Forgoers of Fashion
Whatever became of Masters of Reality?
Fans of that band could've been excused just a few months ago for posing that question. After all, the Masters' self-titled debut was released in 1988, which was both the first and last time anyone heard from the band. Remember the haunting melodies? Remember the funny moniker lifted from an old Sabbath album? Remember fans and critics in agreement that this group was something special, something destined for greatness? Then a funny thing happened on the way to LA's Great Western Forum... nothing happened. No big tour. No new album. Hell, no band. The Masters didn't fade away so much as drop right off the edge of the music world.
Truth being stranger than fiction, the band set some kind of dubious record by signing contracts with three different labels in a six-year span that produced no second album, but did see the first one released twice. A long, strange trip indeed, and one that could tax the patience of any artist. "I have the patience of a saint," says hulking singer/guitarist Chris Goss, sitting in Hollywood's City Cafe, behind dark glasses and a veil of cigarette smoke. "What I do get impatient with is the media, especially when they second-guess [us] all the time."
Mistakes? The Masters have made a few. But the second-guessing is over; this trip has a happy ending called Sunrise on the Sufferbus. Masters of Reality's exquisite sophomore release not only puts past discrepancies behind, but proudly points to a promising future. Goss, bassist Googe, and drummer Ginger Baker have emerged with a sparkling collection of songs, full of whimsical musings and free-flowing melodies that get you drunk at night and sober you up in the morning. It's really a smooth ride, this Sufferbus trip, a passionate marriage of something old, new, borrowed, and definitely bluesy.
"It's kinda like mixing blues, nursery rhymes, and mythology together... It's a love of doing that, like Led Zeppelin had a love of doing that: Gothicizing the blues."
For the Masters, Sunrise on the Sufferbus is a crucial album, released at a time when the band's brand of enchanting rock n roll melody has taken a back seat to the angst-covered walls of fuzzy college rock. "I write music based on what I don't hear," explains Goss, who wrote 75 percent of the new album. "What I don't hear on the radio, I feel obligated to fill in. So, the last thing you're gonna hear is a Masters song that sounds like Pearl Jam; it's the un-supply and un-demand theory."
And Goss has emerged as one of rock's finest, most underappreciated writers. His talent lies, not in ripping off Munchian psychodrama like, say, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, but rather in speaking volumes through eloquent simplicity. 'She Got Me (when she got her dress on)' exudes nut-popping flirtation with simple variations of only two different lines. 'Jody Sings' is a deeply affectionate love poem, written like a euphoric nursery rhyme - "One, two, three / I'm on my knees" - that beckons the listener to sing back-up. Ask Goss what's lacking in music, and he answers instantly, "Humor. I hear too much profound... [he searches for the right word and settles on] bullshit! Even MTV is picking music now that sounds important. [Affecting a businessman's tone] 'I don't know what this guy's sayin', but goddamn it, he's from the Northwest. And it sure sounds serious, so let's get behind it!' We don't talk about Uzis and condoms... As a result, we'll never be on [MTV's] Music News.
"I have to amend that," he back-tracks. "The best music out right now is from that area. Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam - they're all great. But what's starting to happen is the same thing that happened in the '70s: A feasible, sellable formula emerges, so a lot of shit gets let in with the good stuff. Every five years, you scratch your head and say, 'What hath we wrought?' I mean, it started in the '70s with the Ramones, and we end up with Duran Duran and 10,000 Maniacs." (About the latter, he unleashes such a stinging string of expletives that only the words "airhead" and "outer space" can be printed in this family magazine.)
Speaking of critical analysis, Masters of Reality - with it's white man's, multi-syncopated blues - had already become a magnet for Cream comparisons, even before the band hired Cream's founder and drummer, Ginger Baker, to record its second album.
Goss, for one, has read enough. "I'm really sick of hearing about Cream in our reviews," the singer says pointedly. "It's like, that happened 25 years ago. What about this album?" Even Baker, who pretty much created the modern style of rock drumming as a member of rock's original power trio in the mid-'60s, is quick to discount classic comparisons. "We're similar in that both bands made good music," Baker asserts. "But you can't fit [this band] into a bag. I read some silly reporter's description of us, and it was this absurdly long label like 'blues-techno-jazz-rock-funk.' Fuck all that! It's music, popular music."
