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Singing bulls and Day-Glo tapestry: The spectacle of Caroliner Rainbow 

Wednesday, Jul 16 2008
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The supposedly true story goes like this: In the late 19th century, on a Wisconsin ranch, there existed a singing bull named Caroliner. Like a "parrot of jungle origin," it could repeat the songs it heard and thus became a sort of tape recorder for pre-tape-recorder times. Pretty soon, Caroliner's owner realized this phenomenon was profitable and began dragging the animal around the country, mostly through mining camps, charging people to hear their own songs spit back at them from the mouth of a beast. But after a few tours, the novelty wore off and the money stopped coming. The owner was forced to return home, hungry and poor, and when all else was lost, eat the bull.

This is the tale as told by a musician who goes by Cottypearile and about 15 other names. Back in 1983, he discovered a book that included this story and the bull's repertoire. Based on these findings, he founded the San Francisco–based performance-art project/band Caroliner Rainbow as "a tribute band to the singing bull of the 1800s." But, of course, there is zero documentation to back up any of this, and according to a letter by the band, "there is only one of these accounts of the singing bull, and we have it, thus cornering an economy that no one is interested in." They claim to have copyrighted the bull's songs for their own use, but instead of covering the music, they adapt the so-called "prophetic" lyrics and will keep doing so until all the songs — there are "enough to fill a 100 LPs" — have been recorded. "Most of the songs," they say, "describe the detail of living day to day with the delusions, superstitions, and boomtown hallucinations that occur as people describe their starving or ecstatic state of being."

Whether their accounts are real or conjured, the members of Caroliner Rainbow have dedicated a 25-year career to a grand mythology of music, ideas, art, and language centered on this bull that sang. Like the Residents, Secret Chiefs 3, and other bands in the Bay Area's great lineage of experimental music, Caroliner Rainbow's members have become so consumed by their concepts that they have effaced themselves in place of anonymity (they wear masks and use monikers); traded accessibility for incomprehensibility; and replaced reality with their own invented universe, which is best described as a psychedelic version of the 19th century.

For instance, in a recent tour journal, a (fictional?) former band member complains of being relegated to the position of stamp licker, and exclaims "Dastardly mayhem!" and "Fie!" while worrying about starving on the Oregon Trail. When the members discuss influences, they say, "We find most things past 1920 (give or take 20 years) very brash and tasteless," and then point exclusively to folk artists like "Dock" Boggs and the Skillet Lickers and "farm sounds of the annoying quality." In interviews, they speak collectively and only through letters, in a turn-of-the-20th-century dialect, dropping references to Dred Scott and steam engines and throwing around slang like "yonder" and "joltins" (i.e., getting information out of them is impossible).

Where all these elements suggest a traditional band of eccentric hillbillies slapping their knees and playing old-timey songs, the sound of Caroliner Rainbow would send most traditionalists running for the Blue Ridge Mountains. Critics have dubbed the band "industrial bluegrass," a term that only mildly illustrates the clash of lo-fi field-recording sensibilities and experimental anarchy. Over its 15-plus albums, all released on limited pressings of 500 to 1,000, the band has moved from scathing noise to free improv to, in the case of its masterpiece Strike Them Hard, Drag Them to Church, pots-and-pans vaudeville. Every record and performance reinvents the Caroliner sound because, other than Cottypearile, the band members are constantly changing — as are their hundreds of names, including Knuckles McSodde and Slobberhouse Sock. (It is rumored that Neil Hamburger, "America's funnyman," was in an early incarnation.) Likewise, the group's name is different for every tour, changing from Caroliner Rainbow Blubbery Lips Siphoning Souls to Caroliner Rainbow Scrambled Egg Taken for a Wife to Caroliner Rainbow Stand Still or Fight Beans and Sunstroke and so forth.

But the recorded music alone — which is pretty damn hard to find — gives only a single-sided glimpse. The way to truly enter the backwoods-meets-avant-garde world of Caroliner is to see the band live in all its lunacy. Last month in Seattle, it transformed the Re-Bar, a drinking hole next to I-5, into a land of glowing tapestries, neon glyphs, monster dolls, and mobiles of laminated bulls' heads in perpetual motorized rotation. It's the same DIY-folk-art design on each of the band's hand-drawn albums and buttons on the merch table, a style that looks like the artistic outlet of an idiot savant.

The opening acts played on the other side of the room, and included members of local experimental legends Sun City Girls and Climax Golden Twins, whose careers have developed in the same underground scene. When the headlining bull-band hit the stage, the building seemed to be under attack by another dimension. Six musicians appeared in full-body "bull deity" costumes, each one a monstrous, hallucinatory variation of horns, nostrils, and swinging tails. The instruments (a rock setup plus a banjo) were wrapped in the same glowing material as the wall decorations. It all gave off the whiff of those metal bands that dress like monsters, and it became clear why Caroliner's members refer to themselves as "country-Western glamour gods who, with a gesture, can destroy Zeus or make their pants drop to ankle level."

For an hour and a half, the musicians knocked into each other like rabid beasts, stirring up jagged waves of feedback. The drummer stumbled around. The singer began a routine he continued throughout the night, which included going limp and then, without warning, collapsing backward into the front row, forcing the crowd to shove him up onto the stage. The actual singing, a marvel Caroliner refers to as "channeling" the bull, alternated between the high-pitched whine of Tiny Tim and the growling bark of death metal, all of it blurred by wet effects. In rare moments, precision and sensitive musicality emerged through the cloud of noise, but within a few seconds, the chaos always returned.

It was a mad scene driven by pure disorientation, not just because of the yowling music, but because a bar had been converted into an outsider–folk art installation, and a story of a singing farm animal was somehow controlling the entire evening. Offstage, band members refused to identify each other, referring to themselves as roadies, and whispering, "We're an anonymous band ... we don't discuss anything that doesn't relate to the 1800s." The farce was in full effect, and no audience members could wrap their heads around it. Even Scott Colburn, the illustrious Seattle producer and longtime Caroliner enthusiast (or scholar, as it were) has said he can't think of a stranger band, which is just to say that the group is doing its job. Cottypearile and company have spent a quarter of a century devoted to strangeness and disorientation, not to be recognized as bunch of freaked-out artists, but to turn themselves into a living, snarling folk tale.

About The Author

Ross Simonini

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