On the night of January 7, as millions cheered the Crimson Tide, perhaps dozens were puzzled by a surreal image that appeared during the BCS title game broadcast. During a cutaway shot of hoopla at Ferguson Center on campus, the camera drifted across a hand-lettered sign asking simply, “Who is Rev. Fred Lane?”
The question’s been asked around Tuscaloosa nearly 40 years now, but the answer can obtained Saturday night at that very same Ferguson Center, when the Caliph of Cheese Food Products may or may not make his triumphant return to public performance during the closing reception for an art show entitled Raudelunas Exposition 2013: Zurich 1916 or Tuscaloosa 1975?
Weld’s own Walt Lewellyn brought us glad tidings of this multimedia extravaganza earlier this month, but as one who lived in the Druid City during the genesis of Raudelunas, I feel compelled to remark upon the art collective’s retrospective.
Every awful thing you might imagine about a college town in the early Seventies is probably true; there were head shops, hemp, hair and, in Tuscaloosa, also humidity. Since it generally took 18 months for pop culture to arrive on the shores of Alabama from the rest of the world, disillusionment with Woodstock Nation had not yet taken hold when guitarist Davey Williams got together with fellow music lovers Craig Nutt and Nolan Hatcher to jam on what they called “Headache Music.” Their dissonant sound derived in part from participants playing instruments they did not know how to play, with Williams on sax and Nutt and Hatcher on keyboards.
One man’s migraine is another man’s masterpiece. The Tuscaloosa musicians were actually operating in the context of Dada, or surrealist art, a movement that originated in Europe and touted the superiority of the subconscious mind in the creation of writing and drawing. A premium was placed on the irrational over the rational for writers such as Andre Breton and artists such as Marcel Duchamp.
Surrealism was taken initially as an affront by purveyors of bourgeois art, but its tenets influenced playwrights (Antonin Artaud) and filmmakers (Jean Cocteau) and the works of Dadaists such as Salvador Dali are now prized by the great museums of the world.
Celebrated composer and harpist Anne LeBaron has written of the link between surrealism and modern music, especially as it pertains to Raudelunas, with whom she collaborated: “Did we associate the automatism of the surrealist movement with improvisation when we began to pursue this avenue of music-making? Not right away, but we were all avid admirers of surrealist art and writing, and gradually we came to comprehend the obvious parallel.”
Most of the Raudelunas group, which included Ladonna Smith, Fletcher Hayes, Janice Hathaway, Mitch Cashion, Roger Hagerty, Adrian Dye, William Alford and more, were versed in graphic and literary arts, examples of which may be viewed through Saturday night at the Ferguson Center. Music, however, established the name Raudelunas (which, if you were wondering, is pronounced “rah-DEL-uh-nus,” according to exhibit curator Lee Shook).
Performing in combos of varying sizes under names such as Blue Denim Deals Without The Arms, Ron ‘Pate’s Debonairs, TransMuseq and The Pataphysical Revue, the players of Raudelunas sought to open the ears of their audience to the spontaneity and surprise of what came to be known as “free jazz.”
Initially, they didn’t know they were part of a bigger bang. As Davey Williams told interviewer Ed Baxter in 1991, his recordings of Raudelunas improvisations sounded similar to performances by established European artists such as Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. An exchange of tapes with Bailey confirmed the resemblance. “What happened was that the Blue Denim Deals, which was mostly people who had been playing improvising longer than me, began to realize that we were part of a worldwide movement in music,” Williams said. “So we started making some records and stuff.”
Raudelunas records took on added dimension with the addition of front men Ron ‘Pate (portrayed by Craig Nutt) and Rev. Fred Lane, the nom de voix of Tim Reed. Lane, in particular, set the agenda for Raudelunas albums Raudelunas Pataphysical Revue and From the One That Cut You, recorded live on campus in 1975 and 1976. Combining improvisations and hallucinatory performances from The Great American Songbook with skits and blackouts instigated by Lane, the shows left a casual observer thinking this is what vaudeville on Neptune might be like.
In fact, casual observers of Raudelunas art were few and far between. With no context for understanding what seemed to be abject cacophony erupting from the stage, many who attended these performances expressed their active dislike of the proceedings. “Of course, quite a lot of people left immediately,” Williams remembered. “But it was kind of a success, actually…a mysterious kind of success.”
The pinnacle of Raudelunas success, from my point of view, was its appearance in several University of Alabama homecoming parades. In an era when the most interesting visual aspect of the parade was drunken future barristers on the Law School float, the first incarnation of the Raudelunas Marching Band in 1973, with the improvisers costumed as vegetables, left an indelible impression on those who beheld the spectacle (and be-heard it; they wailed down University Boulevard on a tune by Don Cherry called “The March of the Hobbits”).
There is actual film footage of this historic event, and that’s just one of the things you can witness Saturday night at the original site of the Pataphysical Revue, the Ferguson Center Theatre in Tuscaloosa. There at 7:30 p.m., Raudelunas will appear on the silver screen, along with a trailer for a forthcoming feature-length documentary about the collective. Then Anne, Davey, Ladonna and Craig will once more open themselves to inspiration and whatever music the moment happens to offer, and once more, it should be memorable.
By the way, if you run into Rev. Fred Lane there, be sure to tell him Dada sent you.