Photo by Ben Upham
Strange Worlds and Outer Galaxies
By Jack Gold-Molina and Jerry Kranitz
Terry Brooks is one of America's great rock and roll guitarists. Already active by his mid-teens growing up in the Ohio area, he started playing professionally in the early 1960's and toured the US as the only white musician in an all-black blues band on the "chitlin' circuit." During that time he developed what became his trademark bluesy spaced-out sound, at once fierce and formidable while also thoughtful and empathetic.
Brooks spent time in the Army in the mid-1960's, experiencing firsthand the horrors of serving in Vietnam. After returning to Ohio, he started playing professionally again and finally formed his band The Strange, releasing the seminal Translucent World in 1973 on his own Outer Galaxie label. It was a vital record that showcased not only Brooks' ability to take his guitar work to "a new dimension in a different time zone," but also the profundity and emotion of his songwriting.
Terry Brooks and Strange would become one of American psychedelic rock music's stalwart independent bands. They released seven more albums between 1975 and 1998, shunning major label involvement in order to retain artistic and financial control. Nearly 20 years since their final recording on Akarma, the live CD/double-LP Rock The World, Brooks began to release his long-awaited Treasures and Gems from the Treasure Chest project in late 2017 on Bandcamp. Currently in its fourth volume of unearthed performances, alternate versions of tunes and unfinished pieces, the music plumbs the soul-searching depths of Brooks' poetic songwriting and explores the transcendent heights of his otherworldly guitar playing.
Perfect Sound Forever: Can you talk about your musical roots and early influences?
Terry Brooks: When I was about 14, a black blues player named Herbert Jennings in central Ohio was a friend of mine. I was always hanging around outside of a black blues club at that time. A woman named Eola owned this blues club that was also a brothel. She took a maternal interest in me and let me hang around outside listening. There was a bootlegger named Jack Of Diamonds who made liquor for Eola's place. He knew I was on my own and having trouble and he took care of me too. Eola would say if you go down to Jack Of Diamonds' and bring a bottle back to the club, I'll give you $5. So I would do that and after a while, she let me come inside, but said you've got to watch out for these girls (the prostitutes).
Herb befriended me and invited me to his place and started teaching me guitar. He was a big guy who weighed about 350 lbs. He would hand me his guitar and say, "I'm going to make you a soul man." He'd say, "Let me tell you about this song here. When you're playing blues guitar, you have to make it come through the strings and make it ring out loud." And he sang, "Oh Pretty Mama," and went on about catching a man with his wife and shooting him and ending up in the penitentiary. Herbert gave me my first guitar. He had me come down to the stage and called me up to play with him. And he said to the audience, "I've got this white boy here who's had a hard life and he's going to play the blues for you." And that was unusual because not many white people played in these clubs.
I didn't believe in playing other people's songs. I believed in playing with feeling. Whatever things were going on in my life, that's what I played that night. That's where I got my energy. This guy Fat Tony, a really good bass player, came along and said ‘we'll go play the black clubs in Columbus, Ohio.' I went on stage and there was this woman up front. When I was playing a solo, I had my eyes closed and her boyfriend stabbed me in the leg, thinking I was going after his woman. The sax player told me to hold on to the back of his shirt and pulled me through the club and got me out of there.
We had a singer named Baby Huey who weighed about 400 lbs. and wore a diaper on stage. I finished a show and I had my guitar wrapped in a blanket and some guy asked me what I was doing in that neighborhood. And Baby Huey took out a knife and cut the guy and got me out of there. So, the environment was such that a white guy in these clubs was unusual, but the musicians all stood by me.
In 1963, I went into the army. In the army I met Ronnie Williams, who ended up playing with Frank Zappa. He and I became close friends. I was jamming on guitar and Ronnie was impressed and played me some music that he and Zappa had been playing. Ronnie could make the guitar talk words. When he played the second note, he was crying. They called him ‘The Weeper.' Later, we played in the Army band together and played a battle of the bands at Fort Poke, Louisiana. We had a band called the Phydalions.
I went to Vietnam but had jungle warfare training in Hawaii first. I lost a lot of men in Vietnam. Donald Parcells was a member of my team in the jungle. He got wounded. I got blown through the air into a tree and when I got up I saw Donald face down in a foxhole. I went over to him and he was face down with his back legs blown out. This guy was a superstar in the Army football team at West Point. His brother Phil Parcells was an NFL coach who led the New York Giants to two Super Bowl titles. Donald asked me to put a tourniquet on his leg. I couldn't get any of the choppers to come down. And I called it in, screaming for someone to come down and get him out. Finally, one of the choppers broke out of the pack and came down out of the sky and got down out of there.
I got out of the military in 1967. When I was coming home from Vietnam, heading into California, I was having a hard time because of everything that happened in the war. I got off the plane and was attacked by people throwing urine and feces at me and calling me ‘a baby and woman killer.' I had no idea this was going on and learned that Americans hated Vietnam vets. The MPs told me to take off my uniform and put on my civvies. I was already depressed but this took me down another notch.
I went back to Ohio and things weren't good there. But I started to play guitar again. My dad was in Florida so I went down there. But I was sitting on the porch of his house in Orlando and was telling my father that everything is dead. My father asked me, "What the hell did they do to you? I want to ask you, did you ever kill anybody?" And I said yes. And he said, "Oh no, my son is a murderer. I'm so ashamed of you. You are no longer my son." So I left. There was this guy that had a junkyard that let me stay there while I got it together. But any time anyone wanted someone to play, they would come to me so I would make a little money that way. But I kept it together by managing some A&P stores. So I went down to the blues clubs in Orlando and was the only white musician playing in the clubs. I was playing the chitlin' circuit in Miami and all over the region.
