Monday, July 12, 2021

Places I could take you to

The Frost (clockwise from top, Gordy Garris, Don Hartman, Dick Wagner, Bob Rigg)
I'm in a Detroit rock-and-roll deep dive of late, and I've been listening to the Frost's debut album, Frost Music, released in 1969, yet another in a long line of records that should be better known. The Frost grew out of the ashes of the Bossmen, a covers-only outfit; after a personnel shift they changed their name to the Frost, started scribbling their own tunes, and moved from their native Saginaw a hundred miles southeast to Detroit where, to put it mildly, the action was. Frost Music's legacy probably suffers from the band's swift implosion a few years later, their label Vanguard's anemic distribution and promotion, and the blinding wattage thrown by contemporary Motor City bands the Stooges and the MC5, whose epic albums are, of course, the standard bearers for tough, righteous, mold-shattering Detroit rock and roll. All three bands shared stages together, yet history will likely consign Dick Wagner's band to the category of "Also-ran." 

A shame, because Frost Music is a terrific, lively album, of its era yet surprising, too, bursting with rich, guitar-driven songs stuffed with melody and hooks. When the Frost hit the studio in New York City, they arrived with a clutch of original songs that they'd been playing live for more than a year—according to David Carson in Grit, Noise, & Revolution, Wagner had been inspired by the originality of Blood, Sweat, and Tears, which he'd auditioned for—and the performances are assured but loose, moving between formal structures and freak-out guitar improvisations. Wagner's best material evokes Raspberries/Rundgren-styled power pop, psychedelia, and prog rock. Everything's amped-up, yet producer Sam Charters never sacrifices nuance for decibels. 

Four songs in particular have gotten inside me. In the terrific, radio-ready opener "Jennie Lee," Wagner's moving melody, changes, and dramatic chorus are yanked into freaky places by his wailing guitar, its psych edge scoring the song's complaint about the titular woman's squareness, or her drugged-out oblivion, it's hard to tell ("Where is your mind?") Or maybe she broke his heart and split. Either way, bass player Gordy Garris's excitable eighth notes underscore the urgency.


"Mystery Man," released in an edited version as a single (which was, alas only Big In Detroit) is a remarkable song. The opening a cappella chorus belies the darkness of the lyric in which the singer admits to closing himself off from others, his feelings hidden away, until he's nothing but a shadowy figure to those around him. The guitars (Wagner on lead, Don Hartman on rhythm) simultaneously crunch and wail, and their forceful entrance after the opening changes the mood entirely, moving the song from winsome to edgy. Wagner's tenor vocal is very affecting—it sounds as if he's singing about a bad trip: a "magic carpet ride" once inspired him to share his epiphanies and ideas with another ("you"), but afterward his mood darkened, any appeal that generosity and openness had now replaced by something sinister, or sad, at least. As in the best songs on Frost Music, the guitar interplay between Wagner and Hartman do much of the story telling, and it's both moving and melancholy to me that the singer's once-bright plans and sought-for future can now only be articulated by wordlessness. When the a cappella returns near the end, it's been stripped of its innocence and sounds as if it's fighting inside of a bad dream. Powerful stuff. How was this song not played across the country on every late-night FM station?


"Baby Once You Got It" is a simple but propulsive chant-along that I can imagine really rocked joints like the Eastown Theater, or the Grande Ballroom, where the Frost were quite popular. 


The album's closer is in many ways the record's signature song, a potent blend of rocking sensibility, aching melody, and cultural commentary. The singer's had it with the bummer of the person he's hanging with, who offers only overcast weather and who always laughs at the singer's arguments, or tries to take apart his mind and tell him what to do. But who are you? the singer asks, and why should I believe you? Whether the "you" is a friend, a lover, Dad, The Man, or a shitty, lo-rent hallucinogen, the point's clear: I'm my own person, and these beautiful, searing guitar leads will take me where I need to go.


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The Frost disbanded after two more albums, Rock and Roll Music (1969), half of which was recorded live, and Through The Eyes Of Love (1970). Close your eyes and pretend you're at the Grande:


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After the Frost called it quits, Wagner became a prized and hard-working session guitarist in the 1970s and '80s, playing with Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, KISS, and many others artists and bands. He died in 2014. In a 2012 interview with It's Psychedelic Baby Magazine, Wagner explained the Frost's dissolution in terms painfully familiar to most band break-ups. "Everyone had their own agendas," he admitted. 
Keeping a band together is very hard. You’ve got to have the same purpose. All the guys in the band gotta have the same dream. If they don’t it doesn’t work. It's very difficult keeping bands together. You try, you do your best, but sometimes it doesn’t work.
Thankfully, they left behind some highly original and affecting music.

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