Despite the publicity garnered by hiring Baker to replace original kit-minder Vinnie Ludovico, the most important line up change to some Masters admirers was the departure of astroplaning guitarist Tim Harrington, who helped make the first album such a musical mind trip. It was Harrington and Goss (who played keyboards at the time) who formed Masters in Syracuse, New York, in 1981, augmented only by a programmable drum machine. "It was like a two-piece medicine show with a black light and a fog machine," Goss recalls of the early days. The music, he says, was artsy, psychedelic, "Kraftwerk-meets-Satan" stuff, and Goss's esoteric delivery, thanks to his bald head jutting through shadows and fog, was akin to Marlon Brando's psychotic Colonel Kurtz character in Apocalypse Now. It wasn't until 1987, after adding Googe and a human drummer, that a crude demo found it's way into Rick Rubin's tape deck, and the trip into the heart of industry darkness began.
The band moved to Hollywood to record its first album for Rubin's newly formed Def American label. As producer, Rubin helped flesh out the band's delivery, making Masters of Reality sound more like their name implied: Sabbath chunkiness meets metaphysical musings. But what should have been the highlight of the band's career - the recording of it's debut - is recalled with bitter frustration. "It wasn't a happy time for the band," Goss admits. "As a result, the performances on the record were uptight, and I wasn't entirely pleased with the outcome." Googe concurs: "There was a lot of tension in the tracks of that first album. Me and Chris were going one way, and Tim and Vinnie were going 360 degrees in the other direction."
The final straw was plucked during a frustrating tour when the band were at each other's throats, while stuffed together in a mini-van. "Rick Rubin tried to keep us together saying, 'Lots of bands hate each other, but they play together.'" Goss shakes his head. "I said, 'Sorry, that's not what this is about.'" So, he and Googe packed up their troubles and returned to LA, seeking a fresh start. Delicious Vinyl was the label they hoped would provide just that. Although primarily a rap label, it wanted to migrate into rock n roll, using the Masters as vanguards. The label's first step was re-releasing the Masters' debut in 1990, with new packaging and one new song, the hallucinogenic 'Doraldina's Prophecies'. The second step was recommending Daniel Rey to step into the guitar void. The drum stool, however, was stil vacant when, as fate would have it, Goss and Googe found themselves scarfing potato salad at the same barbecue as Ginger Baker in the summer of '91. Baker was asked to join, but he remained reluctant.
"They sent me a copy of the first album, and I wasn't impressed with it," the drummer admits between sips of hot, but not boiling, tea. "Some of that record's a bit banal, but that was probably Rick Rubin's input. I'm not a big fan of his, I must tell you. I think the guy's a charlatan, personally. I don't like what his empire [Def American] stands for with [its] reliance on image. My God, you've got musicians wearing makeup now, half of them you can't tell what sex they are - and your magazine's full of them," he chortles. "Image is so important to people now, which is really an awful way to create art." (Rick Rubin was unavailable for comment.)
A music veteran of nearly 40 years, Baker is still surprised by the industry's sometimes bizarre conduct.
"All the time!" the Rock Hall of Fame drummer exclaims with a thick London accent, somewhere between Prince Charles and Jack the Ripper. "When I got a letter from Atlantic Records just two years ago addressed to Miss Ginger Baker, I mean, it was just unbelievable! There're so many people in key positions in the record industry, whose knowledge of music is nonexistent."
Baker, however, needed cash - his bank account was sponged, following a 21 year addiction to heroin and cocaine (which he kicked in '81), and failed business ventures involving a polo team and building a recording studio in Nigeria, Africa. He agreed to a jam, certain "my ears would be blown off, and I'd walk out in five minutes." Instead, the man who announces his age as "too fucking old" found the music "a revelation."
Googe and Goss were equally impressed. Having overcome the jitters of playing with a legend (Googe pounded a nerve-quenching six-pack of beer in under five minutes before that first jam), Masters of Reality Mach II was born. This time, however, simplicity was the musical order; gone were the soaring guitar passages, and forgotten were the weighty, spiritual metaphors. "The playing now is not pedal-to-the-metal, skull T-shirts kind of playing," Goss admits. "It's very laid back and not overly passionate in the wrong areas." Most importantly, no longer would the band be pushed around. When guitarist/producer Rey spoiled the sound's spontaneity by filling every space with what Baker calls "hundreds of thousands of noisy guitar tracks," he was sacked. And when Delicious Vinyl criticized the new Masters songs for being "too diverse," the musicians said "goodbye" and drove their Sufferbus to Chrysalis Records. Goss, a man given to interesting elaboration or curt brevity depending on the subject, conveys the band's new self-assurance in the following exchange:
Some of the first album's material, 'The Blue Garden' in
particular, is closely identified with Tim Harrington's
guitar sound. Will you still play that live without him?
