smashing start, "Tryin’ To Mess My Mind" stalled when some of the guys’ parents refused to sign contracts with Migliaccio, who then stopped pressing and promoting the record, remembers Sherman.
"I don’t know what the actual quantity was," says Clyburn, "but I do know that a great many of the records were destroyed in Kris’s car. They were left in the car and they melted."
Many garage fans became aware of the disc when it was included on Eva Records’ Louisiana Punk compilation. Recently, "She’s The One" was used in a European television commercial.
"I still don’t fully comprehend how this has all come about," says Clyburn of the current fanaticism for his teenage combo, "I really don’t."
Still, like the other members of Dr. Spec’s, he has nothing but good memories of the group and is looking forward to their upcoming showcase. "I got in that band when I was twelve, I worked constantly ‘til I was about seventeen and I made more money then than I ever have since. As a teenager, I was doing something I loved to do and having fun. It was great."
"The biggest thing that struck me about listening to this thing after so many years," adds Stelma, "was that when you’re a kid and you’re doing it and you’re looking up to so many other bands that you think are great, you just don’t think that your stuff is as good. You just don’t have any confidence. But now I realize just how good it is. It’s so raw and there’s so much energy and the musicianship is just great. It was actually kind of wild compared to a lot of stuff that was out back then."
Those wanting to find out just how wild are advised to prime themselves for October 1st with their very own copy of Flambeau 103, which can be ordered from www.cryptrecords.com. For more information on the Tryin’ To Mess My Mind Festival, log onto www.knightsmaumau.com.