The fast, furious ballad of Commander Cody

By  Rush Evans

He was a West Coast hippie with a western-swing vibe a quarter century after Bob Wills and a rapid-fire rap song a quarter century before Snoop Dogg.

When Commander Cody sang — or talked — at lightning speed, about how his pappy said, “Son, you’re gonna drive me to drinkin’ if you don’t stop drivin’ that hot rod Lincoln,” he turned the rock-and-roll generation onto the cool sounds of a swinging steel guitar, a fiery fiddle and a boogie-woogie piano.

Commander Cody And His Lost Planet Airmen carved out a lighthearted niche of improvisational country music that rocked at a time when their fellow hippies were grooving to a much heavier message.

They enjoyed another hit in “Don’t Let Go,” and they gave their fellow hippies the best songs from their redneck counterparts who might not have ever crossed paths had it not been for this seminal boogie band, with great country covers and cool originals like the countercultural underground standard “Down To Seeds And Stems Again Blues.”

George Frayne was the Commander, and he still is, taking the “Hot Rod Lincoln” on the never-ending rock-and-roll road. He still blazes through that monster hit at tongue-twisting velocity, and conversation with him unfolds in the same staccato style, so much so that it only makes sense to let him tell his own story.

Before a gig at an Austin, Texas, beer garden called Threadgill’s, just yards away from the site of the old Armadillo World Headquarters, where the band’s classic 1974 live album was recorded, Frayne chatted with a Goldmine journalist rooted in Austin, one who’d had the good fortune of spending a few musical evenings in that cavernous old concert hall before they leveled it in 1980.

“I was not ready for how cool the Armadillo was gonna be,” he said. “We came in here first time, we opened for Waylon and we just saw what was going on and it was great. That was the time we were way into the swing, and I had the eight guys: the fiddle player who played sax; the guitar player that played trombone; the lead singer that played trumpet. Bobby Black was a one-man horn section. They took to us pretty well. We kept coming back, and we did our album here. We’d been up for three days, you know what I mean? Those were the days of getting up and partying for weeks at a time.”

As for his hometown, Frayne says, “Austin back then was like a little oasis. It was like Antioch, Ohio, or Yellow Springs, Ohio, your little tiny town on a larger scale surrounded by mean and nastiness. There was names of towns in Texas back then that I wouldn’t even wanna repeat. The Armadillo was a really great place where you could go and not be afraid of doing the stuff that you’d be afraid of doing out in the street. And don’t forget it was my first introduction to Texas women. That’ll say enough about that.”

The album he’s talking about is the legendary Live From Deep In The Heart of Texas, a seminal recording that documented the spirit of Texas-styled hippie counterculture, a southern contribution to the Woodstock generation.

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen headlined the show at the Headquarters’ last hurrah, New Year’s Eve, 1980. Our stone’s-throw proximity to that hallowed site led the Commander to further reminiscing, rattling off stories and names of his fellow Planet Airmen in a rock-and-roll odyssey that could’ve only happened in the magical decade known as the ’70s. Try to keep up.

George Frayne: It started innocently enough. We had a little four- [or] five-piece frat band in Ann Arbor. The thing about frat bands is you don’t practice; practicing is unmanly. You listen to the record and go over it in your mind, and go to the gig and drink a fifth and just play. It’s gotta be that kinda tune.

I played piano back then; you couldn’t get a keyboard. The only piano keyboard was the Wurlitzer, and you couldn’t play that at frat parties because it had a flat top with an air vent because there was tubes in there, and I could not get people to not put their beer on top of the piano. I’d have to buy tubes for that thing every week.

We did a Friday night party, Saturday afternoon open house, Saturday night frat party, Sunday open house, five gigs a weekend, and by that time I’d have bought those big old tubes … which were five bucks apiece at the time which was a lot of money, so the Farfisa [organ] was the only other thing that was apparent, and it fit the frat-band thing perfectly. But then when we wanted to start playing a little country and boogie woogie, we had to play places that had pianos.

We went to a flea market and we found the Best Of Buck Owens, and we listened to that, and we’d started doing “Act Naturally” about a year before The Beatles came out with it, and then we did “Tiger By The Tail,” and we found that country music goes along real smoothly. It’s the kind of music where you don’t really have to know what the chords are. If you’ve heard country music, you can follow them, but you know the people that we played for had never heard any of this stuff!

In Michigan, they’d never heard “Tiger By The Tail” or “Truck Drivin’ Man.” They went “Ohh,” so we went “Whoa”’ and of course, right about that time, I started selling marijuana in Ann Arbor. I sold the weed, and we’d roll a hundred reefers before the gig, and I’d pay everybody in reefers; pretty soon I had about 30 people in the band!

