Sunday, November 19, 2017

BE MISERABLE: “Sick Comic" Singer and Environmental Activist Katie Lee Dead at 98.

       In Illville, Katie Lee was first known for her "sick comedy" albums. Come to think of it, outside of Arizona, and some folkie circles, she's STILL best known for them. Her only major label releases, via RCA and Reprise were these "neurotic" songs. Reprise, already owning the catalog of "sick-o" Tom Lehrer,  re-issued "Songs of Couch of Consultation." It's on the right, with a much more front-and-center cover photo than the original on the left. 

       Katie Lee (October 23, 1919 – November 1, 2017) was a nice lady with a pleasant voice. It may have been for "redeeming social value" that record labels chose someone whose voice and demeanor wasn't too bluesy or raunchy. After all, other favorites of the day included the lilting risque song lady Ruth Wallis, and young Joan Barton, who was Warner Bros. choice for comedy sex songs. 

       Today, we don’t think twice about people seeing a therapist or being prescribed opioids. It had to start somewhere, and it was in the late 50's. Dubbed "The Age of Anxiety," people were worried about the bomb, scared by the pace of modern "improvements," worried about pollution and overpopulation, and most especially troubled by "deep, disturbing doubt about religion," thanks to astronauts confirming that there were no angels in clouds. 

     Suddenly, the books by some geezer named Freud were popular, and harried businessmen were taking something called Miltown. It was mother's little helper for the businessman's better half, home taking care of the kids. In 1955, when sales of tranquilizers and sleeping pills began to rise, Katie Lee began to travel. She'd started her career in Hollywood, getting some bit parts in films, and acting and singing on radio ("The Great Gildersleeve" and Gordon MacRae's "Railroad Hour"). 

          Now she was hoping for a career as a solo artist: “In the beginning, I was working in coffee houses. I was traveling by myself all over the United States in my T-Bird. Just me and my guitar." It was musician Bud Freeman who figured she'd be perfect for his proposed album of "sick comedy," “Songs of Couch and Consultation” (1957). She added “Life is Just a Bed of Neuroses” (1960 for RCA). 

     You won’t find edgy Lehrer-type comedy in the two mild samples below. “Stay As Sick as You Are,” lyrics by Bud Freeman and music by Leon Pober, is a cheery look at living with a lunatic:  “I love your streak of cruelty, your psychopathic lies. Your homicidal tendencies shining in your eyes.” The second album, “Life is Just a Bed of Neuroses” has the cheerful “Be Miserable” (Ebb-Klein): “When black clouds pursue ya, and you feel depressed, why shout hallelujah? Wring your hands, bite your nails, beat your breast!” 

       By 1964, Katie was back to traditional music, issuing “Folk Songs of the Colorado River.” See the post below for 'Song of the Boatman.' It’s quite likely that this is the one Linda Ronstadt had in mind when she told Katie, “"I listened to your records since I was a kid." A decade later, Lee issued "Love's Little Sisters: A Tender Documentary of the Early American Whore." This one, almost always between $30 and $50 in record stores, was produced and engineered by the Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart. Yes, "House of the Rising Sun" is on it, along with "Cut Down In her Prime," "Charlot's Epitaph," "Casey's Last Ride," "Piece on the Prairie," "Lavinia's Parlor" and "The Hooker." Also prized from that era, is "Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle," featuring guest Travis Edmonson, once half of the popular Liberty Records duo Bud and Travis. 

     Lee wrote many books including: “Sandstone Seduction,”  “All My Rivers are Gone” and in 2014, “Ghosts of Dandy Crossing.” She wrote a play called “Maude, Billy and Mr. B,” and when it was performed in a local high school last year, she came on stage to take a bow. Yes, she was still spry and active in her late 90's, when she was featured on several DVD nature documentaries, including “Wrenched” (about activists inspired by Edward Abbey’s work) and “DamNation.” She hated dams. Her vanity license plate was "Dam Dams," and her hatred never diminished for the Glen Canyon Dam, which despite protests, was built in 1963: "I’d like to blow it up. I don’t know how. Rivers are not supposed to be dammed up.”

    Born in Tucson, a graduate of the University of Arizona, she lived in the small town of Jerome since 1971, and loved taking trips on the Colorado River and through the beautiful canyons. Like venerable East Coast folk singer Pete Seeger, Katie Lee was a marvel of endurance, and was still singing at age 98, at her birthday celebration. For her, the novelty stuff ended up being a mere footnote in a very long and successful career. But for those curious about those odd albums in the racks, and now re-issued on CD, here are a few of those notes:  

STAY AS SICK AS YOU ARE - listen or download, no passwords, no demands you "ENJOY!" and no, you won't be sent to some Russian site with pop-ups telling you "your Adobe Flash is out of date, download some malware."

BE MISERABLE - listen or download, no dopey Password to humiliate yourself by typing in - no Russian website trying to trick you into infecting yourself with spyware

No comments: