Interview with Commander Cody (1998)

Ever wonder what’s fueling the roots rock revival these days? George Frayne doesn’t.

“It’s real simple what’s happening out there now,” explains the fast-talking and faster-thinking artist-musician-subculture icon during a recent phone interview. “Ever since the ’90s came on there’s been this whole generation of people who actually thought that Janet Jackson and Madonna and all o’ them were singing and dancing at the same time when they saw them on stage. But now they’re realizing ‘Oh my god, that was on tape!’ and they’re looking for something real. So when they go to some bar and hear what a real live band is all about and grasp the concept of people making it up as they go along, they’re like ‘Whoa, we’ve been missing something all these years!’ That means that people who can do what I do are in business these days.”

And what exactly is it that Frayne does? Well, among many other things, he turns himself into Commander Cody and fronts a band called the Lost Planet Airmen. The sounds Frayne and his band make together are usually derived from some combination of country, blues, swing, jazz and bop styles, are virtually certain to have a good beat to which you can either dance or slosh your beer on your neighbor–and are absolutely guaranteed to keep you from winning any political correctness awards if you choose to sing along with them. Whaddya call that? Sounds like rock & roll from here.

The Long Island-bred Frayne first donned the Commander Cody persona in a band he formed with engineering Ph.D. candidate John Tichy in 1967, while he was working on a Master’s degree at the University of Michigan. Upon graduation, Frayne took a teaching job in Oshkosh, Wisconsin but found Commander Cody hard to abandon, commuting 14 hours each weekend to Ann Arbor to play his parts with Tichy and Company. Eventually the Oshkosh-Ann Arbor double-life became even too taxing for the high-intensity, hard-livin’ Cody–so he abandoned both lives, piling into a van with singer Billy C. Farlow and steel guitarist West Virginia Creeper and heading for San Francisco, following the route that Lost Planet Airman guitarist Bill Kirchen had taken a year before, leaving bread crumbs along the way so that Tichy could follow once he’d completed his doctorate.

“Yeh, we did the whole hippie thing out there,” recalls Cody. “Got ourselves on welfare, got ourselves some food stamps, had twenty people living in a house. And it was a ball! We were drinkin’ and drivin’ and goin’ crazy and every bar didn’t have a cop stationed outside the door checkin’ to see if you stumble on the way out so they can follow you all the way home and bust you. Hell, I remember the California highway patrol guys helping me dump out the empties and driving the underage girls back to their mothers’ houses. Nowadays, with this political correctness, you can’t even say anything nasty any more, much less do it.”

The freshly reconstituted, California-based Lost Planet Airmen, on the other hand, were more than happy to both sing about and do most of those nasty things through the late ’60s and early ’70s, earning themselves accolades as the world’s greatest live band and a couple of hit singles (“Hot Rod Lincoln” and “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke (That Cigarette”) along the way, spewing seven classic albums to record the fun for posterity’s sake.

“We were travelin’ and playin’ and drinkin’ and havin’ a great time all those years,” Frayne notes. “And we were playin’ the stuff that we liked, stuff that came from all over the place; we didn’t think we were coming up with anything new, we just liked a lot of different stuff and didn’t see any reason not to play it all. I mean, we were the last band to back up Gene Vincent before he died. We played with Bob Wills’ band. We played with jazz guys from way back. I played boogie-woogie with Les Paul and the guys from his band. I opened up for Led Zeppelin. We went on between the Chambers Brothers and Alice Cooper at the Spectrum. We went on between Slade and Sly Stone out in Fresno in front of 50,000 people. I’ve done a gig with Howlin’ Wolf and Steve Miller, where Wolf came ridin’ out on a Vespa. So from that kinda standpoint, I couldn’t have had it any richer then.”

Unfortunately, many of the more tangible riches that should have been flowing Frayne’s way given his band’s successes in the ’70s were being diverted into the pockets of unscrupulous management, driving the original incarnation of the Lost Planet Airmen into the ground around 1977. Frayne continued to make his home in the San Francisco Bay-area over the ensuing two decades, performing as Commander Cody with a revolving cast of supporting characters and developing a successful second career as a respected visual artist, known particularly for his music-inspired paintings and portraits.

By 1996, however, Cody’s California dream had gotten stale. “Y’know, I was payin’ $1,700 a month for two bedrooms and a half-an-acre and some half-assed and everybody in the world was descending on the Bay area because they had read about it on the Internet,” explains Frayne. “But the straw that broke the camel’s back for me was when I went down to the Sand Dollar Bar–the one bar in the little area where I was living that used to rock–at 10:30 on a Saturday night and it was closed. Why? Because everybody was over at this other place called the Sweetwater drinking Perrier and listening to Clarence Clemons, the famous sax player who can’t play sax. I knew I had to get out then.”

Frayne chose Saratoga County as his new home–and couldn’t be happier with the decision “This area’s great,” he enthuses. “And Saratoga Springs is one happenin’ little burg. You can go and hear a band any night of the week until four in the morning, just like New York City–except that you don’t actually have to be in New York City to do it. But being close to New York is always a good thing for me as an artist, because people respect me out here. In Marin County and all those places, where you are on the social ladder is defined vis-Ă -vis [Grateful Dead bassist] Phil Lesh, y’know what I mean? That attitude really pervades out there. That’s not the case here. People take me work seriously, I’ve got a lot of great new clients and a lot of interest. So I can just hibernate here in the winter and paint and then go out and rock & roll over the summer.”

Frayne’s got a new rock & roll infrastructure these days after stalwart side-kick Tichy (now a professor at RPI) served as a catalyst for linking Commander Cody with a new set of Lost Planet Airmen: guitarists David Malachowski and Mark Emmerick, bassist Steve Clyde Davies and drummer Steve Barbuta. The band will be playing this summer’s inaugural Alive at Five show tonight (Thursday) with guest spots by Tichy and drummer Gary Burke and an opening set by Rocky Velvet (fronted by Tichy’s son, Graham), before heading out West for a summer tour.

“Wait ’til I show these guys from back east how I used to live out there,” Frayne says with a laugh. “They’ll be like ‘How’d you afford this?’ and I’ll tell them ‘I sold my soul each and every week to do it.’ Whereas here in New York I can actually have a house and a soul–which is about all that I ask for, y’know? Hell, when I was a kid I didn’t ask for money, fame or wealth, I just asked that my life would be exciting. And it has been! Never a dull moment, ever . . even though a lot of the not-dull moments had to do with last minute, no-cash, high-tension kinda shit. But that’s all rock & roll and I plan to keep on doin’ it until the point when there’s no places left for people to come smoke and drink and listen to me.”

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