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Garage Days Revisited

George Brigman And The Secret History Of A Lost Psychedelic Classic

Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Jess Harvell | Posted 1/18/2006

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If you think Baltimore makes you stressed now, take a look at the cover of George Brigman’s 1975 LP Jungle Rot. On land now paved with prime waterfront real estate, Brigman crouches in rubble that looks more like recently bombed Southeast Asia than Maryland. On the back, the 20-year-old Brigman sits in front of a shady looking rowhouse with the windows smashed. “Remember what your father said/ When the weather’s hot/ Talkin’ about all the young girls/ Beware the Jungle Rot.”

Brigman opens the door to his suburban house near UMBC on a chilly night just after Christmas 30 years later and looks exactly as he did on Jungle Rot’s cover—tall, gaunt, long hair, blue jeans—just a bit older. Meeting with his bass player John Spokus and Rick Noll from Bona Fide Records, which recently reissued two Brigman records on CD, including Jungle Rot, Brigman’s comfy basement doesn’t feel much like a rock ’n’ roll den of iniquity. (For one thing, everyone drinks caffeine-free Diet Pepsi.) But George Brigman—a middle-aged family man and software designer—wrote, recorded, and pressed a psychedelic slab of a record collector’s wet dreams.

He was born in Baltimore in 1954 and grew up in Dundalk, he says, the son of a “master electrician” and a “homemaker.” A bright child, he was immediately drawn to music. “[My parents] always encouraged me to play,” Brigman says. “And by junior high school, my teachers wanted me to go to the Peabody, but my parents couldn’t afford it.”

His eyes light up like headlights. “And then my sister took me to a Cream concert [in 1968], and that was it,” he says. “As soon as they walked out onto the stage it was like, ‘I know what I want to do.’”

This rock ’n’ roll conversion didn’t go over in the Brigman household. “My parents were very old school,” he says. “Whatever the teacher said was right. I still made the honor roll, mostly because my father wasn’t fit to live with if I didn’t. I grew my hair long . . . they would actually suspend kids who did that.”

His rock tresses didn’t earn him too many friends in the neighborhood either. “And to make matters worse, I found this pink girl’s jacket that was just perfect for my body,” he laughs. “I got this shark tooth earning, and in like 1968 that was not fuckin’ cool. But I had this bad street rep, so no one would really say anything to my face. I had the best of both worlds for a while . . . outside of the cops.” Brigman says he regularly clashed with the police “just for looking like I did.”

Life as a self-described “street urchin” wasn’t all bad. Later, Brigman launches into a long story about trying to see Johnny Winter in Philadelphia in the early ’70s. Brigman’s pal rents a moving truck, which they proceed to fill with longhairs. They skip a weigh station only to get pulled over, and miraculously let go, by a state trooper. (“Though we had to toss the pot,” Brigman laments.) When they get to Philly, they watch the load-in gate slam shut as Winter takes the stage. Surveying the destruction to the battered van, soaked in booze and piss, Brigman’s friend assures him it will be alright, producing the stolen ID he used to rent it in the first place. “Typical Dundalk shit,” Brigman says, a phrase he repeats like a mantra.

Still, Brigman says his old neighborhood gets a bad rap. “They’d give you the shirt off their back,” he says. “They might have their hand in your pocket while they were doing it, but . . . ”

Brigman says he “experienced an epiphany” after being briefly kicked out of high school for getting into an altercation with a teacher in 11th grade. “[My brother and I] were listening to the progressive rock station,” he says, “which was AM—WAYE—and they were playing ‘Darkness Is No Friend’ by the Groundhogs. And I eventually got a copy of Thank Christ for the Bomb.”

Though briefly popular in the U.K., the Groundhogs were strictly a cult band over here. Rooted in the blues, they were twisted by a mix of psychedelics and heavy-handed lyrical imagery. They had seismic impact on Brigman, who named two bands (Hogwash and Split) and his record label (Solid) after Groundhogs’ albums.

After graduating in 1972, Brigman and his wife Donna (they met in ninth grade) got an apartment in East Baltimore, and he bought his first guitar. “It was a Univox,” he says. “I think [the music store where I bought it] is a Greek restaurant now.” In his apartment after work at an East Baltimore factory, he taught himself how to play.

“I had been writing songs since I was a little kid,” Brigman says. “It seemed to me the only way I was going to get recorded was to write songs for other people. And a guitar was cheaper than a piano.”

And he was initially successful—sort of. “I actually sold six songs to a New York publishing house,” he says. “But I never made any money at it. Selling a song to a publisher isn’t the same as selling a record by a band. There was a definite way things had to sound to get these guys to listen to it.”

Soon Brigman began writing other songs, darker and heavier and louder than the pop he scribbled for the publishing houses, with lyrics suited to a working-class, racially stratified city. “‘Jungle Rot’ is about my buddy’s ex-wife,” he laughs. “But ‘DMT’ is just about . . . growing up in Dundalk. If they weren’t huffin’ glue or snortin’ PCP, they were smoking DMT or anything else they could get their hands on.”

He recorded them merely for his own amusement at first. “I was recording ‘Jungle Rot’ within seven or eight months of getting a guitar,” Brigman says. “I went to this little studio, this little four-track studio called RMP to get the stuff mixed . . . and suddenly my friends were like, ‘You’ve got put this out as an album, you’ve got to put this out as an album.’”

Of course, as soon as Brigman got the finished album in 1975 those same friends said, “‘This sucks, I hate it, you’re horrible, these pressings are terrible,’” Brigman sighs.

