By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The Red Crayola (the name's earlier, legally actionable spelling) as such was born in Houston in 1966, an outgrowth of Thompson's association with Frederick Barthelme -- now a Mississippi-based novelist, and brother of the late short-story writer Donald. Barthelme, then a fine arts major at the University of Houston, began as the band's drummer but was soon playing everything he could find.
Joined by bassist Steve Cunningham, a philosophy major at St. Thomas University (where Thompson also attended school, studying art history), they played around the burgeoning Texas psych/blues-rock scene and cut Parable with help from the Familiar Ugly and Thirteenth Floor Elevators frontman Roky Erickson. They were met with dumbfounded reaction: In January 1967, the Houston Chronicle ran a short story on the Red Crayola headlined "Are All Sounds Music? Ask the Red Crayola."
Even this early on, the band's membership tended to be fluid. "When we met Cunningham," Thompson says, "we got two other people along in the package: a woman named Bonnie Emerson and a harp player named Danny Schact, and we were playing covers and some originals. And then there came a moment when we were playing, and suddenly there was another guy on stage named Mark Frohman, who owned the club we were playing in at the time, and suddenly we were up to six, and it was beginning to be like Jefferson Airplane." The intended follow-up, Coconut Hotel, was an anti-rock barrage of organ drones and "One-Second Pieces"; it was half Fluxus-style experiment, half attempted kiss-off to International Artists (the band's ill-run label) -- and to hippiedom itself.
"It represents not least the firing of the Familiar Ugly," Thompson says. "There came a moment when that was not the point, to become the Grateful Dead or Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters and wander around thundering each other on the back about the same stuff over and over. It was about this damned experiment, this project. So we moved away sharply. When I fired Danny Schact, he said to me, 'That's OK, your music is ontologically unsound anyway.'" Recorded in 1966 but shelved until 1995, Coconut and the chaotic festival performances collected on the recently issued Live 1967 back up Thompson's claim that the band's contrarian approach was already in place.
"The blues thing was going down," he says, "and we were around all these people who were like musicologists, and we'd say, 'How can anybody want to play the blues now, especially when there's all this other exciting stuff?' So we were confrontational in that sense. It was a problem for us too, because we knew something about [John] Cage, and something about jazz, and we were chastened by these things. We stood there with our little hands wrapped around Albert Ayler's Bells and thought, that's important shit, we're going to have to go somewhere. So we were always thinking strategically." A stretch in California produced studio sessions with John Fahey that have never seen release, but Barthelme left the band after its return to Texas.
Thompson and Cunningham made a second second album (God Bless the Red Crayola and All Who Sail With It) before putting an end to the Krayola's first incarnation. After Corky's Debt to His Father, a 1970 solo album, Thompson next surfaced in New York, working as a studio assistant for Barthelme's old hero Robert Rauschenberg and playing music only casually. In 1973, though, he met members of Art & Language, a predominantly British collective who were among the earliest and most analytical exponents of conceptual art.
"When I found out what was going on in Art & Language," Thompson says, "I found something that made sense to me already. I'd given them Corky's Debt, and they said, 'The music is fine, but aren't the lyrics kind of personal?' And I said, 'Well, if you've got a better idea of what songs could be about, give it here.' A couple months went by, and I got some lyrics from Michael [Baldwin] and started putting them to music."
By 1976, Thompson was in London making Nine Gross and Conspicuous Errors -- a performance video that's never been released commercially -- and the album Corrected Slogans, both of which match skeletal backing by Thompson and 16-year-old drummer Jesse Chamberlain (later of the Necessaries) with Art & Language's dry, unsingerly voices and their intentionally antilyrical lumps of Marxist art theory. Here, pop form and decidedly non-pop content either cancel each other out ("It's an Illusion" sets lines like, "It's just not autonomy/That support for technology/Is hegemonic agency" to the chord progression of "Teenager in Love") or fail to meet at all, as when painter-critic Philip Pilkington simply recites prose over a drums-and-piano march: "Don't listen to sociologists; don't talk to sociologists. Social practice has no sociological content."
1981's Kangaroo and 1983's funkier Black Snakes are musically richer, better-realized versions of the previous collaboration, with Thompson joined by a who's-who of Rough Trade post-punks, including members of the Raincoats, Essential Logic, and Pere Ubu (which he joined for a time in the early '80s). Both records feature versions of "A Portrait of V.I. Lenin in the Style of Jackson Pollock," which decisively demolishes the romantic myth of "Jack the Dripper": "They say that art killed Pollock/As if that could be/In fact he missed a bend/And drove his Ford into a tree." Even now, the song is a highlight of Red Krayola's live shows.