Photograph by Wild Don Lewis
Penis Prose: John Trubee acheived a certain fame from the song "Blind Man's Penis."
Trubee or Not Trubee
The myth, the man, the legend, the unknown twisted genius of John Trubee
By Sara Bir
Rest is for the weak, and no way is John Trubee weak. For the past 10 years, Trubee has lived in almost total obscurity in Santa Rosa, writing songs, dubbing cassette tapes, and burning a colorful assortment of CDRs. He's released a fat stack of albums with multiple bands and music projects (including the enigmatic Zoogz Rift, who went on to become a pro-wrestling promoter); written reams of scathing, razor-sharp antipoetry; and helmed a mail-order business that carries bootlegged prank phone-call tapes, bizarre video productions, and Kinko's-bred printed material.
Trubee may be best known for "Blind Man's Penis," an unlikely ditty which, in the grand scheme of things, is not very known at all. But the strange and wonderful song represents the tiniest fraction of this man's output.
At first glance, a great chunk of Trubee's oeuvre--musical and otherwise--reeks of spite, of piss and vinegar. Songs like "Satan Pukes on High School Cheerleaders" and "Mental Illness Can Be Beautiful" project an image of a man whose confidence in the human condition is very low. But upon closer examination, Trubee's life and work has been "not about the darkness of life, but about the joyous absurdity and strangeness of it," as fan Matt Pamatmat puts it.
Trubee grew up in Princeton, N.J., in an upper-middle-class home, the oldest of five brothers in a straight, disciplined family. "First album I ever bought was Sgt. Pepper, and it was strange because I really wanted to get Magical Mystery Tour, but they didn't have it," he says, sitting poolside as the spring dusk arrives at the Flamingo Hotel.
Trubee is drinking Galliano on the rocks--which, he informs us, is not usually served that way, but that's how he likes it--and he wears a thick, knotted rubber band on his right wrist. "So I got the next best thing, and I put it on my dad's stereo and played it, and I just started shaking with excitement. I got so fascinated that I started buying Beatles albums, got my first guitar."
Eventually, Trubee went to Boston's Berklee College of Music, where he felt the call of California. "I was always intrigued with music and show biz and stuff--palm trees and great weather and crap like that. Not that I was intrigued like people want to be rich and famous, but just the whole thing of it--music and records, the whole process of doing it. Being a kid and hearing the Beach Boys and the Mamas and Papas--it seemed like California was a magical place."
So after graduating, Trubee loaded up the back seat of his car with records and drove out to Los Angeles. His first job was in a film vault in Hollywood, organizing tapes of The Hollywood Squares. It was during this time that Trubee became involved with Zoogz Rift and His Amazing Shitheads, with whom he played bass and guitar.
Rift released an impressive discography on the punk label SST, where he was a bit of an anomaly alongside bands like Black Flag and the Minutemen. Although Zoogz Rift has been compared frequently to Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, he eventually created a genre-defying sound all his own.
"Zoogz's real name is Robert Pawlikowski, but he legally changed his name just as a 'screw you' to the world, to be the nonconformist that he is. He's a very difficult person to deal with. He has very few friends, and he's very prickly. It's almost like dealing with a dragon--it spits fire and it will puncture you and hurt you, but if you deal with a dragon long enough, you get to be friends with it and it no longer burns you. One of my friends says Zoogz is like chutney--it's an interesting flavor, but you wouldn't want to have it every day."
The whole time Trubee played and toured with Zoogz, he still held down minimum-wage jobs. He wasn't crazy about the work, but it allowed him to make the music he wanted to make. It was through one of these low-paying jobs that "Blind Man's Penis" came about.
While Trubee was still in New Jersey, he worked as a cashier at a convenience store. During one endless shift of boredom, he noticed an ad on the back page of a tabloid: "Co-write on a 50-50 basis, earn $20,000 in royalties."
Trubee proceeded to sit down and, in
five minutes, write the most ridiculous stream of nonsense committed to paper, with lines like "The zebra spilled its plastinia on bemis / And the gelatin fingers oozed electric marbles . . . Stevie Wonder's penis is erect because he's blind / It's erect because he is blind."
