An article from
Hit Parader magazine
by Ellen Sander
Inset - Michael Fonfara.
(L to R) Alan Gerber, Jerry Penrod, John Finley, Doug Hastings, (top right) Danny Weis and Alan Gerber.
not pictured - Billy Mundi
They were to be the super group.
A collection of the seven best musicians six months ago when producer Paul Rothchild conceived of them and called all over California, Seattle,Chicago and Toronto to find them and bring them together. They were put together and told to work it out. And that they did. They are vocalist John Finley, guitarist and occasional pianist Danny Weis, Doug Hastings on guitar, Jerry Penrod on bass, Michael Fonfara on organ and Alan Gerber on the electric piano and alternate vocal chords. They are now Rhinoceros, a combination of hide and horn, heavy and solid, animal and evolutionary freak. Rhinoceros: an anachronistic but formidable citizen of the jungle.
They played and jammed in the beautiful new Elektra recording studio in los Angeles, while the engineers were getting the bugs out of the system (and every time I heard about it I had visions of the Doors running around the recording floor with little exterminator guns). When they were ready and not before, they cut a record of which, at the time of this writing, I had heard only unmixed tapes,and that, by accident. It was enough.
The music is heavy with a shade of soul and the thunk of funk, very structured and very secure. And I was told that each cut was recorded live, a complete take at that. They didn't even have to isolate the vocals. It is as much of a live performance that could be captured in a studio. And by the time this piece appears in print, the album will have been released, Rhinoceros EKS 74030, and I will have heard much more of it. 1'm looking forward to that. At present, I spend every available evening down in Greenwich village hearing them live at the Cafe Au Go Go.
I spoke to them in the office of their manager about a week after I had heard the tapes. They were glad to be in New York where they felt they would accomplish more. I learned a bit of the geography of rock from them. In California, they felt, the pace was too slow ("everyone's laid back") to get very much done, in Toronto there is no place for a musician to grow. Chicago was a good place to learn the blues (but you wouldn't want to live there) and New York is the place where they decided to come to establish their reputation; the place to which they'd return to live up to it. The conversation was excited and there were many interruptions. They were all triumphant, enthusiastic and articulate. As I played the tape over and over i had trouble distinguishing one voice from another. So I decided not to. The following excerpts from the interview have been edited, the "I"s have been changed to "we". When you hear the Rhinoceros album, or bear the group live, you'll see why "we" has a great deal to do with their sound.
HP- Your album seems to move from the complex to the simple. That's rather unusual for an album these days.
RHINO - Well, what finished off or maybe what capped the first album is what has given birth to the next one. It showed us a direction, back towards the grass roots of rock, which is the grass roots of the music of the world.
HP - Now would you define those roots?
RHINO - The black root is soul, the root of which is African music. Then there are the white roots, country music and the yellow root is oriental. Behind all these roots is one root: its communication. When music strays too far from those roots it stops communicating.
HP - I'd like to dwell on that for a moment because that seems to be what has happened to music recently. What I hear on a lot of albums right now is a collection of a lot of interesting noises that have no power to move me. Either I'm getting jaded or the music is getting sterile.
RHINO - We're trying to get back to a communication thing of human feelings. Human being to human being. Emotions. Rock and roll has been getting away from that, it was in outer space somewhere, someplace else. The sounds were nice but they didn't mean anything. The first music was communication, like signal drums and the other thing was chanting. It had to do with sadness, with rejoicing and with the religion of life. As we see it those are the main things in our music; the rhythmic aspect and the repetitious chant.
HP - Do you have any thoughts on the ceremonial aspect of music?
RHINO - People in music have always separated themselves from their audience. There was a circle of people who made the music, and the audience was the other half of the communication. They came to see each other and share.
HP - Yes, but I see a contradiction. Most rock bands play in casual clothes, its a very informal...
RHINO (Danny Weis) No! We're dressing up. People want to see something special. lts a drag when bands play in street clothes.
(Doug Hastings) Lets take this back to the religious aspect again, OK? All music goes back to a perfect structure. All things arise from a perfect structure. . .
HP - Are you talking about a cosmic order?
RHINO (Hastings) - Well, yes, sort of. We have a feeling and a desire for perfection, for perfect structure. I think we can go to any degree of intricacy as long as we start with a perfect structure and work it out from there.
(John Finley) Yes, what the music comes from is whatever bond there is between us and whoever we communicate with. We're into positive, precise structures which are somehow always right.
HP - It came to me recently that music has a negative side to it. I get a negative from a lot of groups lately and I really don't understand why.
RHINO - That's because it's not saying what it's saying. People take a piece of music, get up and play it and all the whole thing says is "I did it, look at me." It's ego. It really doesn't belong on a stage. You know, it sounds like they don't mean it or they're not there. It's not soulful. Really, where they're at is they're not trying to communicate, just show off. There's all kinds of music and all of it can communicate on some level. There's head music and body music -- we're into body music mostly.
