Relatively Clean Rivers: Folk Rock's Bermuda Triangle
You know the same old scene; it's 1975, and accessible punk rock is still another eighteen months away. The sweet psychedelia of the 1960's are but a long gone distant memory, and all you've got to choose from the crate in front of you is Emerson, Lake and Palmer, or yet another Rick Wakeman cum explosion. It's tough, man. Really tough.
Whatever happened to the good old days, when Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were enjoying the tag-team Olympics on a whimsical Joni Mitchell? Or, when Tommy was the most radical album on the planet? What about when the hippy revolution meant that it was cool to be unemployed and a vagrant? That was fun. Where are all those fuckers now? Oh, there's one; yeah, the dude with the briefcase. Didn't we used do acid together?
Look buddy, I hear ya. Life's become a bitch. But hey, it's 1975, man. Times have changed, and there's not a damn thing that you or I can do about it. But wait... what's this? In the back of the crate, man. Yeah, grab it. The one in between that pile of Van Der Graaf Generator vomit and that new one from that awful theatrical band... what are they called? Genesis! Fucking Genesis. Man, I hope that drummer doesn't begin a fucking solo career in the 80's. That'd be the equivalent to a barbed-wire baseball bat enema.
Pass that fucking thing to me will ya? Whats that on the cover? Relatively Clean Rivers? Oh, what fresh hell is this?!
Put that on will ya Lester. Hey! Didn't you used to write for Creem?
Actually, I am being a tad harsh on Lester Bangs aren't I? He didn't become washed up until 1977. But that's beside the point. What the laboured point is, is this; not even the sub-mythical Lester Bangs, the epitome of taste, coolness and rare honesty in an otherwise brown-nosing world of music journalism, not even he wrote and gushed about Relatively Clean Rivers, such is their obscurity. Or perhaps he just thought them to be too dated? Either way, the one man band's fate was sealed from the start.
So let's begin from there shall we? The start. Relatively Clean Rivers is the brainchild of the mercurial and charismatic Phil Pearlman? Who? If I were a hipster (you know, a rich dude who tries to look poor, serves food on a chopping board and rides a penny farthing) and you asked me who Phil Pearlman was, even if I'd never heard of him, I'd still screw up my face in that punch-inducing expression of snobbery and needing to shit that they so often produce, and say with infliction, Oh my God! You've never heard of Phil Pearlman?
But I'm not a hipster; I actually am poor, and as a result of being somewhat in touch with reality, I'll afford you a little more respect.
Phil Pearlman (other than being fleetingly known for having a son join Al-Qaeda and becoming Osama Bin-Laden's right hand man, and becoming the first American to be charged with treason in over fifty years) was a seasoned musician in the 1960's, playing around the bars of San Francisco and Los Angeles, who eventually became an integral driving force of the Californian counter-culture scene. He transcended to cult figure status (almost Jesus-like as Lawrence Ferlinghetti once put it) in and around the Haight-Ashbury scene of the late 1960's, organising musical "get-togethers", writing and reading poetry, and writing and recording the ultimate soundtrack to the San Franciscan hippy movement, The Beat of the Earth in 1967.
After recording another similar, yet dismally failed album, under the banner of The Electronic Hole, combined with the sudden violent swing of the peace and love movement, Pearlman went missing for the early part of the 1970's until he resurfaced in 1975 with a brand new project; Relatively Clean Rivers.
Devoured by a mid-70's lust for all things excessive and pretentious, Relatively Clean Rivers popularity was doomed from the very beginning. Drowning in vinyl crates dominated by Prog. Rock and an emerging disco scene, the recordings became a lost album almost immediately. Genesis' monster concept album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway had only just been released, and it's rapid movement from the shelves signified the pompous contemporary tastes of the time. People wanted more. The sixties were well and truly dead.
And who could blame Lester for such an oversight? Just how does a hippy folk rocker get discovered in a world of 22 minute opuses, elaborate costumes, and an invisible tightrope connecting rock and opera? It's like trying to find a Chia seed in a Big Mac. It ain't gonna happen.
The term Ahead of its time is excessively bandied about in music circles to this day. Rarely is the statement true. It's a column filler at best; a glowing reference of genericism used to pump up mediocrity, that is best reserved for those who actually deserve it: Brian Eno, David Bowie and High Tide, to name a few footnotes in an invite only list of exclusivity. But rarely, if ever, do you hear the term Behind its time.
