As imaginative and stimulating as he was irritating, inexcusable and vitriolic, New Jersey native Zoogz Rift (Robert Pawlikowski, 1953-2011) was an iconoclastic original, a reactionary whose paranoia has too frequently detracted from his music’s experimental pizzazz and considerable exotic charm. This might be explained by what were, for a long time, his primary intellectual inspirations: Salvador Dali’s dadaist strategies and Ayn Rand’s objective realism. The singer/guitarist/wrestler was (too) often compared musically to Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart; while this may have applied to his earlier recordings, Rift later toiled prolifically in a fertile field all his own. And lest casual observers be intimidated by his scatology and other intentional offenses to good taste and community standards, let it be stated clearly that Rift is not some talentless asshole making noise for an audience of one. Although they are wildly uneven, many of his records are genuinely good.
Idiots on the Miniature Golf Course features the Micro Mastodons, a band which includes songwriter/drummer Richie Hass, a longtime Rift associate. Dedicated to Don Van Vliet, this collection of private surrealistic humor, overambitiously complex writing and selfconsciously zany performances sets the tone for much of what was to follow. Another featured player on this collection is guitarist John Trubee, who has stuck it out with Rift on and off over the years, and is infamous in his own right for the classic novelty single, “A Blind Man’s Penis.” (The Idiots cassette adds “I Wanna Dismember You Just the Way You Are” and “Lovely Girl.”
Over the next three years, Rift issued five cassette-only albums. While SST later reissued one of them on vinyl and tape, the remaining four were left to obscurity. Amputees in Limbo and Ipecac form a paranoid pair whose emotional timbre is evident in titles like “My Daddy Works for the Secret Marines,” “Art Band” (“You’re nothing but a fart band”), “I Was the Only Boy at the Teen Girls Slumber Party” and “You Fucked Up.” Rift’s Amazing Shitheads, his band at the time, was an uncompromising group of competent yahoos in acerbic synch with their leader. (The original issue of Ipecac is a picture disc. There’s an extra track on the Ipecac tape. Likewise, the SST cassette of Amputees adds an alternate version of “Eyes of Bodhidharma” and another bonus.)
Rift began to lighten up slightly on Interim Resurgence and the charmingly titled Island of Living Puke. Cosmic etherea (“X-Ray Girls”) and amusing self-analysis (“Nightclub Sequence”) share space with his usual spleen ventilation.
Looser Than Clams is an, ahem, “greatest hits” LP that served as an intermission prior to Rift’s H2O trilogy. By Water, his musical talents had far surpassed his ranting, although his misanthropy continues unabated. Water II is tighter yet, with synthesizers and samplers coming to the fore. The off-kilter instrumentals on Nonentity show off his idiosyncratic guitar playing to fine advantage and allow the group to simmer eccentrically in the breeze. (The CD and cassette add three tracks.)
While preparing and releasing the Water trilogy, Rift stuck together Son of Puke, a patience-defying cassette mixing samples from his collection of spoken-word ephemera and instrumental bits — a few guitar chords here, some $40 Casio keyboard plinks there — all seemingly at random. It’s occasionally fun but not easy to endure for the full 45 minutes. If Rift’s liner notes are to be believed, the cassette’s flip side — a female vocal group carefully singing Beatles songs to the accompaniment of two jazzy electric guitarists (except for the full-scale sonic hell of “Revolution No. 9”) — is by the unknown Transients and comes from a tape he discovered in a garbage bin. Hmmm…
Divided into a live-in-Holland side and a dead-in-LA side, Murdering Hell’s Happy Cretins — a pivotal album on which Rift renounces his adherence to dada — is an absolutely delightful mixture of Zoogz’s personable stage presence (the guy can really sing!) and some fine (mostly instrumental) studio work. The title track puts jolly music to one of his patented (and amusing) rants; the demento “One of Us” features Hass’ wild vibraphone riffing.
Recorded a few months prior to Hell’s Happy Cretins‘ studio side, Torment is an all-new record that marks the reappearance of saxophonist Marc Mylar (absent since Water). While the cassette adds three songs, the CD packs in an entire unreleased album entitled United We Fall.
Given his ongoing difficulties with the American record industry, Rift has recently had to look overseas to maintain the flow of his massive output to vinyl. The weak War Zone (subtitled Music for Obnoxious Yuppie Scum) consists of the 20-minute “Kasaba Kabeza (Drop the Facades)” instrumental suite (whose final movement is dubbed “Pharquar Resolvo Kaputo Solo Resolvo Redundo Bono Honko” — an entirely apt description for this tedious horns’n’noise workout) and a side of shorter items, including a viciously funny Traveling Wilburys’ spoof, “You Can Count on Us.”
Unlike the ambitious sextet Rift led on the ’88 tour preserved on Hell’s Happy Cretins, he is joined only by a post-Hass rhythm section and keyboardist Jonathan “Mako” Sharkey on Europe 1990. This compendium of performances from Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Holland has a disconcerting undercurrent of tension and harsh sound, but does review an impressive range of material and gives Zoogz a chance to spotlight some extremely inventive guitar work.
A lot of the two-man Nutritionally Sound project consists of barely structured high-tech studio dabbling, nicely recorded sounds (including keyboards, horns, guitar, percussion, spoken and/or found vocals) that don’t coalesce into any clear-cut musical form. Several of the things that most resemble songs (a nearly straight rendition of “I’m Telling You Now” with a twisted guitar solo, “Get Up offa That Thing,” “All Bets Are Off”) are, in fact, songs; a lot of what surrounds them, however, is just self-indulgent hooey.
Slide guitarist Scott Colby (who has also accompanied Henry Kaiser) was a frequent member of the Rift entourage up through 1986 or so, and his old trail boss returned the favor by producing Slide of Hand. This adventurous instrumental album sets Colby’s bottleneck loose in a studio with such sidemen as Kaiser, John French and Willie Lapin (also a Rift vet). Since Colby doesn’t come at slide guitar from a blues angle, his playing is fairly uncommon; the album is more or less jazz played like rock.
Zoogz died in 2011.