Then I was back home in Long Island, and at the farmer’s market in Long Island, fifty-cent bin, and you know the Bob Wills album on Harmony? It’s a painting of Bob Wills’ smiling face with a background, Bob Wills Special? I put it on, and my mom went, “What is that,” and the first time he went, “Aah-hahh,” I knew he was stoned, and it turned out I was right. Bob drank a lot, but they also smoked a little weed. I don’t know if Bob himself smoked weed, but you know the other guys in his band did.

Then we went to Nashville, and the only people who would talk to us were the people in Buck Owens’ band. They all smoked weed. And when they came into town, at that time I was growing weed in California, so they would always come find out where we were so I could turn them on. So the whole Nashville underground people knew who I was, as [did] the other hippies; I was like the harbinger of the marijuana age. I was High Times centerfold twice.

Being the harbinger of the marijuana age did surprisingly little harm to George’s memory, as his understanding of his fun little party band’s important contribution is vivid, clear and right on the money.

The influence they took from those Owens and Wills records led to an original sound, putting country and rock together in a manner every bit as revolutionary as what Bob had done with another American musical discipline.

Frayne: We also started listening to a little Cab Calloway. Then we realized what Bob Wills was; he was the guy that brought jazz to country. Whatever the big swing hit would be, they would be able to play that in their live show; there was jazz. And we noticed that it was a lot more simple to learn those tunes that way than to try to cop a Benny Goodman [song], because he had already simplified it. They made it so it was easy to play, and I wasn’t that good a player at that time, and I’m looking for stuff that’s easy to play, so we fell into that.

Then I’m sitting outside my little apartment in downtown Ann Arbor and here comes this weird-looking guy, Andy Stein, walking by and he’s got a fiddle case, and I said, “Hey, you play that thing?” He goes, “Yeah.” He comes, he sits in, he’s got a perfect ear; you don’t have to show him anything. He’s like [steel guitar player] Bobby Black — perfect ear, knows everything, he just plays it perfectly. So we’ve got a frat band, the bass player gave up the bass [and] decided he was gonna learn how to play the steel guitar. Andy Stein was the guy who arranged stuff, and then [guitarist] Bill Kirchen picked up on that, because Bill had come over to my band.

He had his own band called Seventh Seal, which was like a hippie early heavy-metal band, but he was also a folkie. There was a whole folk scene which developed into some of the heavy-metal scene, so I got him in the band; then I had [vocalist and harmonica player] Billy C. Farlow come in. I found him playing the midway lunch for 50 bucks a night, and he was a songwriter. So I had him sit in, and then we got really stoned and went off and wrote ‘Seeds And Stems’ together, and that’s the first thing we did. Boom. That’s where it went.

And what kicked it off was listening to Bob Wills and me realizing that this is great reefer music that we were playing for all these hippies to get turned on to. This is a beautiful kind of music to play for them. We moved not to San Francisco but to Berkeley. When we first came to San Francisco, all those Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane players … well, the Dead liked us because Jerry [Garcia] was gonna learn how to play steel. The Airplane guys were nice to us, but they weren’t really behind us. The crowd in San Francisco didn’t like us. That whole country-blues thing that went with the East Bay in Berkeley, we fell right into that.

And so the Lost Planet Airmen were born, behind the hazy cloud of their fearless Commander. It was the first hippie-country band, a band of rock and rollers that had more in common, spiritually, with Hank Williams and Wills than they did with any of their fellow long-haired musical contemporaries.

Hank would have undoubtedly dug their sound, but it was Bob who was the King of Western Swing, and the King was around long enough to cross paths with the Commander.

Frayne: In 1973, I met [Bob Wills] at the country music convention when Merle [Haggard] brought him there, and he was in a wheelchair. We backed up Gene Vincent. We were the last people to back up Gene Vincent before he died. We opened for Merle Haggard at the Oakland Coliseum, and Gene wouldn’t play “Be Bop A Lula.”

He had some cockamamie excuse why not. He had made some really horrible hippie albums. He had this song, “Red blue summery green, these are the colors…” [singing] Oh, Gene! He wouldn’t do any of his hits, but he wants to do “Maybelline.” So we’re up on stage in front of 5,000 people and in front of Merle Haggard, when “Okie From Muskogee” was a hit, and Gene Vincent forgets the words to “Maybelline!” People started throwin’ shit at us, you know. Merle was very nice to me. “You boys are tryin’ real hard to do what you do, and I wish you boys the best of luck.” He was very nice.

