Thelonious Monster is as irreverent and fiercely independent a rock band as any to come out of Los Angeles in the ‘80s. The group’s live shows early in its career were so unruly that I twice left clubs assuming the group had just broken up. If lead Monster Bob Forrest wasn’t battling with his own bandmates, he was causing havoc with club owners or sound men.
“We’ve got four managers,” Forrest once said. “And they don’t do anything except tell club owners, ‘I’m sorry for the way the band acted.’ ”
The title of the group’s first album underscored the satire and sarcasm in the band’s themes: “Baby . . . You’re Bummin’ My Life Out in a Supreme Fashion.”
So what are these rock mavericks doing performing “For My Lover,” a song by establishment darling Tracy Chapman on their new “Stormy Weather” album?
It’s got to be a gag, right?
“No way,” growled lead singer Forrest, his right hand wrapped around a bottle of beer in a Fairfax area Mexican restaurant that is a favorite of local rock musicians.
“I like Tracy Chapman,” he continued. “I never realized someone might think (doing the song) was a gag until people started asking us about it. A lot of our fans seem defensive about the song. I guess it’s the fact that she’s so popular, but we were doing that song before anyone knew who she was. I saw her in Washington, D.C., a year ago.”
The explanation shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who have been paying close attention to Monster’s music--as opposed to the band’s chaotic behavior and Forrest’s eccentric appearance (with his long, stringy hair and mischievous grin, he often looks like someone who just stepped off the set of a British comedy).
As a writer and a singer, Forrest has shown a sharp and original vision in his own songs, and an integrity and imagination in his choice of outside material, which has ranged from Bob Dylan to Public Image Ltd.
In “Sammy Hagar Weekend” from the new album (released by Relativity Records and produced by X’s John Doe), Forrest writes with a satiric edge worthy of Randy Newman.
On one level, the song can be taken as a straightforward celebration of rock’s live-fast, love-hard, die-young syndrome. The scene is a hard-rock/metal concert at Anaheim Stadium. Sample lines:
We’re going to drink some beer
We’re going to smoke some pot
We’re going to snort some coke
And drive, drive over 55.
Yet there is a slightly sad--or weary--tone in Forrest’s voice and arrangement that, when coupled with the irresponsibility of the behavior depicted, gives the song different coloring.
“I lived that song. I went to Anaheim Stadium when I was in high school to see what I thought was a great lineup: Hagar, Van Halen, Black Sabbath and Boston. The show didn’t start until Sunday, but we got there Friday night and waited in the parking lot. It was the first time I ever drank whiskey.
“I’m trying to make fun of what we all thought was cool. It’s also a hope we all grow up and find out how stupid it is to be like that. When I was 16, I thought cruising and boozing was what people did. So what did it get me? Two 502s. . . . One of the themes of the new album is growing up, and that song is part of all that for me.”
Thelonious Monster’s “Next Saturday Afternoon” was one of the neglected rock gems of 1987: a look at post-teen alienation that explored questions of identity and self-worth in tough, unflinching ways that recalled the passion and purpose of some of rock’s most biting collections. Think of Neil Young’s “Tonight’s the Night” meets the Replacements’ “Tim.”
The themes came easy to Forrest, a Southern Californian who was adopted by a couple that he later learned were really his grandparents. The woman he thought was his sister had given birth to him when she was 14.
Forrest, 28, says he has never met his real father--a fact that contributes to the poignancy of “My Boy,” a song on the new album. It was written a year ago when Forrest still hadn’t held his year-old son. (Forrest said he and the son’s mother weren’t married and no longer saw each other at the time.)
Far from the sweetness of father-child songs like Dylan’s “Forever Young,” this one speaks of the day when the boy will grow up and resent the absence of the father. It’s a song of pain and, in Forrest’s words, “history repeating itself.”
In the past year, however, Forrest has begun to spend time with the boy and says other aspects of his personal life are more stable.
Rather than repeat the alienation of “Next Saturday Afternoon,” “Stormy Weather” is a step into adulthood--a grappling with relationships and the world outside.
Though still far from the smooth or dance-happy edges preferred by mainstream radio, the album is more accessible than its predecessor. There are some winning melodic touches amid the occasional all-out, slam-bam rock ‘n’ roll.
About the changes, Forrest said, “I thought that ‘Saturday Afternoon’ was good for what it did, but you can’t keep writing those songs. That album was all about what I did and I thought and I felt. I remember going up to Mike Martt, our guitar player, one day and told him I had a new tune. He looked at me and said, ‘Oh, who is it about? You . . . or you?”
One of the first songs he wrote in an “outward” vein was “Lena Horne Still Sings ‘Stormy Weather.’ ” He had seen a TV profile on the celebrated singer and was impressed by how she had battled against various challenges, especially racism, in her personal and professional life.
“The world needs that attitude, that resiliency,” Forrest said. “Things are in awful shape. . . . More homeless people, more gang violence, less and less people graduating from high school. I love this city, but what’s it all going to come to? Are they going to put up a fence between Crenshaw Boulevard and the Westside?
“The problem is everyone starts feeling helpless. They don’t realize that a lot of other people share the same concerns and that they can do something if they pull together. The song encourages people to think that the problems can be solved. Even after all she’s been through, Lena Horne does still sing ‘Stormy Weather.’ ”
Forrest needed some resilience himself after “Next Saturday Afternoon” was largely ignored both by radio and the public.
“There was a lot of excitement around town when the record came out and I got into thinking I was going to be this next big deal,” he said. “But we were our own worst enemies on that tour. I’ve said that in the past, but this time was really bad.
“We weren’t just screwing up at some little club around town, where people knew us and thought it was just us partying again. Here people came to see a show and I was drunk most of the time, insulting people--even the people from our own record company.”
Dejected, he returned home and thought about the future.
“One day I woke up and realized that most of the problems were because of me. I realized, and the band did too, we almost made it with the last album. We almost got to a point where we can live in houses and have cars and all we had to do in exchange was make music.
“That’s all I ever wanted. We don’t want to ruin it. I still have a drinking problem, but I try to control it. I don’t drink anymore on the day of the show until I get on stage, for instance. I’m proud of the band and I want the music to be the show--not my (behavior).”
Yet the head Monster--who is joined in the band now by guitarists Martt and Tony Malone, drummer Pete Weiss and bassist Rob Graves--may find it hard to keep his behavior from being an issue.
Last weekend at the Green Door in Montclair, Forrest appeared clear-eyed at the start of the set, letting the music speak for itself. Gradually, however, Forrest, himself, became the focus. Taking big swigs of beer, he grumbled between songs about everything from the club equipment to the band’s fortunes.
This tension may be an integral part of Forrest’s creative process, but the danger is it will camouflage the excellence of the Monster’s music. There are lots of unruly bands in rock, but too few with the ability to make music as enthralling as that found on “Stormy Weather.” The band tries it again Friday at Fender’s in Long Beach and Saturday at the Country Club in Reseda.
“Put it this way,” Forrest said, during the interview at the restaurant, summarizing his frustration good-naturedly. “If Bon Jovi can make $42 million or whatever last year, I thought Bob Forrest ought to be able to make $1,000 a month. That seems fair--and the public would get to hear some better songs.”