Screaming Gypsy Bandits' blend of jazz, psych rock and absurdist theater holds no counterpart in Indiana music. The Screaming Gypsy Bandits exploded across the Indiana music scene in a brief but brilliant flash leaving just one official release in their wake: 1973's superb In the Eye. But the collective output of the Bandit's many contributors holds a vast and nearly incalculable influence. The demise of the Screaming Gypsy Bandits launched the careers of the vocalist Caroline Peyton, proto-punk pioneers MX-80 Sound and a host of other significant musical adventurers.
I chatted with former Screaming Gypsy Bandits' drummer and vocalist Michael Bourne who performed with the group until 1972. For the last 30-plus years, Bourne has been best known for his role as a jazz jock on Newark, New Jersey's WBGO Jazz 88. But Bourne is also a respected music journalist with a long history of contributing to Down Beat magazine.
NUVO: During what years were you living in Bloomington?
Michael Bourne: I was in Bloomington from 1967 to 1984. I went to graduate school and then I stayed. I got a PhD, but during the period I was writing my dissertation I got on the radio. And I just stayed on the radio. I did jazz shows on WFIU.
NUVO: What was happening in the Bloomington music scene when you arrived?
Bourne: There was a lot going on in the late '60s. The jazz rock thing was happening, which came out of Miles Davis. The first jazz rock band I heard was a predecessor to the Bandits called Mrs. Seamon's Sound Band. Mrs. Seamon was the house mother at Foster Quad, I think. [note: Mrs. Seamon was the head dietician at Wilkie Quad, according to a 2007 interview with Mrs. Seamon's band member Randy Sandke]
Randy Sandke was in that band, and Michael Brecker was in that band. Brecker was nineteen at the time. I went to see them and they played "Light My Fire" for like forty-minutes. It was amazing. Brecker was playing amazing solos.
In Mrs. Seamon's Sound Band was also Bruce Anderson, who played guitar. From that band Bruce Anderson came together with Mark Bingham to form the Screaming Gypsy Bandits. There were so many musicians who came in and out of Screaming Gypsy Bandits, but Mark Bingham was the leader for a long time. I came in for a minute and played drums and sang for the band. I was with the band when we played with Beefheart in Cincinnati and around that time we got a chance to record and the band just fell apart in the studio. It was weird. Mark Dresser was playing bass in the band at that time. He was just a teenager. Now he's one of the mainstays of the Downtown New York jazz scene.
After the Screaming Gypsy Bandits, Mark Bingham and I eventually came back together and did another band called the Brain Sisters. There was so much great music in Bloomington. The anti-war movement was happening and bands were playing in Dunn Meadow for anti-war protests and so forth. When I came into the Screaming Gypsy Bandits I brought all these theatrical elements, because that was my thing. I was an actor and a PhD candidate for theater.
Mark Bingham eventually moved to New Orleans and opened a studio. He worked with the Rolling Stones and R.E.M. Bloomington was an extraordinary place at that time and there was an extraordinary art scene, lots of theater and lots of music.
NUVO: You just mentioned bands playing on Dunn Meadow, what sort of venues were the Screaming Gypsy Bandits playing? Were you working clubs like the Bluebird?
Bourne: No the Bluebird came along later. But the Bluebird is where Charles Mingus played, and Bill Evans played, and Sun Ra and his whole Arkestra played.
I remember we did a show somewhere in Indiana with Yank Rachell, the blues mandolinist. We played down where the Irish Lion is, there was a bar down there and I can't even remember the name of it. We did play some clubs in Bloomington just below the square. We played in Cincinnati at Ludlow Garage. We didn't have a hell of a lot of gigs. It was a 10-piece band, you know?
NUVO: The Screaming Gypsy Bandits' featured the incredible, charismatic vocals of Caroline Peyton. I've heard the band had a pretty wild stage presence. Can you tell me about the group's live shows and Caroline's role in that?
Bourne: It was the hippie times and the free love times. I brought kind of a surrealistic thing to the band. But Caroline was a wonderful singer. She could've been a bigger star if she was handled right. But we all fell apart in the studio, like I said. They could've gone on to great things. But she did go on to greater things - she did come to New York and started working in the theater.
It's a very odd thing when you think about her career. She was this really wild hippie girl with a great voice, and then she ended up singing in musicals and operas in New York, then ended up in Nashville with a church choir. It was a complete ark of all these different styles of music.
Caroline made a couple really great records in Bloomington.
NUVO: Right, Mock Up and Intuition were both amazing albums released through Bloomington's Bar-B-Q Records label. Have you stayed in contact with Caroline?
Bourne: Not really. I haven't talked to her in years. But I remember when she came here to New York. She was the understudy for Linda Ronstadt in the Pirates of Penzance. Then they did a version of the opera La Boheme and Linda could only do so many performances a week because she wasn't really an opera singer. Caroline had more operatic chops and she'd fill in for the other performances. I saw her and she was good.
NUVO: You mentioned that you brought a surreal theatrical element to the band. Can you elaborate on that?
