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Sad and Gone

The Story of Val Stoecklein’s Grey Life, the Best Album You Never Heard

By Keven McAlester | Posted 12/29/2004

Eleven years ago, the lonely life of Valerian Richard Stoecklein came to a quiet and unremarked end. The stocky, graying man kept to himself, mostly. Sometimes you’d see him walking the streets of Hutchinson, the quiet southern Kansas town where he lived. Sometimes people would bang at his door, hoping to coax Val out of bed. Sometimes he’d call friends or old acquaintances late at night and subject them to long, rambling, occasionally hostile diatribes. But mostly he was the opposite—meticulous, shy, and, when he did talk, almost entirely affectless. His few acquaintances invariably described him as fragile; his counselors used other words, and his ex-wives, others still.

His death did not make the paper in Hutchinson (population: 40,787). It might have been noted that Stoecklein, age 52, was a musician. He sang and played guitar in a 1960s band called the Blue Things, had some minor regional hits. Later, after he resigned himself to writing for others, Hank Williams Jr. and Pat Boone recorded a few of his songs. He drifted to Los Angeles and back, renounced and re-embraced performing several times, and had, at the time of his death, been recording demos. And it went entirely unremarked, both there and everywhere else, that 25 years earlier Val Stoecklein had been responsible for one of the saddest, most mysterious, and just sort of flat-out best albums of its time.

 

By even a generous estimate, Stoecklein’s recorded output was neither prodigious nor, as a whole, exceptional. The Kansas native’s first album—as part of a 14-piece college folk troupe named, with a certain appropriate imprecision, the Impromptwos—remains impossible to find, which impossible-to-findness can only be ascribed to the awful music it contains. His first two rock bands, the Rockets and the Dukes, released one demo single between them; his third, the Blue Things, put out one album of average Beatles imitations (The Blue Things, 1966) and one incredible single, “The Orange Rooftop of Your Mind.” In the intervening years, “Orange” has inspired deserved reverence among connoisseurs of ’60s garage-rock ephemera—you know the type—and the primary result has been that the rest of the band’s recordings (including two early 45s and two recorded after Stoecklein’s departure) have become celebrated beyond their charms.

Stoecklein left the Blue Things in 1967 and eventually made his way to Los Angeles, where he added an “O” to his last name (his real name was Stecklein) and appeared on three more records. One was Truth of Truths, a double-LP biblical rock opera—co-written by Stoecklein, producer Ray Ruff, and former Them bassist Alan Henderson—that features Jim Backus as God. It’s so insanely bad that you should probably buy it if you ever see it. The second was Environment/Evolution, the only album by a studio project called Ecology. It’s a less interesting kind of bad; simply mediocre. It substitutes agendas for emotions, and the songwriting never bridges the gap.

And, finally, there’s Grey Life, Stoecklein’s lone solo record, released by Dot Records in 1968 to little acclaim or success. It’s the kind of record you might buy for 50 cents because the cover—a guy dressed entirely in black, sitting in the corner of what appears to be a padded room, playing his guitar—has an elegant simplicity that suggests something worth hearing. Turns out it contains something even more unlikely: 11 achingly sad acoustic songs accompanied by immaculate, over-the-top orchestral arrangements, like an extremely depressed Neil Diamond or Burt Bacharach arranging Smog. It ranges from quiet, finger-picked melancholia (“Sounds of Yesterday”) to baroque pop melancholia (“Morning Child”) to something approaching majestic (“Seven Days Away From You,” which, by the way, your life is not complete without hearing), all topped by a self-consciously slick voice that sounds a few seconds shy of total collapse. It is, in short, amazing.

For a while now, Grey Life has been semi-legendary among record collectors, and not just because it’s good; the circumstances of its creation, and indeed even the basic biographical facts of its creator, have remained entirely mysterious. That Stoecklein seemed to come out of nowhere and quickly return there did little to detract from the record’s myth. The LP liner notes—a brain-melting “biographical meditation” of the sub-beatnik variety—make reference to “gray mists” in Stoecklein’s life, a cryptic fog given only slightly more considered treatment in the few available histories of the Blue Things, which note that Stoecklein’s 1967 departure from the band was for “health reasons.”

