Who They Were: A deeply and truly transgressive band from California’s Bay Area, and probably the most obscure entry in this ongoing series, with the possible exception of Human Sexual Response. Taking their name from an archetypal literary trope describing a mixed-race person “who is assumed to be depressed, or even suicidal, because they fail to completely fit in the ‘white world’ or the ‘black world,'” (definition per Wikipedia), Tragic Mulatto were a going concern from 1980 to 1990, with the group being built around singer-saxophonist-tubaist Gail Coulson (a.k.a. Flatula Lee Roth) and bassist-singer Alistair Shanks (a.k.a. Lance Boyle and/or Reverend Elvister Shanksley). The earliest incarnation of the band found the core duo in an ostensibly supportive role, alongside Daved Marsh on vocals, Patrick Marsh on drums, and Karl Konnerth on trumpet, that quintet offering fractured jazz-based scuzz, the vibe of which was perhaps best encapsulated by Coulson’s entirely, amazingly, brilliantly sacrilegious cover art for their 1984 EP Judo for the Blind. After Konnerth and the Marsh brothers departed, the group issued one album, 1987’s Locos Por El Sexo with Tim Carroll (a.k.a. Richard Skidmark, a core member of Gary Floyd’s San Francisco incarnation of his legendary band, The Dicks) on guitar and Jay “Jazzbo” Smith on drums. Re-tooling once again, the last incarnation of Tragic Mulatto featured Coulson and Shanks accompanied by dual drummers Marianne Riddle (a.k.a. Bambi Nonymous, also a member of Frightwig) and Marc Galipeau (a.k.a. Humpty Doody), along with guitarist Jehu Goder (a.k.a. Jack-Buh).
When I First Heard Them: As noted elsewhere, most recently in my Hüsker Dü article in this series, I spent much of the ’80s finding my favorite bands by acquiring everything put into the public domain by a select group of independent record labels, prominently including Alternative Tentacles, under which banner Tragic Mulatto recorded and released all of their records. The first Tragic Mulatto record I heard was Judo for the Blind, and I liked it well enough, but it was not until their first full-length compilation CD release, 1987’s Italians Fall Down and Look Up Your Dress, (primarily featuring the Coulson-Shanks-Carroll-Smith line-up) that I truly fell in love with the group. None of the record stores in my neighborhood at the time stocked their catalog, so I am pretty sure that I mail-ordered everything I ever heard by them, back in the day, directly from Alternative Tentacles. (They remain woefully under-available on CD and download/streaming services to this day). The group quietly dissolved, alas, after 1990’s brilliant Chartreuse Toulouse, the members scattering into a variety of interesting post-Tragic careers including (among others) music educator, visual artist, yoga master, and polka bassist.
Why I Love Them: I tend to have a low bullshit threshold when it comes to groups who pursue shock for shock’s sake, recognizing that most of them are just playing roles and parts designed to turn transgression into commercial attainment by pushing provocative buttons for the benefit of those seeking cheap and easy thrills. That said, as stunningly confrontational and disturbing as Tragic Mulatto could be in their heyday, I never perceived them as “poseurs” pretending to be something that they were not, as their music, their lyrics, their on-stage performances, and their artwork were legitimately, frighteningly “real” on every front that an audience member could expect to experience. I also tend to have a low bullshit threshold when it comes to groups of marginal technical talent who use such provocative presentations to mask their own musical shortcomings, but that was also never the case with Tragic Mulatto, as the group’s players and songwriters were deeply talented, coming at their post-jazz skuzz-rock from a position of deep authority, spinning out tunes of lyrical madness and musical brilliance in equal measure. The group are probably most often critically compared to Austin’s Butthole Surfers, both acts featuring twin drummers and over-the-top paired vocalists. That comparison is apt on some planes, but limiting on others, as Tragic Mulatto were blessed with Coulson’s amazing vocal work, often compared to Grace Slick and other ferocious female belters, along with her distinctive sax and tuba skills, which truly put Tragic Mulatto in their own unique musical cohort. (Coulson’s vocal take on Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” puts the Zep, especially Robert “Percy” Plant, to shame on many fronts, and I’d argue that Coulson’s shriek at the end of the “orgasm” section of the song is one of the greatest screams in rock music history; it’s at 31:45 in this video, if you need to hear it, which I think you do). The group’s lyrics were definitely scatological and sexual in equal measures, but they weren’t just tossed out for the cheap thrills, offering instead an impressively incisive level of cultural, social, and political acuity between the more obvious filthy front elements. At bottom line, Tragic Mulatto made extremely powerful music with extremely offensive (yet very, very smart) lyrics, fulfilling the counter-cultural promise of the punk and post-punk eras in ways that most similarly-inclined bands could only dream about.
#10. “No Juice,” from “Tragic Mulatto” single (1983)
#9. “OK Baby OK,” from Italians Fall Down And Look Up Your Skirt (1987)
#8. “Freddy,” from Locos Por El Sexo (1987)
#7. “She’s A Ho (Live),” from Hot Man Pussy (1989)
#6. “I Don’t Mind,” from Chartreuse Toulouse (1990)
#5. “My Name Is Not O’Neill,” from Hot Man Pussy (1989)
#4. “Mr. Cheese,” from Hot Man Pussy (1989)
#3. “Untitled (Safeway)” from Locos Por El Sexo (1987)
#2. “Sexy Money,” from Locos Por El Sexo (1987)
#1. “Rise Up, Get Down,” from Chartreuse Toulouse (1990)