[Bob Wills] was nice to anybody. I don’t think he had any idea about hippie / no hippie hair. Everybody knew we were being stoned because we were stoned! And he was very nice. He said, “Thank you for being interested in my music.” I told him we played Bob Wills music, and we’re trying to bring country and western to the north and the West Coast so they could dig this fine tradition of stuff that you people in Texas and the south have enjoyed all this time. What Paul Butterfield did for the blues, I wanna do that for country. I wanna bring it to the northerners; I wanna bring it to Michigan and the San Francisco Bay area, be that flag bearer.

When we went in 1973 to the CMA Convention in Nashville, they booed us off the stage. ‘Get a haircut! Find a rock concert, you hippie freaks!’ So that was the last time I played in Nashville. Well, I went back one time in the early ’80s to a bar there, and nobody showed up. That’s when I got pissed off, because I was about to score a mother/daughter act, and somebody broke it up. A mother/daughter combo, that’s No. 2 on the list of things to do. The No. 1 thing, of course, is sleeping with three red-headed sisters. That was the thinking at the time. Obviously I’m not thinking that now, of course, ’cause if my wife hears me say that now — she’s Sicilian you know — she’s gonna nail my balls to the wall and leave ’em there. But that’s what we thought at the time.

Commander Cody was never supposed to be doing any vocals. There was no Lynyrd Skynyrd, there was no Marshall Tucker … why did there have to be a Commander Cody? The rest of the band said, “George, you’re gonna be the Commander Cody.” So people said, “Who’s the commander? What’s he doing?” I couldn’t sing a note back then, but I fell into this genre of fast talking, from Phil Harris. A lot of the stuff that I did was on this one Phil Harris album; then I got “Hot Rod Lincoln” from Johnny Bond. “Hot Rod Lincoln” is an answer song to a song called “Hot Rod Race” from 1949. It was actually pretty awful.

But Cody’s answer to that answer song was a surefire hit. The song had been written and performed in the ’50s by Charlie Ryan, and it later bolstered country singer Johnny Bond’s career in 1960.

Now that “Hot Rod” would be the vehicle for a bunch of hippies, and it was the ride of their lives.

Frayne: I learned the words to “Hot Rod Lincoln.” We started doing it; then they put it on the album, and then we tried to release “Lost In The Ozone” as the single. They didn’t like that. Somebody was playing “Hot Rod Lincoln” on the radio in the garlic capital of the world, Gilroy, Calif., and then L.A. got it; then New York got it, like that. My mom was pissed [about what I was doing] until she heard “Hot Rod Lincoln” on the radio in New York City. The next thing you know, she was on the phone to radio stations: “How come you haven’t played my son’s record?”

The only thing that was wrong with that is that we tried to release other singles after that by the real lead singers, but they never caught on, so Paramount insisted that the next thing will be by me. So that’s when “Smoke That Cigarette” came out as a single, and that’s what eventually broke up the band, because the real singers weren’t getting any hits, and finally it was kicked off by the manager stealing $500,000 from us or something like that. He just ripped us off for God knows how much money. We were out on the road; nobody had been paid in six months; we were over-extended on everything; we had two secretaries; a bus, a truck, five roadies, lawyers on retainer; and all this kind of stuff. It just collapsed from being top-heavy. There was nothing we could do.

Without another hit we were just sunk, and Warner Brothers disowned us because they couldn’t get any sales from us by using the usual L.A. country thing. And when we got off the Paramount label, I had two equal offers from Columbia and from Warner Brothers.

Now the president of Columbia Records called me on the phone saying, “We’re gonna back you to the max.” So I called up the manager saying, “I wanna go with Columbia,” and he said, “No, it’s too late, we already went with Warner Brother.” Now, if we had gone with Columbia, you know, that would’ve been fantastic, but I don’t know what it was. I got some speculation as to why they did that to me, but I’m sure it had to do with money.

Don’t forget, another thing that happened was all of sudden, we were doing all this western swing, and all of a sudden, our manager and booking agent started booking us as opening acts for the weirdest headliners in the world. I mean, I opened for The Doors! I opened for Led Zeppelin! 150,000 people. I could write a book about that gig. Peter Grant, their manager, and [another] Peter … oh maybe it’s a good thing we forget it, was the promoter of the gig, they’re up in a helicopter with an electronic counting device and they figured there was a 150,000 people there.

