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California Tuffy

Photo by Jack Gould

“When I sing and things are going all right, I don’t feel myself at all, I just send something through myself. My vision often goes completely black. I disappear.” Carla Bozulich says that, and many artists say the same in other ways. They empty out their self-consciousness, and then they are filled. You can actually see it happen — it shows up on film (less often as time goes by). Certain footage of Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Laura Nyro, Kurt Cobain: There’s a stillness, a glow. When they’re in that state, everything is correct.

At a Troubadour show last month, Bozulich has the glow. Has it and loses it. But you know, it comes and goes, even with the best. She and her great band start off the night by re-imagining Willie Nelson’s 1975 Red Headed Stranger album, her current live and recorded project, and a longtime personal touchstone. It’s a hell of a vision — shifting, spooky, vibey, full of Nels Cline’s electric-guitar nebulas. You should play the disc at 3 a.m. sometime.

Yes, it’s country music. Modern country music. Bozulich’s approach to the form is pure feel, not so different from Nelson’s, which must be why he was so ready to approve of it, and even sang and played on some of it at his studio in Perdenales, Texas. (She kind of dropped in on him.) When many other women’s voices break on a country song — that little half-sob — it sounds like a technical flourish. When Bozulich’s voice breaks, it’s an echo of something deep that’s really broken. Her delivery isn’t overdramatic, but it’s on the edge emotionally. Her tone is strong and real, her attitude welcoming.

“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” comes first at the Troub. Cline’s pedal steel weeps; the guy can play any guitar, any style, amazingly. “Time of the Preacher” is a spaced-out raga: “Now the preachin’ is over/And the killin’s begun” — apply that any way you want. “Can I Sleep in Your Arms?” is slow bliss. “Remember Me” is downtown jazz. With her black blouse, denim skirt and Kabuki makeup, Bozulich looks like a punky Linda Ronstadt. The audience just swoons.

After the Stranger stuff, Bozulich pushes forward with some excellent new originals, the country-chorusing “Lonesome Roads” and the pop winner “My Diving Day.” At one point, she and Cline are churning guitars; she’s got Marika Hughes, Carla Kihlstedt, Dina Maccabee and Todd Sickafoose grinding dense waves on cello, violins and double bass; and Ches Smith is slamming the skins. It’s a blow-you-down storm.

Then, forgetting she has to put a capo on her guitar, Bozulich makes a false start. She retunes. There’s a Marianne Faithfull number, and some pleasantly dissonant blare that dates back to the Geraldine Fibbers, the band she’s still most known for. The focus is lost. The set goes on too long. Some of the audience drifts away.

 

That’s okay. How precision-drilled do you want your artists to be, anyway? With Bozulich, you’ve got somebody who writes memos and phone numbers on her arm, because “I have to put it on something I can’t lose. And there’s not much that I can’t lose.”

Offstage, at the Echo Park house she shares with Cline, she has a crooked smile and a relaxed, lively way of talking. Considering she hasn’t slept in two days — pretty much as usual — she looks good. She’s been putting together merch T-shirts and whatever for the tour she’s completing when you read this. Yes, she designs the T-shirts. She also writes songs, does visual art, does conceptual art, is writing a novel, is conceiving guerrilla mini-movies . . .

Erratic maybe, but Bozulich is a hard-driven artist. And a meticulous one. Take the Fibbers video she directed in 1997 for “California Tuffy.” She scripted every shot in detail, with all the standard MTV formulas present but significantly altered: A hand puppet does the lip-synching; Cline windmills a guitar that’s clearly broken; there’s a ton of frantic action, but it’s not so much flash-cut as real-cut — she says the band wound up with actual lacerations and contusions. Bozulich even made a surreal parallel video (originally planned to be intercut) out of found footage, and it’s just as much fun. Too much fun for television, as “California Tuffy” got played once and dropped, because it featured a great big real unsanctioned fire on the soundstage.

Bozulich was born to make art, and knows how to make fakery true. Her parents were true bohos. After they separated, she had scrapes with the stepfather. From the age of 16, she was on her own — she got jobs as a maid; spent time on the streets of Hollywood.

She always loved music — jazz, country, rock — but this was the early ’80s, when a lot of SoCal outsiders were making noise. One friend introduced Bozulich to the brain-bending sounds of John Cage’s experimentalist progeny; another heard her sing and made her join his punk-rock band, Neon Veins.

She was terrified. But what a voice. You can hear it even on early tapes, in full cry, raw but melody-capable. Without tunefulness being the point. A melody can be just pretty. Or it can be a doorway.

Here’s the way the teenage Bozulich was thinking: When the Go-Go’s (pre-fame) came to play at her high school, she organized a mini-protest against the “new-wave bimbos.” And she felt like a strange combination: conspicuous and invisible.

“Some of those girls at my high school, if they were gonna whip me in the face one more time with their stupid long blond hair, I was just gonna blow the whole joint up. They didn’t know I was even there. Some girls are just so oblivious, because it’s just them and their iridescent pink lipstick.”

When Bozulich formed Ethyl Meatplow with Biff Sanders and John Napier in 1988, there was nothing blond about it, and nothing generic. It was punk, it was tech, it was noise, it was theater — all at the same time. She was surprised when people eventually came to want this kind of fist in the face. Today, she reaps even bigger giggles from the royalty checks she still gets for the “Smokin’ on the Devil’s Johnson” video, which was featured on Beavis & Butt-head compilations and The Real World.

The twistedly rocking Fibbers, signed to Virgin in 1993 on the strength of a five-song demo — “three of them were George Jones songs” — turned out to be a bonanza of creative control and financial continuity. It was virtually the last new band to be treated as adults by a major label. “As soon as they did these deals with us, the whole bottom fell out. Everybody started getting fired left and right if they even whispered under their desk about any kind of creative music.”

 

So Bozulich continues to live in the house she bought with her Virgin earnings, though the Fibbers haven’t been a unit since 1998. She feels like she’s got the best job: “Even the ugliest, smelliest, crappiest studio in the world, y’know, it’s thrilling, it’s a fucking privilege.” She likes to drive around the city and just look at the weird buildings and crematory-urn hood ornaments and abandoned baby strollers. She likes to go to the dump and be with the old refrigerators. Interviewed by Sex & Guts magazine, she talked about . . . her garden. She’s been keeping a level of sanity for a long time. Asked if it was a special occasion when she had that cat cartoon tattooed on her shoulder, she says, “Yep. Quitting drugs. And needing to have a needle stuck in me, really badly.”

But stable? Predictable? Don’t think so. On the one hand, Bozulich says, “I’m a drag queen. I can out-man anybody, even in a dress.” Later, it’s “I’m tired of being in control. I’m tired of being the man. I want to be the chick. I want to be a girlie.”

Fibber.

Carla Bozulich and band (www.carlabozulich.com) play Red Headed Stranger and more at Spaceland on Saturday, November 15; the bill also features the Nels Cline & Christopher Garcia duo, and songwriter Noe Venable’s group.

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