Expecting a furious rejection letter, Trubee instead received an invitation to send $79.95 to the studio, who would then record his song. Trubee took up the offer and a few weeks later got a 45 RPM record that played a professionally deadpan, nasal vocalist delivering Trubee's lyrics over a track of uninspired, bare-bones country music--only the chorus had been altered to read: "A blind man's penis is erect because he's blind."
This recording wound up on many of the custom-dubbed sampler tapes of noise, readings, and ephemera that Trubee made to pass out to music-industry types while he was in Rift's band. One of these tapes found its way to the then fledgling label Enigma Records, who wanted to put "Blind Man's Penis" out as a single.
"I made a handshake deal," Trubee says. "We didn't sign anything. I said I just wanted a couple hundred promo copies." Trubee sent his copies to Dr. Demento, then-music columnist Matt Groening, and Elvira, who had a Sunday afternoon show on KROQ. "Blind Man's Penis" became a minor sensation in the L.A. area.
The song still draws attention. Filmmaker Jamie Meltzer's recent documentary Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story included a segment featuring Trubee reciting his lyrics along with the record, and "Blind Man's Penis" was recently included on the amazing compilation The American Song-Poem Anthology. Trubee's track stands out because in the fascinating genre of song-poems, the hapless songwriters are typically 100 percent serious about their songs; Trubee was in on the joke all along.
After Enigma issued the "Blind Man's Penis" single, Trubee wanted to do another record. "But I didn't know how to go about it and ask directly, the right way," he says. Instead of sending out demos with promo material, he sent out a "totally pathetic fake suicide note," declaring his terminal frustration with the world and the music industry--which did seize the attention of Matt Groening and Enigma. Thus came about the LP The Communists Are Coming to Kill Us, whose first side was a sound-noise collage assembled from Trubee's archives of tape, edited together in a matter of hours.
John Trubee and his backing band, the Ugly Janitors of America, went on to release a handful of albums, some on Enigma, some on a small German label, some self-released, but all instilled with Trubee's whacked sensibility. For every lovely and inspiring moment, such as "When My Ship Rolls In," there's a confounding explosion of chaotic noise. This is not to everyone's taste, and it has resulted in some very negative feedback hurled Trubee's way. "I love negative stuff. I think it's wonderful," he says. "It adds to the controversy. You can't control what people react to."
Trubee landed in Santa Rosa because of his increasingly pressing desire to get the hell out of L.A. "You've heard that idea [that] when you're on your deathbed you see your whole life as a huge panorama around you?" he asks. "I thought, 'If I don't change this situation, that's what it's going to be on my deathbed: My life will be a panorama of being surrounded by crap that I hate.'"
On a drive across California, Trubee stopped in Santa Rosa for coffee. "I looked around and said, 'This is really pretty. This is it.' So I just moved here cold--no job, no friends. But I have no regrets. Anything of value in the world requires risk. Sometimes you bleed a little for it."
Like "Blind Man's Penis," Trubee's promotional cassettes took on lives of their own; people would send him found recordings or write and request specific cassettes. This led him to start a tiny catalogue business, Space and Time World Enterprises, which carries titles such as The Crying Bitch Tape and Satanic Cellular Phone Calls from Hell.
Considering this information, it's ironic to find that Trubee's job involves "using the phones," as he puts it. "That's as much as I can say. It's just a normal day job. I'm ashamed I'm even working in a day job."
The last time Trubee recorded was in 2000, but he's still writing. "I have dozens of songs sitting in folders at home, tons of stuff I'm dying to get out, and I don't have any money to record," he says.
Trubee is the perfect example of the hidden life behind the picture of the guy we see on the cover of an obscure album in the record store, the unexceptional reality of his 9-to-5 life obscuring the underground legacy of his artistic life.
"It's such an enriching and satisfying thing to do music; in some way it can be crippling, because I've spent so much of my time and energy in it," Trubee says. "I've gotten windfalls of money occasionally, and I'll go and blow them out on [making] an album, and if I were a normal person, I could have used that as a down payment for a house."
But how many homeowners have secretly dreamed of making rock records? Trubee's in the minority, but he's lived out his own version of the American dream more than most of us ever will.
John Trubee delights in receiving bizarre mail from strangers. Send your insults, life stories, acid trip recollections, and non-bouncing checks to P.O. Box 4921, Santa Rosa, CA 95402 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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From the April 24-30, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.