In fact, according to the dozen or so family members and acquaintances interviewed for this article, he spent a portion of that year at Kansas’ infamous Menninger Clinic, where he was admitted with what eventually came to be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. (An affliction exacerbated throughout his life, friends say, by a penchant for self-medicating with beer.) The breakdown that led him to Menninger occurred one weekend in early 1967, during a Blue Things stop in Oklahoma City. All of the band members present declined comment on the details. Friends ascribe it, variously, to an ugly breakup with his first wife, drug use, the rigors of a touring musician, and genetic inevitability; Stoecklein himself would later mournfully blame LSD, with which he’d say he had been experimenting. It’s a story that, by now, has certain archetypal ring to it—as do the various antediluvian treatments (shock, et al.) he received once at the hospital.

Though a couple of songs on Grey Life had been recorded by the Blue Things, most of them bear deeper scars; he rarely ventures poetry to camouflage his desolation, and when he sings “I’ll leave these streets behind me” or “I don’t deserve to walk by your side,” you sense equal parts threat and resignation. Ironically, these songs ended up getting recorded during the best years of his career. After he got out of the hospital, he went to Los Angeles at the behest of Ruff, a one-time rocker who’d recorded some early Blue Things sessions and since become head of A&R at Dot Records. Upon hearing Val Stoecklein’s solo demos, Ruff immediately signed him and entered L.A.’s Gold Star studios with arranger Dick Hieronymous, a gifted pro from an entirely different world—big bands and Las Vegas shows.

“Val shows up one day with his guitar and not much else,” Hieronymous remembers. “A very, very sensitive young man. He was comfortable sitting on the floor playing 12-string, but he was very shy. [Ruff] had listened to his songs, seen the emotion; I was hired and allowed to do whatever I wanted. I was very moved by the music; I probably overwrote it.”

Recorded over the course of a month at Gold Star, Grey Life has the charm of a happy accident. By no measure should these sad songs have given themselves to such accompaniment without tempting melodrama, or worse; yet the combination works, and well. To the label, the record seemed a hit. Promotional singles were pressed, concert dates were booked, and there was talk of Glen Campbell—then hot off the success of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and his TV show—recording one of its songs. But then something happened.

Stoecklein wouldn’t play the shows.

Back with the Blue Things, his moodiness had always been tempered by a love of performance. But now, alone, with an acoustic guitar, he couldn’t do it. Couldn’t, or wouldn’t. Some friends say Stoecklein was so unhappy with the overproduction of Grey that he vowed never to record again; others say he simply panicked. Hardly eccentric in a world populated by the likes of Jim Morrison and Phil Spector, but that world only tolerates the mercurial when it’s accompanied by success, and Grey Life failed to produce a hit. Soon afterward the Campbell deal fell through, and the combination sent Stoecklein’s career into a slow tailspin from which it never recovered. After a lone follow-up single for Dot, he would never record under his own name again.

 

By the time Stoecklein returned to Kansas after his father’s death in 1984, he had lost so much interest in his own voice that, when he finally mustered the energy to enter a small local studio, he had others sing demos of his songs. He had long since abandoned rock for traditional country; he’d arrive with impossibly beautiful handwritten charts and hand them to players who couldn’t read them. In every way, he felt the world had passed him by.

The interim years in Los Angeles had been an ever-slower procession of dangled carrots—mostly by Ruff, who kept Stoecklein on retainer as a songwriter. There was the Ecology record and Truth of Truths, released in 1971. There were sessions with country singer Susie Allanson and a few recordings of his songs here and there, songs sometimes penned under the pseudonym “Oskar Solomon.” After 10 years, with no hits, no apparent desire to revive a career under his own name, and fewer and fewer people recording his songs, he left.

Over seven years in Kansas, he demoed almost 50 songs, none of which was ever released. He told friends that he could no longer write on the medication he was taking; occasionally he’d disappear for a few weeks and return with a handful of songs and a glint in his eye. In 1987, he participated in a three-record Blue Things compilation on small Arizona label called Cicadelic, correcting the liner notes himself. He even took one last shot at professional songwriting and moved to Nashville. Soon after his arrival, he started calling back to Kansas, saying he couldn’t do it. He was home within a few weeks.

And, one May morning, he was found in his apartment, dead. No autopsy was performed, no public obituaries were printed. His family told a few close friends what exactly had happened. To anyone else that asked, his mother said he’d had heart trouble. He was buried after a short memorial service.

Given everything that happened before and after, it’s tempting to cast Grey Life alongside such venerable solo records as Skip Spence’s Oar and Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs—the final intimate musings of an irreparably fractured mind. But it’s something less spectacular and, in a way, more moving: the major inspiration of a minor talent. It constitutes some kind of quiet, lonely victory—entirely befitting the man for whom simply getting up became, ultimately, too much of a struggle. It’s flawed, beautiful, strange, and just about perfect.

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