And that's exactly what Relatively Clean Rivers was; behind its time. This is not meant as a negative refrain whatsoever, in fact, quite the opposite. At the time, to the lucky few that did discover Pearlman's latest pet project, it was a breath of fresh air, cleansing the stale toxicity that Prog. Rock had leaked into the claustrophobic atmosphere. In a nutshell, it's pure.
Album opener Easy Ride, whilst showcasing a display cabinet of what's to follow, remains tight-lipped on the strategically placed surprises in store for the listener. The songs smooth overtones, syrupy harmonies, and a guitar track that harks back a decade prior to Roger McGuinn and the Byrds, is the perfect introduction; sentimental, earthy, and substantial. It's the quintessential Sunday morning easer.
Now that you've had your coffee, let's delve a little deeper. Journey Through the Valley of O follows, and is both a swirling miasma of whimsy, and a meditative background of drone. The song is bookended by two contemplative verses, the crux of Pearlman's dilemma being, Do I walk away to paradise, or keep on playing the game. Musically, its a throwback to the first wave of Psychedelia, only slightly darker. Nevertheless, it secures the listener's comfort, while building up a gentle tolerance.
The name Babylon conjures up many dystopian images. The once all-conquering city, turned pile of bricks, referenced in the Book of Revelations, is the scene for one of God's greatest sabotages; pranking Mankind with a confused language in order that their feeble attempts to build a ladder to Heaven remain unfulfilled. What a dick.
Instrumentally, the song Babylon, track three on the list of eight, certainly is dystopian. The song symbolises all of those Orwellian sublatives that we've come to know and love. The bold negative imagery gets the listener on the same page as the artist quicker, and binds the apocalyptic undertone of the track to its audience. It's unsettling. It does open innocently though; a Spanish Caravan meets CSNY introduction that lulls and romanticises. But it's rudely interrupted by a squealing, almost surreptitious backward tape loop, that seems to perversely belong without actually belonging at all. This song has everything; Moog synthesisers, flute, organic guitar finger picking, tempo peaks and troughs, and one hell of what I can only describe as fucked up lead break. Think the Monkees meets early Butthole Surfers, entwined in a scatalogical orgy where only one participant survives and must eat the other. Hint: The Butthole Surfers win.
Relatively Clean Rivers is peppered with sweeping, meadow-dancing instrumental fillers that serve as relief tracks, allowing the listener to regroup, take a breath and wonder, what the fuck is this? Last Flight to Eden and Prelude run in successive order, with the latter being a snippet of soundscape that evokes images of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Pearlman is the thoughtful type, more a giver than receiver, and he follows his trait in the following track Hello Sunshine. He purposefully allows his audience a secondary ease in after the heart-starting static of Babylon's climax, with a continuation of seascapes, a saccharine-sweet Graham Nash-style vocal, and a wonderful guitar loop that Robin Pecknold of the Fleet Foxes must have ripped off for use in that band's folksy Sun it Rises track. Who can blame him; it's wonderful.
Possibly the highlight (and there are many) of the album, are the melding of tracks six and seven, They Knew What to Say and The Persian Caravan. Pearlman's newly discovered devotion to Christianity shines through here, with a growing list of Biblical references and some self-suited gems of his own:
"We all throw our money into the streets
Whose face do you see on the coin
-Relatively Clean Rivers 'They Knew What To Say'
The Persian Caravan is another instrumental, but do not pre-judge; its four minutes of trudging warning and religious virtue speaks louder volumes than a succession of lyrics ever could. The slow burner could even cast itself as a prophetic warning to its creator himself, with Pearlman's son Adam deeply immersed in a culture of Islamic radicalism and Jihad.
The album closer, A Thousand Years, continues in the same vein, both musically and lyrically. One doesn't need to search too far to locate the tracks surfaced meaning; Pearlman's yearning for a spiritual transformation into the after life is crystal clear.
"One more time I'll try again But I'm left with a human face
I have heard from the other side
The infinity of space"
-Relatively Clean Rivers 'A Thousand Years'
A Thousand Years seems to be the perfect closer. A philosophical, slow-lane-driving, even tempo, grounded in its design both physically and spiritually. With the afore-mentioned dream of a pure, higher-entitied life, and reflections on the de-ja-vu of mysterious past lives, Pearlman delivers his proclamation to the world loud and true; I have arrived! I am God!
Perhaps, in the case of Phil's son, the sacred apple doesn't fall too far from the tree.
*Phil Pearlman is Relatively Clean Rivers; he wrote, produced, engineered, and played every instrument heard on the album. To listen to this lost classic in full, click here.