It’s not hard to understand why the era of the Carpenters would be put off by Jungle Rot’s caustic grooves. Released on the cusp of punk rock, it’s a mess of throwback fuzz guitar and swamp-bass hoodoo. Brigman’s vocals are delivered with the I-don’t-give-a-fuck insolence of a high-school kid staring down the clock. On “Schoolgirl,” probably his best song, he struts in a hairy-palmed, lecherous approximation of a rock lothario. Brigman may think the record sounds muddy and poorly recorded today, but that sewage-tank ambiance adds a great deal to the subterranean-garage feel that’s endeared it to a new generation of dirt rockers.

“It was magical,” Brigman says about pressing his own album. “It was actually a company in Baltimore. And he ripped everybody off. I remember being out there one day, and there must have been a line of 50 people . . . and all of them wanted to kill this guy. Most of them were gospel people, religious people.”

He says he sold them at “local stores—local stores that would carry them anyway. Because anywhere you would go, people just looked at you like you were an alien.”

Back then, the Baltimore music scene was a “tight, close-knit club scene,” Brigman says. “You know, hand me your playlist before you can even get an audition, even the bands that were considered ‘original bands,’” he says. “[The bands] might do one original song a night, or one original song per set.”

Brigman finally formed a band, Hogwash, to play the Jungle Rot material, recruiting singer Ron Simms, an African-American, which made the group stick out like a sore thumb in mid-’70s Baltimore. “We were known as the band with the longhair and the nigger,” Brigman says. “Those aren’t my words, but that’s what everyone would say. Ron was a great guy, a great friend, and just a devastating singer.”

But the other members of Hogwash wanted to pursue a more hard-rock direction, and Simms eventually left, a “big mistake” Brigman says, because the band was never the same after that. Brigman formed a new band, Split, and it gigged around Baltimore, eventually recording enough material for an album. Only one 45 ever resulted, though, 1977’s “Blowin’ Smoke,” which sold a few thousand copies and received airplay in 19 states. But by the end of the decade, Split, well, split, owing to the usual reasons.

Brigman suffered a few blows in quick succession in the early ’80s. First, his friend and bass player Mitchell Myers was shot to death by a friend who was high on PCP at the time. Then Brigman was struck with a crippling form of arthritis. “It put me out for close to two years,” he says. “I’m [still] fighting it right now, I’m in therapy.” Following his rehabilitation, he began to pursue his current career as a software programmer. “You know, it’s been a proverbial struggle,” he shrugs. “My wife hates the music business, and I love it. ‘Get a real job and make some money.’”

But it was also around this time that he met Bona Fide’s Noll, who quickly became Brigman’s biggest champion. “There was this place called the Mason-Dixon Flea Market,” right over the Pennsylvania state line, Noll says. “And they had a pile of 25 or 30 copies of [Jungle Rot]. I bought about three of them—and the next day I went back and bought the rest. And maybe a year or two later . . . I came down to meet [Brigman], and he said, ‘Well, that doesn’t sound anything like my best stuff!’ And he played me [what was to be Brigman’s second album] I Can Hear the Ants Dancin’, and I just thought, Wow.”

The nascent Bona Fide reissued Ants Dancin’ in a small run of cassettes in 1981, forming a small cult. “David Fricke reviewed [Ants Dancin’] in Musician magazine,” Noll says. “Andy Schwartz, who had New York Rocker, reviewed the ‘Blowin’ Smoke’ 45, and Byron Coley reviewed it for Forced Exposure. Goldmine magazine had a column called ‘Obscurities’ . . . [that] was the first thing in a national publication about it.”

Unfortunately, with the newfound attention came an unwanted side effect: bootlegs. Jungle Rot has been bootlegged more than half a dozen times, mostly in Europe—which is why Noll and Brigman were both glad to get remastered and expanded CD editions of both Jungle Rot and I Can Hear the Ants Dancin’ out this past summer. Sales have been slow but steady.

Later, Brigman ushers us into a small music room off the basement to listen to the new material he’s been laying down. “But only if you turn off that,” he says, tapping the tape recorder. “I’m a little paranoid about getting ripped off.”

The music room is dominated by a Marshall stack, along with a few other amps and an array of guitar pedals. Brigman says he tries to play every day if he can, depending on his arthritis. “Some days are better than others,” he says. “Some days I can play for a few hours, others for only 15 minutes.”

The new material is cleaner than Jungle Rot’s grotty Baltimore field recordings but does bear his signature guitar sound. The new work is largely instrumental; apparently getting Brigman to sing on his own records has been difficult ever since Jungle Rot. “I just don’t have a very strong voice,” he shrugs to protest from Noll. After a particularly pretty track, he says his wife likes that one. “Normally, that’d make me worry,” he laughs. “But I really like that one, too.”

As the music plays he talks football—he’s decidedly unhappy about Brian Billick being kept on as the Ravens’ head coach—and his stint as a hockey player in local leagues when the whole music thing went briefly sour. “It’s a tough sport,” he says, “especially when you weigh 135 and everyone else is over 200.”

But the sideline Brigman is most proud of, and most adamant about making it into this article, is greyhound rescue. “They’ve got no reason to be, but they’re the kindest dogs in the world,” he says, petting a friendly greyhound pup that’s been underfoot for the entire interview. He’s obviously disgusted by greyhound racing culture, where a dog has a brief time to prove itself before it’s destroyed. Working with an organization in West Virginia, Brigman and his wife find homes for the dogs throughout the Mid-Atlantic.

He’s obviously pleased that his old records are receiving some belated attention, but Brigman is looking forward to his future music. Bona Fide plans to release the new Brigman record, Rags in Skull, this coming spring, though not before it’s ready. “When I say I’m prolific,” Brigman says, “I’ve probably written about 300 or 400 songs since I [was a kid].

“I ultimately never set out—and this always surprises him—to have a band,” Brigman says, pointing to Noll. “Things just sort of evolved, and here I’ve been in bands for 25 years.”

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