50 Foot Hose
“Rock n’ roll is electronic music because, if you pull the plug, there’s no more sound.”
This statement helped define the ethos of the Fifty Foot Hose, an innovative group from San Francisco who melded electronics with rock during the heady, psychedelic 60’s. Early in 1997, we caught up with with Cork Marcheschi (and his dogs Ruby and Rita), who played an electronic rig he created himself. Cork’s musical career began as the bassist for the garage band the Ethix during the early 1960’s. Following its unfortunate dissolution in 1966, Cork met David Blossom and together they formed the Fifty Foot Hose, who turned the music world on its ear with its sole album Cauldron on the Mercury subsidiary Limelight. At the time of its release, few heard it, and fewer bought it. Lack of management and bookings spelled the end of that phase of the early Hose’s career. After reissuing Caudron on his own Weasel Disc label in 1994, the Fifty Foot Hose has reformed, with Cork as the only original member, playing the same rig he played in the sixties with few modifications. The Fifty Foot Hose’s latest album, a one-off show in San Francisco in August of 1995, is called Live and Unreleased on the Captain Trip label in Japan. A new album will be out soon. The origin of the band’s name and a description of Cork’s rig are in the liner notes of Cauldron. Highlights of Cork’s and the Fifty Foot Hose’s career follow.
PT: What is your earliest musical memory?
Cork: My first major musical memory was in 1949, my grandmother walking me to an equivalent of what we now call a convenience store. It was actually a shack, the guy behind him had chickens, and out front the guy sold eggs. It was right next to a Fire Baptist Church, which was an all black church about ten or twelve blocks from where I was raised in San Mateo. I grew up in Burlingame, and San Mateo is the town that’s right next to it. It was the first time I had heard live gospel music with a fervor. It froze me out in front, an amazing experience. I asked her if we could come back, and a few weeks later she’d actually brought me to the church. It was a time when race relations certainly were not what they are now, and we were welcomed into this tiny all-black congregation just to hear this incredibly powerful music. From third grade on, when I actually had an allowance, I started buying rhythm and blues records, or “race” records as they were called then.
What were some of your early favourites?
“Flip, Flop, and Fly” and “Shake Rattle and Roll” by Big Joe Turner. There was a third one by Big Joe Turner but I can’t remember the name right now. These were 78’s; I still have one of them. By fourth, fifth, and sixth grade I was buying regular stuff like Fats Domino, and early Elvis when he was still on Sun. I also had odd records like the flying saucer records by Goodman & Thompson, where they’d splice bits and pieces of contemporary music together to answer questions; they’d ask a question, then Little Richard would scream “I ducked back in the alley...” I had “Transfusion” by Nervous Norvus - crazy stuff... Basically, I had an ear for anything with a deep groove, like rhythm and blues and even boogie woogie from the 40’s. I’d hear it and it would instantly get my attention.
When did you start playing music?
I began playing bass when I was either a junior or senior in high school. A friend needed a bass player; he wanted a band, he played guitar, he found a drummer and he needed a bass player so he convinced me I should do this. I rented a bass and three or four months later we were performing at recreation centers and YMCA’s, Friday night sock hops. Of course, it was an absolute garage band at its best, all cover tunes, all the bands played the same tunes. There was such a smaller body of music for everyone to glean from, but it was all pretty interesting music. As I got older, one of the things I appreciated about being a musician at that time as opposed to being a musician today was that you could get 3 or 4 people together and meet in front of a club and you just knew 30 or 40 songs, because you all played “Good Lovin’”, “Money”, Ray Charles tunes... you knew this stuff because everybody learned to play an instrument by playing songs instead of just playing an instrument. The concept of the virtuoso soloist which, came out of the 60s, when people would just buy guitars and drums to become the centers of attention. Back then, you were a member of a band and not just one of these “personalities.” The earlier musicians were closer to being jazz musicians because they had to be able to play songs in different keys for different singers working with you.
So there was more of a demand for live musicians than there is today?
The place where we really started to work a lot was in San Francisco, North Beach in 1963, we all had fake ID’s, I was 18, the other guys in the band were between 17 and 19. This part of San Francisco had maybe 25 to 30 nightclubs in a 5 or 6 block area, and every one had live music, so there was a real working community of artists. You’d go to work at 9 p.m. and get off at 2 a.m. and play 5 hours a night for $25 cash each. That was real money back then, my rent was only $98 a month! It was absolutely great! You could sit in with anybody, you got to know a lot of other musicians, and everybody in a band worked 5 or 6 nights a week. It was a job.
