THE INSECT TRUST
I was born in Manhattan. I grew up in various small towns in Connecticut and Massachusetts. When I was 14, my family moved back to New York. My father was a fisherman and a newspaper man. After we left Cape Cod and went back to New Jersey, he worked a printing press. When he was a young man, he was in vaudeville, played the ukelele. I learned a few hobo songs from him. I was doing old-time music. I learned guitar pretty much by myself. I was a red-diaper baby so I listened to Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly. I started picking up folk music. I was listening to Appalaichian stuff, Library of Congress folk collections.
I moved to Hoboken in 1963 when I was 27. I'd been there a year working on the docks and doing all kinds of jobs, studying painting, playing music occasionally. I've never been a full-time musician. Hoboken was a working class town then. It was like a little mill town in the mid-West. The rents were incredibly cheap and people left you alone. You're also ten minutes from New York so it's like being there but being out of it.
Meanwhile, Bill Barth and Nancy Jeffries (who were from Memphis) went to a party that Steve Duboff was giving. They managed to get $25,000 advance out of him for a record and they didn't even have a band. They moved into my building and we started playing music. We had the run of this building because the owner was an absentee landlord who didn't care what happened. We'd play up on the roof. They found Bob and Trevor to play along too. I think they knew Bob too because he was from Memphis. We put together a bunch of stuff. I was playing second guitar and I had never played an electric instrument before so I wasn't really confortable with it. I also played banjo, mandolin, harmonica and other stuff.
I knew that the concept of the band was a fusion effort to put all types of music together but I had trouble with that. For me, it wasn't very well digested. I know that these things take a long time especially when you come from so many different places: jazz, blues, folk. I knew my own efforts were pretty scattered and I was trying to play a lot of different instruments. The band was a democracy- Bill was the leader but he was laid back. Bill and Nancy were going out together and they used to have artistic arguments I'm sure. Everybody had input, ideas and everyone wrote stuff. We would do jam sessions or we'd present a song to the group or use old blues and classics.
We started going into studio but we didn't have a drummer or bass player. We hired these studio guys who were famous session players, and jazz players that Trevor knew. Trevor was an amazing, giant horn player. He knew all these guys. He and Bob knew Pharoah Sanders and Elvin Jones, who did some session work with us. Trevor played with them when he didn't play with us. Those guys were great. Elvin had a hot date waiting for him once and we were having trouble with this one phrase so he said 'OK, go back to the tape and let me cut in on the exact bar.' He did it perfectly on the third try 'cause he was in a hurry to get out of there!
We did the first album and we still didn't have a band. When we went out to do shows, we didn't have drums and bass so we had to hire different people to do it. Eventually, we went to Memphis and spent some time there. Trevor decided that the band should be integrated. We hooked up with two more session players in Memphis, two hot-shot guys. The bass player was 16 years old and he already had a penthouse in downtown Memphis. He didn't need our little peanut band to try to struggle to make it. I don't know why they joined us. Everytime we gigged, we had to pay their airfare and money for the show so we would up lending each other the same 50 cents over and over. The drummer was a total acid freak- he would supply us with these mounds of green acid that he got from somewhere. So we were taking acid every morning. It was so bizarre.
We finally ran out of money and we couldn't pay these guys anymore so they just disappeared. By that time, we were ready to do the second album. We did the album with session players again. We still didn't have a bass player and drummer. By that time, we had fired Bill- we threw him out of his own band. We were going totally nuts because all he wanted to do was smoke hash and watch TV. He wouldn't provide any leadership. We got another guitar player from Memphis, Ed Finney, who was a great player. At the time, he would play in black clubs in Memphis six months out of the year and then he'd go up to the mountains in Central America with a portable amp and play with the Indians. Getting him was the best. Then we hooked up with a bass player and a drummer from Vermont and we had a real band.
I started to like what we were doing after that. We really started cooking then- I really didn't like the band before that. Also, I was getting used to the amplifier by that time. I remember that the last gig we did was up near Boston around 1971. It was a beautiful club with skylights. The place filled up with Hell's Angels and they loved us! They treated us like royalty, these big beefy guys with whiskers and tattoos. It was great! We got back to Hoboken only to find that our agent and manager where dropping us. I got on the phone and said 'listen, think it over. We're a real band now- at least come out and hear us.' But he said that was it.
We tried to stay together but there wasn't any money and there weren't any bookings so everybody just wandered off in seperate directions. Me and Nancy got together to play in a bar down in Red Bank (New Jersey) for a while. That didn't go anywhere either though. Trevor went to New York and accidently killed himself. We would always stage these suicides. He needed attention so he would be sure to have a network of friends that would come bail him out if he didn't answer his phone. Then one night in '73, he stuck his head in the oven and the phone lines went down and that was it. I was really upset. I got pissed at him that he would do that to himself and waste that beautiful talent and all that gorgeous music he could play. It was such a waste. We lost a lot when we lost him.
After the break-up, I was in some string bands around town, playing 'kitchen music.' A bunch of people would get together and play. A friend of mine, Jim Hans, would stage these shows and show slides and have one act plays. Then I left town in this old bus. I played with this band called 90 Proof. They went down to Tennessee to open a music store. After a while, I said 'something's happening here' so I went to there in '75. We hooked up with them and started playing. We did blues and folk. Then we went to Memphis for a weekend and got a great reception there so we moved there. Memphis is like music city so they knew us after they heard us for a while. They left for Texas but I stayed in Memphis with John Parrott, a monster songwriter. He's an unsung genius who never made it to the limelight. We played beer joints, living on soy bits around '78. John got a girlfriend and I had to move out and the whole thing was going nowhere. I met a woman who I married and I started working for Manpower, quitting the music scene. I was burnt out and that kind of work stabilized me. The musicians there were a drunken, rowdy lot and she didn't like that.
She wanted to go to Austin, Texas so we went there in '79. I was in a few string bands there, living there for 10 years. I came back in '87 after I needed to get out of that the relationship. The only way to do that was to leave town so I came back to where my oldest friends and family were. Now, I'm back here in Hoboken, playing jug, getting back to my roots. I play with Perry Robinson, he's a world class clarinetist who played with Brubeck. It's called the Perry Robinson Jug Jam. We played a few gigs so far. Otherwise, I'm supposed to be part of a Holy Modal Rounders reunion with Peter Stampfel. I played with them in the beginning- their life style with all that speed was too much for me. The hardest stuff I do is coffee and some weed.
I've listened to the two Insect Trust albums recently and I was surprised at how good some of the cuts were because we weren't really a band then. In my mind, that's what I wanted. It was very insecure to not have a bassist and a drummer. It really didn't jell because we didn't have two steady guys. We'd do the albums using studio guys and then go out and try to play it and we couldn't do it the way it was in the studio. It was a struggle. Every band struggles and two years isn't too long to struggle, especially the ass-backwards way we did it! We did really well for the way we had to do it.
LUKE TODAY: Luke is the co-director of the Monroe Street Movement Space (720 Monroe Street, 5th Floor, C-504, Hoboken, NJ 07030, USA, phone: 201-222-8033) which offers specialized dance, gymnastics and movement classes for all ages including ballet and yoga as well as development movement for children and creative movement for teens/children. Movement Space is available for classes, rental and performances and offers half-day, whole-day, morning and afternoon programs. The goals of classes are 'to discover movements that come naturally to each individual and then to build strength with allignment and technique.'
See the other parts of our Insect Trust tribute
BILL BARTH NANCY JEFFRIES ED WARD
JOE BRENNAN TRIBUTE INSECT TRUST
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