HP - Can you make a concrete distinction?
RHINO - Sure, it's roots again. Yellow music is head music, black music is body music and white music is brain music. It's the spiritual, the physical and the intellectual. What's happening with all music is that people are taking basic structures and roots and going out in every direction. In jazz and classical as well as rock and roll.
HP - You seem to he more basic though, and if, you use. complexities you use them in simplest terms.
RHINO - Well, if you start off on your own, you've got something. If you start out on a way-out concept then you've got somebody else's beginnings. But if you make your own beginning, when you get out there you're really into something.
(John Finley) One of the people who evolved that way was John Coltrane. His work is so simple yet its far-out. He takes in that whole idea. All this atonal music is close, just a long tone. Notes are the separations. But man's brain is doing that the complicated way. The lines are the digressions of the curve.
HP - I don't get you at all.
RHINO - (Finley) Well, um, music is tones and rhythms. Structures are created by breaking these up and grouping them. That's the basic. You can go beyond it once you have that foundation.
HP - let's get to something more specific. I didn't get a chance to really listen to your lyrics but they seemed uncomplicated and expressive.
RHINO - Yes, we like the idea of plain talk lyrics. They're being alive, the important things to everyone, food, freedom, sex and problems.
When I (Alan Gerber) started to write I was really getting involved with poetic lyrics. But it takes time for people to get into it. A song is not like a poem that's written down on a piece of paper and can be studied. It's happening, it has to be taken in immediately. I wrote "Along Comes Tomorrow," which is on the album. That's a poetic lyric, but it's a simple idea and a simple cycle. At the same time it's all about life and all of life. life.
HP - Could you be a little more specific? I won't be able to bear it for a couple of weeks.
RHINO (Gerber) - OK. The song is about somebody getting up and looking forward to the day. You know, your head is in a really good place and you know the answers and the day is just fine. Then all of a sudden tomorrow, something comes along and turns everything upside down, and you don't know anymore, its horrible. That happens to all of us. (laughter) But then comes tomorrow, my old friend tomorrow, to get me out of that mess. It never stays the same. But do you see? It's a cycle.
(Finley) - Yeah, it's like our gigs (laughter) We've done gigs that were tremendous and all we could do was say "Wow!" But then we do another and it's a BUMMER. (more laughter) There's no knowing how it's going to be.
(Gerber) - But that's the idea. The simple pattern taken far enough then brought back to the beginning. It gets complex then completes it. self simply. That's important. In the first few months that we were together we were complicated. We were all assembled as a super group and we were showing off our chops, putting down as much fancy stuff as we could. Then we decided it was all too complicated, much of it was unnecesary. Musicians could relate to what we were doing, but a lot of people might not understand. The whole scene was getting that way and we decided we weren't going to start out where everyone else left off, we were going back to the beginning. The first album, the one coming out now, is what we were those first six months. We didn't really know each other as people or musicians. We went back and started from the beginning again. That's what we mean when we say the first album showed us a direction. "Serenade" (the last cut on the album) is us at just that point, where we came to a simpler thing. That's the basic. We were put together to work together, and only after that did we get to know one another and find an identity as a group. One identity. See, most cats that have played together for six months knew each other for a long time before that. We were new to each other from the start. We've been listening to groups who are good musicians, really good musicians, but it's like they're constantly trying to prove something to each other. Everybody is running off incredible licks. but it comes off as total chaos. It's a bunch of insecure people and a lot of ego. We're trying to make one sound, a collective ego. Yes, like spokes of a wheel.
HP - What does that mean in practical terms. Break it down .. how does it work from man to man?
RHINO - Well, the spokes go to and from the hub of the wheel in every direction. We jam. It's feel, not think. You listen and learn where to play your thing where it's not going to hurt his thing. If seven guys are playing and one drops out, the other six just fall in and fill up the hole. That's what integrated music is.
HP - Do you relate what you're doing to anything else that's happening? The first two things that come to my mind are The Band and Blood, Sweat & Tears.
RHINO - A little closer to The Band, I'd say. But we dig BS&T. We were talking about it the other day... for all intents and purposes we're a 17 piece band. The guitars can play horns. We have a horn sound without horns. On the album, on "When You Say You're Sorry" it sounds like something like the Don Ellis horn sound. You know, a sheet of sound "shhh --- splash!" It all has to do with balance and voicing. "I Need love" is a little Richard tune and it sounds like there's a horn section on it. The Band is a basic, root-centered sound and BS&T is a city version of the same thing, more orchestrated.
HP - (to John Finley) You use a lot of black intonation in your vocals. What do you have to say to the argument that white vocalists and musicians shouldn't try to sound black. It's not my opinion but it's a healthy controversy in critical circles.