How did you first get exposed to electronic music?
When I was a junior in high school, in 1962, I was introduced to Edgar Varese’s “Poeme Electronique”; I was just very fascinated by the sound and the clearly the structure of the sound. From the age of 12 or so I was interested in...let me backtrack a bit. North Beach in San Francisco as I mentioned is the Italian section of the city, Little Italy, and two things happened there. One, you have all of the nightclubs there, and where City Lights Book Store is, and where all of the coffeehouses are, that’s where all the beatnik stuff happened. It’s where Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Howl, it’s where Kerouac and Ginsberg and all of those people hung out, wrote, and sort of launched the Beat Generation. There was jazz happening, there was R & B happening, you had all this poetry going on, and you had Italian culture. My background is 100% Italian, and I was in that neighborhood. There were things I was just exposed to in terms of poetry. You go to a coffeehouse to get gelato and coffee and it’s the place where Gregory Corso is half-loaded on red wine standing on top of a chair, reading poems from his little book Gasoline. So there was peripherally, a whole sense of poetry, of meter, performance, and when I heard “Poeme Electronique”, it just kind of registered in my head that the same thing that was going on in spoken language was being made in terms of these tonal statements; this wasn’t noise, this was a beautifully structured thing. A little later when I got familiar with the Dadaists I recognized the same thing from people like Kurt Shwitters that had been going on fifty years earlier. He did “The Ur Sonata”, which are these lengthy poems about one piece of recognizable language in them. The tone or the pitch or the meter are like a dog growling at you. That dog does not have to say a word! You understand the meaning! It’s as if someone says something to you at a restaurant that’s not necessarily impolite but it’s cold, impersonal, and you recognize that purely from the tonality. So the language becomes inconsequential, and the ability to communicate becomes the meaning of what’s played in a lot of jazz, certainly in electronic music in presenting these nonlinear, nondiatonic constructed electronic phrases and tonal clusters. That’s also happening in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Mills College Taped Music Center in Oakland had a studio in San Francisco above a nightclub called the Both And, which is over on Divisadero Street. That’s where Don Buchla developed the first true synthesizer, the Buchla Box. Morton Subotnick was a collaborator of Don’s; most of the things Buchla made were made for Subotnick. Mort was the guy who took them out and really performed.
When did you start building electronic instruments? Were you an electronic hobbyist?
There was an event that took place, it was kind of a significant event in ‘65 or ‘66. My band, the Ethix, moved from the nightclubs in North Beach, we’d evolved into a six-piece, which actually was a seven piece because the organist could play the trumpet simultaneously. We were doing real show band kind of stuff. We were working in Las Vegas...we’d worked our way up from the North Beach clubs to a higher quality of clubs. Someone saw us, and wanted to book us on a tour of Las Vegas. This was really great...we were making $500 a piece a week, again cash money, we were young guys, 20 or 21 years old, working in Vegas and having a wonderful time. We worked there for several weeks when someone asked us if we had police cards. If you worked in Las Vegas on the Strip, you needed a police card, if you worked in Las Vegas downtown, you needed a sheriff’s card. Anyplace there was liquor sold and gambling at the same establishment, you had to have these cards. In order to get the card, you had to go in, have your picture taken, have one identifiable mark on your body identified, I have a large birthmark on my wrist, and then have both hands fingerprinted and both palms printed, and then you get this card. Once you have this card, you can work. The first nightclub we worked just took for granted we had them and didn’t even ask. The second club was a little more proficient and asked. Three members of the band were underage and there was no way we could fake our way through getting phony ID’s, so three days after getting a great job, we had to leave Las Vegas. And that was the end of my nightclub rhythm and blues career. I left Vegas and I was really emotionally destroyed. We worked our way up to this point and then had the rug completely pulled out from under us. I went back to San Francisco, just depressed for six months. I hung around, watched TV, didn’t do much of anything. I got a telephone call from the San Francisco Musician’s Union, because in those days everyone was in the musicians’ union, saying there was a job for a bass player for one night for a young woman whose father was the guy in the musicians’ union I found out later. He was putting together a little band for his daughter. On that casual, I met David Blossom, who would become my co-conspirator in the Fifty Foot Hose. From the moment David and I met and started to talk, it was clear he was coming from the perspective where he wanted to be involved in the psychedelic music coming up, Jimi Hendrix, feedback and all that kind of stuff. I had my own interest in fine arts and electronic music, and the in the discussion it came up that rock n’ roll is electronic music because, if you pull the plug, there’s no more sound. So we met the next day and started inventing a band. From that day on, I started building little bits and pieces of electronic noisemaking devices which just became more sophisticated as time went on. The attitude was always to create something, not to purchase something, not to buy a piece of equipment that another person could have, but personalize an instrument. Develop the instrument the way you’d develop a mark that you’d make on a canvas, a Sumi painting where you’re just doing a gesture with a brush. Develop an instrument that is your own that not only makes sounds you are interested in, but the way that it functions comes from something that you’re very comfortable with physically as well as intellectually.