After a year-and-a-half of struggling to fit its round music into the industry's square holes, the band truly became masters of their own reality, forgoing outside interference and self-producing a quiet gem. "Sufferbus is an amazing record," asserts Baker, who's already had two hands in several amazing records in his lifetime, including Cream's Disraeli Gears, Blind Faith's one and only classic LP, and PiL's Album. "Believe me," he says of Masters, "I'd have been long gone if the music wasn't happening."
Literally speaking, Sunrise on the Sufferbus refers to the trials of touring, when Goss and Baker's inability to sleep aboard a moving vehicle meant many mornings of sunrise spotting over the speeding horizon. ("I hate every minute on the road," Baker says plainly.) The title also suggests a new beginning; fresh hope for a band that had been sadly given up for dead. Ironically, none of the frustration that went into the recording filters through the new tracks. On the contrary, the music spins from the free-for-all joy of 'She Got Me' and 'Tilt-a-Whirl' to the transcendent melodies of 'Rolling Green' and 'The Moon in Your Pocket'.
The band has even garnered a new set of devotees, including Howard Stern (who called the new LP, "better than great," on his morning show) and eccentric filmmaker David Lynch, who quoted the line, "Stuck in Indiana / With a bug in my banana," from the band's 'Ants in the Kitchen' on Late Night with David Letterman. "We attract the lunatic fringe," Goss affirms.
The fringe also attracts Goss, who wrote a 38-second ode to Madonna, called 'Madonna', where, over the strains of a somber acoustic guitar, he asks the material girl - with tongue only loosely planted in cheek - "Are you really lonely? / Don't you believe someone can love you?"
"I wonder about the power of stardom," Goss muses between puffs of a Marlboro Light. "Do these huge stars, like Madonna, ever wonder if anyone's gonna fall in love with them? To be able to play for a week in Moscow stadium and create a media extravaganza is one kind of power, but there's another kind of power to walk quietly down the street with a boyfriend or girlfriend and just hold hands. Actually, I'm a big fan of Morrisey, and that song's probably more of a tip of the hat to him than to Madonna."
At 35 years old, Goss says he would opt for a quiet walk with his wife of five years more than, say, hosting MTV's Most Wanted; Googe would also prefer honing his impeccable culinary talents (he's said to make a mean pesto sauce), while Baker openly admits he'd rather play his beloved polo than do anything else in the world. Sure, the music is important, but life is fulfilled by many things. "It's just rock n roll," Goss shrugs. "We're simply one of the billion records that'll be released this year and, compared to stabbing someone over a rock of crack or dropping bombs, this is like... I mean, to me, it's art, but it's not the end of the world, you know? It's a rock n roll album, and if it ain't fun, it ain't worth doing."
"Everything's taken too seriously these days," he continues, diving into a crisp stream- of- consciousness. "When we turn on the TV - be it Oprah Winfrey, Sally [Jesse Raphael], Donahue or COPS - all we see is one loser after another, one example of white trash after another. There's this obligation for everyone to confess these days. [Feigns sobbing] 'Oh, I smoked crack and kissed my sister!' There's a real loser mentality in the media right now with it's dirty laundry bullshit. Where are the fucking winners? I want to hear good news. We've become a country of ambulance chasers, chasing cop cars in the night and looking for dirt."
"The worst victims of all this are the kids, you know? They start to think life's about selling your problems for money. Network was really a prophetic movie, because that's where we're at right now, and that's what I want nothing to do with. I won't put that into my music. It's like I said before, there're no condoms or politically correct bullshit in our songs, and there never will be. We're not gonna get into issues on our records because, to me, that's bandstanding. You only get a few short years here - you really do - so, like, get it together."
So, does he have hope for people?
"Very little," Goss exhales. "But a little is all it takes."
With proper patience, it seems, good things always come.