The Insect Trust
I first heard about the Insect Trust through one of my dorm-mates at college who was from Little Rock and a major folkie. He knew Bob Palmer from his high-school days as one of the more dedicated folklorists around town, and had stayed in touch with him. One day this guy brought me a record, a 45, of "Eyes of a New York Woman," since he knew that I liked Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon, he told me, had been ready to sue the group until he heard the record, and decided he liked it. The song (or the lyrics) is one of the ones the Beatles-like group does in Crying of Lot 49. The band, as I remember, was called something like The Primitives, but my friend told me they were changing their name to one inspired by William Burroughs, The Insect Trust, and that they were recording an album for Capitol. Sure enough, a few weeks later, Palmer sent him a copy, and I went out and bought one myself.
I was real gung-ho about all the possibilities inherent in rock music that hadn't yet been explored. I had a folk-music background, too, as well as a classical one, and the idea of bringing new ideas into rock was one I really promoted. This was one reason I wrote so much about electronic music, which I thought had a much greater future in rock than in academia, where it was largely centered at the time. So the country blues/old-timey/free-jazz fusion the Insect Trust was purveying was right up my alley. I was also very supportive of friends' bands: our local campus band, Mad River, had moved to San Francisco and recorded an album for Capitol, too. But mostly, I thought the Insect Trust was progressive in all the right ways.
Although neither of their albums is 100% successful, when they do work, they work beautifully. I marginally prefer the second one, because "Eyes of a New York Woman" is so perfect and "Our Sister the Sun" has Elvin Jones thrashing away on it. But I also like the "singing bridge" version of "Special Rider" on the first album very much. As for what makes them still vital today, that's because so much happened at that particular period that a lot of the implications of some of that music has yet to be worked out. For instance, the Byrds. When R.E.M. started, people said they were "ripping off" the Byrds. Well, the Byrds never stopped long enough in that particular place, and, as we've seen, there was a lot to explore in that particular idea. Ditto country rock: during the 70's, a lot of that degenerated into L.A. singer-songwriter soft-rock wimpiness, and the rock end of it sort of got lost. Bands like Whiskeytown are still processing a lot of that information. Nobody has gone back to the sort of roots that the Insect Trust were involved with, let alone tried to attempt that particular fusion. I think there's a lot on those records worth exploring today, given young musicians with the sort of interest and background in these musics.
Given that they didn't have a regular rhythm section, and they often had a lot of hired hands, they were a brilliant live band. Both Barth and Palmer were inspired soloists, and, with some other musicians to bounce off of, Koehler could be, too. I mean, they looked like a shambling bunch of hippies up there on the stage, but they were able to bring off everything they did on records with a lot of panache, and when they jammed, as on "Ducks," they really caught fire. I'd never seen any jazz at the time I saw them, and I thought that the way they slipped in and out of genres live was really remarkable.
Not only was I a big fan of the Insect Trust, I may be one of the few people not in the band to have seen them play several times. Furthermore, one of those occasions was at a (disastrous) show I promoted while in college. I'd heard a rumor that there was a new "underground" FM station in Cincinnati, and so I started searching one afternoon, and heard an Insect Trust song playing! After that, the DJ came on and read my review of Hoboken Saturday Night from Rolling Stone, and said they would be playing at the local psychedelic dungeon, The Black Dome, that weekend. I had friends who like to go to the Dome, so we headed down there to see them. I was blown away, and my friend introduced me to Palmer. I asked him if he'd like to do a show at our school, and the band decided they could do it. So I went back to school and set it up. I think I had about a week to do it, and naively figured that because the music was so good, and we had so few concerts, people would just show up. We did some posters, but in the end, almost nobody showed. We didn't know anything about PAs and so on, so we ran the sound through someone's stereo! It was a huge amount of effort, and we had to arrange for places for them to stay and so on. I remember I had a girlfriend who helped me, only to disappear with the band after the show -- with her 14-year-old sister! I was crushed: the show was a financial disaster, my girlfriend had disappeared, and the student council wanted their money back. They gave me the choice of paying it back myself (fat chance) or putting on another show to make the money up. I took the latter option, and arranged for Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen to do their first show outside of Ann Arbor. We got about 1200 people in an 850-seat auditorium, had a genuine rock and roll riot, and made so much money that the student council then wanted me to do their concert-promotion full-time. Because I'm nowheres as stupid as I look, I declined.
I also visited them at their luxurious apartment/squat in Hoboken (definition of luxurious: 'We're one of the few buildings on the block the junkies haven't stripped the copper wiring out of'). We smoked a lot of Barth's dope, I remember that. I also remember going up to the top of their building and seeing the New York skyline and having the stoned revelation that when you were in the city, you couldn't see it like this. The building was falling apart, and they were semi-legally squatting: the landlord liked having them in there because all of the other buildings in the neighborhood were empty, and junkies were stealing lead from the roofs and copper wiring and so on to sell, and they couldn't do that if there were people in the building. But it was a slum, no doubt about that. But I really don't remember any of it very well, except that I was mostly hanging with Bill and Nancy and Palmer, of course.
In order to have a legacy, you have to have been well enough known to inspire imitation or tribute, and really, this is one of the most obscure bands of all time. I'd like to believe that somebody'll pick up on what they did sometime though. Like I said, it was an important fusion, an important view of American music, very different from the one Mike Bloomfield attempted with the Electric Flag. Not many young people have looked back to old-timey mountain music and country blues, let alone become involved with free jazz, so that exact kind of fusion isn't too likely to happen in the near future. And there have been other odd fusion bands, like the Munich band FSK, who have an Insect-Trust-like approach to German/American music. For all I know, they may know the Insect Trust's work. But essentially, this is a project in need of rediscovery.
ROBERT PALMERI became record review editor of Rolling Stone* in March 1970, and was in charge of finding new writers. At the time Palmer had moved out of the Hoboken house, since the band was falling apart, and he was trying to make a go in New York. I called him and asked him if he'd like to work for us, and, of course, he did, so I started running pieces by him. This, of course, led to his being employed by Rolling Stone, and, later, the New York Times, and I always appreciated that he acknowledged that. I visited him once in New York, where he was living in an obscure corner of the Village, and remember it as being a good time, but nothing specific, and I'd see him rarely after that. The last time was at South By Southwest a few years ago, when he was commuting from Memphis to some college in Pennsylvania, where he had a teaching gig. He was playing with some grunge band, years younger than him, playing clarinet, which (for some odd reason) worked beautifully. We chatted, but he looked distracted, and not in very good health. This, I now realize, was after his hepatitis attack.
* As for Rolling Stone today, hell, I haven't read it since about '75, and don't know anyone who has. My dealings with them have been through their incredibly corrupt book division, namely the ROCK OF AGES book, and I've never seen a royalty statement from them. Jim DeRogatis has been in touch recently and relayed horror stories, including the one about Hootie.
See Ed's tribute to the Insect Trust
See the other parts of our Insect Trust tribute
LUKE FAUST NANCY JEFFRIES BILL BARTH
JOE BRENNAN TRIBUTE INSECT TRUST
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