Photo by Jack Gould
When I sing and things are going all right, I dont 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: Theres a stillness, a glow. When theyre 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 Nelsons 1975 Red Headed Stranger album, her current live and recorded project, and a longtime personal touchstone. Its a hell of a vision shifting, spooky, vibey, full of Nels Clines electric-guitar nebulas. You should play the disc at 3 a.m. sometime.
Yes, its country music. Modern country music. Bozulichs approach to the form is pure feel, not so different from Nelsons, 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 womens voices break on a country song that little half-sob it sounds like a technical flourish. When Bozulichs voice breaks, its an echo of something deep thats really broken. Her delivery isnt overdramatic, but its on the edge emotionally. Her tone is strong and real, her attitude welcoming.
Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain comes first at the Troub. Clines 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 killins 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; shes 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. Its a blow-you-down storm.
Then, forgetting she has to put a capo on her guitar, Bozulich makes a false start. She retunes. Theres a Marianne Faithfull number, and some pleasantly dissonant blare that dates back to the Geraldine Fibbers, the band shes still most known for. The focus is lost. The set goes on too long. Some of the audience drifts away.
Thats okay. How precision-drilled do you want your artists to be, anyway? With Bozulich, youve got somebody who writes memos and phone numbers on her arm, because I have to put it on something I cant lose. And theres not much that I cant 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 hasnt slept in two days pretty much as usual she looks good. Shes been putting together merch T-shirts and whatever for the tour shes 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 thats clearly broken; theres a ton of frantic action, but its 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 its 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 Cages 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.
Heres the way the teenage Bozulich was thinking: When the Go-Gos (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 didnt know I was even there. Some girls are just so oblivious, because its 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 Devils 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.
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So Bozulich continues to live in the house she bought with her Virgin earnings, though the Fibbers havent been a unit since 1998. She feels like shes got the best job: Even the ugliest, smelliest, crappiest studio in the world, yknow, its thrilling, its 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. Shes 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? Dont think so. On the one hand, Bozulich says, Im a drag queen. I can out-man anybody, even in a dress. Later, its Im tired of being in control. Im tired of being the man. I want to be the chick. I want to be a girlie.
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 Venables group.