Not unlike the approach used by Simeon of the Silver Apples?
Right, I remember the Silver Apples! From what I recall their approach was more pop music made with electronic instruments. I liked the Silver Apples...
Tell me about the signing frenzy in San Francisco by Mercury Records, where they signed over a dozen acts in one day.
The attitude I guess in New York and Hollywood, all of your basic big labels, was to send people to San Francisco. The whole “Summer of Love” thing was amazing! I’m sure you’ve seen all of the Time, Life, books, magazines, with the hippies on the cover. The Brill Building was dead, and this was like, something new. What’s interesting is that the people from Los Angeles were coming from a completely different position. A few years earlier there, songs like “Dominique” and “Volare” were big top-40 tunes. Then the new music was what was happening. They were sending people out to sign anybody! It was a massive signing frenzy! And then Mercury and other major labels set up their own studios. It was worth it to them because they were signing so many people, to build their own recording studios, in the south of Market Street, to make things happen. There were great, state-of-the-art recording studios going up everyplace - Wally Heider, Record Plant, Pacific Heights, PHR Pacific High Recordings...everyplace. Brian Rohan and Michael Stepanya were these two lawyers, and I don’t know how this happened but they ended up sending these two lawyers who represented 25 or maybe 30 of the bands and I wandered into Brian Rohan’s office and brought him a tape. Two months later we had a deal with Limelight, a division of Mercury Records. We just became part of the signing frenzy. These guys hooked us up with Dan Healy, from the Grateful Dead, and he ended up being our producer for our record. We could have done better with a different producer but it was still a good experience. We got certain things out of Dan that we couldn’t have gotten out of anyone else.
What were some of your early gigs like?
In those days it cost $3 to get into the Fillmore to see three bands, or a silver dollar got you in any time. To this day no one knows where Bill Graham hid all the silver dollars he collected that way! He had to have tons of them! Anyway, the show started at 8:00, one band came on, the second band came on, the third band came on, and then the first band came on again. All three groups played two complete sets in one evening.
Who did the Hose share the bill with?
We played with Love, and I can’t remember the other band we were with...it might have been Frumious Bandersnatch, or the Rose Tattoo. We played several be-ins, and all the local venues...coffeehouses, the Avalon Ballroom, the Longshoremen’s Hall... Wherever there was to play, we played it.
Tell us some memorable gig anecdotes.
One of our craziest jobs was when we were all broke, incredibly broke, and I got us a job playing a high school graduation and it was an all-girls Catholic school. Our singer, Nancy, was 8½ months pregnant, so we’ve got an all-girls Catholic school, we’ve got Nancy totally pregnant, and we’re trying to figure out how to play some high school music. We were pretty much over the edge by this time. The whole night was just a disaster, because we picked up a couple of friends to work with us, one was a sax player who made Archie Shepp sound like Little Bo Peep, just absolutely wild, over the top kind of guy, and we had a sitar player, and to make a long story short, they didn’t pay us at the end of the night. They waited until the end of the night to tell us they weren’t going to pay us! When Nancy came out on to the stage, we asked her to shuffle out with her back to the band, (chuckle) so that people couldn’t see that she was totally pregnant, then there was this huge “She’s pregnant!” rush through the crowd. It was a very peculiar evening. We played a club called the Bermuda Palms, which was across the bay, a five night run there, the first two nights they had “Fifty Foot Hose” on the marquee, the next three nights, every night they’d change the name of the band even though it filled up the club, just because we’d freaked the people out so much.
Do you have any more positive recollections?