Bourne: I'd get up and do crazy shit. I once found a can of camel meat at some store and I —
NUVO: (interrupts) I'm sorry, I don't think I heard you. A can of what?
Bourne: Camel meat. Actual meat from a camel. It had an image of a camel on the can. I picked it up and brought it to the gig, I got up in the middle of the show and did a commercial for camel meat. We did these very wild pieces that included all kinds of free form vocalizing. It wasn't all about rock. We did one piece called "Holiday" that went into about 14 different time signatures. It would jump from one to another on the turn of a dime. I was the drummer and it was a really hard piece.
I remember we used to play a McCoy Tyner tune called "Passion Dance" kind of as a warm-up for our second set. One night on the break everybody in the band went out and snorted coke in the alley behind the club. They all came back and they were flying through it. "Passion Dance" was about three times as fast that night and by the end of the tune I was exhausted just trying to keep up.
NUVO: Were the Screaming Gypsy Bandits well received in Bloomington at the time?
Bourne: Yeah, Bloomington is that kind of place. There are a lot of students there, obviously. And there are a lot of locals there, obviously. But then there are people like me who came to Bloomington and stayed. So there was an extraordinary community of people there. They came for school, but ended up staying and opening businesses and getting involved in the arts scene. So yeah, people came out.
NUVO: Were the Screaming Gypsy Bandits the first major act you played with?
Bourne: Yeah, I just did the two groups and that was it. I never really played after the second group I was in with Mark Bingham, which started off as the Brain Sisters, and when the sisters left we just changed it to Brains. We did these very theatrical things that I would write. That was about five years after I left the Bandits. The Brain Sisters was 1976 and I was with the Bandits around '71 or '72. I remember Brains was '76 because it was the bicentennial year and we did this goofy Americana thing.
I never really played that much. I was an amateur, but I really liked playing. I don't even know how it happened that I ended up playing with the Bandits.
NUVO: You've mentioned a couple times that the band fell apart in the studio. What I've heard from those sessions sounds great to me. What went wrong in the studio from your perspective?
Bourne: There were arguments and all kinds of things. Atlantic Records paid us to make a demo. I have a CD of it somewhere and there's some crazy shit on it. It was weird, it just never really went anywhere. Although a lot of those players ended up going somewhere else and playing. The trumpet player went to Sweden. I heard from him a couple years ago, maybe he's in Vienna, but he's playing in an orchestra. Larry Williams who played alto sax in the band ended up going to Hollywood and becoming a synthesizer programmer and he's on Quincy Jones' records [note: Williams has contributed as a musician and arranger to a myriad of major recordings including the Michael Jackson LPs Thriller, Bad, and Off The Wall].
Everybody in the Bandits just went off to somewhere else, to all these different sorts of music. Bloomington was extraordinary. I stayed there because there was so much happening.
NUVO: I'm a huge, lifelong Captain Beefheart fanatic, so I have to ask about the Bandits' appearance with Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band at Cincinnati, Ohio's Manteno festival in 1971. What do you remember about that gig?
Bourne: It was at Ludlow Garage and I remember we stayed at this old mansion that Jim Ludlow owned and we were all sleeping on the stairways and everywhere.
At that time I wrote a piece for Down Beat magazine about Beefheart called "Me and Beefheart at Manteno." I've actually been looking for that article because my grandson is getting into Frank Zappa and he wrote to me and asked if I'd ever heard of Captain Beefheart. I told him not only have I heard of him, but I knew him, and I knew him as Don Van Vliet.
I hung out with Beefheart and the Magic Band a few times after that show and I was there when Zappa and Beefheart reunited in Indianapolis. That was pretty extraordinary. At that time Rolling Stone magazine called me up to interview me about that show because they didn't have anybody on the scene there.
NUVO: Do you remember what year that Beefheart/Zappa show happened in Indy?
Bourne: I can't remember. There was an alleged feud between Zappa and Beefheart. They'd known each other since they were young. But I never heard Zappa say anything bad about Beefheart and I never heard Beefheart say anything really bad about Zappa. I think it was all bullshit.
NUVO: Any other memories of the Bandits' performance at the Manteno festival show?
Bourne: That I don't remember. I can't remember much about that show. Ludlow Garage was just a big hall with a stage.
NUVO: So how did your time with the Bandits come to an end?
Bourne: My playing just got bad. I didn't have any chance to practice. We didn't really have any time to rehearse and Mark Dresser and I just couldn't get in synch anymore.
I remember we played a wedding once and it was ridiculous. Everybody kept saying "you're too loud, you're too loud." The next thing you know it's just a piano player and the rest of us went and joined the wedding party and had dinner and shit. It just never really went anywhere and I really didn't last that long with the band.
NUVO: Any other Bloomington bands from that period stick out in your memory?
Bourne: Music was the life blood of the scene back then. Like I said there was that period with Mrs. Seamon and then it was the Bandits and that mutated into something else, and then that became something else. Mark Bingham and I started Brains and then Bruce Anderson and Dale Sophiea from the Bandits put together a band called MX-80. They ended up going out to San Francisco and I think they're still out there.
