Sunday, May 8, 2011

An interview with Jim McCarthy of THE GODZ

Contact High with THE GODZ
By Jack Partain

As a founding member of the Godz, one of the seminal freakout bands of the mid-1960s garage folk scene emanating from the energy of the Fugs and the freedom of legendary avant garde label ESP-Disk, Jim McCarthy holds an interesting place in rock and roll history. The Godz were one of the first bands to explore the devolution of rock & roll and the raw, instinctual music they produced was in direct opposition the high art excesses of popular music that would culminate in albums like Pet Sounds and Sgt Pepper's. Which also means that the band was in direct opposition to the hordes of adoring fans, massive record sales, and critical acclaim that artists like the Beatles and the Beach Boys enjoyed.

But the Godz were on to something, and their influence has vibrated throughout the rumblings of underground music since their first album Contact High was released in 1966. Lester Bangs, one of the first to understand what the band was trying to do, claimed that though the Godz were quite possibly “the most inept band [he'd'] ever heard,” they reminded him of the “vast vacuous beauty” of New York in the 1960s. In his 1972 essay for Creem magazine titled "Do the Godz Speak Esperanto?", Bangs would go on to say: “The Godz were exciting to think about because they promised to break through and become even more outrageous by dynamiting all the stupid standards by which esthetic-minded critics and technique bound musicians sought to raise rock from pygmy squall to art form.” 

The Godz released four albums from 1966-1973. The first two, Contact High and Godz 2, contain the songs for which the band is best known: “Radar Eyes,” “Turn On,” and, of course, “White Cat Heat” (a song in which the band members screech like cats for two minutes over an eerie bass and drum accompaniment) are regarded as classics of proto-neo-psychedelic-punk and roll or whatever you want to call it. The final two albums (Third Testament and Godzeuntheit are almost universally derided as schlocky attempts at mainstream success. The Godz disbanded in 1973 and subsequent attempts at a reunion have proved disastrous.

Jim McCarthy is currently a photographer living in New York. He was kind enough to answer a few questions via email earlier this year. 

 Jim McCarthy

UT: Here's a slightly ridiculous question to start: where did the name 'The Godz' come from, and why the 'z' on the end?

Jim McCarthy: I don't find the question ridiculous, I think the name is ridiculous! It was intentional. When we were trying to come up with a name as cool as the Beatles, we passed through a great number choices. Larry (Kessler, bassist) was the one who said, “Fuck, why don't we just call ourselves The Gods?” and that name stuck. It was after we recorded the improvised tune “Godz,” and the engineer asked for the name of the song, that I told him, “Godz, with a z,” and the rest is history.

UT: How did The Godz form? In Ray Brazen’s “This is The Godz Truth” you say that it came out of personal frustration and being inspired by seeing the Fugs. Is that the gist of it or is there more?

JM: The Godz came about at a time that was personally depressing for me. I had just been released from the hospital and was recovering from hepatitis. My girlfriend and I also broke up and I was crashing on Larry Kessler's couch temporarily. Up to then I was singing in a very good covers band which was originally called the Dick Watson Five, but later changed to the Chosen Few. That group recorded an album of songs from the Broadway show Baker Street, but in a contemporary rock style. An independent production on the United International label that went nowhere, and is now extremely rare.

Larry Kessler

Larry (Kessler), Paul (Thornton, drums) and I had worked together at Sam Goody's record shop on West 49th Street and had been friends for a couple of years. Jay (Dillon, psaltery) was an acquaintance of Larry who was brought into the picture after the idea was born. The Fugs were a definite influence on me because it was after seeing them in rehearsal at the Astor Theatre that I phoned my guitarist and told him I didn't want to sing in a covers band anymore. That was the first step towards the formation of the Godz in my mind.

The music actually came about quite organically in Larry's living room and Bernard Stollman and ESP-Disk were a perfect opportunity to express our feelings at the time.

Paul Thornton

UT: The music of the Godz is almost always described by critics in the same way. Lester Bangs called the band "inept", others have used words like childlike or "like they just picked up their instruments without knowing how to play them...." etc, but how would you describe the music of the Godz?

