Rare is the “cult album” that actually lives up to its mystique. But rare is Ron Nagle’s Bad Rice. This artifact from the Mystery Trend leader and acclaimed ceramic sculptor, originally released on Warner Bros. Records circa 1970, has recently been given new life by Omnivore Recordings in a deluxe 2-CD edition that’s an early candidate for Reissue of the Year. One part David Ackles, one part Randy Newman and the rest pure Nagle, Bad Rice likely wasn’t helped all those decades ago by its inscrutable title and unattractive cover artwork. Potential buyers would have had no clue that the album’s sleeve housed a truly varied collection of eleven striking character studies in pop and rock, balancing so-called “confessional” songwriting (that earned the artist James Taylor and even Elton John comparisons) with boisterous, Stones-worthy rock songs. For a debut album, it might have been too diverse in its stylistic forays, but listening today, its air of surprise is among its strongest suits. Nagle was joined on Bad Rice by illustrious producer Jack Nitzsche who oversaw a cadre of top musicians including Ry Cooder, Sal Valentino of The Beau Brummels, John Blakeley, Brad Sexton, Steve Davis, Mickey Waller and George Rains.
Cooder’s searing guitar anchors the matricidal opener “61 Clay,” a raunchy rocker that establishes Nagle as a chronicler of the unexpected. It shouldn’t be surprising that Nagle’s art is inextricably tied to his music – not just in his use of the word “clay” in the first song’s title (it came from the gallery address at which Nagle had a show) but the fact that the tune is about the character of Chuckie, whose unappealing visage Nagle leafleted around San Francisco to drum up attendance for the show. (You can get a glimpse of gap-toothed Chuckie on the back cover of the CD digipak and in the copiously illustrated booklet.) But bad boy Chuckie is just one of the characters introduced by Nagle on Bad Rice. A church-style organ opens “Sister Cora,” a quirky piece about a faith-healin’ mama (“And she did it all/Just by stirrin’ the leaves in her tea!”). Then there’s the lady named “Dolores,” subject of a wrenchingly melancholy memory play adorned with Nitzsche’s lavish orchestration.
The richly melodic “Dolores” is one of the two indisputable high points on Bad Rice. Nitzsche’s graceful strings and orchestral accompaniment add greatly to the second, as well – the beautiful, somber and moving “Frank’s Store.” The germ of “Frank’s Store,” Nagle explains in Gene Sculatti’s excellent liner notes, was in Nagle’s own experience. He drew upon his memories of the local corner groceries of his childhood for its four heartbreaking minutes. “Party in L.A.,” in which the personal and the political conflate, was also based in autobiography – specifically, an incident with Nagle’s first wife as filtered through his never-quite-straightforward lyrical style. The brash “Capricorn Queen” (featuring fine slide guitar work), on the other hand, was apparently written as an ode to his second wife, who’s kept him on the straight and narrow for decades.
Musically, Bad Rice is as diverse as its characters. One voice-and-piano ballad puts Nagle in the company of Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, and Paul Williams; those illustrious names also wrote songs at one time or another by the name of “That’s What Friends Are For.” Nagle’s variation on the theme is an elegant, melodic, and tender admission of the roles played in a relationship, showing another side of the edgy songwriter. “Somethin’s Gotta Give Now” by Nagle and Frank Robertson is loose, steel guitar-flecked country-rock, while barroom piano and ragtag sing-along background vocals enliven the freewheeling, offbeat “Family Style” with its flavor of The Band (and makes it clear why some writers hung the “Americana” tag on Bad Rice.)
The goofily over-the-top, and infectiously catchy, reefer madness rock-and-roll riff “Marijuana Hell” (“All it took was just one try/Ever since he’s been too high!”) was co-written by John Blakely and also features Cooder’s stinging guitar. It would have, in lesser hands, crossed the line into novelty. For its closing salvo, Bad Rice appropriately offers the schizophrenic, widescreen “House of Mandia,” which juxtaposes a hard-rocking verse with an orchestrated, tropical chorus to tell the story of an average Joe’s fantasy-island dreams. Over its eleven tracks, Bad Rice touches on all points on the spectrum of American music, pointing the way towards Nagle’s future songs for talents as disparate as Barbra Streisand and The Tubes. The album had everything, it seemed…except a hit single.
The original 11-track Bad Rice album is expanded on Disc One with six choice bonuses. Two tracks were recorded on Warner’s dime after the album’s release, in the hopes Nagle would “come up with something new” per the notes. Perhaps the label was unhappy that the tracks weren’t dramatically different in style or tone than those on the album, but listeners now will be more than happy to find that they bear the same hallmarks of quality – and the same eccentricities! The stowaway of the funky “Berberlang” and the heroine (?) of the old-time rock-and-roll bondage tale (!) “Francine” both are worthy of places in the pantheon of Nagle’s most memorable musical characters. (Both songs also, incidentally, employ sound effects; Nagle went on to work with Nitzsche on the creepy soundscape of The Exorcist.) Omnivore tops it all off with alternate mixes of two of the three orchestrated tracks, “Frank’s Place” and “Dolores” (both with longer fades), and two minute-long radio spots made to promote the album.
As if all this wasn’t enough, reissue producer and Bay Area music historian Alec Palao has unearthed an entire second disc of rarities; only two of the fourteen tracks on Pre-Cooked/Converted: The Bad Rice Demos have ever been released before. Many of the demos are full-band performances (from a group including Blakeley on the same guitar, bass, and vocal duties he performed on Bad Rice itself) but the most affecting of them feature just Nagle, at the piano. As on Bad Rice, they can roughly be split into ballads and rockers. These Nagle tunes, dating to the 1968-1973 period before and after the original LP, are as vibrant as those on Bad Rice. And of course, there are more incisive portraits of misfits, a bit of a Nagle trademark.
The pulled-from-life story song “So Long Johnny” (“They’ve sent away my friend who laughs too much…”) is told over a loping melody with both fondness and humor; “Rudy, My Man” isn’t about a pal but about a dog (“He don’t know me at all, he don’t come when I call…”). Though barely more than a minute long and unfinished, it’s still a worthwhile addition here. The dramatic, affectionate portrait of “Alice Valentine” is a ballad that can be comfortably spoken of in the same breath as “Dolores” or “Frank’s Store.”
“From the Collection of Dorothy Tate,” heard here as a piano-and-voice demo, marries its lightly bouncy melody to a typically sharp lyric about the titular Ms. Tate and her collection of men. “Say My Name,” another piano/voice track filled with heart, cries out for a lush, sixties-style Nitzsche pop arrangement, as does the big ballad “Who You Gonna Tell” which has everything in its demo except a full complement of strings. Guitars sound almost like toy pianos on the dry, witty “Half as Much,” one of the many songs here that will leave you wondering how it remained on a shelf for all these years. The delectable “Saving It All Up for Larry,” written by Nagle and Scott Mathews, closes out this set as a treat for fans of Nagle and Mathews’ work as the duo Durocs; it was included in rewritten form on their debut record (which was splendidly reissued in 2012 on Real Gone Music.) The Bad Rice Demos is available as a standalone digital download from Omnivore.
The 20-page booklet features Gene Sculatti’s detailed notes, track-by-track annotations for the demos, and full lyrics for the original eleven songs on Bad Rice. Greg Allen has handsomely designed the entire package with his customary flair, and the team of Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen has seen to it that their remastering brings out the many colors of Nagle’s music. Put simply, Bad Rice is good for you – and one of the year’s most delicious musical treats.