PSF: Can you talk about how Strange originally came together?
TB: I started to teach guitar at Streets Music School. The band came together through my job there. I met Jim Kentoran who was a percussionist with the Florida symphony. Bob Griffin was on rhythm guitar and Jim Kentoran was the drummer. Chuck Smith was on bass. I released Translucent World on my own Outer Galaxie label. I sent lots of copies out to the US and Europe. We released it with no name, just ‘Strange.' The post office said they had all kinds of mail for me, because I thought my partner was checking it for me. We got so much mail for that was around the world. You got record companies writing you at this PO box. So that's how I missed the curve.
A distributor in Miami bought the first 1000 copies I had pressed. Then he wanted 5000 more. One day the guy calls me down there and says, "I've got bad news. The warehouse burned down. I hate to tell you that I didn't have any insurance." Now whether those records really were lost or not, I never knew. This kind of thing went on all the time in this business. They may have been sold somewhere in the US. Sometimes I'd go in-store and see copies in a store and ask where they got them and would be just told some distributor in Miami. But the first 1000 copies, I handled all the distribution myself to the US and Europe.
PSF: What has motivated you to stay independent, versus pursuing a major label contract?
TB: After all the records had been distributed, I had a partner who was supposed to check our PO box while I was taking care of business in New York. I had a lot going on at the time. People wanted me to put on concerts but I couldn't do it because of non-music obligations. So I got back to check the PO box about four months later and asked if they had any mail. Keep in mind my name isn't on the album. It just says ‘Strange.' I asked if they had any mail for Terry Brooks. And they said ‘no.' I said I sent out a bunch of records. They said, "Are you ‘Strange'? We had mail from all around the world, record companies and such. So much time went by and we just sent it all back."
I was offered to join several major labels. Atlantic Records offered me a deal when Raw Power came out. But they wanted me to leave my band and they would put a band together for me and I just didn't want to do that. My manager got ahold of RCA Records and they wanted to sign me to a deal. But they said ‘we have an artist named Robin Trower that is just too similar to you and we can't do it now.' It's a hard business. Most of the time, young groups do not sign good contracts so the producers and managers and record companies eat you up. Look at all the rock stars that die. Most were high and ripped off. And look at all the movie stars that deal with sexual abuse. It is a hell of a lot worse in the music business. So for all kinds of reasons, I always had to be independent.
PSF: How would you say that your approach to playing has changed over the years?
TB: In the early years, I was depressed and my heart was broken from the war. I had killed a lot of people and I was depressed. All of my songs are from my life, and motivated from all of the emotions I go through in my life. Like the song "Annihilation" – during that time, I met a man named Edmond Goode. Edmond was a genius. I spent about a year playing acoustic guitar behind Edmond Goode and having discussions about visions I was having. I was known as a person who had a lot of cosmic energy. Edmond was at the making of all of Translucent World. His face is on the cover. I've always had this cosmic energy since I was a kid.
One thing about my music, songs and art are that they are fragments of my life and love for my wife and family. Peace, war and depression, and most of all a very wide vision of the most horrifying combat when I served in the Army...in the streets, I was a child of the city sleeping homeless. And I was leader of a street gang. We had to fight to live and eat. As a child I had no birthday parties, no Christmas celebrations, no gifts, no feelings of joy. My father killed himself. He hated me for killing people in Vietnam and told me I was a killer. Most of the kindness I experienced came from black families in the chitlin' circuit in blues clubs. I had to pay my dues and fight my way through life so my diverse life and songs tell my life story. I am easy to understand. Just listen to the words of my song "What Kind Of Man." I do not just write songs that are meaningless, they are real. Life is not a rehearsal. I have seen too much and been to many places. I am a cosmic soldier, trying to travel through this maze of functioning DNA in a world that has gone crazy from the beginning of human kind. We are trapped in this human capsule and travel the light.
PSF: From listening, I noticed that the recordings range from acoustic songwriting to psychedelic explorations and heavier jamming. Can you talk about that?
TB: The difference is all down to depression. The energy is always changing and as it changes I change my style of music. I feel that I remember traveling through time and dimensions. I would see visions and describe things going on in the universe that hadn't been founded yet. And that's all reflected in my music. Some people think I'm over the edge. I'm not over the edge. I was destroyed by the war. And the songs tell you what I'm talking about.
PSF: How did your current project Treasures and Gems from the Treasure Chest come together?
TB: I had been in regular contact with Jerry Kranitz since he published an article about me in Aural Innovations in 2012. He was passionate about my music and I told him about my archives that has lots of unreleased material. In early 2017, I sent Jerry a lot of music from my archives and together we have curated the Treasures and Gems from the Treasure Chest archive series. The idea with this series is to present the various kinds of music I have recorded and paint the largest possible picture of my work. There are live recordings, works in progress, alternative takes of music from the albums, and much more.
PSF: Are you playing out currently, with a band? Do you have any other musical projects on the horizon?
TB: I have several things in the process of being produced at this time. But for legal reasons I can't disclose what my future plans are at this time. The main project right now is the Treasure Chest albums, which will see several more volumes. I am also an artist and my work is available online. My friend Ben Upham, who is a very talented photographer, manages the site that sells my artwork and he has also been an important advisor for the Treasure Chest project. Ben Auman runs the Terry Brooks and Strange web site and manages the digital download sales of my catalog.
Terry Brooks web site:
Photo by Ben Upham
Treasures and Gems from the Treasure Chest Bandcamp site:
Prints of Terry Brooks original art (and some photos):
Kranitz, J. (2012) Terry Brooks – "Call Me Mr Strange." Aural Innovations. Retrieved from: http://aural-innovations.com/blog/2012/03/terry-brooks-call-me-mr-strange/
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