RHINO (Finley) (bristling) When I try to sound black, I stink! I'm not trying to sound black, I sing what I feel. When I feel what I'm singing I know I'm communicating. We're all capable of feeling the same things -- we all come from the same place. It all started with the Garden of Eden and the first man. I am that man. I'm physically and culturally white, but I'm the same as anyone else. I can experience as much pain and suffering and as much jubilee as any other human being. Dig it, there are black people in symphony because they feel the white man's classical music. There are white people in oriental music. On one of the Ravi Shankar albums I have there's a part where it sounds like Sam and Dave's "Hold On I'm Coming." In another place on the same album its even raunchier, like Muddy Waters almost. If you can feel a thing you can play it. The
black man can sing funk because he feels it. But I've beard black cats who couldn't play or sing funk because they didn't feel it. There are white people who can't feel classical. Our music is black in parts because it's body music, because it draws from black music. We communicate to the animal in man, that's where man is at. It's physical music. Jazz is more intellectual and again, Indian music, spiritual. You combine the elements you feel and it's where you're at when you're playing.
HP - One More Question. We talked briefly about classical music a little while back, but didn't get into jazz, which, while a little closer to home is harder for me to relate to than rock. Do you think jazz and rock have anything in common at this point. Are they moving toward or away from each other?
RHINO - Well, Rock is now where jazz started out. Jazz bands played tunes at the beginning, just like rock. In order to keep it interesting it got further and further out. But it got too strung out because the average cat, uh, sorry, chick, can't relate to it. As far as rock and jazz coming together, some rock people are playing a lot of jazz riffs and and a barrage of notes played at amazing rhythms, but they're not doing it right because they didn't start from where jazz started from, they're just taking licks. It doesn't sound right. There was a similar structural beginning for jazz, but jazz is older so it's more developed. You can't relate to where it's at, and neither can we, really. I mean we can listen and say 'Wow, listen to what's going on.' You know, admire it, but we don't feel it like we feel our music.
Michael Fonfara - There are some groups like the one Larry Coryell is in where there's a rock drummer and bass player, a jazz guitar and a sax man, but there's a basic lack of communication between the musicians because they're on different levels. The jazz guys are getting it on, doing their thing, the rock cats are doing their thing, but they're doing different things. What's happening is people are relating to it on a temporal basis, trying to dig where it's at without knowing where it came from. You can relate to Dixieland, right? Well, rock now is where jazz was in the Dixieland days.
HP - Are the structural bases of jazz and rock basically different?
RHINO - The structural basis of EVERYTHING is the SAME. That's a philosophical truth. And a musical truth.
It's Sunday Night. There are about 22 people in the Cafe Au Go Go, mostly freebies like myself. The supergroup isn't Doing Business. Tonight is their 12th live performance. (They had a few in L.A.) John is fooling around while the others set up. He makes some silly rap about having "a lot of toe tappers lined up for ya, folks!"
There are a lot of musician folk around: word spreads speedily along the village music circuit. And further evidence that Rhinoceros is going to make it is apparent from the growing little flock of groupies they've acquired in less than a week. John Sebastian, fresh from the West slips quietly into a bench on the side of the room and leans over his clasped hands.
"Its Chicken," somebody says. And everybody picks little noises out of their instruments and the sounds of a chicken coop accumulate while they bark, moo and baa into the mikes, creating an electric barnyard. They start to play, the music is funky and hot, the sock-it-to-you lyrics are homegrown: Get out the back door get out the back door honey come on in baby how you been. The back door lady exits, the front door lady comes home. John's in a fix, he's burned the candle at both ends. It's funny and soulful, real and nerve wracking, but bouyant, always moving.
Sebastian jiggles around in his seat and there's a big quiet smile across his face. It's a sin not to be able to dance to music like this. Billy beats the thump and stacatto out of the drums, his belly hanging over his belt. John dances around as he sings showing a preference for the edges of the stage, throwing his arm out over the platform, reaching out and wailing. Danny Weis, sleek and slender in shock pink and lace, bobs and minces with the guitar. Jerry Penrod fills in the spaces with the bass. Doug grimaces as he pulls a melody line from the guitar,a sweet bluesy run. Michael looks like a somber little rabbit behind the organ. And Alan plays the piano with his hands, elbows and shoulders.
Rhinoceros. The ponderous perissodactyl which horned out of Toronto, lumbered down from Seattle, checked out Chicago's South Side and hung around California for a while, before rooting up a few Bleecker Street underground inmates. Heavy. A little indelicate, yes; but very, very solid.
by Ellen Sander (email@example.com) - for Hit Parader Magazine, March 1969.
Many Thanks to Jeff Watt for this article.