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The Legendary Stardust Cowboy
On the hunt for San Jose's greatest unsung rock hero
by Steve Palopoli on Sep 02, 2009
KLAUS FLOURIDE has learned to expect anything from the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, San Jose’s best-kept cult-music secret. Most famous as a founding member of revered Bay Area punk band the Dead Kennedys, Flouride has been playing bass since 1997 for the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, or “The Ledge,” as he’s known to most of his friends and acquaintances.
Along with guitarist Jay Rosen and drummer Joey Meyers, Flouride is one of the Altamont Boys—not just the Legendary Stardust Cowboy band but also an inner circle of the Cult of Ledge. It is not a place for the weak of heart.
“We were playing at the Blank Club a few years back, and we were about two-thirds of the way through the set,” remembers Flouride.
“Ledge does this thing sometimes where he’ll leave the stage, and Joey and Jay and I will jam for a while waiting for him to come back. Then we’ll probably do a couple more songs. But this time at the Blank Club, he left out the front, and we’re playing for a minute or two, and then we’re playing for five minutes waiting for him. When’s he going to come back? And the door guy comes up and says ‘You know, the dude just got in his car and drove off.’”
DAVID BOWIE goes into Trident Studios in London’s Soho District to record “Ziggy Stardust,” the title track for what will be his first hit album. Ziggy Stardust is not just the main character of the concept album, but the first and most lasting of many stage personas that seem almost inseparable from Bowie himself.
The character’s first name is a play on “Iggy,” as in Iggy Pop, and “zipper.” The last name he takes from the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Bowie had first discovered the Legendary Stardust Cowboy just a couple of years earlier, when he signed to Mercury Records for his U.S. distribution. A rep for the label gave him a box of Mercury-released 45s, which included three by the Legendary Stardust Cowboy: “Paralyzed,” along with “Kiss and Run” and “I Took a Trip (in a Gemini Spaceship).”
“He took ’em back home to London and listened to them, and he flipped out,” the Ledge says. “He became a huge fan.”
In 2002, Bowie releases the album Heathen, which contains three covers: “Cactus,” originally by the Pixies, Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting for You” and “I Took a Trip (in a Gemini Spaceship).”
“I like the musical background with brass instruments,” the Ledge says of Bowie’s cover. “I like his version better than mine. On mine, that was T-Bone Burnett playing the xylophone and the organ and some other instruments. I recorded with a dobro, singing it, and he played the instruments one at a time at Delta Recording Studio in Fort Worth.”
Bowie and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy finally meet in June of 2002, at a festival; the moment is captured by filmmaker Tony Philputt, director of the as-yet-unfinished Legendary Stardust Cowboy documentary, Cotton Pickin’ Smash.
The Legendary Stardust Cowboy is leaning against his blue 1987 Chevy Caprice, in the parking lot of the Eastridge Mall in San Jose—the Ledgemobile, as he calls it. The sun is pouring onto the asphalt, and the metal on the hood is so warm I will later discover my iPhone is malfunctioning from overheating in my pocket.
The heat does not, however, bother the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, perhaps because he grew up in Lubbock in West Texas, a region that practically has a lock on oppressive heat. It is 269 miles away from Fort Worth, where he recorded his lasting legacy as rock music’s most extreme wild man: the absolutely insane 1968 hit “Paralyzed.” He has lived in San Jose since 1989.
He hands me the newest issue of Cowboy and Indian magazine; inside is an obituary for Texas music luminary and longtime Kris Kristofferson guitarist Stephen Bruton, who died on May 9 at age 60, after a battle with throat cancer.
“Read the whole thing,” he says. “Then I’ll talk.”
I do. The obit calls Bruton “the soul of Texas music.” It’s a well-written tribute. I naturally think it is also a lead-in to a story about Bruton, but I don’t yet know the Ledge.
The first thing I notice about him, though, is his incredible memory for dates. Every story he tells is anchored securely to a month and year. The second thing I notice is that his two favorite words are “but anyway,” which is his way of jumping quickly through any number of topics that seem random at first, but generally seem to come back around to the original topic.
I am fast discovering that one doesn’t exactly have a conversation with the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Will Sprott of the Mumlers will later tell me, “It’s always sort of like letting him wash over you.”
After I’ve finished reading the article, he launches into what will be an hour and a half of sun-drenched, nearly uninterrupted free association. “The last time I saw Stephen Bruton was August of ’84, in Vegas, because I lived in Vegas for a while,” he begins. “But anyway ...”