There were a lot of ‘em. Playing some of the be-ins, where some of the sounds we were able to make, sounds would just fly out of these huge spaces and just continue going, and you could see that people would start to look into space, into the trees, all around, because the sound was really melding with the environment. It wasn’t just rock n’ roll coming from the stage, but their were sounds coming from the sky. In San Jose, a be-in at San Jose in some field, the sound system was great. Sound was everywhere, and not just because it was loud, it was something about the acoustics of the bowl that carried the tone. If a flock of birds was flying behind you, you could hear it, or if a jet was passing by at the speed of sound, you couldn’t see it but you knew it was there. It had that kind of spatial disorientation. And then, there were just a lot of times when we’d be playing and people would just demand the more avant-garde stuff. They came to see us, forget people who want to dance! Those were just great moments. Some of the audiences would just say “This is what you guys do, this is what we came to see.” Sometimes we’d do, I guess what you’d now call performance art, where a lot of the shows were physically structured around the kind of clock you’d use for timing film development. We’d hit the clock and know we had one minute for anybody to do anything...tie their shoes, throw rice at the drum set which was covered with contact mikes, whatever, and when the minute was up go right back into the song. Those were some stunning moments.
Did the Hose record a second album?
No. We were supposed to do a second album for Mercury, but the record company basically didn’t want to pay us. They wanted us to go into the studio and work for nothing. This was at a time when Dan Healy...we’d have had a better time with someone else. We were very unsophisticated about all the money we spent making this record and how all of it really works. If we’d have been with somebody else we’d have spent a lot of money but probably would have been able to make a second record. But Dan sort of wanted to go in, put us on a shoestring budget, pay none of us for actually making the record, and I was married, I had a kid, David was married, he had a kid, we just practically we needed something for what kind of time this was going to take out of our lives. We amiably decided not to do the second record even though we’d gotten started. We laid down some tracks for it which are lost. They’re completely and totally lost. We have no idea where they went. I’ve tried to locate them a few times and had no luck.
I’ve seen listings of a second Fifty Foot Hose album, I’ve Paid My Dues, on Decca in The All Music Guide CD-ROM and on-line service.
Really? That’s strange. We never worked with Decca, or even talked with anyone at Decca. I’d love to hear it.
Well, maybe that “official” statement from you will end that rumor. Who designed the artwork for Cauldron?
His last name is Wood and I can’t remember his first name. It wasn’t anybody we’d ever worked with before. He was a guy who developed a great psychedelic poster with day-glo colors and UFO’s. I really liked the poster and met the guy and asked him if he’d like to do an album cover for us. He listened to the music, and came up with a design using electronic symbols for transistors. A lot of the other bits and pieces blowing into the cosmos are a combination of electronic and alchemical symbols. It was released Christmas 1967, which gave it a week in 1967, other than that it went right into 68.
Did it get a lot of airplay or sell many copies?
Well, they pressed 5,000, and we never got any number from the record company as far as how it was selling but we know they didn’t press any more. We did get airplay in odd places. In San Francisco we got a lot of airplay late at night, on the underground stations, playing longer cuts and stranger music, the DJ completely stoned, and it’d be 45 minutes of music before you’d hear a voice. And then it was sort of garbled. We did get a fair amount of airplay, and then we did some touring, with this crazy show called “The Flying Bear Medicine Show and Musical Experience.” This was something put together by the entire Mercury family of recording labels. Mercury had 5 or 6 labels. Your college or whatever would get to pick one of three or four headliners, Chuck Berry, or Mother Earth, one of the groups they represented, maybe Blue Cheer, of that caliber. Then Mercury would pick two other groups and you’d get this package tour. We did some of those shows that were really fun, and pretty much all over California. It was promotional for Mercury just to get their bands out there. And it did work.
Was it easy to get the rights to Cauldron back for reissue on your own Weasel Disc label?
Yes, Limelight had completely folded, and the contract that we had with Mercury at the time had all rights revert back to me seven years after the record was released. That’s because Limelight, which was the Mercury label we signed with, was an electronic music label, and in the world of electronic music more than in the world of ASCAP or BMI publishing, it wasn’t uncommon for the work to become an intellectual property that would become the property of the artist after a seven-year period. It is much different than somebody thinking about a Cole Porter tune that might earn residuals somewhere down the road.
Because each performance was considered to be unique?
Well, to be perfectly honest, it’s because they believed nobody was going to listen. If they sold some records they were going to be lucky, but the whole Limelight imprint was an experiment. Limelight was a jazz label that had been converted to an electronic music label. They were in existence for a few years, and then they went under.
What brought about the demise of the Hose?