JM: Even though Paul Thornton had been in the music business previously, and I had been playing professionally for a couple of years, Jay was a painter with no previous music experience and Larry had no experience playing an instrument other than his childhood days playing violin, our approach to making music was entirely loose in structure. In that respect, we were influenced a bit by the artists already recording on ESP, such as Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, the Fugs as well as others. Paul and I would gather at Larry Kessler's place socially to play some music. Because of various substances we were entertaining ourselves with, the music was very loosely structured. So, even though some of us played instruments, we weren't very good. We determined early on that that was not important. What was important was to express our feelings as accurately, and immediately as possible. When Jay Dillon entered the picture, we thought of teaching kids in local schools how to express themselves through music, and I believe we tried it once, but that never really developed into anything substantial for us. Inept? Yes, we were inept and still are, but not without the ability to create. The idea was to not let our limitations stop us from expressing ourselves. It's obvious that we were doing something true, otherwise we would not have so many fans today. Fans who were not even born until much later.

The Godz’ music is as honest as it gets in the music business.

UT: Did the Lester Bangs article in Creem come as a surprise to you?

JM: Total surprise. We had already disbanded a few years earlier. I was working at a clothing store on West 4th Street when while on a lunch break I spotted the magazine on the newsstand. I was a bit confused by the cover, “Lester Bangs on The Godz,” and when I bought and read it, I was ecstatic. Ecstatic and disappointed. Why couldn't this have been written a few years earlier, while we were still together? I think this is probably the most definitive essay about us and our music.

UT: I never saw the Godz live. Can you describe what the band was like live?

JM: Depending on the venue and the frame of mind we were in, the performances varied. I think we probably led off our shows with “White Cat Heat,” just to let people know what they were in for, if they didn't already know. One of our most common occurrences at shows was the inordinate amount of time spent trying to tune-up. If an audience member could survive this, which actually became part of the Godz experience, he or she might feel satisfied. We were constantly going out of tune, assuming that we were in tune to begin with, due to the cheap instruments, condition we were in, and very hard playing. I played so hard I literally destroyed my guitar.

We never really attracted much of an audience outside of some close friends and admirers. The largest crowd we drew was at a concert sponsored by some students at Duke University in Durham, NC. It was a very respectable size audience that seemed to get what we were about, even though the local blues band opening for us did not.

UT: Do you resent the criticisms of the later Godz albums, Third Testament and Godzuhnteit?

JM: That’s a good question. The answer is, no. I myself never considered them to be Godz albums. Jay Dillon had left, and that was a significant change in structure, input, output and what it all meant at that point. We all pretty much knew that the original intent was finished. I think the third and fourth albums were a desperate attempt by the others involved to continue the concept, but it just didn't work the same without Jay Dillon's input. So, no I have never resented the criticisms of those works.

UT: Are the Godz albums “New York” albums?

JM: I think they are “New York” albums because of all of the elements coming together the way they did. We all came from different backgrounds and NYC is what brought us together. I don't think ESP-Disk would have existed in any other town. I definitely think that those works were indicative of the New York scene at that time.
UT: Where did the idea for “White Cat Heat” come from? I'm sure you've answered this question a lot, but I haven't found anything addressing this specific topic and would love to know!

JM: One afternoon while we were trying to play music in Larry's one bedroom apartment on the Lower East Side, we were forced to endure the intense calls of Asia, his very much in heat Siamese cat. I don't remember what it was we might have been attempting, but it got to the point where her calling overwhelmed my singing, and I joined her. I think that kinda freaked her out, and she shut up for awhile. Anyway, that became our anthem.
UT: The Godz seem to be a band that came out of nowhere, a band with no real precedent in the history of popular music, but yet you chose to cover Hank Williams, and “May You Never be Alone” in particular. What is the significance of that song in relation to The Godz?

JM: Do you really think there's no precedent? I'm not sure about that. Paul Thornton was not contributing original music to the group at that time. We were a very young, impromptu effort. Pretty much a “pipe dream.” Everything was being made up as we went along. Hank showed up because we had done all our original stuff, and decided to give Paul the spotlight. His favorite musician then and now is Hank Williams. As far as I know, there is absolutely no significance in that choice of songs, but who knows what was going through Paul's mind at the time.

UT: Well, since you mentioned it—musically, what do you consider the precedents for the Godz?

JM: Maybe the Goon Show in England, but who knows who might have been doing something similar earlier on, and has never been recognized.