The Legendary Stardust Cowboy’s story about Stephen Bruton turns out to be the story of his first record, “Paralyzed.” The legend—in this rare case the same as the true story—goes like this: The Legendary Stardust Cowboy leaves Lubbock to find stardom, but only gets as far as Fort Worth.
However, two vacuum cleaner salesmen discover him playing on top of his car.
Impressed by his outrageous style, they take him the very next day into a recording studio. The studio just happens to be run by T-Bone Burnett, who will soon go on to fame as a performer, Texas music producer and supervising genius behind soundtracks such as O Brother, Where Art Thou? Both the Ledge and Burnett are only 21 years old when Burnett records him, playing drums on “Paralyzed” and various instruments on other songs.
“Steve Bruton’s father played drums in a jazz band six nights a week in various places around Fort Worth for years and years and years before he passed away,” says the Ledge. “His mother’s still living, and his older brother’s still living. But anyway, Frank Henderson, the recording engineer, used to work in a Hollywood recording studio, and he used to record Sonny and Cher and a long list of people. And he said when Elvis came around, he had everybody out of there and security guards on the outside of the building. Nobody around for a long way. That’s what he wanted.
“But anyway, with T-Bone Burnett I recorded 54 songs in one days, that were slowly peeled away over the years and put on other recordings. A couple months after June Carter Cash died, Johnny Cash went in the studio and he recorded 50 songs in one day. I’ve got him beat by a few more songs.
“I played the dobro, Frank Henderson’s dobro, ’cause I busted my guitar back in Lubbock. And boy, T-Bone Burnett was just hog wild. He was orbiting the moon.
“Frank Henderson told me that he had kept telling T-Bone Burnett, ‘Some day, somebody’s going to walk in here and blow this place away with an exciting song.’ And I was the one. I had written ‘Paralyzed’ about two years before, back in Lubbock, for KSEL radio station, which was a rock & roll radio station in Lubbock, for a contest. I became the talk of the high school. The talk of Lubbock.”
Norman Carl Odam is born in Lubbock. As a child, he is captivated by two things above all else: The Old West and the promise of space travel. He quickly discovers he is not like other kids and gets in touch with a hyperactive nature that will fuel his crazed performances for decades.
“I’ve got ADHD. I’ve had it all my life. That’s why I’ve got the energy for what I do onstage,” he says. “You’ve got to have energy in show business. I was born hyperactive. It used to drive my parents crazy. I’d be in the kitchen wham-wham-wham, slamming the doors. I felt great! The louder the better. I was all pumped up. I don’t have to take caffeine or drugs, it’s just natural. It’s hard to control, it really is.”
After taking guitar lessons at 16, and mastering the bugle, the kazoo and the rub board, as well, he became known for playing everywhere around town—on the school steps every morning, at the drive-in. He learned to yodel listening to Jimmie Rodgers, and perfected the rebel yell and Indian calls that would explode into his songs. He officially became the first space cowboy when he picked his now-famous stage name.
“I thought I was a legend in my own time,” he says of coming up with the name. “I was thinking of cowboys and space, and I put the two together. I wrote a musical when I was 19, a 19-song musical to be put into a two-hour animated film, like Walt Disney would do, about what the Legendary Stardust Cowboy is about. He flies on Pegasus, his horse, and he’s got a talking four-leaf clover on his lapel. He shoots stardust from his gun, he travels through outer space, to Mars and Earth and what have you, on Pegasus. The name of the movie is There’s Stardust in Your Hair.”
Down the side of his car, a 1961 Chevy Biscayne, he wrote “Three hundred million miles from Mars. NASA presents the Legendary Stardust Cowboy” in red spray paint. He hung out with Joe Ely, a high-school buddy who would go on to fame in the Flatlanders and in his solo career.
“We were hippies,” Ledge recalls. “Hippies, you know, back in the hippie movement. I had long hair. Joe Ely looked like an Indian, with his dark black hair and buckskin pants. I had a buckskin coat with fringe, he did, too. This is before we hit the big time. We had no idea what was going to happen. We’d just jump out there and do it. I’d jump out in the street.”
The San Jose band the Mumlers release their debut album, Thickets and Stitches, which features a guest performance by the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.