He claimed there was only 90,000 paid, but there was over a 150,000 people there. It was gonna be two weekends, and the first weekend was a beautifully sunny fantastic day, love fest all the way. So we left to go do a few gigs on the continent and come back for the second week when Keith Richards was supposed to bring his band and they were gonna play. Well, meanwhile, it rained. NME and all those musical people slagged the whole gig completely, put Commander Cody down, “Commander Bullfrog,” because I jumped over Steve Fishell, the Nashville producer.

They said, “Led Zeppelin’s rockabilly stuff sucked,” the promoter split and the Led Zeppelin guys were running the show, and they weren’t gonna pay anybody. So Southside Johnny, Commander Cody and Todd Rundgren were supposed to go on before Led Zeppelin. So we got together and said, “No American band goes on until all American bands get paid.” So they gave me a suitcase full of French franc notes, $15,000 in franc notes. We played 40 minutes, and we left. All sorts of other stuff went on; I could write a book just on that week of my life. It was on the Knebworth Estate out in the country about 40 miles from London. Ten percent of the crowd was still there after the weekend got through, and they didn’t like it at all. Keith Richards was supposed to show and he hadn’t shown yet, and you know people got really pissed, an advertised Stones show.

Then, of course, the band broke up, Billy C. went off to do the blues scene. Kirchen, he’s the guy that does the country stuff. [Guitarist] John Tichy, he does the rockabilly stuff. And I went on to do the boogie and rock-and-roll stuff, all of us having varying degrees of success in our specific genre, but at one time, that whole bunch of people came together.

And that’s the name of that tune.

The Commander still has plenty to say about ‘Dopers, Drunks, and Everyday Losers’

Like the music of his hero Bob Wills, the music of Commander Cody still lives, breathes and pays the bills thanks to the tenacious dedication of its creator to working on the proverbial rock-and-roll road (and yes, Bob Wills music counts as rock and roll).

But that doesn’t mean that the studio isn’t important to a road hog like Cody. His new album on Blind Pig, Dopers, Drunks, and Everyday Losers, proves that 40 years down that road, the Commander can still write a song, dress it up and bring it to life.

“I hadn’t done a good studio album in almost 30 years, and it is time for a return to high quality,” he says, and Dopers… lives up to his promise, from the first driving steel-guitar notes of “Roll Your Own,” into the road-tripping take on John Hiatt’s “Tennessee Plates,” and through a dozen more tracks of teardrop country and rocking western swing.

Among the new compositions by Cody himself (originals credited to his real name, George Frayne) is a road ode called “OK Hotel,” which could have easily shown up on 1971’s Lost in the Ozone album, though contemporary references assure that this particular Lost Planet Airman is still living and working in the future (“Mary the maid comes in once a day, when her habit don’t keep her in the bed / And don’t leave anything behind unless you don’t mind seeing your stuff selling on the web / at the OK Hotel you’ll be doing swell, if you can stand the smell and the maniacs”).

Cody’s got plenty of Internet know-how, and the “OK Hotel” came right out of his own musical experimentation on the info superhighway.

“‘OK Hotel’ is from the Deep Toad project 2004 when I was learning how to use garage band,” he says. “Deep Toad is a band I made up. I got a drum machine, I played one take on the bass, one take on the imitation saxophone, like that. It took me three days to make an album. It’s not the hottest thing in the world, but the tunes are funny. I called it Deep Toad and I put it out on the garage band Web site, which is a great way for new bands to get going. [It was] a mock album demo of songs that have been around for decades. ‘OK Hotel’ is the best of these.”

Cody also took the opportunity to work up a new take on an old classic, with a torchy chanteuse taking a guest vocal on the Commander’s signature song, “Down To Seeds And Stems Again Blues.” Cody’s daughter, a New York model, turned him on to her singing friend, Circe Link, whose mournful voice recalled a version by the late great Nicolette Larson.

The album’s opening number, “Roll Your Own,” had been recorded by Commander Cody And The Lost Planet Airmen some years ago, as produced by the late Hoyt Axton, who had also recorded it himself to great effect. It’s an Axton original that Cody chose as the closer for the album, a song you already know, as most famously sung by a Beatle.

“Hoyt was a good friend of mine,” says Cody. “He tried to give me ‘The No No Song’ in ’75, and I rejected it after listening to my first wife’s advice. He gave it to Ringo, and they made five million bucks, so I thought I’d finally do a version of it.”

Axton would probably be proud to hear his rehab protagonist from “The No No Song” as another great character in the long line of Dopers, Drunks, and Everyday Losers in Commander Cody’s musical universe.

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