Thursday, March 26, 2009

An Epiphany Sublime- The Debacle Extraordinaire of Mephistopheles

Paul Gaffey- MEPHISTOPHELES (1975)

What if someone decided to make a Prog album, and along the way a really bad off-off-Broadway musical broke out? The kind that music teacher you had back in 9th grade auditioned for as a young lad full of dreams, but backed out of because of the nude scenes and the lecherous old tart of a producer who kept wanting to buy him Beefeater gimlets and precious, shiny trinkets – on an “understanding”, of course. Or better yet, the kind of album that sounds like a gay karaoke bar in the Theater District, where wizened old queens sit nursing their lemondrops and bile, smoking fuchsia-colored cigarettes and defiantly belting out “MacArthur Park” at last call, frazzled in their lost youth, distempered and desiccated, too old to beg a cab ride or a quickie blow-job in the alley, truculent decrepit bitches positively shrieking out that last chorus of “It took so long to bake it...and I’ll never find that recipe aga-a-a-in”...a Blanche DuBois meltdown each and every night and solemn rejoinders out the door that “I can sing, you pack of jackals and gypsies – goddamn you all I can sing!!!

Lots of people think they can sing. But perhaps no one has ever been more cruelly misled regarding his talent than poor Aussie popster Paul Gaffey, who followed up a very minor Oz Top 40 hit about the lost era of ballroom dance with a super-ambitious retelling of the Faust legend, and baby, you ain’t heard singin’ until you’ve heard Paul Gaffey do it. There is literally nowhere to start with this absolute masterpiece of schlock and horror, so let us breath deep and prepare for the indefatigable vocal gifts of Mr. Gaffey the only way I can think of: ladies, belt down a Martini or two and prepare to be walloped like a “curious” Marine heading to his first Bangkok bathhouse on a 48-hour pass. ‘Cos you’re in for a treat, honey.

The Faust legend has seen many classic treatments – from Gounod’s astonishing opera to the very best book of Thomas Mann’s career, and of course Goethe and more obscure variations like the silent film The Student of Prague. But it has never been done like this. Nothing has. Starting with the oh-so-melancholy Mellotron (backed with real strings!) opening to the stupendous treacle of Mephisto’s final send-off, you are so far into the delusional world of a quasi-artist that at certain points I had to put down my cup of coffee, take off the headphones, and go outside and stand in the rain to stave off madness and complete despair. He didn’t actually just sing off the register about a big party in Hell fraught with movie stars and demons, did he? Oh yes he did – and he does it a couple of more times before the song “Paradise” ends. Paul Gaffey you gorgeous hunk of man, name your kink because I’m game – anybody with balls big enough to perpetrate an atrocity this overwhelmingly flamboyant and sublimely bombastic can make “Do as Thou Wilt Shall Be the Whole of the Law” with me anyday! Oh god – please download this album and listen to it. If you’ve ever stared at a car wreck or just couldn’t help yourself and looked up burn victim photos on the Internets, then you have what it takes to face Paul Gaffey. He is truly without peer in the world of Pop or Prog, a sui generis satchel of grandiosity, pomposity, magniloquence and the worst tenor voice ever heard outside of William Shatner’s storied and apocryphal audition for Hair.

Lots of incredible music is perpetrated on the first few tracks. But as the album goes on, the production seems to get shallower and more basic. I couldn’t help but think that the would-be auteur Gaffey blew the whole budget on the first epic track, and by the time he got to “Paradise” had no money to pay the string section or anybody except some poor bastard at a stand-up piano who was forced to provide “accompaniment” for perhaps the greatest moment in singing history. Yes, the rest of the album is splendidly awful and there are little tricks like the pizzicato in “Dreamer of Dreams” that are so formulaic as to almost strip Mephistopheles of its value as the anus mundi of obscure Oz Prog. Ah, but then THE moment occurs – when the Devil himself makes an appearance, beckoning jocularly from the very fires of Hell, part raconteur and part impresario, and arrives on the record absolutely FLAMING!

Who knew The King of Hell was such a randy nance? Gaffey’s bawdy dance-hall strumpet of a Satan makes Peter Allen look like Merle Haggard. This Lucifer is Freddie Mercury with a pitchfrok, Scott Walker with bat wings and horns. What kind of infernal Dark Prince of the Underworld would sing something like “I’ve got just the place for you/ Be you Cath-o-lic, Hindu or Jew” and do it in a production that is so kitschy that Meatloaf would have put his foot down? Would Beelzebub really shriek out “Rock me baby!” right before a really cheese-ball saxophone solo? And who the hell is “Fifi LaMour”? Apparently she’s in Hell and hoofing it up nightly, and the party is so blisteringly swish that all the Devil can do is stand there and hiss out “Ha cha cha!”, a moment of pure genius, the one flirtation with orgasmic that Mephistopheles makes, and something I will be listening to until I die. When a self-pitying Mephisto closes the album with a poem so mawkish that Rod McKuen would have protested, you will be in raptures of amazement that something so openly fab-a-lous was ever sold in a record store not on Fire Island and hawked by muscle-T shirted mustachioed joy boys who are the very picture of strict disciplinarians with a soft, sentimental underbelly. Oh joy, Oh heart – Paul Gaffey, you are glorious!

Mephistopheles is such a grand album that it must be reserved for the most solemn of occasions. Someday I shall be on my deathbed, and my hours short. And my factotum or house boy will come and say – “Master, the time is nigh. What shall I bring you to ease you from this world?” And I shall say, “There is only one thing that can stanch the maudlin flow that is each man’s indulgence in his moment of demise. Go, Hwang Mi – go to the musical room and bring me my Gaffey.” And the smooth Chinese boy will put the album on the phonograph, his ephebus-self glistening in the soft morning honey-hued light, and perhaps I will cough my final vile sputum to lips cracked and rasping their last – but they will be lips wearing the idiot grin of the astonished and overwhelmed, the grin one can acquire only through moments of contemplating the most pure-hearted artistic catastrophes. Yes, with glee shall I leave this world – shuffled off by Paul Gaffey, indeed, off to – Paradise! - TR


  1. Hi -

    This is simply lovely writing - I haven't laughed this hard at something on my monitor since those Halloween pix of Michele Bachmann's not-at-all-closeted husband dressed up as the "biker" from the Village People. [OK, so I haven't seen any; still, if I pray really hard, maybe some will show up].

    It's just criminal that nobody had commented on this yet. I generally loathe prog (which is, after all, why FSM invented punk), but I will indeed give this album all the careful attention it so clearly merits.

  2. Just downloaded it - I haven't laughed so hard in ages. Nobody could make a piece of music so funny if they tried.

    1. I'm sorry it took me 5 years to notice this comment. But...I'm so glad you heard "Mephistopheles", and I hope my writing captured the true...flavor, of this amazing- AMAZING!- record...