“Just growing up in San Jose, I heard little stories here and there about this guy, and I sought him out,” says the band’s frontman, Will Sprott. “I went and got his CD at Streetlight. When you hear that there’s somebody like that in San Jose, I’m fascinated and I want to know everything I can about him. I felt like there was this jewel I discovered. I think he’s one of those people where you either love it or you hate it. I definitely loved it. I just said, ‘Holy shit, this is incredible.’”
Sprott found that the more he looked into it, the deeper the legend became. “I started meeting all the people who know him. Like Andrew Pejack, who’s just a really interesting guy. And Joey Meyers, he’s a character, too. I felt like I was unearthing this whole secret side of music in San Jose. Then I met the man himself, and he’s definitely not somebody who blows it when you meet him. When you meet him, it just gets better.”
The band hoped to capture a few bugle blasts from the Ledge, and Pejack—another member of the Ledge inner circle who runs his official fan site on Myspace—advised Sprott that the best way to approach him was to write a fan letter. Which he did.
“The first time I met him, he talked almost exclusively in rhyme,” says Sprott. “We were recording him at my friend’s house and he says, “Will Kill! You wrote me a letter!” He just walked in, and we pretty much got straight down to business. That’s why I believe that he easily recorded 54 songs in one day. He walked in never having heard one of our songs and had lyrics for five songs straightaway, from beginning to end. I came in to try to get him to record bugle, and he would alternate between bugle and his own lyrics sung right over our songs. He’s just an endless stream, he can keep going and going. We did five songs, and he was ready to do 10 more.”
In the end, the Mumlers were able to use roughly five seconds of what the Ledge had recorded. “We wanted to use more,” says Sprott, “but we couldn’t use any of his words, ’cause they went right over the words in the songs. I guess the honest answer is none of it went with anything we were recording.”
Pejack was at that session, as well. “Will told me, ‘This could be an entire album on its own.’ They just wanted a couple of bugle blasts, but he would start rapping into the mic,” he says. “Just to listen to Norman improvise like that for 90 minutes was amazing. It was a really magical recording session. You could feel the energy.”
Big Beat Records releases the compilation Rockabilly Psychosis and the Garage Disease, featuring nearly the entire pantheon of rock wild men, from Hasil Adkins to the Trashmen to the Sonics to Jimmy Dickinson.
A few years later, I stumble upon this album while doing my habitual college-era combing of record-store bins, and it gives me my introduction to the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. The version of “Paralyzed” on the record isn’t even the original, but it still sounds crazier and more dangerous—yet more primal and liberating—than anything else on the track list, even among this psycho bunch.
However, it’s really the original version of “Paralyzed” that makes it clear what all the fuss was about. On the 1968 single, the Stardust Cowboy delivers what has got to be considered the most harrowing vocal in the history of rock music.
The opening verse is said to be something like “I’ve got a gal/ Way across town/ She won’t come to see me/ ’Til I pull my shades down.” What it sounds like, as hollered by the Ledge, is better described as “AYYYAAAAAGGGAAAA! WAAAAHASSHHHA! ILSHABOOSHYA!”
At certain points, he squawks roughly to the beat like an eagle on PCP. The instruments fall all over themselves in the two-minute race to the finish. And there is that famous bugle solo. There has never been anything like it, before or since.
However, a deeper listen to the Ledge’s catalog (he didn’t release a proper album until 1984’s Rock-It to Stardom) reveals a fascinating body of work that goes much deeper than the “novelty” tag he has often been saddled with would suggest.
“To me, ‘Paralyzed’ isn’t his best song, it’s just the most well-known,” says Pejack. “I maintain that the all-time best rock & roll scream is Norman on the song ‘Linda.’ And if you listen to his primal howls on ‘Dynamite,’ it blows away anything Roger Daltrey ever did.”
The Legendary Stardust Cowboy claims to have written more space songs than anyone else, and he may be right (although Sun Ra fans might disagree). He calls them “spacedelic music,” which is actually rather fitting when you listen to something like “I Took a Trip (in a Gemini Spaceship)”, my personal Ledge favorite. Chilly and hushed, almost spooky, it’s a completely different side of the Ledge than “Paralyzed.”
By the way, the Ledge remembers that compilation well.
“There was a band on there that was trying to get me on, the Cramps,” he says. “The Cramps were big fans of mine, and they were instrumental in getting me on that.”
The Legendary Stardust Cowboy makes his television debut on Laugh-In, the No. 1 show in the country at the time—watched by 20 million people.