NUVO: Right, MX-80 became one of the most influential underground rock bands to emerge during the mid-'70s. They'd go on to be a major influence for groups like Sonic Youth. How did you feel about that period when the Bloomington rock scene was transitioning into the New Wave sound - which would eventually become punk rock?
Bourne: Well, it never was my thing. I was always basically a jazz guy and I still am. I've been playing jazz on the radio for forty-four years. I loved all kinds of music. I loved Zappa and I used to go hang out with them on the road. I got to hear everybody in Bloomington. The Rolling Stones played there, The Who, Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys, they all played Bloomington. But the music that I was more into was jazz. It changed my life and I've been in the jazz world ever since.
NUVO: Being such a big jazz fan, I'm curious if you ever visited Indiana Avenue to check out the jazz clubs?
Bourne: You know, I never did that. I would go up to Indianapolis for events, like at Market Square Arena. There was a period where I was really heavily into the whole pro wrestling thing up there with guys like Dick the Bruiser. That turned me on so much because it was pure theater. I almost got involved in that business, managing one of the wrestlers. We were going to create characters and everything.
NUVO: Wow! I was a giant pro wrestling fan as a kid. I caught the tail end of the Indianapolis wrestling scene with Dick the Bruiser and Bobo Brazil. I have to ask - who was the wrestler you considered managing?
Bourne: He was a "babyface", which is what they called the guys that would fight the stars. If the star was a bad guy they would be a good guy, and if the star was a good guy they would be a bad guy. So he was two different characters. When he was a good guy his name was Lonnie Palisades, he wore Hawaiian shirts and he was supposed to be from Venice Beach. Then when he was a bad guy he was called Dutch Savage from Provo, Utah and he wore a Neanderthal kind of thing. He would always lose, that was his gig. But he was trying to break into the next step up and become a star himself.
I'd go up to Market Square Arena for the wrestling shows, I went up more for that than the music. I don't ever remember going to Indianapolis for the clubs. But Indianapolis players would come down to Bloomington, like Russell Webster and Jimmy Coe. They played on my radio show. A lot of the great jazz musicians stuck around in Indianapolis. Like Russell Webster, who worked was a mailman in Indianapolis.
NUVO: Right, Russell's nickname was the "Whistling Postman".
Bourne: Jimmy Coe stayed in Indianapolis too. Earlier in his career he'd gone to Kansas City with Jay McShann's band, and he he played briefly in that band with Charlie Parker.
I knew a lot of the jazz guys in Indy, I used to go to Pa & Ma's Bar-B-Que because they told me about it. David Baker and J.J. Johnson told me they would have their barbecue at Pa & Ma's in Indianapolis. [note: Pa & Ma's Bar-B-Que opened in 1938 and is currently located at 2523 M.L.K. St.]
Bourne: He was the first person I interviewed for Down Beat in 1969. He was the pioneer for bringing jazz into the academic world.
You know when I was at WFIU we used to have people call in and complain about the jazz shows being on the classical station. Jazz was "whorehouse music" as somebody actually said. Well kiss my ass! I went on the air once and read a petition that some big shot professor had signed calling for the elimination of my show and the other jazz shows on WFIU, and the immediate overwhelming response was "we want more jazz". And that came from the music school. János Starker [note: famed cellist who taught at IU] called up and said "I want more jazz".
I used to call them "classical Nazis." It's a kind of racism. There are all these ways people find to make themselves feel superior to other people. Taste is one of them. IU had a lot of the greatest classical musicians in the world teaching there, but they weren't prejudiced like that.
NUVO: And now you're playing jazz records on the New York area station WBGO?
Bourne: I've been at WBGO going on thirty-one years. We broadcast all over the world on the web. WGBO is like the jazz station of the world.
NUVO: Any final thoughts on the late '60s and early '70s Bloomington music scene?
Bourne: It was just an extraordinary time. When you look at it politically, Indiana was a red state, but Bloomington was a blue city. Music was involved in all the politics of the time. It connected to everything in every way, from the Women's Liberation movement to Civil Rights. People were naked everywhere. All this sex was happening everywhere. There were people writing poems who were never creative at all. People were getting involved politically. It was remarkable how much the music scene did.
NUVO: Michael, thanks so much for taking time to speak with me. I'm a huge fan of the Screaming Gypsy Bandits and all the incredible projects that developed in the aftermath of the group.
Bourne: Can I tell you one more Beefheart story?
NUVO: Of course!
Bourne: When that show with Zappa and Beefheart happened in Indianapolis, after the concert I went back with Beefheart to his hotel and we sat around all night talking about Shakespeare. About six in the morning, at dawn, he walked down with me and I was going to drive back to Bloomington. As Captain Beefheart and I stood on the sidewalk in Indianapolis, this one-armed guy came up to us. He was dressed very colorfully and he started hitting on us. It was like, Shakespeare, Beefheart, and getting hit on at dawn by a one-armed guy. It was so surreal. If you hung out with Captain Beefheart he was surreal, and everything around him was surreal. I'll never forget that. But life goes on…