There were a couple of things that happened. One was, the second record didn’t happen. Two, we couldn’t find anyone to manage the band. The one guy who was our roadie got lost one night with all of our equipment so we missed the job. He couldn’t find the gig with all of our equipment in the car. We were approached by the people who put on the musical “Hair” and they made an offer to us to go into the cast of “Hair”, David as musical director and performer, Nancy as performer, and the rest of the band in the orchestra, for union scale, which would have been $500-600 a week. Everybody else went for it except for me. I just couldn’t imagine playing the same music every night, twice on Saturdays and Sundays, and so that was the breakup of the band. I went to graduate school, they went into the cast of “Hair”, and I went on in the quote-avant-garde in music as well as other arts, and never stopped being involved, and everybody else faded. Nancy went to New York City, did “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” and then got married and had another kid, I’m not really sure how many kids she had. Her daughter that she had with David was adopted by her new husband. David, for a number of years had a recording studio here in San Francisco, Blossom Studios; they did a lot of punk records, some avant-garde records, and a great one for Michael Bloomfield called If You Love These Blues, Play ‘Em How You Feel commissioned by Guitar Player magazine. He was Eddie Money’s sound guy for a while then dropped out to work with electronics and computers. He still does voice recordings, but not for music...court depositions and things of that nature. I don’t know where anyone else in the band is...I’ve tried to locate them, some have had problems with drugs and alcohol...it’s kind of sad.
Didn’t you produce a film about the blues a few years back?
Yes, Survivors, that was done in 1984. I love real blues, not Blues Traveler kind of blues, I love blues in the traditional form as well as people who were influenced by the blues, but not necessarily milking the blues sound. Guys like Nick Gravenitis worked with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Big Joe Williams, and Mance Lipscomb, and his life was changed being around that music. What was interesting to me is that guys like Geoff Muldaur and Corky Siegel showed the influence but didn’t imitate the sound. This is what drives me nuts about most contemporary blues musicians today...they just imitate the sound but haven’t allowed themselves to be influenced by the music so the music they make is their own. It’s really easy to just become Mr. Joe Wizard, slide guitar player, and not necessarily understand the transforming nature of the music. For the film I got guys like John Lee Hooker, Dr. John, Lady Bianca, Ben Sidran, Willie Murphy, Archie Shepp, a whole bunch of people. We did two things that were unique...one, all the music was cut live in real time, unlike say, The Last Waltz where it’s a combination of three nights. Second, we let the musicians speak their minds and talk about things they were interested in, which included race. Nick Gravenitis made a comment about a point where the white musicians became better than the black musicians at playing the blues because so many black musicians were moving to Motown, and there was a shift in focus in where the traditions, history, and forms of music were going.
And you taught for a while...
Yes, I taught from 1970 to 1990. Sculpture, fine arts, several courses on art history and music history. I produced other films about music. One way or another, I’ve always been involved in music somehow. And then a few years ago the Fifty Foot Hose got back together, though I’m the only original member.
How did this new incarnation of the Hose get together?
People, fans just call me, look me up in the phone book and say “You’re the guy from the Fifty Foot Hose. Three of them were incredibly persistent. Sharon Cheslow, who ended up writing this fanzine called Interrobang did an interview with me. Walter Funk III, an incredibly bright and talented musician, Lenny Bove, who is the bass player for Tripod Jimmy, and had been involved with avant-garde as well as rock n’ roll music contacted me and has become the bass player of the band. So these people got in touch with me, and then Windy, from Aquarius Record Store, who supports more of the “fringe music”, was doing a benefit to pay some back taxes from the previous owner of the record store, had some good people like Barbara Manning, Mark Eitzel, and the whole day, from noon to midnight. The Hose headlined; we went on at midnight, we put the band together just for this one show, it was a fantastic experience. I don’t think anyone in the audience was born when Cauldron was released. We didn’t know it but as a gift for all the people who performed, they did an ADAT recording. The word got to Japan, and Captain Trip Records made us a very fair offer to produce, distribute, and release this performance [Now available as Live & Unreleased]. A lot of that album is our old music redone, but we just finished an album in the studio that has nothing to do with the old Fifty Foot Hose - it’s really taken it into an electronic zone. This is really my original intention for the Fifty Foot Hose.
(photo: Liz Perry of 50 Foot Hose at Terrastock 2)
Cork Marcheschi was interviewed for Ptolemaic Terrascope by Jim Powers © Ptolemaic Terrascope, 1997.