UT: Can you give me some insight as to how the band decided what instruments might be included on which songs? I mean, take “May You Never be Alone,” for instance. How did the band decide how to put that song together with the flute then harmonica? I guess what I'm asking is how did the Godz actually put their songs together?

JM: I guess they just got started by the creator, the others joined in whichever way they felt might be appropriate. We were aware of our musical limitations and tried to vary sounds when possible. As for that song in particular, I guess it was just a matter of me finding a place in Paul's performance that worked. It needed to be bent a bit.
UT: Do you think that Godz II is an extension of Contact High or was the band trying to do something different with the second album? I mean, the two albums seem to get lumped together like they're a double album in most reviews and I was just wondering what you opinion is about the differences between the two albums?

JM: I do think that Godz 2 is a natural progression from Contact High, though not Third Testament. It's kind of like a one, two punch. In the beginning we were a little restricted by the limitations of the instruments at our disposal. When our first studio efforts were greeted with enthusiasm by Bernard Stollman at ESP-Disk, he helped us get some additional instruments through support from several companies. This enabled us to be a little more varied in our sounds.

We really did have high (no pun intended) aspirations, and felt we could be widely successful. The problem was we were very anarchistic, and although I think we each had a different notion of what the Godz was about, essentially the first two albums were about bashing out our ideas in spite of our limitations. Our goal was not to sound awful, it was to sound as good as we could, but primarily to get our real feelings across. We were very inept in some ways, but we didn't let it get in our way, we forged on.

In my opinion, the second album achieved the sound that I imagined would be strong enough to compete in the commercial market, while maintaining our individuality. Unfortunately, we were very bad at getting it all together enough to achieve that.
Jay Dillon

UT: Can you describe how the Godz actually stopped being a band (“broke up,” for lack of a better term)?

JM: In 1967, before, during and after the release of Godz 2, we were playing around at various venues in the NY / NJ area. Hallucinogens were commonly employed during these adventures. Experiences varied widely, but Jay Dillon never felt comfortable on stage. He was a very introverted person, and as we all felt, a very integral part of the equation. Some Duke University students in Chapel Hill, NC organized a concert at the Civic Center in Durham. Michael Soldan, a close photographer friend of Jay Dillon's and the band who shot the cover for the second album and allowed us to use his studio to rehearse, drove us down there and back, and even provided the strobes we used on stage. The concert, and accompanying events, were enjoyed by all, except for Jay, who remarked, “I’ll never do that again.” He didn’t.

It was when we got back home that Jay announced he was leaving the band. In my mind, that was the end of it. That was the spring. We kind of went on hiatus for the summer, put out a couple of singles in an attempt at cracking the market, but not much in the way of performances, as I recall. I did drive cross country and back with some friends, hanging out in San Francisco and Berkeley for about a month. When I got back, I wound up getting involved with a woman who I married the following January.

At this point I pretty much considered the Godz to be finished and was thinking of my music in solo terms. I returned to playing acoustic guitar and writing more personal songs. This is evidenced on Third Testament. I really don't remember exactly what I was feeling at that time, except that I felt like I was going along with the program, but not really believing in it. The Multitude was Larry's idea entirely. The whole thing just seemed a little forced to me.

UT: Why have attempts at a Godz reunion failed?

JM: We’re not kids anymore.
UT: Is it true that you never received any royalties from Bernard Stollman and ESP? Why?

JM: I can only say that that matter has been settled recently, and I am not at liberty to discuss the details. As to the second part of your question, that's an excellent question.
UT: Has your own opinion of the Godz been shaped by the writers and bands that have praised the band in the years after the Godz were a functioning band?

JM: I don’t think so. Well, maybe a little. It’s made me happy to realize that our efforts didn't fall on deaf ears. I'm still amazed at how well known the band is. We could have been totally obscure. As for critics of the first two albums, fuck ‘em. Who cares?

Usually, I'm in agreement regarding opinions of the third and fourth albums. I am well aware of the value of our work and don't rely on the opinions of others for validation, but it's always nice to hear good things about yourself, and it probably does make me feel a bit more proud. Who knows what might have happened if we had that support while we were together.

UT: Finally, which is more rewarding: rock & roll music or rock & roll photography?

JM: Making rock & roll music is more rewarding, but photographing it in action, getting up-close and personal, is extremely rewarding for one who loves the genre. •