“Welcome the discovery of the week, I want you to meet him,” Dan Rowan tells Dick Martin on the air. They walk over to the Ledge, who’s wearing a giant white cowboy hat, buckskin jacket and bright yellow pants. “Dick, this is the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Legendary Stardust Cowboy, this is Dick.”
Within seconds, the Ledge is yelling the lyrics to “Paralyzed,” high-stepping and dragging his boots and spurs around the stage. There are several cuts to Martin, looking perplexed as he watches.
“That’s quite a number,” Martin says afterward. “You never heard anything like that, did you?” asks Rowan. “I’m not sure I heard that one,” Martin replies.
By the time he breaks into “Who’s Knocking on My Door?” Martin is dancing; in fact, the whole cast storms the stage. At the end, the Ledge runs off. There’s been much debate over the years about whether Rowan and Martin really “got it,” but the Ledge remembers that appearance now as a highlight of his career.
“I saw Liberace tape his show before I taped mine,” he says. “He stuck around to see me tape my show. And he told my drummer, who at that time was dressed up like an Indian—called himself Chief Sitting Bull—Liberace says, ‘I know where the Legendary Stardust Cowboy is coming from. He’s got a million-dollar act.’”
What the Ledge says next offers a rare insight into his normally inscrutable approach to his act. He’s often described as “outsider music,” and lumped in with Daniel Johnston or Wild Man Fischer. But people often forget that the Ledge is also a trained actor, and while Norman Odam may be separated from the Ledge by only a few degrees of personality, it’s criminal to overlook the craft he has put into one of the most memorable personas in rock history.
“All these different novelties and stuff you throw in to get people’s attention,” he says. “And then you hit ’em with the real thing.”
Andrew Pejack’s band Beachkreig—which is best described as “Imperial Germany meets surf tiki Hawaii” and has a very Ledge-like theatrical stage show—shares the stage with the Legendary Stardust Cowboy at the Blank Club, and for Pejack it’s a true honor. He’s known the man for several years, ever since KFJC DJ Mike Destiny, who knew Pejack was an able mechanic, asked him to give the Ledge’s car a look.
“Norman came over in a beat-up old ’80s car, and I worked on it in the driveway,” he says. “After that, whenever he’d hear a noise, he’d come over and say, ‘What do you think about this noise under the hood?’ He’s kind of paranoid when it comes to his car.”
The two bonded, and the Ledge now calls him his “right-hand man.” Endearingly, he’s also the only member of the inner circle who always calls him “Norman.”
“We just got to be friends, more as Norman than the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. He’s just a lot of fun to be around,” says Pejack.
Pejack marvels at his unique approach to life and music. “I see him as the Rain Man of rock,” he says. “The way his brain works, to me that’s the most amazing thing about Norman. He can instantly pun and rhyme. Even his phone messages are so hilarious, they’re like works of art. I’m like, ‘I can’t erase this!’ Sometimes I don’t answer the phones just so he’ll leave a message, then I call him back.”
Pejack isn’t shy about his belief that the Ledge has never gotten his due for his contribution to rock & roll: “He’s a living national treasure. There’s nothing like him. At first, it’s like ‘This is crazy.’ But if you stick with it long enough, you realize the brilliance.”
Pejack was impressed by the 2005 documentary about Wild Man Fischer, Derailroaded, and he wants the Stardust Cowboy to have a tribute of that caliber, too.
“He’s way more interesting than Wild Man Fischer, and more important as a musical influence. The Ramones were fans, the Clash. He jammed with Camper Van Beethoven.”
Klaus Flouride agrees the Ledge hasn’t gotten a fair shake.
“It was bad management, a lot of it,” says Flouride. “His goals are ‘What we have to do is get on network television, we have to get on The Tonight Show. When he was first saying that to me in the ’90s, it was like, ‘That’s not a realistic goal.’ But since then, it’s changed. There is a possibility, with Conan O’Brien and Craig Ferguson and Jimmy Kimmel. Especially Ferguson, I know he’s an old punker himself, so he’s probably got the Kennedys’ records. And he may very well, because he’s so crazy, know about the Ledge. To get on something like that might not be that much of a stretch.”
More importantly, Flouride and other members of the Ledge’s circle have made a push to get a Legendary Stardust Cowboy career retrospective released. They’ve been working with Cherry Red Records in the U.K., who have negotiated with Universal Music and others for the rights to rerelease the songs.
“When Bowie met Ledge at the festival, Bowie said to Joey, ‘Whatever I can do for you guys,” Flouride
by Steve Palopoli on Sep 02, 2009