Calibrations

Novelty songs

Novelty songs. Hal Spector has always dug novelty songs. Ray Stevens, Roger Miller, Spike Jones and His City Slickers -- all notorious novelty acts, all among Spector's earliest musical heroes. "I've just always been a nut for goofy songs," Spector explains without a hint of the shame you would expect from such a disreputable admission. "'Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road'? Great song! Love it!"

Somewhere around his 16th birthday, Spector saw another sort of novelty act in concert -- Grand Funk Railroad -- and it changed his life forever. This is what I want to do, he thought, staring raptly from afar at the straining, sweating visage of Railroad frontman Mark Farner.

Now, nearly 30 years after his Grand Funk epiphany, Spector sits in the living room of his refurbished Streamline trailer in Hallandale Beach cradling his cherished red-white-and-blue, limited-edition Buck Owens signature Telecaster guitar. The ax is a bit out of tune, but Spector doesn't mind so long as, when he plays an open E chord, it sounds reasonably close to good. He begins strumming the simple progression that accompanies "Cowboy Like Me," one of approximately 30 tunes that Spector has penned in the last year. "Cowboy Like Me," which brings to light the very existence of black cowboys in the Old West, was inspired, he says, by John Howard Griffin's classic tome on African-American oppression, Black Like Me. "Robbed a bank and killed a man/He was a cowboy like me."

Spector is thin and darkly tanned. He has long brown hair presently pulled back into a ponytail. Every one of the 44 years he has spent on this planet is cryptically inscribed on his weathered face. Spector's a strange dude. He works close by, at the Hollywood dog track, selling programs. For amusement he collects fine, vintage guitars and unusual toys. On the wall in his living room, above his collection of guitars, is a framed poster of Frank Zappa sitting on a toilet, pants pulled down around his ankles. "Phi Zappa Krappa," the poster reads. A copy of The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book lies on an end table nearby. Spector bought the Streamline because it reminded him of a diner.

His voice is thin, reedy, vaguely disconcerting, and usually something less than soothing. Like most of Spector's songs, "Cowboy Like Me" is a rough, strange composite of musical styles and influences: novelty, garage, folk, avant-garde, classic country, and honky-tonk -- whatever.

His stage name is Boise Bob. It's a long story how Spector came upon the moniker. Suffice it to say that it's a misinterpretation of another name someone once pinned on Spector: Beelzebub. Hal Spector, according to Boise Bob, is a recording engineer, producer, and sound guy, a nice-enough fellow who moved to South Florida from Baltimore in the mid-'70s and who's been involved in the local music scene ever since. Boise Bob, on the other hand, is what Spector calls his "alter ego": a musician and singer, someone prone to insulting his audience or particular members thereof for no good reason at all. Assuming the name and persona of Boise Bob, he says, "was a way of getting on stage and doing what I do without having to apologize to anyone."

Spector began performing as Boise Bob 11 years ago as part of the eclectic, largely underground local duo Boise and Moss. Moss was Spector's friend, Pete Moss, a well-rounded musician who could play just about any instrument you could name and who admired just about every type of music ever invented. With Moss composing the music and Bob penning the lyrics, Boise and Moss assembled a batch of songs that burrowed deeply into novelty music's rich, seemingly unlimited possibilities. They composed a country-folk ode to a circus freak, titled "Otis the Frogboy." They wrote a tongue-in-cheek rockabilly number called "[Do the] Devil Rock" and a droning, punkish ditty called "Plastic Friend." The chorus of their countrified tribute to the thrilling pleasures of S&M, "Hit Me With Your Spoon," was typical of Boise and Moss' warped sensibilities: "Hit me with your spoon, Eileen/Do it fast and make it clean/Hit me on the nose and rip off all my clothes/Just hit me with your spoon, Eileen." The music was always idiosyncratic; occasionally it bordered on brilliant nonsense. "There's a girl in the yard with a card," Bob sang in "On a Fence." "There's a boy with a fish on his wrist/There's a pig with a wig who's doing a jig/And the cows are all taking a piss."

For whatever else Boise and Moss were, they were pretty damned entertaining. Or maybe just pretty damned. For nine years they wrote and performed together. Occasionally they would make weird additions to their stage act. Sometimes, for instance, Steve Toth, a.k.a. Mr. Entertainment, would join Boise and Moss on stage and juggle things or simply read a magazine. Boise and Moss lived by the seats of their pants, right up until 1997, when Moss died under circumstances that Bob would rather not get into too heavily. In any event Bob was cast adrift when Moss died, and he stayed that way for the better part of the past two years.

To some extent he's rebounded of late. Though he never thought he'd be able to replace someone as talented and sympathetic to his own tastes as Moss, he says he basically did just that when he got together with another well-rounded musician some 20 years his junior named Brandon Samdahl. Calling themselves the Dirty Sanchezs, Bob, Samdahl, and an 18-year-old singer named Jeannin Hanes, a.k.a. Little Miss Somethin', recently recorded a 15-song demo tape on Bob's Yamaha four-track recorder in his trailer.

Viva el baño!represents Boise Bob's first tangible steps back into the realm of living, working performers. The material has lost some -- but not nearly all -- of Bob's novelty edge. The passings of time and a close friend have made him more introspective, less plumb crazy. But that's only relative to Bob's frame of mind, say, five years ago. He's still plenty crazy, just less plumb crazy. If you're interested in checking out a slice of local color well off the beaten track, Boise Bob, along with some incarnation of the Dirty Sanchezs will be opening for the Trash Monkeys at the Hole(5713 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood) on Saturday night. Call 9549658888 for details.

Send music, news, gossip, love letters, and witty commentary to Calibrations at P.O. Box 14128, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33302 or by email: David_Pulizzi@newtimesbpb.com.

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